|Mage: The Ascension, 2nd Edition|
A Storytelling Game of Reality on the Brink
Copyright 1995, White Wolf
Additional Materials in the collection:
Donated to the museum by Lisa Padol.
The third game in the World of Darkness line, Mage continues along the path forged by its predecessors. From Vampire: the Masquerade through Werewolf: the Apocalypse to Mage: the Ascension, the game's setting expands from a few cities to the whole planet and the spirit realms, up to Mage's setting of vast magickal planes beyond. The games also see the apocalypse grow from one race to the world to all of reality, and temporally, we see the apocalypse in the future, in the present, and in the past. In Mage, the Council of the Nine Mystick Traditions battles the Technocracy to determine the dominant paradigm for reality, but the Technocracy has essentially won already: the Earth is ruled by a rational, scientific view.
According to the metaphysics of Mage, most people are "sleepers," bound by the physical reality they experience. A few become Awakened to the possibility of magick, and they are capable of working wonders. Mages aspire toward an even greater state of Ascension, a state of self-actualization where the individual transcends their humanity and becomes one with the universe. But individual transcendence is not enough for many: they seek to bring all of humanity into Ascension. This potentially laudable goal is made difficult by the fact that the different magickal traditions perceive the universe differently, and so their recipes and plans for Ascension are blocked by the plans of others. Consensus is impossible.
What puts real teeth into the conflict is the consensual nature of reality. What the Sleepers believe, IS, because in sheer numbers they outweigh all of the Awakened. Mages see reality as different from what the Sleepers think it is, and it is their strong will and belief that permits them to change reality even when they contradict the will of the sleepers. Notice that there may be a price to pay: if your changes are plausible and believable, they will happen with less friction than a drastic change that can't be explained by normal means. A mage can hurl fireballs, but doing so puts them at risk.
Part of the reason why magick is so difficult is the result of a magickal war. In the Middle Ages, a group of like-minded mages reasoned that humanity might be better off if witchcraft, curses, devils, dragons, faeries, and the like were no longer possible. By instituting a common world-view of order and reason, the magickal horrors could be blocked and humanity would benefit. Gradually, over hundreds of years, they were able to persuade people to stop thinking in magickal terms and seek rational explanations for phenomenon, controlling their environments through technology and reason instead of charms and spells. This Order of Reason succeeded brilliantly, bringing on a better standard of living than humans had ever dreamed up, and marginalizing the old tradtionalist mages. These traditions gradually united against the threat to their lives and views of Ascension that the Order of Reason represented.
The Order of Reason evolved into the Technocracy, a confederation of five magickal traditions: Iteration X, The New World Order, the Progenitors, the Syndicate, and the Void Engineers. The Technocrats have transformed Magick into Science, and through their Science they rule reality. The Technocracy have forgotten their original goal of making life better for the Sleepers, and now they are only interested in expanding their own power. They move toward Ascension for all by removing "uncertainty," that is, factors not under their control. Reality is technological and scientific and limited.
Opposing the Technocracy is the fractious Council of Nine Mystick Traditions. United out of necessity, the Tradition mages don't agree on much beyond the need to break the Technocracy. The nine traditions were the Akashic Brotherhood, martial arts mages; the Celestial Chorus, who used a monotheistic religious template; the Cult of Ecstasy, which used mind altering trances and substances to reach their abilities; the Dreamspeakers, traditionalist shamans; the Euthanatos, mystick assassins who remove evil beings from life so they can reincarnate into better ones; the Order of Hermes, traditional Western mages; the Sons of Ether, weird science refugees from the Technocracy; the Verbena, Wiccan mages; the Virtual Adepts, also refugees from the Technocracy, but dedicated to virutal reality; and the Hollow Ones, not actually part of the Nine Traditions, but Gothic outsider mages informally allied with the Traditions.
The two confederations, Technomages and Traditions, battle one another in the endless Ascension War. But there are others as well, hated and feared by both sides. The Nephandi are the fallen mages, the ones who work with the forces of corruption. There are also the Mauraders, who seem to be simply insane, unaligned with any side. Some are single-minded power seekers out for themselves alone, while others are simply amoral and unpredictable.
Magick is the whole basis of the game and its setting, and thus requires a great deal of explanation. (Readers may feel the term "magick" is pretentious; if so, it's an established pretension that well predates the game. Spelling magick with a "k" seems to have originated with Aleister Crowley, who used it to distinguish occult practice from stagecraft.) The basic principle is that a mage can alter reality through sheer will. But the more the mage violates consensual reality, the harder magickal effects are to work, and the greater the risk of a backlash.
Magickal effects may be classified as coincidental or vulgar. Coincidental magick describes effects that are easily overlooked or rationalized by Sleepers: a gun might misfire; a cat might distract the guard; a tire might blow out. Vulgar magick is inexplicable: people can't throw fire from their hands, a statue cannot come to life. Vulgar magick is harder to work than coincidental magick (it has a higher difficulty).
When a mage Botches their crafting, they accumulate Paradox. The more vulgar the magick botched, the more Paradox accumulated. This energy gradually leaks away harmlessly, but if the mage gains too much at a time, there's a sudden discharge called a Backlash. The effects of the Backlash are random (the player rolls Paradox dice for the Backlash against a difficulty of six, and the number of successes determines how strong the effect is), ranging from minor, short lived effects such as curdling milk in the vicinity, through more unpleasant consequences (such as the mage's bones being bent to right angles), up to disastrous (Paradox creates a pocket reality for the mage, who becomes imprisoned there for an unknown duration). The ultimate effect of Paradox is Quiet, where a mage goes insane. The delusional character may be able to recover, but it is a long and difficult challenge. The wise mage limits their vulgar magickal workings.
