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.

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