Thursday, August 27, 2020

(M: tAs)Tradition Book: Sons of Ether

 Oi. These fucking guys. They are just the absolute worst. Oh, there's a lot to love about them - If you were to pitch me the idea of a game about modern wizards where one of the factions was mad scientists who used their magic to create inventions that were scientifically impossible, I'd have approximately zero reservations about it - but because Mage is White Wolf's philosophy game, every time they come up I have to pull my hair out about the Sons' of Ether terrible take on the philosophy of science.

Tradition Book: Sons of Ether makes a valiant attempt at giving them a more coherent philosophy, and it makes the argument that they are the Mage: the Ascension universe's only true empiricists. And . . . I guess I have to accept that. They can believe things like "everything must exist, but we can filter away contradictions with a barrier of thought" and thus "nothing can wholly contradict itself," because in their dumb universe there are wizards and shit, but I guess it's one of the weaknesses of setting your game in an alternate Earth that it's sometimes hard to append the mental asterisk (*in the World of Darkness) to statements like "Because we cannot know the whole of a given phenomenon, all phenomena have potentially limitless implications."*

I could just keep going on and on about this subject. Tradition Book: Sons of Ether is just full of these little jabs like "scientific reductionism seemed designed to limit what sleepers could achieve without the Order of Reason's guiding hand," which sort of implies the opposite of what reductionism actually achieves, but I can recognize when I'm being baited. So, for the sake of amity, I'm just going to grimace slightly and acknowledge that of course the Sons of Ether are saying things like this, they're wizards, and even though they're calling their magic "Science" (the capital "S" is obligatory), at the end of the day it still operates on magical thinking.

Let's just take a moment here while I rip out half my notes and throw them in the garbage, rendering pointless any further materialist sniping on my part. The real question is "how does Tradition Book: Sons of Ether fare at delivering a useful and interesting organization of mad scientists to the WoD?"

Acceptable. The history section is weighted down a little by its framing story and a lot by WoD canon (House Golo was a mistake, IMO), but it's all interesting material. A scrappy young kid accidentally turns his hot rod into a time machine and his future self calls upon his various SoE contacts to help him navigate back through history until he can swing around and return to his native time. There's a brief detour at the apocalypse where the Sons of Ether combine their gibberish to stop a comet from destroying the Earth.  It gives a good feel for the general adventure-fiction feel of the splat and makes an otherwise dry section more entertaining, but it also makes the book less generally applicable than it could otherwise be.

In the context of the Tradition Book series, it's all good. That's how these books are. They're not really players' guides to the Traditions, and they're not really GM's guides to the Traditions. They attempt to kind of be both while also being mostly about the series lore and honestly their ideal target audience is pretty much people like me - obsessive collectors and those who like to talk about White Wolf games on the internet. By that standard, Tradition Book: Sons of Ether is a B-tier supplement. Not as good as the heights of the series, but much, much . . . much better than something like Tradition Book: Hollow Ones.

The biggest point of frustration, aside from the aforementioned epistemological minefield, is that the Sons of Ether are responsible for much Mage's most memorable and distinctive setting elements. Whenever they break things down Tradition-by-Tradition and give examples of spells, magic items, spiritual realms, etc, the Sons of Ether is always a highlight. However, the magic section here is only 5 pages out of a hundred, with only two Inventions total. I think, on some level, I would have preferred a second volume of Technomancer's Toybox. The revelation that you can make antimatter with Sphere magic is a total game-changer, though. The Sons of Ether are now officially the most dangerous people on the planet.

Overall, I'd classify this book as an essential piece of my library, but not necessarily the first one I'd reach for when making a Mage character. It sells the pulp aesthetic and "scientific" idealism of the faction and offers some interesting character ideas, but going into their philosophy and trying to justify their paradigm probably weakened the Tradition more than it helped. Just give me mad scientists with baroque inventions and nonsense theories. That's all I need.

Ukss Contribution: They're not just pseudo-scientists when it comes to physics and chemistry. They make a hash out of archaeology and paleontology too. According to their theories, the Earth was once ruled by a civilization of violent flightless birds. I'm picturing a land of scarred Chocobos who will kick you to death if you look at them the wrong way.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

(M:tAs) Forged By Dragon's Fire

My notes for this book are dull as hell. They can be divided into three categories: 1)Magic items I liked. 2)Nitpicks about the Mage: the Ascension magic item creation rules. 3)Sarcastic comments about the gratuitous sexualization of women in the book's art.

So here's an example of each:

I thought Spratt and Dabbet's Lighter-Than-Air-Masticated Conveyance Gel was a really cute idea. It's bubble gum that lets you blow giant, puncture-resistant, helium-filled bubbles capable of lifting you off the ground like a balloon. It's whimsical and almost overly precious, and it would break my heart to slap it down with Paradox. Mage, as a fantasy game about mages in the modern world, can sometimes suffer from overly focusing on mages and trying to conform to the modern world. The absolute best use for something like half of the items in this book would be as curios in a strange old shop that wound up in the hands of naive Sleepers who subsequently have their lives absolutely wrecked by them.

(Scene: The jaded older brother says, "Whoa, I've never seen this brand of gum before." The timid and sensitive younger brother says, "It looks like it's really old." Older brother: "If I buy it, you have to chew a piece. You can't say no because it's a dare." And then the inevitable takes its course.)

As far as rules nitpicks - making a magic item of any strength requires a significant conjunctional Prime Sphere, but none of the "artificer" factions grant Prime as a favored Sphere. The Sons of Ether, Iteration X, and House Verditius all get Matter. Given the metaphysics of the setting, building magical devices should probably just be an alternate spellcasting mechanic. It's always been a little awkward that if Professor Thunder wants to build a Lightning Gun, he has to choose between the gun being an inert prop that disguises his Forces spells or investing in a huge character point tax that will still yield an item you have to be a mage to use. It doesn't take enlightenment to pull a trigger, people. Just own it.

Finally, it is nearly impossible for me to accurately convey what is going on with Penny Dreadful's outfit at the beginning of the Familiars chapter. It's like this peekaboo vinyl netting over panties and a bustier with goth accents and thigh-high doc martins, and honestly, I feel like a pervert for even describing it. There's likely a whole ream of political subtext I could unpack about White Wolf depicting one of their most prominent female signature characters in specialty fetish gear, but hell, I'm a total nerd. If that was just the way club kids dressed back in the early 2000s, I'd have no way of knowing about it. Nonetheless, it serves an object lesson for writers - be careful about creating a character you clearly want to fuck. There's a very good chance it's going to go to some weird places sooner or later.

Overall, I really like this book. Magic item books are nearly impossible to do poorly, and Forged By Dragon's Fire continues that trend. It was at its best when it was being specific, rather than general (i.e. "The Orb of Honorious" vs "Robes of Blessing"), but it was pretty solid from start to finish. 

