Saturday, October 22, 2022

Trinity Continuum: Assassins

 I watched all three John Wick movies in preparation for this book (they're streaming on the Roku channel for now, if this is useful information to you) and I'm glad I did, because I don't think I'd have properly appreciated it otherwise.

Or maybe I would have. Maybe I'm the sort of sophisticated media connoisseur that just gets irony right away. "This isn't crummy world-building, it's actually hyper-stylized to evoke a particular genre feeling and the dissonance between the high stakes of the action and the aggressive indifference of the witnesses is actually a visual joke, as is the conspicuous consumption of an ostensibly covert criminal class and the mind-bending logistics it would require to make this economy possible" . . . is what I surely would have said, even if I didn't have the films as reference.

But without the films, I don't think I'd have entirely believed it was true. John Wick and Cassian trade shots with their silenced pistols in a crowded subway station and nobody has any kind of reaction and it's the dumbest damned thing I've ever seen, but also somehow it's really cool. Yeah, okay, give some gold coins to a guy and he'll come and clean up the dead bodies in your house, no questions asked . . . I suppose I'm willing to accept that this makes some kind of sense as long as I get to watch Keanu terrorize gangsters. That is a tradeoff that I'm consenting to.

And so it would be a little weird if I didn't extend the same courtesy to Trinity Continuum: Assassins. It's not John Wick, the rpg, because there's also some Assassin's Creed in there, but the tradeoff is the same. There's a secret society. It's glamorous and decadent, and the bodycount is high, but it doesn't disturb the peace, so ordinary people just ignore it. Understood.

Assassins very strangely offers a sci-fi explanation for its hyper-stylized genre conventions. Assassins are a type of Talent (reality-bender) that focuses on violence, and because of their specialization, their reality bending powers evolve from covert and deniable probability manipulation to overt supernatural techniques. And it is the concentration of this reality-bending in the Assassin societies that "keeps outsiders away but also creates anachronisms that appear where Assassins gather." They exist in a sort of close alternate dimension called Shadow that ordinary (or "Daylight") people can barely perceive without extraordinary effort, and so long as their activities remain confined to Shadow (or, at least, to the in-between criminal underground of Twilight) then they are largely immune to consequences from the Daylight world.

I'm not sure I'd accept that complex an explanation in a work of ordinary fiction. Like, "that's the genre, deal with it" is at least honest, but "here's an undirected physical process that just so happens to create a genre-establishing forcefield" leaves me with too many questions (chief of which is "what?!"). However, I can respect it in an rpg. It's reassuring the players that the genre boundary is reliable. When the Daylight NPCs ignore your killing spree because all the victims were Shadow-dwelling Assassins, this is not something the GM is simply roleplaying out for the sake of genre. Technically, the GM is not allowed to have the regular cops suddenly take an interest. To do so would violate the rules of the setting, like having an orc in D&D suddenly sue you for a personal injury claim. That orc doesn't have access to a human legal system and those bystanders are literally unable to perceive a Shadow-on-Shadow battle. You can rest easy knowing that when you finally face down your rival in a crowded subway station, you'll be able to do it in peace.

Now, all of the above may make it seem like I'm down on Assassins and its whole deal, but it's actually the opposite. I love when the genre is strong, especially when it zeros in on a very specific reference pool. You are stylish rogues committing improbable crimes in a starkly amoral world and Trinity Continuum: Assassins provides the trappings and the spectacle and advice for populating the bleak, yet striking stories that take place in this world. It's getting by purely on the vibes, but the vibes are strong. Probably the closest the Trinity Continuum has gotten to Apocalypse World.

Unlike Apocalypse World, however, Assassins takes place in a specific setting. It's not just genre trappings, it is organizations and conspiracies and NPCs with names and ideologies and individual quirks. Which places me in the awkward position of having to judge whether the new setting plays well with what's come before or, alternatively, whether it can stand on its own. The answer to both questions is "sort of."

The big problem with integrating it into the existing continuity is that it is vastly more violent the setting it's joining. The regular Continuum is about modern action-adventure, and so it's not pacifist by any means. There's already room for shootouts and brawls and murder mysteries, so at worst Assassins inflates the bodycount a bit. And yet, all of the new organizations are organizations of assassins, i.e. people who kill for money, and that means even the best of them will be at odds with the core book allegiances, and yet the new Assassin Societies are not written as villains, and I'm not sure a game can survive without taking sides.

