Tuesday, March 21, 2023

(Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition) Legacies: the Ancient

 First off, I have to declare a conflict of interest. One of the authors of this book very generously sent me a few physical books over the years, and I'm so grateful that I might be inclined to go easy on it, just out of sentiment. Luckily, this is a White Wolf book with 5 different authors, all credited collectively, so there's no way I can know which section of the book I should go I easy on. Anyway, you should check out The Well RPG, if you can.

Now, let's tear this thing apart! Or not. The only thing that really bugged me was the opening fiction. It was about mystic happenings at a midwestern LGBT convention and it's one of those things where 2006 White Wolf was pro-gay rights, but that manifested as edgy anti-gay villains who could be bigoted in a really upsetting way. Also, there's some graphically described heterosexual sex that maybe I'm just being a prude about, but which made me kind of uncomfortable. Like, okay, this guy is having spiritually significant sex, but that's not really the mood I'm bringing into this thing. 

That's just the opening fiction, though. The rest of this book is more of the best part of the Mage: the Awakening setting - specific magical traditions organized around unique mystic or setting ideas. They're a little bit broader than those in Legacies: the Sublime, with groups like the Forge Masters, who base their magic off of blacksmithing and the Skalds, who use musical magic and remember ancient stories, but another word for "broadness" is "versatility."

And versatility is necessary, because the Mage: the Awakening setting, as presented thus far, is kind of impossible to use. It all comes down to a persistent refusal to openly tell us what's actually canon. How reliable is this book, regarding 7000-year-old history? Many of these legacies, being ancient, start their history sections with descriptions of various relationships with Atlantis - the Dreamspeakers and the Elemental Masteries were the magic of those outside Atlantis, the predecessors to the Forge Masters practiced their arts in Atlantis, the Thread Cutters were exiled from Atlantis. All of which implies that Atlantis actually existed. . . which is just ridiculous. 

I mean, it's not prima facie ridiculous. You could make a game where Earth had an ancient magitech society that collapsed after storming the gates of heaven, with a modern conspiracy that seeks to find and monopolize the lingering remnants of its power. I'm imagining a fun pulp fantasy, maybe with aliens and undersea cities and rayguns. You know, not the World of Darkness vibe at all. The Atlantis of Mage: the Awakening is New Age metonymy for general enlightenment, too thoroughly Neoplatonist to actually be a real place. When renegade Thrice-Great Hermetics talk about newly discovered planets being missing rungs on the Celestial Ladder, that's a fun detail when talking about broken technology, but a big pile of nothing when it's an allegory for a metaphysical journey into the heart of meaning (which is probably why it's such an unpopular theory among mainstream Hermetics).

As a result, the question most frequently on my mind (aside from "why must the Guardians of the Veil be such buzzkills?") was "what's real?" What facts are worth getting emotionally invested in? There's a group called the Echo Walkers, who disrupt people's souls so that they can learn more about the primordial spiritual origins of humanity (as exemplified by "the Ones Before," angelic precursors to the human species), and they're very interesting villains . . . except "The actual merit of the data presented at this council is probably negligible. The mages have become so blind, and usually mad, by this point that their delusions simply feed into one another." 

Sure, a group of powerful shapeshifters with a bizarre and pointless obsession with questions that can never be answered might actually be a frightening in an absurdist horror sense. They don't want anything real, and therefor they can never be satisfied. They're just going to keep hurting people forever, unless the PCs stop them. But at the same time, the game is supposed to be about mysteries and if you've got dark sorcerers exploiting forbidden knowledge, then maybe the reason their magic is so dark and forbidden is because it's really based on knowledge.  The Logophages are another antagonist faction that destroys mystic secrets they deem too dangerous (and thus earn the ire of more conventional mages who believe that magical lore should be the exact right level of secret so that they're the only ones who know it), and maybe the game works better if they have a point.

It can be a real problem. Many of the game's most interesting ideas happen when they pitch a weird group who believe in serious fantasy nonsense, but there's a persistent reluctance to actually commit to the fantasy. We'll never learn a damned thing about the Ones Before, or even whether they exist as anything more than the pretty lights that show up in the gap between someone's soul and their consciousness. And a Thrice-Great Hermetic can spend however many sessions it takes gathering seven secret names from the spirit courts of classical astrology in order to send a once-in-a-lifetime message to an ascended master who dwells beyond the Abyss and the reply they get is "hackneyed, as if some merely human intellect tried to come up with something a superhumanly wise spiritual master ought to say."

Reign in your damned cynicism, mid 2000s White Wolf, it's hurting the art! 

Which brings me back to the versatility I was talking about earlier. Mage: the Awakening may refuse to commit, may refuse to be an actual fantasy setting, but your game is going to make choices about truth and falsehood, whether Atlantis is literal or a metaphor, whether plans to breach the Abyss are completely hopeless or merely very difficult. And if you do make the commitment that the books lack, then Legacies: the Ancient will probably be helpful no matter what you decide. I think, overall, I prefer Legacies: the Sublime, because it's weirder and more specific, but both books are worthy expansions to the world set out in the core.

