Mage: The Ascension: 20th Anniversary Edition by LatwPIAT
Introduction: Pride, Power, ParadoxOriginal SA post
Mage: the Ascension: 20th Anniversary Edition: The Hate-Reading
Mage: the Ascension ! One of the most divisive games ever, with truly legendary flamewars and a renown for incomprehensibility. It was released in 1993, with a 2nd edition released in 1995, and the 'Revised' edition released in 2000. Related games include Dark Ages: Mage and Mage: the Sorcerer's Crusade . There was also a GURPS: Mage: the Ascension released as part of a White Wolf/Steve Jackson Games cooperative effort to make GURPS conversions for the WoD games. The books I'm the most familiar with are the Revised edition and the GURPS conversion. (I actually found the GURPS conversion one of the most useful books in the entire oMage lineup, since it's clear and for the most part objective.) Insofar as I am a fan, a fanatic, about MTAs, I tend to fall in that particular demographic that prefers the Technocratic Union to the Traditions, and I generally favour contrary readings of the subject matter because the heavy-handed pushing MTAs does to make the Traditions seem good and the Technocratic Union seem bad is grating; I want the Technocratic Union to be actually better out of sheer spite . Nonetheless, I'll try to be as objective here; I'll only draw on the text and its relation to 1st, 2nd, Revised, and related texts when I make my commentary.
So! Usually one skips all the boring stuff about authors and editors and the alike, but I think it's enlightening to see who wrote what in this book:
Brucato: primary text
Brian Campbell: Technocratic Union
John Snead: Appendix I entires
Rachelle Sabrina Udell: Disparate Allies
Bill Bridges (Society of Ether)
Jackie Cassada, Nicky Rea: fiction for select chapters
Jesse Heinig: Virtual Adepts
Deena McKinney: Sisters of Hyppolyta
Allan Varney: Akashayana, Celestial Chorus, Order of Hermes
So, who are these people? First of all is Brucato -the-ranting-madman, who has a long, long list of White Wolf writing credits. Going by the White Wolf Wikia, he's been onboard since 1993 and wrote and/or developed for MTAs 1e, including the Player's Guide and several Tradition and Technocracy splatbooks. He's also the designer and developer of MTAs 2e, and is listed as a contributor to MTAs Revised. Bill Bridges is an even more prolific name, having co-created Fading Suns , worked on the original Werewolf: the Apocalypse , has writing credits in a huge number of MTAs 2e books, was the creative director on MTAs Revised edition from 2002 onwards, he helped create Rage , the WTA cardgame, he created Promethean: the Created , he developed for some Star Trek RPGs, worked on Starfleet Academy ... RPG development is a place where amateur and professional are near synonyms, for better or worse, but this guy seems to have his credentials in order. Brian Campbell worked on MTAs 2e, Guide to the Technocracy , Mage: the Awakening , and a number of other WW WoD titles from 1993 to 2005. John Snead is another extremely prolific RPG developer with a wide repertoire; work on Trinity , Aberant , co-author of Exalted's Sidereals and Geist: the Sin-Easters , several Changeling: the Lost books, he wrote the spaceship rules for Eclipse Phase and worked for other companies... most relevant here, though, is the fact that he was an author of several MTAs Revised Traditions books and worked on MTAs Revised itself. Udell is another MTAs Revised writer and also worked on MTAs 1e and Mage: the Sorcerers Crusade . Jackie Cassada wrote fiction for MTAs Revised with Nicky Rea , who also wrote for MTAs 2e and a number of other MTAs titles. Jesse Heining was the developer of a large number of MTAs Revised titles. McKinney has worked on a number of oWoD core books, including MTAs 2e, Dark Ages: Mage and Mage: the Sorcerers Crusade , and the MTAs 2e player's handbook. Allan Varney has almost no WW writing credits, but was the lead writer and designer of Paranoia XP , wrote many Paranoia supplements, has written actual novels since 1987, a half-hour radio comedy, done work on several video games including Epic Mickey and Star Wars: Galaxies , designed board games for SJG, ...look, I'll just link his bibliography, it's an impressive read. Most pertinent is that he wrote the MTAs 1e Order of Hermes book and an appendix to MTAs 2e.
So, all in all, it's a lineup of a number of 1e, 2e, and Revised edition authors - many cross editions. Regarding what Rand Britain said about it feeling like Revised edition metaplot, whereas I thought it was too 2e, I think I can see why - Bill Bridges is one of the lead developers of M20, and was probably behind a lot of Revised metaplot, while Brucato is like 100% 2e; between their influences, me and Britain probably find things we think are the stygian influences of the edition we dislike.
That was the writing credits. Let's move onto the Table of Contents. Reviewing actual content? Maybe later. Lets start with the most technical of things.
It's not the most useful ToC; you have to know a lot about the setting and terminology for these things to actually make sense. The first third of M20 describes the setting. So of course it's called "Awaken". The second third deals with groups within the setting, character creation, and running the game. It is, descriptively, "Believe". Most, but not all, of the rules are in the last third, "Ascend". I guess that having the three books be named "Awaken, Believe, Ascend" sounds cool, but its just meaningless fluff. The same is repeated, to a lesser degree, in the chapter titles too. "The Book of Rules" does not actually contain all, or even most, of the rules. Most of the rules are in "Dramatic Systems" and "The Book of Magick", but most of the character stuff is in the Believe-book, which deals with character creation . Though, M20 has a detailed ToC that goes over five pages with multiple sub-chapters listed, which is far better than any other book. MTAs 1e has 11 chapter titles as its ToC. MTAs 2e is basically the same, with 12 chapter headings and 3 book titles. MTAs Revised eschews book titles and just has 13 chapter headings. (White Wolf, everyone!) So, good job! A proper table of contents!
There's some intro fiction. I guess I have to actually read this since I'm reviewing here. Sigh.
There’s a boy on a boat in a purple sky, where the air flashes
like catastrophic dragons and a patch-eyed man lays a heavy
hand on that boy’s shoulder and tells him This is where the
world dies, son.
I feel like that this morning, and I’m not quite sure why. It’s not the dancing. I’m used to that. Or the hike – that’s my favorite thing in the world, except maybe dancing. It’s not the sex, though gods know it was passionate enough.
Lightning flickers underneath my skin – needles, tongues, fingers, fists, a rush of stars exploding into nova to blot out the thrusting of my father’s cock – but all those eternal Nows are distant to the person in my skin today.
Actually, in context, the most likely interpretation is flashbacks to childhood sexual abuse. To which I ask, why is this in the intro fiction? What does it add, even if I've misinterpreted it, to talk about someone's father's cock? The way its written it is, if you pardon the imagery, violently thrust into the text with no warning or context. Random lines about child sex abuse are not some brave exploration of territory - it's probably more likely to put people off the reading due to invoking traumas, and I can't see any other benefit it has other than to make people feel slightly uncomfortable.
The intro fiction switches between two characters and multiple periods, often in flashback. It's unclear and it takes several switches before it becomes apparent what is happening. One narrative is the story about Laurie Ann, the child sexual abuse victim, out on a camping trip with her boyfriend, and the other is John Courage having flashbacks to, among other things, child abuse experienced at his father's hands, and the first time he met Laurie Ann. I guess giving the two protagonists shared child abuse backstories establishes them as somewhat similar but really it just makes me uncomfortable. Did it honestly need to be there? Do we need to know that John Courage was force-lightning'd and beaten by his father for not doing chores? Do we need to know that Laurie was raped? I don't think so - there are other ways to give characters similar backstories - ones that don't include wallowing in human suffering for cheap thrills. I've seen people complain about the way M20 dares to include a non-binary trans character and use third-gender pronouns, because blah blah skeletons taking over the hobby, but those people need have to fear; there's child sexual abuse and physical child abuse, yet not a trigger warning in sight.
It goes on for really, really long with vague references to things I know nothing about and lots of terminology. It's boring, and I feel like just glazing over two characters having a cryptic dialogue, and if I didn't already have a good grip of the setting, the entire thing would be impenetrable to me. I know that John Courage[/i] is an agent of the Technocracy, and that there's a scene where he's hunting down Laurie together with a Technocracy android because Laurie has just Awkakened, and the Technocracy hunts down "Reality Deviants" for... reasons - a new reader would not. I want to compare this to the MTAs 1e intro fiction, which is the most ridiculous thing , but quickly establishes the important things: this is a game about wizards, there are evil wizards, and you get to be the kind of wizard that has a trenchcoat and uses a katana. M20 starts off with an impenetrable wall of vagueness and jargon - it's going to put off newcomers, I think.
One of the rpg.net posters I find more insufferable (I'll not mention them by name) replied to several complaints about how M20 had turned out that it wasn't a book for people to get into oMage, it was a book for Mage fans . Which may be, but it's kind of a shitty way to write a core book, don't you think? "We have a gameline that is weird and confusing and has bad rules so we're going to release a cleaned-up definitive edition that makes the game playable... but if you're new to Mage, you can't use it. You have to buy these other, older, shittier books first."
A boy dragged hungry from a screaming bed. A girl pinned weeping to her own. A sky lit stark with white-room flare.
Ah, so she is a child sexual abuse victim. Thank you book , for clearing that up. I really needed to know that. Realistic depictions of one of the most gruesome things that can happen to a child is definitely something I needed in my game about playing Kung Fu wizards.
Introduction: Pride, Power, Paradox
And yet we’re told that the age of miracles is over. We’re living in the End Times, a hopeless grind where novelty is just another pop-up ad. We’ve been set against one another in a round-robin game of trivial pursuits. The best we can hope for, we are told, is a big house and a warm bed and a bunch of money in the bank. So sit the fuck down, shut the fuck up, have your TV and a Big Mac and think you’ve got it made.
It's somewhat weird to read this in a book published in 2015 though. It's a sentiment well over 10 years out of date; the late 80's/90's reaction to consumerism and middle class values is a zeitgeist, made for a world unlike our own, where television with more than one channel was a big thing, and the Internet was not. It's a time that has passed ; it existed between the Cold War and the War on Terror, birthed by Glasnost and killed by 9/11. The references to the End Times are incredibly dated, drawing on a sentiment of pre-Millennialism that died on January 1st, 2000.
I mean, TV? BigMac? Please, get with the times Brucato, these days its about iPhones and Mocca Lattes.
Twenty years ago, a game came along that changed gaming. It was big and epic and confusing as hell. It dared folks to think outside the box – to not simply throw fireballs but to really think about how and why we do the things we do. Often considered “the thinking gamer’s game,” Mage: The Ascension subverted everything (including itself) while challenging people to make a difference in their world.
"thinking gamer's game" is a phrase that appears in two contexts: people talking about video games, and people mocking that line from M20. MTAs is not often cited as a hugely influential game as far as I'm aware, and in terms of being radical it has not much acclaim either. When people talk about radical games they talk about Jeepform games and Polaris and other games that truly play with structure and subject matter. Nobody talks about Mage except fans and people who laugh at it for being difficult and/or stupid. It's certainly a unique game, and I like some of the ideas of the game and overall it's pretty cool, but the way Brucato talks about it you'd think he was advertising his heartbreaker; "subverted everything (including itself)" while clinging to a an ablative hit-point model that's used only because D&D did it? How do you even subvert yourself? Is this like "deconstruction" on TVTropes, where everything is actually a radical work of post-modern deconstruction and aversions of subversions? Challenging people to make a difference in their world? What, as opposed to, I don't know, any game ever ? Going out to kill the tyrant king is making a difference in the world - so is stopping Cthulhu from waking.
Anyway, this is the introduction to the world of MTAs, which tells you that you can be an agent of change and make a difference and be powerful and stuff; cookie-cutter empowerment, in other words. Perfectly workable, though a bit abstract and I'm not sure I'd understand what this game was about if I didn't already know - making the reference to "if you're a new player" in the introduction extra amusing.
The section goes on to explain the core ideas of the setting; there are Mages, they can change reality through force of will, they should ideally try to bring about Ascension (what this is, and why it's a good thing is not explained), and there's a war over who gets to control reality; the disparate Traditions, the authoritarian Technocracy, the nihilistic Nephandi, and... ??? Maraduers (They're described as "who see chaos and the ultimate truth", which is a meaningless statement that tells me nothing about them.). There's also the disparate Disparates, who are a bunch of organizations of mages who haven't joined any other side in this war.
Like all World of Darkness games, M20 has a Theme and a Mood. Theme is here Hope and Transformation , while the Moods are Defiance and Reflection . Its supposedly a game about defiantly trying to make the world a better place and transforming it and yourself in the process, fighting against the forces that would keep you down and the things you might become; He Who Fights Monsters and all that. Out of these, from what I know about MTAs and its tone, Defiance is probably the most prominent element; its a game about rebelling against the very concept of reality and authority. Transformation and Reflection are more paid lip service too, and Hope only featured insofar anything involving a fight contained the hope that you might actually win said fight. Of course, I am mostly familiar with Revised, which was perhaps the most hopeless of the editions, giving an impression of the Ascension War being a lost cause and a Forever War where the players were a band of survivors trying to avoid the oppressive might of the Technocracy.
And then there's eleven pages of terminology. Eleven . Given all the fictional concepts that are referred to, some of this may be necessary, but I'm sure some of these could have been dropped. I've picked out some amusing ones:
Dante that do something in the coolest way possible
WWPD? : "What would Porthos do?"
Juice : slang for Quintessence
Porthos : in case you need to know about this tidbit of metaplot, Porthos gets his own, long entry explaining who he was. Is the lexicon the place you go to look for entries on important NPCs?
Potter/Potterize : Making magic cheap by likening it to pop culture. This one is almost certainly new just for this book. I ask you, do we really need to know every single piece of slang used by the Traditions?
Uncle Al Apparently mages all call Alistair Crowley this
paranormal : which just uses the dictionary definition, but totally had to be in this book, because someone might not know what "paranormal" meant.
meme : again, just the dictionary definition
hubris also the dictionary definition!
hero I kid you fucking not, the dictionary definition
And that was the introduction. Uncomfortable stories about child abuse, misplaced 90's zeitgeist, , and a lexicon including definitions of common words.
Next: the chapter on magick
Chapter 2: MagickOriginal SA post
Chapter 2: Magick
This chapter deals with magick, which is explained to be the age-old technique of lying-with-words - magick is everything and everything is magick, so someone flicking a light switch is doing magick to create light. It's a variation on the motte-and-bailey argument, where you have an easily defensible, if useless, proposition "reality is magick" that you use to defend against falsification, and a less defensible position "magick can do all these supernatural things". Then you just retreat to your unfalsifiable "when I say 'magick' I mean the physical laws" whenever someone challenges your ability to do supernatural things. Though in MTAs this is actually true; flicking a light switch is just a magickal rote spell that lets you turn on the light, with ritual components like "light switch must be connected to lamp" and "power must not be out". Within the context of MTAs, this is not just lofty words, but the actual metaphysics of the setting. It's a pretty interesting premise. The big thing about mages is that they can use more magick than just the rotes of nature's laws.
The passages go on to emphasize various aspects about how mages cast magick in practice; their spells tend to have bad consequences, so smart mages maximize the gains against the consequences and use simple spells to create greater effects. It's something of a contentious point amongst some people looking to get into MTAs; the game punishes you for actually casting spells, in a game about casting spells. Personally I don't think this is a problem in of itself; actions having consequences and power-trips not being "free" is a perfectly valid premise for a game, and MTAs has no obligation to let people have their fireball-throwing fantasies. In fact, the premise of the game itself would fall apart if it did; magick has to be secret, and spellcasting having dangerous consequences is a good way to enforce this. That said, I think M20's rules may at times be too restrictive even for its own premise. I'll go into more detail about this when I get to the chapter on actually casting spells, but the short form is that you can easily end up in situations where the consequences of spellcasting become ridiculous and your character becomes useless and/or a liability for everyone around them, almost entirely by accident.
The game defines three kinds of magic; the "static" magic of vampires, werewolves, psychics, etc. , the "dynamic" magic k of mages, which is powered by their Awakened force of will, and "technomagic", which is a kind of dynamic magic that uses technological tools like science and pseudoscience. Mages also have Resonance and sometimes Synergy , which are weird magical effects that happen around them. For all that I think this book was a huge disappointment, this chapter has so far been pretty good at explaining things in simple terms. I think it might be a bit lofty for someone who doesn't already know a bit about MTAs, but it seems more accessible than any prior edition, at least.
Did you ever have a toy that you ruined by playing too hard with it? Or have you ever taken some gift, skill, or talent you had and then made a complete mess of things because you weren’t careful with how you used it? That’s what happens, on a really big scale, when you get careless with Will, pride, and magick – you break things.
Brucato, or whichever uncredited intern wrote this, seems to not really have a good command of the English language. The central element to hubris is the pride; you're so sure of your skill that you get careless, not that you misuse it. The ur-example of hubris is the race between the hare and the tortoise; the hare is so sure of its victory that it ends up losing a race. Hubris is being so sure of your own skill or talent that you forget to practice and end up failing. Making a complete mess of things would only be hubris if you in your pride over-estimated your control of the situation.
To the Greeks who coined the term, hubris is the shadowside of excellence. It’s that moment when Damn, I look good… becomes …so I can do whatever the hell I want. If you’ve ever met one of those arrogant assholes (and face it, we all have) who uses his or her looks or charm or money or whatever in order to feel better at your expense, you understand why hubris sucks.
Also while the word hubris is from Ancient Greek, this meaning is modern. To the ancient Greeks, the crime of hubris was more of a crime of excess, like visiting prostitutes and anal sex. Brucato goes on and one about pride and hubris, which is a bit ironic when he doesn't quite seem to understand it. If you're going to make something so central you spend several pages talking about how important it is, it would perhaps be a good idea to now what it is you're talking about?
There's a lot of setting text here, and it's not the easiest to talk about. It's not funny, it's not particlarly egregious, it's just dry and drags on for a bit. Things could have been easily summarised and may not have been entirely necessary. Is a creation-myth for MTAs that the narrator themselves seem to regard more as a myth than fact really necessary to understand the setting? I don't recall such a thing being important in any of the other MTAs books, and each of the Traditions are probably going to have their own myths for how the world was created anyway. It talks about the Technocracy at times, as an antagonistic other, but no real context for that is given except the lexicon. Unlike earlier MTAs books, M20 is not as Traditions-centric, which in some ways is good because it makes the game more permissive to other types of campaigns, but at the same time, it means that the context that the Ascension War provided is gone.
I can't stand the voice Brucato has adopted as the narrator. It's very... Brucato-esque, full of colloquialisms (sometimes used wrong, as we see) and spoken conventions, and absolutely full of very poor similes and examples. Take this one, for example:
So why can’t we Awakened souls do anything we please? If magick is godlike power, why don’t we all just go bowling with fireballs down Main Street, USA?
Because Reality itself won’t let us do that.
Imagine reality as a large body of water. You can splash around in it, channel it, swim in it, or drown in it. You can’t just turn it into confetti, though, no matter how hard you wish upon a star because that water was here long before you were and will be here long after you’re gone.
Imagine reality as a large body of water? I can't turn it into confetti? (a mage totally could tough...) I can't turn it into confetti because the water has been here a long time, and because it'll be here a long time? This is a nonsensical statement. It doesn't help explain anything. It then goes on to explain, in somewhat more understandable terms, "Consensus". Consensus is one one of the really controversial things about MTAs. The idea is that the world is the way it is because people believe it is the way it is, and if they believed differently, it'd be different. This is an interesting philosophical concept, and like so many interesting philosophical things, have been misapplied to be concrete and an actual real-world thing. And in MTAs, it happens to be true!
As the Baron Harkonnen said in Dune, “he who controls the spice controls the universe.”
We finally get some context here, on page 62; with the explanation of Consensus comes and explanation of who controls Consensus, which is the Technocratic Union. A sidebar also introduces one of the first major changes M20 does to MTAs; it introduces "focus", which is a mix of previous editions' "foci", "paradigm", "belief" and other important things for casting magick. It also explains, for the first time I think, how magick in MTAs actually works in practice; different people can practice magick differently to achieve the same results. Useful to know! Another sidebar explains how to deal with some of the Technocracy as metaplot. Options are presented for various levels of Technocratic victory, ranging from an actual victory (that still allows for Tradition mages to run around) to a partial victory to a seeming victory that is actually more permissive than the partial victory, for some reason... Then we get to the Spheres - these are the fields of magic. Strangely, the wild and divergent beliefs of Nine Mystic Traditions all believe in the same nine fields of distinct magic that happen to correspond to the system mechanically. It's useful for game purposes, but reifying it as actual metaphysics of the setting is really weird ; if magick was powered by belief and willpower, one'd think that the metaphysics of magick would also be a matter of belief, with effects grouped as makes sense for the belief, rather than by the arbitrary divisions created by game designers in 1993.
I mentioned that the game is more open to non-Traditions play, and to facilitate this, the Technocratic Union's name for the Spheres are also given. Good!
Heh, OK, so, back in the metaplot of MTAs, there was this thing about "The Tenth Sphere", which was this mystical tenth practice of magic that nobody really knew what was, but suspected existed, so they went out and looked for it. A lot of MTAs fans considered it a bit stupid, and the final MTAs metaplot book, Ascension , revealed that the Tenth Sphere existed and was Judgement. Having looked at a lot of fan-discussions and fansites in the more recent period, basically nobody cares for this; they always talk about the Nine Mystic Spheres, not the Ten Mystic Spheres. Now, in addition, someone at some point introduced Data as a Technocratic Sphere. I think it was part of the idea that the Spheres weren't set in stone, and the Technocracy, thinking about things in different ways from the Traditions, might have different Spheres altogether, because it's all belief man!
The Tenth Sphere and Data are mentioned on the same page, and no connection between the two is made. It might be, you know, useful to know whether the tenth Sphere is or isn't considered the Tenth Sphere .
One of the satirical elements of Mage involves the fact that everyone’s doing the same thing but almost no one will admit as much. The fact that all mages use some variation on the same nine Spheres is an intentional reflection of that satire.
Also, let me tell you, fictional metaphysics that rarely-if-ever impact the actual game are dead boring to read. Like this:
All Spheres are, of course, interconnected, their properties cycling through a circle of connections that unite the principles while keeping each individual field a specialized unit of study and effect. In plain English, one thing leads to another, with all of them playing a part in the greater scheme of things.
This cycle creates things out of apparent nothingness – from the initial conception of an idea, to its form, to the perception of its form, to the decay of that form so that the idea, its materials, and its essence can return to the first point of the cycle and begin all over again in some new state. Each step of that cycle involves a series of Spheres. From original conception in the energy field of Prime, an effect gets focused through consciousness in the Mind and attains substance through the Spirit. Given form in Patterns of Forces, Life, or Matter, the substance interacts with other Patterns through Correspondence and Time. Finally, it breaks down through Entropy, its elements dispersed back to the Prime to start all over again. If there is a Tenth Sphere, it probably governs the entire process, like a circle that encloses this cycle, keeping it
all whole and functioning.
This has no actual impact on the game! It's just half a page of esoteric fluff, like spending half a page talking about fictional quantum physics in a sci-fi book, only here the sci-fi book 600 pages long, RPG-book sized, and we still haven't met any of the characters or organizations - just pages upon pages upon pages of technobabble.
Now we get the sphere descriptions:
Correspondence is the anti-Ayn Rand principle.
Did I mention the narrator's voice is kind of rambly and uses weird examples?
MTAs has the Nine Mystic Spheres: Correspondence, Entropy, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Prime, Spirit, and Time. Most of these are pretty self-explanatory. The ones that aren't are Correspondence, Entropy, and Prime.
Correspondence is explained as:
Everything’s connected in some way. Despite centuries of what’s been called discrete phenomenon perception – that is, the idea that we’re all separate objects and entities that occasionally cross paths – both physics and metaphysics remind us that all things are intrinsically interconnected. Your actions affect me, my actions affect the dog next door, a butterfly flaps his wings and stirs up the proverbial hurricane… that basic idea. Those connections aren’t immediately apparent, of course. If we saw all of the connections between us, we’d probably go insane. It’s no wonder, then, that masters of Correspondence – the Sphere originally called Connection – often seem pretty weird. They perceive unity where the rest of us see division
It's actually about movement and teleportation. This is just a bunch of fluff that doesn't explain anything and probably gives the wrong impression.
Entropy is about luck, fate, and things breaking down. Prime is for magick dealing with other magick, like magickal materials and stuff. And economics, confirming my suspicions that economics is just fucking magic.
That's basically the end of that chapter. A whole lot of words explaining, badly, a whole bunch of irrelevant setting details and also some important bits. I think this could have benefited a lot from an editor; someone to slap Brucato with a paper fan every time he let something drag on. It's going to be a recurring problem; half a page can easily get wasted trashing some insignificant pet peeve of Brucato's, which does not help the book's almost 700 pages of length.
Chapter 3: The Shadow WorldOriginal SA post
Chapter 3: The Shadow World
M20 is set in the World of Darkness, let's not forget:
Rats breed while children starve. The rich have more money than God, and the poor pray to get through another day with food on the table and a roof over their heads. Lots of people don’t have even that much. Cruel laws and social indifference have packed the streets with lost and homeless souls. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of parasitic prosperity reached its full poisonous bloom in this world.
Is it any wonder, then, that folks spend more time with TVs than with the world around them? When you step outside your ring of safety, it’s a pretty scary world.
Get with the times Brucato, it's not TV, it's smartphones that are the new evil! Descriptions like these go on and on and on . There's an entire page that repeats the same message through examples, about how horrible the world is. And then we get to this:
The so-called Holy Land burns with insane zeal – and with three religions literally hell-bent on bringing about their Apocalypse, we might still see the visions of that demented scripture played out on the global stage.
What a... sensitive treatment of religion. "Insane zeal"? The religions themselves being hell-bent on bringing about Apocalypse? "Demented scripture"? Wow. There'll be more of this later, too.
Social media and a consolidated mass-media machine have turned us into a global box of angry rats, biting our neighbors over each perceived infraction.
Ah, there we are. Finally a rant that isn't stuck in the 90's. Anyway, the world is horrible because of media and all the fear it creates, because everyone are scared of terrorism and kidnapping and murderers and daily holocausts, and there's child labour and sexual abuse and there's nothing good anywhere. All the kindly priests are actually pedophile rapists and all the nice girls sell their virginity on the Internet to be preyed upon by sexual predators and would you fucking stop it . It's the World of Darkness but there comes a point at which when you try to make commentary about the real world, it becomes very obvious you're trying too hard. If the media creates all these fears, then what about the RPG books, that speak about these injustices that we have become so complacent to? Cynically cashing in on, well, cynicism, spreading fear and making the world seem so horrible, just to sell a game about Kung Fu wizards fighting the Terminator?
And when the Traditions say that the Technocracy is the cause of all this badness, and when the Technocracy blames the Traditions, they're mistaken, because everyone were at fault by letting it happen. So I guess trying to make the world a better place by punching the Technocracy in the face is off the table then? Seems like a bit of a mean rug-pull; three editions of the same gameline setting up the Technocracy as the enemy that, if defeated, will allow the world to become full of joy... and then, nope, everyone's fault, destroying the Technocracy won't change a thing. It seems weird, to reify the problems of the world in the Technocracy, and then claim that defeating the Technocracy won't fix the problems it represents.
Then it talks a bit about the bright side of things, which is that a) there are extraordinary individuals who try to make things better, and b) all those iPhones that are so evil and desensitizing actually make people more aware of the world, so they'll be motivated to overthrowing the evil hierarchies. Can you really have it both ways? Social media is bad and mass-communication just means we're scared of everyone around us but also Twitter means that we care more about people and hear more voices?
We're then introduced to Sanctuaries and Chantries, which are places mages hang around. For some reason, all the descriptions are of soup kitchens and dance clubs and other places that have a lot of traffic, which seems at odds with the whole part where witnesses make your magick harder to cast and you probably want to stay secret from the Technocracy kill-bots; having lots of people walk in an out of your Sanctuary is probably not the best way to stay hidden, really... And then there are Nodes. Nodes are places that are full of magick and give you Quintessence, which can power spells, and they appear in places like... Auschwitz?
That’s not to say all Nodes are pleasant. Many are anything but comforting. There are Nodes in Auschwitz, Nodes in Normandy, Nodes that mark the spots of massacres. The Manson murders are thought to have been blood sacrifices that either
made or celebrated Nodes, and Jeffrey Dahmer’s home, before it was bulldozed, had supposedly become a Node as well. When I say that Nodes collect the life-blood of the world, that blood can literally be shed.
Real-world tragedies is not something you should be appropriating for your game. When you say that all these horrible things, like the Mason family murders, and the fucking Holocaust , may have happened because of magick, it sanitises the tragedies by claiming they're supernatural in nature. Genocide and mass killings become the stuff of fantasy, which is disrespectful to the victims.
The nature of a Node often shapes the energy – the feel or flavor of Quintessence – but the ways in which that Quintessence manifests (if it manifests at all) can be wildly diverse. In that fountain over there, Tass feels like clear, cold water. A Node in Auschwitz or Wounded Knee, however, might give you blood, ash, or nightmares instead.
So, uh... luckily this section is over and I can move to the next:
Here’s an important dividing line between what we currently call science and what we experience as reality: Science measures and defines repeatable, provable, and controllable phenomena; reality is what we perceive about the world as we move through it. There’s plenty of overlap between them, but everyone – even scientists – experiences things that cannot be measured, repeated, or quantified.
Take emotions, for example. Emotions can’t be charted; memories cannot be reliably graphed. One person might smell roses and think of her sweet first date, whereas another person smells their cloying musk and remembers her abusive mother’s perfume.
Heresy! Give me a sufficiently powerful MRI machine and a bunch of electrodes wired up to someone's head and I'll show you emotions and memories charted, graphed, and even reliably invoked!
Step 1 to writing about science is knowing shit about science. Hell, a futuretech MRI scanner is a valid Technocratic focus for a Mind mind-reading spell! Brucato will go on in his ignorance:
As I mentioned earlier, the saying “It’s all in your head”
is literally true: everything we experience gets filtered through
our consciousness… and consciousness cannot be measured
in a lab. The electrical impulses that signify love, anger, or memory might show up on a brain scan, but no process can define what those impulses mean to us.
Maybe not today, but...
Anway, lots of about how experiences and perceptions are quantifiable, so they're magick.
Perhaps the gravest tragedy of human existence is that we take so much for granted that we crave endless stimulation, often from false and banal sources. Folks these days would rather spend all day on the Internet – chatting about nothing with people they’ll never meet – than take a walk outside and open themselves to the sensations they typically shut out.
MTAs has a bunch of terminology, and sometimes I think it has too much. Does the specific way in which different people see the Periphery - the edges of otherworlds - need to have its own term? Does it really matter that some people see the Periphery one way, and some people see it differently, to the degree that the lexicon and the reader's minds need to be laboured with knowing that it's called a Vidare ? Do we need to know that the Resonance of dead things and the underworld is called Jhor ?
So! Another chapter, in which we learned the world was so horrible it's amazing anyone ever bothers, everything is our fault and defeating the Technocracy seems pointless, and Brucato waves his stick at all those kids with their noses in their iPhones. Why, back in his day, children did something useful with their lives, like practice chaos magick and read abstract philosophy!
Chapter 4: The World BeyondOriginal SA post
Chapter 4: The World Beyond
Chapter 4: Fancy places you can go!
And although it’s not likely that you’ll walk through a foggy night and wind up in the Otherworlds, such things do happen more often than you might think.
There are various ways to get to otherworlds. You can walk through Portals , or you can enter Shallowings . Shallowings are places where the border between the normal world and otherworlds is very thin. This is found mostly in remote places, where the Technocracy hasn't been able to board up the holes, and human banality hasn't killed it. "Banality" is the actual word used; (adult) humans are boring and banal, so they remove the wonder from the world or something Changeling-like. Though, frankly, given how dangerous otherworlds can be, I think we should be grateful for the banality of humans.
There's also the Old Roads or Paths of the Wyck , which are hard-to-find roads that go places. The narrator says they can go anywhere , but only lists places on Earth and the mundane world like the Moon which is a) a very boring form of "anywhere" even for the mundane universe - if they can go anywhere , the Andromeda galaxy should be on that list - and it's thoroughly unclear whether that "anywhere" actually includes the otherworlds. This is probably something that should be cleared up when trying to explain the setting, no? There's also the Null Zone , which are a series of dull corridors that all connect together and can lead anywhere. And then we get our crossover with CtD:
It’s been speculated that this zone is the form the Old Roads take in the modern world. If that’s true, our industrial perceptions have taken something wondrous and turned it into a sterile maze.
