Thursday, April 9, 2020

World of Darkness: Sorcerer

This is probably the game you should play instead of Mage: the Ascension. Don't get me wrong, I love the beautiful mess that is Mage, but this here . . . it's a book about occult societies, operating out of the shadows, exploring mysteries and pursuing their agendas, both sinister and benign. It's about hidden magic in the World of Darkness, people who are in over their heads with predators on all sides and those who keep ancient traditions alive in a world where it's all too easy to blind oneself to the sublime.

Plus, the magic rules sort of work. The paths could probably use a bit more precision, but sorcerers use reasonably sized dicepools and have quantifiable powers that can be compared to other supernatural templates. Buy 3 dots in Hellfire and you deal four dice of damage. Not something you're going to want to give up your guns for, maybe (although actually Hellfire has a bunch of neat elemental effects that make it more useful than its raw damage might indicate - fire does aggravated damage, dust storms can blind the target, etc), but when you compare it to, say, a vampire's Fortitude discipline, you can at least eyeball the likely result. It's not like Forces magic where you get 3 dice, but you can roll them an infinite number of times, meaning the target is going to face an unstoppable attack several days from now.

Ironically, the biggest weakness of World of Darkness: Sorcerer as a book is its connection to Mage: the Ascension. The text draws a fiddly technical distinction between what sorcerers do and what mages do that ultimately boils down to "magic" vs "magick." It's unbearably pretentious (and this is me saying this, so . . . you know), but also not something anyone in the setting is going to have a clear handle on. At best it's a distraction.

But setting aside comparisons to Mage, World of Darkness: Sorcerer is a fine book in its own right. The available paths of magic cover a fairly comprehensive cross-section of what you'd want a modern urban fantasy protagonist to be able to do and the occult organizations are all pretty interesting. The Ancient Order of the Aeon Rites is yet another reinvention of the Order of Hermes whole shtick, but this time they advance in rank through doing good deeds. Yes, they've got to undercut that by implying an unresolved scandal surrounding the Order's now-dead founder, but it's refreshing to see "wizard" types in the WoD who actually have a moral code.

Later on, we get the Uzoma, which is White Wolf's attempt at African magicians based on actual research. They're a decent faction, and their presentation here feels respectful, though I do feel a need to call out one line in particular:
According to NWO information, the Uzoma form an offshoot of the Dreamspeakers. This simplistic view underscores the traditional dismissal of many things African; "Well gee, they all look alike, so they must belong to the same club!"
Bad White Wolf, bad! The admonishment itself is fine, and likely something the fandom needed to hear, but that logic is fundamentally the Dreamspeakers' raison d'etre and it wasn't the Technocracy that created them, nor the Traditions. It was you. You made the Dreamspeakers to lump together four continents worth of people, and while it's great that you're starting to take an interest in specific people, like the Yoruba, you can't launder the original concept like this.

Apologize. Retcon. Do better. That's the procedure.

That said, the Uzoma do feel like a big step forward. World of Darkness: Sorcerer as a whole prefers a much greater degree of specificity than mage. There's a faction here called the Thal'Hun, which at once corrects the glaring oversight that was Mage: the Ascension's lack of a Ufology Tradition and manages to be a weird, narrowly applicable example of a group that might exist within such a hypothetical tradition (OMG - just imagining a version of Mage where Ufologist take the Spirit seat on the council and American, African, and Australian mages are assigned to groups like the Celestial Chorus or the Cult of Ecstasy based off their specific cultural practices and theological inclinations and it's pretty damned great). They manipulate the harmonic frequencies of sound in accordance with the scientific principles of the Hui:xa aliens who visited Earth thousands of years ago. In short, they're too good an idea to waste on The Sons of Ether (their canonical "awakened" allies).

Overall, this book is a stealth MVP. Within the White Wolf canon, it has the ridiculous niche of "Mage for people who don't want to play Mage," but honestly, freed of the need to "be Mage," this book has the opportunity to actually focus on the magic, and as a result, it's just jam-packed with good ideas, many of which you could even steal for your game of Mage.

Ukss Contribution: Secret Agent Sabrina! One of the sample characters is a dashing international woman of mystery who supplements her spy training with witchcraft. That could be a whole fucking genre.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Aberrant Storytellers Screen

The Aberrant Storytellers Screen makes the curious choice to have the first published Aberrant adventure be an espionage thriller in which the players must travel to Ibiza, Marrakesh, and Monte Carlo on the trail of a beautiful ingenue who is using her invisibility powers to keep one step ahead of a shapeshifting assassin out to silence her before she can reveal a cache of documents containing compromising information on a global conspiracy.

