Wednesday, April 29, 2020

(M: tAs) Masters of the Art

It sometimes feels like the goal of Masters of the Art is to persuade you not to play masters of the art. It doesn't do anything so obnoxious as warn you off directly, but its depiction of the adventures of those who have pushed beyond the limits of Mage's standard 5-rank Sphere system often borders on "you are constantly held in check by everything in the universe - good luck."

Not even a joke. "In general, the most common use of Archmagic is in corrective action: preventing serious magical mishaps from becoming any more destructive. When an Archmage derails the time line or drops a flaming mountain towards Earth, other Archmages are quick to rectify the situation." Even in a book that has rampaging space beasts, synthetic universes, and full-on D&D-style liches, the setting can sometimes feel oddly constrained.

Did you know it's a good idea for an archmage to try and hold down a job? Fool, my job is creating planets. I need to maintain relationships with Sleepers to maintain my perspective? Nobody's getting in my social circle unless they're a dragon, pagan god, or angel of Principality rank or higher. I mean, yes, I might lose perspective, but as a person who can break Time, maybe the most adaptive perspective for me is the view from the mountaintop.

Although, Masters of the Art doesn't really approve of that kind of swagger. It's very consistent in the position that what you should be seeking is "Ascension" (you know, like "Mage: the . . ."). It even says, at one point that "godhood isn't the reward it seems." So whatever Ascension is, you know it must be good. Though, honestly, the way they describe it makes it sound a lot like death. There's a brief fiction where someone ascends, and from the perspective of our universe, she just disappears, never to have any noticeable effect on anything ever again.

Maybe that's just the atheist in me talking, though. Despite what the books imply about the Order of Hermes and the Virtual Adepts, the defining element of the Traditions is that they are religions (it's actually a huge missed opportunity that none of the writers of this game appear to have heard of the Singularity, because it strikes me as the perfect tech-Tradition eschaton). To be a mage is to be on a religious journey, and an important element of that journey is the final destination - the state of eternal peace and ultimate enlightenment from which you never return because any change in your condition would be a diminishing of perfection. I.e. Ascension.

I, however, can't help but think that the penultimate bliss sounds like a better deal. Safety and comfort in a mode of existence I currently understand, combined with the freedom and resources to be constantly doing cool shit for as long I want. Masters of the Art would call that "straying from the path of enlightenment" or "succumbing to the temptations of power," but I can't help but think about how every example of Ascension we've seen so far (which is, admittedly, just two or three) has involved the enlightened leaving behind the people and things they love in this world and then being of precisely zero damned use to them for the rest of time.

There is a suggestion that there could possibly be a global Ascension, where everyone becomes enlightened all at once, but as an idea it's tarnished by being the Technocracy's plan. I think this is one of those things that might change in later books (the Celestial Chorus, especially, want a group Ascension), but for now individualism = good and collectivism = bad.

All that being said, Ascension does appear to be preferable to archmastery, if only because Masters of the Art makes the rank 6-9 spheres into an absolute mess.

At best, they're lower-level powers scaled up and absent guidelines for their proper use. How many successes does it take to move a continent with Forces 7? Does the size of the continent matter? Can you move Europe separately from Asia or is that whole landmass a single unit?

At worst, the powers are so esoteric that it's hard to imagine a situation where you'd want to use them (Like, okay, I can "sense the universal mind," now what). Only the Time sphere really seems to have a clear escalation of utility, but even then you're kind of limited if you want to do anything but break the campaign over your knee.

Overall, I'd say this book is pretty skippable. They had a chance to really go all-out and show what the top of the power curve looked like, but they decided to go another way with it. Not that the religious themes weren't interesting on their own, but 87 pages weren't nearly enough to do that subject justice either.

One last thing of note - this is the origin of the infamous Avatar Storm. Since my first Mage book was the revised core, I kind of thought that was just how it worked. "Of course you're going to get the shit kicked out of you if you cross over into the Spirit World, why do you think they call it 'The Guantlet'?" However, now that I see it in its original context, I can see why it was so controversial. The penalties aren't quite bad enough to justify the "you're not allowed to go the umbra" arguments I remember from back in the early aughts, but it does feel a lot like a mission statement. Personally, I'm inclined to keep it, even so, but I understand why people hate it.

Ukss Contribution: When talking about the various supernatural creatures that Archmages might be friends with, it mentions that the Corax, were-ravens, "have an amazing intelligence network." And while that was surely not meant in a completely literal way, I can't help but imagine suave, were-raven spies. It's like they have their tuxedos built-in! Cute.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

(M: tAs) The Spirit Ways

What a ridiculous lifestyle I've chosen for myself. Now I've got to explain The Spirit Ways to you . . . Who's going to explain it to me, huh?

Oh, all right. The Spirit Ways is in many ways the best Mage book yet. But it's also the one that's most likely to get you punched in the mouth by an Aboriginal Australian, and it all comes down to the fact that Mage: the Ascension probably shouldn't exist.

Seriously, who told you that it was okay to make Mage, White Wolf? Where did you get the fucking gall, the absolute hubris to try and bring Mage into this world? Grr. . . Aghh!

(reminder that I actually really love this game - it's like having a cool party bro who also started a cult)

So what's the deal with this book in particular? Well, it sets out to describe shamanism in the World of Darkness, and it includes the line, "Of course we have reason to doubt if whites even have souls."

Don't worry, I'm not about to lay any sort of "reverse racism" conspiracy theories on you (but also . . . ouch), it's just, this book is loudly, angrily, and . . . imprecisely anti-colonialist (like, seriously, just let the native kids wear blue jeans and t-shirts - the problem with their treatment at the hands of the Brazilian government doesn't really revolve around fashion), which leaves me with an intense curiosity about exactly how white this writing team was.

It's on the right side of issues like colonialism and slavery, but then it says things like "[captured Africans were] being educated to the ways of the white man's cruel god." And wow. I'm not sure I'm even allowed to have an opinion on this issue. Yes, missionaries were a part of the European imperial project and the forcefulness and impropriety of their attempts at conversion were a major factor in the obliteration of native cultures, but also . . . that's the faith of their descendants you're talking about and . . .

I have no idea where I'm going with this. I guess it's just not the sort of discussion we should be having in an rpg book . . . right?

I don't want to tread into "keep politics out of my tabletop rpgs" territory. It's just that there are some issues that are so sensitive, so immediate, and so fraught that they deserved to be discussed openly and frankly, by people who know what they're talking about, not couched in clumsy fantasy allegory by a freelancer who did an admirable, but clearly insufficient amount of research.

I mean, if you're going to say with a straight face that "Australia can prove once and for all that such a situation is possible, white man living in harmony with his Dancing brothers" that's got to indicate that maybe you need to widen your net a bit with your sources (although, between this and Trinity's version of Australia becoming a haven for immigrants . . . maybe there was someone at White Wolf who was giving them bad information).

The Spirit Ways winds up recapitulating the original sin of the Dreamspeakers' creation by treating "shamanism" as a kind of globally homogeneous practice. And even when it acknowledges that the Verbena, the Cult of Ecstasy, and the Euthanatos all contain elements of shamanic practices, only the Dreamspeakers get it completely right (everywhere, all the time). It almost breaks out into self-awareness when discussing the Order of Hermes - "the distintiction between shamanism and religio-magical beliefs becomes a very thin line, often crossed" - but it never quite sees past the implicit racial coding in its descriptions.

So why did I say that The Spirit Ways might be one of Mage's best? Well, firstly, it's really not all bad. Aside from some painfully 90s-liberal blinders that lead it to describe Africa as "hell" (though at least they blamed the right culprit, even if they attributed it to "the West's rape of the Earth mother" and not "the IMF screwing them re: infrastructure funding") and Siberia as "paradise" (::shrug::), and a tendency to tread dangerously close to "noble savage" stereotypes, it mostly puts in an effort to be inclusive and respectful (even if it sometimes seems performatively so). For all that it acts like it can talk authoritatively about shamans on six continents, it also usually takes pains to remind the reader that practices vary.

(Though, the four things that all shamans have in common, according to The Spirit Ways - "Every shaman, bar none, knows how to play . . . the drum . . . knows at least one technique for entering the spirit world and exiting it successfully . . . is capable of healing at least a few types of sicknesses" - also, they all undergo a painful symbolic death as part of their initiation.)

But more than just grading on a curve, The Spirit Ways is genuinely fun, hitting a great balance between fantasy, horror, and intrusive mundanity. Shamans are just mages. Putting a pin in the colonialist framing of shamanism (which weighs heavily here even though the book tries to use that framing to establish an anti-colonialist identity for its heroes), all this book is really describing when it talks about intermediaries between this world and the spirit world, who make deals with divine beings in exchange for incredible powers is mages. When your definition of "shaman" is broad enough to cover 80% of humanity's territory and 90% of its history, it's not that much more of a stretch to just tip in the rest of religion and mysticism and call it a day.

And when you view The Spirit Ways as nothing more or less than a Mage: the Ascension supplement, then what you get is a guy who talks to a cockroach to save himself from cultists . . . and who receives that aid in the form of a swarm of cockroaches crawling down his throat to move his body around like a super-strong puppet. You've got a mischievous mentor character taking his apprentice on a sojourn into the spirit world, where wisdom comes in the form of riddles. You've got healers of sickness, both physical and spiritual, moving into the blighted cities (White Wolf really hates cities, for some reason) to become the focal point of new communities. You've got World Trees and strange drugs. And the thing where you can go on a Dream Quest to work large-scale magical changes on the world? That should be a mechanic instead of a rote.

Like I said, it's pretty great. Even if there are times I want to hide my face in second-hand embarrassment.

