Thursday, December 3, 2020

(M20) The Book of the Fallen

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.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

(M20)Gods & Monsters

 I wasn't planning on reading two of my remaining three Mage books in a row, but I peeked inside the cover of Gods & Monsters, saw that it had 11 credited authors instead of just one, and felt a strange surge of optimism. And that optimism was well justified, because Gods & Monsters is the best book yet in the M20 line. The World of Darkness is too cool for anything as purely functional as a "Monster Manual," but if we acknowledge that the entry for "Cultist" is going to focus on a single, specific cultist and detail her whole backstory (while also not giving us any specific character stats), then the book still works as a rich source of encounters, plot hooks, and setting details.

Setting, in particular, is the ground that Gods & Monsters is going to live or die on. Though the book is admirable in its creativity and diversity - introducing sexy holograms, snakes with the head of an elephant, and the god Anansi, it raises some difficult questions about Mage: the Ascension's place in the urban fantasy genre.

Djinn get their own section heading. There's two full pages about their culture and history. The three sample djinn don't get presented as archetypes, but as individual characters with complex backstories. It's like the book is saying that Mage is set in a world where there just happens to be djinn out there. You take your kids down to story-time at the local library and maybe that one kooky librarian with the melodious voice could be slipping little Billy a book that had never been written, but which fires his imagination like it was made specifically for him. That's just a thing that might happen.

Now, you come to me and say, "hey, in this fantasy setting I'm working on, genies once lived on Earth, but King Solomon developed powerful occult techniques to trap them in vessels and make them do his bidding, triggering a massive war that humanity eventually won, but now it's thousands of years later in the modern day and Solomon's magic is mostly forgotten, leading to a new generation of genies who are willing to venture outside the City of Brass to find their missing and enslaved kin, unaware that the sorcerers are still out there, desperate to resupply their dwindling stock of genie slaves" and I will reply, "Good God, yes! Is this a five-book series or are you planning on milking that idea forever?"

However, we're not actually talking about "Wishes in the Wind, the Djinn Chronicles Volume 1," we're talking about Mage: the Ascension. And we're not even really talking about Mage: the Ascension, we're actually talking about the World of Darkness, and so the use to which we're supposed to put these djinn is unclear. Is the World of Darkness like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Are you supposed to introduce monsters of the week drawn from real-world folklore and just fail to explore the setting implications until season 3 of the spinoff? Or is the djinn material meant to act as a specialized resource for Arabian and/or Taftani adventures?

I'm reminded of the Power Armor issue. Just as it would be weird to surprise your Vampire players with mechs, it would also be strange if they had to randomly deal with genies. . . But Mage is the game with Power Armor and genies and where you can write a letter to Santa asking him for rocket skates and your GM will have canonical support for making it happen.

It's hard to reconcile. You've got wild, anything goes kitchen-sink fantasy, but then you've got Paradox and Unbelief working to make sure that nothing disrupts the status quo. Which is the "real" Mage? I can't help thinking that Ascension works on an inversion of the Assassin's motto "Everything is true; nothing is permitted."

And maybe that's a cynical take, but it hangs over Gods & Monsters like a cloud. There's a ton of great material here, but also a sense that maybe you're not allowed to use it. Well, maybe "not allowed" is a bit strong, but Chapter 5 is "Crafting Characters" and provides rules for creating your own cyborgs or mythological creatures as player characters . . . while suggesting you take the "Unbelief" flaw which can kill you in as few as 7 rounds if you ever leave the comfort of a compatible "reality zone."

It's a little weird to think that here, in the second-to-last published book, more than 25 years after the first Mage core, we're still stuck in that same dilemma - is magic furtive and subtle or is it the embodiment of every fairy tale, myth, and fantasy epic in the history of the written word?

I suppose Gods & Monsters is a genuinely great Mage supplement because it can support both ideas while also being incredibly frustrating in its lack of commitment.

Oh, and we get a character write-up for Jesus Christ. It doesn't have much reason to exist, because it doesn't take a side in the culture war (describing him as a "Rorschach test for the human soul"), but it does provide an interesting contrast to the write-up for the god Pan, which is far more specific, respectful, and over three times as long. "No wonder the Church felt threatened by Pan. In his core, the god was an equivalent of the Nazarene shepherd . . ."

Even with 11 writers, M20 is still a game with a point of view.

Ukss Contribution: First, a snarky observation from me - there is a sidebar about the fraught cultural baggage associated with the word "totem" and the inappropriateness of using it as a piece of game terminology and it seeks to reassure us that Mage, as a brand, is aware of the issue and doesn't approve of that kind of cultural appropriation . . . and ends with the conclusion that they are already in too deep to change the name of the "Totem" background. Which might have almost been enough, were it coupled with an actual apology and the title of the sidebar were something other than "Controversy is My Spirit Animal."

:slow clap: great job, guys

I only bring it up because my Ukss choice happens to be one of these Patron Spirits (hmm, maybe renaming the Background was pretty easy after all), and I would be remiss if I let that wild sidebar pass without comment (seriously, the game would have been less problematic if that section had been left out entirely, which is presumably not something you want in your sensitivity disclaimers).

Anyway, my choice is Mr Black, the stylish spirit of wealth who is in reality what tech billionaires and Wall Street guys imagine themselves to be. He makes conspicuous consumption look cool.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

(M20)Book of Secrets

 BRUCATO!!!

 Sigh.

I'll confess, for the past seven months or so I've had this bizarre one-sided rivalry with Satyros Phil Brucato. Ever since I read the ridiculously offensive storytelling chapter of The Orphan's Survival Guide and very nearly challenged him to a duel to the death. 

It's probably for the best that I didn't, because I believe now that he may well be a real-life sorcerer. How else does one explain the precision-guided death curse that was this book's "Gender, Sex, and Magick" essay? Somehow, three years before I even made my intemperate comments, he must have somehow sensed them with his magickal abilities and wrote this section, secure in the knowledge that it's deadly power would be delivered to the one and only person in all of human history stubborn enough to read it in its entirety.

No, I kid. The essay is more or less unobjectionable, saying more or less the correct things. It only made me uncomfortable because I've been spending the better part of the last month reading 1000+ pages of Brucato's writing and I've come to the conclusion that he is most likely a certifiable Weird Dude, and thus to have a two page essay about this particular subject so close to the end of the book, when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel . . . well, it felt a lot like what I imagine it would be like to be cornered by him at a party.

Brucato . . . Brucato . . . Brucato! Nobody asked. We were talking about mystically-themed superheroes in an urban fantasy rpg. We've all just sort of agreed to politely ignore the "sex and sensuality" instruments you've shoehorned into every other mystical practice. Do us all a favor and stop bringing it up.

I probably shouldn't be so harsh. It's clear to me that M20 bears the marks of his most deeply held religious beliefs, and as tempting as it would be to treat them with the same carelessness as he reserves for "fundies" or materialist atheists, I actually respect the choice. This is a work with a particular point of view, and as much as I don't personally agree with it, it does what art does - provide a window into another way of looking at the world.

It's just that he does The Thing again.

You know, The Thing. From The Orphan's Survival Guide where he includes a paragraph that is little more than a long list of slurs. The context is different. Instead of encouraging us to use these terms to make our portrayals "less PC" he is now inviting us to take a long look in the mirror and realize that the Nephandi are manipulating us through our hatred (yes, all of us, which is why "cracker" and "Rethuglican" get a place on the list alongside the genuine hate speech).

I think the context probably saves the section from being "evil," but it's also a huge mystery. A little while later, he asks the rhetorical question "Is this cutting a little close to home? Have the last few sentences seemed kind of heavy for your storytelling game?" And I can't tell how much self awareness he actually has here.

"Maybe they are. If so, the Nephandi can remain a distant presence in outer space, occasionally showing up as freaky cultists trying to summon a tentacled horror from the Void."

Is he really just pitching a much better idea that he should have gone with from the start, or is he talking down to us, calling us chicken because we might not want something as raw as a rape-apologist villain?

That's the downside to making your religion into an rpg. Making people uncomfortable starts to feel like a noble commitment to truth. 

It also means that you take certain things super seriously that the uninitiated would barely even notice. Book of Secrets winds up resolving one of M20's enduring mysteries - what does Brucato have against Revised's Resonance rules that he had to constantly take potshots at them in the core? Turns out it's a literalist interpretation of an arcane theological point so subtle that Brucato himself forgets to explain it. The only reason I was able to discern it was because I was given page references.

"In game terms, Synergy gives a new name to the Trait called 'Resonance' in Mage's Revised-era books. Because that trait essentially reversed the previous definition of Resonance (and even the definition presented on pps. 197 - 198 of Mage Revised), Synergy presents an optional rule that lets you integrate both traits into the same chronicle."

