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by Ernest J. Morrison
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Harrisburg, Pennsylvania 1995 ISBN 0-89271-063-2
This fine work by Ernest J. Morrison might be a little dry for some readers, but not for those who are; "one of us"; passionate lovers of nature, and the whole of life.
Morrison is a great writer, who has done us all a lasting service by bringing people like J. Horace McFarland to his readers. He has a concise and clear, and yet deeply sensitive way of revealing the true and subtle nature of a personality's inner character. I hope, like John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage," that he will continue to find and hold up to recognition, the lives and dreams of great men and quiet heroes of history who have been lost or forgotten by posterity.
Morrison has shown us in this perceptive biographical sketch of the life of J. Horace McFarland, that not only was McFarland a practical idealist in his work to enrich us all with the enrichment of beauty, but he was also a visionary and an early wholistic thinker who saw, long before many men, some of the truth concerning God's will, and man's needs as reflected in the needs of nature, in what we are only now beginning to see as the bio-one-world.
Mr. McFarland didn't just think of beauty, preservation and reconstitution of nature as being a nice cutesy adjunct or afterthought to the activities and relationship man has with nature. He considered it an absolute necessity to counter-balance the disastrous negative effects that man has had on the environment, and spiritually; a saving grace for the disastrous effect man has had on himself.
Few could argue with this prophetic view from the past, as we begin to realize the universal wisdom and truth in living in healthful harmony with ourselves and with nature; with respect and love instead of the self abuse of exploitation. Horace would say it's time to start giving something back to mother earth, instead of just taking. There are ways to do this, by proper city planning that helps make people proud of their neighborhoods, and by constant beautification, and by protection and replacement of natural resources.
He felt that if mankind is to evolve successfully, he must displace the love of money with the more adaptive love of nature and beauty.
After being involved with the cross pollination and hybridization of plants, he began to see evolution as a process that God uses to change things in His on-going creation of life.
He believed in "equality" and helped get out the vote for women, and was involved with them in the many projects related to nature and beauty, and city planning during his lifetime. He had a view towards equality of value of other life forms- What we might today call an appreciation of, and sensitivity to, bio-diversity. He thought we should all be stewards of nature, and like the emerging global unity paradigm, that we have an obligation and responsibility to nurture and protect it. And that these were democratically based concepts, activities, and relationships. Ie: Of, by, and for the people.
J. Horace was, like a truly religious and spiritual man should be, a person who practiced his religion, his ideals, and his world view, like a daily prayer, each and every day of his life- like a church without walls. He wanted to be remembered as "a man who loved a garden." Indeed, he, materially, nurtured and loved, and helped renew the Garden of Life on this Earth; and will continue to do so spiritually through his life as example, and with his words, and with his works. We could all use a little of the spirit of McFarland in our hearts and in our souls.
McFarland was not only a great defender and protecter of nature and his beloved roses; he himself was like a "Rose of the World," a "lover of all good things, surmounted (and surrounded) by his love of beauty." His life was made up of tentacles of successes that reached far into many diverse areas of endeavor, each supporting and giving sustenance to the main body of his beautiful and high ideals. J. Horace McFarland, indeed a thorn for beauty... and a giant Oak of a man.
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DAMage is not for me. Why? I'm a fan of the Mage: The Ascension game line, and my thoughts start from there. Your mileage may vary.
The game defines magic separately for each group. It defines four "pillars" for each group, each with five ranks. These serve (supposedly) to measure what a Mage can and cannot do. Like any good game mechanic?
A lot of people didn't like the ambiguity inherent in M:tA's description of spheres. If that's you, avoid DAMage like the plague-- DAMage mechanics for Magic are described totally from the in-character point-of-view of the individual paradigm. As a way to understand what each kind of magic can really do, or settle disputes about whether a given Mage has the right knowledge to attempt a casting, they're completely unplayable.
They are, however, creative, even sometimes inspiring. If they were presented as magical theory, rather than a game mechanic, they'd be alright.
They'll also be good for selling supplements. The pillars demand exhaustive lists of "rotes," concrete definitions of individual powers, to be playable, and STs and players will find themselves obliged to go buy the "tradition book" for all the groups they intend to portray.
Another thing that bugged people about Mage: The Ascension, was that the sphere system seems "homogenous." That is, the progression in various abilities is pretty arbitrary, and if it's seen as universal among all kinds of will-workers, it intrudes on the in-character integrity of that paradigm.