There's also Astral Projection , which lets you enter the High Umbra, Stepping Sideways , which lets you enter the Middle Umbra, and dying, which lets you ender the Lower Umbra . (There are also other ways to enter the Lower Umbra). I realise this is the definitive edition and it has to be comprehensive, but this is a lot of setting stuff that's being front-loaded on the reader here. Getting a setting overview is great, but the sheer volume of them makes me wonder if it hadn't been better to stick some of these in the back. Simply say "there are otherworlds, there are ways to get there, see Appendix F to learn more about them", instead of talking all about it up front. Some of this is accomplished by the regular world being described first, and then the otherworlds, but all these things still become before important stuff like "what the Traditions are", "who are the Technocracy", and "how do I make a character?". You can run a game set only on Earth, still in the canonical MTAs setting, if you know which factions are and what the conflicts are. It's much harder to do it the other way around.
And then there's the Penumbra and the Tellurian and the Tapestry and
Brucato isn't economical with words either. Sometimes good descriptions can set the mood, which is important, but sometimes clarity and consciseness is also important, especially when the book is over 600 pages long and could probably be used to beat someone to death. Descriptions for rather unimportant setting details look like this:
Past the edges of that fountain’s Domain, the ground coils
with thick shadows. The trees reach high into the misty night…
higher, in fact, than they do in the Earthly realm. Cleansed of
graffiti, the stone walls hold a weight and age to them that few
people would recognize on the other side of the Gauntlet; here,
they look regal, as if they’d been quarried from a magnificent
castle. The grass grows higher and thicker here, free of the
broken glass and dog shit that makes it such an eyesore in the
mortal realm. The breeze, too, smells cleaner – hints of rot,
to be sure, but without the exhaust fumes that permeate the
city on the other side.
I've left the original linebreaks in, so you can get an idea of how much space it takes up on a two-column page. A friend of mine characterised Brucato's writing as "the writing of someone who's working for early White Wolf and needs to get a 200-page supplement for every gameline out each month". There's tons of unnecessary stuff and spoken cruft that could be cut to make these things a lot snappier. Let me try my hand at one...
I’ve mentioned all of them earlier, but here’s where those, when you move
distinctions really become important. See
beyond the Penumbra, you head toward one of those three
…unless , of course,you wind up wanderingwander the Penumbra or choose to remain there
reach another earthly destination. Lots of creatures, especially
werewolves, use the Penumbra
as a sort of secret doorfor moving
around the mortal realm. Mages can do that too,
intending to stick close to the human world.
Speaking of editing, page 91 begins describing spirits, page 92 and 93 are devoted to a summary of the otherworlds and otherworld-related topics and an explanation of the "Tychoidian cosmology", and then page 94 resumes talking about the spirits. This is terrible! You have to skip two entire distracting (if useful!) pages to read a single passage.
Now let's actually describe all these otherworlds! So far I've only been complaining about parts of the book that describe the otherworlds in general and how to get there... First, the Astral Realm, which has a Penumbra that looks like this:
Symbolic elements of the landscape become quite – often blatantly – obvious. A public school, for example, might look and feel rather industrial: square, blunt, maybe with cattle pens, assembly lines, or even a giant meat grinder straight out of Pink Floyd’s The Wall .
Oh noes, the horror of public schools! Free education regardless of social class! Public literacy! Exposure to people with different backgrounds than you! Not leaving everything up to the whims of the market! The only chance at social mobility many people have!
Unless, as supposed by the reference to Pink Floyd, he's talking about UK public schools, which are of course entirely like that. Your parents pay out of the nose to send you to a posh boarding school, and they have a giant meat grinder just set up in the corner.
A short overview of the High Umbra is that it's the sum total of all ideas anyone has ever thought. It contains all afterlives where people's souls actually go, it contains all places in fiction - often several for different versions - it contains imagined worlds, libraries of books people have only thought of, worlds that exist as abstract representations of ideas and concepts, etc. Very fanciful, but I suspect that it can be a bit hard to use coherently, and no part of the MTAs setting I've seen ever really deals with the fact that if all these afterlives actually exist, then people "don't really" die when they're killed. Someone's dead? Just go talk to their soul in their personal heaven, or whatever.
I'll skip over the Middle Umbra, because it wasn't very interesting to read about. A bunch of words, but not enough description to really feel like there was much to do there. I'll also skip over the Low Umbra, the Underworld, since there's an entire gameline for exploring that place that is much cooler than a page of description. I will note, however, that there being an underworld where the dead go and all these afterlives in a completely different place is very confusing - where do dead souls go? Do people split up and go multiple places? I don't know, and I couldn't figure it out from reading these passages.
There's also Maya , the dream-world, the Dreaming , which, too, has its own gameline. It's part CtD, part your own personal realm in which you are god if you learn to lucid dream, and part High Umbra-lite, since you can go visit the dream-collective-unconsciousness of places like Hollywood or the Land of Nod. There's the Midrealm , which connect all the otherworlds, and The Mirror Zone , which can appear anywhere, anytime, so you ST can make you fight bearded clones of yourself, the Paradox Realms , which is where you sometimes go if you cause too much Paradox, and Hollow Earth , which is basically just a place where the Etherites and Void Engineers (what are they, you ask? Well, you have to wait for the next book to explain you what they are) can have big battles amongst dinosaurs without Paradox and witnesses stepping on their fun. The same could be said of The Digital Web , but instead of half a page of description, it gets its own sub-chapter. It's really strange how everything about the Digital Web is pinned down and explained, while the High, Mid, and Low Umbra are barely explained. (It's also not all that interesting, being mostly real-world concepts flavoured in technobabble, making it just another generic otherworld, now with Tron -flavour.)
Let me talk a little about the art, actually. There's a lot of art, much of it colourful and fanciful and MTAs-esque (some of it incredibly badass!), and so far there's been two naked ladies and not one naked man.
There's also a hilarious passage where the narrator has to explain that she doesn't mean the Low Umbra Void, she means the other Void, space-Void, (but not the metaphorical space-void, but the metaphysical space-Void-with-a-capital-V). Oh yeah, that's a good idea! All these concepts thrown at the reader, and they don't even have distinct names. Good job!
There's another sub-chapter on Horizon , which is probably more useful than the Digital Web since it deals with things like all the secret bases of the Traditions and Technocracy in specific Horizon Realms that may or may not have been destroyed by a magical storm in some metaplot-thingy (M20 says to choose whether you want that metaplot thing to have happened or not, which is pretty cool with respect to respecting some people's desire not to have metaplot and such!). There's also a note that each of their Nine Magickal Spheres have their own Shade Realm around a (dwarf)-planet, and a little rant about how science may have reclassified Pluto, but look, it's magickal just like the other planets, so what do the scientists and their cold measurements know?
Well, actually... let me interrupt you there, Brucato. See, Pluto is not the first time a planet has been de-classified. Ceres, Vesta, Juno, and Pallas - the four biggest asteroids in the asteroid belt - were considered planets from 1807 or so onwards. They were then declassified in 1845, before the discovery of Neptune. Pluto was only discovered and classified a planet in 1930. If modern classifications don't matter, I want to see a Shade Realm on Ceres, but not one on, say, Neptune. Also, it's never mentioned where Data, or the Tenth Sphere stands in relation to this. Is Data obviously not a Sphere because it doesn't have a (dwarf)-planet? Is Ceres home to the Shade Realm of Judgement? Do Etherites and Void Engineers send expeditions to look for planets that might host the tenth Shade Realm?
Oh, and speaking of jokes, here’s one on the Technocracy: the theory of Ether was supposedly disproved by scientific consensus around the turn of the last century. That disproval, in turn, was the reason the Etherites cited when they left the Order of Reason. Now, however, new scientific theory posits that the universe consists of a near-zero-viscosity superfluid. And although no one’s officially calling it Ether yet, the Technocracy may find itself hoist by its own metaphysical petard.
For one, nobody's calling that superfluid "Ether" because Ether had specific properties that were disproven, so this superfluid is demonstrably not Ether. It's also kind of weird how the book tries to have it both ways; science is just a fiction created by the Technocracy, but they'll still end up eating humble pie because of something that, presumably, the Technocracy thought was perfectly OK? Can't the Technocracy just... vote to not have this superfluid be part of the scientific consensus again? Or doesn't it work that way, and the Etherites were a bunch of whiny babies when they tried to hang onto the Ether as a theory?
Also, this is irrelevant and could have been cut to save space.
That's the end of that book, finally! I've skipped over lots of boring and descriptions of otherwords though. It's really boring; not much to make fun of or to at. The next book will hopefully be more amusing! At least I get to make fun of the Traditions and it has more bad art to critique. Like the sample Etherite. I get to mock the VA foci too! And I can talk about the history of the Sisters of Hyppolyta! Basically all the fun stuff is in Book 2 and 3, is what I'm saying.
Chapter 5: Ascension WarriorsOriginal SA post
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors
M20 doesn't assume that you're going to be playing Tradition mages, so it apparently has a less Traditions-centric POV. Brucato explains what this means:
In a way, knowing that everyone is both right and wrong throws the Ascension War… or, more properly, its wars, plural… into greater relief. Every faction holds both wisdom and corruption . The Traditions fight a good romantic fight while ignoring the potential horrors of their victory. The Technocracy oppresses everyone else in the name of order, often crushing its own people in the process. The scattered groups known by other factions as the Disparates or Crafts tend their own turf but lack the power or cohesiveness of the larger groups . And the Marauders and Nephandi celebrate nightmarish goals of mass insanity and damnation. For the so-called “orphans,” life’s a constant struggle in the wake of greater forces.
"Not being cohesive" is not a wrong, and it is not a sign of corruption. If the worst thing you can come up with for the Disparate Alliance is that they're not big enough to win, that's just doing exactly what has been a small-if-persistent complaint against the Traditions; that they're pointlessly good, like back in MTAs 1e when Woodstock and civil rights and feminism and rock and roll were all Tradition plots. All this does is to move the "author's baby" label from one alliance of disparate magickal crafts to another alliance of disparate magickal crafts, and these are even more of an underdog than the Traditions are.
We also get this bottom-bar:
I'd respect it more if Brucato wasn't so damned un-economical with words you could actually fit an entire sourcebook on Sorcerers in there just by cutting out a few of his rants.
This chapter is divided into several sub-sections; Part I describing the history of the setting (oh gods more ), Parts II through V describing the various factions, and Part ?*! describing the Marauders. Post-modern effects like swapping the numbering out for random signs can work, but personally I think it looks kind of silly here. What, is the madness of the Marauders supposed to have bled onto the pages and relabelled their headings? It's not particularly cute, and it doesn't convey any interesting information about the Marauders, like a HP: ∞ bar or Level: N/A does in a video game. It's just this cute little post-modern element that tells you less than Part VI. At least I know Part VI comes after Part V; if you want to refer someone to Part ?*!, you have to tell them that it comes after V, so they know in which direction to flip if they open the book on Part III.
Part I: An Awakened History
Nah. Though back in the day Exalted was the backstory of the World of Darkness (but the WoD was not the future history of Exalted ), M20 seems to silently drop that, though some elements common to both are still there, like calling the early world Creation and having Meru be the name of the city on top of Mount Qaf at the centre of the world. This goes through a whole lot of ages, the Primordial Age , the Edenic Age , the Predatory Age , the Cataclysm Age , the Tribal Age (the second time humanity formed tribes, after the Predatory Age), the Heroic Age ... I complain about the lengthy worldbuilding, but now it annoys me just how little detail all these ages are given - does it really matter that there were a bunch of ages, if each of them only gets a sentence of description that doesn't even relate to MTAs? The entire thing could easily have been dropped, saving half a page, and we could get to the parts of history where mages actually do stuff.
The Thanatoics , Ecstatics , and Akashics trace their history to the Classical period. The Thanatoics and Akashics have a war break out in the Himalayas in 900 BCE, which apparently lasts for 600 years and is mostly fought in Lower Asia and Upper Africa. I'm not entirely sure why the Himalayan Wars were fought in Upper Africa; were there some well-established trade routes between China and Egypt in this period? Magick is also developed and discovered in this period, with Greece and China being the origins of technomagick. In addition to a bunch of nobodies that have a line of descriptions each, further groups emerging from this period would be the Hermetic Orders , the Ahl-i-Batin , the Ngo-Ami , the Wu-Lung , the Messanic Voices , the Taftani , and... Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions? I'm serious, "Buddhist sages" and "Abrahamic Prophets" are listed in the same breath as the Taftani and the Wu-Lung. What I gather from this is that Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed were all mages. I'm... hmm... Not entirely sure how to feel about that? Like, yeah, there were other prophets, like Josiah, but on the other hand it's basically stating that these religions were created by or formed by mages.
Well at least these religions are treated respectfully elsewhere in the book.
Also, a lot of those groups I had to kind of guess at. The Taftani are the Taftani, obviously, but the Ngo-Ami being precursors to the Ngoma was a guess. All of this also comes before the individual member-groups of the Traditions and Alliance are explained, so as a first-time reader you don't have the context to know that the Taftani are kind of important, while Mithraics aren't going to be mentioned again. Have fun remembering a dozen groups with just a sentence of characterization.
Then comes the High Mythic Ages , which is basically the period known as the Dark Ages (and Brucato calling this a misnomer is amusing in light of the gameline Dark Ages ) which was a Golden Age of Wizardry . Lots of historical stuff happens here, usually matching real-world history. The Taftani and Ahl-i-Batin are properly born and end the 600-year Devil-King Age that's mentioned nowhere else, and the Order of Hermes is formed. Then some stuff in China happens (at least China and the Arab/Persian world is not totally forgotten, which is a plus given how those places usually fare in RPG books...) and the Wu Lung and Dalou-laoshi form the Five Metal Dragons . I'm throwing a lot of names at you, because the book throws even more names at me, and just remember, there's no context for any of this.
I'm also amused by this description of the American continent's mages:
The future Americas saw various sects rise and prosper. Sadly, the coming storm from the distant east will wipe away
almost every trace of their achievements.
That's all there is.
Now, the Sorcerer's Crusade. OK, so the Gabrielite Knights (never before mentioned) and the Enlightened Craftmasons (never before mentioned) and the Cabal of Pure Thought (never before mentioned) join together and form an alliance that doesn't do anything yet. OK, so, now we turn to the Order of Hermes, where the House Tremere and the House Flambeau nearly tear the OoH apart and the Crusades cause the rise of House Golo which will one day become the Sons of Ether and the Knights Templar are namedropped, and House Golo form the Natural Philosophers Guild and the Ecstatics and Thanatoics form the Ananda Dikesham and Robin Hood uses his reward from King Richard Lionheart to form the Hanseatic League ... then 1210 happens and the Craftmason Convention is formed and destroy the Hermetic Convention of Mistridge while the Messanic Voices are shattered by the Mercy Schism because of the Inquisition , and the Golden Guild Alliance is formed and I have no fucking context for this .
Then the Order of Reason is formed by the Gabrielite Knights and the High Guild and the Cosian Circle and the Void Seekers and the Celestial Masters and the Craftmasons and the Artificers and the Solifcati , only after a century the Solifcati are replaced by the Ksifari and these guys turn into the Technocratic Union ? Finally some context!
Then the Screaming Ghost Purge had the Wu-Lung and Dalou-laoishi drive the Akshaics into the mountains and the War of the Dust Witch make the Ngo-Agi reform into the Ngoma which join with the Madzimbabwe to defeat the Dust-Witches , but their alliance is broken by the Years of Great Sickness and the Wolf Guild attack the Germanic Romani and Pagans and the Alchemists , Masons (who turn up everywhere there's a conspiracy) and Hermetics fight the Lodge Wars . Then Appa Bloodaxe make a pact with demons which is taken over by his son Tezghul the Insane , and while all these other descriptions have included a location that I've cut out to make it seem more frantic, I have no fucking clue where Appa the Bloodaxe is supposed to be leading his demon army. General Wyndgarde of the True Cross (a pretty badass name, actually) purges the British Isles but is stopped by Nightshade who'll found the Verbena . Sh'zar the Seer of the Ecstatics and Nightshade and the Messanics and Hermetics meet to form the beginnings of the Nine Mystic Traditions and finally there is a group I can recognize!
Then the Akashics fight Hindus of the Left Hand Path and then there's a fight with airships and dragons and vampires and Daedalans that sounds like it could be a fun romp this book doesn't devote nearly enough time to and we get the Nine Mystic Traditions: the Ahl-i-Batin, the Akashic Brotherhood, the Chakravanti, the Chæur Céleste , the Dream-Speakers , the Order of Hermes, the Sahajiya , the Solifikati, and the Verbenae. And still there are new groups here I know nothing about, even as someone whose been interested in MTAs for a while.
What happens on the American continent during this period you ask? Nothing. It's described, but it's just about the Aztec empire's historical, entirely mundane actions.
Oh, then there's this:
Isabella – by 1490 one of the most powerful members of the Cabal of Pure Thought – installed her “confessor,” Tomás de Torquemada, as the Throne’s personal scourge. The Order of Reason, riding a combination of victories and mostly freed from the interference of the Nine Traditions, initiated a program of exploration, achievement, and conquest from Spain and Portugal. This program, in turn, initiated three of the bloodiest atrocities in human history: the Conquest of the Americas , the Spanish Inquisition , and the Triangle Trade . With the “helpful” rivalry of neighboring Portugal, Spain expanded the Ascension War into Africa and the soon-to-be Americas.
Yup, that's right. The conquest of the American continent by Europe, the Spanish Inquisition, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade were all Order of Reason's fault.
One thing I actually think is a very good piece of worldbuilding is the mention of and explanation that tensions between the Traditions almost tore it apart; it is very realistic and a good, humanising element, that the Traditions have internal tensions based on some of them being really big jerks. The victories and conquests of the Order of Reason-backed Europe into Asia and the Middle East benefit the Europe-based Hermetics and Celestial Chorus, while the Dreamspeakers, Chakrivanti, and and Verbena suffered. The classist and racist attitudes of the Hermetics alienate the Verbena further, and Hermetic and Choister participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the rise of modern-day racism and the white identity cause them to antagonize the Ahl-i-Batin and Seers of Chronos and all the already mentioned groups.
And then there are more groups! The Nephandi and Maraduers rise to prominence during this period as a result of colonialism, and the Bata'a grow from the fusion of cultures in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the age of Enlightenment that followed the Renaissance sees the rise of secret societies and sects like the Rosicrucians and the Freemasons and the Poro Society and Sisters of Hyppolyta and honestly I don't know if some of these are mentioned because they're magickal, or just because of the historical relevancy.
There was opposition, of course. The Zulu, the Cherokee, the Iroquois Confederacy (inspired, in part, by the First Cabal’s Dream-Speaker, Walking Hawk), and the Hindu Maratha Empire that finally displaced the Indian Mughal dynasties…
(Apparently the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution were all Order of Reason plots?)
Oh and did I mention that the Artificers became the Mechanicians and the High Guild became the Proctor Houses and the Voltarians and the Ivory Tower were formed. And then there's the Fellowship of the Oath and the Lion Masters and the Seers of Chronos become the Cult of Ecstasy and there's the Grand Tiger Society and the Kalika Rajas and the Aghoris .
Oh, and the British Empire rises to greatness because Queen Vicky was a Daedalean master; a part of the Order of Reason. The Victorian period has the OoR Electrodyne Engineers spawn the Difference Engineers and the Skeleton Keys join the Ivory Tower and the Order of Reason becomes the Technocratic Union by merging with the Five Elemental Dragons and technocratic sects in America. There's also the Court of Sacred Sciences , a Middle Eastern group I was going to mention at some point since they've been around since the Middle Ages, but they're honestly so unimportant to even this rant about how unimportant things are that it's only now, when world-wide groups are joining, that there's a point in mentioning they didn't join because of European meddling. Instead they break up and join anyway. Oh and the Mechanicans become Iteration X and there's the Progenitors and the Explorators and the Celestial Masters become the Void Engineers , and there's the New World Order and the High Guild becomes the Syndicate . If you're a new reader, you have no context to know these guys are big deals.
Oh, and if you should wonder how a bunch of European colonialists managed to turn the powerful Muslim and Chinese mages to their cause, the book just kind of shrugs and goes "magick".
Thanks book. Not a cop out at all.
Then the Ahl-i-Batin leave the Traditions and the Electrodyne Engineers leave the Technocracy and join the Traditions as the Sons of Ether , WWI causes the rise of the Hollow Ones .
Was the American dust bowl a legacy of magickal war? Were the many strikes and riots instigated by Awakened factions? Who was really running the organized crime families sweeping across the USA… and what was the truth behind those rumors about the KKK hunting Dreamspeakers and Bata’a?
WWII happens. Different editions of MTAs have told different stories of exactly who sided with whom. The version I remember the best is that the Technocratic Union initially sided with Hitler but left somewhere between 1940 and 1944 when they realized that Hitler was evil Nazi Germany was powered by the Nephandi, and by 1944 the Traditions and Technocracy were both fully devoted to fighting Germany. The group that stayed with Hitler the longest was the Sons of Ether, who have kind of serious issues with Nazis still hanging around. So let's see what M20 has to say about this:
World War II split the Traditions and Technocracy; mages on both sides joined the Axis or the Allies. Although a few mystics ran and hid, most folks understood just how high the stakes were. As atrocities came to light and proud, supposedly Enlightened Axis leaders were revealed as monsters, the truth became obvious: the Nephandi had gone for all the marbles, and they very well might have won.
Yup, WWII is still caused by the Nephandi. I don't think I need to elaborate on all the reasons for why this is wrong.
German mystics of the Thule Gesellschaft clashed with Doc Eon’s Terrific Trio . The Japanese Bloody Pillar and Fiery Wind Brigade battled the Thanatoic/ Dreamspeaker/ Ecstatic sect called the Ghost Tigers and the Akashic Whispering Fists . The Difference Engineers – by this time called the Virtual Adepts – broke Technocratic ranks and helped the British High Command crack mystic German codes. A different sort of code came from the American Wind Talkers , whose ties to the Dreamspeakers were obvious from their name.
OK, so Alan Turing was a really cool historical person and his work is frankly amazing, but I'll let that pass. It's been a thing in MTAs since 1e or so that he was a Virtual Adept master, and all in all it's not that disrespectful to say "well, he was actually a wizard". What is disrespectful, however, is diminishing over the Navajo code talkers, and the historical lack of recognition of their work, by going "magick!".
In retrospect, the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be seen as titanic Paradox backlashes. But perhaps they were the opening volleys of a terrifying endgame…
Part II: the Nine Mystic Traditions
Finally I can talk about things that actually matter to the game. The Nine Mystic Traditions were the protagonists of the previous three editions of MTAs, and stand in opposition to the Technocratic Union.
Despite their many mistakes, the Traditions have plenty to be proud of. For over half a millennium, the Council has championed diversity, cooperation, and mutual respect across cultural divides.
A smart, ambitious mage could do great things with his Arts – call storms, conjure spirits, raise castles out of stony ground, and shatter opposing armies with a wave of his mighty hand! That’s the vision of the Nine Tradition mages
So are the Traditions brave saviors of a bygone wonder-age…or a misbegotten experiment led by throwbacks with selfish agendas and careless behavior? Honestly, both are true. Though it’s accurate to say that Tradition mages fight the good fight against the Technocracy’s stifling imperialism, it’s just as accurate to call them reckless nutjobs who prefer candles to halogen lamps.
Let's talk a little about fans. Fans of MTAs generally fall into two groups; those who like the Traditions and think the Technocracy are evil for wanting to destroy magic and destroy people's ability to have dreams and live to their full potential, and those who like the Technocracy and think the Traditions are dangerous lunatics because they'd reduce the world to a chaotic hell-hole without medicine or indoor plumbing. (Fans of MTAs also fall into two other groups; 2e or Revised, but that's a story for another time.) There's a lot of good arguments on both sides; the Technocracy, as written, really is quite bad. Brainwashing, torture, giant mecha powered by Imperial Japanese Army war-criminals, World War II, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, genocides, colonialism... all very bad. However, at the same time, despite having the authors on their side, the Traditions have a very questionable end-goal; accomplishing their goals is almost always dependent on destroying the scientific Consensus, and by some interpretations this will also remove all the benefits of science and replace them with a a reliance of mages for all your medicine and indoor plumbing needs. Exactly what the consequences of defeating the Technocracy are, and whether there was a moral imperative to do so because of its evils, and so forth, are pretty complex debates that are - and I have to actually give credit to Brucato here - pretty interesting and reveal a lot about the way modern Western society engages with the world. At least if people are capable of arguing their points properly, which is not always.
But still, the Traditions were undeniably the protagonists of the setting. The heroes, even, written to be good and in the right, and fighting the good fight. They're the diverse ones full of love and fun, behind Woodstock and the Civil Rights Movement and Rock and Roll and everything 20-somethings in the 90's loved.
So when a book just goes out and says "no, they're wrong, they're misguided and reckless and hate the conveniences of the modern world" (like Brucato and his hatred of TV and BigMacs) it really just shits on existing fans and their desire to play heroic Tradition mages. The people who prefer the Technocracy already preferred the Technocracy that was painted as cartoonishly evil , and characterized the Traditions as reckless, mad terrorists already. Me and EarthScorpion and MJ12 were already reading MTAs as the Devil reads the Bible - we don't need M20 to tell us we were right all along. Perhaps sometimes adding a little dimension to a protagonist-faction can be a good thing (Lethe knows I want this for Eclipse Phase ), but this is just straight-up invalidating the core segment of MTAs fans: people who like the setting .
Want to play a Kung Fu-mage who punches The Man in the face? Sure, you can, but ultimately your quest is misguided because your inherently belong to a reactionary extremist group.
Like if D&D 6th Edition came out, and suddenly the book says that killing goblins and orcs is evil because they're just impoverished minorities struggling to stay alive, Alignment is arbitrary because objective morality doesn't exist, and adventuring and dungeons aren't a thing because that's not realistic.
I think I'll break it off there, and continue later.
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors, Part II: the Nine Mystic TraditionsOriginal SA post
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors, Part II: the Nine Mystic Traditions
Punch-witches, neo-pagans, Abrahamic syncretism, serial killers, animist, hermetics, cyberpunks, sex drugs and rock & roll, and pulp scientists. I also forgot to mention last time that the Traditions are headquartered in a movie studio in the southern Alps of New Zealand...
As a product of the 90s, MTAs was full of appropriation and marginalization of minority groups under the banner of celebrating diversity. There were Nine (actually Ten or even Eleven) Mystic Traditions, and six of them were European or American. All of East-Asia are Kung Fu mages, vast swathes of aboriginal beliefs were folded into simply the "Dreamspeakers", and the only tradition representing the Indian subcontinent were a Thuggee death cult with a Green name deliberately written to be the evil splat. The European magical traditions, meanwhile, are finely divided into six to eight different practices. It's 90's Euro-Americentrism at its finest. So how does Brucato address this real instance of bigotry?
The Akashayana: Renouncing the innate chauvinism of its westernized name, the Akashic Brotherhood formally adopts its insider name as the default form of address.
The Kha’vadi: Abandoning its “slave name,” the Dreamspeaker Tradition assumes its longtime “spirit title” as the group’s official honorific.
The Chakravanti: Striking the entire notion of death from their name, this revitalized Tradition returns to its Sanskrit roots.
This is a spineless cop-out. Brucato is an author with the limitless godlike power of authors. If he wanted to use less patronizing western names for the Traditions, he could have simply retconned it all out and said "the Akashayana were always named the Akashayana". This, claiming that the name chosen by White Wolf in 1993, was somehow in-universe racism, places the blame for real-world racism at the feet of a fictional group, effectively washing White Wolf's hands of the entire matter.
I'd also have completely forgiven all this if there'd been, like, a sidebar going "well back in 1993 we were kind of ignorant and did some stupid and ignorant things, so a lot of the original Tradition names reflect our Eurocentricism - we've chosen to change them". But, nah, just blame it all on a bunch of fictional dudes.
Oh but they're still labelled the Akashic Brotherhood. That's going to be confusing if you're a first-time reader...
Pictured: A 20-something person with tattoos in trendy clothing
These people are Kung Fu mages from East Asia. They believe that magick is mastered through inner peace, asceticism, and martial arts, which allows them to channel chi . They practice the martial art Do, which lets them punch people extra good. Their magick practices are all kinds of East Asian stuff bundled together.
Spheres: Mind, Life
Foci: Asian alchemy, craftwork, faith, yoga, social dominion, and martial arts training
Pictured: A 20-something person with tattoos in trendy clothing
The Celestial Chorus were originally a syncretic religion that preached that all religions were actually facets of the same religion, which they preach. This meta-religion was, of course, mono-theistic and largely Abrahamic in general and Christian in particular, as befitting of 90's middle-class ideas of all religions just being shadow-copies of the platonic ideal of "religion". They were also zealots and extremist and, as befitting of their pre-Millennial roots, apocalyptic.
In M20 they're... *points to above picture* that. And this:
Even so, Choristers still preach that message. More to the point, they live it. Among the Traditions, the Chorus is perhaps the most compassionate… and it certainly speaks loudest, as a whole, for the welfare of the Masses. Although certain members can be fanatical, not even the primitivist Singers are religious fundamentalists in the way Sleepers understand that term. To hear more than the simplest notes of the Song – and then survive within the Council – a Chorister must transcend dogma and embrace faith. With regards to stickier theological nuances (the gender of Divinity, the limits of tolerance, the roles of Christ and the Prophet in the Divine plan, that sort of thing), modern Choristers deliberately avoid taking an official stance. There’s plenty of tension in the ranks as a result, but at least no one’s getting burned alive over it anymore!
It's so... liberal western and whitewashed. They literally incapable of being religious fundamentalists? Despite believing that religion can literally alter the world? They're fighting the Ascension war, a war for the fate of reality itself... but there's not a single one of them who's a religious fundamentalist, because of some divine selection process? And it just so happens to conveniently sidestep the issue of a fanatical religious organization being on the side of the 'good guys' in 2015, when religious fundamentalism has entered the public consciousness as not all that good?
Sphere: Prime, Forces, Spirit
Foci: Faith, religious rituals, and singing hymns
Cult of Ecstasy
Actually named the Sahajiya now
Pictured: a 20-something
The CoX/Sahajiya are the "sex, drugs, and rock & roll"-mages. Imagine an entire Tradition of They expand their consciousness through experiences and drugs and use this to do magick. They like parties and sex and drugs and music. They hang around in Hippie communes, bohemian groves, neotribal groups and other 20-somethings who feel dissatisfied with the crushing weight of having to become a part of boring, adult society, like the cast of Reality Bites . They're also somewhat reckless, because they constantly try to expand their capabilities. They also do a lot of drugs.
Spheres: Time ( ), Life, Mind
Foci: "Crazy wisdom is the core of this group’s many practices, which include everything from gutter magick, yoga, and martial arts to cybernetic hypertech." Also drugs. They have to do all kinds of drugs because using just one drug means they get complacent.
To address the comments made about LSD being in-paradigm for the Virtual Adepts because lots of famous computer people have used drugs to expand their mind, the reason I don't like this is because there's already a tradition for that; it's called the Cult of Ecstasy. A lot of the sub/counter-cultures that MTAs draws inspiration from are related in various ways, but the beliefs under which computer hackers do drugs are CoX ones, not the VA ones. You could, of course, have a VA/CoX who believes in both... but that's a VA/CoX, not a VA.
The book is using their slave name !
Pictured: A 20-something person with tattoos in trendy clothing
The Dreamspeakers are African, Native American, and Asian shamans and spirit-warriors who fight to heal the world from its sickness. In the modern times they now also includes technoshamanic practicies on the Digital Web, so Brucato can force another subculture into the fold of MTAs. I can't find much to say about the Dreamspeakers. They're shamans. They deal with spirits. They're basically all animistic practices folded into one non-white Tradition.
