Sunday, September 20, 2020

(Trinity Continuum) In Media Res

 Twelve pages is probably too short for an adventure. In Media Res has four such stories, and while they often present interesting concepts, they generally end right around the point where they start to get interesting. It's basically a quartet of pilot episodes.

Which is extremely fitting, really. The Trinity Continuum is not shy about drawing inspiration from the most formulaic sort of action-adventure television. It's the game's best quality. You want to play a campaign based on MacGuyver or Burn Notice or Leverage? It's not even subtext. They are cited on the first page, with a one-to-one line drawn between series and adventures (only Artifacts, Etc. is an exception - its main inspiration is Indiana Jones).

The adventures do a pretty good job of capturing their inspirations, but they all share this weird feeling of "now you have established the premise of your campaign." Ironically, it seems to me that the weakest possible use of In Media Res is to add a story to the middle of an ongoing game.

Let's break down the stories individually:

Codename: Aquarius isn't even a pilot episode. It's the first act of a pilot episode. You work for a "private intelligence agency" called "9." One of your fellow agents was recently killed by a rogue CIA operative and you need to track him down. When you finally find him, he reveals that he was framed for the murder because he discovered that both the CIA and 9 have been compromised by moles from a mysterious group that calls itself "Aquarius." And that's it.

The adventure tries to play coy about whether the target is telling the truth, but by the laws of drama, he pretty much has to be. It's the only thing that gives the adventure even a semblance of a plot. If you go with the "he's just lying to get away" theory, then what you have is a story where the PCs trust someone they have no reason to trust and he proves untrustworthy. By contrast, if he's telling the truth, then you've introduced a new character who changes the status quo and given you a premise for a long arc. There's no real comparison.

Artifacts, Etc is interesting to me because it would have felt radical if it were released in 2001, as part of Adventure!, but is long overdue circa 2020. The PCs are archaeologists and investigators who search for ancient artifacts and mystical treasures . . . and return them to the indigenous cultures from which they were stolen. The first case involves an old movie studio that used genuine antiquities as props in its pulp serials. It's an entertaining intersection of old Hollywood glamor and modern politics, even if I suspect that the decision to leave the native culture generic was not as fruitful as the sidebar encouraging us to do our own research would suggest.

Caper, Incorporated is the strongest of the bunch. There's an interesting lore question - is the international cat burglar Angelique Rousseau any relation to the Aberrant power-player Sophia Rousseau? Though whether she is or not has little bearing on the interesting things that are happening in the adventure. Basically, she stole something hotter than she was prepared to handle and stumbled across an interdimesional conspiracy to invade the Earth and plunder its resources. It has sci-fi technology, interdimensional doubles replacing their Earth prime counterparts, corporate greed, and high-stakes heists. In the end, it doesn't resolve the main plot, but the setting implications are enough to carry a whole series.

Classified: Help Wanted is the most complex of the scenarios, but it achieves that complexity by leaving a lot of detail to the GM. There's a corrupt real-estate developer whose unfinished high-rise is a costly scam that is riddled with organized crime. The PCs are there to help out the innocent people caught in the crossfire, but there's relatively little plot. Most of the wordcount is devoted to the various characters and their agendas. It's a decent setup for adventures, but it's clearly only the beginning.

Overall, I liked In Media Res. It's not one of the great adventure books, though Artifacts, Etc and Caper, Incorporated could have been, if they'd been given room to breathe. As an introduction to what the Trinity Continuum is capable of, it works, but GMs are going to have to do a bit more legwork than they might otherwise expect.

Ukss Contribution: Well, Artifacts, Etc has a magic wand. That's definitely a sign. It stores memories and allows people to relive them as if they were there, even to the point of interacting with the memory figures and asking them questions. It has potential.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

ESPRE Essential Players Guide

 Where to Get It: Creator's Google Drive

Generic systems pose a bit of a problem. I don't particularly enjoy reading them, but that's a perverse metric. The enjoyable part of a generic system is not how it reads, but how it plays.  That's a difficult thing to eyeball.

So maybe I should just go with a description.

ESPRE is an effects-based superhero system with a rigorous keyword system built atop a streamlined version of d20. You're given a fixed number of Template Points to design your character's power suite, but the actual strength of your powers are based on your Combat level. Ultimately, it's a tug-of-war between the notorious imbalance of effects-based point-buy and the efforts of the level math to pummel that into something notionally playable. Whether the proper balance is achieved is not something I can judge just from a single read-through.

The biggest barrier to enjoying ESPRE has got to be its layout. Especially in the long, dry powers section, I often had trouble seeing where one topic ended and the next began. It wasn't until the sample characters at the end of the chapter that I could even piece together how character creation was supposed to work. A jargon-heavy approach to power construction didn't help matters, though I expect that once you start getting into the game, the precision of its language will pay dividends. 

