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.

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