Ukss Contribution: Now, let me completely contradict what I said about specific vs generic by singling out a generic magic item as my single favorite thing - shapeshifter tattoos. Get an animal tattooed onto your body with secret occult techniques and forever after you'll be able to shapeshift into that animal. It's versatile, it's visually interesting, and it can easily serve as the defining trait of villain and PC alike.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Order of Hermes

 Tradition Book: Order of Hermes sees the return of Phil Brucato to the Mage: the Ascension family, and it's a fascinating artifact to me, because less than 20 pages in, the philosophical drift of the game over its various editions became immediately apparent. The first edition core is kind of vague kitchen-sink fantasy, but then almost immediately, Phil Brucato takes over and it starts becoming a game of ideas and religions, so much so that the rpg-class nature of the original Traditions starts to become an obstacle to work against. Then Jess Heinig took over and it started downplaying the religious angle to try and get more in line with the tone and genre of the World of Darkness, and it winds up crossing the finish line with Bill Bridges, to be a weird sort of half-edition that is largely the same tonally, but also really salty about the "the Technocracy won the Ascension War" idea.

I don't want to read too much into it, because it's far too easy for me, writing 17 years after the fact, to imagine some kind of behind the scenes creative drama, when I'm sure that shifts in franchise's direction were the result of mostly amicable changes in personnel.

Nonetheless, this book was like a splash of cold water to the face, a mystery that was immediately solved when I saw that one of the authors was Phil Brucato. Tradition Book: Order of Hermes presents the Order of Hermes like it was a religion. I mean, in real life, Hermeticism is a religion, but the books have largely portrayed the Order as a near-secular organization, the group you join if you want to be the closest the WoD is going to get to a D&D Wizard.

That's probably what's behind Mage's otherwise inexplicable choice to make a designated "dick Tradition." White Wolf could sometimes have this arch, "we're too cool for this" affect and making the "wizard" faction into the one you join if you're a stuck-up nerd was probably meant to cultivate a certain ironic detachment from the silliness of taking urban fantasy in earnest.

Getting the Order back to its religious roots was a canny move, then, because it's surprising to see the most aloof and political (in that weird WW sense of the term where "politics" means "the things that politicians do") of the Traditions get suddenly very sincere about Wisdom and Perfection and the Divine. It's earnest in a way that feels radical. It's the difference between a snotty nerd who studies extra hard to flaunt how smart they are and a socially awkward nerd who studies extra hard so they can pursue a career in attempting to cure the disease that killed their father.

The book comes straight out and says it, "Why are Hermetic mages so arrogant? Because as they see it, mankind has received Divine pedigree." Oh. Now I feel like kind of a dick for making fun of how full of shit they were.

All told, Tradition Book: Order of Hermes and Tradition Book: Euthanatos are the only two entries of the revised Tradbook series that felt to me like necessary additions to canon. For once, the WoD's implacable habit of making all rules and setting revisions into metaplot events has felt like it added to the setting instead of distracting from it. The Order of Hermes has recently been humbled, but they're in a position that looks dangerously like they're going to actually learn from their mistakes, and that gives them the ability to produce heroes and not just obstacles.

Now, let's focus on obscure canon stuff that will alienate anyone who isn't neck-deep in Mage lore.

Porthos is back! Sort of. In a historical context, as a major figure in the destruction of Doissitep. They call him "the diplomat" which . . . okay. I guess Mage has a point of view where "half-mad and occasionally murderous" doesn't preclude you from being basically a good guy if you're conspicuously supportive of the aspirations of the young and telling pompous old guys to shove it.

Also back, the only good Hermetic - Sao Christivao, "a proud man who probably deserved better than his legacy. . .[who]left a bad taste among our brethren in spite of the many good deeds he performed." Which, you know, seems fair enough until the arbitrary character assassination in the NPC chapter:

"The information presented here about Mark Hallward Gillan should be considered more accurate than previous accounts, which were often the result of deliberate misinformation spread by the former Tradition Primus Getulio Vargas Sao Christivao.

I'm sorry, Gillan, but maybe you should come back when you look a little less like John Constantine (Oh, no, I kid. He's a perfectly fine character. This is just one of those cases where a retcon really should be a retcon).

Moving on, Thig is out and Verditius is back in. This is simultaneously a very big deal and a very little deal, and I'm not sure how to better explain it without veering off into sheer nerdery. . .

Eh, I guess it's probably inevitable, given the nature of this project. So, the original Mage: the Ascension cannibalized a game called Ars Magica, which was about a medieval fantasy world as seen from the perspective of a group called The Order of Hermes. Now, Ars Magica is not the history of the World of Darkness, but the WoD's Order of Hermes was essentially the same organization in the WoD's middle ages. The Ars Magica Order was divided into several Houses, to allow players some degree of choice in character creation. Originally, there were 12 Houses, which is a fine number for a stand-alone rpg, but way too much detail for a single faction in a setting that already had 8 other mystic factions.

So, Mage 1e largely ignored the Hermetic Houses. They were referenced in Book of Chantries, but only as individual cabals named in honor of the original Houses (specifically, The Fraternal Order of Bonisagus and the Followers of Tytalus, which are outright stated to be the sole legacy of the ancient Houses). However, as the game went on, the Traditions became more internally complex, and second edition core gave a shoutout to the Houses, including newcomers Janissary and Thig, which were based on a couple of the other cabals at Doissitep.

Now, here's where things get interesting (read: extremely picayune and niche). The first Order of Hermes tradition book was written in the context of that 2e core blurb, and thus Thig was canonically one of the Houses of Hermes, but its niche - the enchantment of technological items - tread pretty close to the niche of one of the original Ars Magica houses - Verditus, who had the ability to make wondrous magical items more easily than other mages, but an inability to cast spells.  I guess someone (presumably Brucato) made a call, and if there was no room in the Tradition for two full Houses of enchanters, the one to stay would be the sexy one. Verditius got demoted to House Ex Miscellanea. 

Whew! But we're not done yet. In 2001, Guide To the Traditions was released, and with its mandate of "technomagic is part of Mage's thing now," made House Thig officially a Big Deal. They were the young up and comers who were going to shake things up in the stodgy old Order of Hermes . . . until this book, that is. Tradition Book: Order of Hermes continues the practice of introducing retcons with metaplot, but takes the unusual step of retconning the metaplot. Thig was severely shaken up and lost a significant portion of its members, forcing it to merge with Verditius and allowing the old artificers to regain their rightful status as a Great House . . . in 1999.

Now, I know I'm dangerously close to slipping into Simpsons-esque self parody here ("I hope someone got fired for that blunder"), but the thing that strikes me as . . . curious is that Brucato was a co-author on both this book and the first Order of Hermes book where Thig was fleshed out into a full House. I think the line that gives the game away is "the bird-flipping 'Hermes Rulz' childishness of old House Thig." It looks like someone was experiencing regret at something they wrote when they were younger and took the opportunity to "fix" it. Either that, or Guide to the Traditions ruffled somebody's feathers. The other drive-by swipe at Thig, "techno-mystic practices and simple bad Hermeticism" could support either theory.

Or maybe they just thought it would be fun to shake things up. Hard to say, but that whole section was a rollercoaster for me because House Thig was something that really intrigued me when I first read the revised core. Now it's technically a rollercoaster for you too.

The last thing I wanted to talk about is Avatars. According to this book, "The Order is perhaps the only mystic society in the history of the world to 'train' a person to Awaken on any kind of regular basis."

Of course, they immediately try and walk that back by advancing the competing theory that House Fortunae simply has a knack for finding potential mages and bringing them into the Order, which raises its own set of questions.

