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?")

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