Thursday, July 30, 2020

(M:tAs)Mage Storytellers Handbook

This may be it folks, peak White Wolf pretentiousness! We did it!

Oh, sure, the Introduction to The Aberrant Player's Guide might have been snootier, but here we've got the most pretentious book of the most pretentious editions of the most pretentious game in White Wolf's arsenal. It's truly something to behold.

I don't mean to be cruel about this. There's actually something pretty charming about suggesting the GM bring rusty nails to a session in order to activate the players' sense memory, or dropping terms like "mise en scene" when you really mean "use body language to enhance your descriptions." I wouldn't recommend actually doing the nail thing, but hey, they're trying to bring something new to this and I get it. Cosmo published sex tips in every issue.

What is perhaps less forgivable is the way they set aside six pages to give us a very white, very male, and (still!) very truncated history of philosophy. I remember when I was 20 years old, reading this book for the first time, it was exactly what I wanted to hear - I was a fan of Mage: the Ascension, a "graduate level" (actual quote) game.


As embarrassing as it is to admit that in 2020, I do still have some affection for the old White Wolf. The section titled "Elements of Storytelling" contains the line "If you stopped and chuckled at the word 'fun' then this section is for you."  It's as profound a self-own as I've ever seen, so much so that I can almost forgive it for the fact that the two-page essay to follow wasn't very much fun at all.

That's probably the biggest flaw of this book. It is written by and for the sort of people who view GMing as an art form and subsequently have the patience for a 4000-word lecture about why the artistic choices of Revised edition were completely justified. I know I'm hardly one to talk, but . . .At its best, this book is like a symposium for people who really love Mage, and at its worst . . . well, you probably don't need me to finish that sentence for you.

There's a reason it took me 8 days to read, even given the hotel's ludicrously busy and dangerously under-masked weekend (hey, who's the "lowly desk clerk at the hotel" now, Mage Storyteller's Handbook NPC advice section?)

I don't want to imply that it's all terribly dry. Truthfully, even the long section where it explains how to rip off movies was engagingly written, and something I likely would have tolerated better in less stressful circumstances, and there are long sections that talk about things like historical settings, alternate game mechanics (apparently, the magic system is slow and frustrating on purpose), and the mysticism of the Avatar that were genuinely inspiring.

I especially enjoyed learning that, canonically, "dozens of other alien species have been recorded . . . all appear to avoid the Horizon by traveling through physical space" because a)it's super weird, and b)it just completely blows up the setting metaphysics. I had the vague recollection that somewhere in one of these books, they debunked the idea that Copernicus moved the Sun, but it wasn't in the Storyteller's Handbook FAQ, so maybe I imagined it. Nonetheless, this is a big win for Copernicus. It's not clear whether these aliens have their own Consensus or not, but they do use magic (some of them are in spaceships, some of them fly around on rune-covered beasts), so we can't really say that humanity is the center of the universe.

The other big canon development is that the Ascension War is back . . . sort of. The book is kind of wishy-washy about it, and at one point it says "neither side is 100% right nor 100% wrong. Instead they represent the eternal debate between Personal Freedom (the Traditions) and Public Responsibility (the Union)," ensuring that a generation of flame wars would continue on unabated. Still, the book takes time to set up the Rogue Council plot and makes sure to remind us that the Technocracy are still officially the bad guys. It's kind of weird that the book is changing course while trying to pretend it's not changing course, but I think 2002 me was a little too hard on this plot development.

I guess I felt like I had to stand up for science. Yes, this book had a sidebar where it quite explicitly states that the Technocracy is more concerned with its own power than the honest pursuit of scientific truth, but it also has an alternate history where the Sons of Ether don't defect, but instead reform the Technocracy into a freedom-loving organization and it's "contrary to the idea of only observable and deducible phenomena having merit." You can say that you're not anti-science all you want, Mage, but if you keep acting as if measuring something intrinsically degrades it, that's always going to ring a bit hollow.

Overall, I'd say that the Mage Storytellers Handbook is the least essential of the Revised books so far. If you're not a Mage superfan, you can safely give it a pass. If you are a Mage superfan, you can read it once and then subsequently give half of it a pass. It was nice to see an attempt to make Mage more versatile, but I think that the system is not nearly robust enough to make that more than a niche goal.

Ukss Contribution: One of the suggested alternate settings was Prehistoric Mage. The sales pitch was only so-so, but one thing caught my eye: "warriors channel the spirits of bears, boars, and other great beasts." Boar warriors sound pretty cool to me.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Wild Talents (Second Edition)

I really should have broken this game into two posts. I've got two such strong theses for the rules and setting sections that they are battling for space in my mind. They are "headshots will kill you dead" and "wow, the USA can do no wrong," respectively and now that I think about it, maybe it's best if I let these impressions stay in the background because while they are both accurate, they are also incomplete.

Wild Talents uses the ORE ("One Roll Engine") and it's a very . . . clever system. I mostly mean that as a compliment. It is often satisfyingly clever, but it's also occasionally clever in a way that outsmarts itself and leads to the system driving the story, rather than the players' decisions.

The way it works is that you roll a number of 10-sided dice based on your character's traits and then the rules pull a number of relevant pieces of information out of that roll. The main thing you're looking for is matches. If at least two of the dice show the same number, the action succeeds. If more than two show the same number, that is called "width" and is used to determine various properties of the action - usually how fast it happens, but also, with attacks, its overall damage and its ability to penetrate defense. The system also cares about what number you match. That's called "height" and usually determines how effective your action is, hit locations on attacks, and is used to overcome difficulties. Sometimes you're going to care about extra matches at different heights (this is the mechanic behind the extra action system) and sometimes you're going to care about the values of your unmatched or "loose" dice. It's a pretty elegant way to get a quantity of information that normally takes several rolls in other systems.

