Tuesday, February 21, 2023

(M: tAw) Tome of the Watchtowers

I deleted a previous draft of this post because it was an entirely too grumpy. It's not that The Tome of the Watchtowers is a bad book, but it does have a fatal flaw, and I couldn't entirely get past it. In fact, I inadvertently wrote the same note twice, referring to the same problem in two subsequent chapters (it also appears in the other three chapters, but I didn't note it because I did remember the second note) - "describing places you can never go." 

The Watchtowers and their surrounding Supernal Realms are the most interesting part of the book, and, indeed, one of the most interesting things in Mage: the Awakening's setting, but you can never go there. Once upon a time, perhaps during session zero, maybe as late as the first half of session one, your character had a dream about a magical realm, where they overcame fantastic hazards to enter a wondrous structure, to write their name on the walls and thereby make peace with the realm, earning the power to work magic. And that's all your path is, the memory of that dream. 

The conceit of this book is that the paths have other implications, that they each represent a particular world-view and color how your character works their magic, but honestly, those implications have yet to be interesting enough to justify their existence. What it amounts to in play is some xp discounts that might influence your choice of Arcana and a bunch of superficial differences to the same basic magic system. Is your wand made of iron or gold? When you regain mana at a Hallow, do you meditate about death or do you meditate about your place in the cosmic hierarchy? Is your signature fragrance cedar or musk (oh, yeah, the paths each get their own signature fragrance)?

In the end, though, the Paths kind of come across as akin to something like D&D's alignment or an astrological sign. You can say, in-setting, that you're an Acanthus, just like you can say in the real world that you're a Capricorn, and that's a meaningful statement, but politically and socially, you're going to be part of an Order and a Concillium and a Cabal, none of which even care what path you are, and maybe you have things in common with your path-mates, but the paths don't have an organization or an agenda. They exist as an origin story for your magic . . . except that the different origins aren't really a place. Maybe there's an Arcadia. Maybe there's a Pandemonium. Lots of different people have dreams about them, and those dreams grant similar types of magic to similar types of people, but you're never going to see those faeries again. You don't have to worry about the demons catching up to you.

And that, I think, is a fatal flaw, not just of Tome of the Watchtowers, but of Mage: the Awakening as a whole. The Supernal Realms are interesting places, but they're not used as places. They're at best a set of symbols that may, with effort, show up in the game as part of its theme and mood (and let me tell you, the existence of five different "theme" and "mood" sections in such close proximity did little to alleviate my grumpiness with this book). It's exactly backwards. Angels and infinite jungles and a waystation between life and death - those are elements that help build a memorable fantasy setting. Ideas like "triumph over adversity" or "respectful contemplation" are subordinate to characters, setting, and plot. Yes, if you want to make something with artistic merit, you have to ask literary questions, but no one is going to give a shit about the answers if the overall work is boring. 

Mage: the Awakening has these Supernal Realms inspired by high fantasy, but it aims at being an urban fantasy story set in a world of covert magic. So it confines the Realms to the game's temporal book-ends. Your path is your origin story, established in session zero, but it's also your endgame. The idea of bridging the Abyss and returning to the Supernal world is teased as a long-term project, but it's also something that's definitely not going to happen within the scope of the game. If Ascension is possible, it is functionally indistinguishable from death. Therefor it can only happen at the very end of the story. Your path may matter in the epilogue, just as it did in the prologue, but for the time in the middle, it's merely a set of symbols. Sometimes foreshadowing, sometimes a flashback, but never an actual event, described in literal terms, happening in the here and now.

Tome of the Watchtowers never quite overcomes this limitation. Fundamentally, it's about nothing. Your character's star sign in a world where astrology really works, but that's as far as it goes. It's not an entirely useless book. It gives suggestions about character concepts, magical nimbuses, the sanctum background, and ways to reskin the basic oblation ritual, and these suggestions may help you create and portray a more fleshed-out character. However, whatever use you do get out of it is likely to be exhausted prior to session zero. The Watchtowers work better as fantasy than as mysticism, but unfortunately they're in a game that would rather do half-assed mysticism than solid fantasy.