Now, if you read that sentence and thought, "wow, at last Brucato has cleaned up the train-wreck of Revised's Resonance rules," congratulations, you might be a wizard. However, if you're like me and you're totally confused about what the hell he's talking about, you might be tempted to go back and check the references.

If you're a Muggle like me, you might come away with the conclusion that the description of the Resonance trait and the definition of Resonance are 100% compatible, with no inconsistencies at all, let alone a total reversal. However, you're not seeing like a mystic and reading between the lines. The flaw in Revised's Resonance is that it divided Resonance into categories of Dynamic, Static, and Entropic.

You see, a materialist like me would read the Resonance categories as a taxonomy. Dynamism, Entropy, and Stasis are White Wolf's Metaphysic Trinity and every phenomenon in the Tellurian contains a balance of all three forces. Thus I would conclude that when a Mage has a Dynamic Resonance, of say "Fiery," then that is just an example of the sort of thing that would have a larger portion of Dynamism. Brucato, on the other hand, would say that if you call a Fiery Resonance "Dynamic" then what you are really claiming is that the Resonance is an emanation of Dynamism. 

And that is why he felt it was very important to point out that "Thematically, however, the distinction between internal and external origins is important. Mage is about self-willed individuals making powerful choices and changing the world, and so the notion of 'power-puppets' on cosmic strings contradicts a vital theme of Mage."

There's a part of me that wants to get angry at this sort of nit-picking. I'll admit, when I first read this, my thought was "Really, that's what was bothering you? That's what all that heavily-emphasized 'optional' business was about? That's what merited a dedicated sidebar and passive-aggressive renaming?"

But I think I get it. Throughout these books, Brucato keeps taking these driveby potshots at Revised, even when doing so is pointless and out of place (for example, he erratas a rule from Forged By Dragon's Fire to be exactly the same, almost to the word), but when you look at M20 as a work of religious faith, the pattern makes sense. Revised was the edition that was about "magic" instead of "magick."

Brucato keeps putting in these self-deprecating jibes about "the pretentious 'k'" but in the FAQ he explains it in direct terms: "Magick is an extension of the person who uses it, changing the world in accordance with that person's will to change it. 'Magic' is fundamentally different from magick, and so we brought back the original Crowleyian spelling of the word. To me, those two words mean very different things."

And that's not pretentious. Culturally specific, maybe. Offputting at times, sure. And I could definitely live the rest of my life in comfort never again hearing Aleister Crowley being referred to as "Uncle Al." But it's not pretentious. It's sincere. And as much as Brucato can get on my nerves at times (I guess having completely incompatible world views will do that), I can't help but respect the hell out of anyone with the guts to be that sincere . . .

(So long as he stops trying to talk to me about sex magick, Seriously. I just want to get to the punch bowl)

Ukss Contribution: Once again, Brucato is all over the place on Marauders, and maybe could use a more thorough education on sensitivity towards mental illness, but they are also one of the few places he allows himself to be truly mythic when it comes to the game's fantasy elements. I liked The Sleeping Lord, a sentient tree who intoxicates anyone nearby with raw chaotic energy.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Nobilis 3rd Edition

 Nobilis is less difficult than I remember.

I always feel a little self-conscious saying things like this, lest people are all, "ooh, John once thought Nobilis was difficult, what a dolt!" Or worse, "So John thinks Nobilis isn't difficult, let's double-check everything he says about it to make sure he's telling the truth."

But you know what, that's just my hang-up. I'm sure anyone reading this is a kind, generous soul who will give me the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say that the first time I read this book, I had a number of unanswered questions, whereas this time I didn't, and that's something that's probably attributable to reading Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine and various online conversations with people who had similar questions.

The thing that became abundantly clear to me, coming in to the book with this new experience, is that I was greatly overthinking it. A good many of my old questions would have been answered if I'd just taken the text at face value and interpreted it literally. In my defense, though, the writing here practically encourages overthinking.

Take this example from a section headed "Movements of the Soul"

The blueprint for a miracle is not in the Power's mind but in their heart and soul. It is not possible for them to plan out miracles of absurd elaboration; rather they make what is elemental in then, what is aesthetic to them, what is right to them. Their miracles are complete. They are things of incredible complexity and detail, for all things existing in the world are things of incredible complexity and detail. They are marvels, for to exist is to be a marvel.

But they are works of art and not design.

And so on, for another long paragraph. But the concept she's trying to get at is actually pretty simple - "Respect the social contract and don't waste your fellow players' time by trying to outwit the literal genie." It's a good warning, because you've got these godlike powers and there's going to be a strong temptation to try and get incredibly specific with them, but that's not to the game's benefit. Yet for all the utility of the rule, it's presented as a consequence of the setting metaphysics and given an ornate philosophical justification.

I don't want to come down too hard here, because this discursiveness is one of the text's best qualities, but it also means that when you have a simple question, you won't believe that it has a simple answer. Or, at least, I didn't. It's a very clever book, but I wasn't doing it any favors when I assumed that it must therefor have hidden meaning on every page. When it says "A game of Nobilis is a conversation" that's not a metaphor or an analogy, it's a specific and useful piece of advice.

I also think a part of what's going on is that Jenna Moran is getting better as a game designer. CMWGE was a revelation, but Nobilis 3rd Edition is merely very good. When I wrote about CMWGE, I talked about the actor/author split in rpgs, and the way Chuubo's straddled the gap, but Nobilis doesn't really do that. The characters are so powerful that they are able (indeed are obligated) to assume some of the GM's traditional authority, and as a consequence it works best if the players are willing to indulge in author-stance-type reasoning, but it does not yet have a core gameplay that encourages that kind of thinking. You've got certain traits that replenish your MP if they inconvenience you, but that's not at all unusual for an actor-stance game. Hell, I'm pretty sure even D&D is doing it now.

It's this relatively traditional structure that got me into trouble. You make characters in a very actor-stance type of way, with character points that can be spent on skills, magical traits, and special gifts and that lead me to assume a traditionally antagonist GM/player split, but I was overthinking it. The book never told me that I should GM like a Dungeon Master, and indeed counseled the exact opposite, but I never took it at its word. I assumed I needed to up my game to cope with the PCs incredible powers.

It was only on this most recent read-through that I realized I was still beholden to the psychology of the dice. The rules of the game are that you can do what your traits say you can do, but sometimes you can spend points to temporarily raise your traits. My brain initially interpreted this to mean that point-spending filled the same mechanical niche as dice-rolling. 

In a traditional rpg, if you want to do something contentious, the GM has you roll the dice and a successful roll gives you permission to say, "yes, I do that." But the other part of that is that a failed roll gives the GM permission to say, "no, you don't." And so my instinct was to look at the intention system and the miracle effects chart and think, "how can I make spending points feel more like rolling dice - how do I get to say, 'no'"

Yet Nobilis isn't the sort of game where the GM often gets to say, "no." The PCs power level guarantees that - "The Nobilis can shatter mountains. They can break or rebuild souls. They don't even have to work very hard to do it." - but it didn't emotionally prepare me for the reality of what that means. It's structured like a traditional rpg, but it can't play like one, and that's why I initially found it so difficult. But once you get used to the idea that you're supposed to be saying, "yes, you can shatter that mountain . . . let me tell you about all the interesting shapes you see in the dust" then it actually becomes a pretty simple game.

So I'm an unapologetic Jenna Moran fan-boy, but I am forced to recognize that Nobilis is a work in progress, an inchoate form of ideas that would be developed to greater sophistication in later works. Yet I still love it, because when it's not being ambiguous about its rules methodology, it's got that unique blend of whimsy, imagination, and horror that characterizes Moran at her best. Cute balloon people! They'll drop you from the stratosphere if you insult them! Wear a parachute when you go to visit.

This book is frequently funny, often breathtaking, and only occasionally frustrating as hell, and that's why it's one of the treasures of my collection.

Ukss Contribution: So many great ideas, so specific to Jenna Moran's sensibility. I liked the suggestion in the character creation section that you could play a five dollar bill that was awakened to consciousness and granted godlike powers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

(M20)How Do You DO That?

Oh, I thought I was going to be so clever. I had a plan. You see, over the years (and especially over the last year), I've noticed certain . . . shortcomings in Mage: the Ascension's magic system. These would always get a call-out in my notes, but usually they were in books that had more interesting things going on, so I'd barely mention them. But I knew that sooner or later, I'd get to this book here, the one that's all about the magic system, and it would be so utilitarian and uncontroversial that it would be the perfect place to talk about the various ways that Mage's highly-technical, highly vague magic system failed to truly deliver on the varied, specific mysticism of its ridiculously ambitious premise.