Ukss Contribution: The Elemental Masteries are a collection of five legacies that each focuses on control of one of the four classical elements (plus Void). They're probably the most generic legacies we've seen so far, distinguishing themselves mostly through internal cultures that play off elemental symbolism (and one of the sample characters may or may not be a centuries-old Catholic saint, in another clear example of Mage being too cowardly to just come out and do something cool), but they are all pretty solid. I'm not sure I'd want to use them as NPCs, because other groups provide more interesting antagonists, but they are all malleable enough for a PC to put their mark on them.

The coolest thing about the Elemental Masteries, however, is the suggestion for how they can be expanded. Not all cultures respect the same set of elements, so you could easily have Tamers of Trees, or Iron or Ice or Rain or Sand or Blood. I'm not saying the book should have gone with any of them (like, seriously, there was no way they were going to get away with not doing the European four), but they do leave me intrigued. I think Ukss will have Tamers of Sand, because that's the one that sounds the least useful and I enjoy a challenge.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

(Blue Rose) Blue Rose Companion

Workhorse books like The Blue Rose Companion are hard for the blog because they're my favorite kind of rpg book to own, because they have new character options, new spells, new magic items, and new monsters, but they are hard to write about because they are just that. Sometimes, they can have vast setting implications, like D&D's various Monster Manuals, and sometimes they can have a weird theme, like The Technomancer's Toybox, but the more ways it's split, the less likely that is to be the case.

And The Blue Rose Companion is split as many ways as it's possible for a book to be split. It's basically just another 120 pages of the core. It has everything, and that's useful, but for the most part it doesn't go into depth. We learn there are vampires in Aldea, but nothing about specific vampires or the ways they are used in Blue Rose's vision of romantic fantasy. Likewise, ritual casting is introduced as a new magic mechanic, but we only get three specific rituals (by default, it works as a point buy system where you improve your regular Arcana by making their use inconvenient). Wellsprings, magical structures, new darkspawn types, skill tricks - all welcome, all shallow.

The only thing that really gets expanded treatment is character paths. Blue Rose has three generic character classes - Adepts, who specialize in magic, Experts, who specialize in skills, and Warriors, who specialize in combat, but each of those classes had a number of "paths," which are named like subclasses (the Healer Adept, the Bard Expert, the Swashbuckler Warrior, etc), but they were nothing more than suggested starting builds. The Blue Rose Companion expands the Paths to be full 20-level suggested builds, but they're still nothing more than character concepts. They're just lists of feats to be taken at every level, and you can easily swap feats in or out without changing much of anything. None of them have unique powers or mechanics, and so it's unclear why they actually exist (aside from helping players see that you can build a variety of characters with the Blue Rose system).

On the balance, paths are fine, but then each of the 20 paths gets two and a half pages in Chapter 1, where we learn about their background, role in society, and religious affiliations. And there's a lot of good worldbuilding stuff there, but Paths are less real even than Classes, so how much healing magic do you need in order to identify as a Healer? Like, it's good to see a bunch of different educational and career paths that exist in the world of Aldea, but most players are going to make in-between characters, that combine traits from multiple paths or veer off in an entirely unexpected direction. So what is this for, exactly?

Overall, though, I'm pretty happy with The Blue Rose Companion. The largest part of the book was maybe too much wordcount for too tenuous a subject, but nearly everything in here was useful. If I ever play Blue Rose again, it will be an essential supplement.

Ukss Contribution: As much as I didn't care for Paths as a concept, my favorite thing from the book came from one of the path descriptions. In the "Infiltrator" path, when it talked about non-human Infiltrators, it suggested, "rhy-horses can and do masquerade as mundane horses, allowing them to pass virtually unnoticed by most people." The thought of a talking horse spying on humans on behalf of a horse government amuses me greatly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

(M: tAw) Legacies: the Sublime

Mage: the Awakening is a game with a lot of moving parts. You make a mage character who belongs to one of five mystic Orders, in-setting organizations with their own customs and agendas. And each Order is made up of characters from one of five different Paths, which, as we've previously discussed, are something that only barely exists in-setting and mostly serve as an out-of-character summary of your overall wizard vibe. And then, we've got the subject of this book - Legacies. A Legacy is like a specific school of magic, where unique magical techniques are passed down from teacher to pupil throughout the generations. And these elements can combine in different ways, so maybe you're an Obrimos (Path) Silver Ladder (Order) Clavicalarius (Legacy) or a Mastigos (Order) Guardian of the Veil (Order) Clavicalarius (Legacy) and it is in the combinatoric explosion of all these possibilities that you find an inexhaustible source of character options.

Unfortunately, Legacies are the only part of this formula that's consistently good. I'm not going to do too much complaining here, because I got the bulk of my Path criticism out of the way with Tome of the Watchtowers and my opinion on the Orders (they are dull as hell and basic activities like "combat" or "research" are not enough to support an interesting mystic conspiracy) should be apparent in the fact that I uncharacteristically don't own a complete set of Order books. However, I feel like I need to make you aware of the fact that I'm not complaining about Paths and Orders so you can properly appreciate the context in which I'm saying, "Legacies: the Sublime represents the best part of Mage: the Awakening's worldbuilding."

I.e. you should imagine my frustrated sigh when I wonder why we couldn't have just skipped directly to the Legacies and not bothered with the rest of that stuff at all.

One of the Legacies in this book is the Daksha, and they use magic to give themselves a third eye and make themselves intersex and they've got serious Nazi vibes and their whole deal is pretty much every obscure bit of New Age mysticism all jammed together into one problematic package. They're the true form of the Lemurians and call themselves "the Coming Race" and there is talk of Atlantis and the cycle of ages and ascetic mysticism and the Ascended Masters and the real-world Theosophical Society. And it's all . . .

