Saturday, February 29, 2020

(M:tAs) Celestial Chorus

It is probably not a coincidence that three out of the four sample characters in Celestial Chorus weren't Christian. It's almost as if White Wolf thought that releasing a book about heroic Christian mages would have damaged their counterculture cred. The result is a book that's fairly ambivalent about its subject matter.

It would be dishonest to deny that the Celestial Chorus is Mage's designated "Christian faction," but the book does go out of its way to bring up every example of non-Christian Choristers it can think of. It's not an exclusive club. The Chorus believes in religious tolerance . . . mostly. Some members of the Chorus are inflexible fanatics. The Celestial Chorus encouraged the Inquisition . . . and the Celestial Chorus fell victim to the Inquisition. Because back when it was strong enough to be one of the dominant Traditions, it was big enough to contain both the Cabal of Pure Thought and Gnostic heretics.

In a way, this is as it should be. Christianity is bigger than the niche that Mage set aside for it. Something so central to European philosophy, culture, and history should probably have more of an influence in the European Traditions as a whole. Realistically, the Order of Hermes, the Verbena, and the Cult of Ecstasy should probably be majority Christian as well, instead of recruiting primarily from all these pagans that seem to come from nowhere. But White Wolf had its obsessions. If the setting can support a faction like the Hollow Ones, who only exist to imply that goths really do get it, then it almost makes sense to pigeonhole Christianity into one group out of ten and Islam into a hidden 11th faction that people only occasionally remember.

The weird thing, though is that the Celestial Chorus is more than Christianity. Choristers can be Muslim or Zoroastrian or Jewish. There is a large contingent of Hindu Choristers who resent being so long overlooked.  The book even acknowledges that there are varieties of Native American spirituality that fit better with the Chorus than they do with the Dreamspeakers.

On the one hand, this means that an already overburdened Tradition now has even more that it needs to account for. On the other, it's latched on to something significant. Maybe the Celestial Chorus represents a theological tendency that crosses religious boundaries. Not all Christian mages join the Chorus, only those that interpret God through a lens of transcendental pantheism and whose soteriology is flexible enough to incorporate the reincarnation of Avatars and extreme syncretism. So the Chorus is just an assembly of heretics - be they Christian, Hindu, Mayan, or what have you. None of them quite fit in with their native doctrines, but they all believe in The One.

That's where the Celestial Chorus is going to wind up, but it's not quite there yet. It's still got a lot of Christian Identity in its DNA. The remnants of the Cabal of Pure Thought, the ones who stayed behind when the rest defected to the Order of Reason, are still part of the Traditions, so we're not yet at the point when we can say, "um, actually, the Sons of Ether have almost as large a percentage of Christians in their ranks, they just don't believe their powers come from God." We're still at a stage where we have to say "the Celestial Chorus is the Christian splat . . . but they're weird . . . but they're Christian . . . but they're weird."

That's why the one and only Christian among the sample characters was also an inheritor to the Greek sibyls. They wanted a vision of Christianity that would still get the goth kids in trouble with their parents.

Let's see, odds and ends. Before it was Christian, the Celestial Chorus was Mithraic, and one of the last Celestial Choristers to follow Mithras speculated that Jesus was a Mage. And hoo boy, that's not the sort of detail I'd have the guts to use in a game. Though I do admit that as an atheist, it's an idea that intrigues me. Imajica, by Clive Barker, implied something similar and it was such an interesting bit of worldbuilding that I immediately lost interest in the main plot. It's not, as you might think, because I want to take the Christian God down a peg, but rather I like the idea that there's no contradiction between human action and the sacred. I guess, if I'd been born at the right time, I'd have been drawn to Arianism (please, before you write me an angry letter, look it up).

The book actually goes into some depth about this issue, and while it denies that the Chorus directed the creation of the Nicene Creed, it does imply that they used the Council of Nicea as cover to hash out some internal political stuff.

Overall, this feels like the most ambitions Tradition Book yet. White Wolf is getting more confident about this whole publishing business and it shows in things like a more elaborate layout and the framing device where the whole book is supposed to be a compilation of ancient Celestial Chorus documents. It doesn't always work - the need to advance the fiction eats up a lot of wordcount that could otherwise have gone to describing the Celestial Chorus - but it works more often than not. Sons of Ether is still my favorite Tradition Book so far, but I definitely feel like we're creeping up on White Wolf's golden age.

Ukss Contribution: There's a subgroup within the Chorus called the Sisters of Gabrielle that's an all-female order of demon hunters. They're pretty badass, but it's unclear why their group is only open to women.  Since the art of Gabrielle looks a little like Kassandra from Assassin's Creed: Odyssey, I'm choosing to believe that the Gabriellites are all lesbians.

So that's what Ukss is getting - kick-ass lesbian demon hunters. (But not lesbian stripper ninjas - I promise to keep the male gaze to a minimum).

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

(M:tAs) Void Engineers

Void Engineers has a problem. The people it's about are bold, charismatic adventurers . . . who just so happen to be the heralds of genocide.