This has always been an issue that Mage has been really cagey about but is much too important, thematically, to leave up in the air. Who gets to be a mage? White Wolf, in general, is enamored with the idea of blind empowerment. People don't become supernatural because of any intrinsic merit, but because of forces outside their control. They have a genetic mutation, like in Aberrant, or they're targeted by a Faerie creature, like in Changeling: the Lost, or some unaccountable celestial power picks on otherwise unremarkable humans, like Hunter: the Reckoning

Then you have Mage: the Ascension. It really can't have Awakening be random. The Celestial Chorus is made up of people with such profound faith that it opened their eyes to divine power at work in the world. The Akashic Brotherhood undergoes years of ascetic and spiritual discipline to overcome the illusion of the self and be able to act in accord with the cosmic principles of order. The Order of Hermes imposes an intensive course of study that hones the will until it is capable of wonders. Even groups that can accommodate the serendipitous, like the Cult of Ecstasy and the Euthanatos, don't believe Awakening is random so much as it is provoked by hard-to-replicate circumstances.

The point being, in all these belief systems, Awakening is meaningful. To be able to use magic is an endpoint or consequence of what these mages value. It is, in fact, a religious mystery. To disconnect this important epiphany from the PCs' religious journeys is to invalidate (or at least downplay) the centrality of belief. It's not that belief creates magic in general, but rather that the magic is there one way or another for the special people, and at most belief determines how it manifests. Consensual reality, as the prize of the Ascension War, is off the table.

Whether that's truly good or bad, I can't say, but it does put a lie to the premise of Mage (although, maybe this shift is a conscious choice on WW's part and that's why so many Technocrats have been manifesting "psionics" recently).  It might also be connected to the trend of Tradition Books deliberately bucking their subjects' aesthetics when it comes to sample characters. If people become mages at random, then sure, why not have a gangster, a high-tech thief, and a composer as some of your signature Hermetic mages, it's not as if magic is a sacred calling that takes over your whole life for the 3-5 years it takes to learn and then leaves you forever after changed. It's really more like something you stumble upon when your life isn't going so well.

Or, you know, whatever. Maybe I'm just peeved because the Composer belonged to House Quaesitor and was "justified" with a half-assed excuse of, "Although you're not a 'judge' in the usual Quaesitor sense, your music contains a profound sense of order." What does "consistent characterization of NPC organizations even mean, anyway" At the risk of self-parody, I do hope someone was fired for that blunder. No, no, I'm kidding. The character is explicitly based on the author of a book about occult music that Brucato read, which is maybe something that didn't need to be immortalized in print (also, on the off chance that Brucato reads this - the guy's take on rock music is so bad it's borderline racist, please don't cite him again).

Overall, I really liked this book. I think that because the Order of Hermes is so transparently a fantasy creation, that allows them to go all-in with the setting weirdness, and if the book sometimes read more like a canon update than a pure Tradition book, at least most of what's going on is pretty interesting.

Ukss Contribution: The best part of the book was the history section, with the various Hermetic Houses that rose and fell over the years. My favorite one was the nautical House Tharsis that specialized in storm magic and eventually fell into infernalism. I really like the idea of pirates that make pacts with weather demons.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Alpha 7

Where to get it: Creator's itch.io page

 Alpha 7 is a bare-bones generic rpg. It took me about 45 minutes to read, and I expect that I could explain it to a table in about 5. You flip coins (or roll dice with a 50% probability) and 0-1 successes are a failure, 2 successes is success with negative consequence, and 3 or more successes mean you succeed outright. The rules mostly cover how many coins you flip, but even then they're pretty loose. Aside from the seven attributes that give the game its name, all character abilities are player defined.

The weakest part of the game is the math. The "Hardcore" power level, where you start with 4 attribute points, is probably unplayable unless you have a large and diverse party. The "Epic" power level works as advertised if the players over-specialize, but honestly, its point totals, combined with a rating cap, are probably the most functional. The main takeaway, though, is that if you're flipping fewer than five units (what they call coins/even dice) then you're either desperate or openly hoping for your game to be comedy of errors.

That criticism just means that I think you should avoid the lower power levels, though. The rules themselves are fine. They generate outcomes that are tied to the numbers on your character sheet, and they do it quickly. I imagine Alpha 7 games are going to stick pretty close to free-form roleplaying, but there's a niche for that.

The strongest part of the game is the GM advice chapter. It breaks the different tasks of campaign, party, and character pitches into a Who-What-When-Where-Why structure that is a little basic, but explained as well as anyone has ever explained it. You will know how to set up a game after reading that chapter. And it's short.

Overall, decent. I have a hard time imagining that anyone capable of finding Alpha 7 on the internet is going to need its particular niche (barely-there "setting agnostic" light rpg that quickly gets out of the way), but assuming it finds its audience, I don't think they're going to have anything to complain about.

Ukss Contribution: While explaining character concepts, the book throws out "'dwarven bard,' or 'android hacker' (or vice versa . . ." and I really like that vice versa. An android bard. Who would build such a thing? And why?

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

(M:tAs) The Infinite Tapestry

 Normally, I don't pay much attention to the author credits at the beginning of a book. Usually, the names don't mean anything to me, and with a few notable exceptions, I'm disinclined to try and track down the authors online and see what they've been up to. Unfortunately, with The Infinite Tapestry, one of the names did mean something to me - Matt McFarland has recently been exposed as a rapist. I've read a couple other books he's worked on without noticing, thanks to my habit of glossing over the author credits, but I've been trying to be more mindful lately.

This post was originally going to open with a long discussion of the ethics of continuing to enjoy art created by terrible people, but I scrubbed the draft because 1)It centered myself way too much; and 2)it gave a rapist way too much real estate in both my blog and my brain. I've come to the conclusion that since he's just one author among many and that Mage: the Ascension is way bigger than his small contribution to two late-period books (this and The Storytellers Handbook) that I would take a solemn moment to feel solidarity with his victims, donate $25 to RAINN (and encourage my readers to do the same), and hope that would be enough. I'll do the same whenever I encounter his work in the future, because it's important not to bury my head in the sand and try and pretend I don't know what I know, even if my own work (and, lets be honest, love of the games he helped create) requires me to engage with his.

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The Infinite Tapestry is an odd beast. It's an imaginative book that adds a lot to the urban fantasy setting established in the Mage, Revised core, that manages to balance philosophical esotericism with the demands of team-based rpg adventure and your characters can both learn important truths like the secret motivations of their mothers and retrieve cool magic loot like a magic key that opens any door. In many ways, it's a straight improvement over 2e's Book of Worlds.

It's also the most passive-aggressive book you're ever going to read. It's not something I picked up on 15 years ago, but so much of what The Infinite Tapestry is trying to do is to shut down the very possibilities of Umbra-centered campaigns. The spirit worlds are a place you can go to learn things, make allies, and gain other strategic advantages, but those advantages must serve your goals on Earth. "The world we see around us is the one mages must now live in."

It's a sensible design principle, probably the way it should have been in the beginning, but the book leans hard on the metaplot to manhandle the setting into place. The Avatar Storm is one of those magical phenomena that very conveniently chooses purely thematic targets. Everywhere it goes, it makes the Mage: the Ascension setting more like what the designers imagined.

