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.