It's a fine story in its own right, but probably a bit below the PCs paygrade. I mean, there are builds out there that would work well here, but they're not generally the sort that are attractive to players out to experience a superhero rpg. Black Widow and Hawkeye have plenty to do on this mission, but the rest of the Avengers are probably going to have to sit this one out.

But more questionable than the scale is the tone. They are coming right out of the gate with the "trust no one" feel. There's a narrow band of "well-behaved rebels" that the adventure treats as trustworthy. The Aberrants (Project Utopia skeptics and conspiracy theorists) are okay. And Count Orzaiz (the aristocratic playboy and one of the top three handsomest Terragen) is a pretty cool guy. But if you work directly for Project Utopia, no one will talk to you, and if you work for Proteus (the shadowy black-ops conspiracy that hides inside Utopia), everyone seems to sense it somehow.

Ultimately, the lesson here is that no level of cynicism is ever unjustified. But if you don't mind the genre, the adventure is fine.

In addition to the adventure, the Aberrant Storytellers Screen also features some expanded setting information. Specifically, it covers the prominent corporations in the Aberrant universe and the way that the world's religions reacted to the emergence of novas.

The corporate stuff was good. I'm pretty sure that if Microsoft merged with Viacom, industrial espionage would be the least of our problems, but it's a good plot hook. Utopia offshoot, Novation, that specializes in monetizing novas in the form of comics, toys, and cartoons is also a great addition. It probably won't feature as part of an adventure, but it's a fun bit of background texture to torment your PCs with . . .or, perhaps, reward them, if they're that vain . . . oh, wait - adventure pitch inspired by the in-setting success of the Andre Corbin doll (boys like that he's a sports star, girls like that he's handsome, irony-poisoned college kids like that he starred in a porno): the PCs' action figures start to outsell those of Cestus Pax. . . good luck with that.

Like I said, fun.

The religious stuff . . . what's the mid-point between "meh" and "yikes?"

Basically, there are three general schools of thought as to how a religion might react to the emergence of novas - they represent some blessed power and are therefor sacred; they are demons/monsters meant to task the faithful; they are basically human beings, perhaps with challenges and opportunities beyond those of baselines, but not something the faith is unprepared to handle.

That's all fine, as far as it goes. And I think that some of the more picayune theological details ("what, exactly, is the difference between a superhero and a saint") might even be appealing to the right sort of nerd. But the material in this book seems to imply that differences in opinion will break down along existing denominational lines ("Sunnis embrace novas, shi'ites think they're demons"), and that leads to unfortunate religious stereotyping. Official Catholic doctrine is that novas are human, but there's a sinister conspiracy of cardinals that stand ready to assassinate the Pope and replace him with someone more anti-nova. Israeli Jewish novas are all recruited to a secretive black-ops team. In India, novas are worshiped as avatars of the gods.

Nuance is the name of the game, people. None of these plotlines would be a problem if the religions weren't presented in such a monolithic fashion. I doubt I'd use any of them in a game, though.

Overall, I thought this was a fairly decent supplement. Not essential, but nice to have. The shapeshifting Proteus assassin, Chiraben, would make for a great recurring villain, even if the book dramatically under-sells what he's capable of. The Queer Nova Alliance makes its first appearance, and while there is some unfortunate 90s ignorance (an NPC refers to Andy Vance with the big slur and the book itself can't decide whether he has a "husband," a "partner," or a "lover"), it's still vague enough to be a fun example of inclusion, instead of the mess it was in the Players Guide. And the genre stuff is undeniably part of the game's DNA, even if it's not what I would have led with.

Ukss Contribution: Oh, it's finally happened. I have to use something from the contemporary world. I'll probably futz around with the name, like I did with Sparta, but the real star of this adventure was none other than Monte Carlo. There's just something about setting a high-stakes espionage mission in this famously aristocratic city that just feels right.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

(M: tAs) Syndicate

Oh, man, this was the book I was born to critique. And like any case where someone meets their destiny, I am gripped with a deep existential terror. How do I even begin here? Good and bad and good and evil are all mixed up, and as much as it's my job to sort them out, I'm not sure that it's actually even possible.

