Saturday, November 28, 2020

(M20)Gods & Monsters

 I wasn't planning on reading two of my remaining three Mage books in a row, but I peeked inside the cover of Gods & Monsters, saw that it had 11 credited authors instead of just one, and felt a strange surge of optimism. And that optimism was well justified, because Gods & Monsters is the best book yet in the M20 line. The World of Darkness is too cool for anything as purely functional as a "Monster Manual," but if we acknowledge that the entry for "Cultist" is going to focus on a single, specific cultist and detail her whole backstory (while also not giving us any specific character stats), then the book still works as a rich source of encounters, plot hooks, and setting details.

Setting, in particular, is the ground that Gods & Monsters is going to live or die on. Though the book is admirable in its creativity and diversity - introducing sexy holograms, snakes with the head of an elephant, and the god Anansi, it raises some difficult questions about Mage: the Ascension's place in the urban fantasy genre.

Djinn get their own section heading. There's two full pages about their culture and history. The three sample djinn don't get presented as archetypes, but as individual characters with complex backstories. It's like the book is saying that Mage is set in a world where there just happens to be djinn out there. You take your kids down to story-time at the local library and maybe that one kooky librarian with the melodious voice could be slipping little Billy a book that had never been written, but which fires his imagination like it was made specifically for him. That's just a thing that might happen.

Now, you come to me and say, "hey, in this fantasy setting I'm working on, genies once lived on Earth, but King Solomon developed powerful occult techniques to trap them in vessels and make them do his bidding, triggering a massive war that humanity eventually won, but now it's thousands of years later in the modern day and Solomon's magic is mostly forgotten, leading to a new generation of genies who are willing to venture outside the City of Brass to find their missing and enslaved kin, unaware that the sorcerers are still out there, desperate to resupply their dwindling stock of genie slaves" and I will reply, "Good God, yes! Is this a five-book series or are you planning on milking that idea forever?"

However, we're not actually talking about "Wishes in the Wind, the Djinn Chronicles Volume 1," we're talking about Mage: the Ascension. And we're not even really talking about Mage: the Ascension, we're actually talking about the World of Darkness, and so the use to which we're supposed to put these djinn is unclear. Is the World of Darkness like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Are you supposed to introduce monsters of the week drawn from real-world folklore and just fail to explore the setting implications until season 3 of the spinoff? Or is the djinn material meant to act as a specialized resource for Arabian and/or Taftani adventures?

I'm reminded of the Power Armor issue. Just as it would be weird to surprise your Vampire players with mechs, it would also be strange if they had to randomly deal with genies. . . But Mage is the game with Power Armor and genies and where you can write a letter to Santa asking him for rocket skates and your GM will have canonical support for making it happen.

It's hard to reconcile. You've got wild, anything goes kitchen-sink fantasy, but then you've got Paradox and Unbelief working to make sure that nothing disrupts the status quo. Which is the "real" Mage? I can't help thinking that Ascension works on an inversion of the Assassin's motto "Everything is true; nothing is permitted."

And maybe that's a cynical take, but it hangs over Gods & Monsters like a cloud. There's a ton of great material here, but also a sense that maybe you're not allowed to use it. Well, maybe "not allowed" is a bit strong, but Chapter 5 is "Crafting Characters" and provides rules for creating your own cyborgs or mythological creatures as player characters . . . while suggesting you take the "Unbelief" flaw which can kill you in as few as 7 rounds if you ever leave the comfort of a compatible "reality zone."

It's a little weird to think that here, in the second-to-last published book, more than 25 years after the first Mage core, we're still stuck in that same dilemma - is magic furtive and subtle or is it the embodiment of every fairy tale, myth, and fantasy epic in the history of the written word?

I suppose Gods & Monsters is a genuinely great Mage supplement because it can support both ideas while also being incredibly frustrating in its lack of commitment.

Oh, and we get a character write-up for Jesus Christ. It doesn't have much reason to exist, because it doesn't take a side in the culture war (describing him as a "Rorschach test for the human soul"), but it does provide an interesting contrast to the write-up for the god Pan, which is far more specific, respectful, and over three times as long. "No wonder the Church felt threatened by Pan. In his core, the god was an equivalent of the Nazarene shepherd . . ."

Even with 11 writers, M20 is still a game with a point of view.

