I'm reading a few threads about the new Mage setting (the only White Wolf setting I liked). A lot of people seem to dislike it because the new mage traditions don't have the same "bite" to them. They're all carefully explained in detail, but they don't have the same pull as the original traditions. Which were basically real-world stereotypes.
I can't speak to this personally - I haven't read the new Mage setting at all. But I can say that the original traditions were opportunities to explore facets of belief that you normally wouldn't have much chance to explore. Sure, I had an unreasonable love for the Sons of Ether. It let me explore the nature of mad science and the line between genius and insanity. It was interesting, when I was college-age.
But other players preferred other traditions. They had other things they wanted to explore, like the relationship between death and life, or the nature of truth. And the original traditions were set up to allow that.
This was the one thing White Wolf did well. Their rules were shit, their writing was stuffy and stilted, but they built factions which allowed every player to explore the part of humanity they felt like exploring. In all their systems, that was the real focus. That was why you would pick Malkavian, or whatever - you felt like exploring that facet of humanity.
I'd like to talk about this concept a bit more.
It's commonly understood that science fiction is actually highlighting the time it was written. So we get Metropolis (1927) which was about factories and unions. And we get The Matrix, which was about the internet. And we get District 9, which was about faltering socioeconomic structures... these things were commentary on their time. And they packed a punch because of it.
Sometimes you get something like Ghost in the Shell, which is a bit more visionary. But, by and large, science fiction is about pulling out the thorns that are poking us today and holding them up to the light.
This is very similar to what mage traditions allowed you to do. Essentially, roll-your-own science fiction. Minus the science.
So it got me thinking.
One of the things I do when I design a game is I try to make sure it highlights a nugget of human condition. I want every game to have, at its core, something with a feel to it. Like looking across an expanse of gray-tone rules and seeing a bright red or blue blotch. Nothing explicit, just something that the players will automatically incorporate into their game without even realizing it.
This is very similar to what White Wolf used to do.
You can't do it quite as aggressively as science fiction can. You can't do a District 9 or Ghost in the Shell game. Well, you can, but you'd have to be very, very careful, because the thing they want to say is mired in the actions characters happen to take.
To make it a proper game, you'd have to pull those things out of the realm of scripted interactions and into the realm of incentives. You can't simply have bad guys that pound on the idea that humans are not as inviolable as they think. You need to have the players participate in that same conversation.
For example, Solid State Society has a conspiracy where a gifted hacker works with the elderly to forcibly adopt abused children, wipe their memory, and replace those memories with happier memories involving their new grandma or grandpa. The ideas explored with this plot are complex and there is no simple answer, no simple right or wrong. It's a fairly compelling bit of science fiction.
But it's not a very compelling RPG setting. The whole thing is plot, is script. You can't just port it over.
Instead, you need to create a rule set or setting where the same kind of philosophical explorations can be made by the players. Don't force them to do it... just allow them to do it.
And that's where the difficulty comes. How do you design such a thing? Is it possible to design such a thing on purpose?
Well, it doesn't have to be a masterpiece. None of White Wolf's games were masterpieces - in fact, they were all total shit. But they have that kernel of depth to them - they let the player explore a part of humanity. Whatever part is currently poking their mind. So they are rightfully popular.
You could do the same thing with a Ghost in the Shell game. Allow the players to pick memory manipulation as a skill. And if they go crazy with power, fine - that's part of the game. That's part of exploring what it all means.