It kind of deals with it. Well, it dances around the issue. "None of the explorers - not the serious ones, anyway - wanted anything to do with the bloodbaths that sometimes occurred." Which is a . . . nice sentiment, but maybe one that seeks to downplay the Void Engineers' culpability in the atrocities of colonialism. The book acknowledges that European explorers largely "discovered" places that were already inhabited, but then doesn't really do anything with that information. The Void Engineers keep finding places, and then shortly thereafter, those places keep getting ground under the boot of a ruthless imperialism, but it's a weird coincidence. Just because a bad consequence has happened with clockwork regularity every time you've done something in the past doesn't mean that it's guaranteed to happen again in the future.

The only reason this is really a problem, though, is because Void Engineers is the first Technocracy book to treat its subject as largely sympathetic. The Void Engineers' claim that they're out there protecting humanity from monsters out of the spirit world is at least taken seriously, even if it's not enthusiastically ratified by the text. They're also given a few other signifiers to indicate that they're okay by Mage: the Ascension's whimsical standard of ethics - they have a "research and execution" department, because the dry minutiae of "development" is just a bummer, they dislike the Syndicate and the NWO, presumably because they wear suits, and some of their exploration teams even run on a democratic basis.

This all probably ties back in to the idea from the 1e core, that the Void Engineers were on the verge of defecting. I'm certain that this was a decision ultimately driven by aesthetics, but I can't say that I blame them.

"In our upcoming urban fantasy game, we have a faction of mages that uses their powers to become sci-fi space adventurers, flying around in giant spaceships, fighting aliens and exploring the universe."


"They're the villains."


Void Engineers winds up trying to have it both ways. The Void Engineers are the cool, casual, reasonable Technocrats, able to at least acknowledge the humanity of the Traditions, but they're also violent xenophobes who turn over sentient aliens to be experimented on by the Progenitors. In the end, the big plot twist is that they might indeed defect . . . to the Nephandi (dark mages who want to destroy all creation).

It's not really an earned payoff, and feels evil for the sake of evil, but you could make something of it. Earlier Technocracy material has the other Conventions "worried" about the Void Engineers traipsing around the universe unsupervised, and it always felt like they were including those bits to show that Technocrats had a huge stick up their ass and just hated space exploration. But if it's a legitimate worry, that voices in the void might whisper to isolated explorer teams, luring them away from their old allegiances with the promise of forbidden knowledge, then that changes things.

I think the problem with the Void Engineers is that the interpretation of the Technocracy as "the fun police" has driven so much of their presentation so far. Time and time again, mage books will imply that the great crime of the Technocracy is that they're boring, and that they want to make reality as boring as they are by suppressing all the cool, fun Tradition mages. So when you have a faction of the Technocracy that is decidedly not boring, who in fact embodies the most exciting facet of real science, then you've got a piece that doesn't fit. They'll more or less have to defect eventually. Maybe to the Traditions. Maybe to their own new faction. But probably not to the Nephandi.

If they'd wanted to make that plot point work, they should have put more emphasis on the horror of colonialism. A technologically advanced force appears out of nowhere, tears apart your society, and when they rearrange it, they put you at the bottom and themselves at the top. You and everyone you know are helpless before this injustice, and in time, even your history will fade away, replaced by fictions that serve the interest of the conquerors.

It could work. Overworked space explores, constantly tempted by dark entities, determined to turn the whole universe to humanity's service, but so authoritarian and venal that they're in permanent danger of succumbing to corruption. But then, you'd have wound up reinventing WH40K in the Mage: the Ascension universe.

Wait . . . The Void Engineers employ a group of non-mage acolytes they call "space marines" . . .

Nah, probably a coincidence.

Ukss Contribution: According to the Void Engineers, the Deep Ocean is almost as strange as the spirit world, and houses all sorts of lost civilizations and terrifying magic beasts. I could probably do something with that.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

(WH40K: RT) Edge of the Abyss

Edge of the Abyss is a setting book for Rogue Trader, offering examples of the sorts of things you might find in the Koronus Expanse (the border region that is in the process of being conquered by the Imperium). It's kind of a tricky thing, really. The whole point of the Koronus Expanse is that it is largely unexplored and thus you can find theoretically find anything out there. To even have a setting book at all kind of undermines that idea. And yet, it's not like we GMs have infinite reserves of time and creativity. It can be handy to have a guide.

Edge of the Abyss probably comes as close as possible to striking the right balance. I could build a couple dozen adventures from the ideas in this book. Unfortunately, they would mostly be WH40K-style adventures and I have little interest in that.

Oh, look at me, being so snarky about it. There's really no problem with Edge of the Abyss. Maybe a little section where either the book or I am fundamentally misunderstanding the chronology of the 40K universe. One of the planets  has ancient Imperial technology, which doesn't track with what I assumed was a fairly straightforward sequence of: 1 - Dark Age of Technology expands human settlement to its farthest limit; 2 - the collapse of that society leads to human planets losing contact with each other; 3 - The God-Emperor launches a crusade to reunite the planets that ends in an attempted coup by his lieutenant; 4 - the Imperium slowly expands into the areas the Emperor never got around to. Maybe there was a step 3.5, where the Imperium gained certain planets, but then later lost them . . . If so, this is the first I'm hearing of that happening in the Koronus Expanse.

