Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Coming of Mage

Quick procedural note: These posts have been slowed by illness replacing a good percentage of the free time I had allocated to writing them with "sitting around being miserable and high on NyQuil". I'm going to try to get the next one up before Friday, but no promises; If I don't, I'm out of town Friday - Monday and it will probably be mid-next-week before the system reviews go up.

Let's talk about metaplot.

Now, White Wolf wasn't the first company to do it – there are something like a million years of Shadowrun backstory, times two if you count its attempt to tie in Earthdawn. But from 1992-2004 it was everywhere, and for that, I blame the success of Vampire: The Masquerade. It taught the industry you could package ten pages of NPC write-ups, ten pages of superpowers the PCs can't have, and eighty pages of exposition together, give it a quick desktop-publishing pass to randomize the fonts into illegibility, and sell it for a cool $25.

Then they published Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand and it was all downhill from there.

Basically accurate.
Mage was not immune to the phenomenon, though my love for the game is such that I tend to view it with slightly-rosier-than-usual glasses. You had some good stuff and some dumb stuff. Then you had Samuel Haight (who is mostly Werewolf's fault but hey) and the Technocracy nuking the underworld. In the end, it all led up to a big fiery catastrophe when White Wolf made the controversial decision to close down all their old successful popular lines and replace them with shitty terrible new ones about Atlantis.



Well, ten more years down the line, here comes an anniversary edition tasked with looking back over the detritus of the setting and sorting out a new canon. It's been a hell of a ten years. The world has changed, our perspectives have changed. Mage is a game that, I think, needs to be on the zeitgeist, and those old WW books are just nineties as hell.

On top of that, some of those old works had… issues. This was the company that released the cringefest that was World of Darkness: Gypsies, and honestly, having a faction called "Dreamspeakers" where all the vaguely-tribal brown-people magic lived was even at the time a recognizably terrible idea. (A totally believable consequence of letting the Order of Hermes organize everything, but still terrible.) So there were updates needed even beyond just tacking ten years onto the timeline.

So let's dive into the M20 and see how it handles 2015.

First up, the Traditions. The best part here are probably a solid couple of paragraphs on coming up with better names for them. Some of these work better than others. The Dreamspeakers shuck off the label a cabal of bearded white dudes tagged them with a hundred years ago and become the Kha'vati; the Sons of Ether and the Akashic Brotherhood dump their "ladies need not apply" monikers in favor of the Society of Ether and the Akashayana; the Cult of Ecstasy realize no one was taking them seriously at all and reinvent themselves as the Sahajiya; the Euthanatos get tired of people improperly pluralizing them and revert to the Chakravanti. All those are clear upgrades and I will be using them henceforth and forever.

On the side of clunkers: Sure, "Virtual Adepts" has that mid-90s odor of too-precious semi-ironic-but-not-really post-cyberpunk, but "Mercurial Elite"? First off, you can't put "Elite" in the name of your fancy-ass magical internet faction without it looking really stupid, especially to people who were actually on the internet in the 90s. Second, that's a terrible name even independent of making me remember that "1337speak" was a thing. I plan to ignore this change and pretend it never happened.

And "Verbenae"? Did the Verbena see everyone doing name swaps, decide they had to get in on this action, and then promptly run out of ideas? That's not a new name, that's a typo. I won't have to pretend on this one, I'll just frequently forget about it.

(In keeping with their reputations as the Traditions' voices for not doing anything new ever, the Order of Hermes and the Celestial Chorus remain as they are and have ever been.)

All of that is under the heading of the "New Horizon Council", which is the sort of post-metaplot idea that while the world may not have ended when Mage Revised did, a lot of shit went down and life got real hard for a while. The Trads went down but not out and had to rebuild, this time with younger leadership and greater recognition of both its past tragedies and triumphs (while at the same time losing a ton of the old Merlin types enables them to make new and terrible mistakes from inexperience). It re-centers the Traditions as a dynamic force instead of "We hate indoor plumbing" and I'm a big fan.

And then… it promptly rolls half of it back by doing the longer multipage-per-Trad writeups with the old names.


Why would you do that?

(There actually is an answer: in deference to nostalgia, the writers wanted to use the old stylized headers for the Trad writeups. But I think that's a dumb answer, I'd much rather they have gone full steam ahead and committed to the newer and mostly better names throughout the book. Minus several points here.)

