This review is based on the backer copy of Book of the Fallen. As such, it will ignore minor issues likely to be corrected, such as spelling and grammar or incorrect sphere ratings, and will instead focus on broader themes and things sufficiently interwoven that they cannot be changed in any significant way.
It is with a heavy heart that I say that this book is a failure. It is far from Brucato's best writing and though he warned people it would be offensive, the implication was that the offense would be at the actions of the Nephandi, not at the writing's implications. Unfortunately, rather than taking a route wherein the Nephandi are described as antisemitic and incorrect, or that there are many many ways that things can be views, this book took the route that the Nephandic paradigm relies on Jewish mysticism, that that mysticism has objective truth, and, in the light of other books, that this malevolent version of Kabbalah is the only objective truth in Reality. More details on the problem will appear below.
Let's start with the content warning. This is a good thing, though the "we handle such subject matter with maturity and sensitivity" applies certainly only to non-Jews, and not necessarily to all of them, but I can't speak on traditions that I don't know. It also overstates somewhat how graphic the whole thing is. While it does describe the atrocities involved, it's often at a higher level, avoiding truly graphic descriptions, which is good.
Evil is not a Toy
This section starts by asserting that this isn't a Player's Guide to the Nephandi. That is wildly incorrect, as this book can hardly be interpreted as anything BUT a player's guide. Many of the things that follow are fundamentally unnecessary unless stories are told from a Nephandic point of view, in which case they are players. For one simple example, non-Nephandic PCs will never once see what a Nephandic Seeking is like, and so describing them is not necessary if this isn't a player's guide.
The rest of the section, though, describes some real-world encounters with evil that Brucato has had, and is easily one of the strongest, and most graphic and difficult to read (due to the intended effects, at least) sections of the book.
Introduction: Eaters of the Weak
This is one of the best chapters of the book. It contextualizes Nephandi as abusers and as ultimately selfish, as opposed to the Traditions, Technocracy or Crafts who, though they have selfish elements, in theory strive towards some common good for some group of people. However, the first sign that worried me about the content was in the Lexicon section. I expected "qlippothic" and "qlippoth" or the like, as those have been attached to the Nephandi from the beginning, but the sheer number of Hebrew terms worried me, with terms like Daath (more commonly da'at in modern transliteration) and the Tree of Knowledge with the ten qlippoth associated with it (rather than just being a term used to refer to the Spheres, marking Nephandic methods as "empty/dead shells"). At best this paints the Nephandi as basically all being Hermetics, but at worst (and it was at least somewhat worse) it paints them as Jewish, and the last thing the world needs is a game book that identifies world-destroying levels of selfishness, greed and evil with Jews.
Chapter One: The Awful Truth
This is one of the stronger chapters. It is an in-character chapter, which means that errors of the authors can easily be attributed to the speaker, and nothing said is 100% certain, especially as it is coming from the mouth of a Nephandus. So, it's much, much more forgiving of other problems, but oddly, this chapter avoids much of the worst of it. The narrator attempts to sell the Nephandic worldview to the reader, and does a decent job of it, but a careful reader will see the cracks in the arguments, the areas where the speaker is ignorant but pretending knowledge, but it does require that that attention is given. I strongly suspect that this was somehow both the easiest and hardest chapter to write: easiest because it flows, it's a rant, a manifesto, and the reader can believe that this is just a lecture some evil bastard is giving. The hardest because it would really require inhabiting the mind of the speaker to make it flow like that, and this effort is appreciated and impressive
The sidebars point out weaknesses in the arguments, reminding the reader that the Nephandi can't be trusted. The argument starts with "The world is awful" and continues with "We are beyond morality." It also explains the Nephandic view of Descent, as becoming one with the Absolute, either through the annihilation of Reality or through becoming an embodiment of it and the god of their own universe. One fun piece of irony here is that for such a selfish world view, the ending of the path involves the ultimate negation of the self, either actual nonexistence or transformation into something fully unrecognizable as the original being.
The two takeaways here are the Lex Praedatorius, or the Law of Predation, which is the backbone of the Nephandic worldview, and sums up to "kill or be killed" in many ways. The speaker builds it up as this profound truth when the reader should be able to see that it's an empty statement of someone who has given up on humanity, and the laziest of philosophical points. The continued "It sounds good on the surface but doesn't stand up to scrutiny" facet of the Nephandic worldview is great and mimics the fact that they can be tempting and offer power, but it's a poison that hollows out the tempted.
