Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Aberrant

Real talk - Aberrant is my number one choice if I'm ever asked to turn an old White Wolf game into a Netflix series. Sorry, Kindred: The Embraced reboot, you don't even make the top 5, the rest of which are: 2)Werewolf: The Wild West; 3)Changeling: The Lost; 4)Exalted; 5)Adventure!

Now, I'm not going to pretend that Aberrant is the first superhero setting to satirize the genre by drawing parallels between superhero culture and celebrity culture. However, one advantage that Aberrant has over, say, The Boys, is that White Wolf was clearly under the mistaken impression that they were too cool to write a superhero game.

But while White Wolf was much too dorky to be quite so dismissive of costumed heroes and supervillains, Aberrant's desire to downplay genre conventions does yield certain dividends. There's an old SMBC comic that winds up suggesting the best way Superman can serve the world is by turning a crank to generate electricity. It's funny because it takes the fantasy of heroism and replaces it with actuarial practicality, but Aberrant spends a lot of time conceding that it's "realistic."

The result is a setting where your average superhero has a day job. Every time an anti-comics curmudgeon would say some variation of, "but Spiderman could make so much more money if he just sold his web-shooters," Aberrant answers with, "good point, let's make sure we have a guy like that."

Sometimes the book can go a little too far in this direction (though the apex won't come until the infamous introduction to the Aberrant Player's Guide), but it also leads to some of the setting's most unique and rewarding ideas. Aberrant takes place in a world in flux. Things are changing with breathtaking rapidness and usually for the better. That gives the world a weird energy, as if it was filled with people scrambling to keep up with the present. Even the reactionary viewpoint seems somewhat reasonable, especially when remember that canonically, this whole period ends with the massive war from Trinity.

If you weave together all of Aberrant's strongest threads of influence - vapid celebrity gossip, professional wrestling, speculative futurism - you wind up with a setting whose wheelhouse is, roughly speaking, "reality show during the run-up to the Singularity." It's a mix that's unique, even among superhero deconstructions (that I'm personally familiar with - I'm sure that somewhere in the 90 year history of superhero comics, there's something comparable), and along with memorable characters like Divis Mal, Mefistofaleez, and Raoul Orzaiz, that uniqueness makes it one of my favorite superhero settings - period.

Of course, there's a downside. White Wolf's gotta White Wolf. And while I wouldn't say that the cynicism and conspiracy stuff is entirely to the setting's detriment, I would argue that it's a very sheltered suburban brand of cynicism. Project Utopia, the global philanthropic organization devoted to using nova powers to improve the world, is corrupt and authoritarian, whereas the Teragen, the openly nova-supremacist organization that proclaims that all superheroes are above the law, is democratic and sincere. And the logic of this is pretty transparent - a person who is trying to trick you would say that they're trying to help you, whereas a person who openly declares they care only about themselves is at worst exactly what they appear to be. Therefor you should be suspicious of people who are trying to help, but you can trust that nakedly selfish people are just "telling it like it is."

Taken together with the plot point that the USA's first female president would be a Libertarian, elected because the public was getting fed up with the two party system, suggests a very ironic political naivety in a text that otherwise prides itself on its worldliness.

Also, while we're talking about politics, I'm not a huge fan of the idea that a "moderate Republican" president would be ousted by a "sex scandal" that was nothing more than him having an affair with a man. I guess this was written shortly after the contentious reaction to the Ellen coming-out episode, so they were just writing the world they saw, but they were writing about their future, so maybe they could have spared just a little bit of hope (actually, to be fair, they did say that in Aberrant's 2008, the Republican party had severed its ties to the far right, which strikes me as a particularly . . . untutored brand of optimism).

Still, while the conspiracy stuff was the weakest part of Aberrant, it's not entirely unsalvageable. The plot where Project Proteus tries to sterilize every nova on Earth is both puppy-kickingly evil and a logistical nightmare, but the rest of it is probably okay. I don't have my copy of Trinity in front of me, so I don't know if the time travel element had been introduced yet, but given that Maxwell Mercer is name-dropped in the Proteus section of the setting chapter, I suspect it was at least already planned. And that gives the anti-nova conspiracy an interesting and sympathetic edge.

It's not just dramatic irony that we know this era of promise is going to turn into a graveyard. There are characters in the setting that know it too, and not just with a bigoted preemptive suspicion, but with genuine knowledge of the future. That's a good hook for a campaign - the classic SF-Fantasy predestination plot - can you change the future or are your efforts to prevent a tragedy the very thing that brings it about. It would be a pretty cool thing to have going on in the background . . . if 90s White Wolf didn't do the thing where they rationed their "secret reveals" to help drive supplement sales.

Now, the part where I talk about the system. . . It's cool that Aberrant encourages you to design your own powers. This was my first experience with that sort of thing. It's not quite an effects-based system. For example, you can buy the "Flight power" and you're supposed to skin it as something more specific, like gravity manipulation, or you can buy the Gravity Manipulation power, which includes flight as a possible technique. It's a sloppy design that tries to have it both ways.

However, that's not really the issue with the system. The problem with Aberrant is that it works well when characters are relatively evenly matched, but the chances of that happening, by either chance or design, are basically zero. I don't know if this is the game in my collection most vulnerable to char-op shenanigans, but it's definitely a candidate. There are four different character improvement resources (five if you count Taint, which you should) and they all convert to one another in different formulas that are highly dependent on things like the order in which you spend them. And then there's the fact that there's a huge amount of stuff you can buy, the costs of which vary depending on which currency you use to purchase them and which aren't necessarily equally valuable at a given price point ("let's see, should I get that fifth point of mega-perception or the first three points of mega-strength?").

If you play as fast and loose as White Wolf seems to think is proper, it will mostly be okay . . . probably. But attempting any sort of battle league or XWF tournament is a recipe for disaster. Specialists will absolutely destroy anyone who is even slightly well-rounded, and two characters specialized in different areas will probably annihilate each other just as easily, leaving the outcome almost entirely to chance.

Still, I have very fond memories of this game, and look forward to playing second edition some day. Until it becomes available, your best bet for playing in Aberrant's setting is to use a better rules system Either that or accept that life is a cruel dance of unforeseeable chance that ends, inevitably, in an absolute catastrophe.

Ukss Contribution: "Elites" are mercenary novas who perform services for the highest bidder. Since their work is often only technically legal, they wear masks, both to conceal their identity from their many enemies and to establish a marketable persona, in the vein of Mexican wrestling. It's the closest the setting comes to unabashed comics nonsense, and not coincidentally is also one of the best things about it. Ukss too will probably have a subculture of flamboyant masked mercenaries.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Euthanatos

So much of Euthanatos is devoted to resolving the situation in House Helekar that I'm left with the suspicion that the aim was to reboot the Tradition in the eyes of the fandom. My understanding from reading The Book of Chantries was that Helekar's serial killers, death worshipers, and sadists were meant to be an aberration, rogues who existed so that heroic PCs could thwart their sinister schemes.

I still think that was the intent, but I wonder if perhaps Helekar being the only Euthanatos we've really seen on-screen for a significant length of time might have led to a distorted view of the Tradition as a whole.

Although, even with a maximal benefit of the doubt, the Euthanatos are a tough sell. They use their magic to identify people whose death would improve the world and then they kill them. At their best (and I use that term lightly), they are vigilante assassins, using their powers to target and remove those among the wicked that have placed themselves above the law.

At their worst? I'll let the book sum it up: "[they] had to let the weak die." It is impossible to overstate how tyrannical it is that they've appointed themselves the arbiters of life and death with no oversight or input from the people most affected by their decisions. Isn't this the sin of the Technocracy? That they believe their "noble goals" justify murder in order to bring them about? What makes the Euthanatos different?

Is it because of their religion? That they are more precise in their targets (if you don't count "renegades" like House Helekar and, you know, the Euthanatos who are just starting out and haven't quite mastered the whole "assassins of fate" thing yet)?

