We geeks are known for our unusual and obscure interests, which goes hand in hand with our other defining trait: our intense passion for said pursuits. Despite the Box Office busting, Prime Time featured, pop culture acceptance of many geeky interests….more often than not we all have one or two hobbies or fascinations that cause even our closest friends to go “….Ah. Ok..that’s nice? I don’t really know anything about that.”
For me, one of those passions is for Mage: the Ascension, or Mage, as it’s often abbreviated online, was the third tabletop roleplaying game in the original World of Darkness line. White Wolf’s flagship product was Vampire: the Masquerade . And while Vampire was known for exploring the moral inhumanity and personal horror of that mythos; Mage focused on the philosophical and social possibilities of magical powers, especially as a way to satirize humanity and culture. The hopeful and adventurous tone of the Mage didn’t gain traction amongst the majority of World of Darkness players, but those who did not mind the departure from the less optimistic Vampire and Werewolf games created a small and at times invisible fandom.
I discovered Mage thanks to a college friend, Ben Fried-Lee. Unaware of the effect it would have, Ben lent me the game and caused a string of late nights. I would be found reading until I fell asleep on my ever so comfortable dorm issue mattress. I was enchanted by Mage’s attempt to balance the implications of magic: what if the world was literally shaped by all of our belief and mages were simply the people who noticed and consciously directed their belief, attempting to shape the world as they thought it should be? This fed my growing interest in Subjectivism, but more than that, Mage fueled my love for the Humanities. In the book, every aspect of human culture was magical in nature, everything on earth had inherent magical value – if we gave it such power.With such ability a mage could shape the very fabric of reality. Inventors, political visionaries, doctors, heroes, cyberpunks, teachers, writers, and clergy were all easily styled as mages and, in the game’s world, such people fought to defend (or spread) their little corner of human culture. The entire game was post-modern parable about human history and society. It was nothing short of incredible.
In the world of Mage, progress, almost every war of ideas, every movement, was led by Mages seeking to make their truth into The Truth. Science was spread and pursued by Technocratic Mages hoping to bring stability to a struggling humanity, but in their zeal to show the world a better way, touched off imperialism, slavery, globalized capitalism, and dystopias. Mystic and Faith based mages struggled to keep their ways intact. This often led to Shadowy Government Black Suits stomping out the ritual fire of a Native Medicine-woman. Or faceless corporations buying out a Hermetic magical bookshop and replacing it with a soulless franchise store. Or scientists working to discredit a Holy Miracle. The morality, however, was rarely this black and white…..until you met the mages who believe in Nothing and are itching to unleash it on the world. Those play the ultimate antagonists.
I was lucky enough to run two mage campaigns, but by the time I got to do so the last of its sourcebooks were being printed. While I was able to find a few other fans of Mage (and converted another) with which to play, I found Mage players to be as ornery and opinionated as the characters they played. We often argued, when not playing, over how certain ideas from the book were meant to be realized on the table. The rules, especially, caused a number of arguments. They were sometimes unclear and at other times contradictory. I found the system itself to be pretty heavy, heavier than I liked. But I was drawn by the Big Ideas, the stories, and the magic.
The game line was dropped when the rest of the Old World of Darkness was dropped. The “New World of Darkness” line, which I quite enjoy, had a Mage game, but it was narratively unrecognizable from the earlier game. None of the philosophy, broad look at human culture, or juggling of multiple points of view were written in to that game. The hardcore fandom replayed with old materials, or adapted them to new systems….until the 2oth Anniversary Edition was announced. What I thought was dead would rise again, and my anticipation grew quickly, yet at the same time I actively worried that the real game would not live up to my fantastic hopes.
I bought into the Kickstarter, the full $150 that was required to get the physical book. This also bought me a chance to check out the PDF before printing, months before these books would hit shelves, and when I received it, that PDF turned a normal Tuesday into a Holiday. I loaded the PDF on to my tablet as soon as I could and began my first Mage study session. It was the first time my eReader program ever had to tell me to put itself down and go rest my eyes! One month later, during which I eschewed even fiction, I had finished reading the whole 684 page work of glory.
It soon became apparent that I loved this book; it was a far more philosophical, socially aware look at the concepts of Mage than I had ever seen. Major philosophical questions that had impacted gameplay in the last twenty years were finally laid down, weighed, and decided upon in those pages. Is it, game-mechanically speaking, easier to summon a taxi from a few blocks away or to create a taxi, driver, and a desire to help you out of nothing? Turns out, better just summon it. Does the universe punish magic from the perspective of an omniscient observer or what any passing person might notice? The all-knowing observer, ironically, was deemed too weak a measurement.
More than that, Mage 20 was extremely inclusive, pointing out the consequences of portraying other cultures for laughs, tying the themes of Mage with the struggles of disenfranchised people everywhere, using genderqueer/fluid pronouns, even acknowledging the possibility of intersexual mages. That last one brought me to tears. It felt like going to see your favorite musician, wearing a funny t-shirt to the concert, and having that artist see you in a crowd of thousands, point to you, and smile at your shirt (as one of my friends recounted). To be recognized is a struggle for an intersexual, to be recognized in the medium of their favorite entry in one of their favorite pastimes is beyond my abilities to describe.
This game is going to have a special place in my library, I will reread it for pleasure for years, and seek out those fans who will excitedly discuss it with me. I hope to run and play characters in myriad campaigns, taking part in Technocratic narratives of progress and control, Traditionalist freedom-fighting tales, and stories of street magic saving frail lives. Mage is the best setting I have ever found for exploring and balancing different genres within one universe.
It’s too bad, then, that there is an insurmountable obstacle. One so large, it prevents me from ever playing the game as it appears in the book.
No, I’m not held back by the dwindling fanbase. In fact, this edition has raised the connectivity in that fanbase immensely. I have made so many more Mage-Playing friends in the last year than I had ever known. And there is no problem with the game, the problem lies within.
I have no patience for the base system.
When I was younger I struggled to run (and sometimes, to play) the first Storyteller system. I recognize that they changed it, made it more consistent, streamlined many of its hard edges but….the system is far too crunchy for me. The success-mechanic is too mathematically complex, character creation is a slew of messy options, and there are just… too many rules.
Since it exploded, I’ve been spoiled by the Indie Press Revolution in tabletop RPGs. I now recognize that there is no real conflict between simulation games and narrative games because both systems are simulationist. One attempts to simulate the rules of the physical world and the other attempts to simulate the stories and the experience of specific genres and narratives. So many improvements have been made to how a game might simulate a story, play with a story, strengthen the immersion into a story that, when I look at Mage I see a story I want to tell, but I’m held back by a system that weighs it down – in to a realm of thinking that is neither comfortable nor fun for me. The story of of Mage, the diversity of stories that can be contained in Mage are incredible. I would rather focus on the story than on a multi-step combat turn that drags on for the rest of the session. Soaking damage? I do not have time for that.
Which is not to say that the system creators did not do an amazing job, I can tell they did. But I am not the intended audience of that part of the project. And that’s ok, because I can still play the game by tweaking the rules. Or more accurately, hacking the whole game into a system I DO like. I just need to find a system that can express the elements of Mage that strike me as most essential.
I’m pretty sure I’ve already found it. Most of my conversion is in place. I’ve tried it out a couple of times. I think it’s going to work. Which remarkable, amazing system did I choose to merge with my favorite narrative? Find out next week.