Sunday, May 31, 2020

(M: tAs) Sorcerer, Revised

How do these Sorcerer books keep being better than Mage? My working theory is that it's because sorcerers are allowed to use magic.

Or, less snarkily, when you talk about Mages, the most interesting thing about them is their role in the setting's metaphysics. Their whole deal is the BATTLE for REALITY. Whereas with sorcerers, the only interesting thing about them is their magic, so they have to go out of their way to try and make that magic interesting. That's what Sorcerer, Revised is - White Wolf's urban fantasy game about magic in the modern day. . .

Wait, this is almost exactly the same post I made for World of Darkness: Sorcerer. I went back and checked. I was about to make all the same salient points - Sorcerer is more Mage than Mage; the magic rules fit the setting better than the Sphere system's attempt to be both generic and universal; the crossover rules, where they try to fit Sorcerer into the Mage continuity are a detraction from the book; they're still doing that thing where they accuse the Traditions of being "shallow" when they created the Dreamspeakers, hoping we'll overlook that they exist because of White Wolf's shallowness . . . which continues up to this very book; and the Ancient Order of Aeon Rites is still just the Order of Hermes with a moral code.

Taken together, it all makes it seem like the Revised edition book is just a retread of the 2e book and there's a certain degree of justice to that accusation, but Sorcerer, Revised manages the trick of improving upon its predecessor in almost every regard.

It's not a perfect book, by any means. It shares the mid-period Storyteller system flaw where it's finally getting concrete about what different success levels mean, but winds up setting the success cost for many actions too high, so that you wind up having to roll multiple times for just about any task, and oftentimes, even when the success cost is set correctly, the process of an action is broken down into too many discrete steps, each of which requires its own roll.

The Hellfire path is an example of one that suffers from both problems. To use it, you've got to make an activation roll to see how potent the blast is, then you've got to target the blast with a separate roll, then your target gets a defense roll, then if it hits, you roll damage, then your target rolls soak. Five rolls for hitting someone with a fireball.

But that's a minimum, because paths have Aspects. "Aspect" is just a jargon word for "something about your power that the mechanics are interested in." The rules about how Aspects apply are a little vaguely written, but if I'm reading them right they work like this - Aspects range from one to six points, and are capped at your rating in the path. If you roll one success on your activation roll, you get the rating one Aspects for free, but anything beyond that is bought with successes. Hellfire has three Aspects - damage, range, and area of effect, plus optional elemental effects which aren't technically Aspects, but which have a cost in successes.

If you've got a low rating in Hellfire, but a large Manipulation + Occult dice pool, you'll probably max out your aspects with a simple roll, but if you're high level and fighting something that warrants that kind of firepower, you'll need to spend several rounds charging up.

It's unwieldy, but at least it's got greater clarity than the old book. Though this does bring up an issue that recurs throughout the book. It insists that awakened mages are more powerful than sorcerers. And this is notionally the case, because their success chart for scaling effects is generally more generous than the printed Aspects (when it's not being completely half-assed), but it fails to take into account mages' dramatically lower dice pools.

Compare a mage with Force 3, Arete 3 to a sorcerer with Hellfire 3, and a Manipulation + Occult of 8 (i.e. not optimized much at all - it's rules legal to make those values 5 and 10 as a starting character). With a single roll, the sorcerer's expected success total is 3, which is enough for 6 damage dice at touch or 4 damage at a range of 10 feet. The mage's expected success total is 1. Which is enough for jack shit. It costs one success to affect anyone besides yourself with magic. If the roll gets 2 successes, that's 3 levels of damage, about what you'd expect from the sorcerer. If it rolls 3 successes, it will deliver 5 levels of damage, but that's only a 6 percent chance (by contrast, the sorcerer has a 9 percent chance to roll 5 or more successes on their 6 damage dice).

The main advantage the mage has is range (if the roll is successful enough to do damage, it can hit anyone they can see) and the fact that they don't have to roll to hit (unless either the player or the GM decides to follow the book's vague advice to require a targeting roll when it feels appropriate). But the rub here is that when the sorcerer rolls as improbably as the mage, they'll be able to do massive damage to an area of effect. The mage's peak is around the sorcerer's average.

At least until you bring extended rolls into it. That's where mages shine - when they have the luxury to make long charge ups with no intrinsic cap. Then it's just a matter of how willing you are to wager that your next roll won't be a botch.

Anyway, I guess the point of that diversion was this - for fuck's sake, Mage, let your mages do magic. If you're going to give them a dice pool small enough to yield one expected success, make the result of rolling one success into something interesting. That's the main advantage that the Sorcerer books have over core Mage. Interesting things happen at the expected success levels.

It's an approach that pays dividends in Sorcerer, revised's flavor sections as well. Once you take out the notion that magic is small and furtive and couched in coincidence, you're left with an actual fantasy setting. There's a group here, called the Order of the Golden Fly, who are descended from the priests of ancient Egypt and their whole deal is that they tracked down the angel who delivered the ten plagues to Pharaoh and mystically bound him as revenge (or so they thought, turns out the angel developed a taste for fucking shit up, and so let the Order believe they bound him, so that they might continue to fuck shit up). The Psychic Phenomena chapter begins each power description with a little vignette that not only illustrates the power, but spoon feeds you a plot for your low-powered occult procedural game. Also, the Star Council is just a straight upgrade to the Thal'hun.-They're on the run because they stole UFO technology from a top-secret government hangar - how are they not a full Tradition?

I guess what I'm saying is that this book is good. It's Mage freed from the need to be Mage, and as a result threads the needle between gritty street level and high-fantasy weirdness better than any of the cores ever did. . .

I think I might have some ambivalence towards Mage: the Ascension, guys. I'd better hurry up and work that out, because I've only got an edition and a half left to go.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going reverse my usual trope where I use the Ukss Contribution section to highlight a couple of cool setting elements before I ultimately select my second or third choice. This time, my pick for the contribution is going to be my genuine first choice, but I'm going to do an honorable mention before I get to it.

Sorcerer, revised includes an homage to the Amazing Randi! His name is Randy "the Fabulous" Foster and he too was a stage magician who went around exposing fraudulent psychics. But because this is the World of Darkness, he eventually found a real psychic who was being exploited by his parents. Now the two of them travel the country together doing stage magic and rescuing psychics in trouble. It's sweet, funny, and a great rpg plot hook.

Or, in other words, a perfect candidate for my "here's my first choice, but it doesn't fit with the cultural context of Ukss" shtick . . . except in this case it's my second choice.

First choice is the psychic power "Ectoplasmic Generation." Create goo with your mind. At higher levels, you can make the goo look like things. Moderately useful, but still the sort of booby-prize superpower that always makes me smile. I think it would also make a fun magic wand ("you open the chest to find . . . a magic wand! Roll perception to identify the slimy green liquid that's dripping from the tip.")

Thursday, May 28, 2020


"Just because it's pathetic doesn't mean it's not dangerous" is the book's tagline, and it's very . . . interesting to me what it considers  "pathetic." The Church of Astaroth's incoherent creed is almost exactly the same thing as what Divis Mal preaches.
It is the WILL TO POWER that hath made us GODS. "DO what thou WILT" is no longer our refrain. Rather, let us WILL what we DO and forthwith do greater and greater majesties than ever we had once considered possible.
 I ask for dragons and thunder and raging seraphim and I get petty, unkind, backstabbing children . . .When will you speak to the angels with me? When?! My gods feed me blood and mangoes, and I laugh, I weep, I dance. Your gods feed you Kool-Aid and white bread and you crawl, you buzz and you quarrel like fractious children. I am as godlike as any being on this planet, and I still cannot speak in a language you understand . . .
Tip: one of these people is a deluded megalomaniac who appropriates religious language in service to his violent fantasies, and the other is the setting's designated anti-villain.

I guess if you're White Wolf c. 2000 CE, maybe you've got some first-hand experience with intense "satanist" weirdo and so a villain group that comes out of the more awkward corners of the black-metal and renaissance fair scenes is familiar enough to breed a certain contempt. However, from the perspective of a stuffy book nerd, 20 years on, I can't actually say that their half-baked occultism is notably more half-baked than the Teragen's nova mysticism. And I don't need a snarky aside to make me frightened of a charismatic nihilist who stokes the passions of white-supremacist subcultures. Also, Astaroth's spiked penis is a detail I'd have been happier not knowing about.

I could probably just leave it at that, seeing as how this is another one of the 24-page pamphlet books (my last until I get so drunk on my own mission that I decide to drop 20 dollars for the remaining one), but I do have a couple of things to say:

It's very uncomfortable the way they try to portray Beltane as the most sinister of the Church of Astaroth novas. It almost sounds like they're blaming her for getting her parents arrested by calling social services . . . after they repeatedly beat her. I guess she's a masochist that enjoyed beatings (the last one was called "a particularly satisfying whipping" - ew) and that's why it was wrong to "[have] her parents convicted of child abuse." Let's make our succubus-inspired character a 17-year-old runaway. It's not creepy because she's "the true evil behind"

The background info where Belial is homophobically bullied because of his slim frame and delicate features was probably okay. That is definitely one of the ways toxic masculinity can hurt straight guys, but maybe the message is muddled a bit when you go on to conspicuously emphasize how much totally heterosexual sex he starts having once he escapes his abusive father and ignorant classmates.

Overall, this is actually a surprisingly good villain book. Little did they know when writing this that, in 2020, it was more likely to inspire a story where heroic satanists clean out the vipers in their own community than it was to be about laughing at the nerds who took the occult thing a little too seriously, but I remember those days well, and I can't entirely blame them for being touchy about it.

Ukss Contribution: This is a difficult one because the entire point of this book is to be deliberately uncool. That said, I liked that one of the faces of ultimate destruction was "the Black Cow, aaa'llagg'nhaa." Something about the end of the universe being brought about by an animal normally noted for its docility and associations with fertility really strikes me as an authentic spiritual detail, one of the apparent contradictions that drives religious mystery.

