Tuesday, August 4, 2020

(M:tAs) Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council

It's probably inappropriate of me to speculate too much about what was going on behind the scenes at White Wolf HQ back towards the end of the old World of Darkness, but Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council has the definite feel of a new developer coming in and putting his stamp on the line. Maybe that's just a coincidence, though. Maybe the shift in focus was a long time coming.

Nonetheless, Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council feels like a reboot. And since Mage, Revised was itself a reboot, that makes it a reboot of a reboot. A deboot, if you will (also, even if you won't). It's a priority that definitely comes across in the text.

"Most mages believe it was Sleeper apathy that won out, not the Technocracy. Few bother to ask who planted the seeds of that apathy and nurtured a world of meaningless endeavor over the last few decades: the Technocracy."

Whoa, way to throw The Bitter Road under the bus there guys.

No, no, it's probably all right. I don't love it when an rpg gets reactionary and tries to go "back to basics," but I get it. The Technocracy are the game's signature villains. It's only natural to want to focus on that conflict. If you think the game could use more high-action hi-jinks and less contemplative hand-wringing, it's only natural to make the Ascension War flare up again. Certainly, early Revised's sense of "ah, but you could be playing a social worker) was . . . an acquired taste.

Where this plot goes wrong is in the Rogue Council itself. I think someone might have overestimated how charmed we were all going to be by mystery. Which is odd, because there's a sidebar devoted to this very issue that's called, "Dealing with Player Frustration." ("They cannot discover the true identity of the Rogue Council yet, but they may not know this and may want to try" - a real thing, said out-of-character, by a book I paid money for).

I guess that this was supposed to be one of those big, exciting secrets that fueled speculation and drove book sales. And maybe there's this idea that the mystery itself could be fun. What winds up happening, though, is that the Rogue Council must by necessity be shallow as hell, unable to engage with the setting on anything but a superficial level. Several theories are advanced, but none of the consequences of those theories are explored. They have to leave the door open to multiple interpretations, even if the vagueness makes the Rogue Council feel less real.

Seriously, the Rogue Council cannot exist if you follow the Mage: the Ascension rules. And while I'm not a stickler for PC/NPC symmetry, the rules being broken here are more fundamental than dice pools or Sphere ratings. They start to encroach on the very social contract of rpgs as a whole.

The Rogue Council delivers these crafty little messages that tell the PCs about potential adventure hooks, and they're perfectly untraceable. As in don't bother to roll. You won't be able to trace their method of delivery. You won't find someone who saw the messenger. You won't be able to take apart the TV and see if it was tampered with. You've got a contract-tracing spell that you've used to great effect a dozen times in the past? It's not going to help.

Now, obviously, as a GM, I have permission to allow any or all of these methods of investigation to yield results, but you wouldn't know that by reading this book. It gives me absolutely no support towards running a game where the players solve the mystery.

That's a major weakness, because the Rogue Council is also intensely ideological. It has an agenda it's pushing and that agenda reads very different if it's a cabal of young mages usurping the Council of Nine's sanction than if it's the Universal Unconscious.

See, the Rogue Council is militantly liberal, of exactly the sort that would have been ideologically invisible in 2002, but which is kind of a major problem here in 2020. You see, their battle with the Technocracy is not about science vs magic, but "the real conflict is between liberty and control."

And that's the sort of thing that maybe seems reasonable, but opens up a whole can of worms. Like, the line "Science will no longer be stigmatized as the enemy's tool, but neither will it be embraced except by an act of free will."

Yes, that's a line that hits a bit different in the Mage reality where "science" is just a mask for magic, but I'll admit, I had to take a beat to sit still and silently scream in horror. The Rogue Council has a lot to say about opposing "authoritarian" mages on both sides of the Ascension war, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the thing it was rebelling against most was the tyranny of facts.

Their motto is "Enigma takes you where dogma cannot, "and my knee-jerk reaction to that is "who the fuck are you to call my most cherished beliefs 'dogma,' where do you get the fucking right?" Maybe, if the Rogue Council is the manifested spirit of cosmological dynamism, I can accept that I should be a bit more flexible, but if it's just a group of guys? Well, their whole deal is to make an intellectual mush of robust systems of thought, both ancient and modern. Their message is that people with strong beliefs need to yield to a kind of consensus of indifference and acknowledge that it doesn't matter what people believe (way to combat apathy, guys). "Enlightenment" is equated with being wishy-washy about any particular concrete issue.

To be fair to the Rogue Council, they're really just inheriting Mage:the Ascension's fraught relationship with the concept of truth. In a world where belief defines reality, believing in the impossibility of contradictions is an adaptive trait, but it also makes coherence a near impossibility, and it gets you to a point where you're saying with a straight face that science should be voluntary.

I think that's the biggest disconnect between Mage and contemporary society. So many times I want to grab this book and say, "Actually, having a shared reality where we can intelligibly discuss the evident facts without having to endlessly hash out all of our priors down to a metaphysical level is very important and quite liberating besides" and I just know that if I had a time portal and was able to articulate this point to its authors the response would be some reasonable variation of "Relax, it's just a game. You don't have to take its fantastic conceit so literally. The stuff about science being optional will never be relevant to real life."

