Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Convention Book: NWO

 There's an uncanny valley feeling that comes from reading a Mage book written in 2012. Convention Book: NWO no longer has that late-90s "we'll just say whatever the fuck we want - that's the book" energy, but also, it's no longer even remotely relevant to anything anymore. Yes, you can rename the Men In Black to "the Black Suits" on the recommendation of the Collegium of Gender Studies, and that's progress of a sort ("more female sci-fi authoritarians"), but the immediate follow-up question of "what, exactly, does any of this have to do with the ongoing patriarchal backlash against women's rights that is currently overtaking the right-wing governments of western-style democracies" doesn't appear to be anywhere on the agenda.

The Obama administration is probably the final time in American history when you could write an unironic book about "the New World Order" and not look entirely like a right-wing hack. And I have to be conscientious here and remember that these are people who had not yet experienced the Jade Helm conspiracy theories, let alone QAnon or whatever is supposed to be going on with Bill Gates and the Covid-19 vaccine. There was probably still a little bit of X-Files fanfic left to be written.

However, I think we now have to acknowledge that the NWO, even as a White Wolf creation, is a product of 90s conspiracy-theory culture with unpalatable right-wing provenance. A secret cabal of elites has infiltrated the media and the universities and is indoctrinating the public in a materialist and irreligious ideology that puts absolute faith in science and the government. Fake news and cultural marxism, amirite?

I feel like old-school White Wolf would have ran with it. It's a World of Darkness, so why not crib from the Alex Jones extended universe? Why shouldn't the NWO be responsible for turning the frogs gay?

Convention Book: NWO takes a different approach. For the most part, it's blandly apolitical. The NWO manipulates sleeper media to control the Consensus and hide evidence of the supernatural, but its place in America's ongoing culture wars is indistinct.  It has a Collegium of Gender Studies, and it is allowed to win the occasional symbolic victory, but it was intended as a stalking horse to separate the most discontent feminists from the Convention's patriarchal mainstream.

Which was maybe accurately observed in 2012, but now feels positively benign. To hear talk of academic Gender Studies and not immediately be assaulted by the panicked shrieking of fascist trolls who will claim that it's all part of a plot to put all white, Christian men into concentration camps . . . it's surreal. Maybe even quaint.

But that raises the question of what exactly the NWO is supposed to be? I noted a similar identity crisis in the first NWO book, but it's even more pronounced now that they're getting a straight-out players' book. 

The key to understanding the Technocratic Conventions is to think about them in terms of sci-fi horror. What technological nightmares are they bringing to life? The Progenitors and Iteration X were alternate flavors of body horror - the nightmare of being replaced by a clone or assimilated into a machine consciousness. The Syndicate is the nightmare of capitalism. And when the Void Engineers weren't being the "space! rah, rah!" guys, they represented the nightmare of coming into contact with hostile alien life and cosmic horrors.

There are a lot of nightmares the NWO could represent. The most plausible is the nightmare of institutional power. The government can arrest you and torture you and kill you and it's not accountable to anyone. Convention Book: NWO brushes up against this with its "wetworks" divisions and "processing" rote, but because this is a PC book, these are either downplayed or lost in the noise of typical PC shenanigans.

They can also represent the nightmare of a loss of privacy, but despite how topical that might be, fiction has fallen short of reality. Oh, their new Methodology, The Feed, is monitoring social media and looking for patterns with Trend Analysts? Okay, but call me back when they start creating cute little games in order to trick people into voluntarily training facial recognition AIs so that the government can crack down on protests.

The funny thing about both these nightmares is that they are more relevant than ever, but in service to the exact opposite of what the NWO is supposed to be about. Authoritarian tools, but in the service of religious and ethnic prejudice, national sovereignty, and individual cults of personality.

That's likely how those tools have always been used, but WW bought into the 90s conspiracy theory fad and thus gives us a group of authoritarian social engineers without realizing that "social engineering" has always been right-wing code for "integrated schools" and "not hating LGBTQA+ people." The nightmare of the NWO is the nightmare of professors sitting quietly in their offices writing alternate interpretations of a history curriculum.

It was probably neither conscious choice nor pure coincidence that the head of the "Ministry of Information" was a 60-year-old Black woman who "had a thing for covering civil-rights violations."

Ultimately, I think the time where the NWO could be a credible organization has passed. We have as much to fear from our governments as ever, but the face of that fear is not well-organized experts with detailed plans. Hell, a group of magically competent educators who use media savvy and bureaucratic expertise to teach the public to respect science is . . . something I dare not wish for.

 None of that should be taken as a mark against the book's quality, however. It's just that Convention Book: NWO proved to be a well-written description of a dream that has no place in our reality.

Ukss Contribution: Mirrorshade. The iconic NWO look. I'm not sure how I'll fit something so cosmetic and superficial into Ukss, but I'll find a way.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

(Trinity Continuum) In Media Res

 Twelve pages is probably too short for an adventure. In Media Res has four such stories, and while they often present interesting concepts, they generally end right around the point where they start to get interesting. It's basically a quartet of pilot episodes.

Which is extremely fitting, really. The Trinity Continuum is not shy about drawing inspiration from the most formulaic sort of action-adventure television. It's the game's best quality. You want to play a campaign based on MacGuyver or Burn Notice or Leverage? It's not even subtext. They are cited on the first page, with a one-to-one line drawn between series and adventures (only Artifacts, Etc. is an exception - its main inspiration is Indiana Jones).

The adventures do a pretty good job of capturing their inspirations, but they all share this weird feeling of "now you have established the premise of your campaign." Ironically, it seems to me that the weakest possible use of In Media Res is to add a story to the middle of an ongoing game.

Let's break down the stories individually:

Codename: Aquarius isn't even a pilot episode. It's the first act of a pilot episode. You work for a "private intelligence agency" called "9." One of your fellow agents was recently killed by a rogue CIA operative and you need to track him down. When you finally find him, he reveals that he was framed for the murder because he discovered that both the CIA and 9 have been compromised by moles from a mysterious group that calls itself "Aquarius." And that's it.

The adventure tries to play coy about whether the target is telling the truth, but by the laws of drama, he pretty much has to be. It's the only thing that gives the adventure even a semblance of a plot. If you go with the "he's just lying to get away" theory, then what you have is a story where the PCs trust someone they have no reason to trust and he proves untrustworthy. By contrast, if he's telling the truth, then you've introduced a new character who changes the status quo and given you a premise for a long arc. There's no real comparison.

Artifacts, Etc is interesting to me because it would have felt radical if it were released in 2001, as part of Adventure!, but is long overdue circa 2020. The PCs are archaeologists and investigators who search for ancient artifacts and mystical treasures . . . and return them to the indigenous cultures from which they were stolen. The first case involves an old movie studio that used genuine antiquities as props in its pulp serials. It's an entertaining intersection of old Hollywood glamor and modern politics, even if I suspect that the decision to leave the native culture generic was not as fruitful as the sidebar encouraging us to do our own research would suggest.

Caper, Incorporated is the strongest of the bunch. There's an interesting lore question - is the international cat burglar Angelique Rousseau any relation to the Aberrant power-player Sophia Rousseau? Though whether she is or not has little bearing on the interesting things that are happening in the adventure. Basically, she stole something hotter than she was prepared to handle and stumbled across an interdimesional conspiracy to invade the Earth and plunder its resources. It has sci-fi technology, interdimensional doubles replacing their Earth prime counterparts, corporate greed, and high-stakes heists. In the end, it doesn't resolve the main plot, but the setting implications are enough to carry a whole series.

Classified: Help Wanted is the most complex of the scenarios, but it achieves that complexity by leaving a lot of detail to the GM. There's a corrupt real-estate developer whose unfinished high-rise is a costly scam that is riddled with organized crime. The PCs are there to help out the innocent people caught in the crossfire, but there's relatively little plot. Most of the wordcount is devoted to the various characters and their agendas. It's a decent setup for adventures, but it's clearly only the beginning.

Overall, I liked In Media Res. It's not one of the great adventure books, though Artifacts, Etc and Caper, Incorporated could have been, if they'd been given room to breathe. As an introduction to what the Trinity Continuum is capable of, it works, but GMs are going to have to do a bit more legwork than they might otherwise expect.

Ukss Contribution: Well, Artifacts, Etc has a magic wand. That's definitely a sign. It stores memories and allows people to relive them as if they were there, even to the point of interacting with the memory figures and asking them questions. It has potential.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

ESPRE Essential Players Guide

 Where to Get It: Creator's Google Drive

Generic systems pose a bit of a problem. I don't particularly enjoy reading them, but that's a perverse metric. The enjoyable part of a generic system is not how it reads, but how it plays.  That's a difficult thing to eyeball.

So maybe I should just go with a description.

ESPRE is an effects-based superhero system with a rigorous keyword system built atop a streamlined version of d20. You're given a fixed number of Template Points to design your character's power suite, but the actual strength of your powers are based on your Combat level. Ultimately, it's a tug-of-war between the notorious imbalance of effects-based point-buy and the efforts of the level math to pummel that into something notionally playable. Whether the proper balance is achieved is not something I can judge just from a single read-through.

The biggest barrier to enjoying ESPRE has got to be its layout. Especially in the long, dry powers section, I often had trouble seeing where one topic ended and the next began. It wasn't until the sample characters at the end of the chapter that I could even piece together how character creation was supposed to work. A jargon-heavy approach to power construction didn't help matters, though I expect that once you start getting into the game, the precision of its language will pay dividends. 

That being said, if you can make it through character creation, ESPRE has a lot to offer. It pulls together a number of important threads of superhero rpg design - elaborate power suites, fast easy-to-resolve combat, late d20-inspired hedges against save-or-die effects, and a narrative currency that is earned by respecting the genre contract and is spent on both mechanical boosts and limited dramatic editing - and if it doesn't always read as elegantly as I'd like, it also doesn't get lost in the spectacle of superpowers. There's no way a starting character can blow up the Earth, unlike certain other generic supers rpgs I could name.