The main thing that's different for me with this read-through is that I now have some understanding of how things were before. The book is constantly saying "at one point, mages did things another way" or "in the past, different things were possible," and I guess my first time through, I just sort of assumed they were talking about the middle ages, back before science took over the world. Now I know that they were really referring to, like, 1993.

It's a weird feeling. There's a whole section in the Storytelling chapter about how the Astral plane "has become more concrete" and it just strikes me as a rather dramatic thing to happen in the space of 3 years. The spiritual realm that represents the most refined reaches of human thought and the primordial ideas implicit in the very nature of human existence has changed its fundamental composition, but only, like 8 mages have even noticed.

There are times the book threatens to become almost unbearably smug, and the culprit is almost always the same - the Disembodiment mechanic. 

On its own, it's a good idea. Stay in the spirit world too long and you become a spirit. This is something with mythic resonance that also just makes sense from a world-building perspective. The Umbra is a world of immense magical power. Over time it will consume and assimilate you. If I were to nitpick it, I'd say that it should have been a graduated process that advanced based on plot/character concerns instead of a binary switch that flips at exactly 3 lunar months, but the concept is sound.

Where The Infinite Tapestry goes wrong is in making it a new phenomenon, caused by vague metaplot happenings. The result is the grim spectacle of repeatedly seeing locations that were detailed in The Book of Worlds, only the people we were led to care about are deluded ghosts, pantomiming the activities that made those places so interesting in the first place.

And it's always accompanied by this "Rod Serling at the end of The Twilight Zone" editorializing, like "Maybe they wanted to find a place in space they could consider a refuge from the Ascension War . . . Three months after the Avatar Storm began, they found it, and kept it for eternity." It's constantly framed as some kind of cosmic comeuppance for hubris. They turned their back from Earth, the only place that matters, so they themselves no longer matter. But that's not how reality worked when they left. People could go out in space and it was mostly fine. So why not do that? Everybody's got to be somewhere, so why shouldn't that somewhere have been a spaceship?

Personally, I like "crossing the Gauntlet deals damage unless you're in a sacred place or have the aid of the gods" and "living in the pure fantasy world threatens to turn you into a creature of pure fantasy" as general setting conceits. It's probably how the spirit world should have worked from the start, but when you say, "The Avatar Storm is the first step toward making the Umbra again a place of mystery, wonder, and fear" well, that "again" feels like a snotty little jab. Just reboot the setting, you cowards!

Speaking of which, the World of Darkness is on the verge of being rebooted. The Mage Storyteller's Handbook played off the rumored apocalypse in its metaplot sections, saying "Destruction of the World: Just kidding," but we are less than a year away from The Time of Judgement, and I'm certain that the decision has already been made. Hell, work on Ascension has probably already begun. They certainly aren't subtle about dropping hints. Honestly, I'm looking forward to it, even if I found the new World of Darkness' evergreen supplements to be more satisfying.

I don't want to give the impression that I disliked The Infinite Tapestry. Just because I spent the last 700 pages complaining about. Chapters 2 and 3, in particular, are sublime. Go on an allegorical journey through the landscape of human thought. Languages form a giant, branching river system. Drink from the French branch and you speak French now. Climb a mountain and things become more abstract. Go up high enough and you can enter a realm that exists purely to explain the Theory of Relatively to you. As you travel, your possessions transform from nouns to verbs - the knife you brought can still cut, but it has no mass, volume, or other specific qualities.

There are only two flaws, as far as I can see. First, it kind of forgets that paradigm exists. If your magic is based on science or reason, the gods hate you. There is a very strict order of questing where you can't reach the highest reaches of the Astral Umbra without climbing "some sacred mountain or other" and paying your respect to Zeus, Odin, or "bug-eyed, grey-skinned extraterrestrials [who] torture abductees from the modern world."

Related, but much worse is some out-of-left field racism. One of the example spirit courts is "the subtle and mysterious Court of the Orient, whose workings are not well understood outside of the Akashic Brotherhood."

Why? Just, why? A billion people live in China. And hundreds of millions more in Japan and Korea. I'm fairly sure that, from the perspective of the metaphorical mountain that exists in the spiritual reflection of humanity's collective unconscious, Christianity is more mysterious than East Asian elemental symbolism.

Overall, The Infinite Tapestry is a pretty important book in the Mage canon. Because of its timing, and White Wolf's more general conservatism with the old World of Darkness, it couldn't be what it needed to be, but it sows the seeds for some ideas that would be useful for building a new spirit world from the ground up, even if the Horizon is still utterly fucking confusing.

Ukss Contribution: I liked the Well of Souls. Not an idea that's original to Mage, but it's such a portentous-sounding destination that I think it's almost obligatory for every fantasy world to have one.

Friday, August 14, 2020

(M: tAs) Dead Magic II

 Oh wow, this book . . .

So, one of the side-effects of my various single-minded blogging missions is that I get really into the subject I'm blogging about. Back when I was doing video games, I didn't just play the games and write about them, I also did a ton of reading, about game design principles or the politics of the video games industry or even just other reviews of whatever I happened to be playing at the moment. It was such an all-encompassing obsession, that I wound up totally neglecting my other hobbies.

A similar process has been going on now that I'm focusing on rpgs. It's a bit trickier, because tabletop rpgs are more of a niche, but I have noticed myself doing a lot more research on related subjects, checking out science-fiction and fantasy blogs, and occasionally stumbling onto something relevant (like the Asians Represent podcast breaking down Oriental Adventures) 

In other words, I'm trying to learn, to become better at this whole criticism thing as time goes on. That's important for me to say, because I am embarrassed by how easy I went on Oriental Adventures and I'm dead certain that if I'd read Dead Magic II even as recently as a year ago, I'd be embarrassed by whatever milquetoast opinion I'd expressed about its  "unfortunate tendency to indulge in the exoticization of non-European cultures."

(The quote is of the hypothetical me who would have been willing to give this book a pass because it's not actively hateful like The Complete Barbarian's Handbook).

But it's the year 2020, I've read 2 3/4 editions of Mage: the Ascension, and Wizards of the Coast has finally conceded that there might be a problem with orcs. I don't have to hedge.

This book is really racist.

It's tricky, because it has six authors, and I don't think the fault lies with any one in particular, but consider the disclaimer:

While great care has gone into researching this material, what you see here is not an anthropological text, nor is it a guide to any modern practices derived from [these] beliefs. This is a sourcebook for a roleplaying game and should be accepted as such . . . The material here is, first and foremost, meant to be used for your entertainment.

I bet know what you're thinking - that's a pretty mealy-mouthed way of dealing with an issue as complex as cultural appropriation. You can't just slap a warning in the introduction and absolve yourself of the harm you might do by claiming it's "just a game." But just maybe you shouldn't be on your high horse about this, John, because this is from 2003, and we all know that you wouldn't have even begun to think there might be a misdeed worthy of absolving.

And that would, indeed, be a fair take . . . were the disclaimer in the introduction and not on page 93 in the middle of the Norse section. The word I deceptively rendered as "these" was actually "Norse" in the original. The disclaimer is specific to potential misconceptions about pre-Christian Norse spirituality. Meanwhile, in the Polynesia chapter, this conversation happened:

"You know what long pig is, yeah?" asked Mo, a chuckle in his voice.
"No."
"It's a kind of meat. If you're ever offered any, I think you may want to decline."
"What is it?"
"It's what they call human meat."