Ukss Contribution: But while we're on the subject of fantasy, one of the suggested nimbuses makes people grow hair. I like that. It's weird, it's creepy, it's invasive - not quite body horror, but also not not body horror. And most importantly, it's a real effect. The people who witness your magic are actually growing hair, and it's not an illusion or a dream, but something that endures. If you want to get rid of it, you have to cut it off. I like it. It's a nice change of pace in a game with a Disbelief mechanic that exists only to make sure that its magic doesn't have too permanent an impact on the physical world.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Midnight, 2nd Edition

My first impression, in the opening pages of Midnight, 2nd Edition was that the world of Aryth seemed almost painfully vanilla. There are elves who live in a magical forest and dwarves who have elaborate underground cities. The two human cultures are transparently modelled after the Vikings and the medieval Arabs. Orcs are beastly creatures who serve evil with terrifying violence. In the early sections, where the book was describing the history of the world, before the Shadow took over, there was a heavy sense of recognition, bordering on dread - I've seen all this countless times before.

However, as I got further into the book and started reading about the contemporary state of the setting, I began to respect the choice. This wasn't Dragonstar, where the vanilla elements were used thoughtlessly. Here, they had a point. The world felt familiar because it was meant to feel familiar. It was telling The Standard Fantasy Story, but it subverted the ending. The dark god Izrador has this completely stock Evil Overlord energy, so that we may instantly understand what it means that he won.

I cannot oversell how thoroughly Lord of the Rings this game feels. Far more so than regular D&D, which often sought to distance itself from its Tolkien influences. For example, there is no way I'd ever believe it was a coincidence that the victory of Izrador's forces marked the end of the Third Age. I mean, you could argue that it's more a result of the Rule of Threes than a deliberate reference. But it's completely unthinkable that anyone could write this book without being aware of the inevitable comparison to Lord of the Rings. And it's highly unlikely that anyone would write this book without being enough of a Tolkien nerd to spot the parallel. And mathematical inevitability or not, once you're aware of the similarity between "at the end of the Third Age Sauron was destroyed and Aragorn ascended to the throne of Gondor" and "at the end of the Third Age Izrador conquered and enslaved the human kingdom of Erenland" then you've got a choice to make - rewrite to sound like less of a fanfic or leave it be and just lean into it.

Midnight leans into it, though if it were nothing more than an upside-down Lord of the Rings, it would merely be an interesting curiosity, rather than a compelling setting in its own right. Luckily, Midnight has plenty of well thought out specifics, giving it a firm identity of its own. We're taken around the continent of Eredane and we learn about the flora and fauna of each particular region, the inhabitants' characteristic crafts and languages (but only intermittently their clothes), and see a bunch of magical sites, daring resistance groups, and sinister Shadow plots. There's a lot in this book to hold your interest.

Although, the more that I think about it, the more that I think Midnight does an extraordinary job of walking a very difficult line. Because specific detail is what separates an interesting setting from a great one, but you can't redeem vanilla just by making it detailed, specific vanilla. 

I know, I know, not everyone is as down on vanilla fantasy as I am, and that's fair. But let's try a little thought experiment - imagine how you'd feel if a GM you'd never played with told you that their next game was going to be set in the Forgotten Realms. Then, compare that to your hypothetical feeling if a new GM told you that their game would be set in their homebrew world that's exactly as thick and as dense with proper nouns as the Forgotten Realms, but which had no other distinguishing characteristics.

I mean, technically, homebrew GM is more impressive, and I don't think it's a stretch to say that it's possible to do vanilla D&D better than Forgotten Realms, but come on, what are the odds that this homebrew is going to be better by enough to justify that level of work (both on the GM's part and on yours)?

Which is to say, the baseline vanilla setting of Midnight is well done. It elevates the game's high concept. But at the same time, it needs that high concept in order to be worth my time. That's no great fault, though. I could say the exact same thing about Earthdawn, and that's one my favorite games.

Although, sticking so close to vanilla fantasy does come with a cost, even beyond just being unfairly judged as "generic" (not that I would ever do such a thing ::innocent look::). When you do vanilla fantasy (or even just weird fantasy with vanilla elements), you are also subject to much of vanilla fantasy's political baggage. The big one, of course, being racial essentialism. 

