Wednesday, June 3, 2020

(M: tAS) Tradition Book: Akashic Brotherhood

It somehow feels wrong for me to be doing something so frivolous when such serious events are happening around the country, but I'm stuck here at the hotel all night anyways, so . . .

Maybe I could talk about the protester sample character. It was a little surreal to see "You believe in resistance, not violence, and don't condone the use of force except in self-defense. However, property is a fair target" written in a 20-year-old rpg book. If I'd read Tradition Book: Akashic Brotherhood even a week earlier, I probably would have thought nothing of it.

Honestly, though, that's pretty much the only notable thing about that particular character. I've already exhausted her critical possibilities. Nevertheless, it gives me an excuse to say that I support the current protests and that black lives matter, which ordinarily wouldn't be relevant to a book about kung-fu wizards, but is something I need to say to give myself mental permission to write about them.

Now, about those kung-fu wizards. Tradition Book: Akashic Brotherhood makes the curious choice to downplay the kung-fu and the wizardry. I think the impulse came from a reasonable place - there's more to Asian culture than martial arts, more to Asian spirituality than Buddhism, but in attempting to rebut those stereotypes, they've firmly established that the Akashic Brotherhood is "the Asian Tradition."

There's really no other way to succinctly describe their depiction in this book. "For every Kannagara monk or modern samurai, there is a Shi-Ren working his magic through bows and handshakes." At some point, you become so effective at destroying the stereotypes that you also destroy the brand.

Like, who are the Akashic brothers, even? They're Shaolin monks and also (as of revised canon) the people who destroyed the Shaolin temple. They're ascetic renunciates and high-powered board room types. They are Buddhist and Shinto and Jain and also the kind of Christian that takes any of the above and turns it into a metaphor for the life of Christ (though my knowledge of Christianity in Asia is not nearly deep enough to tell you whether it's an offensively shallow new-age thing or one of those locally-adaptive heterodoxies that you see from time to time). There's no one thing that ties them together because there's no one thing that ties Asians together.

Therein lies the problem, though. "Asian" isn't really a thing you want to base a splat upon. There should be Asian mages, obviously, but when you start talking about full Traditions, Asia is far too big and diverse to try and get everyone into the same one. I don't know enough to say how many would be enough, especially with the way that millennia of cross-cultural contact really has spread certain mystical and theological ideas far and wide. I looked up "Dual Shinto" and it's a real thing, so I can't say that there's no way an ancient Indian sect could somehow make its way to Japan and integrate with its native counterparts, even if saying "Samurai and Kung Fu masters are basically the same thing" sounds wrong to me.

I suppose you could look at it as an East Asian version of the Order of Hermes. The Order is basically just "European occultism" and if different practices contradict each other or come from historical rivals or innovate in ways that older members would find blasphemous, they just stick it into a new House . The Akashic Brotherhood's sects and sub-sects and allied small-t traditions could all have nominal independence and merely cleave together politically.

Though that raises the question of "what is a Tradition, exactly?" As near as I can tell, Traditions serve three main functions in the Mage: the Ascension lore. The first is that some exemplify a particular occult practice, stripped of cultural context. The purest example of this is the Cult of Ecstasy, which represents ecstatic mysticism regardless of whether it comes from ancient Dionysian cults, ecstatic offshoots of more staid religions like Sufi Islam or LSD-fueled new age enlightenment. However, a few of the other Traditions also get this kind of treatment, especially if you go with their early 1e presentation - Euthanatos are mages who transgress the boundary between life and death, Virtual Adepts are mages who use computers, etc.

The second function is to embody one of the nine spheres of magic. That's how I think the Dreamspeakers really got their start. There was a Spirit Sphere and it was an idea that was just foreign enough to early-90s suburban Georgia that "organization of mystics who call upon spirits" wasn't seen as the impossibly vague thing it actually was. The Verbena and the Euthanatos are also good candidates for serving this function.

The third and final function of a Tradition is to represent a particular culture, and this is the toughest one of all, because White Wolf's idea of what cultural milestones it needed to hit were . . . eccentric. So you've got the Celestial Chorus, which represents all of Christendom, and includes representatives from other monotheists and from polytheists who believe in a unifying divinity, but you've also got the Hollow Ones, who are, you know, Goths.

The Akashic Brotherhood winds up trying to serve all three functions, and as a result is highly weird. First, it's the Tradition of "people who use physical discipline to channel magic" and that's why the Roda d'Oro teaches Capoeira. Second, it's the Tradition of Mind, which is why you've got Buddhist monk "mind control specialists" who "implant devious suggestions that are worthy of NWO brainwashing in terms of their efficacy." And thirdly, you've got all that stuff about Asia that I said earlier.

The net effect is that after reading 100 pages about the Akashic Brotherhood, I'm more confused than ever as to what they actually are.  On the one hand, it's clear that Revised edition is attempting to reconcile all the disparate threads of what Mage has been over the years while simultaneously moving it towards what it's always claimed to want to be. On the other hand, when the paradigm section tells me "When an Akashic Brother lives according to the principles of Drahma, she naturally invokes the power of All, as she always acts in accord with the dynamic forces that surround and permeate her" I have no earthly clue how to put that to use.

I'm largely out of my depth when it comes to assessing this book. I think what it comes down to is whether or not "Drahma" is an acceptable rpg term. Dragons of the East explained the origins of Drahma, but it's repeated here - "Drahma" is a polyglot portmanteau - the Tibetan word "Drala" and the Sanskrit word "Drahma" taken together, they're supposed to have a mystical meaning ("the law of transcending the enemy") that informs the Akashic Brotherhood's spirituality. My knee-jerk reaction is that this is fundamentally ridiculous and transparently a cover for the first book's typo, but maybe a lot of thought went into it. Maybe it's exactly the sort of idea that educated people would expect from a book about kung-fu wizards. I don't know enough to say.

