Technocracy Reloaded, Ascension Declined

As the title implies, Technocracy Reloaded is the Technocracy-themed supplement for Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition, a sort of fresh take on the much-respected Guide to the Technocracy from previous editions. From this perspective it’s… it’s fine. It’s a competently designed bit of work which makes the best of a challenging task – that task being to update the Technocracy concept for an era when anti-vaxx sentiments and QAnon conspiracism suggest that scientific rationalism is neither a villain nor an unchallenged, dominant worldview these days. On a quick read, I found nothing especially wrong with it as a concept.

At the same time, I think with this book I am kind of done with Mage: the Ascension – not just this edition, but the game in general.

The problem is that to present a nuanced view of the Technocracy that’s worth devoting a 240 page supplement to, and to update it for the 2020s, the writing team have found they needed to grasp the nettle and really address some of the major issues with the standard Mage: the Ascension setting as it has been previously presented. A big reason that so many Mage fans like the idea of being able to play as the Technocracy is that it’s hard to deny that they do have some admirable aspects. As well as frequently being more egalitarian than the Traditions, there’s the simple fact that what the Technocracy mainly want is a world where the general public has some sense of cosmological security and stability, which can provide them with the basis of actually having a halfway decent life. Vaccines and modern medicine may have their issues, but doing without them (or relying on the goodwill of a healing mage who might decide you aren’t worth it if their ideology suggests it) would be much, much worse.

More than that, though, the book acknowledges absurdities like how the idea of Paradox as it exists in Mage and the usual explanations for it simply don’t work. It is 100% predicated on the assumption that the Sleepers, in general, do not believe in supernatural stuff, and magic and the paranormal go against their worldview that it unleashes the force of Paradox in order for consensus reality to reassert itself.

This has been the case since 1st Edition Mage, and it has always been utter nonsense – between the sincerely held religious belief of billions, and the absolute horseshit embraced by credulous people who trust dubious online sources too much, it’s pretty damn evident that a large proportion of the population has some form of supernatural belief, at least a chunk of which aligns with the worldview of particular Traditions or Disparate factions (especially the more religion-oriented ones).

Strangely, Technocracy Reloaded seems to acknowledge that this is the case in the context of discussing how the Technocracy gained its strong foothold on the collective worldview in the first place – but isn’t really able to address the obvious conclusion that Paradox can’t work the way Mage claims it works, even on its own premises, because to do so would require retooling the entire game.

More generally, it has become ruthlessly apparent that scientific rationalism not only is not an overwhelmingly dominant force in human society, but really wasn’t even back in 1993 when the game first came out; the idea that it did reflected a very narrow cultural viewpoint, and a broader view would have acknowledged that the social power structure is not solely based on rationalism but includes significant religious and cultural inputs that are incompatible with the Technocracy concept. Mage: the Awakening, the equivalent Chronicles of Darkness game, does a far better job with its adversary faction, the Seers of the Throne, precisely because its setup allows them to stand in for a diverse range of different forms of systematic oppression, rather than just saying “It’s all the fault of those square scientists, maaan”.

This isn’t the only instance of the book coming close to acknowledging major issues with the state of Mage, but failing to accept the conclusion that’s staring the writers in the face. For instance, in the section discussing potential collaboration between the Technocracy and other groups, the Disparate Alliance is mentioned as being deeply unlikely to work with the Technocracy, because by definition the Disparates are Disparates because they don’t play well with others. Very true – but in that case, why is the Disparate Alliance a thing, especially when it involves radical feminist factions working with hardcore Christian patriarchs like the Knights Templar? (Again, I come back to thinking that if the Disparates were feeling co-operative enough to see a need to work together, they wouldn’t be Disparates any more, they’d be Traditions and sign up to the Council.)

Now, admittedly, the writers might not be in much of a position to do much about this stuff. The general approach of the 20th Anniversary Editions of the classic World of Darkness games has been to be true to what’s gone before and update it. Again, I want to stress that the writers seem to be doing their best within the constraints they are working in – it’s just that one of those constraints is that Mage: the Ascension should be like, well, Mage: the Ascension, and they can’t go scorched earth and do a total root-and-branch reworking of the whole concept.

This is a problem when nothing short of burning it all down and starting over from scratch can really fix the major issues with Mage: the Ascension. In reading Technocracy Reloaded and seeing the lengths the writers went to in order to provide clarifications and updates to aspects which, with the benefit of hindsight, have become untenable and absurd has only further convinced me that Mage: the Ascension itself is untenable and absurd.