The thing I'm going to remember most about ESPRE is the way it stats out typical human movement, senses, and metabolism as templated superpowers. Technically, you have to spend points to be able to see visible light, walk across the room without stumbling over your own feet, and not be magnetic. And I can't be entirely sure, but it seems like if you read the rules literally, robot characters are by default damaged by efforts to repair them. It's not as bad as it could be, because the packages are already pre-bundled and factored into the cost of your Template, but it's such an odd bit of minutiae. I guess the upside to this is that it's trivial to make weird alien creatures and beings of fantasy, but it would be nice if ESPRE had enough of a setting to demonstrate the payoff to that design choice.

Overall, I'd say that this game is clearly a labor of love, and it would be worth checking out for that reason alone. System-wise, it compares favorably to Aberrant and Wild Talents, but that's a low bar to clear. My gut tells me that this is a system that will feel rewarding to experts, but alienate newbies with its lack of compromises.

Ukss Contribution: As a generic system, there's very little for me to work with, but I liked the power that let you create boxes around people. That could be a neat inspiration for a wand.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Surprise Bonus Post - Angel of Mercy

 I own a few Mage-related things that aren't on my reading list - the 20th Anniversary Art Book, the novel trilogy, the tarot deck and a couple of Storyteller's Screens. You know, it's a collection, gotta have the peripheral stuff even if it's not part of my main quest.

And I was pretty content with that until I learned that the 1st edition Storyteller's Screen was supposed to come with a booklet. My so-called "complete collection" was one volume short.

Nooo!!!

But what could I do? A new 1st edition screen would set me back $30-50 (once you factor in shipping) and if I could get 1 screen sans book, I could get a second. And tracking down the book by itself was too difficult for my meager research skills. So I did something I don't normally like to do - I bought the PDF.

Because it felt weird to me to read all of the White Wolf run except this book, I'm also going to bend the blog's normal PDF policy. I present to you Angel of Mercy, the first Mage adventure.

It's okay.

I mean, it's a nothing of an adventure. There's this weird fountain that has a demon inside it. Some Nazi occultists want to let it out. You've got stop them without using so much vulgar magic that the Technocracy decides you're the greater threat. It's really more of a situation than a scenario, but it works. I'd have felt bad about paying 40 bucks for it, though.

The most notable thing about it to me, a guy who has just spent the last 10 months (almost to the day!) reading every Mage book in chronological order, is how . . . casual it seems about Mage lore. The adventure begins in a nightclub, and it suggests that "club-oriented characters (probably Hollow Ones, Cultists of Ecstasy, Verbena, Dreamspeakers, or Euthanatos mages)" might be the first to pick up on the events.

Dreamspeakers are "club-oriented," you know, because half the Traditions are just shallow stereotypes of people the White Wolf writers see at their local Goth club. It's adorable.

I've got some other notes about how the Technocracy started out working alongside paradox spirits and dispatching agents to unremarkable local malls, but that's just early 1st edition for you. The Nazi mages, The Iron Circle, make a return in Tradition Book: Verbena, the 3rd-to-last book in the entire line, which is kind of remarkable seeing as how they were in none of the books in-between, but the only notable thing about their appearance is how refreshing it is that Angel of Mercy has an absolute moral clarity in naming them the bad guys.

I don't think I'll ever run this adventure, but it was nice to circle back around to the beginning now that I've seen where this game is going to wind up.

Ukss Contribution: The Forest of Moaning Oaks. The adventure doesn't say anything about it except that some lore about the statue might be there, but I liked the name, and in as insubstantial a product as this turned out to be, I'll take what I can get.

(M:tAs) Ascension - Part 2

 This book probably could have used a different title. I'm not going to pretend I've got a better idea for what it should have been, but what Ascension is about is the end of the world. Actual "Ascension," even as an eschatological concept doesn't really enter into it.

I mean, okay, with the exception of the "Nephandi wins" scenario, the various chapters end with something good (or, at least, transformative) coming out of the apocalypse, but these usually have the feeling of last-minute swerves.

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is barely an apocalypse story at all, being more about a civil war inside the Technocracy that just so happens to be going on at the same time as some scary shit in the Umbra. It ends with the triumph of the Technocracy's paradigm and the winning faction inheriting a world where only technomagic functions.

"The Earth Will Shake" is about a giant meteor hitting the Earth. Every attempt to stop it is guaranteed to fail, but the PCs might mitigate the damage enough for some humans to survive, either in underground bunkers or the spirit world.

"A Whimper Not A Bang" is about aliens who start abducting Avatars, draining the Earth of magic in the process. You can't stop or reverse their plan, but you can take control of the alternate universe where they're storing the Avatars and become its creator gods when the Avatars finally reach critical mass and explode in a new (metaphorical) Big Bang.

I think the adventures as a whole suffered from the obvious mandate to Bring the World of Darkness to an End. "Technocracy Civil War" is a great idea for a campaign and could have easily supported a whole supplement on its own. "Mage does Armageddon" - again, a super fun idea, but if you're going to do it, you should probably do it fun. Yes, some ideological bickering that threatens to derail the mission, but at some point you're going to put a diverse crew together to kick that thing's ass. And the alien invasion plot is a good story, but should probably be either more claustrophobic (only an isolated Node is affected) or more world-shaking. A shadow war leading to the gradual fading of magic is what they created the Technocracy for. Adding aliens to the mix just confuses things.

Which isn't to say that the back half of the book is a total waste. There are a lot of good elements in each of the stories. I personally loved seeing The Star Council front and center, finally, and "The Earth Will Shake" sees the return of Doc Comet, who was the only character in the entire story as pulp as it deserved. Where the book mostly struggles is in balancing genre, theme, and player agency.

Take the final adventure, "Hell on Earth," as an example. There's a great campaign buried in that chapter, but said campaign would begin at the story's conclusion. If you played a game from the story's beginning, then what it's about is failure after failure as the Nephandi kick your ass up and down the multiverse thanks to the overpowered NPCs who come out of nowhere. It's got a few great moments, like the last stand of the Order of Hermes, but your "victory condition" such as it is, is that the PCs might be able to preserve enough of the world that future generations can hope to fight back against their evil overlords. It's not completely untenable, but it's my opinion that any parts of the story that rely on a forgone assumption of failure should be confined to the campaign backstory.

The most essential part of the book is, however, the storytelling chapter. . . I know, right? But there's a section that both diagnoses and prescribes the solution for all the book's biggest problems - It's the last four pages, where it talks about "ascension" concepts in abstract terms - gnosticism, salvation, technological singularity, etc. The earlier chapters would really have benefited from focusing on and exploring these ideas. That the Technocracy civil war should have also been a singularity story is obvious, but if you're not going to make the meteor scenario a pulp adventure, you could do worse than make it about a quest for religious salvation, and if you can't see the potential synergies between alien invasion stories and gnosticism - well, maybe that's not as obvious as I thought, but I think it's probably a good idea.

I wonder if maybe Ascension was too obligatory. An end of the world sourcebook is an incredibly good idea for a game about religion, but it's undeniable that the reason Ascension exists is because White Wolf was going to launch its new line of games and decided to send the old ones off with a tie-in marketing event. And I don't want to knock it for that. I remember that time well, and the hype was real. However, I have a feeling that if they weren't locked into a format and a deadline and a cross-product synergy, they'd probably have approached the subject matter differently, and I kind of want to read that book.  

Ascension 20th anniversary edition, anyone?

Ukss Contribution: In the meteor chapter, there's some discussion about the occult significance of comets, and a parallel adventure where players can explore the Umbra to gain more information about Typhon (what scientists were calling the asteroid in the real world). At one point, they encounter a space rock that disgorges monsters from beyond the Horizon.

A mystical comet that portends a space-monter invasion is kind of a cliche, but the classics are classics for a reason.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

(M:tAs) Ascension - Part 1

 This is going to be a two-part post for a number of reasons. First, it's a celebration. The White Wolf run of Mage: the Ascension has come to an end. And maybe that's not a reason to celebrate, per se, but it is a major event in the life of the game. The weight of the moment is definitely in the book, and I even found myself randomly crying at things that otherwise wouldn't merit it ("OMG, this is the last time they're going to take a potshot at Sao Christovao for no reason ::sob::").  Second, after reading the Prologue, Introduction, and two chapter, I'm approximately halfway through the book, and that's as good a place to stop as any. And third, you really can mentally divide Ascension between "canon" and "optional." In the book's own words, Chapter 2, "Judgement" is "as close as we get to providing an 'official' story."

I think they're being too modest. "Judgement" feels official. Mostly in a good way. Mysteries are revealed, fan favorite characters make their return, and plot threads introduced as early as The Book of Chantries are resolved. I'm not sure how well it works as an adventure, and I definitely remember feeling alienated by it back in 2004, but having read all 67 Mage books in chronological order, I would frequently nod my head and mumble, "I'm well-prepared for this."

I think, because of my hubris in devoting a whole post just to this chapter, I kind of have to try to summarize it now. . . oh, just excuse me for a moment . . . I, um, left my notes in the bathroom . . . I'll just grab my phone and my wallet and my keys and go get them . . .I'll be right back . . .

No, no, it's not that complicated. I mostly worry that I'm going to leave out some important cameo and accidentally leave you with the impression that there were portions of the adventure that weren't unrelenting fan service . . . Mostly in a good way. The NPC section warns us to "keep in mind that canonical characters should be seen as placeholders for other figures that matter in your own game," but I, the weird, obsessive rpg blogger am saying, "don't you fucking dare." If you're not going all-in on excess, you should use one of the later scenarios. The whole reason you run "Judgement" in the first place is because you want to fast-talk Mark Hallward Gillam into repeating Heylel Teomim's soul-merging experiment and then ship him with Marianna of Balador. 

I know it was a concession to the idea that the PCs should probably have some role in the events of the campaign, but I can't entirely forgive Ascension for not making the female half of "Heylel's Heir" be Penny Dreadful or Lee Ann Milner. I mean, I get it. You get to publish a sidebar titled "You Are The Betrayer," but making the PCs integral to the events strikes me as missing out on what's appealing about this scenario in particular. 

