Friday, October 23, 2020

Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition - Book 1: Awaken (Chapters 1-4)

 I'd have to go back into the archives to double check, but I think this may be my longest ever gap between posts. This is undoubtedly due to the confluence of many unrelated distractions - the hotel has been infuriatingly busy, there's been some minor drama with my landlord, and I've gotten really into a certain survival-crafting video game. I've got a lot of excuses lined up (not that I'm offering an apology, but still).

However, I have to admit that despite all the other things competing for my attention, a big part of why it's taken me so long to read 115 pages is because Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition isn't very pleasant to read.

Part of that is just the sheer physical discomfort of manhandling this monster of a book. It is so heavy guys. I'll be sitting in bed and eventually have to take a break to let my arms rest. I leave it on my lap long enough and it will leave a mark. I like to flatter myself that I'm not a weak man, but with the exception of Exalted 3rd edition, no other book in my collection has so consistently threatened to slip from my grasp as I lug it to and from my car.

In a way, that's a good thing. M20 is definitely a tome. There's something satisfying about playing a modern occult game using a book that feels like it was stolen from a wizard's laboratory. I can't deny that it's a challenge, though.

A more fundamental issue is that the writing, at least in this first section, is . . .  hmm. The phrase "make reality your bitch" shows up in an ostensibly out of character section.

I say "ostensibly" because I can't actually be sure. Maybe I missed something, but it's unclear who the narrator is supposed to be. They have opinions, though. 

Many mages reach for a lesser goal instead: they want to make the world ascend. And they'll tell you that's the ultimate benevolence. And they'll be lying then, because it's not. Although you may disagree with this opinion, as many mages do, in my mind such universal Ascension is the ultimate form of slavery.

What is this bullshit? No, seriously, what is it? Is this the official position of the game regarding "Ascension" as a fantasy concept? Is this Brucato popping off on millennia of eschatological and soteriological thought? Is it a character within the setting being embarrassingly cynical? I wish I could tell you which, because that would go a long way towards me being able to tell you whether this was a good introduction to Mage or not, but it's confusing and it keeps being confusing for the bulk of part 1.

I mean, I just can't let this go. "The ultimate form of slavery." What - "the guys who gave me superpowers neglected to inform me that a different group of guys could have given me slightly different superpowers using a slightly different method. I'd rather be dead."

I guess, if I squint, I can sort of see the outline of a point. People are different and thus any one-size-fits-all approach to enlightenment is going to be one that runs the risk of over-simplifying the complexities of the human condition, but if mass Ascension is even possible as a spiritual concept, then surely a respect for the dignity of the individual is part of it. It makes sense that people in the setting would not entirely trust rival visions of Ascension, but isn't the whole point that nobody knows for sure what Ascension even is?

It's a persistent problem with this whole section of the book. Someone is trying to explain to us the nature of the Mage: the Ascension universe, but they won't disclose who they are and what biases they might bring to the table. In a world where belief defines reality that's kind of a big deal. I kind of have to assume the interjections of 1st-person commentary are Brucato breaking the fourth wall to tell us that his characters are all full of shit (though the ones whose practices most closely resemble Aleister Crowley's unique brand of irreverent egoist mysticism are notably less full of shit than others - that's why the Traditions nicknamed him "Uncle Al.")

In a way, this is a return to form. Parts of it read like a Thelema religious tract, but the text as a whole would not have felt too out of place in 2nd edition (what the book calls "classic era Mage" to distinguish it from Revised). That's kind of an issue. So far, this does not feel like a game that has grown with the times.

There's even a sidebar about how ubiquitous cell phones threaten to ruin the feel of the game. It gives you three options - adapt and figure out a way to incorporate technological changes into the setting; set your game in the 1990s so that it's not an issue; make the setting a stylized anachronistic pastiche that only includes the events and technologies that serve to enhance the game. It's a deeply weird sidebar because it would have been more useful if it simply didn't exist. Making such a big, specific deal out of cell phones kind of flies in the face of the game's themes. Introducing new shit into the Consensus is kind of what the Ascension War is all about.

It makes me question why M20 even exists. My memory of backing the Kickstarter was of thinking that I owned less than a third of all the Mage supplements, so it would be nice to have an omnibus edition that put all of the metaplot and weird setting details into a single volume. It would be the last Mage book I'd ever need.

