Me and Mage: the Ascension

This is my part in a multi-blog (and Twitter) conversation with Daniel Perez and JJ Lanza about our views on the older World of Darkness games and how we (in our relative hippiness) would retool them.

Relevant reading:

(This will be a short post just to kick things off on my end, as I have been properly egged.)

So, here the thing: I fucking fell in love with Mage: the Ascension. Hard. Like, school boy crush on the hot, smart cheerleader hard. But I didn’t know anyone who wanted to run it. And I didn’t think I had the chops then to run it. So, I just read. And crushed. And read.

What really got it wasn’t just the magick, it was the paradigm. When you looked beneath the surface, there was this amazing moral choice in the setting. There were these chaotic reality-fuckers who were trying to keep the collective spirit of humanity from being snuffed out. Your heroes, your Robin Hood-types. Then there were these harsh guardians of the status quo who were snuffing out the collective spirit of humanity…in order to protect them from the devastation these chaotic reality-fuckers brought. Your villains, your Sheriffs of Nottingham.

But Robin Hood was also a rogue, a villain in some eyes. And the Sheriff was upholding his station, even if not having entirely noble methods or interests. It’s all about perspective. That was hot. Both sides want to save the world. Both sides are wrong. Pick one to side with.

And that perspective leaked through to how to do magick. There were many different ways to see magick, many ways to do magick, and…well, if you’re reading this, I suspect you know the high points of Mage. I loved the paradigm, the different perspectives.

I could take or leave the system. Not a complaint, per se, but it was the setting that fired me off.

Then I finally got to play a one-shot, thanks to my friend Jerry. He ran this game where we were brainwashed former Tradition mages who had become Iteration X — what he called the Enlightened Shock Corps (I don’t know if that’s in the books somewhere or not) — and I loved it. It was exactly what I was looking for: perspective. That said, Jerry was surprised that everyone had bought in so hard to being brainwashed. I think he expected some of us to rebel against it, and none of us did. We had a tragic slaughter of our old Chantry. Badass.

Later, Jerry ran a short campaign, but at the risk of gushing about my character, I’ll save that. In short: I loved it, but because of the other players and plot,  didn’t get to play with perspective as much as I wanted. (Briefly: I was a Son of Ether and fucking loved it.)

So, I have this thing in me that feels like it’s not done playing Mage. It’s not done playing with that world and those ideas. Naturally, I bought Mage: the Awakening when it came out, but it didn’t hook me. I’ll cop to how I didn’t give it a fair shake — I was looking for my school boy crush, and while this new girl was cute and totally down to hang out, she wasn’t who I was crushing on. (I should give it a shake again, though since then I have less time to devote to large systems, I’ll just have to grab a con game or something.)

Point being: what still fires me off is that moral ambiguity — that specific one, the Traditions vs. the Technocracy (or Order of Reason, I’ll take on some Sorcerers’ Crusade goodness) — and the way power was expressed as genuinely through perspective. You have these people that, for all intents and purposes, are reality-altering demigods. And they all want to make the world work more in their image, for whatever reason. Go.

I also had a lot of love for the detail in the magick system, the various spheres and levels. Made me feel like I could play a number of different mages with different perspectives and not have to work extra hard to not accidentally play the same character twice, if that makes sense. That’s probably what I feel is lacking in a number of indie designs these days, that the system doesn’t help aid me in playing a different role. That’s how I felt about Nine Worlds — it felt like it was a Mage loveletter, but there wasn’t enough there for me to have it feed my Mage fix. (Though, I enjoyed playing it for its own sake, so I’m not knocking it.)

Anyway, gentleman, there’s my initial post. Maybe there will be more. Maybe not. But, y’all have eggs and know where to throw them…

– Ryan


10 Responses to Me and Mage: the Ascension

  1. JJ says:

    Yes, perspective – paradigm. I think it was the first oWoD setting that gave truly equal billing to the two major groups of protagonists/antagonists. It is all really a matter of how you look at things. There were two other groups that came off as less interesting: the Nephandi and the Marauders, but the Technocracy and the Traditions were where it was at.

    A thought occured to me today while I was listening to Gary Zukav’s _The Seat of the Soul_, that Avatar in Mage was given the short stick. I think that Humanity in Vampire really was supposed to mean something, some yardstick, something to fuel play. But Avatar was just…meh. There was the whole Quintessence/Paradox with it’s circular track, but Avatar seemed to crying out for something.

    Zukav talks of the Soul (Avatar) as this timeless force that connects with a personality which is it’s manifestation in the field of time. This Awakening is the realization of the connection to this immortal force. The Soul will be in contact with many personalities ‘at the same time’ from the perspective of the timeless Soul. This was actually a game effect that was brought in with the players guide called Dream. Your rating in Dream was how many extra dice you could throw at a roll based on some ‘past life’ experience tapped through the Avatar. Trippy stuff.

