…And I have seen it pass sterile into textbooks, just more facts to be learned to please a stern tutor, then forgotten when the lesson is over.
But the lessons of the Awakened must never end. By the divine Avatar within each of us, we are bound to history just as we are charged to create it. We, of all mortals, cannot forget what has gone before us. Nor can we shunt it into scraps of paper and shove it onto library shelves, just another book to be checked out when required. We are history, the past, present, and future incarnate, and we must not forget those who went before us – what they did, what they gave, what they eventually won – lest we become the last chapter in the final history book…
– Porthos Fitz-Empress (Satyros Phil Brucato), from The Fragile Path: Testaments of the First Cabal
I love the human complexity of a book I did long ago called The Fragile Path: Testaments of the First Cabal, first published in 1994 . Created as part of the Mage: The Ascension series I headed between 1993 and 1999, The Fragile Path presented a Roshomon-style story in which a budding Council of mystic factions in the European Renaissance stumbled over their own pride and shared humanity.
The following essay came from a series of posts I made in a Mage community this morning, when that book came up for discussion. If nothing else, it shows how a collection of ideas can evolve into a book that has provided inspiration and backstory for a saga that’s still a vital part of my life and career.
When folks suggested “A Book of Nod for Mage,” I was hashing out a backstory for Mage with Brian Campbelll, Kathleen Ryan and Sam Chupp. Mage‘s original edition had no backstory to speak of, so we were inventing its history. I wanted something that would be a testament to the early days of the Council, showing both the ideals that drove it and the frailties that undermined it.
A longtime fan of Roshomon, I had taken that film – with its multi-perspective approach to events and “truth” – as a model for our “Book of Nod.” I decided that it should be a testament of a crucial event, as told from the perspectives of people who were there. Jim Moore was one of go-to collaborators at that time, as was Beth Fischi. Owl Goingback, Tina Jens and Nancy Kilpatrick were all working with our new fiction department, and I decided that I wanted to use “real writers” – as opposed to game writers (who, in 1994, were, on the whole, pretty terrible at fiction) – for our Testament. I’d hit it off well with Owl, Tina and Nancy at various conventions, and so I hired them and we began brainstorming…
(Porthos, as depicted by Anthony Hightower.)
I told each author about the history we had been working up. At that time, The Book of Shadows had not yet been finished, and so no one knew the backstory about the Council and the Order of Reason. We were still making it up. I laid out a rough timeline, and came up with the idea of the First Cabal as a show of solidarity. Given my sardonic view of human frailty, I had decided that it was the breaking of that Cabal – from the inside, rather than from external defeat – that staggered the Traditions just as they got started, leading to their decline through the Renaissance and Age of Reason. Our “Book of Nod,” then, would be a Roshomon-style depiction of that event, and its aftermath, as told by people who were there at the time.
Porthos Fitz-Empress – initially created in rough form by Steve Brown and then fleshed out by me in The Book of Chantries – was already becoming one of my “mouthpiece characters”: folks within the setting who had enough self-awareness to comment upon it in the books. Heasha Morninglade, Xerox, Dr. Volcano, Hapsburg and Porthos were my primary mouthpieces, although there were others as well. I figured that Porthos was the obvious choice for the “editor” of this testament, if for no other reason that he was old enough to have been there at the time.
As I wrote that Introduction, however, I began to have a deeper understanding of Porthos. I was trained and experienced as an actor, and so I write from an actor’s perspective. The more I asked myself about the man who would compile that testament – his reasons for doing so, his personal feelings, the things we had tried to convey, the ways he would have felt about what happened back then – the more my understanding deepened for both Porthos and for Mage as a whole.
The story emerged in my mind as this grand tragedy: love, ideals, betrayal, defiance, despair, the memories of self-defeat, and the refusal to let that defeat cripple the dream.
(The Book of Shadows, aka Mage 1.5, which turned a bunch of good ideas into a viable RPG setting and rules.)
To put this into perspective, Mage was not doing well at the time. We were literally getting pallets full of returned books. The original rulebook was a magnificent mess, and the first few supplements – the screen, Progenitors, Loom of Fate, Digital Web and Virtual Adepts – had only confused the matter further. Mage was still too new, weird, raw and radical to be accessible, and although I DID have a Grand Plan in mind, its pieces had not yet hit the shelves. The Book of Shadows was the glue that bound early Mage together, but it was still in progress when we began working on The Fragile Path.
Also at that time, I was hanging on for dear life. White Wolf was still a new company, and I had uprooted my whole life to be there. I was literally having nightmares almost every night; Mage would fail, I’d be fired, and I’d wind up trying to make a new life while my old one was still a mess. And so, Porthos’ rage and pain – the rage and pain that drove The Fragile Path – were very much my own.