Really, it's just because they're the designated edgy anti-hero faction and their whole thing with the killing is meant to give them plenty of fascinating moral dilemmas to work through.

I can't help thinking about the trolley problem. It's not my favorite thought experiment. The very thing that makes it useful is also the reason it fails to really get at the essential question of ethics. It seeks to provide clarity in how we form our moral values by presenting a situation where the actor has perfect information. Yet I think the most profound benefit of moral education is the way it can prepare us for uncertainty. You see four workers on the track in front of you, do you switch tracks? You don't know what's on the other track. Most likely nothing, but if there are any workers, there are probably less than four. But if there turned out to be five or more, did you make the wrong decision?

Can you imagine the fucking hubris the Euthanatos must have, to decide that they can kill people and send them on to a newer, better incarnation?

Of course, it's possible that the Euthanatos really do know what the consequences of their actions are going to be. They've got magic. According to this book, one of the things they use their magic for is to learn who it's helpful to kill. Tvtropes calls this the "omniscient morality license". Where it gets tricky is that the Euthanatos are far from omniscient.

It all comes down to Mage: the Ascension trying to have it both ways. This book does its best to remake the Euthanatos into "the Hindu mages," (going so far as to give them the new name "Chakravanti") but it also wants to avoid making definite statements about the truth or falsity Hinduism as a religion. It's the Book of Worlds thing all over again - you can visit places that resemble any number of ideas about the afterlife, but not anywhere that is definitively the afterlife.

Mage is a game that is fundamentally about religion, but which does its best to never confront religious mystery. And so the Euthanatos kill people to advance them along the cycle of reincarnation, but they have no way to verify that what they're doing actually works.

Aside from miring them in the exact sort of moral depravity this book was trying so hard to debunk, it also makes it a pretty shitty move to cast them as particularly Hindu. Now, I will cop to the fact that I don't know a ton about Hindu beliefs, but I'm pretty sure the Euthanatos' whole deal is one of those "Holy shit! They did what?!" sort of things. Like, maybe with an overly literal reading of certain soteriological ideas, it seems logical, but in practice is the sort of reckless heresy they (rightfully) call out the militia to suppress.

As a thought experiment, I designed a Christian sub-faction of the Euthanatos called "The Sacrament of Confession," and what they do is manipulate people into asking for God's forgiveness and then, in the moments immediately after, while they're still in a state of grace, kill them, so that they are guaranteed to get into heaven.

If I tried to use those guys in a game, the reaction would surely be, "whoa, John, even as villains, that's pretty offensive." And if I then followed up with a "no, you misunderstand, they're supposed to be heroes" I'm pretty sure I'd catch a well-deserved "what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Where it gets difficult for me is that I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge whether this is an apt analogy. Or even whether it's actually that much of a problem in Indian culture to goof around with such self-evidently ridiculous heretics and include them in your fantasy rpg. Or, for that matter, whether heresy itself is that big a deal.

What I do know is that, for all that it's a good thing to base one of the Traditions out of India, the idea that exotic eastern spirituality can redeem the Euthanatos' prima facie abhorrent practices smacks to me of an unexamined Orientalism. "No, you don't understand, they're okay because Hindus have a different conception of life and death than Christians."

Although, the irony is that the Euthanatos' makeover wasn't really necessary. This is the World of Darkness we're talking about. "Killers who only kill killers," already puts them in the top 50% of supernatural factions. Wear that black trench coat and wear it with pride. You are a Tormented Assassin and you're exactly where you belong.

Overall, though, Euthanatos, as a book, mostly feels like an early preview of the Revised era. It's got that same preoccupation with anthropological detail, it makes a deliberate effort to be cross-cultural (though the Euthanatos are mostly Indian, they've also got Celtic and Greek members), and it's got an obligatory technomagic faction (the Lhaksmists, who mostly just hang around online and bait pedophiles). I've still got a lot of 2nd edition to go, so it will be interesting to see if the bulk of it is more "Book of Worlds" or "proto-revised."

Ukss Contribution: There's a pretty fun quote, "Half of white necromancy is throwing a party good enough to wake the dead." There should be a group in Ukss that throws parties for ghosts in order to achieve some benevolent aim.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dreamspeakers

Waagh! I'm out of my depth again. I have to write about this book and I'm just way too white to have an informed opinion. And this isn't like The Complete Ninja's Handbook, where it was pretty obvious that it wasn't treating its subject matter with the respect it deserved. Dreamspeakers is a very respectful book. Or, at least, it very clearly presents its intent to be respectful. It's even, at points, radical. It doesn't shy away from the racial politics of presenting a faction of American, African, and Australian mages in a post-colonial world. No book that has a sidebar advocating for clemency for Leonard Peltier is going to be entirely unwoke.

Does that mean, then, that Dreamspeakers is actually good?

That's what I'm too white to tell you. I've got some intuitions, based on my limited knowledge of the contemporary discourse that surrounds cultural appropriation, the relationship between Africans and the Black diaspora, and Anglo use of native American spirituality that the book might cross a few lines, but I couldn't tell you what those lines actually are.

The only thing I've really got a handle on is the idea that, with this book, White Wolf seems to think they're really going to get away with shifting the blame for the existence of a group as ill-conceived as the Dreamspeakers onto the fictional Traditions. It's tricky because it's really a quite transparent gambit, but on the other hand it is responsible for all the gameline's most forceful and persuasive condemnations of colonialism.

I think what makes it a tempting solution is that it's superficially very convincing. Lumping all the native mages of four continents into a generic "brown people magic" faction is hella racist, and everyone knows that people in the past were racists. The European Traditions might do something like that. The flaw, however, is that in-setting, the decision to create the Dreamspeakers came in 1466, and it was made by people who were hundreds of years old at the time. They are literally too old to be that racist.

Far be it from me to speak authoritatively on the complex history of the development of the white identity, but I do know that the Columbian Exchange was a huge part of it, and the African slave trade a bigger part still. But even then, the rationale attributed to the European Traditions doesn't quite track. They thought the proto-Dreamspeakers were "primitive?" Why? Because they didn't have guns or celestial navigation? That's what the Traditions were gathering to fight against.

In the world of Mage, there's no such thing as scientific or technological progress, because everything we would categorize as science or technology was the result of a conspiracy of magicians trying to sneak their spells into popular consciousness. So, realistically, there's no way that someone wielding a magic sword is going to have a damned thing to say against someone who shows up with an enchanted macuahuitl. And, of course, in the context of the Grand Convocation specifically, the only Aboriginal Australian these people have ever met is the one who was capable of teleporting halfway across the globe.

I suppose you could attribute it to home-field advantage. Given the distances involved, only a few individuals from other continents would be able to make the trip, whereas any old European mystic would be able to wander in from off the street. If you've got Celestial Chorus, Verbena, and Order of Hermes delegations that number in the dozens or hundreds and then six guys you don't know what to do with, maybe it makes sense to give them a "miscellaneous" group. Except not really. You'd more likely want to figure out the resources they could bring to bear in their native lands. At the very least, you'd have to know that they were too scattered geographically to form a coherent organization. It's a little weird that the Traditions knew just enough about their magic (they believe in spirits . . . like every other religion in the world, and which definitely verifiably exist in the World of Darkness) to lump them together, but not enough to see that putting them all in one group made no kind of sense. Maybe they should have asked them a second question, instead of just the first.


Which is just my long-winded way of saying that the Dreamspeakers are 100% the product of '93 White Wolf's ignorance, and nothing in this book has made me forget that.

What the book did convince me of, though, is that their continuing presence in 2nd edition was motivated by a sincere desire for inclusiveness. There's a lot of research that went in to this book. A lot of proper nouns floating around (always a sign of seriousness in my eyes). However, I've got a feeling that they're as much a careless polyglot jumble as the rest of the Tradition.