Ukss Contribution: First, a snarky observation from me - there is a sidebar about the fraught cultural baggage associated with the word "totem" and the inappropriateness of using it as a piece of game terminology and it seeks to reassure us that Mage, as a brand, is aware of the issue and doesn't approve of that kind of cultural appropriation . . . and ends with the conclusion that they are already in too deep to change the name of the "Totem" background. Which might have almost been enough, were it coupled with an actual apology and the title of the sidebar were something other than "Controversy is My Spirit Animal."

:slow clap: great job, guys

I only bring it up because my Ukss choice happens to be one of these Patron Spirits (hmm, maybe renaming the Background was pretty easy after all), and I would be remiss if I let that wild sidebar pass without comment (seriously, the game would have been less problematic if that section had been left out entirely, which is presumably not something you want in your sensitivity disclaimers).

Anyway, my choice is Mr Black, the stylish spirit of wealth who is in reality what tech billionaires and Wall Street guys imagine themselves to be. He makes conspicuous consumption look cool.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

(M20)Book of Secrets



I'll confess, for the past seven months or so I've had this bizarre one-sided rivalry with Satyros Phil Brucato. Ever since I read the ridiculously offensive storytelling chapter of The Orphan's Survival Guide and very nearly challenged him to a duel to the death. 

It's probably for the best that I didn't, because I believe now that he may well be a real-life sorcerer. How else does one explain the precision-guided death curse that was this book's "Gender, Sex, and Magick" essay? Somehow, three years before I even made my intemperate comments, he must have  sensed them with his magickal abilities and wrote this section, secure in the knowledge that its deadly power would be delivered to the one and only person in all of human history stubborn enough to read it in its entirety.

No, I kid. The essay is more or less unobjectionable, saying more or less the correct things. It only made me uncomfortable because I've been spending the better part of the last month reading 1000+ pages of Brucato's writing and I've come to the conclusion that he is most likely a certifiable Weird Dude, and thus to have a two page essay about this particular subject so close to the end of the book, when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel . . . well, it felt a lot like what I imagine it would be like to be cornered by him at a party.

Brucato . . . Brucato . . . Brucato! Nobody asked. We were talking about mystically-themed superheroes in an urban fantasy rpg. We've all just sort of agreed to politely ignore the "sex and sensuality" instruments you've shoehorned into every other mystical practice. Do us all a favor and stop bringing it up.

I probably shouldn't be so harsh. It's clear to me that M20 bears the marks of his most deeply held religious beliefs, and as tempting as it would be to treat them with the same carelessness as he reserves for "fundies" or materialist atheists, I actually respect the choice. This is a work with a particular point of view, and as much as I don't personally agree with it, it does what art does - provide a window into another way of looking at the world.

It's just that he does The Thing again.

You know, The Thing. From The Orphan's Survival Guide where he includes a paragraph that is little more than a long list of slurs. The context is different. Instead of encouraging us to use these terms to make our portrayals "less PC" he is now inviting us to take a long look in the mirror and realize that the Nephandi are manipulating us through our hatred (yes, all of us, which is why "cracker" and "Rethuglican" get a place on the list alongside the genuine hate speech).

I think the context probably saves the section from being "evil," but it's also a huge mystery. A little while later, he asks the rhetorical question "Is this cutting a little close to home? Have the last few sentences seemed kind of heavy for your storytelling game?" And I can't tell how much self awareness he actually has here.

"Maybe they are. If so, the Nephandi can remain a distant presence in outer space, occasionally showing up as freaky cultists trying to summon a tentacled horror from the Void."

Is he really just pitching a much better idea that he should have gone with from the start, or is he talking down to us, calling us chicken because we might not want something as raw as a rape-apologist villain?

That's the downside to making your religion into an rpg. Making people uncomfortable starts to feel like a noble commitment to truth. 

It also means that you take certain things super seriously that the uninitiated would barely even notice. Book of Secrets winds up resolving one of M20's enduring mysteries - what does Brucato have against Revised's Resonance rules that he had to constantly take potshots at them in the core? Turns out it's a literalist interpretation of an arcane theological point so subtle that Brucato himself forgets to explain it. The only reason I was able to discern it was because I was given page references.