That being said, if you can make it through character creation, ESPRE has a lot to offer. It pulls together a number of important threads of superhero rpg design - elaborate power suites, fast easy-to-resolve combat, late d20-inspired hedges against save-or-die effects, and a narrative currency that is earned by respecting the genre contract and is spent on both mechanical boosts and limited dramatic editing - and if it doesn't always read as elegantly as I'd like, it also doesn't get lost in the spectacle of superpowers. There's no way a starting character can blow up the Earth, unlike certain other generic supers rpgs I could name.

The thing I'm going to remember most about ESPRE is the way it stats out typical human movement, senses, and metabolism as templated superpowers. Technically, you have to spend points to be able to see visible light, walk across the room without stumbling over your own feet, and not be magnetic. And I can't be entirely sure, but it seems like if you read the rules literally, robot characters are by default damaged by efforts to repair them. It's not as bad as it could be, because the packages are already pre-bundled and factored into the cost of your Template, but it's such an odd bit of minutiae. I guess the upside to this is that it's trivial to make weird alien creatures and beings of fantasy, but it would be nice if ESPRE had enough of a setting to demonstrate the payoff to that design choice.

Overall, I'd say that this game is clearly a labor of love, and it would be worth checking out for that reason alone. System-wise, it compares favorably to Aberrant and Wild Talents, but that's a low bar to clear. My gut tells me that this is a system that will feel rewarding to experts, but alienate newbies with its lack of compromises.

Ukss Contribution: As a generic system, there's very little for me to work with, but I liked the power that let you create boxes around people. That could be a neat inspiration for a wand.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Surprise Bonus Post - Angel of Mercy

 I own a few Mage-related things that aren't on my reading list - the 20th Anniversary Art Book, the novel trilogy, the tarot deck and a couple of Storyteller's Screens. You know, it's a collection, gotta have the peripheral stuff even if it's not part of my main quest.

And I was pretty content with that until I learned that the 1st edition Storyteller's Screen was supposed to come with a booklet. My so-called "complete collection" was one volume short.

Nooo!!!

But what could I do? A new 1st edition screen would set me back $30-50 (once you factor in shipping) and if I could get 1 screen sans book, I could get a second. And tracking down the book by itself was too difficult for my meager research skills. So I did something I don't normally like to do - I bought the PDF.

Because it felt weird to me to read all of the White Wolf run except this book, I'm also going to bend the blog's normal PDF policy. I present to you Angel of Mercy, the first Mage adventure.

It's okay.

I mean, it's a nothing of an adventure. There's this weird fountain that has a demon inside it. Some Nazi occultists want to let it out. You've got stop them without using so much vulgar magic that the Technocracy decides you're the greater threat. It's really more of a situation than a scenario, but it works. I'd have felt bad about paying 40 bucks for it, though.

The most notable thing about it to me, a guy who has just spent the last 10 months (almost to the day!) reading every Mage book in chronological order, is how . . . casual it seems about Mage lore. The adventure begins in a nightclub, and it suggests that "club-oriented characters (probably Hollow Ones, Cultists of Ecstasy, Verbena, Dreamspeakers, or Euthanatos mages)" might be the first to pick up on the events.

Dreamspeakers are "club-oriented," you know, because half the Traditions are just shallow stereotypes of people the White Wolf writers see at their local Goth club. It's adorable.

I've got some other notes about how the Technocracy started out working alongside paradox spirits and dispatching agents to unremarkable local malls, but that's just early 1st edition for you. The Nazi mages, The Iron Circle, make a return in Tradition Book: Verbena, the 3rd-to-last book in the entire line, which is kind of remarkable seeing as how they were in none of the books in-between, but the only notable thing about their appearance is how refreshing it is that Angel of Mercy has an absolute moral clarity in naming them the bad guys.

I don't think I'll ever run this adventure, but it was nice to circle back around to the beginning now that I've seen where this game is going to wind up.

Ukss Contribution: The Forest of Moaning Oaks. The adventure doesn't say anything about it except that some lore about the statue might be there, but I liked the name, and in as insubstantial a product as this turned out to be, I'll take what I can get.

(M:tAs) Ascension - Part 2

 This book probably could have used a different title. I'm not going to pretend I've got a better idea for what it should have been, but what Ascension is about is the end of the world. Actual "Ascension," even as an eschatological concept doesn't really enter into it.

I mean, okay, with the exception of the "Nephandi wins" scenario, the various chapters end with something good (or, at least, transformative) coming out of the apocalypse, but these usually have the feeling of last-minute swerves.

"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" is barely an apocalypse story at all, being more about a civil war inside the Technocracy that just so happens to be going on at the same time as some scary shit in the Umbra. It ends with the triumph of the Technocracy's paradigm and the winning faction inheriting a world where only technomagic functions.

