Wednesday, January 15, 2020

(M: tAs) Verbena

After reading Verbena I find myself as far from understanding the Tradition as I've ever been. I feel like I know less about them now than when I started. Strangely enough, I think the problem might be the opposite of what we've been seeing with the Technocracy - the authors are so sympathetic to the Tradition's real world counterparts that they're unable to deploy the horror movie tropes that you might come to expect from the World of Darkness' "witch" faction.

The Traditions in Mage have a bit of an identity crisis. If you want to take them at their most profoundly relevant, they are a coalition of traditional religious beliefs arrayed against colonialist and capitalist modernism. But at the same time, they are also just kind of these stock fantasy archetypes. You could easily go down the list and pigeon-hole them "martial artist, priest, oracle, necromancer, etc."

It might be tempting to say that the stereotypes are nothing but an over-simplification, and that we should put them out of our heads in favor of a more historical and ethnographically dense presentation, but I honestly think that both aspects are needed for Mage to function. I know that in the not-too-distant future, I'm going to be wading through a lot storytelling advice that admonishes me against thinking of Mage as a supers game (if they'll put that kind of sidebar in Aberrant, they'll put it in anything), but Mage is kind of a supers game.

And I'm not sure if the authors and developers of Mage necessarily understood how far out on a limb they were. See, I have a theory that most people are sort of okay with having their sacred beliefs get the comic-book treatment. Not necessarily in a full "reduce everything about my faith into raw, context-less spectacle" sort of way, but within certain boundaries, centered around the particular figures whose stories blurred the line between religious instruction and entertainment . . . sure. When done well, by someone who's intimately familiar with the culture in question and knows the difference between a thrilling transgression and an unforgivable one, it can create memorable and beloved stories. And needless to say, when done poorly, by outsiders who can't be bothered to research and just grab whatever seems shiniest, it can be astonishingly offensive.

Verbena's flaw, as a book, is that it seems acutely aware of where those boundaries are for early-90s neopaganism, but one of those boundaries appears to be treating neopaganism as disposable fantasy, so the result is pretty flat. It's more evangelical than educational and it never quite finds a balance with the entertaining aspects of the game. I'm playing a witch and I can't fly around on a broomstick and turn fools into toads? What is this, even?

I wouldn't say that the Verbena are always right to the point of obnoxiousness, but I would say that if I were a teen-aged Wiccan who had to hide my White Wolf books from my conservative Christian parents, I would find this book very relatable. Did you know that the Verbena created Protestantism to get back at the Celestial Choristers inside the Catholic Church when they failed to intervene in the Burning Times? Well now you do.

Actually, it's a pretty funny runner in these books that I've been meaning to point out for awhile that the Verbena have a habit of exacting revenge on their foes by magically creating things that never really called out for explanation - in Iteration X, for example, it's revealed that the Verbena struck back against highways by inventing carsickness. The Progenitors struck retaliate with pollen allergies. I mean, when applied to something as culturally and spiritually fraught as the Protestant Reformation, it's pretty inappropriate, but it does make me smile to think of a version of the Ascension War that was just various factions of mages introducing petty side-effects into each others' pet projects.

Ultimately, the experience of this book was like listening to a very earnest liberal give a lecture about Wicca to a friendly audience. It gives a superficial overview of the major holy days and festivals, talks about the "Verbena's" feminism, environmentalism, and goddess worship and only makes a token effort to cloak all this in game terminology.

Also, there's this:
"We were talking about fertility religions. Similar themes can be found in the old religions of India, Central America, and North America." Talien glanced at Takoda. "Your Mother Earth, Father Sky, and Rainbow Woman, to name a few, are all part of the same pattern. What is a rain dance but a fertility rite? Who is the Mayan maize god, but the Corn King, the consort of the Goddess?
The full yikes of this passage becomes apparent when you know that Takoda is the book's sole Native American character and Talien is the craft name of the Verbena's IT guy (who is suspected of being a Virtual Adept plant because the year is 1994 and hanging out on a Pagan BBS is still considered suspiciously technical). I would not want to be in that room, that's for sure.

Though that is  not even the worst line. That would have to be "Her African heritage called out to her, whispering of demons and shapeshifters," which is baffling on at least three different levels. Aside from the obvious implication that Africans in the WoD have a special ability to detect demons, the character in question left Africa when she was six years old, and her situation is that a mysterious glowing child has just appeared out of nowhere, offering to grant her wishes. It's almost too funny to be racist - gee, I almost hate to say it, but I think that apparition that knows my inner-most desires might be, um . . . . sinister . . . in some way . . . just a little. It's probably just because I'm African. I'm sure in America it's an everyday occurrence. You see a ghostly figure popping up to offer to make you beautiful and you'd never think it was a demon or shapeshifter.

Oh, it turned out to be the Verbena recruiter, playing weird and pointless mind games.

Eh, I think they were trying, though. They had an openly gay character. He got pretty ruthlessly gay-bashed in a way that was distressing to read about. And it was revealed that he had AIDS in the same paragraph. He survives and becomes a real bard instead of a renaissance fair reenactor, so he doesn't wind up with a stereotypical gay arc, but we never do see his love interest again. Still, for 1994 it was a pretty bold bit of representation. White Wolf's reputation wasn't entirely undeserved.

