Review – The Orphan’s Survival Guide (Mage: the Ascension)

Warning: The content of the Orphan’s Survival Guide includes offensive slurs and a variety of sexual references (including sexual violence), to the point where I don’t think I can properly review the book without at least discussing those topics. While there’s no explicit language in this review, there are references to the above-described content.

When I started reading the Orphan’s Survival Guide, I thought for a bit there that it was going to be good. It makes a point of not being a book just about the Hollow Ones, and it’s not, but it kind of starts out like it is, and even by the time it’s done it’s at least half Hollow Ones. I mean, the Introduction starts off with some Marilyn Manson lyrics, and then the section headings are Lacuna Coil, Project Pitchfork, and Vision Thing. That’s goth rock, goth metal, dark wave/EBM, and whatever you want to label Marilyn Manson as, he’s at least in the milieu. So Hollow Ones. Does it overly namedrop and wallow in the whole goth thing? Sure. But I enjoy that sort of thing (as I’ve discussed, Tradition Book: Hollow Ones is one of my handful of favorite Mage books).

Then the book dropped a slur about gays. Then a slur about black people (you know, that one you’re never, ever supposed to use). Then it repeated this some more. By the end, the book is literally encouraging you to do this sort of thing yourself in your home game, spouting off a list of slurs. Because, apparently, the only way to not ‘whitewash’ your setting is to speak in demeaning terms about everyone. I presume that the offered excuse would be that this is “realistic,” but I’m with Jeremy Crawford on this one – roleplaying games aren’t realistic (he isn’t the only one who has observed this, but I’m going to go with him since I just saw him answer a question about this sort of thing at the Queer as a Three-Sided Die panel at PAX Unplugged). This is a fantasy game. You can write a book about how miserable it is to live on the streets without infusing everything with high levels of racism and homophobia. Or any at all. You can write about racism and homophobia without having characters use those slurs. And so on.

Then there are some pointlessly graphic sexual discussions, including rape and creepy stuff with ghosts. There’s so much that they have literal demons to dispose of the victims in one of the locations in the book.

On top of that, while there is necessarily a significant level of ‘life sucks’ that’s needed in portraying like ‘on the streets,’ the inevitable feeling by the end of the book is that the goal is just to be as ‘hard’ about the whole thing as possible. There’s this real ‘we really have been there and seen that … well, or at least we know people who have’ vibe, especially in the final chapter on how to use this stuff as a Storyteller (which repeatedly tells the reader that they don’t really know about this stuff, so they should be careful about using it … but also suggests littering the streets with dead prostitutes to make it clear how tough life is). The authors at one point talk about how you can make everything unrelentingly negative, or there won’t be fun. But the authors are in no small part committing the very sins they warn the reader against.

By the time I add it all up, I think this might be the most edgelord White Wolf book I’ve read (or, since this is from the 1990s, I suppose that would be “extreme”). There are  probably others I read years ago that top it (maybe I should go re-read my own review of Clanbook: Giovanni), and I just don’t remember, but it gets pretty odious.

But wait, there’s more … while most of the problematic content in the book falls into the ‘edgelord’ category, not all of it does. In particular, there’s one section that discusses bisexuals, and references how they don’t really understand their own sexuality and are lying to themselves. This doesn’t even have the excuse of being stuck in some flavor text section – it’s just in the main text. It’s hard to read it as anything but the worst form of bi erasure – not just ignoring bisexual people, but illegitimizing their orientation.

(editorial note: the developer of The Orphan’s Survival Guide has commented on this review elsewhere, including on this part of the review, and in this instance I think it’s worth printing the passage from the book and the developer’s response.

The passage in the book is: “Most of the club regulars claim to be bisexual; for the most part, this allows them to dress androgynously and f**k anyone they please without considering the true nature of their sexuality. Despite the fact that very few people Perilous care who f**ks whom, most openly gay locals keep their distance even on drag night. (“Honey, I have enough problems already.)”

I read this passage as these club regulars “claim[ing] to be bisexual” while not considering the “true nature” of their sexuality. Especially combined with the reference to “gay locals” staying away, I read this passage as playing into the notion that people aren’t really bisexual (e.g., they’re gay but aren’t willing to admit it to themselves). Thus the discussion you see above in the body of the review.

The developer responded as such:

“Not only is this NOT bi-erasure (it flat-out says that bisexuality is true to certain people’s nature), it’s a call-out referencing club kids for whom someone else’s sexual identity is their party favor. 

That passage also references the hypocrisy (noted elsewhere in the book, including in a sidebar on page 52) of people who act all hip and cool but are carrying bigoted beliefs underneath their shiny wardrobes and tolerant pretensions. 

Which is a dead-accurate portrayal of club culture, especially in the Goth scene of the 1990s. 

AND says, flat-out, that most folks at the club don’t really care how you define your sexuality. That’s pretty much the opposite of homophobia. 

As for the bit about drag night? 688 had a drag night. And a hip-hop night. And the folks who showed up for one of those events on the wrong night generally split as soon as they saw what was what. And the “Honey, I have enough problems already?” remark? That’s a real quote from a real drag queen I knew, when I asked her if she was going to stick around for the Goth-night fetish show.”

We now return you to the rest of the review.)

While I’m going to give a bit more of the traditional review and summary of the book below, I think the above is basically the end of it as far as a recommendation goes – you can give this one a pass. There’s a bunch of better stuff to read even without going beyond the confines of Mage: the Ascension – including stuff developed by the same developer as this book. And have I mentioned that there’s a Revised era Tradition Book: Hollow Ones?

So, what is in the Orphan’s Survival Guide? As noted above, it’s about half Hollow Ones and about half generic orphan street mage. I think the default character envisioned by the Orphan’s Survival Guide is a teenage runaway, who is reasonably likely to be a goth.

On the gutter-mage side, the book leads off with a general discussion about trying to live while homeless, then moves into an extended series of vignettes that mostly illustrate the ways an unwise and untrained mage can mess things up. Some of that is smaller stories, and some of that is an extended set of lessons learned from Swarna Jayani.

There’s a chapter that’s exclusively about the Hollow Ones (running about 20 pages), followed up by another 15 pages on locations, of which maybe 3 isn’t about Hollow/goth-focused places.

As one would expect for a pseudo-splatbook, there’s the usual selection of five character concepts (with the usual wasted five pages taken up by their character sheets) and another 12 pages of notable orphans. The character concepts are decidedly not goths (or, as the book puts it, “THEY’RE NOT ALL GOTHS.”). There are Hollow Ones in the notables however, including good old Penny Dreadful.

Tucked in the back (hidden behind the storyteller chapter discussed above) is some advice for making an orphan character – how orphans might use different spheres (not that they would think of them in those terms), what sort of practices they might use and the tools that go with them (back-room tech, ClubKraft, various sorts of witchcraft, Victoriana, voodoo, and others).

There are sixteen rotes, which have some clever concepts. And not just because they referenced All Tomorrow’s Parties and The Crow. “F*** Off.” Purge (to emphasize the point that “morphine is bad for you“). Rotes to purify food and open doors. “Ravensong,” because you can’t have Hollow Ones without black birds. A body alteration rote called “Passing.” A little safeguard for whatever place it is the character calls home. And none of it requires more than three dots in anything.

Unfortunately, I find all of that overshadows by the problematic content.

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