"The Earth Will Shake" is about a giant meteor hitting the Earth. Every attempt to stop it is guaranteed to fail, but the PCs might mitigate the damage enough for some humans to survive, either in underground bunkers or the spirit world.

"A Whimper Not A Bang" is about aliens who start abducting Avatars, draining the Earth of magic in the process. You can't stop or reverse their plan, but you can take control of the alternate universe where they're storing the Avatars and become its creator gods when the Avatars finally reach critical mass and explode in a new (metaphorical) Big Bang.

I think the adventures as a whole suffered from the obvious mandate to Bring the World of Darkness to an End. "Technocracy Civil War" is a great idea for a campaign and could have easily supported a whole supplement on its own. "Mage does Armageddon" - again, a super fun idea, but if you're going to do it, you should probably do it fun. Yes, some ideological bickering that threatens to derail the mission, but at some point you're going to put a diverse crew together to kick that thing's ass. And the alien invasion plot is a good story, but should probably be either more claustrophobic (only an isolated Node is affected) or more world-shaking. A shadow war leading to the gradual fading of magic is what they created the Technocracy for. Adding aliens to the mix just confuses things.

Which isn't to say that the back half of the book is a total waste. There are a lot of good elements in each of the stories. I personally loved seeing The Star Council front and center, finally, and "The Earth Will Shake" sees the return of Doc Comet, who was the only character in the entire story as pulp as it deserved. Where the book mostly struggles is in balancing genre, theme, and player agency.

Take the final adventure, "Hell on Earth," as an example. There's a great campaign buried in that chapter, but said campaign would begin at the story's conclusion. If you played a game from the story's beginning, then what it's about is failure after failure as the Nephandi kick your ass up and down the multiverse thanks to the overpowered NPCs who come out of nowhere. It's got a few great moments, like the last stand of the Order of Hermes, but your "victory condition" such as it is, is that the PCs might be able to preserve enough of the world that future generations can hope to fight back against their evil overlords. It's not completely untenable, but it's my opinion that any parts of the story that rely on a forgone assumption of failure should be confined to the campaign backstory.

The most essential part of the book is, however, the storytelling chapter. . . I know, right? But there's a section that both diagnoses and prescribes the solution for all the book's biggest problems - It's the last four pages, where it talks about "ascension" concepts in abstract terms - gnosticism, salvation, technological singularity, etc. The earlier chapters would really have benefited from focusing on and exploring these ideas. That the Technocracy civil war should have also been a singularity story is obvious, but if you're not going to make the meteor scenario a pulp adventure, you could do worse than make it about a quest for religious salvation, and if you can't see the potential synergies between alien invasion stories and gnosticism - well, maybe that's not as obvious as I thought, but I think it's probably a good idea.

I wonder if maybe Ascension was too obligatory. An end of the world sourcebook is an incredibly good idea for a game about religion, but it's undeniable that the reason Ascension exists is because White Wolf was going to launch its new line of games and decided to send the old ones off with a tie-in marketing event. And I don't want to knock it for that. I remember that time well, and the hype was real. However, I have a feeling that if they weren't locked into a format and a deadline and a cross-product synergy, they'd probably have approached the subject matter differently, and I kind of want to read that book.  

Ascension 20th anniversary edition, anyone?

Ukss Contribution: In the meteor chapter, there's some discussion about the occult significance of comets, and a parallel adventure where players can explore the Umbra to gain more information about Typhon (what scientists were calling the asteroid in the real world). At one point, they encounter a space rock that disgorges monsters from beyond the Horizon.

A mystical comet that portends a space-monter invasion is kind of a cliche, but the classics are classics for a reason.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

(M:tAs) Ascension - Part 1

 This is going to be a two-part post for a number of reasons. First, it's a celebration. The White Wolf run of Mage: the Ascension has come to an end. And maybe that's not a reason to celebrate, per se, but it is a major event in the life of the game. The weight of the moment is definitely in the book, and I even found myself randomly crying at things that otherwise wouldn't merit it ("OMG, this is the last time they're going to take a potshot at Sao Christovao for no reason ::sob::").  Second, after reading the Prologue, Introduction, and two chapter, I'm approximately halfway through the book, and that's as good a place to stop as any. And third, you really can mentally divide Ascension between "canon" and "optional." In the book's own words, Chapter 2, "Judgement" is "as close as we get to providing an 'official' story."

I think they're being too modest. "Judgement" feels official. Mostly in a good way. Mysteries are revealed, fan favorite characters make their return, and plot threads introduced as early as The Book of Chantries are resolved. I'm not sure how well it works as an adventure, and I definitely remember feeling alienated by it back in 2004, but having read all 67 Mage books in chronological order, I would frequently nod my head and mumble, "I'm well-prepared for this."