What I failed to anticipate, however, was that How Do You DO That would be a strong candidate for the single worst mechanical book of any game I'd ever read. This is a Players Option: Skills and Powers-level debacle. Whatever problems Mage's magic system might have are far in the rearview mirror, because even by the standards of Mage, this book is a total mess.

I'm not sure how to even begin. So . . . regular Mage: the Ascension magic is like this unholy amalgam of a word puzzle and an odds-pushing dice game. You've got nine Spheres of magic and five levels to each of these Spheres. The first step to casting a spell is to frame your desired outcome in a way such that it can fit into as few of these 45 categories as possible (or, at least, into the subset of that 45 which you happen to possess). This may take a certain degree of glibness, but creativity is encouraged. Then, you consult the third axis of effect, the Magickal Feats chart and you start to negotiate - is it a standard feat like "altering your shape" or is it a difficult feat like "transforming yourself into a radically different shape." Then, since there's something like a 95% chance that whatever you want to accomplish is going to take more successes than you can reasonably hope to achieve on your 2-3 dice, you have a choice to make - is this worth giving up several of your combat turns to do, or, if you're out of combat, are you likelier to succeed before you inevitably roll a botch. Then you roll the dice a whole bunch of times until your Storyteller begs you to stop.

This is not a great system for any number of reasons, but it is, at least, vaguely functional. How Do You DO That is, ostensibly, a guide to step 1. It promises to give you examples of common effects and tell you where in the 9 x 5 x 20+ matrix these effects should stand. Unfortunately, the answers it gives you are frequently wrong.

I know, I know. What kind of stones I must have to claim that the book is the one that doesn't understand the magic system. How Do You DO That? was written by Phil Brucato himself, the main credited author of the M20 core. It is, by definition, as authoritative as you're going to get. And I honestly don't know what to tell you here. As far out on a limb as I am here, How Do You DO That? frequently gets the rules of the game wrong, and often in ways that take an already shaky magic system and make it complete garbage.

I'll give you an example of a simple, concrete error to try and ease you into my thesis a bit. The section on bypassing common security measures says "Entropy 2 . . . can toss glitches into equipment." And it absolutely can't. Entropy 2 is one of the most sloppily written Sphere levels, and thus the one most likely to get thrown randomly into a conjunctional effect "just in case," but the wording of Entropy 3 definitely resolves this ambiguity. Entropy 2 allows you to "Control Probability" which can, and often does mean just about anything, but Entropy 3 allows you to "Affect Predictable Patterns" and it explicitly calls out "making computers fail" as part of what it can do. You could, I suppose, make the argument that any given machine always has the chance to fail, and thus Entropy 2 should allow you to manipulate the probability of it failing, but by that logic, any event that has some finite probability of actually occurring, Entropy 2 can cause to happen.

Now, I trust, you can see why me picking on poor Entropy 2 is a low-hanging fruit in the realm of arguing about Mage on the internet, but it's important for you to understand that when I talk about How Do You DO That? introducing new bullshit into Mage's magic system, I am not talking about a book with any great degree of mechanical rigor. I would classify a lot of this book's mechanics more as "vandalism" than "innovation" (let alone "explanation" :shudder:).

Let's just jump right in to the worst example. Telekinesis requires the Mind Sphere. . .

I read these books alone, at night, in a quiet hotel lobby and I very nearly rioted. This is not just a bad rule. It's not just an erroneous rule. It is, in fact, a full frontal assault on the very premise of the game. 

Because you don't need Mind to move objects with the Forces Sphere. You need Mind to move objects with your, um, mind. Your Will alone, acting through nothing more than your knowledge of Forces 2, is sufficient to move objects. But if you want to move objects with your mind, you need Forces 2 and Mind 3.

I'm not sure I can even do anything here but rephrase the problem in increasingly dumbfounded ways. The rules are requiring the Mind sphere because the decision of how and where to move the objects is made in the mind, or perhaps because the mage believes their mind is responsible for the movement, but taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of reasoning would lead you to always penalizing a mage who believes in a particular theory of magic - if your elemental powers are a gift from the spirits, your Forces effects would require the Spirit sphere to use. If you believe that your martial arts practice cultivates internal energies, you need to supplement your moves with Prime.

Oh, wait, those last two examples are real. What's especially egregious about the second one is that you also have to spend Quintessence on effects that don't normally require it. Good thing you have Martial Arts equal to your Sphere level, or otherwise you wouldn't be able to use those techniques . . . like a common Brawler.

That's the hardest thing about this book to swallow, these weird, out of nowhere attempts at verisimilitude that mostly serve to elevate Brucato's personal hobby horses to the level of canon (one thing I can be absolutely certain of after reading this book is that there is nothing in the universe that will summon a taxi cab to you besides the Mind Sphere . . . or Entropy 2).  You can use martial arts as a mystic practice if you are a fencer who wields a sword with the Martial Arts skill, but not if you're a swordfighter who wields a sword with the Melee (aka "sword-wielding") skill. Although, in that case you should probably have Melee at a decent level because a realistic martial artist trains their Melee as a common secondary skill (don't blame me for this, blame the sidebar on page 59).

In order to create something with Matter magic, you also have to know how to build it without magic. No waving a magic wand and changing a pumpkin into a carriage, not unless you are already a master carpenter. And no cheating by downloading skills into your brain. This is explicitly called out as "a cool fantasy," but Brucato is not in the business of making a cool fantasy game, and thus it is not allowed.

And I haven't even gotten to the math yet. You know how you're supposed to use magic to deflect an incoming bullet? You're supposed to use your Arete as a dodge roll. If you followed the core's character creation advice (and you shouldn't have), that dice pool is 2. You could do worse by standing up, slack-jawed, and staring at the gun, but not by a lot. The thing that made me write "ARGH!" in my notes, however, was the subsequent suggestion that if you rolled double the attacker's successes, you could reflect the bullet right back at them.

I guess I should just go ahead and add "completely overhaul the Ascension magic system" to my rpg bucket list.

Ukss Contribution: Since this wasn't an offensive book, merely an ill-favored one, I guess I should probably pick something. I liked most of the example fictions (except the anatomically dubious one that suggested lady witches masturbate with their broomsticks . . . because Brucato), but it was a throwaway line near the beginning that I'll most remember fondly - if you transform a murderer into a mouse, you'll wind up with a mouse that looks like it wants to murder you. Cute.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

(Ex3) Lunars: Fangs at the Gate

I am not doing myself any favors by reading these gigantic books back-to-back. I will say though that I've noticed PoDs are generally thicker page-for-page. Lunars: Fangs at the Gate had about half the pagecount of M20, but about 75% of the width. Good to know.

As is tradition, if you want my detailed, Exalted-obsessed take on the book, you can find it in the dedicated thread, but I have a feeling that tradition may soon be coming to an end. Lunars: Fangs at the Gate is going to be one of those books that will one-day be called "late-period Exalted." It's arguably one of the best in the whole series, at least on the level of early favorites like Creatures of the Wyld, but it's also hugely inaccessible. I recall fearing, after reading the 3rd edition core, that it would be nigh-impossible to induct new people into the game with that book. Convincing them to use this one is surely an even-bigger hurdle.

Ironically, the new Lunar Charms are better-designed and easier to use than the core's, but there's still 150 pages of them, and to even have context for what they are or why you should care, you'll still need to have read the bulk of the core book. In the end, you're saving at most 20 pages of reading to play a niche inside a niche.

Maybe it's just because it's been so long since the last new Exalted book, but I kind of feel like the series is in a sort of death spiral. It's becoming increasingly adept at talking to its fans, but worse at talking to anyone else. As time and chance wear away segments of the fandom, are they being adequately replaced?

A grim mood to be sure, but I think one that's provoked largely by how much I enjoyed this book. If it were bad, it would be easy to countenance never playing it again. To put it another way, Lunars: Fangs at the Gate was so good that I only lost about half a night to trying to rewrite it, and even then most of my issues were things (like the Craft charms) that it unavoidably inherited from the Core.

Another thing about this new book is that it continues Ex3's trend of bringing its fantasy world more in line with contemporary values. There are few works of fiction, in any genre, where I've seen so many nonbinary characters, and Lilith, one of the most prominent Lunar NPCs, has completely lost the subplot where she stalks the reincarnation of her old, abusive husband. Also, this book is the least rapey Lunars have ever been, by a substantial margin.

Overall, I think it's a good choice. You don't want to think about the real world's problems when you're in the middle of your classical-antiquity-pastiche superhero fantasy. But I also wonder if something is being lost. Not that they should go back to doing it the old way (and brace yourselves for when I read Exalted: the Lunars from 1st edition, because I am going to go off on that book), but I can't deny that is sometimes seems off to me. I think it's because I'm getting old and I'm starting to have these "that's not the way they used to do it" moments.