I wish I could say it's because of my extensive knowledge of Native American culture, but really, it's only one small detail. At one point, the book describes the Dreamspeakers as "a potlatch of diverse people's and cultures."

I do have a new perspective on the Order of Hermes, though. I've long thought that they were the "bad" Tradition because they make people learn magic from books, but as I tried to gather my thoughts on why the Dreamspeakers felt a little too saintly in their depiction, it occurred to me that "evil shaman" is an ugly colonialist stereotype, and as much as I might wish to see power-hungry Dreamspeakers who exult in their command over the energies of creation and tread a dangerous line of growing hubris, it might actually be impossible to do a Dreamspeaker anti-hero without being racist. Maybe the reason the Order of Hermes are such dicks is that they're the only mages it's "safe" to badmouth.

So that's my only real critique of the book. It's not great inspiration for classic scenery-chewing world of darkness fun. It's much too earnest for that. As to whether the book as a whole is racist or not, my gut says that it's probably as non-racist as it's possible to be, given that it really shouldn't exist at all.

Ukss Contribution: Covering, as it does, such a wide range of time and space,

With that in mind, one of the example familiars is named "River Rat Smith," which is just a great name in general, and perfect for one of Ukss' intelligent rats.

Monday, March 23, 2020

(M:tAs)Book of Worlds

I always feel bad when my main criticism of a book amounts to little more than "it failed to adequately justify its existence." It sounds so imperious, as if I'm appointing myself as some kind of ultimate judge of merit. Besides, in this case, it's not quite true. If anything, The Book of Worlds has the opposite problem. It has too many justifications for its existence. Either of the two best ones could easily support an amazing supplement, but taken together they work at cross purposes. As a result, the book as a whole is constantly a half step away from being total gibberish.

The justifications, ranking from best to worst are:

  • The Spirit Worlds are a backdrop for a wild science-fantasy setting, where the Earth lies at the center of a network of alternate worlds, each with their own inhabitants and natural laws, and which are the prize in an epic war between supernatural factions.
  • The Spirit Worlds are metaphors for the human experience, abstractions made real so that mages who explore the outer realms wind up learning more about their inner selves.
  • The Spirit Worlds are a source of mad lootz
  • The Spirit Worlds exist to give the Spirit Sphere something to do
  • The Spirit Worlds are a bridge between gamelines and are the way they are so that Mage, Werewolf, Changeling, and Wraith can all exist in the same universe.
  • White Wolf had a bunch of spare jargon just lying around and they had to use it somewhere.
To the degree that Mage is what it claims to be, the second justification is probably the "correct" one. If you're exploring deep ideas about spirituality and morality, then the realms that represent justice or the fear of death or what have you are the ones you want to explore because in doing so, you are also exploring the campaign's themes.

On the other hand, the first justification lets you play a goth witch who feeds insects to a dinosaur in the lost jungles of the Hollow Earth (as depicted in the rather remarkable art on pg. 95). And, honestly, I don't know what game that comic-book nonsense belongs to, but whatever it is, it's so much better than Mage: the Ascension that it's no wonder The Book of Worlds completely derailed 2nd edition.

Yes, this is the origin of the "wars for the moons of Jupiter" meme. It's only about a quarter of the solar system chapter, but it's a very memorable quarter (plus, most of the rest of the chapter has similarly pulp-inspired stuff like jungles on Venus or an ancient race of Martians). With a selective enough reading, you can base an entire campaign off of Etherspace and it will be an eccentric, over-the-top space opera that is a top tier game setting in its own right. The only thing holding it back is its vestigial connection to Mage: the Ascension.

Like, seriously, the cosmology of outer space is needlessly convoluted. There's the physical planets, but then Mars and Venus have their own spiritual shadows in the Penumbra, and thus they're inside the Horizon, which is physically in the asteroid belt and spiritually at the border of the Deep Umbra, but the Deep Umbra is basically just space, but not really because it's psycho-reactive and the aliens who live there are spirits, but not really and in any event, beyond the Horizon, the physical world and the Umbra are one, so some regions of space are magic and some aren't, but mages can use magic to survive in the nonmagic regions of space, which are only inhabited in the spirit world, which is magical. Also, each of  the planets has an astrological association with one of the nine spheres of magic, which doesn't really affect them noticeably, but does mean they are called the "shard realms" of the various spheres and they are connected in some nebulous way to the "shade realms" of their respective spheres which are, with no exceptions, the absolute fucking worst (well, maybe the shade realm of matter being the Hollow Earth wouldn't be so bad except the shard realm of matter is fucking Jupiter).

And . . . and . . . ugh.

Although, to be entirely fair, this pattern of overburdened alternate worlds is the rule, rather than the exception. Earth has the physical world and three different Umbras . . . plus border areas, zones, realms, vistas, and epiphanies, many of which exist as a form of niche protection for werewolves, changelings, and wraiths. It's just especially noticeable in etherspace because the only thing any of it needs to be is exactly what it appears to be. Your pitch is that the setting's version of Mars is "astronauts vs witches in latter-day Barsoom" and then you feel compelled to make that share a billing with the Shade Realm of Forces, which is basically AD&D's elemental plane of fire, but somehow less gameable. It's frustrating as hell, but probably just a victim of M:tA's general failure to engage with materialism as a philosophical concept.

The Technocracy is here, and they're the unambiguous villains, but the book's problems with them are the most abstract we've yet seen. There's the standard jab that they've "lost their wonder," but that's presented as more or less synonymous with "believing only what can be seen or touched." And at one point, the narrator, a Son of Ether, says, "Looking for a definitive answer to everything is the Technocracy's gameplan, not ours," which is a hell of a thing to admit without realizing how bad it makes you look.

Imagine me shaking the Mage corebook and shouting, "what the hell did epistemology ever do to you? Why'd you leave it beaten half to death and bleeding out in a grime-crusted alley? Why? Tell me!"

They do try to tie the Technocracy to actual atrocities, so as to not entirely dilute their villain cred, but those atrocities are undermined by the clumsy way the book attempts to make them an inevitable consequence of the Technocracy's metaphysics. They genocided all the life on physical Venus and Mars!

. . . by observing that they were lifeless rocks. And I guess this is supposed to have been an intentional act where they so rapidly and thoroughly convinced a large enough portion of Earth's population that consensual reality made it a fact, but that doesn't address any of the numerous problems with such a theory (If a change that dramatic can happen so suddenly, doesn't that mean that all life everywhere is at the mercy of the whims of fashion? Don't those planets have their own penumbras, meaning that they aren't actually subordinate to the consensus on Earth? Is modern science education actually that persuasive?).

If you want to know where the "heroic Technocracy" came from, this here is a big part of the story. By making "believing it's possible to figure shit out" into an intrinsically villainous trait, you wind up less "crafting a memorable, complex villain" and more "making your designated heroic narrator sound really unreliable." There's a lot of people reading the book (myself included) thinking there's nothing extraordinarily wrong about the Technocracy's paradigm, its problem is that it's led by a bunch of corrupt imperialists. Like, it is so cruel and selfish that, politically, it's unsalvageable as an organization, but even in a post-Technocracy world, inventing technology usable by the masses and placing reasoned understanding ahead of uncritical "wonder" are going to be admirable goals. Reproducibility isn't a sign of inferior imagination, but of superior craftsmanship.

Of course, you could probably write whole volumes exploring the connections between modernism and colonialism - was colonialism a logical outgrowth of modernist thinking, or did modernism arise, post hoc, to justify colonialism? Can the degree to which it was used to justify the era's worst atrocities be weighed against the ways it served to mitigate its greatest excesses and pave the way for the more compassionate philosophies that followed? It's a discussion that's way above my pay grade (unless, of course, you guys start paying me - 40k for tuition at a small liberal arts college ought to do it). But to reference a great modernist philosopher, the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of its ruling class. Modernism couldn't stop slavery any more than Christianity could hold back warring barons or post-modernism could silence the alt-right. Power is much too slippery for that, and usually winds up co-opting the most effective forms of criticism. The postmodern right is a big reason I think of Mage as a 90s game. How can we possibly take the Traditions seriously as a rebel faction when the real-life equivalent of the Technocracy starts deriding "the reality-based community?"