I'll have to do something about the name, though.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Aberrant: Elites

Elites is probably the most important Aberrant setting book since Year One. It, more than any of the books before, explores novas as superhumans, rather than superheroes. The term "elite" started off just meaning "mercenary," but this book expands it to mean "any nova with a paying job." While Elites is mostly about mercenaries, the other possibilities get some shout-outs - The Devries agency arranges contracts for a plastic surgeon and an engineer, the Argus Agency uses its founder's precognition to provide disaster relief right as it happens, the suggested PC-founded agencies include a PI office and an escort service ("hey guys, I've got a wild idea for our next campaign . . ."). All-in-all, Elites does a lot of unique Aberrant worldbuilding.

You just know there's going to be a "but," don't you? I'll let this remarkable early line set the stage for me: "[mercenaries] have a bad reputation, despite the fact that first world nations have used them."

. . .

That "despite" is doing a lot of heavy lifting there. But as ridiculous as this sentence is, it gets to the heart of the book's primary flaw - It is completely tone deaf on matters of imperialism. One example of an elite mission is when the President of Pakistan defaults on a 20 million dollar loan from a London bank and "this was probably the first time a private interest employed elites against a sitting head of state . . ." by kidnapping him and taking him to the UK "for trial."

Which is just . . . wow. I mean, there's something there. A theme we could explore. The cruelty and arrogance of these killers for hire. The most prominent elite agency is owned by a white South African and got its start working for the DeBeers corporation. In a modern game, they'd be almost cartoonishly evil, a perfect foil for Project Utopia and a force that makes even the Teragen seem good.

Unfortunately, Elites never quite twigs to the fact that it's supposed to be a villain book. That damned "despite" looms over everything. There's a section in the storytelling chapter that talks about novas committing war crimes. It's called "The Gray Areas." You know, the moral ambiguity of blowing up a water treatment plant relied upon by thousands of civilians because it would deal a blow to the rebels.

Or take the presentation of Anna Devries herself. She's a bona-fide Good Boss. She never sends her elites into combat without the best available intelligence and backup, she fosters an espirit de corps, pays generously, and "she's not blind enough to be prejudiced against black South Africans, like her father is." She even subcontracts all of her company's nova branding to a prominent gay stereotype (though in Elites' defense, it never says that Bruce Sauvage is supposed to be gay, just that he's "flamboyant" and that he plays "Ethel Merman and Judy Garland tunes . . . at full volume all day long.")

It would be wrong to say that this book goes so far as to present mercenaries in a heroic light, but "unfortunately, a large percentage of the world's wealth is found in politically unstable areas. Corporations need to go to great lengths to protect their valuable investments."

It never gets to the root of what's going on. Never expresses the true power dynamics at work here. For example, it quite correctly identifies Kashmir as a likely location for a serious international crisis, but it doesn't say anything about the water. It's not that "no amount of reason will deter them from their ancestral claims," it's also that the region is of immense strategic and economic importance. It's only a minor exaggeration to say that millions of lives are at stake, and that if superheroes really did turn the region into an "environmental wasteland," the result would be a humanitarian crisis of an absolutely stomach-churning scale.

But this gets us close to an uncomfortable discussion. How could Elites miss out on something so important? Partially, I blame lack of research. This is something I try not to get on my high horse about, because I still have access to some of my writing from this time period and it's about ten to twenty times worse, but there's little excuse for saying that signs on the Devries compound are posted in "English, French, Afrikaans, and local African languages."

That speaks to something more serious than just a little laziness. Sure, Namibia has a great deal of linguistic diversity, but there's nothing stopping you from adding Oshiwambo and Khoekoegowab to the list. Sadly, the book seems to quite thoughtlessly objectify the places where it says elites do their fighting.

I don't know how much of this is just a genre thing. You've got a military superhero story and the local people are scenery and props. You can just write in a plot about Islamabad being "leveled" and there's no need to think about the fact that it's a city of a million people (about half that in 2000) that has a healthy degree of hometown pride. New York in The Avengers was scarcely better treated.

And yet, in searching for the city's population, I discovered that a lot of Pakistanis are really invested in the idea that it's one of the most beautiful world capitals. Google Earth didn't give me quite enough information to make a definitive judgement, but fuck, I'm not about to set myself up as some kind of arbiter of comparative civic aesthetics. The parts of it I did see, however, were enough to convince me that if India really did dispatch a team of superheroes to set it on fire, the rage would be incalculable.

That brings us to the ultimate, imponderable question at the heart of this book - is it okay that it's talking about real places? I think there are layers here. Like, if Islamabad were destroyed because it was ground zero for an alien invasion, that's practically an honor. You've got comic book shit happening, and it has to happen somewhere, so why not the world's second most beautiful city?

But when you change the motive for the superpower-fueled carnage to "retaliation for a terrorist attack carried out by Muslim extremists" that starts hitting a little to close to home. Or worse, you could do what they did in the section on Congo and make the nova dictator cynically exploit anger at the Tutsi genocide to gain power, and then totally neglect the issue once he took office. That feels gross to me.

The logic is clear. Novas are pretty powerful. Many of them have mega-Intelligence or mega-Charisma. If one wanted to take over a country, they could probably do it. And if you're making the sort of game that Aberrant bills itself as, then this possibility should probably be realized somewhere. And if you're making it somewhere, you've got to balance between artistic license and a care for the real location's history.

All of this makes sense to me. But then I ask myself "why there." To be entirely fair to Aberrant, if you judge by their handling of American politics (a female libertarian president!), there is almost no degree of distortion anywhere else that's going to be worse. However, there's this nagging feeling I've got that they needed a place where novas could do mercenary shit, and the Equatorial Wars (and there's no telling you how much I dislike this name) were the result because Africa is somehow . . . expendable. If the main mercenary hotspot was southern France because the Prince of Monaco erupted and decided to use  his wealth and nova powers to reclaim the land his ancestor was forced to sell to France, that would require dramatic alt-history rewrites in places the audience actually knew about. On the other hand, nobody in America knows where the borders are supposed to be in Africa, and thus nobody thinks twice about people hiring superheroes to fight about them.

That's a cynical take, though. I think a larger part is that the year 2000 was a time when White Wolf was both edgy and pretentious, and so the thought of setting a story in a place with real conflict and horror in its past (or, in the case of Kashmir, near future) is one that appealed to the company's most puerile instincts.

Overall, I can't bring myself to like this book. I liked parts of it. I liked the basic concept. A supers setting where the supers hire themselves out to help dictators keep power (or to help suspiciously well-funded rebels to seize power . . . and quite coincidentally preserve American interests in the meantime) is a novel and compelling idea. It gives the conflicts with the starched-shirt heroes a more realistic texture. But to use real people, with real and ongoing problems, that feels like exploitation to me.

Ukss Contribution: Elites is not an evil book. Clueless to the point of irritation? Sure. Borderline offensive as a result? Quite plausibly. But it didn't hate its subjects, so I think there's plenty in here that can be redeemed.

I'll pick the tunnel borer. It melts rock to move through the ground with relative speed ("relative" being the operative word - it tops out at 0.6 km per hour) and is used primarily to sneakily undermine walls and bunkers. It also inexplicably has a crew, despite being in constant danger of overheating and needing a coolant-carrying umbilical cord to sty connected to the surface.

I'm seriously not sure why they couldn't just run a wire down the coolant tube and control the thing remotely, but I do like the idea of brave terranauts exploring the subterranean world. Maybe it could just be a part of how sieges are done in Ukss.

Monday, May 25, 2020

(M: As) Dragons of the East

When are rpg companies going to stop remaking Oriental Adventures?

. . . No, that's a little harsh. Dragons of the East is generally more respectful and carefully researched than that old D&D book. My mind just went there because they share the same fundamental flaw. In all the rest of the Mage: the Ascension books, they've been building a meticulous, if somewhat off-the-wall, urban fantasy setting, and then in this specific book, they more or less say, "fuck it, lets do fantasy Asia," and this new setting barely interacts with the World of Darkness at all.

I came away from the chapter on the Asian Technocracy totally confused. There's an organization, called The Five Elemental Dragons, which is kind of like the Technocracy, in that they prefer to use tools to do magic and they don't approve of the various supernatural factions, but with a couple of minor exceptions, they are a staid and conservative bunch who act out of traditionalism and a weirdly ahistorical pan-Asian nationalism (the branch headquartered in Korea has "a smaller enclave working in Japan to . . . 'restore Imperial Japan to the glory she once held'" . . . yikes).

So what you've got is this situation where the two organizations are similar enough to be largely redundant, but also distinct enough that they don't seamlessly blend, and there's not really a good explanation for why this needs to be the case. There's an outline of an explanation - local technomancers wanted to covertly resist European colonialism, so they partially acceded to the Technocracy's demands so that they might draw off some of the Union's resources while, in truth, being much less loyal to the Technocracy than they let on.

This is a potentially very useful plot hook, but it really should just be baked into the Technocracy from the start. Guide to the Technocracy introduced all sorts of factions and hidden agendas inside the organization, Project Invictus, Special Projects Division, etc. An anti-colonialist alliance or growing nationalist factions could have been among them. There's no real reason why you'd create parallel organizations, not unless you wanted to be able to totally cut off fantasy Asia from the rest of the World of Darkness.

It's a theme that repeats throughout the book. We've got 130 pages here and the only one of the familiar Traditions to appear on more than one of them is the Akashic Brotherhood. Well, technically, the Dreamspeakers are name-dropped in the Sons of Tengri section but only to indicate that there is no relationship between the two organizations. And the Verbena are trying to recruit the Wu Keng, but it's implied that they are being naive when they assume that the Wu Keng have fallen victim to the same sort of "demon worshipers" slander the Christians leveled towards them (and, incidentally, why this was not retconned to be the case is beyond me).

So technically, the Traditions have not been forgotten, but practically, they play no role in this book. Part of this is likely just a focus on the "new" (scare quotes because much of this book is redundant with the Akashic Brotherhood tradition book and The Book of Crafts), but mostly it's because despite itself, it can't quite get over the feeling that Asia is supposed to be "exotic" and "mysterious."

I mean, there's a sidebar that explicitly calls out Orientalism and everything. The word "problematic" is used. Someone at White Wolf knew there was a potential issue. And yet the introduction contains this doozy of a passage:
The Asian mind was entirely foreign - of course - to the European attitudes of the day. Considering that the "Westerners" who studied Asia could hardly comprehend what Asian society took for granted, how much more mysterious were the elements that hid under the surface where the common man of Asia could not see them?
Two points. First, when you're talking about vampires and shit, they're always mysterious. That's the whole damned point of having a masquerade. "The occult" literally means "mysterious." There's isn't some hidden layer of "occult for the occult" out there, where one group of supernaturals is secret and another is super-secret, such the first group is completely in the dark about them, even though the second group is constantly talking to each other.