But to harp on such a picayune inconsistency would betray a mindset that is going in to this book looking for something to complain about. The planet of Sheldon's Folly may just be an outlier. Maybe a colony ship just got lost in the warp. It happens. One of the sample tall tales is about a spaceship that wound up traveling 100 years into the past (whereupon, in true WH40K style, the crew is executed for impersonating naval personnel). A strict chronology of events is not something the setting has ever promised.

Which gets us to the crux of the issue. Edge of the Abyss is a pretty conservative take on the WH40K universe, and I'm still ambivalent about said universe. You land on a strange, alien planet, you find some mysterious crystal ruins, and surprise, surprise, the ghosts worshiped Chaos and now they're trying to drive you insane.  Everything you find is cursed or tainted or heretical or just plain trying to kill you. It's exactly what you'd expect . . . which is kind of the problem. WH40K has a lot of good, interesting, and unique science fantasy, but it's wedded to a very narrow set of genre expectations. Rogue Trader in general pushes the envelope a little (most of the NPC Captains in this book are genuine swashbucklers, with very little horror, for example), but it's still the grim, dark future of the 41st millennium, and if there's not only war, there is quite a lot of it.

So we see the return of the same handful of alien species we've seen before. The Eldar get a little more detail, though I'm still not sure what a Maiden World is. Also Orks definitely have factories. That is confirmed canon. Which, of course, just deepens the mystery of their supply chains. Are there Ork accountants (I'm sorry, akowntanz)? And why, if you're going to give them ordinary jobs, did you even bother making them an alien space fungus? What is the point of it all?

Overall, Edge of the Abyss is not a book that I'm going to get a lot of use out of. I prefer a looser, less predictable version of Rogue Trader and will probably wind up diluting WH40K's trademark grimdarkness so much that I'll need to go entirely off book. But hey, at least my collection is nearly 100% complete.

Ukss Contribution: There's a star system near the entrance to the Koronus Expanse (because of storms in the spirit world, volumes of space can have entrances) that is just filled with "a multitude" of geometrically perfect, asteroid-sized spheres. The book tries to make them sound vaguely sinister, attributing them to an elder god (which doesn't sound automatically bad . . . but WH40K), but judging by the rules, they're harmless. I like to think that maybe they are the work of a forgotten god, and that he just happened to really like spheres.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

(M:tAs) NWO

I'm sensing a subtle change in the Mage: the Ascension canon. Progenitors and Iteration X were straight-up sci-fi horror, all about the Technocracy's wicked deeds and how their callous science would lead to the corruption and mutilation of the human form. NWO doesn't go so far as to make the titular conspiracy heroes, but they do have a much stronger protagonist energy than we've seen from the Technocracy so far.

I suspect it's because of the growing complexity of Mage as a game. The 2nd edition core suggested that the Ascension War wasn't as one-sided as 1st edition made it seem. The rise of the Technocracy was not inevitable, and there's still the possibility that the Traditions might win. With the stakes of the conflict becoming the fate of reality, instead of just survival, the Technocracy starts to become a viable player-character faction. They don't completely dominate reality, they have to work at it.

The result is a book that doesn't quite know what it is. On the one hand, it's a baroque conspiracy theory thriller - the Bavarian Illuminati and the Knights Templar organized under the direction of Queen Victoria to rewrite history to remove all mention of the supernatural. On the other hand, it's espionage action, where front line spies engage in deadly games of cat and mouse with their ideological rivals. And it does neither thing especially well.

It's not the worst case scenario, though. George Bush gets quoted a few times in section headers, but ironically, not his famous "new world order" speech. So at least we were spared the sight of right-wing talking points being recycled as a fantasy organization. There is the "world advisory council," that has that aesthetic of "sinister because it's bland," but despite being a shadowy organization of mages that influences the world's governments, not much is said about its politics.

Still, we are on track to seeing the peak 90s Technocracy. There's this idea that the experts are in charge and they're using data-driven policy to enact a hyper-rationalist agenda that makes no account for the individual, and I think that's a very post-cold-war way of looking at. George Bush could say that there would be a new world order centering around the Americanization of global politics because after the fall of the Soviet Union, there didn't seem to be any other options. There was one power, with one philosophy, and as the sole survivor, it must have seemed "correct" in some way. Humanity was finally figuring its shit out, and when it did, that would be the end of history.

Subsequent decades have proven such theories . . . premature. Yet this is the way the Technocracy is going to develop in future books. They are the experts who know better than you - capitalist, globalist, and classically liberal. They don't actually trust you to make decisions for yourself, but they also don't worry about the participatory nature of western democracy, because they have things firmly Under Control.

That's honestly why I think Mage's time has passed. We now live in a world where experts are outsiders, shouting to be heard, where the power players are clearly trimming their sails to weather the chaos of a superstitious populism, and where it's clear that no one is in control. The capitalists are not an Illuminati, pulling strings behind the scenes, but rather vultures who can survive just as well in times of both growth and decay. There doesn't have to be unity, because a divided population lets you target marketing to both sides.

Though, to be entirely fair, the world was probably always like that. The 90s just got really carried away with the collapse of the USSR.

