I almost gave up on this book after reading the Preface. It was titled "Evil Is Not A Toy" and it attempted to set a mood for The Book of The Fallen. This was going to be a book about the sort of grimy and unglamorous monsters that might exist in real life. It does this by relaying a series of various upsetting anecdotes from Brucato's past about people he knew who were threatened, assaulted, or worse. It broke my heart about a half-dozen times in a row, but once I'd recovered a bit, I was forced to ask," if evil is not a toy, then why are you using it in your game?"
After a break of about 24 hours, I decided that it would be a shame to get so close to the end of Mage and not see it through, so I dove back in. Eventually, I would find a fairly useful and intermittently interesting book, but that "why are you doing this" was never far from my mind.
I couldn't quite figure out an answer until near the end, in the Storytelling chapter - "[It] can be fun and intense in a sort of disgusting, under-the-skin, vulnerable sort of way." So many times, I'd read something in this book and think, "that's intense" or "that's disgusting" or "that really got under my skin" and my reaction would be "how could you write that and then continue to write the rest of the book - how are you not seeing the many, many off ramps you keep putting in the text." In retrospect, I guess they thought they were describing something fun.
I'm not a total prude. I understand the concept. Discomfort is not totally incompatible with pleasure. "Those hot wings were delicious - my mouth was on fire." Absent the important context of the first part of the statement, the second part would sound strange. "I bit into this chicken and now my mouth is burning" - "OMG, I'll call poison control!"
That's what significant portions of The Book of The Fallen are like, like I've just wandered into one of those macho spicy food conversation. Brucato likes his roleplaying sessions so intense that you need aftercare when they're done. The very idea makes my skin crawl.
There's a sidebar in this book, called "Cartoon Evil and Realistic Evil" and it pretty much sums up the book's philosophy: "Realistic evil is uncomfortable as hell and rooted in atrocities people actually commit. . .Mage is a game, of course, and so even a realistic-evil approach should be, to some degree, enjoyable to play." My notes for this section are literally "WHAT?!" But while I could roast the hell out of this section (describing your own game as "to some degree enjoyable" is almost as big a self-burn as the Mage Storyteller's Handbook suggesting that GMs "chuckled at the word 'fun'"), I'm going to refrain because I think it gets at something important.
Brucato very graciously concedes that "cartoon evil" has its niche, but I think he fundamentally misunderstands the dichotomy at work here. When we're talking about evil as a narrative element in fiction, we should probably be talking about "tame evil" vs "wild evil." I'm not an academic, so don't expect a rigorous definition here, but what I mean, roughly is that tame evil stays within the confines of the work, as a piece of fiction and wild evil tries to get under the skin of the real person who's experiencing the fiction.
This isn't necessarily a moral distinction. Wild evil has its place, in works that seek to educate or inspire empathy or advocate for a cause or are so literary that they no longer worry about something as frivolous as "enjoyment." However, on a personal level, I feel much more comfortable with tame evil.
It's not something that necessarily maps to Brucato's distinction, though. Cartoon evil has certain advantages, given that it's practically tame by default, but it's easy to imagine going so over the top with the descriptions that it starts to make the audience feel unsafe. Similarly, realistic evil carries with it a certain risk, but that risk can be mitigated with framing and presentation so that it's tame in practice. The KKK is undeniably a realistic-evil villain, but there's a difference between a story that uses them as punch-fodder for the heroes and a story that delves deep into their point of view and tries to present it as an understandable product of their circumstances (even if they are still villains, in the final reckoning).
Although the really ironic thing here is that even if I were to grant the "Cartoon vs Realistic" split as productive and necessary, this book draws the lines wrong. According to the sidebar, realistic evil means "Anyone can be evil," whereas the Nephandi pursue evil for the sake of evil, a hallmark of cartoon evil. If you really wanted to make realistic evil a theme of your game, why wouldn't you just focus on the institutional and personal abuse that happens in the other factions? What goes on behind closed doors of a master-apprentice relationship? What crimes has the Technocracy committed in pursuit of its ideology of dominance. If the whole point of the book is we don't need supernatural conspiracies to explain evil, that real people are all too willing to commit atrocities without any prompting, then what need is there for the Nephandi to act as an intermediary? The Goatkids are already "what probably happened within five minutes of founding the Cult of Ecstasy." Why not just write "The Book of Fucked Up Shit You Can Do With Magic And By The Way It's Happening All The Time."