Ukss Contribution: Best idea in this book, bar none, was the Midnight Ocean. "Their path to the Drahma was an unusual one: piracy."

You won't believe how excited that sentence made me. They'd already spent the bulk of the book thoroughly confusing the Akashic Brotherhood's identity by trying to make it fit anywhere in Asia, but then 10 pages from the end they throw in one last, thoroughly un-White Wolf idea. "Fuck it, they're pirates too," I thought, and then imagined kung-fu wizards as modern day pirates in the South China Sea as filtered through a gothic punk aesthetic and immediately prepared to take back every mean thing I was planning on saying about this book.

But then they chickened out. They were pirates in the 14th century. Now, they "have forsaken the sea for the streets, the stock market, and the internet." Boo, I say. Making your signature Akashic Brotherhood cabal into white collar criminals doesn't serve to break stereotypes, it serves to obliterate what was interesting about them in the first place.

So, in the end, I'm too annoyed to try and adapt the book's best element. If I tried, I know I'd just get hung up on how it was a near miss. I'll go with my second choice, the name "Hundred Killer," even if I am highly skeptical that it "sounds less violent in Sanskrit."

Sunday, May 31, 2020

(M: tAs) Sorcerer, Revised

How do these Sorcerer books keep being better than Mage? My working theory is that it's because sorcerers are allowed to use magic.

Or, less snarkily, when you talk about Mages, the most interesting thing about them is their role in the setting's metaphysics. Their whole deal is the BATTLE for REALITY. Whereas with sorcerers, the only interesting thing about them is their magic, so they have to go out of their way to try and make that magic interesting. That's what Sorcerer, Revised is - White Wolf's urban fantasy game about magic in the modern day. . .

Wait, this is almost exactly the same post I made for World of Darkness: Sorcerer. I went back and checked. I was about to make all the same salient points - Sorcerer is more Mage than Mage; the magic rules fit the setting better than the Sphere system's attempt to be both generic and universal; the crossover rules, where they try to fit Sorcerer into the Mage continuity are a detraction from the book; they're still doing that thing where they accuse the Traditions of being "shallow" when they created the Dreamspeakers, hoping we'll overlook that they exist because of White Wolf's shallowness . . . which continues up to this very book; and the Ancient Order of Aeon Rites is still just the Order of Hermes with a moral code.

Taken together, it all makes it seem like the Revised edition book is just a retread of the 2e book and there's a certain degree of justice to that accusation, but Sorcerer, Revised manages the trick of improving upon its predecessor in almost every regard.

It's not a perfect book, by any means. It shares the mid-period Storyteller system flaw where it's finally getting concrete about what different success levels mean, but winds up setting the success cost for many actions too high, so that you wind up having to roll multiple times for just about any task, and oftentimes, even when the success cost is set correctly, the process of an action is broken down into too many discrete steps, each of which requires its own roll.

The Hellfire path is an example of one that suffers from both problems. To use it, you've got to make an activation roll to see how potent the blast is, then you've got to target the blast with a separate roll, then your target gets a defense roll, then if it hits, you roll damage, then your target rolls soak. Five rolls for hitting someone with a fireball.

But that's a minimum, because paths have Aspects. "Aspect" is just a jargon word for "something about your power that the mechanics are interested in." The rules about how Aspects apply are a little vaguely written, but if I'm reading them right they work like this - Aspects range from one to six points, and are capped at your rating in the path. If you roll one success on your activation roll, you get the rating one Aspects for free, but anything beyond that is bought with successes. Hellfire has three Aspects - damage, range, and area of effect, plus optional elemental effects which aren't technically Aspects, but which have a cost in successes.

If you've got a low rating in Hellfire, but a large Manipulation + Occult dice pool, you'll probably max out your aspects with a simple roll, but if you're high level and fighting something that warrants that kind of firepower, you'll need to spend several rounds charging up.

It's unwieldy, but at least it's got greater clarity than the old book. Though this does bring up an issue that recurs throughout the book. It insists that awakened mages are more powerful than sorcerers. And this is notionally the case, because their success chart for scaling effects is generally more generous than the printed Aspects (when it's not being completely half-assed), but it fails to take into account mages' dramatically lower dice pools.

Compare a mage with Force 3, Arete 3 to a sorcerer with Hellfire 3, and a Manipulation + Occult of 8 (i.e. not optimized much at all - it's rules legal to make those values 5 and 10 as a starting character). With a single roll, the sorcerer's expected success total is 3, which is enough for 6 damage dice at touch or 4 damage at a range of 10 feet. The mage's expected success total is 1. Which is enough for jack shit. It costs one success to affect anyone besides yourself with magic. If the roll gets 2 successes, that's 3 levels of damage, about what you'd expect from the sorcerer. If it rolls 3 successes, it will deliver 5 levels of damage, but that's only a 6 percent chance (by contrast, the sorcerer has a 9 percent chance to roll 5 or more successes on their 6 damage dice).

The main advantage the mage has is range (if the roll is successful enough to do damage, it can hit anyone they can see) and the fact that they don't have to roll to hit (unless either the player or the GM decides to follow the book's vague advice to require a targeting roll when it feels appropriate). But the rub here is that when the sorcerer rolls as improbably as the mage, they'll be able to do massive damage to an area of effect. The mage's peak is around the sorcerer's average.

At least until you bring extended rolls into it. That's where mages shine - when they have the luxury to make long charge ups with no intrinsic cap. Then it's just a matter of how willing you are to wager that your next roll won't be a botch.

Anyway, I guess the point of that diversion was this - for fuck's sake, Mage, let your mages do magic. If you're going to give them a dice pool small enough to yield one expected success, make the result of rolling one success into something interesting. That's the main advantage that the Sorcerer books have over core Mage. Interesting things happen at the expected success levels.