Mage never quite gets past treating the Consensus as something unreal, a toy to play with and then put back in the box, rather than a serious philosophical question. It can make the themes hard to relate to. Throughout this book (and to a lesser degree, Mage generally), magic is treated as a metaphor for personal expression. "An apathetic world is the inevitable outcome of a world without magic" and all that. However, I can't help but think about Mage's magic as an environmental metaphor. Paradox is a kind of metaphysical pollution, and it's not a problem that can be solved by individual choices.

The Traditions may be "the only Awakened body that respects [Sleepers'] right to choose their own paradigm," but for most of thus, that's a sucker's choice. Is the paradigm where I can do whatever I want with no effort one of my choices? Or, at least, the one where I'm a mage and not a sleeper? No, my "choice" boils down to whether I'm hit by a car or eaten by a dragon? Well, gee, thanks Rogue Council. It's good to know you're out there fighting for my access to magic.

Now, none of the above would actually be a complaint, were it not for the fact that Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council commits the cardinal sin of NPC creation - the Rogue Council feels a lot like a mouthpiece for the author, rather than an organic part of the world.

Part of this is no doubt attributable to the book's first person narration. A chapter in the voice of a character who straight-out explains their admiration for the Rogue Council is going to necessarily depict them as pretty admirable.

Where it gets tricky is that the Rogue Council is an ostensibly anti-authoritarian organization that nonetheless maintains perfect anonymity. And yes, this is justifiable in the sense that anonymity protects them from retribution, but it also quite conveniently protects them from accountability. What happens when one of their little messages contains bad information and gets some people in trouble?

It's a purely theoretical question, because the Rogue Council has never made a mistake and their information is always good . . .

So yeah.

Oh, and the Technocracy are Nazis now. It's still officially canon that both factions fought on both sides of the war and cooperated on a tribunal to bring Axis mages to justice, but only the Technocracy gets "Nazi collaborator" as part of its identity. There's a whole adventure here about how they did their own version of Operation Paperclip and now that the Avatar Storm is kicking their asses, they plan to revive some unethical Nazi scientific experiments. The fact that Voormas inherited the Node at Dachau and exploited its power for decades is mentioned, but mumble, mumble . . .

It's okay, because it does serve to remind us that the Technocracy are supposed to be the villains, but I never loved that particular bit of backstory. I guess because it's not very fun. I'd rather just enjoy my artsy, pretentious, impossibly culturally appropriative urban fantasy without being reminded about the Holocaust.

And one final note - this book also introduces the Technocracy's belief in psionics. Technically, it shows up earlier, in Guide to the Technocracy, as a fringe theory, but here it's the go-to explanation for why mages demonstrate powers. On the one hand, magic is definitely an empirically verifiable phenomenon, so it was always weird that the Technocracy didn't have terminology to describe it. On the other hand, it feels a little lazy when Technocracy agents are described as having psionic abilities. The elaborate explanations for why obvious supernatural events nonetheless fit into the normal framework of cause and effect was the main compensation you got for playing a technomancer in a system as ill-suited for that as Mage's Spheres.

Overall, I'd say that this book is useful, but a bit of a fixer-upper. The Rogue Council needs to be a real thing and not an assembly of plot conveniences justified by a "mystery" with no solution. Dogma takes you where enigma cannot.

Ukss Contribution:  This is a fairly good book for Mage's pulp and conspiracy themes, but my favorite detail was something that comes directly from the real world - the Dream Stele. The Pharaoh Thutmose IV erected it to proclaim the divine origin of his rule, which is highly suspicious, but in Mage: the Ascension, and, of course, Ukss, it may well have been a true story.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Trail of the Vagrant Star

Where to get it: itch.io

I don't want to get in the habit of complaining about things I got for free, especially when those things I got for free I also mostly enjoyed, but I really wish Trail of the Vagrant Star had maneuvers. I feel like I was led to expect maneuvers. The term was capitalized, for crying out loud. And what am I supposed to make of a sentence like, "The Maneuvers performed by Brawlers are mostly involved with gaining an advantage on the enemy by exploiting and exposing their weaknesses, disabling their movement, and breaking their defenses."

Sadly, the list of thematically appropriate exception-based tactical powers never materialized. I was confused briefly until I went back and double-checked the text. Disciplines are just skills, Paths are just skill focuses (adding up to two dice). And "Maneuvers" just refers to an action in the combat system that allows you to freeform improvise a penalty-inflicting attack, within the broad parameters of your path's description.

It actually works pretty well, all told, even if I suspect that damaging attacks are a strictly superior use of your opportunity costs. It's not the book's fault that between the system's similarity to Storyteller and the double-10s rule, I just assumed it would have been more like Exalted (I'd have really liked to see a hoverbike Cavalier charm tree, however). Combat winds up being fairly fast, fairly simple, and fairly brutal, and subsequently simple enough to downplay in favor of other elements.