I think that's a reasonable objection-- the Mage line's approach to Magic is it's own scenario, and though people claim you can do "any kind" of magic with it, that's not entirely true.
And, I think this helps us see why DAMage was developed along these lines. People wanted each paradigm to make sense "unto itself." Unfortunately, they chose to carry baggage from M:tA over. (Why? In an attempt to sell copy to Mage players.)
Wary of alienating Mage players, they retained an analog to a "sphere system," and gave lip-service to the "dynamic" quality of magic as found in Mage. And the result is something that is a glorified freestyle role-playing of magic, based on flavor text, or, with the eventual publication of massive rote lists, will really boil down to spell lists.
What people don't realize is that M:tA's sphere system was *born* out of a desire for a playable compromise between the reliable klunkiness of spell-lists, and the flexibility, but potential twinkery, of free-form role-play. It's imperfect, but, taken as what it is, it's also superb.
DAMage could have used M:tA's finely-tuned compromise. Instead it tried to reinvent the wheel, moving in both directions, failing to do either justice. DAMage could have been Mage: the Ascension with really cool, useful material on RPing in the Dark Ages setting.
And by the way. The presentation of the setting is rather lackluster, in DAMage. Possibly this is because they expect you go out and pay more money for Dark Ages Vampire. But if you're an Order of Hermes fan, for example, prepare to be disappointed. (Moreover, personally, my mind boggles at the authors' encouragement to send Muslim sorcerers off with their Christian cabalmates to kill Muslims in the Crusades.)
Alternatives better than DAMage include Mage: the Sorcerer's Crusade, Mage: the Ascension, or Sorcerer, each already in White Wolf mechanics, and adaptable to the Dark Ages setting (DAMage expects you to have other books too!) If you're a vampire player, particularly, I would think Sorcerer would be the way to go. There're also Ars Magica and D&D. And GURPS puts out great supplements, including on the Middle Ages. Which, if you want setting and flavor, are far superior.
Not to say the book is bad, because for the most part it is rather good. For Storytelling material it is bad, but as setting information and rules it is excellent.
Oh, on a final note, i only gave it 3 stars because White wolf decided not to put any rules in it outside of magic rules simply to sell more copies of Dark Ages: Vampire. It desserves 4 in its own right.
The similarities are obvious and yes, it is the World of Darkness set back into the Dark Medieval, but the truth of the matter is that this is not the same game as it's predecessors, Mage: The Ascension or Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade. There is no War for Reality, there is no competition. There is only magic. The opening chapter on medieval superstition gives a blanket feel of ambiguity to everything in the age and I think this is where the real strength of this game shines.
This book is not intended for first-time roleplayers. This book is advanced in every respect of the word. As a Storyteller for Dark Ages, having the rules to create and use Mage NPC's in my chronicles is outstanding and the rules for their creation, advancement, societies, everything... is right here. However, I was disappointed by the fact that although this game (and although it requires the use of Dark Ages: Vampire to use it, it -is- a separate and dinstinct game unto itself if allowed) has rules to actually play Mages, I can't say it's that easy. But then again, it obviously isn't supposed to be simple, after all these are willworkers, people whose expectations charge reality and force it to change. It's just not cut and dry.
The character creation is easy. The rules for advancement, simple enough. Unfortunately, it's the ambiguity of each of the pillars that catches me off guard, because, although we are playing these mages and their mindset is critical to their play, having the levels of power measured by interpretation is asking for complications. However, I believe now, after having re-read this book two times + since purchasing it, that it is SUPPOSED to be ambiguous and inexact, facilitating the person to person interpretation that was the rule of the day. After all, if someone easily adhere to exacting rules in the Dark Medieval, they were not Mages. Mages break the rules in every way, shape, and fashion and don't apologize for it; rather they take their success to mean that are due even more power. Enter hubris.
All in all, this is a great book and more visually stunning that I first imagined it would be. The spine, once again, is not attached to the book itself, but I'm beginning to suspect it's not supposed to. I gave this game 4 stars (instead of 3) because of the innate potential of such a game and the Dark Ages line. However, if you're are die hard fan of the Sphere system, I heartily recommend The Sorcerer's Crusade instead. This game is darker, more brutal, and more ambigious. These can be good things in the hands of the right people, but not for everyone.
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