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 somehow sensed them with his magickal abilities and wrote this section, secure in the knowledge that it's 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.

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