Referee’s Bookshelf: Mage: the Ascension (1st Edition)

So, in my Monday evening group we’re starting a Technocracy-based Mage: the Ascension campaign, so I decided to get the main books. The main reference for the campaign is going to be the Guide to the Technocracy; I don’t know which edition of Mage our GM is going to be primarily referring to, but there was a copy of the 1st edition going cheap on eBay and I tend to find that that the earlier editions of games are often the purest expressions of their key ideas. Often 2nd editions and Revised editions graft on additional metaplot and mild rules tweaks in pursuit of balance but do so in a way which muddies the vision expressed by the original designer, and it’s my understanding that Mage in particular changed a lot between editions, with a lot of the “freewheeling magic which can do whatever the fuck you like combined with trippy-ass craziness in the Umbra” aspects of the game – as marvelously depicted on this image from the Storyteller’s Screen – toned down extensively as the line progressed and attempts were made to make the game more tonally consistent with the rest of the World of Darkness line. Since the Storyteller in question seems to like that trippy stuff – it’s been a major element of their occasional Werewolf: the Apocalypse campaign – I figured that taking a look at the original and (reputedly) weirdest iteration of the game would give me a better handle on what to expect.

It’s an interesting read.

Dan wrote an excellent post recently about how a major success of Vampire: the Masquerade was generating buy-in on the part of participants, and I think he was correct – both in the sense of getting buy-in for people to invest in being part of the particular gaming community and experience White Wolf fostered, and also in the sense of getting people pumped up in general about the idea of playing a game where you are a vampire. By the end of reading the core Vampire book, if you’re at all inclined to play a game where you are a vampire there’s good odds you’re now really hyped about playing a game in which you are a vampire, and in particular playing this specific game in which you’re a vampire, and if the metaplot catches your eye you’re probably also hyped to see where it goes (and if you’re not keen on the metaplot, then your Storyteller – if they have any chops at all – ought to be able to make sure there’s stuff in the particular chronicle you are interested in), and if you’re at all into sharing gaming war stories with people the Pretentious Capitalised Nomenclature is a nice aid for that.

The first edition rulebook for Mage more or less does the same thing, in that after reading it I am more interested in playing Mage than I was before I read it (and I was already reasonably excited, otherwise I wouldn’t have got the book). But I think it’s slightly confused about what it is generating buy-in for, which is a pretty major flaw when the point of generating buy-in (as Dan explains it) is to get everyone on the same page.

Where this shows most loudly and clearly is in the Traditions. The various Clans in Vampire, for the most part, did a good job not just of providing character classes by the back door, but also covering more or less all the basic types of vampire you might want to be in a game. You had the Brujah for your violent Near Dark/Lost Boys gangs, the Toreador for your sensual aesthetes a la The Hunger, you had your Dracula-esque aristocrats who treat human beings like cattle and you have your Nosferatu-esque monsters and so on. A couple of the core clans are a bit surprising, but fit more or less nicely into the tone of the game as a whole and provide options that clearly serve a use alongside the others – the Tremere are a good example of this, since they don’t really have much of a precedent in vampire fiction but at the same time playing a vampiric master of occult lore is the sort of thing you might want to do in the setting as presented. (Likewise, the Malkavians seem to fill a niche without really having much literary forebears, with the possible exception of Nicolas Cage in Vampire’s Kiss.)

The Traditions, on the other hand, look much more jarring when you put them next to each other (as you almost certainly will in the PC party, unless you go with a one-Tradition game). You could argue that they should look jarring because they represent radically divergent visions of reality itself, and you’d have a point, but at the same time they are also jarring on the out-of-character level: they beg the question “do these dudes really all belong in the same game together?”

They’re not all bad, mind. Several of them perform precisely the function that vampire Clans serve in that they cover a particular archetype or idea which you would reasonably expect to be represented in games about wizards lurking in modern-day society: you have the Order of Hermes for the medievalist bookworm flavour of magic, you have the Cult of Ecstasy to be Thelema by other means, you can fit most flavours of hippies and new agers and pagans under the Dreamspeakers and Verbana, it’s all good.