It hasn't turned out to be that, though (just as an experiment I pulled up the pdf and searched for the Hem-ka Sobk: bad news, they've been "obliterated"). Instead, it feels a lot like having Mage described to me by someone who read all the books a long time ago and is now trying to paraphrase. 

Take the idea that belief determines reality. That's what Mage is about, but it's a paradox (no pun intended). Nobody in the setting actually believes this. They couldn't. If they believed it, they wouldn't, nay couldn't believe in their specific metaphysical systems strongly enough to do magic. Why would the Order of Hermes, for example, bother with all that nonsense with the esoteric chanting, complex astrological correspondences, and dangerous alchemical experiments if they could just be the Order of Believing Really Hard instead.

Now, granted, overcoming your magical praxes was a major theme of the game, happening as early Arete 2 in 1st and 2nd edition, but the reason Revised moved it back to Arete 5 was clear - playing as mystic sorcerers who create magic through occult rituals is much more interesting than playing as psychics who manipulate reality with the power of the mind. If mages are surpassing their foci left and right, the difference between the Traditions blurs and the setting loses its specificity.

One of the big identity crises of Mage, going back almost to the very beginning, is if it wants to be a multicultural occult kitchen sink - wizards, necromancers, seers, and shamans teaming up with mad scientists, hackers, and goths - or if it wants to be a superhero game with factions that split along cultural lines, but who pretty much all use magic in the same way - as early as the original Player's guide there was a Celestial Chorister who hurled misty grey orbs that exploded into fog. "Belief determines reality" works as an attempt to explain how the first situation could come about, but once people in-setting start taking it seriously, the second situation is inevitable.

M20 takes the issue as read. There is one type of magic, the magic of will-driven reality manipulation, and with the exception of the more indoctrinated members of the Technocracy, every mage knows that. They may take some time to grow beyond their cultural practices, but they know what road they're on - the road where their powers work exactly like the game rules because the Spheres are an explicit part of the setting cosmology and not just a mechanical convenience.

That's the part of M20 that feels like it was based on Mage as an internet meme. There have been these ongoing conversations about Mage that focus on high level metaphysical stuff, and so that's what the text is interested. The ongoing effort that started mid-2nd edition to make the setting more specific and grounded in real-world mythology is nowhere to be seen. At times M20 feels less like Mage and more like our collective memory of Mage.

Maybe that's just what happens when you start your book with an overview. Perhaps, once we get into Book 2 we'll start seeing the anything-goes occult weirdness that was Mage at its bet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Ops and Tactics: Modern Combat Manual

 Where To Get It: Creator's Blog

This book made me cry.

Literally.

It's probably a good thing, all things considered. You get deep into gun nerdery and there's an event horizon, somewhere after the 10th page of tables, where you print consecutive stats for the IMI Galil ACE 23 and the IMI Galil ACE 53 and there's a part of my soul that just breaks. However, if I'm being perfectly honest, my particular soul is not much more than an obstacle when it comes to creating a detailed simulation of modern combat. In fact, I'm far less interested in modeling the difference between 5.56x45mm NATO and 7.62x51mm NATO ammunition than I am by the fact that this particular rifle apparently has a built-in bottle opener.

Why didn't you tell me about the bottle opener, Ops and Tactics: Modern Combat Manual? I had to learn it from Wikipedia, of all places.

Anyway, the difference between the two is that one does 5d4 damage with 5 points of recoil penalty  and the other does 5d6 damage with 6 points of recoil.

The main thing I hope you all take away from this rambling is that this game has a niche. I admire its attention to detail. It demonstrates an enviable industry. But much like the dung beetle, it's a form of industry I'd prefer to admire from a distance.

Ops and Tactics uses a hacked version of the d20 system that replaces the d20 with 3d6 and eschews classes for a more free-form leveling system. I can't say I entirely agree with all its choice (for example, I have my doubts that a Gaussian distribution of die rolls is going to have enough of an emotional payoff to justify giving every action in the game an extra dose of addition), but it seems solid enough, especially if your goal is to make combat an exercise in precise number crunching and the accumulation of small advantages through carefully chosen tactics. There's a feat here that gives you a bonus to cleaning your weapon in the middle of combat, and it's not obviously a trap. I don't want to say too much against it, because it's clearly something of immense value to the sort of people who value that sort of thing.