Getting back on topic, The Book of Worlds is a beautiful mess. It's got a ton of great ideas, but they are so many that they start to stumble over each other. I didn't like the parts of the setting that were basically like a velvet rope for the other gamelines, the issue with the space opera I already covered, but the purer "journey to the center of the primordial mind" style of spirit worlds also takes a hit. There are Verbena growing a garden in the astral junkyard where spiritual echoes of new inventions pile up like snowdrifts. You can visit heaven and hell on the astral plane and it's pretty clear that those are only reflections of humanity's ideas about heaven and hell, but also there's an actual afterlife in the Shadowlands, and you can go there too (sort of) and it's also pretty explicit that the heavens and hells there are just as ersatz.

Nothing is real, but also there are islands of pure, carnal reality in places that should be allegorical. There are realms that are populated by essentially mundane creatures, living essentially mundane lives, and also realms where everything is a living spirit pantomiming the rhythms of a life, a society, or an entire world. Often, the former are more fantastic than the latter.

It's all too much. Wheels within wheels, and no answers to any question (or rather, so many answers that truth is a distant dream). I think, philosophically, mage comes down on the position that wanting answers is a form of oppression (this book refers to exploring the deep umbra with the metaphor, "once you snatch your butterfly from the air, it dies"), but honestly, the book, purely as a form of fiction, would have benefited from a little more focused curation.

I don't want to be too much of a curmudgeon about this, though. There is something to be said for the spirit world being total pandemonium. I just with the text didn't take it for granted that uncertainty was a virtue.

Ukss Contribution: The Summer Grove of the Verbena is populated by all manner of animals. These animals are just normal creatures, but each species is protected by its own guardian spirit. I like that idea - divine animal spirits that are drawn to overhunted herds and exploited groves.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Flash Gordon Boxed Set Book 2: Kingdoms of Mongo

Ironically, the biggest problem with the Flash Gordon rpg is Flash himself. No matter where you go on Mongo, he's been there first. Now, to be fair, the only reason any of these locations exist in the first place is because they were the backdrop to his various adventures, but beginning each section with a recap of Flash's deeds lends the setting a certain degree of repetitiveness.

Let's just say that Flash Gordon's arcs tended to follow a pattern - the local beautiful queen would instantly fall in love with Flash and he would proceed to save her white civilization from an ambitious usurper who was also a spurned suitor, and at some point while this was happening, there'd be a monster attack and a run-in with the racially-caricatured natives who live in the wilderness between cities, and the end result is that the kingdom winds up becoming an ally in the fight against Ming (or, at least, commits to remaining neutral), often after an arranged marriage between the beautiful queen and one of honorable manly men that had sided with Flash in the past. Sometimes the queen is a princess, but the important thing is that Ming never comes out of these situations stronger than before.

It has the cumulative effect of making the rpg's timeline a little vague. Your PCs are some of the less prominent rebels against Ming, and so they're always thwarting some plot of his or another, but if you take the book as a guide to the status quo, then his empire has already been reduced to not much more than Mingo City and the Land of the Lion Men. You're pretty much treading water until the final battle to depose him once and for all.

Which is fine, I guess. I'm not sure I'd have made the choice to set the game in the nebulous time period between the comic's last arc and its second-to-last arc, but I can see why people buying the Flash Gordon rpg might want to roleplay in a world where Flash Gordon is out there doing his thing. It's the same issue I had with Pendragon - I really like the source material, but I have the perverse desire to replace the original characters, or, at least, participate in their iconic adventures.

I've never seen a licensed rpg that actually pulls the trigger and just assumes that you're going to play the canon characters. Probably because "improvised fanfiction with limited OCs" is one of the few ways to make roleplaying sound even dorkier than it already is. Also, with something like Flash Gordon, where there is a single main character and his supporting cast, it might be a problem to balance the spotlight.

Setting aside my nebulous internal struggle between a desire to recreate my favorite fictional moments and the need for an open-ended pastiche that lets me do things like my favorite fictional moments, how is Kingdoms of Mongo as a book? Well, the decision to leave out Mingo City was pretty much unforgiveable, however as a setting it's kind of great.

How to put it? Imagine you have a brother or sister who is just a little too young to GM, but you've been letting them sit in on your rpg sessions for a few months and they've been bugging you to let them try. So you do, and they show up with a spiral notebook full of campaign notes and it turns out to be a catalogue of everything they've read or watched for the last two years and the resulting game is basic as hell, but also kind of awesome.

That's Kingdoms of Mongo. Arboria is a forest kingdom full of Robin Hood cosplayers. Coralia is basically Atlantis with the serial numbers filed off. Valkr is a jungle kingdom ruled by a caste of Amazonian warriors who ride around on giant wolves (oh, okay, "Wolfins"). Radiuma is a land where the early enthusiasm about atomic power was never crushed by the reality of cancer (The radium miners have been exposed to a lifetime of radiation? Awesome! Now they have glow-in-the-dark skeletons!). If there was something people in the 1930s and 40s thought was cool as shit, it's somewhere on Mongo. The whole thing is a love-letter to pop-culture omnivory.

For an actual roleplaying campaign, I'd probably advise you to use one of the myriad of later rpgs that is self-consciously trying to tap into the same feeling. A lot of retro-throwback sci-fi has Flash Gordon deep in its DNA, but something specifically designed to be an rpg isn't going to have the same canon baggage and something contemporary is going to deal more sensitively with the genre's more problematic aspects (ironically, Mongo feels almost back-handed feminist because so many of the kingdoms have female rulers for Dale Arden to be jealous of, but I have a feeling that their depictions here have been heavily curated). You could even use Ukss!

(Just sayin')

Still, when all is said and done, I absolutely love owning this book. It feels like a bridge into the past, a connection to some immortal tradition of dorkery, and if it's a little simple, it also has an appealingly primordial lack of pretension.

Ukss Contribution: Aeroceti - sky whales. They're whales, but they're in the sky. Like I said, this book will get you back to basics in a big way.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Flash Gordon Boxed Set Book 1: The Roleplaying Game

Ooh, this one puts me in a real pickle. Technically, I think it might suck.

Oh, not in craftsmanship. The book itself is well-written, with an engaging voice and satisfying level of detail, and the boxed set as a whole is just a joy to possess.

But, maybe, in conception. So much of the Flash Gordon rpg feels like "Baby's First Space Fantasy Setting." Like, no lie, you're going to pick up this book and ask yourself "why does Mongo need both a Sky City and a Skyland, and why do they have basically nothing to do with each other?" Or, "Queen Desira of Tropica? Really? Those names are a little on the nose, aren't they?"

And then, if you're anything like me, you're going to feel like a total ass when you remember that we're not talking about Baby's first space fantasy setting, but rather Humanity's second or third space fantasy setting and the reason it feels so . . . elemental is because we're going back to the very origins of the genre and drinking deep of the primordial waters in which it was born.

Although, if you're even more like me, you'll realize that all of the above is a total lie and I just unironically love it and what I'm actually screaming at the book is, "Why the fuck does Flash lose his shirt in only half the art? If I wanted to see a space hero wear pants I'd go and watch fucking Star Trek."

Dreams of all-nude space opera aside, this was a fun book. Lots of outrageous alien monsters and glam/pulp heroes with really on the nose names. Retro-futuristic machinery, atomic everything, and over-the-top melodrama (new hindrances: Great Love, Jealous, and "Amorous").

