[Editors Note: Part I of the series can be found here]
Last time, we talked about my love for Mage, but my frustrations with the system. This time, let’s talk about the new system I adapted the world to. For those of you who guessed (or found the easter egg), the system I chose is Fate Core. Yes, after all of my love letter language to Mage, I am choosing a vastly simpler, and yes, vaguer, system. Don’t forget, I also went on quite a bit about narratives. If you saw this coming, all glory to you. If you’re just…..flames…flames on the side of your face? The comments section is below, read before commenting at your whim! Moving on…
I’ll tell you why I chose Fate, but first, here is what I set out to do:
As I hinted, Mage players have been bringing Classic mage to new life using other systems for years. I helped with one of these hacks, grafting the old magical “sphere” rules on to the New World of Darkness base system. I very much enjoy the way the New W.o.D. [usually pronounced: Wad] simplified and streamlined the old system, while keeping its heart. Gone are the soak rules and weighty success-mechanic, but a focus on narrative remained. For those who may not have played any of these games, the Old World of Darkness created what were later called “Special Dramatic Rules” to enforce the themes and moods they wanted in their game lines. Mages had very different rules for Magic than Vampires had for Feeding. Each of these rules were meant to codify a certain aspect of the narrative in to play.
The New W.o.D. carried on this tradition, so there was plenty of motivation for system hackers to use special rules in merging these two systems. However, which rules and how to balance them were hotly debated. The hack I helped with was such a system, and I ran and played in that system, but it’s not what I ultimately wanted to settle on. From my experiences with that hack, I realized I wanted to play in a system that would accentuate the narratives, genres, and themes from Mage, while keeping as much of its Special Dramatic Systems as I could. I knew that I would likely not be able to copy and paste exactly the Magic or the (dreaded) Paradox rules into a new system. Because I wanted simplicity, I had to have faith that I could find a game that would support the essence of these rules, allowing them to influence gameplay, while not overbalancing everything else in the game. I don’t want players to shy away from the “Mage” part of the rules just because those rules are so much more daunting and complex than the base system. That would lead to a very safe, if boring, Mage story and we don’t want boring at the gaming table.
Besides the shape (if nothing else) of these special rules, there are three other facets of Mage that I grok the most, and therefore were forefront in my mind when choosing a system.
The first of these is narrative in the setting and in character agency. Narrative, the tale we collaboratively tell at the gaming table and the stories our characters tell themselves about how the world works, what they hope to materialize in their world against competing stories- those are essential to Mage’s themes of hope, transformation, defiance, and reflection. Players are encouraged to have their characters dabble in storytelling, both as a means of casting magic and as a portion of their paradigm. While a mystic mage might plan out their Ascension using The Hero’s Journey, a Technocrat might find herself targeting deviant narratives and correcting them to Compliant Mental Structures. An antagonistic mage might use Mind magic to force those around her to act out a fairy tale, while a Mage who has lost their way might influence luck to enact her low self esteem as bad fortune.
And there we get to a real crux of the matter because, for this style of play, narrative must be inherent in character agency. Players are motivated, in Mage, to create a structure for their character’s belief, called a “Focus”, that includes a paradigm, practices, and tools. All of the character’s magic must align with the different parts of this Focus. This system tells a player their character’s magical power is appropriately restrained by their in-character beliefs. This Focus must be interconnected with the character’s “concept”, a free write-in field all World of Darkness characters share. By boiling a character idea down into a “Character Concept”, the game designers of the WoD help their players use this as a foundation to determine what else should be on their character sheet. No classes, these characters were meant to be individuals who belonged to groups, but were not defined by them. My hack needed a game Engine that meets this intense use of narrative.
The second facet of Mage that I want to be certain to include in my hack, is narrative diversity. Mage is a story that attempts to include the possibility of all stories. there are a large variety of paradigms from which one can enact change on the world; a Mage can be a hardboiled PI, a paranoid cyborg, a questing wizard, an underdog martial artist, a charming spy, a prideful summoner, a malicious summoner, a pep and tea filled steampunk -anything you can dream that invoked wonder! The game impressively achieves this by essentializing all depictions of agency into a universal model, using the Spheres magic system and other special systems, then allowing the players to use that model generally, while having their characters act out of much more specific motivations. For instance, a technocratic cyborg might fire plasmic rounds at you while a mystic martial artist might direct her ki through her punches and kicks, but in the game system, it’s all the same mechanic. This meant I needed to keep that part in my hack. The Spheres are too useful, too flexible to do without. But all players need a little help once in a while to create their character’s story, the fluff over the mechanics. Focus (remember Focus?) helps characters fill in these narrative parts. I needed an engine in which there are only a few mechanical options on which a player could paint an infinite variety of story.
