Manifesto : Transmissions From The Rogue Council
Manifesto : Transmissions From The Rogue Council Capsule Review by DaveB on 01/12/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 3 (Average)
Well, here it is - the Mage metaplot book for 2002 that gives the setting a boot up the rear. But it might not be what you're expecting.
Product: Manifesto : Transmissions From The Rogue Council
Author: Angel McCoy & Malcolm Sheppard
Company/Publisher: White Wolf
Line: Mage : The Ascension
Page count: 96
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by DaveB on 01/12/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Horror Gothic
(I hope and pray thatthe HTML works. HTML for the HTML god! Ia! Ia!)
MANIFESTO : TRANSMISSIONS FROM THE ROGUE COUNCIL
Prerelease Banter, Hype, Hyperbole and Internet Forum Agitation
As with most modern RPG fandoms, the Internet capable player community of Mage usually knows about a supplement's existence well before the book itself is released. Catalogue blurbs are dissected, unsolicited opinion thrown about and, in the end, no-one goes into the finished book "blind" - preconceptions are rife, and a book may be slammed for not providing what the reader believed it would. When the game has such a volatile fandom as Mage, and the book has such a hair-trigger topic as "Metaplot developments intended to shift the game to the new Developer's vision", the situation gets precarious. If in this review I seem to be qualifying my statements overmuch, please understand that I'm doing the equivalent of speaking softly and backing away, for fear of the inevitable flamewar.
So what's "Manifesto : Transmissions From The Rogue Council", then? Simply, it's the Mage Metaplot book for 2002, intended to provide a subplot for Storytellers to run in the background of their own chronicles that will alter the game setting.
It also, and I say this here at the start, has a big honking Demon : The Fallen tie-in in it. And (that rarity of rarities for Mage) a prewritten adventure. Pleasingly (for those that have read the thread on a certain other company in RPG.net open), the playtesters of said adventure are given proper credit. Good on you, White Wolf.
Judging a book by it's cover is dangerous, and it's a good thing I bore it in mind upon receiving this book - put bluntly, the cover stinks. A painting of a mage who's been shot, "ascension" written on the bullet-holed wall behind him, magical fire erupting from his fist while he stares down the Men in Black who shot him. Ergh.
The plotline itself is relatively simple - a never-seen entity called either "The Rogue Council" or the "Sphinx" (after a sphinx-logo that appears on it's messages or the popular theory that the entity is the missing Council of 9 making contact - it doesn't refer to itself as either term. Ever.) begins sending messages to Tradition mages - and some Technocrats - in early 2002. Some of the messages are helpful, all are cryptic and the entity's motives remain mysterious by the time the messages trickle off, but seem to be related to giving the recipient increased chances of ascension, and preventing the abuse of sleepers by unscrupulous magi - usually but by no means always Technocrats. By the end of the year, of course, it's too late - new factions have appeared and a group of young Tradition mages, thinking they know what the Sphinx wants, have declared the Ascension War "on" again in the title's "Manifesto".
Art - I'll say this here. I'm not a fan of Leif Jones. Leif Jones is one of three artists who's work is featured within Manifesto. I am a fan of Marko Djurdjevic and I'm indifferent towards Conan Venus. My likes and dislikes in terms of art therefore neatly cancel themselves out, leaving a blank slate that in no way is a none-too-opaque cover for the fact that art criticism and me mix like kerosene and blackcurrant jelly.
All Mage sourcebooks have a Tarot card associated with them. Manifesto's is the Ace of Questing - the one that features a disembodied hand hovering over Doissetep. Hmmm.
Prologue : The Labyrinth
We begin with some game fiction - a simple story of a Verbena, a Virtual Adept, an Akashic, two children and three Technocrats. It's made more convoluted by hopping between the different points of view of all of the characters, none of who realise what's actually going on. It displays the havoc a Transmission causes - both for the Verbena who receives it and the people around him. The story doesn't actually finish here, and "aftermath" viewpoints are dotted through the remainder of the book, until one of the characters realises what really happened.
As game fiction goes, it's okay, and short enough to not outstay it's welcome. The mystery won't confound any reader that pays attention, but it was good to see White Wolf trying something a little different when it comes to literary devices - especially this, which starts the "bring your own interpretation" theme of the book proper in early.