One last thing I want to mention - I'm pretty sure this book is non-canonical when it comes to the Celestial Chorus. It makes it pretty clear, several times, that shamans as a group hate the Celestial Chorus due to the damage Christian proselytizing did to traditional religious practices. But the books have always been really inconsistent about how much of that the Chorus was involved in (sometimes they are responsible for the Inquisition, sometimes they fell to the Inquisition). The Spirit Ways portrays them as the masterminds behind the western imperialist program of conversion, but that's a depiction that at odds with both their most recent material and what I remember of them from Revised, so for now I'm just going to call it an outlier.

Ukss Contribution: Mages can make a particular type of magic item called a fetish, which is basically a physical item with a spirit bound inside who may or may not use their powers on your behalf, based on a variety of factors. Most of the Traditions find the creation of fetishes to be needlessly cruel, usually because the more powerful sorts of spirits need to be forced or tricked into the items.

However, the Dreamspeakers make ethical fetishes by binding only Gafflings, the lowest rank of spirits. According to this book, they actually enjoy inhabiting a well-made fetish because they want to feel useful. I think that's pretty cute.

I'll probably drop the word "fetish," both for the obvious reason and because it feels a little appropriative, but there will be minor spiritual beings who make their homes in precious items and help out those items' owners from time to time. I'll probably call them Gafflings, even though the term is a bit broader than that in the World of Darkness source material.

Monday, April 27, 2020

(M: tAs) Initiates of the Art

I'm getting really excited for the arrival of Revised edition. Orphan's Survival Guide was like a proto-Revised. Guide to the Technocracy was Revised-compatible. And Initiates of the Art feels a lot like a Revised book that's arrived just a little bit early. If it weren't for the lack of the weird, busy page-borders, I'm not sure I'd have been able to guess that it's technically second edition.

Unfortunately, while Initiates of the Art is a decent enough book on the merits, it suffers from Revised edition's greatest weakness - an often regrettable reluctance to include overt fantasy elements in their urban fantasy game. Magic is covert, shrouded in coincidence, because it is dangerous to be too blatant with your spells, but that can unfortunately translate into a magical world that looks quite a bit like our own.

I need to tread carefully, because I don't want to overstate the case. I actually really enjoy Revised's "magic exists in the cracks of the mundane world" approach, and it would be wrong to say it never went all-out in painting those cracks with bold, bright colors to contrast the grey. However, it would be accurate to say that they don't do it here. (And I know, I know, this isn't technically a Revised book, but it really feels like one).

The problem, I think, is two-fold. First, this depiction of life as an apprentice is not nearly sensual enough. People become apprentice mages because they've seen impossible shit and now they want to do impossible shit. But for all it talks about maintaining relationships and holding down a job (useful, character-building stuff, mind you), it never captures the awe of awakening to a magical world. When it talks about magic at all, it's in a very cerebral way - it's interesting, but it runs the risk of making magic seem like something you do to win arguments with other mages, rather than something that gives you amazing superpowers.

Although, to be fair, part of the reason it's like that is because it's more or less forced to be by the Mage rules. The only thing you can do with the first rank of a Sphere is sensory magic. Now, don't get me wrong, I'd love to have the ability to see in the dark, read auras, or determine how much charge is left in a battery by smelling it, but for all the utility these 1-dot spells may have in my day-to-day life, in the context of an rpg, they don't necessarily feel like my character is taking the first step on a path of miracles.

They're doing the best with what they've got, but I'm left with the feeling that maybe someone who's an apprentice relative to a sorcerer can still be a jaw-dropping badass compared to an ordinary slob like me. At the very least, give the apprentices 2 dots in their spheres, so they can occasionally have a tangible effect on the physical world.

Although, it's actually questionable how much of the blame for this I should put on Initiates of the Art. At its heart, the problem is that Mage: the Ascension is completely broken at Arete level 1. It has been since the first edition core and it continues to be up through the 20th anniversary edition. I might find fault with this book for encouraging this mode of play, but honestly the character creation chapters of every Mage core include rules that charge you points for making a character that's not completely miserable to play. They don't even have the decency of telling you that you must spend those points, as a kind of character-creation tax, if you want the game to be even minimally functional (though Revised does seem to suggest that it's expected, whereas 2nd "recommends that you raise it no higher than 3," M20 implies that you're cheating yourself out of the fun of the early game if you do it too often, and 1st edition is pretty neutral).

It's important to note, that when I say Mage is "broken" at Arete 1, I don't mean that it's too low in power level for me to enjoy. That's just a matter of opinion. Everyone has their own preferences there. No, what I mean is that mechanics of the Storyteller system break down and your attempts to use magic will become a cruel farce. Basically, the system is not set up for you to roll a single die for anything, let alone your character's main shtick. And the magic system in particular will punish you for trying.

For example, if you are trying to see in the dark for the rest of the scene (a completely reasonable use of your powers that should probably just be a passive ability), you need to roll 3 successes. With only one die, you'll need to make it an extended roll. The difficulty is 4, which means the chance of doing it in 3 rolls is 34% The chance of botching in that same time frame is 27%. The likeliest outcome is doing it in 4 rolls, with a 2/3 chance of success and a 1/3 chance of botching (that these numbers add up to 1 is a coincidence, though if you fail all 4 rolls, your chance of rolling at least one botch is 81%). The reason for this is that with one die, you botch every time you roll a 1, and the number of permutations that does not contain at least one "1" shrinks fairly rapidly. After 7 rolls, you are more likely to botch than not, regardless of what the original target number is. Starting at 4 successes, you are generally more likely to botch than you are to succeed.

That's to say nothing of the action economy in combat, or the pointless tedium of open-ended repeat rolling in more sedate scenes. It's just a complete clusterfuck.

My mathematical intuition tells me that if you want the game to work more or less as the fiction suggests it should, apprentices should roll approximately 4 dice for spells. The idea for an apprentice game is a good one, and Initiates of the Art gives you a lot of good ideas, despite its system limitations, but if you want it to actually feel like you're playing novice sorcerers, Arete 4, Rank-2 Spheres is my suggested minimum power level.

Before I wrap up, I also want to point out a bit of shifting canon - Avatars (the mysterious oversouls that let you do magic) are discussed here as directly as we've seen so far. Established facts - everyone has an Avatar, but most are too weak to do magic; who gets the strong Avatars seems random, or at least subject to the inscrutable whims of reincarnation ("the Awakening is as likely to strike an otherwise normal person as to empower some occult fantasy mysticist"); it is possible to destroy your own Avatar accidentally, by misusing magic (but no mechanics for such are given).

I can't say I like this new canon all that much. If you can't earn an Awakened avatar, and especially if the wise elder mages can't teach you how to find one, it kind of diminishes the religious themes of the game. I mean, it's not necessarily the case that various religions believe you can achieve enlightenment through your own effort, but it's a little weird for, say, prospective Celestial Choristers to not have to believe in God, or for the long, formal training of groups like the Order of Hermes or the Akashic Brotherhood to have no effect. The game is about finding a path and pursuing it, and while I think it's reasonable for the vast majority to fall off the path before achieving enlightenment, it's also highly weird that those who succeed seem to do so mostly by chance.

I'm just going to file that under "White Wolf's strangely aristocratic approach to supernaturals" and subsequently ignore it for my personal games.

Ukss Contribution: This is a tough one, because it's mostly about cool fantasy stuff being just out of reach. The masters are gone, no one trains in a Horizon Realm any more, and the most impressive of the suggested rotes makes it so you can stay awake all night.

However, it does talk briefly about the idea of Sanctums - areas so affected by the resonance of your magic that your spells no longer cause paradox. In keeping with the overly-cerebral nature of the text, it fails to describe all the jaw-dropping shit you're sure to see in a basement or garage where the Earth's natural laws are held in abeyance, but that's something I can fill in on my own.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Aberrant: Project Utopia

If there is one character who is emblematic of Aberrant: Project Utopia's worldbuilding, it is Aaron T Peloit, the chief archivist for Project Proteus, the sinister conspiracy inside Utopia. The Proteus chapter of the book is framed as a series of leaked documents, detailing the hierarchy, methodologies, and infamous deeds of that organization, including the assassination of dissenters and political leaders. At the end of the chapter, Mr Peloit explains his reasoning for leaking the documents by citing two outrages in particular - the clandestine nova-sterilization scheme and the fact that Proteus has spies within Utopia itself, creating a culture of paranoia among operatives like him. Those two reasons, and those reasons only are why he's taking the risk of revealing this information. Otherwise, he thinks Proteus is doing good, necessary work, even to the extent that they deliberately sabotage peace operations in regions like Kashmir (30,000 civilians dead in the first two days of fighting) in order to have a reliable way of assigning troublesome nova to suicide missions. He doesn't like Director Thetis looking over his shoulder and he thinks maybe novas should be allowed to have babies, but aside from that Proteus should still be able to keep doing what it's been doing, because an organization like Utopia can't achieve its noble goals without someone in the shadows, doing its dirty work.

A deeply cynical take on an organization that was advertised, in the Introduction, as being "as close to the good guys as you can get in a realistic setting." But that's just what you expect from White Wolf. The back of the book contains the line, "Guiding Humanity to a Better Tomorrow . . . One Atrocity at a Time." Cynicism is what you signed up for.

What makes Aaron T Peloit the mascot of this book in particular is who he decided to leak the information to. Andre Corbin, the disgruntled former employee fired from Team Tomorrow for having too much attitude, Count Raoul Orzaiz, the most charming man in an international nova-supremacist organization, and General Thomas Dwayne Endicott, a US military officer who was spearheading the development of anti-nova weapons. These were the people he thought would set aside their differences and come together to reform Project Utopia instead of ruthlessly exploiting the information to destroy the organization for their own, personal, philosophical, and political reasons.

Now, granted, Corbin in a designated Sexy Bad Boy, and thus above suspicion in these kind of subtle machinations, but even with that mulligan, that recipient list was naive as hell. It's that peculiar mix of cynical and naive that characterizes Aberrant: Project Utopia to me.