For all the issues I have with Jewish mysticism and beliefs being brought into this book, the Leviathan aspect here doesn't bother me. The Nephandus is speaking in-character, for one thing, and for another, Leviathan is mostly as described: it's a giant sea monster that is promised to be slaughtered and served at the end of time. From there, it departs strongly, but the core is used correctly, even if the Nephandus is putting a particular spin on things, as a Nephandus would.
Unfortunately, we get more "Daath" mentioned in the sidebar about Cauls. We'll get into that more in Chapter Four.
Chapter Two: The Road to Leviathan
The opening fiction of this chapter is bad. For all the mentions of "avoid cartoon evil" it's downright cartoonish to describe some random people (who we know nothing of their paradigm and scant little about their motivation) butchering others in a way that allows them to put their eyes in a bag but somehow they still see out of them and are grinning after being cut to pieces while still alive. Aside from being gratuitous, it requires such over-the-top effort to even attempt this in the setting that it really comes off as trying too hard. I found myself rolling my eyes more than being horrified.
This chapter continues from Chapter 1, but here, as in the rest of the book, the tone of an objective game book is taken rather than an in-character tone. This is important, as the issues that come up would be bad but less so if they came from a specific character, rather than the authors of the book. It starts with talking about how to the Nephandi, Light is the problem and Darkness was already extant before it was injured by the Light, and then proceeds with some ruminations on the nature of evil and the various sorts of evil in the world. One sidebar is the first (of far too many) mention of Jung in the book, and, for those who are even slightly up to date on psychology, it's well-known that Jungian archetypes are pretty much considered pseudoscientific nonsense in the modern world, taken as seriously by psychologist as the Zodiac is by astronomers. This comes back in Chapter Four (you'll hear problems "come back in Chapter Four" many times in this review) but we don't address it again except to say that this concept of Jung's is not actually particularly coherent, is obsolete, to be generous, and is overused in this book when other, more accurate descriptions of psychology would do the trick.
A side issue, the discussion of Sociopathy, Narcissism, Psychopathy, and the Fallen is ok for establishing how terms are used in the book and acknowledges that their usage isn't perfect. It's an ok sidebar, but it always seems strange when a sidebar is a page and a half long, and that it should have been more smoothly integrated into the text somehow or edited down substantially.
The chapter next dwells on Descent, again, reiterating and expanding on what was in Chapter One. (Honestly, Chapter One is the most useful chapter in the book and could easily be used while ignoring the rest of it and taking it as a viewpoint among the Fallen.) Here is really where the discussion of the qlippoth goes downhill and starts bringing in the Tree of Knowledge in ways that are frankly bizarre and antithetical to the real source material for it, but which is treated as an accurate description of that material by the book, with nary a sidebar in sight to say "This is a Nephandic interpretation of a real-world belief system, and contains many inaccuracies" or the like. Aside from this, which is mostly ignorable, the section is a good expansion of the discussion in Chapter One.
Next, we get a description of the path of Descent, and it dwells a bit more on the qlippoth. Here's the closest to a disclaimer: "Although the modern concept of this reputed Tree of Knowledge comes from heretical applications of medieval Jewish mysticism (as well as from later occult practitioners who claimed the concept without being themselves Jewish)" however, it goes on to say that these things have reality. It does suggest that this is because occultists poured energy into the concepts, but if that were the case, then truly divergent interpretations of whatever is underlying this would have to be included, instead of making Nephandi Evil Hermetics and/or Jews. After this is a bit more discussion, mostly good.
Nephandic "awakening" is discussed, both in the sense of walking into the Cauls and turning barabbus. Interestingly, this book suggests much more strongly than either Book of Madness that widderslaintes, those born with Avatars that had gone through the Cauls in a previous life, are not automatically Nephandi, but must enter the Cauls themselves, and can turn away from the path, though with difficulty. As for barabbi, it gives reasons for members of literally every group in the world of Mage to turn. Next, Nephandic avatars are discussed, with nearly random and unnecessary mention of Daath, and the Fallen interpretation of the Avatar Essences are fine inasmuch as they don't discuss the qlippothic realms (again, more in Chapter Four on these).
The chapter closes with a frank discussion of abuse tactics that's quite strong, and clearly owes much to Bancroft's excellent "Why Does He Do That?"
Chapter Three: But Darkness Visible
The opening of this chapter shows that the authors have done their homework, referencing Nick Land's execrable "The Dark Enlightenment" manifesto, and then proceeds with some non-cartoon evil, as it involves completely believable levels of brutality from mercenary companies.