It's an approach that pays dividends in Sorcerer, revised's flavor sections as well. Once you take out the notion that magic is small and furtive and couched in coincidence, you're left with an actual fantasy setting. There's a group here, called the Order of the Golden Fly, who are descended from the priests of ancient Egypt and their whole deal is that they tracked down the angel who delivered the ten plagues to Pharaoh and mystically bound him as revenge (or so they thought, turns out the angel developed a taste for fucking shit up, and so let the Order believe they bound him, so that they might continue to fuck shit up). The Psychic Phenomena chapter begins each power description with a little vignette that not only illustrates the power, but spoon feeds you a plot for your low-powered occult procedural game. Also, the Star Council is just a straight upgrade to the Thal'hun.-They're on the run because they stole UFO technology from a top-secret government hangar - how are they not a full Tradition?

I guess what I'm saying is that this book is good. It's Mage freed from the need to be Mage, and as a result threads the needle between gritty street level and high-fantasy weirdness better than any of the cores ever did. . .

I think I might have some ambivalence towards Mage: the Ascension, guys. I'd better hurry up and work that out, because I've only got an edition and a half left to go.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going reverse my usual trope where I use the Ukss Contribution section to highlight a couple of cool setting elements before I ultimately select my second or third choice. This time, my pick for the contribution is going to be my genuine first choice, but I'm going to do an honorable mention before I get to it.

Sorcerer, revised includes an homage to the Amazing Randi! His name is Randy "the Fabulous" Foster and he too was a stage magician who went around exposing fraudulent psychics. But because this is the World of Darkness, he eventually found a real psychic who was being exploited by his parents. Now the two of them travel the country together doing stage magic and rescuing psychics in trouble. It's sweet, funny, and a great rpg plot hook.

Or, in other words, a perfect candidate for my "here's my first choice, but it doesn't fit with the cultural context of Ukss" shtick . . . except in this case it's my second choice.

First choice is the psychic power "Ectoplasmic Generation." Create goo with your mind. At higher levels, you can make the goo look like things. Moderately useful, but still the sort of booby-prize superpower that always makes me smile. I think it would also make a fun magic wand ("you open the chest to find . . . a magic wand! Roll perception to identify the slimy green liquid that's dripping from the tip.")

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Aberrant: ReignofEvil.com

"Just because it's pathetic doesn't mean it's not dangerous" is the book's tagline, and it's very . . . interesting to me what it considers  "pathetic." The Church of Astaroth's incoherent creed is almost exactly the same thing as what Divis Mal preaches.
It is the WILL TO POWER that hath made us GODS. "DO what thou WILT" is no longer our refrain. Rather, let us WILL what we DO and forthwith do greater and greater majesties than ever we had once considered possible.
Versus
 I ask for dragons and thunder and raging seraphim and I get petty, unkind, backstabbing children . . .When will you speak to the angels with me? When?! My gods feed me blood and mangoes, and I laugh, I weep, I dance. Your gods feed you Kool-Aid and white bread and you crawl, you buzz and you quarrel like fractious children. I am as godlike as any being on this planet, and I still cannot speak in a language you understand . . .
Tip: one of these people is a deluded megalomaniac who appropriates religious language in service to his violent fantasies, and the other is the setting's designated anti-villain.

I guess if you're White Wolf c. 2000 CE, maybe you've got some first-hand experience with intense "satanist" weirdo and so a villain group that comes out of the more awkward corners of the black-metal and renaissance fair scenes is familiar enough to breed a certain contempt. However, from the perspective of a stuffy book nerd, 20 years on, I can't actually say that their half-baked occultism is notably more half-baked than the Teragen's nova mysticism. And I don't need a snarky aside to make me frightened of a charismatic nihilist who stokes the passions of white-supremacist subcultures. Also, Astaroth's spiked penis is a detail I'd have been happier not knowing about.

I could probably just leave it at that, seeing as how this is another one of the 24-page pamphlet books (my last until I get so drunk on my own mission that I decide to drop 20 dollars for the remaining one), but I do have a couple of things to say:

It's very uncomfortable the way they try to portray Beltane as the most sinister of the Church of Astaroth novas. It almost sounds like they're blaming her for getting her parents arrested by calling social services . . . after they repeatedly beat her. I guess she's a masochist that enjoyed beatings (the last one was called "a particularly satisfying whipping" - ew) and that's why it was wrong to "[have] her parents convicted of child abuse." Let's make our succubus-inspired character a 17-year-old runaway. It's not creepy because she's "the true evil behind reignofevil.com."

The background info where Belial is homophobically bullied because of his slim frame and delicate features was probably okay. That is definitely one of the ways toxic masculinity can hurt straight guys, but maybe the message is muddled a bit when you go on to conspicuously emphasize how much totally heterosexual sex he starts having once he escapes his abusive father and ignorant classmates.

Overall, this is actually a surprisingly good villain book. Little did they know when writing this that, in 2020, it was more likely to inspire a story where heroic satanists clean out the vipers in their own community than it was to be about laughing at the nerds who took the occult thing a little too seriously, but I remember those days well, and I can't entirely blame them for being touchy about it.

Ukss Contribution: This is a difficult one because the entire point of this book is to be deliberately uncool. That said, I liked that one of the faces of ultimate destruction was "the Black Cow, aaa'llagg'nhaa." Something about the end of the universe being brought about by an animal normally noted for its docility and associations with fertility really strikes me as an authentic spiritual detail, one of the apparent contradictions that drives religious mystery.

I'll have to do something about the name, though.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Aberrant: Elites

Elites is probably the most important Aberrant setting book since Year One. It, more than any of the books before, explores novas as superhumans, rather than superheroes. The term "elite" started off just meaning "mercenary," but this book expands it to mean "any nova with a paying job." While Elites is mostly about mercenaries, the other possibilities get some shout-outs - The Devries agency arranges contracts for a plastic surgeon and an engineer, the Argus Agency uses its founder's precognition to provide disaster relief right as it happens, the suggested PC-founded agencies include a PI office and an escort service ("hey guys, I've got a wild idea for our next campaign . . ."). All-in-all, Elites does a lot of unique Aberrant worldbuilding.

