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.

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