As the introduction would have it, "Assassins never punch down . . . the idea that violence is universally a moral ill favors the powerful and the status quo. Those with a monopoly on violence do not want others to turn it against them. Assassins have the power to upend this status quo and strike fear into the hearts of the elite."

Which all seems well and good when talking about the Daughters of the Jacobins, and their goal of "freedom, liberty, and equality by eliminating anyone who stands in the way." Or The Signal, a decentralized collective of revolutionaries that targets those who exploit or abuse marginalized communities. But the Daughters have been lead by the same family for close to two centuries (because of their hereditary precognition) and the Host of the Signal's signature radio program is a friendly AI who wants to help humans by eliminating the bad ones. For all their ideals, these liberation organizations are intensely undemocratic, but that's kind of intrinsic to their very existence. Even if the Daughters of the Jacobins' elections didn't favor a political dynasty, and even if the Signal's programming was managed collectively from the bottom up, they'd still be secretive organizations whose activities are driven by an unrepresentative clique with elite skills. Not everyone can be an Assassin, and so ultimately the choice of using Assassin skills to change the world is going to fall upon the individual. The best that any Assassin organization can be is a vanguard party charged with dismantling the bourgeois state and overseeing the transition to a classless society. . . and there's something about that plan that gives me pause.

Which means that you've got to put this in contrast with the idealists of the Aeon Society. Aeon is still aristocratic in its conception, but it has the advantage of not challenging the state's monopoly on violence. Not to say that states are using that monopoly in a just or humanitarian way, but at least a state will usually operate on a theory of legitimacy. A democracy's power theoretically comes from the consent of the governed. When Assassins decide to change the direction of a government, the governed don't even have knowledge of the plan, and you can forget about consent. Say what you will about the reformism of a group like Aeon trying to work within the system, but a self-appointed vanguard movement that is not actually at the literal vanguard of a popular movement is just another kind of authoritarian coup.

If you put Assassins in the main Trinity Continuum, you have to ask yourself - are they the extremists that jeopardize legitimate political movements or are the Daylight Allegiances merely controlled opposition, failing to challenge the status quo by confining themselves to tactics that may be safely ignored? Maybe what you're doing is enough of a crime caper that the question never even comes up, but the thematic clash is real.

Now, as far as a stand-alone setting goes, Assassins works a bit better, because there's nothing to contrast the strangeness of its politics. This is a world where powerful people gift each other with professional assassinations, and so murder is just a job you do. All your friends, acquaintances, and rivals are in exactly the same business, so there's no reason to question it. However, I'm not sure that the radical factions have a robust enough conservative pushback. There's a purely mercenary Society (the corporate office-workers turned Assassins of the Swarm) and a classically aristocratic Society (the Society of Leonidas, which implausibly excludes known white supremacists), and for some reason some Russian nationalists (the Krugu Vorov), but they all only have one seat on the Council, and they don't vote as a bloc. Which really just means that our so-called radicals are in fact complicit in the whole rotten edifice of Assassin culture.

I think if you're doing a pure Assassins game, you kind of have to address head-on the ways that assassination is surely going to be used as a tool of oppression. People hire the Assassins of the Shadow for large amounts of money, and thus the most lucrative contracts are always going to serve the interests of people with a lot of money. Despite the game's Introduction, that's almost certainly the status quo. If you really want to do a radical plot in the Assassins universe, it pretty much has to start with a cynical present that leads into a crisis that breaks the characters' complacency and sets them against the very notion of the Assassin Societies as a whole.

Or, you know, you could just do stylish murder stories in a world where death comes with a price tag. Maybe don't think about how bleak it would need to be to keep itself going. The targets can be dictators and corrupt CEOs and the only thing you have to worry about is how cool your character looks while they're gunning down mooks. I'd be lying if I said it didn't sound like fun.

Ukss Contribution: One of the historical Assassin Societies was the Heavenly Immortal Corps, who used alchemy to gain superhuman killing skills. That sounds like a good idea for a fantasy organization, though I'm inclined to make them explicit villains, despite the book's easy-going attitude towards killers-for-hire.

No comments:

Post a Comment