This is another book that really tasks my knowledge of the subject. If it were purely bad, that would be easy for me. The year 2005 is recent enough that rpg writers really should have been questioning the way race is used in fantasy, but it was also long enough ago that we can take it for granted that they weren't. "Midnight's handling of fantasy race was no better and no worse than main-line D&D's at that same period of history" would have been an easy take for me to have. Unfortunately, it's 100 percent wrong. It is both better and worse, and I'm not sure what to do with that.

On the "better" side, it has a crude version of the ancestry/culture split that is our current best practice. You get your universal elf or dwarf or halfling traits, but then you also get a second set of traits that depend on whether your elf lived in the north or the center or the south, or whether your halfling was from a settled or nomadic group. And when it comes to mixed characters, half their traits are innate and half depend on which parent raised them.

However, the universal traits include among them things that really shouldn't be universal, like weapon proficiencies and familiarity with metalwork. And maybe even worse is the reverse - things explicitly labeled as cultural tendencies that would just be massively problematic, even as a physical difference - like adjustments to mental attributes. Worst of all, they do this to human cultures, making the typical "these humanoids are strong, but have a penalty to intelligence" subtext into outright text.

On the other hand, the humans they do it to are the whitest ones in the setting, and I'm not sure that having your Viking guys get +2 Str, -2 Int is actually going to be much of a deterrent. Sure, it's an insult to the historical Vikings these guys are transparently based off of. And it validates the worst kind of race science by outright saying that there are humans with less than full human intelligence, theoretically opening the door for more outrageously racist culture depictions in the future. But, it's hard to believe that someone who was intrigued by this Viking-esque character type is going to be upset that they have to play a big, dumb Viking. Giving the Arab-inspired Sarcosans a bonus to Charisma and Intelligence is arguably worse (a 40% swing in average intelligence, explicable only by culutre . . . yikes).

Then you have orcs, which have one-hundred percent of their problematic tropes, played more or less straight. And yet, they probably have the ideal presentation of the work-around people sometimes propose as a way to have Tolkien-esque orcs without the necessity of an "always evil" race. Orcs are the way they are because their god demands it. At a basic level, this is nearly as offensive as "always evil" because "this culture is barbaric because they worship a cruel heathen god" is also an idea with terrible colonialist provenance. However, it comes close to working here, because the orcs aren't cruel as a matter of religious doctrine, they're cruel because they are constantly being brainwashed by invasive dreams, sent by their god (which they only worship because a grieving mother bargained with the dark god to bring her dead child back to life, and it just kind of snowballed from there).

The way it's described is pretty awful:

The endless dreams come early to all orcish children, usually after their sixth birthday. Male orcs turn to what they know when the night-terrors begin. They lash out with tooth and claw, seeking to escape the pain and fear in violence.

And that is, at least, a start towards interrogating "always evil." You could view the orcs as the first and closest of Izrador's victims. A bunch of poor, abused children trying to please their abuser by living down to his expectations. However, the book only shows rare glimpses of that interpretation, usually granting them enough agency that they begin to look like "standard fantasy orcs" played straight.

Like with the cannibalism. The book actually gives them a humane and reasonable motive for consuming their own dead - every dead humanoid, whether elf or human or orc, has a significant chance of spontaneously reanimating as a ravenous undead creature. So each culture has its own little ritual for preventing that. The human Dorns burn their dead. The halflings cut off their heads and drain their blood for use as a ceremonial incense. And the orcs eat them. This both destroys enough of the body that reanimation is no longer possible and preserves precious calories in their desolate arctic homes.

That's not even the worst of Eredane's burial rituals. That honor would belong to the dwarves, who place elaborately carved rocks on top of their dead loved ones, so that the resulting undead creature is pinned in place until it rots. A practical solution, except that the Fell (Midnight's name for these spontaneous undead) retain their intelligence and alignment upon reanimating . . . at least at first. A combination of an insatiable hunger for flesh and the physical deterioration of the brain ensures that they become ravenous anthropophages eventually, but at least for the first week or so, the "moans, screams, and curses" are pretty horrifying.