Well, okay, obviously there can be such a distinction, and White Wolf makes it here, but it almost seems like they forget that Asia is just a place. You can get on a plane and go there. If you're determined and have the time (and start in Europe or Africa), you can even walk. And while I don't imagine it's easy to show up in a new town and find the one-in-a-million authentic traditional Chinese sorcerer, it's probably not notably more difficult than finding the Druid, the mad scientist, or the worker of Christian miracles.

Which brings me to my second point. Orientalism didn't happen because Asians are uniquely difficult to understand. They've been writing books explaining themselves for nearly 3000 years now. Orientalism happened because Europeans had certain institutional and cultural incentives to not understand Asia.

Which isn't to say that I'm going to sit here and tell you that I know all about Asian philosophy and culture, because damn, we're talking about dozens of nations spread out over thousands of years. It's a project that makes reading all the Mage: the Ascension books look trivial, and I've been half-assing that for almost six months now. What I am saying, though, is that there are a lot of philosophical systems that I don't understand. I tried to read the Roman Catholic Church's official theological justification for forbidding homosexuality and my brain just bounced right off it. I completely lacked the cultural context to even begin to understand it.

And even when you do have the cultural context, attempting to understand an entire culture in simple, concise terms is an act of monumental hubris. Exercise for the reader - explain the USA's attitude towards quarantine procedures.

In other words, everything's mysterious if you know jack shit.

Bringing it back to Dragons of the East - this book is much too small for its ostensible subject matter. But it compounds that sin by then compressing its subjects into one, overarching meta-civilization. The Akashic Brotherhood is as vague here as the Dreamspeakers in the 1e core. They're not Buddhists. They're not martial artists. They're sort of a "miscellaneous Asian" tradition, a big enough tent to include even the Qing Dynasty court wizards who tried to destroy Shaolin (wikipedia is cagey on the historicity of these events, but says it's a huge recurring plot in Chinese fiction . . . which jibes with my limited experience of Hong Kong action movies - to me, the plot reads a lot like the Celestial Chorus trying to join the Verbena to weather the onslaught of secularism because they're both European religions).

Ultimately, this should have just been about China, or perhaps broader East Asia. There's no excuse for including India, though blessedly it's largely forgotten about (and really should have been a supplement of its own . . . were White Wolf the sort of company that could do it justice), and Southeast Asia was completely wasted (the less said about the book's treatment of Vietnam and Cambodia, the better - some of it borders on "ghouls started the Holocaust" territory). Maybe, if the book had been more tightly focused, its characters could have been rooted in specific cultural legends, and the complex political interplay between the nations could have been explored in more depth.

It's funny, but that is another flaw Dragons of the East shares with Oriental Adventures. It applies the same haphazard "what's cool in pop culture" style of worldbuilding that led to the World of Darkness, without realizing that it comes across as extremely insensitive when you do it to another culture. Like, if we take a look at the original lineup of Traditions, setting aside those tied explicitly to non-European cultures (and putting a pin in the eventual retcons that would make the Euthanatos and the Cult of Ecstasy Indian), then what we see is just a mishmash of "people with cool powers" - wizards and witches, mad scientists and priests, necromancers and hippies. It ignores borders, it ignores time periods, it ignores themes. Merlin and Dr Frankenstein hook up with Timothy Leary to blow up computers.

It's cool, sure, but rightly or wrongly (probably rightly) people are going to assume you're ignorant as fuck. And this is where we reach the limits of my knowledge. I noticed some flaws, many of which we've already covered. And I can make certain inferences about sins of omission (like maybe there should be a form of Chinese peasant magic that isn't intensely transphobic), but I can guarantee you that the authors of this book have spent more time reading about Chinese history and culture than I have (I use "Chinese" rather than "Asian" because I'm pretty sure this book is just assuming that China is a universal base that connects all the region's cultures). I'm not sure the payoff was worth it, but the effort is clearly on the page . . .

I think. I'll confess to having this bias where I associate a lot of proper nouns and overuse of non-English words with hard work, and Dragons of the East certainly delivers in that regard. It honestly strikes me as little counter-productive at times. We don't really need to render the Wu Keng's titles in Cantonese (though the romanization was so bad here that it took me about 5 minutes on google to figure out that was even what language it was). They can just call each other "mother" and "auntie" and "girl." Rendering the terms in English would have been more authentic, because to the people using them, they'd be intelligible words. You only really need to use an untranslated word if you want to convey that it was esoteric in its original context. The Wu Lung's word for paradox, "ch'ung tu" might qualify, though I was unable to discover what it originally meant and so it adds basically nothing.

Also, why does this book debunk ninjas (not my smoothest transition, but whatever)? There's a whole sidebar saying that to the best of their research, they could find no reliable historical record of mysterious clans of assassins with mystical powers, to which I say, "no shit." You want to say that the original ninjas were just commoners who slipped into the blind spots of Japan's class system and the sensationalist legends were just the elites being in denial? Sure, but maybe follow up with a cool proletarian conspiracy that sought to oust vampires among the daimyos or something. Don't just shrug and move on.

Because this is the World of fucking Darkness we're talking about here. You have permission to make all of history's most implausible occult conspiracies real. In the real world, there are no magical assassins? Well, there weren't any classically-trained wizards whispering in the ears of Europe's princes either. And I hate to break it to you, but if you look into cases of faith healing, you'll find that it doesn't work, and the few times it seems to can be attributed to coincidence and the placebo effect. Didn't stop you from basing whole Traditions around those guys.

(The above rant was about 50% me wishing there were more East Asian magical Crafts and 50% me just really liking ninjas).

In the end, though, Dragons of the East shares one last ironic flaw with Oriental Adventures - it's actually pretty good. I mean, not necessarily from an "improving intercontinental harmony and understanding" sort of way, but it that "Asia of Darkness" is in some ways a better setting than the World of Darkness.

There's a mildly racist paragraph that sums it up:
Known collectively as shen (ed note: apparently this term is dumb and/or offensive, at least in this context), the supernatural creatures of Asia do not share their gweilo counterparts' unconstrained hostility for one another. The shen have learned over the centuries to exist in some rough approximation of peace. Outsiders might even make the assumption that Asia's various supernatural beings live in some sort of enlightened harmony. Perhaps, in comparison to the West's seemingly endless violent conflicts, this might even be considered true. But, in fact, the Middle Kingdom (ed note: meaning "Asia") is in a state of supernatural cold war.
I'm not even going to try and unpack the weird racial coding going on here ("why can't Europe have the famous amity that exists between China, Korea, and Japan"), but I do want to point out that this is a great pitch for an urban fantasy game. There are all sorts of monsters and creatures with various levels of divinity and profanity, and many of them dislike each other, but they're all loyal to the celestial bureaucracy, so when they do go to war, they have to be discreet about it. It's a gameable setting with plenty of potential for intrigue, action, and romance. It doesn't interact with the "western" world of darkness well at all, but it doesn't really need to. In fact, it would be about 20x better if it weren't for the occasional "white people drink blood like this, but Asians drink blood like this" comparisons and just stood on its own.

Ukss Contribution: This one is both easy and difficult. Easy, because there's only one place my mind goes when I think about cool things from this book - samurai werewolves. Such a neat visual, such a fun fantasy concept.

Now, the hard part. How do I make a wolf-man a samurai? I mean, specifically. I can give them swords. I can give them armor. I can give them a code of honor. But that can just as easily describe werewolf knights (admittedly, a cool concept, if a little beside the point). What makes the Samurai stand out?

And, of course, the answer is "their unique place in the context of Japanese culture." And, on a surface level (admittedly, this is almost 100% where I was operating from), there are certain physical trappings associated with them - styles of dress, weapons, and deportment that evoke comparisons to pop-culture Samurai I've seen in the past.

I have to ask myself, then, if that's a road I want to go down. If I just nab a superficial image, that might well cross the line from "fun little rpg homage" to "full blown cultural appropriation." I've made my peace that the latter is going to happen at least a little bit (I'm at this point fully committed to using the term "Yokai," for example), but I don't want to star deliberately leaning in to it.

And what I really don't want to do is that silly thing that rpgs do where they just lift a historical (esp nonwhite) nation wholesale and say "this is a fantasy land now." Plus, I think if Ukss did have a fantasy Japan, but populated entirely by wolf-people, that might send the wrong message.

It's with no small reluctance that I'm forced to admit this problem is beyond me. I think I'll have to go with my second choice . . . something from just a little bit down the page where they talk about commoner werewolves and describe them as "werewolf bandits and would-be peasant folk heroes." It wraps up by saying "a few have even become diehard supporters of communism."

I might try to sneak in a bit of knight-errant/ronin samurai into their presentation, but I think even without the adornment, they're a worthy second choice.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

(M: tAs) Blood Treachery

Blood Treachery is a weird book. Not the bad kind of weird, but also not the good kind of weird. It's the kind of weird where you think it might be better if it wasn't quite so weird, but you can't be entirely confident in your diagnosis.

Three of the book's chapters, the ones that describe the concrete events of the Tremere-Order of Hermes war, are written in the form of a stage play. The Oracles of the nine Spheres pop in and out of the action invisibly, to airily comment on the proceedings, like a Greek Chorus. There's not even the pretense of player characters getting involved in the situation.

I'm not sure what to make of it. The scenario it presents is interesting. If there was a tv show with a season arc of "ancient occult conspiracy declares war on long-lost prodigals who abandoned the ranks to become vampires," I'd probably be hooked. There are themes here, like mages becoming addicted to vampire blood, that make for excellent drama.

And yet, when you add roleplaying to the mix, it gets a little problematic. Take the blood addiction plot. The rules for this are absolutely brutal, just completely punitive and discouraging. No reasonable player would ever want to even touch vampire blood. After, at most 8-9 doses, your Avatar dies and you lose your magic forever. And if you've ever played Vampire, you know that 9 blood points goes really fast.