(The fictional Transmission, though, follows only a few of the usual patterns quoted in the rest of the text - and the threat it warns about is decidedly non-Technocratic. More on that trend later.)
Introduction : A New Creed
Opening with a Leif Jones full-pager showing three mages watching the destruction of Doissetep in a crystal ball - one angry, one crying and one impassive - the introduction gives a brief overview of the state of play at the beginning of 2002 (the Traditions, Horizon lost, now being run by the Disciples and Adepts while the remaining Masters refuse leadership positions, the Technocracy having achieved control through the apathy of the consensus and so on. A brief précis of the metaplot thread of the Rogue Council follows, then advice to the Storyteller to keep their own mind open over which of the resulting factions in "in the right". Then a note to the effect that White Wolf will never - in the foreseeable future, anyway - reveal exactly who the Sphinx is, and ultimately no player character should ever find out. It's a mystery, left up to the Storyteller. I'll have a quick talk on that subject later on, but for now this short section is functional - but still nothing new.
Chapter One : The Beginning... Or The End?
Opening with a Leif Jones piece of a Transmission appearing as a skyscraper-side billboard, Chapter one takes the form of an in character dossier compiled by the Virtual Adept from the opening fiction on the subject of the Transmissions - from the political and social context of the Traditions at their time of first contact, to an analysis of the common factors in all transmissions, to the reactions of each of the Traditions, to seven sample Transmissions ranging from a billboard that leads a Hermetic alchemist to a new student to an email leading a Son of Ether to a node.
Aside from the fact that contrary to the stereotype already flying around not a single one of the quoted Transmissions involves attacking a Technocratic Construct or writing "ascension" in your own blood on handy puce-green walls, the sample transmissions given cover a pleasingly wide variety of media and topics - although, despite the book's later assertion that a sizeable majority of Transmissions are congratulations to Cabals that have successfully completed their sphinx-given missions or info-dumps on the nature of Mage's setting, not one of the examples does either.
I know that the chapter is in character, and therefore open to the old favourite "biased viewpoint - any or all of it could be a lie" method of maintaining consistency in a game line that White Wolf have gotten so much mileage out of, but the portrayal of the Traditions here as utterly apathetic sheep caused me to pause, so overblown was it. In fact, it ends up hurting the book in later chapters. More - you guessed it - on that later.
Chapter Two : The Sphinx's Riddle
Still in character, and still the same document as Chapter one, that Virtual Adept here goes into an attempt to figure out who the Sphinx might be - or what it might want. This starts with a discussion of sphinxes, in legend, history and symbology and in both the Greek and Egyptian forms - bringing up the idea that, like the Greek sphinx, the Rogue Council is holding knowledge over the Awakened (and that the answer to that creature's "who am I?" was "a human being"). Then the phrase "enigma takes us where dogma cannot", which occurs in most Transmissions, gets picked apart for possible symbolism and meaning (including the fact that - in Greek - "dogma" is from the same root word as "paradox"). The text then gives five theories as to who or what is sending the messages (with points for, against and variants) and a breakdown of the mages who are for or against the entity.
While again it's all good - and serves as both a potential player handout and a time-saver for the Storyteller who has been saved the task of looking any of this up him or herself - this chapter's first three quarters spends an awfully long time saying nothing concrete. We know that the Sphinx's identity won't be revealed here - if simple cynicism hadn't sufficed, the introduction to the book should have - so a chapter of red herrings seems to be, to quote the Virtual Adept about the Sphinx, saying "ha ha, I know something you don't. I know the answer to the riddle". Whether this is frustrating or not depends on your patience for solution-less puzzles, but if the Storyteller makes the decision to decide what the Sphinx is for themselves - regardless of what future supplements may have to say on the matter - this Chapter makes a perfect idea-mine. I've got six theories not in the expanded upon five, supported by the evidence presented.
Chapter Three : Rogue Factors (Storytelling)
The book now shifts into the out of character talk, outlining the four main phases of the Sphinx's activities (including sidebars on the different types of Transmissions) over the course of the year 2002. Following this is a look at the response of the Traditions to the phenomenon - including the manifesto document itself, published by the "Emissaries" faction who believe in a libertarian Rogue Council leading them against the Technocracy. Those Tradition mages who think that the whole idea of a new ascension war is lunacy are covered, as is the wave of younger Technocrats that defect in the face of having their beliefs challenged. A brace of plot ideas follow - what happens when well-meaning Emissaries stir up the Technocracy? What if someone fakes a Transmission?