Something that always takes me by surprise (despite the fact that I lived through it) is how slow pop culture used to be about finding its voice. It seems today that every new franchise needs to hit the ground running, but you can easily say "skip the first two seasons of Seinfeld and the whole first edition of the World of Darkness" and not have it be entirely bad advice.

Ukss Contribution: Having apparently not learned the danger of crossing the streams from The Chaos Factor, it is established here that Lilith is canonically a Verbena. . . probably. They leave themselves some wiggle room, saying it all happened in the poorly-remembered mythic past, but she is written up in the exact same format as definitely real characters Hesha Morningshade and Sam Haine (pun intentional).

Regardless of whether she's real or mythical, she's my choice for Ukss. Lilith, mother of demons, master sorcerer, and take-no-prisoners feminist.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

(M:t As) Iteration X

Let's start this post off with a joke.

"Did you hear that the HIT Mark V units' sensors have not been calibrated for scent?"

"How do they smell?"

"A lot like plastic, actually."

Sorry (not sorry), but this hoary old joke was the first thing that came to mind when I tried to break down what Iteration X was all about. It's not so much in isolation, but when you take it in combination with the revelation that Iteration X is behind the World of Darkness' recycling movement, it starts to come in to focus.

Iteration X calmly and dispassionately realizes that resources are finite and that optimum efficiency means reclaiming that which can be reclaimed. Iteration X fails to realize that scent is one of the most powerful senses and that a key benefit of fusing an organic body with machine augmentation is the ability to take advantage of powers that have been fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution. The only reason HIT Marks don't have blood-hound quality noses is because their makers are grossed out by squishy things.

In the one case, they follow the data. In the other, they scorn the data. They claim their goal is reason, but their reason is pretty selective. Only conclusions that fit within their aesthetic sensibilities are ever entertained. They've taken a protractor to the world, but it only has labels every 90 degrees.

The reason for this probably isn't a deep thematic insight. You can build from there, certainly. It's a major problem in computing today that no one is really prepared to deal with the fact that as they get more complex, algorithms, far from being "objective," often wind up encoding the biases of the programmers who create them and lend them a veneer of mathematical inevitability.

But this book isn't quite that prescient. I think the issue here is actually that the Technocracy has a particular role in the World of Darkness - to be a repository of sci-fi horror tropes. And what that means is that just as Progenitors were saddled with "medical experimentation run amok" as one of their themes, Iteration X is a dumping ground for all your various "machine takeover" stories.

And it can be pretty effective. The fear of enforced conformity, of computerized mind-control, of having pieces of yourself taken out and replaced with cold metal . . . that can make for a chilling enemy faction.

But if you try to interpret the Technocracy as a faction in the war for reality, driven by a belief system to remake the world in their image, it all starts to feel a bit like "Classic SF" naivete. It pits "logic" vs "emotion" in a way the fails to truly account for either.

With all due respect to Mr Spock, our emotions are not illogical. Rather the opposite. They are the result of the relentless logic of survival, pounded into our genes through generation after generation of suffering and struggle. Their flaw is that they are too well adapted to the material goal of sustaining the blind chemical reaction at the core of our meat. They don't always submit themselves to our more idealistic intellectual aspirations. When a mouse shudders under the shadow of a hawk, it's a sign that fear has been useful to all of the descendants of our common ancestor for the past 65 million years. By contrast, a well constructed syllogism has only been a boon for the last 2000 years or so.

Which may sound like I'm siding with the Traditions here and saying that the cold calculations of a machine can never replace the indefinable human element, but it's actually quite the opposite. What I'm saying is that a machine that refuses to account for the human element isn't actually making cold calculations at all. It is rather ignoring important empirical data for the sake of ideology. It is unreason disguising itself as reason.

The most telling detail here is the idea that Iteration X prefers its cybernetic field operatives to have zero initiative. Standing orders are to do nothing and wait for further instructions whenever contact is lost with the centralized authority. Whatever the purpose of this is, it's not efficiency and it's not good strategic or tactical doctrine. There's another force at work here. One that either jealously hoards all accomplishment for itself or gains satisfaction for subjecting subordinates to humiliation and danger. The very ineptness of the hierarchy is undoubtedly the secret of its appeal.

There's villain texture here. A sort of hungry oppression that wants to strip away everything that makes the individual unique. The borg are frightening enemies. But these villains would not be scientists. They would just be monsters. They are not philosophical rivals, challenging the Traditions' worldview, they're just a kind of a cartoon cyborg.

You could lean into it. Say that the Technocracy's failure to pursue real science is a deliberate flaw. It would be easy. For all that Iteration X claims to be against emotion, they don't have much of a problem with hate and rage. It could be that the hypocrisy here is a real critique. They know magic is real, but they obfuscate it with machinery. They know that their stated mission is a fool's errand, but they don't care because what they really want is control. That's the reading that is most consistent with the book as it actually exists.

The only problem here is that it doesn't feel like Mage: the Ascension has really earned that kind of leeway. It's not at all clear that the authors of the line understand what is appealing about science, nor what materialist atheists value about themselves. So I can look at Iteration X and think "wow, what a grotesque mockery of the ideals of the scientific revolution," and the dedication of the book can read, "to Harlan Ellison, whose stories of a dark future dominated by technology are too frightening on for many of us to imagine on our own."

As if, somehow, it was the technology that was the problem, and not the timeless impulses of pride and greed and hatred of the other.

