Tuesday, March 21, 2023

(Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition) Legacies: the Ancient

 First off, I have to declare a conflict of interest. One of the authors of this book very generously sent me a few physical books over the years, and I'm so grateful that I might be inclined to go easy on it, just out of sentiment. Luckily, this is a White Wolf book with 5 different authors, all credited collectively, so there's no way I can know which section of the book I should go I easy on. Anyway, you should check out The Well RPG, if you can.

Now, let's tear this thing apart! Or not. The only thing that really bugged me was the opening fiction. It was about mystic happenings at a midwestern LGBT convention and it's one of those things where 2006 White Wolf was pro-gay rights, but that manifested as edgy anti-gay villains who could be bigoted in a really upsetting way. Also, there's some graphically described heterosexual sex that maybe I'm just being a prude about, but which made me kind of uncomfortable. Like, okay, this guy is having spiritually significant sex, but that's not really the mood I'm bringing into this thing. 

That's just the opening fiction, though. The rest of this book is more of the best part of the Mage: the Awakening setting - specific magical traditions organized around unique mystic or setting ideas. They're a little bit broader than those in Legacies: the Sublime, with groups like the Forge Masters, who base their magic off of blacksmithing and the Skalds, who use musical magic and remember ancient stories, but another word for "broadness" is "versatility."

And versatility is necessary, because the Mage: the Awakening setting, as presented thus far, is kind of impossible to use. It all comes down to a persistent refusal to openly tell us what's actually canon. How reliable is this book, regarding 7000-year-old history? Many of these legacies, being ancient, start their history sections with descriptions of various relationships with Atlantis - the Dreamspeakers and the Elemental Masteries were the magic of those outside Atlantis, the predecessors to the Forge Masters practiced their arts in Atlantis, the Thread Cutters were exiled from Atlantis. All of which implies that Atlantis actually existed. . . which is just ridiculous. 

I mean, it's not prima facie ridiculous. You could make a game where Earth had an ancient magitech society that collapsed after storming the gates of heaven, with a modern conspiracy that seeks to find and monopolize the lingering remnants of its power. I'm imagining a fun pulp fantasy, maybe with aliens and undersea cities and rayguns. You know, not the World of Darkness vibe at all. The Atlantis of Mage: the Awakening is New Age metonymy for general enlightenment, too thoroughly Neoplatonist to actually be a real place. When renegade Thrice-Great Hermetics talk about newly discovered planets being missing rungs on the Celestial Ladder, that's a fun detail when talking about broken technology, but a big pile of nothing when it's an allegory for a metaphysical journey into the heart of meaning (which is probably why it's such an unpopular theory among mainstream Hermetics).

As a result, the question most frequently on my mind (aside from "why must the Guardians of the Veil be such buzzkills?") was "what's real?" What facts are worth getting emotionally invested in? There's a group called the Echo Walkers, who disrupt people's souls so that they can learn more about the primordial spiritual origins of humanity (as exemplified by "the Ones Before," angelic precursors to the human species), and they're very interesting villains . . . except "The actual merit of the data presented at this council is probably negligible. The mages have become so blind, and usually mad, by this point that their delusions simply feed into one another." 

Sure, a group of powerful shapeshifters with a bizarre and pointless obsession with questions that can never be answered might actually be a frightening in an absurdist horror sense. They don't want anything real, and therefor they can never be satisfied. They're just going to keep hurting people forever, unless the PCs stop them. But at the same time, the game is supposed to be about mysteries and if you've got dark sorcerers exploiting forbidden knowledge, then maybe the reason their magic is so dark and forbidden is because it's really based on knowledge.  The Logophages are another antagonist faction that destroys mystic secrets they deem too dangerous (and thus earn the ire of more conventional mages who believe that magical lore should be the exact right level of secret so that they're the only ones who know it), and maybe the game works better if they have a point.

It can be a real problem. Many of the game's most interesting ideas happen when they pitch a weird group who believe in serious fantasy nonsense, but there's a persistent reluctance to actually commit to the fantasy. We'll never learn a damned thing about the Ones Before, or even whether they exist as anything more than the pretty lights that show up in the gap between someone's soul and their consciousness. And a Thrice-Great Hermetic can spend however many sessions it takes gathering seven secret names from the spirit courts of classical astrology in order to send a once-in-a-lifetime message to an ascended master who dwells beyond the Abyss and the reply they get is "hackneyed, as if some merely human intellect tried to come up with something a superhumanly wise spiritual master ought to say."