Trail of the Vagrant Star leans more towards the adventure end of action-adventure. It has detailed exploration and company management systems that push the game towards an open-ended sandbox hexcrawl. I think the focus on community-building is pretty neat, and it helps that the implied setting is damned interesting.

Trail of the Vagrant Star takes place in a sci-fi/fantasy universe with diverse magic, sufficiently-advanced technology, and human offshoots that just happen to look a lot like fantasy demihumans.With the tag-based weapon creation system, you can have a hookshot gauntlet, sniper rifle, and jet-powered warhammer, then jump into your fantasy mech and take on a Dracoborus, a species of rock dragon that grabs its tail and rolls around the desert like a giant wheel of destruction.

Even though it lacks a detailed setting guide, the fantastic elements are deployed with precision and the examples, trait descriptions, and GM advice give a good feeling of what the setting is supposed to be like. It left me wanting more, to be sure, but there's enough here to run the game. I especially liked the bestiary. It was more complete than any I've seen in a book of this size, and between its diversity and well-chosen details like the concise behavior descriptions, it could have been five times its length and not worn out its welcome.

Overall, I'd say that it's a promising game, technically complete as-is, but with the potential to grow and expand in some fascinating ways. The game's page says it's an Alpha version, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what it's like when it's complete.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Giant's Garden location, even if the main reason is due to nostalgia for my road trip to Sequoia National Forest. They're not exactly the same, and there's stuff in here that's technically a lot cooler, but seeing it made me feel good, and I can visualize it clearly, so that's what I'm going with.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

(M:tAs)Mage Storytellers Handbook

This may be it folks, peak White Wolf pretentiousness! We did it!

Oh, sure, the Introduction to The Aberrant Player's Guide might have been snootier, but here we've got the most pretentious book of the most pretentious editions of the most pretentious game in White Wolf's arsenal. It's truly something to behold.

I don't mean to be cruel about this. There's actually something pretty charming about suggesting the GM bring rusty nails to a session in order to activate the players' sense memory, or dropping terms like "mise en scene" when you really mean "use body language to enhance your descriptions." I wouldn't recommend actually doing the nail thing, but hey, they're trying to bring something new to this and I get it. Cosmo published sex tips in every issue.

What is perhaps less forgivable is the way they set aside six pages to give us a very white, very male, and (still!) very truncated history of philosophy. I remember when I was 20 years old, reading this book for the first time, it was exactly what I wanted to hear - I was a fan of Mage: the Ascension, a "graduate level" (actual quote) game.


As embarrassing as it is to admit that in 2020, I do still have some affection for the old White Wolf. The section titled "Elements of Storytelling" contains the line "If you stopped and chuckled at the word 'fun' then this section is for you."  It's as profound a self-own as I've ever seen, so much so that I can almost forgive it for the fact that the two-page essay to follow wasn't very much fun at all.

That's probably the biggest flaw of this book. It is written by and for the sort of people who view GMing as an art form and subsequently have the patience for a 4000-word lecture about why the artistic choices of Revised edition were completely justified. I know I'm hardly one to talk, but . . .At its best, this book is like a symposium for people who really love Mage, and at its worst . . . well, you probably don't need me to finish that sentence for you.

There's a reason it took me 8 days to read, even given the hotel's ludicrously busy and dangerously under-masked weekend (hey, who's the "lowly desk clerk at the hotel" now, Mage Storyteller's Handbook NPC advice section?)

I don't want to imply that it's all terribly dry. Truthfully, even the long section where it explains how to rip off movies was engagingly written, and something I likely would have tolerated better in less stressful circumstances, and there are long sections that talk about things like historical settings, alternate game mechanics (apparently, the magic system is slow and frustrating on purpose), and the mysticism of the Avatar that were genuinely inspiring.

I especially enjoyed learning that, canonically, "dozens of other alien species have been recorded . . . all appear to avoid the Horizon by traveling through physical space" because a)it's super weird, and b)it just completely blows up the setting metaphysics. I had the vague recollection that somewhere in one of these books, they debunked the idea that Copernicus moved the Sun, but it wasn't in the Storyteller's Handbook FAQ, so maybe I imagined it. Nonetheless, this is a big win for Copernicus. It's not clear whether these aliens have their own Consensus or not, but they do use magic (some of them are in spaceships, some of them fly around on rune-covered beasts), so we can't really say that humanity is the center of the universe.

The other big canon development is that the Ascension War is back . . . sort of. The book is kind of wishy-washy about it, and at one point it says "neither side is 100% right nor 100% wrong. Instead they represent the eternal debate between Personal Freedom (the Traditions) and Public Responsibility (the Union)," ensuring that a generation of flame wars would continue on unabated. Still, the book takes time to set up the Rogue Council plot and makes sure to remind us that the Technocracy are still officially the bad guys. It's kind of weird that the book is changing course while trying to pretend it's not changing course, but I think 2002 me was a little too hard on this plot development.