It is basically the premise of this book that Philanthropy Will Save the World. Utopia is a private organization that gives away its money however it sees fit and it's mostly working out okay. Private medical research. Private disaster relief. Private environmental restoration and geoengineering. Private law enforcement. Bankrolled by the profits of nova-driven science (that they are implausibly empowered to regulate with no obvious oversight). And these initiatives do indeed go a long way towards addressing the world's problems.

Despite my intimations of sarcasm, this isn't that big a deal. It's just one of those funny little ironies that for all of Aberrant's desire to avoid genre cliches like super-inventors failing to change the world or spandex-clad vigilantes, it wound up stumbling into the most problematic idea in superhero fiction - that ordinary people are unable to solve their own problems and must wait around for their superiors to rescue them.

This is where Aberrant's background cynicism helps it out, though. There are forces in the Aberrant universe (thin on the ground as they are in this particular book) that are highly critical of Utopia, and while I think their cries that Project Utopia is a fascist organization are misplaced, it is at least something to recognize that the superhero genre is one with fascist overtones, and Utopia, by deliberately cloaking itself in superhero tropes (Team Tomorrow started fighting organized crime because people "seemed to expect the comic-book-hero-like novas to do comic-book-hero-like things") invites those kind of comparisons.

And here is where it gets tricky, because there's a part of Utopia that's subversive, and there's a part of Utopia that plays it straight.

Project Utopia subverts the superhero genre by making its Justice-League analogue into an organization that exploits novas. Not just with Project Proteus, but in its very conception. Its motto is "Creating a Brighter Tomorrow with the Power of Today," but there is a fundamental split - the Power comes from novas, but the people who get to define "a Brighter Tomorrow" are largely baselines. Novas can be entrusted with positions of great responsibility - Caestus Pax is not just Team Tomorrow's frontman, he's also the administrative head of the entire department - but ultimately, they are not in charge.

Although Aberrant is hardly the only superhero setting to explore these ideas, it is interesting in the context of the greater Trinity-universe metaplot. Eventually, it's all going to go to shit, and it's not at all clear what side of the human-nova war Utopia's novas are going to come down on. The Project fails, and it owes that failure in no small part to its hubris and its mistrust. Though Aberrant: Project Utopia is largely optimistic, it doesn't entirely forget this dramatic irony. It's always lurking there in the background.

But then there's the other half of it, the naive part. Utopia's good deeds are interesting because they at least make an effort to include stuff that's not normally covered in superhero narratives - when they deliver much-needed supplies to disaster victims, nova powers allow for a much more efficient logistics chain; the water-mastery lady can create economically significant amounts of fresh water and so they send her to fill wells in drought-afflicted areas; and so on.

That's all very well and good. The thought they give to different ways superpowers can be used is Aberrant's greatest strength. Where it starts to get a little problematic is when Utopia's philanthropy takes on an uncomfortable "white savior" sort of energy.

It's hard for me to pin down with precision, but Utopia does a lot of work in "the Third World" and while I could go on a pedantic tangent explaining the origin of the term in Cold War era geopolitics, it's probably not necessary. We all understand that it's a euphemism for "poor," perhaps with some additional racial and cultural baggage. I don't necessarily want to pick on White Wolf for this, because it would have been really easy for them to write an rpg all about the USA and Europe and people back then likely wouldn't have noticed. So, the attempt to make a truly global superhero game, one where the Justice League is more concerned with clean water and education than bank robberies in NYC, where the headquarters are in Addis Ababa - that's not nothing.

 But . . . there are no named African employees of Project Utopia (there is some mention of Ethiopian locals working at the Team Tomorrow Central Headquarters as groundskeepers and the like), and certainly none in a position of leadership. It makes their charitable efforts on the continent seem like something they're doing to Africa, instead of in cooperation with local organizations and governments.

Take their signature achievement - Project Eden, the "terraforming" of the Ethiopian highlands. I spent 15 minutes or so trying to narrow down where exactly this would have taken place, but I'll admit it might be a task beyond my research abilities, because the only candidates I could find all seemed to be places the real-world Ethiopian government has declared protected nature preserves. In any event, the causes of Ethiopia's famines are more complex than "lack of arable land." While climate plays a role, political factors are just as important. Often, the food is there, but people are too poor or isolated to access it.

And look, I'm not going to act like I have any clue how to meaningfully improve material conditions in any of the countries of Africa, but that's kind of the point. I'm just a white guy, half a world away. I'm not going to know more than the people who are actually living there, which is why local leadership is so important. Utopia employs Mega-Intelligent novas to come up with elaborate plans to improve the world, but those novas don't necessarily have mega-empathy, mega-humility, or mega-lack-of-racism, and as a result, the plans are often big, splashy one-off gestures, implementable only by superhumans, and completely orthogonal to the specific social conditions of the intended beneficiaries. It's a specific kind of technological arrogance we've come to recognize in the real world - Elon Musk if his child-rescuing submarine actually worked.

It's a fine characterization. A very interesting premise for a story - "what if techbro philanthropists could really walk the walk," but I think you'd find that if the story is well-told, then the second act is going to be pure suspense as we wait for the other shoe to drop. Facebook has developed an app to eliminate 95% of all murders! But are they going to have the wisdom to navigate the power dynamics that arise out unevenly-distributed access?

Oh shit.

Going back to the Ethiopian example. Eighty percent of the country are already farmers, so how is this agricultural terraforming supposed to work? Are you spending billions of dollars to tear up the country's national parks so that millions of people can move? Or are you interrupting the livelihoods of millions of people while you do complicated geological stuff to their farmland? Either way, if the plan involves economic disruption and the displacement of large populations, why not just build a few hundred factories to give people high-paying jobs, industrialize agriculture on the now-vacated land, and just let people buy food? No new technology needed and you don't even have to destroy the country's irreplaceable geographical and biological treasures.

Not saying that plan is what needs to happen in real-world Ethiopia, just that these sort of rapid changes are almost always accompanied by massive unrest and total, irredeemable shittiness from one party or another ("after pa died, the bank foreclosed on our dirt farm") and there's really nothing about getting superheroes involved that's going to change that, not unless there's a nova with the power of "instilling equanimity in people being forcibly separated from their ancestral homes," (which is maybe a niche ability that would have seen a lot of use among history's worst regimes).

In any event, it's not a theme that gets much exploration, at least not in the self-aware way you get with the game's broader genre satire. Utopia's opponents are portrayed as incoherent reactionaries, indicating that the text is unaware of how fundamentally conservative it is as an organization (you want to fix Africa? maybe persuade the neo-colonialists to stop breaking it - or is that too "controversial" a stance for your carefully curated "apolitical" image?)

A potentially fruitful avenue that's never called out is how Utopia's top-driven philanthropic strategy dovetails with the more explicitly authoritarian and nakedly colonialist (you don't hire mercenaries to exacerbate local conflicts if you respect the autonomy of the people involved) Project Proteus. Proteus is consistently portrayed as a rogue agency, a conspiracy within Utopia, but also a force foreign to it. As much as it wouldn't do to say that the Utopians are insincere in their desire for a better world (that way lies too much cynicism), it is nevertheless possible to acknowledge that Proteus is a natural outgrowth of their conviction that they have a right to unilaterally change the world.

Ukss Contribution: This book makes the . . . interesting choice to take a break from thrilling superheroics just long enough to describe Project Utopia's accounting department - a move of which I heartily approve.

The boss of the accounting department is Juliana Waters. She's a total hardass who demands perfection, naturally, but also she loves celebrating employee birthdays. Insists on it, in fact. The book says it has something to do with her belief in astrology, but honestly, it works just as well without an explanation. Such a specific, human detail it almost makes me think she was based off a real person.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

(M:tAs) Guide to the Technocracy

This is it, folks. Red Alert! Flame war potential - 99% This is not a drill!

Although, I think to some degree White Wolf was deliberately stirring the pot. Surely they weren't so naive as to think writing "In a way, science is a religion" wouldn't start a fight (seriously, I was a hair's breadth away from subjecting you all to a rant about metaphysics before I took a step back and remembered the point of this exercise).

But more to the point, the main culprit behind this book's well-deserved reputation for flamebait is its clear dual mandate to both present an unreliable pro-Technocracy narrator and to course-correct away from the Technocracy's earlier depiction as cartoonish supervillains. The fact that there's no obvious way to disentangle these agendas in the text itself means that everyone can bring their own biases to it and find canonical support.

Now, it's pretty clear that when the "Protocols" chapter says, "The Technocracy isn't about power. It' about using that power effectively, for the people that don't have it" that is a self-serving lie. Or at the very least, a comforting story the Technocrats tell themselves to justify how nakedly power-hungry their organization is.

And yet, just a little while later, in a sidebar that is, apparently, out-of-character (it addresses the Storyteller directly), it says, "The objective is to save people, not blow stuff up." And therein lies the confusion.

I doubt very much that we're supposed to take the "You're Already a Technocrat" speech at face value. It presents a false dichotomy between rejecting modern technology and accepting the Technocracy's authoritarian creed. And yet, the argument they make, that there should be someone out there doing something about all these monsters, and that the existence of the laws of physics is on balance a boon to humanity - that's a good pitch. It's almost possible to believe that you're in a story with 101 different types of fantasy monster and humanity's only hope is a group of self-appointed sci-fi warriors. That narrative speaks to people. You can believe that the Technocracy could recruit off of it.

Which leads us to the awkward question of "how much of it is true?"

Not all of it, not by a long shot. The expanded abilities in the character creation chapter include "torture" and "terrorism." And those are only the most mundane of the Technocracy's crimes. They quite definitely brainwash people, perform experiments on helpless innocents, and subvert the world's governments. Everything that's said about the Technocracy's noble motives must be viewed in that context. Ultimately it is about the power.

The way Guide to the Technocracy tries to square the circle is by presenting a corrupt organization made up of idealistic individuals. Mage: the Ascension is actually quite consistent in its faith that individuals are pure until they are corrupted by groups. The "God and the Technocracy" sidebar has perhaps the starkest, least-self aware example of this I've seen so far when it says that the Technocracy tolerates faith in a higher power, but views membership in an organized religion as suspect.

