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.


  1. I've been hearing about this for years. I'm grateful to finally have some additional knowledge of it. (Not that I've sought it with any vigor.)


  2. If you remove unmada from the game, you will simply roll back the setting to a slightly reworked Mage: Ascension. Mad scientists' understanding of the fact that they are mad scientists is an important and unique feature of Genius: the Transgression. Yes, Mania took away their ability to engage in real science, “rewarded” them with severe apophenia, but it did not take away skepticism. So Geniuses who have not become unmada understand that they have received some kind of ability beyond the capabilities of an ordinary person, but they are not sure what (each faction has its own explanations listed in the rule book, but basically there is quantum bs), and they understand that the principles for which they create Wonders are not real, so thats why Wonders cannot be reproduced and they have unexpected Flaws (something that does not happen with a regular device assembled from blueprints). Unmada can be considered as having Denial Quiet in terms of Mage: the Ascension, such unpleasant inconsistencies fall out of their sight.
    And yes, the fact that the futuristic Bardos have not been refuted once and for all makes Geniuses on both sides of the conflict believe in them and try to recreate them, but I also don’t understand why the Bardos work the way they do in this case.