To round this out, let's talk about how weird this book is about disabilities. The main narrator is a young man with Thalidomide syndrome who requires the use of a wheelchair and prosthetics. And I don't want to speak too authoritatively here, but it seems strange to me the way he seems to direct his resentment towards the tools that help him manage his disability, rather than towards the disability itself.

Like, there's this line when he first enters the Technocracy HQ:
However "Duplex Recycling" did have a ramp and wheelchair accessible doors. How convenient.
And I can't help but think that, despite the sarcastic tone, it really is just genuinely convenient.  The story is set in the year 1993, which means that as near as I can tell the Technocracy was ADA compliant at least a year ahead of statutory requirements.

I don't know. Maybe this rings true to people. Maybe when you have a disability, rolling up to a new place to discover it's accessible feels condescending at times. I certainly don't want to get on my high horse and proclaim that people with disabilities should feel grateful when they're accommodated. It is, indeed, just basic human decency.

But if I'm putting myself in William Smith's place, where I've been in a wheechair since the 1960s, landmark legislation has just passed that will dramatically increase my mobility, and I've just got a job offer from a business that was visibly ahead of the curve in that regard, I kind of think that would be something that might break through my cynicism a bit . . .

Which, of course, would make the betrayal when they turn around and brainwash me all the more bitter.

Later on, in the mechanics section, the book implies that Iteration X's research into prosthetics is some sort of sinister plot
Throughout history, Iteration X has acted as if they were champions of the physically disabled. Their efforts to integrate man with machine have required trial-replacements on members of the Masses. During the Dark Ages, for instance, crippled beggars were given crude wooden crutches while knights received bronze limbs to replace those lost in battle. Today, the Convention is behind the development of increasingly more elaborate prosthetics.

Little do the Masses realize, however, that even more advanced prosthetics currently exist. Called "biomechanisms," these Devices are reserved for Iterators alone.
Honestly, that "as if they were" is a little confusing. What's being described here is really just "helping people with physical disabilities." There's nothing going on here but the Technocracy's usual methodology - introduce increasingly sophisticated magical effects into static reality in the guise of technology while developing the next generation that will be too paradoxical for deployment until your current models are accepted.

I think part of the reason the Technocracy gets reinterpreted as heroic is because their plan for dealing with Mage's consensual reality is probably the best one with a realistic chance of success.

That being said, the Technocracy absolutely are not heroic, not because they keep the best Devices for themselves, but because of what they did to poor Billy Smith - exploit his need for physical assistance to kidnap him, brainwash him, and stick him inside a cyborg.

It's a real weakness of Mage as a gameline that it can't consistently distinguish between the two.

Ukss Contribution: The Technocracy's high-tech killing machines are called "HIT Marks," which is kind of weird because the "Mark" part of the name refers to model numbers. They're currently using HIT Mark Vs, and they're working on developing HIT Mark VIs. Yet the abbreviation truncates the most informative part of the name.

Anyway, the HIT Mark Is were the terracotta warriors buried with Emperor Qin Shi Huang, and I think it might be kind of cool to have a similar magical army in Ukss.

Monday, January 13, 2020

(M:tAs) The Chaos Factor

Why does this book exist? Who is it for?

Oh, the book's immediate goal was pretty obvious. In the end, it drops all pretense and states directly "Samuel Haight must die." I just have to wonder what was going on at White Wolf HQ around this time to make this seem like a good idea. Were they just conceiving of and publishing books purely to course correct on canon? Were authors and artists so cheap back then that they could be squandered on a product that occupied a niche within a niche?

Like, I'm trying to imagine 1994 and what it must have been like to be a White Wolf super-fan. You've played through The Valkenburg Foundation and moved on to Rage Across the Amazon then switched to mage to play the adventure in The Book of Chantries and incorporated material from New Orleans By Night. You were completely up to date on the Samuel Haight saga. You were so invested in his fate that a new product with him on the cover attracts your attention.

Is this the adventure that you would have wanted? A grim death-march of a railroad, where you dog Samuel Haight's steps, fighting the various irate vampires, death cultists, and nameless underground horrors he leaves in his wake as he searches for a Macguffin that you only hear about second-hand. Ah yes, he must be stopped before he can find the Antediluvian vampire, but . . . why are we just hearing about this now? You're making the contention that Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of the sun was actually one of the first vampires, and somehow that's not what the book is about.

Also, how weird is it that White Wolf chose a sun god to be a vampire? I guess he was also a war god who demanded human sacrifice, and that sounds pretty vampire-y, but it kind of feels like they shrugged and went "close enough" in the confidence that their audience would not do the research necessary to see the contradiction. And to be fair, if it weren't so easy to check wikipedia, I probably wouldn't have. Still, they either should have done something with that, or made it clearer, sooner that he was just impersonating the real Huitzilpochtli.

Oh yeah, spoiler alert. The guy who the book constantly refers to as Huitzilpochtli is actually an imposter. His real name is Shaitan. He was born in North Africa in 4520 BCE and migrated to South America about 2000 years later.

I have to say, you can be raised Mormon, discover atheism as a teenager, live contentedly until you're 37, and then all of a sudden something like this will sneak up on you and you discover that you've still got some issues left to work out. For fuck's sake, the meso-americans are not descended from characters in the Bible, what the hell's wrong with you?