My only real disappointment is that this is not, as I assumed, a separate rpg core, but a supplement for Savage Worlds. It works fine as a book, but I'll admit, I'd have been greatly annoyed if I didn't already own Savage Worlds. Not having read the core in several years, I'm not sure if I can accurately assess how well it works for the game, but I did like the special genre rules like the Cliffhanger system or the cap on how much damage a named character can suffer from a single blow.

My final assessment of this book is going to be based on how much I like its companion volume, The World of Mongo, but I have a feeling this is going to turn out to be one of my favorite Christmas presents ever.

Ukss Contribution: Campaign boxed sets are tricky because they're multiple books in the same product, but I'm going treat these as separate for Ukss purposes because they are usually sold separately and the boxed set is just a bundle.

Now, I'm going to cheat a little bit here, because the real coolest thing is way the people of Mongo strap rockets to things that have no business having rockets on them. The atmospheric troop transport rocket might as well be called the "how to lose half your forces to transportation accidents device." And the rocket train's most obvious design flaw - that it would take only trivial sabotage to turn it into a guided missile aimed straight into your biggest population centers - is actually a plot point in one of the adventures. It's kind of a wonderful setting detail. A whole otherworldly technology based on the obsessions of a prior age, so unlikely in its workings that it's basically fantasy.

However, rockets don't work on Ukss for a variety of reason. So I'll go with Mount Dominance. The book doesn't have anything to say about it, but I love the name.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

(M:tAs) Hidden Lore

Yesss, Mage, come to the dark side. . . embrace using a grid and miniatures for your combat encounters. . . become . . . tactical.

Okay, the Mage grid-and-minis combat rules are less than a page long and they don't really add anything to the game, but if I don't have fun with it, this is going to be a very short post. Hidden Lore describes itself as an "overflow book," and that's more or less what it feels like. I don't know if I necessarily believe its claim that all this was originally destined for the core (organizationally, I'm not sure where tradition-specific rotes would even go), but it definitely feels core-adjacent. Nothing is so specific or challenging that it would benefit from a supplement to expand on it.

We do learn the canon fate of Norna Weaver from Loom of Fate, though. They make her a spider. She's listed in the Technocracy section of the list of canon NPCs with only a vague reference to who she was before she became an earthquake-preventing spirit "an Orphan shaped by the Technocracy into a guardian of the Bay Area." That bums me out, even though the original adventure had no responsible way to save her.

There's also a sample mini-setting, Seattle, which is okay, I guess. I'm amused by White Wolf calling it a "gritty urban metropolis," a little frustrated by the fact that they put "homeless problem" in scare quotes (I guess White Wolf isn't really ready to take on capitalism head-on yet), and I'm left rolling my eyes (in a friendly "oh, you" sort of way) at the thinly-veiled references to local corporations "Benning Aeronautics, Macrosoft, and Magicians of the Bay." Not sure if I entirely buy that Macrosoft is a Virtual Adept front, but then the Virtual Adepts always had the problem of being stand-ins for a contemporary techno-futurism that is always in flux.

The last significant thing in this book is that it includes an essay that explains the various magical factions' position on gender equality. It's pretty arbitrary, and tracks fairly well to Mage's unspoken "if they make you go to school, they're authoritarian," ethos. Not surprisingly, the Order of Hermes, the Sons of Ether, and the Technocracy are most sexist and the Verbena, the Cult of Ecstasy, and the Hollow Ones are the least. What is surprising is that the Celestial Chorus is accepting of gay people and the Dreamspeakers have a "mixed" attitude, in contrast to the reverent way they're treated in most of the supplements.

I kind of wish the Technocracy had gone another way with it, and been the "we're too logical to care about gender . . . if it ever becomes an obstacle we'll just remove it with drugs and cybernetics" brand of sexism, because at least that would have seemed vaguely humanist and empirical, but the Technocracy never quite stops equivocating between "conspiracy of cyborgs" and "devil on the shoulder of Western Civilization."

Incidentally, I'm sure this is the wrong place to reveal this, but since this would be a short post for a short book, I'll just go ahead and tell you my head-canon metaplot for the post-revised Technocracy:

As the USA geared up for the invasion of Iraq, the government's NWO handlers realized that, far from being a tractable pawn, Bush was a true believer who would govern on superstition, rather than reason. Subsequently, they went all-in on electing John Kerry in 2004, believing that he was, on-paper, the perfect candidate. To see then, that their supposedly perfect system of control was capable of returning such an irrational result wound up breaking the tenuous peace between the Conventions.

This led to a slow-motion Technocratic civil war that lasted from 2005-2008, and which only came to an end when the Syndicate's exotic financial instruments started suffering from paradox backlash. The Technocracy shattered. Though none of the Conventions would defect to the Traditions, you did see some of the more hard-sf technicians reach out to the more conservative elements of the Virtual Adepts and together they broke off to form their own independent group called The STEM Gods which would later prove to have disturbing ties to the alt-right. The remaining VAs are pretty much 90% trans now.

Despite the financial crash, the Syndicate survived just fine and are also an independent faction, though one with little interest in anything besides becoming (and staying) super rich. They've put out tentative feelers to the more aristocratic Tradition members, in hopes of convincing them that their ancient fortunes would grow most effectively under Syndicate management.

Many Void Engineers joined the STEM Gods, a few joined the Sons of Ether, and a few went Nephandi, but at least one managed to infiltrate the inner circles of Bezos and Musk.

The NWO was largely wiped out in the civil war, the victim of an environment where everyone was trying to settle old scores all at once. The survivors head up a rump Technocracy that mostly flails around like a chicken with its head cut off. They are the true inheritors of the Union's utopian vision, without all its authoritarian hang-ups, but they're not equipped to do much more than yell at people on the internet.

None of that has anything to do with Hidden Lore, of course, but it's been floating around my head for awhile now and it's better to get it out here, rather than somewhere where it would be a massive distraction. All told, I don't actually think that much of Hidden Lore as an overflow book, but that's probably because the 2e Core did a damned good job of feeling complete.

Ukss Contribution: The Verbena have a rote to awaken tree spirits and their default name is "Jack of the Green." I really like that name, though I'll probably wind up giving it to a specific entity.

Monday, March 9, 2020

(M:tAs) Book of Crafts

Here we have an interesting artifact - a Mage: the Ascension supplement about magical traditions inspired by real-world mystical beliefs. Ah, okay, I'm being a dick again. The "Crafts" in question are groups which declined the invitation to join the Traditions back when it was first forming in the 15th century and have gone their own way (to varying degrees of success) in the years since.

Most of them could have just been Traditions, though. The "voodoo" craft, Bata'a, especially, could have anchored a Tradition and their inclusion here feels more like correcting an oversight than organic worldbuilding. I mean, it's probably for the best that they did it that way, because early Mage absolutely would not have been up to the challenge of portraying them respectfully, but in terms of cultural significance, this group with ties to several living religions would have been a better choice than the Verbena, or whatever the hell it is that the Euthanatos are trying to accomplish.

Though as much as it would have been nice to see non-European Traditions presented with this degree of specificity, I can't say with certainty whether they actually got it right in this particular outing. The problem is that nothing about the Bata'a contradicts anything I know about voodoo . . . and I'm ignorant as fuck. It's basically horror-movie voodoo.

And this gets us into the stickiest part of the World of Darkness. "Horror-movie voodoo" doesn't sound all that out of line in a horror-movie universe, but on the other hand a lot of horror tropes are just ways to creatively launder racist tropes. And even when there is an authenticity to the horror, there are levels and levels to this stuff. On one level, the horror stuff is fun and affirming. You want the scary stories you heard as a child to come back bigger, louder, and dumber because sometimes it's pretty great to see a fool get his head chopped off.

On another level, though, sometimes a story will scare you because it touches on something deep and sacred and real. It may involve mythological elements, but it speaks to true anxieties or to wounds that have yet to heal.

