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).


  1. You are not wrong about the truly insane implications of a black man getting nicknamed after an Ayn Rand character. That's... a thing.

    (One more reason to lean on the Shelley references, by the by.)

  2. I'm a fan of a ghost casino and the opportunities that presents. I always liked the god of gambling in Exalted, who ran a gambling house where you could bet all kinds of intangibles.


    1. It's funny. That exact thing crossed my mind as I was making my choice.