"RPG Adventures" where the PCs are just spectators while the GMs favorite NPCs hog the spotlight are bad, sure, but the series finale of a long-running franchise can be forgiven for scrimping on plot to just check in with as many characters as possible. I imagine there is a very narrow segment of the audience that is emotionally invested enough to care that Caeron Mustai was revealed, in a shocking twist, to be knowingly working against Ascension by using House Jannissary to cover up for Voormas and the Ksifari to feed information to the Technocrats because of an Ahl-i-Batin prophecy that the 10th Sphere would draw the Red Star, Antihelios, because it was actually Telos and would bring the world to an end even as it elevated the worthy among humanity to their final spiritual destiny, but also so jaded by all of the above that they'd sit around impatiently wondering what any of it had to do with them.

"Judgement" is an adventure for the message boards, is what I'm saying.

In this scenario, the eponymous avatars of the Avatar Storm start breaking through the Gauntlet. Some will merge with a Sleeper to create a new Awakened Mage and others will fly around wounding mages who are already Awakened. The simultaneous collapse of the Gauntlet allows gods, spirits, and the dead to openly walk the Earth. These events cause panic among the populace and the Technocracy steps out of the shadows to ensure that the world's governments can crack down more effectively. The newly awakened are often placed in internment camps, especially if they show religious and/or mystical tendencies in their magic.

The Hollow Ones rise up as an international guerilla movement because shut up, that's why, and between the fighting and their paradigm's inability to cope with the crisis, the Technocracy gradually loses the confidence of the masses. As the Red Star becomes visible to the naked eye, it becomes increasingly clear that the end of the world is nigh.

There is, however, one man who has a plan to stop it - Voormas, the Grand Harvester of Souls. Using the power of the shard realm of Entropy, he will redirect a quarter of the Avatars towards the Red Star, destroying it and forever obliterating the difference between life and death, leaving the universe in an eternal twilight of stasis.

There's no in-between state there. You can let Voormas turn the universe into a grim shadow-world or you can let it be destroyed (well, technically, you could also imitate the Void Engineers and hop into your sick-ass Dyson Sphere and bounce out of our reality), but one way or the other everyone is going to get totally fucked up. The PCs are assumed to be on team "everyone melts into the god of a new epoch."

To even stand a chance they need to unify the remnants of the Traditions and the Technocracy. This involves a quest through the spirit world where they learn that the Rogue Council was actually a bunch of Tradition Oracles, including their newest member, Dante, and that the Technocracy's Control was the spiritual manifestation of the Union's paranoia and whenever a master got powerful enough to join them, they were in fact absorbed body and soul into the composite entity.

Also, Porthos was there. Early in the adventure, there's a misleading prophecy that might result in the PCs trying to recreate Heylel Teomim's soul-merging experiment in order to create an alchemically perfect king to lead the Traditions through the apocalypse. It turns out that what you actually need is his psychopomp-summoning spell, which was contained in the same grimoire (i.e the one that could only be unlocked by the combined effort of Heylel's Heirs - Mark Hallward Gillam and the PC you suckered into playing the role). In the process of uncovering that information, you also learn that Heylel wasn't lying when he said he had good intentions and he really did what he did because his buddy Akrites foresaw disaster if he didn't. The only other person to know his secret was Porthos . . . who withheld the information at Heylel's trial because he was jealous of Heylel's relationship with Eloine, the Verbena member of the First Cabal (you know, the one that adult Porthos knew as a child).

Anyway, Porthos is an Oracle of Forces now.

In the end, you have to travel to the shard Realm of Judgement, on the Red Star and fight the House of Helekar. Not the organization. The actual House. It grows arms and legs and is a little too clumsy to use kung fu, but it deals uncountable damage when it hits and it can only be destroyed by taking out the crystal inside.

Voormas is the real final boss. Beat him and everyone dies. Or, you know, becomes the god of their own private universe that reflects their personal paradigm, which is exactly as pointless and fraught as the Virtual Adpets' Reality 2.0.

"In the end, they are games."

Overall, I really enjoyed "Judgement." I realized, shortly after finishing my recap, that even a deliberately half-assed summary that left out a lot of detail still managed to be crammed with canon wankery (and to understand this post, you'll need to have been following both the Mage: the Ascension and the It Came From the Bookshelf canon, because I can never resist recursion), but that wankery is its prime benefit. In the alternate world where Netflix declined to pick up Season 12 of the Mage tv show, but "Judgement" was released as a movie, you'd probably say "that was at least as good as Avengers: Endgame."

Monday, September 7, 2020

(M:tAs)Tradition Book: Virtual Adepts

 It may well be impossible to write a splatbook for the Virtual Adepts. Or, at least, it may be impossible to write a Virtual Adept book with any reasonable longevity. While it's not explicitly called out as part of the Tradition, a big part of the Virtual Adepts' deal is that they're the guys who embody the most recent fashions in science fiction. In 1993, they made a faction inspired by cyberpunk, then in 1998, with Digital Web 2.0, they decided cyberpunk was dead and tried to move away from it, and then in 2003, they bounced back and went back to recommending it. No particular reason was stated, and I'm sure a lot can be attributed to a change in authors, but I think another part of it was that during those ten years, cyberpunk itself went from "hot new thing" to "overexposed" to "weirdly prescient." And now, in 2020, my feeling is that the two things this book needed most were more cyber and more punk.

To wit:

Sadly, the side effects of terrorism have made communication over the web tricky. While the efforts to stop future acts of terrorism are noble, sleeper agencies like Homeland Security and the FBI have made it more difficult to have quiet conversations about mage business.

Sometimes, I get cynical about old White Wolf and wonder if maybe they made a deliberate effort to affect a veneer of counter-culture credibility, while ensuring that their politics were mainstream enough not to alienate their more reactionary customers. But then I remember what things were like in 2003, and I feel the need to take a beat and acknowledge that the national mood at the time was such that no one was going to blink if your faction of sci-fi anarchist hackers also happened to give the national security apparatus the benefit of the doubt.

It's the paradox of being the standard-bearers of the new - everything the Virtual Adepts do feels like it's tied to a very specific time and place. I'm sure that even if M20 winds up having Virtual Adepts that are at the forefront for transhumanism, pursuing mind-state uploading in search of digital immortality and morphological freedom, that's still going to wind up looking impossibly dated in another 10 years (or maybe it's dated now and I'm just not up with the latest trends in sci-fi).

The most on the nose example of this is from the References section at the end - "The Matrix Trilogy far and away defines the Tradition better than any other." Throughout the book, it's apparent that this is indeed the case, but also that the author lacks a certain critical piece of information about the Wachowskis that would have lent the techno-gnostic mysticism of the book some much needed poignancy, immediacy, and insight.

What is missing is largely a sense that the ideas under discussion have weight. The Virtual Adepts plan is to create "Reality 2.0" as part of "the overhaul of the Tellurian source code." Now, that's half-gibberish, but the upshot of it is that they "want to stand at the center of creation and select [their] reality based on a deliberate choice." Everything anybody does is just data that can be incorporated, reskinned, or blocked from your perception without the other person even knowing about it. Or, as the initiate (sorry, "lamer") Holly approvingly describes it, "It doesn't matter what other people do. Unless they have a death wish, what other people do in their 'world views' has no effect on your own."

Even in 2003, it upset me that the Virtual Adepts left the reality out of their Reality 2.0, but it hits a bit different knowing that The Matrix was a trans allegory. The power to take control over your own reality isn't just about seeing what you want to see or hearing what you want to hear, but also about striking back against those who would suppress your truth, to force them to respect, or at least acknowledge it. As another sci-fi great said, reality is that which when you stop believing it, doesn't go away. And I think it's an important part of The Matrix that the human rebels don't go away, even when it would be convenient for the robots that they do so. It's a concept that Reality 2.0 overlooks.

Although, another element at work here is that, despite the prominent role of technomancers in the setting, the Mage rules can't really handle technomancers. It's something I struggled with as I read the  dreadful "Turing Virus" plot.

The book kept saying things like, "the infection caused the Adpets to 'forget' much of what they knew about hyper-mathematics and theoretical physics." And every time it came up, I'd groan and say to myself, "what is the point of all this?" It wasn't until just now, when writing about The Matrix that I finally got - "oh, it's so that players can make Virtual Adepts like Neo, who are hackers, but don't need to carry a computer around with them."

Tradition Book: Virtual Adepts was trying to reconcile an uncomfortable truth - the Virtual Adepts were always presented as the futurist faction, who was constantly building cool soft sci-fi gadgets, but the dots on their character sheet say they are experts at teleportation. It came down on the side of downplaying the gadgets and giving more justification for the teleportation, but it was a choice I'm ambivalent about.

What I personally want, what I would find most dramatically satisfying, is if the Virtual Adepts were just the guys who had Eclipse Phase technology 200 years early. They're the Technocrats who defected, and so they continue to be Technocrats, but without the brakes. It would be nice to have a Mage faction that was unapologetically materialist and reductionist, but on the side of the good guys.

However, I have to acknowledge that from a gameplay standpoint, that would be a disaster. What it would mostly come down to is an inability to use your spheres. Correspondence 2 allows you to teleport, but there is no possible way to justify teleporting via typing a bunch of shit into a computer, and thus you're effectively capped with the sphere. Unless you build a teleportation gate or something, but then that's going to be something that anyone can just wander into your sanctum and use, and that would break the world. Better, then, to make the Virtual Adepts into another group of occultists and vaguely justify their use of computers by saying that their spells work with complicated math that can theoretically be done entirely in your head.

I think the only real way to have a group like the Virtual Adepts without making them wizards by another name is to have separate mechanics to represent their different way of doing things, but that would require a large wordcount devoted to a niche subject, and thus even the Technocracy is getting psionic teleporters before all this is over.

Ah well, I can't say that I recommend Tradition Book: Virtual Adepts. Ironically, it feels more dated than the first edition Virtual Adepts book, probably because the first was more grounded in real political controversy, even if it often came to the wrong conclusions.

Ukss Contribution: I did kind of like the "Learn-It" rote, even if it couldn't support even the flimsiest science fiction justification. It's a weird curse/blessing that "starts calling up enemies and challenges appropriate to the target's current power level." You know, so they can learn.