But here's the thing - orcs don't just practice reasonable prophylactic cannibalism. They also gleefully eat some of their human and halfling slaves. It's like they're trying to have it both ways - orcs are an intelligent culture with their own well-justified practices and also orcs are the savage invading horde who eat their enemies because they revel in atrocity. They're both respectfully-described ritual cannibals and a racist stereotype brought to life. Like I said, "It is both better and worse." (I think the fact that orcs are described as having no significant native crafts tips the balance over to "worse," though).

In other news, Midnight is more than just high concept and genre deconstruction. It also makes some interesting modifications to the d20 system. The biggest change is the magic system, which uses a really bare-bones spell point hack (spells cost 1 point per spell level to cast and you get one spell point per level in the Channeler class). It makes magic much more flexible, but a lot less common and I have no intuitive sense of how it might work out in play. My gut tells me that it probably narrows the caster-martial gap in combat effectiveness, but likely exacerbates the spellcaster's tendency to obsolete skill classes with their utility spells, since you don't have to have them memorized in advance. Although, another thing to consider is that the new magic system is largely feat-driven and so non-channeler classes can easily buy themselves a few extra magic tricks. Overall, it's probably better, but I think there's still a lot of room for improvement (just don't ask me to come up with something quite yet).

Another new mechanic is the Heroic Paths system, which is just a list of abilities your character gets, one per level, from levels one to twenty. It's all upside, so a strict power boost over ordinary characters, but I like the extra degree of customization. The only problem is that some paths seem better than others. The Beast is out there getting claws that are as strong as a mediocre weapon, while the Healer is getting is a respectable suite of cure spells (especially for a setting where all divine magic goes through Izrador) and the Dragonblooded is like having 33% more levels in the Channeler class.

Finally, I really dug Covenant Items - magic items that grow more powerful alongside the character - and Power Nexuses - locations suffused with mystic power that allow you to create permanent magic items and/or cast certain spells at a significant spell point discount. The only real problems here are that Covenant Items mostly top out at a +2 enhancement bonus, making them largely inferior to boring old static magic items, and because of setting unpleasantness, Power Nexuses will probably get you killed. Still, they both had a way of fleshing out the setting and making it feel more lived in, which is basically all I want from a game's magic.

Time to sum up. Midnight is really good, but its bleakness takes some getting used to. A key aspect of its vanilla-ness, that I didn't realize until I was deep into the book, is that its familiarity can make the triumph of evil feel like a gut punch. So often it talks about a beautiful thing being destroyed or a proud people being oppressed and I could feel the sense of loss, because even when the text did scarcely more than sketch the original thing out, I could always picture it perfectly. There were times when it wore me down - the sense that this wasn't how things were supposed to go, that it wasn't fair and there is no hope (at least not without spurning the setting pitch). You could make the argument that light shines best against the darkness, and I totally get it, but I won't say that reading Midnight came entirely without struggle.

Ukss Contribution: I really liked the Dorn funeral custom - building a ring of standing stones to use as a centralized place for cremations, and then returning to consult with the spirits of your ancestors, who you believe will linger within.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition

 Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition has a bit of a problem - it will inevitably be compared to Mage: the Ascension, and Mage: the Ascension was frequently bad, often offensive, but also chaotic and weird and surprising and thought-provoking. Awakening is not bad, and less guilty (though not entirely innocent) of offense, but it's also less of those other things as well.

So there's this totally unfair knee-jerk reaction that comes with reading this book. I remember it from 2005, but surprisingly, I also felt it again over the last couple of weeks, despite the fact that I'd long since come to terms with it. Sometimes, I'd read something in this book, like "the relationship between the Supernal Realms and mortal religions does not demand a causal link whereby one creates the other," and I'd think, what is this Mage-lite bullshit? 

Totally unfair, like I said. The notion of "secular magic" is largely something created by the 20th century fantasy genre. Historically, most magical practices were also religious practices, and most religions believed in magical phenomenon. If you want to make a game about magic-users that sticks close to the real world, then you're pretty much voluntarily stepping into a religious quagmire. And knowing that, isn't it the mature, responsible choice to say, "yes, we know we're playing with real beliefs, but we're going to take a step back and refrain from trying to rope real religions into our fantasy world." What kind of arrogant, reckless, degenerate would you have to be to write a fantasy setting where all the world's religions were founded by alien space bats?

