Friday, June 19, 2020

(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.

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