You can therefor be pretty confident that it's never going to come up in a PC group organically. The text anticipates this and instead of offering incentive (because that would be "power-gaming" and therefor bad), it sort of tries to goad you into it. Like maybe you're a bad roleplayer if you don't portray your character as tempted by ghoulish immortality, even though you're not going to be playing long enough for that to matter. And I'm sorry, but paying 25 xp for Auspex 1 is just a bad deal all around. Even to the extent that you don't get paradox from vampire abilities, it would be wiser to just tank the occasional 1-2 points of paradox than to waste that much xp on something that you're only going to have intermittent access to (you can only use vampire powers while you vampire blood in your system - vampire powers often cost blood points to use).

I think I've got to count the fiction-heavy approach as a weakness. I can see the case that maybe writing a play instead of an rpg scenario might be an effective way to center the psychological aspects of the adventure, and it's trivial to excise the never-before-seen low-level cabal and replace them seamlessly with PC. Ultimately, though, you simply can't recreate the story with the Mage: the Ascension rules.

It all boils down to dice pools. Mage magic rolls Arete. Vampiric Thaumaturgy rolls Willpower. Willpower both starts higher and costs 1/8th as many xp as Arete. Thaumaturgy paths cost half as much as Spheres. That's not even getting into other disciplines, which roll Attribute + Ability and are almost as cheap.

Mages can be dangerous, but that comes down to their ability to sit around their sanctums fiddling with extended rolls for hours on end. Give a mage a shotgun and a ridiculously pumped Dexterity score, and that's a threat, but the parts where the Hermetics and the Tremere are slugging it out with fireballs - that's not really a thing.

Which is a shame, because it really should be a thing.

Similarly, the prize of this war (despite certain rogues in the Order becoming addicted to vamp blood) is rotes. The Tremere have a bunch of old spell books they took with them when they defected from the Order in the middle ages. Because of the growing weakness of magic in the modern world, the Order of Hermes has decided that having access to those old formulas will help them strengthen their current magic.

Which is a fine plot. If the Tremere and the Order of Hermes were actually the sort of organizations they're portrayed as, I would be highly invested in this conflict. Unfortunately, rotes don't do a damned thing. Oh, okay, they give a one point difficulty bonus (actually, offset a penalty, same diff), which isn't nothing.

It's just, if we're talking about an Arete 3 mage attempting a coincidental Sphere 3 effect, the difference is 88% chance of success vs 80% chance of success. For low-level effects, you can just shrug it off. For high-level ones, you can just spend the extra point of Quintessence.  Not saying you shouldn't take a rote when one's available (and the rules for what qualifies as a rote, how you get them, and whether they apply are pretty much ":shrug: whatever"), but it's not worth sticking your hand in the mouth of an angry vampire for.

The result is an unimportant conflict that you kind of have to buy into by pretending it is important, despite what your character sheet might be telling you.

It really is a cool story, though.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Book of Whispers rote. It's the bitter irony of rotes that, despite being almost entirely pointless, they are also home to Mage's most creative fantasy inventions. A Book of Whispers has been enchanted to write down their owners thoughts. Bind one to yourself and use it as a convenient diary. Slip one into an enemy's library and learn their secrets. It's a cool sort of sneaky that has immense story potential.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

(M: tAs) Dead Magic

Dead Magic is a book about magical traditions that no longer have a place in the modern world . . .

I don't know. I guess it's just a thing with some of these less-focused Mage supplements where they inadvertently rediscover the game's premise. Here, it's even explicitly called out. When the book is talking about religious secret societies in southern Africa, it says they're "not unlike political parties mixed with a good dash of mysticism, like the Traditions."

What's the blogging equivalent of staring wordlessly into the camera? (It's a rhetorical question.)

It's an interesting thing, though, that as Mage: the Ascension accumulates research over the years, it becomes increasing clear how unmanageably vast its premise actually is. Very little in this book actually qualifies as "dead magic." The proper use of the material would more likely be to add texture to the Order of Hermes, the Verbena, the Celestial Chorus, and, yes, the Dreamspeakers (I am going to refrain going off on the "it's okay that the Dreamspeakers were conceived in racism because of our Watsonian retcon" line, but it does show up again). So much of Dead Magic reads like "we've been doing this for 7 years and we're just now learning what the Traditions actually are."

Like it's a surprise that western astrology owes a lot to ancient Babylonian astrology. That's kind of what it means when the Order of Hermes traces its mystical lineage back to the classical world. The sidebar points this out - literally, "Who called this stuff dead magic, again."

You did. That's why it's the title of the book.

In any event, that should be your takeaway from this post. The title of the book is bad.

But the book itself is pretty good. It gives plenty of new context to the practice of magic. It's not afraid to get specific about what mages were actually doing. And it adds a lot of new fantasy details to Mage's setting. There's a bit at the end of each chapter where they discuss each region's legendary monsters and mystical locations, and that should just be a standard part of the Traditions' presentation. Mages aren't just mages, they come with a whole cast of gods, spirits, monsters, and folk superstitions, and if belief determines reality, then all the other stuff should be true as well (for a certain fuzzy value of "true," at least).

My only real complaint about any of this material is that the sub-Saharan Africa and Arctic circle sections were narrated by a white anthropologist, and while he aligns himself politically against colonialism, he still brings a lot of colonial baggage to the way he interprets these cultures. It's a mistake to latch onto false cognates and coincidental correspondences to conflate legends from different societies. Cagn bringing his son back from the dead doesn't have anything to do with Caine the vampire and giant horned serpents are not the progenitors of dragons. Failing to treat them as their own distinct things means that we lose out on a lot the benefit of learning about another culture (and making the African thing a misunderstood or primitive version of the European thing is . . . not a good look). It's not so much that "many of their tales are simple," so much as that you, an outsider, are hearing the simplified versions of their tales.

But I don't want to be too harsh here, because its clear that their heart is the right place. Though while I'm complaining about colonialist tropes - there's probably a good way to navigate the fact that Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican religion centered around the cruel and authoritarian practice of human sacrifice even as the native people were brutally slaughtered, enslaved, and slandered by the invading Spanish, but calling them "nasty people" and leaving it at that is not it.

It's not as bad as it could be, because the narrator of that section counts himself among the nasty people and still practices the Aztec religion, so there's a kind of ironic "whatcha gonna do" element to it, but still, it's not handled with grace.

Enough of that, though. Let's talk about the magic. We're going to have to mentally separate out the flavor from the rules here, because when we consider only the magic, it's really, really good, but then you put it in the context of the Mage: the Ascension rules and you've got yet another case of "rotes: what's the fucking point?"

In the Babylon section, there's a rote called "Animal Shift." It's a fine spell, allowing a mage to transform into an animal sacred to the Babylonian gods. It's also strictly worse than just using Life 4. The text says "it's limited by the strictures of belief placed on its effectiveness." But if "the rote is not a common one; other shapeshifting powers tend to be more efficacious" then what's the fucking point? Seriously, what is the use case here?

It's a real problem for a book that is ostensibly about mages delving into the secrets of the past to discover forgotten magical techniques that will give them an edge in the modern day. But that is mechanically improbable. I mean, theoretically, there's this idealized form of Mage where the dots on your sheet say that you can do nearly anything you imagine, but your well-developed mental model of your character's belief system dramatically cuts down on the possibilities, and that's why you must seek out advanced training and ancient lore, so that your power expands along with your perspective. In practice, though, most of what you, the player, want to do lies in the inchoate potential of your character's beliefs, the limits of which are established by what you do in play.

I haven't the foggiest clue what Hermetic occultism thinks is or is not possible, so if I want to declare that an elaborate Enochian chant will allow me to turn into a rat, who is going to be the one to remind me that I have to first invoke the proper Babylonian god, and none of them thought particularly highly of rats?

(actually, I looked it up and the correct god in this case is Ninkilim . . . but the point stands).

It's a shame, because I really do love what this book does with magic. There are so many specific cultural details. Nigerian priests soothing restless spirits by disguising their voice via a wooden tube. Hunting geese by yelling at them so that they become confused and fall out of the sky. Plotting elaborate astrological charts and interpreting them through dense religious metaphors. That's what magic should be.  The fact that Mage recognizes this and sort of punts issue to the players' roleplaying choices is a prime indication that its universal magic system is showing its age.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of good stuff here. I want to tread carefully, because there's a lot of potential for offensive cultural appropriation. Like, maybe I choose Matshishkapeu, the Innu god of farts, but I have no intuitive sense for how much of a joke he's supposed to be. I looked him up online and what I gathered is that he is, indeed, funny, but also, somehow, sacred. On some level, I get it, but I don't consciously understand.

So I'm going to chicken out and go with the magic that gives obsidian the durability of steel. I've long thought of the macuahuitl as one of fantasy's underutilized weapons, and this particular magic will make them much more competitive with swords.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Aberrant: The Directive

This book is really starting to task me. It's got one really obvious angle of approach, but I don't want to be the guy who reflexively judges all these wacky fantasy books by the standards of his own real-world politics.

Because, hoo-boy, if I did, I would not like The Directive one bit. Take the methods a modern national security apparatus, have their attitudes reflect the paranoid nationalist style of realpolitik, and make them prepare for the coming race war, and that's pretty much the Directive.

But what they also (and, arguably primarily) are is the cool organization of mundanes who combats rogue superhumans with the powers of superior organization, tactics, and professionalism. They really need not be anything more than secret agents who use neat gadgets to fight monsters.

Aberrant, though, liked to try and have it both ways. So the Directive is both the repository for comics-inspired superspy tropes and fills a dour geopolitical niche in their complex worldbuilding. With the advent of Project Utopia's profligate do-gooding, someone has to make sure the traditional nation-state isn't sidelined. It might as well be this group of implausibly well-trained and well-funded espionage specialists.

But heaven help me, I'm positively conditioned to read the guy who says "I must protect America" and then follows it up with "niceties of legal restrictions and constitutional constructs stand in our way rather than help us" as a straight-up villain. The thing they're suggesting - an unaccountable, omnipresent police force with unlimited surveillance powers - is positively unconscionable,  and that's before they start in with the "[we] hope to someday purge our ranks of all these aberrant, potentially dangerous beings" business.

(Also, I could barely endure the irony of the Directive operative describing Project Utopia as "Orwellian." I'm sure it was intentional.)