Chapter three - after the half-truths and dissembling of Chapters one and two - is a breath of fresh air. After all of the hype - both in this book and in previous ones - the lack of any concerted internal conflict in the Traditions over this is disappointing. I was expecting at least a minor civil war, and I got a heated disagreement. I also get the impression that the Emissaries are meant to be player-character types, but I'm still feeling a distinct lack of empathy towards them, which I'll go into... Oh, just keep reading. I'll get to it.
Chapter Four : Anarchy And Authority
The "NPC" chapter of the book, Chapter four presents a Cabal of Emissaries and an Amalgam of Technocrats who are part of the Technocracy's effort to defend itself - a new Methodology named Panopticon devoted to security operations. Two of the Traditionalists and one of the Technocrats are given character sheets, while the other characters are simply described. An addendum to the Guide to the Technocracy is provided in case groups want to play as Panopticon agents. While the Cabal is mostly standard - the inclusion of a dual-traditioned character aside - it's the Amalgam that's the most interesting, led by a Buddhist New World Order agent who's barely tolerated by his superiors and including Chain (the first-edition Progenitor Signature Character, now in the twilight of his career) and an Iteration X HIT mark programmer that hasn't managed to move with the times and has found herself on the same scrapheap as her creations. The few, the brave, the disavowed.
Sample characters are a hit and miss affair, and very rarely end up actually being used in chronicles. This chapter avoids the inherent redundancy of it's subject by making itself more of an inspirational piece than a dry list of NPCs. Still, what does it when the reader's sympathy is with the "bad guys" - who are a by far more memorable bunch than the "good guys"?
Chapter Five : Alien Avatar
Alien Avatar is an adventure, and as such I'm going to ghost out the text of this part of the review to preserve spoilers for anyone who might end up playing it. Highlight it to read it.
==|Alien Avatar, seemingly inspired by Delta Green or the X files, has the characters dropped into a decades-old conspiracy by way of a Rogue Council Transmission. The Transmission itself is in the form of a world war 2 propaganda film of the Traditions-Technocracy alliance during the war - an idea which appealed to my sense of the absurd, while the adventure itself concerns a nazi scientists sheltered by the Technocracy performing experiments on New World Order recruits in an arctic airbase.
If that was all, the adventure would stand as a harrowing look at what it would actually be like to assault a Construct - numerous notes advise the Storyteller to play up the horror of the Sleeper guards being killed. But the story goes deeper than that - the backstory shows an Avatar Storm in World War 2, goes into the creation of the universe, briefly links into long-forgotton Mage second edition plot, casually explains what Stormwardens are and the "monster" in this monster movie turns out to be a Demon (as in Demon : The Fallen) inhabiting the body of a mage, creating the biggest munch-fest since Samuel Haight - and the potential end to the Avatar Storm to boot! It's as though, having spent the duration of the book dissembling, the writer of Chapter Five just decided to let loose and reveal six secrets of the universe before breakfast. As such, your mileage may vary greatly. To the chapter's credit, the subject of just what the imprisoned but now freed spirits from the dawn of creation are is danced around and presented as it should be in a mage sourcebook - within the terms of the paradigm of the mages involved. You can see this as the hammer which puts Demon into the rest of the World of Darkness, you can see it as the Mage version of Demon (much as "Lupines" in Vampire sourcebooks are almost - but not quite - Werewolf "Garou") you can decide it's just one huge coincidence or you can use it as the all-out crossover it doesn't quite manage to be. Or, like I'm going to, you can just change the adventure.|==
Summing Up And Conclusions
They give proper credit to the playtesters! (I just thought I'd mention that one again.)
The nature of the Transmissions, and the Metaplot.
(This is the "more on that" I keep promising)
Two out of eleven transmissions in the book relate to Technocrat plots. Two relate to situations that the Technocracy are about to stick their oar in and four relate to corrupted Traditions mages. Some war, huh? But the Transmissions, the book tells us, are about fighting the Technocratic Control. Presumably if the book had been longer that would have been shown and not told, but in making the Transmissions cover such a breadth of topics, with so few examples, the central conceit of the Emissaries beginning the Ascension War anew based on the Sphinx's creed doesn't hold up under scrutiny.