A useful bit of context: "Mo" here is a Professor of Polynesian culture at the University of Auckland,  and a 300-year-old Maori mage. The person he's talking to is Matt, a Salish Dreamspeaker who's fleeing the Technocracy and getting a crash-course in the WoD's version of Polynesian history. 

And I don't know. Maybe it's supposed to be characterization. You're on a long boat ride across the Pacific, you're shooting the shit with your fugitive buddy, and maybe you figure you'll freak him out. That's why you start out so coy about it "You know what long pig is (tee hee)? If you're ever offered any (hee hee), you may (snort) want to decline (bwa hah, hah, hah)." 

 But that doesn't explain why you would then continue the conversation for another page and a half. Or why you would dwell on the case of Anne Butchers, a figure so obscure she's not mentioned on the wikipedia page for the ship she traveled on (the ship has a wikipedia page, she doesn't) without mentioning that she's the only European woman ever reliably documented to be eaten by Polynesians. And it certainly doesn't explain why you'd wrap that little anecdote up with the phrase "Now entering Polynesia. Welcome to the food chain."

Maybe it's one of those things I'm too white to understand. A couple of indigenous people get together on a boat and the talk immediately turns to all the hilarious ways their ancestors killed the colonizers. I wouldn't blame them if that were the case (hell, the Cook Islands website mentions it explicitly), but something about the casual tone set me off. Like, yes, cannibalism happened in the Pacific Islands, but it's also something Europe used to dehumanize and exploit the Pacific Islanders. Maybe a professor of Polynesian Studies, of all people, would be one to draw that distinction.

I'm getting sidetracked, though. The original point of all this was that Polynesia didn't get the "this isn't 100% accurate" sidebar. Australia didn't get the "this isn't 100% accurate" sidebar. India didn't get the sidebar either. The European Shamanism chapter did, though. It's called "Artistic License" and it's just as bad as the one I quoted earlier, but at least it's there.

And that's where the distributed authorship of the book throws me for a loop. Six chapters. Six authors. Maybe it's just a case where only 1 in 3 authors even bother to put in disclaimers, and it's just a coincidence that the two whose numbers came up just so happened to be writing about white people. Just like it's a coincidence that Polynesia, Australia, and India featured fiction with main characters who were foreign to the cultures under discussion, but the Norse and European Shamanism chapters were told from the perspective of natives.

It could be a coincidence. It wouldn't be that hard to believe. There was clearly very little coordination going on between the chapters, otherwise someone would have noticed the redundant sidebars, cut them, and put a more general note in the introduction where it belongs.

Speaking of which, the Intro's disclaimer is . . . profoundly bad, explaining that just because this is not under the Black Dog imprint, that doesn't mean should "read this with salacious intent." "This book is meant for mature audiences" because "you can't talk about Kali without considering some disturbing images." No, WW, you can't talk about Kali without inventing some disturbing images (there's a sex scene, it's gross).

I think what's going on here is a clear example of institutional bias. The India chapter suggests setting a campaign there and actually says, "Visiting a country in the middle of a political crisis is risky."  

Visiting! 

There's plenty in this book that made me uncomfortable ("The Dreamtime is a rare kind of spiritual phenomenon, a very large, semi-sentient flexible and polymorphic Shallow Realm."), but that one word really brought it home. Unlike the first Dead Magic, half of the cultures here are not even plausibly dead, but Mage is treating them like places to visit instead of places to come from and that becomes really obvious when it also has a couple of cultures that are plausibly dead, but also unquestionably white.

I've got a lot of specific notes I haven't used just yet, but I think that's pretty much the gist of what I've taken away from the book as a whole. The parts about Europe were actually pretty good, because they didn't waste time telling you about how exotic and mysterious they were and instead got down to the business of being exotic and mysterious. The other parts, well, the best I can say about them is that they don't feel like they're motivated by malice, but you've still got a presentation of India that is a step backwards from Dragons of the East.

Ukss Contribution: Ooh, this is a tough one. I go back and forth whether this meets the threshold I want to establish for "evil." It's careless, certainly. It says things about India that I wouldn't want going on my permanent record, and it does that White Wolf thing where it acts like Australia's racial problems are all in the past (someone at WW must have loved Australia, I can just feel it). However, it's not exactly hateful. Even in those chapters where a white person travels to some new land to learn the magic of the natives, colonization is generally treated as the evil it is. Let's just say that I'm doing this with reservations.

The hardest part, though, is picking something secular enough that I'm not repeating the book's shameless cultural appropriation. Maybe the Chaos Drum. It doesn't quite control the weather, but it does make it worse, a kind of nautical WMD.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Reign

 Reign is the second ORE game I've read so far and I must say, it's a marked improvement over Wild Talents, despite being released in the same year as that game's second edition. I think it comes down to one small change that seems obvious in retrospect - there is now a limit of one special die per roll. That means we don't have players buying matches at character creation, headshots are merely common rather than obligatory (though there's still the issue of the characters' weakest hit location also being the hardest one to defend), and the 5 character point cost to upgrade to a Master die (ie "wiggle die") is actually really tempting.

But I don't want to spend too much time hashing out what went wrong with Wild Talent's system. I'm here to talk about Reign, and suffice to say, for a variety of reasons, Reign is better.

So let me immediately go to the worst thing about it - sometimes it tries to be a generic fantasy system. Like at the beginning of the magic chapter, the first five pages are a discussion of the design consideration that go into creating a fantasy magic system. And it's not a bad discussion. There are some interesting ideas there - like building a "Fortune deck" composed of daily horoscopes and picking one at random to apply to magician characters as a side effect of their spells. However, in the moment, it felt like an intrusive digression away from the setting-specific details I was hoping to read about.

In a way, you could even count it as a credit to Reign's worldbuilding that what would otherwise be solid, engagingly written gamemastering advice feels like a step down from the average tenor of the material. However, if I'm being my most ruthlessly critical, what it really says to me is that someone (presumably the sole credited author and designer) needed to have better discipline over his authorial voice. I really didn't need this book to break out of the fantasy-milieu 3rd person to address me in contemporary 1st person and sell me on the concept of dramatic conflict, using LA Confidential as an example. 

Tell me more about quicksilver demons that hollow out horses and use them as skin suits and less about the movies you enjoyed, Greg Stolze!

Maybe that makes me come across a a bit of a joyless buzzkill (and heaven knows I'm the last person who has any grounds to complain about an author indulging in pointless digressions), but the thing I need to convey to you is that the parts of the book I'm not complaining about are really good.

On average. Some parts are sublime, like the aforementioned demons, the fact that the continents of Heluso and Melonda are two giant humanoids, locked in an eternal embrace, or the way sorcerers become attuned to their schools of magic and transform, body and soul. And it was a very canny idea to define the major cultures by the food they eat, the clothes they wear, and the stories they tell.

But sometimes those stories are . . . hmm. Take The Empire, for example. Their founding legend is that the first Empress seduced four neighboring kings and united the realms by playing off their macho pride and suggesting that the one who fucked the best would be named heir. I think maybe that was supposed to be an example of Imperial art that was decadent to the point of self-sabotage (i.e. how their art is described in general), but if so, the necessary context is far enough delayed in the chapter that I was mostly left with the sensation of reading a grimy and implausible story.