The history chapter of this book has a framing device. A Syndicate enforcer is doubting his allegiance, and he says to a confidante, "No legitimate business runs like this." The recommended reading section wraps up with a list of periodicals ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the Nation and caps it with the quip, "What? You thought we were exaggerating . . . ?"

And there's a certain amount of "no shit" factor at work here. Where is all this transgressive posturing coming from in a book that didn't even bother to WoD-ify the Coca Cola death squads? The year is 1997 and a goth is whispering in my ear, "psst . . . capitalism is . . . sometimes . . . not good. Don't tell anyone I told you that."

But as a critique of capitalism, Syndicate has approximately zero precision. The opening fiction features the return of our friends in the Arcanum. Secret Agent John Courage has entrusted them with a document dump that details all of the Syndicate's activities and the Rolex-wearing, high fashion archivist lady tells her lackey, "Please find whatever companies in here we hold stock in . . . and get us the hell out." Where did she previously think her "casually wearing a $6000 suit" money came from?

Setting aside the financial recklessness of such a move ("a conspiracy of finance mages is manipulating the economy for their personal benefit - I'm sure that divesting from their corporations won't affect our bottom line"), it's hard to see what has her so spooked. The Syndicate has ties to organized crime. Which isn't, you know, good or anything, but is such small potatoes compared to the 300 year history of global capitalism that you have to wonder if maybe the authors couldn't think of any other way to make "being rich and owning a lot of stock" sound sinister.

At one point, we're treated to the startling revelation that the World of Darkness' Robin Hood-analogue was actually a prominent member of the Syndicate's precursor organization. The narrator compared him, in an embarrassingly "lost cause" sort of way, to Robert E Lee. "A good man . . . who wound up on the wrong side." And this sort of cuts to the heart of what's wrong with Syndicate as a book.

The narrator is unreliable; known by his very nature as a Syndicate bigwig, to be evil. This is confirmed by the fact that Robin Hood is his enemy. But Robert E. Lee is also his enemy (the Syndicate sided with "the industrial North" rather than "the quasi-feudal South" during the American Civil War), but he treated Lee with respect. And all of this was happening in the context of him trying to persuade a recalcitrant operative to stay in his job. So the thing with Lee was probably just a conventional piety, supporting a half-truth, in service to the rehabilitation of a historical villain . . .

But none of it is even remotely close to relevant, because the issues at play in both the Robin Hood story and the American Civil War is a stratified social order in which the murderous greed of the people at the top led to the utter degradation of those at the bottom (in addition to a deeply sick racial pathology the USA has still not fully recovered from) and you can't just gloss over it, because the feudal relationships you so condemn were the embryonic form of capitalism's private property regime and it's an undeniable fact that the industrial revolution was financed by the profits of a dozen generations of slave empires.

That's why the gangster-Syndicate rings so false. It's almost as if it's trying to say that violence and exploitation are foreign to the system, something that needs to be brought into it from an exterior force. The Syndicate Enforcers are mafia legbreakers. The sheriffs that the Financiers send to your house when they manipulate the banks to foreclose, those guys are just doing their job. The terror imposed by the cartels is shocking, but British colonial misrule in Ireland and India, the manufactured famines that killed millions - those barely merit comment.

You can, of course, have a villain who horrifies with their obliviousness. When the narrator suggests that the Syndicate's hoarding of stolen Jewish wealth post-WW2 is all part of their commitment to honor contracts, regardless of personal preference, it's obvious that he's being self-serving and callous, but it's only apparent that this was intentional because the doubting character called him on it. It's much harder to judge irony by omission.

Don't get me wrong, this book is not exactly kissing the ass of the capitalist class. It's just that when they describe the Syndicate deliberately searching for prospective employees who have gotten in over their heads with credit card debt, so that the Technocracy's generous wages will make them extra loyal, that's so much less evil than the use to which real capitalism put pre-employment credit checks (and oh man, do not get sucked into the rabbit hole of credit agencies justifying the practice on their websites).

There's a revealing detail, when the book discusses the Syndicate's reaction to the publication of The Communist Manifesto. The narrator says, "It was a call for a return to the Dark Ages in a lot of ways."

