Monday, September 28, 2020

(M:tAs) Convention Book: Progenitors

 These revised Convention Books continue to be deeply weird, though Convention Book: Progenitors is so different from Convention Book: NWO that I'm holding out hope that they will all be weird in different and unique ways. This particular book has a recurring theme that can be summed up as, "we used to be bad, but then we got better."

It's an . . . interesting direction to go with the faction. Part of what's going on, of course, is the old White Wolf rule that you're not allowed to change anything about the setting without making it an event within the setting. So you've got an in-character sidebar apologizing about the backronym "FACADE" ("Forced Adaptation and Clone Alteration Developmental Eugenics" . . . which even for a backronym doesn't make a lot of sense) that concludes by saying "we collectively haven't yet earned the right to change it" . . . because, of course, you still want your paranoia-inducing clone conspiracy to exist in your occult-horror universe. 

And yet it is quite canonical that the Avatar Storm . . . erm, Dimensional Anomaly, very conveniently killed off all the more explicitly sci-fi horror characters from the early 1st edition book. It's a running gag (though I'm sure it wasn't intended to be humorous) throughout Convention Book: Progenitors that whenever they talk about dissent, mistakes, or even basic compassion, they need to point out that those things won't get you killed any more. It used to be, back before the Dimensional Anomaly, that a research assistant might stick their neck out and say that creating a slave race of cannibalistic lizard-people with names like "Zsgraak, Devourer of His Enemies' Bowels" was perhaps . . . ethically dubious, and then wind up being unceremoniously murdered and replaced with a lobotomized clone, but now that sort of whistleblowing is moderately encouraged.

Of course, this is an artifact of Progenitors being the first of the original Technocracy books, released in the game's first year. So they were not just villains, they were cartoonish supervillains who invented pollen allergies to keep people from enjoying nature. I'm not sure exactly how much of that depiction is still canon, but clearly enough of it still is that the new book needs to come up with a metaplot contrivance to explain why you might actually be able to play a Progenitor without being a cackling mustache-twirler.

Which is a bit of a shame, because of all the Technocracy Conventions, they are the one that most seamlessly meshes with both the World of Darkness in general and Mage: the Ascension in particular. They create strange creatures like cryptids, uplifts, and frankensteins , but also they have a praxis that can seem like magic while still being plausibly "scientific." Like, Iteration X will create a super-efficient gun with the Forces Sphere, but then that raises the question of "why can't an ordinary person pick that up and blow the fucking roof off whatever building they happen to be standing in," but the Progenitors don't take quite so convoluted an explanation to reconcile. The reason that they need to be physically present and in command in order for their super-science to actually work is because it is frequently literal brain surgery. It's something that takes an uncanny degree of skill. You can't just build something and hand it off (well, except for the drugs, but even those fit better with the Sphere system's "1 roll = 1 effect.")

The most awkward aspect of the Progenitors magic is the fact that there is relatively little for non-masters to do. One of the three main Methodologies, the FACADE Engineers, whole deal is that they create clones of people, either for infiltration or life extension. It's a great organization, with a well-defined niche that fits perfectly in a horror setting, but you aren't getting anywhere close to their signature techniques until you have Life 4 or 5 (and the accompanying Mind 5 that you will only use for this one specific effect). The weird thing is that if, like the canon FACADE Engineers, you only had the narrow ability to duplicate and replace people, that in itself might not be overpowered. It's only down to the fact that there's no way to get there, under the Mage rules, without also having sublime control over every conceivable form of life and thought that makes this such a problematic organization. 

Though the Progenitors are often depicted with the right feel, given their role in the setting, the realities of making them a player-character faction wind up exposing the seams of the setting's metaphysics. Their greatest secrets, the Life 5 effects, have canonically existed since the dawn of time. They are explicitly the successor organization to a group of Hellenistic sorcerer-physicians who went around stitching together animals and humans to create mythological chimera and now, 2000 years later, they're trying to figure out how to accomplish the same result with DNA. As a group, they spend a huge portion of their time researching, but the rules that govern the universe say that their efforts cannot be as collaborative, cumulative, and incremental as real science. If sutures are Life 2 and heart transplants are Life 3, then the newbies have to rediscover each one in turn before they're allowed to contribute to novel problems. And yes, I'm sure that it is indeed the case that real medical students reenact historical discoveries as part of their lab work, but training new scientists doesn't take substantially longer than it did 20, or even 50 years ago, and yet work is proceeding on previously unsolved problems.

To some degree, it's an artifact of Mage's ruleset, but there's also an ambiguity to what scientists, enlightened or otherwise, actually do. There's a great passage that illustrates the weirdness of what's going on:

Then there's what some call "fast-tracking research." The process is simple: a lab director demonstrates some corner of Enlightened Science, then turns the project over to unEnlightened scientists to replicate and "work out the kinks." When they hit an obstacle that seems to imply the Procedure is impossible, the director returns to show them that the advanced Procedure can in fact work. This leads to redoubled efforts and, if all goes well, new technology introduced to the Consensus . . .

What is reality, even? And if there is no physical reality to base new technologies on, then ultimately an invention is paradoxical depending on how surprising it is, regardless of any consistency it might have with established scientific principles. If this is really how things work (and the "fast-tracking" is definitely framed as if it eventually pays dividends), then the Technocracy-apologist line is actually pretty credible. The guys who use their magic to rigorously and meticulously expand the boundaries of the possible are doing good and necessary work. That sort of mundane-ification of magical techniques would likely be lost if the Traditions broke the unitary paradigm - with mages pulling in 9+ different directions, individual belief and will are too important.

It's actually kind of shocking that this idea made it into canon. Fast-tracking has always been something the Technocracy claimed to do, and it was likely something they believed they could do, but to have confirmation in an out-of-character section is huge. It's a shame that it came so late in the revised line that the Traditions couldn't articulate their alternative.

Overall, I'd say that Convention Book: Progenitors is one of the stronger splatbooks. It introduces new science fiction elements into the Mage setting, but with an aesthetic that doesn't demand a change of genre, and while the information provided makes them, for the first time, credible heroes, it's not so shiny as to destroy their utility as villains.

Ukss Contribution: I kind of want to add Xenotransplants as a whole category. It's a great sort of reified power-gamer idea - harvest the parts from other supernatural splats (troll's skin, vampire muscles, etc) and graft them onto a character for a permanent power boost! It's mad science, it's occult, it's ruthlessly practical!

However, I'm not going to be greedy. I'll just take the best individual xenotransplant - Deviant's Heart. Replace your own human heart with a werewolf's in order to gain speed, strength, and a dangerously unpredictable rage.

1 comment:

  1. I'd go ahead with the whole xenotransplant catalogue, personally. That sounds rad.