Fortunately, the book is mostly wrong about its own themes. There's a lot of interesting stuff in the middle that is sometimes gross and occasionally disturbing, but mostly pretty tame. There's a faction of Nephandi called the Exies, whose goal is human extinction and are mainly tech-focused mages who try to attract near-earth asteroids and engineer zombie plagues. I love them as antagonists, but, well, way to avoid "cartoonish," Book of the Fallen.
The biggest contradiction inside The Book of the Fallen, though, is in the overall curation of its material. Frankly, for a Storyteller and a villain book, an awful lot of this only makes sense if it's player-facing. Like, the merits and flaws have point values. You can probably justify it as an attempt to provide the Storyteller with a rough guide to balance, but it's tough to pretend that their primary use is to help create NPCs (especially when the Infernal Investments pretty much throw up their hands and say "The cost-benefit ration errs on the side of disorder, not balance"). Likewise, it doesn't mean much as a gesture to omit the background point cost of your more disturbing magic items if you then proceed to include the instructions for how to build those items in their descriptions. Yeah, you don't want players buying them, but since you included concrete sphere numbers, it's actually pretty easy to figure out how much they should cost.
A few months ago, I got mad at Brucato for the terrible storytelling advice in The Orphan's Survival Guide - basically, "It doesn't matter if you cross the line, it's only a game." It's clear from The Book of the Fallen that he's grown a lot in the last 20+ years, because he now warns against crossing boundaries in the strongest possible terms, but it's also clear than in some ways he's still the same guy, because his advice here basically amounts to "get as close as possible to the line, because it's not just a game."
Content Warning: I am going to quote extensively from this book's section on sexual abuse. (whited out for discretion)
It’s important to be open, honest, and consent-minded if you consider bringing sexual violence into your game in any way, let alone to do so with Nephandi who can magickally force a victim’s body to respond, bend a person’s emotions toward unwanted desires, or alter people’s minds to that point where the victim remembers consenting to or enjoying the abuse. A Nephandus could use a Qlippothic approach to the Life Sphere in order to force an orgasm or a pregnancy. Forces and Correspondence allow an abuser to assault her target from a distance. A shaytan or adsinistratus might want to get up close and personal, though, and forego magick entirely in order to hone and enjoy his skills with intimate violation. Any and all of these assaults require direct communication between the Storyteller and the players, even something just as simple as stating, “I’m considering including sexual content in this game. What are your limits, and what would you like to be included or left out entirely?"
I added some emphasis there to show exactly what I'm talking about. The section is about how to include sexual abuse in your game. This is the last paragraph, after discussing how personal and fraught the subject can be. It opens with good advice about seeking consent and it closes with good advice about what seeking consent might actually look like, but then the middle part is all about how sexual violence is possible within the game rules.
Who is that for?!
Well, not me, obviously. I do have to remind myself that this is a spicy pepper-type conversation. If the material were truly awful, just bringing up consent every now and again wouldn't be enough to redeem it, but the horror genre is deep and wide and I'm definitely out of my depth. Plus, I really enjoy Changeling: the Lost, which has similar themes (though if I had to pin down the difference, it's that C:tL is about survivors, whereas BotF is about the perpetrators), so I'm not going to get high and mighty here.
However, if I'm being honest, my feeling is that the execution was inept. The parts about demons and evil wizards and other things you could punch was good. The esoterica chapter, though its only conceivable use was as a setting pitch, was good in a weird way. The mechanics were bad, but only because Storyteller system mechanics are always bad. However, the parts of the book that were trying to get me to take this all seriously wound making me take it so seriously that I no longer wanted to use any of this in a game. There's no way I would ever want to read a book that truly merited this book's Preface, let alone use it as inspiration for a witch vs cyborg story.
Ukss Contribution: This was not an evil book. Misguided. At times annoying. The first full paragraph so upset me that I wound up putting the whole thing down for about an hour after reading it. But not evil.
I think I'll go with the concept of an evil clothing company that makes murder suits for serial killers. Realistic.