Monday, June 29, 2020

Cosmic Cutthroats

Where to get it: drivethrurpg or Lulu

As a critic, my biggest challenge with reviewing Cosmic Cutthroats is that my overall opinion is "pretty decent." If I were the type to give out letter grades, I'd say "B+" (For comparison Changeling: the Lost is an A and GURPS is a C and Mage: the Ascension is a "see me after class.")

That is not intrinsically an issue. I could just write a post about the things I liked, drop in a few minor complaints, make a snide quip about tortured backronyms (this game uses the R.E.C.I.P.E. system and yes there's an explanation and no it doesn't illuminate anything). You know, my usual MO.

Where I run into trouble is that Cosmic Cutthroats is a product of a small team, you've probably never heard of them, and if my take is "this is an ordinary game" that's going to come across as either really condescending or really dismissive and neither of those is a very fair reaction. Cosmic Cutthroats is, in fact, an ordinary game, but it does ordinary pretty well.

You could convert this game to a point-buy d20 with basically no effort, but its 2d12 resolution system brings enough to the table to justify its existence. Its system for critical effects is elegant - a critical will trigger whenever you roll a match, with the specific value of the roll determining the strength of the critical effect. I've got some lingering mechanical questions, particularly in the resolution of some of the powers, but the only real issue lies with roll-over damage in the Injury system. When someone with one vigor point left in their Battered Injury state takes 5 points of damage, does that mean that they are Wounded, with full VP or Wounded with -4 VP? I couldn't find a clear answer to that. I personally think that ignoring roll-over and being restored to full VP is the better mechanic, but the book prides itself on being both mathematically precise and "cinematic," so it could go either way.

That's really the only negative thing I have to say about Cosmic Cutthroats. I don't love that your default skill ratings (prior to spending experience points) are based on averages or fractions of your attribute ratings, but that's something that should only come up at character creation or during between-session prep work. And, of course, like any point-buy system it's vulnerable to char-op shenanigans, but it's far from the clusterfuck that was Aberrant - it has only one character-creation currency and the prices are relatively rational, and unlike say GURPS, it doesn't ask you to dilute your characters' effectiveness by making every noun, adjective, and verb of the English language into its own separate trait.

But I don't want to damn with faint praise here. Cosmic Cutthroats has a few individual strengths as well.  For one, handles scale about as gracefully as possible without invoking a dedicated mechanical gimmick like Storypath's Scale modifier (and frankly, the jury is still out on that one for me, at least until I see how Aberrant and Demigod play out). Scaling effects seem to be based on solid exponential formulas, but the book is very generous about providing tables out to rank 60, so mathematical complexity is almost never going to be an issue. Also, it's got a pretty well-worked out effects-based power system that is probably vulnerable to exploitative min-maxing, but does seem to handle sci-fi tech, magic, and superpowers with reasonable efficiency.

Like I said - "pretty decent."

The setting of Cosmic Cutthroats is kitchen-sink gibberish, but the good kind of kitchen-sink gibberish. It's a game of multi-dimensional exploration as character hop from reality to reality doing player-character-type things, and while there are only a handful of signature worlds, there's also a whole section on randomly generating new realities that is impressively comprehensive. Fortunately, it's not just a backdrop for a generic rpg (though R.E.C.I.P.E. is strong enough as a generic system that it doesn't have any noticeable problems with the setting) - the cosmology is by itself is engaging enough that there's unique value in this specific world-hopping setting.

My favorite detail was the Damocletian Order. They scout the Ylem (primordial chaos) looking for Genesis Seeds, the nascent bundles of possibility that gods can encourage to grow into new realities. When they find one, they use divination magic, and if the Seed is destined to grow into a cthuloid monster or multiverse-conquering army, they scoop it up and stick it into The Vault of Worlds. And that's just a thing that exists in this setting - a giant magical bunker-world filled with 10,000 apocalypses waiting to happen and a dedicated order of warrior-monks whose mission it is to see that they don't.

The centerpiece of the setting is the Interdimensional Metropolis of Uru Ulan and basically it's Sigil by way of Eclipse Phase. The whole thing is total nonsense and I love it. The short version - an ancient Babylonian sorcerer traveled to an alternate Saturn in a universe that never developed humanoid life and built a mystic library in its rings. Over the centuries, the flotsam from a variety of interdimensional catastrophes just sort of accumulated around it and now it's a cluster of hollowed out asteroids connected by tubes and teleporatation gates and the districts range from the cyberpunk city of Third York to the elf-made forest of Ljusalfheim, but somehow it all kind of works. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but my tastes run to the eclectic, so I think it's great.

Ukss Contribution:This is going to be tough, because there are actually quite a lot of interesting setting details, but I don't want to tread into multi-world territory simply because that's easy mode for a project like Ukss. I think I'll go with the Cognizants. They're psionic brains-in-a-jar that run the setting's major criminal syndicate.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Aberrant Players Guide

I'm not sure how much I want to get into this book's infamy. Because parts of this book are quite justly infamous, and I feel like I should talk about them, but if I do, I know I'm just going to cover the same ground as everyone else who has ever written about this book. . .

But how many people could that actually be? Maybe enough time has passed that I can state the obvious without embarrassment . . .

Fuck it. There are four things in this book that are legendarily contentious. They are: the Introduction, the high-level powers, the gadgeteering system, and the Queer Nova Alliance. Of these, only the Introduction is purely bad. The other three have questionable execution, but also some inspired ideas.

The introduction was layer upon layer of baffling. It was titled "This is not the Super-Friends" and I guess its mission is to make you feel bad about playing a superhero. And I have to tread carefully here, because it's going to be really tempting for me to be super-mean and that wouldn't be entirely undeserved.

Mostly it's just White Wolf being White Wolf. They would never do something as silly as a superhero game, so they pitch character concepts like a nova who "worked her way through college as a teleporting courier and now uses her nova powers primarily as a way of avoiding traffic on her way to the office." And . . . and . . . what is that? Who is it for? I guess I can see how an otherwise unremarkable teleporting office worker might be drawn in to superhero shenanigans, but that's just an origin story, isn't it? You and your rpg group might not be literally the Super-Friends, but they're still going to be doing Super-Friend-type things - getting into big-budget power battles, thwarting the schemes of rival superhumans, dicking around in outer space or under the sea. This introduction can't possibly be suggesting that we're supposed to be running Aberrant games about celebrity chefs, industrial chemists, and celebrity bodyguards.

Luckily, I think this might be a low point. White Wolf made a pretty decent superhero game, but then published an essay about how superhero gaming is for people who lack the sophistication to tell grown-up stories. I have to assume that the cosmic imbalance created by a take that bad must have awoken something in the higher ranks. I'm not entirely familiar with their subsequent work, but I don't recall any of their subsequent games going to war with their genre in quite the same way.

Now, I don't want to leave the impression that the Introduction has any redeeming qualities (it is historically bad), but I do think that it's an outgrowth of something Aberrant generally does well - looking at its superhumans through a lens of humanity. My favorite part of the book (and I'm sure this will be its own kind of controversial opinion) is the part immediately after the Introduction, where, without using so many words, they talk about branding and trademarks as an economic and cultural force in nova society. It's framed as novas fighting each other for the best "nova names," and it feels like it draws a lot from late-90s frustration around picking an already-chosen aol screenname, but it feels real in a way that superhero fiction often doesn't. There's money attached to being able to call yourself  "Razorburn," enough to inspire a big-budget power battle and ever-lasting rivalry. It's absolutely amazing to me that Aberrant has this built-in excuse for superheroes to challenge each other to duels.

The only real problem for me is that Aberrant doesn't quite understand branding as an artform. Sure, Appellate Lexington will hire poets to help novas come up with codenames, but it never seems to realize that when two novas fight over the same name, the fight itself is more valuable than the ostensible prize. Or maybe it does, and that's why it keeps happening, but if so it never comes out and says it.

The only character who really seems to have a handle on "nova identity as a personal brand" is Mefistofaleez. So many people, from Duke Rollo to Alejandra to fashion blogger Mackenzie Robertson, insist on giving him a hard time about his eccentric spelling, but of all the various fame-chasers in the Aberrant universe, he is the one it is easiest to imagine having a million-subscriber youtube channel. I'm probably in the minority in this, but I love this character. He can be problematic at times (like in this very book, where he engages in a bit of textbook sexual harassment that I'm sure was meant to show off his mogul swagger), but that's something that can be fixed. What would be hard to replicate is his uniquely plausible combination of low-effort presentation and mass market appeal. He has superpowers, he puts on a cheap devil mask, he swears a lot, and the kids love him. The setting's most accurately-observed character and I hope he winds up making it to 2nd edition.

