Friday, April 26, 2013

Magnus, the Ideologue: My Little Diatribe on Asheth Magnus, and What to do About His Story

Not so long ago, I got back into Warmachine, and have been fairly active, with this Friday marking the beginning of my second league and my return to Mercenaries.

Something I've tossed around for years now was Magnus at the core of a larger army- not the loner represented in his theme lists or the simple sell-sword of Four Star, but the leader of a well-organized army.

The concept was, doing a whole Mercenary "faction," with each Warcaster (and some warjacks and units) being re-imagined as part of, or allied to, this one thematically linked force.

It was easy enough coming up with characters, but then I started talking about how this would happen- how Magnus, or some other character, could unify a larger army/nation, and realized that there was no way to, without fundamentally diverging from the Warmachine narrative, because there isn't a compelling reason for everyone's favorite sell-swords's actions: to put it bluntly, Magnus does not make sense.

Note: Being involved in narrative arts, this is something I do for fun with any number of movies etc.: why does something not work, and what are the fewest number of changes you could make for it to be interesting? Prepare yourself for some analytical ramblings...


What follows is a roughly chronological summary and analysis of the events that formed Magnus's character, and how they might be reconsidered to make a better story.

The highlights mark key flaws and turning points in the narrative, which I'll address afterwards.

In Living History
Vinter Raelthorne II's time is probably the earliest influence that matters. About 100 years before the current story, Cygnar's King Malfast is an idealist, who expands Cygnar in the idealistic and progressive way most Cygnaran things are portrayed. Vinter II is a pragmatist who keeps the idealism in check as the king's advisor. This is the time of the first Thornwood war, and Karchev is already a warcaster, making him really, really old in the present.

Malfast, with his advisor Vinter II named as hier. Vinter II is a nationalist (well, duh, he's king) and against bad stuff, like cults and witches. He's generally an okay guy, and eventually dies.

Vinter III is a hard-ass who takes pragmatism a bit further towards ruthlessness. He also begins the retaliation against Cryx and pirates. He rules as a stoic dude for 40 years then dies mysteriously (dun, dun, dun!).

So far, so good. Kind of basic, but it isn't that close to the present, so it's fine if it's a little more of a summary, because, well, that's what it is.

Good Brother, Evil Brother
The first descriptions of Vinter IV are "irrational fear," "nasty," insatiably greedy," "power lusty,""paranoid," "paranoia," followed by his lackeys:  "corruption," "rapacious executioners," ...and then I think the writer misuses "culled."

His brother Leto is unhappy and has a conscience, and turns to the church (of Morrow) for guidance.

In short, Vinter IV bad man, Leto good man.

Wow, that's a dichotomy, alright. One's an atheist and evil. The other's a moral, church-going good guy. 

Now, this is the first problem I have, besides how bland the dichotomy was. With Vinter II-III, you have capable leaders. Here, you have some sort of insane, even more importantly, incompetent, megalomaniac that no one likes. Who would actually follow this corrupt, paranoid idiot?

That was a little harsh, though, because you see plenty of megalomaniacs in power. Except, then we get to why this matters. Up near the present, some decades after the coup (and the loss of said power) and around the start of the Warmachine present chronology (and the original RPG), you still have loyalists... to what?


Even Grima got it, eventually.
Sycophants and hangers-on and other loyalists to unfit power have their loyalty bought by promises of power, wealth, etc. Vinter has nothing to offer. He's exiled, has no land, few connections, other than an eventual pointy evil horde(™). Also, there isn't even the Divine Mandate argument as a possibility, because he has no religious affiliations.

He has no incentives to offer, but he does have threats, in the form of some pretty potent loyalist enforcers: Bizarro (Magnus), Bad Lawrence of Arabia (Orrick), and Evil Wizards #1892-1950 (the Inquisition)... Except, still no reason for his trusted lieutenants to believe in him. Other than being an exceptional swordsman and some imposing scary guy with emotional issues, he doesn't have a lot of assets that would make him fit to be king, or even likely to become one again. 