Obviously, this effect is also known as "being a PC," but I do enjoy the idea that there is a quantifiable, in-setting explanation for the phenomenon.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Verbena

The Verbena (the new plural from Guide to the Traditions has been officially disowned) have a problem. They are the "witch" Tradition, but the word "witch" is overburdened with meaning. Sometimes "witch" is a religious identity, a word used by certain neo-pagans to describe their practices with a varying degree of tongue in cheek. And sometimes a witch is just a Halloween monster, a cackling hag that flies around on a broomstick and is lumped in with demons and ghouls and such.

The tension with Tradition Book: Verbena is that White Wolf had a great deal of incentive, both internal and external, to write about religious witches, but in the context of their roleplaying game, it is the Halloween witches that justify the splat's existence.

The reasoning is simple enough. You make a game called "Vampire." You make a game called "Werewolf." You say they're set in the same world. It makes sense that you've got witches too. Nobody's going to be surprised when you say, "Our World of Darkness has Vampires, Werewolves, and Witches."

So when your occult game expands in scope until it's called "Mage," and it has every imaginable magic-using archetype, then witches kind of have to be near the top of the list. Putting in a witch faction buys you the credibility to include out-there concepts like the Virtual Adepts. "Why are there implausibly effective super-hackers in my game of modern occult horror? Oh, they're kind of like witches."

However, once you start looking at the Traditions as not just pop-culture archetypes, but actual organizations within your sprawling, Earth-based canon, you start to confront difficult questions. The biggest being, "why are the Verbena not simply a part of the Order of Hermes?"

Now, I don't want to start running my mouth about the nuances of European religious occultism, but with the caveat that I'm restricting myself to pop culture depictions, it's not entirely apparent what the difference between a witch and a wizard is supposed to be. There are a series of contrasts you could draw - witches are typically women, wizards are typically men. Witches are rural, wizards are urban. Practical vs scholarly. Working class vs nobility (or at least professional class). And so on.

In a game that focused on European mysticism, or one that simply had a large number of very specific archetypes, then you'd want to separate the two. But once you start saying that there's a limited number of Traditions and that they are based on a combination of geography and praxis, then you've got to realize that for all their differences, witches and wizards also share some really fundamental ideas about the occult. They use the same elemental correspondences, attach similar importance to tools like staves, swords, and chalices, draw the same pentagrams and circles, call upon the same pagan gods (or, at least, the same families of gods, even if witches prefer Artemis and wizards prefer Hermes), share much of the same herb-lore and astrology, and believe in the same doctrines of sympathy, contagion, and signatures.

Close-up, the differences are significant, but from a far enough distance, they become matters of personal style. I don't mean to be too glib. It's just weird that in a setting where all of Asia has one Tradition, Europe alone has 3 (or 6, depending on how you count the Cult of Ecstasy and the technomancers). Back when the Traditions were rpg classes, you could get away with it, but once they started to stand for the representation of different cultures, the Verbena should have become one of the Great Houses of the Order of Hermes. This would even have been true to the source material - Ars Magica had Bjornær (Germanic shapeshifters), Merinita (faerie magic), and Diende (druids).

Confounding the issue is the fact that the White Wolf fandom (and, I suspect, the creative staff) was disproportionately neo-Pagan. So the Verbena serve much the same purpose as the Hollow Ones - to allow White Wolf fans the opportunity to play mages inspired by their own subcultures. The first Verbena book often read like a religious tract as a result. This version of the Verbena book retains some portion of this element, but it also tries to make the Verbena more like Halloween witches, and thus it sometimes winds up feeling like a tract for a bad religion.

The characters from the first book return for the second - and one them offers himself up as a human sacrifice to power up a Node. At the end, his wife scolds an apprentice for feeling squeamish about it. Much is made of nature being amoral, and the Verbena being the only ones strong and wise enough to accept that truth without flinching. Also some of them are Nazis (who are at "the fringes of the Tradition" and who "have no real influence," though the cringiest thing about that is the Germanic pagans who want to "overcome the taint of Nazism while maintaining their Aryan pride" - yikes).

In the end, Tradition Book: Verbena has some strong elements (including my favorite rote in all of Mage - Banishing Blessing, where you get rid of someone who annoys you by arranging for them to receive good fortune a long distance away), but it never quite comes together. It depicts an organization of haughty, abrasive people who are also sometimes hippies, but not really because blood is life . . . and so on. It really would have been easier if they'd just gone with the Halloween witches.

Ukss Contribution: I like the Paths of the Wyck, mystical corridors that connect Nodes and allow Verbena to travel the world with remarkable speed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Genius: The Transgression

 I think you can quite honestly describe Genius: the Transgression as an honorary World of Darkness game. Part of that is due to the sheer amount of effort that went into duplicating White Wolf/Onyx Path's house style. This is a 480 page book that noodles around for 30 or so giving me Storyteller advice . . . that's dedication to a bit. One person, working alone, decided he was going to replicate a WoD book even to the point of including the part that we all grudgingly read exactly once and then ignore for the rest of time. It's impressive, and I don't want to downplay that.

But it's also an honorary World of Darkness game because it is ill served by being set in the World of Darkness. There's a line that sums it up pretty well, "Fighting Illuminated Babylonian scientist-priests in the Hollow Earth is fun, but the story loses the mundane, human element that grounds most mad scientists' lives."

Ha! White Wolf, you got burnt. 

I'm sure it wasn't meant as a deliberate jab, but it's such a perfectly White Wolf line that it read to me almost like parody. You know how, when we're talking about mad scientists, the thing that is most interesting about them is "the mundane, human element." 

The tension of this juxtaposition runs through the book like a hairline fracture, subtly weakening it. Mad scientists aren't really characters so much as an obstacle, a plot contrivance to justify a monster. They can be scary in themselves when you're a naif who has been pulled into the orbit of their obsession, but once you start to get to know them, to discover the mundane human who is behind the wild invention, it becomes harder and harder to call them "mad."

There's also the issue that mad scientists are kind of a solitary character type, at least in a horror context. I suppose you could have a horror movie where a team of people work on some wild project that humanity was definitely not meant to meddle with, and then their creation breaks loose and starts wreaking havoc . . . and they're all the one who can't let their grand vision become hobbled by the petty minds of those fools . . . but that would be a weird dynamic, and you'd be in constant danger of descending into self-parody.

Besides, even if you could tell a story like that and keep it properly horror, the rules of Genius: the Transgression don't really support collaboration between equals (it's allowed in the rules, but "other mad scientists make for surly, arrogant underlings.") The story the book encourages you to tell is one of lone geniuses cooperating, despite wildly incompatible milieus. It's a world where Frankenstein, Moriarty, and Doc Brown can team up, and it is honestly, unironically awesome, but "fighting Illuminated Babylonian scientist-priests in the Hollow Earth" is definitely its wheelhouse.

Luckily, the game's tone pretty consistently sticks to high-weirdness and science fantasy. It's only when it remembers that it's trying to be a World of Darkness game that it stumbles. The worst offender in this regard is the cynicism that surrounds the bardos.

In Genius: The Transgression terminology, a bardo is what happens when a common belief about the universe is disproven. The shifting of the scientific consensus releases a large amount of Mania (read: "mana") energy that winds up creating a pocket universe where the old belief is true. And these are mostly pretty great. You can visit the Hollow Earth and the Crystal Spheres and the canal-building civilization on Mars. Weird locations for a weird science universe.

Where it goes wrong is when it tries to lump political and ethical stances or futurist tropes in with "disproven theories." There's a difference between an aspiration and a prediction, and there's a definite adaptive advantage in saying "this wonderful thing hasn't happened . . . yet." "The Seattle of Tomorrow" sounded like an amazing sci-fi wonderland, but the World of Darkness has no place for optimism, and so it must be described with cruelty:

This, The Seattle of Tomorrow, was a triumph of engineering and industry, a perfectly-ordered state where none suffered want. The Lemurians believed in this place, a twist away from normal Seattle, with all their hearts and minds, and refused to believe it was merely a bardo, created by the "Science State" turning from a dream to a laughingstock among the West's intellectual elite.

Incidentally, the "Lemurians" mentioned here are the game's antagonist splat. They're mad scientists who believe that they've discovered real scientific truths, and that it's the world that's wrong when it claims that their theories are nonsense. The protagonist faction is known as the Peerage, and they correctly draw a distinction between "mad" science and "real" science.

Which is as good an excuse as any to start talking about metaphysics. I actually really appreciate that Genius: the Transgression flat out states that the heroes are not scientists, because scientists can communicate their discoveries, cooperate with other researchers, perform repeatable experiments, and build theoretical systems (rather than just one-off wonders that fail when a mundane examines them). It was relaxing to read a book that respected the scientific process.

Although, if I start picking at this distinction, I wind up with some difficult questions. The Lemurians make sense. They're tapped into some cosmic intelligence that allows them to assemble fragile sci-fi wonders and they believe they've discovered fundamental scientific truths about the universe that explain why these devices function. The Peerage, however, is just as connected to the cosmic intelligence, but they don't believe they have special knowledge about the universe. It's one of the fundamental precepts of their code (The Law of  Broken Theory: "Geniuses are not scientists and once a genius catalyzes he will never again do science as he previously understood the practice. His Mania makes that impossible.") So what do Peerage Geniuses think they're doing?

Like, they know that the Mania that allows them to build wonders is nonsense, that their devices are black boxes (the third precept) and any theory they make about it is bound to be the wrong one, but they still make wonders anyway. Their whole philosophy is that "my brother thinks he's a chicken, but we need the eggs" joke, except they're the brother and they know it. It's a little hard to my head around it.

There's a term this game uses, unmada, which basically means "you've started buying into your own bullshit." The Lemurians are always unmada, but the Peerage is only sometimes unmada - if they fail a check provoked by certain Mania-gathering activities. And this strikes me as . . . suboptimal. The Geniuses' wonders either operate according to legitimate scientific principles, in which case it should be possible to study them, or they are miracles channeled through the Genius' fragile mind, in which case it seems like conviction should count for something.

That may just be a pitfall of making "belief" into one of your game's major themes, however. Genius: the Transgression did sometimes remind me of a bizarro Mage: the Ascension, except that instead of your powers being driven by belief, it's more that your beliefs are driven by your powers. Learn to resurrect the dead through contact with the universal overmind and BAM, you're no longer capable of being a true empiricist. It's like the ability to form cogent beliefs is the price of your miraculous abilities. 