I guess technically, vampire Shaitan isn't actually from the Bible, but he serves a demon named Ba'al, so it was close enough for me to write "what is this Mormon bullshit" in my notes.

I'm sorry, it bugs me. If the name of the game is "Vampire," then yeah, I expect a certain bit of inelegant fudging of history and mythology to make interesting figures into vampires. But if you're going to make Aztec vampires, make Aztec vampires. If it is an unbreakable rule of the setting that all vampires are descended from Caine (and as we'll see with Kindred of the East, it's not), then maybe you should fit the Aztec gods into your fantasy cosmology a different way.

What makes it especially galling is that Vampire is the third-priority gameline in this adventure, behind Mage and Werewolf, which means that Huitzilopochtli could very well have been exactly what he appeared to be - a powerful spiritual being who was patron to the city of Tenochtitlan. Call me a Monday-morning quarterback if you must, but it seems to me that "Samuel Haight is going to awaken a sleeping Mexican sun god in the middle of the Sabbat's biggest stronghold" might have been a better hook than "Sam Haight is searching for an Antediluvian no one's ever heard of." The vampire factions are a definite afterthought in this adventure, and the book kind of just assumes that vampire PCs will help Sam Haight. The simultaneous solar obliteration of the the Mexico City Sabbat and total shredding of the Masquerade would have been just the thing to get the Camarilla and Sabbat working together.

Which is as good a segue as I'm going to get to talking about this book's other big draw - the mini-guidebook to the World of Darkness' Mexico City. It is . . . not entirely kind.

It's a difficult question for me, because I have to acknowledge that there's no way that WoD Mexico City is going to be a nice place. Why would it? The core book laid it out pretty clear that everywhere in this world is the worst version of its real-world equivalent.Skyscrapers loom with deep shadows and crumbling Gothic architecture. Officials at every level of government are corrupt, and it's not just the inhuman monsters that operate with impunity.

So, if you start with a place that already had its share of problems, then maybe going on about how it's corrupt, polluted, and tainted with evil is just part of your genre. Nonetheless, it feels excessive to the point of making me uncomfortable.

And speaking of "things that are uncomfortable due to how poorly they aged," there's a couple of female NPCs who have rape in their backstories in a way that absolutely would not fly today. One of them is an evil mage and another is an evil werewolf. I know I should have braced myself for "being raped turns you evil" when I started reading 90s "adult" fantasy, but it still came as quite a shock.

Thankfully, White Wolf will never be so insensitive again . . .

Anyway, it's been awhile since I've talked about Samuel Haight. That's pretty much the best tribute I can give to the way this book presents him. He's got absolutely no presence as a villain. The PCs barely interact with him. He succeeds at everything . . . off screen. And you're constantly being told that he's a threat without ever learning much about him as a person. He died as inexorably plot-driven as he lived - if the PCs don't kill him, his magical staff explodes because he didn't realize that he was filling it with paradox.

I hesitate to call it a missed opportunity, because that would imply that there's a version of the character who could have worked, but . . . maybe if you're going to give your ill-conceived joke villain a spotlight send-off, you need to do it in a way that is either 90% more serious or 1000% funnier.

I think it would help to examine exactly what's compelling about Samuel Haight as a villain.

The temptation here is to say that there's obviously nothing compelling about him, which is why he was eliminated with such unseemly enthusiasm. Certainly, on both the occasions I've seen him, he's been a total drag. However, I think you could point to two areas where there might be something there to build off of. I'm not sure how intentional they are, but if they were explored more mindfully, they might have allowed Samuel Haight to develop into a more memorable villain.

The first is that Samuel Haight is a White Wolf fan. Not directly, of course. Not even in the half-assed parodic way where he's a fan of the "Black Dog Studios" game "Lycanthrope: the Rapture." But there's a certain . . . energy. The opening fiction is called "A Day in the Life," and we get a peek into Sam Haight's inner monologue. I've never been cornered at a convention by a socially awkward young nerd who insists on telling me all about his badass character, but I imagine the feeling is a lot like the first few paragraphs ("He could accomplish anything so long as he took the time to plan out every possible contingency.")

But the part that really sealed it for me was the line, "Fortunately, Samuel Haight loved puzzles" said in response to him sitting down and attempting to solve a genuine literary puzzle. Take a look at the front cover of the book, the portrait of Samuel Haight, muscles bursting out of his tank top, fabulous heavy-metal hair of frankly threatening volume, eyepatch, bandolier, giant hunting knife and a fur mantle straight out of a sword and sorcery novel. Then, say to yourself, "the most satisfying part of this guy's day was sitting quietly in his hotel room reading ancient texts."

For all his aggressive machismo, Samuel Haight is a total nerd. What do Samuel Haight and the average White Wolf fanboy have in common? Well, they both enjoy reading The Book of Nod, and they both think the ultimate badass looks a lot like Samuel Haight.

And that ties indirectly into the second compelling thing about Haight as a villain. He subverts the games' established hierarchies. If you follow the course of his career, his one persistent theme is usurping. He has powers he's not supposed to have. He learns a magic ritual to become a werewolf even though he didn't inherit the werewolf gene (or however hereditary lycanthropy is supposed to work in the WoD). He gains the powers of a ghoul without having to eat shit as a vampire's manservant. He can use magic without having attained "enlightenment." The books says, "In the words of his teacher, his 'Avatar would not Awaken'" which is a line repeated from The Book of Chantries that strikes me as hilariously on-the-nose. Yes, you've described his situation without illuminating the cause (in the future, Mage will vacillate on whether Awakening is an earned achievement or winning a cosmic lottery, which makes Haight's exact transgression harder to pin down).