"In game terms, Synergy gives a new name to the Trait called 'Resonance' in Mage's Revised-era books. Because that trait essentially reversed the previous definition of Resonance (and even the definition presented on pps. 197 - 198 of Mage Revised), Synergy presents an optional rule that lets you integrate both traits into the same chronicle."

Now, if you read that sentence and thought, "wow, at last Brucato has cleaned up the train-wreck of Revised's Resonance rules," congratulations, you might be a wizard. However, if you're like me and you're totally confused about what the hell he's talking about, you might be tempted to go back and check the references.

If you're a Muggle like me, you might come away with the conclusion that the description of the Resonance trait and the definition of Resonance are 100% compatible, with no inconsistencies at all, let alone a total reversal. However, you're not seeing like a mystic and reading between the lines. The flaw in Revised's Resonance is that it divided Resonance into categories of Dynamic, Static, and Entropic.

You see, a materialist like me would read the Resonance categories as a taxonomy. Dynamism, Entropy, and Stasis are White Wolf's Metaphysic Trinity and every phenomenon in the Tellurian contains a balance of all three forces. Thus I would conclude that when a Mage has a Dynamic Resonance, of say "Fiery," then that is just an example of the sort of thing that would have a larger portion of Dynamism. Brucato, on the other hand, would say that if you call a Fiery Resonance "Dynamic" then what you are really claiming is that the Resonance is an emanation of Dynamism. 

And that is why he felt it was very important to point out that "Thematically, however, the distinction between internal and external origins is important. Mage is about self-willed individuals making powerful choices and changing the world, and so the notion of 'power-puppets' on cosmic strings contradicts a vital theme of Mage."

There's a part of me that wants to get angry at this sort of nit-picking. I'll admit, when I first read this, my thought was "Really, that's what was bothering you? That's what all that heavily-emphasized 'optional' business was about? That's what merited a dedicated sidebar and passive-aggressive renaming?"

But I think I get it. Throughout these books, Brucato keeps taking these driveby potshots at Revised, even when doing so is pointless and out of place (for example, he erratas a rule from Forged By Dragon's Fire to be exactly the same, almost to the word), but when you look at M20 as a work of religious faith, the pattern makes sense. Revised was the edition that was about "magic" instead of "magick."

Brucato keeps putting in these self-deprecating jibes about "the pretentious 'k'" but in the FAQ he explains it in direct terms: "Magick is an extension of the person who uses it, changing the world in accordance with that person's will to change it. 'Magic' is fundamentally different from magick, and so we brought back the original Crowleyian spelling of the word. To me, those two words mean very different things."

And that's not pretentious. Culturally specific, maybe. Offputting at times, sure. And I could definitely live the rest of my life in comfort never again hearing Aleister Crowley being referred to as "Uncle Al." But it's not pretentious. It's sincere. And as much as Brucato can get on my nerves at times (I guess having completely incompatible world views will do that), I can't help but respect the hell out of anyone with the guts to be that sincere . . .

(So long as he stops trying to talk to me about sex magick, Seriously. I just want to get to the punch bowl)

Ukss Contribution: Once again, Brucato is all over the place on Marauders, and maybe could use a more thorough education on sensitivity towards mental illness, but they are also one of the few places he allows himself to be truly mythic when it comes to the game's fantasy elements. I liked The Sleeping Lord, a sentient tree who intoxicates anyone nearby with raw chaotic energy.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Nobilis 3rd Edition

 Nobilis is less difficult than I remember.

I always feel a little self-conscious saying things like this, lest people are all, "ooh, John once thought Nobilis was difficult, what a dolt!" Or worse, "So John thinks Nobilis isn't difficult, let's double-check everything he says about it to make sure he's telling the truth."

But you know what, that's just my hang-up. I'm sure anyone reading this is a kind, generous soul who will give me the benefit of the doubt. Let's just say that the first time I read this book, I had a number of unanswered questions, whereas this time I didn't, and that's something that's probably attributable to reading Chuubo's Marvelous Wish Granting Engine and various online conversations with people who had similar questions.

The thing that became abundantly clear to me, coming in to the book with this new experience, is that I was greatly overthinking it. A good many of my old questions would have been answered if I'd just taken the text at face value and interpreted it literally. In my defense, though, the writing here practically encourages overthinking.

