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.

1 comment:

  1. Oh my stars and garters. "The Verbena created Protestantism to get back at the Celestial Choristers inside the Catholic Church when they failed to intervene in the Burning Times"? Amazing.

    I mean, I've seen the idea of Catholic witch-burnings so many times that I hardly bat an eye at this iconically Protestant action getting attributed to the other guy, but the idea that Protestants were created in direct opposition to it is a new level of hilarity. I guess that in Mage 1E, John Calvin was just ironically burning people at the stake.

    This is still a smaller change to history than Wicca being an ancient religion.

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