My final verdict for this one is "please play more Exalted, people." Because if he new team can keep up with this level of quality, I am dying to see the rest of the main books get made.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of neat stuff here, as befits a complex fantasy world. I could make any one of a dozen choices and not go wrong - like Sublime Danger, the shapeshifter with swords for wings, or the Mountain of the Spider King, or the magic that lets you draw your reflection out of the mirror and turn it into a minor god, or the Ichneumon Blades, which snap off pieces of themselves inside their victims and turn them into zombies at their wielder's command.

However, I'm going to go with something relatively simple - Dazul, the town that's ruled by an obsidian statue containing a trapped demon. It mostly works out pretty okay, probably because the only people allowed to talk to it are trained exorcists.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Mage: The Ascension, 20th Anniversary Edition - Book 3: Ascend (Chapters 8-10, plus apendices)

Part 1

Part 2 

I love Mage: the Ascension. I feel like sometimes that's in danger of becoming lost (you know, from all the times I say it shouldn't exist). I love its baroque fantasy world and its grandiose vision and all the ridiculous shit like rocket skates and goths being roughly equal in power to all of Abrahamic monotheism. I love its pretentiousness. I even love how far out on a limb it is, culturally speaking.

I don't love M20.

On some level, this is just a me problem. All those things I said I loved about Mage? M20 has them (except the rocket skates). If feels like it's substantially the same game as the one released 27 years ago. But that's the issue.

There's a thing I keep hearing people say, sometimes to decry social justice in media criticism, sometimes to defend it - "You couldn't make Blazing Saddles today," and that pretty much captures the feeling I'm experiencing. You couldn't make Mage: the Ascension today, and you probably shouldn't have made it in 2013.

It's like that notional Blazing Saddles remake. It could hit the same plot points, it could have the same message, but it would be created by someone who should know better, partly because they've lived in a world where Blazing Saddles has existed for 46 years.

This is difficult ground for me to cover because I'm a jaded atheist to whom nothing is sacred (even the ludicrously off-point attempts to try and acknowledge the good in materialism just strike me as funny), but I think this book might be offensive.

Take Jesus Christ, for example. According to the table that lists the hierarchy of Umbrood Spirits, he's a Celestine. Now, this is the second-highest spirit rank there is and to my atheism-addled brain sounds pretty good, but he's ranked alongside pagan deities like Zeus, fictional characters like the Wyrm, and oh, just a little guy you may have heard of called Satan. Give it to me to judge and I might be inclined to nod my head sagely and say, "oh, but this is only fair. You can't expect the book to privilege one mythology over another," but something both you and I would do well to remember is that I am in no way qualified to write something like Mage. This is just a harmless rpg book, tossing out casual sacrilege, to better serve its elaborate fantasy world-building. Is that a problem?

And, you know, it might not be. I know of a lot of Christians who like shows like Supernatural or Lucifer that just sort of haphazardly shuffle up ideas from Christian folk cosmology. If it was good enough for Milton, it's good enough for Brucato. Except, later on, while discussing the paradox rules,  he describes a Sleeper witness thusly - "sure, he may pray to the ghost of a Jewish carpenter who's supposed to descend in glory from the sky and raise the dead for eternal judgment in Heaven or Hell. If, however, that person sees a real manifestation of ACTUAL magick – say, his neighbor flying through the air on a broom - then his view of reality is in for a rude kick in the pants."

"The ghost of a Jewish carpenter." Sounds a lot like something I'd have written back in my 20s.

This isn't to set up a "let's all bag on Brucato" session or anything, but it's a crucial point in a data line. Mage has a certain point of view. It's self-consciously inclusive, but it filters everything through a specific religious and metaphysical perspective, and because of that perspective, it gets things (often important things, like "Enlightened scientists understand that the mind can transcend the body") wrong. Despite Brucato nicknaming him "Uncle Al," a large portion of the audience, let alone the groups represented in the text, could not care less about what Aleister Crowley has to say.

Don't get me wrong, I respect Brucato's vision. I definitely got the sense that he was a man writing with conviction, creating a world and a work of art that expressed his passionately held ideas about the relationship between Will and Reality. But because, in the context of that vision, the one thing that will never yield is that damned "k" at the end of "magick," it can't help but be appropriative. Jesus Christ is a Celestine, materialists believe in astral projection and I have to assume that the bulk of what he says about shamanism and traditional indigenous religions is similarly wrong.

It's not something that would fly today. It's all part of something I picked up on a lot while reading this book. Brucato has this avowed and deliberate radicalism, and I'm sure it's sincere, but his instincts are stuck in the 90s. He remembers to say the right thing when the occasion presents itself, but his casual use of language betrays deep biases he hasn't overcome.

The most compact example of this is from the text of the "Derangement" flaw: "despite the crazy name, Derangements don't necessarily turn a character into a raving loony-tune." The sentiment is good, but damn that word choice.

Honestly, it's a failing I can relate to as I climb up in years. The new generation keeps growing and you try to keep up, but you're not plugged in to the culture so you just say, "fuck it, they'll know what I mean."

And because I have this sympathy for Brucato, I am not going to meticulously document all the times I caught him putting his foot in is mouth, but I am going to mention the worst one because I would be remiss as a critic if I overlooked it, and also it's the sort of thing that would have been an embarrassment even in the 90s.

From the sidebar about facing Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, "A failed Willpower roll in such confrontations might force a character to pass out (regardless of gender)."

Oof. I assume by this, Brucato meant that horror movies and true crime stories are both immensely popular with women, and thus statistically, the ladies are less likely to pass out from seeing Cthulhu.

Honestly though, let that be a lesson to all of us - if they let you keep writing books for long enough, eventually you're bound to write some ridiculous shit like "fainting is for girls." Die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, am I right?

(Actually - on the car ride home after writing this, the thought occurred to me that it was an attempt at a joke - they're things man was not meant to know, but you still have to roll even if you're not a man - but if so it did not come across that way at all in the text)

But enough about Brucato, the bulk of my reading for this section of the book was about the Storyteller system rules. Those are what really cement M20 as a decorative nostalgia piece. Technically, they're an improvement, but the improvements are like rose-scented potpourri tossed on top of a garbage fire.

Yes, that's a harsh assessment, but it's an inevitable side-effect of using a 20-year-old ruleset. All of the current WW-descended games have moved on to various refinements of the Storyteller system, but M20 is stuck using the version they all iterated away from. I guess that's the way you have to do it if you're just releasing an omnibus recompilation of old material, but M20 has grown to be a game line of its own, and its relic system is not doing it any favors.

And don't get me started on its magic system. Literally don't. My next Mage book is How Do You DO That and it's going to be the perfect place for me to gripe about the Sphere system, both classic and contemporary.

Oh, but I really do love this game. Seriously.

Ukss Contribution: And speaking of loving Mage, I'm going to pick a detail I absolutely adored, one that gets so far into what makes Mage a great game that I don't even care about the degree of difficulty that will come with trying to add it to Ukss.

In the Mage: the Ascension universe, Santa Claus is canon! Oh, they do that annoying noncommittal American Gods thing where there are multiple spirit entities each reflecting a different idea of Santa Claus, but nonetheless he's out there. One of the innumerable Astral Realms is actually the North Pole. That's the Mage that keeps me coming back despite how problematic it is.

So Ukss has a Santa Claus now. I don't know how or why or where, but if it was good enough for CS Lewis, it's good enough for me.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition - Book 2: Believe (Chapters 5-7)

Part 1

Part 3

Mage: the Ascension should probably not exist. Its very premise - everything people in the real world believe is magic, is magic, and there's an ongoing genocidal war to determine which magic is best - is highly problematic, and when you add in the fact that all of this magic is going to be filtered through the viewpoint of western occultism and media tropes, the chance for something to go wrong is overwhelming. It is likely that "Mage, 25th anniversary edition" would never have been made.

I don't want to be too moralizing here, because, to my embarrassment, I recently fell into the trap of thinking I could "fix" it, and the results were themselves inadvertently racist, but at the same time, the reason I succumbed to that hubris was because M20's attempt to correct earlier Mage's glaring Eurocentrism somehow managed to be worse

There's a bit of metaplot introduced in the Traditions' section where the leadership is replaced by the "New Horizon Council" where a few of the Traditions adopt new names, in keeping with the new millennium. For the Dreamspeakers, this is described as "abandoning its 'slave name.'"

Slave name.

