Monday, April 8, 2019

Scion Companion - Chapters 1-5

Oh, I thought I was going to be so clever and efficient doing this book all in one post. "It's just a grab-bag of miscellaneous stuff that didn't really have a place anywhere else in the Scion line. I'm going to wind up repeating my boilerplate Scion critique and it's going to be super dull and repetitive."

Then I got to the last chapter. The one about setting a Scion game in WW2. I could write volumes about that chapter. I could start a whole new blog where I just broke it down page by page. It's so weird, but also kind of offensive, and maybe a little bit awesome, but only if you were the kind of roleplaying virtuoso that could balance on the hair-thin wire over the massive yawning chasm of awful that threatens to swallow the whole thing without the slightest warning. I wish "Demigods of WW2" was its own distinct gameline with a hundred supplements so I could buy them one by one and hate them all.

So I guess I should get the rest of the book out of the way first.

Chapter one is about the Irish pantheon. These guys keep showing up in rpg books and I never really got my head around them. Far be it from me to sit at my comfortable, 21st century desk and lecture the ghost of an Irish pagan about the benefits of branding, but for all the times I've read about them, I still couldn't pick 3/4ths of them out of a lineup. I have a feeling this is a personal failing, though. If I actually bothered to read the original literature instead of receiving it second-hand, I'd probably feel more of a connection to the material.

Chapter two is just mechanical odds and ends. An advanced character creation process that allows you to directly create God and Demigod characters, but forces you to do it wrong. More Knacks and Boons, which are fine as far as they go, but share the game's main weakness of forgetting that anyone capable of throwing around a level 10 boon is more or less a peer to the powers that created the universe. If Scion were good, this would be my favorite chapter, but it's not so it isn't.

Chapter three is about Chinese mythology, and it's pretty great. I'm not in love with the "Chinese" font that they use for section headings, but at least White Wolf has finally grown out of its "mysterious east" phase. The only real problem here is that it's starting to feel really obvious that Scion is straining at the limits of its own premise.

"Hero who is half-human/half divine and accomplishes a lot of legendary deeds" is something that is widespread across human cultures and probably not unfamiliar anywhere, but it's also far from a universal theme in all folklore. Hell, the more I think about it, the more it seems plausible to me that Zeus' legendary philandering was back-engineered into his character by generations of Greek storytellers independently using "well, let me tell you about this real cool guy, so awesome he must have had Zeus as a father" as a common plot device. And here we are, thousands of years later, and they've more or less back-engineered it into Scion for exactly the same reason (there's a sidebar in Chapter 5 which kind of dances around this idea, but doesn't quite pull the trigger on questioning the game's premise).

And look, I don't know enough about Chinese mythology to say whether half-divine heroes are a significant part of the Celestial Bureaucracy. Certainly, Scion's premise is compatible with the Celestial Bureaucracy (though its mechanics have backed into a corner when it comes to playing the descendants of lesser celestial functionaries), but it seems to me that a full Celestial Bureaucracy setting would be bigger than that. There's a couple of mentions of ghosts getting promoted to full gods. Why can't that be my character's origin?

Chapter four is more mechanical odds and ends. Some GMing advice and plot points (including one that I interpreted to mean that Thoth, the Egyptian ibis-headed deity of knowledge, invented Twitter as affliction on mankind, but which actually said no such thing because Twitter had already existed for years by the time this book came out).

The chapter is mostly notable because it marks the first and only time that Scion attempted to tackle monotheism head on. It's not the most respectful take - an ancient occult conspiracy is attempting to metagame the fatebinding rules to promote an arbitrary Babylonian deity into some kind of unstoppable super-god, and that's the origin of the Abrahamic religions (or, perhaps, the conspiracy is only piggy-backing on Abrahamic monotheism because the hard part of the work is already done).

Honestly, though, I don't think there's a great option here. A fundamental pillar of Scion is that polytheism is basically legitimate. A fundamental pillar of western monotheism is that polytheism is totally illegitimate. There's no way to reconcile those. One of them will have to be compromised.

And this is where being an atheist makes me a poor choice for a critic of Scion, because I wouldn't hesitate to throw Christianity, Judaism, and Islam under the bus. Let's go straight to the most secular sort of proto-Jewish Canaanite archaeology and speculate about the folk polytheism that must have existed contemporarily with the earliest parts of the Bible. Jehovah is just one god out of a pantheon that got too big for his britches and wound up writing his family out of the history books. But he's still got brothers and cousins and an ex-wife floating around out there in the Overworld.

Of course, that's a much more controversial stance than White Wolf was willing to adopt, and I can't say I blame them. A safer route would be to say that the sort of intermediary spiritual entities that crop up in western folk religion - angels, demons, saints, and prophets - are the equivalent of scion's gods and the capital G God is some other order of being. But then that runs into problem of privileging western religious ideas. Perhaps modify it to say that Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe their God is a special case, but nobody's been able to find his Overworld to verify, but then, again, that raises the question of why only western monotheism is singled out as being empirically unverifiable.

I think the whole area is kind of a mine field, and personally, I blame Augustine of Hippo (but then, that's my go-to reaction whenever Christian theology poses an inconvenience). The solution the Scion writers came up with wasn't particularly elegant, and didn't really solve any of the problems monotheism poses for the game's premise, and it will turn out to be a huge problem in chapter six, but you can build a plot around it, and it probably isn't too offensive, so whatever.

Chapter five is about the Hindu pantheon and I'm just going to swear off this one. I don't know enough about Hinduism to be a fair judge. I liked it. I thought it was pretty cool. But there were times, especially in the description of the Pantheon-specific Purview, where I got a twitchy feeling, like maybe I was seeing an important part of a major world religion reduced to a silly game mechanic.

And maybe that seems hypocritical, considering how, but a few paragraphs earlier, I confessed my willingness to bulldoze through millennia of profound theological thought in the Abrahamic tradition, but the part you're missing is where I'm perfectly willing to admit that my version of Scion would be offensive as hell, and that's why I have not written a Scion.

Still, I haven't seen any sort of impassioned Hindu critique of Scion yet, so I have to assume it's at least okay. Which is nice, because I really did think the Deva chapter was pretty cool.

At last, we get to chapter six, and you know what, I'm going to have to do it as a separate post. It's too big a subject, and I've already gone on too long. So strap in and get ready, because I am going to tear this one-sixth of an optional supplement for an obscure roleplaying game a new one.

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