Overall, I'd say that Ops and Tactics: Modern Combat Manual is a workhorse of a book - unglamorous, but thorough and precise. It's the sort of game where you might want to abandon the grid, but for a ruler and protractor instead of theater of the mind. It's the sort of book where the gamemastering chapter takes a 3 page detour to explain the physical principles involved in the operation of a handgun, then does the same thing for rifles, shotguns, and grenade launchers.  Have you ever wanted to know the precise definition of "assault rifle" and why the AR-15 doesn't count? Read this book and you'll find out.

Ukss Contribution: In a way, I'm spoiled for choice. This book has positively pummeled my brain with firearms trivia, some of which I actually found pretty interesting (Beretta has been making guns since the 16th century). The difficulty comes in finding applicability for this information. The US Postal Inspection Service is issued shotguns . . . is that something I can use? Probably not.

Anyway, the game has stats for mustard gas, which I always thought was the most evocatively named of the terrifying chemical weapons, so that's what I'm going with.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

(M: tAs) Convention Book: Void Engineers

Threat Null was a pretty satisfying plot twist. I genuinely did not see it coming, but it makes perfect sense in retrospect. The Technocrats who got stranded by the Avatar Storm suffered disembodiment and became this weird sci-fi horror threat that was half alien invasion and half cosmological nightmare. The Void Engineers must fight against the physical threat, but also keep an eye out for infiltration and subversion and the enemy knowing all the back doors and passwords the old leaders of the Technocracy put into their devices, bases, and mental conditioning. They abandoned the thought of defecting, but they are more alone than ever.

The frustrating part of Convention Book: Void Engineers for me, an obsessive Mage: the Ascension fan, is that so much of it is a great campaign pitch, but it's presented as some late-hitting metaplot that will likely never get resolved. I suppose that's an apt sendoff - one last bit of White Wolf-esque "oh, you like this group? Well their spotlight book is going to change everything about them" to round out the series.

Because make no mistake, the Void Engineers presented here are a very different animal than the ones we've seen in Mage's original run. Oh, there are similarities. The peculiar mix of curiosity with xenophobia is still there. They still have a bit of an irreverent edge. But the democracy is gone. There's no longer the sense that they've got one foot out the door. They're still, relatively speaking, the reasonable Technocrats, but it is unlikely that they'll be a bridge between the factions of the Ascension War.

It all really comes down to a simple organizational difference - they are now 100% a sci-fi military instead of merely an exploratory organization with a military wing. Whatever bits of Star Trek there were in the original presentation have been replaced with Starship Troopers.

I can't tell you whether I approve of the change or not. On the one hand, the militant Void Engineers are more in line with the Technocracy's overall tone. On the other hand, the fact that it came about because of a metaplot development makes it feel really regressive. These are people who are in some sense getting worse as time goes on. Maybe that fits a bit better into the pessimistic tone of the World of Darkness, but something is definitely getting lost.

My instinct with Convention Book: Void Engineers is that the best use of it is to take it at face value, but if you do take it at face value, the game you're playing is only marginally Mage: the Ascension. What I mean by that is that the Void Engineers are wrong about the spirit world. Consult literally any other source about the Umbra and you'll find that while it has its native dangers, it is not especially a source of threats. Like, sure, there are Nephandi living beyond the Horizon who want to come to Earth and destroy it, and you'll definitely want someone out there stopping them from doing that, but that's not all there is to do out there. When you talk about the Dreamspeakers or the the Euthanatos or even the Order of Hermes going into the spirit world, they're learning secrets and finding treasures and forging alliances and only occasionally does all hell break loose.

At some point, you have to consider that, if the Void Engineers are going into alternate dimensions and finding only enemies, perhaps they are the problem. Both the original book and this one sometimes skirted up against this idea. The coincidence of  their explorations with colonial genocide is again brought up in the history section, and this time the narrator was upfront about the Convention's misdeeds ("Our wish to distance ourselves from politics instead lead us to playing a role in slaughter"), but this honesty doesn't lead to any soul searching. They're doing the same thing in the Umbra that they did in the Americas - venturing beyond the borders of the empire to find new foes to subdue.