I think, because of my hubris in devoting a whole post just to this chapter, I kind of have to try to summarize it now. . . oh, just excuse me for a moment . . . I, um, left my notes in the bathroom . . . I'll just grab my phone and my wallet and my keys and go get them . . .I'll be right back . . .

No, no, it's not that complicated. I mostly worry that I'm going to leave out some important cameo and accidentally leave you with the impression that there were portions of the adventure that weren't unrelenting fan service . . . Mostly in a good way. The NPC section warns us to "keep in mind that canonical characters should be seen as placeholders for other figures that matter in your own game," but I, the weird, obsessive rpg blogger am saying, "don't you fucking dare." If you're not going all-in on excess, you should use one of the later scenarios. The whole reason you run "Judgement" in the first place is because you want to fast-talk Mark Hallward Gillam into repeating Heylel Teomim's soul-merging experiment and then ship him with Marianna of Balador. 

I know it was a concession to the idea that the PCs should probably have some role in the events of the campaign, but I can't entirely forgive Ascension for not making the female half of "Heylel's Heir" be Penny Dreadful or Lee Ann Milner. I mean, I get it. You get to publish a sidebar titled "You Are The Betrayer," but making the PCs integral to the events strikes me as missing out on what's appealing about this scenario in particular. 

"RPG Adventures" where the PCs are just spectators while the GMs favorite NPCs hog the spotlight are bad, sure, but the series finale of a long-running franchise can be forgiven for scrimping on plot to just check in with as many characters as possible. I imagine there is a very narrow segment of the audience that is emotionally invested enough to care that Caeron Mustai was revealed, in a shocking twist, to be knowingly working against Ascension by using House Jannissary to cover up for Voormas and the Ksifari to feed information to the Technocrats because of an Ahl-i-Batin prophecy that the 10th Sphere would draw the Red Star, Antihelios, because it was actually Telos and would bring the world to an end even as it elevated the worthy among humanity to their final spiritual destiny, but also so jaded by all of the above that they'd sit around impatiently wondering what any of it had to do with them.

"Judgement" is an adventure for the message boards, is what I'm saying.

In this scenario, the eponymous avatars of the Avatar Storm start breaking through the Gauntlet. Some will merge with a Sleeper to create a new Awakened Mage and others will fly around wounding mages who are already Awakened. The simultaneous collapse of the Gauntlet allows gods, spirits, and the dead to openly walk the Earth. These events cause panic among the populace and the Technocracy steps out of the shadows to ensure that the world's governments can crack down more effectively. The newly awakened are often placed in internment camps, especially if they show religious and/or mystical tendencies in their magic.

The Hollow Ones rise up as an international guerilla movement because shut up, that's why, and between the fighting and their paradigm's inability to cope with the crisis, the Technocracy gradually loses the confidence of the masses. As the Red Star becomes visible to the naked eye, it becomes increasingly clear that the end of the world is nigh.

There is, however, one man who has a plan to stop it - Voormas, the Grand Harvester of Souls. Using the power of the shard realm of Entropy, he will redirect a quarter of the Avatars towards the Red Star, destroying it and forever obliterating the difference between life and death, leaving the universe in an eternal twilight of stasis.

There's no in-between state there. You can let Voormas turn the universe into a grim shadow-world or you can let it be destroyed (well, technically, you could also imitate the Void Engineers and hop into your sick-ass Dyson Sphere and bounce out of our reality), but one way or the other everyone is going to get totally fucked up. The PCs are assumed to be on team "everyone melts into the god of a new epoch."

To even stand a chance they need to unify the remnants of the Traditions and the Technocracy. This involves a quest through the spirit world where they learn that the Rogue Council was actually a bunch of Tradition Oracles, including their newest member, Dante, and that the Technocracy's Control was the spiritual manifestation of the Union's paranoia and whenever a master got powerful enough to join them, they were in fact absorbed body and soul into the composite entity.

Also, Porthos was there. Early in the adventure, there's a misleading prophecy that might result in the PCs trying to recreate Heylel Teomim's soul-merging experiment in order to create an alchemically perfect king to lead the Traditions through the apocalypse. It turns out that what you actually need is his psychopomp-summoning spell, which was contained in the same grimoire (i.e the one that could only be unlocked by the combined effort of Heylel's Heirs - Mark Hallward Gillam and the PC you suckered into playing the role). In the process of uncovering that information, you also learn that Heylel wasn't lying when he said he had good intentions and he really did what he did because his buddy Akrites foresaw disaster if he didn't. The only other person to know his secret was Porthos . . . who withheld the information at Heylel's trial because he was jealous of Heylel's relationship with Eloine, the Verbena member of the First Cabal (you know, the one that adult Porthos knew as a child).

Anyway, Porthos is an Oracle of Forces now.