Terrible. And great. Great and terrible. But more to the point, it feels like something that belongs in a game of modern magic. Mage: the Awakening, as a roleplaying game about people who use magic, has these two separate lines of descent for its magic system. The roleplaying side traces back to Dungeons and Dragons and so you've got these spells that are functional and repeatable and relatively easy to describe because they exist in the rules of the game and the entirety of the game is people describing things to each other. Then you've got the other side of Mage's ancestry - real world mysticism, and it's frequently the opposite of that.

Real magic is an esoteric religious practice and it doesn't change the world in a functional, repeatable way because that's not what it's for. A religious mystery exists to address the problems ordinary effort cannot. Magic begins where reasoned knowledge ends. It's eccentric, because it emerges from the specific needs of people who existed in a particular time and place, and it's hard to describe because that's what "esoteric" means. It's hardly a secret if it exists right out in the open. 

The Daksha managed to capture that feeling of encountering real-world magic. It's the feeling of setting down a book and asking yourself "what the fuck did I just read?" But it also represents the dilemma at the heart of every version of Mage (including Ascension) - you're using rules best suited to a D&D wizard, but a real wizard is most-likely a three-eyed intersex Nazi. Which game do we really want to play - magic in the modern world, in which case the blandness of the Orders and Paths might actually be an advantage ("I'll be one of the Wizards Who Fight Things, you play one of the Wizards Who Keep Magic Secret") or magic of the modern world, in which case groups as strange and specific as the Legacies should be the norm.

So what we've got here is a book that really pushes the boundaries of what Mage: the Awakening can do as a game, but in doing so makes the rest of the game feel vestigial. I don't really want to play a Silver Ladder Thyrsus, I want to play a member of the Sodality of the Tor. They're pagan witches whose mystic rites revolve around the sacred hill where King Arthur was supposedly buried. But I can't do that, not until Gnosis 3. And maybe I could treat it as something to look forward to, a goal I could build my character around, but if it's the Sodality of the Tor that interests me, if it's this interesting network of witch families with a deep connection to the British Isles that inspires me at character creation, then why can't I engage mechanically with the Legacy at character creation?

And look, I get that this is kind of a ridiculous complaint ("don't you see what those bastards did, they made a supplement that improved the base game? Grr!"), but at the same time, any roleplaying game is, from the GM's perspective, a game of worldbuilding, and from a worldbuilding perspective, competing factions whose conflicting agendas are "inspiring a technological singularity through any means necessary" and "harness the power of nightmares to become a terror to the lords of demonkind" are much more useful than factions whose agendas are "gain worldly power" and "gain worldly power, but evil." Yet, for all that this particular book is useful, it doesn't really benefit from the setting established in the core (or, I guess, Tome of the Watchtowers). Legacies: the Sublime, then, is a book that, by virtue of being extraordinarily compelling, makes my other books less useful.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, even when the Threnodist legacy fell deep into quantum-physics-adjacent gibberish. I haven't even covered the majority of the book's bold new ideas - the Daoine, vengeance-obsessed fairytale witches, the Scions of God, who want to transform themselves into angelic spirits, the extreme ascetics of the Fallen Pillar. I'm not sure I agree with "sublime" as an overall theme (I think, at best, it's a way of saying "we think the book we wrote is really good"), but it expands the Mage: the Awakening world in some fascinating ways.

Ukss Contribution: The Sodality of the Tor is made up of a collection of witch families, which isn't really a concept that works well according to the Mage: the Awakening rules (magic isn't really something you can teach or learn, unless everyone involved just happens to have experienced the same unlikely cosmic event). However, in a setting where people can choose to learn magic, a family that has its own magical traditions can be pretty cool.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Blue Rose

There are two separate and distinct things that are interesting about Blue Rose (Crawford, Elliot, Kenson, Snead) - its unique take on the fantasy genre and its extensive modifications to the d20 system. This puts me at a crossroads - do I focus on system nerdery or on genre nerdery?

Normally, I'd prefer to talk about the genre. That's an overall more exciting conversation than breaking down the changes to how combat damage is applied - instead of hit points that are whittled down over time, Blue Rose uses a "toughness save" which gets more difficult the more often a character is struck in combat, making one-hit kills vastly more likely, while also ensuring that encounters are in general more survivable, thus giving every fight a high degree of unpredictability, which may or may not contribute to a genre feeling, I wouldn't know, because I'm actually completely unfamiliar with the sub-genre of fantasy that Blue Rose is trying to emulate.

Yeah, oops. I mean, the book tries to explain it - talking animals instead of demihumans, psychic powers instead of scholarly spellcasting, heroes who work inside the bounds of institutional authority instead of loners and rogues, egalitarian societies instead of quasi-historical hierarchies - but I never read any of the source material, so I'm just kind of taking Blue Rose's word for it.  Don't get me wrong, I like what this game is doing. I just can't appreciate it on a fully literary level.

I suspect my unfamiliarity with the source material and Blue Rose's reputation for controversy come from the same basic source - unexamined femme-phobia. I haven't really done a lot of non-rpg fantasy reading since I was a teenager, and while I was hardly a macho guy, I was also not really one to question the implicit gendering of the genre. I just kind of knew that some fantasy books, like Mercedes Lackey, were "for girls" and had what I'm sure I would have described as a benign disinterest.