The main thrust of this chapter is Nephandic factions, and so the review will be brief. Most of the factions are quite solid, though some involve interesting changes from the previous manifestations (for one thing, the K'llashaa seem less likely to just die horribly a week after joining than they used to). Jodi Blake makes her only appearance in the book as a famous Infernalist who seems to have turned away from Descent (which might make her an Inverted Oracle? The term Oracle has changed meaning a few times, after all.) Of the classical three faction, the only one that I take real issue with are the Malfeans, who now specifically are tied to the Wyrm, rather than to abstract representations of destruction and decay, which I feel is much stronger. Then again, I am also one of the people who prefer to keep Werewolf cosmology out of Mage and force it to be subject to the same "reality is subjective" rules as other things, which is quite hard to do in many cases.
The new groups are in general quite good, though I'm disappointed in the writeup for the Heralds of Basilisk. For one, here is one of the places where the Fallen start to take on Villain Sue properties, where they seem to be better than everyone else at their specialties (leading me to question how they haven't won yet with that and with millions of unsuspecting people doing their bidding every day. Reality should have ended by now) but also it would be substantially stronger with a more accurate description of both what a "basilisk" is in this context and what Roko's Basilisk, the one referenced, actually is, which is quite different from the "What if a godlike Artificial Intelligence was to come into existence, and it was evil?" description in the sections.
To put it simply, a "basilisk" is any concept that will cause you harm by just being made aware of it ("you look at it and it hurts you"). Roko's Basilisk is an argument popular in certain circles (which has many flaws but that's not the point here) that is a godlike artificial intelligence ever comes into existence, even if it is benevolent and trying to minimize suffering, then it will STILL have an incentive to torture people alive now in extreme ways (essentially creating hell) in order to encourage modern humans to work hard to bring it into existence, so that it can alleviate far more suffering that it causes. This fits better with the Nephandic "existence is pain, nothing we can do can stop it, except ending it all" ethos visible throughout this book (and in several Final Fantasy villains). It's fundamentally an argument that even a benevolent god will not remove all suffering but instead will inflict immense amounts of it.
Aside from the HOBs and a bit with the Malfeans, though, the factions in this section are well thought-out and coherent and will make good antagonists for many games.
Chapter Four: Dark Tree of Knowledge
And now, we've reached the shitshow.
The lesser problem with this chapter is that there is SO MUCH JUNG. I explained why Jung is not a good basis above, so I won't reiterate it, but there's just a lot of it, starting with the opening quote.
So, onto the cultural stuff that is the true nightmare of this book. It starts with a brief sidebar acknowledging that they used real-world beliefs here, and then acknowledge that you don’t really need this chapter to run a game. So, this chapter is something that could be cut, that the players will never see unless PC Nephandi are permitted, and yet, it wasn’t cut. Honestly, before the section “The Qlippoth: Plumbing the Nightside” it’s mostly a lot of “some mages use dark practices without being Fallen” and “Carl Jung said” sorts of things, but this section is really where I want to focus my energy.
From the beginning, it treats the qlippoth as worlds that are truly believed to exist by large fractions of mages. For one thing, no non-Kabbalist believes much of anything about qlippoth, because non-Kabbalists don’t even know the word in any real way. We also get a bit more of the “everyone knows a little, but the Nephandi understand this is a deeper way than anyone else” suggestions that 1) they have objective reality and 2) the Nephandi are the best.
It’s really hard to focus on any specific errors, bizarre statements or disrespectful treatment of these concepts because the entire chapter is almost nothing but that. It does truly introduce objective reality into Mage: the Qlippoth are real and meaningful, which implies the Sephirot are, which implies that the Kabbalistic paradigm is true. “In Mage terms, the Qlippoth is essential to the Nephandic Path. Even if a Fallen mage does not herself believe in Kabbalah or view her Path through such occult philosophies, the essence of these forbidden shells forms an intrinsic element of her journey from Awakening to Descent.” There is also discussion of Nephandic Seekings, again, something that is fully unnecessary unless stories are being told from the point of view of Nephandi, and as something that is supposedly not a player’s guide to Nephandi, the inclusion of so many such things is suspect. It includes what sorts of things the Nephandus will learn from each of the Qlippoth.
There is a sidebar titled “Metaphysical Canon” which I reproduce here that disputes all of this, but with the quotes above, it’s quite clear that this sidebar has no bite, especially given that a staggering 15 pages or almost 7% of the entire text, is devoted just to this section describing the Qlippoth as the foundation of the Fallen in terms of Jewish mysticism, i.e., the Kabbalah.
