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 alt.toys.transformers.fanfic-grade 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.

NOT THAT I'M BITTER OR ANYTHING.

Ahem.

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.

What?

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.