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.