Take this example from a section headed "Movements of the Soul"

The blueprint for a miracle is not in the Power's mind but in their heart and soul. It is not possible for them to plan out miracles of absurd elaboration; rather they make what is elemental in then, what is aesthetic to them, what is right to them. Their miracles are complete. They are things of incredible complexity and detail, for all things existing in the world are things of incredible complexity and detail. They are marvels, for to exist is to be a marvel.

But they are works of art and not design.

And so on, for another long paragraph. But the concept she's trying to get at is actually pretty simple - "Respect the social contract and don't waste your fellow players' time by trying to outwit the literal genie." It's a good warning, because you've got these godlike powers and there's going to be a strong temptation to try and get incredibly specific with them, but that's not to the game's benefit. Yet for all the utility of the rule, it's presented as a consequence of the setting metaphysics and given an ornate philosophical justification.

I don't want to come down too hard here, because this discursiveness is one of the text's best qualities, but it also means that when you have a simple question, you won't believe that it has a simple answer. Or, at least, I didn't. It's a very clever book, but I wasn't doing it any favors when I assumed that it must therefor have hidden meaning on every page. When it says "A game of Nobilis is a conversation" that's not a metaphor or an analogy, it's a specific and useful piece of advice.

I also think a part of what's going on is that Jenna Moran is getting better as a game designer. CMWGE was a revelation, but Nobilis 3rd Edition is merely very good. When I wrote about CMWGE, I talked about the actor/author split in rpgs, and the way Chuubo's straddled the gap, but Nobilis doesn't really do that. The characters are so powerful that they are able (indeed are obligated) to assume some of the GM's traditional authority, and as a consequence it works best if the players are willing to indulge in author-stance-type reasoning, but it does not yet have a core gameplay that encourages that kind of thinking. You've got certain traits that replenish your MP if they inconvenience you, but that's not at all unusual for an actor-stance game. Hell, I'm pretty sure even D&D is doing it now.

It's this relatively traditional structure that got me into trouble. You make characters in a very actor-stance type of way, with character points that can be spent on skills, magical traits, and special gifts and that lead me to assume a traditionally antagonist GM/player split, but I was overthinking it. The book never told me that I should GM like a Dungeon Master, and indeed counseled the exact opposite, but I never took it at its word. I assumed I needed to up my game to cope with the PCs incredible powers.

It was only on this most recent read-through that I realized I was still beholden to the psychology of the dice. The rules of the game are that you can do what your traits say you can do, but sometimes you can spend points to temporarily raise your traits. My brain initially interpreted this to mean that point-spending filled the same mechanical niche as dice-rolling. 

In a traditional rpg, if you want to do something contentious, the GM has you roll the dice and a successful roll gives you permission to say, "yes, I do that." But the other part of that is that a failed roll gives the GM permission to say, "no, you don't." And so my instinct was to look at the intention system and the miracle effects chart and think, "how can I make spending points feel more like rolling dice - how do I get to say, 'no'"

Yet Nobilis isn't the sort of game where the GM often gets to say, "no." The PCs power level guarantees that - "The Nobilis can shatter mountains. They can break or rebuild souls. They don't even have to work very hard to do it." - but it didn't emotionally prepare me for the reality of what that means. It's structured like a traditional rpg, but it can't play like one, and that's why I initially found it so difficult. But once you get used to the idea that you're supposed to be saying, "yes, you can shatter that mountain . . . let me tell you about all the interesting shapes you see in the dust" then it actually becomes a pretty simple game.

So I'm an unapologetic Jenna Moran fan-boy, but I am forced to recognize that Nobilis is a work in progress, an inchoate form of ideas that would be developed to greater sophistication in later works. Yet I still love it, because when it's not being ambiguous about its rules methodology, it's got that unique blend of whimsy, imagination, and horror that characterizes Moran at her best. Cute balloon people! They'll drop you from the stratosphere if you insult them! Wear a parachute when you go to visit.

This book is frequently funny, often breathtaking, and only occasionally frustrating as hell, and that's why it's one of the treasures of my collection.

Ukss Contribution: So many great ideas, so specific to Jenna Moran's sensibility. I liked the suggestion in the character creation section that you could play a five dollar bill that was awakened to consciousness and granted godlike powers.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

(M20)How Do You DO That?

