Storytelling for Assamites
The following essay was originally written by Clayton Oliver for Clanbook: Assamite revised, but didn't make it to the final print. The essay is undeveloped and unedited, but nonetheless it provides some very useful ideas and approaches.
Storytelling for Assamites
Many Storytellers see the Assamites as one of the more problematic clans to use in a game. The very phrase "independent clan" carries a certain implication of "does not play well with others," whether that implication is deserved or not. In a Camarilla- or Sabbat-based game, it's easy enough to find a common purpose for characters of different clans who belong to the same body politic. Introduce someone who isn't bound by the same rules as the rest of the team and trouble eventually will surface. Introduce someone who belongs to a group that has a reputation for arbitrarily killing individuals like the other player characters and the trouble grows by an order of magnitude or three.
Of course, there are ways to make an Assamite character part of a game without building up for an eventual intra-coterie bloodbath. All of these solutions may not be perfect for all groups, but most Storytellers should be able to find at least one or two acceptable alternatives.
The doors to the Great Hall of Alamut silently swing open, the breeze of their passage swirling about your ankles. Perhaps a hundred of your clanmates are there, standing silent and rock-steady. They're arrayed in two ranks, split evenly to make an aisle straight from the doors to the dais at the far end of the Hall. Halfway down the aisle, the black tiles of the floor bear the ancient sigil of Haqim, inlaid in silver and jade. Along each wall stand three clan elders dressed in the ceremonial robes of the silsila, with Heckler & Koch assault rifles held at port arms and scimitars slung at their sides. At the far end of the aisle is the Black Throne, a squat seat of obsidian with a wooden shaft protruding from the right-hand armrest. The dark figure who sits on the throne meets your eyes and beckons you forward…
The most obvious way to make Assamites work in a story is to make the story focus exclusively on those Assamites and their roles within the clan. In this type of story, all of the player characters are Assamites who (at least nominally) seek a common goal. This objective may be as simple as mutual survival in the face of the Schism or as complex as maintaining a group cover identity while hunting down an amnesiac elder at a Camarilla conclave and returning him to Alamut unharmed.
The most obvious Assamite-centered story focuses, to some degree or another, on matters martial. Let's face it: all diversity aside, the Assamite clan is defined to a certain degree by its members' combat prowess. While there are no secret armies of Assamites training under mountains in Iran, ready to surge forth across the world in a bloody tide, at least a third of the clan is ostensibly dedicated to the professional application of violence in all its forms. It's only logical to craft a story that focuses on the dominant aspect of the clan's identity, whether the characters are a team of expert elder-hunters or a ragged band of Chechen freedom fighters.
There's more to the Assamites than just killing, of course. The clan has long been divided along caste lines, and the interplay between the warriors, sorcerers, and viziers has resulted in some surprising compromises. More recently, the Schism has broken the clan along divisions of belief and allegiance as well as those of caste. A game that focuses on Assamite internal politics opens a vast array of possible outcomes. If such a game is set in the last nights before the Schism, the internal tensions of Alamut provide even more opportunities for drama.
The blood-magicians of the sorcerer caste deal with things even stranger than vampires on a nightly basis. After all, Haqim originally charged them with dealing with demons and infernalists on those formidable adversaries' own turf. Just about any sort of plot that centers on the supernatural would work as well with Assamite sorcerers as it would with Tremere warlocks or Tzimisce kolduns — with, of course, appropriate allowances made for the sorcerers' unique style of blood magic. This would by no means require all of the characters to be sorcerers, nor would non-sorcerers necessarily be secondary to the coterie's magicians. Few serious students of the occult have time to learn all the skills necessary to a successful investigation or political maneuver. Other characters may play supporting roles in the group, but they are by no means reduced to the sorcerers' supporting cast.
Being an Assamite does not make one immune to the wonder of discovery and exploration, and the clan's "back yard" is home to many of today's most intensely-studied archaeological sites. What might a party of Assamite field researchers find buried in the ruins of Carthage or the tombs of a pharaoh— or in the catacombs of the Second City? The clan itself has undoubtedly lost many treasures over the millennia, and an expedition to recover those might provide unexpected benefits and perils.
As various signature characters prove, Assamite blood does not necessarily harden one's heart against all potential entanglements. Romance, that oft-neglected element of vampire fiction, is no less prevalent among the Assamites than it is among any other Cainite clan, though it may take on slightly different forms. Assamite elders' unnaturally dark skin lends them a touch of the exotic that many individuals may find compelling, and no few Cainites have tried to seduce an Assamite for the prestige that taming such a "dangerous outsider" would bring them. Seduction is also a time-honored tool of the assassin and the spy, and charming one's way into the bed of an adversary has never gone out of style. For a more tragic twist, consider the possibility of a vampiric affair set before the Breaking that involves an Assamite warrior. How will the lovers deal with their inability to share blood, one of the most intimate acts possible for Cainites?