I guess I felt like I had to stand up for science. Yes, this book had a sidebar where it quite explicitly states that the Technocracy is more concerned with its own power than the honest pursuit of scientific truth, but it also has an alternate history where the Sons of Ether don't defect, but instead reform the Technocracy into a freedom-loving organization and it's "contrary to the idea of only observable and deducible phenomena having merit." You can say that you're not anti-science all you want, Mage, but if you keep acting as if measuring something intrinsically degrades it, that's always going to ring a bit hollow.

Overall, I'd say that the Mage Storytellers Handbook is the least essential of the Revised books so far. If you're not a Mage superfan, you can safely give it a pass. If you are a Mage superfan, you can read it once and then subsequently give half of it a pass. It was nice to see an attempt to make Mage more versatile, but I think that the system is not nearly robust enough to make that more than a niche goal.

Ukss Contribution: One of the suggested alternate settings was Prehistoric Mage. The sales pitch was only so-so, but one thing caught my eye: "warriors channel the spirits of bears, boars, and other great beasts." Boar warriors sound pretty cool to me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Wild Talents (Second Edition)

I really should have broken this game into two posts. I've got two such strong theses for the rules and setting sections that they are battling for space in my mind. They are "headshots will kill you dead" and "wow, the USA can do no wrong," respectively and now that I think about it, maybe it's best if I let these impressions stay in the background because while they are both accurate, they are also incomplete.

Wild Talents uses the ORE ("One Roll Engine") and it's a very . . . clever system. I mostly mean that as a compliment. It is often satisfyingly clever, but it's also occasionally clever in a way that outsmarts itself and leads to the system driving the story, rather than the players' decisions.

The way it works is that you roll a number of 10-sided dice based on your character's traits and then the rules pull a number of relevant pieces of information out of that roll. The main thing you're looking for is matches. If at least two of the dice show the same number, the action succeeds. If more than two show the same number, that is called "width" and is used to determine various properties of the action - usually how fast it happens, but also, with attacks, its overall damage and its ability to penetrate defense. The system also cares about what number you match. That's called "height" and usually determines how effective your action is, hit locations on attacks, and is used to overcome difficulties. Sometimes you're going to care about extra matches at different heights (this is the mechanic behind the extra action system) and sometimes you're going to care about the values of your unmatched or "loose" dice. It's a pretty elegant way to get a quantity of information that normally takes several rolls in other systems.

With special powers you can gain "wiggle dice" that allow you to replace one of your dice with any value you like or "hard dice" that replace one of your dice with an automatic 10. And this is where the game starts to get out of hand. Hard dice cost double the xp as regular dice. Hyperskills (skills which are superpowers and thus susceptible to power-dampening effects . . . making them identical to skills 99% of the time) have half the cost of regular skills. Getting five hard dice in a hyperskill has the exact same cost as raising a regular skill to five. In combat, a set of 10s indicates a headshot. Each die in the set does one point of damage. The head has four health levels. For approximately 2.5% of the cost of an average character, you can guarantee instantly fatal headshots on every combat action, with one extra width to spare in case your opponent tries to defend. Such a character would be only moderately optimized.

The book on some level accepts this. There's a sidebar where it discusses how a starting character can permanently extinguish the sun. It costs 44 points per die. In theory, if you were willing to take the "+1 die for taking an extra turn" bonus and just roll ~10 times, you could do it with approximately 1/6th of your 250 character creation points. To do it reliably takes 2 hard dice, for a total of 176 character points, leaving you enough to be an average person besides (being able to snuff out any star in the visible universe costs 61 points per die, which is still attainable, though doing it reliably would not leave you enough points to have a character).

They say that "In Wild Talents, we trust you, the players, to build the kinds of character you want to build" which is kind of a nice sentiment, but also kind of a cop out. I may have the authors' trust in these matters, but I certainly don't have my own. Even if we talk about excluding obviously game-breaking stuff like the power to wipe out all matter in the universe, it's still ridiculously easy to make unbalanced characters. In theory, you could strip the effects-based power system down to its basics, cap special dice, and trust that similarly sized dice pools cancel each other out, but in doing so you'd be throwing out most of the game's options. Ultimately, the power-design system is so open-ended that it forces your rpg group to basically be designers. I don't hate it, but it's deceptive about the amount of buy-in you're going to need.

It's not a system that's helped by the vagueness of the point costs. Basically, you can divide powers into one of three categories - Attack, Defense, and Useful. And "Useful" is a category that includes anything that's not explicitly an attack or defense. So, for example, the ability to permanently change lead into gold is 5 points per die (2 for a useful power + 4 for a permanent power -1 for only working on lead). The ability to change anything into gold is 6 points per die (because it doesn't have the lead prerequisite). The ability to change anything into anything is 10 points per die (add +4 for the versatile tag).  Also costing 10 points per die - telekinesis. Because it can be used for attack, defense, and utility and it needs the ability to work at a range and affect a certain amount of mass (one of these capabilities is free, the other cost 2 points per die, but must be bought separately for attack and usefulness.)

It's a system that requires you to consciously and skillfully navigate not just your own expectations, but those of the group as well. To, in essence, max-min, but deliberately parsing abilities to be more limited than they otherwise might, because the only thing standing between you and limitless cosmic power is the flexibility of the word "useful."