With special powers you can gain "wiggle dice" that allow you to replace one of your dice with any value you like or "hard dice" that replace one of your dice with an automatic 10. And this is where the game starts to get out of hand. Hard dice cost double the xp as regular dice. Hyperskills (skills which are superpowers and thus susceptible to power-dampening effects . . . making them identical to skills 99% of the time) have half the cost of regular skills. Getting five hard dice in a hyperskill has the exact same cost as raising a regular skill to five. In combat, a set of 10s indicates a headshot. Each die in the set does one point of damage. The head has four health levels. For approximately 2.5% of the cost of an average character, you can guarantee instantly fatal headshots on every combat action, with one extra width to spare in case your opponent tries to defend. Such a character would be only moderately optimized.

The book on some level accepts this. There's a sidebar where it discusses how a starting character can permanently extinguish the sun. It costs 44 points per die. In theory, if you were willing to take the "+1 die for taking an extra turn" bonus and just roll ~10 times, you could do it with approximately 1/6th of your 250 character creation points. To do it reliably takes 2 hard dice, for a total of 176 character points, leaving you enough to be an average person besides (being able to snuff out any star in the visible universe costs 61 points per die, which is still attainable, though doing it reliably would not leave you enough points to have a character).

They say that "In Wild Talents, we trust you, the players, to build the kinds of character you want to build" which is kind of a nice sentiment, but also kind of a cop out. I may have the authors' trust in these matters, but I certainly don't have my own. Even if we talk about excluding obviously game-breaking stuff like the power to wipe out all matter in the universe, it's still ridiculously easy to make unbalanced characters. In theory, you could strip the effects-based power system down to its basics, cap special dice, and trust that similarly sized dice pools cancel each other out, but in doing so you'd be throwing out most of the game's options. Ultimately, the power-design system is so open-ended that it forces your rpg group to basically be designers. I don't hate it, but it's deceptive about the amount of buy-in you're going to need.

It's not a system that's helped by the vagueness of the point costs. Basically, you can divide powers into one of three categories - Attack, Defense, and Useful. And "Useful" is a category that includes anything that's not explicitly an attack or defense. So, for example, the ability to permanently change lead into gold is 5 points per die (2 for a useful power + 4 for a permanent power -1 for only working on lead). The ability to change anything into gold is 6 points per die (because it doesn't have the lead prerequisite). The ability to change anything into anything is 10 points per die (add +4 for the versatile tag).  Also costing 10 points per die - telekinesis. Because it can be used for attack, defense, and utility and it needs the ability to work at a range and affect a certain amount of mass (one of these capabilities is free, the other cost 2 points per die, but must be bought separately for attack and usefulness.)

It's a system that requires you to consciously and skillfully navigate not just your own expectations, but those of the group as well. To, in essence, max-min, but deliberately parsing abilities to be more limited than they otherwise might, because the only thing standing between you and limitless cosmic power is the flexibility of the word "useful."

Which brings us back to the headshot issue. Four regular dice cost the same as two hard dice. The  regular dice get you a random level success approximately 50% of the time. The hard dice get you the maximum level of success 100% of the time. This holds true across every power, skill, and attribute in the game because it's baked into the math of how costs work. Relying on dice is a purely optional downgrade to your abilities. Thus any combat should reasonably boil down to characters just constantly shooting each other in the head to an almost comical degree. I'm seriously picturing the Boss from the Saints Row series, and the way that in later games all of their melee attacks were nut-shots with different contextual animations. It's one of those jokes that gets tired after 3-4 repetitions, funny again after 10 repetitions, and hilarious after 100. That's how I'm picturing ORE combat.

The funny thing, though, is that you can pay twice the cost of a hard die (4x a regular) to buy a wiggle die. The game charges you a premium for the opportunity to be less effective. The only time this seems remotely tempting to me is with combat powers, when you might want to target an arm or a leg for narrative purposes. Even then, it's an expensive cost for a situational power. You could probably make an argument for 1 wiggle die plus a large regular dice pool, for the versatility that comes with being able to add an extra width to any set without sacrificing your potential for automatic success (and such dice pools are more resilient to penalties, to boot), but it's likely not a coincidence that most of the statted NPCs have 2 hard dice in their utility powers.

In any event, I'd say that for Wild Talents to be a truly great supers system, it needs to bring some order to the chaos of its wide-open character creation. Suggestions that it's possible for the GM to add limits are near-useless, absent some guidance as to what the specific limits should actually be.

Which brings us to the setting. Sigh. It's largely fine, sometimes even amazing, except for the presence of one huge problem that makes the whole thing seem like a joke. The history chapter covers the Cold War in exhaustive detail, and at every point in the process it operates on the assumption that the USA is a global force for good. Imagine it's the late 90s, the USSR is still around for complex alt-history reasons, but it's on friendly terms with the USA and "Soon, even the Soviets were welcomed into backwards nations as helpful 'big brothers' and the fear and hatred against them quickly dissolved - particularly since America was always involved as well."

I don't want to downplay the tyranny or the cruelty of the USSR here, but that's just an absolutely off-the-wall reading of Cold War-era politics. So much of the world quite rightfully saw the First World as  bunch of economic vampires and the Soviet Union got a shit-ton of free influence based on the idea that they might help to keep the USA out. 

The section on India is particularly instructive. In alternate 2010, it's the world's 3rd-most powerful nation, and it's all thanks to embracing capitalism shortly after independence. They "knew that the Americans were idealistic and often foolish." This is in the wake of an Indian conquest of Pakistan that led to a Talent-driven war where "every major city in India, once ravaged by starvation, was burning." And it's an intersting dichotomy, because that starvation didn't deserve the passive voice there. It was something inflicted upon India, by British colonial misrule, and something the Americans in 1950 owned by proxy because the UK was firmly in their camp.  There's a very good reason the term "third world" was coined to describe nations like India attempting to forge their own path outside the American and Soviet spheres, and it's a shame that Wild Talents has forgotten that it ever meant anything but "poor."