Anyway, the NHC is a great plan. The late Mage metaplot blew up a ton of the old Tradition strongholds and the Technocracy declared victory; M20 does a pretty solid job of pulling threads out of the rubble and weaving together the image of the Technocracy's declaration as a George W. Bushian "Mission Accomplished!" type of thing, the Avatar Storm as nightmarish but temporary, and the foundation for the NHC evolving out of mages kicked in the rear by the Rogue Council/the Sphinx. And it has good sidebars on how to ignore some of those plot points if you want to, which is pretty critical because they were not, let's say, universally beloved amongst the Mage fandom.

The individual traditions (names aside) have also been cleaned up and made a little easier to get a handle on as both game elements and factions. All the traditions except the Euthanatos (neƩ Chakravanti) get badly-needed column space on their culture and practice instead of a boring list of subfactions and mandatory paradigms; meanwhile the Chakravanti, who have always had the opposite problem, also come a little closer to the mean and get the clarity they've always needed in the corebook to avoid coming across as the faction you pick if you want to feel good about murdering people. They're all solid writeups for groups under great and many pressures but ready to take on the challenge.

So, the Traditions in 2015: Battered, weary, but unbowed. I can work with this.

On to the Technocratic Union, everyone's favorite dickish-but-arguably-justified-but-arguably-still-evil frenemies. I would say the interpretation of the TU and where they fall on the line from "Skynet" to "unpleasant-but-necessary, like the IRS or the DMV or insurance companies" has been the Mage setting element most likely to morph from writer to writer, and is definitely among the top 5 perennial flamewar topics.

In the interest of forestalling that, I'll confess my own perspective on them. I've always liked the TU as a rational but ultimately antagonistic element. To use a WW2 analogy, if the Trads are the US, the TU is Stalin: you'll ally with them against Hitler, but never forget they don't like you and they are not your friends. And while any individual low- to mid-ranking TU operative might even be a decent fellow, they will also shiv you in the kidneys if they're ordered to, and that order will come. If not today, then tomorrow.

As a faceless force of mechanistic evil, they step heavily on the Nephandi's territory when there's no reason to (if you need evil borg, you just use fallen technocrats). As the secret heroes of the setting, they're just… assholes, and I'm kinda over that.

M20's proffered default position is carefully triangulated; it offers a vision of the Technocracy as dangerous and corrupt but not unsalvageable. It heightens both the threat the inner circle represents and the growing power of the reformers. I think this is a reasonable way to go, though it may take careful handling to avoid using the reform elements merely to retell the same stories behind the VA and Etherite defections.

It doesn't strictly resolve the question of Nephandi corruption in the leadership, but makes it a fairly obvious hook and leaves the extent of it up to GM control, which seems like a nice compromise that allows both TU fans and haters to work with the material.

Special shout-out to bringing back Secret Agent John Courage. That guy's hilarious.

Then there's the new thing, the Disparate Alliance. See, Mage 2e had a proliferation of Awakened-but-not-affiliated independent crafts and orders all over the place; for a while you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a generations-hidden splinter cabal of Ex-Ex-Ex-Freemasons, a "quirky" little cult of personality, or the sorcerous equivalent of the Judean People's Front.

Mage Revised wiped a lot of that out; in the MRev metaplot, after the Technocracy finished declaring victory over the Trads, they went around stomping on all the little minifactions that had grown up over the years, probably so the writers could stop trying to remember them. Some of them got joined (under various levels of protests) culturally or magically similar traditions, some just vanished.

I was fine with this, but whatever. M20 brings them back under the guise of the Disparate Alliance, a super duper secret conspiracy that (judging by the Tradition writeups) everyone knows about but is convinced they're the only ones. There's a bit about them knowing (or lying, or being wrong) about Nephandi in the Technocracy but they don't trust the Traditions because of something something Hollow Ones metaplot metaplot blah blah Horizon War.

I don't care so I kinda started skimming. Maybe you can tell.

To me, the DA needlessly eats into the conceptual space of the Traditions. We already have a faction of wildly different mages banding together despite themselves, blending ancient knowledge with modern sensibilities and fighting to survive against an oppressive totalitarian Big Brother. It's called the goddamned Traditions. The Disparate Alliance is like if halfway through Return of the Jedi, a random character had shown up on screen, announced that xe was part of the "Insurgent Coalition (Similar To But Legally Distinct From the Rebel Alliance)" and was rebelling against the Empire and the Rebels because, and I quote, "Fuck the police".

There's definitely room for stories about unaligned mages sidelined in the struggle, tiny fish that exist in a world of bigger fish at war. But I find it hard to get hepped up about them organizing because seriously, any given disparate craft is like twelve people. That's not a conspiracy, that's an AA meeting.