In the end, you have to travel to the shard Realm of Judgement, on the Red Star and fight the House of Helekar. Not the organization. The actual House. It grows arms and legs and is a little too clumsy to use kung fu, but it deals uncountable damage when it hits and it can only be destroyed by taking out the crystal inside.

Voormas is the real final boss. Beat him and everyone dies. Or, you know, becomes the god of their own private universe that reflects their personal paradigm, which is exactly as pointless and fraught as the Virtual Adpets' Reality 2.0.

"In the end, they are games."

Overall, I really enjoyed "Judgement." I realized, shortly after finishing my recap, that even a deliberately half-assed summary that left out a lot of detail still managed to be crammed with canon wankery (and to understand this post, you'll need to have been following both the Mage: the Ascension and the It Came From the Bookshelf canon, because I can never resist recursion), but that wankery is its prime benefit. In the alternate world where Netflix declined to pick up Season 12 of the Mage tv show, but "Judgement" was released as a movie, you'd probably say "that was at least as good as Avengers: Endgame."

Monday, September 7, 2020

(M:tAs)Tradition Book: Virtual Adepts

 It may well be impossible to write a splatbook for the Virtual Adepts. Or, at least, it may be impossible to write a Virtual Adept book with any reasonable longevity. While it's not explicitly called out as part of the Tradition, a big part of the Virtual Adepts' deal is that they're the guys who embody the most recent fashions in science fiction. In 1993, they made a faction inspired by cyberpunk, then in 1998, with Digital Web 2.0, they decided cyberpunk was dead and tried to move away from it, and then in 2003, they bounced back and went back to recommending it. No particular reason was stated, and I'm sure a lot can be attributed to a change in authors, but I think another part of it was that during those ten years, cyberpunk itself went from "hot new thing" to "overexposed" to "weirdly prescient." And now, in 2020, my feeling is that the two things this book needed most were more cyber and more punk.

To wit:

Sadly, the side effects of terrorism have made communication over the web tricky. While the efforts to stop future acts of terrorism are noble, sleeper agencies like Homeland Security and the FBI have made it more difficult to have quiet conversations about mage business.

Sometimes, I get cynical about old White Wolf and wonder if maybe they made a deliberate effort to affect a veneer of counter-culture credibility, while ensuring that their politics were mainstream enough not to alienate their more reactionary customers. But then I remember what things were like in 2003, and I feel the need to take a beat and acknowledge that the national mood at the time was such that no one was going to blink if your faction of sci-fi anarchist hackers also happened to give the national security apparatus the benefit of the doubt.

It's the paradox of being the standard-bearers of the new - everything the Virtual Adepts do feels like it's tied to a very specific time and place. I'm sure that even if M20 winds up having Virtual Adepts that are at the forefront for transhumanism, pursuing mind-state uploading in search of digital immortality and morphological freedom, that's still going to wind up looking impossibly dated in another 10 years (or maybe it's dated now and I'm just not up with the latest trends in sci-fi).

The most on the nose example of this is from the References section at the end - "The Matrix Trilogy far and away defines the Tradition better than any other." Throughout the book, it's apparent that this is indeed the case, but also that the author lacks a certain critical piece of information about the Wachowskis that would have lent the techno-gnostic mysticism of the book some much needed poignancy, immediacy, and insight.

What is missing is largely a sense that the ideas under discussion have weight. The Virtual Adepts plan is to create "Reality 2.0" as part of "the overhaul of the Tellurian source code." Now, that's half-gibberish, but the upshot of it is that they "want to stand at the center of creation and select [their] reality based on a deliberate choice." Everything anybody does is just data that can be incorporated, reskinned, or blocked from your perception without the other person even knowing about it. Or, as the initiate (sorry, "lamer") Holly approvingly describes it, "It doesn't matter what other people do. Unless they have a death wish, what other people do in their 'world views' has no effect on your own."

Even in 2003, it upset me that the Virtual Adepts left the reality out of their Reality 2.0, but it hits a bit different knowing that The Matrix was a trans allegory. The power to take control over your own reality isn't just about seeing what you want to see or hearing what you want to hear, but also about striking back against those who would suppress your truth, to force them to respect, or at least acknowledge it. As another sci-fi great said, reality is that which when you stop believing it, doesn't go away. And I think it's an important part of The Matrix that the human rebels don't go away, even when it would be convenient for the robots that they do so. It's a concept that Reality 2.0 overlooks.

Although, another element at work here is that, despite the prominent role of technomancers in the setting, the Mage rules can't really handle technomancers. It's something I struggled with as I read the  dreadful "Turing Virus" plot.

The book kept saying things like, "the infection caused the Adpets to 'forget' much of what they knew about hyper-mathematics and theoretical physics." And every time it came up, I'd groan and say to myself, "what is the point of all this?" It wasn't until just now, when writing about The Matrix that I finally got - "oh, it's so that players can make Virtual Adepts like Neo, who are hackers, but don't need to carry a computer around with them."

