Tuesday, May 12, 2020

(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.


  1. So, let me get this straight.

    There's an aspiring architect whose name has spent 200 years becoming synonymous with "a great building achievement which came to ruin, ultimately providing nothing but an ironic counterpoint to the unjustifiable ego of its creator." And when looking for a way to take this person down a peg, his college buddies go to Ayn Rand?

    What the hell were they teaching kids at this college? READ SOME SHELLEY YOU CRETINS

    1. From context, I'd gathered that "Ozymandius Cody" was a craft name, rather than his given name. The section was written in-character, after he became a mage.

    2. I suppose that brings him up to TWO unintentionally-revealing sobriquets.