The most unnerving thing about the Directive is that its attitudes are distressingly plausible, even if its primary conceit - that post-cold-war, Russia and the US will put aside at least some of their differences for the sake of intelligence sharing and cooperative law enforcement - is decades obsolete.

So what am I saying, exactly? I guess that it's that by tying it so closely to narrow national interests, the Directive somehow makes "we are humanity's shadow guardians, standing fast against the dark gods" sound . . . petty.

"We continue to give better than we get. Nova approval ratings in all four charter countries are at an all time low, according to our polls."

Sigh. How is that a victory for you? This isn't a zero-sum game, people. You can't advance yourself by tearing down a minority group . . . though if you said that to any of the current real-world administrations of the Directive founders, maybe they wouldn't quite believe you.

So, all-in-all, The Directive is pretty successful as an antagonist faction. If you're playing a nova literally anywhere on the ideological spectrum aside from "novas are dangerous, I'd better join the military to stop people like me" then sooner or later they are going to try and thwart you. There are interesting themes at work - a conflict between new power and old, and a reminder that just because you've got superpowers doesn't mean you don't need to fear the little people.

However, when you talk about the Directive as protagonists, I kind of feel like you only make that move when you're starting to become jaded with Aberrant. Because their whole thing is basically "superpowers make us feel inadequate." They're an organization in the game that self-consciously rejects the premise of the game. They employ novas, but only those who "can be tamed," i.e. those without a flashy power profile. There's even a list of acceptable choices in a sidebar. A Directive nova can have Armor "only so long as it does not render the Agent less human in appearance."

Playing the underdogs in a superhero setting does have a certain appeal, but there is a sense here, very nearly explicit in the Storytelling chapter, that it is something you do when playing powerful characters begins to bore you. ("Some players may find it great fun to go on a rampage, Quantum bolting any opposition into submission from high overhead . . . If they find such destructive expressions of their 'characters' personalities a good time and a worthwhile roleplaying experience, watch what happens when an Alpha Division blue-and-white team . . .")

Honestly, I think if you're really going to make the Directive work as a player faction, you're probably going to have to dial back their general anti-nova attitude and focus them more on superpowered law enforcement. Leave the "advancing the political goals of the member nations" in the realm of obnoxious NPC bureaucrats who want to manipulate the mission and are as much an obstacle as the rogue novas.

Or, you know, just play a grim and cynical take on the superhero setting. If that's the sort of thing you're into, of course.

Anyway, one last bit of business - metaplot alert. Aberrant: The Directive is set post-2010 in the Aberrant timeline, which means that the Worldwide adventures have already happened. The book specifically mentions Divis Mal's infamous fight with Caestus Pax and President Randall Portman (the Firefighter from the cover of the core). The wiki says this book was published two months before Worldwide: Phase I, which means either the wiki is wrong or the books were written concurrently and this one was deliberately future-proofed.

It's probably best if I just wait until the requisite books to talk about these events, I just thought it was interesting that they showed up here. I've gotten used to the Onyx Path books being timeless.

Ukss Contribution: There's some interesting espionage tech here, though I think in general it's more conservatively imagined than it needed to be. So I'll go with the most over-the-top bit there was - Klot, a fast-setting foam that you can use to restrain mega-strong novas. It doesn't go into detail about how this can possibly work without crushing the captives to death under immense pressure, but there is talk of flooding whole rooms with the stuff as a security measure, so I'm just going to chalk it up to a bit of cool comic-book imagery that I don't need to think too hard about.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Aberrant: Fear and Loathing

I failed to resist the temptation to go back and read Hunter S Thompson's article about the Kentucky Dirby. This post was originally going to start the other way - "I decided against going back and reading Hunter S Thompson . . ." but as I was writing, I thought "wait, is that even available on the internet?"

Turns out it is, though I misremembered the title. I thought it was "Fear and Loathing at the Kentucky Derby," but it turns out that was just a confabulation on my part. He used the phrase in two of his titles and it somehow got indelibly linked to his writing in general (hence the title of this very Aberrant book, which I swear to you I haven't forgotten about). Luckily, google knew what I was talking about.

My original plan was to avoid reading any Thompson, because I felt like any comparison to Duke Rollo, the Aberrant universe's Hunter S Thompson homage, would not be fair to the book. And I was right. There is absolutely no comparison between Justin Achilli's impression and the genuine article. I'd read one line of "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved" and I was instantly hooked. Fifteen pages about a 50 (good, god!)-year old horse race gripped me harder than 24 about superheroes.

Like I said, not fair. But to Mr Achilli's credit, Duke Rollo's voice does sound a lot like what you remember Hunter S Thompson sounding like. It's a caricature, but it's an apt caricature. The result is about 95% fun to read and about 5% "that simile is grossly inappropriate and you should be ashamed of yourself."

Where Aberrant: Fear and Loathing stumbles is in grasping the point of gonzo journalism. Hunter S Thompson made himself part of the story and had a habit of fixating on the grotesque, but the result was to bring an immediacy to the writing and to highlight the corruption and surreality of things we take for granted. It's a style that's wasted on superheroes. Cestus Pax may be an asshole, but none of us are in the sort of self-satisfied dream world of complacency that lets us forget that he's weird.

In the end, this book is occasionally amusing and intermittently useful for getting a ground's-eye view of the Aberrant universe, but I question the utility of the Duke Rollo character. Is there really much point in being a curmudgeon about something you invented?

Ukss Contribution: There was one line in this book that I thought was a genuinely sublime piece of writing. It describes Ibiza as a "land where all languages are spoken, but none are understood."

That, more than cities "opening their legs like a whore," captures the sort of degenerate mayhem that is at the heart of great gonzo. It's not something I can use, per se, but I did like the runner, later on, that compared Ibiza to an island of demons, a "Hell in the Mediterranean."

I may just take that a little more literally than it was intended, because Ukss has demons, but not taint-maddened novas, but when I make my version of the lawless demon party island, I'll be sure to remember to steal the book's best line.

(M: tAS) The Bitter Road

The Bitter Road has the distinction of being both a keystone book for Mage Revised and also kind of useless. If I were to sum it up, I'd say that its central message is "yes, we smashed the setting via metaplot, now here's how you can cope."

I wouldn't say it was bad. It's actually a pretty fascinating read. It's just a lot more specific than it seems to think it is. My proposed alternate title would be "Tales of Magic: Suburban Gothic." There's a character in this book who complains that his job at a high profile architectural firm is unsatisfying, and that's so emblematic of the book's prejudices and priorities. This guy has a job that in real life you pretty much have to be a mage to get, and he hates it because it's tv-sitcom shorthand for "vaguely creative man who makes compromises with capitalism." Hey, Ozymandius Cody, when your college classmates nicknamed you "Rourke" it wasn't a compliment.

But it does highlight my own awkward position in our generational reckoning. I'm Gen X enough to remember reading this book in its original context and thinking it was pretty cool, but Millennial enough to scream, "what the hell is wrong with you, I'd kill for professional work in my chosen field." Revised is kind of like that sometimes, a snapshot of the six months where we all thought the 90s were going to last forever. I don't know whether to count that as a weakness or a strength.

The Bitter Road's has two agendas that often work at cross purposes from each other. The first is an attempt to scale back the focus on the Ascension War and talk about games that deal with the problem of navigating the mundane world. That's where the book is at its most achingly 90s. When it discusses lifestyles that might serve as the anchor for a mage campaign, the examples are: college student/professor, world traveler, business mogul, and medicine.

There's nothing wrong with any of those things. The out-of-character sidebars make some fairly persuasive arguments for these campaign models. It's just that they're all so middle-class aspirational. The business section even suggests basing a game around the PCs founding a start-up. That's one that didn't age well even between the writing and the publication.

That misstep aside, half the book is like that, telling you with varying degrees of defensiveness that there's more to playing a mage than just magic.

The other thing the book is trying to do is chart the fallout from "The Year of the Reckoning." The spirit world is inaccessible, the Masters are either dead or missing, and former middle managers of the Traditions, characters with a Sphere rating of 3, have to step up and fill the power vacuum.

It's a good idea for a campaign, but it's so intimately tied to a particular time and place and cultural body of knowledge. Theoretically, you could run a Bitter Road-style game with starting core book characters, so it's got a certain accessibility to it, but if someone was just getting into the game with the Revised core, would this even be something that interests them? It's a high concept that leans heavily on established metaplot, but it's also the edition's first full-sized supplement. Was The Bitter Road intended for existing White Wolf fans, to help them manage their expectations as they transitioned into a new edition?

It's a shame, because there's some solid stuff here. One of the consequences of the "death of the Masters" is that mages now have to deal with their abandoned projects, "cursed Wonders, berserk automatons, wards and time-space anomalies." That's something that you could build a setting off of - magic is dying, but it doesn't always die gracefully. It's a problem that only mages are qualified to deal with, and one that's sure to get them tangled up in interesting fantasy dilemmas. That's why you probably shouldn't tie it to a particular cosmic event. If that were just part of the background of mage life, ancient enchantments with unpredictable rates of decay, it would both have greater longevity and do more to really hit the themes of loss and alienation that the book is trying to go for.

Same with the section about finding a Master to mentor you in the advanced magical arts. Good general storytelling advice, but tied inexplicably to a specific set of conditions.

Ultimately, if I had one criticism of Mage Revised so far it's that it needs to step up its fantasy elements. The Bitter Road spends a lot of time talking about the problems facing modern mages, but it mostly boils down to "other mages." It makes the factions of the Ascension war feel a lot like rival gangs. There are immensely consequential feuds, but only if you get involved in the subculture.

That impression was probably not accidental, though. There's a sense of weariness with the Ascension War that runs through The Bitter Road. It feels on one hand that it's merely a greater focus on a more psychological style of storytelling, but on the other I kind of pick up on an implicit mission statement - Revised is going to be a low-key gothic punk game of occult horror even if it has to war with two editions of Mage: the Ascension legacy to do it. As the book itself says, "the Ascension War gives way to the Age of the Individual."