Oh, I thought I was going to be so clever. I had a plan. You see, over the years (and especially over the last year), I've noticed certain . . . shortcomings in Mage: the Ascension's magic system. These would always get a call-out in my notes, but usually they were in books that had more interesting things going on, so I'd barely mention them. But I knew that sooner or later, I'd get to this book here, the one that's all about the magic system, and it would be so utilitarian and uncontroversial that it would be the perfect place to talk about the various ways that Mage's highly-technical, highly vague magic system failed to truly deliver on the varied, specific mysticism of its ridiculously ambitious premise.

What I failed to anticipate, however, was that How Do You DO That would be a strong candidate for the single worst mechanical book of any game I'd ever read. This is a Players Option: Skills and Powers-level debacle. Whatever problems Mage's magic system might have are far in the rearview mirror, because even by the standards of Mage, this book is a total mess.

I'm not sure how to even begin. So . . . regular Mage: the Ascension magic is like this unholy amalgam of a word puzzle and an odds-pushing dice game. You've got nine Spheres of magic and five levels to each of these Spheres. The first step to casting a spell is to frame your desired outcome in a way such that it can fit into as few of these 45 categories as possible (or, at least, into the subset of that 45 which you happen to possess). This may take a certain degree of glibness, but creativity is encouraged. Then, you consult the third axis of effect, the Magickal Feats chart and you start to negotiate - is it a standard feat like "altering your shape" or is it a difficult feat like "transforming yourself into a radically different shape." Then, since there's something like a 95% chance that whatever you want to accomplish is going to take more successes than you can reasonably hope to achieve on your 2-3 dice, you have a choice to make - is this worth giving up several of your combat turns to do, or, if you're out of combat, are you likelier to succeed before you inevitably roll a botch. Then you roll the dice a whole bunch of times until your Storyteller begs you to stop.

This is not a great system for any number of reasons, but it is, at least, vaguely functional. How Do You DO That is, ostensibly, a guide to step 1. It promises to give you examples of common effects and tell you where in the 9 x 5 x 20+ matrix these effects should stand. Unfortunately, the answers it gives you are frequently wrong.

I know, I know. What kind of stones I must have to claim that the book is the one that doesn't understand the magic system. How Do You DO That? was written by Phil Brucato himself, the main credited author of the M20 core. It is, by definition, as authoritative as you're going to get. And I honestly don't know what to tell you here. As far out on a limb as I am here, How Do You DO That? frequently gets the rules of the game wrong, and often in ways that take an already shaky magic system and make it complete garbage.

I'll give you an example of a simple, concrete error to try and ease you into my thesis a bit. The section on bypassing common security measures says "Entropy 2 . . . can toss glitches into equipment." And it absolutely can't. Entropy 2 is one of the most sloppily written Sphere levels, and thus the one most likely to get thrown randomly into a conjunctional effect "just in case," but the wording of Entropy 3 definitely resolves this ambiguity. Entropy 2 allows you to "Control Probability" which can, and often does mean just about anything, but Entropy 3 allows you to "Affect Predictable Patterns" and it explicitly calls out "making computers fail" as part of what it can do. You could, I suppose, make the argument that any given machine always has the chance to fail, and thus Entropy 2 should allow you to manipulate the probability of it failing, but by that logic, any event that has some finite probability of actually occurring, Entropy 2 can cause to happen.

Now, I trust, you can see why me picking on poor Entropy 2 is a low-hanging fruit in the realm of arguing about Mage on the internet, but it's important for you to understand that when I talk about How Do You DO That? introducing new bullshit into Mage's magic system, I am not talking about a book with any great degree of mechanical rigor. I would classify a lot of this book's mechanics more as "vandalism" than "innovation" (let alone "explanation" :shudder:).

Let's just jump right in to the worst example. Telekinesis requires the Mind Sphere. . .

I read these books alone, at night, in a quiet hotel lobby and I very nearly rioted. This is not just a bad rule. It's not just an erroneous rule. It is, in fact, a full frontal assault on the very premise of the game. 

Because you don't need Mind to move objects with the Forces Sphere. You need Mind to move objects with your, um, mind. Your Will alone, acting through nothing more than your knowledge of Forces 2, is sufficient to move objects. But if you want to move objects with your mind, you need Forces 2 and Mind 3.