...and I've got no particular problem with Leto- a pretty traditional moral king.

Scharde Invasions, or: How I learned to stop playing WM, and try some other games for a while...
Getting it out of the way, the writing for The King's Own was so poor that it was a major contributor to me taking a long hiatus from the game. It really pissed me off. There, getting on with my completely unbiased assessment of the writing.

Asheth Magnus grew up in Cygnar, which mostly made him a goody two-shoes. He loved his fellow man, and had a friend who definitely wasn't going to die near the end of the story, and generally was happy about good things and didn't like the horde of invading evil mecha-zombie pirates who regularly attacked his country.

Magnus and Vinter's relationship starts with a
passing resemblance this one...
Then, one day, he was invited to go shoot zombies along with a large part of the Cygnar Military, in response to the Scharde Invasions. He met Leto Raelthorne on a boat, and didn't like him, despite having a very similar viewpoint to himself... because Leto was young and not a very big guy, despite his earned rank. He then developed a man-crush on Leto's older brother, the aforementioned insane, incompetent megalomaniac, for being all stoic and umm... stuff? He stares impressively at a lot of people.

Magnus later introjects during a meeting and Vinter seems to agree with him, so he gets a promotion for his initiative.

For some reason, they emphasize Magnus as a typical Cygnaran officer, which would naturally lead to him liking the more typical Cygnaran leader, i.e. Leto, but he again arbitrarily doesn't like Leto or Nemo (Leto's advisor), but does like Vinter.

It appears that the entirety of Magnus's life after this point is defined by his first impression of two people.

Next, again, why does Magnus believe in Vinter? Vinter seems to, for the first and (maybe?) only time in his life, read personalities well, and make what appears to be the right decision... instead of the usual paranoia etc. The problem here is the word "usual." This is the exception that proves the rule. So, Vinter's got, maybe, half a point for having at least once ever made the correct call about people... from an unreliable narrator. Moving on...

After the promotion scene, Magnus goes back to being the concerned and understanding Cygnaran Officer, and does a pretty good job negotiating the situation.

Vinter is upgraded from contact lens/powder made up
 vampire to computer animated Nazi in a matter
of sentences. (PS. I actually enjoyed the rest of this film.)
He fights and loses, and Vinter reprimands him, saying that the best soldiers obey orders to unreasonable specificity, and that human life is worthless. Vinter's reprimand seems to scare Magnus more than rampaging cannibal trolls, evil ogres, and robots that eat your soul after storing it in a battery, and turn your corpse into a zombie to kill your friends. Then Vinter repeats himself, like, three times.

Poor Vinter! He just lost that half point by falling into one of the worst clichés ever: being scary and/or killing your subordinates doesn't instill loyalty, it just makes people obey you until they can get away from you or turn against you. It's also a poor way to treat your officers and intelligence crew: if they're too scared to tell you something you don't like, you'll get misinformation. This also indirectly contradicts Vinter's early readiness to hear new information and reward initiative.

This little scene takes away Vinter's one indication of competent leadership.

Then there's a big long series of action scenes where Magnus apparently becomes callous about losing men now, instead of during years of fighting Khador and the same zombies elsewhere.

Magnus ultimately kills his best friend, because he's scared and impatient. Magnus, that is. I think this might be something about desperation or callousness, but mostly it just makes Magnus look incompetent.

Finally, this epic turning point ends with Vinter at Magnus's bedside. Magnus dispairs about losing every other asset in his entire force, including his best friend. Vinter stops this by congratulating him for completing his mission. Vinter smiles at him, which makes him forget the fact that he sacrificed his best friend for no tactical advantage, symbolically letting go of the memory and, by extension, his humanity by dropping the memento from his friend.

Where do I begin? Magnus buckles under pressure, then is rewarded for completing his mission, and lets go of any attachment to humanity, because Vinter smiles at him and says it's okay?

