Monday, September 14, 2020

(M:tAs) Ascension - Part 2

Part 1

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.

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