The third and final facet of Mage that I want included in my hack, is the presence of magic in all things. I always found it philosophically interesting that, in Mage, magic can be anything. Magical power can be found at special sites called Nodes, yes, but those nodes can fit any idea of what “value” might be, from a Holy Copse of trees to the Founding Franchise branch of a business. Quantifiable magical units can fit any qualifiable description. At higher levels of the Prime Sphere, a Mage can break any object (and eventually concepts or systems) down into this Quintessential coinage. It is highly suggested that “magic”, in Mage, is in all things and in anything, whatever your perspective can latch onto, and any human (or non) artifice can be used to practice magic. Mage also encourages the use of ephemeral spirit/mental/ or underworlds to create an infinite range of settings. As belief shapes the narrative of the Mage- setting, gods, spirits, creatures, monsters, aliens, and beings from all mythologies, stories, and fictions could play a part in your game.
The game has also become increasingly diverse in that the writers have actively pursued diversity in the voices the Mage story includes and celebrates. Marginalized and disenfranchised people, such as those cultures still suffering Imperialism from traditional powers, have more roles to play in the 20th Anniversary Edition. I noticed, as well, that third or non-gendered pronouns were included throughout the book. In one joyfully surprising moment, while posting to an online forum about this, I found a sidebar in the newest Mage book that included the possibility of Intersexual mages. This is the second time I had ever read the possibility of playing a character like me in a roleplaying game (without playing a robot). It was elating, and it inspired me to keep an eye out throughout the book for other ways the writers had been inclusive. I was impressed and I needed a hack that encouraged this level of diversity.
Fate has all of this, and more. Fate is more streamlined. In its simplicity, it is promotes narrative more efficiently. And, because it can promote narratives so well, it can promote collaborative storytelling with less conflict. Now, your mileage may vary, and any incredibly collaborative table of roleplayers can play this style with any game. But I wanted a system that actively aided in these pursuits, and Fate core does that quite well.
Fate has all of this, and more: Fate is more streamlined. In its simplicity, it is promotes narrative more efficiently. And, because it can promote narratives so well, it can promote collaborative storytelling with less conflict. Now, your mileage may vary, and any incredibly collaborative table of roleplayers can play this style with any game. But I wanted a system that actively aided in these pursuits, and Fate core does that quite well.
Fate does this through its most basic mechanic: Aspects. Aspects are short phrases that are meant to be equally useful in providing character agency, providing personalized conflict, and easy to remember and use in play. Characters get a number of defining aspects, starting with a “High Concept” (sound familiar?) instead of attributes. These can be invoked by a player for mechanical benefit for an action inline with that aspect. So a player might have the High Concept “Charming Super Spy”, and he can invoke this aspect to do better when charming an agent for the other side or it can be compelled to encourage him to take a risky mission. Then you add additional Aspects, the first of which provide conflict, called the Trouble aspect, and so forth. Fate, from the beginning of play (the first session is creating characters together, it’s literally part of the gameplay), helps players feel their agency in acting in character and compels them to interact with the parts of the narrative that fit their character.
Everything in your game’s narrative can have or even just be represented as an aspect. A gun you pick up when breaking out of a Technocratic holding cell is a temporary aspect. The bleeding you caused to your rival when you stabbed them with your athame is an aspect. Here difficulty and agency are streamlined to follow narrative sense, as opposed to following myriad of rules in a traditional simulation system. Character actions can create or discover aspects, allowing players a clear way to collaborate on and influence the story. The Story/setting itself will have four aspects, called Issues, which are determined collaboratively by the gaming table as part of the first session, and allow the GM and players to easily play with what the story is all about. And yes, “Lord Da’rkblud is poisoning the world from the shadows” is a horrible Issue. Much better to write in “A Poisoned World” and let the players uncover the causes and machinery behind that aspect. But as you play, you can look at that Issue and think, “is this scene really about this aspect? Is this scene about any of our character’s Aspects? What is the point of this scene?” You get to exciting play much faster that way, but can make allowances for dallying. Are your players interested in something they found in the world? Make an aspect for it.
As for the second facet of Mage, I’ve played GURPS and a number of other systems that attempt universality, but only Fate really achieves this without a mess of crunchy rules. Fate uses the same philosophy in supporting genres that Mage does supporting all types “magic”. Fate uses Aspects to set down the building blocks of your genre and story, and empowers you to include these as you play. You can have cyberpunk aspects, fantasy aspects, comedic or horrific aspects and all of these can easily work together mechanically. This is partially why I decided to only slim down the Sphere system to fit it into Fate, and remove as little as possible. Because Fate allows for only one measure of difficulty, the rules for how Magic is performed and can be constructed becomes much simpler. However, it loses none of it’s narrative weight. A prepared spell can easily wait, by making that spell an aspect, while Paradox can be accentuated by compelling aspects that describe how the scene conflicts with the character’s beliefs.
