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.

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