The Peerage then . . . is a group . . . that recognizes the price, and . . .says existential skepticism doesn't count as one of the beliefs you're not allowed to have?

Anyway, it's my considered opinion that the Lemurians make better heroes and better villains, and it's probably a better use of the setting if you just stripped out the whole unmada concept and divided the factions along political, rather than philosophical lines.

Because the Lemurians actually have a pretty interesting backstory - the existence of Lemuria was disproven, so it became a bardo, but the bardo had an indigenous species of intelligent snake people. The snake people almost went extinct when their bardo started to fail, so 9 of them became cyborgs, traveled back in time. and recruited humans to help them manipulate the course of history so that Lemuria could exist in truth.

There's a lot of time travel shenanigans that would make a much better basis for the setting metaphysics. The whole world could be a contest between the Terminals and the Cold Ones to see which of these hypothetical end-of-time inheritor species gets to be real and which must remain hypothetical. It would make a lot more sense than trying to reconcile the Lemurians with the Seers of the Throne, at least (this book's solution - they cannot see each other, even if they're in the same room, not unless they're literally forced to acknowledge each other by a third party - it's weird and bad and a relic of setting Genius in a world that is too small for its concept).

Overall, I really liked this game, but it serves as an object lesson for putting too much work into fanfiction. It really should be its own, stand-alone setting. More weird science and less "life sucks, and not in a grand way."

Ukss Contribution: A lot of candidates here. I love me some implausible sci-fi inventions. I'm going to go with the Mist Throne - a device that if you sit in it you can clairvoyantly spy on any place within 10,000 miles. I'll probably tweak the thematics, though. Maybe make it so that it extends your sense of sight through the clouds, allowing you to get a birds-eye view from anywhere, so long as there's a near-contiguous corridor of overcast weather leading to the Throne's location.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

(M: tAs)Tradition Book: Sons of Ether

 Oi. These fucking guys. They are just the absolute worst. Oh, there's a lot to love about them - If you were to pitch me the idea of a game about modern wizards where one of the factions was mad scientists who used their magic to create inventions that were scientifically impossible, I'd have approximately zero reservations about it - but because Mage is White Wolf's philosophy game, every time they come up I have to pull my hair out about the Sons' of Ether terrible take on the philosophy of science.

Tradition Book: Sons of Ether makes a valiant attempt at giving them a more coherent philosophy, and it makes the argument that they are the Mage: the Ascension universe's only true empiricists. And . . . I guess I have to accept that. They can believe things like "everything must exist, but we can filter away contradictions with a barrier of thought" and thus "nothing can wholly contradict itself," because in their dumb universe there are wizards and shit, but I guess it's one of the weaknesses of setting your game in an alternate Earth that it's sometimes hard to append the mental asterisk (*in the World of Darkness) to statements like "Because we cannot know the whole of a given phenomenon, all phenomena have potentially limitless implications."*

I could just keep going on and on about this subject. Tradition Book: Sons of Ether is just full of these little jabs like "scientific reductionism seemed designed to limit what sleepers could achieve without the Order of Reason's guiding hand," which sort of implies the opposite of what reductionism actually achieves, but I can recognize when I'm being baited. So, for the sake of amity, I'm just going to grimace slightly and acknowledge that of course the Sons of Ether are saying things like this, they're wizards, and even though they're calling their magic "Science" (the capital "S" is obligatory), at the end of the day it still operates on magical thinking.

Let's just take a moment here while I rip out half my notes and throw them in the garbage, rendering pointless any further materialist sniping on my part. The real question is "how does Tradition Book: Sons of Ether fare at delivering a useful and interesting organization of mad scientists to the WoD?"

Acceptable. The history section is weighted down a little by its framing story and a lot by WoD canon (House Golo was a mistake, IMO), but it's all interesting material. A scrappy young kid accidentally turns his hot rod into a time machine and his future self calls upon his various SoE contacts to help him navigate back through history until he can swing around and return to his native time. There's a brief detour at the apocalypse where the Sons of Ether combine their gibberish to stop a comet from destroying the Earth.  It gives a good feel for the general adventure-fiction feel of the splat and makes an otherwise dry section more entertaining, but it also makes the book less generally applicable than it could otherwise be.

In the context of the Tradition Book series, it's all good. That's how these books are. They're not really players' guides to the Traditions, and they're not really GM's guides to the Traditions. They attempt to kind of be both while also being mostly about the series lore and honestly their ideal target audience is pretty much people like me - obsessive collectors and those who like to talk about White Wolf games on the internet. By that standard, Tradition Book: Sons of Ether is a B-tier supplement. Not as good as the heights of the series, but much, much . . . much better than something like Tradition Book: Hollow Ones.

The biggest point of frustration, aside from the aforementioned epistemological minefield, is that the Sons of Ether are responsible for much Mage's most memorable and distinctive setting elements. Whenever they break things down Tradition-by-Tradition and give examples of spells, magic items, spiritual realms, etc, the Sons of Ether is always a highlight. However, the magic section here is only 5 pages out of a hundred, with only two Inventions total. I think, on some level, I would have preferred a second volume of Technomancer's Toybox. The revelation that you can make antimatter with Sphere magic is a total game-changer, though. The Sons of Ether are now officially the most dangerous people on the planet.

Overall, I'd classify this book as an essential piece of my library, but not necessarily the first one I'd reach for when making a Mage character. It sells the pulp aesthetic and "scientific" idealism of the faction and offers some interesting character ideas, but going into their philosophy and trying to justify their paradigm probably weakened the Tradition more than it helped. Just give me mad scientists with baroque inventions and nonsense theories. That's all I need.

Ukss Contribution: They're not just pseudo-scientists when it comes to physics and chemistry. They make a hash out of archaeology and paleontology too. According to their theories, the Earth was once ruled by a civilization of violent flightless birds. I'm picturing a land of scarred Chocobos who will kick you to death if you look at them the wrong way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

(M:tAs) Forged By Dragon's Fire

My notes for this book are dull as hell. They can be divided into three categories: 1)Magic items I liked. 2)Nitpicks about the Mage: the Ascension magic item creation rules. 3)Sarcastic comments about the gratuitous sexualization of women in the book's art.

So here's an example of each:

I thought Spratt and Dabbet's Lighter-Than-Air-Masticated Conveyance Gel was a really cute idea. It's bubble gum that lets you blow giant, puncture-resistant, helium-filled bubbles capable of lifting you off the ground like a balloon. It's whimsical and almost overly precious, and it would break my heart to slap it down with Paradox. Mage, as a fantasy game about mages in the modern world, can sometimes suffer from overly focusing on mages and trying to conform to the modern world. The absolute best use for something like half of the items in this book would be as curios in a strange old shop that wound up in the hands of naive Sleepers who subsequently have their lives absolutely wrecked by them.

(Scene: The jaded older brother says, "Whoa, I've never seen this brand of gum before." The timid and sensitive younger brother says, "It looks like it's really old." Older brother: "If I buy it, you have to chew a piece. You can't say no because it's a dare." And then the inevitable takes its course.)

As far as rules nitpicks - making a magic item of any strength requires a significant conjunctional Prime Sphere, but none of the "artificer" factions grant Prime as a favored Sphere. The Sons of Ether, Iteration X, and House Verditius all get Matter. Given the metaphysics of the setting, building magical devices should probably just be an alternate spellcasting mechanic. It's always been a little awkward that if Professor Thunder wants to build a Lightning Gun, he has to choose between the gun being an inert prop that disguises his Forces spells or investing in a huge character point tax that will still yield an item you have to be a mage to use. It doesn't take enlightenment to pull a trigger, people. Just own it.

Finally, it is nearly impossible for me to accurately convey what is going on with Penny Dreadful's outfit at the beginning of the Familiars chapter. It's like this peekaboo vinyl netting over panties and a bustier with goth accents and thigh-high doc martins, and honestly, I feel like a pervert for even describing it. There's likely a whole ream of political subtext I could unpack about White Wolf depicting one of their most prominent female signature characters in specialty fetish gear, but hell, I'm a total nerd. If that was just the way club kids dressed back in the early 2000s, I'd have no way of knowing about it. Nonetheless, it serves an object lesson for writers - be careful about creating a character you clearly want to fuck. There's a very good chance it's going to go to some weird places sooner or later.

Overall, I really like this book. Magic item books are nearly impossible to do poorly, and Forged By Dragon's Fire continues that trend. It was at its best when it was being specific, rather than general (i.e. "The Orb of Honorious" vs "Robes of Blessing"), but it was pretty solid from start to finish. 

Ukss Contribution: Now, let me completely contradict what I said about specific vs generic by singling out a generic magic item as my single favorite thing - shapeshifter tattoos. Get an animal tattooed onto your body with secret occult techniques and forever after you'll be able to shapeshift into that animal. It's versatile, it's visually interesting, and it can easily serve as the defining trait of villain and PC alike.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Order of Hermes

 Tradition Book: Order of Hermes sees the return of Phil Brucato to the Mage: the Ascension family, and it's a fascinating artifact to me, because less than 20 pages in, the philosophical drift of the game over its various editions became immediately apparent. The first edition core is kind of vague kitchen-sink fantasy, but then almost immediately, Phil Brucato takes over and it starts becoming a game of ideas and religions, so much so that the rpg-class nature of the original Traditions starts to become an obstacle to work against. Then Jess Heinig took over and it started downplaying the religious angle to try and get more in line with the tone and genre of the World of Darkness, and it winds up crossing the finish line with Bill Bridges, to be a weird sort of half-edition that is largely the same tonally, but also really salty about the "the Technocracy won the Ascension War" idea.

I don't want to read too much into it, because it's far too easy for me, writing 17 years after the fact, to imagine some kind of behind the scenes creative drama, when I'm sure that shifts in franchise's direction were the result of mostly amicable changes in personnel.

Nonetheless, this book was like a splash of cold water to the face, a mystery that was immediately solved when I saw that one of the authors was Phil Brucato. Tradition Book: Order of Hermes presents the Order of Hermes like it was a religion. I mean, in real life, Hermeticism is a religion, but the books have largely portrayed the Order as a near-secular organization, the group you join if you want to be the closest the WoD is going to get to a D&D Wizard.