This is pretty catastrophically damning to Magnus's agency, because apparently his morality can completely fold under the pleasing gaze of his crush. Seriously, this speaks tomes about how weak Magnus's character is.

Then we've got Vinter: without any knowledge of the mission or Magnus's performance during it, he congratulates this traumatized officer and says that it was great that he sacrificed every resource to fulfill this mission? And, this is leadership material? An officer who's so emotionally facile as to blindly follow you after talking to you all of three times? You like this behavior better than when the same man used his resources carefully and took initiative for personal and military gain?


Magnus's Early Years
This actually fits in before the previous section, but is more thematically relevant here.

Despite being portrayed as a Caring Cygnaran, before The King's Own, Magnus was already infamous for his callousness while fighting Khador.

This undermines the entire transition made in the Scharde invasions: Magnus was already more violent than your average Cygnaran officer (as shown in the Thornwood skirmishes) while he had some sort of moral compass (as seen in the beginning of The King's Own). I feel that the transition in The King's Own was a product of the writer misunderstanding the difference between ruthlessly fighting (the enemy) vs. being willing to throw away friends' lives. Those two views seem pretty distant from each other, IMHO.

The events in the Thornwood were the first early entry with Magnus, and still define him best: callous and brutal, but effective. 

The Coup
The next defining moment in Magnus's career is the Lion's Coup, or rather, after it, since nothing very exciting happens during it except the Pope zaps Vinter.

Vinter is captured, his network of evil wizards kidnaps Leto's wife and ransoms her. He gets away because Leto is based on a boring archetype, and allows him to (despite objections by the rest of the government). Vinter escapes across the magic desert while twirling his moustache in his dirigible (well, maybe not the moustache), and the queen disappears.

Post-Coup, Magnus is reinstated in the army, continues aforementioned brutality and is censured for it, builds animosity towards the newly promoted Coleman Stryker, and eventually serves under him.

His insubordination leads to Stryker accidentally crush his leg while trying to save him, leading to eternal hatred of My First Warcaster.

Wait, what? Magnus, valued for his idiotic loyalty, has his downfall realized through the flaw of insubordination? This contradicts The King's Own, again, and makes Magnus's character (and the writing) inconsistent. Maybe he's just still crushing on Vinter, and not actually a good soldier for anyone else?

Also, this brings up another point, which, while not a flaw in this story because it's kind of necessary for setting up the antagonism, is something I can't stand about Cygnar's fluff. They regularly make terrible choices when assigning officers:

"Let's send this disgruntled officer who was recently censured off to be commanded by the fink who ratted him out! ...oh."

"Let's send this troll who's having doubts about his life choices off to kick out a bunch of troll women and children! ...hmm."

Magnus is crippled, eventually stabs Stryker in the back, and flees to begin his life as a merc.

The (Red and) Golden Horde
The next bit of important events with Magnus and Vinter mostly revolve around the Orientalist amalgam known as the Skorne Empire.

Vinter eventually, it turns out, lands his blimp or whatever over on the other side of the desert in Skorne territory. He fights really well, which they respect, and they eventually decide that any Fighter who reaches around level 30 is probably a reincarnation of one of their lords, and they worship him. They attempt to invade Cygnar and fail, which basically catches us up with the beginning of the modern timeline.

The Skorne invade again, this time with Magnus's help, and fail again (and this is where it gets good) because Vinter wanted them to.

Remember that bit where Vinter's word is absolute, which scared Magnus when he was a kid? Well, turns out that Vinter decided to do the same thing again, but with an entire empire, and this time it wasn't about winning at all costs, but about, uh, losing for the hell of it. Turns out that intentionally losing was a test of their loyalty, for some reason. They aren't absolutely loyal, because they aren't idiots, so they eventually have enough of this and tell him to GTFO.

So, then there's this cryptic little speech, where Vinter says that it was disappointing that they couldn't be friends any more; he was glad they lost faith (because faith is a disease), and that he had had grand plans for them if they hadn't turned against him. Then he Batmans out of there when they're not looking.