I'm not sure I can even do anything here but rephrase the problem in increasingly dumbfounded ways. The rules are requiring the Mind sphere because the decision of how and where to move the objects is made in the mind, or perhaps because the mage believes their mind is responsible for the movement, but taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of reasoning would lead you to always penalizing a mage who believes in a particular theory of magic - if your elemental powers are a gift from the spirits, your Forces effects would require the Spirit sphere to use. If you believe that your martial arts practice cultivates internal energies, you need to supplement your moves with Prime.

Oh, wait, those last two examples are real. What's especially egregious about the second one is that you also have to spend Quintessence on effects that don't normally require it. Good thing you have Martial Arts equal to your Sphere level, or otherwise you wouldn't be able to use those techniques . . . like a common Brawler.

That's the hardest thing about this book to swallow, these weird, out of nowhere attempts at verisimilitude that mostly serve to elevate Brucato's personal hobby horses to the level of canon (one thing I can be absolutely certain of after reading this book is that there is nothing in the universe that will summon a taxi cab to you besides the Mind Sphere . . . or Entropy 2).  You can use martial arts as a mystic practice if you are a fencer who wields a sword with the Martial Arts skill, but not if you're a swordfighter who wields a sword with the Melee (aka "sword-wielding") skill. Although, in that case you should probably have Melee at a decent level because a realistic martial artist trains their Melee as a common secondary skill (don't blame me for this, blame the sidebar on page 59).

In order to create something with Matter magic, you also have to know how to build it without magic. No waving a magic wand and changing a pumpkin into a carriage, not unless you are already a master carpenter. And no cheating by downloading skills into your brain. This is explicitly called out as "a cool fantasy," but Brucato is not in the business of making a cool fantasy game, and thus it is not allowed.

And I haven't even gotten to the math yet. You know how you're supposed to use magic to deflect an incoming bullet? You're supposed to use your Arete as a dodge roll. If you followed the core's character creation advice (and you shouldn't have), that dice pool is 2. You could do worse by standing up, slack-jawed, and staring at the gun, but not by a lot. The thing that made me write "ARGH!" in my notes, however, was the subsequent suggestion that if you rolled double the attacker's successes, you could reflect the bullet right back at them.

I guess I should just go ahead and add "completely overhaul the Ascension magic system" to my rpg bucket list.

Ukss Contribution: Since this wasn't an offensive book, merely an ill-favored one, I guess I should probably pick something. I liked most of the example fictions (except the anatomically dubious one that suggested lady witches masturbate with their broomsticks . . . because Brucato), but it was a throwaway line near the beginning that I'll most remember fondly - if you transform a murderer into a mouse, you'll wind up with a mouse that looks like it wants to murder you. Cute.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

(Ex3) Lunars: Fangs at the Gate

I am not doing myself any favors by reading these gigantic books back-to-back. I will say though that I've noticed PoDs are generally thicker page-for-page. Lunars: Fangs at the Gate had about half the pagecount of M20, but about 75% of the width. Good to know.

As is tradition, if you want my detailed, Exalted-obsessed take on the book, you can find it in the dedicated thread, but I have a feeling that tradition may soon be coming to an end. Lunars: Fangs at the Gate is going to be one of those books that will one-day be called "late-period Exalted." It's arguably one of the best in the whole series, at least on the level of early favorites like Creatures of the Wyld, but it's also hugely inaccessible. I recall fearing, after reading the 3rd edition core, that it would be nigh-impossible to induct new people into the game with that book. Convincing them to use this one is surely an even-bigger hurdle.

Ironically, the new Lunar Charms are better-designed and easier to use than the core's, but there's still 150 pages of them, and to even have context for what they are or why you should care, you'll still need to have read the bulk of the core book. In the end, you're saving at most 20 pages of reading to play a niche inside a niche.

Maybe it's just because it's been so long since the last new Exalted book, but I kind of feel like the series is in a sort of death spiral. It's becoming increasingly adept at talking to its fans, but worse at talking to anyone else. As time and chance wear away segments of the fandom, are they being adequately replaced?