Spheres: Spirit, Force, Life, Matter
Foci: Spirits, duh. Also: "medicine-work, craftwork, shamanism, crazy wisdom, and faith. A few pursue cybernetics, yoga, Voudoun, and witchcraft"
Actually the Chakravanti
Pictured: a 20-something person with tattoos in trendy clothing
Back in the earliest editions of MTAs, the Euthanatos were expert assassin mages who dealt in death, not as necromancers, but simply in killing. They were basically a nod to Thuggee death-cults (they were even headquartered in Calcutta) and according to Stephen Lea Shepard, they were supposed to showcase that the Traditions weren't all good. They're the token evil Tradition, and they murder people because death must happen and decay and entropy and blah blah blah.
They... uh... I've never really been able to get a good grip on these guys. They tend the wheel of death and ensure things die when they are killed?
Spheres: Death! (Entropy, Life, Spirit)
Foci: "a Chakravat uses practices and instruments like crazy wisdom, faith, High Ritual, medicine-work, reality hacking, martial arts, shamanism, and occasionally Voudoun". Also yoga. Is there anything yoga can't be used for?
The Khaos Magykk of Brucato's M20 really becomes apparent with the Foci; instead of having their way of casting determined by their Paradigm, each splat just seems to use a bunch of very arbitrary tools to cast with. Are you a Kung Fu mage? Cast magick using alchemy. Are you a death-mage? Use faith and yoga to cast magick. Is your entire paradigm about expanding your mind using sex, and rock & roll? Use gutter magick, martial arts, and cybernetics!
Order of Hermes
Pictured: a 20-something
Traditional European magical practises are represented by the Order of Hermes. These guys are haughty, arrogant bastards with a long history and is one of the foundational elements of the Traditions, which just makes them extra arrogant. They're a collection of various Houses, in European tradition, and one of their Houses, House Tremere, broke of the 1300s to become vampires. Since vampires are total chumps compared to mages in the WoD, why they would want to do this is not explained. They say "immortality", but that's, like, Life 3 or something. Other houses include the Solificati and the Ngoma, which is an hilarious oversight in editing that hasn't caught up to M20's metaplot. They do, however, also have one of the most consistent portrayals; their Foci are not muddled with uncharacteristic ways to cast magick, and it's very clear what they are. Earlier MTAs editions had each Tradition have a single Affinity Sphere that was the one Sphere that was important to that Tradition. M20 is more open, often listing three or four; the OoH are still Forces first and foremost.
Foci: Hermetic magic, basically.
Sons of Ether
Now the Society of Ether! Because they're no longer sexist!
Pictured: a 20-something in Steampunk fetish gear.
No longer sexist!
(Also her legs are just mirrors of each other, and it's a lazy trace .)
The Etherites are basically the mad scientist splat of the Traditions. If you want to play a 30's pulp-fiction scientist, play one of these guys. You get to make science thingies and shoot rayguns. They broke off from the Technocracy in 1904 because they were sore the Technocracy was tired of having to do fluid-dynamics calculations for space-travel and wanted to replace Ether with vacuum. In earlier MTAs editions they were heavily on the side of pseudoscience, being all about homeopathy, acupuncture, lysenkoism, and other discredited scientific theories like Ether. They were basically khaos magykk applied to science; all that matters is that you will yourself to believe in the process behind it, then it'll totally work. As such they were the single most anti-science of the Traditions, since they didn't believe in things like falsification or reproducible results, instead just kind of engaging in a process of pseudoscientific masturbation where they make up elaborate "theories" for how their magick actually works.
In MTAs their paradigm isn't described as much, so they're simply "steampunk science mages who like ether" who want to spread Science to the masses. I like them a lot better this way; they're basically "good, reckless Technocracy" this way. They also occasionally blow up cities, because they're mad scientists.
Spheres: Matter, Forces, Prime
Pictured: a 20-something viking
Pagan and neo-pagan witches with a creepy love of blood and blood-sacrifices.They're archaic and prefer the "Old Ways"; according to the book they like "Cold iron, worked wood, fires kindled with your bare hands, natural clothing, organic foods…" They "have no time or patience for weakness. To them, the comforts of a technological world breed sickness and laziness.". So they're basically a bunch of condescending primitivists who are also pagans. They organize in covens and there are more women than men. This means that women gravitate towards this Tradition, because when your Tradition is determined by your strongly held personal beliefs about how the world and magick works , how women-friendly they are heavily factors into this. And, of course, this gem:
Two leaders (taking priest and priestess roles although both might be male, female, or transgender ) govern the larger covens
Yay. Transwomen aren't actually women, transmen aren't actually men. Brucato writes loftily about inclusitivity and gender and non-traditional roles, but displays supreme ignorance about the transgender community. It makes it all seem so cynical; why should I believe the message of inclusitivity when trans people are just shoehorned in with no respect in order to fulfil some western-liberal-guilt-quota? Fuck you Brucato. Fuck you and your wishy-washy appropriation of trans identities to sell a gaming product. Fuck you. There are so many other ways to phrase this. "Taking priest and priestess roles, no matter their gender identities." "Taking priest and priestess roles, although both might be male or female, cis or trans", "Taking priest or priestess roles, though there is no actual gender requirement." "Two leaders of any gender (even if one is formally titled priest, and the other priestess)"...
Spheres: Life, Forces (fucking everyone gets Forces - what about poor Entropy?)
Foci: "Witchcraft is the group’s core practice, with certain individuals favoring Voudoun, dominion, weird science, chaos magick, yoga, martial arts, High Ritual, cybernetics, the Art of Desire, craftwork, medicine-work, and even organic hypertech."
Yes. Archaic primitivists who believe that the old ways are best, modernism breeds weakness, and the simpler something is the better it is cast magick with cybernetics and organic hypertech .
Now called The Mercurian Elite - that really should be The Mercurian 31337
Pictured: A 20-something in trendy clothing
Ex-Technocracy hacker mages! (Back in MTAs 1e they were actually still with the Technocracy.) These guys are my favourite of the Traditions. Their central belief is that the entire universe is actually a great big computer simulation, and magick is hacks, exploits, bugs, and having access to the console. They cast magick by doing calculations and running simulations to determine how they can make the simulation do what they want. Beyond that, they're on-so-nineties anarchic hackers, all about freedom of information and stopping government surveillance and fighting corruption and all that. Though, ironically, I think perhaps they're one of the Traditions that have aged the best. The anarchic hacker stereotype and the surrounding hacker culture was born in the 80/90, and with the proliferation of computers their skills are far less "magical", but at the same time the expansion of government surveillance onto the Internet, meta-data collection, Manning, wikileaks, and Edward Snowden makes them the single most relevant Tradition.
Sphere: Corresponence/Data, Forces
Foci "Such tools range from the obvious computer gear (generations ahead of conventionally available tech), clouds, holograms, implants, nanotech, energy drinks, and sense-altering stimuli to the understated chic of dark hoodies, manga-influenced haircuts, fashionable androgyny, and provocative masks ."
Their practice of magick includes dark hoodies ? Manga-influenced haircuts? Fashionable asymmetry? Guy Fawkes masks? That's not a magical practice, that's a fashion choice. Way to ruin the thematic coherency of the Virtual Adepts, Jesse Heinig.
Let me just say, with a few exceptions, the splat-iconics used in the art are gorgeously drawn. That said, they're surprisingly heterogeneous for a Tradition that supposedly favours diversity. To find someone who looks like they're older than 40, I have to skip all the way down to the Iteration X iconic in the Technocracy chapter. Style-wise they're almost all trendy-alternative-looking 20-somethings with tattoos. Five of the nine Tradition iconics are white. It's so... uncreative? Blatantly pandering?
In true tradition of White Wolf books, each Tradition also has a bunch of stereotypes about everyone else. Most of them are dull and bad, but some of them are funny-bad or egregious-bad, so let's have a look:
Akashics about the Disparates: "Lost children and broken relations… yet there’s more to them than there might seem."
Dreamspeakers about the Disparates: "I sense a trick here, and I think I like it…"
Euthanatos about the Disparates: "Conventional wisdom says they’re dead… but dead things have a way of coming back around."
Sons of Ether about the Disparates: "Footdraggers. Mysterious footdraggers, though. Certainly worthy of further study…"
Brucato's new baby are the Disparates, so the Traditions go out of the way to tell you how cool they are.
This sub-chapter is characterized by two, maybe three really glaring faults. One is the constant and confusing misuse of the various Tradition's names. They're renamed, their old names were bad and racist and slave names, but the book still insists on using the old names primarily, while also switching to the new names at times. It's confusing and dumb. If "Dreamspeakers" is so bad, they really should be constantly using "Kha’vadi" instead. It'd also be a lot easier to read, if the book used just one term for each separate group, to avoid confusion.
Then there's the Foci, which feel arbitrary and often don't fit the Traditions at all - in the worst case being literally just a clothing style - and often contradicting what the group actually believes in; if you believe that the Old Ways are best, why would you use cybernetics to do magick? Other times they overlap; the Akashic's entire schtick is expanding their consciousness through martial arts so they can do magick... and then the Cult of Ecstasy can also do that in addition to -magic.
The uneven distribution of Spheres; almost everyone seem to do Forces and Matter. Very few do Prime and Entropy. Perhaps they could have been divided more evenly, to give people more options if they want to play Entropy-mages? You're not locked to the Euthanatos if you want to use Entropy-magick, but they could still have made the game more permissive of such concepts.
Next: The Technocratic Union!
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part III: The Technocratic UnionOriginal SA post
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part III: The Technocratic Union
Unless you’re a player or Storyteller who’s involved with the Technocracy, this section is optional. Its secrets should never come into your chronicle as character knowledge. Oh, and if you were expecting faceless bad guys here, get ready to have those expectations shredded. The Technocracy is a complex entity, as heroic and flawed as the Traditions themselves.
The Technocratic Union are a collection of technology-using magickal crafts. They a technological elite armed with technologies far ahead of what Sleeper society can make, and the reification of the authoritarian surveillance state. Their founding purpose was to pool their technological resources to protect humanity against the horrors of the night - vampires, werewolves, evil mages - and to use technology to put the tools of mages into the hands of Sleepers. They've shaped the Consensus such that technological rote spells can be wielded by everyone, not just the Awakened. Like a modern-day Prometheus, they have given the fire of the Awakened to the Sleeper masses - here in the form of matches and mass-produced Zippo lighters.
I think Brian Campbell does a very good job of explaining why a lot of readers ultimately feel the Technocracy is a better option than the Traditions:
Consider, though, the horrors of a world truly without enforced boundaries. Imagine, if you will, a freeway without speed limits – the high-octane chaos of metal and momentum. Wouldn’t you want a police officer to pull over that reckless driver who’s speeding in the wrong direction, weaving in and out of traffic and probably headed straight toward you? And what would happen if a driver’s license weren’t required… or insurance… or knowledge of the law? Even with all of these restrictions, speed kills and humans complain endlessly about everyone else’s actions. That’s human nature, after all. But human nature demands authority, both to comfort its hurts and to control its extremes.
And that’s especially true when it comes to magick.
Campbell further likens it to gun control and careless words. It is a very topical way of posing the question, and I think these two last ones are especially cogent ways of presenting the conflict between the Traditions and the Technocracy; the Traditions are spun from the philosophical argument that individuals should be free to do as they please - freedom of speech, freedom to own potentially hazardous items, freedom to cast potentially hazardous spells; the Technocracy is the counter-argument that for the good of all of us, some sacrifices must be made; restrictions on speech that can harm others, restrictions on items that can harm others, restrictions on spells that can harm others. It's easy to see then, why some people would fall on the side of free speech, gun ownership, drug legalization, and freedom of choice, while other people would fall on the side of hate speech laws, gun control, prohibition, and freedom from harm.
Given the history of very heated online debates, though, Campbell should perhaps have chosen a less sarcastic tone:
For over a century and counting, the Technocracy has accepted that challenge. Despite popular misconceptions, they’re the good guys in a world gone mad.
Oh, it’s true that they’ve been known to breed monsters. Cyborgs, HIT Marks, clone warriors and bat-winged Chihuahuas occasionally make the rounds when the Union goes to war. But then, war is always ugly, and every veteran gets his or her hands bloody doing things that would give nightmares to the folks back home.
It makes the whole thing difficult to read; am I supposed to take the passages about the Technocracy ultimately being run by compassionate human beings trying to do their best as police officers of the world seriously? When it talks about the need to impose order for the greater through force, is that an unfortunate consequence, or am I supposed to read it as a convenient lie Technocrats tell themselves to justify their brutal oppression? When it talks about how the Technocracy wants to Ascend everyone into a state free of suffering, fear, hate, and ignorance, should I believe it? It's very hard to tell what's the intent here; it may well be that it's up for interpretation. It certainly does not help that the Traditions are not a viable alternative to the Technocracy's goals ; it would be easier to read Campbell's descriptions as tongue-in-cheek if there was an obvious, non-Technocracy-solution to all the problems the TU claims to attempt solving. In the absence of other workable solutions, the Technocracy's methods seem justified - yet at the same time the way it negatively affects its victims is emphasized hard. It's a hard question, and in some ways I appreciate that Campbell does not try to provide an easy solution.
Anyway, we're not here for philosophical debate. Technocrats are mages that use magick just like everyone else, only they like using fancier words. Spells are Procedures , talismans are Devices , rituals are Processes , etc. Because they have the Consensus on their side, technocratic magick is usually safer and more reliable than the alternatives. Their stated end-goal is to get the consensus to accept the full range of technomagick, which will lead to a global Awakening where everyone are technomages - or the distinction berween Sleeper and technomage is insubstancial. The downside to technomagick is that almost all of it is tied to apparatuses ; you can't do technomagick without the tools - throwing fireballs at people requires a plasma cannon, mind reading requires an MRI scanner, etc.
Campbell explains a lot about the structure and practices of the Technocracy. I find myself enjoying Campbell's writing far more than Brucato's. It's clearer, tighter, more to the point, and tries for a third-person omniscent tone rather than Brucato's attempts at spoken monologue. It's written like a textbook, which is both befitting of the material and extremely practical when, after all, this is a textbook on MTAs. If Brucato is the worst excesses of White Wolf, Campbell is an honest attempt at high-quality GURPS. It's also full of really easy-to-use plot hooks. There are rogue Conventions that try to make the Technocracy less evil. As an optional element, you can have all the Technocracy leadership be Nephandi so the Technocracy must be torn apart or doom the world... or you could just go shoot the Nephandi in the face... or maybe the Technocracy's corruption is entirely caused by hubris, and Campbell is basically nudging the players to go try to make the Technocracy a better place. Together with the high level of detail on how the Technocracy operates, there's a lot of support for running Technocracy games here - something that the Traditions and Disparates can't have; Campbell can fit the entire structure of the homogenous Technocracy into a single sub-chapter, while Brucato and the other writes have to fit twenty heterogeneous Crafts and Traditions into twice the number of pages. The end result is that the Traditions and Disparates are vague, while the Technocracy are well-defined. There'll probably be a Traditions soucebook out sometime, but that's useless to anyone who wants to play now.
Certain Technocrats, of course, prefer the comfort of that simple existence and choose to remain within the barracks phase. Others – too unpredictable or incompetent to move forward on schedule – remain at that beginning stage for a while. In time, however, such agents become a liability. Unless she remains a barracks bum by choice, an agent who seems stuck in the early phase of newlife gets sent on suicide missions, relegated to simple tasks, reprogrammed into a walking husk, or simply terminated.
Here's an example of Campbell's writing throwing out a plothook:
Essentially, the Schism comes down to the difference between abstract theories and messy realities. A Front Line supervisor recognizes the necessity of compromise (say, an alliance with an influential pack of vampires), whereas the distant perfectionist tolerates no such thing.
I don't remember Brucato's writing ever doing anything like that; it's too bogged down in flowery language of incidental things, and vague generalities, to really suggest things that an ST could throw at their players like an alliance with vampires. The Schism it is talked about, incidentally, is itself basically one big plot hook with characterization-potential built in. It tells you how to characterise Supervisors from different places, and how such supervisors tend to act. This is great for STs and players alike; players because they know what to expect and because it gives them a sense of of belonging to the world through such expectations, and to STs because they get guidelines on how to characterize NPCs.
I mean look at this idea-dense writing:
A Void Engineer Manager on an Umbral Moonbase, for instance, might prefer to act like the captain of a science fiction starship chasing down extradimensional horrors instead of hiding out in his fortified control room. A different Manager might travel to a Horizon Construct, accompanied by a supervisor and one or more teams of agents, to oversee technicians who specialize in highly advanced equipment. Other Technocratic masters employ holographic technology and virtual telepresence (in game terms, Correspondence and Mind Procedures) to visit places from afar, monitoring their agents from a safe but perceptive distance.
Oh here's another passage I love:
Unconventional operatives are rarely harassed – that sort of thing is an invitation to punishment, censure, and a late-night beatdown from an annoyed cyborg or two. No, the freaks get lousy assignments, endure subtle pranks, and find themselves lacking for essential services or gear when an Adamite finds a chance to make their lives difficult. Meanwhile, naturals get preferential treatment, attract like-minded friends, and somehow find themselves advancing through the ranks faster and more easily than a cybernetic comrade would.
Campbell's vision of the Technocracy is compelling. It is just right enough that you'd want to support it, and just cruel enough that you want to oppose it, and then you're left with having to make an actually hard decision :
But if the carrot isn’t enough for you, there’s always the stick: no matter how bad you think failure can be, failing the Technocracy is far worse. Citizenship in the Union isn’t like some job where you’ll end up escorted to the parking lot when you fail, carrying your personal stuff in a cardboard box. If your supervisors decide to terminate you, you won’t make it outside the building. You can run, and they will find you. And then they can strap you down to a medical table and scramble your brains until you don’t have a choice. They can clone you and make an obedient little brainwashed agent… one who won’t quite be you but will still be alive.
It's horrifying. It's horrifying clinical and coldly logical . It makes sense when the Technocracy is characterized as desperately fighting a war for reality where Earth is the front lines and they've lost all connection with their off-world bases. If you want a playable technocracy full of difficult moral problems, I really can't recommend this book enough (except for the parts where the rest of it is crap and offensive).
Our first character who looks older than 30!
Iteration X are all about the They love science and technology and things that give them big guns and cybernetics and robots and AI. They're a... Science Fiction Convention. They're the people who run the T-800's and T-1000's the Technocracy use to hunt down mages. They're soldiers and engineers, big on using their advanced technology.
Spheres: Forces, Matter, Time
New World Order
You can tell the Technocracy is evil because they have lower-budget art.
The NWO are the evil government telling you to pay taxes and secretly controlling the elections and being spies and secretive and They run around with Men and Women in Black who cover up things. They also hold a stranglehold on academia. Which is actually one of the weirder aspects of MTAs. The Technocracy are incredibly nineties and rooted in US conspiracy lore. US conspiracy lore is very reactionary and right-wing; evil (Jewish) bankers running the world, evil (Jewish) secret societies running government, evil (Jewish) scientists, evil (Jewish) academics teaching cultural marxism, etc. These are all reified through the various conventions: the Syndicate, the NWO, Iteration X and the Progenitors, and the NWO again. That's not to say that the game itself is racist, any more than the generic belief in a government or banking conspiracy is racist, but the inspirations are heavily rooted in anti-Semitic writings. The weird thing about the NWO controlling academia is that... academia has a strong tendency towards the left. If you're on the right, the horrible leftist academia and their
Spheres: Mind, Correspondence/Data
Foci: Psychic powers, information manipulation, mental conditioning - symbols of authority like a black suit or a police badge can even be used to cause people to obey, because of the symbol of authority is itself that authority
This is a really cool character design! I want to play as this lady in a game!
The Progenitors are the biologist counterpart to Iteration X. They lean more towards scientists than engineers and soldiers. They're all about cloning and genetic engineering, mutation, medicine, designer drugs, retroviral engineering, chemical synthesis, transgenic experiments... all the science that Iteration X hasn't laid claim to. They make the clone armies and transgenic horrors for the Technocracy.
Spheres: Life, Entropy, Mind
Syndicate... or Ventrue?
The Syndicate control banks, money, and money-related things. This is because money is power, and people can be quantified as money through their worth in dollars and cents. They're Gordon Gecko powered by magick money. Through being really, really rich, they own and therefore control everything the NWO don't control by being sneaky. They control legitimate business and organized crime. When they run scientific experiments, they're called "the Soviet Union".
Spheres: Entropy, Mind, Primal Utility (Prime)
Foci: Money, but that's almost an afterthought to their primary means of magick, which is that greed is good and ways of being persuasive and charismatic so they can get their hands on the money
Who you gonna call?
The Void Engineers... are so nineties . They're the 90'est of the oh-so-nineties Technocracy. While the shadowy bankers and shadowy government and shadowy academics and shadowy scientists are all fairly timeless conspiracies, the Void Engineers are even heavierly rooted in US conspiracy lore. They're the US government's secret dealings with aliens, the NRO wetworks team sent to cover up UFO lands, and Area 51. Their role in the Technocracy is to defend against extra-dimensional invasion from space, which there is a lot of. They're also the least conventional of the Conventions, since they use heretical magick to fight against the aliens.
Spheres: Dimensional Science (Spirit), Correspondence, Forces
Foci: Quantum physics, alien technology, sci-fi spacecraft and rayguns, and a heretical use of ancient magick to deal with hostile spirits
The Man is 33% non-white and 50% female.
My favourite chapter by far. Part of this is because I like the Technocracy, part of it is that Brian Campbell is a much better writer than Brucato. All the cool plot hoods and details of Technocracy society make them far more useful and playable than the Traditions. Even for a Traditions or Disparates campaign, for an ST it is very useful to know how the enemy functions. It's also a very thought-provoking chapter, getting deep into some of the philosophy that the rest of the game barely touches. I think it helps to approach it from the inside, instead of as an outside enemy, which is all too easily characterized as an "Other" full of generic evil.
Next: the Disparate Alliance, the NAP of Mage: the Ascension , and Brucato's new baby.
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part IV: The Disparate AllianceOriginal SA post
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part IV: The Disparate Alliance
First, a sidebar on why some Crafts are suddenly not part of the Traditions. See, the Ngoma and Solificati totally joined the Order of Hermes, it just wasn't all of them that joined, only a small minority. The larger Crafts are still around, so have fun telling House Ngoma apart from the Ngoma and the Akashayana Wu-Lung apart from the regular Wu-Lung. All the Crafts that joined the Traditions are still aligned with their Craft, so if hostilities break out, every single member of House Ngoma will turn out to be spies, assassins, saboteurs, and fifth-columnists for the Disparate Alliance. On the other hand, the Traditions and Disparate Alliance could join forces, giving the Traditions more inclusion on top of all their inclusiveness, and they'll be powerful enough to maybe defeat the Technocracy. What I'm saying is, the Disparate Alliance which are a complete invention of this book that nobody's ever heard of before, are super-important.
In actuality, many of the best-known groups on the fringes of the Ascension War are not only alive and well but have been quietly banding together into their own configuration: a sarcastically named Disparate Alliance whose ironic moniker mocks the Council’s vision of itself as Magekind’s Great White Savior. Although several Crafts – the uncanny Hem-Ka Sobk and the demon-bound Wu-Keng among them – have apparently been obliterated
Oh no Brucato, you're not getting away that easily. When you acknowledge the existence of the Wu-Keng and say the only reason they're not around is the metaplot, you're not undoing a single thing about how massively transphobic the Wu-Keng are. You have to actually own up to past mistakes. (This also makes me want to check out the Hem-Ka Sobk...
The Book of Crafts posted:
To the unlearned observer, the Hem-Ka Sobk is a Craft of emotionless assassins, disguising their destructive natures beneath the cassocks of worship for a crocodile deity whom they blame for their actions.
The Book of Crafts posted:
These cannibal-mages serve as the teeth of the crocodile god - literally. [...] All Hem-Ka practice the rite of scaring and self-mutilation, but it serves a greater purpose than than simple religious piety. Called Nuta Akha-t , the scars act as foci through whick Sobk grants the Hem-Ka their spells.
The Book of Crafts posted:
(as Sleepers, they were murderers, rapists, blasphemers and thieves)
The Book of Crafts posted:
They are also required to sharpen their teeth and engage in ritualized cannibalism upon a successful kill.
The Crafts that make up the Disparates were all adept at hiding, which meant that as the Technocracy and Sleeper witch-hunters hunted the Traditions and other mages, the Crafts prospered in secrecy. In the 1990's, the Internet and growth of social media meant they could get into contact with each other (the book makes it out as if this was impossible before the Internet, as if the postal system and telephone didn't exist before Tim-Berners Lee) and decided that they'd form their own Council of Nine Mystic Traditions, with blackjack (the Sisters of Hippolyta vehemently objected to the hookers). The groundwork for the Disparate Alliance was laid by the Ahl-i-Batin, the Ngoma, the Bata'a, Hollow Ones, and the Children of Knowledge. By joining together this way, the Alliance saved several Crafts from destruction by the Technocracy.
Even so, the Alliance has a lot to offer… especially because several of its members know a secret:
They understand just how corrupt the Technocracy truly is. More importantly, they believe they know why.
See, the Disparate Alliance know that the Technocracy has been corrupted by the Nephandi. And they all really hate the Nephandi, because unlike everyone else, the Disparate Alliance really hate the evil, nihilistic, world-destroying mass-murders. This is why they've decided to all group together, in their common hatred of the Nephandi. From what I've been able to tell, this is a very Brucato way of viewing things; the ultimate conflict in MTAs is against the Nephandi, so his baby Disparate Alliance are focused on fighting exactly that fight against the Nephandi-corrupted Technocracy, whereas the Traditions and Technocracy are distracted by the Ascension War, and are quite possibly just Nephandi pawns.
At least, the Disparate Alliance isn't well-organized or powerful - they have lots of internal strife, because trying to get a bunch of men-only Knights Templar, pacifistic women-only pagans, racist Chinese aristocrats, and Arab and Persian Crafts that have warred for centuries, is not easy.
There are a number of Crafts that aren't in the Disparate Alliance, but are listed as "potential recruits". Some of these seem more interesting than what we got:
, Aztec jaguar-priests
, Native American mystics
, Yoruba spirit-mages
, rogue Technocrats who think the Technocratic Union is corrupt
, Japanese psychics who use technological spirits
Red Thorn Dedicants
, Lilith-worshippers who apparently make the Verbena and CoX look tame, making me wonder why anyone would ever want to be around them
, secretive Mayan time-mages
Go Kamisori Gama
, hypertech ninjas
Instead we got the...
Pictured: A 20-something in trendy clothing... though frankly, cool-looking Arab young adults is something RPG art needs more of.
The Ahl-i-Batin used to be members of the Traditions, holding the Seat of Correspondence, but the Technocracy's rise forced them into hiding. They're a Craft of mostly Arab mages skilled in subtleties, who believe in a oneness of the world that mirrors a lot of the central ideas of the Correspondence Sphere. Because they're very subtle and hidden and secretive, they're very good at fighting the Nephandi, which sets them up as gazing into the abyss. They like to hand around Mount Qaf in the centre of the metaphysical universe. Personally, I think these guys are pretty cool, and while the Disparate Alliance makes me roll my eyes at times, I like that the Ahl-i-Batin get more screentime. They're special in that they can never learn Entropy - which makes me wonder what happens if you know Entropy and try to join the Ahl-i-Batin; it doesn't seem explained anywhere.
Spheres: Correspondence, Mind
Banned Sphere: Entropy
Foci: Crazy wisdom, alchemy, and High Ritual Magick maintain their traditional places in Batini Arts, with yoga, gutter magick, reality hacking, and even chaos magick appearing in the practices of certain devotees.
Yoga - the Tenth Sphere
Pictured: A 20-something partially wearing trendy clothing - also our first disabled iconic character.
The Bata'a are a syncretic magickal practice created by the fusion of African spiritual practices, Catholicism, and Native American religion from the Mississippi and Louisiana region. It's Voudoun and Candomblé and randomly tossed-in French words. The Bata'a believe that magick comes from respectful trade with the spirits in the spirit-world. In short, they're Voudoun mages. Personally I've never quite understood the fascination some people, especially White Wolf's authors, had with Voudoun, but each to their own.
Spheres: Spirit, Life
Foci: Bata'a mages enter a trance to perform a ritual to call upon a spirit to perform a service. They can also make a gris-gris to cast spells quickly. And: "Voudoun, faith, medicine-work, craftwork, High Ritual, and crazy wisdom form the core practices within the Bata’a. Some members also favor gutter magick, shamanism, weird science , dominion, maleficia, and various martial arts."
Truly, what can't you cast with yoga and martial arts?
Children of Knowledge
Pictured: a 20-something raver
The Children of Knowledge are the Solificati . They were once part of the Nine Mystic Traditions, but were kicked out after their leader betrayed the Traditions to the Order of Reason. They are alchemists who believe that all the secrets of the universe can be described through alchemy. Today, they believe that chemistry can be used to cause mass Ascension, possibly by getting everyone to expand their consciousness by dropping a lot of LSD. I like the Children of Knowledge as a concept - ancient alchemists experimenting with modern compounds and neurochemistry - but conceptually they overlap with the Children of Ecstasy; I wonder if it's efficient use of space to have two sets of druggie mages in a book that's already 600 pages long.
Spheres: Matter, Forces, Prime, Entropy
Foci: You'd think that drugs would be here, but they're actually not listed. Instead it's all about willing hard enough to make the vibrations of the universe be in tune with what you want. And also "alchemy, craftwork, crazy wisdom, the Art of Desire, chaos magick, and occasional hypertech"
Pictured: a 20-something in trendy-alt clothing
Goth mages. The Hollow Ones used to be a Tradition entirely of goth mages whose entire paradigm was "goth". Various authors tried to rectify how a Tradition based entirely on pandering to goths and Vampire fans (but I repeat myself) was actually supposed to work, but in my opinion they never managed to really pin down a proper paradigm for the Hollow Ones. At best they were the ultimate expression of MTAs-is-chaos-magick-the-game, being explicitly able to cast without a paradgim. The Hollow Ones are perhaps the ultimate expression of a Tradition/Craft being style over substance; they have a visual appearance and demeanour that'll appeal to a 90's subculture, but no actual concept as mages in a game about magic. But that's previous Hollow Ones! Let's see what M20 says about them!
Art, at its best, distills passions into symbols other people can understand. Real art – not the hollow confections of pop culture but the deeper levels, where truth comes out – is a form of magick.
They're... magickal artists?
I still can't tell what the Hollow Ones are supposed to be, and as should be apparent from now, reading their Foci won't be of any help. It probably says something like "Gutter magick, chaos magick, yoga, martial arts, and goth clothing."
Sphere: None (in early MTAs, the Hollow Ones were akin to the Caitiff of Masquerade and Ronin of Apocalypse ; they could buy any power at a discount, while the Clans/Tribes/Traditions could by specific powers at an even greater discount.)
Foci: "Chaos and gutter magick are near-universal among the Hollow Ones." Also broken toys, occult things, and symbols that scare the normies
Pictured: I can't tell his age, but those sure are tattoos!
The Kopa Loei are Hawaiian and Polynesian mages I'd never even heard of until I read about them in M20. They used to be in control of Hawaii and Polynesia, but then the Order of Reason turned up and pretended to be Lono, the Polynesian god (actually a Polynesian god, if Wikipedia is to be believed), which none of the Kopa Loei saw through, and took over Hawaii and Polynesia. It's a twist on story that James Cook was believed by the Hawaiians to be Lono (but Cook was killed because the Hawaiians were very angry when they found out he wasn't...) so I'd be tempted to let this one pass, but I find it hard to believe that the Kopa Loei, mages who could travel around the world if they willed it, could not see through such a simple OoR deception as "pretending to be a god". These days the Kopa Loei are angry about the colonization of the Pacific and hide away, tending to the world and preparing for battle against the Nephandi.
Spheres: The Kopa Loei have no specific focus, so any are possible
Foci: Ho'oanna , which flows through anything
Ngoma... or rejected Follower of Set art?
The Ngoma are the descendants of ancient African magickal arts. After colonialism raged across Africa, they have merged modern magickal arts with their traditional heritage, making them a Craft of skilled urban mages. The book notes they are "professors, doctors,
scientists, astrologers [...] astrophysicists, politicians, architects, financiers, and philanthropists".