Reign in your damned cynicism, mid 2000s White Wolf, it's hurting the art! 

Which brings me back to the versatility I was talking about earlier. Mage: the Awakening may refuse to commit, may refuse to be an actual fantasy setting, but your game is going to make choices about truth and falsehood, whether Atlantis is literal or a metaphor, whether plans to breach the Abyss are completely hopeless or merely very difficult. And if you do make the commitment that the books lack, then Legacies: the Ancient will probably be helpful no matter what you decide. I think, overall, I prefer Legacies: the Sublime, because it's weirder and more specific, but both books are worthy expansions to the world set out in the core.

Ukss Contribution: The Elemental Masteries are a collection of five legacies that each focuses on control of one of the four classical elements (plus Void). They're probably the most generic legacies we've seen so far, distinguishing themselves mostly through internal cultures that play off elemental symbolism (and one of the sample characters may or may not be a centuries-old Catholic saint, in another clear example of Mage being too cowardly to just come out and do something cool), but they are all pretty solid. I'm not sure I'd want to use them as NPCs, because other groups provide more interesting antagonists, but they are all malleable enough for a PC to put their mark on them.

The coolest thing about the Elemental Masteries, however, is the suggestion for how they can be expanded. Not all cultures respect the same set of elements, so you could easily have Tamers of Trees, or Iron or Ice or Rain or Sand or Blood. I'm not saying the book should have gone with any of them (like, seriously, there was no way they were going to get away with not doing the European four), but they do leave me intrigued. I think Ukss will have Tamers of Sand, because that's the one that sounds the least useful and I enjoy a challenge.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

(Blue Rose) Blue Rose Companion

Workhorse books like The Blue Rose Companion are hard for the blog because they're my favorite kind of rpg book to own, because they have new character options, new spells, new magic items, and new monsters, but they are hard to write about because they are just that. Sometimes, they can have vast setting implications, like D&D's various Monster Manuals, and sometimes they can have a weird theme, like The Technomancer's Toybox, but the more ways it's split, the less likely that is to be the case.

And The Blue Rose Companion is split as many ways as it's possible for a book to be split. It's basically just another 120 pages of the core. It has everything, and that's useful, but for the most part it doesn't go into depth. We learn there are vampires in Aldea, but nothing about specific vampires or the ways they are used in Blue Rose's vision of romantic fantasy. Likewise, ritual casting is introduced as a new magic mechanic, but we only get three specific rituals (by default, it works as a point buy system where you improve your regular Arcana by making their use inconvenient). Wellsprings, magical structures, new darkspawn types, skill tricks - all welcome, all shallow.

The only thing that really gets expanded treatment is character paths. Blue Rose has three generic character classes - Adepts, who specialize in magic, Experts, who specialize in skills, and Warriors, who specialize in combat, but each of those classes had a number of "paths," which are named like subclasses (the Healer Adept, the Bard Expert, the Swashbuckler Warrior, etc), but they were nothing more than suggested starting builds. The Blue Rose Companion expands the Paths to be full 20-level suggested builds, but they're still nothing more than character concepts. They're just lists of feats to be taken at every level, and you can easily swap feats in or out without changing much of anything. None of them have unique powers or mechanics, and so it's unclear why they actually exist (aside from helping players see that you can build a variety of characters with the Blue Rose system).

On the balance, paths are fine, but then each of the 20 paths gets two and a half pages in Chapter 1, where we learn about their background, role in society, and religious affiliations. And there's a lot of good worldbuilding stuff there, but Paths are less real even than Classes, so how much healing magic do you need in order to identify as a Healer? Like, it's good to see a bunch of different educational and career paths that exist in the world of Aldea, but most players are going to make in-between characters, that combine traits from multiple paths or veer off in an entirely unexpected direction. So what is this for, exactly?

Overall, though, I'm pretty happy with The Blue Rose Companion. The largest part of the book was maybe too much wordcount for too tenuous a subject, but nearly everything in here was useful. If I ever play Blue Rose again, it will be an essential supplement.

