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.

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