This is not a Mage20 problem, it’s a problem inherent to the basic framework of the concept as originally enunciated in 1993, and the issues I have outlined with it above are particular manifestations of it but it runs deeper than that. I think I can enunciate it further by comparing Mage: the Ascension with the other “big five” World of Darkness games:

  • Vampire: the Masquerade played with ideas about vampires in modern-day society that had been tossed around for at least a century or two (remember, books like Dracula were set in what was, at the time, the present day), and which had shown themselves through authors like Anne Rice to be rich ground for updating and revisiting to fit changing times. Since it was based on concepts which already had a well-proven track record when it comes to being able to adapt to different times, it’s no surprise that V20 and V5 have been able to update the game accordingly.
  • Werewolf: the Apocalypse took a riskier route, since its take on werewolves doesn’t really have that much of a precedent – werewolves as liminal walkers of the borderline between the material world and the spirit world fighting pollution and Captain Planet-esque villains is pretty much a concept unique to that game. It also has significant issues with the way its tribe concepts are based on broad racial concepts that have dated extremely poorly. Nonetheless, the ecological theme hit a nerve at the time and hasn’t exactly become less relevant since.
  • Wraith: the Oblivion is to a large extent a fantasy game set in a mostly invented world, with visits to the world of the living being one dimension of play. Still, death is a perennially relevant topic, and the grim, exploitative afterlife depicted in Wraith is a powerful vision of an exploitative hierarchy of entrenched power which literally turns dissidents into objects and currency, so you can even see it as a depiction of capitalism taken to a nightmarish extreme that even death is no escape from. Not to everyone’s tastes, for sure, but it doesn’t feel like it has dated badly at all. And to the extent that the game does include interactions with the world of the living, the ghosts of Wraith do feel appropriately ghost-y.
  • Changeling: the Dreaming is a colourful frolic that’s all about seeing the joy in the world and not letting the demands of everyday life kill your imagination. Though the Banality concept as originally enunciated was often risible (and it kind of still is in some respects), the 20th Anniversary Edition has done a fine job of updating it to tease out what’s enduringly interesting about the concept.

All four of those games have a core idea which is sufficiently adaptable that they can be updated to take into account the wider cultural conversation on the issues they hit on having moved forward in the decades since their original emergence. The most successful of them, Vampire, also manages to feel very true to the way earlier vampire stories present the concept. Werewolf, Wraith, and Changeling all ended up finding takes on lycanthropes, ghosts, and fairies which don’t necessarily feel like they have much precedent in the earlier literature, but are linked to ideas which, though current in the 1990s, have remained relevant to this day.

And then there’s Mage: the Ascension.

I have griped before about how Mage is the World of Darkness game which bends over backwards to try and allow you to opt out of playing the thing the game is named after as much as you can whilst still technically being under the umbrella of the game, “Martial arts master”, “elite hacker”, and “steampunk scientist” are not really especially wizardy archetypes – and those are all Traditions represented in the core book, not Technocracy factions. Sure, the garou of Werewolf might have a cosmic mission and spiritual capabilities which people do not typically associate with werewolves – but they are at least all shapeshifters who transform from human to lupine forms. In Mage you can play a mage who doesn’t think of themselves as a mage and whose magic all has an aesthetic which is very unmagical if you want.

In going as broad as it did, Mage denied itself the ability to tap into any longer-standing fictional tradition about wizards existing within the modern world; sure, some Mages lent themselves fairly well to it like the Order of Hermes or the Verbena, but they still had to share the setting with factions which didn’t fit any traditional mould. Moreover, Mage was not based ideas about magic or major central themes which would have that much longevity past 1993.

Instead, Mage was very much a reflection of what was the current hotness in occultism at that time – chaos magic a la Liber Null, The Invisibles, and Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth – and the overall thematic structure of the game was based around a fairly adolescent, superficial “the Man wants to take away our magic and replace it with technology and establishment science, maaaaan” worldview which bore little or no resemblance to the actual realities of the real world society that the World of Darkness games always tried to reflect.

Oh, sure, that reflection was always a rather distorted funhouse mirror sort of deal – but funhouse mirrors are still, at the end of the day, mirrors, they can only distort so far before the reflection ceases to be an interesting caricature and just becomes basically unintelligible, and I think the massive oversimplifications both of conventional science and of mystical traditions which the original Mage indulged in, plus the ham-fisted way it handled its core idea of consensus reality (everyone is doing basically the same thing, but nobody seems to realise this implies that these commonalities must inherently reflect a deeper reality which, being independent of worldview, cannot be amenable to being shaped by consensus), added up to a caricature which just doesn’t resemble what it’s caricaturing any more.

This isn’t 100% the fault of the original designers. Whilst the whole “technology and rationalism is winning out over superstition and religion!” viewpoint is clearly nonsense on a global scale, and was nonsense in 1993, back then it was possible to kid yourself that it was the case if you had a fairly narrow window of cultural viewpoints you were interacting with. But I can’t unsee what I’ve seen over the past few decades, which means I cannot take the original Mage: the Ascension premise at all seriously.

