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.

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