Now, I don't want to get involved in a discussion about the historical legacy of 20th century communism, but this is a bad take on Marx. Now, given who is doing the talking, it's not surprising that it's a bad take. It's actually the exact sort of bad take that you'd expect from an arch-capitalist. Which is exactly the problem. Hypertech finance magicians should not be getting their talking points from PraegerU. You can either satirize the rich by pointing out that money tends to make one dumb as hell (or, at the very least, that being a willfully ignorant blowhard is no barrier to riches) or you can talk about the sinister globalist cabal that controls all the banks, but trying to have it both ways would require a virtuoso level of artifice that this book simply can't attain.

The point is, the Syndicate should probably be the sort of self-aware villains that only really exist in fiction ("of course the system is rigged, we're the ones who rigged it"), but Syndicate, the book, isn't ready to really explore what villainy means in the context of the global economy. The closest you get is the Special Projects Division and its relationship to Werewolf: the Apocalypse's Pentex corporation. Pentex is a front for monsters that want to destroy the Earth, and the SPD subcontracts with them because they're greedy and want to make a profit. The implication is that if the rest of the Syndicate found out what SPD was doing, they'd be horrified, but I repeat the question I had about the well-heeled Arcanum lady - where did White Wolf think the Resources Level 10 money was coming from if not environmental destruction, corporate lawlessness, and the exploitation of labor?

The only intrinsic evil of capitalism the book feels the need to warn about is consumerism. Video games are going to rot our minds, man and television is killing our sense of wonder. And while I think there's a lot to say about the complex relationship between consumerism and the other evils of capitalism, what we get here is a damned shallow read.

Thus gangsters.

Overall, I'd say Syndicate actually ranks as near the top of this batch of Technocracy books, but that is fairly faint praise. It is somewhat useful as a source of antagonists and somewhat useful as a player's guide, but it excels at neither task. What it really needs is a stronger point of view. Like I said with Destiny's Price, it feels a lot like a White Wolf is operating from a very conservative point of view and building a form of in-house liberalism that is mainly a knee-jerk reaction to that. Not something that is necessarily the best vantage from which to approach a faction that embodies the excesses of the American system.

Ukss Contribution: One of the sample magic items (sorry, devices) is called Clout Perfume. It has a variety of effects, including the stereotypical "ultra alluring pheremones," but one variant caught my eye - you can use this perfume to add a bonus to intimidation rolls. I like that. A cologne that makes you smell intimidating.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

(M: tAS) Order of Hermes

Order of Hermes isn't bad or anything, but it does break 2nd edition's streak of gradually improving splatbook quality. The culprit here is probably the fact that in Mage canon, the Order of Hermes is full of shit. I mean, all the Traditions are full of shit to one degree or another, but The Order of Hermes is the one that gets repeatedly called-out in-setting as being the most full of shit. Because they are Mage's designated "pompous braggart" faction, they need to be able to back it up at least a little, if they are to have any degree of dignity.

But, of course, that would be impossible. In both the broad strokes and the specific details, the Traditions are balanced against each other. The system simply isn't interested in providing the mechanical widgets necessary for asymmetrical factions. Everybody uses the same nine spheres in the same straightforward way (though, hilariously, this book suggests that an early in-setting prototype of the Sphere system had 324 Spheres - make that game, you cowards!).

So The Order of Hermes is far from unique in that rules make a lie of their fiction. The Dreamspeakers get it almost as bad. They have no intrinsic advantage in dealing with the spirit world. Their way of doing things still follows the same "extended Arete roll" pattern as all the other mages. To a certain degree, this is something you just have to buy into if you're playing Mage. Dreamspeakers are the Spirit Tradition, Cultists of Ecstasy are the Time Tradition, etc, so even to the degree that player characters suffer no disadvantage from learning Spirit, Time, et al as the "wrong" Tradition, you can kind of assume that as a group, the NPC members of the Traditions have a particular density of expertise.

Nonetheless, the Order of Hermes mandates an intense and extended academic training, and the book is not at all clear on why. The Order looks down on other Traditions because they don't undergo the same rigorous training . . . but they quite objectively have the same powers. Order of Hermes, the book, divides magic into three tiers of sophistication and claims that the Order believes most mages only have access to the first level. But how could they believe something like that, unless they were extraordinarily full of shit, even by the high standards set by Mage: the Ascension.

It can probably all be traced back to the Ars Magica connection. I don't count it as a flaw that the World of Darkness' Order of Hermes shares a complicated history with an entirely different game line. It's actually a rich source of detail. However, in the Ars Magica setting, the Order of Hermes basically serves the exact same function as the Council of Nine Traditions. In one world, their claim to be the governing council for all magic and guardian of advanced magical knowledge is completely true. In another, it's hugely misguided. And the similarities between the settings often serve to obscure that difference, to the WoD Order's detriment.