The evening started out as light rain, but it developed into a miserable downpour by the time the coterie arrived at the horse farm that the prince of Lexington used for private audiences. Everyone had been to the farm at least once before; no one had enjoyed his experience there. A ghoul secretary showed the party directly to the prince, who was waiting in her office. She wasted no time getting to the point. "Another neonate has disappeared," she said. "This makes four in the past five months. If the pattern holds, we'll find a dry husk of a body in Elysium within a week. Someone in my city is preying on my subjects and thumbing his nose at me and I want the culprit. Dead will do, staked would be preferable." No one asked why she'd picked this particular coterie of neonates to spearhead her investigation. Her reasoning was painfully obvious: the most likely suspect in Lexington was among them. His involvement in the proceedings would either condemn or exonerate him in a matter of nights — and his friends, all previous thorns in the prince's foot, would not escape the fallout were he proven guilty.
Mixed stories, for our purposes, are those in which one or more Assamite characters are featured alongside members of other clans. Such tales are potentially more difficult to craft that Assamite-focused stories, but they can be just as rewarding. The foremost thing that all involved parties must take into account when starting or joining mixed chronicles is character compatibility. Intra-coterie friction is perfectly acceptable, and may add more flavor to character relations than fawning mutual adoration.However, it's too much of a good thing when that friction ignites fires. Storytellers should ensure that players create their characters with room to "play well with others." Besides, the character concept of "Assamite diabolist who's secretly out to kill every other player character, and is working nicely with them until he gets the right opportunity " has already been done to death — the only variations possible on that theme are new ways to piss off fellow players.
Prior to late 1999, most Camarilla vampires only had contact with contracted Assamite assassins (either as the contractor or as the target) and the very rare Dispossessed refugee claiming Caitiff blood to avoid persecution. However, shortly after the Breaking, the Camarilla first encountered Assamites who did not fit the sect's preconceived notions of the "Islamic diabolist assassin." This trickle of nonstandard Assamites became a flood a year later when the Schism shattered the clan. By most estimates, close to 200 Assamites claimed full Camarilla membership by late 2000, with perhaps twice that number existing under sanctuary in various cities. This makes the Assamites far more common in Camarilla-held territory than any minor bloodline, possibly even more numerous than the Lasombra antitribu, but still far less frequently encountered than members of any of the sect's founding clans.
With such a relatively large presence, the Schismatics were bound to have an effect on Camarilla society, regardless of how they tried to minimize their impact. In fact, most of the sect's newest members have made no such attempt. Indeed, they seem to be intent on gaining acceptance in their new "home," and many Assamites have become as socially and politically active as the suspicion levied against them permits. The Children of Haqim are no less of social creatures than any other vampires, and centuries of relative isolation have given them a hunger for diversity, experience, and simple Cainite contact that may equal the warrior caste's bloodthirst in intensity.
Of course, the Schismatics are far from full acceptance in the Camarilla, despite the best efforts of al-Ashrad and the viziers' foremost ambassadors. Centuries of hatred cannot be overturned with a few eloquent speeches and a handful of tokens of sincerity. For Assamite neonates, this means that their social position is shaky at best. Most Camarilla Cainites view them with some degree of suspicion, whether it be slight distrust or outright blood-feud hatred. The coteries most likely to accept Assamites, particularly those of the warrior caste, are those whose other members are also less than favored in their cities.
In general, an Assamite's acceptance in a Camarilla city depends on two factors. The first is the local power structure's publicly stated views on the clan, as lesser Cainites will tend to fall into line with whomever is pulling the strings. A prince who is tolerant and openly extends sanctuary to Schismatics will usually have a city where Assamites are met with curiosity and a tentative eye toward mutually beneficial alliances. On the other hand, a prince who requires all Assamite residents to be two steps toward a Blood Bond with him will set the tone for a city that edges Schismatics into the worst feeding grounds and bars them from most Elysium events.
The second factor is the individual Assamite's degree of threat toward other vampires as those Kindred perceive it. Appearances count for more than realities in such situations. An Assamite who can dance with the local Toreador and debate Balkan politics with the Ventrue is more likely to gain some degree of social standing than one who displays no abilities other than a keen eye for ambush terrain — even if the former is a warrior-caste master assassin who was once a Bedouin noble and the latter is a harmless vizier mathematician with a passion for Tom Clancy novels.
One final note bears particular mention when discussing the Assamite Schismatics' acceptance in the gerontocracy that is the Camarilla. With the Breaking, Assamite warriors are once again susceptible to the Blood Bond — a fact that is not lost on many enterprising Camarilla elders…
As might be expected, the Assamites enjoy a much greater degree of general acceptance in the Sabbat than in the Camarilla. The Assamite antitribu have been with the Sabbat since its inception and have been a valuable part of the sect for centuries. The situation has shifted somewhat in the Final Nights, as many of the Black Hand's senior leadership suddenly departed after the Breaking, leaving gaping holes in the Sabbat's paramilitary power structure that the Camarilla was quick to exploit. However, Sabbat leadership seems to bear the remaining Assamite antitribu little ill will. The reasons for this are twofold. First, the Black Hand is no longer dominated by the Assamite antitribu — many leadership positions are now in the hands of Lasombra, Tzimisce, and Ventrue and Brujah antitribu, and these factions are ironically grateful toward the foolish Assamites for the opportunities that they may never have had otherwise. Second, the Sabbat has enjoyed a recent influx of refugees from Alamut who wanted a third alternative to the options of unlife under Ur-Shulgi's iron fist or playing nicely with the Camarilla. These individuals, primarily neonates and ancillae, make a good crop of cannon fodder for the Black Hand's renewed assaults on Camarilla cities — they're considerably more skilled in martial matters than the average Sabbat neonate, but they haven't been in the sect long enough to develop extensive social or vinculum ties to vampires who might otherwise serve as their advocates, mentors, or protectors.
