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.

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