But the weirdest thing about the setting is that despite being an absolute whitewashing of the USA's abhorrent Cold War conduct, and despite an uncomfortably Islamaphobic tone (pretty much the only time Muslims show up at all, it's as terrorists . . . or victims of India's and Israel's territorial expansion), it's also fairly ardently Democratic partisan. The only Republican president of the post WW2 era is Douglas MacArthur (a swift and decisive victory in Korea put him on the ticket instead of Eisenhower). And while he is treated with a certain generosity ("MacArthur's keen military mind saw the Soviet threat for what it was"), he's also attributed with completely botching his response to the civil rights movement (the words "Race War" are used - unfortunately, I don't know how it turns out because that's the first and last time the American Civil Rights movement was mentioned).

Following the MacArthur presidency is an unbroken streak of Democrats, including some of history's famous losers like Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. John F Kennedy even beats out Ronald Reagan, who is never heard from again. It's under these Democrats that the USA becomes beloved and trusted and eventually, in the 90s, under Robert Kennedy, makes peace with the Soviets so they can team up and fight the giant alien empires that surround us on both sides.

I wouldn't even call this "poorly aged," because I'm sure that even in 2010 this historiography was baffling. Maybe they're going for a "4-color" thing where the good guys are good and the bad guys are bad, but it's almost embarrassing how earnest this setting is about ideas that are just plain wrong.

Overall, I'd call Wild Talents a near-miss. With some more concrete character-creation suggestions and a new history that didn't kiss America's ass quite so much, it could be a real contender, but I'm forced to think of it as a curiosity - a book that inspires me to homebrew my own ORE supers system, but only intermittently gives me the tools necessary to do so,

Ukss Contribution: A psychopathic Talent built a robot and transferred his consciousness into it. The robot committed a bunch of war crimes and was mothballed. Later,it was taken out and reprogrammed and now it's a hippie who replaced the US Army iconography on its chest with a peace symbol. I like that, a pacifist war machine.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Player's Guide to the Fonts of Power

Where to get it: Dedicated website

I'm not entirely sure what I should do with this one. I really wish I'd gotten a chance to read it six months to a year from now, after it was finished. As it is, it's virtually unplayable in its current form. Oh, I suppose you could make an entire party out of the one finished class, but take it from me, it will break your heart to see these interesting spellcasting classes that look finished, but don't actually have any spells to cast.

I was a bit blindsided by that. It's not the creator's fault. I was warned that this wasn't a complete book, but that was several weeks ago and I forgot, and it wasn't until I was 90% of the way through it that I realized it. I should probably just hold off on writing about the book for a few weeks and see if more updates are forthcoming, but since I'm on something of a schedule here, I'll just talk about what I've seen so far.

It has a lot of potential. The rules themselves are complete and they look solid. I see a lot of D&D 4th edition influences, which is a thing that always makes me happy to see. It follows a common post-4e trend of using the skeleton of the game to support a more narrative style, which is something I'm going to hold off on discussing at length until the inevitable 4th edition post where I break down and go on a rant about how it was a much more narrative game than people gave it credit for.

Plus, I'm not sure how much of the 4e influence was intentional. It also has a lot of 5e in its DNA - making use of the advantage/disadvantage mechanic, proficiency bonuses, defenses keyed off every attribute (though they work like 4e defenses, rather than 5e saves), and class formatting that is very reminiscent of 5e's "class + specialization" style. It's entirely possible that the 4e-isms I was picking up on are second-hand.

Nonetheless, I liked it. Its best innovation is "downtime activities." Whenever you take a long rest, you've got the opportunity to pick one of a dozen or so special actions - you can use your downtime to craft items, bond with your fellow PCs, schmooze with NPCs, or give yourself a variety of bonuses for the next day. Some of the species and classes also have their own special downtime activities that can potentially become a key factor in your party's strategy. Overall, an interesting and flavorful mechanic.

It's not the rules that give this game its potential, though. The best part of the book, and unfortunately the part that still needs the most fleshing out, is its flavor and setting. The titular Fonts of Power are magical places in the world where you can craft magic items and bring the dead back to life, and I really would have liked to see a few specific ones described. Likewise, I love the Elementalist class. They wield pairs of opposing elements, and if they become too unbalanced towards one element or another, they suffer serious drawbacks even as their elemental spells become more powerful. Push too far, and they release an involuntary AoE attack that is among the strongest tools in their arsenal. It's exactly what I look for in a spellcasting class, and I really wish that their spells were already written.

Ultimately, this book is still too raw for me to really recommend, but it's worth keeping an eye on. If they ever do get to their planned kickstarter, I may well wind up reading it again.

Ukss Contribution: I'm a little dubious about doing one of these for an incomplete book, but there was such a charming idea that I would be remiss if I didn't steal it immediately. One of the PC species option is slimes. That would be weird enough, but they have cities. And the public transportation in these cities is pneumatic tubes. Slime-people zipping around in pneumatic tubes. I love it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Hollow Ones

I suppose my quest to read every single Mage: the Ascension book was bound to get me here sooner or later, but it's astonishing how you can know something is inevitable and still be completely unprepared for when it happens. I now have to explain to you exactly what the Hollow Ones are.

The wrong answer is that they are "the goth Tradition," but of the various succinct answers, that's probably the least inaccurate. Though if I were to judge by this book alone, I'd probably say that they're "the Tradition White Wolf wants to fuck." The male gaze is thick in Tradition Book: Hollow Ones, and if I've learned nothing else about our viewpoint character, Mark Moon, it's that he's an admirer of Penny Dreadful's rack.

Oh, okay, one of the writers is a woman and thus I can't be entirely certain where the perv factor is coming from. It may just be that when you've got a faction of sexy goths, one of the draws is that you can, indeed, be a sexy goth, but if that was the goal, it was not articulated well.

Transparent pandering to fetishes and niche 90s subcultures aside, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is attempting to do something with the organization. Not necessarily something that should be done, but it has its ambitions. If we take the book at its word, then the Hollow Ones are "the Romantic Tradition."

We probably shouldn't take the book at its word, however. The problem is that romanticism isn't an occult niche, it's a literary theme, one that is dead-center in the heart of Mage: the Ascension. One of the characters in the book attempts to describe the Tradition: "We're kind of a combination of Cultist of Ecstasy and Akashic Brother, with a pinch of Dreamspeaker and a shake of Verbena . . ."