The writers of the Mage20 line seem to be very conscious of this – hence all the effort they put into trying to do all of these course corrections. However, what the original presentation of the game lacks in nuance, philosophical coherence, or informed and knowledgeable treatment of the subject matter it is trying to address, it at least makes up for in vividness of vision. It’s a strikingly pure statement of intent, based around a core theme which resonated at the time (if it didn’t, the game wouldn’t have had the longevity it’s had) even if it’s rather fallen apart now.

The thing is, the Mage20 writers are able to address the outward symptoms of the problem all they like, but they can’t really change the core premise. All they end up doing is softening its impact without really replacing it with a distinctive core set of axioms to hang the game on. The result is a compromised product – one which is dedicated to blunting the impact of its central principles rather than embracing them.

Another factor here is that my every-other-Wednesday group has just wrapped up a Mage: the Awakening campaign that’s lasted nearly three years, and it’s really opened my eyes to how much of a better job Mage: the Awakening does. I’ve mentioned above how the Seers of the Throne in that, by virtue of being able to embody various forms of oppression based on various axioms, make a better antagonistic power-for-power’s-sake faction than the Technocracy, but the various other magical groupings also feel more adaptable than Ascension‘s Traditions because they are based on broad ideas of what magic is which can be skinned to various cultural outlooks, rather than the cultural outlooks themselves.

Moreover, I feel like Awakening applies itself to other time periods better than Ascension does. The campaign was set in the Victorian era, but I felt like Awakening worked for this just as well as it does for the modern day, and that it could be adapted to a wide range of eras beyond that easily. The problem with Ascension is that it’s so based in an early 1990s “science drools, chaos magic rules” viewpoint that a lot of the history of the setting feels like it exists solely to set up the way the setting ends up in the 1990s – the historical eras feel like mere prologues to the modern day, rather than distinctive eras in their own right where you can tell a story suited to that era.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I respect what Onyx Path have tried to do with Technocracy Reloaded, but it feels a little too obviously like scaffolding holding up an internal structure which looked fine in 1993, but whose fundamental faults have become increasingly obvious since, and Mage is one of many lines where the Chronicles of Darkness version of the game is just plain better, at least in terms of my tastes and any campaign I can see myself running or playing any time soon. I essentially can’t see myself playing Ascension at this point unless the group were happy with me not taking the game remotely seriously, which is an obnoxious way to prefer a game and one I’d rather not take.

3 thoughts on “Technocracy Reloaded, Ascension Declined

  1. Kai D.

    I always found it weird when these 20th-anniversary-edition books start to go into this twilight-realm of trying to be a new edition and a recapitulation of what has come before at the same time. In the Changeling-book, for example, the 20th edition wisely introduced the idea to decouple Seemings from the age of the character and instead would reflect the character’s point-of-view/fae nature. They even had new names for the Seemings in a preview to reflect that change in approach to how Seemings work. But because it was the 20th-edition they decided to keep the old names (Childling, Wildling, Grump) which of course are age-related because of how Seeming had been handled up to this point. And yet they still changed what Seemings are. So, you don’t have to be a child to have the Childling-Seeming anymore but in the game’s setting people with that Seeming are still called Childlings?

    Just do one or the other. Faithfully present what has come before OR turn the whole thing into a completely new edition. (Of course, the latter is harder with CWOD because of the licensing and whatnot)

    Strangely enough, I think M20 had the best idea for what I would want from a 20th-edition with these sections where they take pivotal events/elements of Mage and present various options of what to do with these. An overview of the setting, a comprehensive presentation of the system and all the nobs and dials that exist in the system and setting that you can use to make the game. That’s all I would expect to get from a concept like anniversary-edition-as-a-new-book.

    And I can agree with you that I like Mage the Awakening much better. Not only is the setting better but I also love the system so much more compared to M20. Doing magic in Awakening is much more satisfying experience. With Ascension I feel like part of Session Zero needs to be a philosophical discussion of how stuff like consensus, paradox, paradigm etc. even works in the game-world. Those concepts are super-important and yet are very complex and vague at the same time. In other words: A real pain in the ass. (Unless everyone at the table already has this deep knowledge of Mage the Ascension, of course)

    1. “Magechat” is a byword for long conversational derails about Mage setting and system stuff for a reason. It’s a game where you pretty much have to have an entire forum discussion about the edge cases whilst playing the game itself. (Or get around it by just not using magic much. At which point why are you playing Mage?)

  2. Pingback: A High Standard of Deviation – Refereeing and Reflection

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