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 It's written as a series of historical documents curated and translated by the Archmage Porthos.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.


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  2. As we depart the handful of Mage books I read back in the day and set sail for the vast, sprawling metaplot which inevitably grows around White Wolf games, I expected to encounter some offhand references to things which make little or no sense from my limited perspective.

    I did not expect the casual two-word reveal that a major Mage NPC is King Henry II. Man, what? Who would ever toss an immortal Henry II (or Geoffrey of Nantes, or William of Anjou) into their story when Empress Matilda is RIGHT THERE?

    I was so incensed, I headed for a wiki to see if it was really true. Anyone else with strong opinions on twelfth-century English nobility (maybe shoot me a message?) will be relieved to know that "Porthos Fitz-Empress" was born in the early 1400s. In Germany. And, apparently, his super-French name including a surname which roughly three people have had in all of history was given to him at birth.

    Sometimes, an ill-chosen name can be stranger than the Avatar Storm.

  3. That's funny. I didn't realize that Porthos' name was a real surname, I figured it was just chosen to be over-the-top fancy sounding.

    1. I suppose that it probably was, given the nonsense which ensues if you try to make sense of it.