Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Divine Masks: An Introduction

The driving force behind black magic is hunger for power” --Richard Cavendish, The Black Arts

Is Psi-Wars like Star Wars? Does it have Sith Alchemy? Because if you don’t have magic in it, it’s not Star Wars.” --GodBeastX, I think, and paraphrased, because I can’t find the comment anymore

Star Wars is space opera. It tries to invoke the same feel as fantasy stories, wild west stories and pulp exploration stories where the heroes stumble across a cannibalistic tribe featuring crazy witch doctors. Unfortunately, Star Wars doesn’t invoke this feel, which leads to one of my big complaints about it, in that, for the most part, it only has “the Force,” with the Sith vs the Jedi, and that’s it. We have no spooky space magic, no weird traditions, no alternate ideas.

This changes in the expanded setting because of course it does. It must! You cannot tell enough stories of adventure and exploration if you keep coming back to the same setting elements over and over again. And thus, we gained the Nightsisters, a witchy offshoot that comes from the same world as Darth Maul, Dathomir which, for my money is probably one of the single best additions made to the setting. We get a complete world with its own alternate culture, alternate magic system, its own races and social dynamics and its own aesthetic. Wonderful!

So far in Psi-Wars, we’ve only explored human philosophy, and we know that we’re getting close to the “Sith” philosophy of the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant and the “Jedi” philosophy of True Communion. So why insert this weird bastard child that nobody asked for? Doesn’t it violate the “Keep it simple” principle of Psi-Wars? What purpose does it serve.

The Divine Masks offer us that chance to explore something alien. We know what humanity looks like. Now we can tip-toe into the alien quarter and find their wild and ecstatic witch doctors and gyrating, orientalist dancers. The problem with the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant and True Communion is that they represent superior alien philosophy, the thought that (by base default assumptions) make a mockery of human philosophy. We need to represent alien “superstition,” one that is inferior or at least no better than human philosophy.

The Divine Masks also represents an occult tradition of psionics, one that wraps itself thoroughly in the mystical nature of psionics. It does not seek to explain psionics, only to embellish them. It embraces the imagery of communion without really understanding it. It sits at the feet of greater traditions like True Communion and the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant, but genuinely understands the basics, making it serve as a great “setting gateway.” An alien who follows the traditions of the Divine Masks will happily quote to you most of the stuff in the rules on Communion, at least the basic stuff on paths.

A final note: to emphasize its exotic nature, the Divine Masks uses a con-lang to create its terminology. I’ve chosen the Lithian language, a conlang by @ttekusariko. The idea here is not to pretentiously show off my cool new conlang (it’s not even mine! If you like it, give all glory to Mr. Ttekusariko!), but to have an internally consistent language that fits in with the naming scheme I choose for this race, and to be able to generate quotes that also fit with the language. It also emphasizes the exotic, alien nature of the philosophy. I will translate the terms, but please note that I’ve taken a little artistic license with my choice of words, that my mastery of the language is shaky at best, and that ttekusariko is still at work on the language, which means it might change between the writing of these posts and when you get to reading them, if you want to check my work.

The Historical Inspiration: Roman Syncretism

If the Akashic Mysteries are the Elusinian Mysteries, and Neo-Rationalism is “pagan philosophy” and Neo-Platonism, then the Nifmena traditions are the various “barbarian” cults that the Roman Empire tolerated, and even folded into their larger system.

The Mediterranean civilization was already ancient by the time the Roman Empire came to dominate it. The Egyptians still worshiped Isis, Osiris and their many Gods, as did the Greeks, and the Persians, etc. Rome had learned an important lesson about religious tolerance (one it would later forget), in that it understood they shouldn’t stop on the cultures of the conquered, with some notable exceptions (the Jews, eventually). Instead, the Romans “appropriated” the cultures of others. The image above is Serapis, was an invention of the Ptolemaic dynasty to fuse Egyptian imagery of Osiris and Apis with Greek imagery of Hades, Demeter and Dionysus. The Romans took this a step further, noting that various gods were all facets of one another: Demeter was Ceres was Isis; Hermes was Mercury was Thoth and together were Hermes Trismegistus, which served as the foundation for hermetic magic.

The Greco-Roman world wasn’t the only, first, or last to fuse various deities into one. (Some forms of) Hinduism does something similar, arguing that all the various Gods of India are, ultimately, just facets of Brahman. Syncretism pops up in East Asia too, where various Daoist or Shinto “deities” fused with Buddhist imagery to create a new sort of conception of both. Wherever cultures have mixed in a sufficiently large degree, they begin to find parallels and conflate one religion with another, forming larger and greater communities, often with richer and more complex traditions as a result.