In each case, his very existence pokes a hole in a WoD game's aristocratic pretensions. The standard WW character creation trope is that supernaturals are human+. In the Aeonverse and NWoD books, this is explicitly laid out in the process where you first build your human and then add the template that makes them better, but even when the human and supernatural stages are collapsed (as in OWoD and Exalted), the "how to create a mortal" rules make it clear that you're gaining more than just magical powers with the change. It always comes across as slightly condescending. A vampire isn't just an unlucky slob who got bitten. They have 15 attribute points instead of 13 attribute points. It doesn't just make you stronger or faster. It could potentially increase your intelligence or charisma.

But there's no Samuel Haight template, because there's no Samuel Haight fat-splat, because Samuel Haight invented his own supernatural faction of Samuel Haights. There's something unironically cool about this.

It's instructive to separate out the parts of Samuel Haight and imagine him as three different villains. The Skin Dancers, werewolf kin who steal the skins of Garou in order to gain their shapeshifting powers - those are cool villains who will get used again. And rogue ghouls, who hunger for vampire blood, but serve no master - those are cool villains who will get used again. And talisman-stealing sleepwalkers, who lack magic of their own but hoard awakened artifacts to gain the occult powers they cannot use on their own - well, those would be cool villains, but as far as I know the idea is never really explored.

When you break it down this way, it's not so clear that "why can't we combine all three of these archetypes into one guy" is a dumb question. Maybe you could, indeed, have a cunning hunter figure who grabs on with both hands to every source of moveable supernatural power without regards to its source. Maybe they could even be so successful and reckless that they become regarded as a top-tier threat. An adventure pitched as "that amoral scavenger we all hate is in imminent danger of waking a bloodthirsty sun god from his 500 year slumber" might even be pretty good.

So what, exactly, went wrong?  Honestly, I think the flaw was aesthetic. Samuel Haight, as he turned out to be, was an embodiment of early-90s cheese. And he came too early in the World of Darkness' run. The game wasn't ready to explore the strongest approach to his character - Samuel Haight as the Toxic Fan. A guy who might have had many laudable qualities of his own, but never explored them because he was too filled with resentment and envy towards the demigods that shared his world. A guy who was dangerous precisely because he was a White Wolf nerd and thus the closest anyone in the setting would ever get to reading all the rule books.

I think, though, that making a villain like that would have required treading a very thin line between gently parodying your fans and actively scorning them, and so Samuel Haight must die.

In a way, the fact that he went out in a completely pointless book that seemed to exist purely to squelch not only him, but any homebrew NPCs modeled after him, was a fitting end. The ultimate Toxic Fan gets killed by Toxic Development.

Ukss Contribution: I actually really like the Skin Dancers. Creepy cultists who want to be werewolves so bad they become a danger to werewolves is a neat idea. Their rituals won't work exactly the way they do in Werewolf: the Apocalypse (5 werewolf pelts + a profane ritual = permanent transformation into a werewolf), maybe I'll even say they have not yet discovered an efficacious way to change at all. But the core idea will be there. These guys will hunt and skin werewolves, not out of hate, but from envy.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

(WH40K: RT) Battlefleet Koronus

I believe I've mentioned before my weird and embarrassing dream of one day playing a perfectly executed rpg, one where the players fully embrace all of the narrative mechanics and/or tactical subsystems. Battlefleet Koronus has added one more layer to the overstuffed abomination I will one day inflict on my friends, after reading 300+ rpg books has made me snap and lose all perspective about what people find appealing about the medium.

Oh, it's not that the strategic combat and Warfare Endeavor systems in Battlefleet Koronus are bad. Quite the opposite. They're just good enough to tempt me to use them, but just complex enough that I'm virtually guaranteed to be the only person in my group who even knows what they are. The only way it could possibly work is if you were playing with a group of hardcore Rogue Trader fans.

Which pretty much sums up this book in a nutshell. It's not bad, but it definitely has a narrow range of appeal. Moreso even than the equivalent Star Wars book, because, while the various factions have their own distinct ship building style, within the factions, the ships wind up looking fairly homogeneous. The Imperium of Man is the worst offender here. Their Gothic-inspired ships have a lot of architectural detail, but wind up looking so busy that they all start to blur together. And since scale is relatively meaningless when it comes to isolated pictures, the ships' similar profiles make it hard to tell a Meritech Shrike-Class Raider from an Imperial Dictator-Class Cruiser. There are nuances, if you care to look, but like I said - who, beyond an obsessed mega-fan, will care?

On the other hand, the Stryxis have a ship design where it's one main ship dragging a bunch of salvaged hulls behind it on massive chains, so the setting still has the capacity to surprise.

The biggest thing that really stands out about this book is its reckless use of scale (no pun intended). A WH40k torpedo is 60 meters long. Which, according to my calculations, is bigger than the apartment building where I live (because this is the sort of detail that bugs me to estimate, I used Google Earth to check - I live in a building 45 meters long). It kind of makes sense in a world where the smallest interstellar ship in the Imperium is 0.95 km, but just thinking about it boggles the mind. The Kroot live in 9km metal eggs. The Eldar apparently have Craftworlds the size of small planets. How are these things moving around, and at astronomically significant speeds at that?