That's probably what's behind Mage's otherwise inexplicable choice to make a designated "dick Tradition." White Wolf could sometimes have this arch, "we're too cool for this" affect and making the "wizard" faction into the one you join if you're a stuck-up nerd was probably meant to cultivate a certain ironic detachment from the silliness of taking urban fantasy in earnest.

Getting the Order back to its religious roots was a canny move, then, because it's surprising to see the most aloof and political (in that weird WW sense of the term where "politics" means "the things that politicians do") of the Traditions get suddenly very sincere about Wisdom and Perfection and the Divine. It's earnest in a way that feels radical. It's the difference between a snotty nerd who studies extra hard to flaunt how smart they are and a socially awkward nerd who studies extra hard so they can pursue a career in attempting to cure the disease that killed their father.

The book comes straight out and says it, "Why are Hermetic mages so arrogant? Because as they see it, mankind has received Divine pedigree." Oh. Now I feel like kind of a dick for making fun of how full of shit they were.

All told, Tradition Book: Order of Hermes and Tradition Book: Euthanatos are the only two entries of the revised Tradbook series that felt to me like necessary additions to canon. For once, the WoD's implacable habit of making all rules and setting revisions into metaplot events has felt like it added to the setting instead of distracting from it. The Order of Hermes has recently been humbled, but they're in a position that looks dangerously like they're going to actually learn from their mistakes, and that gives them the ability to produce heroes and not just obstacles.

Now, let's focus on obscure canon stuff that will alienate anyone who isn't neck-deep in Mage lore.

Porthos is back! Sort of. In a historical context, as a major figure in the destruction of Doissitep. They call him "the diplomat" which . . . okay. I guess Mage has a point of view where "half-mad and occasionally murderous" doesn't preclude you from being basically a good guy if you're conspicuously supportive of the aspirations of the young and telling pompous old guys to shove it.

Also back, the only good Hermetic - Sao Christivao, "a proud man who probably deserved better than his legacy. . .[who]left a bad taste among our brethren in spite of the many good deeds he performed." Which, you know, seems fair enough until the arbitrary character assassination in the NPC chapter:

"The information presented here about Mark Hallward Gillan should be considered more accurate than previous accounts, which were often the result of deliberate misinformation spread by the former Tradition Primus Getulio Vargas Sao Christivao.

I'm sorry, Gillan, but maybe you should come back when you look a little less like John Constantine (Oh, no, I kid. He's a perfectly fine character. This is just one of those cases where a retcon really should be a retcon).

Moving on, Thig is out and Verditius is back in. This is simultaneously a very big deal and a very little deal, and I'm not sure how to better explain it without veering off into sheer nerdery. . .

Eh, I guess it's probably inevitable, given the nature of this project. So, the original Mage: the Ascension cannibalized a game called Ars Magica, which was about a medieval fantasy world as seen from the perspective of a group called The Order of Hermes. Now, Ars Magica is not the history of the World of Darkness, but the WoD's Order of Hermes was essentially the same organization in the WoD's middle ages. The Ars Magica Order was divided into several Houses, to allow players some degree of choice in character creation. Originally, there were 12 Houses, which is a fine number for a stand-alone rpg, but way too much detail for a single faction in a setting that already had 8 other mystic factions.

So, Mage 1e largely ignored the Hermetic Houses. They were referenced in Book of Chantries, but only as individual cabals named in honor of the original Houses (specifically, The Fraternal Order of Bonisagus and the Followers of Tytalus, which are outright stated to be the sole legacy of the ancient Houses). However, as the game went on, the Traditions became more internally complex, and second edition core gave a shoutout to the Houses, including newcomers Janissary and Thig, which were based on a couple of the other cabals at Doissitep.

Now, here's where things get interesting (read: extremely picayune and niche). The first Order of Hermes tradition book was written in the context of that 2e core blurb, and thus Thig was canonically one of the Houses of Hermes, but its niche - the enchantment of technological items - tread pretty close to the niche of one of the original Ars Magica houses - Verditus, who had the ability to make wondrous magical items more easily than other mages, but an inability to cast spells.  I guess someone (presumably Brucato) made a call, and if there was no room in the Tradition for two full Houses of enchanters, the one to stay would be the sexy one. Verditius got demoted to House Ex Miscellanea. 

Whew! But we're not done yet. In 2001, Guide To the Traditions was released, and with its mandate of "technomagic is part of Mage's thing now," made House Thig officially a Big Deal. They were the young up and comers who were going to shake things up in the stodgy old Order of Hermes . . . until this book, that is. Tradition Book: Order of Hermes continues the practice of introducing retcons with metaplot, but takes the unusual step of retconning the metaplot. Thig was severely shaken up and lost a significant portion of its members, forcing it to merge with Verditius and allowing the old artificers to regain their rightful status as a Great House . . . in 1999.

Now, I know I'm dangerously close to slipping into Simpsons-esque self parody here ("I hope someone got fired for that blunder"), but the thing that strikes me as . . . curious is that Brucato was a co-author on both this book and the first Order of Hermes book where Thig was fleshed out into a full House. I think the line that gives the game away is "the bird-flipping 'Hermes Rulz' childishness of old House Thig." It looks like someone was experiencing regret at something they wrote when they were younger and took the opportunity to "fix" it. Either that, or Guide to the Traditions ruffled somebody's feathers. The other drive-by swipe at Thig, "techno-mystic practices and simple bad Hermeticism" could support either theory.

Or maybe they just thought it would be fun to shake things up. Hard to say, but that whole section was a rollercoaster for me because House Thig was something that really intrigued me when I first read the revised core. Now it's technically a rollercoaster for you too.

The last thing I wanted to talk about is Avatars. According to this book, "The Order is perhaps the only mystic society in the history of the world to 'train' a person to Awaken on any kind of regular basis."

Of course, they immediately try and walk that back by advancing the competing theory that House Fortunae simply has a knack for finding potential mages and bringing them into the Order, which raises its own set of questions.

This has always been an issue that Mage has been really cagey about but is much too important, thematically, to leave up in the air. Who gets to be a mage? White Wolf, in general, is enamored with the idea of blind empowerment. People don't become supernatural because of any intrinsic merit, but because of forces outside their control. They have a genetic mutation, like in Aberrant, or they're targeted by a Faerie creature, like in Changeling: the Lost, or some unaccountable celestial power picks on otherwise unremarkable humans, like Hunter: the Reckoning

Then you have Mage: the Ascension. It really can't have Awakening be random. The Celestial Chorus is made up of people with such profound faith that it opened their eyes to divine power at work in the world. The Akashic Brotherhood undergoes years of ascetic and spiritual discipline to overcome the illusion of the self and be able to act in accord with the cosmic principles of order. The Order of Hermes imposes an intensive course of study that hones the will until it is capable of wonders. Even groups that can accommodate the serendipitous, like the Cult of Ecstasy and the Euthanatos, don't believe Awakening is random so much as it is provoked by hard-to-replicate circumstances.

The point being, in all these belief systems, Awakening is meaningful. To be able to use magic is an endpoint or consequence of what these mages value. It is, in fact, a religious mystery. To disconnect this important epiphany from the PCs' religious journeys is to invalidate (or at least downplay) the centrality of belief. It's not that belief creates magic in general, but rather that the magic is there one way or another for the special people, and at most belief determines how it manifests. Consensual reality, as the prize of the Ascension War, is off the table.

Whether that's truly good or bad, I can't say, but it does put a lie to the premise of Mage (although, maybe this shift is a conscious choice on WW's part and that's why so many Technocrats have been manifesting "psionics" recently).  It might also be connected to the trend of Tradition Books deliberately bucking their subjects' aesthetics when it comes to sample characters. If people become mages at random, then sure, why not have a gangster, a high-tech thief, and a composer as some of your signature Hermetic mages, it's not as if magic is a sacred calling that takes over your whole life for the 3-5 years it takes to learn and then leaves you forever after changed. It's really more like something you stumble upon when your life isn't going so well.

Or, you know, whatever. Maybe I'm just peeved because the Composer belonged to House Quaesitor and was "justified" with a half-assed excuse of, "Although you're not a 'judge' in the usual Quaesitor sense, your music contains a profound sense of order." What does "consistent characterization of NPC organizations even mean, anyway" At the risk of self-parody, I do hope someone was fired for that blunder. No, no, I'm kidding. The character is explicitly based on the author of a book about occult music that Brucato read, which is maybe something that didn't need to be immortalized in print (also, on the off chance that Brucato reads this - the guy's take on rock music is so bad it's borderline racist, please don't cite him again).

Overall, I really liked this book. I think that because the Order of Hermes is so transparently a fantasy creation, that allows them to go all-in with the setting weirdness, and if the book sometimes read more like a canon update than a pure Tradition book, at least most of what's going on is pretty interesting.

Ukss Contribution: The best part of the book was the history section, with the various Hermetic Houses that rose and fell over the years. My favorite one was the nautical House Tharsis that specialized in storm magic and eventually fell into infernalism. I really like the idea of pirates that make pacts with weather demons.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Alpha 7

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

 Alpha 7 is a bare-bones generic rpg. It took me about 45 minutes to read, and I expect that I could explain it to a table in about 5. You flip coins (or roll dice with a 50% probability) and 0-1 successes are a failure, 2 successes is success with negative consequence, and 3 or more successes mean you succeed outright. The rules mostly cover how many coins you flip, but even then they're pretty loose. Aside from the seven attributes that give the game its name, all character abilities are player defined.

The weakest part of the game is the math. The "Hardcore" power level, where you start with 4 attribute points, is probably unplayable unless you have a large and diverse party. The "Epic" power level works as advertised if the players over-specialize, but honestly, its point totals, combined with a rating cap, are probably the most functional. The main takeaway, though, is that if you're flipping fewer than five units (what they call coins/even dice) then you're either desperate or openly hoping for your game to be comedy of errors.

That criticism just means that I think you should avoid the lower power levels, though. The rules themselves are fine. They generate outcomes that are tied to the numbers on your character sheet, and they do it quickly. I imagine Alpha 7 games are going to stick pretty close to free-form roleplaying, but there's a niche for that.