Anyway, the really interesting thing about NWO as a book is that it presents a version of the Technocracy that explicitly knows about magic, even to the extent of distinguishing between coincidental and vulgar effects and instituting rules to mandate the former. I'll admit, this doesn't track with my understanding of the organization. I'd always pegged them as a combination of soft sci-fi inventors and Aeonverse-style talents (basically, superheroes whose powers take the form of impossible good luck and genre tropes). The notion that they use spells, even with the fig leaf of "psionics" struck me as wasting the potential of mage's metaphysics. Consensual reality doesn't seem quite so wild if magic always looks like magic.

But then, the rules can't handle anything else.

Overall, NWO is a pretty forgettable book. Despite being about mind-controlling secret agents who control the world's governments, it's not as over-the-top evil as previous Technocracy material, but it's also not quite sympathetic enough to the Technocratic worldview to act as a true players' guide. It's an in-between thing with an unclear purpose. But maybe that's fitting for an organization whose goal is to use truth itself as a tool of control.

Ukss Contribution: Sleepteachers - technomagic beds that let you control people's dreams, ostensibly to educate them, but also, you know, for brainwashing.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

(M:tAs) Destiny's Price

I feel so embarrassed on White Wolf's behalf right now. This book . . . it's . . . um . . . you know how sometimes an rpg book will be bad, like, say Heroes Unlimited, where it's just unskillfully made, with lots of inconsistencies and questionable ideas. But then, at other times, a book will be evil, like The Complete Barbarian's Handbook, which was just filled with open racism?

Destiny's Price was neither bad nor evil, but it came perilously close to both on multiple occasions. It's a book about "the streets" in The World of Darkness and as soon as I figure out what that means, I'll tell you.

No, that's not fair. It's pretty clear that the authors of this book had something specific in mind when they were writing it, but there's a cultural divide here that makes it look extremely silly and kind of racist in retrospect. Basically, people in the suburbs used to be terrified of the big city. Now, I don't want to front like this is a completely alien concept to me. On my last vacation, I stayed the night in San Francisco, and when my night-shift-adapted brain woke me up at 3am, I was pretty nervous about walking to my car, despite the fact that my home town has a nearly identical crime rate. So, on some level, I get it. I consume media. I've got prejudices.

But damn.

This book presents such a bleak and pessimistic view of the urban landscape that it starts to move beyond what you can attribute to the grim genre of the World of Darkness. You know, you can point out that there's a black market trade in blood, because of all the vampires lurking around, and that's one thing, but when you start throwing around terms like "psycho gangs" or "white slaves," that starts to get a little suspect. It starts to feel less like the World of Darkness and more like the Death Wish expanded universe.

Though the weirdest part of Destiny's Price is how dorky it is. Ostensibly, this should be about crime drama - stories of greed, desperation and betrayal in a world where survival is uncertain and honor is a luxury most can't afford, but the tone here is so detached and anthropological. Before the first chapter, there's a glossary, for crying out loud. Did you know that the word "hood" is derived from "neighborhood." Well, Destiny's Price will explain it to you. Also, the concept of double penetration, for some reason.

Although, that's this book all over, really. You start with middle-class suburban hyperventilating, leaven it with the occasional bit of empathy, but add in some prurient gawping at luridly described atrocities (it's . . . weird how many of this book's prostitutes are precisely 14 years old), and then be sure to gloss over any accidental insight, and that's pretty much the book's formula.

Like, this book recognizes the existence of gay sex work, and while it's pretty judgemental about sex workers in general, it's not noticeably moreso when those workers are gay, and I get the sense that this was a conscious choice. Destiny's Price was released under the Black Dog imprint, which meant that they were both free to speak frankly and obligated to be exploitative about "adult" subjects like homosexuality. Where it gets frustrating is that there is no discussion of queerness outside of sex work. Being gay just kind of gets lumped in with sex stuff and there's no understanding of why big cities might have gay subcultures. The whole framing of the gay experience is as something furtive and, if not wrong, then at least embarrassing. So you wind up with the grim spectacle of a book that is vaguely supportive of "alternative lifestyles," but still calls them "alternative lifestyles." And, I don't know, maybe it would have been more subversive and more interesting to actually engage with urban gay culture as it actually existed than to be so "dark and gritty" all the time.

I mean, I love you 90s White Wolf. You were trying, bless your hearts. But it's clear that huge swaths of your worldview are just uncritically received from the Georgia GOP and then run through a rebellious goth filter that swaps "bad" for "necessary."

Anyway, I expect that to the degree that anyone at White Wolf HQ remembers Destiny's Price at all, it's been officially decanonized. I can't say that I enjoyed this book either as a whole or in part, but it was pretty useful to dial in my expectations when it comes to classic White Wolf excess. This is pretty much what people mean when they say that the World of Darkness thrived on juvenile shock value.