I can't be alone in thinking that it should be the other way around, right? It's such a reflexively 90s-liberal/new age thing to say that it almost has me thinking we should take more of the narration's reasonableness as face value, if only because the authors are including their sincere values as part of the text.

In any event, it asks us to believe that Technocrats can be sincere, at least at the individual/small group level. The aim is to make the conflict at the center of the game more nuanced, but it misses the most critical level of analysis. For all the history sections talk of rival schools of thought and the growing popularity of the theory that the Technocracy followed sleeper history instead of manipulating it, there is no real discussion of the Technocracy's role as an enabler of systems of oppression.

I mean, they were founded by Queen Victoria, for god's sake. But that is merely a historical irony. It's much harder to judge the meaning of lies of omission. The thing where they discuss the American Revolution without mentioning slavery is completely typical, but neither before nor after did it talk about colonialism at all. This is, of course, a classic propaganda technique, but I'm not sure whether it was intentional. I know for a fact that Mage is capable of talking about colonialism, and there have definitely been explicit connections between the Technocracy and European imperialism.  So this could just be a case of the book deliberately not mentioning inconvenient historical facts that make its subject look bad.

However, Guide to the Technocracy's history section is also incredibly sloppy about a couple of things they have no obvious motive to lie about. It gets the timeline of the Sons of Ether and Virtual Adept defections completely wrong. The source of this confusion appears to be a misapprehension that the "Electrodyne Engineers" were the prior incarnation of the Virtual Adepts, when in fact that was the old name for the Sons of Ether. This resulted in the Adepts leaving the Technocracy in the early 1900s, which totally screws up the 20th century timeline.

It's possible that this was done on purpose, because a pro-Technocracy narrator wouldn't want to acknowledge that the rift with the Virtual Adepts came about because of disagreements about who to support in WW2 and the subsequent murder of Alan Turing. But this seems unlikely to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Mage has been trying to get away from attributing real-world atrocities to supernatural factions, hence the recent trend in canon to say that WW2 split the factions along national lines (so that American Technocrats supported the Allies, whereas German Technocrats supported the Nazis). Secondly, even if the mangling of the timeline was meant to be in-character obfuscation, who would that narrative be for?

I mean, I've just read every previous Mage book in chronological order and this is still a bit of obscure esoterica. I'm running through the streets screaming, "don't you see? The timeline doesn't add up!" much like one of the doomed World of Darkness conspiracy theorists who have had the misfortune to stumble upon the Technocracy.

Granted, it's unlikely to be the only one who noticed. The White Wolf fandom was known to be . . . intense. But this sort of subtle, indirect worldbuilding is practically guaranteed to cause conflict. If it was intentional then, like I said, this book seems designed for flamebait. The misplacing of the defections is probably just a mistake.

But that takes us back to our original dilemma. How much of the Technocracy's makeover are we supposed to trust, given that we've learned about it from known liars? Ultimately, what a Technocracy book really needs to do is confront the legacy of modernism head-on, both the good and the bad, in an honest and thoughtful way. "Good people working inside a bad system" only really works as a theme if you've got some inkling as to why the system is bad.

Although that's a pretty heavy theme for a casual roleplaying game. Despite the book's occasional suggestions to the contrary, you're probably not playing a Technocrat because you want to be a jack-booted fascist, even if we're just talking about the insensitive 90s sort of "fascist" who's just a super-strict guy who tells people what to do. No, the reason, ultimately, to play a Technocrat is because you want to change the genre of the World of Darkness into either mil-sf or a science fictions conspiracy thriller. That's what the idealist/authoritarian split is meant to accomplish. You're just a guy trying to protect the world using wacky sci-fi gadgets, but your bosses are the Illuminati.

It almost works, but unfortunately, the Technocracy is the one group in Mage: the Ascension that's objectively wrong. I guess, if we're being really precise about it, all of the factions arewrong, but the Technocracy is the only one that ever gets called out about it, the only one where the book says, "the truth is that the Union's agents fool themselves too."

How is that not what everyone does? Is not "fooling oneself" the very definition of "magic comes from belief."

The distinction, as near as I can tell, is that when the Traditions say their magic comes from spirits, or universal forms, or etheric disturbances or what have you, they are at least on the right path by calling their magic "magic" (even when they don't), but when the Technocracy says that their science allows them to create advanced technology, they don't realize that their science is actually magic. You can believe that your powers come from outside yourself. You can even believe that they operate along universal laws. But you can't believe those laws are quantifiable or explicable, because attempting to actually know something is the only surefire way in the Mage universe to ensure that you know nothing.

Either that or it's a cover for the fact that Mage's magic system is actually pretty bad at modelling sci-fi technology. Because the thing is, if Mage is really going to be the game it says it is, then the Technocrats kind of need to not be especially wrong. Oh, they can be wrong about morality, about the costs and benefits of their plans for control, about the danger the Traditions pose to humanity, but they should at least be right about the fact that they are using science. Or, at least, they should be as right as any magical paradigm can be. Because if the stakes of the Ascension war are reality itself, then their beliefs will, eventually, match what's real.

I actually think the issue here is that "science" is used rather mushily here. At the risk of inadvertently starting up the metaphysics rant we narrowly avoided earlier - science is an epistemological process, not a set of doctrines. There is some discussion of the scientific method, but it's not really applied. Instead, "science" is mainly used to mean "things that are scientifically plausible in the real world." So the Technocrats' "belief in science" really means "willful denial of the reality of magic." Hence, they are the only delusional Mage faction.

But if the Technocracy actually believed in the scientific method, then the empirically verifiable facts of mages doing magical things should lead them to pursue a working theory of magic just a little bit more robust than arbitrarily labeling certain things "reality deviants." After all, they don't have access to our world, so they can't actually distinguish between "things people can quite obviously do" and "things people should be able to do." The latter is always going to be formed by observations of the former.

(And I know no one asked, but my resolution to this dilemma was that the Technocracy actually does do real science, but what they study is Paradox. Their hypertech is what they've determined is the "minimally Paradoxical process" to achieve any given result, and they believe that any mage who doesn't do things their way is "polluting the Tellurian," and must be censured, even if their magic is cheaper, faster, or more effective.)

One way to untangle this mess is to claim that the Technocracy doesn't really practice science so much as scientism and that they are only really concerned with the authority that comes from the appearance of science. . .


It's plausible, and it fits in with their role as modernist villains. A lot of shady shit has been done under the color of science - scientific racism, eugenics, cruel human experimentation - and in the World of Darkness, the Technocracy is the likely culprit for these evils. It would certainly help to get them back to their sci-fi horror roots.

It's just, if you take science away from the Technocracy, the only people left in the setting who do anything close are the Order of Hermes, and that doesn't really work (though, the Order's canonical unpopularity does bolster my theory that Mage: the Ascension is all just an elaborate revenge scheme for a poor grade in science class).

I think, though, that I'm just going to chalk this one up to another example of the book grabbing two sides of a contentious debate and saying "now you and them fight!"

Oh, man. 2000 words and I've still only used about half my notes. Let's just go through a few observations real quick.

Technically, the first appearance of the infamous Red Star in Mage was in Tales of Magick: Dark Adventure, but it's addressed head-on here. Clearly, the wheels are in motion to make millennialism a major theme in the Revised World of Darkness.

Speaking of which, Guide to the Technocracy is not technically a Revised book, but I'd be shocked if it wasn't written with Revised compatibility in mind. A couple of noticeable Revised-era ideosyncracies are here - there's talk of a difficulty communicating with Horizon Realms (though no mention of the Avatar Storm . . . yet), and as near as I can tell, it's called "magic" rather than "magick," even in the out-of-character sections.

The sidebar in the character creation chapter that drew parallels between making a WoD character and filling out a standardized test sheet was really cute. I'm just surprised it took this long for someone to do that joke.

Much of the description around Technocratic magic tries to make Technocracy agents sound a lot like talents from the Trinity Continuum. I'd have liked to see that alternate game.

Some of the early-history, Sorcerer's Crusade callbacks suggest a kind of Dynastic Cycle between the Traditions and Technocracy, where each starts out as necessary reformers, gains power until they become corrupt, and are subsequently overthrown. That was my dominant theory of Mage: the Ascension politics for many years, though now I tend to think it overly callous to ignore the suffering that they create along the way.

Overall, I'd say that this book is a bomb dropped in the middle of Mage: the Ascension canon. I have no idea how it was actually meant to be used. I'm not sure which parts are trustworthy descriptions of the WoD reality. And it's shocking in retrospect how many ugly internet arguments revolved around people making selective, but perfectly valid interpretations of this text. I wouldn't say that Guide to the Technocracy actually makes the titular villains sympathetic (nor do I believe it was meant to), but it can quite plausibly allow one to pretend they are sympathetic. And in a game of make-believe like Mage, I'm not sure there's much of a difference.

Ukss Contribution: Exploding buttons - as a weapon, they strike just the right balance between quaintly ridiculous and stuffily aristocratic. Perfect for the witch-spies of Monte Carlo.

Monday, April 20, 2020

(M: tAS) Tales of Magick: Dark Adventure

This book is difficult to place in the hierarchy of essential Mage supplements. It's mostly pretty okay, but "dark adventure" isn't really a thing. The book acts like it's a thing, like it's a well-known genre with accepted parameters and we should all be nodding our heads going, "yes, of course, dark adventure. I'm familiar with it. Proceed." But it's quite clear that they are making it up as they go along, and it isn't until the "Inspiration" section of the Appendix (literally, the last two pages of the book) that it comes into focus.

"Dark adventure" is the genre that encompasses both Big Trouble In Little China and The Terminator. Mission Impossible is only barely included, but Face/Off is right in its wheelhouse. In other words, dark adventure is just that subset of action movies that the authors are not too self-conscious to admit they enjoyed.