The strongest part of the game is the GM advice chapter. It breaks the different tasks of campaign, party, and character pitches into a Who-What-When-Where-Why structure that is a little basic, but explained as well as anyone has ever explained it. You will know how to set up a game after reading that chapter. And it's short.

Overall, decent. I have a hard time imagining that anyone capable of finding Alpha 7 on the internet is going to need its particular niche (barely-there "setting agnostic" light rpg that quickly gets out of the way), but assuming it finds its audience, I don't think they're going to have anything to complain about.

Ukss Contribution: While explaining character concepts, the book throws out "'dwarven bard,' or 'android hacker' (or vice versa . . ." and I really like that vice versa. An android bard. Who would build such a thing? And why?

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

(M:tAs) The Infinite Tapestry

 Normally, I don't pay much attention to the author credits at the beginning of a book. Usually, the names don't mean anything to me, and with a few notable exceptions, I'm disinclined to try and track down the authors online and see what they've been up to. Unfortunately, with The Infinite Tapestry, one of the names did mean something to me - Matt McFarland has recently been exposed as a rapist. I've read a couple other books he's worked on without noticing, thanks to my habit of glossing over the author credits, but I've been trying to be more mindful lately.

This post was originally going to open with a long discussion of the ethics of continuing to enjoy art created by terrible people, but I scrubbed the draft because 1)It centered myself way too much; and 2)it gave a rapist way too much real estate in both my blog and my brain. I've come to the conclusion that since he's just one author among many and that Mage: the Ascension is way bigger than his small contribution to two late-period books (this and The Storytellers Handbook) that I would take a solemn moment to feel solidarity with his victims, donate $25 to RAINN (and encourage my readers to do the same), and hope that would be enough. I'll do the same whenever I encounter his work in the future, because it's important not to bury my head in the sand and try and pretend I don't know what I know, even if my own work (and, lets be honest, love of the games he helped create) requires me to engage with his.

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The Infinite Tapestry is an odd beast. It's an imaginative book that adds a lot to the urban fantasy setting established in the Mage, Revised core, that manages to balance philosophical esotericism with the demands of team-based rpg adventure and your characters can both learn important truths like the secret motivations of their mothers and retrieve cool magic loot like a magic key that opens any door. In many ways, it's a straight improvement over 2e's Book of Worlds.

It's also the most passive-aggressive book you're ever going to read. It's not something I picked up on 15 years ago, but so much of what The Infinite Tapestry is trying to do is to shut down the very possibilities of Umbra-centered campaigns. The spirit worlds are a place you can go to learn things, make allies, and gain other strategic advantages, but those advantages must serve your goals on Earth. "The world we see around us is the one mages must now live in."

It's a sensible design principle, probably the way it should have been in the beginning, but the book leans hard on the metaplot to manhandle the setting into place. The Avatar Storm is one of those magical phenomena that very conveniently chooses purely thematic targets. Everywhere it goes, it makes the Mage: the Ascension setting more like what the designers imagined.

The main thing that's different for me with this read-through is that I now have some understanding of how things were before. The book is constantly saying "at one point, mages did things another way" or "in the past, different things were possible," and I guess my first time through, I just sort of assumed they were talking about the middle ages, back before science took over the world. Now I know that they were really referring to, like, 1993.

It's a weird feeling. There's a whole section in the Storytelling chapter about how the Astral plane "has become more concrete" and it just strikes me as a rather dramatic thing to happen in the space of 3 years. The spiritual realm that represents the most refined reaches of human thought and the primordial ideas implicit in the very nature of human existence has changed its fundamental composition, but only, like 8 mages have even noticed.

There are times the book threatens to become almost unbearably smug, and the culprit is almost always the same - the Disembodiment mechanic. 

On its own, it's a good idea. Stay in the spirit world too long and you become a spirit. This is something with mythic resonance that also just makes sense from a world-building perspective. The Umbra is a world of immense magical power. Over time it will consume and assimilate you. If I were to nitpick it, I'd say that it should have been a graduated process that advanced based on plot/character concerns instead of a binary switch that flips at exactly 3 lunar months, but the concept is sound.

Where The Infinite Tapestry goes wrong is in making it a new phenomenon, caused by vague metaplot happenings. The result is the grim spectacle of repeatedly seeing locations that were detailed in The Book of Worlds, only the people we were led to care about are deluded ghosts, pantomiming the activities that made those places so interesting in the first place.

And it's always accompanied by this "Rod Serling at the end of The Twilight Zone" editorializing, like "Maybe they wanted to find a place in space they could consider a refuge from the Ascension War . . . Three months after the Avatar Storm began, they found it, and kept it for eternity." It's constantly framed as some kind of cosmic comeuppance for hubris. They turned their back from Earth, the only place that matters, so they themselves no longer matter. But that's not how reality worked when they left. People could go out in space and it was mostly fine. So why not do that? Everybody's got to be somewhere, so why shouldn't that somewhere have been a spaceship?

Personally, I like "crossing the Gauntlet deals damage unless you're in a sacred place or have the aid of the gods" and "living in the pure fantasy world threatens to turn you into a creature of pure fantasy" as general setting conceits. It's probably how the spirit world should have worked from the start, but when you say, "The Avatar Storm is the first step toward making the Umbra again a place of mystery, wonder, and fear" well, that "again" feels like a snotty little jab. Just reboot the setting, you cowards!

Speaking of which, the World of Darkness is on the verge of being rebooted. The Mage Storyteller's Handbook played off the rumored apocalypse in its metaplot sections, saying "Destruction of the World: Just kidding," but we are less than a year away from The Time of Judgement, and I'm certain that the decision has already been made. Hell, work on Ascension has probably already begun. They certainly aren't subtle about dropping hints. Honestly, I'm looking forward to it, even if I found the new World of Darkness' evergreen supplements to be more satisfying.

I don't want to give the impression that I disliked The Infinite Tapestry. Just because I spent the last 700 pages complaining about. Chapters 2 and 3, in particular, are sublime. Go on an allegorical journey through the landscape of human thought. Languages form a giant, branching river system. Drink from the French branch and you speak French now. Climb a mountain and things become more abstract. Go up high enough and you can enter a realm that exists purely to explain the Theory of Relatively to you. As you travel, your possessions transform from nouns to verbs - the knife you brought can still cut, but it has no mass, volume, or other specific qualities.

There are only two flaws, as far as I can see. First, it kind of forgets that paradigm exists. If your magic is based on science or reason, the gods hate you. There is a very strict order of questing where you can't reach the highest reaches of the Astral Umbra without climbing "some sacred mountain or other" and paying your respect to Zeus, Odin, or "bug-eyed, grey-skinned extraterrestrials [who] torture abductees from the modern world."

Related, but much worse is some out-of-left field racism. One of the example spirit courts is "the subtle and mysterious Court of the Orient, whose workings are not well understood outside of the Akashic Brotherhood."

Why? Just, why? A billion people live in China. And hundreds of millions more in Japan and Korea. I'm fairly sure that, from the perspective of the metaphorical mountain that exists in the spiritual reflection of humanity's collective unconscious, Christianity is more mysterious than East Asian elemental symbolism.

Overall, The Infinite Tapestry is a pretty important book in the Mage canon. Because of its timing, and White Wolf's more general conservatism with the old World of Darkness, it couldn't be what it needed to be, but it sows the seeds for some ideas that would be useful for building a new spirit world from the ground up, even if the Horizon is still utterly fucking confusing.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Well of Souls. Not an idea that's original to Mage, but it's such a portentous-sounding destination that I think it's almost obligatory for every fantasy world to have one.

Friday, August 14, 2020

(M: tAs) Dead Magic II

 Oh wow, this book . . .

So, one of the side-effects of my various single-minded blogging missions is that I get really into the subject I'm blogging about. Back when I was doing video games, I didn't just play the games and write about them, I also did a ton of reading, about game design principles or the politics of the video games industry or even just other reviews of whatever I happened to be playing at the moment. It was such an all-encompassing obsession, that I wound up totally neglecting my other hobbies.

A similar process has been going on now that I'm focusing on rpgs. It's a bit trickier, because tabletop rpgs are more of a niche, but I have noticed myself doing a lot more research on related subjects, checking out science-fiction and fantasy blogs, and occasionally stumbling onto something relevant (like the Asians Represent podcast breaking down Oriental Adventures) 

In other words, I'm trying to learn, to become better at this whole criticism thing as time goes on. That's important for me to say, because I am embarrassed by how easy I went on Oriental Adventures and I'm dead certain that if I'd read Dead Magic II even as recently as a year ago, I'd be embarrassed by whatever milquetoast opinion I'd expressed about its  "unfortunate tendency to indulge in the exoticization of non-European cultures."

(The quote is of the hypothetical me who would have been willing to give this book a pass because it's not actively hateful like The Complete Barbarian's Handbook).

But it's the year 2020, I've read 2 3/4 editions of Mage: the Ascension, and Wizards of the Coast has finally conceded that there might be a problem with orcs. I don't have to hedge.

This book is really racist.

It's tricky, because it has six authors, and I don't think the fault lies with any one in particular, but consider the disclaimer:

While great care has gone into researching this material, what you see here is not an anthropological text, nor is it a guide to any modern practices derived from [these] beliefs. This is a sourcebook for a roleplaying game and should be accepted as such . . . The material here is, first and foremost, meant to be used for your entertainment.

I bet know what you're thinking - that's a pretty mealy-mouthed way of dealing with an issue as complex as cultural appropriation. You can't just slap a warning in the introduction and absolve yourself of the harm you might do by claiming it's "just a game." But just maybe you shouldn't be on your high horse about this, John, because this is from 2003, and we all know that you wouldn't have even begun to think there might be a misdeed worthy of absolving.

And that would, indeed, be a fair take . . . were the disclaimer in the introduction and not on page 93 in the middle of the Norse section. The word I deceptively rendered as "these" was actually "Norse" in the original. The disclaimer is specific to potential misconceptions about pre-Christian Norse spirituality. Meanwhile, in the Polynesia chapter, this conversation happened:

"You know what long pig is, yeah?" asked Mo, a chuckle in his voice.
"No."
"It's a kind of meat. If you're ever offered any, I think you may want to decline."
"What is it?"
"It's what they call human meat."

