Tuesday, December 31, 2019

(M: tAs) Book of Chantries

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that I let myself fall a little too deeply into Mage nerdery here, and I forgot that not everyone knows what a "Chantry" is. It's basically like a safehouse for Mages - a combination library, laboratory, fortress, and crash-pad and the basic unit of local government. The weakest chantries are only that, but starting at the mid-level, most of them also house gateways to alternate worlds, usually embodying the ideals of the mages who created it, but always allowing them to use magic without fear of paradox. A conveniently PC-sized group of 3-5 mages is called a "cabal" and chantries usually act as the home base for 3-4 of them. The Technocracy has the same organization but their chantries are called "constructs" and their cabals are called "amalgams."

Whoa, this book is a complicated mess. But the good kind of mess, like an old attic filled with forgotten treasures (and only a little bit of rat shit).

As someone who came into Mage: the Ascension late, it was kind of surreal reading it. I'd heard of Doissetep. I'd heard of Null-B. I'd heard of Samuel Haight. But by the time I got on the scene, these were past-tense sorts of references. They were names from the mists of history. The revised-era books would name-drop them, but kind of take it for granted that you knew what they were and why it was tragic (and/or fitting) that they were destroyed.

I actually used Porthos in a game, once. I'd gathered that he was a powerful master mage who boldly defied paradox and used his powers without fear of the Technocracy or of static reality . . . and that turned out to be true. What I didn't know was that he was also a greasy creep who was constantly getting his underlings killed thanks to his own recklessness. It's a little like talking to someone who went to high school with your parents and discovering that they were huge assholes.

RIP, Porthos the Fabulous. My mental image of your character was grounded in ignorance.

Aside from answering some of my long-burning questions about Mage canon, the main thing this book accomplished was to thoroughly muddy the waters of the Ascension war. I'm actually a little concerned about how little this book seems to realize that most of the setting's ethical coherence is flying straight out the window here.

"The Technocracy's Constructs are the twisted counterparts of the Traditions' Chantries" presumably because "misery is the common thread that links the diverse Constructs of the Technocracy?" Okay, fair enough, let's just take a look at one of the sample Tradition Chantries so we can get an idea about the baseline before we peer into the dark mirror.

Ah, here we are, the House of Helekar . . .

A terrifying graveyard realm, filled with serial killers and led by a guy who calls himself "The Grand Harvester of Souls . . ." Um . . .

But seriously, I have to stop joking around for a minute to point out that this location is powered from the lingering spiritual energies of the death camp at Dachau. That's two Mage books in a row that have made really tasteless Holocaust references. I get that the Progenitors are supposed to be villains and the Consanguinity of Eternal Joy are supposed to be corrupt renegades, but maybe it wouldn't have hurt anything for Mage to stay in its lane a bit more and not use the greatest horrors of the 20th century as punchlines in its silly urban fantasy setting.

Okay, time out is over. Back to ragging on Mage for being less than the perfect rpg. . .

Even if we (rightfully) set Helekar aside as an outlier meant to act as the plot-hook for an "internal affairs"-style campaign, the more mainstream Tradition Chantries aren't a heck of a lot better. Doissetep has a guy who is enthralled by vampires and is described as "a manipulator and a killer [who] has never wavered from the Path of Ascension" and another who has been performing lethal human experimentation for more than a century and who has moved on to trying to perfect mind control. This is in addition to their leader, who it's already been established is just constantly losing apprentices because he performs dangerous magic while sleepwalking.

Then again, there's also the awesome African lady who used magic to help win the Haitian revolution, had an instrumental hand in the founding of Vodun, helped the Underground Railroad, and may or may not be the Loa known as the Rainbow Serpent (her name is Aida Wedo, and I can't figure out if that's something someone can just be named or if '93 White Wolf just got sloppy or if it's an intentional ambiguity).

Then again again, she's also part of a cabal of mages that is seeking to take over Doissetep through leveraging their role as the chantry's police to make underhanded alliances that they have no intention of keeping and which will wind up weaponizing the intelligence they've gathered from their from their friendly contacts among the Nephandi and the Technocracy.

When combined with the fact that half the Nephandi in this book are compelled to serve against their will and most of the described Technocrats have serious reservations about he organization's activities, I get the impression that Mage can't quite decide whether it wants to be a game about multicultural rebels fighting the power or whether it wants to present a world where everyone is compromised, but also everyone kind of has a point and it's all very interesting to debate about.