That too is the wrong answer, but it gets at something. When we talk about the primacy of the individual, the favoring of passion over reason, and the virtues of beauty and nature, that could describe something like 8 of the 9 Traditions, with a near-miss on the 9th (probably the Virtual Adepts). It's probably not a coincidence. Much of our modern pop-culture occultism comes from exactly the same time period as the romantic movement. When you combine that with Mage's peculiar grudge against all of modern philosophy, romanticism becomes so ubiquitous as to be invisible. How this interacts with the game's postmodern ambitions is an exercise for someone who is capable of deeper levels of criticism.

I suppose you could make the argument that individual Traditions can foreground different aspects of the game's overall makeup. The Celestial Chorus deals with religious faith, the Dreamspeakers with being torn between two words, the Euthanatos with moral responsibility, and the Hollow Ones with romanticism. It's superficially plausible, but a few of the Traditions really make you stretch for it. Assuming it's true, though, how does Tradition Book: Hollow Ones stack up?

There's a character named Mysry. This doesn't really have anything to do with anything, except that if I'm truly expected to go full-on romantic here and embrace the moral value of aesthetics, then I might as well indulge my cattiness and point out that for aesthetics to actually count as a virtue, the aesthetics in question have to be good.

Ooh, okay, that may have been over the line. But in my defense, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones doesn't really engage with the idea that it's possible to cultivate taste. I think it's a preemptive defensive reaction. On multiple occasions, characters in the book make it a point to "refute" the "myth" that the Hollow Ones are snobby. Which is a shame, because their snobbishness was one of the best things about them.

The main character, Mark Moon, starts the book as a housing-insecure street artist, but later on his connections within the Hollow Ones get him a full-time job - as a dishwasher at a restaurant. Awakening to the mystical truth behind the material universe, gaining power over energy, chance, and time, and joining an international occult conspiracy - that's enough to get you onto the lowest rung of capitalism. It's a blind spot in the Mage setting, especially with Revised. People don't really use magic to make their lives better.

Which sort of short circuits the Hollow Ones as an organization. There's a long digression where Mark tells Penny about his ideal lifestyle and describes this overly precious fin de siecle rustic artist fantasy and it's almost embarrassingly basic, but it's also exactly the sort of thing the Hollow Ones would recruit off of. Join us and you can be the sort of aristocratic dilettante who writes poems about your horse and gets involved in wars that don't concern you.

Unfortunately, focusing on opulence and decadence would require the Hollow Ones to have standards and the book is not quite up to the task of squaring that with their theme of individualism. It comes close when the conversation turns to the topic of "posers," but I'm not clear if the authors were even aware of the hypocrisy. You are a unique, beautiful individual and no one on heaven or earth can judge you, but also, you've got to look cool while you're doing it.

There's probably something there. Magical artists who work wonders with their creations, but who pore the bulk of their artistic inspiration into making their own lives the greatest creation of all. By shaping their whole existence into the aesthetic, they can live heroically and thereby bring heroism out of the ideal and into the world. The Hollow Ones are those mages with the courage to live as a template for the men of a new age.

Putting a pin in the fascist subtext here (to quote the book "atrocity does not necessarily equate to a lack of romance"), that is sort of what Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is trying to do. Except that it fails. Probably because, in order to ignore the fascist subtext ("so much superstition, heroism, tragedy, and beauty permeates the Southern [antebellum] culture") it has to be incredibly shallow. The Hollow Ones have a sort of motto "We are Beings, not Doings. Don't do it. Be it."

Which . . . isn't . . . really . . . a thing. I guess you could cite that as justification for drawing similarities between the Hollow Ones and the Akashic Brotherhood, as the narrator did in the "external relations" section, but such a comparison positively reeks of an old-fashioned orientalist understanding of "Eastern mysticism" . . . that coincidentally was at its height during the historical period from which the Hollow Ones draw their inspiration. Maybe this Tradition can be defined as "people who, when asked what they think of the Victorian period, answer with references to sexual mores and ghost stories, and not, you know, the most rapacious imperialism the world has ever seen."

Or maybe their "don't do, be" philosophy is really just an excuse not to do shit. They want heroism without achievement, as if simply wearing some offbeat fashion was victory enough against the Technocracy (a near paraphrase). Despite the book's protestations that most goths are in their 30s now ("now" = 2002), there was a big sense of the unearned arrogance of youth running throughout the text. Maybe the Hollow Ones are people who are so insecure and desperate for identity that they commit to a cosplay lifestyle to fill the void. And maybe because they're mages, that actually sort of works. Certainly, the alternative seems to be that they are a group who centers their identity around a pattern of consumption and quite wrongly believes that this could ever be radical under capitalism . . .

But is there something mystical in that? Could you anchor not just a worldview, but a whole Tradition, equal in power to organized religion, alternative science, or the mystery of death itself, based on nothing but weaponized shallowness?

Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is betting you can.

Ukss Contribution: Well, one of the advantages of being shallow is that you can take an idea completely out of context and repurpose it however you want (something that's brought up explicitly in the paradigm section), so a good deal of Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is cool shit that easy to steal. I'll go with magical face makeup that blocks telepathy. Technically, it's just a focus and they couch it in more mystical terms than that, but it's pretty nifty as a magic item nonetheless.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

(M: tAs)Tradition Book: Euthanatos

Tradition Book: Euthanatos is interesting because it goes in the exact opposite direction as all the other revised Tradition Books. Instead of exploring more and more abstract death magic, it's actually about this specific weird group of guys with their own specific weird set of beliefs. They aren't the Indian mages. They aren't even the Hindu mages (that's the Celestial Chorus - hilariously making the Chorus represent most of the world's organized religions). They are a heretical cult that thinks they can heal the world by killing a sufficient number of assholes. It attempts to fulfill Mage Revised's globalist mandate by giving them a complex, idiosyncratic history. The Pomegranate Deme don't represent the Eleusinian mysteries, the Madzimbabwe ghost-summoners aren't the official religion of the historical Great Zimbabwe, and the Aided bear only the thinnest connection to Celtic mysticism. They're in an alliance with India's Charkravanti because 800 years ago, the mystic Sirdar Rustam went on an epic road trip, and they were the oddball death-worshipers that he just happened to find.