That was extra-special... Absolute and unquestioning loyalty is essential, but faith is bad? Even if you reach absolute loyalty through rational means (rather than through blind obedience), you're still doing it through faith. Whether it's religious belief in some sort of abstract or specific power, or confidence in someone, faith is faith.

Vinter simultaneously thinks that unquestioning belief in something is bad, but unquestioningly following orders is good? Really? To only have one without the other is to have false loyalty, that is, loyalty in action but not belief. This further contradicts his increasing paranoia. Even if he somehow actually wanted false loyalty, that would mean that he wants what he's afraid of.

There are two solutions to this. He's Loony Tunes-style jump-up-and-down-yelling insane, or the writers thoroughly contradicted themselves.

Insane is fine as a character trait, but, this brings us back to the question, why would you believe in him? (He wouldn't even want you to...) Turns out you wouldn't, but it takes the Skorne and Magnus a very, very long time to figure this out.

The way the Skorne learn about Vinter's plan starts when Magnus isn't following the plan that doesn't make sense, because he hasn't been given all the information. I.e. he doesn't follow each order unquestioningly.  Not, he's not utterly loyal, just, he changes tactics.

Instead of telling him what's going on, Vinter decides that not following unquestioningly falls under the heading of "not absolutely loyal," at which point, he has Magnus tortured and shakes his loyalty... after twenty-plus years of blind obedience.

This is actually consistent, in that Vinter's flaw is demanding (occasionally contradictory) absolutes and generally being a terrible judge of character. 

Why did it take him twenty years to figure out what should have taken anyone else two minutes to understand? Was it Vinter's amazing smile or piercing stare? 

Boldly continue, Reader, as we explore a glimpse of Magnus's psyche.

In Rare Form
Having seen Magnus's actions, there's an oft-overlooked bit of his character: the introduction to Hordes, a history from Magnus's perspective, and one of the better pieces of writing PP has put out.

He's portrayed as strongly biased, but through his writing and implicitly with his perspective representing history, he's seen as possessing quite a bit of foresight and objective understanding, able to divorce himself from passions. Not only this, but he sees and predicts threats that the rest of the Iron Kingdoms ignore.

He has a predictably grim view of reality and shows a decent respect for his enemies, including, surprisingly, the Morrowan church that dethroned his crush, and shows a generally open mind and willingness to adapt (highlighted most in dealing with Cryx).

In a consistent little detail, he believes the fall of Llael is a direct result of the break in their royal lineage: there was no unifying figure.

Finally, he ends with something new: doubt. He "prays" he is on the right side.

I re-read this text to write about it, and was surprised at how well written this history was.

I believe it shows the Magnus that I believe most fans think he is, and the writers want him to be. He's intelligent, well-informed, capable of abstract thought and adaptation, and has conviction (but, with it, doubt). He's apparently a man of faith, though not devout. He has respect, but this is countered by the brutality of his actions.

In short, this is the essence of what I believe Magnus should be, but not who he is, because, as we all know from Batman's forgettable girlfriend's existential shorthand, "It's what you do that defines you."

The Kid
If you don't get this reference, you should check out
"Suggested Viewing," below.
Well, after Magnus finally realizes he's been a tool for a megalomaniacal imbecile,  he decides that the best answer to the question, "well, now what do I do with my life," is to find the imbecile's son. He finally gains some agency, and decides to spend his time with a spoiled kid.

Put another way, Magnus has always been presented as the face of the internal threat to Cygnar, however, PP hasn't actually written him this way: he's been a follower for most of the time, and as soon as he gains his independence, he decides to nominally follow someone else.

The hier, Julius, is your archetypal brat, and Magnus doesn't really say anything new or consistent, which is to say, he doesn't say anything much at all:

He finally regrets serving Vinter if that wasn't clear, and now he's plotting something new. PS, did you remember that Magnus improvises technology that looks ugly but works?

No?