The Bitter Road is a book that pulls in a lot of directions at once, and that can seem like a weakness, but I actually admire its ambition. Because I don't think its contradictions are necessarily a sign of inconsistency so much as a desire to make its theme one of tension. It's ostensibly "Disciples of the Art," companion volume to the late 2e's Initiates . . . and Masters . . . and what it's about is people caught in the middle. Between temporal power and spiritual enlightenment, between leadership and duty, between the magical and the mundane. It's supposed to be the, um, bitter road - a high-wire walk where the slightest misstep will send you tumbling into oblivion.

I can't say that it's entirely successful. Sometimes its competing impulses just click and it feels like it's going to pull it off, but most of the time it just feels like a grab-bag of overly narrow setting material.

And with that said, I realize I got most of the way through a post and barely used my notes.

At one point, one of the narrators says, "The Technocracy is necessary . . . [it] serves a purpose, a noble one . . . they're not the evil empire we've been led to believe." And that's a whole post just by itself, and then an internet argument afterwards.

Or later, "[The Progenitors] consider 'degenerate homeopathy' a threat to health" from a different narrator. That's a whole other fevered post and subsequent flame war.

Or perhaps we can talk about the Sons of Ether, who help Sleepers "realize the lie of 'hard facts'" and the Virtual Adepts who "instill the seeds of conspiracy into the minds of the public." The book said it best, " use the Net more to stir shit than anything else." Quit inadvertently predicting 2020, guys!

Which is my way of saying, that for all its controversial decisions about the direction of the game-line, The Bitter Road is in many ways the platonic Mage: the Ascension book. Nearly everything there is to love or hate about this game is in here somewhere.

Ukss Contribution: The section about mages in the business world is narrated by this Verbena lady who really puts on a classic "overcompensate finance-bro" attitude (and I could write a whole post on that - "I hear that woman Lee Ann spends some time volunteering in a soup kitchen. Well I contributed over six hundred thousand dollars to various charities last year through my business, and I still have time to promote Tradition idealism through business advertising and financial choices.")

I'm not really interested in Ms Maria, per se, but she is involved in a concept that interests me - the relationship between capitalism and magic. Ukss has a continent that's heavily tied up with capitalist themes, so I think I'm going to have to pick something from this section. I'm going to go with "Euthanatoi make excellent stockbrokers."

Because Mage puts both death magic and chaos magic in the Entropy Sphere, we aren't necessarily meant to read this as the Euthanatos being good with stocks because of their necromancy, but I'm going to be excessively literal. In Ukss necromancers are going to be the quants of the Lowlands stock market. Everybody uses them, but nobody likes to talk about them.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

(Aeon) Distant Worlds

OMG, I love this book! It was just pure fun from cover to cover. It's got that special Aeon (nee Trinity) mix - two parts soft sci-fi nonsense mixed with one part superhero nonsense, blending together to form a heightened space opera reality. It couldn't appeal to me more if it were designed for me personally.

The original Trinity was probably White Wolf's most daring game, and the second edition is a fitting follow-up, introducing new elements that fit seamlessly into the established setting. The interesting thing to me, though, is how some of the old stuff get reinterpreted through the new edition's less cynical attitude. For example, there's a Norça research facility on Averiguas and the book took special pains to remind us that it's "adhering to strict ethical and safety practices." I'm pretty sure that 1st edition wouldn't have bothered (I actually went back and checked - it mentions "[no] human or psion test subjects" which is hardly the same thing).

This repeats often enough to be a noticeable pattern - hierarchies are flatter, the novas of Eden teleported a would-be cult leader into the sun, the criminal gang in the Karoo mining colony is a little less vicious (and also called "The Tigers" instead of "The Leopards" for some reason). I'd say that the softening of the setting is overall an improvement. It definitely feels like it's fulfilling the original game's promise of a diverse, tolerant future.

I also appreciated the book's consistent approach to non-humanoid aliens. I'm not sure nine-legged creatures would ever evolve into megafauna, but at least it's taking the idea of alien evolutionary processes seriously. There are probably at least one too many communal organisms, given that the myriasoma from first edition still exist, but I do admit that the pelagic megamedusoza are suitably spooky and the pre-sapient puppeteers are an intriguing problem waiting to happen. I guess, with the existence of psychic powers in the Trinity Continuum, "colony of creatures that coordinates through the psychic medium" is just a common ecological niche.

Still, it's not all human beings making friends with prophetic crabs and telepathic slugs. The game's traditional villains are still here, despite the more optimistic tone. The Chromatics are treated so sympathetically that they had to have new antagonists invented for them (the darkness-loving cousin species known as Howlers who can only think coherently after they've eaten Chromatic flesh), but the Doyen are still as shitty as ever. We see a couple more planets they've royally screwed over. And, of course, there are still monstrous Aberrants, though the context feels different when we see them mixed in with novas who are trying to be helpful (whether successfully, as those in Eden or with gross, possibly taint-driven incompetence like those on Marfisa or Scream). The new top-tier Aberrant is a great horror antagonist, though - a glowing octopus creature where if you look at him (even through video) the language centers of your brain rot away and you're struck with permanent aphasia. Project Rewrite really justified its existence when they destroyed all the tapes of this guy, that's for sure.

But you know what, this post could be nothing but me quoting things I liked and it would be almost as long as Distant Worlds itself. So let's talk about theme. Distant Worlds corrects a subtle flaw in the original Trinity. It's something I brought up in my post about 1st edition's Stellar Frontier - there used to be a feeling of finitude in the Trinity Universe. Finding planets was difficult, so there were six of them out there and there would probably be more eventually, but the scope was pretty well set. You could read 2nd edition the same way, but 18 planets feels qualitatively different. There's much less of a feeling that I could keep them all in my head at once.

Beyond that, though, there was also a shift in how the planets are talked about. First edition, the planets they gave you had been discovered. Second edition, at least half of them are being discovered. The intro to the second chapter even gets explicit about it - the new planets are meant to be ones that the PCs are first to discover, at least potentially. It's a little less than convincing when the robo-apocalyse world has resident researchers and the psychic crab world has an embassy, but the message is clear. Space exploration is an intended mode of play. (This was technically true in 1st edition as well, but between the disappearance of the teleporters, the near uniqueness of jump ships, and the lack of explicit support, it all seemed very theoretical).

The other great thing about Distant Worlds' setting additions is a sci-fi theme that is much more fashionable now than it was in 1997 - deep time. A lot of the setting's mysteries have answers that go back thousands or millions of years. The main antagonists are themselves an elder species who transcended their physical forms 4 million years ago. I love it. It really gives a galaxy that lived-in feel. It also means that on those rare occasions you stumble across a recent event (the planet with the murder bots went to shit only one year before humans arrived!), it has a stunning sense of urgency.

My only real disappointment with Distant Worlds is how it once again fails to explain why Brazil gets to claim a whole planet. But at least, this time, it feels like a much smaller portion of the universe.

Ukss Contribution: Oh, so much good stuff here. I could probably do an Ukss contribution from every individual world. I'm going to stay pretty modest though. Mgitu, the gas giant, has an improbable native ecology, including airwhales. They're a bit more sci-fi than Mongo's air whales, but I took it as a sign. I'm going to enrich the life of Aetheria by picking another aerial species - the beanstalk. It's a plant that grows in a cloud, and then extends roots down to other, more nutritious clouds miles below. Just a neat fairy tale image in the middle of our sci-fi, why not.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Mage Storyteller's Companion

The big question of this book is "exactly how much of it should have gone directly into the core?" At least two of the four chapters, certainly. You've got a group of people in the setting that mostly deal with spirits? They're going to need the spirit rules to do that. You've got a magic item background? People are going to want to know the benchmarks for using it (plus, you know, it's a little weird that this game about mages doesn't cover magical crafting by default.) When I look and see that the relevant sections are 26 pages total, I have to wonder - was Mage, Revised really so tightly packed, and if so, was it somehow impossible to add another chapter?

That's one of those economic and publishing industry questions that likely has a complex technical answer that is nonetheless completely unsatisfying.

The other half of the book is expanded setting information that's nice to have, would have improved the core were it included, but is fairly safely removable without noticeably hurting the core-only experience. It starts with a chapter about the history of the Awakened that mostly sums up the metaplot so far. It doesn't explain all the old canon (how the hell could it), but more or less gets you up to speed, assuming you don't care about all the weird legacy stuff that lurked in 2e's corners. The neater and tidier approach is, however, satisfying in its own way, allowing for a more distilled Mage experience.

The only really interesting thing is that canon is still playing it coy about whether Copernicus actually moved the entire Earth with the heliocentric theory. "It remains a hotly debated axis of metaphysical study." I like this particular bit of worldbuilding because it's so weird and so unnecessary, but it also sort of defines Mage by indicating that almost anything about reality is up for grabs.

We also see the Technocracy at its most realistically villainous in the second chapter. It's a recap and update of the Crafts from Book of Crafts, and since most of them are based off of non-European cultures, almost all of them have some version of "The Technocracy killed our members under the guise of European colonialism coming in and taking over our lands." It's not necessarily the most grotesquely brutal the Technocracy's been so far, but it is a repeated reminder that these guys are coming in and murdering people for what amounts to some pretty flimsy motives.

The ultimate (as in "last," but also the most affecting) example comes in the Wonders section, where it describes an item made by hippy mage, Poppy Jenkins. She had a magical string of love beads and it just blandly states that the beads were scattered when the Technocracy killed her. Just a callous little detail. They murdered her and they didn't even care about her prized possession. It feels real to me, in a way that the sci-fi horror rarely did.

But moving away from the villains of the Crafts chapter, I have to say that this is yet another case of White Wolf attempting to do through metaplot something they should have done with a retcon. In Revised edition, the Crafts are on the ropes. They're either hunted to near extinction or they've taken shelter with one of the larger Traditions.

The motives for this are completely transparent - a desire to change the fundamental design philosophy behind the Traditions. They are no longer vague rpg-class archetypes, but actually coalitions of specific cultural beliefs about the supernatural that happen to work well enough together to be a political bloc. I,e. Traditions are now supposed to be associations of Crafts. So you can't exactly have the old Crafts just floating around out there being all miscellaneous and out-traditioning the Traditions. Since Traditions are now supposed to be marriages of convenience, you can now just slot the Crafts into the most convenient Traditions.