In a way, Mage does a disservice to the Euthanatos by making them a full Tradition. What they really need to be is small and insular, an esoteric order that gets really into its own peculiar theology. They believe that "purity and cruelty aren't necessarily opposites" and that "the Wheel [of karma] is beautiful, why go to all the trouble to escape it" and holy shit, they would absolutely be the dangerous cult you'd try to stop in a more reasonable game. But here, they're one of the big nine PC groups, so the book is kind of obligated to try and make them into protagonist material.

I'm not sure if it succeeds, but it does manage to be pretty challenging along the way. It accomplishes this through a framing fiction that I'm going to need to attach a content warning to (for child abuse and rape).

So, in the opening fiction, our viewpoint mages are in the process of delivering vigilante justice to a pedophile serial-killer and in the middle of their assassination, they discover that he has a wife. It's unclear the precise degree of her complicity, but she is definitely an accessory to his crimes. She's the one who keeps them fed while they're in the dungeon and she's the one who buries the bodies afterwards. Though the Euthanatos rescue some of the victims alive, by the time they get there, the kill count is at least 20. They dispatch the killer, but "she's salvageable."

It's interesting to me that the most morally fraught decision in Tradition Book: Euthanatos is an act of mercy. It's a pretty canny artistic choice, because it changes the framing of the discussion from "are they allowed to kill" to "are they allowed to unilaterally dispense justice?" There's a bit where the Celestial Chorus tries to use Mind magic to get Janine to turn herself in to the authorities, and the Euthanatos characters treat this like it's some kind of profound dick move, but it really is highly uncomfortable that she ends the book breathing free air. The fact that she did what she did because she feared for her life may matter for her karma, but I'm not sure her victims will rest any easier knowing that she's been conscripted into a cult of fate-shifting assassins.

There's a line here that sums up the Euthanatos pretty well - "They feared him because he would do the things no angel would do, and because, maybe, just maybe, he spoke with the voice of the true God." More than any other theme or aesthetic, it's this ethical hubris that ties the Tradition together.  It's the book's best quality, and it forces us to consider the Euthanatos seriously, but it's another example of one of these Tradition Books stumbling on to something that should be a general theme for all mages and trying to make it the specific property of a particular book. Does being able to tell infallibly the difference between the guilty and the innocent or between those who can be redeemed and those who can't somehow entitle you to make life and death decisions entirely on your own? Does it impose upon you the responsibility to do so?

The other interesting thing this book does is take the corruption of the Euthanatos a lot more seriously. The introduction says it best, "some portrayals of the Euthanatoi have been unbelievably grim and other have been apologist to a fault," but Tradition Book: Euthanatos actually puts in a good effort towards making them human. The metaphysical taint of Jhor Resonance is invoked a little too often, but the book does talk about how their ideal of pure justice is unattainable. The Euthanatos are rarely dispassionate in their assassinations. Sometimes they feel a righteous anger. Sometimes they enjoy their work just a little too much. Both can lead to Jhor.

"In all that pain and sin, in every act that kept us from being what you'd call good or just, we worked toward one fate - in the service of God."

Tradition Book: Euthanatos is in the running for "Revised book that most improved its subject matter," but I'm not sure it successfully makes the argument for the Euthanatos as a Tradition. In addition to them still being, you know, problematic as hell, there's also the small matter of magical style. They are all over the place. The section on foci basically just lists every major category of occult practice. You'd think the death-mages would be among the last of the Traditions to practice ritual sex magic, but you'd be wrong. I shudder to think about it. Then you've got groups like the Golden Chalice, which more or less canonically just practices Hermetic occultism, and you realize that the Euthanatos aren't organized around a paradigm, but rather around a goal.

That probably makes them the most realistic occult society in the Mage: the Ascension universe, but it takes the already confusing question of "what, exactly, is a Tradition" and makes it utterly intractable. On the other hand, they are one of the top three Traditions most likely to survive my "fuck it, the Council is made of Crafts" setting-hack more or less intact.

Ukss Contribution: There's a section, called "Legends of the Euthanatos," that clearly exists purely to drop plot hooks. One is about a conspiracy theory that "the Good Death was meant to engineer a messiah" by ensuring that certain powerful Avatars "coalesce into an apocalyptic god." This seems to me to be a good wrinkle to add to Hyborea's Avatar cult and the sort of background threat that can pop up again and again in the PCs' adventures.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers

The new batch of Tradition books all trend in the same direction - towards making the various Traditions more and more vague. Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers is the first time this has felt like an unambiguous improvement. The Dreamspeakers were already the vaguest of the Traditions, and while they're even vaguer here, the additional level of abstraction does manage to mitigate the racism behind the group's conception. Now that you can be a Christian theurgist or European pagan, the Dreamspeakers are less "miscellaneous brown-people magic" and more "miscellaneous magic, period."

Oh, perhaps that's a little unfair. The big problem the Dreamspeakers have is the Spirit sphere. The new unifying idea behind the Tradition is that they are the mages who believe in animism. It's a neat idea for a paradigm - everything is alive and by speaking to them in secret tongues and offering them respect and tribute, you can conjure miracles - but unlike every other paradigm in Mage: the Ascension, it is objectively true. There really are spirits out there and they can do shit for you if you ask politely. So, on the one hand, "petitioning the spirits" is supposed to be a mask for the regular sphere system - you want to start a bonfire, you whisper to the spark-sprites and ask them for a favor, but that's really just a Force 3, Prime 2 effect - except that there really are spark-sprites and you really can just ask them for a favor. Having Spirit 2 will guarantee that you make contact, but if you happen to see one out and about, there's nothing stopping you from asking, and maybe that will work.

It's not necessarily a problem that there are multiple ways to accomplish the same objective, but it's a little strange that one sphere is notionally versatile enough to replace the whole magic system. The redundancy was obviously an accident, because Mage inherited the Umbra from Werewolf, but that just highlights the problem - spirits are simply a fact of life. They are a magical thing that exists prior to and outside of belief, and thus are something that every mage's paradigm needs to be flexible enough to accommodate. That they can canonically do all the same things as Sphere magic is just a rules inconsistency.