    In one sense, the Avatar could be a separate character in itself. This is a spin off Daniel’s Beast or Wraith’s Shadow. It is a thing unto itself that can be very distinct from the personalities it works through. The whole idea of past and future lives is a neat thing to play with. I don’t know how I would describe the Avatar mechanically and who would get most control of it (player or storyteller). Maybe Zukav’s book will give me some more ideas.

    I do think, and maybe this is perspective again, but the traditions seemed less limiting that the clans of Vampire or tribes of Werewolves. There was a lot of room for all types of mages. And, in fact, when they were not battling the Technocracy they were battling each other to impose their own views on reality. Maybe the thing was that Mage was about individuals, not groups. Outlooks could very so greatly from mage to mage that it might be hard to keep a group together.

    Magick really did shine with it’s coincidental effects. This was the most creative aspect of play. How to cast things differently every time to not draw attention and Paradox. The gang in my group shied away from that and embraced the more static powers of Vampires and Werewolves.

    Thanks for keeping the conversation going.

  2. Dave says:

    Mage was by far my favorite child of the oWoD, though I was notorious for incorporating Werewolf spirit aspects into the Spirit Sphere as well as blending BSD/Nephandi concepts.

    The biggest issue my group ran into was the arguing and philosophical debates of that ensued… mainly from the poor wording in areas of the 2nd ed book. It got so bad at one point, a person stormed out and I distinctly remember three game sessions that were nothing but in character conversations (read yelling) about who was right and how magic would work to handle the bad guys… by the time they finished and came to a plan, I let them know that the sun was raising and it was too late (by the way, it really was that late and they had been arguing for hours). It was the best of games and the worst of games.

  3. Mikael Andersson says:

    I’ve always found the (o)WoD games to have focused and powerful premise (at least as far as the core books went) which is subsequently watered down by extreme system-inclusiveness. I fail to see, for example, why it’s important to know how physically strong a ghost is, how good she is at doing somersaults, or even how politically savvy she is. Similarly in Mage, I get the impression that you could focus play much more closely on the enjoyable parts – Paradigm, Spheres, Avatar, Paradox, etc – if you lost about half the character sheet and thus couldn’t resolve lockpicking contests and spot checks.

    Mage, being informed by Ars Magica, also contains a bunch of leftover crud like Rotes. In my oh-so-humble opinion, if you’re so disengaged from the premise of Mage that you need a spellbook compiled from a bunch of supplements to play it competently, you’re probably not going to engage in the kind of play the game seems centred around.

    Of course, this is in large part the reason for WoD’s success – a compelling premise to sucker in the keeners, yet enough flexibility for the casual players to play D&D with it. A friend of mine cheerfully tells the story of when he successfully ran Mage as a pulpy WWII Nazi-killing game, throwing out all notions of competing Paradigms and used the system primarily as a way to define the PCs’ superpowers.

  4. JJ says:

    The conversation continues…http://bit.ly/bqHAVr

  5. Doug says:

    I agree with the general sentiment that Mage is the jewel in the OWoD. By the end of my tenure running it, I had probably ten pages of house rules to make the system work and do what I wanted. I’ve played a lot with “fixing” it, and this makes me think I want to continue working on it, even though it is pretty thankless (and my Mage players are long dispersed)

  6. JJ says:

    @Doug, game mastering is very thankless. We do it becasue we love it. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, but I would hazard a guess that your work would certainly be of interest to the folks here.

  7. Doug says:

    Heh, thanks for the gentle invite, you may be right. My blog, which I haven’t updated in a while due to a demanding new job, is linked from my comments here, and is also


    There’s a lot on there, including house rules, blather, hacks, original games and so on. Feel free to comment – occasionally someone does on what’s posted (oddly, often from Scandanavia).

  8. Logan says:

    Hi Ryan,

    I fell in love with Mage too. I liked the setting and many of the mechanical aspects so much that I started telling all my friends how cool it was. Unfortunately, I allowed myself to get cornered into running a game before I was ready and ultimately ran the worst game in my life.

    One things I found over at 1km1kt, that may be interesting to you, is the Cyberpunk Revival Project. It’s a contest urging participants to remake Cyberpunk. The contest is going strong and there are a lot of interesting entries. Perhaps there could be a similar contest using the elements of Mage?

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Oh, man. If there’s another love I have, it’s for Cyberpunk. I’m going to have to check out the Cyberpunk Revival Project sometime (when I have time). As far a similar contest, possibly, though I wouldn’t have the time myself to participate — my days of rapid design for contests are behind me. I like what I’m making when I take more time.

      – Ryan