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.