There's not much to go on about the Ngoma, but I like the concept; all too often Africa is portrayed as rural and traditional to the exclusion of everything else, and anything supernatural that has to do with Africa ends up being cannibals and witch-doctors playing into 19th Century colonial stereotypes. The Ngoma, meanwhile, get to be modern Africans who both embrace modernism and maintain their heritage (as opposed to being successful mages only because they'd adopted Western ways.) MTAs and White Wolf has a long history of insensitive portrays of everywhere not urban USA, and as a white person from Norway I'm not exactly in a position to offer much knowledgeable commentary, but this at least seems more respectful than the usual portrayals.
Spheres: Life, Mind, Prime, Spirit
Foci: "Ngoma employ High Ritual Magick with a deep component of faith and modern applications of alchemy, hypertech, medicine-work, craftwork, reality hacking, and hypereconomics and its associated Art of Desire." They're also very hermetical, in that they believe that knowledge is the root of magickal power.
Pictured: a 20-something with tattoos wearing rags
Orphans are self-taught mages who don't belong to any Craft or Tradition, rather than a Tradition in itself. They're a sensible addition to MTAs, but for some reason M20 decides that they should be listed under the Disparate Alliance, as if the Disparates are the only ones who have Orphans among their ranks.
Sphere: None, like the Hollow Ones
Foci: Depends on the Orphan, though there's a suggested list: "Religious creeds, transhumanist philosophy, occult dabbling, and ethnic practices provide the most common focuses for orphan magick" And apparently gutter magick is really common in the technological world.
Sisters of Hippolyta
Pictured: a 20-something wearing regular clothing
Female-exclusive feminist pagans who trace their lineage back to the Amazons. Thankfully there isn't written much about the Sisters in this book. Their central beliefs are strongly tied to feminist activism, and they're pacifists except in self-defence, and a bit secretive. This absence of detail is considerably better than their original writeup in The Book of Crafts , where they were groups of secluded feminists who practised women-only magic through intuition instead of metaphysics, had beliefs about how being women gave them a superior understanding of life, and were sworn pacifists even in self-defence. Their list of magic spells included improved social bonding, gardening, knowing when someone are ill, easing childbirth, healing through massages, saving women from rape/assault by turning them into trees, a suicide-pact that lets a group of Sisters escape a group of conquerors by killing themselves - which raises some uncomfortable undertones of stigmatizing rape. (One of the core issues with the Sisters in The Book of Crafts was actually how exclusive they were; female-only, never interacts with the rest of the setting, and avowed pacifists in a game about punching The Man in the face.) When they're explicitly feminists, and the only Craft to represent feminist, the narrow, utopian hippie-feminism that celebrates women as more special than men and are female-exclusive colours feminism-as-a-movement in a rather questionable light. Despite what I think Deena McKinney might have intended, it doesn't actually exalt feminism. Feminism is important to me, and I was disappointed to learn that the feminist Craft was a bunch of kinda sexist crap.
For the record, the same author, Deena McKinney wrote the Sisters of Hippolyta in The Book of Crafts and M20. Given the minor changes - turning awoved pacifism into self-defence, I have a small hope that future M20 supplements will have McKinney writing a more nuanced portrayal of feminism.
Sphere: Life, Mind
Foci: "Though all Sisters, Awakened or not, study the magickal Arts, they view magick as an intuitive connection rather than a metaphysical discipline." NEVER MIND "the Hippolytan practices look like witchcraft, shamanism, High Ritual, craft work, and martial arts"
Pictured: a 20-something with tattoos in trendy clothing - though as with the Ahl-i-Batin iconic character, I think RPG art needs more things like this. Though a Muslim friend I showed this too notes that the tattoo is very unorthodox.
The Taftani are the legacy of Persian mages who once created a wonderous civilization of giant spires and flying carpets. They're reckless mages who enjoy the good things in life, and often have problems with Paradox. Today they're organized out of Dubai. The book doesn't say much about them, which is sad because I want to know more about these Middle Eastern mages - even what their central magical belief is isn't really explained, except something about the Ultimate Truth.
Spheres: Forces, Matter, Prime, Spirit
Foci: Willpower. "alchemy, craftwork, High Ritual Magick, crazy wisdom, the Art of Desire, a touch of hypertech, and dominion over men and spirits alike"
Pictured: another person who looks to be over 40 years old!
The Knights Templar. They used to be part of the Cabal of Pure Thought and the early Order of Reason, but they discovered the corruption of the Nephandi. When they spoke up, they were cast out and persecuted by the mortal Church and Order of Reason alike. Today, they've joined the Disparate Alliance so they can fight against Satan and his Nepandic spawn in the Technocracy and world at large. They're militants religious fanatics who care for the poor and sick and fight the enemies of the Lord whenever they can find them. They used to be all-male, and don't get along well with the pagan all-female Sisters. Recently they've opened up their ranks to women in non-front-line roles. Also they're the Knights Templar and there's entire cottage industries and blockbuster films devoted to telling their secret history, so I'm not going to say anything more. It's not like M20 gives any more information than I've written here anyway.
Spheres: Forces, Life, Mind, Prime
Foci: Their magick is an extension of God's will, performed through themselves as willing tools. A very consistent paradigm, really, that adequately explains other magick (it's either God's or the Devil's tools) and allows them to use stuff like hypertech - the technology is just an extension of God's will into the world.
Pictured: a 20-something in trendy clothing
The Wu Lung are the descendants of ancient China's ruling mages. They stagnated, and were crushed by the Technocracy, western colonialism, WWII, and the Chinese revolution. These days they try to recapture their place as masters of China by gathering gold, which holds magical power to them. They're also racist against the non-Chinese.
Spheres: Spirit, Forces, Matter, Life
Foci: Chinese magical practices, including alchemy, ritual magic, and Dragon Spirit Kung Fu. All their power ultimately comes from Heaven.
There are 26 iconic characters for the 25 different groups here. Let's do a feature-count!
-Pacific Islander: 1
Not Young: 5
Hard to tell: 2
Trendy clothing: 11
Blatant fanservice: 1
20-something in trendy clothing: 11
20-something with tattoos: 6
20-something with tattoos in trendy clothing: 5
Male/Female: 3:6, 33%
Young/Old: 9:0: 100%
White/non-White: 5:4, 55%
Male/Female: 3:3, 50%
White/non-white: 4:2, 66%
Male/Female: 5:6, 45%
Young/Old: 8:3, 73%
White/non-white: 3:8: 27%
As a bonus round, let's have a look at common foci!
Martial Arts: 9
Crazy wisdom: 8
Reality hacking: 6
Gutter magic: 5
Chaos Magic: 5
Art of Desire: 5
High Ritual Magic 4
Weird science: 3
Hypertech is the most common, but that's because all five Conventions in the Technocracy practice it. I may have miscounted some.
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part V: the FallenOriginal SA post
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part V: the Fallen
Man is a virus pretending it’s a saint. Our dreams are jokes the universe laughs about in its sleep. Beneath every good man or woman’s façade is an ape with a scorpion’s tail. We are, in short, a mistake.
The Nephandi are the charismatic psychopathic serial-killer mages of MTAs. They're nihilists (except when they aren't) who believe that everything is pointless and doom is coming, so they're going to cause as much suffering as possible because what does it matter?
A Nephandus, then, has shared communion with that Absolute and has become the heat-death of the universe in human form. It doesn’t matter what you do, he believes. You were worm-meat and ashes before you were born. The gods are insane and justice is a lie, and the evidence supports his point of view. He is, then, perhaps the most dangerous creature in the World of Darkness: a mage with dark truths on his side.
Pictured: a Nephandi
Someone mentioned that Brucato talks a big game about social justice, but frequently lapses into antiquated descriptions. Earlier he talked about the horror of girls selling their virginity online. In this chapter he talks about Nephandi cutting up the breasts of virgins. This sexualized violence - and the way he pick virgin over the more usual target of prostitutes, stands out to me in light of this. Why all this focus on virginity, and moral and legal crimes against virgins? What does that really matter - the social justice consensus on the matter of virginity has been for pretty long that people should stop caring about it because its a weird patriarchal idea. Brucato seems to have missed this memo.
The term Nephandi has many potential origins. It might come from Nif’ ur ‘en Daah , the “Eaters of the Weak” in ancient Sumeria;
I always get suspicious when non-European languages get presented as having subject-verb-object word order, and I actually happen to have an interest in Sumerian language. I did some research and this is complete and total nonsense. First of all, Sumerian is a subject-object verb language. "ur´en" isn't "of the" in any case; "of the" translates to the suffix "-ak". If the nouns are correct, it should be Nif' Daah-ha-ke because of some peculiarities of Sumerian grammar. Secondly, Sumerian doesn't have the consonant "f" so "Nif" is complete nonsense. "to eat" is "gu", and "those who eat" would be something like "gu.tu". "those who are weak" translates to "lusinga". As a noun-phrase you'd just concatenate it, with no genitive marker: "gutulusinga". Of course, if this was from ancient Sumerian, the Nephandi would probably be a kind of demon; "ala", giving "alalusingagu", meaning "demons who eat the weak".
"Nif´ ur´en daah" seems like a corruption of Ni.e ur.ene ada , which would be an improper way to say "The bird fought the dogs." Not quite as cool as "eaters of the dead", I admit.
So! Should you play a dog-fighting bird?
The real reason to avoid Nephandic player-characters, though, is this: Mage is an interactive game in which the players are encouraged to act out aspects of themselves. Those aspects have power , and the things we express through them can influence our daily lives. If you really want Nephandic deeds to influence your daily life, that’s your call, but we don’t recommend it.
No, you shouldn't play a Nephandi, because it will literally turn you into a manipulative, evil psychopath. And I who thought I could trust all those warnings in the front of RPG manuals, telling me I wouldn't turn to Satanism!
Brucato describes the Nephandi philosophy, and it feels inconsistent. At one point they're described as evil nihilists who believe that nothing has a purpose, so they're free to do as they please. Other places, they're described as believing they're righteous in the eyes of (the) God(s), acting with ultimate purpose. This is not explained as being different types of Nephandi, even - all Nephandi believe in the meaningness of everything and the decay of everything in the face of the doom of the world and also that they're super-important because the God/the gods have given them a divine purpose. Then a third passage will go on to describe how the Nephandi don't really serve space-squids and Those Beyond - they instead worship them as allies. So which is it? Delusional mages who hear the whispers of God telling them to kill? Allies of space-squids from beyond? Insane nihilists? Brucato seems to not have made up his mind, like he's writing this at the edge of his seat and "consistency" was not on his mind.
A passage of the sub-chapter titled "The Winners, Spoiled" go on to explain what the Nephandi are up to. They've been infiltrating the Council, the Inner Circle of the Technocracy, even the Disparate Alliance (this is not mentioned anywhere else), and the mortal world, and the Traditions and the Technocracy are none the wiser. The Ascension War itself serves the Nephandi, because they benefit the more the Traditions and the Technocracy fight. Brucato sets them up as this ultimate antagonist, behind everything and prospering from all the evils in the world, and it's so... dull. The Nephandi are Always Chaotic Evil charismatic magickal serial killers - the cheapest of plot devices. They're not interesting, and unlike the Technocracy, they're not a proper commentary on the world. They present no ethical questions and raise no topics. They're just "bad things are bad!".
It's a supreme irony - Brucato talks about Mage: the Ascension being the "thinking gamer's game", but when he's writing it, he grinds it down to being about heroes fighting orcs .
Now, the Fallen have plenty of pawns to waste: the angry teens with guns and bombs; the media pundits who tear societies apart for profit; the tycoons to whom no one else matters unless that other party provides them a bit more wealth; the racists, sexists, homophobes, and fundies whose fears inspire virtual and often physical violence; the religious zealots who plant bombs in playgrounds, fly planes into skyscrapers, or recite ancient scriptures while they bathe their hands in blood. The drug gangs and the slavers, holy warlords with child armies. From the wetbrain puking in the gutter to the billionaire slashing jobs while using prison labor and foreign slaves to increase the bottom line, these people advance the Fallen agenda.
All evil in the world is caused by the Nephandi! The Nephandi caused 9/11! Homophobia is a nephandic plot! Oh Brucato...
There are three kinds of Nephandi: Dregvati , who are not true Nephandi but still further the nephandi cause, Barabbi , who are mages who have converted to the nephandic cause, and Widderslainte , who are reincarnated Nephandi and born evil. Not much is said beyond this, but Brucato will still manage to waste a lot of words talking about them. He'll go off on a tangent talking about how maybe Paradox is actually evil human thoughts, which really has nothing to do with what kinds of Nephandi there are. Or maybe the Nephandi are controlling Paradox, using it as a weapon?
We get a section describing different groupings of Nephandi. Remember how I said that Brucato wrote that the Nephandi didn't serve the space-squid? Well, the K'llasshaa are described, in the very first sentence, as "servitors to obscene overlords". The way Brucato writes about them is also rather peculiar:
Associated in ancient works with the subhuman K’wahhll , whose degraded practices can still be found in secret corners of the wilderness, K’llasshaa Nephandi embrace the Hungry Void in all its sublime terror.
Then there's the Malfeans , who serve the Wyrm from Werewolf: the Apocalypse and hand around the Black Spiral Dancers, Infernal Cults who are simply 80's fears about death metal and Satanism given form, I kid you fucking not. The example given is a kid with a Necrophagia -t-shirt cutting up a dog being potentially a pawn of the Nephandi. Just look at what Brucato writes about them:
The blatant ones channel teenage rage through violent music scenes, rowdy frats, decadent packs of wealthy assholes, and, paradoxically, religious groups who think God’s will involves blowing people up.
But the Nephandi are totally sauve and edgy villains though, just look at the Gatekeepers :
Many of them are quite literate and can quote Sumerian prophecies and string-theory treatises at length… and tie them together as well. You’d never know upon meeting these people that they skin stray cats for writing paper or keep vans filled with torture equipment for equally stray children they find when no one else is looking.
Is this supposed to be scary? Unnerving? Horrifying? It's comical! I can't take the Nephandi seriously as some kind of ultimate evil when they're cliches straight out of splatterhouse horror. I can't actually quote all the ridiculously edgy and tryhard passages of you, because then I'd just be quoting the entire chapter and run into serious copyright issues. Entire passages are devoted to just describing, almost stream-of-consciousness, some kind of horrible evil Brucato thought of. CEOs who lay of extra many people because he wants there to be more suicides, abused children, and crime! The Michael Jackson child molestation scandal/trial? A Nephandi plot!
And, argh, the language. Brucato talks up inclusion and non-binary genders and then he'll drop the line "trailer-trash teen queen" to describe a celebrity whose career crashed and burned. "trailer-trash" is the words Brucato use to describe a real person. That's incredibly demeaning language full of classist overtones. And this is in an actual book from 2015. This book, believe it or not, had an editor, Lindsay Woodstock. It should be her job to catch this kind of thing, but apparently calling the poor "trailer-trash" isn't a concern. I honestly expected better of Onyx Path Publishing, but there you have it; classism in a 2015 publication.
There's also the Los Sangrientos , who are evil because they worship the mesoamerican gods, who are bloodthirsty, in a lovely example of racist depictions of non-white people that could have been copied out of Lovecraft's writing. They sequestered themselves when the Spanish arrived, and started a cult that grew in power. These days the make snuff films that they upload to YouTube with heavy metal soundtracks so that people get corrupted by viewing it. Oh, and they're also behind the Mexican drug war/civil war, because they control both sides and caused the entire thing to cause more bloodshed. (Oh, and they're behind the Bloods .)
Other Nephandic groups include Hammer Security Response , a fundamentalist Christian mercenary force of 20,000 combat veterans who participate in wars so they can shoot Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. The Pipers are modern-day slavers (and rather uninteresting, given that they're literally just modern slavers who happen to be Nephandi). The Golden Bull is the most interesting Nephandic cult, being a secret fraternity that gets Wall Steet bankers caught up in the inner circle of a self-destructive religious cult. The Nephandic connection is pretty weak (being, essentially, that they're self-destructive; it'd work equally well without the Nephandic angle), but it is actually a pretty neat idea, as opposed to the entire rest of this chapter.
There's a sub-sub-chapter that describes how the Nephandi gain power, which are just cult brainwashing tactics described in the lengthy rambling of Brucato. After it comes a description of Nephandi magick. Weaker Nephandi usually cast magick through deals with demons and other generic evil practices. As they learn about the true meaning of evil, they begin to cast with the raw power of the evil versions of the Nine Spheres, with pain, suffering, and desecration as a focus. The Resonance of Nephandic magick includes "chills in the air, wilted plants, weird buzzing sounds" and "withered limbs, singing insects, a thick stench of brimstone". Suggested tools include: "a black candle in the room, a perfume prepared with infant blood, a gun that’s been used to murder a priest".
So there you have it. The Nephandi. The great antagonist in the setting - responsible for WWII, 9/11, the Mexican drug war, homophobia, sexism, and the Michael Jackson child molestation scandal. So thoroughly evil they live for no other reason than to cause evil, which they do by using the evil Nine Spheres channelled through pain, suffering, and infant blood. The thinking gamer's game, a game about fighting orcs .
Lethe, this book is horrible.
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part VI: The MadOriginal SA post
Chapter 5: Ascension Warriors: Part VI: The Mad
In a mad world, madness becomes sanity.
And let’s be honest – our world is crazy.
The dementia of our age is obvious: the removal from our primal roots, the complex interplay of technological consumption, the fear-based marketplace blasting perpetual alarms into every sense we possess. From the kaleidoscope madness of sensory overload to the lockout isolation of self-absorbed withdrawal, our world feels like Humpty Dumpty on a one-way trip with gravity. Naked emperors dictate our self-image, casting out a hall of mirrors that reflect nothing resembling the truth. Like monkeys in a nitro lab, we appear to exist on a constant verge of self-annihilation.
What comes to mind is this (the video that taught me that Duckman was a real thing), both with the ramble of words and similies and the way it tries to place some great importance on the plight of being a middle-class person in one of the richest countries in the world . How horrible it is, that we're not doing things the difficult way they had to do it in the old days. How terrible it is, that technology is so cheap and plentiful that we can allow ourselves to buy new luxury items and toys every year. Sometimes things aren't perfect - but this, this is why the world is mad? Because you don't have pillows sewn under your arm? Grow up! If you want to talk about how the world is mad, maybe look to how people will financially support child slavery out of convenience while condemning it as a gruesome crime. Maybe how we throw away truckloads of food for not looking pretty while people are starving to death in the streets, and famine ravages millions worldwide. That, if anything, is the madness of the world. Pointing to ones privileged and immensely rich middle-class existence and drawing on a world-class education to talk about existentialism out of continental philosophy is ridiculously pretentious.
...anyway! Marauders are mages stuck in a permanent state of Quiet, which will be explained in like five chapters. An entire page goes by of Brucato masturbating onto the page without explaining what the Marauders actually are. Let me quote an actual part of the book where Brucato tries to summarize his description of the Marauders:
In short, Marauders are the clap of single nonexistent hands whose echoes penetrate all layers of the Real.
Can anyone untangle that? Give it meaning? Or is it just colourless green dreams sleeping furiously - a string of words obeying the rules of grammar, while not communicating any substance?
mental illness, a Marauder’s madness slips between the cracks of the world around that person, either seeping in and rotting the surroundings through slow disintegration or else settling into the vulnerable areas and then cracking them like a sudden freeze through deep-set currents of ice.
What a... sensitive description of what it's like to have a mental illness. Actually, let me quote another section from a sidebar:
Even so, Marauders can inject pathos, horror, satire, and tragedy into your chronicle. Used carefully, they could even bring in a bit of comedy, although the Storyteller should avoid “Clown-Shoes Marauder Syndrome” (see the sidebar Running Wyld), if only because such goofiness trivializes mental illness and the dramatic potential of Marauder characters.
But using mental illness cynically as a tool to tell stories of satire and horror, that is OK. Yes, goofiness is probably one of the worst ways to portray mental illness, but there are many ways it could be used for horror too, that are just as bad as trivializing it. Like the Marauders, who are villainous and dangerous because of their madness. They portray mental illness, especially schizophrenia, which is even called out in the book, as a dangerous other. I might not even have cared about this, were it not for the fact that Brucato chose to talk about how trivializing mental illness is wrong. Mentioning it just draws attention to how little effort Brucato himself put into being sensitive to mental health issues, and his concern comes off as hollow.
Two full pages go by and the only thing I've learned about the Marauders is that they're mad and that they're in a permanent state of Quiet. Surprisingly much of it talks about mental illness - maybe mental illness is a punishment for mans hubris, Brucato ejaculates onto the page in a hypothetical, the little condescending shit. Did I end up with clinical depression so artists could learn a lesson about not being too proud of their work? Is my schizophrenic friend supposed to be a lesson from God? I have to get to the bottom of the first column of page 3 of the sub-chapter before I learn anything more useful: Marauders warp reality around them according to their delusions, as well as Marauders that don't, but are nonetheless delusional. The Marauders who project their delusions will find the altered reality surrounding them strengthened by other delusional people they attract (implying that the mentally ill are a problem because they enable Marauders), many of whom themselves turn into further Marauders. The other kind of Marauder are just mages, who are in a permanent state of quiet, who are also delusional, believing they're reincarnations of John the Baptist and whatnot. The way the Marauders stigmatize mental illnesses and those who suffer from them becomes quite vile when given deeper thought. Here are mages, they have mental health issues. Therefore they're extra dangerous and an antagonist in this game.
Pictured: a tasteful portrayal of mental illness
Marauders don't have any form of formal organization or ranks like the Traditions, Technocracy, or Nephandi do, but they can still form cabals. Sometimes Marauders can merge into a fusion a sci-fi hivemind of Marauders who share the same delusions about reality. Other times a conflux arise, when enough Marauders converge in one location to cause chaos without necessarily being aware that they're all being drawn to the same spot, or that there are other Marauders around. Some Marauders are capable of being ringleaders who guide other Marauders towards some purpose. Most Marauders, though, are solitary.
Five pages in and there's further explanation of what Marauders actually are. They're largely immune to Paradox, because while Marauder magick causes Paradox, the Paradox consequences go after other people than the Marauder. Secondly, the delusion a Marauder has causes people around them to have delusions , though the rules are thoroughly unclear on whether this is something all Marauders can do on purpose (as implied by the text itself), or just what the madness-projecting Marauders do, as a matter of fact. The reliance on colloquial language does the book no favours: does "when a Marauder sets up shop" mean when the Marauder enters an area, or when they deliberately start flaunting their Marauder-ness? My experience with the phrase tell me it could be either, so I don't know whether Marauders can turn on and off their madness-inducing fields or not. This would be very useful to know, to say the least!
Layout of this book is horrible. There's a page, 241, which has 11 lines of regular text in a single column. The other column is taken up by art, and the rest of the page is a sidebar. The mirror page is over half text-box:
Pictured: efficient use of space.
The book goes on to describe the nature of Marauder magick. It's perfectly OK descriptions of everything you expect mad and/or Cthulhu Mythos 99+ mages to do, though honestly it raises questions. If the Marauders are delusional, why do their magick seem so different from everyone else, to the point of stereotypical mad mage levels? Why can't they just cast like everyone else, while also being mad? Nothing about being in a permanent state of Quiet and projecting a madness-field means one's magic can't work by a comprehensible magical paradigm. But then, it's Brucato writing about mental health. Don't trivialize it with goofiness, he says, before describing how a Marauder might write a spell down on a piece of paper, eat the paper, and vomit the spell .
Next: Character generation! BDSM! Clapping with one hand inside Schrödinger's box!
Chapter 6: Creating the CharacterOriginal SA post
Chapter 6: Creating the Character
In the immortal words of Rob Zombie, mages are “more human than human,”
It's just one of the most influential and celebrated sci-fi cult classics ever to have been made.
Character creation in Mage: the Ascension follows the dice pool form popularised by White Wolf and West End Games, to the surprise of nobody. Characters have Traits , which are rated numerically in 'dots'. The book says Traits usually range from 1-5, but the most common range is actually 0-5. Some Traits can exceed 5 dots, and some special Traits like Willpower are on a 0-10 scale. 0 in a Trait is supposed to mean the total absence of the Trait, 6+ usually implies superhuman levels of the Trait. Most people have 1-3 dots in Traits called Attributes and 0-3 dots in Traits called Abilities . Anything from 2-4 dots is supposed to represent professional levels in the Trait, or average to exceptional capability. There's not much granularity here; if you're "good" (3 dots) at something, the next step up is "exceptional" (4 dots) followed by "world class" (5 dots).
There's some genuinely useful advice for character generation;
M20 characters have a long list of Traits. Note that these are all capital-T Traits, which the book has told us are rated numerically in dots, usually 1-5:
Personally I think my character should have a 3-dot name and play in a 2-dot Chronicle.
And then we get my un-favourite sidebar:
And between the old associations of mystic power and the new freedom to transcend gender roles without getting burnt at the stake for it, the idea of gender identity is more fluid – and more magickal – than ever before. Especially in queer, polyamorous, transhumanist, neotribal, and psychedelic cultures, it’s often more unusual to be conventionally “straight” than it is to hold, embrace, and enjoy the hell out of an identity outside the traditional polarities.
Trans people are magickal! Real-world trans people are real-world magickal, even! Fuck you, Brucato. Trans identities exist for the trans people, not to validate esoteric world-views. It's also worth noting that every time Brucato mentions trans identities, he's talking about non-binary ones; transgender is almost always mentioned in the context of being a third gender, or transcending the concept of gender altogether, rather than binary trans people. The reasons this is problematic are long, complicated, and controversial, but in short it is seen by some[weasel word]/many[who?] as a form of transmisogyny that marginalizes trans women - already one of the most marginalized groups there is. Talking about this kind of stuff requires tact and understanding, and often compassion, which are qualities I have so far failed to find in this book.
There's a lot of the usual character-generation advice here; what does your character look like, what is their personality like, what's their background, what's their motivation, etc. Among the more useful questions posed is what the mage's mundane identity is - it's my experience that such a detail is easy to forget all about when making a character for occult and arcane adventures. The book then suggests that the ST should run an introductory adventure for each character in their game, the prelude , detailing how they became a mage. This has been advice in pretty much every WoD game ever published as far as I'm aware, and while I can see the utility and strength of such a thing, I also see it as very difficult to pull off; a regular gaming session is a social get-together between friends getting up to ridiculous shit. A prelude is a one-on-one session involving a far more rigid structure, where character-decisions are almost a moot point, because the ending of the prelude is pre-determined. I see it as a major shift in tone and social context. Now imagine being an ST and having to run as many preludes as you have players, and it may take up a whole month of tight schedules just to get the game off the ground. Nobody in my circles actually run preludes, but perhaps that's just my circles.
Also, you should prepare a highly detailed backstory of your character. Describe, please, your character's entire extended family and social circle from childhood to the present. Describe in detail all your closest childhood friends. Make up a mentor who taught your character magick. Write down the details of how you joined the faction you're a member of. Sure, it's optional but recommended, but all of this is a lot of work perhaps unnecessary for the core book of how to play Kung Fu mages punching The Man in his robot face. It's mostly generic content, can be generally assumed known to anyone who plays RPGs, and is the kind of content that probably can be relegated without fear to a Player's Handbook of some kind. There's four pages of this stuff! (And, Lethe, some of it is pretentious. Not only do you have to answer all these questions about your character, but you're also supposed to put a lot of thought into how this character reflects some aspect of yourself. I just want to play a Kung Fu mage, not go soul-searching in the real world!)
OK, so, mages have these things called Avatars that are a kind of internal metaphor for their magickal enlightenment and... stuff. Different people have different kinds of Avatars - some have people, some have animal companions, some have horrible monsters, some have genius loci , etc. - who do... stuff. I'm not entirely sure what they do - they're supposed to help you get more dots in your Arete Trait so you can cast more magic, by going on Seekings with you, which are this intensely personal experience of learning how to use higher Arete. Presumably your ST is supposed to schedule a private RPG session just to roleplay out the Seeking, or something.
Avatars can have one of five types of Essences (Technocrats call them Eidolons ) which is your flavour of Avatar. It appears to have no mechanical effect on the game what your character's Essence is, but you can chose between Dynamic , Pattern , Primordial and Questing . You're not allowed to chose Infinite , almost guaranteeing that someone will want to play this forbidden fruit. Your Avatar's Essence also describes your character's personality, like an online personality test; Dynamic Avatars like to do crazy things and party! Pattern Avatars value stability and order. Primordial Avatars are mysterious and deep. Questing Avatars like travel and seeing new things. If you're a Technocrat with a Primordial Eidolon, you don't really believe in the scientific paradigm and understand that the universe can never truly be understood, because ha ha Technocrats are so stupid for believing in science ha ha.
Nature and Demeanor
In addition to your Essence, you also have Nature and Demeanor Traits to describe your character. Nature is what your personality is really like, while Demeanor is what you present yourself as. Acting in line with your Nature lets you beg the ST to give you back Willpower points. Acting in line with your Demeanor seems to have no mechanical effect. It's a mechanism that encourages playing in character, which generally I'm a fan of but Nature and Demeanor in WoD games always felt clunky to me; long lists of personality archetypes that have ill-fitting descriptions and make you fulfil strange criteria for small mechanical benefits.
Some of them are actively unhelpful to party cohesion. The Loner only regains Willpower when they act alone. The Monster regains WIllpower for doing truly evil things. Others are niche and bizarre. The Mad Scientist is only for technomancers, and they get back Willpower for making up new innovations on the edge of their paradigm. Since what you can and can't do with a technomagick paradigm is mostly a self-imposed limit and you can simply just make up some technobabble to pretend you circumvented it, this is basically free Willpower and doesn't really encourage roleplaying beyond "I technobabbled the technobabble radically, because I am a mad scientist" - and you're playing a mad scientist, this is literally everything you do anyway. Some are simply too easy. The Survivor regains Willpower for surviving adversity through a refusal to give in, which is just another way of saying "be a player character".
Like all WoD games, M20 has the usual nine Attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Stamina, Charisma, Manipulation, Appearance, Perception, Intelligence, and Wits. They start at 1 dot, and starting player characters get 15 extra dots to divide among these. They're divided into three categories; Physical, Mental, and Social, and the way it works is that you prioritize these according to how many of your 15 dots you want in each category. In the least prioritized category, you have just enough dots to be strictly average. Anything else requires making sacrifices.
Strength gives each dot a rating in weight that can be lifted. I happen to have the lifting strength percentiles for US Air Force recruits in 1982 available for comparison, and the ranges are not particularly good. A single dot in Strength lets you lift 40 lbs - equivalent to a 1th Percentile woman and off the scale for men. 2 dots is 100 lbs, about right for the average person. 3 dots is 250 lbs, the 99.99th percentile of men, by extrapolation. There's not much space here for differentiation between characters; a single dot is the difference between extremes.
Charisma and Appearance both cover the same aspect; making people like or notice you through generally just being around. Appearance also has people compliment you for looking like a model at 3 dots, while they only give you their phone numbers at 4 dots. Apparently it's easier to get a gig as a model than it is to trawl bars for phone numbers. There's also no mid-point between "model" and "average"; you can't just be good-looking.
Three dots of Wits makes you "Ms./ Mr. Multi-task.", because all that talk about non-binary identities was just for show. M20 otherwise observes strict gender binaries.
The huge ranges and very low fidelity of the dot-ratings become very noticeable when trying to make a character. Sure, player characters are sometimes supposed to be exceptional, but the most average character you can make will still have 1 Exceptional, 4 Good, and 4 Average ratings - which means you have four Attributes that represents accomplishments like being the strongest person in a town, or getting work as a model.
These are more specialized competencies. You add your dots in an Ability to your dots in an Attribute to figure out how many dice you roll in your dice pool, as is usual in these systems. Like a lot of 90's games, the WoD games had a lot of skill bloat, so there's a lot of skills with marginal uses. Each Ability has a listed group of people who might have the Ability, and a list of suggest Specialities. Specialities give you bonuses on your dice roll when they apply. Some of them are hillarious.
Alertness: This is Perception: the Ability
Awareness: This is another Perception: the Ability, with the addendum that you can use Awareness to spot supernatural things.
Brawl: The skill of unskilled unarmed fighting. Specialities include Brawl (Peaceful Warrior) , which I have no idea what is supposed to do.
