Sunday, July 5, 2020

(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.


  1. Now I want to design and run a game that is power armor v. vampires.

    Still reading the blog, and still loving it.


    1. I mean, I suppose that's still canonically the WoD. My understanding was that, somewhere offscreen, the Camarilla and Technocracy were always in a state of near war, and whilst there was no powered armor, I do recall one of the Vampire cores (2nd Edition?) having stats for some cyborged-out Technocracy badass with poisonous blood and flamethrowers.

      So space marine hit squads in fancy vampire brood-mansions is more or less text.

    2. That sparked a memory, so I went back and checked. V:tM revised core lists "technological abomination" among its mage antagonists. So I guess the PCs couldn't say they weren't warned, but it still seems hilariously out of left field to me.

      "Supers with fangs" is probably the most . . . honest description you could make of old Vampire.

    3. Indeed. Killer cyborgs were actually a recurring stock element in my group's occasional vampire dabbling as a result.

      Yes, even when we played all the angst relatively straight - what could be more existential than knowing that for all your immortal might, somewhere out there was a fire-shooting monstrosity immune to many of your powers, which just doesn't give a damn about all the political nuances of your parasitic aristocracy?