So, what I remember about my initial decision to purchase Blue Rose was a time when it was absolute flame-bait. When this specific book had a loud and dedicated anti-fandom, largely composed of intolerable misogynists. And I remember thinking, "oh, Blue Rose is like D&D for girls, I should check that out, because I'm in my mid-20s now and I'm starting to question my childhood femme-phobia, plus anything those jerks hate can't be entirely bad."

And I've got a vague impression of reading it, roughly 15 years ago, and coming away with positive feelings, but now, in 2023, I'm in a bit of a tough spot because I'm not sure what parts of this book were ever supposed to be contentious, let alone "for girls."

However, I'm not sure those questions are even interesting. I mean, it's kind of fun to imagine going back in time 18 years and blowing peoples' minds by telling them that to children currently being born, this book is going to seem crypto-conservative because the trans-affirming spell is technically dark magic ("is that a price your [transgender] hero is willing to pay?") and the main playstyle has you cast as fantasy cops, but honestly, the whole subject of Blue Roses' "controversy" is overblown, except as a historical curiosity. When I was young, bad takes were common, but even though there are still people with a stick up their ass about gay marriage, very little in this book would seem remarkable compared to recent trends in D&D-style fantasy. The reason you can't play a psychic wolf in 5e has more to do with the lack of opposable thumbs than genre gatekeeping.

Which is why I wish I had more fluency with the genre of origin. Then I could make comments that focused on how well Blue Rose did at emulating specific elements of the books. Does this rpg make me feel like Tamora Pierce made me feel - that seems like a question that somebody should be able to answer.

Unfortunately, I am not that somebody, so I'm largely confined to trying to win decades' old flame wars . . . except, I actually went back and looked up some of those flame wars and they are absolutely asinine. "How do you roleplay in a utopian world?" I don't know, let me get back to you when I read an rpg that depicts utopia. Blue Rose is set in a world with almost all the same exact problems as every other fantasy setting, except instead of having ahistorical kingdoms that are vaguely coded as patriarchal medieval European, it's only got one of those, and the other main area is an ahistorical kingdom that's vaguely coded as an egalitarian bureaucratic state with European sensibilities.

What do you do in Blue Rose? You defend isolated villages from rampaging monsters, counter the machinations of the dreaded Lich-king, go head to head with a thieves guild, and expose the plans of corrupt nobles - except you are representing a state that has a respect for the dignity of the individual and an informal understanding of civil rights, so you shouldn't act like rootless mercenaries, even if that means sometimes a plot is resolved with negotiation and compromise instead of steel and spells (although, you do have plenty of steel and spells and plenty of opportunities to use them).

I think the thing that impresses me most about Blue Rose, as a romantic fantasy novice, is the seriousness of its world-building. I couldn't really relate to it as a distinct fantasy subgenre, but I could appreciate it as a unique bit of speculative fiction. What if there really were a "good" alignment, and what if there were a way to check? It blows my mind that alignment, of all things, is my favorite part of an rpg, but unlike Dragonstar's "Principle of Active Morality," this game uses alignment in a way that actually makes sense. "Good" is a cosmic force, and the people of that world are like, "this is what we want for our kingdom, we want to be ruled by people who are good."

And because this is such an obvious and sensible thing to want, the game mines drama and conflict out of making it difficult to achieve. This isn't like mainline D&D, where canonically hundreds of people had the Detect Alignment spell, usable daily, and then just inexplicably did not allow that to inform their society. There is only one Blue Rose Scepter and it's so important that it's the title of the damned game. It's a divine miracle that allows you to touch someone with a stick and instantly pass judgement on their entire life. It only works once per person, and that seems a bit arbitrary, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? You've got a state where you know that all high government officials at least started out with good intentions, and it's not really surprising that this works out pretty well. Similarly, Blue Rose asks "what if there really were a divine right of kings" and the answer is "it would help, but it wouldn't solve every problem out there."

And maybe as a leftist atheist I should be more cynical about monarchal systems and the intentions of the gods, but if you buy into the game's fantasy premise ("what if the priests of Pelor were not lazy as fuck") then it's more or less unobjectionable - you've got a whole list of problems, driven by both systemic and historical factors and the decisions of individual bad actors, but you can at least count on the machinery of the state to have good intentions more often than not. You win this round, liberals.

I am, of course, funning around just a little bit. There's a lot to be said for being as progressive as it was as early as 2005. It's also one of the few rpgs to move me to tears, just from the sweetness of the fiction of a mother supporting her gay son. Even if Blue Rose's alignment system was as bad as Planescape's or Dragonstar's, that would buy a lot of forgiveness from me.

Anyway, my overall impression is that Blue Rose and its world of Aldea are worthy additions to the tabletop fantasy genre. There's part of me that wishes I could see more of a Marxist take on its central speculative conceit, where even a guarantee of having good people in positions of power is not able to mitigate the systemic injustices of feudalism. And there's another part of me that wishes the game were fluffier and girlier, with more friendship, more cute animals, and more kid-friendly fairy tale conflicts. But the fact that Blue Rose strikes a balance between those extremes is probably a good thing. I suspect it's truer to the game's romantic fantasy roots, as well.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to pick the most asinine controversy in a game whose history is filled with incredibly asinine controversies - the golden Hart. A magical deer will appear when a monarch of Aldis dies in order to choose the new ruler. There is no reason this should have riled people up as much as it did. Oh, what, having a physical manifestation of the heavenly mandate was too out there for people? Like, they were shocked by a fantasy setting that utilized a common element of European folklore? Or perhaps the fact that it took the form of a common heraldic symbol was too . . . feminine?