Which brings us back to the headshot issue. Four regular dice cost the same as two hard dice. The  regular dice get you a random level success approximately 50% of the time. The hard dice get you the maximum level of success 100% of the time. This holds true across every power, skill, and attribute in the game because it's baked into the math of how costs work. Relying on dice is a purely optional downgrade to your abilities. Thus any combat should reasonably boil down to characters just constantly shooting each other in the head to an almost comical degree. I'm seriously picturing the Boss from the Saints Row series, and the way that in later games all of their melee attacks were nut-shots with different contextual animations. It's one of those jokes that gets tired after 3-4 repetitions, funny again after 10 repetitions, and hilarious after 100. That's how I'm picturing ORE combat.

The funny thing, though, is that you can pay twice the cost of a hard die (4x a regular) to buy a wiggle die. The game charges you a premium for the opportunity to be less effective. The only time this seems remotely tempting to me is with combat powers, when you might want to target an arm or a leg for narrative purposes. Even then, it's an expensive cost for a situational power. You could probably make an argument for 1 wiggle die plus a large regular dice pool, for the versatility that comes with being able to add an extra width to any set without sacrificing your potential for automatic success (and such dice pools are more resilient to penalties, to boot), but it's likely not a coincidence that most of the statted NPCs have 2 hard dice in their utility powers.

In any event, I'd say that for Wild Talents to be a truly great supers system, it needs to bring some order to the chaos of its wide-open character creation. Suggestions that it's possible for the GM to add limits are near-useless, absent some guidance as to what the specific limits should actually be.

Which brings us to the setting. Sigh. It's largely fine, sometimes even amazing, except for the presence of one huge problem that makes the whole thing seem like a joke. The history chapter covers the Cold War in exhaustive detail, and at every point in the process it operates on the assumption that the USA is a global force for good. Imagine it's the late 90s, the USSR is still around for complex alt-history reasons, but it's on friendly terms with the USA and "Soon, even the Soviets were welcomed into backwards nations as helpful 'big brothers' and the fear and hatred against them quickly dissolved - particularly since America was always involved as well."

I don't want to downplay the tyranny or the cruelty of the USSR here, but that's just an absolutely off-the-wall reading of Cold War-era politics. So much of the world quite rightfully saw the First World as  bunch of economic vampires and the Soviet Union got a shit-ton of free influence based on the idea that they might help to keep the USA out. 

The section on India is particularly instructive. In alternate 2010, it's the world's 3rd-most powerful nation, and it's all thanks to embracing capitalism shortly after independence. They "knew that the Americans were idealistic and often foolish." This is in the wake of an Indian conquest of Pakistan that led to a Talent-driven war where "every major city in India, once ravaged by starvation, was burning." And it's an intersting dichotomy, because that starvation didn't deserve the passive voice there. It was something inflicted upon India, by British colonial misrule, and something the Americans in 1950 owned by proxy because the UK was firmly in their camp.  There's a very good reason the term "third world" was coined to describe nations like India attempting to forge their own path outside the American and Soviet spheres, and it's a shame that Wild Talents has forgotten that it ever meant anything but "poor."

But the weirdest thing about the setting is that despite being an absolute whitewashing of the USA's abhorrent Cold War conduct, and despite an uncomfortably Islamaphobic tone (pretty much the only time Muslims show up at all, it's as terrorists . . . or victims of India's and Israel's territorial expansion), it's also fairly ardently Democratic partisan. The only Republican president of the post WW2 era is Douglas MacArthur (a swift and decisive victory in Korea put him on the ticket instead of Eisenhower). And while he is treated with a certain generosity ("MacArthur's keen military mind saw the Soviet threat for what it was"), he's also attributed with completely botching his response to the civil rights movement (the words "Race War" are used - unfortunately, I don't know how it turns out because that's the first and last time the American Civil Rights movement was mentioned).

Following the MacArthur presidency is an unbroken streak of Democrats, including some of history's famous losers like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. John F Kennedy even beats out Ronald Reagan, who is never heard from again. It's under these Democrats that the USA becomes beloved and trusted and eventually, in the 90s, under Robert Kennedy, makes peace with the Soviets so they can team up and fight the giant alien empires that surround us on both sides.

I wouldn't even call this "poorly aged," because I'm sure that even in 2010 this historiography was baffling. Maybe they're going for a "4-color" thing where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, but it's almost embarrassing how earnest this setting is about ideas that are just plain wrong.

Overall, I'd call Wild Talents a near-miss. With some more concrete character-creation suggestions and a new history that didn't kiss America's ass quite so much, it could be a real contender, but I'm forced to think of it as a curiosity - a book that inspires me to homebrew my own ORE supers system, but only intermittently gives me the tools necessary to do so,

Ukss Contribution: A psychopathic Talent built a robot and transferred his consciousness into it. The robot committed a bunch of war crimes and was mothballed. Later,it was taken out and reprogrammed and now it's a hippie who replaced the US Army iconography on its chest with a peace symbol. I like that, a pacifist war machine.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Player's Guide to the Fonts of Power

Where to get it: Dedicated website

I'm not entirely sure what I should do with this one. I really wish I'd gotten a chance to read it six months to a year from now, after it was finished. As it is, it's virtually unplayable in its current form. Oh, I suppose you could make an entire party out of the one finished class, but take it from me, it will break your heart to see these interesting spellcasting classes that look finished, but don't actually have any spells to cast.