To wit: it's probably okay to make a movie where a horde of demons stalks a group of friends and kills them one by one, but it would probably not be okay to make almost the exact same movie but replace the demons with Roman Centurions and the friends with Christian martyrs.

That's why cultural appropriation is so fraught. People have boundaries, and while it's possible to navigate these boundaries with careful and respectful research, the best way to do it is to have the practiced intuition that comes with a lifetime of experience. That way, even if you do go too far and offend people, at least what you're doing is itself a product of the culture, and thus also in some ineffable way part of what the culture is.

Book of Crafts probably doesn't reach that level of awareness. I think it meant well, in a clueless 90s liberal sort of way, but it does round out the chapter on the Bata'a by saying, "the two US military efforts . . . improved conditions in Haiti, at least." Which is just . . . um . . . something that did not age well.


My conclusion here is that there definitely should have been a Tradition based on Afro-Caribbean spirituality, but the Bata'a was not it.

Similarly, the Knights Templar could just as easily have been "the Christian Tradition" instead of the Celestial Chorus and it would have been truer to the occult-conspiracy antecedents of the World of Darkness. And the Wu Lung have absolutely no reason to be a Craft. Chinese traditional religion could support a whole game on its own. A Tradition is basically a no-brainer. So it was a little weird for them to decide that most Chinese mages were killed in the civil war and that was the reason they were too scarce to be one of the big ones.

That's Mage's MO, though. Use canon to correct a design mistake, in this case making The Akashic Brotherhood "the Asian Tradition." We're going to see a lot more of that before we're done, especially not that we're getting into the period where they're starting to care about research.

A couple of the Crafts did feel like genuine Crafts, though. The Hem-Ka Sobk are people who have died and went to the Egyptian afterlife, but were so wicked in life that their hearts weighed more than the Feather of Ma'at, but instead of being consigned to oblivion, they are offered a deal by the alligator god Sobk - return to Earth and live an ascetic life as holy assassins in return for a chance at penance.

I'm not sure how true this is to Egyptian theology, but it is the sort of comics-style nonsense that always catches my eye. I kind of like the idea of a completely wild version of Mage, where all the world's myths and legends are presented as these sloppy, living things. Although once again we're butting up against the limits of the Mage system. A lot of the Crafts quite explicitly say they don't use Spheres . . . in setting. They just use them to model their peculiar brands of magic. Which is kind of how I always assumed it worked. Either that or that they were truly fundamental aspects of reality that were merely codified by the Traditions. The idea that they were something that has been explicitly created and that people can simply choose whether or not to use them is really weird.

The other notable Craft is the Wu Keng, and they make me . . . uncomfortable. They're just insensitive enough to feel like they're based on a real bit of folklore, but in the 20th century - yikes. It feels a little like reading something the author never meant to share. They're peasant sorcerers who made a deal with demons to preserve their culture in the face of growing Chinese encroachment - 3000 years of service in return for worldly power . . . and part of their service is that they all have to "live as women." Only those assigned male at birth are allowed to join and once they do, they have to fully commit to presenting as women as much as possible, even to the extent of binding their feet, despite the tradition having fallen into disfavor.

I have two theories about this. Either we're looking at somebody's poorly-disguised fetish or this is a transparent bit of closeted trans fantasy. "Oh, no, these demons are going to force my character to become a woman, it's not her fault, it's not like she was given a choice." Even at the most generous interpretation, where they're wish fulfillment for trans goths who lack the vocabulary to express their personal truth, they still come across as fantastically exploitative. If you go with the more likely explanation that it was just a bit of thoughtless fantasy bullshitting that was colored by a bit of insensitive old-style kink, then it's transphobic as hell.

Overall, it's great that this book takes the opportunity to explore new fantasy concepts and expand into neglected areas of the globe. It probably came too late in the game to truly have the effect it wanted to, and it would be better if the best parts of it could be directly incorporated into mainstream mage instead of having to sneak in through canon creep. And, of course, there are parts of it that are just . . . no. I'll have to keep an eye open and see if future books can build on this one's innovations in a satisfying way.

Ukss Contribution:The Phoenix Empress is a mage who has somehow mastered the art of conscious reincarnation. She's lived 300 lives so far and is showing no signs of slowing down. It's important to give women the opportunity to be nigh-immortal sorcerer-kings.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

(M:tAs) Horizon: Stronghold of Hope

So, the Traditions have their own planet. Oh, they call it a "small moon," but it has continents. Continents. Not huge continents, mind, but significant. I consulted a map. If the Horizon: Stronghold of Hope's scale is to be believed, Orbis Finiens, and its antipodean mirror image, Posht, are each the size of India.

The implications of this are staggering. The resources of this one realm can support hundreds of millions of people in prosperity and comfort, or more than a billion in Earth-like conditions. Controlling that much wealth automatically makes the Traditions a contender, no matter how powerful the Technocracy gets on Earth.

If you follow this idea to its logical conclusion, you get a game of dueling mystic conspiracies bringing titanic forces to bear in a conflict that threatens to escalate to an apocalyptic scale, one where armies clash on exotic fantasy worlds and the leaders of the factions are living gods. It doesn't really fit well with the rest of Mage and clashes terribly with the World of Darkness. That's probably why Horizon has a population of 30,000.

That makes the population density roughly equal to the most inhospitable parts of the Australian outback, though we should probably exclude the city of Concordia as an outlier, so the real density is about half that. The Traditions built themselves a lush fantasy world and then kept it deliberately unpopulated. No wonder they're losing.

As near as I can tell, Horizon's population growth was chosen to more or less exactly match the world average. Two thousand residents in 1466 became thirty thousand in 1996, but those figures tell of a Tradition leadership that must have been completely apathetic to the needs of the people they ruled over. Apparently, the Technocracy was right about them. Given a whole world where they don't have to worry about the encroachment of the scientific paradigm, they do all of jack shit to improve the lives of unawakened people. Even a modest improvement in healthcare, perhaps through some sort of magical effect, could have led to growth rates comparable to the 20th century. At 1%, Horizon has more than a million people in 1996. That's not only a huge source of potential mages, it's also a powerful industrial base and military asset. If they'd gone for an aggressive strategy of maximal expansion, they could very well have a modern nation, comparable in power to the United States. That would have made the Technocracy think twice, that's for sure.

Although, actually it's canonical that the Traditions really do help their citizens and the reason that population is so low is because they've instituted a strict regimen of birth control. Which is kind of worse, you know. It would require a very intrusive government presence in very private matters, consistently, for a span of centuries. Although, I suppose that with such a small population, perhaps an aggressive educational campaign might be sufficient. Give the custos some condoms while you're using life magic to cure their kids' cholera.

It's funny to think about, because you just know that the bulk of the Traditions aren't on board with this Malthusian social engineering. Whose job is it to go to the Catholics in the Celestial Chorus areas and tell them that they need to use contraception, in opposition to centuries of church doctrine (I thought that maybe this was a modern thing, but nope, apparently it goes back to Augustine)? Does Concordia have a department of Health and Human Services that carefully tracks census data to fine-tune the population controls? What do the citizens think of all this?

"Oh, yeah, living in Horizon is pretty great. Caught a 50 pound fish the other day, barely had to dip my pole into the water. Although . . . If I'm being perfectly honest, I could do without the witch who flies around on a dragon hurling vasectomy spells."

Now, I've been having fun nitpicking this, but I'm not Cinema Sins. It's not that there are dozens of tiny plot holes surrounding Horizon. There's really just the one big one: why do the Traditions have their own fucking planet?

 Honestly, I'm kind of digging the implied setting here - an alliance of fantasy worlds vs imperialist sci-fi world; cold war on Earth, hot war everywhere else in the multiverse - but if you're going to do that, you have to actually do it. You can't be so timid about the scale. Revised edition catches a lot of shit for blowing up the horizon realms and shutting down this style of gameplay, and while I sympathize with those who had the rug pulled out from under their campaigns, I also get why they did it. Having this stuff in the same world as the desperate, gritty street mages, chasing ascension in a world that's lost its way? It makes both styles worse.

