Followers of Set
Followers of Set Capsule Review by Michael "Talien" Tresca on 05/10/01
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 2 (Sparse)
In attempting to redefine Setites, this book only manages to stereotype them even more, Satanism and child abuse not withstanding.
Product: Followers of Set
Author: Dean Shomshak
Company/Publisher: White Wolf
Line: Vampire: The Masquerade
Page count: 104
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Michael "Talien" Tresca on 05/10/01
Genre tags: Modern day Horror Conspiracy Vampire Gothic Asian/Far East
The Setites. The Followers of Set. The Snakey Vampirey people have had a lousy reputation as lisping, wicked tempters and temptresses. Ever the villains, always two-dimensional, forever acting like untalented actors leftover from a taping of "The Mummy", the Followers of Set have been horribly typecast. This book tries to dismiss that image. Or at least, make it clear why the image exists.
Okay, so maybe the front cover isn't helping that stereotype: a darker-skinned version of Dr. Evil with a monocle and serpent's pupil, holding a serpent dagger, and a...serpent. Hey, did I mention that the Followers of Set are into serpents?
It's rare that a typical "splatbook" has good fiction. Fortunately, the opening sordid tale is both readable and entertaining. It follows the misadventures of Marla, a drug addict who once worked in a corporate office. She is regularly degraded, subjecting herself to prostitution and sodomy, for her next fix. All of it is provided by a man named "Doc".
Into Marla's life enters Ren (which means "name" in Egyptian if I recall correctly), a Setite who wants a new recruit. And thus Marla begins a physical and spiritual journey into the heart of the Setite faith. The story makes her initiation almost appealing -- Marla has already gone through the physical suffering and debauchery necessary to purify the mind and soul for Set. The clans practices are typically less savory (p. 43):
"...the celebrants might strive to push themselves beyond frenzy into a trance by drinking drugged blood and dancing wildly while lashing each other's naked bodies with whips."
The story would not be nearly as entertaining if it exhibited the Setite beliefs so blatantly as above. Marla's fable sums all the tenets of Setism and managers to entertain the reader too: sex, violence, dominance, and revenge.
This chapter is meaty and digs deeply into the history of Setites in the World of Darkness' alternative timeline. It's a bit long and unnecessary for most players. Some of it refers to events that are probably canon in the World of Darkness. At other times, the alternate history is amusing in its errors.
"I have never met anyone who claimed he or she was a living mummy. Neither has any other Follower of Set whom I know. Always the tale happened to a friend of the teller's sire, or long ago. The werecats and werejackals are all too real, but I think the Reborn are a fable."
If you've ever read Mummy: The Resurrection, you know the narrator is wrong. The history is marginally entertaining and reasonably balanced in its portrayal of the Setites through the ages. It even manages to sneak in some humor. For once, there are no irritating sticky notes or interjected comments from some other author disrupting the flow of the narrative.
There is one passage that chilled me, though (p 30):
"I fear the Camarilla is in for a shock when it discovers the full range of Assamite talents, as they surely must in this global age."
The Setites have an amusing problem in their ranks: many of them
have turned to devil worship. Setite doctrine rejects demon worship.
And yet, the core of the Setite belief system has been lifted from
real life Satanism. The parallels are obvious:
Theophidian doctrine (the belief system of the Setites) does not perceive
itself to be evil, but to be enlightened. Doesn't everybody?
This may make some readers uncomfortable, but it's a logical approach with a real-life inspiration. It makes Setites considerably more palatable than the stereotype they're so often cast as.
Less successful is the discussion of the various Setite divisions. Some of them are believable, like the Cult of Typhon Trismegistus, taking its inspiration from the Greek serpent-legged Typhon. Others stretch the willing suspension of disbelief, such as the Children of Damballah who worship a creator-god that the Setites try to cast in an evil light. Because Damballah's a serpent, see. Only, the Setites are having a problem making him an evil icon. Sometimes just being an Egyptian deity is enough to create some tie to Set. The Sisterhood of Sekhmet (a lion-headed goddess) is Set's consort. So that makes them a Setite cult. No, really.
Three other Setite divisions are examined in detail: the Serpents of the Light (Voodoo Setites), the Daitya (Indian Setites) and the Tlacique (South American Setites). Strangely, we receive game notes on the Daitya and Tlacique but not for the Serpents of the Light. Perhaps they're in another supplement (my guess is Blood Magic: Secrets of Thaumaturgy). To its credit, Followers of Set tries to make up for the sins of former World of Darkness doctrine about the other Setite divisions by pointing out the tenuous connections.
The "Opinions About Others" section, the part where Setites sound off on the other vampire clans, gets a little tiresome. For one, you can only retell a mythology so many different ways. For another, they essentially come to the same conclusions: Malkavians are crazy, Toreador are prissy, Gangrel are feral, etc. Just add, "...but we can manipulate them." at the end of each sentence and you've got a basic description of what the Setites think about other vampires. Unfortunately, this formula is dragged out over six pages.