I was a bit blindsided by that. It's not the creator's fault. I was warned that this wasn't a complete book, but that was several weeks ago and I forgot, and it wasn't until I was 90% of the way through it that I realized it. I should probably just hold off on writing about the book for a few weeks and see if more updates are forthcoming, but since I'm on something of a schedule here, I'll just talk about what I've seen so far.

It has a lot of potential. The rules themselves are complete and they look solid. I see a lot of D&D 4th edition influences, which is a thing that always makes me happy to see. It follows a common post-4e trend of using the skeleton of the game to support a more narrative style, which is something I'm going to hold off on discussing at length until the inevitable 4th edition post where I break down and go on a rant about how it was a much more narrative game than people gave it credit for.

Plus, I'm not sure how much of the 4e influence was intentional. It also has a lot of 5e in its DNA - making use of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, proficiency bonuses, defenses keyed off every attribute (though they work like 4e defenses, rather than 5e saves), and class formatting that is very reminiscent of 5e's "class + specialization" style. It's entirely possible that the 4e-isms I was picking up on are second-hand.

Nonetheless, I liked it. Its best innovation is "downtime activities." Whenever you take a long rest, you've got the opportunity to pick one of a dozen or so special actions - you can use your downtime to craft items, bond with your fellow PCs, schmooze with NPCs, or give yourself a variety of bonuses for the next day. Some of the species and classes also have their own special downtime activities that can potentially become a key factor in your party's strategy. Overall, an interesting and flavorful mechanic.

It's not the rules that give this game its potential, though. The best part of the book, and unfortunately the part that still needs the most fleshing out, is its flavor and setting. The titular Fonts of Power are magical places in the world where you can craft magic items and bring the dead back to life, and I really would have liked to see a few specific ones described. Likewise, I love the Elementalist class. They wield pairs of opposing elements, and if they become too unbalanced towards one element or another, they suffer serious drawbacks even as their elemental spells become more powerful. Push too far, and they release an involuntary AoE attack that is among the strongest tools in their arsenal. It's exactly what I look for in a spellcasting class, and I really wish that their spells were already written.

Ultimately, this book is still too raw for me to really recommend, but it's worth keeping an eye on. If they ever do get to their planned kickstarter, I may well wind up reading it again.

Ukss Contribution: I'm a little dubious about doing one of these for an incomplete book, but there was such a charming idea that I would be remiss if I didn't steal it immediately. One of the PC species option is slimes. That would be weird enough, but they have cities. And the public transportation in these cities is pneumatic tubes. Slime-people zipping around in pneumatic tubes. I love it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Hollow Ones

I suppose my quest to read every single Mage: the Ascension book was bound to get me here sooner or later, but it's astonishing how you can know something is inevitable and still be completely unprepared for when it happens. I now have to explain to you exactly what the Hollow Ones are.

The wrong answer is that they are "the goth Tradition," but of the various succinct answers, that's probably the least inaccurate. Though if I were to judge by this book alone, I'd probably say that they're "the Tradition White Wolf wants to fuck." The male gaze is thick in Tradition Book: Hollow Ones, and if I've learned nothing else about our viewpoint character, Mark Moon, it's that he's an admirer of Penny Dreadful's rack.

Oh, okay, one of the writers is a woman and thus I can't be entirely certain where the perv factor is coming from. It may just be that when you've got a faction of sexy goths, one of the draws is that you can, indeed, be a sexy goth, but if that was the goal, it was not articulated well.

Transparent pandering to fetishes and niche 90s subcultures aside, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is attempting to do something with the organization. Not necessarily something that should be done, but it has its ambitions. If we take the book at its word, then the Hollow Ones are "the Romantic Tradition."

We probably shouldn't take the book at its word, however. The problem is that romanticism isn't an occult niche, it's a literary theme, one that is dead-center in the heart of Mage: the Ascension. One of the characters in the book attempts to describe the Tradition: "We're kind of a combination of Cultist of Ecstasy and Akashic Brother, with a pinch of Dreamspeaker and a shake of Verbena . . ."

That too is the wrong answer, but it gets at something. When we talk about the primacy of the individual, the favoring of passion over reason, and the virtues of beauty and nature, that could describe something like 8 of the 9 Traditions, with a near-miss on the 9th (probably the Virtual Adepts). It's probably not a coincidence. Much of our modern pop-culture occultism comes from exactly the same time period as the romantic movement. When you combine that with Mage's peculiar grudge against all of modern philosophy, romanticism becomes so ubiquitous as to be invisible. How this interacts with the game's postmodern ambitions is an exercise for someone who is capable of deeper levels of criticism.