Ukss Contribution: I don't take contributions from evil books, but on the whole Destiny's Price squeezes in just under the wire. Anyway, this book asserts that Chinese organized crime has been traditionally associated with magic, and while I could not find anything on the internet to back this up (aside from Shadowrun references), I do like the idea of black market sorcery in general. So Ukss will have gangs that sell access to illegal magic as their primary means of criminal income.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Mage: the Ascension, 2nd edition core

I was pretty eager to get into this book. As a revised-era Mage newbie, I read a lot of stuff online about how 2nd edition was a mythical golden age, when the developers actually cared about the game and weren't trying to pigeonhole gritty urban themes and blah, blah, blah. Also, a lot of stuff about Sons of Ether fighting the Void Engineers around the moons of Jupiter. Needless to say, I was extremely curious to see whether the old core book lived up to the hype.

Eh. I'd say that compared to Revised, it's a better core book for a worse game. I admired how thorough it was - it covered the various spirit worlds, the Digital Web, potential crossovers, and the internal politics of the Technocracy (things that were missing from the Revised core), but then it's still a version of the Storyteller system that lacks bashing damage.

The thing I'm noticing most about Mage as time goes on though is that there's this narrow band where it's at its smartest and it's a compelling philosophical storytelling game and on the other end, there's a much broader patch where it's at its dumbest and it's a fun superhero game, but the bulk of the actual writing is in the space between those extremes and it often feels like it's floundering as a result.

Take the conflict between the Traditions and the Technocracy as an example. Sometimes, it's just an example of some impossibly earnest, impossibly shallow mid-90s environmentalism. Industry is destroying the trees, man, and the cities are so ugly and sterile and filled with bad thoughts, unlike nature which is beautiful and noble and filled with good thoughts. And the whole vibe is "cyborgs vs elves" and it's glorious . . . so long as you don't think too much about it.

Alternately, there are flashes of insight where Mage actually lights on the conflicts that define our world - the overreach of the Modernist project and the way that the principles of the Enlightenment arose in the context of a rapacious colonialism that seems to be its own antithesis, but then the societies that emerged in this era never really resolved these contradictions, so you have to wonder whether there is really a conflict at all. Maybe the widespread "paradox" of "liberalism for some" is not a hypocritical failing of the philosophy, but its desired end-state all along. Maybe the very idea of historical progressivism is inherently hierarchical, establishing an unquestionable aristocracy of "experts," who rule over "the masses" in the name of improving material conditions, but which is so non-porous and self-selecting that those in the disfavored class are doomed to eternal subservience. . .

Except that's usually just one isolated sentence, and it never addresses the follow-up questions, about how to avoid a political nihilism that serves only to empower the ruling class or how a group like the Traditions, which defines itself in terms of elitism, can possibly embrace the radical equality that is the necessary counter to the Technocracy's stratified liberal "meritocracy." Most of the time, Mage's level of critique is completely off-base. Like, there's this painfully Cold War era line, "What the Technocrats ignore is that their warped form of communism (like that of the Soviet Union) still requires elites to impose the supposed equality."

Now, I don't want to get stuck playing Soviet apologist here, but it's such an odd form of attack, not least because The Technocracy is so quintessentially American. One of its conventions is so thoroughly associated with modern capitalism that it's not even clear what magical powers they have other than shit tons of cash (seriously, it's in one of the later books that the Syndicate winds up getting Spirit as its specialty sphere because . . . money is bad for the soul?) But more to the point, it's also bizarrely circular - the problem with the Technocracy is that they want to impose equality, but they're not really equal, so support their rivals who reject equality in its entirety, because an unequal society that doesn't try is superior to one that does. It all has a vaguely John Birch society feel to it, but with magic instead of racism.

The best summary of  the half-assed version of the Ascension War is "the great sin of the Technocracy is not science or even murder - it is oppression under one vision." Which seems sinister when you're talking about lifestyle or culture, but is kind of silly when you realize they're actually talking about physics, and that the one unforgivable sin in the Mage universe is to be certain about anything. It's a tendency that extends beyond the Traditions vs the Technocracy. Even within the Traditions, it applies.

The Traditions' descriptions have a section where they discuss the stereotypes they have about all the other Traditions, and almost universally the Order of Hermes is derided for learning magic from books. Supposedly, it's because the Order of Hermes is the most hierarchical of the Traditions, but it strikes me as a strange coincidence that you can sort the Traditions by both their popularity and by the value they place on academic rigor and the two lists would wind up being quite nearly the same. Mage's metaphysics can't account for true knowledge, because when belief defines reality, then there's no such thing as a false belief. Thus any desire to "learn" or, god forbid, "teach" becomes a stealth attempt to control what people can create.

There are times when it feels like someone behind the scenes once got a D- on a chemistry test and thereafter resolved to create a fantasy world where that could never happen.

Anyway, fundamental skepticism about the game's mission statement aside, the thing that interested me most about the 2nd edition is the canon creep. The Verbena have diverged from their splatbook presentation and are less cuddly Wiccan. The Celestial Chorus is even more ambivalently presented than ever before, associated with both inquisitorial fundamentalism and heretical universalism (it actually gets called a "meta-religion" at one point, despite that label applying to basically all the Traditions). There's also some noticeable imports from the Akashic Brotherhood book. Do is core now. Also "drahma" appears, suggesting that it wasn't a typo after all.

We're also seeing the first hints of the millennialism that so characterizes the late-period World of Darkness. There are dark speculations that the world is coming to an end, and that the Ascension War is merely a backdrop for the Final Nights, but they're so brief that they don't really qualify as a theme . . . yet.