But assuming that Mage should exist, and that there is something to justify the Order's swagger, Order of Hermes is a decent book. The Hermetic mages have a historical heft that feels authentic and there's an admirable diversity in its various factions and specialties (my favorite was House Shaea the cat-themed feminist linguists operating out of Egypt). I can't say that's it's completely successful - it needed to make the Order of Hermes into something more nuanced than "the asshole Tradition", and it's probably the least essential Tradition book since Verbena, but I enjoyed reading it, and that's not nothing.

Ukss Contribution: One of the Houses of Hermes is called "House Janisary." It budded off from the historical Janisaries at around the time that they started to dominate the Ottoman Empire (as befits the Order of Hermes' preference for mages of aristocratic background). It might be interesting if one of the evil empires of Ukss had a caste of slave-magician/soldiers.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

(M: tAs) Book of Mirrors

I'll admit, I was kind of dreading this one, but it wound up being relatively painless. As I read the table of contents, I was expecting a trademark White Wolf storytelling chapter, extended to 150 pages, and Book of Mirrors was fairly close to that, but it mostly avoided the trap of feeling like a remedial high school literature textbook, and was barely edgy at all (the essay at the end about feminism in rpgs was practically modern, even), so a lot of the worst case scenario territory was avoided.

The book's biggest weakness is that its authors seemed to have a very . . . elevated view of what they were doing. Not necessarily regarding their status within the hobby (the chapter about playing a historical Mage game was astonishingly generous in recommending supplements from other rpgs - even one of the AD&D green books got a shout-out), but in the importance of the hobby as a whole. I don't want to be too down on them, because I myself take rpgs fairly seriously (don't laugh), but when you start throwing around terms like "modern mythology" and "better than sex," even I think it might be time to dial it back a bit.

Truthfully, I don't have a lot to say about this one. It seems like every game that gets big enough has to release a book that talks about the social contract sooner or later, and Book of Mirrors doesn't embarrass itself here. And the rest of the Storytelling advice strikes a better balance between the literary and the pragmatic than we usually see in comparable sections of the core, but that's probably down to having more room.

The developer FAQ chapter didn't do a lot for me, but I suspect that's because Phil Brucato and I have fundamentally incompatible views on metaphysics (though at least we can both agree that colonialism is bad).

90s watch:

  • Some shockingly ableist language in the Marauders section. No demerit from me, though. I doubt I'd have even noticed pre-2010. 
  • The Technocracy has infiltrated all of our most trustworthy travel agencies! Can the newly revealed and thus far uncorrupted spy agency, the NSA, save us? They can if their allies among the Virtual Adepts have anything to say about it! (Sorry, that bit about magical white hat hackers making the NSA the one government agency not suborned by the Technocracy is hilarious to me, regardless of where you place the Technocrats on the villain-antihero-hero spectrum).
  • Some of the hypothetical players in the example campaign "don't have email."
  • Orson Scott Card says cyberpunk is "virtually over."

Pet peeve watch, only one item: "Most mages dismiss [the grim reaper collecting souls at the moment of death] as just a little too superstitious for their tastes." It's not so bad, because unlike certain problematic D&D supplements, this isn't trading in a racist trope, but still, what a thing to write in your rpg's Grim Reaper stat block.

Finally, let me wrap up with a couple of miscellaneous observations  - Someone at WW HQ was not quite as jaded about Samuel Haight as we were led to believe, because The Chaos Factor gets unironically name-checked around 2-3 times. And there's probably going to be no better place to talk about it, but the ongoing saga in the opening fiction, the story of the Euthanatos novices dodging the remnants of House Helekar, told in a series of vignettes stretched, so-far, between three unrelated books (this one, Book of Worlds, and Book of Crafts) barely works for me, a guy reading every Mage book back-to-back, more than 20 years after the fact. I can't imagine it was at all follow-able in its original context - specialty books for the second-most-popular game publisher's second-most-popular game, which would have surely enjoyed only a limited window of being available on a local book store's shelves before being out of print (seemingly) forever. I don't know where I'm going with this except that it's a bold move to start a book with a niche-within-a-niche Easter egg, though I guess if you're reading The Book of Mirrors at all, there's a good chance you're that kind of fan.