Once Brian and Sam had drafted up the histories of the Traditions and Technocracy – hashed out during long brainstorming sessions in my office, in the graveyard near our offices, and – since Brian and I lived together at the time – at home during the few hours we were there – I sent those drafts to Owl, Jim, Nancy, Tina and Beth.
In a series of conferences (oh, the long-distance bills!), I hashed out the stories of each character involved. Jim and I brainstormed up Heylel, and then I told each author about the general outline of events within the story. Each author created the characters they employed, and a flurry of emails roughed out the relationships between them all, the ways they felt about one another, and the fates each character would endure.
Each author also decided upon a method through which their characters would tell the tale. Tina wins the Holy Shit, You Did WHAT?!?! prize for turning Bernadette’s story into a complex yet performable song. Owl, by contrast, chose the plain-spoken address that a Native American emissary might deliver to his people, worked in with a prophecy of the coming white invasion and a plea that the people join together so that the invasion could be defeated… a plea that obviously went unheard.
(A white wolf that has nothing to do with this book.)
Everyone involved did an awesome job. On my suggestion, they worked up “actor’s notes” about the characters, their histories, the things they felt about the other Cabal members, their reasons for joining, the reasons it all fell apart… it was great. I wish I still had access to those emails. (It’s all long gone, of course. Stupid obsolete technologies…) Let’s just say that the sheer amount of work done by every member of that team was impressive.
Meanwhile, Richard Thomas, Kathleen Ryan and I were brainstorming about the visual end of things. Rich wanted to have a different paper-stock for each story, and he picked a different artist for each section of the book. Kathy crafted fonts for each section, and whipped up some cool visual elements to work in throughout the book.
One of the elements – which I’ll take the blame for – got me in a bit of trouble with the authors. I had decided it would be cool if we treated the whole book “in character” – that is, if we credited it to the CHARACTERS, not to the authors. (They got credit in the back, on the very last page.) At DragonCon 94, when the book was released, Owl, Tina and Nancy came up to me in a group and were like, “Um, Phil, we need to talk to you…” For reasons that should have been obvious to me at the time, they were a little miffed to open a book they had worked on so hard, only to find their work credited to someone else! I explained why we did what we did, but have never done that to anyone other than myself again.
That book, incidentally, also introduced me to one of my best friends and favorite collaborators: Echo Chernik, known at that time as H.J. McKinney.
(An Echo Chernik piece from Mage 20. I’d post something from The Fragile Path, but my scanner is being obnoxious)
A recent graduate from Pratt Institute, Echo had scored her trial-run on Fragile Path.  I was blown away by the imagination, passion and symbolgy this new artist brought to the tale of Eloine, and although the art was crude by Echo’s current standards, it was exactly the sort of thing I wanted for Mage.
I made my enthusiasm for H.J. Mckinney known around the Production Department. And so – a few months later – when her art was returned to the studios because she had moved from her previous address,  Rich or Kathy (I forget which) brought the art to me to see if I knew the artist personally. I did not, at that point, but checked the business card on the back of the art, emailed the address on it, and mentioned that we had the art. Echo thanked me, we sent the art back to her, and she and I began a correspondence that turned into friendship when we met in person at GenCon 95.
After that, Echo become a go-to collaborator on Mage. It pleases me on many levels to have her back on Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition, and we’ve remained good friends ever since those days.
So anyway… I wrote up the framework, histories, the “reading list” (with a ton of inside-jokes for folks who read between the lines in there), and Porthos’ contributions to the book…
James A. Moore wrote Heylel’s testament;
Tina Jens did that amazing piece for Bernadette;
Nancy Kilpatrick wrote Elione’s testment of blood;
Owl Goingback gave us Walking Hawk’s prophecy;
Beth Fischi wound things up with Akrites’ lament;
Richard Thomas produced the many graphic innovations used in that book; and…
Kathleen Ryan crafted the final results, using an amazing amount of creativity to tie the whole thing together.
Twenty years later, that book still provides a tentpole for the Mage series, and a source of continuing inspiration to the line as a whole.
Thank you to everyone involved. As time has shown, we done good.
1. Echo recalls being hired to illustrate the Wraith Players Guide first, but I remember Fragile Path being created before Wraith was completed. It was a crazy time, though, and a lot of recollections got skewed by the sheer amount of STUFF going on back then.
2. This was back in the days before high-speed high-capacity internet. Artists had to physically send their art in to the studio, where it was scanned and then sent back to them.