Empathy: Generic magical empathy. At 2 dots, people use you as a crying shoulder, because being compassionate requires professional-level competencies. Specialities include Empathy ("I Know What You Need") , as well as Empathy (Subtle Cues) , a.k.a. Empathy (Empathy), and Empathy (Interpersonal Psychology) , a.k.a. Empathy (Empathy)
Intimidation: The descriptions for this are hilarious:
Novice: Playground terror.
Practiced: Clique leader.
Skillful: Professional dominant.
Expert: Alpha wolf.
Master: Queen or king of all you survey.
Subterfuge: The Speciality Subterfuge (Sexual Manipulation) exists.
Drive: Is there ever any reason, if you want a Drive speciality, to not pick Drive (Bad Conditions) ? I mean, when else are you going to roll for car-driving?
Etiquette: You need this at 1 dot to not embarrass yourself at a fine restaurant. I think this makes a fine complement to the Getting Dressed and Walking Across A Floor skills.
Firearms: Pissed-Off Crazy People have this skill, as opposed to simple being pissed-off crazy people with guns.
Martial Arts: The skill of skilled unarmed fighting. Different styles are Specialities. Boxing, that unrefined Western martial art, is however a Brawl speciality. The Most Unlikely People have this skill.
Meditation: "In game terms, the Meditation Skill can help your character make up for lost sleep, hibernate, gain artistic or mystical insights, unravel patterns or enigmas, or refresh your Quintessence rating"
Melee: The skill of skilled and unskilled armed fighting.
Research: First, I wish to state that I have, for all practical purposes, have not watched a single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer . Then I want you to keep in mind that the dot ratings are supposed to provide context for what each rating means. Then I want you to look at the following description for this skill from the book:
Technology The skill of using modern technology. If you forget to put a dot in this, you can't use TV remotes or electric blenders.
Academics: Having an education. If you don't pick the first dot, you didn't attend primary school.
Cosmology: Understanding otherworlds.
Enigmas: Solving puzzles.
Student: Zen koans do not piss you off
Scholar: “You were not put here to ‘Get it,’ Mr. Burton.” (This is probably a reference to some pop-culture thing I haven't seen, because fuck people who don't have your exact cultural frame of reference, amright?)
Professor: You clap with one hand inside Schrödinger’s box. (What does this even mean?)
Investigation: Has Investigation (Spotting Clues) as a Speciality.
Law : Law (Bribery)
Medicine: Want to know how to do basic First Aid and CPR? That's 1 dot. Pay up. Also, hilariously, you can get Medicine (Alternative Medicine) . And Medicine ("Live damn you - LIVE!") . I get the distinct impression Brucato was very inspired by FATE Aspects when writing the Specialities.
Occult: Like Esoterica, but knowing about the esoteric instead of using it. Those New Age books you skimmed to get a dot in Esoterica? If you still have them on your shelves, you have to pay for the first dot of Occult. Specialities include Occult (Moral Panic) , Occult (Satanic Folklore) , Occult (Pop-Culture Satanism) , and Occult (Actual Satanism) .
Politics: This one has a very long list of Specialities. Politics (Blogosphere) ? Politics (Anonymous) ? Politics (Legal Codes) , in case you though you could get away with just Law? I've seen a system like this before, with pages upon pages of inter-related skills with lots of high-fidelity specialities. It was called GURPS, and didn't require me to buy three different specialities to know about Satanism.
Science: Having 1 dot in Academics gives you a high school education. Having 1 dot in Science gives you a high school science education that you understand. Having 2 dots in Science gives you an advanced science education and an understanding of the concepts of your scientific field. Having 3 dots of Academics gives you an advanced education. There's some significant overlap here! Like in the Specialities: Science (Biology) , Science (Genetics) , Science (Forensic Pathology) in case you thought you could get away with Invesitgation (Forensics) ... Science (Psychology) and Science (Biopsychology) ...
There are also Secondary Abilities, because the preceding list wasn't long enough already!
Blatancy: The skill of convincing people that weird stuff happening is perfectly normal.
Carousing: Partying definitely needs its own skill. It also needs specialities, like Carousing (Teenage Mayhem) and Carousing (Overcoming Vows) .
Do: The magickal martial art of the Akashics.
Flying: Unassisted flying.
High Ritual: A skill just for casting High Ritual Magick. Party planners have this skill.
Seduction: Specialities include Raw Sex , Appealing to Kinks , Topping from Below , and Crude But Effective .
Archery: Is there any reason not to get Archery (Killing Shots) if you're going to shoot people with a bow anyway?
BioTech: Creating and repairing the biological technology of the Technocracy
Energy Weapons: What, did you think that knowing how to fire a gun with Firearms would let you fire a laser pistol?
Hypertech: Understanding how hypertech works. You need 3 dots to understand hypertech from outside your paradigm.
Jetpack: Flying with a jetpack
Torture: The skill of torturing people. I... I'll just copy the skill ratings:
Skillful: Covert ops interogator
Expert: Elite pro dom.
Master: Nazi doctor, Spanish Inquisitor, or serial killer
Area Knowledge: Why yes you do need to buy this at 2 or 3 dots to represent having lived somewhere and left the house occasionally.
Belief Systems: Having academic knowledge of what belief systems are. Not a speciality of Academics
Cryptography: It's own skill, as opposed to being part of Science (Mathematics)
Demolitions: Why are Demolitions (IEDs) and Demolitions (Improvised Materials) separate specialities? What does Demolitions("Watch This! ") even do?
Finance: It's own skill, and not an Academics-speciality. Also, Finance (Law) , because nobody wants to actually buy Law. I imagine a character who has both Law (Finance) and Finance (Law) now.
Lore: Knowing about vampires, werewolves, and other creatures of the night. What, did you think that Occult or Esoterica might be used for that? Silly you.
Media: Media (Media Law) . Also, if you studied Mass Communications at university, don't forget to buy a dot of this in addition to Academics 2.
This is a clear sign of skill bloat. It makes me think of GURPS, but at the same time it doesn't have GURPS' wholehearted devotion to having skills for everything. Instead M20 just has a bizarre collection of overlapping and painfully narrow skills. If you want to handle a horse you need to buy Animal Kinship and Riding. Flying with a jetpack and flying with a magical broom or wings are two separate skills. Shooting a laser pistol is requires Energy Weapons, not Firearms. Skilled and unskilled fighting are two separate skills - and magickal martial arts a third. You need to buy a plethora of skills - one of them categorized as a Secondary and thus supposedly niche - to represent just being a normal person. There's three Specialities covering different forms of Satanism. Skill descriptions are often useless - I have no frame of reference for the Research skill, because Brucato expects me to have watched a TV-show that came out when I was five years old. The sheer number of specialities devoted to practicing BDSM and/or playing a Pro Dom seem unnecessary.
Phew! This chapter is long - I'll break it off here and do the rest later.
Chapter 6: Creating the Character, Part 2Original SA post
Chapter 6: Creating the Character, Part 2
Backgrounds are another kind of Trait characters can have. They represent a plethora of things about your character that aren't Attributes or Abilities. In some cases, several characters can get together and share a background, such as if they all live in the same Sanctuary or have a common group of Allies. If one of the characters in such a sharing-situation disappears, leaves, or dies, they take their points with them. The book notes that the rest of the group can't use those points and either lose them or have to pay the difference, but what happens when you lose the points is not explained. For example, if five characters share a Sanctuary 5 and one leaves, does the Sanctuary drop to a Sanctuary 4 because there's not enough points to pay for the fifth level? Does nothing happen? Do the rest of the characters have to pay for the fifth level of Sanctuary before they're allowed to spend XP on anything else? I can't see this explained anywhere.
A number of Backgrounds can also be taken away if the characters work for the Technocracy, basically at the whims of the ST. If the ST thinks you're not being Technocratic enough, the PCs' NPC bosses may suddenly withdraw their Allies, Resources, or similar. Letting actions have consequences is good, but it also means there's a noticeable divide between Backgrounds that can be taken away, and Backgrounds that can't. If your ST is running a difficult, consequences-are-real kind of game, it benefits you to pick Backgrounds that can't be taken away, and players who do lose their Backgrounds to random acts of ST will end up generally less competent than their peers.
In keeping with my rambling, poorly edited review of M20, I'll do a running commentary on the Backgrounds:
Allies: This is rated in 0-10 dots, with each dot being "one ally with some moderately useful abilities". You can convert a "moderate ally" into two "sidekicks", who can run errands and do busywork, or convert several "moderate allies" into one "major ally" who is more capable. Only major allies can use Magick. No guidelines beyond this is provided for how to make Allies, so the utility of this Background depends a lot on what the individual ST feels these adjectives mean. The actual dot ratings listed don't agree with the text. Allies 4 is supposed to give 4 moderate allies or 8 sidekicks, but is listed as giving 4 moderate allies or 6 sidekicks. Allies 10 is listed as giving the player access to ten capable allies (are "capable allies" the same as moderate allies?) or a "small army" - but Allies 10 is just 20 sidekicks by the rules, which is hardly a "small army". Since sidekicks can mostly only run errands and do busywork, they also make for a poor army. How many major allies you can get is also unclear; Allies 6 gives you "Six moderate allies, a small gang of sidekicks, or one or two really powerful friends.", where "really powerful friends" are supposedly more powerful than a regular major ally. Allies 7 gives "Seven moderates, a staff of sidekicks, or a handful of strong companions." - how much is a handful, and how do "strong companions" compare to "really powerful friends" and "major allies"? Allies 8 gives "Eight moderates, a bunch of followers, or a few major badasses."; how does "a few" compare to "a handful"? Is it using Heroes of Might and Magic III numbers? Are "major badasses" "major allies", "strong companions", or "really powerful friends"? The weakness of trying to use natural and varied language in rules text is that you end up sacrificing clarity.
Alternate Identity: This lets you create an alternate identity with [Alternate Identity] compartmentalized Background dots in it (you have to pay for the Backgrounds yourself). Seeing through the Alternate Identity is a [Mental Attribute]+Investigation roll against a difficulty of [Alternate Identity]+3. The way difficulties and dice pools works in M20, this means that if you have Alternate Identity 5, which represents "A fully supported identity with complete history, support documents, witnesses, fake family photos, alternate homes and so on." and encounter a regular police detective with Perception 2 and Investigation 3, they have an over 67% chance of seeing through your Alternate Identity. Alternate Identity 3, which reportedly stands up to casual inspection, fails 77% of the time when put in front of a mystery novel enthusiast (Per 2, Investigation 1).
Arcane: Instead of rolling whatever+Stealth, you can roll whatever+Stealth+Arcane when you move around in public spaces and don't want people to remember you were there. In short, it's a narrowly applicable version of Stealth. It does have the useful fluff effect of making people not remember very well what you look like.
Avatar: Your ability to absorb, storen, and channel Quintessence into your magick is capped at [Avatar]/turn, so if you want to cast powerful spells in this game about casting powerful spells, buy this. This is so important that the book several times calls out the need to buy this at at least one dot. Frankly, if it that important, you should just get the first dot for free. The way it's now it's just a trap for the inexperienced.
Backup: The way this is written, it implies that you can - at will - basically summon a group of 2×[Backup] people to help you out in some minor way; the example is gun-wielding thugs who cover your escape. Unlike allies these are not distinct characters, but rather faceless goons and other types of support personnel. You can also exchange your regular goons for half as many elite goons, who are very, very elite: "Traits in the 3-5 range" means that a combat-capable goon will also probably be a genius and part-time model. There's not much advice for how to stat up goons beyond this though. Further, it has that annoying note that since you get these goons to do work for you through some organization, you'll also need to do work for the organization, because your ST should stop the regularly scheduled game to throw you random duties just to remind you that nothing in this world is free. It's also unclear why this isn't just a version of Allies; the rules even note that elite goons are basically generic Allies for a single session. And, in a stunning example of sex-work-positivity, the text suggests that you can use this to call on "hookers" if you're a rock star...
Blessing: You get some minor bonus from a diety like "your clothes are always clean" or "your gun always has one bullet left", that doesn't otherwise affect magick or combat. Suggested blessings include "your punches have movie-like sound effects". This is yet another Background that can be removed at any point, since if you ever break with the deity that gave you the Blessing, it goes away. You also have to pick up a minor related quirk, like "an affinity for ravens".
Certification: If you don't have any dots in this, all you have is a government ID card and a driver's license. Want to have a hunting license or the license to run a business? Pay for 1 dot. Want to have a passport, motorcycle license, or a firearms permit? Pay for 2 dots. Concealed carry license, lifeguard certification, or or a private pilot permit? That's 3 dots. I find it rather striking that you're supposed to make up these elaborate backgrounds for your character, but you have to pay through the nose to have even the most basic things associated with such a background. You need to get Certification 2 to have a license for a motorcycle, for crying out loud!
Because Mage’s character-creation rules assume that beginning characters are new to the Awakened game, a character with this Background begins as a low-ranking member of an established stronghold. She gets the benefit of a belonging to a group of older and more experienced peers (who are probably Storyteller-run characters), but starts off at the bottom of the pecking order too. The elders have her doing errands and chores around the Chantry, and she lacks political clout within the group.
Fagging is usually frowned upon as a form of ingrained institutional abuse for a reason, and frankly the way MTAs romanticizes stuff like this as part of the Traditions and Disparates annoys me. You also have to pay for this thing the game assumes you have; 1 dot to even be a member of a Chantry. The exact benefits of having dots in Chantry are also very vague, and often you have to pay for those benefits separately; if a Chantry has a handful of Sleeper/Sleepwalker aides, you might have to pay the Allies, Backup, Cult, or Retainer price. The benefit of being in a Chantry that you have more experienced mages around to teach you, for example, is probably a Mentor you need to pay for.
Contacts: Allies who know stuff. They're a bunch of background NPCs that you can use to get information by asking them questions. You get [Contact] NPCs that are like moderate Allies you can ask for stuff (such Contacts are termed a "major Contact", despite being equivalent to a "moderate Ally"...), but there's no indication what these major Contacts actually do beyond "be NPCs", since they're there for asking questions. You also get a network of minor, innumerable, generic Contacts you can ask for stuff; this is the only thing that distinguishes this from Allies/Backup, and honestly the three should probably have been folded into one Background. Then they could share NPC-generation rules and not take up so much space.
Cult: Because magick is resisted by the Consensus, and the Consensus is shaped by belief, it's a lot easier to cast Vulgar magick if you surround yourself with people who genuinely believe in your mage's paradigm. This Background lets you have such a group who can help you with magickal rituals.
Demesne: The Demesne Background lets you visit your Demesne-realm when you sleep. What can you do in your Demesne-realm? Well, you can try to recall your own memories...
Destiny: You have a sense of destiny that lets you, once per session, roll your Destiny rating to regain Willpower points, until your ST pulls the rug out under you and tells you that this time it doesn't work. If the ST does that and you succeed at the task at hand, you lose this Background, because fuck you and your hard-earned XP.
Dream: You can
The form of concentration depends on the mage’s focus, and can range from a BDSM session to a hard night at the library.
Enhancement: You're a cyborg or something like that. It comes in three varieties; cyborgs, biomods, and genetic engineering. Cyborgs walk around with permanent Paradox on their sheets and take 2 levels of Aggravated damage extra when attacked by Life spells. Most cyborgs come with kill-switches and failsafes, and are closely watched. Bio-modifications give permanent Paradox if they're "obvious" and give the character a Genetic Flaw per dot in the Background. The generically engineered get a Genetic Flaw per dot in Enhancement. You cannot be a genetically engineered cyborg, by the way. Oh, yeah, and you get [Enhancement] extra Attribute dots or 3×[Enhancement] points of Devices to do fancy stuff with. Underneath all the ways this Background-you-have-to-pay-double-the-normal-XP-for fucks you over in capricious ways, I almost forgot it had benefits.
Fame: You're famous! Get bonuses to social skills. Also, like so many Backgrounds in M20, your ST is given a carte blanche to fuck with you, since you'll get stalkers and everyone pays attention to everything you do. Also you have to spend effort to stay famous or you'll lose the Background.
And just as there are folks who’ll love you for what you do, there’ll be folks who hate your guts for it as well. Fame brings stalkers, haters, critics, and thieves… and if you don’t want them in your life, then why’d you choose to become FAMOUS…?
Familiar: You have some kind of familiar, like a robot or alien. Sometimes giving context on how the Technocracy treats various magick things is good, but I find myself just rolling my eyes at how the Technocracy is mocked for actually believing in their paradigm :
Although the Technocracy does not officially acknowledge such deviation from protocol in its ranks, certain Technocrats – especially among the Progenitors, the New World Order, and Iteration X – have been known to employ Companions : cybernetically enhanced critters, bioengineered experiments, clones, and so on. Lab animals have their intelligence and capabilities boosted with the wonders of hyperscience, and vat-grown humans with perfect skin and dazzling features stock the offices and bordellos of Syndicate bosses. Out on the murky fringes where protocol becomes a stern suggestion, Void Engineers work alongside friendly(?) aliens and technologically modified Earth creatures. These Companions, of course, are nothing like those superstitionist familiars – such comparisons would be tantamount to treason! And yet, it’s funny how much Companions and Familiars have in common.
Familiars eat [Familiar] Quintessence every week, and in return you can add [Familiar] dots to Cosmology, Enigmas, Occult, and other very useful skills. You can also transfer up to 3×[Familiar]-1 Paradox to your Familiar when casting spells, but if you do this your Familiar will leave you. If your Familiar dies, you lose 1 dot of Willpower and 2×[Familiar] Quintessence - and if you can't pay that cost, you have to pay the difference in Paradox.
Influence: Basically, you can add [Influence] dots to rolls involving the social side of things. But...
Remember, though, that famous and influential people are easily recognized and tend to be responsible for (and held accountable by) lots of people. Influence is double-edged in that regard, and unwise activities can lower your Influence rating. Sure, you can walk into a restaurant and treat people like dirt – just expect some nasty social media reactions to you as soon as your back is turned…
Legend: You can channel the essence of a legend of pop-culture icon. This lets you, once per story, roll [Legend] to get Quintessence back. The difficulty of this roll is based on how well-known the legend is. The more dots you have, the less obscure the legend is, so having few dots in Legend makes it pretty useless... though 1 dot gives you access to pop-culture icons like Grumpy Cat. On the legend side of things, for 1 dot you can channel the legend of Abou Hassan. For 2 dots, you can channel a significant pop-culture figure like Janis Joplin (...who?), while 3 dots lets you channel Batman and Elvis. At 4 dots you can channel a major legend like Geronimo (...uh, who?) or Red Riding Hood, while 5 dots are "A universally popular legend" like Cinderella or King Arthur. Does anyone else think this is a bit patronizing and culturally provincial? This Abou Hassan guy, who apparently has a million restaurants named after him is a 1-dot Legend, while obscure figures from US history like Geronimo are 4-dot Legends and western fairy tales and literary canon like Cinderella and King Arthur are 5 dots. Frankly, Batman is probably more well-known than Cinderella.
(Also, you can store up to [Legend] Quintessence in one item, or one Quintessence in [Legend] items. Storing up to a total of [Legend] Quintessence in discrete units in up to [Legend] items in an arbitrary manner, however, does not appear to be possible, for some reason. Legend 3 does not allow you to store 2Q in one item and 1Q in another.)
Library: You have a library that helps you do research. How long time does it take to do research with a library?
Mentor: Like the Chantry and its customary fagging of new initiates, this Background romanticises often abusive or patronizing mentor-student relationships.
said training could consist of dropping you off rooftops, said guidance may involve more Yodaisms than a Karate Kid marathon, and said assistance could boil down to whacking you in the head just after you read that passage in the flesh-bound grimoire.
Mentors have their own agendas, of course, and those goals aren’t always obvious. Plenty of mages get their first taste of Awakened society from mentors who are distant, abusive, manipulative, uncaring, ineffective, or downright insane.
Basically, having a Mentor means you have some relation to an NPC that gives no tangible mechanical benefit, but has some interest in turning you into a pawn in their greater game.
Node: You have a Node that gives you Quintessence and Tass on a regular basis.
Past Lives: You can roll [Past Lives], and if you succeed, get +1 to one Ability. It's very similar to Dream, and I think that having a bunch of fiddly and very similar powers in a book this size is probably unnecessary; Player's Handbooks were invented for this kind of thing.
Patron: You pay points to have the ST decide how some kind of shadowy figure you don't know about will help you out in secretive ways. Then, some day, they'll demand you pay them back. M20 has a lot of powers that require the ST to adjudicate the entire effect. This Background is rated from 0 to 5, and each dot has basically the same description.
Rank: You hold Rank in some organization, which gives you [Rank] dots of Influence and [Rank]/2 dots of Fame over people in that organization, and [Rank]/2 dots of Resources to spend on organization tasks (or embezzlement). I'm quite serious when I say that M20 honestly reminds me of GURPS; this fine division of different social advantages within and outside organizations and the way they give you other Backgrounds with limitations for free is almost exactly like GURPS. Together with the expansive Abilities and long, long lists of
Requisitions: You can roll [Requisitions] to get points to buy magickal Devices with for a single mission. It's a Technocracy-only Background with a difficult dependent on how loyal the Technocracy thinks you are. It actually seems like a perfectly adequate way to abstract the random elements of a bureaucracy handing you tools way outside of your personal budget. At a hunch, I'd guess that this Background was originally written by Brian Campbell for Guide to the Technocracy , and has simply been ported over by Brucato.
Resourced: The Tenth Sphere of the Syndicate. You have money. If you have lots of dots, you have lots of money. If you don't have dots in this, you're one of the working poor and live paycheck to paycheck. 4 dots makes you a millionaire. At 7 dots you're a billionaire. At 8 dots you're "Bruce Wayne level" and "own companies". At 9 dots you're "Tony Stark level" and "own industries". I'm glad it tells me about owning companies or industries, because I don't read superhero comics and I have no clue how much more money Tony Stark has than Bruce Wayne. 10 dots is... just read it: "Bill Gates level wealth. You own governments."
Retainer: This gives you [Retainer] number of servants. These Retainers are like Allies, only they're not for combat, so they're like sidekicks, which you could get 2×[Allies] of.
Rich people have several retainers on staff, but you don’t need to be wealthy to have this Background. A homeless mage might still enjoy the loyalty of the kid she saved from an abusive dad.
Sanctum: You have a magickal place that follows your own paradigm, so all your magick cast there is coincidental. It gives mechanical benefits to casting ritual magick.
Secret Weapons: Requisitions, but only for James Bond-like gadgets.
Requisitions 4: [...] These items tend to be useful but plagued with finicky and perhaps dangerous bugs.
Spies: You have spies somewhere. Are spies useful?
Whatever your relationship to these spies might be, however, they could turn against you if you’re not careful. Money, magick, better drugs, the threat of torture – all these things and more might flip your spies into someone else’s service. And even if they do remain loyal to you, your spies can be misled with false data or mistaken impressions of what’s really going on. They know only what they’re able to see.
Having 3 dots in this Background gives you access to spies in the CIA or UN. 3 dots, if you remember, is what you need to invest to have a private pilot license. Be a pilot... or control spies within the CIA. Hmm... Decisions, decisions...
Status: Add [Status] to social rolls among your peers. Add [Status]/2 to social rolls among people who might know about you, but aren't peers. It's basically a less useful version of Influence or Fame. You trade utility for giving your ST less chances to fuck you over at a whim. M20 also seems to commit a very common mistake of RPG systems, where you can stack social bonuses to ridiculous levels. If you have Influence, Fame, and Status you start having bonuses of +15 to all your social rolls, which pretty much completely breaks the scale.
Totem: You have a spirit-totem that helps you out in return for doing stuff for it and following its rules. It gives you bonus dots to a specific Ability you already have a dot in, and dots to Cosmology or Lore. It might also help you fight "in exchange for a huge favor afterward", and is generally full of antagonistic writing. Have Totem 5? "Your bond to that spirit is obvious to anyone and marks you as a very strange, primal, and probably intimidating person."
Wonder: You have some kind of magickal item that has spells or spell-like effects of its own. They're described in Appendix II, so I'll talk more about them then. But, don't forget, fuck you:
Wonders can be temperamental… especially Fetishes, whose guiding spirits have personalities of their own. Even Devices, however, can seem uncannily stubborn, as anyone with a finicky car or computer can attest. They tend to have odd effects on the people who use them, especially mages who rely upon Wonders the way Elric of Melniboné relies upon his sword Stormbringer.
There are a lot of Backgrounds, and they combined the worst excesses of 90's design with horribly antagonistic writing and ST-adjudicated vagueness. Like Abilities, you have to pay ridiculous amount of points to make a regular character. I've been under the impression that the World of Darkness games sold themselves on their simplicity and elegance, but this is detail and fidelity that competes with GURPS. I guess that like Gifts in W20, they simply made a list of every Background ever published, but that strikes me as a bad approach; some should have been dropped for being far too fiddly, like Certification. Others should have been merged, like Allies, Backup, and Retainer, or Requisitions and Secret Weapons. The antagonistic writing that basically invites the ST to be capricious with their players is mindbogglingly stupid.
In short, it's so nineties!
Chapter 6: Creating the Character, Part 3Original SA post
Chapter 6: Creating the Character, Part 3
Arete is your magickal skill, which you use to cast magick. Sphere ratings just give you access to doing stuff; actual casting rolls are the lower of [Arete] and [Willpower]. You can't buy or use Spheres higher than [Arete] either, so Arete is very important. Arete starts at 1 for all Awakened mages, and can go as high as 10. At character generation, you can raise Arete as high as 3, and there is really no reason not to do this.
All mages start out with 7 instruments they use in their casting. If you're a mystic (non-technomagick) mage, you start realising that your entire paradigm is a lie at Arete 3, and for each dot above Arete 2 you can stop using one instrument. At Arete 9 you realize that you can just will things into being and paradigm doesn't matter. If you're a technomancer , you're stupid and hidebound because ha ha science is dumb, so you have to wait until Arete 6 before you can stop discarding your instruments (but at a higher rate, so at Arete 9 they don't need instruments any more). If you're a Technocrat , you don't get to discard your instruments at all, because ha ha science is dumb and the Technocracy are silly people.
To raise Arete you need to go on a Seeking . I don't thinks Seekings have been explained yet, beyond "You need to go on a Seeking to raise your Arete."
Willpower is rated from 0 to 10. Your Willpower dots act as an upper limit to your Spheres and how many dice are in your magick pool. Your Willpower dots also give you a number of Willpower points that can be spent to do things. You can spend a point of Willpower to:
Get an automatic success on a roll
Stop Paradox Backlash from happening
Roll to dispel a Quiet delusion
"Resist an overwhelming urge or compulsion"
You can also lose Willpower dots involuntarily and permanently, from some great shock, the death of a familiar, being tortured or betrayed, meeting Yog-Sothoth, and similar horrifying events. Willpower points are regained through a good night's sleep, achieving personal victories, and fulfilling your Nature. In a striking example of truly bad editing, the Nature entry under Willpower says fulfilling your Nature gives 1 to 2 Willpower, while the notes under Nature says fulfilling your Nature gives 1-3 Willpower.
Quintessence and Paradox
OK, here's how this works, in short:
Quintessence are points used to do magick stuff.
You can store up to [Avatar] Quintessence in your character.
You have an upper limit to how much Quintessence you can store of 20-[Paradox]
If you have more Quintessence in your pool than 20-[Paradox], the excess Quintessence is lost.
Was that easy, simple, and quick to understand? Good.
Now, in M20, this process is explained by giving you a wheel of 20 checkboxes. You have to fill in the boxes with with Quintessence equal to your Avatar-rating in the clockwise direction, then fill in your Paradox in the counter-clockwise direction, from the top. This is all explained in some pretty large blocks of bullet-pointed text. Almost as an afterthough, it mentions that maybe, yeah, not using the same mark for Quintessence and Paradox might be a good idea. That there's a difference between Quintessence points (which you can spend) and your permanent Quintessence (which is how many points you can store) is, I kid you fucking not, not explained . I had to read through the Backgrounds chapter again to tell if Quintessence came with points that could be spent, or if it was just a dot-rating like an Attribute. This is the sub-sub-chapter supposed to explain what Quintessence is and does, and it doesn't say clearly that Quintessence are points that can be spent. Deep within the list of what Quintessence can do, it's mentioned that your Avatar rating is the maximum Quintessence you can store , while the rules for setting up your Quintessence pool talks about your "permanent Quintessence", like they're not something that can be spent. Only from the context that talks about what Quintessence can be spent on is it clear that Quintessence are points that can be spent.
Quintessence points can be spent to lower the difficulty of a spellcasting roll, counter Paradox, or do countermagick (What is countermagick, you ask? Well, I'll tell you in four chapters.) You can regain Quintessence at Nodes, by absorbing Tass, or by using Wonders. Amusingly, the way it's phrased, the text implies that regular mundane batteries and energy drinks are Wonders that provide Quintessence...
Paradox is gained when casting Vulgar spells or botching any magick roll. (Botching is a type of critical failure not yet explained, because all the important mechanical parts of skills, Willpower, and Paradox come before the actual rules for rolling.) When things go really bad, you roll a number of dice equal to the amount of Paradox your character has accumulated to determine just how fucked you are. If a mage accumulates 20 or more Paradox, "she may drop into an intense Quiet, disappear through a crack in reality (possibly to return as a warped Marauder version of the person she once was), or simply explode. ".
There are ways to lose Paradox. They're not explained here, but I'll give you a little preview of a later chapter: if you have 1-5 Paradox, you lose 1 point per week. If you have 6-19 points of Paradox, they only go away in Backlash. Backlash is usually caused by gaining 5 or more Paradox at once. Mages with Prime 5 can also reduce Paradox. The net effect is that if you cast more than 5 Vulgar spells per in-game week, you turn yourself into a ticking time-bomb just waiting for a Paradox backlash to happen... and since it's triggered by getting 5 Paradox at once, it'll probably be 10+ dice of backlash.
You get XP at the end of every session for doing stuff. One point for participating, one point if your character learned something important, one point if you roleplay'd better than the group average, one point if you got into detail about how your mage casts magick, and one point of your character did something particularly heroic. At the end of every story-arc, you can get additonal XP for achieving some major success, surviving actual threats, your character showing particular wisdom, and for adding dramatic moments to the game. The game is very open about how XP is supposed to be a carrot-mechanic to motivate players to play their characters. My criticism of this is: If a "bad" player starts to wizen up, they don't actually catch up, they just stop falling even more behind. Presumably, all the "good" players aren't going to stop describing their spells the moment Boring Benjamin realizes he could get XP for describing his. Boring Benjamin is permanently punished by an XP-deficiency for failures to play the game perfectly from session 1. It's a very antagonistic form of motivation.
But then, antagonistic STing seems par for the course in M20...
There's a table of Experience costs. It has Current Ability cost 3, and Ability also costs 3. I don't know what a current Ability is. Is it an Ability I already have? What's a Current Sphere, and how is it different from Affinity Spheres and Other Spheres? Is the "current rating" when it says the cost of an Affinity Sphere is "current rating x 7" the rating I want or the rating I have ? (That's a lower-case x, by the way, and not a ×) I presume these costs are supposed to be per dot, but it doesn't actually say that anywhere in the Character Progress chapter. I genuinely don't know how to spend XP to evolve a character!
Sample Character Creation
Jinx. Kicked out of her home at age 16 for getting caught with both her girlfriend and her boyfriend in her mother’s bed, Jinx wound up sleeping under bridges in Seattle. Now swept up into gutter-mage intrigues
Jinx has the concept Wiseass Street Kid , and she's "restless risk-taker often taken to excess", so she has a Dynamic essence, Rebel Demeanor, and Seeker Nature. Now let's take a look at what Jinx' character ends up as based on her concept. The huge range of the dot-ratings can make for some very interesting results.
Jinx is cute, tough, and not stupid, exactly, but not overly blessed in the brains department either.
STR 2 DEX 3 STA 3
PER 2 INT 2 WIT 2
CHA 4 MAN 3 APP 3
This is the most average Attribute-block you can make a starting character, and because Attributes have a linear cost increase per dot, the least optimized build possible. Jinx' will find herself falling far, far behind the other characters at her table, no matter how good the player is at roleplaying. In short, a poor example that teaches poor behaviour.