A grim mood to be sure, but I think one that's provoked largely by how much I enjoyed this book. If it were bad, it would be easy to countenance never playing it again. To put it another way, Lunars: Fangs at the Gate was so good that I only lost about half a night to trying to rewrite it, and even then most of my issues were things (like the Craft charms) that it unavoidably inherited from the Core.

Another thing about this new book is that it continues Ex3's trend of bringing its fantasy world more in line with contemporary values. There are few works of fiction, in any genre, where I've seen so many nonbinary characters, and Lilith, one of the most prominent Lunar NPCs, has completely lost the subplot where she stalks the reincarnation of her old, abusive husband. Also, this book is the least rapey Lunars have ever been, by a substantial margin.

Overall, I think it's a good choice. You don't want to think about the real world's problems when you're in the middle of your classical-antiquity-pastiche superhero fantasy. But I also wonder if something is being lost. Not that they should go back to doing it the old way (and brace yourselves for when I read Exalted: the Lunars from 1st edition, because I am going to go off on that book), but I can't deny that is sometimes seems off to me. I think it's because I'm getting old and I'm starting to have these "that's not the way they used to do it" moments.

My final verdict for this one is "please play more Exalted, people." Because if he new team can keep up with this level of quality, I am dying to see the rest of the main books get made.

Ukss Contribution: A lot of neat stuff here, as befits a complex fantasy world. I could make any one of a dozen choices and not go wrong - like Sublime Danger, the shapeshifter with swords for wings, or the Mountain of the Spider King, or the magic that lets you draw your reflection out of the mirror and turn it into a minor god, or the Ichneumon Blades, which snap off pieces of themselves inside their victims and turn them into zombies at their wielder's command.

However, I'm going to go with something relatively simple - Dazul, the town that's ruled by an obsidian statue containing a trapped demon. It mostly works out pretty okay, probably because the only people allowed to talk to it are trained exorcists.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Mage: The Ascension, 20th Anniversary Edition - Book 3: Ascend (Chapters 8-10, plus apendices)

Part 1

Part 2 

I love Mage: the Ascension. I feel like sometimes that's in danger of becoming lost (you know, from all the times I say it shouldn't exist). I love its baroque fantasy world and its grandiose vision and all the ridiculous shit like rocket skates and goths being roughly equal in power to all of Abrahamic monotheism. I love its pretentiousness. I even love how far out on a limb it is, culturally speaking.

I don't love M20.

On some level, this is just a me problem. All those things I said I loved about Mage? M20 has them (except the rocket skates). If feels like it's substantially the same game as the one released 27 years ago. But that's the issue.

There's a thing I keep hearing people say, sometimes to decry social justice in media criticism, sometimes to defend it - "You couldn't make Blazing Saddles today," and that pretty much captures the feeling I'm experiencing. You couldn't make Mage: the Ascension today, and you probably shouldn't have made it in 2013.

It's like that notional Blazing Saddles remake. It could hit the same plot points, it could have the same message, but it would be created by someone who should know better, partly because they've lived in a world where Blazing Saddles has existed for 46 years.

This is difficult ground for me to cover because I'm a jaded atheist to whom nothing is sacred (even the ludicrously off-point attempts to try and acknowledge the good in materialism just strike me as funny), but I think this book might be offensive.

Take Jesus Christ, for example. According to the table that lists the hierarchy of Umbrood Spirits, he's a Celestine. Now, this is the second-highest spirit rank there is and to my atheism-addled brain sounds pretty good, but he's ranked alongside pagan deities like Zeus, fictional characters like the Wyrm, and oh, just a little guy you may have heard of called Satan. Give it to me to judge and I might be inclined to nod my head sagely and say, "oh, but this is only fair. You can't expect the book to privilege one mythology over another," but something both you and I would do well to remember is that I am in no way qualified to write something like Mage. This is just a harmless rpg book, tossing out casual sacrilege, to better serve its elaborate fantasy world-building. Is that a problem?

And, you know, it might not be. I know of a lot of Christians who like shows like Supernatural or Lucifer that just sort of haphazardly shuffle up ideas from Christian folk cosmology. If it was good enough for Milton, it's good enough for Brucato. Except, later on, while discussing the paradox rules,  he describes a Sleeper witness thusly - "sure, he may pray to the ghost of a Jewish carpenter who's supposed to descend in glory from the sky and raise the dead for eternal judgment in Heaven or Hell. If, however, that person sees a real manifestation of ACTUAL magick – say, his neighbor flying through the air on a broom - then his view of reality is in for a rude kick in the pants."