Let's pretend I've got a smooth transition to the topic of high-level powers. These are tricky because most of them you'd never want to use and the ones you might want to use exist within a rules framework of "shit's broken now, do you want to try being the GM?" There's a level 5 power called "Geological Supremacy" that allows you to manipulate general levels of volcanic activity and over a period of months you can plunge the Earth into a new ice age, but . . . being able to call down a global catastrophe doesn't have much tactical benefit and unless someone has he exact same power, nobody is going to stop you or even interact with you in any way. The powers exist to establish something about the setting - that the end of the road for novas is in universe creation.- but there's no effort to make it an actual game.

I can't say that the setting implications are entirely reasonable. Canonically, there are at least half a dozen novas with access to level 5 powers as of the start of the Aberrant War, and it's unclear how humanity can fight creatures with the ability to strip away all of the oxygen in the atmosphere, render food crops extinct, or engage in global-scale mind control. Even with the knowledge that the war only ends when China threatens to nuke the Earth, it seems unlikely that the novas would let it get to that point.  I guess the NPCs were poorly optimized.

To minimize the grousing, I'm just going to skip over gadgeteering. It's got much of the same problem as other complex rpg crafting systems, so I'll have a chance to complain about it come Shadowrun or Exalted. Its main unique problem is that it doesn't mesh well with Aberrant: Year One's technological discovery system. Old White Wolf was much too timid about letting the big powers escape the elites' control.

Now, the Queer Nova Alliance. Oi. Props for forward thinking, I guess. Question is: how stereotypical are they allowed to be without squandering that good will? Tommy Orgy is a pop star who makes clones of himself for . . . you know. Roger "the Master" Morrison is a creepy weirdo who ignores boundaries and tries to act like a Dom in ordinary social situations. And even the ones who are not actively yikes are the sort of gays who hang around in a fabulous night club being catty and using words like "fabulous."

I'm tempted to interrogate my own discomfort with their presentation as being a manifestation of some latent homophobia that can only accept queer people in the abstract while trying to hold queer culture at arm's length. I'm not so sure about that, though. I actually think that "flamboyant" stuff is pretty cool (I'd describe my own presentation as "mildly effete") and I've got nothing but respect for Glamora, Queen of the Glamazons.

There are two deciding factors for me here. First, Andy Vance and Jake Koreli have been demoted back to "partners" after being husbands in the previous book. Secondly, it talks about the QNA's "dark side," which includes "sex- and fetish-cults." and that's a hell of a thing to say without dropping in some editorial support for gay marriage. I think the verdict is "well-intentioned, but ignorant to the point of doing actual harm."

I was amused by the implication that Price is Right announcer Rod Roddy is alive and working as an openly gay superhero in fantasy 2015, but since the real Roddy never came out while he was alive (and, indeed, may really have been a flamboyantly-dressed lifelong bachelor), it does feel less like a tribute and more like some unnecessary presumption.

So those are my complaints, but I really liked the book overall. It introduces a bunch of new nova organizations like the space-exploring Daedalus League or the tragedy waiting to happen Teen Tomorrow (you know, like "Team Tomorrow," but with teens), plus new power customization options, alternate campaign models, and, of course, the inspirational aspects of the ideas I've spent most of the post griping about. A true grab-bag of orphaned ideas that managed to sneak into the line's last book.

Ukss Contribution: The idea I most wish was real was the Opnet's ability to keyword search your streaming services to make them bring up only the episodes that contain your desired subject matter. But that's not anything when it comes to a fantasy world.

Likewise, Mefistofaleez requires a whole social context around him to even make any sense (plus, the great thing about him is that even with that context, he barely makes any sense).

So third choice it is - New Orleans municipal defender and all-round #1 most popular civic superhero Anton "Gator" LeBec. He's a weird gator-man who keeps New Orleans safe and that's literally all I know about him.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

(M: tAs) The Book of Madness (revised)

Wow, ableism came to my awareness really late. I remember even just a few years ago thinking that trying to remove the word "crazy" from my vocabulary was more trouble than it was worth. I made the effort anyways, because I figured it made people uncomfortable and it wouldn't cost me anything, but I didn't feel it was a goal with any immediate urgency. Reading The Book of Madness was probably the first time I've felt grateful that my younger self put in the work (not that "refraining from using a contentious word" is a lot of work or anything, but it was something I had to be mindful about).

Somehow, this book is worse than the original Book of Madness. Ironically, the culprit is probably its attempts to be more compassionate towards the mentally ill. The first edition Marauders were just these weird guys who served primordial chaos and lived in their own bubble realities. Revised marauders are people the health care system has failed, who suffer from their inability to perceive reality, and that makes it kind of heartbreaking when the book refers to them with terms like "lone nuts."

It got so alienating at times that I found myself starting to question the very nature of Marauders . . . and that's when it hit me. I don't actually know what the fuck they are. They're supposed to be delusional people who live in a different and wind up causing trouble in ours when the two didn't line up. But that's just a mage, isn't it?

Okay, obviously not just a mage, but still in the same ballpark. A mage believes they can do witchcraft and they can do witchcraft. A marauder believes they're in the old west, and anyone within a hundred feet agrees. I had the sadistic idea of setting a Mage game inside a group Quiet. The players believe they're in a modern, gothic-punk world and that they have a recurring Marauder antagonist who draws them into a medieval fantasy setting, but actually they're the Marauders and this other guy is just the heroic Mage who set out to rescue them.

What's the fair way to telegraph that? What do you say to make sure that when the twist happens, the players are ready to accept it, and how can you say it without giving the twist away prematurely? How is this different than what you'd say if the medieval guy really were the Marauder. If belief becomes reality, so much so that reality itself is the prize in your war for belief, then what's the downside of having an especially durable personal reality? When a Marauder accumulates so much Quiet that they disappear from our reality to go to the Deep Umbra and live amongst incomprehensible abstractions, how is that different than "Ascension."

It's not a question the book even bothers to ask, much less answer, but now that I've seen it, I can't unsee it. When I read the first Book of Madness, I had a vague idea that the Marauders might actually make a good model for gods. Now, I'm certain of it. The only way they can be "insane" is if there's some objective reality that exists prior to perception and to which their perceptions do not accurately apply. But that sort of thing is anathema to the Mage: the Ascension ethos, so really, a Marauder's reality must be as objectively real as anyone else's. If anything, they are the sanest faction in the Mage universe. Their faith in their own beliefs is so strong that it actively creates a new world around them. That is the essence of a divine mystery.

Speaking of which, Infernalism is a concept that didn't age particularly well. I mean, demons are kind of a thing, and selling your soul to the devil is definitely a trope, so the idea of sinister mages bargaining for corrupt power is one that fits in a horror game, but I'm once again forced to ask myself "what's the difference, really, between a god and a demon?" This book gives Ares as an example of a demon, and I sort of get it. Then it suggests Ishtar and that . . . doesn't sound right to me, but I guess it's the sort of thing that might be grandfathered in with all of the rest of the classical demons of western demonology who got their start as the ancient Hebrews' historical rivals. Then it suggests Legba and Eshu and I'm like whoa. We all know about the demonization of figures from non-Christian religions, but it's kind of shocking to see a White Wolf book just uncritically relay that in the year 2001.

And I guess in the book's defense, it does say that there's an ambiguity there. Maybe these last two guys are tricksters instead of demons, but that just raises more questions. You can sell your soul to a trickster? What about to an angel? Or a totally non-controversial god? What's the difference between selling your soul and just completely surrendering it as an act of devotion? Are "infernalists" anything more than "mages with a religion?"

Though, again, as with Marauders, The Book of Madness fails to ask the really essential questions. I've got one for the Nephandi chapter too, about Widderslainte - mages who sold their soul in a previous life and are born indebted to the dark powers. That's potentially so much more interesting than whatever the Nephandi are getting up to, but for some reason Mage goes with the least interesting possible take - they're bad seeds, little Damiens who can't ever be redeemed, except by Archmage-level plot magic. Why, White Wolf, why? You've created a group of characters that pose essential questions about predestination, the karmic cycle, and the nature of evil, but then decide to use them as low-rent serial killers. I'll grant you, that story about the baby who strangled his twin brother in the crib was a properly chilling bit of horror, but that reveal should have been the start of the story, not the end.