The Metaplot, as presented here, bugs me a bit - the Traditions seem suddenly over-apathetic... even whiny. Given the response to the Transmissions in Chapter Two - a resounding "who cares", I have a hard time believing in even the limited internal strife they're presented as causing. Maybe it's intended to show different stages of the plotline's progress, but that wasn't clear.
My negative reaction to the Emissaries - who are portrayed as the heroes of the piece and not dangerous fanatics in too many places - is disturbing in the long-term (I can see me and Mage's metaplot not seeing eye to eye for a while here) but when limited to Manifesto itself, my reaction is catered for. In fact, the book goes out of it's way to cover reactions to the plot other than the expected - I was especially pleased to see the Technocracy being supported as player characters, despite the anti-Technocrat swing of the plotline. Mark me down as a "Enthusiastic Supporter".
Manifesto has a huge hurdle to overcome - the fact that the central enigma is never revealed, and in a book about the Rogue Council the writers cannot give any one answer as to the fundamentals of that entity. Chapter two, in particular, seems to suffer under this - the danger of revealing the Sphinx's identity (which players would naturally find out within days) on one side, the danger of annoying the Storyteller with needless enigma on the other. Similarly, the Traditions can't be completely torn apart, but they can't be left as is either - and the Technocracy must be the villains of the piece as well as the victims. Too many dichotomies for my taste - and I was continually put in mind of Mystery Men ("The Sphinx. He's Tewwibly Mysterious"). Bring your own interpretation - Manifesto will give you the clues, but it will never give you the answer. Of course, that may be a good thing from the point of view of the individual storyteller but the book ends up weaker than it could potentially have been by the necessity of hedging it's bets.
So just how much use can a Storyteller get out of Manifesto anyway? What's in it for us? Aside from the dangling carrot of an unexplained mystery for players to solve (which the book discourages, noting that it'll only end in frustration), the Transmissions serve as a means of steering character parties, acting as a Storyteller's "voice", giving information-dumps, starting adventures and providing an in character reason for both the increased organisation of Mages and the growth of new Factions - Mage has often been unfairly criticised as a game that has no core concept to build a character party around and the Emissaries (semi-deluded reality terrorists), Guardians and Panopticon (the agents the Technocracy would rather ignore) are both ripe for use as concepts for a chronicle - and reasons for as eclectic a bunch as most Mage player cabals to be together. Looked at like that, it's not a bad idea - but the discussion of the Transmissions themselves and the various ways a Storyteller can use them are not a big enough concept for a 96-page sourcebook. Hence the various factions and reactions to the Transmissions, which unfortunately don't have the space they need - rendering the book too short to cover all the ground it sets out to.
It all comes back to that damned Ascension War. Manifesto tries to give it back in a different form to those who've missed it and the writers have done a fine (if not entirely seamless - the Traditions' sudden retroactive apathy for one) job of making the renewed war grow naturally out of the end of the old one. Unfortunately, having sold Mage Revised on the lack of need for such overarching struggles, the book has to keep those who didn't like the idea happy as well. And it ends up as a jack of all trades, fully satisfying no-one.
Manifesto is a good look at the Transmissions and the clues as to the Sphinx's nature. It provides groundwork for a number of possible directions that the Storyteller may care to take it in - but that's as far as it goes. With too many points of view to cover - and wary of reaction to the new metaplot direction of a renewed Ascension War - it ends up, like it's own "Fencers", not going as far as it could. Part of me, a large part, wishes that the book didn't end in the present day - the near future will likely see some of those deep divisions, the idea of the Technocracy splitting down the front-line agents / Control line is compelling and the new war looks to not be an entire rerun of the old one. Manifesto just isn't long enough to even touch on the issues it raises.
But, in it's own obfuscating way, it's a start.
After all, enigma takes us where dogma cannot.
The Transmissions themselves - and the Sphinx behind them - are an idea-mine of the highest order, which a Storyteller can realistically use as much or as little as they want. But the changes those Transmissions make on the setting feel half-developed, not as fleshed out as they might be. Ultimately, you can leave too much to the Storyteller.