Overall, I'd say that this is a decent attempt at Mage. I feel justified in my belief that the revised era is the high-point of the series, but if the 2nd edition supplements wind up embracing the goofier elements of the core (more spaceships and witches on Mars), then I may have to revise that assessment.

Ukss Contribution: One of the examples of magic mentions bringing a haunted painting to life. That's pretty cool. One of the rare occasions where Mage gets away from the mechanistic precision of its magic system. It's a recurring irony that for all that the game is about the infinite variety of fantasy, its freeform magic system winds up feeling pretty homogeneous, probably because it can only cope with a very specific level of abstraction (all Forces are one and the same, but there's no way to interact with concepts like "family" or "destiny). So animated gothic painting lady is a nice change of pace.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

(WH40K: RT) Faith and Coin

I think the hardest thing for me to accept about WH40K's religion is how incredibly shallow it is. It's all surface. The whole book, you read about events and people in the shadow of Saint Cognatius and it's never made even a little bit clear why he deserves to be a Saint. I think maybe even the book itself forgot what Sainthood entails. The last chapter is an adventure where you look for Cognatius' final resting place. You find an elaborately-decorated pilgrim-transport that has crash landed on an alien planet. Inside were frescoes and statues dedicated to the most glorious moments of Cognatius' life. But the GMing advice said that it was "ambiguous" whether the ship was his true tomb.

Yet, if the Sacred Heart was not his tomb, doesn't that mean his followers were making devotional art of him while he was still alive? Doesn't that violate the number one rule of being a saint? I don't know the ins or outs of the Imperial Creed, but I'm pretty sure that "guy who declares himself a living saint and encourages his followers to worship him" is one of the classic types of heresy.

The Imperial Creed is very big on punishing heresy, but the books don't sweat to hard when it comes to explaining what heresy actually is. Near as I can tell, "heresy" is nothing more nor less than "fucking with the empire's money." If you're encouraging people to pay their taxes on time, you can declare that you're a living avatar of the Emperor himself and the Inquisitors will be all, "check him for moles, because mutation would be bad."

That's my read on it anyway. Faith and Coin hasn't really cleared anything up in that regards. It gave us four examples of NPC missionaries who are considered to exemplify the ideals of the Ecclesiarchy, and the thing they mostly seem to have in common is that their mistakes didn't catch up to them until after their deaths. The crusading missionary who converted followers by force of arms . . . and destabilized planets for generations after she left. The cautious, diplomatic missionary who persuaded several planets with reason and economic arguments . . . and who was slowly building himself a base of power prior to his assassination. The idealistic missionary who helped the poor and treated the sick . . . and wound up infecting a whole space station with the plague after she tracked it back from a planet she failed to save. But they all increased tithes coming out of the Koronus Sector .  . . for a time.

I really want to interpret them all as parodic, but mostly Rogue Trader has lacked that kind of wit. It really is just all surface. Screaming, "burn the unbeliever" is always just a little bit easier when there's nothing specific they're supposed to be believing.

Despite its theological murkiness, Faith and Coin is a fairly decent book. It's got a bunch of useful story ideas, a few new character options, and a chapter full of equipment that only occasionally provokes difficult metaphysical questions (how can a sword possibly be "sanctified," is the Emperor really a holy power? I thought he was comatose.) Overall, useful enough to me as a GM that I didn't need to act like nearly such a brat about it.

Ukss Contribution: The God-Emperor of Mankind. He didn't actually play that big a role in this book, but I said I was going to try and incorporate more unmistakably WH40K stuff, and it doesn't get more 40K than that. The Ukss version of the God Emperor will also be comatose, kept barely alive by a golden throne, and have really non-specific doctrines of worship.

Monday, February 10, 2020

(M: tAs) Halls of the Arcanum

I feel bad. There's a universe where Halls of the Arcanum could serve as the basis for a satisfying game of occult investigation, but that universe is, unfortunately, not The World of Darkness.

The Arcanum is an organization of scholars who seek the truth about the supernatural. They are patterned after the fin de siecle occult revival and operate on a kind of grab-bag hermeticism, with a special focus on alchemy and sacred texts. And that presents a prospective storyteller with an uncomfortable dilemma - are they good at what they do or not?

Because if they're good at what they do, then we kinda already have a group of guys exactly like that. They're called the Order of Hermes and there's no non-catty way to point that out. Aside from some Ars Magica-derived proper nouns, the organizations are 100% identical. One of the character templates is even called the "Hermetic scholar."

That made me laugh. It's like opening up a mockbuster on Christmas morning. "Hey Billy, I heard you were interested in joining an order of people who followed the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus. That's right! You're in the Arcanum!"

Womp womp.

Not that the other horn of the dilemma is much better. If the Arcanum is not very good at what they do. If they are, in fact, the tightly-knit lodge of hermetic mystery-seekers that doesn't know what they're doing, so much so that the book straight-out says, "the collected tomes of [the Arcanum] are not brimming with accurate truths." Then what are they even for?

