Tuesday, January 28, 2020

(M: tAs) Akashic Brotherhood

Akashic Brotherhood is a complicated book. I'm not sure I'm entirely qualified to critique it, but I think I have to, because it's the first book in the line that pulls together all of Mage's disparate threads to become recognizably the game I first encountered in 2001. I guess we'll just have to dive in and hope to come out the other side in a reasonably dignified manner.

So Mage is fundamentally a game about religion, but it's also frequently sloppy and careless about how religious ideas are used, but it's also really pretentious (not that we'd know anything about that around here), but it's also tuned in to pop culture, but it's also just totally mired in the chaos of the expansive White Wolf canon. And all of that is here.

This is a book that really wants to explore the Akashic Brotherhood as "the Buddhist Tradition," and there was clearly some thought and research put into that idea. I'm not sure there was enough, but for better or worse, this is a book that feels like it took some effort to write. They keep referring to an idea called "Drahma" and I think they mean "Dharma," but I can't entirely be sure because the Akashic Brotherhood's signature martial art/spiritual practice is called "Do," and they are clearly riffing off real terms in East Asian spirituality (though I don't know whether it's "Tao" or "De" that inspired it), and so it's possible that they are just intentionally corrupting words so as to not use sacred ideas to refer to silly game mechanics.

My operating theory, though, is that there was a typo when they added it to their spell check, and so every instance of the word has the same misspelling.

As a primer for Buddhism, it's not very effective, though. Wikipedia does a better job. At least, that's the impression I get from my limited knowledge. Akashic Brotherhood has a very roundabout, metaphorical way of using language, an artifact, I think, of Mage's growing ambition. There's a sense that the magic of the Akashic Brotherhood is meant to really engage with some serious philosophical and spiritual ideas.

Also, there are at least seven sections that begin with quotes from comic books. Not that there's anything wrong with that. . . intrinsically. A modern-day martial arts fantasy setting inspired by comics and Hong Kong cinema would actually be pretty awesome. Unfortunately, Akashic Brotherhood doesn't quite have that sense of fun. Instead, it takes the watered-down "eastern mysticism" of something like Iron Fist at face value.

You can have a mature, thoughtful roleplaying game that has interesting things to say about Dharma and the cycle of reincarnation, or you can quote Dr Strange, but you can't do both. Or, at least, mid-90s White Wolf couldn't.

I've repeatedly said that Mage: the Ascension here is the most 90s game there is, and this here is a big part of it (the other part is Technocracy as a villain, and the way it casts "the experts have everything under control" as a horror premise). It's very piously multicultural and in its own blundering way anti-sexist ("brother" is a gender neutral term) and anti-racist, but it's also just completely confident in its own right to carelessly grab whatever it wants from Asian cultures.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's instructive to compare this book to The Complete Ninja's Handbook, which is going to get published a year later. Despite an early misstep with "our mood is one of exotic mystery," Akashic Brotherhood doesn't use the word "oriental" once. But then it does this,
Few non-Asian mages were initiated into the Brotherhood before 1900. Many eastern Brothers still regard their white counterparts with a mixture of pity and disdain. Although the Tradition now welcomes all cultures into its fold, few Europeans can master the ideals and disciplines of Do. Those who do earn great respect from their Asian Brothers. African initiates have an easier time with it than European and American newcomers, but the Akashic mindset seems to work best among those raised within its founding cultures.
Whew, what a rollercoaster. For context, the "founding cultures" are China, Japan, Korea, and Tibet (also a bit of India, though that's barely mentioned). Its heart seems to be in the right place. It can be most generously read as a hedge against cultural appropriation. You can't just jet in to the Himalayas, have a "spiritual experience" and then walk away with mystical powers - it's a religious system that belongs to a particular place and a particular people. True understanding would require a whole host of cultural signifiers of the sort accumulated over a lifetime. It's something an outsider can aspire to, but it requires commitment and a seriousness of purpose.

