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.


  1. Important points all, but I'm a little struck by how you think of this as a 90s problem.

    Could you recommend for me any RPGs - really, any works of fiction - where the authoritarian bad guys consistent breaking of their own rules is a big deal in the text? Every time I see yet another Faustus pastiche where the oppressor has their boot on your throat, then removes it because of a loophole you found in the rules they themselves provided, I want to scream. Like, why would a powerful and amoral actor even make up rules if they then had to follow them in good faith?

    But I still saw lots of that in 2019. Maybe 2020 is the year that stupid idea finally dies.

  2. You're right that it's not specifically a 90s problem, and it's entirely possible that I just think that time was more naive because I was more naive, but my main reasoning is that we do indeed live in a post-Trump era. I'm not sure how it's possible for any of us to have any illusions about the nature of power.

    That being said, I think the best illustration may indeed belong to one of the classics - 1984. I think there was a part of me that didn't realize that the minitru was supposed to be horror.

    1. As an expansion, though, and this is an idea that I might steal for a later post, the 90s was also the decade of the X-Files, pre-Oklahoma City bombing when right-wing and left-wing mistrust of the government sort of dovetailed into the conspiracy-theory fad, which I think is behind a lot of what is most distinctively misguided in Mage's interpretation of politics.