They get a bunch of pages that are, frankly, the first thing in M20 that I think is genuinely a pointless inclusion. They don't add nearly enough to the setting to justify their existence and I intend to ignore them wholesale.

And that brings us up to the present day.

I… don't really know how to review the section that tries to bridge the cultural and technological changes from the original Mage era to today. Probably because I lived it. I was an adolescent when I first encountered Mage, and now I'm (stifling laughter here) an adult (allegedly).

The growth of social networks, wireless internet, mobile smartphones, the surveillance state, Twitter, Google, drones: all of these and everything else besides could be brilliant, fertile soil for a Mage game. Sure, the corebook does mention the option to keep playing in an eternal Clinton era, the way Call of Cthulhu is forever a 1920s period piece, but… why would you?

Don't do that. The world is more interesting than that. Ignore that sidebar. Play Mage today, or even better, tomorrow, or the day after the day after tomorrow. That's how, I think, it was always meant to be played.

More to come.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mage of Aquarius(/Let the Sunshine In)

In which I discuss M20's handling of philosophy and cosmology.

an XKCD comic about Mage, or possibly particle physics, or probably both

A couple weeks ago I posted about my vague dissatisfaction with some elements of Mage's core conceit and, more specifically, the way it comes across to the players. (Push that onto your stack, I'm coming back to it.) It spun off an interesting side-argument on Twitter about whether the nine spheres were actual metaphysical pillars of reality or merely a convenient way the Order of Hermes (and by extension, everyone they badgered into using their terms as an inter-Tradition pidgin language) grouped related arts and they only reason they were codified on a character sheet was because you had to attach numbers to something if you wanted to pretend to have a system.

I argued the latter position, but it turns out I was wrong, because Shade and Shard Realms exist and there are nine of them and they correspond to the nine spheres and also the nine planets (except Pluto got de-listed as a planet, which M20 implies was a petty Technocracy swipe at the Euthanatos for closing off S.R. Entropy, which is hilarious and will be canon in every game I run for the rest of time).

(These realms aren't new, but it's been a really long time since I read The Infinite Tapestry and an even longer time since I actually used it in a game, so I just plain forgot about them.)

I found this on the old White Wolf forums. I have no idea of the original source.
My favorite thing about this book might be putting all that shit in the core and doing a pretty good job of setting down and sticking to terms. M20 finally has what you actually need, soup to nuts, for the Umbra. And at no point does it tell you to go read a Werewolf book instead.

Thank fuck for that. (Sorry, Werewolf fans, but I kinda hate your game. Nothing personal.)

I don't, by the way, want to poop on the old Umbra books – The Book of Worlds and The Infinite Tapestry are, in my opinion, each among the top books of their editions. But those are in-depth coverage of people and places of the spiritual world; the core book still needs to give enough to work with, and we finally have it.

On top of that, almost every topic of "reality" vs "the consensus" gets similar treatment. Rather than the position of previous editions that "literally everything is up for grabs (but also there are mummies and were-spiders because reasons ::jazzhands::", M20 stabilizes the universe a little, bridging what were previously oft-contentious arguments.

Maybe you liked the idea of putting everything down to the consensus, but I've had the "fine, explain vampires still being a thing" argument a few too many times (and this was before I could blame Twilight).

At the same time, it also nods a bit more in the direction of a diverse consensus and acknowledges that frankly, science is not universally accepted either. The devil may go down to Georgia but a lot of evolutionary biologists won't.

So to pop stack, we come back to "is the secret to Real Ultimate Power for Mages to just read the book they're in", and M20 does a really good job of untangling that too. It makes it very clear that other than Technocrats, the Awakened, by and large, do know what the shit is going on. But lacking both the will and expertise to bang on reality directly, they rely on tools and structures of beliefs to ease the path until they achieve mastery (ie, buy up their Arete and Willpower).

This isn't a new approach, by the way! It has some support in previous texts. The problem, historically, has been that other interpretations also had support in different (and even sometimes the same) texts. And I'm the kind of person who likes the core book to lay it out clean.

The handling of the Technocracy is a little weird in this respect but they've always been in a sort of Orwellian doublethink willful ignorance category so it works thematically if not practically.

M20 also gives GMs a spectrum to use where Tradition technomages get some advantages (their stuff is usually more coincidental) and some disadvantages (they abandon tools and foci more slowly). That's a neat compromise and I'm very happy with it.

I'm torn on taking on the topic of paradigms in this post, because it may be better served as part of the post on Sphere magic, or even spun off into its own thing. For the moment, since I'm also hopped up on NyQuil, I'll give a capsule review. I think M20 goes a little too far in fleshing out certain types of paradigms when I generally would prefer players to think of that on their own, but I can easily imagine it being useful for newer Mage players. Generally the coverage of the topic is far more useful than what we've gotten in corebooks past so consider that only a minor complaint.