Overall, I found this book to be a lateral move from its 1st edition counterpart. The original Book of Madness, was tamer than I was expecting, but this one was even more discreet. In the Storyteller chapter, it talked about respecting boundaries and "fading to black" when discussing atrocities and other disturbing subjects. I appreciated that. However, I also felt like maybe it was a mistake to try and ground the two major rogue factions in a more natural psychology. Maybe it's "more realistic," but it also feels a little less fun.

Ukss Contribution: While a bit too ableist in places, I got the feeling that The Book of Madness was aiming for "mature and thoughtful," and mostly floundered on the time-period's insensitive language (as someone who has occasionally struggled with depression, I did not appreciate being referred to as "the depressive," for example . . . even if it was in a passage urging understanding and tolerance), so I'm not going to put this on my "evil books" list.

Instead, I'll pick a name. "He who Shudders in Outermost Night." It's just a tossed-off example of the sort of entity a Nephandus might serve, and thus I know nothing about him, but I did think he sounded cool and spooky.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Misfortune: Dramatic Roleplaying

Where to Get It: Drivethrurpg

Ah, now this was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping to see when I invited random strangers to send me their shit. Misfortune: Dramatic Roleplaying is a highly inventive, highly chaotic game that took about an hour to read and, I'm guessing, about five minutes to learn. Since it's free, I won't bother to summarize the rules, but I will share with you the sentence that instantly sold me on the game:

"The characters have traits, but they are revealed and added to the character during the game . . . adding traits to your character is a big part of the game."

OMG, this is such a fun idea. You do not start the game knowing what your traits are going to be! I consider myself something of a jaded rpg nerd, but this is an area of game design that had not occurred to me before.

The way it works is that you gain story points (xp) for performing a variety of narrative chores, the most relevant being "foreshadowing" - hinting about traits you'd like to see in the future. Gain enough story points and you can add a trait to your character. But traits you buy drop when you use them, eventually becoming flaws. Luckily, your flaws work the same way and will eventually become positive traits. So a trait is never just a trait, it's an arc. Characters are always in flux.

The thing that will probably give new players the most pause is the Difficulty math. The target number you need to roll on 2d6 is based on an action's stakes. In the words of the book: "If you need to kiss a princess to stop the world from ending, you bet actually kissing the princess is a roll of extreme difficulty."

That's a wild idea that made me extremely nervous when I saw that life-and-death stakes need you to hit a 10 or higher, but after a bit more thought, I realized that this was mainly to force you to engage with the Misfortune system. It's simple enough - take a point of Misfortune, reroll the action. Do it as many times as you like. Total Misfortune caps at 7, but even when you hit the cap, you can keep going. You can use story points to buy down Misfortune, but not during the middle of a roll.

The immediate upshot is that you can succeed at anything you want to do, if you just keep rolling, but there's a catch - roll snake eyes and your Misfortune pops. What happens next depends on how many points of Misfortune you have. Only a few and you'll be removed from the scene or gain a negative trait. If you're at the cap, you die. How much risk is killing that villain really worth to you? It's really quite an elegant way to make rolling the dice feel like an active choice, fraught with tension.

The biggest obstacle to enjoying Misfortune is, unfortunately, the writing. I got the feeling that English might not have been a first language here. Some of the constructions were a bit wooden (though you won't see me throwing stones) and a few of the idioms, especially prepositions, were . . .off. It's not insurmountable, especially with a system as simple as this one, but there were a few sentences I had to read multiple times.

Aside from the system, which the more I think about it, the more I love, the best part of the book is its visual style. It's laid out in comic-book style, and, provided you're not a typography nerd who hates comic sans, it's very appealing to look at.

Overall, this is a product that was well worth my time.

Ukss Contribution: Not a lot of setting here, and in fact it suggests that players vote on the setting each time they start a new game, but there were a few example characters. My favorite was Nakajima Mao, also known as Aneki - street brawler, gang flunky, and schoolgirl. "Mortal enemy to the student council."

(M:tAs) Guide to the Traditions


I'm sorry, I needed to get that off my chest. There are going to be people reading this who know what I'm talking about. For the rest of you . . . fourteen straight pages of italics. It's going to be hard for me to critique this book when I've got such a strong, clear memory of sustained crankiness, but I'm going to try being objective here.

Guide to the Traditions is probably the single most essential Mage book I've read so far, but it would likely be better if it lost approximately 30-40% of its word count. The culprit is almost certainly the fact that it has nine different credited authors and seven people credited with "additional contributions." Near as I can tell, that works out to one author for each of the eight chapters, plus another one for the opening fiction, and then on top of that whatever the additional contributors added to the text. My guess is that what White Wolf did was give the writers a design document and a target page count and then nobody talked to each other during the entire writing process.

The result is a book that is frequently inspired, but also one with certain redundancies and inconsistencies. That's probably why the Mysticism chapter goes into detail describing the relatively new practice of Traditional technomagic and then one chapter later, in the new history summary, they do it again. The two discussions aren't exactly the same, so there is some value in having both, but there was definitely some overlap and it's really something an editor should have fixed by condensing both sections into one.

This fractured approach also led to some pacing issues. The Storytelling chapter in particular brought the book to a screeching halt. It was a good chapter with some interesting ideas like introducing seasonal play with a Background-based downtime management system, but it also failed to really develop the book's most unique and interesting ideas. In a previous chapter there were two brief sidebars about tweaking the game's genre and setting it in alternate realities and those should have gotten at least a page each instead of the niche stuff about "one on one" games.

Oh, man, I have got so many notes about this book, just pages and pages worth. Nineteen, to be exact. For comparison, I had 13 pages for the Revised core. I got the feeling that overall, Guide to the Traditions was the developers' manifesto for the new direction they wanted to take the game. The clearest expression of this was in the Storyteller's chapter - "Mage Revised centers around the imperatives of young mages" (rather than masters and elders) - and a lot of the book seems to treat this as a mission statement. The (first) technomagic section justifies itself by saying that a lot of mages want to "stop fighting their own upbringing" and there are large sections that just feel like I was directly reading a design document.

Although the chapter that most felt like it was the Mage team putting their house in order was "Chapter 3: Traditional History." A few times it would break the flow of the in-character narration to insert a sidebar informing us that "The Burning Times" were a myth and that it's insensitive to attribute the Holocaust to the supernatural (though not without pointing to the two supplements White Wolf released on the subject), and the Roma sidebar declared its mission to clear up certain stereotypes perpetrated by "badly researched roleplaying game supplements" (which isn't exactly an apology, but whatever, if they don't feel too embarrassed to keep selling it on drivethrurpg, then I have to assume they were exonerated by someone).

But the chapter wasn't all (or even mostly) scolding. It was an attempt to make the game's first truly global history and in the process fundamentally change how we look at the Traditions. There's a thing it would do, time and again, where it would discuss a particular area or period of history and then follow up with a sidebar about how the legacy of that time survived in the modern Traditions. Interested in Vikings? Well here's how to build a Viking character that's part of the Verbenae, the Euthanatoi, or the Cult of Ecstasy (those new plurals were also in a sidebar).

It's incredibly useful and adds a lot of much-needed diversity to the game, but it's also responsible for things like Cathar martial artists who escaped the Albigensian Crusade and hid out in the Pyrenees until they could join the Akashic Brotherhood. Which, yeah, that's a Mage: the Ascension idea if I ever heard one, but it also calls the very existence of the Traditions into question. What are we even doing here if the Aboriginal Australians were reluctant to join the Dreamspeakers? Yes, I recognize  that your subsequent (first ever?) research has shown that they weren't a very good fit for how the Tradition had been presented in the past and I approve of your attempt to introduce greater precision, but doesn't the very name of the Tradition come from one of their fundamental theological concepts? Why does it still exist if they're not going to be in it?

There are actually two separate sidebars that ask this very same question, though I don't think they realize that's what's going on. The new factions that appear in the American and African sidebars are very much welcome, but when each takes pain to remind us to not reflexively lump all American and African mages into the Dreamspeakers, it reminds us of the fact that the Dreamspeakers exist because White Wolf did precisely that.

In fact, the main thing The Guide to the Traditions accomplished was to make it entirely unclear when someone should be a Dreamspeaker. In addition to technomagic, the Mysticism introduced the concept of "shamanic borrowing" which appears to be nothing more or less than "using the Spirit Sphere to interact with spirits." One of the blended Traditions is a group of Celestial Choristers who worked with the Dreamspeakers to learn how to contact angels. The fact that angelology is one of the pillars of European mysticism doesn't really seem to enter into it at all.

