Tuesday, December 24, 2019

(M:tAs) Loom of Fate

Loom of Fate quickly and decisively validates my decision to read all these Mage: the Ascension books from the beginning. It's the sort of thing that could not, would not, and indeed probably should not have been made later on in the game's lifespan. It more or less drives a bulldozer through future canon in service to a barely-coherent damsel-in-distress plot that nonetheless delivers an occasional flash of the brilliance this game is capable of.

Here we get a minor hint that the Technocracy is associated with European colonialism, when they talk about the Void Engineers' (nee Void Seekers) role in founding San Francisco . . . by magically binding Cob, the invisible magical spider that mitigates earthquakes.

Honestly, it's a pretty perfunctory critique of colonialism. The European settlement of the Americans and their accompanying Technocracy hangers-on aren't described as good, but the reasons given for why it was bad betrayed a certain 90s cluelessness. It's almost on point when it reveals that Francis Drake angered the spirits when he claimed the land for Britain, but it was only the natives who suffered in the subsequent earthquake. That got me to sit up and take notice. "Whoa, are they actually satirizing Europe," I thought. But then I read the next paragraph:
Before Europeans arrived, Native Americans accepted magick as a natural part of reality. They had only slightly bound the Wylderness through the natural process of human nature attempting to impose order and structure on the unknowable. The Europeans, under the fledgling Technocracy, changed all that.
And scene on our Ohlone friends. They play no further role in either the adventure or Mage's canon history. I suppose technically, it's an improvement over the way these things were handled in the past. Bless their hearts, the mage writers were trying. "Mage" is the name of the game and thus magic is good. The Ohlone embraced magic and therefor they are good. But it's a form of acceptance that comes off as at least a little bit condescending. It's nice that you're on the side of the Native Americans, but they're more interesting as people than they are as rhetorical stand-ins for your game's philosophical thesis. You couldn't even be bothered to learn their real name. I had to look it up.

I don't want to be too ungenerous, though. I was but a wee child when this book came out, so I don't remember 1993, but I do remember 2003, and learning about non-European history wasn't exactly trivial. If the native culture you were looking up wasn't indigenous to the exact area you happened to be in, it's likely that your local libraries and book stores wouldn't have any specific information. So, it would be unkind of me to judge them by the ten seconds of effort it took me to find this out. Still, they probably should have gotten it done.

Getting back to the adventure, Loom of Fate revolves around the impending death of Cob, the order-spinning spider spirit. Because San Francisco was such a free-spirited place, it became rich in the sort of chaotic Wyld Energy that is anathema to a creature like Cob. It's slowly poisoning him, and if nothing is done soon, he'll die and then the San Francisco earthquakes will get really bad.

Enter Norna Weaver. Yes, that's her name.The Scion, 1st Edition-level of on-the-nose naming makes me think that this adventure might almost work in a Scion game.

She has a destiny, see. Norna has an incredible affinity for the magic of chance and fate, which makes Ms Weaver the perfect candidate to be transformed into a new pattern spider, to replace Cob after he dies.

Ultimately, the problem with this adventure is that it is a decent pitch for a YA novel and a terrible one for an rpg. Every problem your characters will have during the course of this story ties directly back into the fact that Norna Weaver is useless baggage with no agency, and you're constantly having to rescue her from the Technocracy.

Nearly every scene in the first two acts of this book has some variant of the note, "If Norna is not with the characters, she gets kidnapped off-screen." Sure, it makes a certain amount of sense - the conflict in the story comes from the fact that dangerous people want to capture this innocent naif, but nothing in the text indicates why she'd be worth the effort.

I mean, there's generic humanitarian sentiment. She's a young mage, doesn't really understand her powers, has a whole life of potential in front of her. And being turned into a pattern spider by the Technocracy (yeah, they use magic to make people demigods . . . apparently) sounds unpleasant at best, and at worst represents a sort of spiritual death. Saving her is a kindness.

It's just that the only way this adventure becomes fun is if the players fall in love with Norna as an NPC. It sometimes happens. The players latch on to some key trait of a background character and adopt them as a party mascot and unofficial member of the team. Then you could make a really memorable story by giving that character an arc. There's nothing players love more than helping Spunky the Goblin become chieftain of his clan.

The potential is there for Norna to reach this kind of place. A goth girl with uncontrollable luck powers is exactly the sort of semi-cute hard-luck-case that PCs love to collect. Yet the book doesn't offer any sort of guidance on how to get your group there. Chalk it up to lack of experience. White Wolf hadn't been doing this sort of thing for long, and thus, while it's obvious to us now that you need to spend at least a few sessions trying to ingratiate Norna to the group, back then it might have seemed sufficient to just throw all the plot elements together and hope for the best.

But the single weirdest thing about this book, whether you wind up liking Norna or not, is that it's not at all clear whether it's better to succeed or fail at the central mission. There's even a chart that lists potential results if you try to convince her to go along with the Technocracy and voluntarily submit to spider-fication. "Become a magical spider or San Francisco drops into the sea" is an interesting dilemma, but it feels off to pose the age-old ethical question of whether the safety of a large group of people is worth sacrificing the dignity of a single innocent and then not present a heroic third option where the PCs quest for another way to stop the earthquakes. Perhaps they could have found some sort of advanced technological device, although that raises the question of who in the setting could possibly build such a thing.

(Sorry, I just can't get over how the Technocracy's solution to the problem of coastal earthquakes is to magically transform a teenager into a spider god).

In the end, nothing you do amounts to very much. If Norna goes through with the procedure, the resulting pattern spider is effective, but not under the Technocracy's control. She's better able to cope with Wyld energies than her predecessor and San Francisco becomes a more magical place. If she doesn't transform . . . there's no immediate disaster because it turns out that there's a nearby group of werewolves who have their own earthquake-mitigating spirit allies. It's not a total victory, because your redundant back-up system is no longer online, and on the werewolf side of the story, they're less interested in protecting San Francisco than ensuring the continuing slumber of a creature they call "Cataclysm," but either way not much changes about the status quo.

Maybe the Werewolf: the Apocalypse supplement Caerns: Places of Power (helpfully referenced at the end of the adventure) would shed light on what's going on, but I'm not about to track down a 25-year-old book for an entirely different game just so I can find out (or am I . . . it's the sort of thing I tend to do . . . no, no, maybe it's okay for some things to remain a mystery).

Anyway, this book is a weird, weird artifact of a version of Mage: the Ascension that I barely recognize. I can't say that it's definitively worse (say what you will about the spider-summoning Technocracy, but at least they engage honestly with the metaphysics of the setting), but it's not what I was expecting. It's actually kind of wonderful to be able to see an old game through new eyes.

Ukss Contribution: Don't fret, Mage fans, the Technocracy hasn't completely abandoned its sci-fi aesthetics and embraced occultism. They upgraded Cob with cybernetic implants. Maybe I was wrong about the Technocracy's fans embracing it because it was the setting's only standard-bearer for the naturalist worldview. Maybe it's because they were the sort of wild visionaries who could look at a lesser spider god, living embodiment of the cosmic principle of order, and think, "you know what that thing needs? Cybernetics!"

I'm not sure how it will manifest exactly. I don't want to port over Cob, directly, because one spider god is more than sufficient, but the technological augmentation of the divine is exactly the sort of heady, borderline-nonsense idea that makes magic feel magical to me.

No comments:

Post a Comment