Nah, that's too much snark, although the false dichotomy between "dark" adventure and so-called "high" adventure is this book's greatest weakness. The clearest contrast between these supposed sub-genres is given in a section discussing narratively-convenient coincidences. In "high" adventure, you might find a gun left behind at a crime scene and that can be a clue to help you find the killer. In "dark" adventure, the murderer probably left the gun behind on purpose, to incriminate you once you've carelessly put your fingerprints on it. If I had to sum it up (and I guess I kind of do), I'd say that dark adventure is what you get when you want action-adventure, but are unreasonably afraid of opening the door to "cheese."

There's a section that discusses this, and ironically it illustrates why the whole "dark adventure" idea is a creative dead end. It starts off describing something completely awesome (the villain's plan is an overly complex real estate scheme that involves orbital lasers) and then it follows up with an essay that amounts to "don't do that." It's just posturing, to be sure, but it's unclear whose benefit it's for.

Luckily, that stuff is pretty easy to ignore. The first half of this book is just an above-average White Wolf storytelling chapter. It's ostensibly about planning and running action-adventure games, but the bulk of the advice is from such a high level of abstraction that it could apply to nearly any genre ("oh, maybe the characters are interested in the plot because they're on a mission, yes, yes, that is a very good idea for my dark adventure game. I wouldn't think of using it for horror or political intrigue, nosiree.") But don't let my casual tone fool you, the advice is pretty good. Maybe a little basic, but also a lot more actionable than the "theme" and "mood" sections White Wolf usually favors. The part where it describes two dozen stock characters should probably just be printed out and issued to every GM right before they start their first campaign.

Nonetheless, the bulk of this book's value lies in Chapter 3. There it gives you a series of short campaign pitches, some generic and some that relate to the World of Darkness' slowly advancing metaplot. The generic ones are a little obvious, though I did enjoy the title "Mr. Big is Unhappy. Very Unhappy."

The metaplot ones, let's break down one-by-one:

The Concordia War - I'm a little annoyed by this one, because apparently metaplot can be introduced in the novels, and while I do own the relevant trilogy, it's not on my reading schedule. Still, it's described well enough to be used, and I guess I'm wondering if the Avatar Storm is in the works at this point, because between this plot and the next one, it feels a lot like they're doing some housekeeping with the game's more powerful legacy characters.

A civil war on Horizon, the Traditions' private planet that represents wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, but which they've curiously allowed to lie fallow for 500 years? The Council is disbanded, its members either dead or in hiding? Guerrilla insurgents, loyal to no faction, still lurk in the wilderness, striking out at attempts to rebuild? It's all very exciting, but it also feels a lot like they're trying to take away a safe place to hide.

The War of the Ruins - Speaking of which, Doissitep's gone. Completely blown up. I should have mentioned it when I was writing about Digital Web 2.0, because this particular conflict got an off-hand mention as the cause of The Great Whiteout, but it slipped my mind at the time. As near as I can tell, this is the first time it's actually tackled head-on.

It's a pretty great scenario. Basically all-out magical war on the surface of Mars as any number of interested parties attempt to loot the ruins of the formerly premier magical stronghold of the Mage: the Ascension universe. It's pretty much the epitome of what people are talking about when they reminisce about over-the-top old-Mage (dragons vs mechs on the surface of an alien world!)

Plus, I'm pretty sure that Porthos is finally dead. As much as I tried to resist the alternate character interpretation, I will confess to being slightly relieved.

Project Invictus - Technocracy agents play a deadly game of cat and mouse as the secretive Project Invictus tries to root out the corruption of the Syndicate's Special Projects Division . . . and the transformation of the Technocracy to anti-hero protagonists is finally complete.

Maybe it's ramping up to the release of Guide to the Technocracy, but Tales of Magick: Dark Adventure is the most Technocracy-friendly book released so far (and I'm including their splatbooks). Even aside from their signature adventure, the book describes the Traditions as people "who would gladly plunge the world into a new Dark Ages just so they could have their power back."

Which is fair enough, but a definite shift in attitude. I actually don't know where the sweet-spot is in terms of presenting the factions. Too idealistic, and I start to feel like maybe that's something the books haven't earned - The Technocracy are canonically murderers and for all their talk of diversity, I've yet to hear any of the Traditions advance a plan that is inclusive of large numbers of sleepers. But too cynical and it starts to feel like maybe there's no convictions at work at all - I don't believe for a second that the Technocracy would embrace Christian-nationalism and science denial, even to stay in power or that the Traditions as an organization would simply replace one static paradigm with another.

The question doesn't really get a lot of attention here, but there is definitely some tweaking taking place and thus it's worth keeping an eye open for future adjustments.

The Hunt for Helekar - Nothing too surprising. These guys were villains from the beginning and now they're presented as action-adventure villains. A cool scenario, but I don't have anything cool to say about it.

Overall, I'd say that this book is a near miss. It needs to be a little less afraid of genre, a little more specific in its suggestions, and a little more willing to engage mechanics as well as narrative (there's a great section in the Appendix that suggests sphere ratings for various Hollywood visual cliches, but honestly, it would take a whole chapter to do that subject justice). It was a decent enough read, but I can see why the planned "Tales of Magick" series never took off.

Ukss Contribtion: This is a tough one. The coolest thing here is a whole planet. But as tempting as it would be to port over the wizard war on the surface of Mars, the stakes of the conflict and the motives of the combatants are so tied to Mage's backstory that it would be a nightmare to adapt.

The second-coolest thing is presented ironically. The short fiction of the "Hold the Cheese!" section includes a henchwoman described as "the trained killer, Capricorn." And while I'm still hopping around shouting "Zodiac Assassin Squad! Zodiac Assassin Squad!" the whole thing was presented as an example of what not to do, so going with that feels a little spiteful on my part.

Third choice it is then - House Helekar. Not the organization, but the actual house itself. The Grand Harvester of Souls has ripped it out of its foundation and is now using mechanically implausible plot-device magic to turn it into a mobile base for his followers' hit-and-run terrorist attacks. Teleporting murder temple is a damned interesting enemy in nearly any fantasy milieu.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

(M: tAs) The Orphan's Survival Guide

CW: Abuse, racism, sexual assault, and more

I was all set to give The Orphan's Survival Guide a tentative thumbs up . . . and then I read the storytelling chapter.

This is my second version of this post. In the first, I may have written some . . . intemperate words where I challenged Phil Brucato to a duel to the death in the middle of Times Square. In my defense, though, I was provoked. When the chapter fiction gratuitously describes an incestuous rape and has the narrator describe the experience as "[feeling] like a condom dragged from a f-g-t's ass," how are you supposed to respond if not with incoherent screaming and punching at the air?

On the next page, it tells you that people on "the street" talk rough and it's actually okay to enhance the verisimilitude of your game by using racial slurs. It even helpfully provides a list, just in case, you know, you had trouble thinking of any. But don't worry, it's only racist if you mean it (very close paraphrase). Remember, "if your players get wigged, remind 'em it's just a fucking game."

Ooh, I'm on the verge of doing it again. What does it even mean to say "Most of the regulars claim to be bisexual; for the most part, this allows them to dress androgynously and fuck anyone they please without considering the true nature of their sexuality" (not from the storytelling chapter, granted, but something that irritated me, as a bisexual man, in much the same way).

Does The Orphan's Survival Guide deserve to be called "evil," then? Well, no book that includes the line, "some of us can handle Ebonics" can ever be completely innocent, but it's a tough question because my mind wasn't even going there until Chapter 5. It makes me angry, because I was previously prepared to focus on the much more interesting questions raised by the earlier chapters, so much so that I was only going to make a snide remark about the way that 90s White Wolf would just casually drop in rape references to make their gothic punk world seem "gritty."

I don't want to give White Wolf too much of a pass here. This is fairly classic "equal opportunity offender" (the word "Whitey" is included in the list of slurs) oblivious "ironic racism," and I'm sure the authors didn't mean it. But I went pretty hard on The Complete Barbarian's Handbook and the worst they did was suggest that Polynesian-expy "barbarians" are naturally lazy and you should play your character accordingly. No child prostitutes as suggested character archetypes at all.

I think it's the "turd in the punchbowl" effect. Really, only about 20% of this book deserves to be on your "worst of 90s White Wolf" podcast, and it would be so much fun to talk about silly-type "embarrassing" stuff like this book's frequent reverential name-dropping of The Crow, but, but . . .

The storytelling section advises you to give one of your characters AIDS. The quote "Got a sexual hang-up? Work it out." is 100% real. "Don't do the PC thing."

Don't . . .

Do . . .

The PC . . .

Thing . . .

As storytelling advice . . . GRAGHH!!!

There's good stuff in here. The first appearance of Penny Dreadful, wise sewer alligators who mentor young mages, the presaging of Mage: Revised's change in focus, The Associates, a cabal of high-society rogue mages who use their powers to commit impossible crimes . . . I could just talk about that stuff.

After all, in 1998 I was even more oblivious than this book. I fancied myself an anti-racist liberal, but I'd have argued hotly with you if you'd suggested there was anything wrong with the sentence "If a car full of homiez pulls up to the curb, crank some bad noise and get the blood pumpin'." And a rote that lets mages "darken their skin to blend into an ethnic neighborhood" would have just seemed like a sensible bit of world-building to me.

Is it not hypocritical then, for me to sit here in judgement, with my evolved 2020 morality, and condemn this work from a particular time and place, just because it was fixed into a static form?

Yeah, totally. The me from 1998 would have thought this book was totally badass, no argument. That still doesn't mean I want to talk about it today.

Ukss Contribution: None. You know what you did Orphan's Survival Guide. You know what you did.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Aberrant: Year One

Aberrant: Year One is a sort of generalized setting book for the Aberrant universe. It presents snapshots of the world of alternate 2008, mostly in the form of brief profiles of various cities, in-character news items, and sample characters. It also covers the state of the art technology developed by novas and provides rules for when you want your Mega-Intelligent characters to advance the frontiers of science.

