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.

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