Ukss Contribution: The genuine best thing in this book is an idea that was too good to waste on a Marauder faction - The Fantastic 26. They're a magical cabal with code names based on the NATO phonetic alphabet, which I chose to picture as a superhero team whose powers are also appropriately themed. But I have no idea how I would organically introduce the concept of the NATO phonetic alphabet to a fantasy setting.

So I'll go with my second choice, but unlike a lot of the times I do this, the choice was actually genuinely close.

Apparently, the biggest challenge for the Technocracy when they took over the FBI was ousting the vampires that had already infiltrated it. Let's just let that sink in for a moment. . .

Once more, an rpg supplement just casually tosses out a throw-away line that could support a whole franchise. Nineteen-fifties G-men rooting out a vampire conspiracy in the FBI. . . I think I'm going to have to change my "top 5 WW Netflix adaptations" list.

Although, in the context of Ukss, we can dispense with the masquerade and just have a state security apparatus run by vampires, which is its own special kind of chilling.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Aberrant

Real talk - Aberrant is my number one choice if I'm ever asked to turn an old White Wolf game into a Netflix series. Sorry, Kindred: The Embraced reboot, you don't even make the top 5, the rest of which are: 2)Werewolf: The Wild West; 3)Changeling: The Lost; 4)Exalted; 5)Adventure!

Now, I'm not going to pretend that Aberrant is the first superhero setting to satirize the genre by drawing parallels between superhero culture and celebrity culture. However, one advantage that Aberrant has over, say, The Boys, is that White Wolf was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were too cool to write a superhero game.

But while White Wolf was much too dorky to be quite so dismissive of costumed heroes and supervillains, Aberrant's desire to downplay genre conventions does yield certain dividends. There's an old SMBC comic that winds up suggesting the best way Superman can serve the world is by turning a crank to generate electricity. It's funny because it takes the fantasy of heroism and replaces it with actuarial practicality, but Aberrant spends a lot of time conceding that it's "realistic."

The result is a setting where your average superhero has a day job. Every time an anti-comics curmudgeon would say some variation of, "but Spiderman could make so much more money if he just sold his web-shooters," Aberrant answers with, "good point, let's make sure we have a guy like that."

Sometimes the book can go a little too far in this direction (though the apex won't come until the infamous introduction to the Aberrant Player's Guide), but it also leads to some of the setting's most unique and rewarding ideas. Aberrant takes place in a world in flux. Things are changing with breathtaking rapidness and usually for the better. That gives the world a weird energy, as if it was filled with people scrambling to keep up with the present. Even the reactionary viewpoint seems somewhat reasonable, especially when remember that canonically, this whole period ends with the massive war from Trinity.

If you weave together all of Aberrant's strongest threads of influence - vapid celebrity gossip, professional wrestling, speculative futurism - you wind up with a setting whose wheelhouse is, roughly speaking, "reality show during the run-up to the Singularity." It's a mix that's unique, even among superhero deconstructions (that I'm personally familiar with - I'm sure that somewhere in the 90 year history of superhero comics, there's something comparable), and along with memorable characters like Divis Mal, Mefistofaleez, and Raoul Orzaiz, that uniqueness makes it one of my favorite superhero settings - period.

Of course, there's a downside. White Wolf's gotta White Wolf. And while I wouldn't say that the cynicism and conspiracy stuff is entirely to the setting's detriment, I would argue that it's a very sheltered suburban brand of cynicism. Project Utopia, the global philanthropic organization devoted to using nova powers to improve the world, is corrupt and authoritarian, whereas the Teragen, the openly nova-supremacist organization that proclaims that all superheroes are above the law, is democratic and sincere. And the logic of this is pretty transparent - a person who is trying to trick you would say that they're trying to help you, whereas a person who openly declares they care only about themselves is at worst exactly what they appear to be. Therefor you should be suspicious of people who are trying to help, but you can trust that nakedly selfish people are just "telling it like it is."

Taken together with the plot point that the USA's first female president would be a Libertarian, elected because the public was getting fed up with the two party system, suggests a very ironic political naivety in a text that otherwise prides itself on its worldliness.

Also, while we're talking about politics, I'm not a huge fan of the idea that a "moderate Republican" president would be ousted by a "sex scandal" that was nothing more than him having an affair with a man. I guess this was written shortly after the contentious reaction to the Ellen coming-out episode, so they were just writing the world they saw, but they were writing about their future, so maybe they could have spared just a little bit of hope (actually, to be fair, they did say that in Aberrant's 2008, the Republican party had severed its ties to the far right, which strikes me as a particularly . . . untutored brand of optimism).

