Monday, April 17, 2023

(M:tAw 1e) Left-Hand Path

I'm trying to think of something really scathing to say about Left-Hand Path (Dave Brookshaw and Malcom Shepherd) and I am coming up totally blank. Which, of course, is a good thing, except that my motive for being so uncharacteristically vicious is that I am also at a loss for something extraordinary to praise. I generally liked the new Legacies. I thought Cloud Infinite, the techobro-parody mystics who practice distributed magical computing on hijacked souls with their mystical botnet in order to gain superhuman intelligence, was a great addition to the villain line-up and could easily anchor an adventure that really leaned into the satirical proletarian horror.

On the other hand, the Tremere. I think this might be a case of Mage: the Awakening falling victim to its own success. Back when the core first came out, it was obvious that the Awakening setting needed a group of dark magic guys who stole souls in order to grant themselves eternal youth. Clearly, if you're doing modern occult horror, you gotta have guys like that. But then Mage kept chugging along for another 8 years and accumulated a canon of memorable villains like the Daksha and the Echo Walkers (plus, I guess the Seers of the Throne really got fleshed out at some point) and it was no longer enough to be just those guys. Sophistication. Fair enough.

But in remaking the Tremere, Left-Hand Path goes back to Mage's weakest element - whatever the hell it is that's going on with Atlantis - and the new Tremere backstory is now too baroque and arch for me to even attempt to summarize. The practical upshot is that they now do this thing where they hunt down and eliminate rival soul-stealing Legacies, both for Atlantean gibberish reasons and in order to replicate their abilities with stolen souls. "The Legacy that parasitizes Legacies" isn't a terrible idea, but this book stumbles into its most obvious failure point - potentially, the stolen Legacies are going to wind up being more interesting than the original, but now you've burned them forever because they are canonically extinct, eaten by the Tremere. We're never going to get a full version of the Nagaraja, who steal their enemies souls in order to become master of their vices, or the Seo Hel, who can draw forth a victim's prized possessions so long as they possess their soul. Thanks, Tremere.

But even that's not really me being scathing. NuTremere are still a perfectly serviceable villain group, and that's kind of where I'm at with the book as a whole. I can't help comparing it to Banishers, and my thought is that Left-Hand Path has a better overall vibe, but Banishers was better when it came to actual, specific villains.

Ironically, though, I think they both make the same basic error, only coming at it from opposite directions. Both books fail to (completely, consciously) realize that the best Mage: the Awakening villains are the ones that occupy an in-between place in mage society. The best part of Banishers was when they introduced characters who could really just be asshole mages, and the book weakened that by making the banisher condition metaphysically distinct from regular awakening. By contrast, the best part of this book is the way it kept emphasizing that "left-handed" (i.e. "sinister," no shade on my left-handed comrades) mages could remain undetected inside mage society for long periods of time, thanks to regular mages', ahem, moral flexibility, but that message was undermined by the relative scarcity of NPCs that were compelling enough to put in a game.

Part of this comes down to the book's short length. There were undoubtedly some sacrifices to wordcount. Better to be abstract and versatile than specific and niche. But also, "Blood of the Lamb," the psychopathic churchgoer who misinterpreted the gospel and thought Jesus "forced himself into the devout through His blood" and now sacrifices women to his "Un-God." What is that? That's nothing.

I really would have liked to see more of chapter 1, where it talks about "Heretics and Apostates." Sometimes, you've got villains who take the philosophies of the Orders too far, or who are used as deniable assets, or are normal mages who get some strange ideas. And sometimes "left-handed" is a political label. "However much mages dislike having to judge the Left-Handed against a code of behavior, they dislike having their own conduct called into question more."

That is something that really narrows in on the gothic-punk wavelength. You could write a whole campaign around just that one sentence. You're an outsider not because of the crimes you commit, but because of the crimes you refuse to commit. Maybe it's a bit high-minded, but it really does work with the urban fantasy genre.

Overall, this was a decent cap to my time with Mage: the Awakening. I go back and forth on whether I want to invest more into the series - my natural completionism wars with the fact that I'm rapidly running out of shelf space - and this didn't exactly clear up my ambivalence, but I can see more of the game's potential, and I think this book would be helpful if I ever did decide to run a game.

Ukss Contribution: The Cwn Annwn. This is a Legacy that would be great villains in another setting (the only reason they don't really work in Mage: the Awakening is that the metaphysics of the setting require some additional cruft that doesn't really add to the concept). The basic pitch is that they use spells to disintegrate items in order to replicate them in their luxury demiplane (they can also do this to people, but the replicas are lifeless automatons). A simple idea that combines the heist genre with personal horror (the disintegration is how their demiplane gets the information necessary to make the duplicates, so they wind up doing things like dusting famous artworks and straight-up murdering people). And if I place it in a pure fantasy world, I don't need to include the part about the whole thing being a trap that allows the denizens of the Lower Depths (represented here by the skinless invisible dogs that symbiotically power the mages' disintegration spells) to siphon off the energies of creation. 

I mean, cosmic horror is a thing that Mage: the Awakening occasionally does pretty well, but it feels like one idea too many to me. I'm content with callous thieves who would make the real world into a wasteland if it meant they got to live in paradise.

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