Does this section mean that Mage’s world ultimately follows mystic Jewish monotheism, with all the requisite demons and myths? No. Metaphysics are never a one-size-fits-all proposition, especially not in a game world where subjective reality is the foundation of the game. Although the Qlippoth emanations do exist in a metaphysical sense, at least as far as the Fallen are concerned, they can be viewed through any number of philosophical lenses, most of which — like some divine kaleidoscope, shift and change depending on who’s looking at them and from which perspective. This section explores a small slice of the Qlippoth as Fallen mages see it. The ultimate reality is, as always in Mage, elusive and unique. Every Mage player or Storyteller will view these elements differently. The ultimate reality is yours, not ours, to decide.
The book then spends less than one full page on the qlippothic spheres, pointing out that the main difference between the standard ones and these is intent, and then we’re on to “Daath and the Cauls” and the Qlippothic Domains. It continues to treat Daath (da’at) oddly, and almost wholly in a negative way, which is very much not how it is perceived by actual Kabbalists, but then, the Tree of Knowledge is entirely different than the thing that this book describes as though it could be identified with it.
The book goes on to describe this Tree of Knowledge as consisting of 10 realms, one for each of the qlippoth, connected by tunnels which would correspond to the paths in the Tree of Life. This again cements the Tree as derived from Jewish mysticism as being a real and objective part of Reality. Rather than describe how bad the descriptions of the qlippothic realms are compared to what Jewish mysticism suggest they should be, in the description of Thagirion, this appears as one of the rulers of the Realm (and remember, this is JEWISH mysticism that is being drawn from, in theory): “Sorath, the Sun Demon, “the Adversary of the Lamb” and an embodiment of human wickedness and opposition to the Christ-self”
Finally, we finish Chapter Four with a discussion of the Black Diamond and can move on.
Chapter Five: And All the Powers of Hell
This chapter focuses on game mechanics to handle Nephandic characters (totally not a player’s guide) including merits and flaws, infernal investments (mostly for their cultists), rotes and wonders. While some of them look like they’d be fun (Qlippothic Radiance would lend itself to great flashy climactic scenes where the Nephandi has been hidden for the rest of the story) they do largely feel like they’re balanced for players. After all, they have normal freebie point costs associated with them. This is more jarring because Wonders in this chapter are not given costs (despite the costs being relatively simple to calculate from the mechanics) to discourage player characters from having them.
The Infernal Investments are basically completely unbalanced. In some cases, they are entirely broken. As an example, “Object of Affection” is a 7-point pact, which does make it quite costly. However, it’s also a win button for an unscrupulous (as all of them are) Nephandus with a cult that they can force to commit crimes and make pacts. The person who gets it picks another person, and now that person “loves” them. Though it is mentioned that magick and faith could both break the control, there’s no resistance possible. So, any Nephandus with a decent cult and a cabal after them should just force their cult to bond the mages of that cabal in this way, and problem solved. Though the book does indicate not to do this to PCs (under the “violations of the character without player consent are super bad” discussions) this falls into that category of “powers that break the setting if they’re actually available” even if it never appears in a game. That said, “Regeneration” as a 9-point investment seems overprices for what it is, being considerably weaker than many of the lower level investments.
The next section is on Focus for Nephandi, Paradigm, Practice and Instrument, as well as higher level organizing principles. It falls into the trap of mistaking a rabbinical SATIRE as a rabbinical legend, claiming “In all forms, Lilithianism reveres the First Woman who — according to rabbinical legend — was created equal to Adam, refused to be his inferior, rebelled against God’s dominion” which is an oft repeated error (and indicates a lack of research, as the Alphabet of ben Sirach is not subtle about being a satire, for instance it is full of masturbation puns and fart jokes).
The paradigms themselves are mostly fine, though nothing terribly out of the ordinary and several of them (as well as practices) are just evil versions of things that exist, and I question whether they really need to be separated out. Is Infernal Science that is science plus evil really different enough from Hypertech to deserve a separate discussion? Would it not have been more useful to go through the already existing paradigms and practices and explain, in brief, how they get twisted by Nephandi?
The most interesting bit of this section is the part on hypersigils and egregores, which actually adds something to the game.
The rotes in the next section are badly over-written, to the point where clarity is lost. Each entry should be cut by almost 50%, for example, we have 75% of a page on “Beautify or Deform” which amounts to “Better Body” but evil, and Better Body is well enough understood that it’s been in Mage since 1e. On the other hand, the rotes are flavorful, but much of that flavor would come out better with shorter, more tightly written descriptions.