Still, while the conspiracy stuff was the weakest part of Aberrant, it's not entirely unsalvageable. The plot where Project Proteus tries to sterilize every nova on Earth is both puppy-kickingly evil and a logistical nightmare, but the rest of it is probably okay. I don't have my copy of Trinity in front of me, so I don't know if the time travel element had been introduced yet, but given that Maxwell Mercer is name-dropped in the Proteus section of the setting chapter, I suspect it was at least already planned. And that gives the anti-nova conspiracy an interesting and sympathetic edge.

It's not just dramatic irony that we know this era of promise is going to turn into a graveyard. There are characters in the setting that know it too, and not just with a bigoted preemptive suspicion, but with genuine knowledge of the future. That's a good hook for a campaign - the classic SF-Fantasy predestination plot - can you change the future or are your efforts to prevent a tragedy the very thing that brings it about. It would be a pretty cool thing to have going on in the background . . . if 90s White Wolf didn't do the thing where they rationed their "secret reveals" to help drive supplement sales.

Now, the part where I talk about the system. . . It's cool that Aberrant encourages you to design your own powers. This was my first experience with that sort of thing. It's not quite an effects-based system. For example, you can buy the "Flight power" and you're supposed to skin it as something more specific, like gravity manipulation, or you can buy the Gravity Manipulation power, which includes flight as a possible technique. It's a sloppy design that tries to have it both ways.

However, that's not really the issue with the system. The problem with Aberrant is that it works well when characters are relatively evenly matched, but the chances of that happening, by either chance or design, are basically zero. I don't know if this is the game in my collection most vulnerable to char-op shenanigans, but it's definitely a candidate. There are four different character improvement resources (five if you count Taint, which you should) and they all convert to one another in different formulas that are highly dependent on things like the order in which you spend them. And then there's the fact that there's a huge amount of stuff you can buy, the costs of which vary depending on which currency you use to purchase them and which aren't necessarily equally valuable at a given price point ("let's see, should I get that fifth point of mega-perception or the first three points of mega-strength?").

If you play as fast and loose as White Wolf seems to think is proper, it will mostly be okay . . . probably. But attempting any sort of battle league or XWF tournament is a recipe for disaster. Specialists will absolutely destroy anyone who is even slightly well-rounded, and two characters specialized in different areas will probably annihilate each other just as easily, leaving the outcome almost entirely to chance.

Still, I have very fond memories of this game, and look forward to playing second edition some day. Until it becomes available, your best bet for playing in Aberrant's setting is to use a better rules system Either that or accept that life is a cruel dance of unforeseeable chance that ends, inevitably, in an absolute catastrophe.

Ukss Contribution: "Elites" are mercenary novas who perform services for the highest bidder. Since their work is often only technically legal, they wear masks, both to conceal their identity from their many enemies and to establish a marketable persona, in the vein of Mexican wrestling. It's the closest the setting comes to unabashed comics nonsense, and not coincidentally is also one of the best things about it. Ukss too will probably have a subculture of flamboyant masked mercenaries.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Euthanatos

So much of Euthanatos is devoted to resolving the situation in House Helekar that I'm left with the suspicion that the aim was to reboot the Tradition in the eyes of the fandom. My understanding from reading The Book of Chantries was that Helekar's serial killers, death worshipers, and sadists were meant to be an aberration, rogues who existed so that heroic PCs could thwart their sinister schemes.

I still think that was the intent, but I wonder if perhaps Helekar being the only Euthanatos we've really seen on-screen for a significant length of time might have led to a distorted view of the Tradition as a whole.

Although, even with a maximal benefit of the doubt, the Euthanatos are a tough sell. They use their magic to identify people whose death would improve the world and then they kill them. At their best (and I use that term lightly), they are vigilante assassins, using their powers to target and remove those among the wicked that have placed themselves above the law.

At their worst? I'll let the book sum it up: "[they] had to let the weak die." It is impossible to overstate how tyrannical it is that they've appointed themselves the arbiters of life and death with no oversight or input from the people most affected by their decisions. Isn't this the sin of the Technocracy? That they believe their "noble goals" justify murder in order to bring them about? What makes the Euthanatos different?

