Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Guide to the Anarchs

I'm going to have to take special care here not to succumb to historical hubris. Guide to the Anarchs doesn't make it easy, though. It's just so wrong about so many things.

Of course, the Internet's promise of a new economy proved in reality to be little more than a hollow swarm of buzz and useless hype . . . On the other hand, it may prove convenient to massage history and allow the conflict between new economy and old, established elders and neonates, to continue on despite historical fact.

There's this huge temptation to make the review nothing but quotes of the book putting its foot in its mouth. There are plenty of examples.

One of the first factors to look into in developing a character's mind is how smart that character is. Is he a knuckle-dragging former mouth-breather who avoids being labeled the Missing Link only because of a telling lack of body . . .

Plenty. Of. Examples. (Seriously, that section goes on for another whole page and it just gets worse. It reads like it was written by one of those online IQ cultists who has very detailed theories about the meaning of skull measurements).

But it's easy to tear things apart. Time passes. People learn. They realize in retrospect that Lagos, Nigeria is in fact the perfect setting for a vampire game, especially if it focuses on themes of structural inequality, and not just some place that should be rattled off as part of a list of African cities you are clearly cribbing from an encyclopedia. I mean, even in 2002, it was a single city with a population half the size of California, but whatever, White Wolf.

I know for a fact that if 2002 me were to write an rpg supplement, it would be even more blinkered and point-missing. That's why I'm going to try not to harp on these kinds of mistakes. It's just difficult, because without that particular breed of nitpicking, I'm forced to engage with the text of Guide to the Anarchs and it's not clear to me what the book is actually about.

Oh, vampire Anarchs, sure. But if you can come away from Guide to the Anarchs understanding what an Anarch actually is, then you're a much better reader than me and we should all be following your blog instead. As near as I can tell, the word is used in one of four different senses, with varying degrees of consistency:

1. A major faction in the Masquerade universe, on par with the Sabbat and Camarilla in importance, if not in power.
2. A movement within the Camarilla to try and make it a little more equitable
3. Any vampire with an interest in 19th or 20th century political philosophy (regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum.)
4. Any young and impoverished vampire who is not explicitly part of the Sabbat.

It may be that the term is simply used mushily in the setting, but if that's the case, well, the name of the book isn't "Guide to the Miscellaneous."

I think it may be a case of too many cooks, honestly. The book has seven authors and it's not clear that they were well coordinated. There isn't really a compelling vision of what the Anarchs are supposed to be and so Anarchs wind up being whatever is most convenient at the moment.

Where it really hurts the game, though, is in the lack of the well-drawn specifics that would make this faction a memorable part of a living world. The central idea is strong - young vampires are essentially created as slaves to the old and that modern mortals, coming from a background of enlightenment ideals, do not automatically lose their political understanding when becoming vampires and may well find the old system intolerable. Yet everything about the Anarchs' cause is presented in such an abstract and (pardon the pun) bloodless way.

There are some high points. One of the examples, tossed away for illustration purposes, is of a successful stock broker who gets Embraced and forced to manage the much less sophisticated finances of an elder vampire. Something sympathetic and vividly drawn.

But then you also have stuff like this:

While the ranks of the anarchs have no few Brujah, most Brujah consider the anarchs redundant. If rebellion itself becomes an institution, what point does that rebellion serve?

Material conditions, people. Have you heard of them?

But that pointless little snippet really is the best summary of Guide to the Anarchs as a whole. It approaches politics like a set of cultural signifiers. One step above fashion, but just barely. The book repeatedly reassures us that there is more to the anarchs than the leather-jackets-and-motorcycles stereotype, but it never quite chances upon the more important question - why on Earth would vampires associate those things with rebellion? They're fucking vampires, for crying out loud!

You know what would be a really rebellious move for a vampire? Being a sincere Christian. Holding down a normal job. Having enough respect for the dignity of mortals to be honest with them.

Aristotle once described politics as "the science of the good." And that is what's missing from Guide to the Anarchs' handling of politics. Every great political aspiration is also a moral aspiration. What does that even mean for a vampire, a creature cursed to parasitically feed on the blood of their fellow man?

The other big flaw in the book's treatment of politics is in the complete hash it makes of the game's scale. Running a local assembly of vampires is, politically speaking, much closer to a church potluck than a nation state. In discussing the flaws of collectivism, the fate of the USSR is not an apt comparison. It's really just a dozen guys talking about how to divide up their food. The real reason  so few anarchs are bomb-throwing radicals is that it really only takes one well-placed bomb to completely overturn the power balance in any gathering of vampires. Once you've thrown that, you can stop.

The last appendix is good, though. It describes how vampires can survive moving from city to city and navigate the street-level conflicts they're likely to meet along the way. Doesn't have a hell of a lot to do with being an anarch, but I suppose it had to go somewhere.

UKSS Contribution: This book is a complete wasteland when it comes to interesting additions to the vampire setting. It's even more barren when you try to find material suitable to a non-Earth fantasy game. I did like the anecdote about the vampire who found shelter from the sun by diving into deep water, though.

That's something. Undead of the deep. Dead things, which fear the sun, but dwell so far beneath the waves that they need not risk its touch. I think there could be a place for that.

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