Tradition Book: Virtual Adepts was trying to reconcile an uncomfortable truth - the Virtual Adepts were always presented as the futurist faction, who was constantly building cool soft sci-fi gadgets, but the dots on their character sheet say they are experts at teleportation. It came down on the side of downplaying the gadgets and giving more justification for the teleportation, but it was a choice I'm ambivalent about.

What I personally want, what I would find most dramatically satisfying, is if the Virtual Adepts were just the guys who had Eclipse Phase technology 200 years early. They're the Technocrats who defected, and so they continue to be Technocrats, but without the brakes. It would be nice to have a Mage faction that was unapologetically materialist and reductionist, but on the side of the good guys.

However, I have to acknowledge that from a gameplay standpoint, that would be a disaster. What it would mostly come down to is an inability to use your spheres. Correspondence 2 allows you to teleport, but there is no possible way to justify teleporting via typing a bunch of shit into a computer, and thus you're effectively capped with the sphere. Unless you build a teleportation gate or something, but then that's going to be something that anyone can just wander into your sanctum and use, and that would break the world. Better, then, to make the Virtual Adepts into another group of occultists and vaguely justify their use of computers by saying that their spells work with complicated math that can theoretically be done entirely in your head.

I think the only real way to have a group like the Virtual Adepts without making them wizards by another name is to have separate mechanics to represent their different way of doing things, but that would require a large wordcount devoted to a niche subject, and thus even the Technocracy is getting psionic teleporters before all this is over.

Ah well, I can't say that I recommend Tradition Book: Virtual Adepts. Ironically, it feels more dated than the first edition Virtual Adepts book, probably because the first was more grounded in real political controversy, even if it often came to the wrong conclusions.

Ukss Contribution: I did kind of like the "Learn-It" rote, even if it couldn't support even the flimsiest science fiction justification. It's a weird curse/blessing that "starts calling up enemies and challenges appropriate to the target's current power level." You know, so they can learn.

Obviously, this effect is also known as "being a PC," but I do enjoy the idea that there is a quantifiable, in-setting explanation for the phenomenon.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Verbena

The Verbena (the new plural from Guide to the Traditions has been officially disowned) have a problem. They are the "witch" Tradition, but the word "witch" is overburdened with meaning. Sometimes "witch" is a religious identity, a word used by certain neo-pagans to describe their practices with a varying degree of tongue in cheek. And sometimes a witch is just a Halloween monster, a cackling hag that flies around on a broomstick and is lumped in with demons and ghouls and such.

The tension with Tradition Book: Verbena is that White Wolf had a great deal of incentive, both internal and external, to write about religious witches, but in the context of their roleplaying game, it is the Halloween witches that justify the splat's existence.

The reasoning is simple enough. You make a game called "Vampire." You make a game called "Werewolf." You say they're set in the same world. It makes sense that you've got witches too. Nobody's going to be surprised when you say, "Our World of Darkness has Vampires, Werewolves, and Witches."

So when your occult game expands in scope until it's called "Mage," and it has every imaginable magic-using archetype, then witches kind of have to be near the top of the list. Putting in a witch faction buys you the credibility to include out-there concepts like the Virtual Adepts. "Why are there implausibly effective super-hackers in my game of modern occult horror? Oh, they're kind of like witches."

However, once you start looking at the Traditions as not just pop-culture archetypes, but actual organizations within your sprawling, Earth-based canon, you start to confront difficult questions. The biggest being, "why are the Verbena not simply a part of the Order of Hermes?"

Now, I don't want to start running my mouth about the nuances of European religious occultism, but with the caveat that I'm restricting myself to pop culture depictions, it's not entirely apparent what the difference between a witch and a wizard is supposed to be. There are a series of contrasts you could draw - witches are typically women, wizards are typically men. Witches are rural, wizards are urban. Practical vs scholarly. Working class vs nobility (or at least professional class). And so on.

In a game that focused on European mysticism, or one that simply had a large number of very specific archetypes, then you'd want to separate the two. But once you start saying that there's a limited number of Traditions and that they are based on a combination of geography and praxis, then you've got to realize that for all their differences, witches and wizards also share some really fundamental ideas about the occult. They use the same elemental correspondences, attach similar importance to tools like staves, swords, and chalices, draw the same pentagrams and circles, call upon the same pagan gods (or, at least, the same families of gods, even if witches prefer Artemis and wizards prefer Hermes), share much of the same herb-lore and astrology, and believe in the same doctrines of sympathy, contagion, and signatures.

