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.

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An Arcane Followup

So, a while back I did an article looking back at Arcane‘s Top 50 RPGs list from back in 1996, as polled among their (primarily UK-based) readership. At the time, I said that no truly comparable list had been produced since, but I’ve recently become aware of Tabletop Gaming magazine’s June 2018 piece on the Top 150 games. This includes board games and card games, but RPGs are healthily represented there – in fact, the top game on the list is an RPG. It’s also a UK magazine which feels in some respect like a present-day update of Arcane with a wider remit and some somewhat deeper insights, and the list was also based on a reader vote.

So, I thought it would be interesting to extract just the RPGs from that list to get a “Top RPGs” sub-list, and compare it to the Arcane list. Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into it – the readership may well not be that similar – but it’s interesting to think about, right?

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The Arcane Top 50 – Where Are They Now?

Arcane, a short-lived British tabletop gaming magazine from Future Publishing which ran from December 1995 to June 1997, is a name to conjure by for many gamers of around my age. I came to the hobby after White Dwarf had become a Games Workshop in-house advertising platform, and just as Dragon was on the verge of dropping its coverage of non-TSR RPGs altogether; that meant I got a brief taster of TSR having a broader scope of coverage, and missed out on the golden age of White Dwarf altogether.

With other RPG-focused gaming magazines available in the UK either consisting of patchy US imports or a few local magazines published on a decidedly variable basis (whatever did happen to ol’ Valkyrie?), the arrival of Arcane was immensely welcome. Sure, even by this early stage the Internet was already becoming an incomparable source of both homebrewed material and cutting-edge RPG news, but much of that was in the form of Usenet and forum discussions of variable quality or ASCII text files. To get something which was informative, read well, and looked nice, print media was still just about where it was at.

Truth be told, taking a look back at Arcane in more recent years I’m less impressed than I was at the time. It took largely the same approach to its own subject matter (primarily RPGs, with some secondary consideration to CCGs – because they were so hot at the time they really couldn’t be ignored – and perhaps a light sniff of board game content) that Future’s videogame magazines took to theirs, particularly the lighter-hearted PC Gamer/Amiga Power side of things rather than the likes of, say, Edge. That meant it focused more on brief news snippets, reviews, and fairly entry-level articles on subjects than it did on offering much in the way of in-depth treatment of matters.

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Kickstopper: Consensus Reality Means These Books Will Exist If Backers Believe Hard Enough

Mage: the Ascension has, from its beginning, been a bit of a weird old game. The central “consensus reality” conceit – without which the stack of cards largely collapses – is a particularly Marmite-y aspect of the game; out of all the people I have encountered in person or online who’ve said that they just weren’t able to get along with Ascension, I’d say that the consensus reality aspect is the first reason the majority give for why they don’t get along with it.

Beyond that, the setting is very much hardwired around a conflict between establishment science and various flavours of cultural belief steeped in the supernatural, a conflict couched with all the sensitivity and nuance that you’d expect of White Wolf in the early 1990s (absolutely none).

This and other aspects of the game make it highly controversial – even among fans, interpretations of the setting vary widely. In every platform I’ve ever discussed White Wolf games on, two things have been true: when it comes to the Chronicles of Darkness, anyone who isn’t outright wrongheaded understands that Beast is absolutely fucking terrible and is very eager to explain why they despise the game, and when it comes to the old-school World of Darkness discussions about Mage: the Ascension have a tendency to spiral into wide-ranging philosophical debates.

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There, I Fixed Mage For You

Deep reality is a wild, scary place – scary enough that unless you have supernatural mojo on your side the unfiltered nature of reality will fuck you the fuck up.

Realising they needed safe havens – because whilst they might be able to survive in the Umbra themselves, their spouses, children, apprentices and other non-magic using loved ones and dependants couldn’t – the Traditions of Magecraft each created their own sub-world, populated by folk after their own heart. Each sub-world expresses only part of the whole of the true reality, and the selection of which part was based on the philosophical priorities of the Tradition in question.

The Technocracy was meant to provide the middle ground, their corner of the multiverse a place run not according to any higher spiritual philosophy but according to the cold logic of reductionist materialism. It was meant to be a place where those who did not wish to serve the Traditions could live and thrive, and where agents of the Traditions could meet in a place which lacked the dangers of deep reality but equally was not biased towards one Tradition or another. But what began as an experiment in seeing what humans could create without the aid of magic became a power trip. The Technocracy declared their universe the True Reality, and the sub-worlds of the various traditions heretical Deviant Realities. A brutal Ascension War began as the fragile peace collapsed. The Traditions refuse to swear allegiance to the Technocracy; the Technocracy claim that unless the Traditions set their philosophies aside and work together as a whole, they will not have the strength the face down the vast Nephandi conspiracy against reality.

Boom, I just solved two thirds of the problems with the basic Mage: the Ascension setting in one fell swoop.

Referee’s Bookshelf: Mage: the Ascension (1st Edition)

So, in my Monday evening group we’re starting a Technocracy-based Mage: the Ascension campaign, so I decided to get the main books. The main reference for the campaign is going to be the Guide to the Technocracy; I don’t know which edition of Mage our GM is going to be primarily referring to, but there was a copy of the 1st edition going cheap on eBay and I tend to find that that the earlier editions of games are often the purest expressions of their key ideas. Often 2nd editions and Revised editions graft on additional metaplot and mild rules tweaks in pursuit of balance but do so in a way which muddies the vision expressed by the original designer, and it’s my understanding that Mage in particular changed a lot between editions, with a lot of the “freewheeling magic which can do whatever the fuck you like combined with trippy-ass craziness in the Umbra” aspects of the game – as marvelously depicted on this image from the Storyteller’s Screen – toned down extensively as the line progressed and attempts were made to make the game more tonally consistent with the rest of the World of Darkness line. Since the Storyteller in question seems to like that trippy stuff – it’s been a major element of their occasional Werewolf: the Apocalypse campaign – I figured that taking a look at the original and (reputedly) weirdest iteration of the game would give me a better handle on what to expect.

It’s an interesting read.

Dan wrote an excellent post recently about how a major success of Vampire: the Masquerade was generating buy-in on the part of participants, and I think he was correct – both in the sense of getting buy-in for people to invest in being part of the particular gaming community and experience White Wolf fostered, and also in the sense of getting people pumped up in general about the idea of playing a game where you are a vampire. By the end of reading the core Vampire book, if you’re at all inclined to play a game where you are a vampire there’s good odds you’re now really hyped about playing a game in which you are a vampire, and in particular playing this specific game in which you’re a vampire, and if the metaplot catches your eye you’re probably also hyped to see where it goes (and if you’re not keen on the metaplot, then your Storyteller – if they have any chops at all – ought to be able to make sure there’s stuff in the particular chronicle you are interested in), and if you’re at all into sharing gaming war stories with people the Pretentious Capitalised Nomenclature is a nice aid for that.

The first edition rulebook for Mage more or less does the same thing, in that after reading it I am more interested in playing Mage than I was before I read it (and I was already reasonably excited, otherwise I wouldn’t have got the book). But I think it’s slightly confused about what it is generating buy-in for, which is a pretty major flaw when the point of generating buy-in (as Dan explains it) is to get everyone on the same page.

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