Though I don't actually want to complain about the "shamanism" in this book. Aside from the fact that the Dreamspeakers seem to be mentoring people who already have access to the Spirit Sphere and already have a paradigm to explain what spirits are, the new organizations are actually pretty good. However, it does get to the heart of what The Guide to the Traditions is as a book - it's the book you read if you want to redesign Mage.

Never has it been more apparent to me that Mage Revised is a soft reboot of a series in desperate need of a hard reboot. The unique blend of animism and soft sci-fi in an urban fantasy setting is absolutely something with a ton of potential, but I don't need the cultural baggage that comes from having to ask a Native American to teach me how to talk to the ghost of my dead car battery. And if it weren't for the fact that the game is committed to preserving the trademarks of 1st edition's too-white lineup of Traditions, we wouldn't have to pretend the Cult of Ecstasy got its start in India when every time it shows up they talk about greater enlightenment through club drugs and maybe the Tradition Council could have fought colonialism instead of having half its members not give a shit about their enemy's greatest atrocity and the other half constantly threatening to walk out about that.

Still, this is an incredibly useful book, very nearly a second core. I haven't even gotten into the much-needed fantasy elements it adds to the Mage setting like the chat room where witches and werewolves go to discuss their Fetishes (the capital F is important here) or the implied existence of Excalibur and the Peaches of Immortality. Even if you're not a fan of Revised edition, The Guide to the Traditions will teach you a lot about how to play Mage. Only The Book of Worlds is remotely comparable.

Ukss Contribution: The Technocracy had a volcano lair! The Traditions took it over recently, and they haven't fully explored its lower passages, but that just makes it even more alluring. Labyrinthine Volcano Lair! Maybe the suggestion to use Adventure! as a historical Mage supplement wasn't so out of left field after all.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

(M:tAs) Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus

Between this book and I think circa 2000 White Wolf may have been deep in its own cultural bubble. Christianity is a spent force and all the edgy young teens are into Satanism now. That's the only explanation I can think of for the "Why Would I Want to Play a Conservative Christian?" digression at the start of the Introduction. It asks us to take a good long look in the mirror and consider that we might be "prejudiced" against Christianity by associating it with "specious arguments that they tortured people in the Crusades or that they persecute people in today's society."

And look, I wasn't going to bring it up, but maybe I could direct you to the sidebar on page 75 which discusses homophobia and says, "Moderates are often too cowed by conservative elements in the Celestial Chorus to speak out." So yes, Introduction, you are right to point out that not all Choristers are conservative, or even Christian, but you're leaving out an important part of the story when you neglect to mention that those who aren't will have to tread on eggshells to avoid be harangued by those who are (not surprisingly, as a bisexual atheist ex-Mormon who lives in a 66% Trump county, this is kind of a . . . personal issue for me). That very same sidebar also takes pains to point out that "some of your players may have been at the receiving end of religious discrimination" and says "you shouldn't test your players' comfort levels without their permission," which is good advice generally, but also makes it kind of weird that the book scolded us for giving Christianity a "bum rap" as if we hadn't had a lifetime of experience navigating its expectations.

I suspect that a lot of this confusion comes from the fact that the year is 2001 and even a consciously gay-friendly company like White Wolf is still calling people "homosexuals" and framing queerness as an "issue" to be "debated." That's why the book can talk about "Queer Singers who aspire to lead the Chorus [having] to choose whether to stay in the closet or speak out" and not immediately see that it's an outrage of injustice.

Now, with that all said, I do, in fact, want to take the Introduction's advice and not tar all Christians with the same brush. But in doing so, I'm going to cut right to the heart of the book's greatest flaw - it's not nearly Christian enough. To give a rough benchmark, it's 100 pages long and there's not one explicit mention of the life, death, or teachings of Jesus Christ.

Not that I'd want to turn the book into a sermon or anything. It's just that if we're talking about Christianity, a tradition that dates back nearly 2000 years, spans every continent on the globe, and involves billions of people, both living and dead, maybe at some point you have to address the one thing they all have in common. But more to the point, once you start engaging with Christian ideas, you will inevitably start describing things in specific terms. That can be only to the good, because then you can start making choices about who the Choristers actually are and what you want them to be. Christianity as a whole has enough hidden corners, obscure doctrines, and bizarre folk theology to inspire dozens of potential Traditions.

As it stands, the Celestial Chorus was on both sides of every issue that ever divided Christian from Christian. They are both Roman Catholic and Orthodox, Calvinist and Lutheran, Puritans and Quakers. They were on both sides of the Albigensian Crusade. They are both Protestant Capitalist and Liberation theologians. They prosecuted the Inquisition and they were the heretics who burned in its fires. And through all of these conflicts, they never took a side.

Which is weird, you know. I wonder how this worked in practice. The boss of the whole Celestial Chorus would magically contact the Grand Inquisitor and say, "hey, maybe you could go easy on Bob, he's one of ours . . . oh, you already killed him? Oops. I guess accidents happen. It would be improper of me to sanction you in any way. That would be playing favorites."

I can't help but think that with a little more Christian theology, White Wolf could have made the Celestial Chorus into such a compelling faction that they wouldn't have needed an Introduction to try and shame us into liking them. If we'd seen a Chorus that consistently sided with the downtrodden, the enslaved, and the oppressed, which called out racism and sexism in its ranks and took seriously the idea that we're all just shards of The One, that would both give it a distinct identity and make it seem pretty damned cool.

I guess what we're left with is an examination of the Paradox of Tolerance. The Celestial Chorus' main idea is that all voices are equally precious and thus the only people to ever be excluded are the ones who never wanted to join in the first place. Perhaps the most amusing example of this is when a character tries to define "idolatry."
"The idols I'm talking about aren't just stone statues and the monotheism I mean isn't just saying that if you have many gods, you're wrong."
She goes on to make a fairly mainstream anti-materialist ethical argument, but it's a funny moment because the English language takes an absolute pummeling. The Celestial Chorus is so inclusive that it will accept you as an honorary monotheist, regardless of how many gods you actually believe in. And while you're not going to hear a word from me badmouthing the idea of being open-minded, this particular example is a benign manifestation of a deeper malady - they lack a vocabulary of exclusion short of labeling something "demonic" (even garden-variety racists are  "suspected of infernal leanings").

The upshot of this is that so long as an idea is not openly and nakedly evil, it must at least be entertained by a group discussion, no matter how antithetical it might seem to the Chorus' core beliefs So, polytheists can be monotheists and racism is "a symptom of the world's spiritual corruption," but "cultural chauvinism" is rampant. It's an incredibly toxic dynamic, but the authors don't notice because they're too busy reassuring the readers that these guys aren't the type of Christians who ban your favorite music and force you to go to church.

It's all probably a function of Revised Edition trying to make the Traditions do too much. The Celestial Chorus isn't just the Christian Tradition, it's the Jewish Tradition, and the backup Muslim Tradition, and the Tradition for non-Abrahamic monotheists who may have been grossly misrepresented by biased European ethnographers operating on a racist understanding of "paganism," but now White Wolf is bringing the game into the 21st century and recognizing that even orally-transmitted religions might have complex theological ideas. There's a seed here, an idea which might help bridge the gap. Maybe they really are people of different religions who share a common heresy and the Celestial Chorus is nothing more or less than "people who became universalists after they found out they had superpowers."

But if they are, they should probably kick out the Knights Templar.

One last weird thing is the three pages this book spares for discussing the True Faith merit. That was weird. True Faith lets you work miracles because of your faith in a deity. Mages can use magic because they believe strongly in their paradigm . . . in the Chorus' case, that's specifically a deity. What's the difference between faith and the uncommonly powerful beliefs that fuel magic? Um . . .

To Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus' credit, it does offer the suggestion that maybe Sleepers with True Faith should just be counted as mages, but it doesn't think much of the idea, saying that it "makes the game more internally contiguous" but it also "eliminates a wonderful little stumper." But . . . but, it's only a "stumper" when you ponder why two things with the exact same meaning have separate mechanical expressions. Let's just say it's a thing that bugs me and move on.