Then you’ve got groups like the Euthanatos and Celestial Chorus, who aren’t obvious inclusions in a “modern day wizards” game but feel more or less right for one – having a death cult and a group that makes no distinction between acts of magic and divine miracles are both things which make sense for this sort of setting.

Then you have the Akashic Brotherhood and things start fraying around the edges. In general, if you sit down to play a game about wizards, you don’t expect “ninja” to be an option, any more than you’d expect “werewolf” to automatically be an option when you sit down to play a game about vampires. OK, I get that a lot of the stunts of wuxia do look like magic, and I get that a lot of wuxia stories include wise old sages, but the illustration for the Akashic Brotherhood isn’t a wise old sage, it’s a guy in a Bruce Lee pose. I guess the Brotherhood are a boon for the guys who must play a ninja in every game they play, but I think generating buy-in is more about selling the actual concept of your game, not compromising the concept of your game to include stuff which doesn’t fit but might win over people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in your basic premise.

Then you have the Sons of Ether and the Virtual Adepts, who seem to come from even further out of left field. Again, you just don’t sit down at a game which is about playing wizards and expect “mad scientist” or “cyberpunk-style hacker” to be default options when it comes to character types. I can just about see the point of including a group like the Brotherhood for someone who says “Listen, I just want to play a guy who’s good at fighting”, but does anyone really say “If I can’t play Frankenstein I walk”? Equally, I get that including a Technocracy splinter group in the Traditions is a way of highlighting the conflict between the Traditions and the Technocracy, but two such splinter groups seem to be overkill, and the themes of the splinter groups seem to fly in the face of the mystical magical tone you’d actually want from a game about wizards fighting against runaway science.

The Virtual Adepts as presented here are cyberpunk-style hackers who seem to be present only because Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020 were popular in 1993; I guess if you wanted to run a Matrix game you could use the Virtual Adepts as a basis for the player characters, but a) The Matrix was still years away when the book came out and b) the fact that the Adepts work really well for a campaign premise where you dump almost every feature of the Mage setting except the Adepts doesn’t speak well for them as an integrated component for the setting.

The Sons of Ether also stand out as just not fitting. Frankly, it doesn’t even make sense to model what these guys are doing as spontaneous magic of the sort presented in the Mage system – make them an NPC faction and have ’em spend all their time doing sinister experiments in dungeons and then you might have their activities start to resemble their premise. But even then, the Sons seem entirely inappropriate for the tone of the setting as presented in the general overview – they look, in fact, more like a comedy faction than a serious outfit. (For goodness’ sake, in their illustration the Son of Ether is attended on by a mini-me version of Ro-Man from Robot Monster.)

And then you have the Hollow Ones.

I get the impression from skimming various wikis that the Hollow Ones were extensively remolded in subsequent editions. It’s not hard to see why: as presented here, it’s impossible to see them as anything other than a loud and overt act of self-parody. They are literally the Mages who drop out of joining conventional Traditions entirely and just swan around being goths. They have a King and a Queen elected as being the pretties of all the Hollow Ones. They get together in groups called “cliques”. They’re basically the goth kids from South Park parachuted in to be the generic “no specialist Sphere” faction.

What the utterly bizarre selection of Traditions you get in 1st Edition Mage suggests to me is an awkward compromise between Stewart Wieck’s vision for the game and the understandable desire to tie it in with the rest of the game lines – whilst the original edition of Vampire didn’t anticipate crossovers between it and subsequent games, and 1st edition Werewolf explicitly stated that vampires were creatures of the Wyrm (and therefore would be adversaries), 1st Edition Mage overtly and extensively considers the possibility of running crossover campaigns. This leads to the awkward situation where past present obligated Wieck to present the same “gothic-punk” world that had featured in the last two games in the context of a game whose central premise is that reality is what you make of it and one man’s gothic-punk dystopia is another man’s cotton candy playground. I rather suspect that if he had a free hand to design the setting as he liked without reference to the rest of the World of Darkness, Wieck would have come up with something very different: for instance, I wonder whether the Traditions vs. Technocracy thing didn’t in part come from a desire to build in the same sort of “two big factions at war” angle that Vampire had with the Camarilla/Sabbat thing and Werewolf had with the woofs-vs-Wyrm deal. In some respects the Mage setting would work much better if the Technocracy were merely one of the Traditions, and rather than it being a big Traditions vs. Technocracy war you’d have all the different Traditions in a massive pitched battle over whose radically divergent vision of reality prevails – so you’d have a continuum of traditions running from the very mystical to the very mechanistic rather than a stark dichotomy which the presence of the Sons of Ether and Virtual Adepts immediately contradicts.

