December 21st, 2006

Gaming

Yet another gaming campaign proposal

I'm feeling two contradictory urges: to do what people were bugging me to do, namely run another gaming campaign like I used to do years ago, and to not do so. You may remember that I tried to start a gaming campaign a bit over a year ago, only to get bogged down in the fact that I suck at GURPS and I really just don't have the story-telling chops to successfully convey a completely alien environment or to tell a truly classic western tale. What I did excel at, years ago, was running a game based in Phil satyrblade Brucato's Mage: The Ascension, 2nd edition. That's less surprising than it might be; I ran games well in it because no game (and few works of literature, if any) has meant as much to me as Mage 2ed did. None of them felt as plausible. None of them had anything like the richness and complexity, while keeping the rules nice and simple. And alone of the then-popular White Wolf games, it was the only one of the four where as soon as you joined a supernatural organization, your elders, leaders, or supervisors weren't trying to kill and eat you. On the contrary; in Mage 2ed, unlike almost every other game in history, even the lowest level starting character matters to the world.

Mage really was the ultimate conspiracy theory. For those of you unfamiliar, it goes like this: in truth, we call our collective awareness of how the universe works "consensus reality" because there's a broad consensus as to what sanity means and what perceptions are insane. But Brucato subtly twisted this idea into a definition of "consensus reality" that is just slightly skew. In Mage 2ed, you might as well call the laws of physics "consensus reality" because they only work because there is a consensus on them. That in a sense, every time a human being looks at or interacts with the world, especially when others are around, they're having a "conversation" with the world and each other about what will and won't work. If enough people think that something will work, and few enough people have strenuous objections as to why it shouldn't work, then it works. Brucato further speculated that as with all political consensus, a consensus reality could change over time. And how it changes is that there are certain people, awakened adepts, who can at some risk to themselves transcend the consensus and do things that are impossible. They have to have their own explanation for why something should work, but they can bend local reality to their own explanations. And if enough people see them do so, and they believe their explanations, and belief in those explanations spreads, then that explanation becomes part of the laws of physics.

In Mage 2ed, the reason that our histories are cluttered with hard-to-explain references to witches and trolls and miracles and saints and angels and dragons and vampires and demons and wizards and monsters is that at one time or another, there were at least local consensuses that these things were explanations of how the universe worked. But, in his history, there came a point in the late middle ages (I don't have my books, but I want to say he set it in the mid 1300s) where a group of philosopher mages took a good look at the world around them and said, in effect, never mind how the world works, how well does it work? And what they found was that wizards who were propping up various monarchies and who wanted people to believe in magic, and priests who were propping up other monarchies who wanted people to believe in the power of faith, had both created systems so complicated and elaborate that almost nobody could learn them. So the number of lesser mages and lesser saints who could intervene to make anything above stone age agriculture work was minimal. Worse, the scarcity of such lesser mages meant that political leaders who had the Pope on their side, or the Bishop, or some in-house wizard or alchemist, couldn't be toppled. And what talent was arising was being co-opted entirely into propping up monarchies, leaving the vast majority of the human race mired in poverty and at the mercy of every monstrous or demonic thing that ravaged the countryside.

So they went back to the classic Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato and so forth, and set about the goal of making up a set of laws of physics so simple and self-explanatory that more than half of the people could learn to exploit them, if they worked. We now call it The Enlightenment. And by demonstrating their new "scientific" wonders, they got enough people to agree with them that they were able to impose the Scientific Paradigm on the entire civilized world. They then spent 500 years on various wars of conquest, internal and external, to bring all the frontiers of the world (and if possible, the whole solar system) into civilization and to eliminate every competing paradigm by "proving" them impossible. So that was who you were in Mage 2ed: a believer in one of those non-scientific paradigms who was an awakened adept, able to get away with temporarily making the world work according to your theories. There were two groups of renegade technomages, one made up of historically "disproven" theories that the governors of the Technocracy decided were undesirable and one made up of virtual reality fans who were distressed that the Technocracy had decided not to make VR available. Three, if you count the psychedelic underground, although their philosophical roots predate the Technocracy as such. There were also ceremonial magicians and martial artists and herbalist witches and Kali cultists and monotheistic miracle-workers and tribal shamans whose religious beliefs were under attack. Collectively, even though they hated each others' paradigms, they worked together against a common enemy under the banner of the Nine Traditions of magic.

