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.

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