Each of the Technocratic Conventions has a dark reflection in Threat Null . . . except the Void Engineers. This is presented as a frightening mystery (where are they hiding . . . what strange knowledge do they command . . . is it possible we were spared), but it seems obvious to me that the Void Engineers' Threat Null counterparts are the Void Engineers. It's their paranoia and fear that has transformed them into relentless killers, their much-vaunted "independence" twisted into a blithe arrogance that stops them from confiding in their fellow Conventions. 

They don't understand that they've already been corrupted, that on some level they always have been. Before the Avatar Storm, they affected an aloofness from the Technocracy, and both in-fiction and out of fiction they are distanced from the Union's atrocities even as they continue to accept its money, and thus, post-Storm they are intimately entangled with disembodied shadow-Union even as they are physically and culturally more isolated than ever. They make the same mistake with Threat Null that they do with the rest of the Umbra. It is not, fundamentally, a threat - it is a manifest psychodrama, a divine mystery that reveals something important about its players. And what the Void Engineers lack the insight to understand is that they don't have to be disembodied (sorry, "void adapted") to be trapped by it. 

My personal theory about Threat Null is that they might, incidentally, pose a danger to Sleepers, but their final destination isn't Earth. The place they're trying to get to is wherever the Technocracy happens to be. The way to stop them is for the Conventions to stop being the Technocracy. 

It's just a personal version of their general error - except for a few outliers, the denizens of the Umbra do not want to break through the Gauntlet and conquer the Earth. Most of them are, at worst, neutral towards humanity. The most dangerous spirits are almost always the ones that human beings have wounded in some way, and the best defense against them is not high-tech satellites that prolong the Avatar Storm (the VE's new biggest secret now that they no longer have a Dyson Sphere), but rather just healing the wound. And that's something their philosophy simply hasn't prepared them for.

Or, at least, that's how I'd do it if I were running Threat Null as a Mage story. Like I said, a better use of the material is to take it at face value. There's a government agency that monitors visitors from alternate dimensions, but one day the scientists responsible for maintaining the agency's own travel equipment notices that their otherworlds are slowly succumbing to an alien threat that just so happens to share all their same codes and protocols. It's a great idea for a sci-fi game, but a problematic direction for one that ostensibly wants to remain in the urban fantasy genre. 

Having read the whole series of new Convention Books, I'd say as a group they're pretty well done - largely balancing the mandate to make a sympathetic sympathetic players' guide with the necessity of having the organizations as a whole remain villains. The new introductions to canon largely work, though their admirable commitment to diversity is perhaps too admirable, given that they're supposed to represent a group synonymous with the cultural failings of European high modernism. Ultimately, though, it feels a little weird to me to see such a quintessentially 90s setting get continued so long after its original context, especially in such a selective way. It really doesn't feel like a continuation of Mage, Revised when the implication is that the Traditions just spun their wheels for the better part of a decade. They were a noble effort, and a welcome, if belated fulfillment of the implied promise that came with creating a Convention Book: Iteration X, but they were also a thing out of time - and it showed.

Ukss Contribution: I really like the Null-Threat analogue to the Progenitors. They call themselves the Transhumans, but the plural is deceiving. They promise to give you a beautiful, immortal body at the peak of human potential, and they do, but the price is that you're immediately subsumed into their dominant hive mind. One superhuman intelligence controlling who knows how many exquisitely crafted bodies. It puts a new spin on the old assimilation trope ("what if the Borg were hot?")

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

(M:tAs) Convention Book: Syndicate

Convention Book: Syndicate is going to be a challenge for me because I know it's operating on at least four levels of critical irony - It wants to correct the prior depictions of the Syndicate that made them out to be cartoonishly villainous, but it also wants to downplay early Revised's overcorrection into making the Technocracy heroic, but also the people the Syndicate is based off of are real life villains, but also we are so steeped in the ideology of capitalism that we'll often construct apologetics for capitalism without even realizing it.

I'll give you a concrete example from the book. Here is how it describes the subprime lending crisis:

A handful of overly ambitious shithead Financiers gave some very bold advice to the people who write the laws that govern how loans work in these United States. They needed more fluid capital to work with and figured that if a bunch of poor people got loans for houses they couldn't afford, well, then they could just drain them dry and they'd have some easy money. . .

