|Written by Robert Barrett, Bruce Baugh, Richard E. Dansky, Wendy L. Gash|
|Developed by Philippe R. Boulle and Richard E. Dansky|
As nearly anyone can tell you, I waited with bated breath and drooly chin for The Ashen Knight to come out.
And, my, was I not disappointed when it did.
With The Ashen Knight, the Vampire the Dark Ages line continues its internal standard of excellence and also verges on becoming the best and most consistent of all White Wolf's game lines.
The Ashen Knight is comprised of an Introduction, five Chapters, and an Appendix. No beginning fiction, but the lack is not missed, as there are fictional snippets scattered throughout the book for an in character view on key points of the text.
Introduction: The Knight's Finest Hour is the standard White Wolf introductory fare, including the ubiquitous How To Use This Book notes and the Recommended Reading and Resources, broken down by country of origin for fictional resources dating from the actual time period (such as French and German romances); historical and cultural resources; resources for the history and organization of Knightly Orders; and modern fictional sources. The list of these sources is by no means exhaustive but more than adequate, and this section immediately impressed me with its opening quote from Shota Rustaveli's "The Knight in Panther's Skin"-- especially since few people outside of world literature classes and Russian studies specialists even know this epic poem exists.
Chapter One: The Chivalrous World gives a detailed look at the state of Chivalry in the year 1197. This chapter shows a truly impressive depth of research with regards to the devlopment of Chivalry and knighthood as social phenomena--this Chapter, and Chapter Two, lay down with exquisite detail the priviledges and difficulties of secular knighthood within midieval society. This is enlivened by "Cainite Perspective" sidebars that, well, give the perspective the long-lived vampires of Europe have on the largely mortal Chivalric movement, its uses, and its pitfalls. Interesting historical sidenote bars also abound. Chapter One contains: Origin Theories on Chivalry; A Chivalrous Gazetteer on places throughout Europe where Chivalry and knighthood are in full flower; The Virtues of Chivalry as recognized by mortals; knightly issues of Money and Management; Knight Errantry; notes on the emerging field of Blazons and other heraldry; saints of particular favor to Knights; Chivalrous Women at arms and otherwise; and Chivalry Without Christianity--since, fundamentally, Chivalry arises from a predominantly Christian ideal.
Chapter Two: Cainite Knights deals with the rather "special" position occupied by those Cainites who were/are knights and those Cainites who wish to become knights. This chapter starts with an In Character letter from the same Cainite scholar who "compiled" the information contained in Clanbook: Salubri; in it, he compiles the opinions and difficulties of the Chivalrous Childer of Caine, broken down in age from neonate to methuselah. From there, the chapter segues into the practical information needed to play a Cainite knight. This includes helpful notes on how to go about maintaining one's knightly reputation, comfort, and position in society in the face of undeath and its natural restrictions. Practical storytelling notes are appreciated, as is the breakdown on how to handle the dispersement of Resources for an estate-bound Cainite knight. Chapter Two contains: notes on Knightly Bearing and how to look pious while avoiding daylight; The Knight at Home, dealing with the secular knight's feudal obligations to his estates; The Knight in the World, dealing with Cainite knights at court; The Knight's Duty, which deals with the varieties of conflicts in which a Cainite knight might find himself enmeshed; The War Against Evil: Crusades which gives a detailed breakdown of the organization and execution of a holy crusade; Blood and Fealty, which lays down which Clans do, and which Clans do not, consider Chivalry a viable form of Cainite morality and social interaction; and the horror that is the Ghoul Knight.
Chapter Three: Knightly Orders covers both sacred and secular Knightly Orders, including the Militant and Hospitaler Orders of the Catholic Church. Detailed notes are given on the origin and development of the both the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaler, and their on-going rivalries. Evidence of a great depth of research rears its head in the inclusion of the other, lesser known Military Orders and many secular Orders otherwise unknown. Cainite Knightly Orders are covered, as well as the possibility of fraudulent and rogue knights and debased, outlaw Orders. The historical sidebar notes are excellent, as are the storytelling hints.
Chapter Four: The Order of the Bitter Ashes details the history of this strange Order of Cainites and mortals dedicated to the recovery and protection of holy relics. Forget The Grails Covenant Trilogy, since the information contained in The Ashen Knight completely supercedes it. This chapter is a particular boon for those who have felt the World of Darkness is getting too, well, entirely dark without any possibility of light, or even contrast. The Order of the Bitter Ashes, while depicted as a flawed set of beings with a noble (but flawed) cause, are a definite spark of light, shining in the darkness. Included is the history of the Order of the Bitter Ashes, its incarnation within Dark Midieval society, its Mission and Rule, composition of its groupings, its havens, its personalities, and its destiny. Detailed storytelling notes include the mechanics of the "Grail Embrace," and suggestions on how to run a chronicle revolving around the Order and its mission.