It's dreadfully inconsistent, especially with the technology. I think the culprit is White Wolf's ambivalence about making a superhero game. It's what prompts them to say, "that means saying no to one of the hoariest traditions of comic book super-science: that technology has no long-term consequences for the rest of the world."

Now, that's great. Best part of the Aberrant setting in my opinion, but they also have to inject some of the notorious WW "stop having fun, guys" energy into the proceedings by following up with, "Therefor Aberrant presumes that although nova super-scientists can make limited breakthroughs in science and technology, they cannot make radical advances."

The result is a curious conservatism in technology that in many ways undershoots the real world. For example, CD-Roms are replaced with "chips," which are basically just primitive flash drives. The description of a "chip player" says it's got a digital display with up and down buttons to sort through "up to 100 tracks." Congratulations, White Wolf, you invented the iPod 3 years before Apple, but underestimated its capabilities by about 90% (that "congratulations" is not sarcastic, btw, it is actually genuinely impressive that they predicted as seminal a product as the iPod, which just goes to show that they should have had a little more faith in the audacity of the future)

Likewise, with maglev trains. The technology for those already existed in 1998. We're not sitting around waiting for room-temperature superconductors (though apparently those are actually pretty close to being a reality), but rather for a government far-sighted enough to value the long-term savings over the huge initial cost.

The net effect is that sci-fi 2008 winds up feeling a lot like a near-miss on real-world 2018. Biotech is lagging, but computer technology just kept going. No, we're not too close to near human AI, but Big Data is doing things that should scare the shit out of us. We don't have Aberrant's flying cars, but if we did, they'd definitely be able to drive themselves. "Hypercombustion" that delivers the same power at 1/10th the fossil fuel consumption is the sort of tech that would give any sensible futurist nightmares, and yes you were very perceptive in your "fusion is perpetually 10 years away" cynicism, but damn, that is exactly the sort of scientific problem we could use a superhero to crack. VR is here, and it's kind of cool, I guess, but even in your fantasy world, you've failed to solve the problem of bumping into the furniture.

But honestly, my biggest gripe with the Technology section of this book is that it is inconsistent with a major setting element that was established in the core and is referenced several times in the first half of this very volume - that Project Utopia was given authority by the UN to regulate the promulgation of novas' discoveries in science and technology.

This was always one of the hardest bits of Aberrant's setting to swallow. The only way the fucking Security Council of the United Nations, the most jealously sovereignty-preserving organization to ever exist on this Earth, would ever consent to turn over that kind of power to an NGO would be if nova-tech was so blatantly and imminently an apocalyptic threat that even the most nationalist, head-in-the-sand politician would rather offload the responsibility onto a team of superheroes.

Now, granted, it's suggested that even with Aberrant: Year One's pessimistic assessment of the scientific value of Mega-Intelligent novas, that super-scientists might still develop eccentric, one-off inventions that are too expensive, too advanced, or too dangerous to replicate, but that sort of contradicts the original goal of the technology section. Plus, the core book quite clearly says that the Yakuza is building factories in northern Australia to distribute contraband technology, and that definitely implies that there is at least some seriously weird shit that is threatening to get loose.

Overall, I'd say you can give the technology section of this book a miss. The high points you'll pick up from context in the other books, and as for the rest, you'd probably be better off just pulling up some old episodes of Beyond 2000 and assuming that half of the shit on there actually panned out in the Aberrant universe.

Which just leaves the cities section. It's mostly pretty good, but it treads a fine line, apparently without even realizing it.

So, the great part about this book is its commitment to diversity. You get write ups of traditional stand-bys like New York, LA, and Tokyo, but you also get cities like Lagos, Karachi, and Jakarta. One thing the Trinity-verse has always been good at is remembering that the future is, in fact, the future of the whole globe.

Where it might run into trouble is in its fondness for the term "third world." It's got a very America-centric view of the notion of progress (even, at one point, suggesting the EU could use the US as a model for greater integration . . . ha!), and that can sometimes lead to scenarios where it doesn't feel like the locals have a lot of agency (The Medellin Cartel moves into Cuba after Castro's death and subverts the government to bring about a return to Havana's Batista-era economy? That's . . . maybe not something the Cubans would greet as enthusiastically as this book implies).

Ultimately, I think this book's heart is in the right place, and with a couple of dubious exception is generally on the right side of the colonialist divide, but the language it uses to express these positions is a bit . . . old fashioned (like, maybe you'd want to think twice before describing Hong Kong as "the gateway to the East").

With that slight caveat, I find the setting material in Aberrant: Year One to be generally useful. It's admirably diverse (though South America was overlooked in its entirety), the characters are engaging, and between the various cities it does a good job of showing off the variety of stories a Nova might get involved in.

Ukss Contribution: This is a tough one. While a fine setting book, very little jumped out at me. That's probably because the best stuff is so tied to the specifics of both Earth and Aberrant that it won't easily adapt. I'm thinking I'll go with fantasy-LA's "solution" to its notorious traffic problem - dividing the city into 12 "time zones" that each have staggered standard work hours.

Now, the reasons why this could never possibly work are too numerous to go in to, but there was something authentic that struck me in the way that the most privileged neighborhoods got the most desirable time zones. As a night shift worker, that spoke to me. I think I could probably make a half-way decent fantasy capitalist hellhole with its own clock-based form of oppression.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

(Aberrant) Exposé: Aberrants

Exposé: Aberrants is one of those inexplicable pamphlet-supplements that White Wolf decided would be a good fit for the Trinity Universe. It's only 24 pages long, so I don't have a lot to say about it. The main interest here is that it implies a solution to the Slider murder (the evidence here very strongly implicates the sexy rebel,  Andre Corbin, which means that only Chiraben the shapeshifter could have done it). Also, there's an NPC who became a nova at the age 102, which means that she remembers the original Aeon Society . . . and Divis Mal looks familiar to her.

I'm trying to work out a Trinity-verse metaplot timeline in my head and I think this is an important landmark. Going back to the Trinity core book, the Maxwell Mercer time travel plot hasn't seen print just yet, but Adventure! is probably already in the works. Or, at least, that's the impression I get from all the teasing they're doing about it. None of it has been specific enough for me to tell whether they changed anything between now and publication, but I'll keep my eyes open for more hints.

The main use of this is as a source of characters. There's a bit about the Aberrants' organization, but not quite enough to do more than suggest a campaign model. The characters are pretty good, though. You have a working-class schlub that has become the defender of Chicago. And the bisexual anarchist college professor, Dr Worm, who just kind of sucks as a person, but is a pretty cool antagonist. The minor characters get stats, but it's absolutely criminal that Corbin and Sophia Rousseau (the leader of the Aberrants) aren't among them.

I guess White Wolf hadn't quite got over the instinct to hold back on information for the sake of generating hype. Not their most endearing quality, to be sure, but I've gotten used to it. In the end, Exposé: Aberrants leaves me with more questions than answers, but I guess that what GM prep is for.

Ukss Contribution: Doctor Worm. They give him all of the most obnoxious lines (like comparing Project Utopia to the Nazis), but he's portrayed as a gross creep (he was drummed out of academia for sleeping with his students) so that's probably at least partly intentional. Given his super-strength and stretchy limbs, he could be a potent adversary.

(M:tAS) Digital Web 2.0

It's finally happened - the snake has gotten ahold of its tail. I once commented that it often felt like the revised edition of Vampire: the Masquerade's greatest inspiration was Vampire: the Masquerade, but so far Mage has avoided that same feeling. Not anymore. This book here can only be understood in the context of previous Mage canon. No one coming in fresh with the mandate to make a magical internet for a group of hacker mages would ever deliver something like Digital Web 2.0.

There are werewolves in the internet! They just sort of wandered in from the spirit world. It's not entirely clear what they're doing in there, but if you run into one, the word "RAWRR!" will appear on your screen and your computer will crash.

Actually, that's not quite fair of me on two accounts. First, the internet werewolves were in the original Digital Web, and while they were just as weird, I didn't feel quite so compelled to make a thing out of it. And secondly, Digital Web 2.0 is not quite so explicit about virtual reality werewolf encounters. It says they're there, and that they are aggressive and dangerous, but unless you yourself have somehow uploaded your body (so as to be in  good position for them to dismember you), there's not much indication that they have any effect at all on an end user.

But it is a good indication of the book's circularity. It assumed that people were going to want to know about the internet werewolves and would have noticed (and presumably complained) if they hadn't been included. The greater World of Darkness cosmology, and the mage-specific nuances thereof, are becoming set in stone.

Or, at least, that's my working theory for why this book is attempting to smuggle in rules and setting changes under the cover of "The Great Whiteout," an in-setting metaplot cataclysm that reset the internet, killed several of the old guard of net explorers (both Traditions and Technocracy) and conveniently explained any minor inconsistencies in the established setting locations.

I think the idea behind the Whiteout is that in the five years since the first Digital Web book, the nature of the internet had changed, and thus people coming in fresh with contemporary internet experience would find the old Digital Web to be unfamiliar, alienating, and worst of all kind of cheesy. The back of the book quite boldly exclaims "Cyberpunk is Dead," with the recommended reading, quite diffidently suggests William Gibson with the abashed declaration that his work is "dated" and "the corpse of cyberpunk has been cooling for years."

Poor White Wolf, so trapped by your own tragically hip gen-X sensibility (dangerous neural feedback is called "egg frying" after the famous Regan-era commercial!) that you couldn't just unironically like things. The result is a magical internet unmoored from any pop-culture paradigm more recent than 1940s noir (people in the Digital Web love dressing up like old-timey spies and detectives and hanging around in smokey nightclubs listening to jazz and ngl, it's cool as shit, but maybe not entirely in keeping with the strongest draws of the fictional milieu).

But aside from that, how was the book?