You just know there's going to be a "but," don't you? I'll let this remarkable early line set the stage for me: "[mercenaries] have a bad reputation, despite the fact that first world nations have used them."

. . .

That "despite" is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. But as ridiculous as this sentence is, it gets to the heart of the book's primary flaw - It is completely tone deaf on matters of imperialism. One example of an elite mission is when the President of Pakistan defaults on a 20 million dollar loan from a London bank and "this was probably the first time a private interest employed elites against a sitting head of state . . ." by kidnapping him and taking him to the UK "for trial."

Which is just . . . wow. I mean, there's something there. A theme we could explore. The cruelty and arrogance of these killers for hire. The most prominent elite agency is owned by a white South African and got its start working for the DeBeers corporation. In a modern game, they'd be almost cartoonishly evil, a perfect foil for Project Utopia and a force that makes even the Teragen seem good.

Unfortunately, Elites never quite twigs to the fact that it's supposed to be a villain book. That damned "despite" looms over everything. There's a section in the storytelling chapter that talks about novas committing war crimes. It's called "The Gray Areas." You know, the moral ambiguity of blowing up a water treatment plant relied upon by thousands of civilians because it would deal a blow to the rebels.

Or take the presentation of Anna Devries herself. She's a bona-fide Good Boss. She never sends her elites into combat without the best available intelligence and backup, she fosters an espirit de corps, pays generously, and "she's not blind enough to be prejudiced against black South Africans, like her father is." She even subcontracts all of her company's nova branding to a prominent gay stereotype (though in Elites' defense, it never says that Bruce Sauvage is supposed to be gay, just that he's "flamboyant" and that he plays "Ethel Merman and Judy Garland tunes . . . at full volume all day long.")

It would be wrong to say that this book goes so far as to present mercenaries in a heroic light, but "unfortunately, a large percentage of the world's wealth is found in politically unstable areas. Corporations need to go to great lengths to protect their valuable investments."

It never gets to the root of what's going on. Never expresses the true power dynamics at work here. For example, it quite correctly identifies Kashmir as a likely location for a serious international crisis, but it doesn't say anything about the water. It's not that "no amount of reason will deter them from their ancestral claims," it's also that the region is of immense strategic and economic importance. It's only a minor exaggeration to say that millions of lives are at stake, and that if superheroes really did turn the region into an "environmental wasteland," the result would be a humanitarian crisis of an absolutely stomach-churning scale.

But this gets us close to an uncomfortable discussion. How could Elites miss out on something so important? Partially, I blame lack of research. This is something I try not to get on my high horse about, because I still have access to some of my writing from this time period and it's about ten to twenty times worse, but there's little excuse for saying that signs on the Devries compound are posted in "English, French, Afrikaans, and local African languages."

That speaks to something more serious than just a little laziness. Sure, Namibia has a great deal of linguistic diversity, but there's nothing stopping you from adding Oshiwambo and Khoekoegowab to the list. Sadly, the book seems to quite thoughtlessly objectify the places where it says elites do their fighting.

I don't know how much of this is just a genre thing. You've got a military superhero story and the local people are scenery and props. You can just write in a plot about Islamabad being "leveled" and there's no need to think about the fact that it's a city of a million people (about half that in 2000) that has a healthy degree of hometown pride. New York in The Avengers was scarcely better treated.

And yet, in searching for the city's population, I discovered that a lot of Pakistanis are really invested in the idea that it's one of the most beautiful world capitals. Google Earth didn't give me quite enough information to make a definitive judgement, but fuck, I'm not about to set myself up as some kind of arbiter of comparative civic aesthetics. The parts of it I did see, however, were enough to convince me that if India really did dispatch a team of superheroes to set it on fire, the rage would be incalculable.

That brings us to the ultimate, imponderable question at the heart of this book - is it okay that it's talking about real places? I think there are layers here. Like, if Islamabad were destroyed because it was ground zero for an alien invasion, that's practically an honor. You've got comic book shit happening, and it has to happen somewhere, so why not the world's second most beautiful city?

But when you change the motive for the superpower-fueled carnage to "retaliation for a terrorist attack carried out by Muslim extremists" that starts hitting a little to close to home. Or worse, you could do what they did in the section on Congo and make the nova dictator cynically exploit anger at the Tutsi genocide to gain power, and then totally neglect the issue once he took office. That feels gross to me.

The logic is clear. Novas are pretty powerful. Many of them have mega-Intelligence or mega-Charisma. If one wanted to take over a country, they could probably do it. And if you're making the sort of game that Aberrant bills itself as, then this possibility should probably be realized somewhere. And if you're making it somewhere, you've got to balance between artistic license and a care for the real location's history.

All of this makes sense to me. But then I ask myself "why there." To be entirely fair to Aberrant, if you judge by their handling of American politics (a female libertarian president!), there is almost no degree of distortion anywhere else that's going to be worse. However, there's this nagging feeling I've got that they needed a place where novas could do mercenary shit, and the Equatorial Wars (and there's no telling you how much I dislike this name) were the result because Africa is somehow . . . expendable. If the main mercenary hotspot was southern France because the Prince of Monaco erupted and decided to use  his wealth and nova powers to reclaim the land his ancestor was forced to sell to France, that would require dramatic alt-history rewrites in places the audience actually knew about. On the other hand, nobody in America knows where the borders are supposed to be in Africa, and thus nobody thinks twice about people hiring superheroes to fight about them.

That's a cynical take, though. I think a larger part is that the year 2000 was a time when White Wolf was both edgy and pretentious, and so the thought of setting a story in a place with real conflict and horror in its past (or, in the case of Kashmir, near future) is one that appealed to the company's most puerile instincts.