Overall, my opinion of M20's handling of Mage's cosmology and philosophical elements: Very high.

More to come.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A New Mage Dawns: First Impressions

I hadn't really intended this to become a mono-Mage blog. But I'm not going to apologize for that either, because Mage is awesome. Mage 20 just sent out backer PDFs a few days ago, and let me be among the first to say:

Welcome back to the stage of history! (Soul Calibur)

I'm going to be talking a lot about Mage in the next few days, obviously. The plan is to do this post, which is strictly general first impressions from my initial reading, then a series of deeper dives: one on philosophy and cosmology, one on updating the setting to 2015 and factional politics, 1-2 system posts (probably one on everything except magic and one on magic, but there may be more crossover than that). Then a wrap-up post where I'll also talk about actually running the game.

So, let's get my first impression down. Here it is.

Holy shit there are a lot of pages here.

OK, I'm going to circle back around to that point in a moment.

When I first heard about M20, my second reaction (after "Hooray!") was on learning they were going to try to be all things to all people. As a veteran of the Mage Wars, I had my doubts about how they were going to accomplish this in a reasonable amount of text.

Well, it turns out the solution they took was to redefine "a reasonable amount of text". Particularly considering "all people" included, apparently, Dark Ages and Sorcerer's Crusade fans (all four of them!). But this isn't one monolithic, bloated text the way it might seem from the page count. It is large because it contains multitudes.

It's Mage 2nd, and Revised, and the Traditions, and the Technocracy, and Sorcerer's Crusade, and Dark Ages, and Ascension, and ignoring Ascension, and Transmissions from the Rogue Council, and all the metaplot of the 90s and all the notes on how to ignore it.

Is it still kind of an unwieldy text? Yes. But it doesn't feel monstrously padded out the way, say, D&D 4e or Mage: The Awakening did, where the page count was mostly an endless listing of abilities and options swimming in a sea of contextless crunch. It's long because it has promises to keep and miles to go before it sleeps.

(Walt Whitman and Robert Frost references: checked off. My high school English teachers would be so proud.)

That said, there are a few sections where I started wondering when the next chapter break was going to be. The history section is the most tedious. While it does a better job than previous editions of setting down how things played out, and particularly in applying a less Eurocentric perspective to the events, it's also just… so… long. And every paragraph ends with an Event In Capital Letters. That's how you know they're Special and Important! (Spoiler alert: your players are never going to memorize this shit, and dropping hints about how current events have their roots in the Treaty of Seventeen Pears following the Second War of Crom the Destroyer No Not That One The Other Crom is wasted effort unless you are prepared to attach those hints to anvils. And have a hand-out ready to go. Trust me on this.) I feel like this could have been trimmed down.

Every White Wolf game's backstory. Ever.
Tangentially: Mage has always been infested with the need to capitalize every damn thing. I can't decide if it's intentional self-parody, an annoying stylistic choice, or both. I have decided not to emulate it quite to its full extent, so if you're about to post a complaint about my failure to match the capitalization of a term from the text, do please forbear.

Setting the length aside then, let's discuss the book entire. Thankfully, left behind in the dust of the 90s are a multitude of borderline-illegible fonts. They are not missed. The text is well-presented in a sane and countable quantity of typefaces, and makes excellent use of sidebars to highlight optional/alternative elements.

One navigational hazard: the book still presents system elements in a very awkward order. Every White Wolf/Onyx Path book has done this for as long as I can remember (not to mention a fair number of other games), so maybe it's just How Things Are and will never change, but I greatly appreciate when system elements are arranged in the order I'm going to want to look at them during character creation. That way I can proceed gracefully from start to finish instead of flipping back and forth between the setting chapter for factions, the char-gen chapter for traits, the magic chapter for spheres, the "miscellaneous system shit" chapter to make sure my traits will actually help me do the things I want to do, and the second appendix for (gods help us all) merits & flaws.

At the very least, the electronic version could have taken advantage of the PDF format and provided an efficient path of hyperlinks. But alas. It's not worse than the majority of published RPGs, but it's not better either.

The artwork is… strictly speaking, the artwork is "uneven", but that's not quite right. There's the new art, most of which is excellent; the old art, most of which is fine; and the Technocracy art, most of which is, well, pretty bad. Maybe it's a subtle conspiracy on the part of the layout team to make the Technocracy seem crappier?