Strength 2 is average strength and the text notes that Jinx' is supposed to be stronger than people expect her to. Which is strange, given that you'd assume that most people would expect a random person off the street to have average (2-dot) Strength, but because M20 has such a small range of strength values, it makes sense. Using my chart of lifting-capacities of female US Air Force recruits in 1982, this places her in the 99th Percentile of women, which certainly is more than the regular person would expect. Now, all in all I don't approve of strength penalties of female characters, because this is not fucking 1977 and we've grown beyond that shit, but I think it highlights one of the weaknesses of the dot ratings; STR 1 is a 1st Percentile woman, and STR 2 is a 99th Percentile woman. There's no space on this scale for the average woman; the scale seems to be calibrated on men (poorly calibrated, but you know...) such that for men it's possible to differentiate between "average", "very strong", "professionally strong", and "professionalll strong++", while for women there's "weak", "really strong", and "professionally strong+" to "professionally strong+++". It's not a major point (again, I prefer it to -4 STR), but I think it says something about our culture in general and the way we design games, that Strength scores reflect male capabilities with far higher fidelity than female capabilities. (Also it's kinda funny that it's not even possible to play a woman of average strength.)
DEX 3 and STA 3 makes Jinx "Quick-fingered and sure-footed" and "Hardy and tenacious". Mentally Jinx is strictly average.
CHA 4 gives Jinx Exceptional Charisma, which is described as, and I quote, "Shiny!". MAN 3 means Jinx is "a smooth operator when [she] wants to be", and APP 3 makes her liable to be mistaken for a professional model (but not good-looking enough for people to give her their phone numbers).
Jinx' Streetwise of 1 seems rather low; this is the level of rock musicians, while everything about Jinx' description wants you to know how badass she is and how tough living on the streets is and how tough it's made her. Brawl 2 is described as "You're from The Bad Part of Town", so having just lived a short while as a homeless person is supposed to have taught Jinx all these fighting skills... but she only has Athletics 1, which is not someone who gets exercise regularly. Together with Jinx' pretty average Strength, I find myself wondering if she ever actually wins any of those fights; she's not in very good shape. She has Carousing 2, which has the helpful description "“Do a little dance/ Make a little love/ Get down tonight…”". This is higher than "“YOLO!”" but lower than "“Sin, that you might be forgiven.”". Her Seduction 1 is supposed to represent the abilities that let her bed a boy and a girl at the same time... but Seduction 1 is the ability to score desperate drunks, not get teens involved in polyamory.
So... Jinx, the not-all-that-smart-if-not-stupid 17-year-old who got kicked out of her home has Academics 2, equivalent to a 2-year university education? INT 2, and she managed to pick up knowledge equivalent to a university education all on her own? Yeah, sure. Computers 2 means she's "studied IT systems and can do basic programming", in addition to all the time and effort she's devoted into studying Esoterica and the Occult. She can't do First Aid though, and despite her self-studied academic achievements she doesn't seem to remember any of her high school science education since she doesn't have any dots in Science. Having done a lot of drugs also means that Jinx knows Pharmacopeia, the skill of knowing drugs and poisons, at 1 dot. Much like how I have Science (Computer Science) 1 from playing lots of video games.
Etiquette is a weird skill; the way it's described it's mostly for high culture type of things, but at the same time it's supposed to apply to any culture, with specialities for the Internet and subcultures. Jinx has 1 dot in it because she's good at talking to people, as if the Manipulation 4 didn't already tell us that. Jinx has 1 dot in Melee because ~streets~ and the way Melee is rated this means she might manage to not injure herself in the process of swinging a blade or club around; laughably pathetic, in other words. Frankly everyone should have 1 dot in melee. Stealth (also gained from the streets), likewise, means Jinx might not be spotted at night if she's wearing dark clothes. Strangely missing is Technology; Jinx can, apparently not, work a TV remote or electric blender. The ~streets~ haven't taught Jinx anything about Firearms either. And since she doesn't have an Area Knowledge, Jinx can't actually navigate the ~streets~. I think it's telling how full of traps the skill system in M20 is when the example characters end up missing vital life skills.
Avatar 5 is probably a good choice. Allies 2 is supposed to represent two Orphan mage allies of Jinx' - Orphan mages are magick-using Allies, who are major Allies; you can't get two magick-using Allies with Allies 2. You could get, at most, one. Arete 2 is a dumb choice, since Arete 3 is vastly more useful, but Jinx' player didn't want Jinx to be an experienced mage, so I guess I'll let it slide. You start with 6 dots to put into Spheres, so for her Arete level the Spheres aren't too bad (though 3 Spheres at 2 would be better optimized).
This is basically all that's said about Jinx' paradigm/focus/whatnot:
For a focus, Camille selects the World of Gods and Monsters paradigm and combines chaos magick , gutter magick and witchcraft to form her practice. As instruments, she employs dice, booze, graffiti sigils, a handful of lucky coins, muttered prayers to Risk, offerings of her own blood, meditation, and insane stunts dedicated to Risk. Jinx literally offers herself as a sacrifice to Risk, employing her Acrobatics, Athletics, and other Traits to supplement her magick. In game terms, then, her seven focus instruments are art , blood and fluids , cards and instruments of chance , meditation , offerings and sacrifices , ordeals and exertions , and prayers and invocations .
All the italicized words are in-game terms for how magick is used. Of note, none of this really explains how Jinx thinks magick works. Risk is explained elsewhere, and is basically a god of fortune and luck. What does it look like when Jinx tries to cast a spell? Not explained. I can at least skip ahead to Chapter 10 to learn what some of the italicized terms mean. I should mention that Jinx is an Orphan, which means she's not been initiated in a formal paradigm and instead just kind of made stuff up on her own.
A World of Gods and Monsters: This is the belief that there are gods and monsters in this world, and most of them hate you. It doesn't actually explain how magick works, but I guess it's supposed to be the work of those monsters and gods?
chaos magick: I'll quote from Chapter 10:
occultists understand chaos magick as a postmodern and often improvisational Art. Like other mystic practices, it emphasizes knowledge, reflection, and other forms of self-improvement. This revolutionary inversion of traditional mystic disciplines, however, depends upon personal intuition and interpretation; individual freedom; a deliberately iconoclastic approach; and an often subversive use of pop-culture symbols, social behaviors, and improvised designs.
Chaos magick spits in the face of established dogma. Often regarded by outsiders as a Left-Hand Path , it’s a sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll sort of practice, raising and directing personal energy (that is, Quintessence) through extreme experiences. Obviously, this sort of thing appeals to Cultists of Ecstasy, whose more formal practices – Tantra, vision questing, ordeals, and crazy wisdom (see below) – have been integrated into the chaosmagick potpourri. Even that diverse culture, however, is too confining for many chaos practitioners, whose embrace of the Chaosphere – the whirling fractal of absolute existence – resists confinement in any form.
Playful yet serious, each chaos-magick practice draws from the individual practitioner’s experiences and desires. Depending upon the individual practitioner, it can integrate formalized ritual or involve spontaneous improvisation… or both, or neither. Flexibility and personal investment are innate elements of the practice as a whole, often connected to psychic thought forms called egregores: concepts given reality through extensive investment of psychic energy.
Did that make anything clearer? No? Don't worry, I don't understand it either. But I have read about chaos magick on Wikipedia, and chaos magick is basically a magical practice that believes that magic stems entirely from belief, and that spells can be worked by any means as long as you believe in them. A common practice of chaos magick is to will yourself into believing in a form of magic, and then doing that magic; because you believe in it, it works. This allows chaos magicians to accomplish more by drawing from multiple magical practices.
gutter magick: This is doing magick without proper ritual tools. It goes on and on and on about the aesthetics of gutter magick (aka. "things Brucato likes")
witchcraft: You have the powers of a pop-culture witch. Also, just read the following:
Today’s witchcraft features a postmodernist brew of traditional European wise-craft; 19th-century literary occultism and 20-century mystic fusions; pre-Christian elements from Greek, Norse, Celtic, Hindu, Slavic, Roman, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian cultures (with prodigious cultural appropriations from Native American, African, Romani, and occasionally Asian cultures); repurposed Christian and Jewish practices (especially Catholicism and the Kabbalah); postmodernist philosophy, and New Age takes on quantum physics; mass-media iconography; and tons of pure invention wrapped up in a bright bow of fantasy media, political activism, and technological polyculture. This high-eclectic synergy often incorporates computers, the Internet, pop psychology, chaos theory, and other elements that would be entirely unrecognizable to old-school wise-crafters.
art: By drawing something with art, you get a sympathetic connection to them, which lets you do stuff to them. Or they're simply affected by looking at your art.
blood and other fluids: You can work your power through bodily fluids, be it drink them, spill them, or drawing it out of the body
cards and instruments of chance: You do magick with cards or dice or whatever
meditation: You meditate. This lets you cast spells
offerings and sacrifice: You sacrifice something. In return stuff happens.
ordeals and exertions: Causing yourself pain or physical exercise lets you do magic
prayers and invocations: You pray to some higher power, and they do stuff for you. Or you say a phrase that has inherent power, and stuff happens.
So what does this mean? Well, Jinx believes there are gods and/or monsters, and that they're hostile. Because of this belief, she channels her Awakened Will through chaos magick , which is a paradigm in itself where magick is a thing that exists that you can cynically exploit by swapping your belief around like NES cartridges, gutter magick which just means Jinx uses things not commonly associated with magic to cast magick, and witchcraft , which means that Jinx can do... witch stuff. Or believes in witch stuff. It's not entire clear; Brucato's description of witchcraft seems to be a mixture of other forms of magic again, like Kabbalah and New Age woo.
How this forms a paradigm is not entirely clear; what about believing there are monsters out there allows Jinx to cast chaos magick? Why does the existence of gods and monsters in the world allow witchcraft to exist? (Is it because Jinx believes she's one of the monsters?) Jinx makes offerings in blood to Risk, which makes sense, but how do the lucky coins enter into it, or the dice? What part of worshipping Risk involves meditation as a thing separate from prayers? We're told pretty much nothing about how Jinx does magick; she does risky stuff, Risk favours her, and... then what? How does Risk favour her? What kind of power does Jinx believe gods in this World of Gods and Monsters have? What, in particular, are her beliefs about what witches can and cannot do? This is not explained - her focus and paradigm are like some chaos magicians occult wishlist; "I want to do a little witchcraft, and call upon the powers of some gods, and I want to work through blood, and I want this and this and..."
The metaphysical underpinning, that all of MTAs is a lie and magick is just camouflaged chaos magick, is so blatantly transparent when presented this way; you just pick some things and it doesn't really matter what they are, because you can do literally anything with it. I think it's worst with the Orphans, because they strongly encourage just playing someone who can do magick through anything with their chaos magick, gutter magick, and self-made paradigms for magick. Fans of MTAs have called this attitude a "Purple Paradigm", where your Paradigm is effectively "the rules" with a thin varnish, rather than your magick actually obeying the rules of your paradigm.
Almost as if Brucato has been reading over my shoulder, the book then starts talking about how Jinx' freebie points are assigned. Freebie points are a process by which after you've designed your character by handing out dots , you get points to buy more dots for at different rates. In practice it means you'll probably want to plan how to assign your character's freebie points before you start assigning dots. The result is that the step-by-step process the game uses to make characters falls apart. Jinx' player gets the following:
Area Knowledge: Seattle 1
I mean, it's good that the game actually has the example character have Area Knowledge so they're not completely lost, but the text actually says that Jinx's player asks the ST if she can have Area Knowledge: Seattle because she's been talking to the spirits that live in Seattle, and not because she lives in Seattle . Moreover, the book suggests that you should have to ask your ST to be allowed to get Area Knowledge 1, as if knowing a place as if you've lived there a bit is some obscure knowledge the ST should vet for realism! And then... this:
Meanwhile, the Storyteller points out that two mage Allies are more powerful and useful than two-dot Allies; James suggests making Khan a Mentor instead.
If it was wrong, why did you use it as an example?
If it was wrong, why did you use it as an example?
If it was wrong, why did you use it as an example?
I'm somewhat ignorant of the sorry state of US teen homelessness and violent urban living conditions, but the tone I've been getting from M20 is that living on the streets and living in The Bad Part of Town is this mythologized and romanticized thing that involves an incredibly violent lifestyle where hand-to-hand and armed fights are commonplace, and everyone has graduated the School of Hard Knocks as amazingly cool badasses. And maybe it's like that. I don't live in the US. But the impression I get is that this is more of a glorification that over-emphasizes certain elements of what actually living in poverty is like, rather than an accurate representation. And it comes off as kind of offensive and patronizing; all the poor are violent criminals who fight all the time, do drugs, and have ties to organized crime! Now go have an escapist fantasy in the cool version of being poor. Like a blacksploitation movie.
Also, I feel like quoting this from the intro fiction to this chapter:
Why did he bother with her anyway, when she dressed as she did? She preferred brilliant greens and pinks. And her roller skates – the old-fashioned kind that tightened with a key, fit over her high, green boots. Several gold pocket watches woven together with red and pink roses sat atop her abundant curls.
Next, the STing chapter: eating pizza during the game makes you literally Hitler.
Chapter 7: Telling the StoryOriginal SA post
Chapter 7: Telling the Story
The snippet of intro fiction here is a piece about an Etherite cultist who's sitting in a cloaked car that's slaloming between cars on the motorway at full throttle, while the Etherite is up to his eyeballs on not-LSD. The moral of the story is "go do fun things", like test experimental technologies in the middle of traffic while high as a kite.
The text says it assumes the reader is familiar with roleplaying games, then goes on to explain what a roleplaying game. Supposedly for clarity's sake, but all it really does is describe all referee'd roleplaying games in existence and stress that, like, RPGs can be full of passion and art, man. There's half a page explaining things that, if you've played an RPG before, you'd already know - and it doesn't add any particular clarity to anything. Perhaps the first evidence we get of any particular style is this tidbit:
Contrary to the old-school stereotypes about “Game Masters” who run their players through a gauntlet of terrors, each member of a Mage gaming troupe becomes a story-teller in his or her own right. The capital-S Storyteller makes the big
decisions regarding rules and settings, but every player has a part in the creative process.
The text says this, but the system has a lot of elements and writing that basically invites the Storyteller to be capricious and punishing. The ST is encouraged to punish characters with dots in the Fame Background with stalkers, paparazzi and haters. Actually using a Familiar for anything makes it liable to leave you. The Destiny background is all about giving you a capability and then removing at with no forewarning. As written, players who haven't carefully designed their characters will find themselves unable to navigate their own neighbourhood or use their washing machine. The first dot in many Abilities are described in terms of incompetence. Setting elements are full of "and then X randomly happened for no reason and you died". But, no, it's not about running through a guantlet of murder.
That said, some of this advice is genuinely good; it says to be open to things not going as the ST had planned, and to let players at least have the opportunity to try something even if it won't work (the example is pulling the Moon closer), while at the same time reserving the right to say that some things (like vampire changeling werewolf mages) aren't a good fit for the tone of the game. Gauge player's reactions and behaviour to know when a player should get the attention to draw them back into the game again. Don't play the game with people who are dicks. Don't be a dick. Things like that.
But just look at this uneconomical writing:
There's maybe two useful sentences in that, and the entire rest of it are just It's put in a sidebar, so it has its own margins and takes up even more space in the book. There's no reason this couldn't be folded into the main text. Keep in mind that this is how the entire book (except the Technocracy sub-chapter) is written. I'm not getting paid to edit this whole thing, so I can't say for sure, but I'm pretty sure if you cut out all the unnecessary sidebars, rants, off-hand comments, and excessively flowery language, the book would be almost half its current length. Half .
As the Storyteller, you get to define just how much those rules affect your chronicle. Maybe you prefer a loose improvisational style in which dice play a minor part in the overall experience. Or perhaps you need a firm set of rules so that your players don’t rip your chronicle apart. Most often, you’ll probably choose a middle path between those extremes, balancing the needs of your story with the stability that rules provide. Fortunately, the Storyteller System that gets detailed in the following chapters allows you a lot of flexibility.
The Storyteller, though, isn’t the only person who depends upon the rules. Your players need them too, if only to help them figure out what their characters can accomplish. Consistent rules protect your players from capricious “story tyrants” and even protect the players from one another. Like the limits and boundaries discussed nearby, a set of clear, consistent rules allows everyone to relax and have more fun.
In your role as Storyteller, be fair and consistent in your application of the rules.
Yeah but like... you can't say that the ST has the authority to decide when the rules are applied and also that the rules are supposed to defend the other players from the ST's whims. It's also somewhat weird - even though many games do it - to see this idea that they've written all these rules, yet don't expect the players to use them. Brucato doesn't really expect the rules to be used in full, but instead that the ST chose a middle path but then why are there all these rules? By his own admission he's not expecting them to be used. OK, so he's writing the Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition and not a completely new game, but that didn't stop him from making up the Disparate Alliance wholecloth, so it's not like the existing gameline is sacred to him, and he's not even trying for compatibility with V20 or W20. It speaks of someone who has oddly little faith in their own rules. It reminds me of a thing Derek Chappell wrote in the "rule zero" part of one of his games "This is usually where it says you're free to change the rules as you see fit. I don't want you to do that. I wrote these rules and I think they're good and that you should use them!" (paraphrased).
Back in the early Mage days, anguished Storytellers would often call the White Wolf offices asking for advice. Once the rules questions got cleared up (an important step in those early days!), the best piece of advice we could offer – then and now – was this: don’t game with assholes.
I see this sentiment a lot, and while there's a relevant truth to it; some people do just use RPGs as an excuse to be assholes, I think it's all too often used to dismiss complaints. What an "asshole" is isn't very clear; it can be anything from someone who intentionally sabotages other people's fun because that's how they get their jollies to people who won't let dramatic ~story~ things happen because they want to influence the story to go in another direction, to people who steal the spotlight with their very efficient combat build. It's such a simple, black-and-white thing to say, that ignores all the reasons why someone might be an "asshole" - some people do assholeish things because they get a kick out of making others miserables, others do it because they're unaware of how their actions are seen, other again because they prioritise their own fun over the other players'. There are some people who are perfectly fine, enjoyable, friendly, players who I love to play with... but if they spot an abusive option they'll take it and make everyone miserable.
There's a sidebar with advice on adjusting the content to your players, avoiding content that may trigger uncomfortable memories or feelings of unease or revulsion, and the alike. Genuinely good, forward-thinking stuff, but...
Certain topics, though, present potential land mines – especially in a setting based on interactive entertainment, where characters often become extensions of their creators. Rape, racism, sexual or gender-based assault, domestic violence, harm to children or animals… these subjects, and others like them, can trigger emotional trauma simply by appearing in a tale.
It’s tempting to say, “ Chill out – this is only a game. ” Emotions, though, aren’t nearly that simple. Interactive entertainment encourages people to identify with their characters; such connections, in turn, inspire strong emotions. Especially for folks who’ve suffered real-life violations, the idea of experiencing such things in the context of entertainment can kick their legs right out from under them. I’ve seen it happen. Don’t go there.
This book opens by dropping off-hand mentions of child sexual abuse in my lap!
It also recommends adopting a system of safewords from BDSM (or, you know, improv theatre) so players can voice their objections. Again, there's genuinely useful stuff in this chapter. Much of it are ideas that have been floated around the RPG community for a while, but having it written down in the pages of the book are a good thing; I just wish the text gave some of it some deeper thought, and Brucato stopped wasting so many words on everything. Like the safewords. OK, safewords, he explains what they are - and he also mentions the BDSM connection. It's unnecessary; seven superfluous words that don't add anything to the game. One of those things that I would totally have ignored were it not for all the seven superfluous words in this book being the death of seven thousand cuts for me.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be rich or have a big house in order to set up a good gaming space
Depending on your resources, you might want to keep your notes in a computer, smart phone, or other data storage device. Even then, though, you might get the best use out of old-school paper notes for the sessions themselves. In the heat of combat, it’s easier to pick up an index card than it is to search through a bunch of folders on your laptop screen.
There's lots of traditional advice here: make notes! Prepare yourself mentally before STing. Go through your notes before the game. Have a place to play that isn't distracting. Maybe play some music to set the mood? And then we get to food...
Many gaming groups favor a potluck approach, with the members all bringing something to the table. Others pool their money and pitch in for a meal prepared by someone else. Whatever you do, please buy smart, eat healthy, and give your hard-earned cash to ethically-run local businesses whenever possible.
And here's my favourite Brucato being Brucato:
Even so, it’s a good idea to get the feast out of the way before your game begins. The rarified reaches of the Astral Realms may be hard to evoke when the scent of pizza’s in the air. [...] However appropriate the meal, though, it’s best to get the eating out of the way before your game begins. That way, the attention’s on you, not on the last piece of pizza congealing in its own grease.
Eating pizza is literally the worst. Don't you dare eating during the game, we're here to play a very serious game about Kung Fu mages fighting magickal serial killer nihilists who worship Cthulhu. Buying relatively cheap food from a place that delivers so you don't have to exert yourself making food for a large group of guests? Now you're literally Hitler. (More seriously, the disdain Brucato shows for people who aren't economically well off is rather noticeable - he frowns on the conveniences of modern life all the time, putting his nose up at BigMacs and Pizza, ignorant of the fact that having the energy, time, and money to do things in more "authentic" ways is something not everyone can afford. Brucato appears to be completely unaware of his own privilege, and it grates me to be presented with it when reading this book.)
Almost an entire page is taken up just talking about using music in an RPG context. Unable to avoid cruft, Brucato just has to tell the reader about the olden times, because it's vital for STs to know that back in the day it was all about the vinyl plates and mixtapes and stacks of CDs next to a CD player. The recommended genres for a Mage campaign are:
Dark Sacred World Fusion
Neotribal World Fusion
Trippy Rave Techno
I'm not entirely sure whether Brucato is actually talking about real-world genres or just stringing words together. "Dark Sacred World Fusion" has 11 bands listed, but is so obscure a genre that Google doesn't know what it is. Frankly, he's probably just pulling these things out of his ass. The genre Power Techno has four bands suggested: Juno Reactor, KMFDM, Project Pitchfork, and VNV Nation. One of the things they have in common is that I've listened to stuff they've made. What they don't have in common is genre. KMFDM is (electro-)industrial rock/metal. VNV Nation are synthpop, far softer than KMFDM and anything with the name "power" in it. Project Pitchfork (my least favourite of the bunch) are dark wave and electronic rock. Juno Reacto is many things, but also unlike any of the previous groups except in that at some point they've made techno and industrial music. It's very hard to take someone seriously when they try to convince me that Megalomaniac , Illusion , Rain and Mona Lisa Overdrive are in the same genre. There's some similarities, especially between VNV Nation and KMFDM, but come on! When we're on the level where it's important to keep the Neotribal Ambient away from the Neotribial World Fusion, and the Neotribal World Fusion away from the Dark Sacred World Fusion, we can't just start claiming that the synthpop, dark wave, goa trance, and electro-industrial are all the same!
First Sumerian language and now subgenres of electronic music...
Make sure the player characters have something in common! Give them some common goal to work towards. Make them start off in the same situation and see where it goes from there! Make them start in the same location when the Nephandi warship attacks (Brucato immediately dismisses this idea though, so I have no idea why he mentioned Nephandic warships in the first place). Maybe they're working on some common goal? Maybe they're forced to work together like in the Dirty Dozen ? Maybe they have a common enemy in the Nephandi? This content isn't bad, but it's also painfully generic. The STing chapter is 39 pages long. It takes a good 18 pages to get to the first piece of advice (other than music) that is actually MTAs-specific (characters have sensory magickal powers, so remember to describe their environments in a wider sensory spectrum).
Here's an example of what the pages in this chapter are spent on:
This doesn't have anything to do with M20, let alone the chapter on STing!
As a general rule, a Storyteller shouldn’t let random chance kill a player character. Unless the player and his mage do something truly stupid, it’s generally good policy to give your player an escape hatch from mortal harm. Maybe those
seven levels of aggravated damage knocked him into a coma and left him in a heap of bloody meat. He’ll need healing, of course, but he’s not dead YET . Death ought to be reserved for dramatic moments of heroism or disaster, not a chance fall of the dice. After all, heroes don’t often trip over a curb and die.
Yeah, but again, you wrote the rules . You wrote, black on white, that when all health boxes fill up with Aggravated damage, the character is dead. If you didn't actually want the characters to die why did you write that rule? There are many games that have running out of HP simply mean unconsciousness or inability to participate in combat. It was a deliberate choice to have characters die when their health boxes are full, and it's supremely stupid to paper over this with Rule Zero. If your rules produce results you don't want, why did you write them in the first place? This is game design 101!
This passage is immediately preceded by this one:
Lethal violence, in Mage, tends to be risky and dramatic… and therefore rare. When such violence does erupt, make it scary. Let it hurt . Show blasted ruins and weeping widows. Post APBs to every cop in town. Have Resonance ripple in the wake of atrocities. And unless you plan to run a high-adventure game, remind your players that mages don’t soak lethal and aggravated damage unless they use potent and often vulgar magick.
This seems to say that violence should be lethal and risky... but at the same time something that caused seven Aggravated damage (which is a whole lot of damage, not something you pick up by accident) isn't supposed to kill the players? Saying one thing, and then the exact opposite, doesn't make you smart - it makes you unfalsifiable and also useless.
Invaluable advice is not the word I'd use. I'd also not waste page-space on jokes when my book is over 600 pages long and I've complained about not having enough space to cover Sorcerers.
There's a worked example of a campaign in here. It's about how a company that claims fracking rights to a natural gas source underneath a sacred grove and wilderness refugee in the Appalachians is actually a front for the Technocracy, which is actually corrupted by the Nephandi.
That said, Mage is more than D&D with leather trench coats. A game in which folks run around blowing up gas mains with impunity isn’t really Mage . The esoteric elements and themes give Mage its compelling atmosphere, so it’s worth exploring them whenever possible.
I'm 20 pages in and the only two actually MTAs-specific pieces of advice that have been given are the one about sensory input, and to characterize locations with the behaviours of the spirits that live in them. More information starts coming on the 26th page. It's not very in-depth though; there are Avatars, the book says. You should play them, it says. They're shaped by the beliefs of the mage. They're not always nice. That's really all there is. At least there's some information on Seekings, finally: basically, the Mage runs through a personal D&D dungeon of abstract challenges and tests relating to their real-world difficulties, like a room representing unresolved gender issues or a faltering conviction. If the mage fails any of the tests in their Seeking, they don't get to raise their Arete. Though unlike a D&D dungeon, you're not really supposed to solve this thing with dice, so in the end it just comes down to the ST telling the player where they succeed at the esoteric challenges the ST presented. I imagine it like playing an old-school Sierra point-and-click adventure game; every death is a failed attempt to raise you Arete, and you're not allowed to save.
There's one line that catches my eye:
A Seeking’s features and goals always depend upon the mage’s Path. An Akashic mage will strive to disassociate himself from mortal delusions, a Bata’a mage will Seek for greater unity with the Loa, and a Nephandus will embrace deeper levels of corruption and deceit.
This seems strange; increasing your Arete almost always means that you get closer and closer to the Purple Paradigm. If anything, the Bata'a should realize unity with the Loa doesn't really matter.
Gender is dynamic, not static? Ze/zir are "Generally used in socially progressive circles"? Gender is a bit of a nebulous concept, but it being "dynamic" or "fluid" (as in the earlier sidebar) is not really an established fact. Some people have proposed that it is, but this a very academic and sometimes abstract idea of gender that people in "socially progressive circles" don't necessarily subscribe to. The idea that gender is not static is not an idea that has much recognition among trans women, because these trans people have a very clear impression of their gender being set (it just happens not to match with their bodies), and on the political side of things, see claims that gender are fluid or dynamic as attacks on their identities and a transmisogynistic attempt to erase their identities. It's a claim that has a lot in common with gender being a social construct, which is a concept that in cis-trans relations is almost always used to invalidate trans identities; gender is a social construct, so you're not really a woman since that's meaningless - you're just a man (an equally meaningless term, but we'll still insist on it). I again point to how Brucato's conception of trans people seems to be non-binary identities; the things he's writing here are rather ignorant of trans women's struggles. In my experience, almost nobody uses ze/zir as pronouns; they're somewhat awkward neologisms compared to the singular they , which has gained a lot more traction among socially progressive circles.
But what is Ascension?
There's an explanation here for what Ascension, the end-game of MTAs is. It's... well, it's this deeply personal thing that's individual to each mage. The only real commonality is that it requires transcending the need for power, magickal or otherwise. All that stuff about the Global Ascension that the Traditions were supposed to bring about, that the Technocracy's Scientific Consensus was strangling? That's really more of an ideal than a real possibility.
Ultimately, Mage is not about accomplishing Ascension but about pursuing it.
But what is it?!? It's really, really hard to get into the mindset of a character who's pursuing something that's described only in the vaguest terms. This was a huge problem back in MTAs 1e (and part of the reason a lot of people side with the Technocracy); the text authoritatively states that Ascension is good, but fails to describe what Ascension is and how it's achievable. This makes it very hard to really care about both the Ascension War and personal Ascensions. They're lofty goals and pipe dreams, and if you're the least bit cynical, taking on good authority that, yeah, Ascension will totally make everything better is very hard.
And this is apparently what MTAs is about. Something you're not allowed to know what is.
Next comes several pages for how STs should handle magick, which is all about how they should enforce paradigms and make sure everyone are using their foci properly. You're not simply allowed to cast using the Spheres; you have to describe how your mage tries to accomplish their effect. If the player doesn't satisfy the ST's requirements, the ST is just supposed to say "no, you can't so that" (but unlike Game Masters, Storytellers are totally not supposed to be tyrants - it's a cooperative effort ). This strikes me as inelegant. There's better ways to motivate players to use their paradigm - one is even already part of the rules. First, the summary of what makes a spell Vulgar mentions that if the mage doesn't cast within their paradigm, the effect is Vulgar. That's a pretty good enforcement-mechanic; if the player doesn't give an in-paradigm description of how their spell works, they take Paradox. No player would ever cast without well-described foci and paradigm-justifications ever again! Secondly, just use Stunt dice like in White Wolf's other game, Exalted - the ST can aware 1-3 extra dice to spellcasting rolls depending on the level of description. These are far better solutions than the ST and player playing mother-may-I with the player's paradigm. (Note in particular that the player comes up with the paradigm, but the ST enforces it. If the ST misunderstands how the player thinks the paradigm works, the player could very easily get frustrated with their ST.)
There's also this:
Ah, magick – the core of Mage. Most RPGs feature lists of prescribed magical spells with damage, duration, and so forth regulated by levels or power points. That’s not how magic (no k) actually works, however, in the real-life applications of the Arts. Both the real-life mystic practices involved with magic and the literary form of fictional magic show magic as an extension of the person who uses it.
See, all magic is actually chaos magick. It's not even true. Historical magical practices (and consequently all fictional magic based on it) have often involved what we'd today call a scientific approach that has nothing to do with the magicians' will. Alchemists, for example, broadly believed that their experiments were repeatable and based on natural laws, with the self not entering much into the equation at all (in fact, this approach is what led the modern science of chemi stry to develop from al chemy ). Likewise, John Dee believed that summoning angels by chanting in Enochian was just as much of a universal science as his work in mathematics was. The idea that magic is somehow not just another form of natural law (i.e. a science) is a post-Enlightenment idea, and, to quote Wikipedia: "Modern Western magicians generally state magic's primary purpose to be personal spiritual growth". This book is written from an intensely Modern Western viewpoint, and it steamrolls everything else.
And so, although Mage is not some occult teaching tool, its approach to magic(k) as an extension of the magick-user is true to both life and fiction.
Oh yes, Brucato was the guy who didn't really want to describe the paradigm and casting-practices back in 2e, because he was afraid someone would actually cast a spell at the table, wasn't he?
There's a chapter on the types of campaigns can be run, divided into five types; Traditions, Technocracy, Alliance, Orphans, Mixed. The Disparate Alliance is a secret alliance, by the way. I don't think the chapter on the Disparate Alliance mentions this. It's buried in the STing chapter, for some reason. This is also the only place we learn that the disparate Crafts of the DA don't cooperate in the same way the Traitions in the Nine Mystic Traditions do; they're mostly isolated. This would be great information to have in the chapter on the Disparate Alliance . What's it doing here, out in the STing chapter? It's also noticeable how deceptive the Disparate Alliance chapter is; it claims the Oprhans as part of the DA, but the STing chapter treats them as a separate group, being treated as an equal category to the Traditions, Technocracy, and Alliance.