A mage character requires interlocking abilities and advantages to perform wonders. First, the Awakened all have Avatars, which are shadowy beings that appear to be responsible for the mage's Awakening and ability to shape reality. Avatars have an Essence, a core personality selected by the player from the following four options: Dynamic (energetic and change-seeking), Pattern (stable and consistent), Primordial (deep and knowledgeable), or Questing (goal-seeking, pushy, demanding). Avatars are spirit guides for Mages, teaching and challenging them. They may be helpers or tempters to the mages, and sometimes they challenge the mages in a practice called a Seeking, a one on one challenge where if the mage is successful, they advance further on their path to Ascension.
Second, magick's effects are classified into nine Spheres. For example, the sphere of matter is related to the physical world, and the sphere of entropy refers to fate and probability. Each of the Traditions specializes in a particular sphere, and that's what the player character begins with, although they may spend points to buy skill with others. The spheres that a mage knows determines what kinds of magickal effects they may wreak.
Third, characters have an characteristic called Arete, rated from one to ten. This is a measure of the character's raw ability. The Arete score determines the number of dice the player gets to roll to see if the magick succeeds. Arete also determines how much magick the character knows: they cannot have more dots in a Sphere than they have in Arete.
Fourth, the player must track the mage's Quintessence and Paradox. Both of these represent energy pools, but the way they are tracked, a mage can have a maximum of twenty points combined. As Paradox goes up, it may push Quintessence down if the total goes beyond twenty. As noted above, Paradox is "bad" energy, a measure of how much resistance reality is pushing back on the mage, and when ten or more points are accumulated, a Backlash will occur. Quintessence is the raw energy of magick, and points may be spent by the character to reduce a working's diffficulty score. Ordinarily, working magick doesn't cost Quintessence.
While not an ability, mages frequently have foci, rituals or objects they use to help focus their attention and ease their magick-working. As mages become more knowledgeable, they may discard these and work by concentration and willpower alone.
For all of the complicated character attributes, the core mechanic was relatively simple and extremely flexible. The player described the effect she desired to create, and with the Storyteller's assistance, determined the spheres required and the level of knowledge needed. If the character had the knowledge and power to produce the change, then the Storyteller set the difficulty based on whether the magick was coincidental or vulgar. The player rolled their character's Arete dice. Success meant the working took effect, failiure meant it didn't, a botch meant the character accumulated Paradox, based on how vulgar the working was. Should the character accumulate five or more points of Paradox, the player rolled Paradox dice for a Backlash.
This simple system allowed players to indulge their imaginations in producing any effects they chose, yet with reasonable limitations. Beginning mages were limited in the effects they could create by their relatively low Arete and Sphere scores. More powerful characters were limited by the desire to avoid Paradox.
Characters in Mage: The Ascension
Character creation in M:tA followed the basic World of Darkness pattern. The main pillars to use in conceptualizing the character were the mage's Nature, Demeanor, and Tradition. These would provide the character's personality and outlook. The player would also give some thought to the character's foci, the means by which she worked her craft. Players also had to consider their Avatar, which not only had an Essence (Questing, Dynamic, etc.) but also a style of interacting with the character, such as the classic enigmatic teacher or the tempter who gave the mage plenty of opportunities to fall prey to their own weaknesses.
Like the other World of Darkness games, players were encouraged to consider how they became Awakened, who their mentors were, and why the various PCs joined together to form their Cabal.
Character Advantages followed the usual pattern. Players might choose to strengthen their Avatar (which can feed Quintessence to the character), posses a Node (another source of Quintessence). Players started with five Spheres.
Finally, Mage characters had a Willpower stat, points of which could be spent to add a success to a roll, resist Mind control or Paradox Backlash.
Most of character advancement followed the standard World of Darkness rules, although having the Backgrounds of a Mentor or a Library reduced the experience point cost of advancement, provided that the mentor and/or library had information in the proper area. Raising the critical Arete characteristic, however, required a Seeking with the character's Avatar. The Storyteller prepared a one-on-one game with the character involving one or more challenges, with the character needing to succeed in order to advance. These seekings may reflect deep issues in the character's psyche or fundamental features of her relationship with her Avatar.
Mages were not combat monsters. Members of the Akashic Brotherhood were martial artists, but otherwise, most mages would use magickal effects to protect themselves. Wounds could be healed through Life Magick, although Aggravated Damage required natural healing or vulgar Magick to recover from.
Mage: the Ascension broke a lot of new ground. It gave players a considerable amount of power over the gameworld, in that players could create almost any kind of magickal effect they wanted, and if they grew powerful enough, they could even create their own realms. It also broke away from the formula offered by its predecessors in the World of Darkness: characters did not appear to suffer the sorts of internal conflicts that the vampires and werewolves did in their games. Mage was more in the D&D mode of building character power, but the necessity of the Avatar-generated Seekings to raise the critical Arete stat linked the game firmly to its World of Darkness pedigree. We note that this mage-Avatar relationship foreshadowed the deeply psychological Wraith: the Oblivion game.
We believe most Mage campaigns were straight out confrontations with the Technocracy, or that this game was mainly used to add human Mages to V:tM or W:tA games. But the game had the potential for telling some very interesting stories. By the same token, however, it could be difficult to get started: although the game included some very powerful GMCs, monsters, and locations of interest, there was no sample adventure to help storytellers get started.
Personal Note from the Curator
I had always heard that Mage was one of the best games of the World of Darkness line. Of all the ones I've read so far, I found this one the most difficult to figure out, but working on this review helped clarify a lot of points. It's not a hard game, but probably needed better organization and more clarification. A good referee could create some amazing stories with this system, but because it's such a free-wheeling setting, it must have been a hard game to get started in. It's definitely not for beginners.