Anyway, there's going to be a kingdom in Ukss where the rulers are chosen by a magic stag and it's mostly going to work out okay.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

(M: tAw) Tome of the Watchtowers

I deleted a previous draft of this post because it was an entirely too grumpy. It's not that The Tome of the Watchtowers is a bad book, but it does have a fatal flaw, and I couldn't entirely get past it. In fact, I inadvertently wrote the same note twice, referring to the same problem in two subsequent chapters (it also appears in the other three chapters, but I didn't note it because I did remember the second note) - "describing places you can never go." 

The Watchtowers and their surrounding Supernal Realms are the most interesting part of the book, and, indeed, one of the most interesting things in Mage: the Awakening's setting, but you can never go there. Once upon a time, perhaps during session zero, maybe as late as the first half of session one, your character had a dream about a magical realm, where they overcame fantastic hazards to enter a wondrous structure, to write their name on the walls and thereby make peace with the realm, earning the power to work magic. And that's all your path is, the memory of that dream. 

The conceit of this book is that the paths have other implications, that they each represent a particular world-view and color how your character works their magic, but honestly, those implications have yet to be interesting enough to justify their existence. What it amounts to in play is some xp discounts that might influence your choice of Arcana and a bunch of superficial differences to the same basic magic system. Is your wand made of iron or gold? When you regain mana at a Hallow, do you meditate about death or do you meditate about your place in the cosmic hierarchy? Is your signature fragrance cedar or musk (oh, yeah, the paths each get their own signature fragrance)?

In the end, though, the Paths kind of come across as akin to something like D&D's alignment or an astrological sign. You can say, in-setting, that you're an Acanthus, just like you can say in the real world that you're a Capricorn, and that's a meaningful statement, but politically and socially, you're going to be part of an Order and a Concillium and a Cabal, none of which even care what path you are, and maybe you have things in common with your path-mates, but the paths don't have an organization or an agenda. They exist as an origin story for your magic . . . except that the different origins aren't really a place. Maybe there's an Arcadia. Maybe there's a Pandemonium. Lots of different people have dreams about them, and those dreams grant similar types of magic to similar types of people, but you're never going to see those faeries again. You don't have to worry about the demons catching up to you.

And that, I think, is a fatal flaw, not just of Tome of the Watchtowers, but of Mage: the Awakening as a whole. The Supernal Realms are interesting places, but they're not used as places. They're at best a set of symbols that may, with effort, show up in the game as part of its theme and mood (and let me tell you, the existence of five different "theme" and "mood" sections in such close proximity did little to alleviate my grumpiness with this book). It's exactly backwards. Angels and infinite jungles and a waystation between life and death - those are elements that help build a memorable fantasy setting. Ideas like "triumph over adversity" or "respectful contemplation" are subordinate to characters, setting, and plot. Yes, if you want to make something with artistic merit, you have to ask literary questions, but no one is going to give a shit about the answers if the overall work is boring. 

Mage: the Awakening has these Supernal Realms inspired by high fantasy, but it aims at being an urban fantasy story set in a world of covert magic. So it confines the Realms to the game's temporal book-ends. Your path is your origin story, established in session zero, but it's also your endgame. The idea of bridging the Abyss and returning to the Supernal world is teased as a long-term project, but it's also something that's definitely not going to happen within the scope of the game. If Ascension is possible, it is functionally indistinguishable from death. Therefor it can only happen at the very end of the story. Your path may matter in the epilogue, just as it did in the prologue, but for the time in the middle, it's merely a set of symbols. Sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes a flashback, but never an actual event, described in literal terms, happening in the here and now.

Tome of the Watchtowers never quite overcomes this limitation. Fundamentally, it's about nothing. Your character's star sign in a world where astrology really works, but that's as far as it goes. It's not an entirely useless book. It gives suggestions about character concepts, magical nimbuses, the sanctum background, and ways to reskin the basic oblation ritual, and these suggestions may help you create and portray a more fleshed-out character. However, whatever use you do get out of it is likely to be exhausted prior to session zero. The Watchtowers work better as fantasy than as mysticism, but unfortunately they're in a game that would rather do half-assed mysticism than solid fantasy.

Ukss Contribution: But while we're on the subject of fantasy, one of the suggested nimbuses makes people grow hair. I like that. It's weird, it's creepy, it's invasive - not quite body horror, but also not not body horror. And most importantly, it's a real effect. The people who witness your magic are actually growing hair, and it's not an illusion or a dream, but something that endures. If you want to get rid of it, you have to cut it off. I like it. It's a nice change of pace in a game with a Disbelief mechanic that exists only to make sure that its magic doesn't have too permanent an impact on the physical world.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Midnight, 2nd Edition

My first impression, in the opening pages of Midnight, 2nd Edition was that the world of Aryth seemed almost painfully vanilla. There are elves who live in a magical forest and dwarves who have elaborate underground cities. The two human cultures are transparently modelled after the Vikings and the medieval Arabs. Orcs are beastly creatures who serve evil with terrifying violence. In the early sections, where the book was describing the history of the world, before the Shadow took over, there was a heavy sense of recognition, bordering on dread - I've seen all this countless times before.