I went back and forth on this. Much like the earlier Digital Web, I was struck with the question, "but what is this all for?" However, unlike the old book, I think the answer I got - "hanging out, bullshitting with friends, and looking at porn," might actually be close to workable. It is the transformation of the Digital Web that is to thank for this, though I'm not sure the Great Whiteout was necessary. It was probably sufficient to use the same explanation as the transformation of the real-world internet - a lot more people started using it, and they had different needs than those ARPAnet geeks.

Because the biggest structural difference between Digital Web versions is that Sleepers can get involved in the deep layers now, even if it is just by accident. There's even a noir-style sexy lounge singer lady called Candy who is in reality controlled by four dudes who have completely failed to address the weird homoerotic implications of constantly banging Virtual Adepts, Technocrats, and miscellaneous spy-themed net wanderers. Candy has been exposed to so much careless digital pillow-talk that the bros who created her are now players in the Ascension war, whether they like it or not. That's not something that could have happened in the old edition, and as potentially problematic as the plotline is, it's still a welcome step in the right direction.

Regardless of the metaplot excuse necessary to get them there, the addition of sleepers to the Virtual Adepts' playground has had the salutary effect of making it feel like there are actual stakes to the conflict over the Digital Web. Unlike the first book, this one feels like it could be used for a historical game. The Traditions (well, mostly the Virtual Adepts and Sons of Ether) and the Technocracy are battling for the soul of internet, and the winner will determine how the rest of us are going to live, work, and socialize for the next couple of decades.

Funnily enough, I think Digital Web 2.0 might even work better as a historical supplement than it did in its original context. The storytelling chapter goes out of its way to point out that not everyone was familiar with the ins-and-outs of being online. It even warned you to watch out players that were net-savvier than you, who might point out inconsistencies in how you presented the internet (solution: point out the Digital Web was not the internet, so it didn't have to be consistent). I remember those days, so I know exactly what they were talking about (I got extra credit in my comp-sci class the same year this was written for installing Netscape Navigator on the lab computers using zipped files on 3.5" floppy discs), but, honestly, 20+ years later it feels weird, even to someone who was there.

But even setting aside that aspect, the setting here is definitely improved with a healthy dose of dramatic irony. At one point, the narrator wraps up a plot hook about the internet gaining consciousness with the aside, "God, how much would it suck if the Web woke up and it was a Technocrat?"

And I was, like, "uuuummmmm. . ."

Making it a historical setting also offers us the chance to tweak the book's politics a little. It's not that I'd say they were terrible, but more . . . "well-meaning, but unwoke 90s liberal dude." The anonymity of the internet will insure that "your gender (or lack thereof) has a remarkably small impact, unless you want it to," but it's still all right to call the Verbena "witchy-poos" because that's just a joke.

It's going to be a huge temptation to make the oblivious hypocrisy of the Virtual Adepts into your primary campaign theme. There are frequent digressions where the narrator goes out of his way to point out that Anarchy doesn't mean that you can just do whatever you want, and that leads into a generational conflict where the old guard, having made significant progress towards its goal of getting humanity online, now wants to throttle back the rate of change so that it's easier to stay in control. The words, "[we were] forced into the role of shepherds by the stupidity of the flock" are uttered without any apparent self awareness. My personal theory here is Doylist - White Wolf has a website now and as a result, the author has a clearer idea about what a shitshow forum moderation can be.

Watsonian-wise, what's going on here is ideology without solidarity. They can say all they want that "we want the kids to *inherit* that house someday," but the very fact that they are viewing themselves as the parents in this scenario puts a lie to that ambition. You're never going to make progress towards anarchism if you start dividing the world into "Us vs Them."

Which isn't to say that the Virtual Adepts are acting unrealistically. I tried to brainstorm a properly anarchist response to the problems introduced by the influx of Sleepers to the Digital Web and all I could think of was - mentorship of mutual defense societies, modelling best practices, and letting people know that their forum flame wars were causing literal flames to appear in the magical realm that serves as the backstage of the internet. I.e. not a lot of stuff that seems particularly plausible while the Technocracy is actively trying to kill you. Though, at the very least, I think they could do a better job policing their ranks for those who refer to the unawakend as "bleaters."

This is another aspect of the book that I think benefits from a bit of historical perspective. These guys, with their elitist dick-waving, obnoxious nicknames for groups that lack social capital, and self-serving colorblindness carry within them the seeds of the alt-right. Can that future be averted? How? Your 1998  "webspinner" campaign will explore those questions.

Now, with all that out of the way, I will admit that the narrators' slightly off-kilter way of expressing themselves was (with the already noted exceptions) pretty delightful. One of them expressed sympathy with the Order of Hermes by describing both Order and Adept praxis as "bullshitting God with arcane equations and using 'em to open up the gates of heaven."

I also really liked that they called their technomagical hardware "iron." That's a neater bit of slang construction than we usually see in sci-fi works. When one of the narrators warned us that we'd need "some trinary iron spicy enough to handle the strain," I actually felt that. It's almost like something a human would say.

The biggest flaw of the book is that it seems to forget all about the gothic punk aesthetic (part of its general abandoning of any genre more coherent than "Mage: the Ascension supplement). It's the serious version of the werewolf joke I made earlier. When the book talks about "Corrupted Web," that has been turned into a spiritual trap that leads one towards madness, I'm really fucking curious as to what that looks like to the end-user. But it's only really relevant to mages who are somehow projecting themselves into the Digital Web, which strikes me as a shame. For a moment, I had a glimmer that what mages did in this virtual reality somehow translated into online urban legends among the sleepers. That would have been pretty cool.

Finally, there's one minor thing that I just can't let pass without comment. One of the sub-realms of the Digital Web is called "The Playground" that's kind of like a heightened reflection of real-world games, and the book depicts this place as a hollow, falling-apart mess, saying "surely you've noticed the amazing lack of originality in games lately."

And that just sent me sprinting towards the exact same Google search I made during the first book. It turns out 1998 was an even better year for video games than 1993. Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Spyro the Dragon, and Starcraft all came out the year this game was published. The year before saw the original Fallout and Final Fantasy VII. Two books, five years apart, totally different authors, but the same bad video game take. . . Is the Digital Web cursed?

Ukss Contribution: This book is fortunately light on the "if you die in the Web you die in real life" cliche, provided you don't bodily enter through the spirit world, but it can happen, especially when magic is involved. When it does, there are a number of possible consequences. You could create a Haunt Sector, where the lingering energies of your death threaten to draw explorers into the underworld. Or, if you were in the process of formatting a new sector, your soul might be drawn into the creative energies of the magic and you'll create a Stacked File, which is legendary location on the Web that has miraculous (or at least notably wonderful) properties.

It's absolutely criminal that these special sectors didn't get interpreted as sleeper urban legends, but I can at least do my part by ensuring similar effects when people die in Ukss' Astral Web.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

(M: tAs)Technomancer's Toybox

Technomancer's Toybox is a fun little book that has me shaking my head in disbelief, wondering why it even exists. Oh, I suppose that "being fun" is reason enough to exist, but this is a magic item book . . . for the World of Darkness' modern occult game . . .

So why is it filled with sci-fi gadgets?

Don't get me wrong, this book has some wonderful ideas, like the X117 Death Ray (Intended for Purely Peaceful Purposes), but it's also Mage: the Ascension's first magic item book. In two editions. Why didn't we first get a book with flying broomsticks and magic wands (there is one of those here, but it's got, like, gears and shit)?

In a way it speaks to Mage's larger identity crisis. On the one hand, it's the philosophical game where there are witches and they're really serious about it. On the other, it's a wild "anything can happen" sort of game where modern magicians disguise their spells in the trappings of modern technology and that's why the opening fiction can have a group of multicultural refugees fleeing space assassins in a vehicle called "The Atomic Jalopy" (the fourth part of a continuing story that has no end in sight) and a player following the RAW can spend 8 background points to start the game with power armor.

What I'm saying is that the tone is all over the place. There's a sweet spot where you've got the Sons of Ether making cheap-looking novelty glasses that let them read minds or a rogue Cultist of Ecstasy making a creepy enchanted "Sin-TV" that lets him spy on people in compromising situations (though I could have done without the gratuitous rape reference in the list of examples) - those have that slightly-tarnished, slightly-tongue-in-cheek, uncomfortably transgressive feel to them that can fit easily into a gothic-punk world.

But then you have things like the HEAT chip, a Virtual Adept invention that's basically just a regular microchip from 2008 (no, seriously, it has no listed powers beyond being 10x as powerful as an off-the-rack 1998 CPU). And it's all very interesting, but it makes you stop and think "what the hell are you trying to do, Mage?"

I mean this in a good way, though. The absolute best thing about Mage: the Ascension is that you're never entirely sure what the hell it's trying to do.

The one thing it's probably not trying to do is science fiction, though. The system can't cope with the necessary scale, and it's fundamentally averse to allowing any form of magic to work in the absence of a mage. The result is that you don't actually get stats for the three-story-tall WW1-era death robot and players can't imitate the Marauder who enchanted a thousand different trinkets with psychedelic prophecy magic and seeded them in supermarket vending machines.

But more to the point, the limitations of the Mage system inhibit the exploration of the most elemental of sci-fi plots, "what happens when this thing gets out of the lab." The Virtual Adepts should be putting HEAT chips in consumer electronics. The Technocracy should be getting Erg Cola on to store shelves. These techno-mages should be at the center of stories where their creations slip out of their control and the transformational nature of technology threatens to make the world unrecognizable. Like the man said, "the street finds its own uses for things," but it can't do that if the things are so powerfully tied to the will of a single elite individual that they never make it to the street at all.

So the sci-fi is mostly just an aesthetic. A patina of technology over a core of magic. I guess that's fine. With the exception of The Sons of Ether, it never quite cracks the code that would bridge the gap between "sci-fi tech experts" and "wizards who use ancient magic with a modern flair," but it works if you don't think too hard about it. And after all, "technology is just a form of magic and requires a magician to use" is just the flip side of the "no, you can't have magic-carpet highways and crystal ball communication networks just because magic is presented in a very technological fashion" lecture we wind up having to sit through in every edition of D&D.