I suppose you could make the argument that individual Traditions can foreground different aspects of the game's overall makeup. The Celestial Chorus deals with religious faith, the Dreamspeakers with being torn between two words, the Euthanatos with moral responsibility, and the Hollow Ones with romanticism. It's superficially plausible, but a few of the Traditions really make you stretch for it. Assuming it's true, though, how does Tradition Book: Hollow Ones stack up?

There's a character named Mysry. This doesn't really have anything to do with anything, except that if I'm truly expected to go full-on romantic here and embrace the moral value of aesthetics, then I might as well indulge my cattiness and point out that for aesthetics to actually count as a virtue, the aesthetics in question have to be good.

Ooh, okay, that may have been over the line. But in my defense, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones doesn't really engage with the idea that it's possible to cultivate taste. I think it's a preemptive defensive reaction. On multiple occasions, characters in the book make it a point to "refute" the "myth" that the Hollow Ones are snobby. Which is a shame, because their snobbishness was one of the best things about them.

The main character, Mark Moon, starts the book as a housing-insecure street artist, but later on his connections within the Hollow Ones get him a full-time job - as a dishwasher at a restaurant. Awakening to the mystical truth behind the material universe, gaining power over energy, chance, and time, and joining an international occult conspiracy - that's enough to get you onto the lowest rung of capitalism. It's a blind spot in the Mage setting, especially with Revised. People don't really use magic to make their lives better.

Which sort of short circuits the Hollow Ones as an organization. There's a long digression where Mark tells Penny about his ideal lifestyle and describes this overly precious fin de siecle rustic artist fantasy and it's almost embarrassingly basic, but it's also exactly the sort of thing the Hollow Ones would recruit off of. Join us and you can be the sort of aristocratic dilettante who writes poems about your horse and gets involved in wars that don't concern you.

Unfortunately, focusing on opulence and decadence would require the Hollow Ones to have standards and the book is not quite up to the task of squaring that with their theme of individualism. It comes close when the conversation turns to the topic of "posers," but I'm not clear if the authors were even aware of the hypocrisy. You are a unique, beautiful individual and no one on heaven or earth can judge you, but also, you've got to look cool while you're doing it.

There's probably something there. Magical artists who work wonders with their creations, but who pore the bulk of their artistic inspiration into making their own lives the greatest creation of all. By shaping their whole existence into the aesthetic, they can live heroically and thereby bring heroism out of the ideal and into the world. The Hollow Ones are those mages with the courage to live as a template for the men of a new age.

Putting a pin in the fascist subtext here (to quote the book "atrocity does not necessarily equate to a lack of romance"), that is sort of what Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is trying to do. Except that it fails. Probably because, in order to ignore the fascist subtext ("so much superstition, heroism, tragedy, and beauty permeates the Southern [antebellum] culture") it has to be incredibly shallow. The Hollow Ones have a sort of motto "We are Beings, not Doings. Don't do it. Be it."

Which . . . isn't . . . really . . . a thing. I guess you could cite that as justification for drawing similarities between the Hollow Ones and the Akashic Brotherhood, as the narrator did in the "external relations" section, but such a comparison positively reeks of an old-fashioned orientalist understanding of "Eastern mysticism" . . . that coincidentally was at its height during the historical period from which the Hollow Ones draw their inspiration. Maybe this Tradition can be defined as "people who, when asked what they think of the Victorian period, answer with references to sexual mores and ghost stories, and not, you know, the most rapacious imperialism the world has ever seen."

Or maybe their "don't do, be" philosophy is really just an excuse not to do shit. They want heroism without achievement, as if simply wearing some offbeat fashion was victory enough against the Technocracy (a near paraphrase). Despite the book's protestations that most goths are in their 30s now ("now" = 2002), there was a big sense of the unearned arrogance of youth running throughout the text. Maybe the Hollow Ones are people who are so insecure and desperate for identity that they commit to a cosplay lifestyle to fill the void. And maybe because they're mages, that actually sort of works. Certainly, the alternative seems to be that they are a group who centers their identity around a pattern of consumption and quite wrongly believes that this could ever be radical under capitalism . . .

But is there something mystical in that? Could you anchor not just a worldview, but a whole Tradition, equal in power to organized religion, alternative science, or the mystery of death itself, based on nothing but weaponized shallowness?

Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is betting you can.