As problematic as the Dreamspeakers are a group, it was literally White Wolf who came up with that name. I can't be sure that Brucato himself was in the room when it happened, but he was the developer as early as The Book of Chantries, which introduced the Lodge of the Grey Squirrel and cemented the connection between the Dreamspeakers and real-world indigenous people. So if the name "Dreamspeakers" is bad enough to be considered a "slave name" and I can see the argument for why it might be, then the author of the line in M20 is, at most, one degree of responsibility away from coming up with it in the first place.

It's this simultaneous understanding that there is a problem and refusal to openly acknowledge it that drives so much of M20's history chapter. The Traditions are racist. Even groups like the Chakravanti were forced to downplay their proud Indian heritage and adopt European names like "Euthanatos."

The so-called "heroes" of Mage were never actually the heroes at all. In order to preserve as much canon as possible from an old Eurocentric roleplaying game, the new edition is claiming that it was the characters in the game who were the Eurocentric ones.

In addition to being a dreadful slander on the poor, defenseless Traditions, it's also a case of the timeline and the numbers not quite adding up. One thing that keeps getting brought up is the sympathy between the Euthanatos, the Dreamspeakers, the Verbena, and the Cult of Ecstasy. These groups, while not always seeing eye-to-eye, would at least support each other against the white, male hegemony of the rest of the Council. Except, for the bulk of the Traditions' history, the rest of the council was only four other Traditions. The non-white Akashic Brotherhood and Ahl-i-Batin, and the two European traditions, the Order of Hermes and the Celestial Chorus, who most hated each others' guts. Where was this supposed white-supremacist voting bloc coming from?

That's to say nothing about the fact that Europe c.1460 wasn't really in the position to dictate anything to anyone, especially if its coming technological and military advantages are due to the Order of Reason. How does this work, exactly - if the bulk of OoR "mages" are from Europe, then that means a significant portion of Europe's Awakened population is out of consideration for the Traditions. Then when you factor in the fact that European mystics would have been the hardest hit by the Order, prior to colonization, then at time when the Traditions formed, the European delegation would have been among the weakest groups present.

I don't want to be too critical, because as I said I recently got a humbling reminder that I couldn't do all that much better. However, it's probably impossible, at this point, to salvage the Traditions without a total reboot.

Which is probably why M20 reboots the Traditions. Oh, not directly or anything, but it introduces a new faction, called The Disparate Alliance, which is mostly just a bunch of ancient mystical traditions coming together to fight the Technocracy, despite their varied cultures and incompatible magics. Also, the Hollow Ones are there (that's how you know it's the new Council of Traditions - WW's designated "reasonable youth" faction has latched on).

Part of me suspects that the Disparate Alliance is just one more of M20's countless digs at Revised (seriously, the Resonance rules are brought up something like three separate times, always to point out how extremely optional they were). Revised brought the Crafts into the fold as an attempt to mitigate the Traditions' Eurocentrism - every Tradition would have members from every continent now, but according to M20, that was a canon event, much like the Reckoning, that failed to take. Instead, Eurocentrism is just part of the Traditions' identity now, and the Council is just one more authority figure for the cool kids to rebel against.

I don't know, it was probably the best way to do it, but what is Mage even supposed to be anymore? According to the book, "Every faction holds both wisdom and corruption," but when that "every" includes the Nephandi (they get nine, excruciating pages) it feels like an empty platitude. My overall opinion is that we've all inherited an embarrassing thing from the 90s, and its attempts to be less embarrassing just wind up overcompensating and leaving us with something that is in constant danger of collapsing under its own weight. Certainly, I'm nearly 400 pages into the book and absolutely longing for trench-coat wizards to fight robots with lightning bolts disguised as unfortunate power-line breakage.

I've got a lot of other notes, mostly revolving around the pretentiousness of the Storytelling chapter (which clocks in at 40 pages! - my theory is that everything in this book was simply scaled up to maintain its proportions with a 670 page count), but that's the gist of my opinion. Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition is a game in constant danger of forgetting that it's at its best when its being totally dumb.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition - Book 1: Awaken (Chapters 1-4)

Part 2 

Part 3 

 I'd have to go back into the archives to double check, but I think this may be my longest ever gap between posts. This is undoubtedly due to the confluence of many unrelated distractions - the hotel has been infuriatingly busy, there's been some minor drama with my landlord, and I've gotten really into a certain survival-crafting video game. I've got a lot of excuses lined up (not that I'm offering an apology, but still).

However, I have to admit that despite all the other things competing for my attention, a big part of why it's taken me so long to read 115 pages is because Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition isn't very pleasant to read.

Part of that is just the sheer physical discomfort of manhandling this monster of a book. It is so heavy guys. I'll be sitting in bed and eventually have to take a break to let my arms rest. I leave it on my lap long enough and it will leave a mark. I like to flatter myself that I'm not a weak man, but with the exception of Exalted 3rd edition, no other book in my collection has so consistently threatened to slip from my grasp as I lug it to and from my car.

In a way, that's a good thing. M20 is definitely a tome. There's something satisfying about playing a modern occult game using a book that feels like it was stolen from a wizard's laboratory. I can't deny that it's a challenge, though.

A more fundamental issue is that the writing, at least in this first section, is . . .  hmm. The phrase "make reality your bitch" shows up in an ostensibly out of character section.

I say "ostensibly" because I can't actually be sure. Maybe I missed something, but it's unclear who the narrator is supposed to be. They have opinions, though. 

Many mages reach for a lesser goal instead: they want to make the world ascend. And they'll tell you that's the ultimate benevolence. And they'll be lying then, because it's not. Although you may disagree with this opinion, as many mages do, in my mind such universal Ascension is the ultimate form of slavery.

What is this bullshit? No, seriously, what is it? Is this the official position of the game regarding "Ascension" as a fantasy concept? Is this Brucato popping off on millennia of eschatological and soteriological thought? Is it a character within the setting being embarrassingly cynical? I wish I could tell you which, because that would go a long way towards me being able to tell you whether this was a good introduction to Mage or not, but it's confusing and it keeps being confusing for the bulk of part 1.

I mean, I just can't let this go. "The ultimate form of slavery." What - "the guys who gave me superpowers neglected to inform me that a different group of guys could have given me slightly different superpowers using a slightly different method. I'd rather be dead."

I guess, if I squint, I can sort of see the outline of a point. People are different and thus any one-size-fits-all approach to enlightenment is going to be one that runs the risk of over-simplifying the complexities of the human condition, but if mass Ascension is even possible as a spiritual concept, then surely a respect for the dignity of the individual is part of it. It makes sense that people in the setting would not entirely trust rival visions of Ascension, but isn't the whole point that nobody knows for sure what Ascension even is?

It's a persistent problem with this whole section of the book. Someone is trying to explain to us the nature of the Mage: the Ascension universe, but they won't disclose who they are and what biases they might bring to the table. In a world where belief defines reality that's kind of a big deal. I kind of have to assume the interjections of 1st-person commentary are Brucato breaking the fourth wall to tell us that his characters are all full of shit (though the ones whose practices most closely resemble Aleister Crowley's unique brand of irreverent egoist mysticism are notably less full of shit than others - that's why the Traditions nicknamed him "Uncle Al.")

In a way, this is a return to form. Parts of it read like a Thelema religious tract, but the text as a whole would not have felt too out of place in 2nd edition (what the book calls "classic era Mage" to distinguish it from Revised). That's kind of an issue. So far, this does not feel like a game that has grown with the times.

There's even a sidebar about how ubiquitous cell phones threaten to ruin the feel of the game. It gives you three options - adapt and figure out a way to incorporate technological changes into the setting; set your game in the 1990s so that it's not an issue; make the setting a stylized anachronistic pastiche that only includes the events and technologies that serve to enhance the game. It's a deeply weird sidebar because it would have been more useful if it simply didn't exist. Making such a big, specific deal out of cell phones kind of flies in the face of the game's themes. Introducing new shit into the Consensus is kind of what the Ascension War is all about.

It makes me question why M20 even exists. My memory of backing the Kickstarter was of thinking that I owned less than a third of all the Mage supplements, so it would be nice to have an omnibus edition that put all of the metaplot and weird setting details into a single volume. It would be the last Mage book I'd ever need.

It hasn't turned out to be that, though (just as an experiment I pulled up the pdf and searched for the Hem-ka Sobk: bad news, they've been "obliterated"). Instead, it feels a lot like having Mage described to me by someone who read all the books a long time ago and is now trying to paraphrase. 

Take the idea that belief determines reality. That's what Mage is about, but it's a paradox (no pun intended). Nobody in the setting actually believes this. They couldn't. If they believed it, they wouldn't, nay couldn't believe in their specific metaphysical systems strongly enough to do magic. Why would the Order of Hermes, for example, bother with all that nonsense with the esoteric chanting, complex astrological correspondences, and dangerous alchemical experiments if they could just be the Order of Believing Really Hard instead.