The "Playing God" section is more useful, if only because it provides some guidelines on how to actually play a Setite character within the World of Darkness rules. We learn all about the art of tempting a potential follower, shattering his belief system, and ultimately enticing him into the Clan. This perspective differs substantially from the typical vampire/herd mentality, wherein vampires see their kine as sheep only. Setites actually have a more benevolent perspective on their cultists. With a few tips on how to lead a cult and recognize a cultist, this section gives Setite players what they need to be a creepy-yet-cerebral bad guy.
Then there's the Divine Powers. These powers are exceptionally powerful. With level six and seven powers (also known as, "so many dots my eyes get tired and I can't count them all"), Setites can do fun things like sprout poisonous cobra fangs or rip out their friends hearts. There's also combination powers and Thaumaturgy to play with. I was surprised to find a boxed section at the end of this chapter that explained where each power was in each book -- kudos to the writers for this addition. Of course, four different books are listed, so if you want the whole Setite experience, you'll need to purchase them all. It's such a diabolical plan, it's almost worthy of a Setite...
Included are eight character templates for various Setites. Some seem made for the typically abusive Vampire combat-campaign that makes the developers froth (e.g., the Gladiator, the Superspy). Others are satirical attacks on extremists. The Transhumanist is a ridiculous concept, a person who decides he wants to live forever and to do so, becomes a computer programmer developing "bleeding-edge" software.
Huh? Who starts their career as a computer-programmer in an effort to achieve immortality? And we're not talking immortality through code here, this is "I wanna be a cyborg" immortality. This isn't a Setite, it's a joke. This guy wandered out of a Technocracy splatbook and into this one.
The other character concepts are logical extensions of the various tenets of the Theophidian philosophy. The manipulative Psychiatrist, the tacky Entrepreneur, the Debunking Scientist. Then there's the Schoolmaster of Sin.
"You became a teacher because you loved children: Their carefree laughter, their wide-eyed, innocent curiosity, their small, lithe bodies so smooth to the touch...you were quite a careful child molester."
And people worry about Little Fears? How about PLAYING a child molester, one who "now molests minds instead of bodies." (which makes the former abuse okay, ya see). Is this character a possible outcome of an evil group of cultists? Yes. Would anyone really want to play this character? Hope I'm not gaming with them.
The chapter ends with some Sample broods, including The Repairers of Reputations and the Superior Serpents. Brief biographies and statistics are included. Statistics are selectively presented. Kemintiri, one of Set's only active childer, is possibly one of the most powerful vampires to stride the World of Darkness. She's also the most beautiful woman in the world. She's also a demigod. And no, you're not going to get any statistics for her. We'll give you too-many-dots powers but we will not give you statistics for Kemintiri, who sounds suspiciously like an eternal Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra.
There's a lot going for this book. It actually manages to make the Setites appear palpable at times, even appealing. Rabid atheists, realists, and the extremely cynical all have a home in the Setite philosophy. When you remove the concept of good and evil, evil seems pretty damned good.
Despite its successes, the prose often turns several shades of purple. It also meanders at times as the Message gets repeated over and over. Setites know lots of stuff. Setites aren't evil, you just think they are. Setites are manipulating everything. Setites are Egyptian but that's just a deception -- okay not really, they like snakes. A lot. And by the way, they're really eeeeeeevaaalllll.
Yeah, we got it.
Unfortunately, this is Followers of Set's biggest flaw as well. Many of the vampire clans are ambiguous in their presentation, allowing a fluid morality that allows for a wide variety of character types. Setites are by their nature more strictly bound to their religion (which is quite different from a clan). By fleshing out in detail their belief system, Followers of Set manages to create Setites who are more, not less, stereotypical.
And then there's the whole child-abuse thing. Because White Wolf likes to make all books for all gamers, both Storytellers and players alike (great marketing technique by the way), two-dimensional characters are presented as playable concepts. In a book like this, the unpleasant happens: White Wolf hands you a child molester template and asks, "Do you want to play this guy?"
I read articles about comedians speaking about the appropriate comedic material in these difficult times, because they're concerned about the response of their audience. I read about Victor Salvas, a convicted child molester...and successful movie director. I've watched the forums boil over in rage about games like F.A.T.A.L. and the furor over Little Fears. And then I see this template, and I think, "Surely, this character isn't meant to be played."
I don't find myself admiring White Wolf for this "mature" theme. I don't find it appealing to my darker nature, or excusable because it's only a game, or an acceptable part of my own Vampire games. Want me to play a character overcoming the horrors of abuse? Fine. Want me to play a corrupt vampire grappling with the horrors of his human lifestyle? Sure. But don't cavalierly throw out a child molester as an archtype unless he's a bad guy that I'm not going to play. And by including the Schoolmaster of Sin, White Wolf sent the message that Setites aren't really meant to be played -- because I can't imagine they condone role-playing such a character as a PC. In essence, just as the Transhumanist was too extreme in one direction, the Schoolmaster of Sin is too extreme in the other. Which is unfortunate, because the draconian perspective of the Theophidian lifestyle is intriguing.
Heck, even the Satanists have a rule against harming children.