What's funny, though, is that Book of Chantries is either the sixth or the third book released for Mage (the wiki implies it's the sixth, but it really feels like the third) and already the World of Darkness' parody of White Wolf studios (Pentex subsidiary "Black Dog") has released a game called "Warlock: the Pretension". So even though the game has only been out for about 5 months by now, it already has that reputation. Knowing a little something about where Mage is going to end up, I think this jab is both harsh and premature, but I guess the fandom back then didn't have anything to compare it to.

Still, when I set aside the assholes in the Traditions and the angst in their enemies as a case of muddled gothic punk pessimism, I think the defining sin of the Technocracy is supposed to be their obsession with hierarchy. The only problem with this is that every time we see the Traditions, they have hierarchies that are just as inflexible and almost as demeaning. The two groups even use roughly analogous words to describe their organizations - construct vs chantry, amalgam vs cabal, administrator vs high priest, etc. The thematic aims of the Traditions as a fictional organization become a bit hard to discern when it's run by unassailable masters that are near-uniformly hundreds of years old and all of the young mages are destined to stand around twiddling their thumbs waiting for them to die.

Mage, revised gets a lot of flak for blowing up the setting, and the way White Wolf liked to try and "fix" canon by releasing metaplot updates as part of the new books certainly didn't do it any favors, but reading this book made me think that the change was a long time coming. It has so many things it wants to say about things like faith and power and the marketplace of ideas, but it also wants to be this free-wheeling urban fantasy game where anything can happen and the stakes are always kind of whimsical. Sooner or later something was bound to give. Ultimately, Revised decided it wanted to be the ideas game, and that came with a cost.

But circling back around to urban fantasy, The Book of Chantries does some weird things to the World of Darkness. Technically, the idea of Horizon Realms was in the Mage corebook, so nothing here is new, precisely, but it hadn't hit home until now exactly how routine the Realms were meant to feel.

Doissetep is a realm with native trolls and storm giants, where the snakes can control gravity and the spiders weave webs of static electricity. Hundreds of people live there, an army in service to the Traditions. They patrol the borders of the land in magical cloudships.

And there's, like, this shop in Spain where if you go into the back room it will take you right there.

In a way, it's a very bold bit of world-building. It's not something I've seen either before or since - a modern setting with a hundred different Narnias, a whole galaxy of closets and phone booths and sewer grates that will lead you to faerie wonderlands and dystopian sci-fi prisons and everything in between. It sort of leaves the World of Darkness far in the dust, but honestly, it's better. If I ever decide to actually make the high-action, Exalted-inspired version of Mage I brainstormed a few years ago (Ascension X), that might be a neat detail. Expand it so that the Horizon Realms take the place of Avatars. Every human being secretly has a world inside them, born from the highest aspirations of their heart. Mages are those who have learned to sometimes obey those worlds' natural laws instead of their own.

But in leaving the genre and theme of the World of Darkness behind, Horizon Realms also challenge Mage to fully embrace fantasy and stop making magic such a pain in the ass. There's a bunch of places in the world where you can cut loose and act like a real fantasy wizard, so why is it that even the 200 year old liberation goddess lady is only throwing around six dice for spells? The rules make it feel like Mage: the Ascension is afraid of magic, and that would almost be forgivable if the setting didn't also have this huge high-magic element.

Let's see, miscellaneous stuff. This book is fairly good about representation in terms of quantity, but quality needs a little work. All the Native American mages are Dreamspeakers, even the Mayans, which doesn't quite feel right to me. And it has a very respectable number of Asian characters (some of whom aren't even in the Akashic Brotherhood - one's a Celestial Chorister!), but it insists on using the adjective "oriental," even when it needs to be more specific than "Asian." Just say the people from Tibet are Tibetan, geez. There's a gay character, but he's described as having "a taste" (quotes in the original) for men, which is just kind of  gross. Plus he's a Hollow One, which is even grosser (I kid because this group is so obviously a stand-in for White Wolf's fans - they're the one that own the "Vampire: the Hidden" and "Lycanthrope: the Rapture" books).

Also, there's a bit of errata at the end. Most of it has long since fallen into irrelevance, but one bit caught my eye - apparently they'd originally meant to include a paragraph in the Sons of Ether description that indicated that women were allowed to join and that the organization was facing pressure to change its sexist name. This is interesting to me because this isn't the last time this piece of information will come up. In Mage: 20th Anniversary Edition, they finally bite the bullet and change it to the Society of Ether.