The passages about the Technocracy talk a little about making it a human campaign with releatable human goals about stopping the paranormal from hurting ordinary humans. The way it's written, it seems Brucato suggests that instead of using the regular Traditions, the Traditions in a Technocracy game should be as evil as the Technocracy is in a Traditions game, full of bloodthirsty witches and mad occultists. It's so... is that all you can conceive? Black and white moralities all over the place? Can the Technocracy and Traditions never be, actually, both kind of wrong and kind of right?
A Technocratic chronicle reflects the ambivalent attitude we have about technology and control. As citizens of a wired world, we love our toys and fight to keep them… even when that fight leaves innocent people dead. Those toys might be corrupting us, especially in a Nephandic-infiltration chronicle, but that doesn’t make technology evil on its own terms.
This is a really complex topic that deserves far more than one line, and probably shouldn't be associated with the Nephandi. If you're going to go face to face with the hypocrisy and crimes of the modern west, blaming it all on Cthulhu-worshipping serial-killer nihilists doesn't really do it justice.
By the end of the book, I don't have an answer of any of the MTAs-related STing questions I have. There was mentions of Seekings, of Avatars, of Ascension, and of city-spirits and sensory impressions. There was nothing on how any of other magick the PCs and NPCs shape the needs of a game. Like, for example, how you can't do regular murder mysteries when time-mages can just look into the past, or spirit-mages can ask the spirit of the floor who did it. Nothing on how, and to what degree, you can keep things secret in a game where there are all these sensory powers and mind-reading and spirit-contacting mages. Pages upon pages are spent on generic GMing advice, ranting about people who eat pizza, and offering music suggestions, but actual useful advice is scarce. This chapter was 39 pages long, and I think the usual information I got out of it could have fit on a single one.
I hate this book.
Chapter 8: The Book of RulesOriginal SA post
Chapter 8: The Book of Rules
Chapter 8 is the first chapter in Book 3. Book 3 has its own internal cover. This is followed by a full-page art piece. This is followed by another piece of full-page art. No wonder the book is long.
The rules first tell us that we shouldn't really bother with the rules and that the ST should fudge the rules as necessary, and that in the end, you'll probably want the entire group to switch over to letting ~drama~ determine what happens. The text then talks about M20's system for handling time. There are Turns , which is the time it takes to perform a simple action (which can be seconds in combat and minutes in other situations). Scenes are self-contained sequences of events. A Chapter is the span of a single gaming session and should probably have a beginning, middle, and end (this is really poor writing advice, by the way - it doesn't tell you what is supposed to go in each part, and most analysis of fiction tends to break it down into five or six parts anyway). Stories may string together multiple Chapters, and have multiple rises and falls along its beginning, middle, and end. Story Arcs string together multiple Stories and let me just stop you right there. Story arcs are generally feature of episodic media, and refer to single stories that are stretched over multiple episodes. If you string stories together, they may form a greater story, but using "story arc" to refer to multiple stories is dumb; roleplaying games are already delivered in an episodic format - the Chapter/sessions - and a story-arc is necessarily a story stretching multiple sessions. Story Arcs are then combined into a Chronicle , which is mostly defined by featuring the same characters over again. The text also tries to explain Downtime , but does a rather bad job at it. It kind of fails to communicate that you probably shouldn't play the downtime.
The World of Darkness Dice Mechanics!
Most role-playing games use single-variable dice mechanics. That is to say that ultimately the dice roll can be described by a single variable that summarises the other variables, usually as a linear combination. D&D is an example of this; difficulties have a DC-rating, and you compare [Stat]+[modifiers]+[roll] with this to determine success or failure. In effect, the entire system can be described wholly in terms of DC-[Stat]-[Modifiers] as a single numerical value, compared to a dice roll. Call of Cthulhu is the same; everything can be described in terms of a %-chance to succeed that is usually a base percentage multiplied by half or double.
Some systems use two-variable dice mechanics; here a dice roll has to be described by two variables. White Wolf's Exalted 1e is one such system. In Exalted, dice-rolls are determined by two values; the number of dice rolled, and the number of dice you need to roll 7 or more on to succeed. Due to boring math, this can't be simplified into a one-variable system. Two-variable systems are in general harder to predict, because the ST or player must keep in mind how probabilities can change as either or both of the two variables change. Some people don't care about this, while other find it frustrating that it's hard-to-impossible to know what their characters can be expected to accomplish.
M20 is a
1 Poor / Miniscule Chance: 50%
2 Average / Middling Chance: 65%
3 Good / Decent Chance: 74%
4 Exceptional / Good Chance: 80%
5 Superb / Rather Good Chance: 84%
6 Legendary / Really Good Chance: 88%
Notice that a regular roll with just 1 dice is claimed to have a "minuscule chance" of success, yet 1+ successes occurs 50% of the time. The dice-probabilities are difficult to calculate, and the guide provided in the book is misleading.
External conditions usually affect the Difficulty of the roll, while internal conditions like a headache can give a penalty to [Attribute]+[Ability]. There's an optional rule for allowing penalties to apply to the number of successes necessary, called a Threshold (What is the difference between Threshold and Degrees of Success? ) - adding further complication, especially since things that penalize Difficulty can flow over into becoming a Threshold.
It's also unclear what should be handled as a Difficulty and what should be a minimum degree-of-success; here are the examples given:
3 Trivial (hopping a creek)
4 Easy (cooking a meal)
5 Straightforward (changing the oil in your car)
6 Standard (punching someone in the face)
7 Challenging (comprehending a book by Crowley)
8 Difficult (playing all of "2112" on your guitar)
9 Extreme (sealing a multimillion-dollar business deal with reluctant partners)
Degrees of Success
1 Marginal (finding a useful TV Tropes entry)
2 Moderate (getting someone's cell-phone number)
3 Complete (delighting your new playmate with a fresh-cooked breakfast)
4 Exceptional (selling five books to someone who'd come looking for one)
5 Phenomenal (writing the 500,000-word anniversary edition of a series you helped create 20 years ago)
The idea seems to be that Difficulty relates to how challenging something is, while Degrees of Success relates to how much better than the bare minimum it was accomplished, but that's wholly a matter of perspective or phrasing. For example, if your character walks up to a random person in a goth club and you say to the ST "I flirt", then it might make sense that 2 successes on your Manipulation+Seduction roll would give you a phone number. Running the same scene again, though, you could have said to the ST "My character flirts and tries to get their phone number". Do you still need 2 successes to get the phone number, even though you set out to get it in the first place, and so 1 success should be enough? (if you "marginally" get someone's phone number, you still have it!) Is the difficulty of the Manipulation+Seduction roll adjusted to compensate? Should I consult a probability-chart to see whether it benefits me the most to use Generic Flirt with a low Difficulty and high Degree of Success, or Specific Flirt with a high Difficulty and a low Degree of Success?
And some are just baffling; if Brucato hadn't rolled 5 successes on his Wits+Art to write M20 ( ), what would that mean? It would seem to imply that he'd have failed to do so because it was difficult... but that's already what Difficulty does; for all intents and purposes "seal a multimillion-dollar deal with reluctant partners" and "write a World of Darkness 20th Anniversary Edition" are both equivalent in that they're "difficult tasks".
M20 lets anyone attempt to do multiple actions in a turn, and the way the system works and the examples give makes it seem punishing and brutal for a system all about telling a ~story~. When you want to do things at once, you determine the dice pools for each thing you want to do normally. Then you pick the smallest of those dice pools, and divide its dice between the actions you want to accomplish. The example given is someone trying to put on a performance while also observing several people at the edge of the performance (I think this means they're at the edge of where the audience stands/sits?); a performance artist with 7 dice in the performance and 5 dice in observing people then has to split 5 dice between the two actions. The first thing that comes to mind is that requiring rolls to keep an eye on someone while performing is exactly the kind of brutal gauntlet-of-terror-style STing the text railed against earlier; if you know what you're doing, it shouldn't be hard at all to watch someone while putting on a performance. Secondly, being a really good performer does not make it easier to do other things while performing. Since you're limited the smallest dice pool, being really crap at observing people mean you'll probably fail at the performance too, for some reason. It makes sense in some cases (where you're doing two things that require lots of concentration), but many things are automatic when you can do them well, freeing up the mind to do other things at the same time.
Also, Wits does not actually make you better at multitasking, unless your lowest dice pool is a Wits-pool. This despite Wits supposedly being the Attribute of skilled multitaskers.
Another example of a multiple action is "running to a door and yanking it shut". Really? Roll to close a door? That's on the Get Dressed and Walk Across Floor level of skill-nitpicking. It makes sense that running to a door and yanking it shut could require a dice roll, if it's a time-intensive task - but surely that's just Dexterity+Athletics to run fast enough? Is the door supposed to be so heavy it's a separate Strength+Athletics roll? Then why doesn't the text mention that it's a very, very heavy and hard-to-close door? It's a terrible example, and a bizarre system. It certainly explains why Brucato thinks you should not actually use the rules all that much, because he makes you roll to close doors .
There are some perfectly OK rules here for teamwork and opposed rolling. I think the rules for "Extended Rolls" are poorly explained though. The way they're described, it's basically just a different way of rolling; you get to roll X times, and if you don't get at least Y successes total over those X rolls, you've failed. As such, probability-interactions aside, it's just a normal roll with more dice and more successes required; a regular roll would have sufficed. What's kind of hinted at, but not actually explained, is that Extended Rolls are great for determining how long something takes, especially if you don't limit X. Just tell someone it takes 1 hour every time they roll to repair their car, and they need 7 successes - now you have a simple system for determining how many hours it takes to fix a car, and each roll can add a little drama if fixing the car sooner rather than later is important (such as if you need to pull a truck out of mud before angry pursuers catch up to you). None of this is really explained though, so it ends up being a variation on a regular roll with an off-hand mention that each of those X rolls represents a period of time.
The sidebar "Trying Again" is in the wrong sub-chapter.
If you fail a roll in M20, you can either try some other approach, or try again at +1 cumulative Difficulty (the table above is almost entirely superfluous). As the table above implies, this is supposed to make actions basically impossible after a while. Though what actually happens is that since you can't get Difficulty higher than 10 you just plateau at Difficulty 10. Usually this is a bad thing, since the expected number of successes at Difficulty 10 is always 0; each 10 on the dice adds a success, and each 1 subtracts a success. You could always go for the Law of Truly Large Numbers and just keep rolling until you by chance get enough successes to succeed, but this runs a very high risk (~10% to ~27%) of causing a 'botch' (the WoD term for a critical failure). Botches are caused when you have at least one 1, and no successes, among the dice you rolled in a dice pool. Botches behave really oddly; for some Difficulties and [Attribute]+[Ability]-ratings, the chance of botching will actually increase if you increase the Ability or Attribute rating. Sometimes, as dice pools grow, the proportion of botches to regular failures will grow, meaning that you either succeed, or fail very badly. It's not explained how botching interacts with Threshold; do you check for botching before or after you subtract the Threshold dice? It's not actually explained!
Points of Willpower can be spent to give an automatic success on a dice roll, in addition to whatever it rolls. Since the dice can come up as 1 and give negative successes, this isn't always enough, but since the Willpower point grants 1 success, botching becomes impossible. It's also fairly likely to cause the roll to succeed anyway, since rolling many 1's isn't that likely - it would be a good way to almost guarantee success on important rolls, but the ST can easily be capricious here; Thresholds, Degrees of Success, and Extended Rolls are all mechanics that can be thrown at the player to basically invalidate their Willpower point's ability to make things succeed automatically.
At times it feels like this book was written by two different people who weren't communicating. Here's what Brucato says about botching and Thresholds:
Because a high difficulty number makes it hard to score even a single success, the player and Storyteller can decide to handle the task with a threshold (see p.387) rather than with a single roll. In story terms, the character decides to take a longer, more careful approach; in game terms, the Storyteller lowers the difficulty in exchange for an extended roll. This way, the task takes longer but might have a lower chance of botching.
Brucato also wrote about Thresholds, and Brucato, despite what Brucato says, wrote them as being a different thing from Extended Rolls. Even the example for the above passage isn't actually a Threshold:
Example: Malcolm works carefully this time. Rather than pressing the business deal, he takes the client out for drinks… then to a strip club… then for more drinks at another strip club. “I’ll work this guy all night,” says Steve. “No hurry here.” The Storyteller agrees to an extended action at a lower difficulty – three rolls, four successes, difficulty 6.
That's just an Extended Roll! Roll three times, try to accumulate four successes. A Threshold would be if the ST said "OK, I'll lower the difficulty to 6... and you have to get 4 successes on one roll." (Which is, somehow, distinct from just requiring a 4 Degree of Success.)
Lethe, this system sucks. The dice mechanics are opaque and complex, with lots of poorly explained levers the ST can pull to make things happen. They're unclear (this is the 20th Anniversary Edition supposed to clear things up, remember!), misleadingly explained, and at times self-contradictory. And it thinks you should roll to close doors. Rolling to close doors!
Chapter 9: Dramatic SystemsOriginal SA post
Chapter 9: Dramatic Systems
Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 are separated by a full-page art piece. It's a pretty piece, but it doesn't really show anything MTAs-related, unless you count floating naked women MTAs-related. It might capture some kind of MTAs-related gonzo anti-normal style, but it itself has basically nothing to do with the game. In any case, since the sheer amount of pages spent just on art annoyed me, I decided to go through the book and look for pages with nothing but art and count them.
Page 1: Internal cover
Page 34: Internal cover
Page 35: Art
Page 36: Art
Page 54: Art
Page 72: Art
Page 84: Art
Page 116: Internal cover
Page 117: Art
Page 118: Art
Page 244: Art
Page 340: Art
Page 380: Internal cover
Page 381: Art
Page 382: Art
Page 306: Art
Page 406: Art
That's 17 pages out of a 687 pages long book! Even granting them the internal covers (which should be full-part pieces, rather than the cover repeated with a new title) that's still 13 pages just of art that has little to no purpose. This is also not counting all the half -pages of art, many of which have just as little relevance. A painting of a baby resting against its mother next to the Politics Ability. Someone sneaking up to a house on a hill while Brucato talks about how the ST should arrange a location and food for the game. Someone blowing ice next to text not describing ice being blown at all. Each chapter has a tarot card next to it that takes up space. Every sub-chapter has a face-shot starting it off. A tiny little thing that maybe takes up an extra line or two at most, but it happens often and it's all over the place - and they're not even original; they're just chopped out from other art-pieces in the book. Like, mistake me not, most of the art in this book is gorgeous, and it's a gorgeous book overall, but it all becomes so very hard to ignore just how much space is spent on art when the book is almost 700 pages long. This is longer than GURPS by fourteen pages! There's also 17 pages just listing the people who backed the Kickstarter - understandable, but at some point you just have to say 'no' to doing that, you know?
After being told, again, that the rules should be dropped to serve the needs of ~drama~ and a summary of the various dramatic systems to come, there's also a sidebar for converting between US Customary and metric units " Because Mage is international – and Mage fans are even more so! " (but apparently not international enough to use the standard of 95% of the world as a base - just say you're using US Customary because this is an American game for a primarily intended audience of US-Americans). 1 ton is converted to .9 megagrams .
When action erupts, each activity becomes a distinct and concentrated moment, and its importance becomes obvious only after the action ends. In The Matrix, that sense of bullet time captures the strange sense of calm-amidst-chaos… a sense mages understand all too well, especially those familiar with the Sphere of Time.
M20 uses a three-part system of turns where everyone first determines initiative, then everyone declares what they do and then roll for it, and when everyone's finished doing that, all the effects of what they did is determined. This does actually create a sense of simultaneous actions, because it's ordered declarations followed by simultaneous resolution... but I can't help but think that it makes for pretty slow resolution. As is usual, Initiative is DEX+WIT+1d10, with DEX+WIT as a tiebreaker, which has WIT as a tiebreaker, which has DEX as a tiebreaker. What happens when DEX and WIT is tied is not explained.
M20's basic system of doing stuff on an action-by-action basis is a pretty regular one, so I won't explain it in much detail. There's a list of automatic actions that take a turn (which also lists exceptions to the general rule, which is nice) like getting to your feet, walking, talking, picking up stuff, and starting a car. I'll quote the part about starting vehicles:
Starting a Vehicle: It doesn’t take a roll, or much time, to start up the average car. Starting a tank or airplane, of course, is another matter – it might take several minutes to get all the essential systems online.
According to the rules, if you move at half or less your running speed, you can still act without penalty. If you do move more than half your running speed in a turn, you take a dice pool penalty equal to the number of yards moved. Not yards moved in excess. Yards moved. Running speeds start at 23 yards/turn and increase with Dexterity, so if you move more than half your running speed, you'll get a -10 or more penalty to all your actions. Characters can move at full speed for a minute or two minutes per dot in Stamina they have - but what happens after that is not explained.
There's a list of different things one can do in the game, and it's refreshingly long - often games that have examples for how to do things leave out many things a player might regularly want to do. Not M20. In fact, M20 might at times go too far... Computer , Hacking , Programming , and Surfing are distinct dramatic feats. There's Design for research and brainstorming, and also Research . There's Jury-Rigging for fixing things, and also Repair . Deception is telling a lie, Fake-Out is misdirection, and Seduction is emotional manipulation including non-sexual means. Some are simply badly named; Demolition , the feat of destroying something with your hands, for example, given how often the term "demolition" is used for destroying things with explosives.
The idea seems to be that similar feats are differentiated by how they're used; Hacking, unlike Computers and Programming, is a Resisted dice roll... fair enough, but Computers is a "Standard or Extended" INT+Computer roll and Programming is an "Extended" INT+Computer roll; why not just fold them together? Cryptography , the feat of making or breaking codes, is INT+Knowledge, where "Knowledge" refers to some Ability needed to decode the information, like Estoterica, Linguistics, or Science with appropriate specialities mandate. Cryptography is an Ability . The skill of breaking codes. Why is it not mentioned here? Why is there a feat that shares a name with an Ability? Fake-Outs are [Any Social]+Streetwise, because obvious Streetwise is what you use to misdirect people, and not Subterfuge. Interrogation is [Any Social]+Intimidation, because apparently all forms of interrogation involve scaring people now? I'm particularly wondering how Appearance+Intimidation is supposed to work; it's supposed to represent "using beauty to your advantage", but I'm trying to scare someone. The same applies to Torture ; Appearance+Torture is a valid way to torture someone!
It's also rather noticeable that every social feat suggests any social Attribute can be used; it suggests that which one you pick for your character doesn't really matter, since it applies anyway. On the converse side, Wits and Stamina are basically used for nothing, which would seem to make Intelligence+Perception and Strength+Dexterity the obvious choice when making a character. This also applies to some Abilities; did you sink points into Seduction to be very good at seducing people? Well, it turns out that Subterfuge can also be used for seducing people, so you're no better at seducing people than someone who's good at lying.
Climbing, Demolition, Flow-Arts, Foraging, Hunting, Jumping, Swimming, Craftwork, and Cryptography note specific effects of successes or difficulties; each roll of Foraging is 2-5 hours (helpful ) and each success on a climbing roll climbs 5 feet (but if I move up to the movement sidebar in the previous chapter, it's 10 feet per success, and 5 feet under poor conditions). Other skills do not; Hacking is an Extended roll, but how long of a time does each roll represent? Programming? Research? Repair? Surfing the 'net?
Detailed information for chases is provided though, with the entirety of the game's chase-rules provided as a note on a list of generic feats one might want to do. If something has dedicated and detailed rules like the combat system, would you look for it in a summarizing table?
The Difficulties of these feats are noted, but about a third of them just say "(varies)" with no further explanation. A particular favourite of mine is Torture and Resistance. Torture is a Resisted [Any Social]+Torture roll with Difficulty 6 against the target's Willpower or STA, with Difficulty "+3 (varies)". That doesn't even make any sense!
Health and Damage
M20 uses a variation of the Revised WoD system, where damage comes in three forms; Bashing, Lethal, and Aggravated. Bashing is marked along the Health track with slashes. Lethal is marked along the Health track when X's. Aggravated is marked along the Health track with asterisks. If your Health track is full of slashes from bashing damage, you mark new bashing damage on top with backwards slashes, turning the slashes into X's. The rules are rather opaque in explaining that this is not just more Bashing damage. I have to skip to the intro to this subchapter to find the statement "Xs designate lethal damage " - otherwise, Bashing-X's aren't really explained to be the same as Lethal-X's, which is important since they have different healing times. Mechanically, Aggravated damage is supposed to be Lethal that you can't heal with First Aid... but it never actually explains this. It's damage caused by special sources, like Lethal it can't be soaked by Stamina, and it can only be healed with Life 3 and time. What would be useful to know is if Aggravated damage means you bleed to death, like Lethal does; once you take 3 or more points of Lethal damage, you automatically take 1 point of Lethal every day until stabilized. Does Aggravated also cause this?
As Macklemore says, we live on the cusp of death, thinking it won’t be us. That’s especially true for the Awakened, whose intense insights and godlike powers bring them closer than most of us to the mysteries of their mortality. Whether or not he ever faces down a cyborg in a dark alley – or is that cyborg in the alley, facing something worse – a mage has a keen sense of life and death. When violence erupts, as it all too often does, its effects can’t be ignored.
To keep the action moving and the drama high, emphasize descriptions over mechanics. Play up the sweat in a hero’s eyes, the whine of ricochets, and the flying chips of plaster thrown around the room by a hail of bullets. The many options detailed below give you something more to do than make yet another attack roll and hear either “You hit” or “You miss.”
I think I'll get into the nitty and gritty of the combat here, because it has a lot of weird cases and strange things the ST has to paper over in the name of realism.
After Initiative has been determined, the player that goes first chooses their attack, followed by the second player, etc. DEX+Firearms or DEX+Energy Weapons for shooty things, DEX+Athletics for throwing things, DEX+Melee for stabby weapons, DEX+Brawl for punchy attacks, and Arete for magickal attacks. There's also DEX+Athletics for special melee attacks, DEX+Martial Arts for fancy punches, and DEX+Do for magickal punches. You may remember there's an Archery skill, but it's not mentioned here. Then, once everyone have chosen their attacksand targets, everyone gets to choose whether to defend. However, defending yourself is an action, so if you've already declared an action this combat round, you need to succeed on a Difficulty 6 Willpower roll to change your mind, or spend 1 Willpower point if the ST will let you , because combat really needs that level of ST arbitration. Then once everyone have chosen their defensive actions, if any, all those things are resolved.
Initiative sucks. The more you have of it, the earlier you go. When you go early, everyone else gets to respond to your declaration that you're attacking; instead of having to roll Willpower to defend, they can just chose to defend if they need to. And if someone attacked you, but were themselves attacked and decided to forgo their attack to defend, you want to go last, so you can say "well then I don't try to defend at all and get my attack!". Yet DEX and WIT add to Initiative, making you go first. I think a completely different part of the rules notes that you can delay your place in the Initiative queue to make take an action that most opportune moment to you, which introduces further headaches as one suddenly has to resolve cascades of people waiting so they can go last...
There's four kinds of defences; three of them are different ways to divide dice between attacks and defence: Dodging subtracts successes on the dodge roll (DEX+Athletics/Acrobatics) from an attack. Blocking subtracts DEX+Brawl defences from a hand to hand attack, or DEX+Martial Arts from thrown attacks and arrows, because karate and judo let you do that. If you block someone who attacked with a melee weapon, they get to roll their attack pool a second time as extra successes (this is poorly explained - exactly how it interacts with negative amounts of successes and the successes rolled on the defense pool is unclear). Parrying is like Block, but
The last kind of defence is a Dodge, except you chose not to do anything else, even previously declared attacks, during your turn, and in return you get to Dodge all attacks against you, but the 2nd roll gets -1 dice, the 3rd roll gets -2 dice, the 4th gets -3 dice, etc.
Then you roll for damage; [Damage]+[successes-1] damage. What does negative damage, which is a possibility, do?
According to the rules presented in other World of Darkness books, those marks are cumulative; if you add that X or asterisk to the top of your Health chart, then you’d add another / to the empty square underneath the marked ones. Unlike vampires and werewolves, however, mages don’t usually regenerate their injuries, and so two or three blows can take a mage out of action unless he’s incredibly fortunate. Therefore, consider it a Storyteller’s judgment call. Your troupe may elect to simply keep the marks as they are – turning slashes into Xs or asterisks if need be but not also adding new slashes to the empty boxes on the track.
Then you roll [Stamina] dice to Soak Bashing damage.
So... what does combat involve?
Well, first everyone chooses an attack, then everyone rolls to see if they get to defend, then everyone rolls attacks and defences, including damage from blocking swords with their arms, then everyone rolls damage, then everyone rolls soak. That's 4-6 (blocking swords with bare arms and Soak are less commonplace) dice-rolls per turn per character! And let's forgot that resolution happens after everything has been declared, so everyone have to remember what their character is doing, including the ST who has to remember what all the NPCs are doing! This is a nightmare to keep track of, and an arduous process of rolling all those dice. GURPS combat is simpler than this. Phoenix Command combat is simpler than this. This game! This game.
But we're mages! We can cast magick in combat. And countermagick!
There's four ways to cast magick in combat. We can cast magick using an attack as a focus, we can attack to enhance magick, we can cast magick to enhance an attack, or we can cast magick as an attack or for some effect. When casting with Attack as a Focus , we roll Arete and our attack; if the Arete roll succeeds, the spell goes off. If we also hit our target, the spell actually hits. If we miss the target, the spell misses. If the Arete roll failed, there's no magick. The rules say "there’s no magickal Effect; a punch might land, but a gun will not fire", although why is never explained - can't regularly fired bullets be a focus? I think the way this is supposed to work is that the damage of the spell replaces the damage of the attack, but the rules say that the damage from the spell reflects the damage of the weapon, which would make it sound like the damage from the spell is the damage of the weapon - which would make this entire thing moot. If you replace your weapon-damage with your spell damage though, why would you ever? Magick deals about 2*[Successes] damage on the Arete roll. A katana does [successes on to-hit roll]+[Strength]+3 dice of damage. Even an average person would do more than 5 dice of damage with the katana itself, while they would do about 6 dice of damage with the starting Arete pool. With a firearm, it's [successes]+ 4-6 dice of damage with pistols and [successes] + 7-8 dice of damage with long arms.
If we instead Attack to Enhance Magick , we attack normally, and then get -1 to the Arete-roll's difficulty for each success on the attack up to maximum of -3. Focus plays an important role her; if the attack is the focus is the spell (e.g. firing fancy nanomachine-bullets for a technomancer) this takes one turn - but if the attack is just a preparation for a spell (e.g. using the blood spilled to summon a demon) the spell happens on the next turn.
We can also use Magick to Attack Better ; roll Arete, each success gives -1 to an attack roll, up to -3. This is a really powerful effect, since lowered Difficulty means more successes on average. It's also an effect that's really easy to make non-Vulgar. A particular favourite of mine is the NWO focus: "I have received really good training in shooting guns", and then you use this focus to lower the Difficulty of shooting a gun.
Cast a Fireball : Roll Arete and cast a spell. No attack required.
So in addition to the 4-6 rolls made in regular combat, mages will probably roll another time to cast spells enhancing their attacks, or to use the attack as a focus for a spell. This makes for 5-7 rolls per turn per character.
And you know what M20, the ~story~ game about philosophy and deep reflections on the nature of reality needs? Really detailed weapons and combat rules! Do you want full auto (hillariously powerful, at +10 dice, +2 Difficulty) attacks with you gun? Do you want to aim your gun for bonuses to hit? Do you want to use one of the four levels of cover the game provides (one of which is lying prone, which appears not to impair movement speed at all...) Do you want three-round bursts, in case automatic fire wasn't enough? Should the weapon stats tell you which guns you can fit an extra bullet in the chamber of, allowing you to fire 31 bullets out of a gun with a 30-round magazine? Should Kicks and Punches be two separate combat maneuvers with different Difficulties and damage ratings? Of course! Let's also throw in punches to the kidney with stun effects! The game has curbstomping written up as an actual move you can do on an unconscious opponent, because gratuitous violence against unconscious targets should obviously be modelled with the combat rules...
This is a game that doesn't really require you to use miniatures, and certainly doesn't have rules for where someone are facing, but it nonetheless has rules for flanking enemies in melee combat!
Some of the combat manoeuvres are also superfluous; why ever use a Kick (DEX+Brawl, Difficulty 7, STR+1 Bashing) when you can use a Haymaker (DEX+Bawl, Difficulty 7, STR+1 Bashing + knockdown)? But really, all the Brawl combat maneuvers are superfluous when you can use Martial Arts, which is simply better and costs the same during character generation. Why use a Kick when you can use an Elbow/Knee Strike? (DEX+Martial Arts, Difficulty 5, STR+1 Bashing) or the Snap Kick (DEX+Martial Arts, Difficulty 5, STR+1 Bashing) (yes, they are identical). You can pick 2 Martial Arts moves per dot in Martial Arts, out of a total of 16, so if you decide you're going to have any melee combat focus at all you can almost exhaust the list - and even at 1 dot, the Snap Kick is far better than the regular Kick.
Martial Arts also gates some things you probably should be allowed to do ever without formal Martial Arts training; you need to buy the ability to throw people from a grapple with your Martial Arts dots.
Do , the special Martial Art of the Akashics is even more powerful; for every dot in Do a character has, they get 2 MA techniques and 1 Do technique. Unless, of course, you read the description in the summary of Do, which says a devotee of Do may employ any Martial Arts technique as long as they have as many Do dots as the technique requires MA dots. The rules are really full of this kind of poor editing, where one passage will say one thing and another passage will say something else. Do gives a -1 Difficulty bonus to regular melee attacks (though it appears to not let you substitute dots in Do for dots in Brawl, so masters of Do are apparently not necessarily very good at regular punches - the same applies to Martial Arts-masters not being good at Brawl-attacks.) The only real drawbacks of Do is that it's hard to learn, you can only have 2 dots in it at the start of a game, and that it must be practiced for one hour every day - failure to do so will result in a drop of 1 dot/2 weeks until the training-regiment resumes. This is not exactly a huge drawback...
Do can also be used to add successes to any non-violent rolls at the cost of a point of Willpower, in case it wasn't already a ridiculously good investment...
I'm going to cut it short here because this chapter is long. In summary, it's a mess. A complete and utter mess. Where Brucato's lengthy writing and problems sticking to a topic were annoying before, they become genuine problems when he tries to explain rules. Things are poorly explained, rules are in places they shouldn't be, different parts of the book contradict each other, and much like the lengthy lists of Abilities and Backgrounds, the thing is an exercise in maximalism not really befitting of the rest of the game, or the ~story~ aspect Brucato encourages. Mechanics should encourage players to do things, and things that are important should have mechanics that support it. Why, then, are there few rules for supporting ~stories~, while the combat chapter adds complexity that makes GURPS and Phoenix bloody Command look simple in comparison?
Chapter 9: Dramatic Systems, Part II: Eh, just make something up I guess?Original SA post
Chapter 9: Dramatic Systems, Part II: Eh, just make something up I guess?
M20 contains some vague outlines for how hazardous environments might be hazarduous, using the existing rules. The vagueness of the rules is pretty insulting; dangerous conditions may inflict 1-4 Bashing damage per hour, but nothing really explains what a dangerous condition is, or when when any given frequency is appropriate. 4B/hour is for "truly extreme conditions", which is difficult when I have no idea what that's relative to . "Environmental protection gear add to the Stamina roll[to soak environmental damage] (generally between one and three dice)", but when is something environmental protection gear? The difficulty for the Soak is not given; it says to check Resisting in the Feats sub-chapter, which was the feat that has a nonsensical difficulty. "Deadly situations - like hard vacuum or deep-sea pressure - inflict lethal damage instead. [...] Such damage usually involves quarter-hour intervals[...]". There's lots of examples of things that kill faster "in minutes or even seconds." but no guidelines are given for what kills how fast, and there are no real examples of what's supposed to inflict 1 Lethal every 15 minutes. It feels more like someone's notes than proper rules, and the way every parameter has to be adjudicated by the ST makes me wonder why it was written up in the first place.
