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.

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