The Divine Masks follows a similar trend. The alien empire that conquered many worlds fused its own cults with those of other worlds and argued that they were all facets of the same thing and, like the Roman Empire, placed its own imperial cult at the pinnacle, planting the seeds for the Cult of the Mystic Tyrant to arise later. This is helped by the nature of Communion archetypes, which also argues that various divinities may well just be facets of a particular path.

Chaos Magick, the Occult and Neo-Paganism

You are a magpie of magic. A thief of tradition. You steal from other people's cultures and beliefs to suit your own purposes.” --Papa Midnite, Constantine

The Divine Masks are an ancient tradition, one that dates back to before even the rise of humanity, let alone their Empire. The philosophies of humanity supplanted the alien philosophies that preceded them, but not completely. They still remain in older, more distant parts of the galaxy, and they still have a compelling power for cultures that object to mankind’s dominance and wish to return to their old ways. In this sense, they parallel Neo-Paganism, which is fundamentally an objection to the dominance of Christianity and an attempt to re-connect with one’s ancient roots. Here too, the tradition of the Divine Masks is either a continuous cult from ancient times, or an attempt to reconstruct that cult from days gone by in an attempt to regain one’s roots.

But at the same time, the tradition of the Divine Masks is an attempt at a single, cohesive cosmology that covers all psionics and all religion and tosses them into a single bag. This requires a rather expansive philosophical system, one that has become more academic than religious over time, and in a way completely unrelated to the actual religious practice. They explore the power of this religious imagery in a manner stripped of faith, for the pursuit of their own gains. Rather than heal with faith, they’ll heal with the imagery of faith, and the ritual of faith, and the words of faith, but they treat it as a system.

This creates a tension between those who believe, and those who attempt to manipulate in a coldly logical manner. Most occult systems, but especially post-modern occult systems like Chaos Magick follow a similar path. They largely dismiss faith and the fundamental mystical experience of becoming one with the divine, or trusting that the divine will make everything okay, and seeing religious practices as something of a science or an art, a system that can be manipulated and used. If a religious ritual allows one to boil a few grains of rice and say a special prayer/incantation over it to get more rice, then surely one can boil a few coins of gold and say a special incantation over it to get more gold!

Imagine if modern Wiccans and Vodouists, practicing their faith, came across a magician who thought their traditions were “neat” and co-opted them for his magical rituals. Imagine the tension this might create. The traditions of the Divine Masks has such practitioners who explore the metaphysics behind the various cults, as defined by the tradition of Divine Masks, and attempt to turn it into a cohesive occult system.

The Divine Masks as the RPG Religion

D&D drew considerable inspiration from the Greco-Roman world, and greatly simplified the idea of polytheism to create a simple system that allowed magical priests to align themselves with a specific power. This, of course, isn’t really how polytheism worked, which is a big catch-all that covers everything from animistic systems stuffed to the gills with small gods, to complex systems where the masses worshiped a pantheon of Gods, to systems where multiple religions were cast under a single umbrella. However, simplification works well, and in this case, while I’m trying to capture the complexity of the ancient world, in practice, most of the practitioners of the Divine Masks either act like wizards, who approach the system as one vast mystical tradition, or like clerics, who follow one single deity and gain power from that singular association.

But D&D isn’t the only, or even primary, source of RPG inspiration for the Divine Masks. Instead, Communion itself serves as inspiration. I use religion and philosophy as vehicles for interpreting the Communion system I’ve created, but we need at least one that follows the default interpretation, especially with a deep focus on the Paths. The Paths offer us modifiers similar to the GURPS Cabal modifiers, and the sort of devotion found Unknown Armies with its Avatars. The Divine Masks takes full advantage of these sources to create what I hope feels like a deeply occult system that rewards knowledge of how the various paths work. It also means that many of the cults might seem fairly obvious in their execution (the cult of the Beautiful Fool will tend to specialize in the miracles of the Beautiful Fool, etc).

What is the Tradition of the Divine Masks?

At its core, the Traditions of Divine Masks aren’t really a thing. It’s a story told by a long-dead empire in an effort to get everyone within that empire to get along. They created a cohesive metaphysics meant to explain, justify and empower the various cults that had gathered in that Empire.

When that Empire died, the culture behind those traditions remained. It created a system in which various followers of that culture could interact and allowed cults to remain on good terms with one another. Some followers of that culture began to fixate on the conceptual metaphysics behind the cults, however, they began to look at the story itself, rather than the purpose of the story, and explored it for its own sake, creating an occult system that they used to empower their psionic abilities.

The Divine Masks is also a vehicle for players to better understand and interact with the Paths of Communion, one of the more popular features of Communion, and given its inherent flexibility, it serves as a tradition that players interested in other philosophies can relatively easily bolt onto their chosen philosophy.

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