Overall, I'd say that Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus is a workhorse of a book. Less inspired than its 2e counterpart, but also less out on a limb (most of the sample characters were even Christian this time). There were two or three paragraphs at the beginning which annoyed me, but even then they weren't wrong so much as "trying to win a decades-old flamewar nobody can now remember." It's biggest flaw is that it tries to please every possible Celestial Chorus constituency and winds up being kind of bland as a result.

Ukss Contribution: Justice Blades. Each one is forged for a specific crime. The will cut the shit out of the guilty, but be dull and useless against the innocent. Not sure how I'm going to cope with a technology that will allow for the unambiguous identification of criminals, but I'm sure I'll think of something.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Aberrant Worldwide: Phase II

Worldwide: Phase II is an odd beast. It doesn't have nearly the same footprint on the Aberrant discourse as its predecessor. I've yet to see a flamewar centering around the plausibility of Szlaniskovich's plot to take over Ukraine (well, the book consistently calls it "the Ukraine," but that's just a 90s-ism). I haven't registered much impact even from the Ibiza scenario, where Project Utopia raids the Amp Room and sets off some truly terrifying nova rioting. My guess is that for all the flak the Pax v Mal fight gets, the dev's instincts about branding were spot on. Worldwide: Phase I has a headline fight and has become something of an immortal book, Phase II doesn't and so it fell into obscurity, despite being nearly as momentous a contribution to the Aberrant canon.

Or maybe it's just a case of series decay. There was a certain audience for Worldwide: Phase I and the audience for Phase II was logically just a proper subset of that and it just turned out that they weren't a large enough bloc to keep the memory alive. It's hard to say, though I think it's probably not a coincidence that the strongest of the four adventures is also the one that's the most on-brand.

With the exception of one line (WW gratuitously reminding us that some men are using the breakdown of civic order on Ibiza to form "rape gangs") the Chapter 4 scenario is pretty fun. We see the return of some old friends, "Ironskin" Andy Vance and Jake "the Dragon" Korelli, and this time they're consistently called "husbands." You get to rescue fan favorite character Raoul Orzaiz and the less prominent but charmingly named Ragnarockette. The villain is a creepy weirdo whose thinly sketched motives play well with the game's larger media satire (basically, he wants to kill a couple of famous novas on live TV so that he'll debut high up on N!'s mercenary rankings list). At one point, an orbital kinetic weapon shows up.

It's a versatile scenario. You can play it as a fun action-adventure romp, a daring rescue mission into a super-powered soccer riot or you can talk about some serious themes. If Team Tomorrow are the cops, then what this story is really about is a no-knock raid gone disastrously wrong (Team Tomorrow threw flashbang grenades and didn't announce themselves, prompting the Amp Room bouncers to start defending themselves, then all hell broke loose). There's even a sideplot where you have to "recover" some embarrassing footage from a journalist and it includes the line "if the characters work for Utopia the complaint [from the journalist, about having her shit stolen] is conveniently lost." It's not prescient, because stuff like that has been going on for a lot longer the last 20 years, but it's kind of funny the way that Aberrant sometimes went out of its way to get Utopia involved in these elaborate conspiracies and then just incidentally describes a more plausible form of corruption that would be reason enough on its own for people to want to abolish it.

Oh, and by the way, Project Proteus and the Bahrain facility are still around in Worldwide Phase II, which sort of implies that Utopia managed to hide its dirty laundry at the end of Phase I. Not the canonical outcome I'd have gone with, but I guess it would have been a little awkward for the last few books in the series to have one the major setting features self-destruct. The only explanation I can come up with is that they didn't know, at the time, that they were one print book away from the end of the line.

The middle two adventures are all right, though they are both variations on a theme - "what if a nova tried to take over the government." The methods are different - Arthur Anningsley wants to create a high-class secret society that places agents in the British government so that he can orchestrate the rebirth of the Empire, with himself as King, and Radu Szlaniskovich wants to recruit a gang of elites, loyal only to himself, to militarily conquer Ukraine while using artificial crises as a distraction to keep the UN from intervening - but they both rely on a similar structure - a shadow conspiracy that uses patsies to conceal the nova's involvement until it's too late.

They're fine adventures, even if it sometimes feels like White Wolf believes espionage thrillers are a more legitimate form of story than superhero adventure tales (Chapter 3 even has a sidebar titled "Roleplaying vs Roll-Playing" that encourages the GM to "enforce [their] right to 'go narrative'" when PCs prove too combat-optimized for the NPCs).

The only real complaint I have about them is a certain . . . problematic racial element that maybe I'm just being too sensitive to, given current events. The chapter where a nova tries to become the King of England says "it's one thing to have a third-world nation with a nova ruler . . ." And the chapter where a nova takes over Ukraine refers to it as "the blatant conquest of a first world nation." There's enough plausible deniability here that we can attribute these attitudes to Aberrant's global political order, rather than the authors, but it's still not a good look.

I think the best way to use this book would be ignore the timeline and do a full campaign, starting with a fixed version of Phase I's election plot, but emphasizing Randal Portman's attempt to uncover the "Sphinxes" (his name for mega-intelligent novas who manipulate society), then if he wins the election have him act as a patron to get the PCs involved in the two middle plots. After the PCs have gone up against a couple of Sphinxes and won, run the second, third and fourth adventures from Phase I, culminating in the revelation that there's secret manipulators working inside Utopia itself. Then, if you're sadistic, run the fourth adventure from Phase II, where a wounded Utopia tries to score a big win by capturing the Teragen red-handed, but winds up setting off a major humanitarian catastrophe. This will set up the fall of Utopia and you can just roll right into the pre-Aberrant war tension.

And if you've been paying close attention, you'll have noticed that there's one adventure I left out of the long arc. The first one in this book. It's . . . possibly offensive to Italian Americans, and almost certainly annoying to most Catholics, and even to the extent that it's not, it winds up sounding like a knock-off Dan Brown novel. The plot is that the Opus Dei is trying to frame the Pope for laundering money for the Mafia. Yadda yadda yadda . . . this is in service to their anti-nova agenda . . . yadda yadda . . . the PCs are being set up to take the fall. In the end, you exonerate the Pope of this specific crime, but it turns out he does have mob ties after all, and it's just . . . ill-conceived. It does have a nova with the power of slow disintegration, though, and that's properly terrifying.

To avoid going out on a bum note, I'll mention one last positive thing - there's a super cool trans superhero called The London Fog and she's treated with a surprising amount of grace. More than the trans character in Scion: Demigod, for sure. The text very consistently uses her proper pronouns, discusses her experience of dysphoria with sensitivity, and she's not a sex pervert or anything. Maybe a bit too media savvy and concerned with stuff like branding and endorsements, which can make her thrilling heroics seem a little less sincere, but that level of artifice is the default standard for the Aberrant setting, where even the villains sell their likenesses for action figures. There's an uncomfortable plotline where she's outed and deadnamed by The Sun, but the text treats that as the scummy act that it is and since The Sun is exactly the sort of paper that would do that sort of thing I guess it boils down to the question of whether it's appropriate to have realistically bigoted villains in an rpg.

I am curious as to why trans issues are handled so much better here than they are in a book written seven years later. My current theory, based on the very respectful way the Andy Vance/Jake Korelli relationship is handled, is that the Aberrant team had an LGBTQ member who did not go on to work on Scion.

Ukss Contribution: I almost made a big mistake here, luckily I was interrupted by work stuff and had time to think it over before hitting the "publish" button. My initial Ukss choice was the villain from Chapter 4, The Angel of Bones. He's a gaunt, wraithlike figure with giant skeletal wings and he can inject you with cancerous fat cells that cause you to swell up until you explode like an R-rated Violet Beauregarde. He's also kind of a petty dick and subsequently great rival-fodder for a typical group of PCs.

The only problem is his origin story. Before he became a nova, he was a man with an eating disorder. Instead of starving to death, he erupted and now he's an eternally hungry skeleton. His powers keep him alive, but they also ensure that he can never be satisfied by food. And while his dickishness doesn't directly stem from illness, it still seems a bit ableist.

My second choice had the same problem. ScarCrow was a mafia leg-breaker, but he was trapped in a fire, during his long, painful recovery he transferred his mind into another body, taking it over. Since the new body wasn't burned, he felt no pain. Now he jumps from one body to another to avoid feeling his terrible wounds.

Two villains, two cases of permanent injuries. And while it would be simplistic to say that their afflictions turned them into assholes, I get the uncomfortable feeling that maybe I'm supposed to be okay with their suffering because they're assholes. I'm not an expert on these issues, but it feels like a trope to me.