Now, granted, overcoming your magical praxes was a major theme of the game, happening as early Arete 2 in 1st and 2nd edition, but the reason Revised moved it back to Arete 5 was clear - playing as mystic sorcerers who create magic through occult rituals is much more interesting than playing as psychics who manipulate reality with the power of the mind. If mages are surpassing their foci left and right, the difference between the Traditions blurs and the setting loses its specificity.

One of the big identity crises of Mage, going back almost to the very beginning, is if it wants to be a multicultural occult kitchen sink - wizards, necromancers, seers, and shamans teaming up with mad scientists, hackers, and goths - or if it wants to be a superhero game with factions that split along cultural lines, but who pretty much all use magic in the same way - as early as the original Player's guide there was a Celestial Chorister who hurled misty grey orbs that exploded into fog. "Belief determines reality" works as an attempt to explain how the first situation could come about, but once people in-setting start taking it seriously, the second situation is inevitable.

M20 takes the issue as read. There is one type of magic, the magic of will-driven reality manipulation, and with the exception of the more indoctrinated members of the Technocracy, every mage knows that. They may take some time to grow beyond their cultural practices, but they know what road they're on - the road where their powers work exactly like the game rules because the Spheres are an explicit part of the setting cosmology and not just a mechanical convenience.

That's the part of M20 that feels like it was based on Mage as an internet meme. There have been these ongoing conversations about Mage that focus on high level metaphysical stuff, and so that's what the text is interested. The ongoing effort that started mid-2nd edition to make the setting more specific and grounded in real-world mythology is nowhere to be seen. At times M20 feels less like Mage and more like our collective memory of Mage.

Maybe that's just what happens when you start your book with an overview. Perhaps, once we get into Book 2 we'll start seeing the anything-goes occult weirdness that was Mage at its bet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ops and Tactics: Modern Combat Manual

 Where To Get It: Creator's Blog

This book made me cry.

Literally.

It's probably a good thing, all things considered. You get deep into gun nerdery and there's an event horizon, somewhere after the 10th page of tables, where you print consecutive stats for the IMI Galil ACE 23 and the IMI Galil ACE 53 and there's a part of my soul that just breaks. However, if I'm being perfectly honest, my particular soul is not much more than an obstacle when it comes to creating a detailed simulation of modern combat. In fact, I'm far less interested in modeling the difference between 5.56x45mm NATO and 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition than I am by the fact that this particular rifle apparently has a built-in bottle opener.

Why didn't you tell me about the bottle opener, Ops and Tactics: Modern Combat Manual? I had to learn it from Wikipedia, of all places.

Anyway, the difference between the two is that one does 5d4 damage with 5 points of recoil penalty  and the other does 5d6 damage with 6 points of recoil.

The main thing I hope you all take away from this rambling is that this game has a niche. I admire its attention to detail. It demonstrates an enviable industry. But much like the dung beetle, it's a form of industry I'd prefer to admire from a distance.

Ops and Tactics uses a hacked version of the d20 system that replaces the d20 with 3d6 and eschews classes for a more free-form leveling system. I can't say I entirely agree with all its choice (for example, I have my doubts that a Gaussian distribution of die rolls is going to have enough of an emotional payoff to justify giving every action in the game an extra dose of addition), but it seems solid enough, especially if your goal is to make combat an exercise in precise number crunching and the accumulation of small advantages through carefully chosen tactics. There's a feat here that gives you a bonus to cleaning your weapon in the middle of combat, and it's not obviously a trap. I don't want to say too much against it, because it's clearly something of immense value to the sort of people who value that sort of thing.

Overall, I'd say that Ops and Tactics: Modern Combat Manual is a workhorse of a book - unglamorous, but thorough and precise. It's the sort of game where you might want to abandon the grid, but for a ruler and protractor instead of theater of the mind. It's the sort of book where the gamemastering chapter takes a 3 page detour to explain the physical principles involved in the operation of a handgun, then does the same thing for rifles, shotguns, and grenade launchers.  Have you ever wanted to know the precise definition of "assault rifle" and why the AR-15 doesn't count? Read this book and you'll find out.

Ukss Contribution: In a way, I'm spoiled for choice. This book has positively pummeled my brain with firearms trivia, some of which I actually found pretty interesting (Beretta has been making guns since the 16th century). The difficulty comes in finding applicability for this information. The US Postal Inspection Service is issued shotguns . . . is that something I can use? Probably not.

Anyway, the game has stats for mustard gas, which I always thought was the most evocatively named of the terrifying chemical weapons, so that's what I'm going with.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

(M: tAs) Convention Book: Void Engineers

Threat Null was a pretty satisfying plot twist. I genuinely did not see it coming, but it makes perfect sense in retrospect. The Technocrats who got stranded by the Avatar Storm suffered disembodiment and became this weird sci-fi horror threat that was half alien invasion and half cosmological nightmare. The Void Engineers must fight against the physical threat, but also keep an eye out for infiltration and subversion and the enemy knowing all the back doors and passwords the old leaders of the Technocracy put into their devices, bases, and mental conditioning. They abandoned the thought of defecting, but they are more alone than ever.

The frustrating part of Convention Book: Void Engineers for me, an obsessive Mage: the Ascension fan, is that so much of it is a great campaign pitch, but it's presented as some late-hitting metaplot that will likely never get resolved. I suppose that's an apt sendoff - one last bit of White Wolf-esque "oh, you like this group? Well their spotlight book is going to change everything about them" to round out the series.

Because make no mistake, the Void Engineers presented here are a very different animal than the ones we've seen in Mage's original run. Oh, there are similarities. The peculiar mix of curiosity with xenophobia is still there. They still have a bit of an irreverent edge. But the democracy is gone. There's no longer the sense that they've got one foot out the door. They're still, relatively speaking, the reasonable Technocrats, but it is unlikely that they'll be a bridge between the factions of the Ascension War.

It all really comes down to a simple organizational difference - they are now 100% a sci-fi military instead of merely an exploratory organization with a military wing. Whatever bits of Star Trek there were in the original presentation have been replaced with Starship Troopers.

I can't tell you whether I approve of the change or not. On the one hand, the militant Void Engineers are more in line with the Technocracy's overall tone. On the other hand, the fact that it came about because of a metaplot development makes it feel really regressive. These are people who are in some sense getting worse as time goes on. Maybe that fits a bit better into the pessimistic tone of the World of Darkness, but something is definitely getting lost.

My instinct with Convention Book: Void Engineers is that the best use of it is to take it at face value, but if you do take it at face value, the game you're playing is only marginally Mage: the Ascension. What I mean by that is that the Void Engineers are wrong about the spirit world. Consult literally any other source about the Umbra and you'll find that while it has its native dangers, it is not especially a source of threats. Like, sure, there are Nephandi living beyond the Horizon who want to come to Earth and destroy it, and you'll definitely want someone out there stopping them from doing that, but that's not all there is to do out there. When you talk about the Dreamspeakers or the the Euthanatos or even the Order of Hermes going into the spirit world, they're learning secrets and finding treasures and forging alliances and only occasionally does all hell break loose.

At some point, you have to consider that, if the Void Engineers are going into alternate dimensions and finding only enemies, perhaps they are the problem. Both the original book and this one sometimes skirted up against this idea. The coincidence of  their explorations with colonial genocide is again brought up in the history section, and this time the narrator was upfront about the Convention's misdeeds ("Our wish to distance ourselves from politics instead lead us to playing a role in slaughter"), but this honesty doesn't lead to any soul searching. They're doing the same thing in the Umbra that they did in the Americas - venturing beyond the borders of the empire to find new foes to subdue.

Each of the Technocratic Conventions has a dark reflection in Threat Null . . . except the Void Engineers. This is presented as a frightening mystery (where are they hiding . . . what strange knowledge do they command . . . is it possible we were spared), but it seems obvious to me that the Void Engineers' Threat Null counterparts are the Void Engineers. It's their paranoia and fear that has transformed them into relentless killers, their much-vaunted "independence" twisted into a blithe arrogance that stops them from confiding in their fellow Conventions. 

They don't understand that they've already been corrupted, that on some level they always have been. Before the Avatar Storm, they affected an aloofness from the Technocracy, and both in-fiction and out of fiction they are distanced from the Union's atrocities even as they continue to accept its money, and thus, post-Storm they are intimately entangled with disembodied shadow-Union even as they are physically and culturally more isolated than ever. They make the same mistake with Threat Null that they do with the rest of the Umbra. It is not, fundamentally, a threat - it is a manifest psychodrama, a divine mystery that reveals something important about its players. And what the Void Engineers lack the insight to understand is that they don't have to be disembodied (sorry, "void adapted") to be trapped by it. 