Overall, I can't bring myself to like this book. I liked parts of it. I liked the basic concept. A supers setting where the supers hire themselves out to help dictators keep power (or to help suspiciously well-funded rebels to seize power . . . and quite coincidentally preserve American interests in the meantime) is a novel and compelling idea. It gives the conflicts with the starched-shirt heroes a more realistic texture. But to use real people, with real and ongoing problems, that feels like exploitation to me.

Ukss Contribution: Elites is not an evil book. Clueless to the point of irritation? Sure. Borderline offensive as a result? Quite plausibly. But it didn't hate its subjects, so I think there's plenty in here that can be redeemed.

I'll pick the tunnel borer. It melts rock to move through the ground with relative speed ("relative" being the operative word - it tops out at 0.6 km per hour) and is used primarily to sneakily undermine walls and bunkers. It also inexplicably has a crew, despite being in constant danger of overheating and needing a coolant-carrying umbilical cord to sty connected to the surface.

I'm seriously not sure why they couldn't just run a wire down the coolant tube and control the thing remotely, but I do like the idea of brave terranauts exploring the subterranean world. Maybe it could just be a part of how sieges are done in Ukss.

Monday, May 25, 2020

(M: As) Dragons of the East

When are rpg companies going to stop remaking Oriental Adventures?

. . . No, that's a little harsh. Dragons of the East is generally more respectful and carefully researched than that old D&D book. My mind just went there because they share the same fundamental flaw. In all the rest of the Mage: the Ascension books, they've been building a meticulous, if somewhat off-the-wall, urban fantasy setting, and then in this specific book, they more or less say, "fuck it, lets do fantasy Asia," and this new setting barely interacts with the World of Darkness at all.

I came away from the chapter on the Asian Technocracy totally confused. There's an organization, called The Five Elemental Dragons, which is kind of like the Technocracy, in that they prefer to use tools to do magic and they don't approve of the various supernatural factions, but with a couple of minor exceptions, they are a staid and conservative bunch who act out of traditionalism and a weirdly ahistorical pan-Asian nationalism (the branch headquartered in Korea has "a smaller enclave working in Japan to . . . 'restore Imperial Japan to the glory she once held'" . . . yikes).

So what you've got is this situation where the two organizations are similar enough to be largely redundant, but also distinct enough that they don't seamlessly, and there's not really a good explanation for why this needs to be the case. There's an outline of an explanation - local technomancers wanted to covertly resist European colonialism, so they partially acceded to the Technocracy's demands so that they might draw off some of the Union's resources while, in truth, being much less loyal to the Technocracy than they let on.

This is a potentially very useful plot hook, but it really should just be baked into the Technocracy from the start. Guide to the Technocracy introduced all sorts of factions and hidden agendas inside the organization, Project Invictus, Special Projects Division, etc. An anti-colonialist alliance or growing nationalist factions could have been among them. There's no real reason why you'd create parallel organizations, not unless you wanted to be able to totally cut off fantasy Asia from the rest of the World of Darkness.

It's a theme that repeats throughout the book. We've got 130 pages here and the only one of the familiar Traditions to appear on more than one of them is the Akashic Brotherhood. Well, technically, the Dreamspeakers are name-dropped in the Sons of Tengri section but only to indicate that there is no relationship between the two organizations. And the Verbena are trying to recruit the Wu Keng, but it's implied that they are being naive when they assume that the Wu Keng have fallen victim to the same sort of "demon worshipers" slander the Christians leveled towards them (and, incidentally, why this was not retconned to be the case is beyond me).

So technically, the Traditions have not been forgotten, but practically, they play no role in this book. Part of this is likely just a focus on the "new" (scare quotes because much of this book is redundant with the Akashic Brotherhood tradition book and The Book of Crafts), but mostly it's because despite itself, it can't quite get over the feeling that Asia is supposed to be "exotic" and "mysterious."

I mean, there's a sidebar that explicitly calls out Orientalism and everything. The word "problematic" is used. Someone at White Wolf knew there was a potential issue. And yet the introduction contains this doozy of a passage:
The Asian mind was entirely foreign - of course - to the European attitudes of the day. Considering that the "Westerners" who studied Asia could hardly comprehend what Asian society took for granted, how much more mysterious were the elements that hid under the surface where the common man of Asia could not see them?
Two points. First, when you're talking about vampires and shit, they're always mysterious. That's the whole damned point of having a masquerade. "The occult" literally means "mysterious." There's isn't some hidden layer of "occult for the occult" out there, where one group of supernaturals is secret and another is super-secret, such the first group is completely in the dark about them, even though the second group is constantly talking to each other.

Well, okay, obviously there can be such a distinction, and White Wolf makes it here, but it almost seems like they forget that Asia is just a place. You can get on a plane and go there. If you're determined and have the time (and start in Europe or Africa), you can even walk. And while I don't imagine it's easy to show up in a new town and find the one-in-a-million authentic traditional Chinese sorcerer, it's probably not notably more difficult than finding the Druid, the mad scientist, or the worker of Christian miracles.

Which brings me to my second point. Orientalism didn't happen because Asians are uniquely difficult to understand. They've been writing books explaining themselves for nearly 3000 years now. Orientalism happened because Europeans had certain institutional and cultural incentives to not understand Asia.

Which isn't to say that I'm going to sit here and tell you that I know all about Asian philosophy and culture, because damn, we're talking about dozens of nations spread out over thousands of year. It's a project that makes reading all the Mage: the Ascension books look trivial, and I've been half-assing that for almost six months now. What I am saying, though, is that there are a lot of philosophical systems that I don't understand. I tried to read the Roman Catholic Church's official theological justification for forbidding homosexuality and my brain just bounced right off it. I completely lacked the cultural context to even begin to understand it.

And even when you do have the cultural context, attempting to understand an entire culture in simple, concise terms is an act of monumental hubris. Exercise for the reader - explain the USA's attitude towards quarantine procedures.