Ukss Contribution: As much as I didn't care for Paths as a concept, my favorite thing from the book came from one of the path descriptions. In the "Infiltrator" path, when it talked about non-human Infiltrators, it suggested, "rhy-horses can and do masquerade as mundane horses, allowing them to pass virtually unnoticed by most people." The thought of a talking horse spying on humans on behalf of a horse government amuses me greatly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

(M: tAw) Legacies: the Sublime

Mage: the Awakening is a game with a lot of moving parts. You make a mage character who belongs to one of five mystic Orders, in-setting organizations with their own customs and agendas. And each Order is made up of characters from one of five different Paths, which, as we've previously discussed, are something that only barely exists in-setting and mostly serve as an out-of-character summary of your overall wizard vibe. And then, we've got the subject of this book - Legacies. A Legacy is like a specific school of magic, where unique magical techniques are passed down from teacher to pupil throughout the generations. And these elements can combine in different ways, so maybe you're an Obrimos (Path) Silver Ladder (Order) Clavicalarius (Legacy) or a Mastigos (Order) Guardian of the Veil (Order) Clavicalarius (Legacy) and it is in the combinatoric explosion of all these possibilities that you find an inexhaustible source of character options.

Unfortunately, Legacies are the only part of this formula that's consistently good. I'm not going to do too much complaining here, because I got the bulk of my Path criticism out of the way with Tome of the Watchtowers and my opinion on the Orders (they are dull as hell and basic activities like "combat" or "research" are not enough to support an interesting mystic conspiracy) should be apparent in the fact that I uncharacteristically don't own a complete set of Order books. However, I feel like I need to make you aware of the fact that I'm not complaining about Paths and Orders so you can properly appreciate the context in which I'm saying, "Legacies: the Sublime represents the best part of Mage: the Awakening's worldbuilding."

I.e. you should imagine my frustrated sigh when I wonder why we couldn't have just skipped directly to the Legacies and not bothered with the rest of that stuff at all.

One of the Legacies in this book is the Daksha, and they use magic to give themselves a third eye and make themselves intersex and they've got serious Nazi vibes and their whole deal is pretty much every obscure bit of New Age mysticism all jammed together into one problematic package. They're the true form of the Lemurians and call themselves "the Coming Race" and there is talk of Atlantis and the cycle of ages and ascetic mysticism and the Ascended Masters and the real-world Theosophical Society. And it's all . . .

Terrible. And great. Great and terrible. But more to the point, it feels like something that belongs in a game of modern magic. Mage: the Awakening, as a roleplaying game about people who use magic, has these two separate lines of descent for its magic system. The roleplaying side traces back to Dungeons and Dragons and so you've got these spells that are functional and repeatable and relatively easy to describe because they exist in the rules of the game and the entirety of the game is people describing things to each other. Then you've got the other side of Mage's ancestry - real world mysticism, and it's frequently the opposite of that.

Real magic is an esoteric religious practice and it doesn't change the world in a functional, repeatable way because that's not what it's for. A religious mystery exists to address the problems ordinary effort cannot. Magic begins where reasoned knowledge ends. It's eccentric, because it emerges from the specific needs of people who existed in a particular time and place, and it's hard to describe because that's what "esoteric" means. It's hardly a secret if it exists right out in the open. 

The Daksha managed to capture that feeling of encountering real-world magic. It's the feeling of setting down a book and asking yourself "what the fuck did I just read?" But it also represents the dilemma at the heart of every version of Mage (including Ascension) - you're using rules best suited to a D&D wizard, but a real wizard is most-likely a three-eyed intersex Nazi. Which game do we really want to play - magic in the modern world, in which case the blandness of the Orders and Paths might actually be an advantage ("I'll be one of the Wizards Who Fight Things, you play one of the Wizards Who Keep Magic Secret") or magic of the modern world, in which case groups as strange and specific as the Legacies should be the norm.

So what we've got here is a book that really pushes the boundaries of what Mage: the Awakening can do as a game, but in doing so makes the rest of the game feel vestigial. I don't really want to play a Silver Ladder Thyrsus, I want to play a member of the Sodality of the Tor. They're pagan witches whose mystic rites revolve around the sacred hill where King Arthur was supposedly buried. But I can't do that, not until Gnosis 3. And maybe I could treat it as something to look forward to, a goal I could build my character around, but if it's the Sodality of the Tor that interests me, if it's this interesting network of witch families with a deep connection to the British Isles that inspires me at character creation, then why can't I engage mechanically with the Legacy at character creation?