The kind to make Mage: the Ascension, that's who! And some of that is undeniably lost. It's probably for the best, but it does wind up saddling Mage: the Awakening with an identity dilemma straight from the start. The other New World of Darkness games were reboots that attempted to narrow in on a purer form of their predecessor's genres, but Mage: the Ascension never really had a genre. Its short-lived stint as a gritty street-level urban fantasy game petered out about a half-edition after it began and there were few who yearned to see its return.

So Mage: the Awakening largely doesn't try. It instead attempts to invent a new genre of urban fantasy that could fairly be described as "gnostic horror." And it's like, let's shamelessly plunder the aesthetics of the Golden Dawn and freemasonry, take the ranks and degrees really seriously as the center of a mystic system that foregrounds the incompleteness of the human animal, and then make magic itself a metaphor for humanity's yearning for perfection. But secretly, you can't win, because the world's broken and that's where the horror comes from.

There are parts of this that work. The goetic demons, spiritual manifestations of the mage's vices, summoned into reality and ritually defeated, are exactly the right tenor of high Hermetic religiosity. "I will be free of sin, no matter what blasphemies I must enact to do it!" And the fact that you don't have to try and beat them, you can just give them a bunch of little jobs to do - that's an amazing topper. Really sells the intersection between hubris and power.

More good stuff - the Astral Realms. Go into a trance and journey deep into your unconscious, first into a world built from your own dreams, then deeper into the collective dreams of humanity, and then deeper still, into the dreams of every living thing on the tree of life. A neat hierarchy of mystic secrets, a place you'd want to have adventures, and a plausibly compelling spiritual system. 

Likewise summoning monsters from the Abyss between worlds. And "the Seers of the Throne" is a great name for an antagonistic group of mages that horde worldly power and have mind-controlled agents seemingly everywhere.

But then you get the stuff about Atlantis and that's not so good. Unfortunately, it's also the bulk of the game.

I get it. Atlantean conspiracies are part and parcel with the 19th century European occultism that powers so much of this game's overall vibe. But it's largely the part that we politely pretend doesn't exist. It is at an unfortunate intersection of archeological wingnuttery and scientific racism. It's the difference between "I, a humble shopkeep by day, by night approach the throne of God!" and "white people secretly built the pyramids." Thankfully, Mage: the Awakening doesn't go quite that far, and I'm sure it uses Atlantis in an entirely innocent way, but the cost of that innocence is that we get accounts of a 17th century meeting between European pagan sorcerers and indistinct Native American sorcerers where the Americans have heard of Atlantis, organize themselves according to the four Atlantean Orders, but also have different names for everything and it's kind of embarrassing to read. Like, the existence of Atlantis isn't meant to privilege European spirituality, it's actually just the European name for a global phenomenon, and so other people would have different accounts of that phenomenon, all just as valid.

Sure. Your heart's in the right place. You don't want to make a fantasy setting where magic works just like Europeans say it does. But then, you put Atlantis in the game. Yes, as a semi-real metaphor for an ancient time of advanced learning and lost wisdom, but the wisdom is still "magic works just like Europeans say it does."

Now, I don't want to get too harsh here. I don't think Atlantis is intrinsically racist. There's a version of it that's just goofy. And it's mostly the goofy version that we see in Mage: the Awakening, even when it tries to take Atlantis global. It's just that, by taking it global, you can't help but be occasionally reminded that the racist Atlantis still exists.

But if we spot White Wolf goofy Atlantis, that still leaves the problem that parts of the game are interesting gnostic hermeticism, parts are boring gnostic hermeticism, and the rest is goofy. The result is that Mage: the Awakening never quite comes into its own. The greater specificity of its influences should be an advantage over the old version of Mage, but somehow it is both less generic and more bland. I don't think it's bad, exactly. There were times during the reading where I definitely felt the game's potential, but I think it's a more pronounced version of the flaw I pointed out with second edition - this game really wants to be pulp fantasy, but it's stuck trying to pretend it can do horror.

Ukss Contribution: Goetic demons. They're a successful horror concept. They're a successful pulp concept. They're an interesting philosophical/religious concept. I'm definitely going to base a mystery cult around these guys.