There's also a few details that probably would have seemed more welcome or necessary in 2007, but which mostly served to answer questions I wasn't preparing to ask. Like, I get the intent behind "the most commonly reviled minorities have white skin" - Reign is trying to get us to move beyond our reflexive whitewashing and imagine a medieval fantasy world where the default human (be they peasant, blacksmith, or king) is black. Fair enough. Admirable even. But it feels like a trope.

Similarly, I didn't really need to know that men in this world don't beat their wives quite so much as in medieval times, because women might have magic and that neutralizes the advantages of physical strength. I promise, I wasn't about to write a domestic abuse subplot into my rpg session. If you hadn't brought it up, I doubt I would have even thought of it at all.

Though, to be entirely fair to Reign, people in 2007 did ask those sorts of questions. Boy howdy do I remember the flame wars surrounding this game's most notorious setting detail - that men ride side-saddle because of a common belief that riding astride makes them impotent.

It's kind of a silly superstition and the main upshot of its existence seems to be to arbitrarily cut male PCs off from certain character concepts, but I'll admit to having a sentimental attachment to it, purely due to misogynist meltdowns it provoked. Even after all these years, I can still savor the MRA tears.

Though, if I'm being honest, it's iffy game design. Good worldbuilding. The sort of phallocentric nonsense that has a ring of truth to it. But mechanically questionable. Generally, you want to let people create the sorts of characters they want to create and not throw needless roadblocks in their way (the book suggests making this superstition objectively true, whether through magic, alternate biology, or the placebo effect). 

I think this may be an example of future privilege. In the year 2020, you're allowed to just make a fantasy setting that is "ahistorically" (keeping in mind that none of these worlds are ever the history of Earth) inclusive of race, gender, and sexuality. But in 2007, Reign boldly dared us to look into the mirror and imagine a world where male characters could be denied access to cool classes and where white people could be "savages" (and I just hate that that word is used here without irony).

So, like I said, very good on average. Good enough that I backed second edition on kickstarter, sight unseen. There's a lot here that I didn't cover. Martial Paths that give you access to special combat techniques. Esoteric Disciplines, which are the same thing, but for your non-combat skills. Weird magic, like the ability to forge the souls of animals, people, or demons into a blade. The company rules, which encourage players to engage with the setting's politics. Reign is a game that is packed with ideas, and the only thing it really needs is better focus.

Ukss Contribution: I really am spoiled for choice here. I kind of want to go with the side saddle thing just to keep the legend alive, but that's too much of a Reign thing. You can only do it once, and Greg Stolze already did it.

Besides, it wouldn't be my authentic choice. There's really only one thing it ever could have been - the Hulgue. It's a 1000-foot-tall parasite that sucks the fertility out of the land and then jumps up 30 miles with its 4000-foot-long legs, landing with the force of a nuclear bomb. To fight it, you assemble an army and mine your way into its blood-vessels or airways, making your way towards the heart or brain, hoping that in the meantime you're not shred to bits by the demonic parasites that live within.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

(M: tAs)The Fallen Tower: Las Vegas

Oh, Las Vegas, of course. That's what Mage: the Ascension reminds me of. You've got these elaborate constructions that ostensibly reflect the spectacle and grandeur of cultures around the world, but they are completely superficial and hollow - an entertainer's perspective on cultural vocabularies that completely lacks the depth and sophistication of these centuries-old practices and only really exists to impress dilettantes and rubes with the glamor of the exotic.

Okay, maybe that's an overly-cynical take on Mage, but it was unwise of them to invite the comparison. Saying that Las Vegas "exists as a testament to individual willworking" is not really the glowing recommendation that the book seems to think it is.

Although, I don't want to be too hard on Las Vegas (aka "Lost Wages" according to this book) here. There's probably no other place on Earth with such pure, concentrated Americana. The book frequently calls it The World's Most Original City (presumably because it's never heard of Dubai) and that seems fair enough, even if that particular nickname was only ever used here. Certainly, "Vegas = bad" is exactly the sort of lukewarm take that I'd be embarrassed to be associated with.

Nevertheless, the setting presented in The Fallen Tower: Las Vegas is pretty dire. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that the book itself exists to justify expense-accounting a WW trip to Bally's. Except for the part about the incestuous Mafia vampires, its entry could have been cribbed straight from a corporate press release. I'd quote it here, but the most surreal think about it is the way it just keeps going.

Eh, fuck it:
The elegant Bally's opened its doors in 1973, but sweeping remodeling throughout the '90s ensures that the casino's touch of class includes every modern convenience. Bally's twin 26-story hotel towers offer over 3000 guest rooms and include nearly 300 suites. Guest rooms used to be among the largest and most swank in the city, averaging 450 square feet with suites running anywhere from two to five times that size, until newer joints like the Venetian came into town. The refined Indigo Lounge offers nightly entertainment with various specialty acts. The Jubilee Theatre dazzles audiences with an explosion of glitter and sound, including the sinking of the Titanic, Samson destroying the Temple of the Philistines and a cast of singers and showgirls who have been called the most beautiful showgirls in Vegas and voted "Las Vegas' Best Dancers." Bally's also hosts the exotic and hometown beauties of the annual Hawaiian Tropic Western Regional Finals. . .
The paragraph continues for another two sentences about vampires, but like 90% of the casino descriptions in this section (which is, incidentally 9 pages long), the supernatural feels like an afterthought tacked on to a tourist brochure. And the remaining 10% aren't much better. Their typical pattern is to start off with "[it] used to be a Holiday Inn and it hasn't risen much above that level of quality since" and then wrap up with a list of amenities like, "the Lighthouse Lounge has a tribute to Motown and R&B on a regular basis, as well."

I'm positively baffled when I try to think about how this chapter was assembled, creatively. If I were one to sing the legend of White Wolf, I might speculate that they were getting kickbacks from "Las Vegas legend" Steve Wynn. That's probably the most diplomatic theory. This was a period when they liked to do things like include a page-long NPC writeup for "Black Dog Games" collaborator "Peter Clarkston," and paint him as a corrupt lawyer who pulls strings to get his fellow game designers out of trouble with the law.

However, that's clearly an in-joke that I'm a decade too late to appreciate (also, they took a potshot at the OGL, which is an automatic demerit in my book), so I'm going to go with a more realistic theory - someone passed through Nevada on a road trip, grabbed a bunch of brochures, and that's the bulk of the book's research.

The only real exception to this is the Luxor, which is imagined as a hub for Traditions activity, designed by a member of the Order of Hermes in a prophetic dream who used his connections among the Freemasons to get his plans into the hands of the corporation who built it. Mages go undercover as hotel staff and it has a secret chamber where they perform occult rituals to bridge the Earth with the spirit world.

That's good. Exactly the sort of weird detail that justifies its inclusion in a modern fantasy setting. There are parts that are still a little touristy (I have no need to know that the Luxor has "the world's largest atrium"), but it's mostly Mage-relevant information. Someone, somewhere should have put their foot down and removed every casino that didn't have a similar level of fantasy nonsense. Maybe replace the corporate-approved sales pitches with some actual insight into the Vegas that only locals see.

