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.