I guess it's just something you've got to buy into. I honestly like that about Rogue Trader. You're not just the captain of a starship, you're also the leader of a small city. Maybe the weird and alienating rpg I'm destined to run in the WH40K universe will go the other way with it - all of the adventures happen on a single starship and the PCs are destined to never even meet the bridge crew.

Finally, one minor gripe about this book. It makes the curious decision to not detail the highest of the high end WH40K technology. There are rules for a new Grand Cruiser hull size, but the book takes pains to mention that battleships are out of reach (you can't even fight them as NPCs). It tells you what happens if you turn your macrocannon batteries onto the surface of a planet to unleash widespread destruction, but it also says that you'll never gain access to virus bombs or cyclonic torpedos, the setting's real WMDs.

It feels a lot like they're rationing the setting, but Rogue Trader is never going to get a better place to put these things, so it ultimately feels more like a cruel tease. I suppose I should learn to limit my ambitions and be content with the cool things I do have access to, but . . .if that sort of restraint appealed to me, would I be playing Rogue Trader.

Ukss Contribution: Cloud mining. You can buy a ship that specializes in it, but it appeals to me as a more general concept. I like thinking about the nonsensical blue collar jobs of the future.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

(M:tAs) The Book of Shadows

There's a lot of stuff in this book. I don't know where to begin. Literally. I've got something like four different entry points into this post sketched out, depending on whether I want to talk about the new traits, the fictions, the magic system, or the essays.

So let's swerve a bit and talk about the page backgrounds. At several points in this book, its editor decided that it would serve to emphasize the themes and character of the Traditions if the traditional white background was replaced by grey and white patterns - some of them were splotches, evocative of marble, some were swirls that resembled tie-dye, a couple were dot-matrix printer paper, one was just white squiggly lines pointed every which way with no sense of aesthetics or reason.

Don't do this.

For fuck's sake, don't do this.

I don't know who needs to hear that, who might be working on a book of their own and could be tempted to make it "artistic," but I will tell you that large stretches of The Book of Shadows were virtually unreadable, especially since White Wolf liked to use long stretches of italics for in-character descriptions. For all the interesting and historically significant things I saw in this book, my main takeaway will be how hard it was on my eyes.

Funnily enough, The Book of Shadows was one of the first Mage: the Ascension books I bought. I picked it up from the local Hastings shortly after I purchased the Revised edition core book. I didn't quite understand that there were different editions of Mage at that point, so I figured that a "Players Guide" would be pretty useful. It turned out not to be.

Oh, I'm sure that The Book of Shadows was fine in its original context. It introduces the Resources background. And merits and flaws. And paradigms. And ambivalence about the Technocracy. You know, a bunch of stuff that, by Revised edition was already being incorporated into the core.

I'm sure in 1994, though, it was a revelation. What's most interesting to me about this book is that it betrays signs of what Mage is eventually going to be, but it doesn't quite understand what's strongest about the game's premise. One of the essays in the back talks about how many people in the real world believe in magick and it manages to twig to the idea that what we're really talking about in Mage is religious faith, but then it fails to take the next necessary step and actually address real, specific religions. I suspect it comes down to an aversion to research, but it also ironically comes across as weirdly imperialist. It more or less accepts the colonialist dichotomy of "the Western scientific world-view" vs "everything else," but then interprets that "everything else" through the lens of western occultism.

I suppose it would happen sooner or later that I'd have to talk about the "k." I am so glad I got into Mage in that brief period of time when it fell out of fashion. This may seem a little hypocritical of me after I went on such a long rant about the pointlessness of the letter "c," but the issue isn't really spelling. The issue is the idea behind the spelling.

I want to be clear that I'm not in a position to criticize modern western occultism as a religious practice. That's not a job I need or want. It is, however, incumbent upon me to note that western occultism is a religious practice and the word "magick" is used almost exclusively by practitioners. Its prominent role in Mage is both intrusive and weird. It's a little like if they said the first step to spellcasting was to petition the saints, and then took care to mention that the "saints" didn't have to be literal Catholic saints, but could in fact be any idea that you highly valued. It might work, but it is definitely sacrificing the clarity of ordinary English for the sake of an arcane ideological point.

And that's all I'm going to say about it, at least until my hand is forced by some future book treating it like a huge deal (I'm looking at you, M20).

On to the distinct, but related point about how the Traditions, as presented here, are still terribly inchoate for a game that is starting to bill itself as being about belief. It's less that they represent different cultural strains of thinking about the supernatural than that they seem to engage with different aspects of the World of Darkness cosmology.

The most blatant example of this is the Dreamspeakers, who are repeatedly established to have a strained, but functional working relationship with werewolves, thanks to their mutual respect for Gaia. . .

This is less transparently bullshit than it initially appears because the Gaia in question is not the Greek goddess, but rather the mysterious and unknowable goddess of the World of Darkness, who represents the forces of nature in a very generalized way, but is so distant a character that she can't easily be pinned down to a particular belief system.