Is it because of their religion? That they are more precise in their targets (if you don't count "renegades" like House Helekar and, you know, the Euthanatos who are just starting out and haven't quite mastered the whole "assassins of fate" thing yet)?

Really, it's just because they're the designated edgy anti-hero faction and their whole thing with the killing is meant to give them plenty of fascinating moral dilemmas to work through.

I can't help thinking about the trolley problem. It's not my favorite thought experiment. The very thing that makes it useful is also the reason it fails to really get at the essential question of ethics. It seeks to provide clarity in how we form our moral values by presenting a situation where the actor has perfect information. Yet I think the most profound benefit of moral education is the way it can prepare us for uncertainty. You see four workers on the track in front of you, do you switch tracks? You don't know what's on the other track. Most likely nothing, but if there are any workers, there are probably less than four. But if there turned out to be five or more, did you make the wrong decision?

Can you imagine the fucking hubris the Euthanatos must have, to decide that they can kill people and send them on to a newer, better incarnation?

Of course, it's possible that the Euthanatos really do know what the consequences of their actions are going to be. They've got magic. According to this book, one of the things they use their magic for is to learn who it's helpful to kill. Tvtropes calls this the "omniscient morality license". Where it gets tricky is that the Euthanatos are far from omniscient.

It all comes down to Mage: the Ascension trying to have it both ways. This book does its best to remake the Euthanatos into "the Hindu mages," (going so far as to give them the new name "Chakravanti") but it also wants to avoid making definite statements about the truth or falsity Hinduism as a religion. It's the Book of Worlds thing all over again - you can visit places that resemble any number of ideas about the afterlife, but not anywhere that is definitively the afterlife.

Mage is a game that is fundamentally about religion, but which does its best to never confront religious mystery. And so the Euthanatos kill people to advance them along the cycle of reincarnation, but they have no way to verify that what they're doing actually works.

Aside from miring them in the exact sort of moral depravity this book was trying so hard to debunk, it also makes it a pretty shitty move to cast them as particularly Hindu. Now, I will cop to the fact that I don't know a ton about Hindu beliefs, but I'm pretty sure the Euthanatos' whole deal is one of those "Holy shit! They did what?!" sort of things. Like, maybe with an overly literal reading of certain soteriological ideas, it seems logical, but in practice is the sort of reckless heresy they (rightfully) call out the militia to suppress.

As a thought experiment, I designed a Christian sub-faction of the Euthanatos called "The Sacrament of Confession," and what they do is manipulate people into asking for God's forgiveness and then, in the moments immediately after, while they're still in a state of grace, kill them, so that they are guaranteed to get into heaven.

If I tried to use those guys in a game, the reaction would surely be, "whoa, John, even as villains, that's pretty offensive." And if I then followed up with a "no, you misunderstand, they're supposed to be heroes" I'm pretty sure I'd catch a well-deserved "what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Where it gets difficult for me is that I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge whether this is an apt analogy. Or even whether it's actually that much of a problem in Indian culture to goof around with such self-evidently ridiculous heretics and include them in your fantasy rpg. Or, for that matter, whether heresy itself is that big a deal.

What I do know is that, for all that it's a good thing to base one of the Traditions out of India, the idea that exotic eastern spirituality can redeem the Euthanatos' prima facie abhorrent practices smacks to me of an unexamined Orientalism. "No, you don't understand, they're okay because Hindus have a different conception of life and death than Christians."

Although, the irony is that the Euthanatos' makeover wasn't really necessary. This is the World of Darkness we're talking about. "Killers who only kill killers," already puts them in the top 50% of supernatural factions. Wear that black trench coat and wear it with pride. You are a Tormented Assassin and you're exactly where you belong.

Overall, though, Euthanatos, as a book, mostly feels like an early preview of the Revised era. It's got that same preoccupation with anthropological detail, it makes a deliberate effort to be cross-cultural (though the Euthanatos are mostly Indian, they've also got Celtic and Greek members), and it's got an obligatory technomagic faction (the Lhaksmists, who mostly just hang around online and bait pedophiles). I've still got a lot of 2nd edition to go, so it will be interesting to see if the bulk of it is more "Book of Worlds" or "proto-revised."

Ukss Contribution: There's a pretty fun quote, "Half of white necromancy is throwing a party good enough to wake the dead." There should be a group in Ukss that throws parties for ghosts in order to achieve some benevolent aim.