However, as I got further into the book and started reading about the contemporary state of the setting, I began to respect the choice. This wasn't Dragonstar, where the vanilla elements were used thoughtlessly. Here, they had a point. The world felt familiar because it was meant to feel familiar. It was telling The Standard Fantasy Story, but it subverted the ending. The dark god Izrador has this completely stock Evil Overlord energy, so that we may instantly understand what it means that he won.

I cannot oversell how thoroughly Lord of the Rings this game feels. Far more so than regular D&D, which often sought to distance itself from its Tolkien influences. For example, there is no way I'd ever believe it was a coincidence that the victory of Izrador's forces marked the end of the Third Age. I mean, you could argue that it's more a result of the Rule of Threes than a deliberate reference. But it's completely unthinkable that anyone could write this book without being aware of the inevitable comparison to Lord of the Rings. And it's highly unlikely that anyone would write this book without being enough of a Tolkien nerd to spot the parallel. And mathematical inevitability or not, once you're aware of the similarity between "at the end of the Third Age Sauron was destroyed and Aragorn ascended to the throne of Gondor" and "at the end of the Third Age Izrador conquered and enslaved the human kingdom of Erenland" then you've got a choice to make - rewrite to sound like less of a fanfic or leave it be and just lean into it.

Midnight leans into it, though if it were nothing more than an upside-down Lord of the Rings, it would merely be an interesting curiosity, rather than a compelling setting in its own right. Luckily, Midnight has plenty of well thought out specifics, giving it a firm identity of its own. We're taken around the continent of Eredane and we learn about the flora and fauna of each particular region, the inhabitants' characteristic crafts and languages (but only intermittently their clothes), and see a bunch of magical sites, daring resistance groups, and sinister Shadow plots. There's a lot in this book to hold your interest.

Although, the more that I think about it, the more that I think Midnight does an extraordinary job of walking a very difficult line. Because specific detail is what separates an interesting setting from a great one, but you can't redeem vanilla just by making it detailed, specific vanilla. 

I know, I know, not everyone is as down on vanilla fantasy as I am, and that's fair. But let's try a little thought experiment - imagine how you'd feel if a GM you'd never played with told you that their next game was going to be set in the Forgotten Realms. Then, compare that to your hypothetical feeling if a new GM told you that their game would be set in their homebrew world that's exactly as thick and as dense with proper nouns as the Forgotten Realms, but which had no other distinguishing characteristics.

I mean, technically, homebrew GM is more impressive, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's possible to do vanilla D&D better than Forgotten Realms, but come on, what are the odds that this homebrew is going to be better by enough to justify that level of work (both on the GM's part and on yours)?

Which is to say, the baseline vanilla setting of Midnight is well done. It elevates the game's high concept. But at the same time, it needs that high concept in order to be worth my time. That's no great fault, though. I could say the exact same thing about Earthdawn, and that's one my favorite games.

Although, sticking so close to vanilla fantasy does come with a cost, even beyond just being unfairly judged as "generic" (not that I would ever do such a thing ::innocent look::). When you do vanilla fantasy (or even just weird fantasy with vanilla elements), you are also subject to much of vanilla fantasy's political baggage. The big one, of course, being racial essentialism. 

This is another book that really tasks my knowledge of the subject. If it were purely bad, that would be easy for me. The year 2005 is recent enough that rpg writers really should have been questioning the way race is used in fantasy, but it was also long enough ago that we can't take it for granted that they weren't. "Midnight's handling of fantasy race was no better and no worse than main-line D&D's at that same period of history" would have been an easy take for me to have. Unfortunately, it's 100 percent wrong. It is both better and worse, and I'm not sure what to do with that.

On the "better" side, it has a crude version of the ancestry/culture split that is our current best practice. You get your universal elf or dwarf or halfling traits, but then you also get a second set of traits that depend on whether your elf lived in the north or the center or the south, or whether your halfling was from a settled or nomadic group. And when it comes to mixed characters, half their traits are innate and half depend on which parent raised them.

However, the universal traits include among them things that really shouldn't be universal, like weapon proficiencies and familiarity with metalwork. And maybe even worse is the reverse - things explicitly labeled as cultural tendencies that would just be massively problematic, even as a physical difference - like adjustments to mental attributes. Worst of all, they do this to human cultures, making the typical "these humanoids are strong, but have a penalty to intelligence" subtext into outright text.

On the other hand, the humans they do it to are the whitest ones in the setting, and I'm not sure that having your Viking guys get +2 Str, -2 Int is actually going to be much of a deterrent. Sure, it's an insult to the historical Vikings these guys are transparently based off of. And it validates the worst kind of race science by outright saying that there are humans with less than full human intelligence, theoretically opening the door for more outrageously racist culture depictions in the future. But, it's hard to believe that someone who was intrigued by this Viking-esque character type is going to be upset that they have to play a big, dumb Viking. Giving the Arab-inspired Sarcosans a bonus to Charisma and Intelligence is arguably worse (a 40% swing in average intelligence, explicable only by culutre . . . yikes).