Close-up, the differences are significant, but from a far enough distance, they become matters of personal style. I don't mean to be too glib. It's just weird that in a setting where all of Asia has one Tradition, Europe alone has 3 (or 6, depending on how you count the Cult of Ecstasy and the technomancers). Back when the Traditions were rpg classes, you could get away with it, but once they started to stand for the representation of different cultures, the Verbena should have become one of the Great Houses of the Order of Hermes. This would even have been true to the source material - Ars Magica had Bjornær (Germanic shapeshifters), Merinita (faerie magic), and Diende (druids).

Confounding the issue is the fact that the White Wolf fandom (and, I suspect, the creative staff) was disproportionately neo-Pagan. So the Verbena serve much the same purpose as the Hollow Ones - to allow White Wolf fans the opportunity to play mages inspired by their own subcultures. The first Verbena book often read like a religious tract as a result. This version of the Verbena book retains some portion of this element, but it also tries to make the Verbena more like Halloween witches, and thus it sometimes winds up feeling like a tract for a bad religion.

The characters from the first book return for the second - and one them offers himself up as a human sacrifice to power up a Node. At the end, his wife scolds an apprentice for feeling squeamish about it. Much is made of nature being amoral, and the Verbena being the only ones strong and wise enough to accept that truth without flinching. Also some of them are Nazis (who are at "the fringes of the Tradition" and who "have no real influence," though the cringiest thing about that is the Germanic pagans who want to "overcome the taint of Nazism while maintaining their Aryan pride" - yikes).

In the end, Tradition Book: Verbena has some strong elements (including my favorite rote in all of Mage - Banishing Blessing, where you get rid of someone who annoys you by arranging for them to receive good fortune a long distance away), but it never quite comes together. It depicts an organization of haughty, abrasive people who are also sometimes hippies, but not really because blood is life . . . and so on. It really would have been easier if they'd just gone with the Halloween witches.

Ukss Contribution: I like the Paths of the Wyck, mystical corridors that connect Nodes and allow Verbena to travel the world with remarkable speed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Genius: The Transgression

 I think you can quite honestly describe Genius: the Transgression as an honorary World of Darkness game. Part of that is due to the sheer amount of effort that went into duplicating White Wolf/Onyx Path's house style. This is a 480 page book that noodles around for 30 or so giving me Storyteller advice . . . that's dedication to a bit. One person, working alone, decided he was going to replicate a WoD book even to the point of including the part that we all grudgingly read exactly once and then ignore for the rest of time. It's impressive, and I don't want to downplay that.

But it's also an honorary World of Darkness game because it is ill served by being set in the World of Darkness. There's a line that sums it up pretty well, "Fighting Illuminated Babylonian scientist-priests in the Hollow Earth is fun, but the story loses the mundane, human element that grounds most mad scientists' lives."

Ha! White Wolf, you got burnt. 

I'm sure it wasn't meant as a deliberate jab, but it's such a perfectly White Wolf line that it read to me almost like parody. You know how, when we're talking about mad scientists, the thing that is most interesting about them is "the mundane, human element." 

The tension of this juxtaposition runs through the book like a hairline fracture, subtly weakening it. Mad scientists aren't really characters so much as an obstacle, a plot contrivance to justify a monster. They can be scary in themselves when you're a naif who has been pulled into the orbit of their obsession, but once you start to get to know them, to discover the mundane human who is behind the wild invention, it becomes harder and harder to call them "mad."

There's also the issue that mad scientists are kind of a solitary character type, at least in a horror context. I suppose you could have a horror movie where a team of people work on some wild project that humanity was definitely not meant to meddle with, and then their creation breaks loose and starts wreaking havoc . . . and they're all the one who can't let their grand vision become hobbled by the petty minds of those fools . . . but that would be a weird dynamic, and you'd be in constant danger of descending into self-parody.

Besides, even if you could tell a story like that and keep it properly horror, the rules of Genius: the Transgression don't really support collaboration between equals (it's allowed in the rules, but "other mad scientists make for surly, arrogant underlings.") The story the book encourages you to tell is one of lone geniuses cooperating, despite wildly incompatible milieus. It's a world where Frankenstein, Moriarty, and Doc Brown can team up, and it is honestly, unironically awesome, but "fighting Illuminated Babylonian scientist-priests in the Hollow Earth" is definitely its wheelhouse.

Luckily, the game's tone pretty consistently sticks to high-weirdness and science fantasy. It's only when it remembers that it's trying to be a World of Darkness game that it stumbles. The worst offender in this regard is the cynicism that surrounds the bardos.

In Genius: The Transgression terminology, a bardo is what happens when a common belief about the universe is disproven. The shifting of the scientific consensus releases a large amount of Mania (read: "mana") energy that winds up creating a pocket universe where the old belief is true. And these are mostly pretty great. You can visit the Hollow Earth and the Crystal Spheres and the canal-building civilization on Mars. Weird locations for a weird science universe.