The Schism has also given the Sabbat another unexpected boon. For the first time since their split from Alamut, the Assamite antitribu now number a handful of sorcerers among their ranks. For a sect still reeling from the disappearance of the Tremere antitribu, the appearance of any blood magicians is cause for celebration. No viziers have yet been reported in the Sabbat, but any such individuals would surely keep a low profile until they could establish contact with their warrior-caste brethren.
Most Assamite antitribu characters, whether Embraced Sabbat or recently recruited, will be neonates. Combat prowess, while not required, is expected of clan members — nearly all Sabbat vampires will look askance (at best) at an Assamite who can't fight well. The Assamite antitribu do still form the core of the Black Hand, though they are no longer as well-represented in the Hand's upper ranks as they used to be.
Although it's easier to say what anarchs aren't than to say what they are, some generalizations can be drawn. Most anarchs are neonates who have incurred the disfavor of the Kindred Powers That Be, whether deliberately or accidentally. They now exist on the outskirts of vampiric society or in the Anarch Free States, eking out a precarious night-to-night existence and plotting the overthrow of the Dead White Men's network. Such an arrangement lends itself well to those Assamites who no longer want (or never wanted) to pursue any particular faction's agenda. For the anarchs' part, most groups are glad enough of the addition of a new member who knows how to take care of himself — at least, those groups who have never been on the wrong end of an Assamite search-and-destroy contract.
Assamite anarchs tend to be the wildcards of the clan. Most Assamites who don't become Dispossessed immediately after the Embrace grow accustomed to having some sort of support network and to belonging to something larger than themselves. Those who have both the desire and the ability to go anarch, to rebel against all the established Cainite social orders to which they could have claimed allegiance, usually have some catastrophically disillusioning incident in their histories. Oddly enough, several viziers are numbered among the Assamite anarchs, perhaps due to the relative political freedom that anarch affiliation offers.
It is a common axiom that once a vampire survives to a certain age, she ceases to be a representative of her clan and becomes, instead, a true elder, a vampire concerned with no associations or alliances save those into which she enters for her own benefit. While this is less true for members of clans with rigid internal hierarchies, such as the Assamites, eventually even the staunchest supporter of clan solidarity will examine other options for her route to personal power and survival. Many times, the best of these options will be one of the so-called "Gehenna cults" or another similar organization of like-minded (or similarly paranoid) elders.
LARP situations bear special mention because of their sweeping differences from more conventional forms of play. In most "tabletop" games, characters are usually on the same side, at least nominally, and are working together to reach a common goal or to assist each other in resolving individual objectives. The Storyteller provides faces, voices, and actions for both allies and enemies, thus removing the primary focus of conflict from the players’ characters.
In live-action, however, the most common adversary is another player character. Many live-action games are heavy on political intrigue. Combat is generally less frequent, but also more personal, because of the more directly adversarial nature of the act — if you initiate a fight in live-action, chances are you’re going after another player’s character, not a faceless mook controlled by the Storyteller.
Many live-action Storytellers consider Assamites unsuitable for LARP play. The clan has a reputation as mercenaries and assassins who care little for other Cainites unless they’re sources of employment or targets. While that may be useful for those all-too-frequent mass combats, it’s not all that well-suited to empire building or Elysium politics. To be brutally honest, the situation only gets worse every time a teenager with misplaced aggression tries to bring the next Old Man of the Mountain into a game. The stereotypes (of both Assamite characters and their players) get reinforced, the World’s Greatest Hit Man’s victims get pissed, and the kid doesn’t understand why his character doesn’t get involved in any plots that don’t involve killin’ shit. No one wins. Hell, no one even has that good of a time.
If you’re a LARP Storyteller, consider this your license to take a hammer to those stereotypes. Starting with your more experienced, trusted players, gradually open your game to Assamite character concepts that expand the envelope. Work in some of the intrigue that recent shifts in clan loyalties have engendered in both the Camarilla and the Sabbat. Make the local sheriff, seneschal, or templar wonder about the security of her position — is that new Saracen in town gunning for Status, or does he just want to be left alone?
If you’re a LARP player, consider this your license to take a bulldozer and a half-dozen pissed-off werewolves to those stereotypes. Play a character who’s more than a killing machine and a stack of weapon cards. Use the clan’s current ill-defined position to carve out a nice little power base (never neglect those oh-so-underestimated Influence Backgrounds), then write your own definition for the Assamites’ role in the Cainite world. Make everyone around you uneasy— not because they know you can eat their brains for breakfast, but rather because now they can’t predict what kind of Assamite you are.
Which is just as it should be.
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