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.

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