Nonetheless, that shit wouldn't fly today. You can't just have a Native-American coded faction and give them some generic early-90s New Age hippie belief system and leave it at that. However, the interesting thing about the Dreamspeakers, and the reason I think it's mostly forgivable, is that it's part of a pattern. They also somehow managed to get Christianity wrong.

The Celestial Chorus is explicitly identified with the Catholic church. The Council of Tradition almost didn't get together because the various proto-traditions blamed the Chorus for the Inquisition (it's unclear exactly how much of this blame is justified).

And yet, the Celestial Chorus does not appear to believe in God. I mean, technically they do. They sport the trappings of Christianity as interpreted by early-90s goths from Georgia, but theologically, their presentation is very superficial. They really worship God as a face of The One, a sort of primordial source of all souls that was shattered in prehistory and which other factions casually admit probably exists (more than once, you read about random non-Chorus mages referring to Avatars as "shards of The One"). How Jesus Christ enters into all of this is unclear.

I'm curious as to how this all came about. Was White Wolf just not very interested in getting the details of Christianity right? Were they trying to avoid saying definitively whether the World of Darkness has a God (though it seems like that ship might have sailed with Caine)? Were they trying to skirt controversy? Did the idea of Christian miracles simply not fit with Mage's mechanics (during the Celestial Chorus spotlight fiction, one Chorus mage escapes pursuit by throwing a grey orb that releases a cloud of mist when it shatters, which is . . . not something I remember from the Bible)?

It feels, at least at this point in the game's lifespan, that less than being a game about belief, Mage: the Ascension is a game where magic is real, and then belief is tacked on top of that with varying degrees of artfulness. There's a place in the first chapter where they come right out and say, " A successful Science roll could allow a Technomancer to 'fast cast' a theory on the spur of the moment, then explain away the effect in a ream of complex gibberish."

Maybe you could interpret that to mean that the game is encouraging players to indulge in technobabble to speed things along, but diegetically the mage is actually working of good science, but that interpretation would not be entirely in-line with the way the setting has been presented thus far. Technocrats don't actually discover facts about the world and then use them to create super-scientific inventions. What really happens is that they use magic to make fantastic items and then use the veneer of science to make them plausible to the masses.

It's less ambiguous with the Traditions. Magic works in an empirically verifiable way and all the traditions are pretty much magic+. The Celestial Chorus uses magic and is also (vaguely) Christian. The Dreamspeakers use magic and also practice (poorly researched) Native American spirituality. The Euthanatos use magic . . . and that's pretty much it because they're not yet at the point where they're being associated with real world beliefs. They're distinctive for what they use their magic for. The only group whose beliefs match up with their magic is the Order of Hermes (no surprise because Mage's magic system clearly cribs from Ars Magica's).

I blame the sphere system. It attempts to be abstract and universal and to unload all of the specific magical practices on to the narration. In practice (and Mage: the Ascension is my 3rd or 4th most GM'd game, behind Exalted, Dungeons & Dragons, and Aberrant) this leads to players mostly glossing over the Tradition-specific stuff and engaging with the system on a purely mechanical level. It's a problem that the game tries repeatedly to solve over the next 20 years, though ironically, they have the answer right here, "Short of compiling a separate book for every magick style known to man, there is no way Mage could duplicate the bewildering variety of real-world practices and beliefs."

They leapt straight to the extreme "nothing short of doing them all would be good enough," in order to preemptively dismiss the idea, but that is, indeed, the right instinct. I think you could probably get away with as few as seven different mechanical expressions of magic: magic items/sci-fi inventions, quick spells/advanced training techniques/psychic powers, high ritual magic, gods/spirits/demons/genetically engineered constructs, cybernetics/training regimens/inborn mutations, unbidden religious miracles, and predetermined destinies. The game already allows (and even encourages) you to use all of these things, but it models them all with an overburdened system of Arete (magic score) rolls.

The way it works is that you decide what you want to do. You figure out what spheres it needs to make it happen. The GM decides how many successes you need to roll to do it. Then you roll Arete.

Simple enough. Except Arete is probably going to be rated from 3-5, giving you only a few dice to roll at a time (in every edition of the game, Arete starts at one and is capped at 3 during character creation, a move that is as enraging as it is baffling), but the guidelines for how many successes something costs suggest that effects will need several, possibly even dozens, of successes to activate. This leads to Mage leaning on the Storyteller System's worst mechanic - extended rolls.

The end result is a highly technical system where you're constantly counting, calculating difficulties, and trying to eyeball the remaining time to completion. And while I might have made it sound more engaging than it turned out to be, even for people who like the fiddliness of the the current system, it undeniably forces setting, thematic, and narrative considerations to compete for the players' limited headspace.

Though I personally prefer a more baroque system where every Tradition gets an Exalted-style fatsplat that makes it feel different in play, it's probably more in keeping with the spirit of old Storyteller too streamline the system. I think what Mage really wants is a magic system that gets out of the way. Maybe spellcasting sould be something like Adventure!'s dramatic editing. Take the dice completely out of it. At the very least, if the maximum Arete dice pool is 10, then there should be no magical effect that requires more than 10 successes. If you don't want long-duration effects to happen on an instant scale, just require a longer casting time before you allow the roll. Free up mental room for elaborate descriptions.

Hindsight is 20/20, though. I'm pretty sure that the Sphere system is Mage's high concept and the Traditions evolved over time as both the authors and fans became more interested in the game's philosophical themes.