The world-hopping wizard war can't have the scale it needs to have, because Earth needs to remain central. The low-fantasy game of survival and existential angst can't land its themes because there's a place to escape to. Something had to give.

But that's enough of me deconstructing the book's fundamental premise. How does the rest of it work?

Honestly, the thing I think people are going to notice most is how quintessentially White Wolf this book's politics are. The opening chapter, which purports to give us a grounds' eye of Horizon by way of Dante, the Virtual Adept Master and Nile, the Hollow One visiting for the first time and getting a grand tour of Porthos' allies.

How to put it? Nile is clearly the author's mouthpiece, in keeping with the Hollow Ones' role as The Goths Who Get It, but her characterization is . . . quintessentially White Wolf. Her deal is that she's a well-informed rebel who's smart enough to hang with the big guys, but she keeps it real. She won't hesitate to remind you that you have the same name as a dictator and will not need much prompting to lecture the Euthanatos on the problems with America's medical system. She gets theatrically upset at the trappings of authority, but doesn't understand the nature of power. Her reaction to entering the Celestial Chorus' cathedral is practically a hate crime ("Boy, I hate this kind of architectural posturing, this drive past the brain to impress the gut. If this Chorus person Porthos brought in tries to convert me, like most of the rest of them, I'm leaving." - somewhere, the ghost of a master stonecutter is shedding a single tear.)

Luckily, the Chorus representative turns out to be a Cool Rabbi, who more or less helps establish the criteria for how we're supposed to judge who among these mages is trustworthy: 1)self-deprecating wit and personal style at least somewhat at odds with their Tradition's mainstream; 2)willingness to immediately divulge their entire backstory; 3)the ability to be lectured by a callow know-it-all who somehow feels entitled to be stridently dismissive of other peoples' experience and beliefs and come away saying some variant of "what a breath of fresh air, we need more of that sort of thing around here."

It's not even that Nile is wrong. It's just, yeah, I'm sure that the Euthanatos master never considered that the problems with America's health care system were exacerbated by pharmaceutical companies and insurance executives.

I'm certain that young me would have had a terrible crush on her.

The most complex manifestation of the book's idiosyncratic biases come when she meets the Hermetic master, Getulio Vargas Sao Cristavo. Now, I'm not going to pretend to have an opinion on the historical legacy of some guy I just heard of for the first time, but this guy is not the same Getulio Vargas who was president of Brazil in the 1940s and it seems like a risky conversational gambit to say, "kind of like meeting someone named Benito Mussolini Jones, you know?"

I'll admit I was less than entirely sympathetic when she stormed off in a huff after Mr Sao Cristavo expressed a too-condescending surprise that an "American Youth" would even know who Getulio Vargas is. I was like, "he was pulling the exact same bullshit as you were just a second ago. Don't get in a pissing match if you don't want to get wet."

But it doesn't end there. Needless to say, Dante is none too pleased with the guy who so upset his sometime girlfriend/insurrectionary co-conspirator, but he sticks around to tell him off and then Master Sao Cristavo attempts to turn him against Porthos!

By revealing the information that Porthos used to own slaves, and hasn't exactly seemed contrite about it in the subsequent decades, presumably under the assumption that Dante would care because he's African American. Dante shuts that line of reasoning down by dropping the Virtual Adept party line, "When the meat isn't important, the color isn't either."

(Interesting tidbit - the Technocracy, in this scenario, supported the Union when it shut down Porthos' plantations in North Carolina and Tennessee, though that was probably just to get at his Nodes)

Clearly, Sao Cristavo is being sleazy, manipulative, and "political" here and Dante leaves shortly thereafter. However, it is not until the character descriptions in Chapter Five that we learn a certain critical piece of information about the Hermetic master: he used to be a slave.

So, back in Mage 1st and 2nd edition, you'd get NPCs who were hundreds of years old and it wouldn't be that big a deal. Sao Cristavo stowed away on a French ship in the 17th century and when he was discovered, they sold him to a plantation. He was eventually released when the fortunes of war led to the Portugese taking over and letting their countryman going free.

But the weirdest thing about Sao Cristavo is that the King of Portugal was so impressed with his fortitude in captivity that he awarded him a plantation of his own . . . and Sao Cristavo, in blatant defiance of all World of Darkness precedent, allowed his own harrowing experience to inform his ethics, first freeing his own slaves in 1714 then working towards the global abolition of slavery even up to the present day.

He's such a fascinating, complex character, because the other part of his backstory is that he is, individually, a big part of the rift between the Order of Hermes and the Dreamspeakers, simply because he's frequently insulting and wound up alienating the Iroquois in the same way he alienated Nile.

But we don't learn any of that in Chapter One, because he did not immediately dump his whole backstory within five minutes of meeting the main characters, and thus he's untrustworthy.

I like to think that Porthos set him up. Horizon: Stronghold of Hope would have us believe that Sao Cristavo knew about the atrocities at House Helekar (the Euthanatos stronghold from Book of Chantries that had all the serial killers and was powered by the magical energies of a Nazi death camp), but covered it up as a favor to the Euthanatos leadership. Now, given the events of the plot, this is the explanation that makes the most sense, but it's just a little bit too pat.

At the risk of "Porthos Fitz Empress alternate character interpretation" becoming part of the blog's whole deal, it amuses me to think that since the key piece of evidence is the testimony of a spirit compelled to speak by Porthos, he simply used his power to get the spirit with the reputation for honesty to parrot whatever he wanted it to say. Look at the way he taunted Sao Cristavo at the end, "Clearly, [the whistleblower] has some hidden ally within Doissetep . . . Someone who wishes to disrupt the endless petty politicking . . . Someone who thinks the holder of the Horizon Hermetic Council seat . . . should not be a toady to the whims of one or another Chantry faction."

That's an interesting speech to give right before you install your hand-picked protege in the guy's newly-vacated job. They say that a true master manipulator is the one no suspects of being a manipulator. For a guy so goofed-up on paradox that he accidentally kills his apprentices, he was pretty lucky that when all was said and done, the new Horizon Council was composed entirely of his allies and people who owed their position exclusively to him.

Anyway, my verdict here is that Horizon: Stronghold of Hope needed to have a lot more audacity if it was ever going to work, but that Mage was still taking itself too seriously for that to ever happen.

Ukss Contribution: . . . that being said, it did have some fun from time to time. My favorite detail was The Feast of Blades. It's described as being a little like a pie-eating contest, but the contestants are presented with a bunch of swords and daggers. It's an eating contest where you have to use magic to eat blades (and no teleporting them away, either - you have to chew and swallow). I am officially charmed.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

(WH40K: RT) Koronus Bestiary

The most surprising thing about The Koronus Bestiary is that one of the creatures isn't trying to kill you. The Mukaali are a bright spot in the WH40K universe, just loyal pack animals with an unusual resistance to desert conditions. But don't worry, it's a one-time lapse. Everything else is definitely trying to kill you.

Which, fair enough. It's a monster book. Even in settings much less hostile than WH40K, those tend to be biased towards the dangerous. What really determines the quality of this kind of book is whether these monsters are diverse and memorable enough to anchor adventures. And for the most part (Mukaali notwithstanding), they are. You've got pack hunters that are born from nightmares and can walk through walls, psychic ghouls who are eternally dying of thirst and subsequently drain the fluids out of their victims, birds with feathers made of monomolecular ceramic blades, and also at least one big, dumb claw beast. Oh, yeah, and a fucking SPACE KRAKEN. I'm not sure if I could have ever forgiven The Koronus Bestiary if they'd forgotten that one.

