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.


  1. I actually had to go on a short research dive and learn that "Tharsis is the Greco-Latin transliteration of the biblical Tarshish, the land at the western extremity of the known world," because my first thought was more along the lines of "why is a nautical-themed group named after part of the famously-water-lacking planet Mars?"

    Something beyond the western horizon is a reasonable touchstone for a bunch of occult ocean explorers, but now that the thought has crossed my mind I am bitter that we don't get magical MARTIAN pirates. Summoning demons just to create a sea to sail on in the first place, or perhaps sailing across the sand using magically-enhanced winds. What, Mage used to go to space, it kinda makes sense.

    1. That's pretty interesting. I didn't know that Tharsis was another name for Mars.

    2. Well, a region of Mars, anyway - it's the volcanic plateau where you can find Olympus Mons.

      That was the only context where I had heard the name before, though in hindsight, it was really silly of me not to assume it was a thing from classical-era Mediterranean mythology, like every other proper noun in the solar system.

    3. It's okay. I got it mixed up with Tarsis, the original home of Paul from the Bible, but apparently the words are unrelated.

    4. Man, now I want Martian sand-pirates.