Yeah, I guess I hadn't gone into that. Probably about one in four Magnus stories refer to him making stuff. This is actually important to his character, because it repeatedly indicates that he's pragmatic, resourceful, and creative. This is directly contradicted elsewhere with all that aforementioned nonsense about Vinter quashing independence.

Re-reading this, it wasn't nearly as aggravating as it initially was to me, but I still didn't really like it...


The New War
While not exactly part of Magnus's development, this is the beginning of the next arc. This direction is fine, but I have no idea why it took Magnus this long to gather the resources for waging this war, other than maybe "Vinter didn't say it was okay."




*****





Ch-ch-ch-changes...!
So, how might the story be altered to be more compelling (that's an important art word I learned in school, that means "good")?

Vinter is the first point, on which everything else revolves: there are two options that make any sense, here.

He can be competent, or he can be recognized as an unfit ruler (by everyone who matters). While I'd like to see a competent Vinter, he's rather integral to the other points as incompetent, so I'm going to leave him alone. There's nothing narratively wrong with an incompetent king, as long as he does eventually lose power; the problem was that he maintained loyalists. He's not an interesting threat, because he's just some angry dude with a sword. He's like those B movies where they show the leader shouting at everyone: that isn't a sign of power.

So, our first change: Vinter doesn't hold long-term influence over the Old Guard, once deposed.



Our next critical moment: the Scharde Invasions. Magnus is turned into some sort of super-loyal, zealot sycophant, by a gaze. That whole story is pretty much a mess, as it sets everyone up as terribly lame.

Let's keep most things the same, but with growth instead of...umm... crushes. Magnus is impressed with this imposing figure... but(!) is not turned into a robot officer. This is where he first starts to understand what it means to be a leader.

The Scharde Invasions are Magnus's pile of baby arms:

And then I realized--like I was shot...like I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, "My God, the genius of that, the genius, the will to do that." Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they could stand that--these were not monsters, these were men, trained cadres, these men who fought with their hearts, who have families, who have children, who are filled with love--that they had this strength, the strength to do that. (...) You have to have men who are moral and at the same time were able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment--without judgment. Because it's judgment that defeats us.
(I could quote more of Apocalypse Now, but it's better to see performed than written, anyways.)

This is the source of Magnus's agency. Not unthinking servility or throwing away your humanity: that just makes you an automaton or a monster. Maintaining your morality while being capable of horrendous acts- a sacrifice while keeping your humanity.

This is a truer vision of "evil" Cygnar than the cult of personality that Vinter wants: it represents the harshest side of Cygnar, while still maintaining somewhere the sense of morality that is inherently Cygnaran. It represents a shift in the spectrum, not something else entirely. The similarity to their actual ideology would be what makes it insidious. PP even started down this path with Stryker, but seemed interested in this angle only to show off how essentially pure and incorruptible he is.

This is the strength of will to fight Cryx, to not become a blind follower but a willing agent.

Magnus becomes, in essence, the personification of the conflicted nature of Cygnar, in its position as an eternally warring but moral nation.

Summarizing, our second change: Instead of responding to desperation with cowardice, this version of the setting has Magnus react with initiative and a rationalized, twisted form of Cygnaran ideology.

Note: the parallel is incomplete: zombies aren't the same as guerilla fighters, so he probably couldn't learn this sort of methodology by fighting them, and would need to come to the realization on his own.

Then comes the third alteration. Let's say that Magnus is still a loyalist and fights alongside his mentor during the coup. Vinter, as established in the regular timeline, resorts to kidnapping to escape.

It would be then, if ever, that Magnus, rational, moral, and brutal, recognizes Vinter as equally brutal, but also as the paranoid coward he is.

As a reinstated General, Magnus would be in an ideal position to speak out. There would still be a large portion of recently dispossessed Cygnarans who didn't agree with the coup, and believed in the the older, more callous order and a more utilitarian retaliation. This outcry would also prove to members of the new order that he was also invested in the nation, not the man: Magnus defined as a brutal (and anachronistic or visionary) patriot, not a sycophant blind to his masterThe theory behind this traces back to the Hordes intro: he's presented as man of vision and conviction.