In other words, everything's mysterious if you know jack shit.

Bringing it back to Dragons of the East - this book is much too small for its ostensible subject matter. But it compounds that sin by then compressing its subjects into one, overarching meta-civilization. The Akashic Brotherhood is as vague here as the Dreamspeakers in the 1e core. They're not Buddhists. They're not martial artists. They're sort of a "miscellaneous Asian" tradition, a big enough tent to include even the Qing Dynasty court wizards who tried to destroy Shaolin (wikipedia is cagey on the historicity of these events, but says it's a huge recurring plot in Chinese fiction . . . which jibes with my limited experience of Hong Kong action movies - to me, the plot reads a lot like the Celestial Chorus trying to join the Verbena to weather the onslaught of secularism because they're both European religions).

Ultimately, this should have just been about China, or perhaps broader East Asia. There's no excuse for including India, though blessedly it's largely forgotten about (and really should have been a supplement of its own . . . were White Wolf the sort of company that could do it justice), and Southeast Asia was completely wasted (the less said about the book's treatment of Vietnam and Cambodia, the better - some of it borders on "ghouls started the Holocaust" territory). Maybe, if the book had been more tightly focused, its characters could have been rooted in specific cultural legends, and the complex political interplay between the nations could have been explored in more depth.

It's funny, but that is another flaw Dragons of the East shares with Oriental Adventures. It applies the same haphazard "what's cool in pop culture" style of worldbuilding that led to the World of Darkness, without realizing that it comes across as extremely insensitive when you do it to another culture. Like, if we take a look at the original lineup of Traditions, setting aside those tied explicitly to non-European cultures (and putting a pin in the eventual retcons that would make the Euthanatos and the Cult of Ecstasy Indian), then what we see is just a mishmash of "people with cool powers" - wizards and witches, mad scientists and priests, necromancers and hippies. It ignores borders, it ignores time periods, it ignores themes. Merlin and Dr Frankenstein hook up with Timothy Leary to blow up computers.

It's cool, sure, but rightly or wrongly (probably rightly) people are going to assume you're ignorant as fuck. And this is where we reach the limits of my knowledge. I noticed some flaws, many of which we've already covered. And I can make certain inferences about sins of omission (like maybe there should be a form of Chinese peasant magic that isn't intensely transphobic), but I can guarantee you that the authors of this book have spent more time reading about Chinese history and culture than I have (I use "Chinese" rather than "Asian" because I'm pretty sure this book is just assuming that China is a universal base that connects all the region's cultures). I'm not sure the payoff was worth it, but the effort is clearly on the page . . .

I think. I'll confess to having this bias where I associate a lot of proper nouns and overuse of non-English words with hard work, and Dragons of the East certainly delivers in that regard. It honestly strikes me as little counter-productive at times. We don't really need to render the Wu Keng's titles in Cantonese (though the romanization was so bad here that it took me about 5 minutes on google to figure out that was even what language it was). They can just call each other "mother" and "auntie" and "girl." Rendering the terms in English would have been more authentic, because to the people using them, they'd be intelligible words. You only really need to use an untranslated word if you want to convey that it was esoteric in its original context. The Wu Lung's word for paradox, "ch'ung tu" might qualify, though I was unable to discover what it originally meant and so it adds basically nothing.

Also, why does this book debunk ninjas (not my smoothest transition, but whatever)? There's a whole sidebar saying that to the best of their research, they could find no reliable historical record of mysterious clans of assassins with mystical powers, to which I say, "no shit." You want to say that the original ninjas were just commoners who slipped into the blind spots of Japan's class system and the sensationalist legends were just the elites being in denial? Sure, but maybe follow up with a cool proletarian conspiracy that sought to oust vampires among the daimyos or something. Don't just shrug and move on.

Because this is the World of fucking Darkness we're talking about here. You have permission to make all of history's most implausible occult conspiracies real. In the real world, there are no magical assassins? Well, there weren't any classically-trained wizards whispering in the ears of Europe's princes either. And I hate to break it to you, but if you look into cases of faith healing, you'll find that it doesn't work, and the few times it seems to can be attributed to coincidence and the placebo effect. Didn't stop you from basing whole Traditions around those guys.

(The above rant was about 50% me wishing there were more East Asian magical Crafts and 50% me just really liking ninjas).

In the end, though, Dragons of the East shares one last ironic flaw with Oriental Adventures - it's actually pretty good. I mean, not necessarily from an "improving intercontinental harmony and understanding" sort of way, but it that "Asia of Darkness" is in some ways a better setting than the World of Darkness.

There's a mildly racist paragraph that sums it up:
Known collectively as shen (ed note: apparently this term is dumb and/or offensive, at least in this context), the supernatural creatures of Asia do not share their gweilo counterparts' unconstrained hostility for one another. The shen have learned over the centuries to exist in some rough approximation of peace. Outsiders might even make the assumption that Asia's various supernatural beings live in some sort of enlightened harmony. Perhaps, in comparison to the West's seemingly endless violent conflicts, this might even be considered true. But, in fact, the Middle Kingdom (ed note: meaning "Asia") is in a state of supernatural cold war.
I'm not even going to try and unpack the weird racial coding going on here ("why can't Europe have the famous amity that exists between China, Korea, and Japan"), but I do want to point out that this is a great pitch for an urban fantasy game. There are all sorts of monsters and creatures with various levels of divinity and profanity, and many of them dislike each other, but they're all loyal to the celestial bureaucracy, so when they do go to war, they have to be discreet about it. It's a gameable setting with plenty of potential for intrigue, action, and romance. It doesn't interact with the "western" world of darkness well at all, but it doesn't really need to. In fact, it would be about 20x better if it weren't for the occasional "white people drink blood like this, but Asians drink blood like this" comparisons and just stood on its own.