Where the book loses me is in the long middle chapter devoted to intelligent xenos threats. In a way, this is a reasonable addition. The Monstrous Manual had humanoid enemies, and that's pretty much the model we've all been working off of all these years.

I guess what bothered me was that The Koronus Bestiary largely covers species we've seen before. Nearly all the material on Orks, for example, is redundant with Into the Storm, though we do get a new weapon that is basically a handheld warp portal that allows Orks to teleport snotlings (foot-tall mini-orks) on to their enemies. We also learn a few interesting things about Eldar culture, like the fact that they accidentally created one of the Chaos Gods (though I'm sure I've seen that somewhere else) and that they now adopt a rigid system of professional specialization to ward off her temptations.

But the Rak'Gol and the Stryxis are still terribly mysterious, since Rogue Trader books are deathly averse to presenting anything but the human perspective (and a highly authoritarian and violently xenophobic human perspective at that). Alien motivations are supposed to be "unknowable" and "incomprehensible" And thus, when the books give advice on how to run them as NPCs, it winds up amounting to not much more than "they do pointless-seeming shit for no apparent reason. Deal."

I think they think it's a horror trope. Nothing is scarier than the unknown. That's why we've decided to keep GMs in the dark and show them nothing more than a few characteristic encounters. Too high a degree of abstraction would ruin the mystery and tempt the GM into running them as if they were people.

It's kind of funny to think about them writing the Imperium like that, as the inscrutable aliens whose motives cannot be discerned by reasonable people,

"Every time we encounter these greasy bipeds with the giant shoulders they immediately try and kill us. The keep screaming about how they need to 'cleanse the galaxy of xenos filth.' Why don't they at least try to coexist?"

"Maybe it's their religion."

"That's a little pat, isn't it?"

"You're right. I guess the alien mind is impossible to understand."

What this version of the setting seems to forget is that it's not necessarily the case that in the WH40K universe everything is trying to kill everything else, but rather that all the major factions are one variety of evil or another because in the WH40K universe, if you're not a raging asshole, you're destined to be ground mercilessly under some assholes boot. The boot, in this case, being Rogue Traders.

And while I will acknowledge that a monster book isn't quite the best place for it, I do wish that at least occasionally, when the books casually talk about the Imperium committing genocide, at least some of the victims would be demonstrably innocent.

I think that's why I projected so much on to the Yu'Vath. Their story is that they are an extinct species, wiped out by St Drusus' crusade into the Calixis Sector (the last frontier of civilization before you get to the "unexplored" region where Rogue Trader is set). They were a cruel and decadent species who enslaved other sapients and dabbled in technology that manipulated the warp. Their leftover inventions include devious and deadly security constructs that were among my favorite of the book's entries.

So, based entirely on nothing, I took to assuming that the book's take on them was just imperial propaganda. They didn't genetically engineer the Byavoor to be docile sacrifices for their dark religious ceremonies, that's just the Imperium deliberately misinterpreting the treatment of certain condemned criminals. The species of crack pilots and the near-microscopic crystal people associated with the Yu'Vath voluntarily, as part of a federation of younger species that centered around the mentorship of these clever and curious ancients. The Yu'Vath were guilty of no more than a willingness to experiment in technologies humans are too timid to touch.

Like, maybe the only reason that the Crystalwisps steal human memories is because they're programmed to consolidate all information into their crystalline memory matrix, and that programming has never been altered to recognize humans as any more sapient than the computer archives, books, scrolls, and murals it's also been known to absorb. Maybe the reason so many people are transformed into sandslime is because humans never bothered to heed the giant "warning: industrial-grade nanopaste" warnings wherever it was found.

As I said, this is supported by absolutely none of the text, but it comforts me to think that these genocidal fascists can occasionally get it wrong.

Ukss Contribution: The water stealing ghouls know as the Unquenched are psychics who defied the rule of their local Priest-Kings and were punished by being forced to drink from a mysterious spring that inverted their powers and trapped them in a gradually-decaying cage of flesh, driven by their unceasing thirst to pursue moisture wherever it could be found. I can probably do something with that.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Cult of Ecstasy

Between this book and Celestial Chorus, it feels like Mage is self-consciously entering a new phase of its existence. Both are aggressively inclusive, attempting to cast their respective Traditions as players on a global stage. But whereas Celestial Chorus felt like it was encouraging diversity at the expense of ignoring some important cultural context, Cult of Ecstasy feels much more natural when it draws from a multitude of different societies.

Now, fair warning, this impression may just be because I'm less familiar with Cult of Ecstasy's subject matter. When the book talks about Erzulie worshipers or the Vratyas' Tantric practices, it could just be a case of the careless appropriation of sacred things only vaguely reminiscent of the book's whole shtick. In fact, it actually seems pretty likely that Cult of Ecstasy is about as faithful to real-world ecstatic mysticism as Celestial Chorus was to Christian theology (i.e. not much at all, but at least within sighting distance of some familiar concepts). I'm just saying that a group defined by a shared interest in seeking transcendence through overwhelming their physical senses feels more natural than the idea that a bunch of competing monotheists will put aside their differences and agree on a universalist syncretism.

It's entirely possible that this book is offensive as hell and I'm just too clueless to get it, but acting on the assumption that it's not, I have to say it's mostly . . . hwuh? It makes a decent argument for the inclusion of the Cult of Ecstasy as a Tradition, but it also quickly butts up against a big problem with Mage as a system - all of the Traditions have access to all of the Spheres.

Ultimately, the reason this is a "problem," is that the Cult of Ecstasy really wants to have access to techniques no other Tradition can match. "We scour away our conscious minds so that our spirits may touch a deeper cosmic awareness" is a tough pitch when the punchline is "as a Time 2 effect." What the Cult brings to the Traditions is their skill as seers. But anyone can be a seer.

(The flip side of this is that Cultist can also easily do things that are out of genre like telekinesis or turning lead into gold. Players are expected to police themselves to stop this from happening).

I don't actually have an elegant solution here. I bring it up because there was something jarring about reading so much about their extreme methods and then realizing that there's no reason they need to be that way. But, of course, the same is true for basically every Tradition, when you think about it.

I'm also not entirely comfortable with the way the book handles all the sex stuff. It is very clear about the importance of consent, but it makes the (frankly creepy) decision to point out on multiple occasions that nonconsensual sex magic works, but that the Cult forbids it on ethical grounds. I can see a plot point there, but ugh, I don't want to take even one more step down that road than I have to. Just, no.

Also, mentors are expected to have a sexual relationship with their students. And I guess it would be weird if you didn't have sex with the person who was teaching you sex magic. Just on a practical level, maybe that's how you learn. But the book barely even touches on how huge the potential for exploitation is.

Call me a cynic if you must, but I don't find "we've just described a perfect recipe for massive institutional abuse, but don't worry because the people involved are too spiritually enlightened to do it" to be especially reassuring.

It does feel, however, that Mage supplements are getting consistently better as time goes on. This book definitely feels more researched than any of the ones that came before, even if I suspect that it doesn't quite understand the underlying spiritual logic of the practices it describes (for example, it includes the Aghoris as a semi-renegade Cult of Ecstasy faction, and after looking them up online I suspect that their depiction here was based off hostile sources - as near as I can tell, they're an apt inclusion, but their particular brand of heresy is closer to trolling than it is to the wickedness this book describes).

Ukss Contribution: I was going to pick the Aghoris until I learned that they were real people that the book misrepresented. My next choice was Jim Morrison, who is canonically a member of the Tradition and probably still alive in the mage universe, but I don't want the hassle of dealing with a real person, especially one who lived so recently.

I think I may just have to go with the Cult of Ecstasy as a whole. Ukss already has an organized group of seers with a hippy vibe and utopian goals, but I figure that maybe the Lunar College of Prophets could use a rival organization, one which embraces chaos both as a methodology and an end in itself.