To get back to the main point though: some of the Traditions, the ones which all seem to mostly fit together and fit with the World of Darkness as it is presented in the rest of the book and in Vampire and Werewolf, seem to me to arise from the need to create a game which clearly exists in the same world as the other games. The wackier Traditions seem to come from a different game – a freewheeling metaphysical slapfight where the very definition of reality is up for grabs and mad scientists, ninjas, cyberpunks, Men In Black and wizardy wizards squabble over the meaning of life.

The big problem is that this takes a hot steaming dump on the face of buy-in. Firstly, as Dan pointed out when I was discussing this blog post with him, the idea of getting people to invest in a common experience makes little sense if the point of that common experience is that there is no common experience and everything is utterly subjective. Equally, if you’ve sold someone on the idea of playing a game in which you play a wizard, then they’re going to want to sit down in that game and play a wizard with a group of people who are also playing wizards – if they sit down at the table and see a ninja, a cyberpunk, a mad scientist and a comedy goth staring back at them it’s going to feel like a bait-and-switch.  Equally, offering these character options to players doesn’t encourage them to buy into the idea of playing a mage or taking part in a common experience – if anything, it gives them an excuse not to buy in because if they don’t like the central premise of Mage they can just go play a character who is a living parody of the very premise of Mage.

Indeed, it seems weird to include concepts like the Sons of Ether, who take the whole consensus reality idea and expose how goofy it potentially gets, when consensus reality in general is a big thing to ask people to accept. Then again, consensus reality as presented in 1st Edition Mage just doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense, which only prompts me to think that the Technocracy probably has it right – there really is an objective reality out there, and the Masses and the Gauntlet don’t define the boundaries of reality, they just define the boundaries of the safe haven in which the Masses exist. In fact, on a mere first pass through the book I’ve been able to identify a big heap of evidence it offers that suggests this whole “subjective reality” thing is a crock of shit:

  • Despite having entirely different views of reality and magic, all the Traditions have access to exactly the same Spheres. In fact, the Technocracy, Nephandi and Marauders, who all have views of reality that are 100% incompatible with the Traditions, still use the same Spheres (occasionally, as we will see, with different names). This means the Spheres must have an objective reality to them, otherwise you’d have Traditions which used entirely different Spheres (or didn’t buy into the idea of Spheres at all).
  • Avatars must be objectively real, even if (like the Technocracy believe) they aren’t actual souls or spirits, because all mages have Avatars and nobody without an Avatar can do magic.
  • Likewise, Paradox Spirits and Paradox itself must be objectively real, because if that weren’t the case a mage would simply have to develop a philosophy that flatly denies the existence of Paradox and then they’d never have to worry about it.
  • For that matter, why don’t any of the factions try to render themselves immune to their enemies by disbelieving in them? (Though actually, I kind of like the idea that the Traditions we are are present in our reality because they’re the ones who believe that the Technocracy and Nephandi and Marauders exist – and there’s a whole bunch of other Traditions who are living in a happy utopia because they never believed in any of that nasty shit.)
  • The Umbra must have some objective reality to it because not only can everyone with magic visit it, but also everyone broadly agrees on what places you can find there. Likewise, the Gauntlet and Horizon don’t seem to go away if you don’t believe in them.
  • The Sleepers supposedly set what baseline consensus reality is, but if that were the case magic ought to work differently in different cultures with different assumptions about the way the world works, and so far as can be told it doesn’t.
  • Indeed, if the Sleepers set the rules of reality, than that means the Sleepers themselves must be objectively real.
  • For that matter, why isn’t the Umbra falling to bits due to almost all the Sleepers having no idea it exists?
  • Even trickier: why do Paradox Spirits exist to enforce reality when the reality they enforce doesn’t believe in Paradox Spirits?
  • The whole Quintessence/Prime thing means that you can’t really have a steady state cosmos – the universe must necessarily have a beginning. This means a whole category of cosmology gets shut down.
  • If Marauders are really lost in their own subjective reality, how come we’re even able to interact with them? The fact that a Marauder can come strolling through when you open a gap in the Gauntlet means that physical space and time must be objectively real, otherwise the Marauders would never try to interact with it – they’d just be busy off being Gods of their own private cosmos. (Likewise, this is further proof that the Umbra must be objectively real, otherwise you wouldn’t have Marauders hanging around there either.)