Ukss Contribution: This one is both easy and difficult. Easy, because there's only one place my mind goes when I think about cool things from this book - samurai werewolves. Such a neat visual, such a fun fantasy concept.

Now, the hard part. How do I make a wolf-man a samurai? I mean, specifically. I can give them swords. I can give them armor. I can give them a code of honor. But that can just as easily describe werewolf knights (admittedly, a cool concept, if a little beside the point). What makes the Samurai stand out?

And, of course, the answer is "their unique place in the context of Japanese culture." And, on a surface level (admittedly, this is almost 100% where I was operating from), there are certain physical trappings associated with them - styles of dress, weapons, and deportment that evoke comparisons to pop-culture Samurai I've seen in the past.

I have to ask myself, then, if that's a road I want to go down. If I just nab a superficial image, that might well cross the line from "fun little rpg homage" to "full blown cultural appropriation." I've made my peace that the latter is going to happen at least a little bit (I'm at this point fully committed to using the term "Yokai," for example), but I don't want to star deliberately leaning in to it.

And what I really don't want to do is that silly thing that rpgs do where they just lift a historical (esp nonwhite) nation wholesale and say "this is a fantasy land now." Plus, I think if Ukss did have a fantasy Japan, but populated entirely by wolf-people, that might send the wrong message.

It's with no small reluctance that I'm forced to admit this problem is beyond me. I think I'll have to go with my second choice . . . something from just a little bit down the page where they talk about commoner werewolves and describe them as "werewolf bandits and would-be peasant folk heroes." It wraps up by saying "a few have even become diehard supporters of communism."

I might try to sneak in a bit of knight-errant/ronin samurai into their presentation, but I think even without the adornment, they're a worthy second choice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

(M: tAs) Blood Treachery

Blood Treachery is a weird book. Not the bad kind of weird, but also not the good kind of weird. It's the kind of weird where you think it might be better if it wasn't quite so weird, but you can't be entirely confident in your diagnosis.

Three of the book's chapters, the ones that describe the concrete events of the Tremere-Order of Hermes war, are written in the form of a stage play. The Oracles of the nine Spheres pop in and out of the action invisibly, to airily comment on the proceedings, like a Greek Chorus. There's not even the pretense of player characters getting involved in the situation.

I'm not sure what to make of it. The scenario it presents is interesting. If there was a tv show with a season arc of "ancient occult conspiracy declares war on long-lost prodigals who abandoned the ranks to become vampires," I'd probably be hooked. There are themes here, like mages becoming addicted to vampire blood, that make for excellent drama.

And yet, when you add roleplaying to the mix, it gets a little problematic. Take the blood addiction plot. The rules for this are absolutely brutal, just completely punitive and discouraging. No reasonable player would ever want to even touch vampire blood. After, at most 8-9 doses, your Avatar dies and you lose your magic forever. And if you've ever played Vampire, you know that 9 blood points goes really fast.

You can therefor be pretty confident that it's never going to come up in a PC group organically. The text anticipates this and instead of offering incentive (because that would be "power-gaming" and therefor bad), it sort of tries to goad you into it. Like maybe you're a bad roleplayer if you don't portray your character as tempted by ghoulish immortality, even though you're not going to be playing long enough for that to matter. And I'm sorry, but paying 25 xp for Auspex 1 is just a bad deal all around. Even to the extent that you don't get paradox from vampire abilities, it would be wiser to just tank the occasional 1-2 points of paradox than to waste that much xp on something that you're only going to have intermittent access to (you can only use vampire powers while you vampire blood in your system - vampire powers often cost blood points to use).

I think I've got to count the fiction-heavy approach as a weakness. I can see the case that maybe writing a play instead of an rpg scenario might be an effective way to center the psychological aspects of the adventure, and it's trivial to excise the never-before-seen low-level cabal and replace them seamlessly with PC. Ultimately, though, you simply can't recreate the story with the Mage: the Ascension rules.

It all boils down to dice pools. Mage magic rolls Arete. Vampiric Thaumaturgy rolls Willpower. Willpower both starts higher and costs 1/8th as many xp as Arete. Thaumaturgy paths cost half as much as Spheres. That's not even getting into other disciplines, which roll Attribute + Ability and are almost as cheap.

Mages can be dangerous, but that comes down to their ability to sit around their sanctums fiddling with extended rolls for hours on end. Give a mage a shotgun and a ridiculously pumped Dexterity score, and that's a threat, but the parts where the Hermetics and the Tremere are slugging it out with fireballs - that's not really a thing.

Which is a shame, because it really should be a thing.

Similarly, the prize of this war (despite certain rogues in the Order becoming addicted to vamp blood) is rotes. The Tremere have a bunch of old spell books they took with them when they defected from the Order in the middle ages. Because of the growing weakness of magic in the modern world, the Order of Hermes has decided that having access to those old formulas will help them strengthen their current magic.

Which is a fine plot. If the Tremere and the Order of Hermes were actually the sort of organizations they're portrayed as, I would be highly invested in this conflict. Unfortunately, rotes don't do a damned thing. Oh, okay, they give a one point difficulty bonus (actually, offset a penalty, same diff), which isn't nothing.

It's just, if we're talking about an Arete 3 mage attempting a coincidental Sphere 3 effect, the difference is 88% chance of success vs 80% chance of success. For low-level effects, you can just shrug it off. For high-level ones, you can just spend the extra point of Quintessence.  Not saying you shouldn't take a rote when one's available (and the rules for what qualifies as a rote, how you get them, and whether they apply are pretty much ":shrug: whatever"), but it's not worth sticking your hand in the mouth of an angry vampire for.

The result is an unimportant conflict that you kind of have to buy into by pretending it is important, despite what your character sheet might be telling you.