Third choice it is - slow disintegration. There's a villain that can touch someone and cause them to start rotting from the inside out. You find the body later and it might look normal until you touch it and it collapses into a pile of dust. I'm sure that there's some dark sorcerer of Ukss who could make use of that kind of attack.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Aberrant Worldwide Phase I

Hoo boy, was this book ever a roller coaster of emotions. It's a collection of four Aberrant adventures and I could have probably written four separate posts about it. There's so much drama and world-shaking action that I'm left wondering what they could possibly have held back for Phase II.

The first adventure is an election story, written in '99-'00 and it's . . .wrong. That's not such a great fault. I'm not surprised it's wrong. It's more the realization that I didn't understand jack shit about politics prior to 2016 and the author of this adventure was clearly in the same boat.

The plot revolves around a sinister far-right politician who attempts to frame the first nova major party candidate by stealing his diary and then selectively removing pages to make it seem like he was part of the global conspiracy he was actually trying to stop. And my thought when that information was introduced was, "why doesn't he just make up a whole bunch of gibberish?"

Similarly, there's a bit of in-character fiction where the secret service guy expresses doubts about Mark Green's morality because his limo drove by a passed-out kid in the street and he hesitated before doing the right thing and getting the kid some help. I was seriously confused by that section until I remembered, "oh, right, there was a time when we were disturbed by the thought that our leaders were merely performing empathy instead of being relieved when they didn't actively treat it with contempt."

Now, I don't want to get too nostalgic about the past here. My current political nihilism isn't because I think people have gotten worse over the past 20 years. It's more of an astonishment at the dirty tricks this guy is leaving on the table, despite the fact we now have empirical evidence that they'd work. The Senate Subcommittee on Nova Affairs doesn't want to drag Randal Portman into a spurious investigation because they're afraid it might backfire in an election year? Someone had much more faith in the media than history has proved warranted.

But I don't want to rag too much on it, merely for the fault of believing that democracy has rules and that reality would follow some kind of dramatic logic. It's not too long ago that I'd have agreed that it's difficult to be scared of a man with no virtues, that lies work best when they're rooted in partial truths, and that right-wing politicians would want to at least maintain the appearance of being statesmen, even as they looked for ways to smear their opponent. So I understand why this book makes the choice to have Mark Green be smart and hard working, for the Randal Portman conspiracy theory to be based on plausible events, for the Republicans in the Senate to not go scorched earth.

And, you know, to its credit it did anticipate the arc of the American far right. There's an excerpt from one of Mark Green's speeches and it quite eerily focuses on the theme that all the world is laughing at the US and includes the phrase "make America strong again." And there's a moderate conservative candidate who is basically Mitt Romney and has no chance in hell of winning.

Which brings us naturally to the thing that's ludicrous about this section - four major US political parties. Ah, I remember that being a popular 90s pipe dream, when it was possible to not understand that the inexorable mathematics of the first past the post voting system would guarantee the existence of precisely two viable parties. This was before people argued by slinging around youtube videos. A lot of us hadn't even heard the term "first past the post."  There was a sense that maybe a third party could come in and save us, if only the public had the courage to give them a chance.

So naive. What it means in practical Aberrant terms is the GOP saved its soul by splitting from the radicals of the American Eagle Party and that the incumbent is a female atheist Libertarian (adjectives arranged in order of increasing unlikelihood).

That was a surreal experience. As a white American male, I don't think I've ever been on the receiving end of a "research is hard, fuck it, let's go with something that sounds cool" before. And while that's not precisely what's going on here, it's close enough that I can tell it's a little bit insulting, a little bit funny, and a whole lot impossible to take seriously.

Okay, that's 750 words and I've used about half my notes for chapter one. It's tough to communicate exactly how weird this adventure is. It's like a time capsule of bad ideas. Every single page had some kind of bitter irony. The Libertarian president is undermining the federal agencies she's been entrusted to run, but she's "abandoned her lofty attempts at ethical hygiene" and is now taking bribes from "special interests" to back "big government," and gah! I mean, seriously ARGHH! Because she's also written as the adult in the room and I don't know what the hell is going on with this section. A corrupt political nihilist is dismantling federal oversight and feathering her nest by exploiting her position, but the author chose to write about her as if they worked for The National Review and the crux of the criticism is that she's not betraying the public trust fast enough to be entirely consistent with her stated principles. But at least it's not a sex scandal.

Oh, and there's a mega-intelligent nova who is plotting to manipulate the government from the shadows to impose his bizarre personal ideology. Step one: "undermine the American judicial system." How, you might ask? Simple: "con judges across the nation into making idiotic decisions. . ."

I'm just going to choose to interpret that as "ludicrously over-the-top absurd decisions like, maybe 'ice cream is a vegetable' or something," because I'm going to scream if I have to talk about a 20-year-old comic supervillain being less clownishly villainous than the current Senate Majority Leader.

Maybe I should just take a step back from this chapter and move on. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it usable? I have no idea how to begin to answer any of those questions.

Let's talk instead about how Project Utopia are total bastards. No, not Proteus. Utopia. It's kind of a running theme of the last three chapters, and if this book is about anything it's about Utopia facing its long-delayed reckoning.

It starts in Chapter 2 with Project Genesis, Utopia's plan to "terraform" the Sahara desert and holy shit where do I even start with that? Like, you can't just destroy the Sahara. It's a unique and irreplaceable ecosystem that has its own intrinsic value. On the other hand, it's also problematic to say that the land is so precious that the locals can't use it. Wouldn't want to get too deep into colonialist privilege and start valuing the ecology over human life, although I'm skeptical that small-plot agriculture is the economic panacea that Aberrant seems to think it is. Admittedly, it would be a great example of philanthropic hubris, were Aberrant the sort of game that thought in those terms.

The second adventure could be interpreted that way without too much of a stretch. It's all about Utopia's chief ecological mastermind, Antaeus, deciding to defect from the Project after the board members ignore his advice and accelerate the time table to finish in two years instead of five. The main obstacle to this interpretation is that it's repeatedly and explicitly stated that the board's motive is to score a PR win, which is exactly the sort of surface cynicism that so often obscures the deeper, richer veins of cynicism that could be had with just a little bit more effort. What if the board started buying into its own hype and sincerely believed their cause was so important that they could ignore the mega-intelligent expert and recklessly push ahead . . . and the PR windfall was just a nice little bonus?

Although, as interesting as the Antaeus vs the suits conflict is, the adventure buries the lede. What the story is really about is Project Utopia's grotesque abuse of nova labor. This isn't one of those cases where there's plausible deniability and we can talk about a writer intending to depict a heroic organization, driven to extreme measures by extreme circumstances. This is straight-up proletarian horror, where the bosses work you till you drop, feed you drugs to get you back on your feet, and then keep working you until the side effects of those drugs send you to a "rehab facility" where you're never heard from again.

That, incidentally, is not a leftist interpretation of the text. It's just literally a summary of a major subplot.  Harmattan is a local boy who starts off bright-eyed and idealistic, a true believer in Utopia's mission who is thrilled to be assigned to help out his home country. He works 96-hour shifts, straining the limits of even his mega-stamina. Fortuntely, "the Project is very generous with doses of adrenocilin to help its novas overcome fatigue and use their powers more efficiently." Of course, pushing your powers gives you Taint, and using drugs to push powers gives you lots of Taint (in the fiction; in the rules Taint is mathematically improbable). Taint mutates the body and mind, and can make a nova act erratically. So erratically, in fact, that a team of PCs is sent in to stop Harmattan when he breaks down and creates a massive sandstorm to protect himself from the assassins he's convinced are lurking around every corner. In the (not guaranteed) event that he is captured alive, he's sent to a secret medical facility for "care" (scare quotes in the original). Either way, the official story is that he died tragically in the line of duty, little more than a month after he joined the Project.

It wasn't Proteus that did that. It was Utopia, as a matter of official policy. The chapter states that this sort of thing was going on all the time, even if Harmattan was the only one with an extreme enough reaction to warrant PC intervention. Some novas are even "euthanized" (ie, murdered) for the taint caused by the work Utopia was telling them to do. I know it's just meant to be a backdrop for the real adventure's political drama, but the whole plot makes my blood boil. It's well-drawn villainy, but it somehow flies under the radar and the text will later pretend that Utopia is an organization that could still be redeemed.