It’s the angle where every magical tradition (plus the Technocracy) uses the same Spheres which really kills Mage. Although in principle everyone’s magic comes from a completely different worldview, for the most part everyone’s interaction with the magic system works in exactly the same way – pick an effect, check with the GM to make sure they agree you have the Spheres to do it, and either go vulgar or go coincidental. There is nothing tying in your vulgar effects with your character’s worldview, and by definition coincidental magic – which you’ll want to use most of the time – has fuck all to do with your worldview. In short, whether you’re a wuxia ninja or a mad scientist or a cyberpunk hacker or parody of gothness or an Order of Hermes wizard wondering who the fuck invited all of these clowns to the party, the actual process of doing magic is the same for you.

Now, obviously having a different magic system for each Tradition plus the Technocracy would be a crazyballs level of effort which wouldn’t be especially sustainable — you’d need ten different systems, which would be way more than you’d want to include in a single core rulebook. On the other hand, this would be a strong argument for radically reducing the number of Traditions in Mage, and in fact Unknown Armies – which to a large extent is a reaction to Mage (and indeed is a much better version of Mage than Mage is) – does actually manage to have every different magical tradition’s magic feel distinctly different even though it only offers three magic systems. Avatar magic is absolutely distinct from Adept magic in Unknown Armies, and although within the Avatars (or Adepts) the basic premises of how magic works are the same, actually different Avatars (or Adepts) behave in entirely different ways to get entirely different effects. A True King and a Mystic Hermaphrodite are both Avatars, but they have utterly different Taboos and get entirely different powers out of their archetypal nature and need to do entirely different things to maintain and boost their Avatar skill. A Dipsomancer and a Pornomancer are both Adepts, but they have different Taboos and behave entirely differently in order to generate magical power and get entirely different effects out of it. Two Adepts with equal magical skill and stats but different obsessions are utterly different in Unknown Armies, but in Mage a Dreamspeaker and a Verbana with identical Spheres are damn difficult to tell apart.

This is why the Guide to the Technocracy is so much fun. It recognises that the Mage core book is a huge mess which only really makes sense if you read it as a biased account of the world of the mages written from the point of view of a partisan of the Traditions who is so brainwashed by Tradition stick-it-to-the-man propaganda that he or she can’t recognise the enormous gaping holes in the Traditions’ worldview. It therefore offers the flipside of that coin by presenting its material in the form of a biased account of the world from the point of view of the Technocracy (though it does a better job of indicating where the Technocrats disagree on things and where the cracks are in their facade), and presents a worldview which does have its own holes but still makes just as much sense as the Traditions’ worldview (and might actually make more sense – the holes seem to me to be markedly easier to patch over than the holes in the Traditions’ worlview – the biggest one is the Technocracy’s refusal to believe that reality is mutable, and you can resolve that easily by saying that the Technocracy are correct when it comes to the ur-reality represented by the Umbra and the Spheres and all the bullet points I listed above, and “subjective reality” merely represents the border between acceptable and unacceptable reality which the Masses draw, whereas the Tradition view that reality is inherently subjective is demonstrably false and can’t really be patched over).