My personal theory about Threat Null is that they might, incidentally, pose a danger to Sleepers, but their final destination isn't Earth. The place they're trying to get to is wherever the Technocracy happens to be. The way to stop them is for the Conventions to stop being the Technocracy. 

It's just a personal version of their general error - except for a few outliers, the denizens of the Umbra do not want to break through the Gauntlet and conquer the Earth. Most of them are, at worst, neutral towards humanity. The most dangerous spirits are almost always the ones that human beings have wounded in some way, and the best defense against them is not high-tech satellites that prolong the Avatar Storm (the VE's new biggest secret now that they no longer have a Dyson Sphere), but rather just healing the wound. And that's something their philosophy simply hasn't prepared them for.

Or, at least, that's how I'd do it if I were running Threat Null as a Mage story. Like I said, a better use of the material is to take it at face value. There's a government agency that monitors visitors from alternate dimensions, but one day the scientists responsible for maintaining the agency's own travel equipment notices that their otherworlds are slowly succumbing to an alien threat that just so happens to share all their same codes and protocols. It's a great idea for a sci-fi game, but a problematic direction for one that ostensibly wants to remain in the urban fantasy genre. 

Having read the whole series of new Convention Books, I'd say as a group they're pretty well done - largely balancing the mandate to make a sympathetic sympathetic players' guide with the necessity of having the organizations as a whole remain villains. The new introductions to canon largely work, though their admirable commitment to diversity is perhaps too admirable, given that they're supposed to represent a group synonymous with the cultural failings of European high modernism. Ultimately, though, it feels a little weird to me to see such a quintessentially 90s setting get continued so long after its original context, especially in such a selective way. It really doesn't feel like a continuation of Mage, Revised when the implication is that the Traditions just spun their wheels for the better part of a decade. They were a noble effort, and a welcome, if belated fulfillment of the implied promise that came with creating a Convention Book: Iteration X, but they were also a thing out of time - and it showed.

Ukss Contribution: I really like the Null-Threat analogue to the Progenitors. They call themselves the Transhumans, but the plural is deceiving. They promise to give you a beautiful, immortal body at the peak of human potential, and they do, but the price is that you're immediately subsumed into their dominant hive mind. One superhuman intelligence controlling who knows how many exquisitely crafted bodies. It puts a new spin on the old assimilation trope ("what if the Borg were hot?")

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

(M:tAs) Convention Book: Syndicate

Convention Book: Syndicate is going to be a challenge for me because I know it's operating on at least four levels of critical irony - It wants to correct the prior depictions of the Syndicate that made them out to be cartoonishly villainous, but it also wants to downplay early Revised's overcorrection into making the Technocracy heroic, but also the people the Syndicate is based off of are real life villains, but also we are so steeped in the ideology of capitalism that we'll often construct apologetics for capitalism without even realizing it.

I'll give you a concrete example from the book. Here is how it describes the subprime lending crisis:

A handful of overly ambitious shithead Financiers gave some very bold advice to the people who write the laws that govern how loans work in these United States. They needed more fluid capital to work with and figured that if a bunch of poor people got loans for houses they couldn't afford, well, then they could just drain them dry and they'd have some easy money. . .

Part of the compensation plan has been to back a rewrite of the whole American bankruptcy law. People were taking out loans they knew they could not afford and then just claiming bankruptcy and making the state take care of them -- parasites with little to no judgement or self-control.

What do I even do with that? Well, the first thing would be to walk it back a little by pointing out that in the three paragraphs I cut out of the quote, the narrator does express some sympathy towards the middle class for the "foreclosure and misery [that] reigned over [them] for the last decade." It's important to acknowledge that they are less callous than their counterparts on real Wall Street. But once that acknowledgement is out of the way, I'll have to immediately walk forward again by pointing out that rest of the book advances the party line that the crash happened because "A few Financiers . . . attempted to accelerate consumer wealth - primarily through home ownership."

What is even going on here? That's where the layers of irony come in. On one level, we really shouldn't take the word of the Syndicate at face value. A lot of their talk about the crash is simple ass-covering. Another theme that gets repeated is that the financial crisis happened because the Technocracy needed money. This is a bit more truthful, even if it's framed as a defense. They created exotic financial instruments and then endlessly sold them and resold them to each other because they wanted money and they didn't care who they had to hurt to get it.

But we also have to consider that this is a fantasy game. An explicit goal of the book is to present the Syndicate as people who "struggle between the desire to be noble and the need to be pragmatic." So maybe there is something to the idea that they were sincerely trying to help, but suffered a paradox backlash. That's not how it went down in real life, but Mage: the Ascension isn't real. . .

It's an idea that could work, but it yields a gaming supplement that feels like it could be praised by National Review. That's the danger of incorporating real events into your fiction. You blur the lines between characters reacting to plot and the author reacting to events.

That's just a tension you have to be comfortable with if you're going to enjoy Convention Book: Syndicate. The Syndicate are the heroes of their own story, but they're also unreliable narrators. If you want the opinion of this grumpy leftist, it's not a tightrope the book always walks successfully. Often, it reads more like a villain book than the original 2e splat, where they explicitly villains.

What it comes down to for me is that a central pillar of their philosophy is utterly toxic. They are dedicated elitists who don't believe in equality. Not only do they think it's impossible, thy think it's inherently undesirable. According to a sidebar "wealth only has value because it is unequal. If everybody has equal wealth, then nobody is wealthy." The Syndicate enforces a system that is hierarchical to its core, and they can't be separated from that.

A funny thing about that, though is that the Syndicate sets itself against medieval feudalism, claiming that "aristocrats are a drain on the economy. They produce nothing." The real irony of the statement is not that it's being said by a capitalist, but that it tracks very well with Marx's historiography. Capitalism is the progressive historical successor to feudalism, much as socialism is to be towards capitalism, but the Syndicate views itself as the end of history. Truly, they are those who stand athwart history, yelling "stop."

Overall, I'd say that Convention Book: Syndicate is another piece of evidence in support of the notion that the Technocracy's time has passed. They are the "Defenders of the Status Quo," the one anti-progressive faction in a group defined (for good and for ill) by its progressivism. They have a niche in the World of Darkness, and they are the heart of the version of the Technocracy that represents the excesses of European imperialism, but in a world where you want the narrator of the book to be a Ghanaian woman who has internalized the values of American capitalism, where the one unironic thing about the splat's presentation is its newfound commitment to being a genuinely gender- and color-blind meritocracy, then it becomes ever harder to see what ties the Technocracy together.

I suppose that's the undercurrent of the NWO vs Syndicate civil war metaplot. The Union is, in fact, in danger of flying apart. It's an idea that has been teased repeatedly in the new Convention Books, and gets its fullest expression here, where the Syndicate is absolutely dripping with contempt for the NWO, but which, as far as I recall, is completely abandoned (aside from the obligatory optional sidebar) in M20.

I'm probably too ideologically alienated from the fantasy of capitalism to truly enjoy this book as a player resource, but it does do the job of fleshing out one of Mage's more one-dimensional factions, and there's some value in that (no pun intended).

Ukss Contribution: The "Mercenary" sample character is a "warfighter who can run the numbers, so they can find economic solutions to violent conflicts." It's an interesting combination that could inspire a whole company of forensic accountants/nation builders/guerilla warriors.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Academy Arcana

Where to Get It: Google doc

Academy Arcana is another short, simple game. It uses a stripped-down variant of Fudge with almost no rules for conflicts, obstacles, or performance benchmarks. It's so minimal that I suspect it would work better as a campaign supplement for the Fudge rpg than as an independent game.

So how does it work as a campaign? Well . . . what's there is good, but there's not enough of it to do the job it set out to do. The premise is that you're students at a school for magic and you get a customized skill list (that sets aside two of its six slots for "Hazing" and "Pranks"), rules for character advancement based on the school year, and a bunch of suggested spells with the usual mix of good ("Cosmetic Illusion") and bad ("Firestorm" - because that's the sort of thing you want to teach high school seniors).

There is also some setting information that does a fine job setting the game's tones (try out for the Dungeonball team . . . unless you're one of those alchemy nerds who'd rather join the Cauldron Club), but four faculty members and three classes are not enough to build a world.

Overall, Academy Arcana was pleasant, but it was little more than a pitch. If this were a quickstart for a bigger game, I'd be interested. If a friend showed this to me, asking for feedback, I'd tell them they were on to something and they should keep going. As it is, there's just not enough meat on these bones for me to recommend it without qualification. A good-natured "Harry Potter with the serial numbers filed off" is something the world can use right now,but this particular book, despite having some fun and unique ideas (like getting a bonus to your spell-casting roll for acting out the gestures and invocations), really just feels like a start.

