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.

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