Of course, I am simplifying Fate’s mechanics in this article, this isn’t a manual. Fate characters get skills, the list of which can be collaboratively decided upon by the party, even including all the myriad Abilities available to Mage players. Fate players get stunts, which can easily represent backgrounds, merits, or flaws. These are streamlined, restraining their effects to three or four choices. Even character actions are streamlined into four basic Roleplaying actions: Overcome a difficulty, usually static, possibly supplemented by an NPC’s die roll; Create a new anything or discover new information, represented by placing a new Aspect; Attack something that can take stress, until you take it out of play or gain some control over its fate; and Defend yourself from such an attack, so that you are not taken out of play or forced to accept defeat. I find that all of these simplifications are a fair depiction of all roleplaying agency, just as I find the Sphere system a fair depiction of all magical agency. “Fair” does not mean “perfect”, of course. But I find this simplification philosophy from both systems very useful and usable. Thus I tried to support and preserve the Sphere, Paradox, and other Special Dramatic Systems, whenever I could.
Finally, just as Mage has its mercurial Quintessence, quantifiable magical power, so too does Fate have a spendable: Fate Points. Also called Face Chips, Refresh, or simply Fate, this spendable is meant to move a lot. Fate moves through the game system like in an economy, or an ecosystem powered by narrative and agency. A character’s pool of Fate can be lowered at character creation by buying more stunts, characters spend Fate to activate dormant aspects, and (quite importantly) GMs give players Fate when the player is compelled to act/suffer according to an aspect. If a player does not wish to be compelled, they must pay a Fate point to say “No, STFU” to the GM. Just as in the Mage world, this spendable permeates and flows through all things (at least, all things with which the players interact), and any aspect can cost or give this spendable. They were so similar, I knew I had to combine them.
Quintessence flows through the world, investing itself in patterns, freed for interaction only through powerful Nodes and the powerful magics of characters with agency. By limiting how Fate/Quintessence can be used to help magic, I can give this spendable both a mundane and a magical quality. By receiving Quintessence/Fate by being compelled to act narratively, I both reward players for roleplaying instantly and I require Mages to act in accordance with their Focus to gain Quintessential power- as long as the Focus is narratively-derived, of course. I use one aspect after the Trouble to exemplify or summarize a character’s Focus.
The connection between these spendables had to flow neatly between systems. To make sure that narrative was promoted, I started my tweak in the Focus part of character creation. The Paradigms and Practices portion of Focus informs which skills my players choose to be “Foci Skills”. Foci skills allow players of my hack to create Foci Aspects, which can be invoked to add to magic rolls. Invoked by paying a Quintessence (Fate Point). To create the scarcity of Quintessence in spells before the Prime sphere is learned, I allowed only one Quintessence to be spent on a spell without having to invoke an Aspect. The higher rated a Mage’s Avatar and Prime Sphere are, the more Quintessence can be spent “freely” in this manner, which would be required for some spells, so powerful are their effects. For Mage fans, this would be what the Storyteller System calls “Free Quintessence”. In this way, I attempted to integrate Mage 20th’s Quintessence Economy into the Fate Chip Economy.
So far, my discomfort with Old W.o.D. system and the use of the Fate system to run Mage has been criticized. I can understand why; my discomfort with that older system did not go into great detail and Fate is quite a different beast than the Storyteller system. I will not disagree that almost no one asked for this. However, I did ask and I know others who are excited by this prospect. I created this hack not to critique the creators of Mage, who have my gratitude and respect, but to build on what they have created. Not because Mage wasn’t perfect and needed a little of my touch, but because it wasn’t quite right for me. In fact, this article is meant to unpack what I most love about Mage. I hope I have, at the very least, laid a reasonable and consistent foundation for my choice of Fate Core.
If you would like more details on my hack or would like to help me test it, I will provide the documents to anyone who emails me at Aceofgeekspodcasting@gmail.com. These are a second draft among others, so I will update here when a new version is available. In order to respect the Mage the Ascension and Fate properties, I will not be publishing the materials freely, unless I secure legal permission to do so.
If you do try out the hack, please use the rules I have crafted (until those rules break your rule: zero, of course. Fun is foremost) and let me know how my system “hacks it”. I don’t have the ability to try this hack out rigorously, and I would like to streamline it, so any feedback on the rules-as-written would be greatly appreciated.
Any ideas on how you would have prefered to hack Mage the Ascension into Fate, or any other system, please comment below. Please play nicely with one another and… thank you for reading.