It really is a cool story, though.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Book of Whispers rote. It's the bitter irony of rotes that, despite being almost entirely pointless, they are also home to Mage's most creative fantasy inventions. A Book of Whispers has been enchanted to write down their owners thoughts. Bind one to yourself and use it as a convenient diary. Slip one into an enemy's library and learn their secrets. It's a cool sort of sneaky that has immense story potential.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

(M: tAs) Dead Magic

Dead Magic is a book about magical traditions that no longer have a place in the modern world . . .

I don't know. I guess it's just a thing with some of these less-focused Mage supplements where they inadvertently rediscover the game's premise. Here, it's even explicitly called out. When the book is talking about religious secret societies in southern Africa, it says they're "not unlike political parties mixed with a good dash of mysticism, like the Traditions."

What's the blogging equivalent of staring wordlessly into the camera? (It's a rhetorical question.)

It's an interesting thing, though, that as Mage: the Ascension accumulates research over the years, it becomes increasing clear how unmanageably vast its premise actually is. Very little in this book actually qualifies as "dead magic." The proper use of the material would more likely be to add texture to the Order of Hermes, the Verbena, the Celestial Chorus, and, yes, the Dreamspeakers (I am going to refrain going off on the "it's okay that the Dreamspeakers were conceived in racism because of our Watsonian retcon" line, but it does show up again). So much of Dead Magic reads like "we've been doing this for 7 years and we're just now learning what the Traditions actually are."

Like it's a surprise that western astrology owes a lot to ancient Babylonian astrology. That's kind of what it means when the Order of Hermes traces its mystical lineage back to the classical world. The sidebar points this out - literally, "Who called this stuff dead magic, again."

You did. That's why it's the title of the book.

In any event, that should be your takeaway from this post. The title of the book is bad.

But the book itself is pretty good. It gives plenty of new context to the practice of magic. It's not afraid to get specific about what mages were actually doing. And it adds a lot of new fantasy details to Mage's setting. There's a bit at the end of each chapter where they discuss each region's legendary monsters and mystical locations, and that should just be a standard part of the Traditions' presentation. Mages aren't just mages, they come with a whole cast of gods, spirits, monsters, and folk superstitions, and if belief determines reality, then all the other stuff should be true as well (for a certain fuzzy value of "true," at least).

My only real complaint about any of this material is that the sub-Saharan Africa and Arctic circle sections were narrated by a white anthropologist, and while he aligns himself politically against colonialism, he still brings a lot of colonial baggage to the way he interprets these cultures. It's a mistake to latch onto false cognates and coincidental correspondences to conflate legends from different societies. Cagn bringing his son back from the dead doesn't have anything to do with Caine the vampire and giant horned serpents are not the progenitors of dragons. Failing to treat them as their own distinct things means that we lose out on a lot the benefit of learning about another culture (and making the African thing a misunderstood or primitive version of the European thing is . . . not a good look). It's not so much that "many of their tales are simple," so much as that you, an outsider, are hearing the simplified versions of their tales.

But I don't want to be too harsh here, because its clear that their heart is the right place. Though while I'm complaining about colonialist tropes - there's probably a good way to navigate the fact that Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion centered around the cruel and authoritarian practice of human sacrifice even as the native people were brutally slaughtered, enslaved, and slandered by the invading Spanish, but calling them "nasty people" and leaving it at that is not it.

It's not as bad as it could be, because the narrator of that section counts himself among the nasty people and still practices the Aztec religion, so there's a kind of ironic "whatcha gonna do" element to it, but still, it's not handled with grace.

Enough of that, though. Let's talk about the magic. We're going to have to mentally separate out the flavor from the rules here, because when we consider only the magic, it's really, really good, but then you put it in the context of the Mage: the Ascension rules and you've got yet another case of "rotes: what's the fucking point?"

In the Babylon section, there's a rote called "Animal Shift." It's a fine spell, allowing a mage to transform into an animal sacred to the Babylonian gods. It's also strictly worse than just using Life 4. The text says "it's limited by the strictures of belief placed on its effectiveness." But if "the rote is not a common one; other shapeshifting powers tend to be more efficacious" then what's the fucking point? Seriously, what is the use case here?

It's a real problem for a book that is ostensibly about mages delving into the secrets of the past to discover forgotten magical techniques that will give them an edge in the modern day. But that is mechanically improbable. I mean, theoretically, there's this idealized form of Mage where the dots on your sheet say that you can do nearly anything you imagine, but your well-developed mental model of your character's belief system dramatically cuts down on the possibilities, and that's why you must seek out advanced training and ancient lore, so that your power expands along with your perspective. In practice, though, most of what you, the player, want to do lies in the inchoate potential of your character's beliefs, the limits of which are established by what you do in play.

I haven't the foggiest clue what Hermetic occultism thinks is or is not possible, so if I want to declare that an elaborate Enochian chant will allow me to turn into a rat, who is going to be the one to remind me that I have to first invoke the proper Babylonian god, and none of them thought particularly highly of rats?

(actually, I looked it up and the correct god in this case is Ninkilim . . . but the point stands).

It's a shame, because I really do love what this book does with magic. There are so many specific cultural details. Nigerian priests soothing restless spirits by disguising their voice via a wooden tube. Hunting geese by yelling at them so that they become confused and fall out of the sky. Plotting elaborate astrological charts and interpreting them through dense religious metaphors. That's what magic should be.  The fact that Mage recognizes this and sort of punts issue to the players' roleplaying choices is a prime indication that its universal magic system is showing its age.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here. I want to tread carefully, because there's a lot of potential for offensive cultural appropriation. Like, maybe I choose Matshishkapeu, the Innu god of farts, but I have no intuitive sense for how much of a joke he's supposed to be. I looked him up online and what I gathered is that he is, indeed, funny, but also, somehow, sacred. On some level, I get it, but I don't consciously understand.

So I'm going to chicken out and go with the magic that gives obsidian the durability of steel. I've long thought of the macuahuitl as one of fantasy's underutilized weapons, and this particular magic will make them much more competitive with swords.