"The ghost of a Jewish carpenter." Sounds a lot like something I'd have written back in my 20s.

This isn't to set up a "let's all bag on Brucato" session or anything, but it's a crucial point in a data line. Mage has a certain point of view. It's self-consciously inclusive, but it filters everything through a specific religious and metaphysical perspective, and because of that perspective, it gets things (often important things, like "Enlightened scientists understand that the mind can transcend the body") wrong. Despite Brucato nicknaming him "Uncle Al," a large portion of the audience, let alone the groups represented in the text, could not care less about what Aleister Crowley has to say.

Don't get me wrong, I respect Brucato's vision. I definitely got the sense that he was a man writing with conviction, creating a world and a work of art that expressed his passionately held ideas about the relationship between Will and Reality. But because, in the context of that vision, the one thing that will never yield is that damned "k" at the end of "magick," it can't help but be appropriative. Jesus Christ is a Celestine, materialists believe in astral projection and I have to assume that the bulk of what he says about shamanism and traditional indigenous religions is similarly wrong.

It's not something that would fly today. It's all part of something I picked up on a lot while reading this book. Brucato has this avowed and deliberate radicalism, and I'm sure it's sincere, but his instincts are stuck in the 90s. He remembers to say the right thing when the occasion presents itself, but his casual use of language betrays deep biases he hasn't overcome.

The most compact example of this is from the text of the "Derangement" flaw: "despite the crazy name, Derangements don't necessarily turn a character into a raving loony-tune." The sentiment is good, but damn that word choice.

Honestly, it's a failing I can relate to as I climb up in years. The new generation keeps growing and you try to keep up, but you're not plugged in to the culture so you just say, "fuck it, they'll know what I mean."

And because I have this sympathy for Brucato, I am not going to meticulously document all the times I caught him putting his foot in is mouth, but I am going to mention the worst one because I would be remiss as a critic if I overlooked it, and also it's the sort of thing that would have been an embarrassment even in the 90s.

From the sidebar about facing Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, "A failed Willpower roll in such confrontations might force a character to pass out (regardless of gender)."

Oof. I assume by this, Brucato meant that horror movies and true crime stories are both immensely popular with women, and thus statistically, the ladies are less likely to pass out from seeing Cthulhu.

Honestly though, let that be a lesson to all of us - if they let you keep writing books for long enough, eventually you're bound to write some ridiculous shit like "fainting is for girls." Die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain, am I right?

(Actually - on the car ride home after writing this, the thought occurred to me that it was an attempt at a joke - they're things man was not meant to know, but you still have to roll even if you're not a man - but if so it did not come across that way at all in the text)

But enough about Brucato, the bulk of my reading for this section of the book was about the Storyteller system rules. Those are what really cement M20 as a decorative nostalgia piece. Technically, they're an improvement, but the improvements are like rose-scented potpourri tossed on top of a garbage fire.

Yes, that's a harsh assessment, but it's an inevitable side-effect of using a 20-year-old ruleset. All of the current WW-descended games have moved on to various refinements of the Storyteller system, but M20 is stuck using the version they all iterated away from. I guess that's the way you have to do it if you're just releasing an omnibus recompilation of old material, but M20 has grown to be a game line of its own, and its relic system is not doing it any favors.

And don't get me started on its magic system. Literally don't. My next Mage book is How Do You DO That and it's going to be the perfect place for me to gripe about the Sphere system, both classic and contemporary.

Oh, but I really do love this game. Seriously.

Ukss Contribution: And speaking of loving Mage, I'm going to pick a detail I absolutely adored, one that gets so far into what makes Mage a great game that I don't even care about the degree of difficulty that will come with trying to add it to Ukss.

In the Mage: the Ascension universe, Santa Claus is canon! Oh, they do that annoying noncommittal American Gods thing where there are multiple spirit entities each reflecting a different idea of Santa Claus, but nonetheless he's out there. One of the innumerable Astral Realms is actually the North Pole. That's the Mage that keeps me coming back despite how problematic it is.

So Ukss has a Santa Claus now. I don't know how or why or where, but if it was good enough for CS Lewis, it's good enough for me.