Meanwhile, Proteus is somehow being even worse. Their dirty laundry comes to the forefront in Chapter 3, which is all about how a taint-addled nova is threatening to unleash a plague that is projected to kill between 5-10% of the world's population (and I can't even with this . . . I . . . can't . . . even). The reason he's got such a bee in his bonnet is because Project Proteus literally kidnapped and enslaved him. As in, they dragged him out of his home, pumped him full of mind-altering drugs, and telepathically tricked him into working in a field.

"He was a radical cult leader who was rapidly becoming a danger to himself and others" stops working as a justification for involuntarily committing him when the first thing you do with him in captivity is economically exploit his abilities in a way that you know will exacerbate his underlying condition. It's an absolute mockery of medical ethics, and the second or third most monstrous thing anyone's done in the official Aberrant metaplot (both the other examples I'm thinking of are from Aberrant: Terragen, although ironically Proteus covered one of them up because the perpetrator was a member of Team Tomorrow at the time).

In the end, the nova in question dies. He either blows himself up to create the plague, is slain by the PCs to prevent him from doing that, or is "euthanized" by Utopia. His best possible ending is being rescued by the Teragen, having a moment of lucidity, and killing himself. Just an utter tragedy, one born not just of fear, but of cruelty and arrogance. Proteus believes it has the right to make life and death decisions for the entire planet, and they've grown callous with their power.

So, how much blame does Utopia bear for its actions? That's the question that dominates chapter 4, when Andre Corbin decides to turn himself in and reveal everything he's learned as part of the superhero underground. The mystery of Slider's death gets resolved and the Teragen uses the media circus to stage a raid on the worst of Proteus' "treatment facilities." The end result is that all of Utopia's dirty secrets come to light at once . . . unless you're playing as Utopia or Proteus, in which case you have the chance to bury them.

The tricky thing about this section is that it tries to have it both ways. Utopia is still a force for good, but they were deceived and infiltrated by Proteus, which parasitically used its resources to advance its authoritarian agenda. But it just doesn't work.

I think we can set aside the contradiction between this book saying that the head of Utopia was "horrified" to learn about Proteus with the claim in Aberrant: Project Utopia that he was "painfully aware of even the shadiest of Proteus operations." That seems less to me like dissembling and more like a failure of communication between authors. Let's just assume for a moment that the Utopia leadership was genuinely in the dark (and, fuck, let's pin the atrocious labor conditions from Chapter 2 on Proteus too).

Does that really let Utopia off the hook? It says something awful about their internal culture that this sort of thing was able to go on for so long. The leaders were asleep at the wheel and thus Proteus was able to wield power without accountability. The result is suffering and death and the bloody hands at work drew paychecks from Utopia's coffers. Such a profound degree of ignorance for such a long period of time is negligent at best. At worst, it seems willful. I'm not sure Utopia as an organization deserves to survive . . . or at least not in its current form . . .

You know, now that I think about it, between the election being a referendum on white nationalism, the virus, and the collapse of trust in an unaccountable law enforcement institution Aberrant Worldwide Phase I could probably be adapted into an astonishingly relevant 2020 superhero story. At the very least, if anyone out there was planning on doing one of those page-by-page breakdowns, now would be the time to strike while the iron was hot.

Oh, and I guess I should talk about the infamous thing from this book, the one that everyone mentions as an example of White Wolf falling in love with its canon NPCs - the Divis Mal v Cestus Pax fight. Honestly, it's not that big a deal. It's a big-budget spectacle that feels like it should be a climax to something, but it's actually not relevant to anything that happens in the adventure. It mostly serves as an excuse to take the heavy hitters off the board so that the Teragen's Bahrain raid can be played as a normal super vs super brawl. Maybe not the most elegant plot device in the world, and one only necessitated by the dubious decision to make the NPCs overpowered (especially Mal - the biggest disappointment in the fight was how effortless it was for him to defeat the setting's signature heavy), but the best way to run it is probably just to have the PCs learn the details from social media later that day. It matters that little to what the PCs should ostensibly be interested in.

The worst part of Chapter 4 for me was actually that it so thoroughly validated the Teragen as an organization. If this was the only book you'd read about them, you'd think they were heroes. I guess that's just what happens when a line has this many writers.

Ukss Contribution: The investigation into Slider's death has a section that details how unaffiliated characters might get involved, and in a quick parenthetical aside it lists the sort of unaffiliated novas who might take an interest - "elites, novox singers, and xwf shootfighters." Mercenaries are sort of "meh" for me, but the thought of a pop star and a pro wrestler teaming up to solve mysteries fills me with delight.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

(M: tAs)Lost Paths: Ahl-i-Batin and Taftani

Lost Paths: Ahl-i-Batin and Taftani had only one "oh shit" moment for me, but it was a doozy. They were talking about Muhammad and they put the word "prophet" in scare quotes. I mean, I'm not a Muslim and I don't believe Muhammad was a prophet of God, but even I can recognize that's profoundly insulting. It's all part of an extremely sketchy plotline where the Ahl-i-Batin are attributed with creating Islam by telepathically implanting a suggestion into his mind.

They sort of leave themselves an out, by saying that it's merely a story the Batini tell themselves, but it's presented in a pretty authoritative manner. Nonetheless, it's a bizarre artistic choice. Even when Celestial Chorus was entertaining the idea that Jesus might have been a mage, they were never sarcastic about him being the "messiah." It's especially weird when you consider that the Ahl-i-Batin are basically "the Muslim Tradition."

The book attempts to reconcile this by claiming that the Batini are devout Muslims despite believing they invented Islam, but that's just . . . most mages have a heretical take on sleeper religions, presumably due to living in a different universe than the one where they were created, but few of those heresies are such laser-targeted blasphemy. Since the rest of the book seems more or less respectful of its subjects, I think we're just going to have to chalk this one up to a writer being too clever for his own good and missing the forest for the trees.

If we mentally decanonize that one page, the rest of the book is mostly all right. The Ahl-i-Batin are subtle . . . a trait we can discern by the fact that everything they do is modified with the adverb "subtly." They subtly maneuver the Traditions towards their agenda, subtly assassinate those who stand in their way and subtly fight the Technocracy for control over the magical resources of the Arabian peninsula . . . with subtlety.

It gets a little ridiculous at times, but it's a decent hook for a faction. I kind of wish they got knocked on their asses a bit more often, if only because allowing them to get away with it all the time makes their rivals look incompetent. Sometimes, people try to be subtle and fail. I guess you can't have them be chumps in their own book, but it bugs me when fiction tries to build up a character by having them run circles around our established faves.

That's a minor point, though. The Ahl-i-Batin do something I wish all the Traditions did - they have a unique proprietary magic. They, alone of all mages, can take 6 or more points in Arcane (the background that makes the machinery of the mundane world forget your existence). And, while technically this benefit comes down to a particular rote, said rote actually breaks the rules of the game and would not be legal for PCs to construct. It's a pretty interesting effect, because the duration is one year per success and you can't cancel it voluntarily. You use it and you have to commit to losing your friends, family and various internet subscriptions for a period of years, and you don't know how many it'll be in advance, because the rote forces you to use all your successes.

This is my favorite kind of rpg power, where using it is the cost of using it. Mage needs more of that sort of thing, but its magic system is far too rational for that. I've been spoiled by the knowledge that Dark Ages: Mage is going to do this almost exactly right with its "Foundation and Pillars" system and I kind of wish that's what we were seeing here. The Ritual of Occultation was such an interesting mechanic that I wanted more Batini sorcery to play off it. As it was, they were just sort of generically Arabic in a detached, cerebral way. Their magic uses math and alchemy and sacred geometry reminiscent of Islamic non-representational art. They're cool, but shallow. Luckily, they're going to have another bite at the apple in White Wolf's best version of Mage.

Which just leaves us with the Taftani. They're probably Revised edition's best invention, but also, ironically, the one that should be most ignored. They're basically "Arabian Nights" sorcerers. They summon genies and put them into bottles, fly around on magic carpets, and curse fools with insulting poems. For a game that is so timid about its magical elements, it's refreshing to have such a bold, brassy faction. According to their philosophy, coincidental magic is for cowards.

In some ways, it;s a step back towards second edition. Billion-dollar fighter jets versus magic carpets over the Rub Al Khali. A neat image; I love it, but a little too over-the-top for the tone  Revised is trying to create. However, it does occasionally reach a happy medium that I think Revised could use more of. For example, one of the Taftani has made a sanctum out of a dilapidated building in New York City and filled it with all sorts of fantastic, if stereotypically "Arab" fantastic luxuries. It's something perfectly rules-legal, but thus far gently discouraged by the fiction - people who really enjoy using magic and exploit it to make their lives better.