Mage is what it is. And that's why the perfectly ordinary smart phone you somehow managed to get in the late 90s has to roll three dice to avoid blowing up every time an onlooker is surprised it exists.

Overall, it's best to just treat this book as what it is - a very specialized magic item book for a game that's maybe a little too self-conscious to release something called "a magic item book." It doesn't exactly break new ground for the game, and 7 of the 9 Traditions are largely left out of the fun, but it does have a lot of cool ideas, like the 25 TB hard drive made of light-sensitive fungus or the Physiognomizer, a mind control device that works by reverse phrenology (it shapes your skull to have the traits its operator wants you to have) or . . .um, rocket skates.

Mage has the reputation of being a stuffy, pretentious philosophy game, but it's also the game where you can spend six background points to start with rocket skates. Never forget that. I know I never will.

Ukss Contribution: What could it be, if not rocket skates? Well, as funny as that would be, there is one idea I liked better - Zelly's Eternal Theatre. Now, in the book it has oracular powers and is probably haunted by the ghost of a mad scientist's young daughter, but I actually really like the thing it was originally intended to be - a programmable wind-up puppet show. You put a wax cylinder in the thing and its complex assortment of gears makes the puppets act out the play that the built-in phonograph is playing over the speakers.

It's a totally badass magic item that would require serious Victorian-era hypertech to actually get to work, but it's also kind of clunky and impractical. The example in the book needed to be haunted or else it would have no game stats at all, but I actually really love it when fictional magicians use their powers for wondrous quality-of-life enhancements like this. I figure in Ukss, these things will fill the same cultural niche as televisions.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

World of Darkness: Sorcerer

This is probably the game you should play instead of Mage: the Ascension. Don't get me wrong, I love the beautiful mess that is Mage, but this here . . . it's a book about occult societies, operating out of the shadows, exploring mysteries and pursuing their agendas, both sinister and benign. It's about hidden magic in the World of Darkness, people who are in over their heads with predators on all sides and those who keep ancient traditions alive in a world where it's all too easy to blind oneself to the sublime.

Plus, the magic rules sort of work. The paths could probably use a bit more precision, but sorcerers use reasonably sized dicepools and have quantifiable powers that can be compared to other supernatural templates. Buy 3 dots in Hellfire and you deal four dice of damage. Not something you're going to want to give up your guns for, maybe (although actually Hellfire has a bunch of neat elemental effects that make it more useful than its raw damage might indicate - fire does aggravated damage, dust storms can blind the target, etc), but when you compare it to, say, a vampire's Fortitude discipline, you can at least eyeball the likely result. It's not like Forces magic where you get 3 dice, but you can roll them an infinite number of times, meaning the target is going to face an unstoppable attack several days from now.

Ironically, the biggest weakness of World of Darkness: Sorcerer as a book is its connection to Mage: the Ascension. The text draws a fiddly technical distinction between what sorcerers do and what mages do that ultimately boils down to "magic" vs "magick." It's unbearably pretentious (and this is me saying this, so . . . you know), but also not something anyone in the setting is going to have a clear handle on. At best it's a distraction.

But setting aside comparisons to Mage, World of Darkness: Sorcerer is a fine book in its own right. The available paths of magic cover a fairly comprehensive cross-section of what you'd want a modern urban fantasy protagonist to be able to do and the occult organizations are all pretty interesting. The Ancient Order of the Aeon Rites is yet another reinvention of the Order of Hermes whole shtick, but this time they advance in rank through doing good deeds. Yes, they've got to undercut that by implying an unresolved scandal surrounding the Order's now-dead founder, but it's refreshing to see "wizard" types in the WoD who actually have a moral code.

Later on, we get the Uzoma, which is White Wolf's attempt at African magicians based on actual research. They're a decent faction, and their presentation here feels respectful, though I do feel a need to call out one line in particular:
According to NWO information, the Uzoma form an offshoot of the Dreamspeakers. This simplistic view underscores the traditional dismissal of many things African; "Well gee, they all look alike, so they must belong to the same club!"
Bad White Wolf, bad! The admonishment itself is fine, and likely something the fandom needed to hear, but that logic is fundamentally the Dreamspeakers' raison d'etre and it wasn't the Technocracy that created them, nor the Traditions. It was you. You made the Dreamspeakers to lump together four continents worth of people, and while it's great that you're starting to take an interest in specific people, like the Yoruba, you can't launder the original concept like this.

Apologize. Retcon. Do better. That's the procedure.

That said, the Uzoma do feel like a big step forward. World of Darkness: Sorcerer as a whole prefers a much greater degree of specificity than mage. There's a faction here called the Thal'Hun, which at once corrects the glaring oversight that was Mage: the Ascension's lack of a Ufology Tradition and manages to be a weird, narrowly applicable example of a group that might exist within such a hypothetical tradition (OMG - just imagining a version of Mage where Ufologist take the Spirit seat on the council and American, African, and Australian mages are assigned to groups like the Celestial Chorus or the Cult of Ecstasy based off their specific cultural practices and theological inclinations and it's pretty damned great). They manipulate the harmonic frequencies of sound in accordance with the scientific principles of the Hui:xa aliens who visited Earth thousands of years ago. In short, they're too good an idea to waste on The Sons of Ether (their canonical "awakened" allies).

Overall, this book is a stealth MVP. Within the White Wolf canon, it has the ridiculous niche of "Mage for people who don't want to play Mage," but honestly, freed of the need to "be Mage," this book has the opportunity to actually focus on the magic, and as a result, it's just jam-packed with good ideas, many of which you could even steal for your game of Mage.

Ukss Contribution: Secret Agent Sabrina! One of the sample characters is a dashing international woman of mystery who supplements her spy training with witchcraft. That could be a whole fucking genre.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Aberrant Storytellers Screen

The Aberrant Storytellers Screen makes the curious choice to have the first published Aberrant adventure be an espionage thriller in which the players must travel to Ibiza, Marrakesh, and Monte Carlo on the trail of a beautiful ingenue who is using her invisibility powers to keep one step ahead of a shapeshifting assassin out to silence her before she can reveal a cache of documents containing compromising information on a global conspiracy.

It's a fine story in its own right, but probably a bit below the PCs paygrade. I mean, there are builds out there that would work well here, but they're not generally the sort that are attractive to players out to experience a superhero rpg. Black Widow and Hawkeye have plenty to do on this mission, but the rest of the Avengers are probably going to have to sit this one out.

But more questionable than the scale is the tone. They are coming right out of the gate with the "trust no one" feel. There's a narrow band of "well-behaved rebels" that the adventure treats as trustworthy. The Aberrants (Project Utopia skeptics and conspiracy theorists) are okay. And Count Orzaiz (the aristocratic playboy and one of the top three handsomest Terragen) is a pretty cool guy. But if you work directly for Project Utopia, no one will talk to you, and if you work for Proteus (the shadowy black-ops conspiracy that hides inside Utopia), everyone seems to sense it somehow.

Ultimately, the lesson here is that no level of cynicism is ever unjustified. But if you don't mind the genre, the adventure is fine.

In addition to the adventure, the Aberrant Storytellers Screen also features some expanded setting information. Specifically, it covers the prominent corporations in the Aberrant universe and the way that the world's religions reacted to the emergence of novas.

The corporate stuff was good. I'm pretty sure that if Microsoft merged with Viacom, industrial espionage would be the least of our problems, but it's a good plot hook. Utopia offshoot, Novation, that specializes in monetizing novas in the form of comics, toys, and cartoons is also a great addition. It probably won't feature as part of an adventure, but it's a fun bit of background texture to torment your PCs with . . .or, perhaps, reward them, if they're that vain . . . oh, wait - adventure pitch inspired by the in-setting success of the Andre Corbin doll (boys like that he's a sports star, girls like that he's handsome, irony-poisoned college kids like that he starred in a porno): the PCs' action figures start to outsell those of Cestus Pax. . . good luck with that.

Like I said, fun.

The religious stuff . . . what's the mid-point between "meh" and "yikes?"

Basically, there are three general schools of thought as to how a religion might react to the emergence of novas - they represent some blessed power and are therefor sacred; they are demons/monsters meant to task the faithful; they are basically human beings, perhaps with challenges and opportunities beyond those of baselines, but not something the faith is unprepared to handle.

That's all fine, as far as it goes. And I think that some of the more picayune theological details ("what, exactly, is the difference between a superhero and a saint") might even be appealing to the right sort of nerd. But the material in this book seems to imply that differences in opinion will break down along existing denominational lines ("Sunnis embrace novas, shi'ites think they're demons"), and that leads to unfortunate religious stereotyping. Official Catholic doctrine is that novas are human, but there's a sinister conspiracy of cardinals that stand ready to assassinate the Pope and replace him with someone more anti-nova. Israeli Jewish novas are all recruited to a secretive black-ops team. In India, novas are worshiped as avatars of the gods.

Nuance is the name of the game, people. None of these plotlines would be a problem if the religions weren't presented in such a monolithic fashion. I doubt I'd use any of them in a game, though.

Overall, I thought this was a fairly decent supplement. Not essential, but nice to have. The shapeshifting Proteus assassin, Chiraben, would make for a great recurring villain, even if the book dramatically under-sells what he's capable of. The Queer Nova Alliance makes its first appearance, and while there is some unfortunate 90s ignorance (an NPC refers to Andy Vance with the big slur and the book itself can't decide whether he has a "husband," a "partner," or a "lover"), it's still vague enough to be a fun example of inclusion, instead of the mess it was in the Players Guide. And the genre stuff is undeniably part of the game's DNA, even if it's not what I would have led with.

Ukss Contribution: Oh, it's finally happened. I have to use something from the contemporary world. I'll probably futz around with the name, like I did with Sparta, but the real star of this adventure was none other than Monte Carlo. There's just something about setting a high-stakes espionage mission in this famously aristocratic city that just feels right.