Ukss Contribution: Not a lot to work with here, but I liked the "Extradimensional Safe" spell, even if the book never quite explored all the hilarious and entertaining ways it could go wrong.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Mice-Men of Mirewald: Spring

 Where to get it: Creator's itch.io page

Much like its titular characters, The Mice-Men of Mirewald is small and cute. I'm actually reviewing both the main rules document and the setting document, because combined they come in at a total of 6 pages (one of which is a map). The best part about it is the art direction. It's colorful, medieval-feeling, and there are cute mouse-men doing adventuring-type things. It's pretty much ideal for the subject matter.

The system itself is fine. It's a simple limited-dice pool. You roll up to 3 dice and your goal is to roll under a target number, if you're doing something mouse-related and over the same target number if you're doing something man-related. That number is chosen at character creation, along with the single trait and simple equipment list that determines how many dice you roll. The GM sometimes rolls opposing dice, but overall, the system is more of a results-engine than anything super tactical.

Give the short length of the rules, you're pretty much expected to play near-freeform and it will probably work out okay. It's not explicitly stated, but GMs will want to frame scenes around a single problem and then require at most one roll per PC to wrap the scene up.

The book itself provides a simple campaign model - you're mice on a mission to deliver the mail, despite inclement weather and giant (relative to a mouse) predators. There are even short tables that allow you to generate weather effects, sidequests, and dramatic reversals, though I can't imagine the simple premise has enough longevity to make rolling worthwhile. Since there are only 6 entries on each table, I'd probably just use each of them once in an extended adventure.

Overall, I'd say this was well worth the 15 minutes it took for me to read it. It probably won't spark any epic campaigns, but it could serve as a memorable one-shot.

Ukss Contribution: It's undoubtedly redundant for Ukss to have both talking rats and talking mice, so I'll just use this particular contribution to flesh out the culture of the Awakened Rats. The specific thing that most impressed me was, in fact, the game's central premise. I really like the idea of a mouse (i.e. rat)-driven postal service. It's positively adorable just thinking about it.

Monday, September 28, 2020

(M:tAs) Convention Book: Progenitors

 These revised Convention Books continue to be deeply weird, though Convention Book: Progenitors is so different from Convention Book: NWO that I'm holding out hope that they will all be weird in different and unique ways. This particular book has a recurring theme that can be summed up as, "we used to be bad, but then we got better."

It's an . . . interesting direction to go with the faction. Part of what's going on, of course, is the old White Wolf rule that you're not allowed to change anything about the setting without making it an event within the setting. So you've got an in-character sidebar apologizing about the backronym "FACADE" ("Forced Adaptation and Clone Alteration Developmental Eugenics" . . . which even for a backronym doesn't make a lot of sense) that concludes by saying "we collectively haven't yet earned the right to change it" . . . because, of course, you still want your paranoia-inducing clone conspiracy to exist in your occult-horror universe. 

And yet it is quite canonical that the Avatar Storm . . . erm, Dimensional Anomaly, very conveniently killed off all the more explicitly sci-fi horror characters from the early 1st edition book. It's a running gag (though I'm sure it wasn't intended to be humorous) throughout Convention Book: Progenitors that whenever they talk about dissent, mistakes, or even basic compassion, they need to point out that those things won't get you killed any more. It used to be, back before the Dimensional Anomaly, that a research assistant might stick their neck out and say that creating a slave race of cannibalistic lizard-people with names like "Zsgraak, Devourer of His Enemies' Bowels" was perhaps . . . ethically dubious, and then wind up being unceremoniously murdered and replaced with a lobotomized clone, but now that sort of whistleblowing is moderately encouraged.

Of course, this is an artifact of Progenitors being the first of the original Technocracy books, released in the game's first year. So they were not just villains, they were cartoonish supervillains who invented pollen allergies to keep people from enjoying nature. I'm not sure exactly how much of that depiction is still canon, but clearly enough of it still is that the new book needs to come up with a metaplot contrivance to explain why you might actually be able to play a Progenitor without being a cackling mustache-twirler.

Which is a bit of a shame, because of all the Technocracy Conventions, they are the one that most seamlessly meshes with both the World of Darkness in general and Mage: the Ascension in particular. They create strange creatures like cryptids, uplifts, and frankensteins , but also they have a praxis that can seem like magic while still being plausibly "scientific." Like, Iteration X will create a super-efficient gun with the Forces Sphere, but then that raises the question of "why can't an ordinary person pick that up and blow the fucking roof off whatever building they happen to be standing in," but the Progenitors don't take quite so convoluted an explanation to reconcile. The reason that they need to be physically present and in command in order for their super-science to actually work is because it is frequently literal brain surgery. It's something that takes an uncanny degree of skill. You can't just build something and hand it off (well, except for the drugs, but even those fit better with the Sphere system's "1 roll = 1 effect.")

The most awkward aspect of the Progenitors magic is the fact that there is relatively little for non-masters to do. One of the three main Methodologies, the FACADE Engineers, whole deal is that they create clones of people, either for infiltration or life extension. It's a great organization, with a well-defined niche that fits perfectly in a horror setting, but you aren't getting anywhere close to their signature techniques until you have Life 4 or 5 (and the accompanying Mind 5 that you will only use for this one specific effect). The weird thing is that if, like the canon FACADE Engineers, you only had the narrow ability to duplicate and replace people, that in itself might not be overpowered. It's only down to the fact that there's no way to get there, under the Mage rules, without also having sublime control over every conceivable form of life and thought that makes this such a problematic organization. 

Though the Progenitors are often depicted with the right feel, given their role in the setting, the realities of making them a player-character faction wind up exposing the seams of the setting's metaphysics. Their greatest secrets, the Life 5 effects, have canonically existed since the dawn of time. They are explicitly the successor organization to a group of Hellenistic sorcerer-physicians who went around stitching together animals and humans to create mythological chimera and now, 2000 years later, they're trying to figure out how to accomplish the same result with DNA. As a group, they spend a huge portion of their time researching, but the rules that govern the universe say that their efforts cannot be as collaborative, cumulative, and incremental as real science. If sutures are Life 2 and heart transplants are Life 3, then the newbies have to rediscover each one in turn before they're allowed to contribute to novel problems. And yes, I'm sure that it is indeed the case that real medical students reenact historical discoveries as part of their lab work, but training new scientists doesn't take substantially longer than it did 20, or even 50 years ago, and yet work is proceeding on previously unsolved problems.

To some degree, it's an artifact of Mage's ruleset, but there's also an ambiguity to what scientists, enlightened or otherwise, actually do. There's a great passage that illustrates the weirdness of what's going on:

Then there's what some call "fast-tracking research." The process is simple: a lab director demonstrates some corner of Enlightened Science, then turns the project over to unEnlightened scientists to replicate and "work out the kinks." When they hit an obstacle that seems to imply the Procedure is impossible, the director returns to show them that the advanced Procedure can in fact work. This leads to redoubled efforts and, if all goes well, new technology introduced to the Consensus . . .

What is reality, even? And if there is no physical reality to base new technologies on, then ultimately an invention is paradoxical depending on how surprising it is, regardless of any consistency it might have with established scientific principles. If this is really how things work (and the "fast-tracking" is definitely framed as if it eventually pays dividends), then the Technocracy-apologist line is actually pretty credible. The guys who use their magic to rigorously and meticulously expand the boundaries of the possible are doing good and necessary work. That sort of mundane-ification of magical techniques would likely be lost if the Traditions broke the unitary paradigm - with mages pulling in 9+ different directions, individual belief and will are too important.

It's actually kind of shocking that this idea made it into canon. Fast-tracking has always been something the Technocracy claimed to do, and it was likely something they believed they could do, but to have confirmation in an out-of-character section is huge. It's a shame that it came so late in the revised line that the Traditions couldn't articulate their alternative.

Overall, I'd say that Convention Book: Progenitors is one of the stronger splatbooks. It introduces new science fiction elements into the Mage setting, but with an aesthetic that doesn't demand a change of genre, and while the information provided makes them, for the first time, credible heroes, it's not so shiny as to destroy their utility as villains.

Ukss Contribution: I kind of want to add Xenotransplants as a whole category. It's a great sort of reified power-gamer idea - harvest the parts from other supernatural splats (troll's skin, vampire muscles, etc) and graft them onto a character for a permanent power boost! It's mad science, it's occult, it's ruthlessly practical!

However, I'm not going to be greedy. I'll just take the best individual xenotransplant - Deviant's Heart. Replace your own human heart with a werewolf's in order to gain speed, strength, and a dangerously unpredictable rage.