It would have worked if the setting had been designed from the ground up with that in mind, but to make it a metaplot event is just weird. The Wu Lung are part of the Akashic Brotherhood now? Despite the fact that they are quite famously and emblematically enemies? Kind of sounds like you want a generic East Asian Tradition. With a bit more thought and the freedom to act, they could have been slotted into a more compatible Tradition from the very start.

Still, it was nice to see the old gang again, even if they're in much reduced circumstances. It's probably not a coincidence, though, that the best part of the chapter is the newcomers, the Taftani. I'm not going to go too much into them, because they get half a book later, but they're pagan Arabic fairy tale sorcerers who bind genies and give approximately zero shits about keeping a low profile, and they would be Mage: the Ascension's greatest invention were it not for the fact that the books like to pretend the World of Darkness keeps looking vaguely like Earth.

In the end, though, what I most wish had made it from the Storyteller's Companion to the Core is the clearer expression of Mage's fantasy genre. You can meet an abominable snowman. There's a goddess walking the Earth who was shattered into eight avatars and they're sending their minions to create identical temples so that her divided senses can feel whole. There are mysterious magical heirlooms and a healing wand that's powered by the imprisoned soul of a demon. I'm on the record as liking (maybe even preferring) Revised's more grounded tone, but it absolutely needs some of that fantasy whimsy to make it Mage.

Ukss Contribution:I'm going to have to go with poor Poppy's love beads. When you pick one up, fate conspires to have another fall into the hands of your true love. Then, as the beads call to each other, you two will meet and instantly have something to talk about. A dead hippy matchmaking from beyond the grave, using good vibes to reassemble her signature magical wonder. It's pretty cool.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Mage: the Ascension, Revised Core

I absolutely love this book, though I'm forced to admit that this feeling is probably not based entirely on its merits. It is, in many ways, a flawed book. Some of that is old Storyteller system crumminess that I was too mathematically naive to pick up on (for example, if you use the rules suggested for "simplifying stealth," it is nearly impossible for the stealthy character to be detected). Some of it is omissions that border on the unforgivable - no spirits stats whatsoever, sparse information on the Technocracy, and no example wonders or devices.

This was something I noticed way back when. The book would drop casual mentions of Tradition mages having to dodge HIT Marks, but then nowhere did it provide stats or descriptions of said devices. I gathered from context that they were some kind of robot, but it wasn't until I read some of the supplements that I learned they were supposed to blend in with humanity, like the Terminator.

Even so, the Revised core's flaws don't detract from the warm glow I get just handling this book. This was my first Mage book, my first World of Darkness book, and quite possibly my first non-D&D book, period. It opened up my imagination in ways that I never expected. And there are just hours and hours of happy memories associated with this specific physical object (unlike Aberrant, I never had to replace my Mage core due to having a soda spilled on it). It was a joy to be able to read it again.

So I know that I'm not going to be able to be complete objective here. However, with that grain of salt in mind, I actually do think the Revised Core has a lot going for it. Due to the aforementioned oversights, it's not as good a core qua core as 2nd edition, but it's got a more confident voice. The world is portrayed with more conviction, and the various Traditions feel like fuller, more complex organizations than they have in the past.

The trickiest part of judging Mage Revised, however, is that the core is also a soft reboot of the setting, and . . . Look, new Mage is good, but it's not the same. Personally, if you came to me and first described Mage, Revised and then described Mage, 2nd edition, well, I'd probably be in awe that you could describe Mage, 2nd edition, but after I got over my shock, I'd agree that Revised sounded more like a World of Darkness game.

What Revised is trying to do is to dial in on a purer strain of gothic-punk fantasy. Magic is dying, and it's taking the world with it. You're small and alone, but you're also keeping the faith. A mage is a candle in the dark, seemingly helpless against the forces that would snuff it out. And yet even that is better than ignorance. The Sleepers face all the same dangers, but without the defense of knowing what's really going on. You get to choose whether you want to help them.

It's a good premise for a game. And there are aspects of the Revised system that are effective at selling it. The addition of Resonance mechanics is my favorite bit. Mages now have a magical aura that surrounds them at all times. At low levels, it's detectable only by the specially sensitive, but as time goes on, it becomes overpowering. The fiction indicates that Sleepers can pick up on Resonance subconsciously. As a mage gets drawn into the Awakened world, their relationships start to suffer. They become alienated from friends and loved ones who sense their strangeness and begin to pull away, from self-preservation, if nothing else. There's no mechanic associated with this, but it's a recurring theme.

I really like Revised Mage's new claustrophobic feel. There's a magic world. It contains wonders, but it's weird. It exists alongside the mundane world, on unlabled streets and in the creaky old houses all the schoolchildren fear. If you had the eyes to see it, it would be everywhere, but only very weird people have those sorts of eyes.

In fact, it's such a good niche that it feels almost churlish of me to point out that both Unknown Armies and Changeling: the Lost fill it better. Which isn't to say either of those games is a replacement for Mage, Revised, but just that "desperate times in the occult underground" isn't Mage's only interest. It also still really wants to be the "world tour of occultism" game, and sometimes those impulses dovetail nicely and sometimes they work at cross purposes.

I think White Wolf did Mage, Revised a great disservice by placing it in the older Mages' continuity. Crossing into the spirit world is dangerous, even deadly. The old masters are all dead or vanished. These are ideas that fit right into a melancholy world of dying magic, where the players are the last embers of an extinguished flame. But to make those fit with the old Mage, they blew up the spirit world and they killed off the masters. People cared about those things. They're going to miss them now that they're gone, maybe even feel a little betrayed that the stories they've been telling are no longer supported.

Plus, it's inelegant worldbuilding. Not necessarily unrealistic - big sudden events that shake up the status quo do happen, especially at the beginning of stories - but one that puts too much emphasis on concrete cause and effect. The world is broken, but it didn't break overnight . . . the Technocracy's Code Ragnarok notwithstanding.

The biggest flaw with Mage, Revised (aside from the magic system, which I'm going to have to go into detail about sooner or later) is that its central conflict didn't age well, at all. Like, I'm talking about 18 months after release it's going to feel like it was written in an entirely different universe.

See, Mage Revised contends that the Ascension War is pointless. It's called, at one point, a "deluded attempt to remake the world in their image." The Traditions lost thanks to the Technocracy's strength of arms, but then the Technocracy lost when it turned out that Sleepers were too apathetic to embrace their sci-fi Utopia. It's an idea that sort of works, thematically, with the rest of the game, but is also weirdly elitist and weirdly sheltered, a kind of naiveté that masks itself as cynicism (i.e. peak White Wolf). Ultimately, it feels a lot like someone really bought into those 90s "end of history" and "the parties are both the same" narratives.

That's why it's been my opinion for awhile that Mage: the Ascension couldn't really adapt to a post-9/11 world.  Revised pictured a world in stasis, where the experts were firmly in control . . . and that obviously didn't work out, but even from the beginning, Mage has drawn the wrong battle-lines. You want to talk about the national security apparatus? You want to talk about the highest levels of capitalism? Okay, we can talk about how they're authoritarian institutions that strive to embed hierarchies into every aspect of human life, but what we can't say is that their defining traits are "reason" or "science." The closest they ever get is a sort of tunnel vision efficiency at optimizing their quantifiable short-term goals (procurement budgets and shareholder value, respectively), and even those are frequently undermined by a devotion to "conventional wisdom," that seems to have come from nowhere in particular. Even order is a secondary concern to "never admitting a mistake."

But at the same time, it would be a mistake to thoughtlessly attribute all opposition to these forces to a desire for tolerance, diversity, and individual freedom. Sometimes a reactionary is just a reactionary, and while in some sense you might declare that Al Qaeda and the Bush Administration had the same goal, it would be ludicrous (not to mention at least three kinds of offensive) to theorize that they were controlled by the same conspiracy.

But Mage can't let go of conspiracies. They're baked right into the game at a fundamental level. It also can't let go of the idea of civilizational conflict. That's kind of central to the whole "Ascension War" concept. Revised tried. It inherited a premise of "the West is under attack by a coalition of ancient superstitions - as it deserves to be" and tried to segue that into "the West won the clash of civilizations - and that's bad," but it never quite roots out the false dichotomy.

There are no "sides." There are no conspiracies. There's just the simple truth that power has a million ugly ways of expressing itself. Sometimes your neighbors are the worst of your oppressors.

Although that's a bit headier a level of conversation than we really need to be having. Point is that Mage: the Ascension, Revised was a period piece almost as soon as it was written. If you want old-school paranoia in a magic-noir universe, then it's frickin' great, but it's something that needs to be treated a lot less seriously than it takes itself.

Ukss Contribution: I kind of like Avatars. Their presentation here is not the strongest. "The shard of Prime that allows the use of magic is the birthright of a very select few." But the implication that they are distributed randomly and are not related to one's degree of spiritual attainment is not necessarily one that will endure. If you boil them down to their most basic concept "reincarnating personal godform that goads its chosen towards enlightenment" is a pretty interesting idea for a religion.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Aberrant: XWF

This is another one of those incidental pamphlets, only 24 pages long, so I'm going to try and make this short. Aberrant: XWF is a supplement about professional wrestling in the Aberrant universe. It borrows a lot from real-world professional wrestling (so much so that Ric Flair is league CEO, though sadly, he doesn't get stats), and, well . . .

Professional wrestling is kind of ridiculous . . . so this is kind of ridiculous. But also, professional wrestling is kind of awesome . . . so this is kind of awesome. It does that thing where it uses a lot of the wrestling lingo like "work," "shoot," "heel," etc and I'm guessing that for the year 2000, it felt really clued-in and niche, but for 2020, it just reads like an ordinary internet conversation.

Nonetheless, the sheer depth of its pop-cultural nerdery makes it feel contemporary in a way that old rpg supplements often don't. It was dorky in its original context and it's dorky now. I kind of like it.

What doesn't feel contemporary and what I didn't like about this book was its casual homophobia. I get that it was meant to depict a macho subculture, but two separate characters dropping the f-word in the space of a couple of pages . . . it annoyed me. One of them did get a dressing-down from the boss for it, but it was in that insincere corporate speak ("The XWF does not tolerate slurs directed at ethnicity, creed, or sexual orientation, and as a representative of this company, you will damn well remember that") that makes me think that it was more about covering the XWF's ass than an actual desire for tolerance.