And look, I get that this is kind of a ridiculous complaint ("don't you see what those bastards did, they made a supplement that improved the base game? Grr!"), but at the same time, any roleplaying game is, from the GM's perspective, a game of worldbuilding, and from a worldbuilding perspective, competing factions whose conflicting agendas are "inspiring a technological singularity through any means necessary" and "harness the power of nightmares to become a terror to the lords of demonkind" are much more useful than factions whose agendas are "gain worldly power" and "gain worldly power, but evil." Yet, for all that this particular book is useful, it doesn't really benefit from the setting established in the core (or, I guess, Tome of the Watchtowers). Legacies: the Sublime, then, is a book that, by virtue of being extraordinarily compelling, makes my other books less useful.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, even when the Threnodist legacy fell deep into quantum-physics-adjacent gibberish. I haven't even covered the majority of the book's bold new ideas - the Daoine, vengeance-obsessed fairytale witches, the Scions of God, who want to transform themselves into angelic spirits, the extreme ascetics of the Fallen Pillar. I'm not sure I agree with "sublime" as an overall theme (I think, at best, it's a way of saying "we think the book we wrote is really good"), but it expands the Mage: the Awakening world in some fascinating ways.

Ukss Contribution: The Sodality of the Tor is made up of a collection of witch families, which isn't really a concept that works well according to the Mage: the Awakening rules (magic isn't really something you can teach or learn, unless everyone involved just happens to have experienced the same unlikely cosmic event). However, in a setting where people can choose to learn magic, a family that has its own magical traditions can be pretty cool.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Blue Rose

There are two separate and distinct things that are interesting about Blue Rose (Crawford, Elliot, Kenson, Snead) - its unique take on the fantasy genre and its extensive modifications to the d20 system. This puts me at a crossroads - do I focus on system nerdery or on genre nerdery?

Normally, I'd prefer to talk about the genre. That's an overall more exciting conversation than breaking down the changes to how combat damage is applied - instead of hit points that are whittled down over time, Blue Rose uses a "toughness save" which gets more difficult the more often a character is struck in combat, making one-hit kills vastly more likely, while also ensuring that encounters are in general more survivable, thus giving every fight a high degree of unpredictability, which may or may not contribute to a genre feeling, I wouldn't know, because I'm actually completely unfamiliar with the sub-genre of fantasy that Blue Rose is trying to emulate.

Yeah, oops. I mean, the book tries to explain it - talking animals instead of demihumans, psychic powers instead of scholarly spellcasting, heroes who work inside the bounds of institutional authority instead of loners and rogues, egalitarian societies instead of quasi-historical hierarchies - but I never read any of the source material, so I'm just kind of taking Blue Rose's word for it.  Don't get me wrong, I like what this game is doing. I just can't appreciate it on a fully literary level.

I suspect my unfamiliarity with the source material and Blue Rose's reputation for controversy come from the same basic source - unexamined femme-phobia. I haven't really done a lot of non-rpg fantasy reading since I was a teenager, and while I was hardly a macho guy, I was also not really one to question the implicit gendering of the genre. I just kind of knew that some fantasy books, like Mercedes Lackey, were "for girls" and had what I'm sure I would have described as a benign disinterest.

So, what I remember about my initial decision to purchase Blue Rose was a time when it was absolute flame-bait. When this specific book had a loud and dedicated anti-fandom, largely composed of intolerable misogynists. And I remember thinking, "oh, Blue Rose is like D&D for girls, I should check that out, because I'm in my mid-20s now and I'm starting to question my childhood femme-phobia, plus anything those jerks hate can't be entirely bad."

And I've got a vague impression of reading it, roughly 15 years ago, and coming away with positive feelings, but now, in 2023, I'm in a bit of a tough spot because I'm not sure what parts of this book were ever supposed to be contentious, let alone "for girls."

However, I'm not sure those questions are even interesting. I mean, it's kind of fun to imagine going back in time 18 years and blowing peoples' minds by telling them that to children currently being born, this book is going to seem crypto-conservative because the trans-affirming spell is technically dark magic ("is that a price your [transgender] hero is willing to pay?") and the main playstyle has you cast as fantasy cops, but honestly, the whole subject of Blue Roses' "controversy" is overblown, except as a historical curiosity. When I was young, bad takes were common, but even though there are still people with a stick up their ass about gay marriage, very little in this book would seem remarkable compared to recent trends in D&D-style fantasy. The reason you can't play a psychic wolf in 5e has more to do with the lack of opposable thumbs than genre gatekeeping.