Ukss Contribution: This has actually been one of the weaker Mage books when it comes to novel fantasy ideas. I'll go with the Nightmare Theater. There are no details about what it's like or what happens there. I just like the name.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

(M: tAs) Virtual Adepts

This book has a problem. It needs to be approximate 10-20 thousand times cooler than it actually is. Perhaps that's unfair. Certainly there are less cool Mage books that I'm not subjecting to this kind of requirement. Hell, Digital Web was practically Virtual Adepts, vol 1 and it really only needed to be 5-6 times cooler.

Unfortunately, Virtual Adepts is working from a deficit. At one point, some NPC adepts weigh in on the Sons of Ether naming controversy and one of them says, literally "it's not my problem." In the end, two out of the three speakers decide it's more convenient to just keep calling them "Sons" and the one who was on the progressive side let it drop instantly so the conversation could move on to a different topic.

And I'm like, "Oh, wow, what a surprising turn of events. I didn't see that one coming at all. I'm sure it's all about ethics in magical mad science, right guys?"

That's the tricky part about reading this book. I can't be sure if I'm seeing the seeds of the alt-right, already beginning to sprout in 1994 or if I'm projecting my fears about the alt-right onto a relic that is only distantly connected to our present-day issues.

All I do know is that this book's tagline is "Knowledge is the Only Reality," a major theme is how control of information is the ultimate path to enlightenment, and yet one of the mages who ostensibly believes in all this stuff is arguing that a name doesn't matter. It's a lot to unpack.

Sometimes, it really does seem prescient. Dante, the legendary Master of the Virtual Adepts says, "As soon as Sleepers realize that all reality is a program and that they can change it, all hell is going to break loose," and my immediate thought was, "well, he had 2019 nailed, that's for sure."

The mages in this book feel like realistic, well-drawn characters with their veneration of "eliteness" and their disdain for all things "lame," but they're exactly the sort of bellicose gatekeepers that we here in the future take pains to avoid, and I'm not sure that's what White Wolf was going for precisely.

And I don't know, it's not really Mage: the Ascension's job to diagnose society's future problems, but if the Virtual Adepts were real, they'd say that it was their job. Yet we all know how that works out. The vast majority of the time, it feels like they're fighting the power to clear the way for them to be the elite.

There's a painfully Clinton-administration-era line in Dante's description
Most people who live here end up trapped between welfare shackles and a neighborhood that marines couldn't survive. Most mothers would sooner abort a child than have one . . .
It makes me wonder, why does this rpg book suddenly feel like it's being broadcast on talk radio . . . but more to the point, all throughout Virtual Adepts the Technocracy is identified with the government (except the Syndicate, which is somehow also organized crime) and there's no distinction between healthy democracies and unhealthy ones. Is the opposition to the Technocracy because it's an oppressive force or because it's a leveling one?

Trick question. The real answer is that the year was 1994 and no white people outside of academia were reading critical race theory, so you don't really have the Virtual Adepts placed within the context of racial or gendered hierarchies. They don't understand that the system is more than just what gets mapped out on organizational charts, but there can be connections embedded in informal social hierarchies that bypass the formal channel's error-checking to create advantages for privileged groups outside of what the rules state should be possible.

It's how, in the year 2020, we're facing a coalition of white supremacists, big business, religious conservatives, gamers, the suburban middle class, STEM majors, foreign policy hawks, and atheists that has united behind the leadership of Donald Trump. Show me anything in the declared principles of any of those groups that says this is desirable.

 Mage: the Ascension in general, and this book in particular, can sometimes come across as feeling distressingly right-libertarian. But I don't think that's really anyone's fault. I think it's part and parcel with the game's "most 90s thing ever written" status. It's naive about things we all had to learn the hard way.

The Technocracy is the villain. They want to control what people do. They do this by writing a rule for everything and forcing people to obey. But while having too many rules can suck, that's not the true nature of oppression. Oppression is when you aren't allowed to know the rules.

The rules you follow are written in stone, but the rules they follow aren't written anywhere, and in any event are always subject to change, should they become inconvenient. You've got an employee handbook. The boss can fire you at will. You filled out all the proper paperwork to apply for a loan. The man at the bank has a map with a red line showing where you can and cannot live (not that it's official, mind you, but . . . you know).

The rules being defined, stable, and written down is actually a progressive and liberating idea. That allows you to make plans, to know where you stand. You needn't ever be surprised by a violation you didn't know you were committing. There's a balance, of course, but a lot of time when people say they want to cut regulations, what they really mean is that they want to allow the powerful to write regulations for themselves, in secret.

As magical hackers, the Virtual Adepts are potentially a very powerful metaphor. They can look past the user manual and see the real rules, the back doors, shortcuts, and exploits the admins don't want you to know about, the "gentleman's agreements," "that's just the way things are," and "realistic expectations," that keep you in your place. And more than that, they can spread the knowledge of those rules to everyone who has 512kb of storage space available (the canon file size of a rote in Mage 1st edition . . . I know, right).

But to do that, they first need to see that solidarity is the most powerful hack of all. And sadly, as of this book, they just weren't there yet.

Ukss Contribution - Dream hacking. Using a computer to enter someone's dreams. So cool there was a popular movie based on the idea. Plus it fits in nicely with the Astral Web that I've already decided is Ukss' stand-in for the internet.