Then you have orcs, which have one-hundred percent of their problematic tropes, played more or less straight. And yet, they probably have the ideal presentation of the work-around people sometimes propose as a way to have Tolkien-esque orcs without the necessity of an "always evil" race. Orcs are the way they are because their god demands it. At a basic level, this is nearly as offensive as "always evil" because "this culture is barbaric because they worship a cruel heathen god" is also an idea with terrible colonialist provenance. However, it comes close to working here, because the orcs aren't cruel as a matter of religious doctrine, they're cruel because they are constantly being brainwashed by invasive dreams, sent by their god (which they only worship because a grieving mother bargained with the dark god to bring her dead child back to life, and it just kind of snowballed from there).

The way it's described is pretty awful:

The endless dreams come early to all orcish children, usually after their sixth birthday. Male orcs turn to what they know when the night-terrors begin. They lash out with tooth and claw, seeking to escape the pain and fear in violence.

And that is, at least, a start towards interrogating "always evil." You could view the orcs as the first and closest of Izrador's victims. A bunch of poor, abused children trying to please their abuser by living down to his expectations. However, the book only shows rare glimpses of that interpretation, usually granting them enough agency that they begin to look like "standard fantasy orcs" played straight.

Like with the cannibalism. The book actually gives them a humane and reasonable motive for consuming their own dead - every dead humanoid, whether elf or human or orc, has a significant chance of spontaneously reanimating as a ravenous undead creature. So each culture has its own little ritual for preventing that. The human Dorns burn their dead. The halflings cut off their heads and drain their blood for use as a ceremonial incense. And the orcs eat them. This both destroys enough of the body that reanimation is no longer possible and preserves precious calories in their desolate arctic homes.

That's not even the worst of Eredane's burial rituals. That honor would belong to the dwarves, who place elaborately carved rocks on top of their dead loved ones, so that the resulting undead creature is pinned in place until it rots. A practical solution, except that the Fell (Midnight's name for these spontaneous undead) retain their intelligence and alignment upon reanimating . . . at least at first. A combination of an insatiable hunger for flesh and the physical deterioration of the brain ensures that they become ravenous anthropophages eventually, but at least for the first week or so, the "moans, screams, and curses" are pretty horrifying.

But here's the thing - orcs don't just practice reasonable prophylactic cannibalism. They also gleefully eat some of their human and halfling slaves. It's like they're trying to have it both ways - orcs are an intelligent culture with their own well-justified practices and also orcs are the savage invading horde who eat their enemies because they revel in atrocity. They're both respectfully-described ritual cannibals and a racist stereotype brought to life. Like I said, "It is both better and worse." (I think the fact that orcs are described as having no significant native crafts tips the balance over to "worse," though).

In other news, Midnight is more than just high concept and genre deconstruction. It also makes some interesting modifications to the d20 system. The biggest change is the magic system, which uses a really bare-bones spell point hack (spells cost 1 point per spell level to cast and you get one spell point per level in the Channeler class). It makes magic much more flexible, but a lot less common and I have no intuitive sense of how it might work out in play. My gut tells me that it probably narrows the caster-martial gap in combat effectiveness, but likely exacerbates the spellcaster's tendency to obsolete skill classes with their utility spells, since you don't have to have them memorized in advance. Although, another thing to consider is that the new magic system is largely feat-driven and so non-channeler classes can easily buy themselves a few extra magic tricks. Overall, it's probably better, but I think there's still a lot of room for improvement (just don't ask me to come up with something quite yet).

Another new mechanic is the Heroic Paths system, which is just a list of abilities your character gets, one per level, from levels one to twenty. It's all upside, so a strict power boost over ordinary characters, but I like the extra degree of customization. The only problem is that some paths seem better than others. The Beast is out there getting claws that are as strong as a mediocre weapon, while the Healer is getting is a respectable suite of cure spells (especially for a setting where all divine magic goes through Izrador) and the Dragonblooded is like having 33% more levels in the Channeler class.

Finally, I really dug Covenant Items - magic items that grow more powerful alongside the character - and Power Nexuses - locations suffused with mystic power that allow you to create permanent magic items and/or cast certain spells at a significant spell point discount. The only real problems here are that Covenant Items mostly top out at a +2 enhancement bonus, making them largely inferior to boring old static magic items, and because of setting unpleasantness, Power Nexuses will probably get you killed. Still, they both had a way of fleshing out the setting and making it feel more lived in, which is basically all I want from a game's magic.

Time to sum up. Midnight is really good, but its bleakness takes some getting used to. A key aspect of its vanilla-ness, that I didn't realize until I was deep into the book, is that its familiarity can make the triumph of evil feel like a gut punch. So often it talks about a beautiful thing being destroyed or a proud people being oppressed and I could feel the sense of loss, because even when the text did scarcely more than sketch the original thing out, I could always picture it perfectly. There were times when it wore me down - the sense that this wasn't how things were supposed to go, that it wasn't fair and there is no hope (at least not without spurning the setting pitch). You could make the argument that light shines best against the darkness, and I totally get it, but I won't say that reading Midnight came entirely without struggle.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Dorn funeral custom - building a ring of standing stones to use as a centralized place for cremations, and then returning to consult with the spirits of your ancestors, who you believe will linger within.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition

 Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition has a bit of a problem - it will inevitably be compared to Mage: the Ascension, and Mage: the Ascension was frequently bad, often offensive, but also chaotic and weird and surprising and thought-provoking. Awakening is not bad, and less guilty (though not entirely innocent) of offense, but it's also less of those other things as well.