The rules for thirst and starvation are far more well-defined, but surprisingly generous. Each day without food causes 1 Bashing, and each day without water causes 1 Lethal. A Stamina roll with increasing difficulty per day without nourishment can alleviate these effects - the net result is that the average character can survive for a little over 8 days without water, which is pretty impressive. If the ST does rule that you can't heal while starving or thirsting. Bashing damage always heals at a rate greater than 1/day, so it's not possible to die from starvation, and sometimes thirst, unless already heavily wounded when able to heal - there's no explicit note here in these rules about this, and the rules for healing damage don't say anything about conditions that prevent healing from occurring (and even then, the most reasonable interpretation is that the most severe conditions cause slower healing, which for low levels of Bashing damage is still faster than starving. These rules have a giant gap that require the ST to step in and correct them, which is always an annoyance in rules.
The rules for using the Demolitions skill are hidden away in the Explosions sub-chapter of the Environmental Hazards sub-chapter, because you'd obviously go look for them there, rather than in any of the parts of the rules involving the use of skills. There's lots of fancy tidbits here; the passages on electrocution note a TENS unit (a therapeutic device also used a lot in BDSM) as doing Bashing damage, akin to a taser or car battery. Falling damage maxes out at 10 dice of Lethal at falls of more than 100 feet, which means that with 7 health boxes, the chance of dying immediately from a fall of any height is a mere 4% (if my dice-roller works like it should). In other words, most people in M20 would survive jumping out of an aircraft, especially if they start receiving First Aid within 24 hours of impact.
A flying object loses one die of effect after the first 20 feet unless it’s self-propelled or aerodynamic, two dice after 30 feet, and three after 50 feet. A thrown table, for example, loses momentum thanks to its mass; a motor-powered car, however, does not.
Thanks to its mass? The more mass it has the less momentum it loses. Deceleration is inversely proportional to mass, and proportional to surface area and the square of velocity.
There are rules for damaging objects; instead of Health, objects have Structure, and instead of Soak they have Durability (which is a straight reduction rather than a roll) which works equally well against Bashing, Lethal, and most types of Aggravated damage. If that sounded easy, rest assured that the text will spend many paragraphs explaining this with lots of unnecessary asides, like how Dracula can't bite through a bank vault with his fangs (an example that is very relevant to Mage ).
And, gods, Brucato can't write clear rules for shit. Here's one line on using magick on objects:
In all three cases, figure that a damage-based Effect from any of those Spheres reduces an object’s Durability by -2.
And yet, Entropy, Matter, Prime, and perhaps Life still subtract -2 from the target’s Durability for each success rolled
"-2" and "-2 per success" are pretty fucking different! . There are also guidelines for how to rate things, which claim that laptops are "Easily broken" for 2-3 Structure, while cameras are "Sturdy and complex", making them have as much as 4-5 Structure. If we assume a camera is fragile, this means that to destroy it in one blow takes about 6 damage. The weapon chart has several pistols that do 4L damage. In other words, shooting the camera with a gun may not destroy it, and in a lot of cases, are unlikely to.
There's rules for drowning and poisons and...
Thanks to the long associations between poison and the Awakened, most Sleepers consider magic to be a sort of metaphysical or even literal toxin.
No they don't!
Like so many things in this book, and a staple of 90's White Wolf RPGs, the text is terrified of having to give actual numbers even as it fills tables with them. Toxins do damage equal to their Toxin Rating in dice "one or two times per ingestion". One or two? Which is it? It's pretty important when we get to Ammonia (Toxin Rating 4) and once is a major wound and twice is death . Characters are allowed a Stamina roll to avoid the effects of a toxin, but it's unclear whether this is once (to avoid all damage) or if the Stamina roll is made every time the toxin might cause damage (i.e. potentially twice). In the latter case, it's also not clear whether the Stamina is rolled as soak, or to fully ignore all the damage. If you botch the Stamina roll, the ST is given full permission to kill your character. It's also not possible to cure toxic or disease effects without magick, because Sleeper in MTAs apparently forgot to invent antidotes.
It appears possible to kill oneself by ingesting 8 doses of marijuana, since THC does 1B of damage per dose. However, the text under the next heading will explain that cannabinoids don't cause damage at all, because consistency is for D&D players. There's also a number of drugs not written up in the table of toxins, with rules that work differently from how all other toxins work; alcohol causes impairments after two drinks, with the alcohol-content of the drink determining the Difficulty of the roll to determine the impairmens. Cannabinoids can give +1 or -1 to Perception dice pools, and lower the Difficulty of Time-spells by -1. Cocaine and methamphetamines cause automatic damage with no Stamina roll. Emphatogenics like MDMA increase Willpower but cause 2B damage or 1-3L on a botch (1-3? How helpful!). The text suggests that opiates increase Intelligence, because of Sherlock Holmes.
I didn't mention the rules on explosions much, because they were kind of generically fine, but there's a weapons table that has explosives, ranging from sticks of dynamite to nuclear weapons. The way explosives work in M20 is that they cause [Blast Power] dice of damage within a [Blast Area] radius, and -1 dice of damage per yard outside the Blast Area. This... is not how explosives work. It's a decent abstraction I guess, but the "blast area" of an explosive is a function of the explosive force; there's basically no way you can have Dynamite do 6 dice over a 3-5 yard radius are, but have Nitroglycerin to 3 dice over a 4-yard-radius area. There's also the table entry for a nuclear weapon, which has a Blast Area of 1-30 miles, and a Blast Power of "Seriously?", because if you're outside those 1-30 miles, you'd never ever want to know how many extra yards outside the Blast Area you have to be to be safe...
Now, vehicle rules!
Cycles are notoriously difficult too. You may assume that a character needs at least one dot in Athletics in order to operate a bicycle, a Dexterity of at least three to operate a unicycle, and no fewer than three dots in Drive (or perhaps a specialty in Motorcycles) in order to avoid smearing himself across the pavement on a motorcycle. Again, a character can mount a cycle and maybe move slowly down the street on it under calm conditions. If she needs to exert control over that bike and its velocity, though, that’s another matter entirely
Just... just read these two; the first is from the object rules, the second from the vehicle rules:
Ramming into, or being rammed by, other characters or solid objects (walls, tables, vehicles, etc.) may – at the Storyteller’s discretion – inflict one die of bashing damage for every 10 feet (or three yards) of velocity at the time of impact. A dude who runs 20 feet before slamming into a wall, for instance, might take two dice of bashing damage from the impact.
If that object’s Durability Trait is higher than the character’s Stamina Trait, he may take an extra automatic bashing health level from the impact. A car that had traveled 40 feet within the previous turn, for example, would inflict four dice of bashing damage for its velocity, plus one health level of automatic impact damage to whatever it hits because… well, it’s a car.
In order to avoid absurdly complicated rules, assume that a vehicle ramming a character inflicts that vehicle’s Durability in bashing damage, plus one die for every 10 MPH (14” per turn) that the vehicle was traveling at the time. Thus, a crotch-rocket motorcycle ramming someone at 50 MPH inflicts eight dice of bashing damage, but a limo going at that speed inflicts 10.
There are two different rules for this!
The rules are also somewhat split on whether they want to be cinematic or not; cars protect against most small arms bullets (no matter the Durability of the vehicle) because that's the cinematic convention, but shooting gas tanks to make cars explode is hard, "movies notwithstanding". Though when you manage, it does 12A dice of damage. The rules for shooting targets inside a car also highlight a particular issue of M20's dice system. You can hit a target inside a car either by scoring 4 or more successes (which, coincidentally, means that whenever a target inside a car is hit, they take at least 4 extra dice of damage), or by taking a +3 penalty to the attack roll. This creates the immediate "dilemma" of having to chose between the two. A player probably wants to pick the best one, but actually figuring out which is the best option is very difficult. This leaves the player unable to easily make a decision their character doesn't even have to take; the character is in both cases trying to hit the target inside the vehicle.
There are stats for various vehicles, and they're ridiculously though; a jeep has Durability 4, making it almost impevious to pistol fire. Even more interesting is that a 105mm tank shell (20 damage) averages 8 Health levels, which is not enough to destroy a jeep, limousine, pickup truck, SUV/Van, off-road truck, HMMVW, RV, bus, or any kind of large truck. Sure, everyone inside will be dead from spill-through damage, but the vehicle is not fully destroyed. Even more egregious are the military vehicle stats given. The APC has durability 12, making it almost impossible to pierce with a 105mm tank gun (6% chance)... and on average it'll be fine after a hit from a 120mm tank gun. The game's Light Tank has 15 side armour, making only 1 in 6 shots even cause damage. Modern tanks are tough, but not this though. The APC should be perforated by any tank gun, and the side armour of tanks is nowhere near tough enough to take 120mm shells without issue.
The weapons given for each vehicle are also ridiculous; the Light Tank mounts, in addition to the 105mm gun, two .50 calibre machine guns and two grenade launchers. This is ridiculous; no 'light tank' has ever mounted this much. The only tank that comes close are certain variants of the Centurion tank, and it didn't have the grenade launchers. The Heavy Tank mounts, in addition to the 120mm gun, three .50 calibre machine guns and four grenade launchers. Again ridiculous; certain versions of the M1A1 Abrams might have been mounted with three .50 calibre machine guns, but this is not standard; the standard M1-family tank has 2 .50 calibre machine guns and 1 .30 calibre machine gun. No other tank of which I am aware (and trust me, I am aware of a lot of tanks, courtesy of playing a lot of Wargame: Red Dragon ) mounts the number of guns the Heavy Tank in M20 does, and certainly nobody mounts four grenade launchers on their tank. They might mount one or two and load them with smoke grenades. Lethe, some of the machine guns are even given as being hull-mounted , which hasn't been a thing since the 1950's.
There are aircraft stats too; the 105mm gun can't expect to destroy news helicopters, small propeller aircraft, or hot-air balloons in one shot either. The Attack Helicopter has as much armour as an APC.
In short, and there are some details I haven't dwelt on here, the vehicle rules are dumb and pulled out of thin air. It's OK to not desire to be Phoenix Command in terms of military equipment stats, but even then a mediocrum of real-world adherence can be expected.
I do like the Inventing, Modifying, and Improving Technology sub-chapter. It's one page, half of which is a table with all the Difficulties and successes to accumulate on an Extended roll. Hotwiring a car is 3 successes on Wits+Streetwise or Intelligence+Technology or some appropriate ability at Difficulty 5. Fitting a new part is a Difficulty 6 roll to accumulate 10 successes. It's very handy to have this kind of table, and it can be easily consulted, as opposed to many of the other mechanisms in this game that require lots of adjudication.
The Digital Web: Playing in the World of Woecraft
The Digital Web is a virtual reality magickal realm, and it has special rules. It can be accesses through VR goggles, smartphones, and turning your body into information and downloading your entire self into it. The Digital Web has lots of little rules that I don't think are worthy of any commentary, good or bad, though some are worth mentioning. Paradox functions differently in the Digital Web; all magick must be in-paradigm for a computer simulation, it can't be too powerful or flashy, and special areas may have specific rules set, allowing things to be considered Paradox at the whims of whoever is managing some part of the Web. Digital Web Paradox is also separate from real-world Paradox in most cases, making it rather harmless. Paradox manifests as, among other things, lag in the simulation.
OK, so, I was going to try to explain the various ways to die in the Digital Web, but I ran into an issue:
A traveler who enters the Web through either sensory visitation or astral immersion uses his Intelligence as Strength and his Wits as Dexterity. Stamina is still Stamina. Although his icon may take damage, his physical body rarely does. (See Digital Damage, below.)
Checking the heading Digital Damage, it does not explain the difference between physical and VR damage. Many times it seems as if it should , but it appears that getting damaged in the Digital Web also causes physical damage to the character no matter what. Several rules reference damage one's "Icon" has taken as if it's distinct from regular damage, but no effect explained so far in the game can actually damage someone's "Icon". There are many, many ways to die in the real world from Digital Web damage, but they seem rather superfluous when taking enough damage or effects to trigger them often involve being dead anyway. It's like an entire passage - the single most important passage for explaining the Digital Web - is just missing from the book. You can't actually run anything in the Digital Web when the rules for getting hurt there are missing.
Also the Web drains people's life-force by inflicting on them headaches, obesity, and back pain.
Theoretically, a person retains her material form when she walks into the spirit world through a Shallowing. Thing is, as certain mages claim, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle may be at work in such situations: is that person still material because she thinks of herself as material, or is she transformed into spirit matter, simply believing she’s still material while the rest of Creation views her as a spirit?
...that's not how the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle works. It's actually rather noticeable that every single time Brucato says something about science, he says something that is at worst plain wrong and at best just incredibly stupid. It ranges from this example here and his claims about mass and acceleration, to the claims that the universe being made from a viscous superfluid validates the aether theory and that tying ancient Sumerian prophecies into recent papers on string theory is in any way profound (it actually just makes one sound like a conspiracy theorist).
All mages can see into the Periphery , requiring the ST to describe the intrusions of the Otherworlds into mundane reality all the time. The physical world is separated from the otherworlds by the Gauntlet , One way to enter an otherworld is to step sideways (what an incredibly silly term that is) through the Gauntlet into the Middle Umbra . This lets the mage enter the spirit real, where they are corporeal, but must use Spirit magick to interact with the physical world. The High Umbra can be entered by astral travel through the Gauntlet. When making an astral projection, the mage uses Mind magick, and their disembodied self has their physical traits in the High Umbra determined by their mental and social traits as well as Willpower. The mage can interact with the physical world only through ghostly projections that can't move physical objects, and with magick. The Low Umbra can be entered by complex Entropy-Life-Spirit magick. Going to the Low Umbra is difficult though, because of World of Darkness metaplot where the war between the Ravnos in India and the Kuei-Jin caused the Ravnos antediluvian to wake up which caused the Technocracy to drop nukes on it which caused the ghosts of the nuclear weapons to appear in the Low Umbra which let a bunch of very unhappy ghosts use the ghost-nukes to blow up Enoch, the ghost of the original Enoch where vampires ruled over mankind before the Biblical Flood, which caused a giant maelstrom in the Low Umbra that makes the place very, very hostile, so you can't go there. Travel through the Gauntlet is more difficult in places that are technological, because the Technocracy have been trying to close off the Gauntlet to nasty things don't come through.
Death in the Middle Umbra means destruction of the body, because it entered the spirit world. Death in the High Umbra separates the mage's mind from their body, and the mind has to find the body before it dies in the physical world. Death in the Low Umbra can't kill you again, but sends the soul to the Harrowing , the mage's own personal nightmare-realm, where they'll face attacks on their integrity and path to personal Ascension; success on the test qualifies as a Seeking, failure on the test results in a loss of a dot of Arete.
All these Umbral realms exist in the Midrealm, where Mount Qaf and/or the Life Tree connect them together. Mount Qaf is in the Digital Web and Mount Qaf is in the Midrealm, but the Midrealm and the Digital Web don't otherwise intersect. Most of these border the physical world through the Gauntlet, and the Paths of the Wyck connect them all together.
Between MTAs 2e and MTAs Revised, there was a huge metaplot event where the Avatar Storm caused the Earth to be separated from many of the Horizon Realms that also exist in the Otherworlds. M20 struggles very hard to cater to both Revised and 2e and constantly mentions that the Avatar Storm may or may not have happened, to various effects.
I like the idea of all these otherwords, though as I've mentioned in an earlier part of this review, they're not really explored well, and some rules are unclear. For example, if you're killed in the High Umbra, you have to go find your body... but the rules don't mention whether this is all that happens - does death in the High Umbra simply mean losing one's connection to the physical body? Or are there other effects? Can you still move around in the High Umbra as if nothing had happened? This is not explained, and the text makes it seem like I just have to guess or make something up. These otherworlds don't really have their special features described in a straightforward manner either; instead their features are scattered all over the sub-chapter, with the rules for magick in the otherworlds given as a single list that notes not all of the rules in the list apply to all otherworlds. The ST is left having to figure it out from the text, rather than, for example, a sidebar for each otherworld explaining its rules.
Ghosts and Stuff
Infinity wears infinite masks. And for simplicity’s sake, we call those masks spirits . Rooted in a word meaning “breath” – and, by extension, “life” – spirits embody cosmic and Earthly principles, giving recognizable identities to things beyond comprehension. In plain English, then, spirits give character and personality to natural forces and psychic ideas. So in game terms, they’re characters who are far more transcendent than they might appear.
What a spirit is certainly needed to be explained four times in three different ways. 687 pages, people!
To slap a different handle on such entities, some mages call the spirits Umbrood – a bastardized term meaning “the offspring of shadows.” Again, that term’s not wrong, though many spirits find it insulting. The term “brood” suggests children, and when mages use it, that suggests that mages feel parentally superior to spirits. It’s not hard to understand, then, why spirits would get a bit hacked off at a presumptuous mortal who regards himself as the father of a cosmic entity. No wonder that so many mages find themselves in hot water with the spirits!
Not really? If I call someone a child of something, that doesn't imply that I also see myself as its parent.
Spirits are entities that live in the Otherworlds and are made from spirit-matter. They're inspired by animism, so they are the personification of some thing or concept. Every rock has a spirit, but there are also spirits without ties to physical objects, such as demons, angles, and various weird things inhabiting the Otherworlds. Spirits are simpler than most NPCs; they have Willpower to do phyical stuff, Rage to inflict damage on things, Gnosis to do mental or social things, and Essence for health levels and to power their Charms (which are the distinct, spell-like powers of spirits). When a spirit loses all of its health levels, is disappears for a while, then reforms and has to spend some time regenerating its Essence.
A lot of text is spent reassuring readers that M20 doesn't want to make any authoritative statements about the nature of real-world religions as they relate to M20's spirits; "We’re not here to tell you how to believe or to force a religion (or the lack of one) down your throat. Maybe all spirits really are aliens or angels or demons or archetypes. That’s your call to make, not ours." Then it goes on to describe how there are three really important spirits; the Essential Divinity , the essential divine that's every, the Godhead , which are representation/personifications of the Essential Divinity, and The Adversary , spirit-Satan. For a game that doesn't want to force religion down the throats of its readers, it has metaphysics heavily rooted in Christianity.
Peeking ahead at the chapter containing actual spirit writeups, Spirits can become ridiculously though. Spirits soak damage with their Willpower, which is typically at least 5; 7 and 8 is not unusual. Most mages soak with Stamina, averaging 2 and reaching a usual maximum of 5. One Charm lets spirits add their Gnosis to their soak, which will roughly double their soak, giving ranges from 10 to 16. Like always, the text is confusing; all forms of damage is the same to spirits, so they soak it all with Willpower, but when they use a Charm to soak with Gnosis, it only applies to Bashing and Lethal unless they pay extra. The text under Rage implies that spirits simply inflict [Rage] dice of damage whenever they attack, no roll to hit necessary, while the text under Spirits in Combat notes that they use Willpower as their to-hit roll.
End of Chapter
Phew! Finally! This was a long and pretty boring chapter, even after I broke it up. It's heavy on rules, which really highlights a major issue with M20's writing. It's supposedly an edition for consolidating all the important game material in one place for ease of use, but the writing is so terrible it can't accomplish this. The rules are poorly written and hard to parse, the rules aren't easy to find, rules are split, sometimes they're repeated unnecessarily, other times they're repeated and contradict each other. Sometimes, like damage in the Digital Web, they're missing. Where Brucato's worldbuilding and lengthy rants were annoying, his inability to write rules makes the game actually unplayable. What a terrible shame it is that OPP decided that they'd release a 20th Anniversary Edition of their game, before they hand it to someone who delivers an unplayable mess.
But then, I really wonder why the hell they decided that they'd give the job of writing M20 to Brucato in the first place, when all of these issues with his writing were already known.
Next: Rules for magick!
Chapter 10: The Book of Magick: Part I: Casting MagickOriginal SA post
Chapter 10: The Book of Magick: Part I: Casting Magick
The ultimate irony of the Ascension War is that everyone’s basically doing the same thing, yet they’re killing one another over their impression of how and why they do it.
To cast magick in M20, you need to answer four questions:
What do I WANT to do, and HOW will I do it?
Can I use what I KNOW to get what I WANT?
Did I succeed or not? And…
What happens either way?
Five questions. Five questions, and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. Six questions...
Magick in Mage works by a series of rules (that are universal, and a close approximation to how the metaphysical rules of MTAs works) that are based on the mage's ability to capital-W Will things as they please. How they Will things is, otherwise, arbitrary (except for all those focus rules you need to follow). To wit:
That’s true even for the simplest Rank 1 perception Effects. You could have three Virtual Adepts using the same Effect in three different ways: one might activate a scanning app on his cell phone; the second could close her eyes, do some three-part yoga breathing, and extend her senses outward; and the third takes a few hits off a joint, open his eyes and sees deeper than the usual levels of human perception.
OK, so you want to cast magick. So you answer the five questions, which involves a four-step process:
Step One – Effect: Based on your character’s abilities and needs, decide what you want to do and how you want to do it. This is called the Effect : the thing you want to accomplish with your magick.
Step Two – Ability: Based on your mage’s focus and Spheres, figure out if you can create the Effect you want to create… and if so, how your character will make it happen in story terms.
Step Three – Roll: Roll one die for every dot in your Arete Trait. The difficulty depends upon the Effect you’re trying to use; whether it’s vulgar or coincidental ; and whether or not someone’s watching you.
Step Four – Results: The number of successes that you roll determines whether or not you succeed. If you fall short of your goal, you may roll again on subsequent turns in order to get more successes. (See Rituals, Rolls,
and Extended Successes, pp. 538-542.) If you fail, the Effect fizzles out. And if you botch, bad things happen.
That's all there is to casting magick: You need to go through a
After an explanation of Paradox, there's many many pages of tables and charts for casting magick with MTAs' freeform magick system. And the charts are... something. The tables for determining the Arete roll to succeed and the Paradox effects are perfectly adequate (and unlike certain earlier MTAs books, are not positioned at an oblique angle to the page, thankfully). Exactly how to determine the number of successes necessary to accomplish something with magick is somewhat difficult, since it uses a table of examples. And perhaps it's just my borderline autism speaking, but I've never really found examples and descriptions to be good guidelines for determining other things; 5-10 successes are necessary to create simple life-forms, blowing up buildings, summoning Otherworldly creatures, having absolute control of a mob of people... but what can I do with Time magick at 5-10 successes? Entropy? Prime? For that matter, how big is the mob in question? It's somewhere between 2 and 200 people, but no further guidance is given.
The problem with using inexact language to describe in-game effects is that it easily creates a situation where two people have different opinions on what something means. To Alice, "a mob" is about 12 people. To Bob, it's about 70. So when Bob reads in the rules that he can command 70-ish people, he comes across a situation where he thinks "right now, I'm going to use my magick to command as many as possible in this group of 100 people". Then Bob's ST Alice sees Bob roll 10 successes and says "you now command 12 of them". And this is a shitty situation to place Alice and Bob in, because Bob feels disappointed and Alice can't really go back on it. Well, she could, but Alice knew that Bob could mind-control 12 people and made the group number 100; if she knew Bob could mind-control 70, she might have made the group number 550 people. Besides, having to do this negotiation over every single power that's ambiguously described takes a lot of time.
Yes, Alice, Bob, and their friends could all sit down ahead of time and work out exactly how many people 10 successes can mind-control, but a) that's what the 700-page book on playing MTAs is for , and b) the book makes no indication that they should do this.
 I can cry about ableism though, right?
 And what is a "simple" life-form, and what distinguishes it from a complex life-form? Is there a standard for this? Do I have to count base-pairs in their genome? Distinct organs? How often they're used to "disprove" evolution on creationist talkshows?
There's a table of difficulty modifiers, and a "personalized instrument" and a "unique instrument" each add -1 Difficulty. So far OK. An "unfamiliar instrument" gives "+2/+1" to the Difficulty, which I'm supposed to interpret how? A personal item from the target gives "-1 to -3" (note the inconsistent notation between unfamiliar instruments and personal items), with no further elaboration. And then there's this note at the bottom:
Minimum difficulty 3, maximum difficulty 10. If you employ the Thresholds option, max difficulty is 9; in the latter case, extra modifiers add to threshold, requiring one additional success per +1 difficulty modifier.
Modifiers that would take the difficulty above 10 add additional successes at a one-to-one ratio; a +3 modifier to difficulty 10, for example, would demand at least three successes.
If you use both the threshold option and modifiers that take the difficulty above 10, then each additional +1 difficulty over 9 demands an extra success. A +3 modifier to difficulty 9 would require at least three successes.
First, I wish to note the irony that while the Threshold is presented as an optional rule, the rules for magick need to write up a functionally near-identical version of it anyway, to let difficulties increase beyond 10. You might remember that this is the same thing that happened with the core rules anyway, where Degrees of Success are already a thing. Then, additionally, the third line repeats the latter half of line one for no reason; that +1 difficulty increases the required Degrees of Success by +1. Good job, Lindsay Woodstock! It's also somewhat interesting to note that Degrees of Success are used for two things. First, DoS is used to determine whether you can accomplish your magickal effect. Further, DoS is used to account for Difficulties higher than 10. However, if Difficulty is higher than 10 and you're casting something with a high DoS, the required DoS is not increased.
For example, if you have Difficulty 8 and a minimum DoS of 3, it's pretty hard. If you have a Difficulty 10 and a minimum DoS of 3, it's extremely hard. If you have a Difficulty 13 and a Minimum DoS of 3, it's not harder than when Difficulty was 10, because you needed 3 successes anyway. Not that it really matters when the difficulties are so high anyway, but it makes for a strange edge case.
Using Correspondence gives a minimum Degrees of Success based on how far away, or how familiar, you are with the thing. The "Range" tables goes, in increasing order:
1: Line of Sight
2: Very familiar
4: Visited once
5: Described location
6: Anywhere on Earth
I realize that in M20, physical or geometrical concepts of "range" are arbitrary illusions, but I still baulk at "Very familiar" and "Visited once" being used to describe distances. (And, again, how am borderline autistic me supposed to discern between "Familiar" and "Very familiar"?)
Damage follows a progression of:
2: Two levels
3: Six levels
4: Eight levels
5: Ten levels
6+: Number of Successes x 2
Mind can usually only cause Bashing damage. Most other spheres cause Lethal. Vulgar Entropy, Life, and Prime can cause Aggravated damage. Prime 2 and a point of Quintessence can let any magickal attack cause Aggravated damage. Time and Correspondence can't cause damage by themselves. Forces gets, effectively, +1 successes when successfully cast, and can deal Aggravated with fire and electricity. Hint: buy Forces.
There's an optional rule that lets you spend excess successes on an Arete roll to get bonus effects. These effects are, notably, more powerful on a per-success basis than the regular effects they replicate. For example, excess successes can be traded for damage at a 1:2 basis, which means that a 2-successes damaging spell does 2 damage, while a 2-successes 1-success not-damage spell does it's usual effect and 2 damage. I think. It says "additional damage", but the rules for using spells to cause harm already specify what additional dice can do, so what's the point? The same applies to duration; spending 1 success to increase duration gives the same effect as 2 successes on a spell rated in terms of duration.
And now my favourite part of the tables; the "I Disbelieve!"-table, which I will quote in it's entirety:
No fucking way! 3
Hard to swallow 4
Too damned likely! 9
In addition to the usual problems I have with holistic descriptions like this, "probable" and "likely" mean the exact same thing . They're synonyms. Probable is "likely to occur or prove true", while Likely is "probably or apparently destined". Unless you use the definition that has "likely" as "very probable" but I feel the fact that these definitions are not consistent only underlines my point. This table is useless and something inside me dies a little every time I see it.
Similar problems plague the table for determining how powerful magickal illusions are; at three successes you can affect three senses. At four successes, you can affect several senses. At five successes, you can affect multiple senses. At six, the illusion gives "full sensations". Now, tell me, how many senses are included in "several", and is it a different number from the ones in "multiple"? I can guess that it's supposed to be more than two, implicitly (but it would be nice if they used words that just mean "more than one"...), but it's no help to ST or player. This goes back to my example with Alice and Bob; Bob thinks that his 4-success illusion affects about 5 senses; sight, hearing, touch, smell, and balance, while forgoing the less useful ones like taste, nociception, thermoception, and propriception. Alice meanwhile thinks that "full sensations" is supposed to mean the five traditional senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell), and says that 5 senses is way too much for a mere 4 successes. All of this could have been avoided if old-school White Wolf authors didn't have a crippling phobia of hard numbers.
And you can age people too! Depending on your number of successes, the ageing is "minor", "noticeable", "severe", "to decrepitude", and "to bring of destruction". Now, since it's only at the second level that the ageing becomes noticeable, and "minor aging" is 3 successes, 3 successes of Time magick has basically no effect.
Now, Paradox! The Paradox effects are a glorious mess .
Whenever you acquire 5 or more Paradox on a single roll, you cause a Paradox Backlash. When you trigger a Paradox Backlash, you roll your Paradox rating as a pool. Each success means you lose a dot of Paradox. However, fancy effects happen when you discharge Paradox this way:
1-5: 1 level of Bashing damage per success and a Trivial Paradox Flaw
6-10: 1B/success or a Minor Paradox Flaw
11-15: Pick one: 1L/success, Significant Paradox Flaw, Paradox Spirit visitation, or Mild Quiet.
16-20: 1L/success and 1 permanent Paradox or Pick two: Severe Paradox Flaw; Paradox Spirit visitation, Moderate Quiet, or banishment to a Paradox Realm (Is that damage and either a Paradox flaw or two effects from the list, or either damage and flaw or two effects from the list? )
20+: 1A/2 successes and pick one: 2 permanent Paradox, Drastic Paradox Flaw, Paradox Spirit visitation, severe Quiet, or banishment to a Paradox Realm
It really annoys me how inconsistent it is; at 1-5 successes, you get damage and a Paradox Flaw, while at higher levels it tends to be damage or a Paradox Flaw or some other effect. Now, speaking of those other effects, at 11-15 successes, you can get a mild Quiet. Checking the adjacent Quiet table, 11-15 successes on the Paradox roll is a Level 4 quiet, described as " Mage either gets trapped in a mindscape of his own design, or else behaves so irrationally that he becomes a danger to himself and everyone nearby. ", including " Deadly fanaticism ", Mindscape or constant hobgoblins ", or " Violent sociopathy ".
Oh, and Severe Quiet? That's Level 6 and says " Mage goes Marauder and becomes a Storyteller character. "
Anyway, Mages can sometimes see auras. This is useful for a number of reasons; you can always tell what mood someone are in, and it also allows the easy identification of other supernatural creatures; Faeries have rainbow-coloured auras, Vampires have pale auras, the ghosts have faded auras, the sick and dying have fading auras, werecreatures have bright and vibrant auras, and I can't tell what Nephandi auras are like because it looks like Brucato has ejaculated onto the page; instead of a sensible entry, it says " Wouldn’t you like to know? ". What, has nobody seen a nephandi and lived to tell about it? If nephandi auras are distinct, then surely it would be noticeable what their auras are like? And if nephandi auras look like any other mage's, then wouldn't mages know that you can't tell who is a nephandi? AND IF I'M THE FUCKING ST, WOULDN'T IT BE REALLY USEFUL TO KNOW WHAT MY PLAYERS SEE WHEN THEY LOOK AT A NEPHANDI WITH AURA-SIGHT?
"I look at him with my aura sight. What colour is his aura."
"Uh... 'Wouldn't you like to know?'"
"I would. That's why I'm looking at him with my aura sight. What's his colour?"
"No, seriously, that's what it says: 'Wouldn't you like to know?'"
"Oh, so he's a Nephandi. Right. I blast him with Forces, Prime, and 4 dots of Quintessence."
The last part of this chapter is 2.5 pages of common magical effects and the necessary sphere ratings to cast such magick. Useful, but it's sorted not by the Sphere necessary, but by what the effect is. There's a list of Body Magick feats, including Matter, Life, Prime, and Time effects. Which is great if you need to know how to do something, or if you have almost all the spheres, but if you have only a few spheres, it means you have to look through every single table on those 2.5 pages to learn what you can do. If the feats had been sorted by sphere, it would be easier to just look up your own spheres to see if you can do something.
Argh, this book. It's so bad and Brucato is a smug wanker who can't write rules to save his life.
Next: Part II: The Spheres