I guess I am officially a crankypants about this book, so let's move on to Area 51. . .

. . . Is what I would be saying if The Fallen Tower: Las Vegas did not cruelly tease us by not saying anything particularly interesting about Area 51. Although, hilariously, it grossly overestimates the lasting cultural footprint of M. Night Shyamalan movie Signs (it's "probably responsible" for a "resurgence in interest in UFOs"). In the end, though, the Storytelling chapter suggests, "If you decide Area 51 really does contain alien technology, then you need to decide if the players will ever be able to determine this," which is just off-the-wall advice.

So a few odds and ends.

Despite its setting, this book is not very positive about sex workers. They're so busy robbing clients and infecting them with STDs that it's a wonder they have time to exchange sex for money. The old urban legend about waking up in an ice bath with a missing kidney is probably a good detail for the World of Darkness, though.

The Anasazi and the Paiute being specifically named, rather than just referred to as generic Native Americans is definitely a step in the right direction, though it loses points for suggesting that the Anasazi disappeared because aliens taught them the magic to transcend reality and "the Paiute culture was practically on par with the Archaic Indians" (which isn't an insult per se, but seemed really condescending in context, especially with the later line about how they "manage[d] to grow squash and beans.")

There are two Paiute characters later on in the book, and they bring with them discussions about native land rights and environmental activism (even if one of them is a member of the Syndicate who leans really hard into the whole casino business), but honestly if we're trying to revive the Tradition vs Technocracy conflict and make it subversive and socially relevant, then this is something that should have been much more foregrounded than it turned out to be.

Finally, we saw the return of a signature character from The Bitter Road, Ozymandias Cody. He's not doing much architecture here (and, in fact, it's a little weird that the book invented a whole new Order of Hermes architect character to design the Luxor and then have these two interact in no significant way), but he is back in the demon hunting game. I was surprised to learn that he was Black, and maybe that's just a racial bias on my part, although I feel like maybe his earlier story of feeling bored and alienated in the world of elite architectural firms might have benefited from being informed, at least a little, by his race. I don't even want to speculate about the politics of his college class nicknaming a Black man "Rourke."

Overall, this book is another weak entry. Not entirely unusable, but setting an rpg in Las Vegas presents one with certain . . . temptations, which this book does not successfully resist. Not that it's necessarily a bad thing to run a game based on shallow spectacle in the heist or mafia crime genres, but to do that well requires focus, and The Fallen Tower: Las Vegas doesn't have that.

Ukss Contribution: The Venetian Hotel was built on the same site as The Sands, and that little piece of trivia gets it one of the few supernatural subplots in the casino section - apparently the Venetian is sometimes haunted by the ghost of the Sands. Not the ghosts of people who died in the Sands. The ghost of Sands Casino itself. Not sure how a building has a ghost, but I like the idea of a ghost casino. Perhaps a place where the bets you make are not measured in money. (Sadly, this is not an idea that's explored in the text, but it's where my mind immediately went, so I'm going to count it).

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

(M:tAs) Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council

It's probably inappropriate of me to speculate too much about what was going on behind the scenes at White Wolf HQ back towards the end of the old World of Darkness, but Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council has the definite feel of a new developer coming in and putting his stamp on the line. Maybe that's just a coincidence, though. Maybe the shift in focus was a long time coming.

Nonetheless, Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council feels like a reboot. And since Mage, Revised was itself a reboot, that makes it a reboot of a reboot. A deboot, if you will (also, even if you won't). It's a priority that definitely comes across in the text.

"Most mages believe it was Sleeper apathy that won out, not the Technocracy. Few bother to ask who planted the seeds of that apathy and nurtured a world of meaningless endeavor over the last few decades: the Technocracy."

Whoa, way to throw The Bitter Road under the bus there guys.

No, no, it's probably all right. I don't love it when an rpg gets reactionary and tries to go "back to basics," but I get it. The Technocracy are the game's signature villains. It's only natural to want to focus on that conflict. If you think the game could use more high-action hi-jinks and less contemplative hand-wringing, it's only natural to make the Ascension War flare up again. Certainly, early Revised's sense of "ah, but you could be playing a social worker) was . . . an acquired taste.

Where this plot goes wrong is in the Rogue Council itself. I think someone might have overestimated how charmed we were all going to be by mystery. Which is odd, because there's a sidebar devoted to this very issue that's called, "Dealing with Player Frustration." ("They cannot discover the true identity of the Rogue Council yet, but they may not know this and may want to try" - a real thing, said out-of-character, by a book I paid money for).

I guess that this was supposed to be one of those big, exciting secrets that fueled speculation and drove book sales. And maybe there's this idea that the mystery itself could be fun. What winds up happening, though, is that the Rogue Council must by necessity be shallow as hell, unable to engage with the setting on anything but a superficial level. Several theories are advanced, but none of the consequences of those theories are explored. They have to leave the door open to multiple interpretations, even if the vagueness makes the Rogue Council feel less real.

Seriously, the Rogue Council cannot exist if you follow the Mage: the Ascension rules. And while I'm not a stickler for PC/NPC symmetry, the rules being broken here are more fundamental than dice pools or Sphere ratings. They start to encroach on the very social contract of rpgs as a whole.

The Rogue Council delivers these crafty little messages that tell the PCs about potential adventure hooks, and they're perfectly untraceable. As in don't bother to roll. You won't be able to trace their method of delivery. You won't find someone who saw the messenger. You won't be able to take apart the TV and see if it was tampered with. You've got a contract-tracing spell that you've used to great effect a dozen times in the past? It's not going to help.

Now, obviously, as a GM, I have permission to allow any or all of these methods of investigation to yield results, but you wouldn't know that by reading this book. It gives me absolutely no support towards running a game where the players solve the mystery.

That's a major weakness, because the Rogue Council is also intensely ideological. It has an agenda it's pushing and that agenda reads very different if it's a cabal of young mages usurping the Council of Nine's sanction than if it's the Universal Unconscious.

See, the Rogue Council is militantly liberal, of exactly the sort that would have been ideologically invisible in 2002, but which is kind of a major problem here in 2020. You see, their battle with the Technocracy is not about science vs magic, but "the real conflict is between liberty and control."

And that's the sort of thing that maybe seems reasonable, but opens up a whole can of worms. Like, the line "Science will no longer be stigmatized as the enemy's tool, but neither will it be embraced except by an act of free will."

Yes, that's a line that hits a bit different in the Mage reality where "science" is just a mask for magic, but I'll admit, I had to take a beat to sit still and silently scream in horror. The Rogue Council has a lot to say about opposing "authoritarian" mages on both sides of the Ascension war, but I couldn't shake the feeling that the thing it was rebelling against most was the tyranny of facts.

Their motto is "Enigma takes you where dogma cannot, "and my knee-jerk reaction to that is "who the fuck are you to call my most cherished beliefs 'dogma,' where do you get the fucking right?" Maybe, if the Rogue Council is the manifested spirit of cosmological dynamism, I can accept that I should be a bit more flexible, but if it's just a group of guys? Well, their whole deal is to make an intellectual mush of robust systems of thought, both ancient and modern. Their message is that people with strong beliefs need to yield to a kind of consensus of indifference and acknowledge that it doesn't matter what people believe (way to combat apathy, guys). "Enlightenment" is equated with being wishy-washy about any particular concrete issue.

