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.

No comments:

Post a Comment