Minor black mark aside, this book is mostly pretty great. There's a sly Spider Man shout-out with La Araña being the champion of the Silver League, and Lance "Stone Badass" Stryker makes an appearance, though mostly to indicate that he is not involved in pro wrestling. The characters who aren't blatant pop culture references are pretty decent. I mean, I'm not normally into blood sport, but I might be tempted to watch a guy named Superbeast.

Overall, a decent enough pitch for a campaign, though like Expose Aberrants before it, it's not quite meaty enough to work as a full-on campaign guide. And while some decent thought was given to things like tiered leagues and the consequences of running a superhero fighting ring with real fights (unlike wrestling, only the storylines are scripted), Aberrant's system isn't nearly robust enough for that to translate to the table. But then, I could say that about nearly any potential Aberrant campaign.

So, um, good luck.

Ukss Contribution: This all boils down to who is my favorite wrestler. Tempted to pick Ric Flair, because that would be the truest homage to what this book is trying to do, but I would be at a complete loss as to how that would even work, and Aberrant XWF is too small a book to break the world over.

My personal favorite was a guy who called himself Raja Ravana, mostly because I liked how the name rolled off the tongue, but I'm wary of using Hindu iconography I don't understand.

Third choice it is, then. Melinda Guzman, the only person to win the XWF's "Triple Crown" (there are three leagues of increasing lethality, when you win the championship in one, you gain the right to challenge the next highest champion to a single match - if you win, you become the champion, if you lose, you're bumped back down to the bottom of the ladder). She is known as "The Upset Queen" and if her suggested stats are anything to go by, it was her maxed-out Luck power that made it happen. That might be an interesting idea for a minor goddess.

Aberrant: Teragen

Is it possible to be racist against superheroes? That's the riddle we must solve if we're to untangle Aberrant: Teragen. They say racism is about power, but that's what superheroes have, almost by definition. And yet, the ability to obliterate mountains is distinct from institutional power. Superheroes may be able to defeat armies, but they don't command armies.

The lack of institutional power means they can be targeted for exclusion and harassment and their only recourse is superpower-fueled vigilantism. Yet the threat of that vigilantism is so effective that it must be factored into public policy. And there's no guarantee that the threat will be deployed with precision. A tantrum in defiance of a just law is as likely to succeed as principled resistance to an unjust one. That, to me, says that superheroes do have power.

But maybe that's just the dormant power of people who labor under oppression. Yes, if the masses rise up, they could throw off their chains, but systems of control are largely arranged on the assumption that they won't. If society's institutions are biased against superheroes, but the superheroes themselves feel beholden to those institutions, such that resistance is nearly unthinkable, maybe they don't have the power after all.

I don't know. I've thought about this for all of a half a day, and it's a much more complicated subject than that. What I do know is that Aberrant: Teragen is not going to bring any clarity to the debate.

The titular Teragen are an organization that quite creepily calls novas "The One Race," and refers to humans as "monkeys." The worst thing any nova can be, in their opinion, is "assimilationist," and they believe that any nova has unlimited rights to do whatever they want (up to and including rape and murder) to baseline humans.

But also, their paranoia about Project Utopia is completely justified. There is, indeed, a genocidal plot to prevent novas from reproducing and the head of Utopia is knowingly sending novas into armed conflicts with the express intent of getting them killed.

What we wind up with in this book is an organization whose impetus to act is a genuine threat to their safety and essential dignity, but whose rallying cry is that they should not be subject to human law.

So much of it reads like, "hey, maybe these Nazis have a point." And I'm not just doing the thing where I label the group "Nazis" just because they espouse an ideal of racial superiority. Divis Mal's plan to purge the Teragen of all voices who are not sufficiently loyal to him personally is called, in the text, "The Night of Long Knives." Comparisons to Hitler were completely intended.

Although, embarrassingly, the last time I read this book, maybe 15-16 years ago, I didn't know enough about history to pick up on the reference. All I knew at the time was that there was a lot in this book that made me shake my head and go, "these fuckin' guys."

There's one of those interview sections that Aberrant liked to do, where Count Orzaiz is making the case against Project Utopia, and he says, "The Utopian program to use us to fix the world's problems is nothing short of slavery." Which, I don't know, does it really count as slavery if they pay you a wage and allow you to quit? Also, isn't one of the more prominent signature characters someone who was famously fired from Project Utopia? Is that something that ever happened? Someone was so bad at being a slave that their captors were like, "I'm sorry, but I just don't think you're a good fit for our organization. The best of luck in your future endeavors."

Luckily, Ozaiz elaborates, "Anyone who doesn't join Project Utopia is treated like a pariah." Oh. You mean the sort of pariah who lives in a fabulous Valencia estate, vacations in Monte Carlo, and is invited on talk shows to politely discuss their views with sycophantic interviewers who barely push back when they say some incredibly stupid shit?

Which is to say that the Count in particular, and the Teragen in general are well-observed characters, but also. . . these fuckin' guys.

"The Confederate is opinionated and has the courage of his convictions. Few know, however, that he is not only a nova supremacist, but a white supremacist as well."

Wow, not The Confederate. Who could have ever seen that coming? But that's the Teragen for you. Their one and only unifying trait is that they don't want people telling them what they do, and thus they have no ideological vocabulary for those times when the people telling you not do something are 100% justified.

Like, Orzaiz can go on the Parker Stevenson show and claim that novas allowing themselves to be governed by human laws is like humans submitting themselves to the rules of ape society (a metaphor that the radical, Shrapnel, seems to think is "diplomatic"), but that doesn't change the fact that anyone with even a modestly developed sense of morality will side with the ape over the poacher.

The Teragen seem to believe themselves severable from the great natural continuities. Orzaiz often refers to baseline humans as novas' "genetic ancestors," and claims that this releases them for any responsibilities for things human beings have done, but that's not how it works. Count Orzaiz is, as near as I can tell, 4-6 years older than me, which means that we have almost all the same genetic ancestors. If novas shouldn't have to clean up the environment because it was baselines who ruined it, well I've got news for him - he and I are separated from the perpetrators by the exact same number of generations (i.e somewhere between "1" and "0"), and in any event only one of has inherited an enormous fortune made by reaping the benefits of an environmentally destructive economic system.

But that is how racial supremacists misuse the concept of evolution. They're taking 180 degrees the wrong lesson from it. There are no "higher forms of life" and everything is connected to everything else. Although, even if you subscribe to the notion of purely atomic species that owe nothing to each other, "I kicked a beehive and got stung by the swarm" is the purest form of natural justice there is.

So, you know, the Teragen are just completely ridiculous human beings, even if there is a glimmer of a point buried in their self-serving ideology. The emergence of novas really does raise difficult questions of political legitimacy, especially in a democracy. FAA regulations exist to keep airplanes from crashing into each other, and that's a job that doesn't become any less important when some of those "airplanes" are actually just dudes floating around up there. It would be unfair, though, if the agency came up with a policy without even consulting the people directly affected by it. Yet novas are a vanishingly small minority, so how does a government ensure that it respects the voices of the few without giving them a peremptory privilege over the many?

Um . . . don't mind me over here, just casually tossing out fundamental ethical dilemmas while analyzing a silly 90s superhero game. Anyway, if you do come up with a persuasive answer to this question, just skip me entirely and send it directly to the US Senate.

Ironically, the group in the Aberrant universe most likely to tackle these issues head-on is the Teragen's old rivals, Project Utopia, which has a whole legal department that works with governments to ensure the fair treatment of novas. Unfortunately, most of the conspiracy theories about Utopia are true.

Aberrant: Terragen reveals that the Teragen know about Project Proteus' sterilization scheme and they have a member capable of neutralizing the effects. There are several children already born and the Teragen are convinced that if Utopia knew of their existence, they'd be killed. I wish I could say this fear was unjustified, but, well, this very book contains a note from a Utopia doctor that talks about doing repeated exploratory surgery without anesthetic on a captured member of the Teragen. Killing children does not seem beyond Proteus' established behavior.

It would have been so easy to pigeonhole the Teragen as typical right-wing yahoos. They're obsessed with their theory of racial hierarchy and tolerate open talk of genocide (even if most of them agree that it's "too far.") Yet, it would be unreasonable to expect them to cooperate with a group they quite reasonably suspect will kill their children. Under those circumstances, resistance is noble.

I get an uneasy feeling at those times when it feels too much like the game trying to launder right-wing conspiracy theories ("hey, guys, here's a pitch: what if in our next game world, white genocide was real"), but I'm sure that what's really going on is 90s White Wolf's enthusiasm for "everyone's a villain" narratives.

Anyway, with all that said, I actually thought Aberrant: Terragen was a pretty fun take on the Legion of Doom as a fractious family of bickering cliques (the setting chapter contains a rather remarkable drawing of the Teragen leaders as a parody of "The Last Supper"), even if they're much less ambiguous as villains than the storytelling chapter seems to think.

Oh, and I would be totally remiss if I didn't say at least something about the Chrysalis system. You can ding it for being unbalanced, offering experience point discounts in exchange for basically nothing, but honestly I don't think that matters so much in a game as chaotically designed as Aberrant. Its real flaw is that it assumes a mode of play that would be reckless if it were actually enforced. Chrysalis points give you mutations, just like Taint points do, but the difference is that players pick what mutations they get from Chrysalis, but the storyteller picks the mutations from Taint.

When I read that I was like, "wait, what?" The previous rules mandated that the GM violate the players' ownership of their characters by imposing behavioral restrictions in how they roleplay? I was supposed to be giving players the cannibalism flaw without their permission? Needless to say, that's never how I played it, and players already had final veto on Taint mutations, so Chrysalis was never much more than a source of bonus xp in my games. A shame. It's a great setting idea, but poor execution here.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of great characters here. The writers went all out in designing fun new supervillains with interesting motivations and visually arresting designs, the weirdest of which was Sloppy Joe, a nova whose skin and bones dissolved and who stays alive by means of a transparent forcefield holding all his organs inside.

Joe's kind of a great character, but he's not my pick. For obvious reasons, I'm going with The Mathematician, a super-intelligent nova whose statistical models are detailed enough to serve as a form of precognition. He has phantom numbers floating around him at all times and he's so worried about his own actions changing the future that he hides away from the world, futilely warning the Teragen that their actions will hasten the global apocalypse.