I always thought that was something that was introduced by canon creep. Nobody blinked at the gender exclusionary name when 1st edition came out, but then over time attitudes changes, so they incorporated the real-world controversy into the metaplot. But no, like the potential defection of the Void Engineers, this was part of the game since the beginning, which just winds up making it totally fucking baffling. Even setting aside gender politics, "The Society of Ether" is the aesthetically and descriptively better name. If you were aware of the problem from the start, why go with the inferior choice? If you wanted it to indicate that the Etherites struggled with sexism, why go out of your way to say they're inclusive?

Finally, Sam Haight. By my era of Mage, he was already an in-joke. "Sam Haight got turned into an ashtray," the book would hint mysteriously, quite clearly chuckling at itself. I gathered that he was an annoying, ill-conceived NPC, but I didn't know the details. So I'd roll my eyes, wonder briefly what the point of all this was, and then move on.

I know the details now. Suffice to say, I can't wait for someone to turn this asshole into an ashtray.

Here's the condensed version of what I learned here (keeping in mind, that much of it is a second-hand summary of events from at least two different Werewolf and/or Vampire adventures). Sam Haight was originally werewolf-kin. He carried the gene, but he couldn't change. This made him bitter, so he ran away from home and became a big game hunter. While chasing ever-deadlier prey, he discovered vampires. He killed one, drank its blood, and became just enough of a ghoul to learn Tremere blood sorcery. Using that sorcery, he either found or developed a ritual that would allow him to become a werewolf by killing and skinning werewolves. He did that, made some enemies, fought one of them, nearly died, and in the process learned to use mage-style Sphere magic.


I think I see what they were trying to go for here. I think they wanted an arch-villain, capable of doing wicked deeds that would be relevant to any or all of the major supernatural types. Sort of like the World of Darkness' answer to Thanos - a threat you're definitely going to need all hands on deck to beat.

There are two main flaws in that plan - the first is that it's absolutely reckless to suggest, in canon, that it's possible to combine supernatural templates. I've noticed that this early White Wolf stuff is less crossover-shy than some of the later books, but damn. Forget what it does to balance, thematically it's just a mess.

The other flaw, possibly the more fatal of the two, is that Sam Haight isn't nearly charismatic enough to pull this off. The plot of his showcase adventure here in The Book of Chantries is that there's this magical tree that grows fruit with the power to create new Nodes (sources of raw magical energy). Sam pops in, murders a couple of people, steals the enchanted heart of the tree, and then vanishes. Not only is this an adventure where the PCs are assumed to be completely useless (not only does it make no provision for them thwarting this villainous scheme, logically they can't be allowed to do so, because that would fundamentally alter the nature of the setting), but Sam himself is arrogant, petulant, humorless, and forgettable. I mean, seriously, if you're going to toss an uber-villain into the mix, at least give him a kick-ass sword or something.

So, that's one lingering mystery from my adolescence solved. I just hope this guy doesn't get much worse before his inevitable banishment to the memory hole.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of cool stuff here. My favorite thing was the swahbuckling Verbena abolitionist who was trying to free the human-animal hybrids in a Progenitor plantation world. Gross antebellum imagery aside, this place was called, in-character, Moreauvia. You know, after The Island of Doctor Moreau, the science fiction novel about an isolated community where a mad scientist creates human-animal hybrids and it famously ends well for all involved.

The thing I liked best about Emily Harden is that in her free time, when she's not venturing to alternate dimensions and rescuing the locals, she writes a popular series of fantasy novels about her own adventures.

I'm a little leery of adding an NPC that falls so cleanly into a PC niche, but that detail is simply too awesome to pass up.


  1. You know what's crazy? Samuel Haight didn't even last a full year.

    He may be the single most infamous author's pet NPC in RPG history, but Valkenburg Foundation and The Chaos Factor came out in 1993.

    Jasper Stone and Captain Reis and their ilk are still out there getting book covers and GM advice to let them stomp PCs to this day. But this clown who died within months of his first appearance is still a meme? Sure, he appeared a LOT in that time (six RPG supplements, plus two works of fiction), but let's have a little perspective. I mean, he's not even the biggest BS unstoppable godmode character in his own adventure, wherein he dies the moment an elder vampire looks at him. Where are all the jokes about Huitzilopochtli being dumb?

    OK, Probably they died when people really didn't want to look up the spelling, but the point stands. Sam lasted for less time than the Pony Express.

    1. Ah, but like the pony express, he came at a formative time, when the legends of the future were still being written. Also, his short lifespan may be the very cause of his infamy. The fandom never had to self-select for people who could tolerate him.