Part of the compensation plan has been to back a rewrite of the whole American bankruptcy law. People were taking out loans they knew they could not afford and then just claiming bankruptcy and making the state take care of them -- parasites with little to no judgement or self-control.

What do I even do with that? Well, the first thing would be to walk it back a little by pointing out that in the three paragraphs I cut out of the quote, the narrator does express some sympathy towards the middle class for the "foreclosure and misery [that] reigned over [them] for the last decade." It's important to acknowledge that they are less callous than their counterparts on real Wall Street. But once that acknowledgement is out of the way, I'll have to immediately walk forward again by pointing out that rest of the book advances the party line that the crash happened because "A few Financiers . . . attempted to accelerate consumer wealth - primarily through home ownership."

What is even going on here? That's where the layers of irony come in. On one level, we really shouldn't take the word of the Syndicate at face value. A lot of their talk about the crash is simple ass-covering. Another theme that gets repeated is that the financial crisis happened because the Technocracy needed money. This is a bit more truthful, even if it's framed as a defense. They created exotic financial instruments and then endlessly sold them and resold them to each other because they wanted money and they didn't care who they had to hurt to get it.

But we also have to consider that this is a fantasy game. An explicit goal of the book is to present the Syndicate as people who "struggle between the desire to be noble and the need to be pragmatic." So maybe there is something to the idea that they were sincerely trying to help, but suffered a paradox backlash. That's not how it went down in real life, but Mage: the Ascension isn't real. . .

It's an idea that could work, but it yields a gaming supplement that feels like it could be praised by National Review. That's the danger of incorporating real events into your fiction. You blur the lines between characters reacting to plot and the author reacting to events.

That's just a tension you have to be comfortable with if you're going to enjoy Convention Book: Syndicate. The Syndicate are the heroes of their own story, but they're also unreliable narrators. If you want the opinion of this grumpy leftist, it's not a tightrope the book always walks successfully. Often, it reads more like a villain book than the original 2e splat, where they explicitly villains.

What it comes down to for me is that a central pillar of their philosophy is utterly toxic. They are dedicated elitists who don't believe in equality. Not only do they think it's impossible, thy think it's inherently undesirable. According to a sidebar "wealth only has value because it is unequal. If everybody has equal wealth, then nobody is wealthy." The Syndicate enforces a system that is hierarchical to its core, and they can't be separated from that.

A funny thing about that, though is that the Syndicate sets itself against medieval feudalism, claiming that "aristocrats are a drain on the economy. They produce nothing." The real irony of the statement is not that it's being said by a capitalist, but that it tracks very well with Marx's historiography. Capitalism is the progressive historical successor to feudalism, much as socialism is to be towards capitalism, but the Syndicate views itself as the end of history. Truly, they are those who stand athwart history, yelling "stop."

Overall, I'd say that Convention Book: Syndicate is another piece of evidence in support of the notion that the Technocracy's time has passed. They are the "Defenders of the Status Quo," the one anti-progressive faction in a group defined (for good and for ill) by its progressivism. They have a niche in the World of Darkness, and they are the heart of the version of the Technocracy that represents the excesses of European imperialism, but in a world where you want the narrator of the book to be a Ghanaian woman who has internalized the values of American capitalism, where the one unironic thing about the splat's presentation is its newfound commitment to being a genuinely gender- and color-blind meritocracy, then it becomes ever harder to see what ties the Technocracy together.

I suppose that's the undercurrent of the NWO vs Syndicate civil war metaplot. The Union is, in fact, in danger of flying apart. It's an idea that has been teased repeatedly in the new Convention Books, and gets its fullest expression here, where the Syndicate is absolutely dripping with contempt for the NWO, but which, as far as I recall, is completely abandoned (aside from the obligatory optional sidebar) in M20.

I'm probably too ideologically alienated from the fantasy of capitalism to truly enjoy this book as a player resource, but it does do the job of fleshing out one of Mage's more one-dimensional factions, and there's some value in that (no pun intended).

Ukss Contribution: The "Mercenary" sample character is a "warfighter who can run the numbers, so they can find economic solutions to violent conflicts." It's an interesting combination that could inspire a whole company of forensic accountants/nation builders/guerilla warriors.