Where it goes wrong is when it tries to lump political and ethical stances or futurist tropes in with "disproven theories." There's a difference between an aspiration and a prediction, and there's a definite adaptive advantage in saying "this wonderful thing hasn't happened . . . yet." "The Seattle of Tomorrow" sounded like an amazing sci-fi wonderland, but the World of Darkness has no place for optimism, and so it must be described with cruelty:

This, The Seattle of Tomorrow, was a triumph of engineering and industry, a perfectly-ordered state where none suffered want. The Lemurians believed in this place, a twist away from normal Seattle, with all their hearts and minds, and refused to believe it was merely a bardo, created by the "Science State" turning from a dream to a laughingstock among the West's intellectual elite.

Incidentally, the "Lemurians" mentioned here are the game's antagonist splat. They're mad scientists who believe that they've discovered real scientific truths, and that it's the world that's wrong when it claims that their theories are nonsense. The protagonist faction is known as the Peerage, and they correctly draw a distinction between "mad" science and "real" science.

Which is as good an excuse as any to start talking about metaphysics. I actually really appreciate that Genius: the Transgression flat out states that the heroes are not scientists, because scientists can communicate their discoveries, cooperate with other researchers, perform repeatable experiments, and build theoretical systems (rather than just one-off wonders that fail when a mundane examines them). It was relaxing to read a book that respected the scientific process.

Although, if I start picking at this distinction, I wind up with some difficult questions. The Lemurians make sense. They're tapped into some cosmic intelligence that allows them to assemble fragile sci-fi wonders and they believe they've discovered fundamental scientific truths about the universe that explain why these devices function. The Peerage, however, is just as connected to the cosmic intelligence, but they don't believe they have special knowledge about the universe. It's one of the fundamental precepts of their code (The Law of  Broken Theory: "Geniuses are not scientists and once a genius catalyzes he will never again do science as he previously understood the practice. His Mania makes that impossible.") So what do Peerage Geniuses think they're doing?

Like, they know that the Mania that allows them to build wonders is nonsense, that their devices are black boxes (the third precept) and any theory they make about it is bound to be the wrong one, but they still make wonders anyway. Their whole philosophy is that "my brother thinks he's a chicken, but we need the eggs" joke, except they're the brother and they know it. It's a little hard to my head around it.

There's a term this game uses, unmada, which basically means "you've started buying into your own bullshit." The Lemurians are always unmada, but the Peerage is only sometimes unmada - if they fail a check provoked by certain Mania-gathering activities. And this strikes me as . . . suboptimal. The Geniuses' wonders either operate according to legitimate scientific principles, in which case it should be possible to study them, or they are miracles channeled through the Genius' fragile mind, in which case it seems like conviction should count for something.

That may just be a pitfall of making "belief" into one of your game's major themes, however. Genius: the Transgression did sometimes remind me of a bizarro Mage: the Ascension, except that instead of your powers being driven by belief, it's more that your beliefs are driven by your powers. Learn to resurrect the dead through contact with the universal overmind and BAM, you're no longer capable of being a true empiricist. It's like the ability to form cogent beliefs is the price of your miraculous abilities. 

The Peerage then . . . is a group . . . that recognizes the price, and . . .says existential skepticism doesn't count as one of the beliefs you're not allowed to have?

Anyway, it's my considered opinion that the Lemurians make better heroes and better villains, and it's probably a better use of the setting if you just stripped out the whole unmada concept and divided the factions along political, rather than philosophical lines.

Because the Lemurians actually have a pretty interesting backstory - the existence of Lemuria was disproven, so it became a bardo, but the bardo had an indigenous species of intelligent snake people. The snake people almost went extinct when their bardo started to fail, so 9 of them became cyborgs, traveled back in time. and recruited humans to help them manipulate the course of history so that Lemuria could exist in truth.

There's a lot of time travel shenanigans that would make a much better basis for the setting metaphysics. The whole world could be a contest between the Terminals and the Cold Ones to see which of these hypothetical end-of-time inheritor species gets to be real and which must remain hypothetical. It would make a lot more sense than trying to reconcile the Lemurians with the Seers of the Throne, at least (this book's solution - they cannot see each other, even if they're in the same room, not unless they're literally forced to acknowledge each other by a third party - it's weird and bad and a relic of setting Genius in a world that is too small for its concept).

Overall, I really liked this game, but it serves as an object lesson for putting too much work into fanfiction. It really should be its own, stand-alone setting. More weird science and less "life sucks, and not in a grand way."

Ukss Contribution: A lot of candidates here. I love me some implausible sci-fi inventions. I'm going to go with the Mist Throne - a device that if you sit in it you can clairvoyantly spy on any place within 10,000 miles. I'll probably tweak the thematics, though. Maybe make it so that it extends your sense of sight through the clouds, allowing you to get a birds-eye view from anywhere, so long as there's a near-contiguous corridor of overcast weather leading to the Throne's location.