I enjoy the thought of a World of Darkness with those kind of bright corners - people and places that are shrouded in miracles. You wander into a strange building or the wrong sewer pipe or the Saudi Arabian desert and suddenly you're in a fantasy world. People will attack you if you try, however, because these places can make you rich and powerful.

Aside from that, there was something surreal about reading about Afghan mages in a book written before 9/11. The Taftani have a modest truce with this obscure group you've never heard of . . . the Taliban (the text always italicized it, for some reason). They don't make much of it, but I have to assume that it was possible, even in 2000, to learn about the Taliban's crimes against humanity (then again . . . the Taftani's bi-annual get together is called "the Haram" . . . which does not seem like an apt use of that word). It winds up feeling a little gross at times, but mostly it's pretty easy to ignore. The Taftani are hermits who like to live in clouds and challenge each other to fireball-hurling duels. They don't live in our world, so there's no reason to mix them up with real-world cruelty.

Overall, this was a decent book. It makes the World of Darkness' West Asia and North Africa into a weird fantasy setting . . . which is something I wish they'd do more with North America and Europe, but you can't have everything.

Ukss Contribution: I really love the Taftani, but my favorite detail is the Ahl-i-Batin's mystic labyrinths. It's a nice bit of both symbolism and imagery and I think it could be the basis of some neat magical rituals.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

(M: tAS) Tradition Book: Akashic Brotherhood

It somehow feels wrong for me to be doing something so frivolous when such serious events are happening around the country, but I'm stuck here at the hotel all night anyways, so . . .

Maybe I could talk about the protester sample character. It was a little surreal to see "You believe in resistance, not violence, and don't condone the use of force except in self-defense. However, property is a fair target" written in a 20-year-old rpg book. If I'd read Tradition Book: Akashic Brotherhood even a week earlier, I probably would have thought nothing of it.

Honestly, though, that's pretty much the only notable thing about that particular character. I've already exhausted her critical possibilities. Nevertheless, it gives me an excuse to say that I support the current protests and that black lives matter, which ordinarily wouldn't be relevant to a book about kung-fu wizards, but is something I need to say to give myself mental permission to write about them.

Now, about those kung-fu wizards. Tradition Book: Akashic Brotherhood makes the curious choice to downplay the kung-fu and the wizardry. I think the impulse came from a reasonable place - there's more to Asian culture than martial arts, more to Asian spirituality than Buddhism, but in attempting to rebut those stereotypes, they've firmly established that the Akashic Brotherhood is "the Asian Tradition."

There's really no other way to succinctly describe their depiction in this book. "For every Kannagara monk or modern samurai, there is a Shi-Ren working his magic through bows and handshakes." At some point, you become so effective at destroying the stereotypes that you also destroy the brand.

Like, who are the Akashic brothers, even? They're Shaolin monks and also (as of revised canon) the people who destroyed the Shaolin temple. They're ascetic renunciates and high-powered board room types. They are Buddhist and Shinto and Jain and also the kind of Christian that takes any of the above and turns it into a metaphor for the life of Christ (though my knowledge of Christianity in Asia is not nearly deep enough to tell you whether it's an offensively shallow new-age thing or one of those locally-adaptive heterodoxies that you see from time to time). There's no one thing that ties them together because there's no one thing that ties Asians together.

Therein lies the problem, though. "Asian" isn't really a thing you want to base a splat upon. There should be Asian mages, obviously, but when you start talking about full Traditions, Asia is far too big and diverse to try and get everyone into the same one. I don't know enough to say how many would be enough, especially with the way that millennia of cross-cultural contact really has spread certain mystical and theological ideas far and wide. I looked up "Dual Shinto" and it's a real thing, so I can't say that there's no way an ancient Indian sect could somehow make its way to Japan and integrate with its native counterparts, even if saying "Samurai and Kung Fu masters are basically the same thing" sounds wrong to me.

I suppose you could look at it as an East Asian version of the Order of Hermes. The Order is basically just "European occultism" and if different practices contradict each other or come from historical rivals or innovate in ways that older members would find blasphemous, they just stick it into a new House . The Akashic Brotherhood's sects and sub-sects and allied small-t traditions could all have nominal independence and merely cleave together politically.

Though that raises the question of "what is a Tradition, exactly?" As near as I can tell, Traditions serve three main functions in the Mage: the Ascension lore. The first is that some exemplify a particular occult practice, stripped of cultural context. The purest example of this is the Cult of Ecstasy, which represents ecstatic mysticism regardless of whether it comes from ancient Dionysian cults, ecstatic offshoots of more staid religions like Sufi Islam or LSD-fueled new age enlightenment. However, a few of the other Traditions also get this kind of treatment, especially if you go with their early 1e presentation - Euthanatos are mages who transgress the boundary between life and death, Virtual Adepts are mages who use computers, etc.

The second function is to embody one of the nine spheres of magic. That's how I think the Dreamspeakers really got their start. There was a Spirit Sphere and it was an idea that was just foreign enough to early-90s suburban Georgia that "organization of mystics who call upon spirits" wasn't seen as the impossibly vague thing it actually was. The Verbena and the Euthanatos are also good candidates for serving this function.

The third and final function of a Tradition is to represent a particular culture, and this is the toughest one of all, because White Wolf's idea of what cultural milestones it needed to hit were . . . eccentric. So you've got the Celestial Chorus, which represents all of Christendom, and includes representatives from other monotheists and from polytheists who believe in a unifying divinity, but you've also got the Hollow Ones, who are, you know, Goths.

The Akashic Brotherhood winds up trying to serve all three functions, and as a result is highly weird. First, it's the Tradition of "people who use physical discipline to channel magic" and that's why the Roda d'Oro teaches Capoeira. Second, it's the Tradition of Mind, which is why you've got Buddhist monk "mind control specialists" who "implant devious suggestions that are worthy of NWO brainwashing in terms of their efficacy." And thirdly, you've got all that stuff about Asia that I said earlier.

The net effect is that after reading 100 pages about the Akashic Brotherhood, I'm more confused than ever as to what they actually are.  On the one hand, it's clear that Revised edition is attempting to reconcile all the disparate threads of what Mage has been over the years while simultaneously moving it towards what it's always claimed to want to be. On the other hand, when the paradigm section tells me "When an Akashic Brother lives according to the principles of Drahma, she naturally invokes the power of All, as she always acts in accord with the dynamic forces that surround and permeate her" I have no earthly clue how to put that to use.

I'm largely out of my depth when it comes to assessing this book. I think what it comes down to is whether or not "Drahma" is an acceptable rpg term. Dragons of the East explained the origins of Drahma, but it's repeated here - "Drahma" is a polyglot portmanteau - the Tibetan word "Drala" and the Sanskrit word "Dharma." Taken together, they're supposed to have a mystical meaning ("the law of transcending the enemy") that informs the Akashic Brotherhood's spirituality. My knee-jerk reaction is that this is fundamentally ridiculous and transparently a cover for the first book's typo, but maybe a lot of thought went into it. Maybe it's exactly the sort of idea that educated people would expect from a book about kung-fu wizards. I don't know enough to say.

Ukss Contribution: Best idea in this book, bar none, was the Midnight Ocean. "Their path to the Drahma was an unusual one: piracy."

You won't believe how excited that sentence made me. They'd already spent the bulk of the book thoroughly confusing the Akashic Brotherhood's identity by trying to make it fit anywhere in Asia, but then 10 pages from the end they throw in one last, thoroughly un-White Wolf idea. "Fuck it, they're pirates too," I thought, and then imagined kung-fu wizards as modern day pirates in the South China Sea as filtered through a gothic punk aesthetic and immediately prepared to take back every mean thing I was planning on saying about this book.

But then they chickened out. They were pirates in the 14th century. Now, they "have forsaken the sea for the streets, the stock market, and the internet." Boo, I say. Making your signature Akashic Brotherhood cabal into white collar criminals doesn't serve to break stereotypes, it serves to obliterate what was interesting about them in the first place.

So, in the end, I'm too annoyed to try and adapt the book's best element. If I tried, I know I'd just get hung up on how it was a near miss. I'll go with my second choice, the name "Hundred Killer," even if I am highly skeptical that it "sounds less violent in Sanskrit."