Finally, we get to evil books and wonders. Though I’ve heard others complain about full pages on books that don’t really exist, that doesn’t bother me. While I do think many of these entries needed editing, it’s more that the prose got a bit purple in this section than due to length. If there had been more editing but then more content, that would have been excellent. In fact, this would be a great place for in-character writing, with “quotes” from the books that could be found, and those can get as purple as desired. After books come the wonders, which aren’t given costs in order to discourage player use, which as I said, left me unimpressed. This section really dragged, and I found myself unable to focus on many of them, but among the wonders are big-ass swords, slave collars, a whip that causes its target to be unable to use a safe word in BDSM (and thus useless outside of sexualized roleplay with a Nephandus, something few groups are likely to engage in) and a few others.
Chapter Six: Your Friends and Neighbors
This chapter feels to me like it should have been combined with Chapter Three. It’s got a lot of good things in it, and both of them involve factions and examples. Here, it starts with cults and other Nephandus-led but mostly Sleeper groups, including evil clothing companies, a shoe company that’s a front for online harassment, an evil nightclub, and an organization for corrupt cops, each with a template attached to it.
It moves on to less mundane allies of the Nephandi, such as evil spirits, companions, familiars and a bit on fomori. It covers some basic goetic demons, and honestly gets a bit immature and trivializes them somewhat, especially with Stolas, whose description includes “He’s a demonic owl with a fucking crown, and thus he’s cooler than you will ever be.” The memetic entities section covers Baphomet, the Basilisk (which I discussed above) and “Zagglaaw” who is recognizable to the Creepypasta crowd as an analogue of Zalgo. And then there’s three Paradox spirits (called nightmares) that tend to torment the Fallen. The true heroes of the book.
The most interesting section is the “Fallen Magi” section, and of all the pieces, this is the one that belongs in Chapter 3 the most. Some of them are useful and have clear horror movie inspirations (the Caller), while others (like Garrick Browne) barely hang together as a character concept and definitely needed rewrites (or could have been cobbled together from multiple versions of the character or multiple characters). Jane Daugherty is one of the more interesting Nephandi, being a K’llashaa who manages regular human contact without being caught, and the Reids are quite interesting, and left me wondering if they had any tie to Charles Reid from Technocracy: Progenitors, though the surname is likely random, there aren’t that many name collisions that are coincidental in the World of Darkness.
Chapter Seven: Theatre of Cruelty
Aaaaaand, this chapter is the player’s guide. It says it isn’t, but it is, and cements that impression of the book as a whole. It starts out strongly with a description of the cycle of violence and different sorts of abuse, it talks about how children can’t abuse adults (though in the discussion of why no Widderslainte children, it only mentions that but ignores the possibility of children abusing other children).
Finally, instead of at the beginning, a brief recommended reading section happens, specifically on recovery from abuse with 8 references. This sidebar is far too small, and the lack of a more in-depth section for other resources both on portraying and recovering from abuse is a serious flaw in this book. It is also right in a section on ST and Player responsibilities for playing with these themes safely.
And then, the book gives up pretense with a section “Nephandi as Protagonists” though it does protest a bit “We warned you” rather than avoiding making a player’s guide. It has a few hints and tips, a bunch of questions that the players should ask about their characters and then it asks if Nephandi can be redeemed.
The chapter (and the core of the book) ends with Nephandic metaplot options. They’re mostly good options, and fit the M20 model of not picking a metaplot but giving a tool kit. They include a fractured Nephandi model and various models where the Nephandi control another faction. The final part of the section is on Nephandi win scenarios, and I feel that this section needed to cite Ascension several times. After all, the ELE section (extinction level event) feels a lot like “The Earth Will Shake” with an asteroid about to hit Earth, and the section on Those Who Dwell Beyond The Stars is “Hell on Earth” which also ends with the Spitting From the Heart of Hell scenario, leaving only The Hungry God in this book as not having any tie to the final book of the original Mage line.
Not on My Watch
The book ends on a call to action to stand against the evils of the world. Important words to end on, and well written.
This book could have been far worse, but it could have been much better. Between the bizarre decision to make the universe objectively Kabbalistic, but for a bizarre version of Kabbalah, which leaves quite a bit of an antisemitic stench on the book (after all, the secret evil masters of the world being Kabbalists plays into MANY old antisemitic canards and beliefs that are still active to this day), the cartoonish evil that kept coming up, and the insistence that it isn’t a player’s guide while including things that would never be useful outside of one, the book ended up being mostly a negative for me. The parts that are good are worth keeping but disentangling them from the bad parts is a lot of effort, and unless someone has very specific reasons, I’d recommend skipping this book. If it could be given a proper editing pass, removing most of the gratuitous things mentioned above, and likely cut down to more like 130-140 pages, the book would be very strong and a proper successor to both versions of the Book of Madness and to Infernalism: the Path of Screams but as it stands it is not.