No, seriously, what are they for? They're woefully outmatched by everything they might run in to, but it's okay because they're only seeking knowledge and have no other goals for which they would want to put that knowledge to use. And in the end, they're going to get the bulk of it wrong anyway. This is pretty much the worst-case Ascension's Right Hand scenario.

My theory here is that the Arcanum predates all of Mage. It hasn't played much of a role in the game so far (how could it) and I'm pretty sure it's going to fade from memory sometime before Revised comes around, but previous books have been holding the door open for them. There have been a bunch of quick little references. Things like "The Arcanum would be interested in this" or "be careful or you might draw the attention of The Arcanum."  It's possible that a group of normal occult investigators was always intended as a foil for Mage characters, and they simply failed to adapt their original idea when Mage evolved in a way that made the Arcanum redundant.

Ukss Contribution: An Arcanum narrator, bragging about his accomplishments, says "I have read the Poison Book." He doesn't explain what that means or why we should be impressed, and it never comes up again, but I thought it was pretty cool nonetheless. Good for you, nameless Arcanum guy. I will immortalize your accomplishment in Ukss.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

(M:tAs) The Fragile Path: Testaments of the First Cabal

With Fragile Path, Mage is attempting to give itself a thematic backstory, similar to the tales of Caine in Vampire: the Masquerade. I wouldn't say it was an entirely successful effort, but it does feel like a turning point in the Mage: the Ascension line. My own knowledge of the game's future notwithstanding, there's a sense that Ascension is going to be much more self-contained, going forward.

Actually, the chronology of this is pretty weird. Akashic Brotherhood was the first Mage book that felt "post-Fragile Path," but it was published six months prior. Ascension's Right Hand, however, was a later publication, but felt much more "1st edition," with its casual use of crossovers and downplaying of belief as a force in the Mage universe.  My guess is that the broad details of Fragile Path were worked out long enough in advance that a quickly written book could incorporate them, but not quite so far back that all the freelancers got the same memo (or possibly some products slipped the schedule, resulting in older "feeling" book getting later releases).

Fragile Path is an in-character work. It's written as a series of historical documents curated and translated by the Archmage Porthos. We wind up learning quite a bit about Mr Fitz-Empress here through his editor's notes and introductions, and not all of it is to his benefit as a character (pluses: he can apparently "level mountains" with his magic, and for someone who grew up in medieval Europe, he has a refreshingly clear-headed take on the evils of the Roman Empire; minus: he can't resist telling us, numerous times, how much he wanted to bone the various ladies of the First Cabal, one of whom he knew as a child. Gross.)

But cementing my opinion that Porthos is just a big, dangerous creep is not this book's central mission. Rather, it's trying to sell us on the idea of The First Cabal as a key event in the history of The Traditions, something your mentors will be telling your characters about, regardless of whether you are in the Order of Hermes or the Cult of Ecstasy. This event has meaning to everyone, and contains valuable lessons for Mages in the final nights, as the Ascension War hurtles towards its inevitable conclusion.

Or, at least, that's the plan. Fragile Path suffers a bit from being this cute in-setting artifact that's associated with this group of people we're only just now hearing about for the first time (well, second, if you've read Akashic Brotherhood). White Wolf had not, unfortunately, discovered the MCU formula of giving each of the First Cabal's heroes their own spotlight outing, so as to build hype before the big team-up. As a result, you're only getting introduced to these people after they're at their most doomed, and maybe I'm just a cruel reader, but I never let myself get too invested in them.

At its most elemental, The First Cabal is a mascot team. When the Traditions first formed, they wanted to spread the word about their mission to unite the world's mystics against the Order of Reason. The idea is that The First Cabal is going to go around doing good deeds, finding lost magic, and fighting the Order, and since it is composed of one member from each Tradition, it will represent the promise of what can happen when mages put aside their differences.

And it mostly works. They do their thing for four years and nothing especially bad or good happens (at least, nothing that Fragile Path feels worth depicting). There are personality conflicts between some of the members. There are hook-ups and rumors of hook-ups. A couple of them started to feel ambivalence about Cabal's mission. It was basically a tense, but functional workplace. There was nothing wrong with it that couldn't get solved by a couple of staff rotations and a weekend of team-building exercises. They squabbled, but they got the job done.

So of course their leader, Heylel Teomim, betrayed them to their enemies. He told the Order of Reason's militant Christian enforcers, The Cabal of Pure Thought, where the team could be found.

Half of them were killed in the initial assault, the rest were captured and tortured before eventually being rescued. Heylel said he did it because the Traditions weren't unified enough, even after their years of work. Only through shared outrage at the cruel destruction of their precious First Cabal could the Tradition mages ever truly begin to see each other as true partners. And it was that partnership that they were going to need if they were ever going to defeat Science and Reason once and for all.

Overall, not my kind of book.

I did like that the Celestial Chorus representative, Sister Bernadette, was born in the same small town as Joan of Arc, but just a couple of years later, and so went through her whole life with a completely one-sided rivalry with France's national hero. I'd have liked to see more of that. Unfortunately, Bernadette lost a lot of points with me because her entire section of the book was sheet music and song lyrics, a gimmick that got old after two pages.