But because every Tradition does magic that targets, communicates with, and controls spirits, the Dreamspeakers don't really have anything to do. They manipulate reality by talking to spirits, but they talk to spirits with methods that are redundant with other Traditions. The Dreamspeakers use ecstatic consciousness, they bridge the gulf between life and death, and whatever it is that the Verbena are doing, they're probably doing more.

In the words of the book, "The Dreamspeakers are well-suited for a game in which the PCs are the only recurring magical element in an otherwise mundane society." Which is both a stunningly good pitch and something that cuts right to the heart of what this discussion is all about. It's The Spirit Ways all over again. Dreamspeakers are just mages. Ultimately, what they do is nothing more or less than magic. It's a particular expression of magic, one that focuses on relationships and negotiations, where your spells are also characters, and thus it's not perfectly aligned with Mage's sensibilities, but it could stand on its own. It might even be better if it stood on its own.

That's kind of the paradox of the Dreamspeakers. Their Tradition book makes the persuasive case that they should exist even while it's also demonstrating the fact that they should not. "It is the only one of the nine Traditions where someone can be a fully functional mage without ever having a physical teacher."

Not only is that part of a weird runner where random people are seen to awaken as Dreamspeakers, just because they have an innate ability to perceive the spirit world, it also describes what should be a fairly generic mage concept - that seekers might gain mystical knowledge from gods, demons, and the ghosts of their ancestors. The thing where sensitive souls have intimate discussions with their household appliances is a solid idea, but it's hard to reconcile the quirkiest elements of the Dreamspeakers with the sacred ideas that are supposed to be at the Tradition's core. As a fantasy magic system, it works, but as a metaphysical position in White Wolf's game of philosophical squabbling it's shallower than what it needs to be. Ultimately, despite this book's good intentions, it's probably held back by the Dreamspeakers' racist origins. The original faction didn't have enough of an identity to keep it together, and thus the new, more culturally-neutral identity is not quite enough to make it a distinct faction.

One last bit of interesting new canon - Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers has reversed course on the Tradition's relationship with the werewolves. Before, they were on friendly terms because White Wolf drew a fairly straightforward connection between the spirit world and environmentalism and thus the hippiest of the new age mages and shapechanging servants of Gaia seemed like natural allies.  Now, the werewolves reserve a special ire specifically for the Dreamspeakers, precisely because they have so many overlapping interests. For their part, the Dreamspeakers think the werewolves have an overly narrow view of the spirit world and place too much importance on their own particular hierarchy. It's an interesting dynamic, but also a total retcon.

Ukss Contribution: There's an off-hand line about dealing with rogue spirits by chasing them "with a spiritual spear and pin[ning] it in some nasty part of the Umbra. That's an interesting bit of fantasy imagery that I think I can do something with.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Enthusiastic Pirate Bois

Where to get it: The creator's blog

The title of this one made me smile. I liked that it was also a mission statement. I'm unsure of how much enthusiasm actually made it to the page, but I felt fairly well pumped, so it must have done something right.

The system for Enthusiastic Pirate Bois is fairly minimalist. Most of the game's 26 pages is taken up by class descriptions and various tables (for random encounters, mutations, etc). The bulk of the rules are done by page 7. It's not a design philosophy that I personally favor, but that's just a matter of preference. The rules do what they need to do and if there are no esoteric subsystems, there's also very little cruft.

The most innovative part of the system is probably the inventory rules. Consumable items like rations are assigned a die value (from d4 to d20) based on how much you have on hand. If you roll a 1-3 on the die, you use up a significant part of your stores and the die value shrinks (a d4 that shrinks indicates that supplies are completely exhausted). It cuts down on bookkeeping significantly, though at the cost of uncertainty.

Deliberate uncertainty crops up in a couple other places as well. Your character has a certain amount of hit points, but they only really act as a buffer. It is not until you run out that you are forced to roll on the injury table. In theory, you could be at a significant negative hit point total before you take any wounds at all. Likewise, experience points are random. You get into town and you roll a die to determine how much cash you waste carousing. The higher the roll, the more xp you earn, but if you spend more than you have, you pay for those extra xp by getting in deep with shady loan sharks.

This embrace of chaos works well with the pirate genre. Many of your adventures in Enthusiastic Pirate Bois are going to revolve around navigating through an unfortunate roll on a table, and often the GM is going to be as surprised as the players which is either something you're on board with or you're not.

Overall, I'd say I liked this game. I'm not generally in the market for boutique mini-systems, but if someone were to suggest Enthusiastic Pirate Bois at game night, I'd be more than happy to roll up a PC.

Ukss Contribution: In keeping with the game's spirit of discovery, it is possible to roll randomly for your class and species. The relevant tables are the main source of the game's implied setting and they can get pretty wild. My favorite tidbit was the mole-man entry. Rather than going in to detail about all the various underground abilities you might expect a mole-man to have, it rather succinctly summarizes them thus - "Dark-vision. Knowledge of formal protocol."

It's a very efficient bit of world-building. There's a mole-person civilization and they're really polite. I can picture it easily.

(M: tAs) Convention Book: Iteration X

So . . . the World of Darkness has power armor. This isn't a new revelation or anything. It first showed up in Technomancer's Toybox, but it feels especially significant here. It's the longest of the magic item entries and the ending fiction is all about how Iteration X is questioning the wisdom of creating power armor and releasing it to the public ("Now imagine, say, the Republic of China fielding two billion random folks in battlesuits. . ." as if spending a fraction of the resources on two million tanks wouldn't be ludicrous overkill).

There's a part of me that wonders what it might be like to introduce this tidbit in a non-mage game. Like maybe your PCs are these brooding, scheming vampires who angst about their dwindling humanity and indulge in the decadent passions of the unquiet beast within and then BAM, some guy in a mech busts in the ceiling and starts roasting all their friends with a built-in flamethrower. "Oh, yeah, didn't I mention that this gothic punk world has space marines."

