Finally stumped up some hard-earned to pick up Mystery Cults on friday, and having begun to peruse it I thought I'd share my first impressions. Purely because my early opinions seem to differ so very much from those I've heard expressed on the boards!
ArM5 and HoH: TL have done a huge amount to enrich the background of the Order, begin to explain it's raison d'etre and generally create a much more coherent picture of the order. From HoH:TL we learn the history of four of the houses and, significantly, what their role was in Bonisagus' / Trianoma's great experiment. We know that Bonisagus derived Hermetic Theory (as well as Parma), we know that Guernicus contributed to the understanding of Terram, as well as being instrumental - as was Mercere - in founding the political and administrative structures of the Order, and we know that Tremere worked with Bonisagus on the creation of Certamen. WE get some rules that enhance the interest and differences of these houses, without significantly affecting game balance in any way. All in all, an excellent, well written book that avoids D&D-esque splatbook inflationary tendencies.
Onto HoH:MC. Firstly, it is immediately obvious that The Mysteries:Revised is virtually a prerequisite. References to Mystagogues on the very first page without explanation or glossary set the scene for some extremely obtuse mechanics hereafter. They make sense for sure, but the introduction there is is insufficient and the lack of glossary (unless it's at the back - not the place I'd look for a glossary, so I havent!) makes it slow progress at first. OK, so I'd been warned in advance of this, but it doesn't make it any better.
Then the content. I still don't know why Bonisagus invited Birna (clever linguistics or unnecessary tinkering? I'm still not decided) to join the order. What exactly did she contribute to hermetic theory? Er.... nothing, because she kept her magical knowledge secret. Still, at least we know that Bjornaer heartbeast is actually ancestor worship. Or so its claimed, although this argument quickly loses pace in place of rules to power-up your heartbeast. And has anyone really thought out the rules on Septs? Septs seem to be highly significant in the internal mystery-management of the order. Yet, do some sums... 79 bjornaer magi, 6 clans = only 13 magi per clan. Clans are - we assume - evenly distributed, while Septs tend to have geographic correlation. On this basis, an average of 2 magi clan per tribunal means I cant see how Septs can ever function! Of course, I may have got confused about Septs needing to be clan-specific. But even so, they are supposed to be made up of magic of similar heartbeasts and/or temperaments. With all the infinite variety of nature, getting enough homogeneity seems unlikely in the extreme.
Which leads on to the role of the Seat of the Swan, which is always held by someone of the Heron heartbeast. Firstly, it seems sad that there is an assumption that the same old heartbeasts will crop up time after time. Secondly, how old is this tradition? The order is only 400 years old, and magi being the long-lived chaps they are means...well, this could well be a tradition of just 3 or 4 people. Hardly the most significant, you'd think.
Add to the mix the Huntress of the Wood, a group who could well attract the interest of Guernici or Trianoman Bonisagi, and I'm left concluding that Bjornaer is inconsistent, non-hermetic and not one that I shall be using in my campaign.
That's only the first chapter, admittedly. Criamon has some promising information - at least we know a bit more about what the Enigma is (although in some ways this is almost a shame, as a rational basis for Criamon almost undermines the mystery of their identify). However, again it's not really clear exactly why Bonisagus felt it necessary to invite Criamon to his party. A minor detail perhaps - I could well see that Criamon could've enhanced Bonisagus' understanding of Vim perhaps, just as Brina could've contributed - as an alleged ancestor spirit worshipper - to mentem - but it would be nice, just to build on the understanding of the order's foundations set down in HoH:TL.
I await with dread the time when I get round to Merinita and Verditius. In part, I'm concerned because the HoH:MC risks imbalancing the tentative game balance within the houses. Admittedly Mystery Cults abilities build on virtues and flaws in part, but not necessarily so. The bjornaerian benefits of permanently accessible, non-detectable shapechange are significant enough without piling on the potential munchkinism of the inner heartbeast. In game, GMs will need to very carefully balance the number of seasons spent pursuing mysteries against the benefits of studying, about which I fear there is too little guidance.
Two final points. Firstly, I'm bothered by the metaphysical mechanics of the mystery cults. Perhaps this will be explained when I pickup The Mysteries Revised, but at the moment I dont understand what mechanism is at work to grant these additional powers - particularly in the case of Criamon, where the 'official' ruling is that criamon philosophy is wrong.
Secondly, I'm disappointed with the writing styles used in the first two chapters. It's still better than 4th edition snore-manuals, but they are full of jargon and arcane terminology in a way that - for me at least - grates. Whereas a sprinkling of latin enriches ArM, language like mystagogues, arams and septs further mystifies what is already for some an impenetrable game. I dont think this is good for ArM, as it risks undoing the good work of ArM5 - and it's to everyone's benefit for ArM to gain in popularity and pick up new readers, as more turnover means more product support.
All my own opinions, and plenty to disagree with I'm sure. If Merinita or Verditius chapters change my mind in any way, I'll be sure to let you good people know