But then there's that weird bit about Africans? I get why you'd want to . . . discourage white Akashic characters. Comics like Iron Fist and Dr Strange are a little bit embarrassing (despite being quoted in this very book). Not unforgivable or anything (hell, they're still getting Netflix shows and blockbuster films, even in the "woke" 2010s), but part of a trend that American society should probably be moving away from. And maybe in 1994, this is as good as it gets. Certainly, they didn't live in our current bubbling cauldron of constant media criticism (um . . . don't mind me . . . it's good, actually), but it comes off a bit "magical Asian."

And here I have to take a moment to gape at the sheer, fucking audacity of this game. Of course the Akashic Brothers are magical Asians. The Dreamspeakers are magical Native Americans. The Verbena are magical Wiccans. The Celestial Chorus are magical Christians. The whole premise of the game is that everything real people believe is magic, is actually magic. Everybody in this game has magic, even the Asians, so they are in a very literal sense, magical. Buuut . . .

Mage's peculiar mix of inclusive and colorblind and fantastic and lazy is a surefire way for problematic depictions to slip through the cracks. Even if you mean well (and I think they do), sometimes you're going to be pressed for time or just need a simple character to fill a role in the plot or you're going to lapse in concentration, and you're going to drop something that looks like its straight out of central casting and that's not a good look.

I think if someone were to come to me, today, and pitch Mage: the Ascension, I'd not only say "no," I'd say "hell no, what are you thinking? How does this possibly end any way except with us getting a well-deserved ass-kicking?" Which I guess just goes to show why I'm sitting here writing a blog and not having my work written about by fans decades in the future (unless I eventually do something that does merit it, in which case - hello, future fans).

Still, I think we have to look at the problems of Scion, 2nd edition, which is in many ways the spiritual successor (no pun intended) of Mage: the Ascension, to see what would happen if you tried it today - you'd get an interesting, sometimes even inspired game that would be constantly undermining itself by hedging its bets and encouraging you to do your homework. For all its faults, Mage is rarely afraid to just go for it, which is maybe not the most responsible trait in the world, but which does occasionally result in some thrilling entertainment.

Now, to switch gears to something totally unrelated to thrills - the World of Darkness metaplot. No, I kid because I love. It's fine. We get our first look at the formation of the Council of Nine Traditions here, and it looks like all the pieces are already coming in to place. There's a big meeting. The first cabal will be betrayed by one of its members. The Ahl-i-Batin are there. It was never a hugely interesting story, and this book mainly uses it as a framing device to discuss the Akashic Brotherhood's opinions about the other Traditions, but I'm surprised to see it was so fully-formed, so soon. I'm guessing that another big metaplot book is already in the pipe (specifically Fragile Path: Testaments of the First Cabal, which is only two books away).

Though that whole section is mostly just padding, there's one interesting bit that caught my eye. As the narrator gives the once-over on the Dreamspeaker delegate (indulging in some condescendingly positive Native American stereotypes in the process), he expresses sympathy that they were "forced together in one single group to satisfy the whims of western mages," and notes that Asian mages were similarly treated.

There's a part of me that wants to yell, "it wasn't the Council that made that decision, it was you, White Wolf publishing. You can't use metaplot as a cover for your moral errors," But, of course, this is 90s White Wolf. They could and did. (Ravnos says "hey"). I'm going to choose to allow it, because Mage was always at its best when it was being anti-colonialist, even when the message is muddled. The Technocracy is here, once again explicitly associated with colonial powers, though with the strange decision to make their colonialism a cover for their anti-magic activities, rather than the other way around, which, when combined with the Traditions' makeup being a product of European arrogance kind of serves to suggest that maybe no side of the Ascension war actually "owns" colonialism. That may be a deliberate White Wolf editorial stance, though. Recent books have been making a point to say that mages from both sides aided Hitler (the sidebar I quoted earlier starts off by doing something similar for the Pacific theater).

Finally, the Ascension magic system does not work at all to replicate the feel of cinematic mystical martial arts, and this book does nothing to correct that. Maybe not it's job, granted, but it feels like a missed opportunity, especially when one of your sample characters is a "superhero."

Ukss Contribution: The meteor hammer. It's not as cool as it sounds, being just a heavy weight attached to a rope, but damn that name is cool. Someone on Ukss is going to use them.

1 comment:

  1. "A modern-day martial arts fantasy setting inspired by comics and Hong Kong cinema would actually be pretty awesome." C.f. Feng Shui.