Ukss Contribution: Well, one of the advantages of being shallow is that you can take an idea completely out of context and repurpose it however you want (something that's brought up explicitly in the paradigm section), so a good deal of Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is cool shit that easy to steal. I'll go with magical face makeup that blocks telepathy. Technically, it's just a focus and they couch it in more mystical terms than that, but it's pretty nifty as a magic item nonetheless.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

(M: tAs)Tradition Book: Euthanatos

Tradition Book: Euthanatos is interesting because it goes in the exact opposite direction as all the other revised Tradition Books. Instead of exploring more and more abstract death magic, it's actually about this specific weird group of guys with their own specific weird set of beliefs. They aren't the Indian mages. They aren't even the Hindu mages (that's the Celestial Chorus - hilariously making the Chorus represent most of the world's organized religions). They are a heretical cult that thinks they can heal the world by killing a sufficient number of assholes. It attempts to fulfill Mage Revised's globalist mandate by giving them a complex, idiosyncratic history. The Pomegranate Deme don't represent the Eleusinian mysteries, the Madzimbabwe ghost-summoners aren't the official religion of the historical Great Zimbabwe, and the Aided bear only the thinnest connection to Celtic mysticism. They're in an alliance with India's Charkravanti because 800 years ago, the mystic Sirdar Rustam went on an epic road trip, and they were the oddball death-worshipers that he just happened to find.

In a way, Mage does a disservice to the Euthanatos by making them a full Tradition. What they really need to be is small and insular, an esoteric order that gets really into its own peculiar theology. They believe that "purity and cruelty aren't necessarily opposites" and that "the Wheel [of karma] is beautiful, why go to all the trouble to escape it" and holy shit, they would absolutely be the dangerous cult you'd try to stop in a more reasonable game. But here, they're one of the big nine PC groups, so the book is kind of obligated to try and make them into protagonist material.

I'm not sure if it succeeds, but it does manage to be pretty challenging along the way. It accomplishes this through a framing fiction that I'm going to need to attach a content warning to (for child abuse and rape).

So, in the opening fiction, our viewpoint mages are in the process of delivering vigilante justice to a pedophile serial-killer and in the middle of their assassination, they discover that he has a wife. It's unclear the precise degree of her complicity, but she is definitely an accessory to his crimes. She's the one who keeps them fed while they're in the dungeon and she's the one who buries the bodies afterwards. Though the Euthanatos rescue some of the victims alive, by the time they get there, the kill count is at least 20. They dispatch the killer, but "she's salvageable."

It's interesting to me that the most morally fraught decision in Tradition Book: Euthanatos is an act of mercy. It's a pretty canny artistic choice, because it changes the framing of the discussion from "are they allowed to kill" to "are they allowed to unilaterally dispense justice?" There's a bit where the Celestial Chorus tries to use Mind magic to get Janine to turn herself in to the authorities, and the Euthanatos characters treat this like it's some kind of profound dick move, but it really is highly uncomfortable that she ends the book breathing free air. The fact that she did what she did because she feared for her life may matter for her karma, but I'm not sure her victims will rest any easier knowing that she's been conscripted into a cult of fate-shifting assassins.

There's a line here that sums up the Euthanatos pretty well - "They feared him because he would do the things no angel would do, and because, maybe, just maybe, he spoke with the voice of the true God." More than any other theme or aesthetic, it's this ethical hubris that ties the Tradition together.  It's the book's best quality, and it forces us to consider the Euthanatos seriously, but it's another example of one of these Tradition Books stumbling on to something that should be a general theme for all mages and trying to make it the specific property of a particular book. Does being able to tell infallibly the difference between the guilty and the innocent or between those who can be redeemed and those who can't somehow entitle you to make life and death decisions entirely on your own? Does it impose upon you the responsibility to do so?

The other interesting thing this book does is take the corruption of the Euthanatos a lot more seriously. The introduction says it best, "some portrayals of the Euthanatoi have been unbelievably grim and other have been apologist to a fault," but Tradition Book: Euthanatos actually puts in a good effort towards making them human. The metaphysical taint of Jhor Resonance is invoked a little too often, but the book does talk about how their ideal of pure justice is unattainable. The Euthanatos are rarely dispassionate in their assassinations. Sometimes they feel a righteous anger. Sometimes they enjoy their work just a little too much. Both can lead to Jhor.

"In all that pain and sin, in every act that kept us from being what you'd call good or just, we worked toward one fate - in the service of God."

Tradition Book: Euthanatos is in the running for "Revised book that most improved its subject matter," but I'm not sure it successfully makes the argument for the Euthanatos as a Tradition. In addition to them still being, you know, problematic as hell, there's also the small matter of magical style. They are all over the place. The section on foci basically just lists every major category of occult practice. You'd think the death-mages would be among the last of the Traditions to practice ritual sex magic, but you'd be wrong. I shudder to think about it. Then you've got groups like the Golden Chalice, which more or less canonically just practices Hermetic occultism, and you realize that the Euthanatos aren't organized around a paradigm, but rather around a goal.

That probably makes them the most realistic occult society in the Mage: the Ascension universe, but it takes the already confusing question of "what, exactly, is a Tradition" and makes it utterly intractable. On the other hand, they are one of the top three Traditions most likely to survive my "fuck it, the Council is made of Crafts" setting-hack more or less intact.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section, called "Legends of the Euthanatos," that clearly exists purely to drop plot hooks. One is about a conspiracy theory that "the Good Death was meant to engineer a messiah" by ensuring that certain powerful Avatars "coalesce into an apocalyptic god." This seems to me to be a good wrinkle to add to Hyborea's Avatar cult and the sort of background threat that can pop up again and again in the PCs' adventures.