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."

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