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.

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