Convention Book: Iteration X teases an alternate genre for the World of Darkness, but it doesn't quite work. Largely, this just comes down to a matter of space. Sci-fi action is such a radical departure from what's usually supported (even in the weirder recesses of Mage) that it can't just be a background element. You've either got to go all in or not at all. Unfortunately, this particular book takes kind of a half-committed approach. It mostly loses touch with the occult horror aspects of the setting, but it doesn't quite provide enough information to fill the vacuum.

I think the culprit here is that Mage: the Ascension has effectively become White Wolf's "philosophy game." If you look at the various groups of mages as representing different ethical, theological, and metaphysical viewpoints, then Iteration X fills an important intellectual niche. They are the people who think of "creation as a giant and impersonal machine" and who "shun the ideas of 'unknowable' and 'unpredictable.'" And yet, as immediately comfortable as their modernist, materialist naturalism was to someone like me, it's a sentiment that exists in a world that deliberately makes it a lie.

It's funny how I didn't notice that Tradition Book: Celestial Chorus never said any variation of "God is good" (the most anodyne religious sentiment imaginable), but in retrospect, it makes sense. The World of Darkness is a place where that kind of hope is out-of-genre. True Faith doesn't discriminate on the basis of religion, because it's not actually a power granted by the intercession of some benevolent deity - it's an expression of how sincerely you believe, and to a certain degree it has to be that way, because "holy warriors who battle the creatures of darkness" is a very different game than "debate club on the threshold of the apocalypse."

Similarly, Convention Book: Iteration X can't do the thing it actually wants to do (i.e. "humanity, fuck yeah!") because doing so would take a bulldozer to the World of Darkness. And yet, the book also doesn't seem to recognize its dilemma, and so we don't really have a good guide to adding sci-fi engineers to our Anne Rice fan fiction.

There's probably a sub-genre of science fiction that could work here. You've got a group of people capable of making discreet cybernetic enhancements and superhuman AI, and you could play up the idea of replacement. There's a man you know - he looks normal, but his smile never reaches his eyes. If he ever got his hands around you, he'd be able to crush you as easily as you can crush a paper cup, and there's a subconscious, primal part of you that can sense this, but you dismiss your intuition because he's always so nice. You have no way of knowing that he is driven by a cold, emotionless intellect that views you as nothing more than a balancing factor in an equation. When he kills you, it will be without anger. He'll have simply calculated that your net value over time is small enough that it's more economical to eliminate you early. And then he'll delete you from his memory . . . a bit of obsolete data without any further use.

Obviously, the reckless scientists who could create such a thing are either victims or villains, but that's not necessarily a problem, per se. I mean, the first White Wolf game was about vampires and it was very much about empathizing with monsters without forgetting that they are monsters. It doesn't seem beyond the pale to give the same treatment to scientists whose ambition outpaces their wisdom.

Although Convention Book: Iteration X is trying something different here. If you read it uncritically, Iteration X aren't just protagonists, they're heroes and like Guide to the Technocracy, I'm not sure how much to trust our unreliable narrator. It's made all the trickier by the fact that the narrator's worst lies are lies of omission.

For example, the Order of Reason's role in the American Civil War. According to William Albacastle, Iteration X's precursor organization split along regional lines and built both the Merrimack and the Monitor. And yes, this is consistent with White Wolf's apparent policy of placing every supernatural group on both sides of every real-world conflict, but it's also just a terrible take on the Civil War.

Now, I don't want to be too judgemental here. I myself wrote a fan supplement for the NWO that was inspired by this book and my historical narrative was even more disconnected and white-privileged (which is why, if you value my opinion, you will not go looking for it), but I was 21 years old and my view at the time was "I'm not getting paid for this, so I don't have to do any research." But while I would have preferred to leave this mistake in the past, I bring it up because even when I'm contemplating my own past work, it's impossible for me to discern which parts I wrote to demonstrate the NWO's villainy and which were just me being an ignorant little shit. How then, am I supposed to interpret Convention Book: Iteration X's omission of slavery when talking about the Civil War?

It could just be propaganda. The entire history section of this book conflates human history with the history of technology, and that's actually kind of an on-point artistic choice. This view of history as a directional material progression, where the light of reason gradually banishes the darkness of superstition is indeed a particularly modernist brand of poison, and so the way the narrator sort of glosses over centuries of colonialist atrocities by talking about cool inventions is distressingly plausible. But if William Albacastle was doing it on purpose, it would be counterproductive to make the "good guys" part of the Slaver's Rebellion.

Also, if that was the plan, I find it kind of weird to require such a sophisticated degree of critical engagement to talk about such an important theme. I know for a fact that it went completely over my younger self's head, and honestly, if it weren't for our particular historical moment, I'm not sure I would have even noticed now. A much more comfortable reading of the text is that Iteration X builds robots and so they're only interested in the parts of history that lead to progressively more advanced robots.

That's the essential mystery of old White Wolf, though - "is it truly smart enough to be this dumb?" I can't really say, but my guess is that it's not. My biggest clue here is, ironically, Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy. The funny thing about reading both these books in the space of a week is that I've noticed for the first time that they swap heroes. The cult of mystics and dreamers cites Aristotle as an inspiration, and the logicians, technicians, and pragmatists draw from the wisdom of Pythagoras and Lao Tzu.

I'm sure a big part of the explanation for this is just a desire to crush stereotypes. The Traditions being too consistent is taken as a lack of nuance (why, the sample characters in this very book include a Detective, a Social Scientist, and a Performance Artists - none of whom builds robots). However, there's another factor at work. Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy devoted a paragraph or two of its history chapter to praising the concept of wage labor (under the theory that lack of bondage to the land and a notionally disposable income led to people being freer to pursue their dreams). And while I didn't go into it as much as I should have in the previous post, the fact that a similar sentiment (re: Henry Ford) shows up here is telling.

