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.

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