Which is why I wish I had more fluency with the genre of origin. Then I could make comments that focused on how well Blue Rose did at emulating specific elements of the books. Does this rpg make me feel like Tamora Pierce made me feel - that seems like a question that somebody should be able to answer.

Unfortunately, I am not that somebody, so I'm largely confined to trying to win decades' old flame wars . . . except, I actually went back and looked up some of those flame wars and they are absolutely asinine. "How do you roleplay in a utopian world?" I don't know, let me get back to you when I read an rpg that depicts utopia. Blue Rose is set in a world with almost all the same exact problems as every other fantasy setting, except instead of having ahistorical kingdoms that are vaguely coded as patriarchal medieval European, it's only got one of those, and the other main area is an ahistorical kingdom that's vaguely coded as an egalitarian bureaucratic state with European sensibilities.

What do you do in Blue Rose? You defend isolated villages from rampaging monsters, counter the machinations of the dreaded Lich-king, go head to head with a thieves guild, and expose the plans of corrupt nobles - except you are representing a state that has a respect for the dignity of the individual and an informal understanding of civil rights, so you shouldn't act like rootless mercenaries, even if that means sometimes a plot is resolved with negotiation and compromise instead of steel and spells (although, you do have plenty of steel and spells and plenty of opportunities to use them).

I think the thing that impresses me most about Blue Rose, as a romantic fantasy novice, is the seriousness of its world-building. I couldn't really relate to it as a distinct fantasy subgenre, but I could appreciate it as a unique bit of speculative fiction. What if there really were a "good" alignment, and what if there were a way to check? It blows my mind that alignment, of all things, is my favorite part of an rpg, but unlike Dragonstar's "Principle of Active Morality," this game uses alignment in a way that actually makes sense. "Good" is a cosmic force, and the people of that world are like, "this is what we want for our kingdom, we want to be ruled by people who are good."

And because this is such an obvious and sensible thing to want, the game mines drama and conflict out of making it difficult to achieve. This isn't like mainline D&D, where canonically hundreds of people had the Detect Alignment spell, usable daily, and then just inexplicably did not allow that to inform their society. There is only one Blue Rose Scepter and it's so important that it's the title of the damned game. It's a divine miracle that allows you to touch someone with a stick and instantly pass judgement on their entire life. It only works once per person, and that seems a bit arbitrary, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? You've got a state where you know that all high government officials at least started out with good intentions, and it's not really surprising that this works out pretty well. Similarly, Blue Rose asks "what if there really were a divine right of kings" and the answer is "it would help, but it wouldn't solve every problem out there."

And maybe as a leftist atheist I should be more cynical about monarchal systems and the intentions of the gods, but if you buy into the game's fantasy premise ("what if the priests of Pelor were not lazy as fuck") then it's more or less unobjectionable - you've got a whole list of problems, driven by both systemic and historical factors and the decisions of individual bad actors, but you can at least count on the machinery of the state to have good intentions more often than not. You win this round, liberals.

I am, of course, funning around just a little bit. There's a lot to be said for being as progressive as it was as early as 2005. It's also one of the few rpgs to move me to tears, just from the sweetness of the fiction of a mother supporting her gay son. Even if Blue Rose's alignment system was as bad as Planescape's or Dragonstar's, that would buy a lot of forgiveness from me.

Anyway, my overall impression is that Blue Rose and its world of Aldea are worthy additions to the tabletop fantasy genre. There's part of me that wishes I could see more of a Marxist take on its central speculative conceit, where even a guarantee of having good people in positions of power is not able to mitigate the systemic injustices of feudalism. And there's another part of me that wishes the game were fluffier and girlier, with more friendship, more cute animals, and more kid-friendly fairy tale conflicts. But the fact that Blue Rose strikes a balance between those extremes is probably a good thing. I suspect it's truer to the game's romantic fantasy roots, as well.

Ukss Contribution: I'm going to pick the most asinine controversy in a game whose history is filled with incredibly asinine controversies - the golden Hart. A magical deer will appear when a monarch of Aldis dies in order to choose the new ruler. There is no reason this should have riled people up as much as it did. Oh, what, having a physical manifestation of the heavenly mandate was too out there for people? Like, they were shocked by a fantasy setting that utilized a common element of European folklore? Or perhaps the fact that it took the form of a common heraldic symbol was too . . . feminine?

Anyway, there's going to be a kingdom in Ukss where the rulers are chosen by a magic stag and it's mostly going to work out okay.