So there's this totally unfair knee-jerk reaction that comes with reading this book. I remember it from 2005, but surprisingly, I also felt it again over the last couple of weeks, despite the fact that I'd long since come to terms with it. Sometimes, I'd read something in this book, like "the relationship between the Supernal Realms and mortal religions does not demand a causal link whereby one creates the other," and I'd think, what is this Mage-lite bullshit? 

Totally unfair, like I said. The notion of "secular magic" is largely something created by the 20th century fantasy genre. Historically, most magical practices were also religious practices, and most religions believed in magical phenomenon. If you want to make a game about magic-users that sticks close to the real world, then you're pretty much voluntarily stepping into a religious quagmire. And knowing that, isn't it the mature, responsible choice to say, "yes, we know we're playing with real beliefs, but we're going to take a step back and refrain from trying to rope real religions into our fantasy world." What kind of arrogant, reckless, degenerate would you have to be to write a fantasy setting where all the world's religions were founded by alien space bats?

The kind to make Mage: the Ascension, that's who! And some of that is undeniably lost. It's probably for the best, but it does wind up saddling Mage: the Awakening with an identity dilemma straight from the start. The other New World of Darkness games were reboots that attempted to narrow in on a purer form of their predecessor's genres, but Mage: the Ascension never really had a genre. Its short-lived stint as a gritty street-level urban fantasy game petered out about a half-edition after it began and there were few who yearned to see its return.

So Mage: the Awakening largely doesn't try. It instead attempts to invent a new genre of urban fantasy that could fairly be described as "gnostic horror." And it's like, let's shamelessly plunder the aesthetics of the Golden Dawn and freemasonry, take the ranks and degrees really seriously as the center of a mystic system that foregrounds the incompleteness of the human animal, and then make magic itself a metaphor for humanity's yearning for perfection. But secretly, you can't win, because the world's broken and that's where the horror comes from.

There are parts of this that work. The goetic demons, spiritual manifestations of the mage's vices, summoned into reality and ritually defeated, are exactly the right tenor of high Hermetic religiosity. "I will be free of sin, no matter what blasphemies I must enact to do it!" And the fact that you don't have to try and beat them, you can just give them a bunch of little jobs to do - that's an amazing topper. Really sells the intersection between hubris and power.

More good stuff - the Astral Realms. Go into a trance and journey deep into your unconscious, first into a world built from your own dreams, then deeper into the collective dreams of humanity, and then deeper still, into the dreams of every living thing on the tree of life. A neat hierarchy of mystic secrets, a place you'd want to have adventures, and a plausibly compelling spiritual system. 

Likewise summoning monsters from the Abyss between worlds. And "the Seers of the Throne" is a great name for an antagonistic group of mages that horde worldly power and have mind-controlled agents seemingly everywhere.

But then you get the stuff about Atlantis and that's not so good. Unfortunately, it's also the bulk of the game.

I get it. Atlantean conspiracies are part and parcel with the 19th century European occultism that powers so much of this game's overall vibe. But it's largely the part that we politely pretend doesn't exist. It is at an unfortunate intersection of archeological wingnuttery and scientific racism. It's the difference between "I, a humble shopkeep by day, by night approach the throne of God!" and "white people secretly built the pyramids." Thankfully, Mage: the Awakening doesn't go quite that far, and I'm sure it uses Atlantis in an entirely innocent way, but the cost of that innocence is that we get accounts of a 17th century meeting between European pagan sorcerers and indistinct Native American sorcerers where the Americans have heard of Atlantis, organize themselves according to the four Atlantean Orders, but also have different names for everything and it's kind of embarrassing to read. Like, the existence of Atlantis isn't meant to privilege European spirituality, it's actually just the European name for a global phenomenon, and so other people would have different accounts of that phenomenon, all just as valid.

Sure. Your heart's in the right place. You don't want to make a fantasy setting where magic works just like Europeans say it does. But then, you put Atlantis in the game. Yes, as a semi-real metaphor for an ancient time of advanced learning and lost wisdom, but the wisdom is still "magic works just like Europeans say it does."

Now, I don't want to get too harsh here. I don't think Atlantis is intrinsically racist. There's a version of it that's just goofy. And it's mostly the goofy version that we see in Mage: the Awakening, even when it tries to take Atlantis global. It's just that, by taking it global, you can't help but be occasionally reminded that the racist Atlantis still exists.

But if we spot White Wolf goofy Atlantis, that still leaves the problem that parts of the game are interesting gnostic hermeticism, parts are boring gnostic hermeticism, and the rest is goofy. The result is that Mage: the Awakening never quite comes into its own. The greater specificity of its influences should be an advantage over the old version of Mage, but somehow it is both less generic and more bland. I don't think it's bad, exactly. There were times during the reading where I definitely felt the game's potential, but I think it's a more pronounced version of the flaw I pointed out with second edition - this game really wants to be pulp fantasy, but it's stuck trying to pretend it can do horror.

Ukss Contribution: Goetic demons. They're a successful horror concept. They're a successful pulp concept. They're an interesting philosophical/religious concept. I'm definitely going to base a mystery cult around these guys.