Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Illuminati: The Conspiracy

Where to get it: Dedicated website

For much of my time reading Illuminati: The Conspiracy (Stephen Esdale with contributions from Anders Sandberg) I was highly distracted by the question of when, exactly, this thing was written. It's clearly an ancient WoD fan supplement from the early days of the internet, but what was the exact date of its creation? 

I've narrowed it down to a four-year period - it must have been made after 1995, because it references the notoriously controversial Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand, but it must predate 1999, because it uses the word "magick," presents a version of the Storyteller rules that doesn't yet have Bashing damage, and just generally doesn't incorporate any of the reckoning metaplot. My gut says 1996 or 1997, because it also doesn't mention the Kuei-Jin, and I have a feeling that Kindred of the East would have made quite an impression on the "clued into White Wolf, internet early adopter, weird enough to write a fan supplement" crowd.

For the most part, me working out this puzzle was a matter of personal curiosity. I read the equipment section and was like, "oh, wow, this fiber optic camera records to a miniature video tape. . . wait, am I reading an artifact?" But I did also have another agenda - I needed to place this work into a particular time and context so I could better calibrate my reaction to it.

I don't like to draw too much attention to this, because I already have quite a lot on my plate, reading-wise, but I've made an open offer - if you made an rpg, and you want me to read it, all you have to do is send me a copy and I'll put it on the list. Partially, this is a marketing scheme (mweh, heh, heh, if I read an author's book, that will be at least one more person who will want to read my blog, driving up my readership count by at least 2 percent), but mostly it's because I've been led to believe that writing reviews (or whatever it is I do around here) is somehow useful to an author. It's my small way of supporting a medium that I love.

And I bring all that up because sometimes there's a conflict between my conscious goal (doing something helpful) and my integrity as a critic. Illuminati: The Conspiracy is one of those times. Like, if I were to whip out the claws and go full wicked witch mean reviewer mode, the cattiest comment I can make about this work is that it really feels like it was written by a teenager.

But if I ponder the likely publication date, I realize that at least 25 years have passed and it's entirely probable that it was written by a teenager. And I generally like it when teenagers write things. No shade at all towards amateurs being amateurs. It's one of the paradoxes of being a critic (I like to claim I'm a critic when I'm about to pontificate and deny I'm a critic when the label might imply a degree of responsibility) - the more broadly I experience polished professional work, the more I become able to appreciate the merits of unpolished amateur work. So on the off chance that this post falls through a time portal and reaches the young Stephen Esdale, my overall message is this: good job. There are some rough patches, but if you keep practicing, in a few years I think you could really make a go of it.

My message to current-day Stephen Esdale: Hey, your juvenilia made it to the current day without having anything too embarrassing in it - way to go. That's more than I can say for myself. I once wrote a WoD fan supplement, a few years after you did Illuminati: The Conspiracy and I would be mortified to learn that someone was reviewing it. It was super brave of you to let your friend make this request on your behalf. And, writer to writer, I'm going to keep those typos to myself. Believe me, I get it.

Enough preamble, though, what about the book itself? 

I am probably the wrong person to read it, because its central conceit is something that I don't exactly dislike but am reluctant to fully embrace - the badass normal.

The reason this bugs me is because it sits in a weird place where the basic idea is appealing - people with unearned, inborn talents can be surpassed by less talented individuals who are clever, determined, and hardworking. But if you extend the logic of that idea, it more or less implies that the powered individuals are lacking in those meritorious qualities. Batman has a contingency plan for dealing with Superman if he ever goes rogue, because Batman is brilliant, cautious, and willing to put the work in, and that plan is likely to work because Superman is dumb, careless, and lazy enough that his immense starting advantages are effectively cancelled out.

So for me, whether or not a "badass normal" plot works depends entirely on whether or not I'm properly primed for it. If the story prepares me to believe that the villains could be negligent or overconfident, then hell yeah, let's get that regular person in to show them what for! But if it's a character I would otherwise like, such as Superman, then it really just bums me out.

Illuminati: The Conspiracy is about a conspiracy of MUNDANES which out-conspiracies all of the World of Darkness' various conspiracies. And look, I'm not so all-in on the Technocracy and the Camarilla that I'm outraged that they could be beaten at their own game by mere mortals, but there is a certain transitive property of laziness going on. I've been playing Mage: the Ascension and Vampire: the Masquerade under the assumption that the antagonists have a certain degree of competence. To have the villains that have hitherto been so hard to defeat be unceremoniously manipulated by a weaker group runs the risk of trivializing the protagonists' struggles. I came into this book with a pre-existing investment in the lore and reading that, "Years ago, the Illuminati voted to allow the Technocracy freedom to create the Age of Reason" . . . well, it put me on the back foot.

I can, however, imagine a version of the World of Darkness where this might work. Perhaps one where the power and scope of the supernatural conspiracies has been dialed down, or alternatively, one where everything is pumped up 11 and the Illuminati become a parody of the WoD's tangled spaghetti ball of competing conspiracies. Neither of those are the precisely the WoD I'm used to, but it just goes to show - trying to set the various WoD in the same world is a mistake. If you're going to play Illuminati: the Conspiracy, your best bet is to start from scratch and incorporate the supernatural factions into its paradigm from the get go. Probably just remove the Technocracy from the equation entirely (seriously, the overlap is huge - the Illuminati even have their own Men in Black).

Overall, I can't say that this book was for me, but it did delight me to take this trip back in time (biggest nostalgia trip of the book - the crossover suggestions for the fan supplement: Highlander: the Quickening). I'm glad I got the chance to read it.

Ukss Contribution: "Queen" is a gender-neutral title. Not something you see a lot of in fiction.

No comments:

Post a Comment