I think you just have to accept that this particular period of Mage: the Ascension is riding the crest of the wave when it comes to 90s liberalism. Its whole premise is that the book is closed on the major historical controversies and the main flaw with the world is that it's too under control. The main difference between this book and the Tradition Books is that it views such state with an attitude of triumph. "Iteration X is where the smart Virtual Adepts go when they grow up."

Speaking of which, I need to round out this post by talking about Virtual Adepts canon. The big reveal here concerns Alan Turing. Now, Turing, as a queer mathematician who both fought the Nazis and discovered some amazingly cool shit, has long been a hero of mine and so I've viewed his prominent place in the Mage timeline with a kind of parasocial pride. You could make the argument that changing the manner of his death amounts to a form of erasure, but I don't know. I thought that WoD Turing being assassinated by the Men in Black to preempt his cyber ascension was more like a tribute to how awesome he was than an attempt to rehabilitate the bigots who killed him. You know, change the narrative around a queer character to center the triumph instead of the tragedy. I can't say whether it's necessarily a good tribute, but I personally liked it.

Convention Book: Iteration X attempts to undo it. The narrator is an ex-Virtual Adept and he says that Turing did, in fact, commit suicide because the British government castrated him . . . and it was his fellow Adepts who ratted him out. I don't know whether this was just a move to bring Mage canon closer to real history or if it was part of the WoD's "nobody's a hero" brand of cynicism, but reading it here made me unhappy. It felt . . . traumatic.

My only consolation is that the narrator is a liar. This book also makes the curious choice to repeat The Guide to the Technocracy's mangling of the defectors' timelines. The Electrodyne Engineers and Analytical Reckoners are explicitly called out as being alternate names for the Sons of Ether and the departure of the Virtual Adepts is treated as an afterthought. I'm positive White Wolf is doing this on purpose, because there's a sidebar that acknowledges that the Traditions tell a different story, but I'm still unsure about what this alt-history is meant to accomplish. It doesn't make the Technocracy look any better, and it's ultimately pretty confusing. I suspect that establishing mystery by having your books be narrated, in-character, by proven liars is an idea that sounds better in theory than it works in practice.

Ukss Contribution: Eh, fuck it - power armor. It's something I could only put off for so long.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

(M: tAs)Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy

A minor, but persistent obstacle to my enjoyment of Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy was the prominent position of a certain Lee Ann Milner. There's nothing wrong with this character, exactly, but she's shown up a few times throughout these Mage fictions and every time she has, I've got some serious "this is a PC from someone's home game who has somehow made it into canon" energy from her. She's a real Tanis Half-Elven type, if you know what I mean.

So our major viewpoint character in this book is the "grown up" ecstatic - the one who doesn't do drugs, and is in a committed monogamous relationship with a guy who doesn't even sex magic, and who enters a state of higher consciousness through incense and meditation. This is perfectly valid, of course, but it speaks to a trend I've noticed in the revised tradition books - they often feel like a rebuttal to stereotypes. The Akashic Brotherhood aren't all martial artists, the Celestial Chorus aren't all Christians, and the Cult of Ecstasy aren't all drugged-up orgy folk.

At its best, this tendency leads to fuller, more nuanced Traditions, ones that invite you to explore hidden corners of mysticism you'd otherwise not consider. At its worst, it obliterates what makes the Traditions distinct and makes your choice of character seem kind of arbitrary. Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy doesn't quite hit either of those extremes, not consistently, but it does manage to stick fairly close to the arithmetic mean between the two.

The result is a decently useful book that occasionally loses the plot when it comes to ecstasy as a religious concept. I'm not privy to a lot of behind-the-scenes information about these mage books, but I suspect that the first Cult of Ecstasy book was written from a personal religious perspective, whereas this one is a lot more secular. As of Revised edition, the Ecstatics have been abstracted into "pleasure mages."

It's not a concept that is 100% successful, especially since the book still wants to include pain, exhaustion, and intoxication as ecstatic practices. The confusion is not just limited to Lee Ann's suburb-ready praxis or the book's occasional "this shit is dangerous" timidity. You've also got the extraordinary claim that the Cult was inspired by Aristotelian ethics.

And I don't know. I guess "happiness is the highest good" can sound a lot like "pleasure puts you in contact with the divine" absent the clarifying context of the rest of the man's life and philosophy, but it is absolutely not the case that Aristotle would "be terrified by what the Technocracy's made" except perhaps in the sense that he'd not approve of them fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. Modernism has its share of problems, and the Technocracy has certainly worked its share of horrors in pursuit of its ideals, but Aristotle was familiar with the brutality of the Greek world and he energetically defended the worst of its excesses.

It's probably just a product of its era, though. Tradition Book: Cult of Ecstasy can be weirdly pro-capitalist in ways that its characters would not realistically agree with. At one point, it unironically suggests that ecstasy can be found "even in repetitive work, hard labor, and the simplest menial tasks." And that's not . . . wrong, exactly, but it does miss the point as to why that might be the case. The best and most hopeful aspect of the Cult of Ecstasy as a Tradition is the way it promises to liberate one from the pursuit of middle class respectability. I mean, imagine hooking your soul into the live wire of the divine and then being told "survival and prosperity depended on responsibility and personal, managed risk."

Yes, the words are vague enough to be broadly true, no matter the context, but really becoming a religious mystic should be approximately nothing like starting a small business (which does make the sample cabal based around a respectable small business seem especially out of place, but what are you going to do). I think the worst thing you can say about it is that it's mired in the priorities of late 90s America (Prohibition was almost as big a deal as WW1!).

There are good things here too. While I don't agree with all its conclusions (it has certain . . . old fashioned ideas about the negotiability of people's boundaries, even if it does ultimately center consent), it takes its ethical questions seriously. Also, it strikes a nice balance between specificity and flexibility when it comes to discussing ecstatic magical practices. Reading this book will make Ecstatics easier to play, even if I suspect it takes you farther away from understanding real-world ecstatic mysticism.

Ukss Contribution: Zeitgeists, the class of spirits that represent specific periods of history. The intriguing thing about them is that I don't think they necessarily represent real periods of history (two of the examples are The Burning Times and The Age of Reason) so much as people's stereotypes about history, but even that's a very usable idea.