Chapter Five: Knightly Things is the character creation chapter of this book and provides many helpful notes on how to develop and adequately equip a Knightly Cainite concept, male or female. Included are notes on Concept, Attributes, and general standards of Knightly knowledge as well as other issues such as training, religion, role models, and the general mechanics involved in getting yourself knighted such as the vigil and the unanswered blow from one's liege. New Traits, Backgrounds, Merits & Flaws, and a highly useful revisitation of the Road of Chivalry and notes for adapting it to non-Christian (such as Tzimisce) ideals appear. Also appearing is an extremely useful section on female knights in combat, and sections on arms, equipment, maintenance and how knightly appearances can draw attention both desired and otherwise.
Appendix: Ill-Made Knights contains the ubiquitous Templates (four in this case--three male, one female) and a selection of Cainite Knights from various Clans, as well as the AK character sheet. The utility of this section will vary from group to group, I have no doubt.
MY NOT SO HUMBLE OPINIONS:
THE GOOD: This whole book is good. I cannot say it loudly enough. Go buy it right now, even if you don't play Dark Ages, it has intense utility with regards to the Road of Chivalry's bastard offspring, the Path of Honorable Accord. Of particular stand-out excellence are the historical sections and their look at both the romance and the reality of Chivalry throughout Dark Midieval Europe. The Of Wenches and Wedding Nights sidebar on pg. 25 is of particular interest given recent debates about the use of maintaining some degree of historical accuracy in a VtDA game. Ulrich von Lichtenstein, Queen of the Desert, made me laugh myself into an asthma attack. The Battle of Hattin, 1187, was extremely sweet and concise and made me wish history professors could sum things up so compactly. I still love the Lazarene Nosferatu.
THE BAD: This book was obviously intensively researched, and at some points it shows that earnest intensity by reading very dryly. The general information density and high readability tends to counteract this particular complaint, howeve. I have a personal gripe with placing the Tzimisce among the Clans Without Chivalry (given their canonical stance on personal honor and the fact that their Voivode of Voivodes, Vladimir Rustovitch, follows the Path of Chivalry). I would also have liked more detail on non-Christian followers of the Path of Chivalry for similar reasons.
THE UGLY: The font used for Simon ben-Yaakov's letter. I know it's space-saving but, jeez, talk about eyestrain....
To the list of Chivalric resources I'd like to add:
"The Warrior Queens" by Lady Antonia Fraser, which covers a selection of martial women both western and eastern from the first century Queen of the Iceni, Boudicca, to the modern day.
"An Encyclopedia of Amazons" by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, which details the lives of many midieval women at arms that might have otherwise fallen through the cracks of history.
"Swords and Hilt Weapons" published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, for those with a passion for the history of arms and armaments.
The entire "Men At Arms/Historical Battles" series of books, which, despite the apparently negative connotations that come of association with the SCA/Ren Faire scene, are nevertheless high quality historical resources for Cainite knights and background for midieval cities.
"The Knight in Panther's Skin" by Shota Rustaveli, translated by Katherine Vivian. Vivian's translation is the one most commonly available in the United States, usually through Interlibrary Loan, and contains an excellent look at non-Western chivalry and chivalric practices. Avtandil, Tariel, Nuradin Pridon, Tinatin, and Nestan-Darejan all deserve a much wider audience than they've received.
"The Black Company," "The White Rose," "The Silver Spike," "Dreams of Steel," "Bleak Seasons," "She Is The Darkness," and "Water Sleeps" by Glen Cook. The novels of the Black Company are gritty midieval military fantasy, including sieges, battles, ambushes, and intrigue. Pay particular attention to the siege of Dejagore in "Bleak Seasons" and the tactical lessons scattered throughout...
"Dragonheart," which I frankly feel was unfairly lambasted by critics without any sense of wonder or taste. I think Bowen's "Old Code" of the Knights might make a fairly decent basis for a non-Christian follower of the Path of Chivlary's code of ethics. Also check out it for the fact that it was filmed on location in Eastern Europe--the ruin that Bowen and the prince are fighting in front of isn't "Roman" but the remains of Castle Cjethe, the County seat of our friend Elizebeta Bathory-Nadasdy.