The only other notably amusing thing about this book is that modern Cult of Ecstasy "scholars" apparently shipped everyone in the First Cabal. So many footnotes where Porthos feels obligated to debunk the theory (always from the Cult) that this character and that character were knocking boots.

Ukss Contribution: A minor plot hole in the First Cabal story is that one of the characters involved is a historically gifted seer. Why didn't Akrites Salonikas foresee Heylel's betrayal? According to Akrites account of events, he did, but that disrupting Heylel's plan at the wrong stage would run the risk of him running away, hiding for 1000 years, and returning as an unstoppable machine god at the head of a robot army that will consume all life on Earth.

That's kind of neat. The prophecy of the machine god.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

(M:tAs)Ascension's Right Hand

"Ascension's Right Hand" is kind of a badass name for such a workhorse of a book. It's about playing non-mages in the Mage: the Ascension universe, and it's fine.

Yep, fine . . .

So I guess I should be starting in with the Ukss contribution then. . .

Maybe not, though. Maybe even a book as bland as this one needs a little more than a perfunctory quip. It's just haaard. What do you say about a book that says about itself, "flamboyant superpowers really aren't appropriate for the Gothic-Punk setting." (You know, right before the section where it described said superpowers).

It's one of those annoying things that older rpgs did where low-power games were somehow supposed to be more virtuous than high-power ones, but it's kind of a false dichotomy between spectacle and theme. Especially with a game like Mage, where the spectacle is the theme. There's plenty of talk about intrigue and betrayal and romance and how "custos" (ie "non-mages") are motivated by bribes and threats, but it never quite catches on to the idea that the main draw to serving a mage would be the opportunity to enter the world of magic.

An ingenue who stumbles on to the occult after accepting a job from a mysterious weirdo is a staple urban fantasy plot and Ascension's Right Hand correctly intuits that there are great stories with that setup, but then it sets that intuition aside and instead objectifies custos at every turn. Everything they do is framed by what it means to mages. I keep saying that Mage: the Ascension is about religion, but maybe this is something that's only apparent with critical distance, because there's almost nothing in this book about the custos' own religious journeys.

Then again, if you did that, there'd be an uncomfortable overlap between custos and mages. As it is, non-mages can buy True Faith, Hedge Magic, and Psychic Phenomena, which are different from Sphere magic because "shut up, that's why, and also you're supposed to be using the 'k'." So yeah. Custos get magic and Mages get magick and that's the difference.

I think this overlap might have something to do with the book's overall blandness. It feels like it's checking off boxes, filling a niche that logically must exist, but doesn't have its own pitch. Someone must be cleaning the mages' toilets, buying their groceries, and standing in the background of their elaborate rituals. Why not tell those peoples' stories?

The answer to this turn out to be because you'll wind up covering all the same story beats and themes as mages, but their arc ends in failure rather than success. They leave their mundane lives behind to enter this shadow world seeking a religious mystery, and in the end, they don't find it.

That's definitely the sort of urban fantasy story I'd write. And it might even be the sort of urban fantasy story I'd read. But I would never dare GM it. For as much as the old Storyteller games considered themselves a literary breed of rpgs, they did not at all have the tools to handle it.

That's why it's probably okay if your character has flamboyant superpowers. It may not be very "gothic punk," but neither is "having a life that does not completely suck."

Let's see, a couple of odds and ends left. This is probably the first appearance of the ecumenical Celestial Chorus. They'd been explicitly Catholic before, but now they're a pretty loose coalition of universalists. Not just Catholics and Protestants, but also Muslims and Goddess Worshipers. Anyone who's more or less monotheist, basically. I'm surprised this version of the Tradition is showing up so early. I thought the hippy version from later books was a course correction, something that came along when the White Wolf writers outgrew their rebellious goth phase and could grudgingly admit that some types of Christianity are okay, I guess. That still may be what happened, but  the timeline still surprises me.

On the less optimistic front, this book still falls into the period when White Wolf was being weird about the Roma. It's a clueless 90s American thing. There's no anti-Roma hatred, exactly, but it's doing the same damn thing that The Complete Bard's Handbook did where it very casually uses a certain racial slur and uncritically accepts every stereotype about the Romani people, but then somehow decides that they sound awesome. All you really need to know is that custos can be supernatural creatures like familiars and dragons, vampires and werewolves, or . . . Roma.

It's a tricky question, because it's wildly inappropriate that White Wolf wrote a book called World of Darkness: Gypsies where the Roma are revealed to have magical powers based on pop-culture stereotypes. And it is just as gross that one such character, built from the rules in the sourcebook, shows up here as a sexy rogue. And yet, the whole point of mage is that everyone gets ethnicity-based superpowers, so it would be weird if the Roma somehow got left out, and sexy rogues are generally a welcome addition to an rpg setting. I think it would probably have been easy not to notice, back in 1995.

That's probably room enough for me to forgive it. Well-meaning stereotypes in a game that is full of them, but which are also kind of fun. Just chalk it up to a different time. But why would I bother? Between Sorcerer, Revised and The Guide to the Traditions, everything in this book is going to be reprinted with better rules and flavor.

Ukss Contribution:

How could I pick anything but this cute little guy. Fire-breathing hamster!