I never had to explain to my players why the Nine Traditions were the good guys. Once in a rare while, though, I'd run into people like myself who could see both sides, or who considered the Technocracy to be the good guys. Nor is it surprising that I'd be one of them; the Technocracy's platform is traditional liberalism. There were enough of us that White Wolf did eventually release a set of player's guides to the Technocracy, so game masters could run Technocracy campaigns. But hardly any ever caught on, because White Wolf's ongoing development of their world made it clear that if the human race was going to survive, the Technocracy had to lose, no matter how unlikely that looked. And, in fact, that ended up being the official ending of that game universe: the Technocracy did finally win, and the world came to an end. Why? I never got around to reading the whole explanation, but I gather that by making it impossible for human beings to believe that they had souls, they killed all human souls. By seeking to make human governance simple and efficient, by seeking to render reality completely under control, they rendered it so dull and mechanical and miserable that nobody cared if they lived or died. By making it impossible for enough people to believe in God, they destroyed something that was propping up the underpinnings of reality itself. And while I don't necessarily agree that's what would happen if people altogether stopped believing in God or the soul or magic or miracles or faith, I'm willing to accept it as their editors' fiction.

But here's the part that fascinates me, and provides me an opportunity to run a gaming campaign that would interest me. In 1920, nobody could possibly have foreseen that. In particular, let's look at the time from around 1890 to 1920, which would have been 1920's recent past. If you look at things like the 1892 Columbian Exhibition, or the various World's Fairs from 1893 to 1904, you see tremendous interest in how the Wonders of Science were going to radically transform the world into a paradise, a utopia. But in World War I, people started to see some of the big downsides to scientific advance, like aerial bombardment of cities from zeppelins and poison gas and tanks and modern machine guns. So beginning in 1920, you start to see a rise in interest in religion and in the occult and in things like Freemasonry and secret societies even in the west, just at the point where missionaries and (more importantly) educators were following the explorers into every corner of the world to make sure that every child was brought into the modern age and given a modern scientific education.

What that means is that by setting a Mage 2ed Technocracy campaign in 1920, you've got the potential to tell every kind of pulp adventure story there is, really. H.P. Lovecraft and H. Rider Haggard both fit in. Indiana Jones' 1940 setting is almost anachronistic; his breed of tomb-robbing archaeologist is 20 years out of date. We now know that Lovecraft's alien cities at the south pole and in the Arabian desert and in the Australian outback aren't there, but in 1920 nobody knew that; maybe in 1920, they were still there? We now know that Arthur Conan Doyle's remote islands and African plateaus with preserved Jurassic ecosystems aren't there, but they didn't know that; maybe the reason we know that is that they were eliminated? And just in the White Wolf source books you can see that there are plenty of evil vampires, malevolent werewolves, evil ghosts, and other monsters to fight in 1920. Not to mention that the history of the period is full of bloody uprisings by martial arts societies and Kali cults and so forth. Heck, Doc Savage virtually is such a campaign. Do you remember the origin story for Doc Savage and his band of heroes? They were a World War I platoon who swore an oath to each other to continue to fight evil after the war; when they acquired the wealth to do so, they reformed the platoon and set out to do just that.

So here would be my premise. I'd want to get about 4 to 7 players, each one of which would be some kind of a technomage. In background, they would be people who met during World War I and who were recruited together. You can have, as coincidental magic, any technology up to around 1960, but you have to be able to explain it as cutting-edge, cranky, hard to keep operating 1920 technology. For example, you can't have a DC-3, but you can have a blimp with experimental outboard engines that has the flight characteristics, the speed and maneuverability and range, of a DC-3. But you have to make it operate at 1960s level, you have to make an arete roll and have enough spheres in, oh, let's say force and correspondence to do such magic. You can have hand-held machine pistols as good as an early model Uzi, but to keep them from jamming you have to make an arete roll and have enough spheres in force to do that kind of damage. You can have medicine and first aid up to Vietnam era standards, and body armor as good as from then, but you have to have enough levels in life magic and make an arete role to keep it working. You can have hand-held shortwave radios and have communications as good as the early satellite era, but you have enough levels in correspondence and mind to make it work better than 1920s shortwave radio and it requires an arete roll. And so on, and so forth. And I'll send you to city sewers and slums to root out vampiric human sacrifice cults, and to the Congo to hunt dinosaurs, and to India to battle Thugees, and into unexplored deserts and tundras to fight monsters from other dimensions and from outer space. (Oh, and I'd need to get back all of my Mage 2ed stuff, which seems to have all gone missing. Or replace it, probably by having to buy the downloads from RPGnow.com. *sigh*)

I pitched this idea before, and nowhere near enough people nibbled. They probably won't this time, either, which lets me off the hook. Because honestly, this is about the only idea I've had since the old Mage campaign that I think I could pull off and that could hold my interest.
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