But more than that – there’s a sense of humour to Guide to the Technocracy that the rest of Mage lacks. The prose takes the Technocracy’s bragging to such absurd lengths that they begin to resemble the Village from The Prisoner as administered by the Mooninites. Moreover, the rips on the Traditions worldview look eerily like a lot of the objections people have to the way Mage doesn’t actually make much sense – as though Phil Brucato and his co-authors are acknowledging that actually the Mage setting – as with much of the later World of Darkness setting – has become rather silly (or was rather silly all along). In short, it’s the antidote to Mage – an Ascension for people who otherwise don’t like Mage, or for those who do kind of dig it but equally find the anti-science stance and the subjective reality stuff to be kind of risible. In that sense, I think Guide works best when you set it next to the 1st Edition Mage book – you then have two flawed extremes facing off against each other, and in the middle you might find something that makes a blind bit of sense.

17 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Mage: the Ascension (1st Edition)

  1. Minor points of order:

    1) Even more absurdly, I’m pretty sure the Traditions aren’t supposed to believe reality is subjective *either* (this makes the whole council *even more insane*).

    2) Technically (and by the same token) both your coincidental and your vulgar magic should be considered consistent with your worldview. Your Hermetic character throws a fireball by using those well known European occult traditions that allow people to throw fireballs. Your Akashic throws a fireball by doing a hadoken. If your character has Forces but their worldview doesn’t allow for throwing fireballs, they technically can’t throw fireballs (which is why your character’s Paradigm should be as bland and generic as possible).

    3) I think Mage creates a lot of buy-in with its wanky stick-it-to-the-man stance. I mean at the time the target audience was basically teenagers and people who should really have stopped being teenagers but hadn’t.

    1. Re: 3 – I guess so, though I suspect this is also a weakness of Mage; somehow it doesn’t feel like a game which can survive the players outgrowing wanky stick-it-to-the-man-ism, whereas I think Vampire can survive the players outgrowing “zomg, vampires are so kewl and sexy” somewhat better. (It helps that most people more or less inevitably outgrow 17 year old idealistic defiance of everything, whereas people don’t necessarily stop thinking vampires are cool and continuing to think vampires are cool isn’t really an impediment to maturity.)

  2. Mark Rosenfeld

    I would like to offer a rebuttal to your posit that the “subjective reality is a crock of shit”.
    It is this: If enough minds believe in something, it gains enough strength to manifest, to “exist”. This is how the spheres exist, this is how the consensus exists. This is how all of ‘reality’ forms. There is no “objective reality”, only thought forms brought into being by enough mental energy exerted upon them.
    In other words, there could be the APPEARANCE of an objective reality. So many people are mentally “invested” in a certain view, that it takes a (seemingly) solid shape.That gets labelled “The Objective Reality”.
    For example, the “sleepers” are not objectively real-there’s just MORE of them, and since they do not think for themselves (they just buy whatever bill of goods they ve been passed) there is a lot MORE mental energy pulling in one direction.
    You also mentioned “cultural difference”. Why are there not cultural differences for the sleepers in different countries, etc?
    Again, it comes to mental energy. It takes a LOT of mental energy, exerted to get something to stick. So, eating with chopsticks vs. a fork is not going to change the pattern of the tides. Not enough mental energy. Sure, a ton of people eat w/ chopsticks, but I bet very few, if any of them think it’s the ONLY way a human being can put food into their mouths.

    1. But barely anyone believes in spheres; the vast majority of the population are not even aware the supernatural exists and aren’t invested in magic working in a particular way, and even most supernaturals aren’t mages and don’t see magic as working that way.

      And if the sleepers aren’t objectively real, how can their minds affect the consensus? “Minds” must be objectively real in your mental energy hypothesis, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything directing mental energy to craft the subjective world in the first place.

      1. I’d agree that the objective existence of minds is non-negotiable. You could just about argue that the spheres are a game mechanical abstraction and so they don’t count as objectively real any more than skill levels or willpower points do.

        Although that just shifts the problem from one of setting design to mechanics design.

      2. Except aren’t the Traditions and other IC concepts tied to different spheres? I find it hard to see the spheres as solely game mechanical abstractions when people talk about them IC.

      3. Yes, that’s where the Spheres as mechanics thing falls down.

        You could still argue that the spheres aren’t objectively real of course – since the Traditions can make their Paradigms work by will alone, so you could argue that the spheres exist only because the *council* believes in them. But I agree it’s a stretch.

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