To be fair to the Rogue Council, they're really just inheriting Mage:the Ascension's fraught relationship with the concept of truth. In a world where belief defines reality, believing in the impossibility of contradictions is an adaptive trait, but it also makes coherence a near impossibility, and it gets you to a point where you're saying with a straight face that science should be voluntary.

I think that's the biggest disconnect between Mage and contemporary society. So many times I want to grab this book and say, "Actually, having a shared reality where we can intelligibly discuss the evident facts without having to endlessly hash out all of our priors down to a metaphysical level is very important and quite liberating besides" and I just know that if I had a time portal and was able to articulate this point to its authors the response would be some reasonable variation of "Relax, it's just a game. You don't have to take its fantastic conceit so literally. The stuff about science being optional will never be relevant to real life."

Mage never quite gets past treating the Consensus as something unreal, a toy to play with and then put back in the box, rather than a serious philosophical question. It can make the themes hard to relate to. Throughout this book (and to a lesser degree, Mage generally), magic is treated as a metaphor for personal expression. "An apathetic world is the inevitable outcome of a world without magic" and all that. However, I can't help but think about Mage's magic as an environmental metaphor. Paradox is a kind of metaphysical pollution, and it's not a problem that can be solved by individual choices.

The Traditions may be "the only Awakened body that respects [Sleepers'] right to choose their own paradigm," but for most of thus, that's a sucker's choice. Is the paradigm where I can do whatever I want with no effort one of my choices? Or, at least, the one where I'm a mage and not a sleeper? No, my "choice" boils down to whether I'm hit by a car or eaten by a dragon? Well, gee, thanks Rogue Council. It's good to know you're out there fighting for my access to magic.

Now, none of the above would actually be a complaint, were it not for the fact that Manifesto: Transmissions From the Rogue Council commits the cardinal sin of NPC creation - the Rogue Council feels a lot like a mouthpiece for the author, rather than an organic part of the world.

Part of this is no doubt attributable to the book's first person narration. A chapter in the voice of a character who straight-out explains their admiration for the Rogue Council is going to necessarily depict them as pretty admirable.

Where it gets tricky is that the Rogue Council is an ostensibly anti-authoritarian organization that nonetheless maintains perfect anonymity. And yes, this is justifiable in the sense that anonymity protects them from retribution, but it also quite conveniently protects them from accountability. What happens when one of their little messages contains bad information and gets some people in trouble?

It's a purely theoretical question, because the Rogue Council has never made a mistake and their information is always good . . .

So yeah.

Oh, and the Technocracy are Nazis now. It's still officially canon that both factions fought on both sides of the war and cooperated on a tribunal to bring Axis mages to justice, but only the Technocracy gets "Nazi collaborator" as part of its identity. There's a whole adventure here about how they did their own version of Operation Paperclip and now that the Avatar Storm is kicking their asses, they plan to revive some unethical Nazi scientific experiments. The fact that Voormas inherited the Node at Dachau and exploited its power for decades is mentioned, but mumble, mumble . . .

It's okay, because it does serve to remind us that the Technocracy are supposed to be the villains, but I never loved that particular bit of backstory. I guess because it's not very fun. I'd rather just enjoy my artsy, pretentious, impossibly culturally appropriative urban fantasy without being reminded about the Holocaust.

And one final note - this book also introduces the Technocracy's belief in psionics. Technically, it shows up earlier, in Guide to the Technocracy, as a fringe theory, but here it's the go-to explanation for why mages demonstrate powers. On the one hand, magic is definitely an empirically verifiable phenomenon, so it was always weird that the Technocracy didn't have terminology to describe it. On the other hand, it feels a little lazy when Technocracy agents are described as having psionic abilities. The elaborate explanations for why obvious supernatural events nonetheless fit into the normal framework of cause and effect was the main compensation you got for playing a technomancer in a system as ill-suited for that as Mage's Spheres.

Overall, I'd say that this book is useful, but a bit of a fixer-upper. The Rogue Council needs to be a real thing and not an assembly of plot conveniences justified by a "mystery" with no solution. Dogma takes you where enigma cannot.

Ukss Contribution:  This is a fairly good book for Mage's pulp and conspiracy themes, but my favorite detail was something that comes directly from the real world - the Dream Stele. The Pharaoh Thutmose IV erected it to proclaim the divine origin of his rule, which is highly suspicious, but in Mage: the Ascension, and, of course, Ukss, it may well have been a true story.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Trail of the Vagrant Star

Where to get it: itch.io

I don't want to get in the habit of complaining about things I got for free, especially when those things I got for free I also mostly enjoyed, but I really wish Trail of the Vagrant Star had maneuvers. I feel like I was led to expect maneuvers. The term was capitalized, for crying out loud. And what am I supposed to make of a sentence like, "The Maneuvers performed by Brawlers are mostly involved with gaining an advantage on the enemy by exploiting and exposing their weaknesses, disabling their movement, and breaking their defenses."

Sadly, the list of thematically appropriate exception-based tactical powers never materialized. I was confused briefly until I went back and double-checked the text. Disciplines are just skills, Paths are just skill focuses (adding up to two dice). And "Maneuvers" just refers to an action in the combat system that allows you to freeform improvise a penalty-inflicting attack, within the broad parameters of your path's description.

It actually works pretty well, all told, even if I suspect that damaging attacks are a strictly superior use of your opportunity costs. It's not the book's fault that between the system's similarity to Storyteller and the double-10s rule, I just assumed it would have been more like Exalted (I'd have really liked to see a hoverbike Cavalier charm tree, however). Combat winds up being fairly fast, fairly simple, and fairly brutal, and subsequently simple enough to downplay in favor of other elements.

Trail of the Vagrant Star leans more towards the adventure end of action-adventure. It has detailed exploration and company management systems that push the game towards an open-ended sandbox hexcrawl. I think the focus on community-building is pretty neat, and it helps that the implied setting is damned interesting.

Trail of the Vagrant Star takes place in a sci-fi/fantasy universe with diverse magic, sufficiently-advanced technology, and human offshoots that just happen to look a lot like fantasy demihumans.With the tag-based weapon creation system, you can have a hookshot gauntlet, sniper rifle, and jet-powered warhammer, then jump into your fantasy mech and take on a Dracoborus, a species of rock dragon that grabs its tail and rolls around the desert like a giant wheel of destruction.

Even though it lacks a detailed setting guide, the fantastic elements are deployed with precision and the examples, trait descriptions, and GM advice give a good feeling of what the setting is supposed to be like. It left me wanting more, to be sure, but there's enough here to run the game. I especially liked the bestiary. It was more complete than any I've seen in a book of this size, and between its diversity and well-chosen details like the concise behavior descriptions, it could have been five times its length and not worn out its welcome.

Overall, I'd say that it's a promising game, technically complete as-is, but with the potential to grow and expand in some fascinating ways. The game's page says it's an Alpha version, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what it's like when it's complete.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Giant's Garden location, even if the main reason is due to nostalgia for my road trip to Sequoia National Forest. They're not exactly the same, and there's stuff in here that's technically a lot cooler, but seeing it made me feel good, and I can visualize it clearly, so that's what I'm going with.