Also on that topic: of all the Mage books I've read, other than those specifically from the Technocracy perspective, this is the one most critical of the Traditions, both their ideals and practices. It goes out of its way to hit on their mistakes, the shortcomings of their philosophies, and the benefits the Technocracy has brought to the world (directly and indirectly). It doesn't quite paint them as villains the way some parts of fandom have; rather, the text pushes hard on the idea of them as "fallible, but learning" – they've screwed up, a lot of them are still assholes, but on the whole they're trying and there's hope.

Part of this is compensation for the line's historical tendency to hold the Traditions up as the both (a) obvious good guys and (b) battling on the front lines in the war against antibiotics and flush toilets, which was prone to causing no small amount of cognitive dissonance on the part of players who by and large have been pro- those things.

I mean, I appreciate the struggle for ideological freedom as much as anyone, but I also have a deep and abiding love for air conditioning.

Part of it has also been folding a lot of the Revised-era "de-villainization" of the Technocracy into the core. Over the lifetime of Mage, the Technocratic Union went from "literally Skynet" to a misguided but principled faction long since taken over by internal corruption, self-serving leadership, and ends-justify-the-means expediency. (In other words, Republicans.) And the new core reflects this, making Technocracy PCs playable right out of the gate.

I don't want to exhaust this topic too much here, because it's a pretty deep one that deserves (and is getting) its own post, but it's something that stuck out at me.

The other section that I want to mention here only briefly is the chapter on running Mage.

It's fantastic.

More to follow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mage Sold the Homeworld

I've been thinking about Mage: The Ascension again lately (which is to say, I have been conscious and have not suffered a massive, personality-altering head trauma) and I have some opinions about the topic of genre.

See, as a role-playing game, I generally think Mage is pretty great at being about the things Mage is about. (Hang on, I'm going somewhere with this, and it's not Tautology Club.) If you want a game about eternal wars between secret societies, grappling with individual enlightenment vs consensus reality, the Gordian knot of science and belief and safety and choice, or etherships and dragons battling the Zigg'raugglurr in the orbit of Saturn, Mage is as solid a choice as you'll ever find.

But I finally realized the impetus behind some of the design decisions in Mage: The Awakening (aka "the shittier Mage game") that had always puzzled me: Mage is bad at an awful lot of very well-established and traditional fantasy plots, for reasons that are very tricky to fix. Mage's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: the Sphere system.

The best thing about Mage is that any kind of magic works. The worst thing about Mage is that any kind of magic works.

If you were running a Star Wars game, and someone sat down at your table and said "I want to play a Jedi who shoots lightning out of his hands," you'd probably respond, "Man, that's hella dark side." And you probably would not let them get away with "No, see, I don't believe that shooting Force lightning is evil. In my paradigm it's totesy finesy."

In Mage that's just how shit works and you're kinda expected to go with it. (Well, you're justified if you throw dice at them for using the phrase "totesy finesy", but to be fair, you said "hella" so let's not pretend you have any kind of moral high ground here.)

Different games are different though, right? Lightning bolt is a 3rd level spell in D&D and it's only evil insofar as it's not very good. (I'll be here all night. Try the veal!)

It's more about… hrm.

It's about hidden knowledge. Dark secrets. The occult, in the oldest sense of the term. The unknown and, possibly, the unknowable.

Mage spills the beans on page 4: You can do anything you believe you can, and for everything else, there's Willpower points.

So a character arc of magical self-discovery has to deliberately start from a point that the player knows damn well is literally wrong about the universe, and the uncovering of mystic and forbidden arcana is rendered irrelevant as soon as the Akashic down the hall goes "Oh, that's a Mind 2/Forces 3 rote. We learned it in Punching Gods 201. Same effect, but less evil and forbidden. Silly Hermetics."

The text does make some nods in the direction of "this is basically all names and ideas the Hermetics came up with because they just fucking love naming things", but that merely explains the issue, it doesn't do much to resolve it.

What are we actually trying to resolve? Hell if I know. Something about this just bugs me. Maybe I want to play an inheritor of forbidden knowledge without the game making fun of me.

I think tied in here somewhere is a longer discussion of magic, of "enlightened Sphere Magick" vs "static magic", of Avatars and understanding and enlightenment and a way to square the impossible circle, but none of that can happen unless you're willing to do something about Mage straight-up telling everyone the secret truth of the universe in the opening fiction.

A player shouldn't feel stupid and limited for having a paradigm and using a focus. We should think of ways to obfuscate the endpoint if we want to make the journey more interesting and unpredictable.

I'll tell you what the endpoint isn't though: fuckin' Atlantis.

More to follow.