The story continues, with Magnus's eventual censure, vendetta, and exile...

The fourth and final alteration. As a result of his public distancing himself from Vinter IV and vocalizing of his ideals, there's an actual reason for a minority to follow him: ideology. They're not following some deposed dictator, they're fighting for his (and, by extension, their) vision of Cygnar.

In the regular timeline, Magnus, as a blind follower, is passive: his only threat is military, and he has no initiative. Making Magnus have an independent and understandable vision makes him active, and makes the threat ideological, and means that new blood might follow him, rather than only holdouts and sell swords, and makes the threat widespread and internal and not just about a few spies and mercenaries. Soldiers who believe in something are going to fight harder than mercenaries, and Magnus, of all people, would recognize this is the case.

Forward, not Backward! Upward, not Forward!
So, the above is how I'd alter the timeline if I got my mits on it. The Julius/gathering mercenary army arc could still happen in a different way, but Magnus would have been set up as an agent, and the dissenters would have been set up as having a reason to dissent and something to believe in, other than a nutcase who's good with a sword. Vinter could even exist in roughly the same incarnation, even more paranoid because his most loyal follower betrayed him at his lowest point.

However, this is my alternate timeline, so, I'll take it a little further.

Now that we (and by "we," I mean Magnus) have an ideology instead of a dethroned mustachioed villain who carries off helpless girls, we can also have believers. Magnus, with his publicly stated beliefs and attitude of utilitarian necessity, finds a foothold in the popular consciousness.

His injuries by a loyalist officer look like a planned "mistake" to some, with the young king Leto attempting to cement his position, by using one of his new officers who fought during the Coup to quiet the loudest objecting voice. Dissent begins.

Magnus eventually flees after stabbing his commanding officer in retaliation. He is denounced by Leto as a lone, disgruntled madman. However, with the public support he's gathered, there are voices that disagree. There are rumblings of "self-defense," "due vendetta," even "justice."

In light of this perceived betrayal, many see the parallels between an officer retaliating against the attempt on his life, in contrast with the recent Coup. They become dissatisfied with the young, ambitious king's political move, seeing it as yet another royal feud: the nobility doesn't care about the country, just their own comfort and titles, and a brother was willing to execute his own brother for nothing more than power.

Growing numbers begin to understand and then believe Magnus's philosophy, that horrible acts are sometimes necessary, but that you maintain your humanity through perspective: you do so without ignoring your sense of morality. They no longer believe in the gilded, false morality of absolutes, presented by Leto or the church, but the utilitarian and raw morality of necessity that they mistook for brutality.

So begins the second ideological schism in Cygnar.

Notes
Yes, this direction downplays the mercenary element to the narrative, though Magnus, the Highborn Covenant, and Rhul have always been treated as far closer to mini-factions than mercenaries in themselves, so I don't consider this a serious divergence from the story. The above can easily go in either direction: things much as they are in the current narrative except that there's a greater portion of Magnus followers, or something more radical, where they've carved out their own smaller nation.

Suggested Viewing
Apocalypse Now is probably the greatest influence in this writing. Kurtz as a brilliant and ruthless leader who had formed a cult of personality, now near the end of his life is a pretty amazing character, with some of my favorite monologues in any film. I could easily see Magnus in this role in twenty years.

The Lion in Winter was the second most important story in my thoughts on this. For those of you who don't know about this one, it's about the politics of King Henry II's succession. The writing and performances make this one of the great representations of ruthless and intelligent politics, to which few other pieces can compare. (Watch the 1968 version... I can only imagine that, as much as I enjoy Patrick Stewart, he won't be able to match Peter O'Toole's performance... also Anthony Hopkins is tiny.)

Mostly, this highlighted the flaws of the Raelthorne kings, and gave me some ideas about how one might react against them. Either way, it's a great film.