Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Adventure!

I guess I should say something about the colonialist subtext in Adventure!

There are subjects I'd much rather be talking about. This book is a watershed title in the Aeonverse, and probably the single greatest influence on the direction of 2nd edition. I could talk about how Daredevils are the prototype for Talents, and occupy an exciting mechanical niche rarely seen in other games.

Or I could go on about the new revelations in Aeonverse canon. Surprisingly, this turned out to be the only book, across three gamelines, that directly states Maxwell Anderson Mercer can time travel. And Dr Primoris, nee Michael Donighal, lately Divis Mal gets some very interesting character development. Yes indeed, there's a lot to talk about. . .

And I will, but first the colonialist subtext.

I wish I was better at this, because most of what I have here is intuition (and even that is but a euphemism for "wild guessing"), but the issue is this - Adventure!, broadly speaking, is anti-colonialist - every time the issue comes up, the text rightfully points out the sins of the colonial powers - but that anti-colonialism never escapes the fundamental colonialist framing and thus fails to be anything more than conservative moralizing (you'll have to grant me a world where anti-colonialist conservatives actually exist, but if we were in such a world, they'd sound a lot like Adventure!)

A concrete example, from the section on India

Nowhere else in the Empire has "the white man's burden" been so dutifully addressed, and nowhere else are its fallacies so painfully clear."
Plucked out of context, it's an absolutely bonkers line, but in context, it's even weirder. Here's the paragraph leading up to it
For many decades, India has been the jewel in the British Empire's colonial crown, a distant, exotic land crying out for justice, equality, and civilization. Since gaining control of the country in the 1850s, the British colonial government has labored hard to bring India into the modern age, instituting legal, social, and educational reforms amid a tangled maze of conflicting religious laws and ancient customs. In the process, the British have ridden roughshod over a society that has existed for thousands of years, redefining political borders and with righteous self-confidence and brutally suppressing any attempts at protest.
The entry continues for another page or so, but it embodies all the same contradictions. It's a section that, in my judgement, is against the British rule over India, but it also takes for granted that the British have good motives and that the Indians are erratic, irrational actors who need to be taught how to govern themselves. I mean, look at that paragraph again - "exotic land crying out for justice" that's literally the first thing you learn about Orientalism.

You read something like this, and you have to start asking questions. How much of it is an apt characterization of the narrator, Sarah Gettle, socially progressive and cosmopolitan 1920s reporter who, by virtue of her era, is still almost painfully white? How much of it is 2001 White Wolf just not getting it? And how much is fundamentally baked into the genre that Adventure! has chosen for itself?

It's usually pretty obvious when a character spouts some era-appropriate bit of bigotry. Whitley Styles' sexism is regarded as a character flaw by the more enlightened members of the Aeon Society for Gentlemen (irony of the name notwithstanding, Max Mercer was keen to recruit women from the very beginning). There's a villain in one of the fictions who says something so nakedly racist that I feel uncomfortable repeating it, but the text is pretty clear that his attitudes are part of his villainy.

What's less obvious is that all of the setting section, even the really fantastic stuff like the underground civilization of E'tah, is defined by a colonialist gaze. The narration trends towards the empathetic - it's empathetic to the Congolese, to the Chinese, to the Peruvians, even to the E'tah, but this empathy operates in a context where imperialism is normal. It's enthusiastic about modernity, but it identifies modernity with Eurocentrism, and thus everywhere the advance of European interests or power is conflated with a nebulous "progress."

At one point, the text actually says, "but with the unrest in China occupying much of America and Europe's attention, it is unclear who will rise to the challenge of saving Japan from a descent into imperialism."

I . . .
 

I . . .
 

I've got nothing.

But this colonialist gaze isn't just about politics. It's also baked into the very structure of the expected gameplay. Adventure! is a modern occult kitchen-sink by way of early comics and adventure fiction. It's about every weird pulp speculative fiction thing being real and being hidden somewhere in the world. In other words - it's about going to distant places and seeing some fantastic shit.

Which is great. Really. Except that it inherits some rather specific tropes from its genre of inspiration, and these tropes make it clear that "distant places" means "places distant from white people." In the world of Adventure!, Africa, Asia, and South America are so full of lost temples, crashed alien spaceships, "cannibal tribes" (a direct quote from the book and if you'll excuse me, I have to go wash my hands after typing it), and other assorted SF rigamarole, that it's a wonder that there's anywhere for indigenous people to live.

I'm not sure it's even possible to make a game that is recognizably pulp without having some version of this problem. Like, maybe with a radical racial inversion and genre parody . . . a kind of Don Quixote for superheroes, told from the perspective of a native Sancho, but even then that would be the sort of delicate work that could only emerge from a singular vision. Onyx Path is working on a second edition of Adventure! that apparently is more sensitive about issues of colonialism, but I can't even imagine how they're going to pull it off.

Anyway, I love Adventure! I just genuinely and unabashedly adore it. It more or less invented the Aeonverse. Oh, there were connections before, but what this book did was take those connections out of the realm of easter eggs and into a kind of mission statement for the setting - the history of this world is defined by "eras" that exemplify some form of over-the-top genre fiction. You've got Adventure, Abberrant, and Aeon, but those are only three examples. You can have as many notional games as there are genres and/or titles starting with the letter "A." It's really quite breathtaking to contemplate.

Also, I'm going to break with a vocal segment of the fan base and say that I am totally at home for the relationship drama between Maxwell Anderson Mercer and Divis Mal. I like Adventure!'s lineup of signature characters in general, because it really does feel like the cast of a long-running animated, and it's easy to imagine any number of canonical adventures that they might have gone on, but the two leads, especially, I find compelling.

RPG players can have a bit of a thing about designated mentor/leader NPCs, and there is some justice to the complaint that these guys are squatting at the top of power curve, taking up a potential PC niche, but I genuinely like both of these characters. Mercer, largely for the same reasons that I like ISRA - he's perfectly set up to pop in to a campaign, drop a plot hook, and then pop out without micromanaging. Mal, because he's a top-tier villain with a built-in philosophical excuse to not destroy the PCs until they power-level.

Now, I'm going to break with the segment of the fandom that likes Mercer and Mal by saying that I do not ship them, like at all. I'm way more invested in the weird dynamic of the Divis Mal/Jeremiah Scripture relationship, and I kind of have Mercer pegged as asexual. He has a sort of big brother chemistry with all his other obvious ships (mainly Sarah Gettle and Whitley Styles), and my theory is that he tried to slip into that dynamic with Micheal Donighal, but it backfired.

(That last paragraph was exclusively for the hardcore Aeonverse fans, sorry casual readers).

Now, with all that being said about Adventure!'s canon characters, I do agree that they are somewhat ill-used in this particular book. Mercer, especially, is treated as a PC stand-in in all three of the interstitial fictions, and while I found those fictions entertaining, having one character recur so many times did make him feel like a main character for the entirety of the Adventure! setting.

Overall, this book was a tough one for me - hugely imaginative, hugely problematic, innovative, yet flawed, laying on the cusp between old White Wolf and new. I don't think it's something that can be ranked or scored. It's an essential part of my own gaming history, but I am as ready for a second edition as I have ever been.

Ukss Contribution: My actual favorite thing was in the opening fiction by Warren Ellis, but he's a creep, so fuck him (and donate a few bucks to RAINN, if you can) - I'm not even going to say what it is.

Second choice is the Order of Murder. Despite the name, their real business is helping rich people fake their deaths. This does, sometimes, involve murder, if they need a peasant's corpse to sell the ruse, but these days they use mindless clones as stand-ins. A real weird group that can be both ally and foe.

No comments:

Post a Comment