A useful bit of context: "Mo" here is a Professor of Polynesian culture at the University of Auckland,  and a 300-year-old Maori mage. The person he's talking to is Matt, a Salish Dreamspeaker who's fleeing the Technocracy and getting a crash-course in the WoD's version of Polynesian history. 

And I don't know. Maybe it's supposed to be characterization. You're on a long boat ride across the Pacific, you're shooting the shit with your fugitive buddy, and maybe you figure you'll freak him out. That's why you start out so coy about it "You know what long pig is (tee hee)? If you're ever offered any (hee hee), you may (snort) want to decline (bwa hah, hah, hah)." 

 But that doesn't explain why you would then continue the conversation for another page and a half. Or why you would dwell on the case of Anne Butchers, a figure so obscure she's not mentioned on the wikipedia page for the ship she traveled on (the ship has a wikipedia page, she doesn't) without mentioning that she's the only European woman ever reliably documented to be eaten by Polynesians. And it certainly doesn't explain why you'd wrap that little anecdote up with the phrase "Now entering Polynesia. Welcome to the food chain."

Maybe it's one of those things I'm too white to understand. A couple of indigenous people get together on a boat and the talk immediately turns to all the hilarious ways their ancestors killed the colonizers. I wouldn't blame them if that were the case (hell, the Cook Islands website mentions it explicitly), but something about the casual tone set me off. Like, yes, cannibalism happened in the Pacific Islands, but it's also something Europe used to dehumanize and exploit the Pacific Islanders. Maybe a professor of Polynesian Studies, of all people, would be one to draw that distinction.

I'm getting sidetracked, though. The original point of all this was that Polynesia didn't get the "this isn't 100% accurate" sidebar. Australia didn't get the "this isn't 100% accurate" sidebar. India didn't get the sidebar either. The European Shamanism chapter did, though. It's called "Artistic License" and it's just as bad as the one I quoted earlier, but at least it's there.

And that's where the distributed authorship of the book throws me for a loop. Six chapters. Six authors. Maybe it's just a case where only 1 in 3 authors even bother to put in disclaimers, and it's just a coincidence that the two whose numbers came up just so happened to be writing about white people. Just like it's a coincidence that Polynesia, Australia, and India featured fiction with main characters who were foreign to the cultures under discussion, but the Norse and European Shamanism chapters were told from the perspective of natives.

It could be a coincidence. It wouldn't be that hard to believe. There was clearly very little coordination going on between the chapters, otherwise someone would have noticed the redundant sidebars, cut them, and put a more general note in the introduction where it belongs.

Speaking of which, the Intro's disclaimer is . . . profoundly bad, explaining that just because this is not under the Black Dog imprint, that doesn't mean should "read this with salacious intent." "This book is meant for mature audiences" because "you can't talk about Kali without considering some disturbing images." No, WW, you can't talk about Kali without inventing some disturbing images (there's a sex scene, it's gross).

I think what's going on here is a clear example of institutional bias. The India chapter suggests setting a campaign there and actually says, "Visiting a country in the middle of a political crisis is risky."  

Visiting! 

There's plenty in this book that made me uncomfortable ("The Dreamtime is a rare kind of spiritual phenomenon, a very large, semi-sentient flexible and polymorphic Shallow Realm."), but that one word really brought it home. Unlike the first Dead Magic, half of the cultures here are not even plausibly dead, but Mage is treating them like places to visit instead of places to come from and that becomes really obvious when it also has a couple of cultures that are plausibly dead, but also unquestionably white.

I've got a lot of specific notes I haven't used just yet, but I think that's pretty much the gist of what I've taken away from the book as a whole. The parts about Europe were actually pretty good, because they didn't waste time telling you about how exotic and mysterious they were and instead got down to the business of being exotic and mysterious. The other parts, well, the best I can say about them is that they don't feel like they're motivated by malice, but you've still got a presentation of India that is a step backwards from Dragons of the East.

Ukss Contribution: Ooh, this is a tough one. I go back and forth whether this meets the threshold I want to establish for "evil." It's careless, certainly. It says things about India that I wouldn't want going on my permanent record, and it does that White Wolf thing where it acts like Australia's racial problems are all in the past (someone at WW must have loved Australia, I can just feel it). However, it's not exactly hateful. Even in those chapters where a white person travels to some new land to learn the magic of the natives, colonization is generally treated as the evil it is. Let's just say that I'm doing this with reservations.

The hardest part, though, is picking something secular enough that I'm not repeating the book's shameless cultural appropriation. Maybe the Chaos Drum. It doesn't quite control the weather, but it does make it worse, a kind of nautical WMD.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Reign

 Reign is the second ORE game I've read so far and I must say, it's a marked improvement over Wild Talents, despite being released in the same year as that game's second edition. I think it comes down to one small change that seems obvious in retrospect - there is now a limit of one special die per roll. That means we don't have players buying matches at character creation, headshots are merely common rather than obligatory (though there's still the issue of the characters' weakest hit location also being the hardest one to defend), and the 5 character point cost to upgrade to a Master die (ie "wiggle die") is actually really tempting.

But I don't want to spend too much time hashing out what went wrong with Wild Talent's system. I'm here to talk about Reign, and suffice to say, for a variety of reasons, Reign is better.

So let me immediately go to the worst thing about it - sometimes it tries to be a generic fantasy system. Like at the beginning of the magic chapter, the first five pages are a discussion of the design consideration that go into creating a fantasy magic system. And it's not a bad discussion. There are some interesting ideas there - like building a "Fortune deck" composed of daily horoscopes and picking one at random to apply to magician characters as a side effect of their spells. However, in the moment, it felt like an intrusive digression away from the setting-specific details I was hoping to read about.

In a way, you could even count it as a credit to Reign's worldbuilding that what would otherwise be solid, engagingly written gamemastering advice feels like a step down from the average tenor of the material. However, if I'm being my most ruthlessly critical, what it really says to me is that someone (presumably the sole credited author and designer) needed to have better discipline over his authorial voice. I really didn't need this book to break out of the fantasy-milieu 3rd person to address me in contemporary 1st person and sell me on the concept of dramatic conflict, using LA Confidential as an example. 

Tell me more about quicksilver demons that hollow out horses and use them as skin suits and less about the movies you enjoyed, Greg Stolze!

Maybe that makes me come across a a bit of a joyless buzzkill (and heaven knows I'm the last person who has any grounds to complain about an author indulging in pointless digressions), but the thing I need to convey to you is that the parts of the book I'm not complaining about are really good.

On average. Some parts are sublime, like the aforementioned demons, the fact that the continents of Heluso and Melonda are two giant humanoids, locked in an eternal embrace, or the way sorcerers become attuned to their schools of magic and transform, body and soul. And it was a very canny idea to define the major cultures by the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and the stories they tell.

But sometimes those stories are . . . hmm. Take The Empire, for example. Their founding legend is that the first Empress seduced four neighboring kings and united the realms by playing off their macho pride and suggesting that the one who fucked the best would be named heir. I think maybe that was supposed to be an example of Imperial art that was decadent to the point of self-sabotage (i.e. how their art is described in general), but if so, the necessary context is far enough delayed in the chapter that I was mostly left with the sensation of reading a grimy and implausible story.

There's also a few details that probably would have seemed more welcome or necessary in 2007, but which mostly served to answer questions I wasn't preparing to ask. Like, I get the intent behind "the most commonly reviled minorities have white skin" - Reign is trying to get us to move beyond our reflexive whitewashing and imagine a medieval fantasy world where the default human (be they peasant, blacksmith, or king) is black. Fair enough. Admirable even. But it feels like a trope.

Similarly, I didn't really need to know that men in this world don't beat their wives quite so much as in medieval times, because women might have magic and that neutralizes the advantages of physical strength. I promise, I wasn't about to write a domestic abuse subplot into my rpg session. If you hadn't brought it up, I doubt I would have even thought of it at all.

Though, to be entirely fair to Reign, people in 2007 did ask those sorts of questions. Boy howdy do I remember the flame wars surrounding this game's most notorious setting detail - that men ride side-saddle because of a common belief that riding astride makes them impotent.

It's kind of a silly superstition and the main upshot of its existence seems to be to arbitrarily cut male PCs off from certain character concepts, but I'll admit to having a sentimental attachment to it, purely due to misogynist meltdowns it provoked. Even after all these years, I can still savor the MRA tears.

Though, if I'm being honest, it's iffy game design. Good worldbuilding. The sort of phallocentric nonsense that has a ring of truth to it. But mechanically questionable. Generally, you want to let people create the sorts of characters they want to create and not throw needless roadblocks in their way (the book suggests making this superstition objectively true, whether through magic, alternate biology, or the placebo effect). 

I think this may be an example of future privilege. In the year 2020, you're allowed to just make a fantasy setting that is "ahistorically" (keeping in mind that none of these worlds are ever the history of Earth) inclusive of race, gender, and sexuality. But in 2007, Reign boldly dared us to look into the mirror and imagine a world where male characters could be denied access to cool classes and where white people could be "savages" (and I just hate that that word is used here without irony).

So, like I said, very good on average. Good enough that I backed second edition on kickstarter, sight unseen. There's a lot here that I didn't cover. Martial Paths that give you access to special combat techniques. Esoteric Disciplines, which are the same thing, but for your non-combat skills. Weird magic, like the ability to forge the souls of animals, people, or demons into a blade. The company rules, which encourage players to engage with the setting's politics. Reign is a game that is packed with ideas, and the only thing it really needs is better focus.

Ukss Contribution: I really am spoiled for choice here. I kind of want to go with the side saddle thing just to keep the legend alive, but that's too much of a Reign thing. You can only do it once, and Greg Stolze already did it.

Besides, it wouldn't be my authentic choice. There's really only one thing it ever could have been - the Hulgue. It's a 1000-foot-tall parasite that sucks the fertility out of the land and then jumps up 30 miles with its 4000-foot-long legs, landing with the force of a nuclear bomb. To fight it, you assemble an army and mine your way into its blood-vessels or airways, making your way towards the heart or brain, hoping that in the meantime you're not shred to bits by the demonic parasites that live within.