Onyx Path’s second edition of Mage: the Awakening continues the general trend of second edition Chronicles of Darkness games of greatly refining and refocusing the concepts of their often-muddled first editions. Since both the World of Darkness and Chronicles of Darkness series are both active concerns, the various Chronicles games no longer need to be conflicted between the desire to do something new and the commercial incentive to provide a safe harbour for fans of the equivalent World of Darkness line, which means they can be more confident in their own, distinct identities.
In the case of Mage, the second edition is also an opportunity to restate that core identity in a way which wins over more people. The main thing which people who otherwise don’t know much about the first edition of Awakening seem to latch onto about it is “Isn’t that the one which is all about Atlantis?”; the Atlantis stuff isn’t exactly gone here, but it’s relegated to a brief appendix to illustrate just how inessential to the core concept it is.
As far as that core concept goes, it’s a delicious broth of Neoplatonism and Gnosticism. The idea is that the Awakened – the Mages of the world – are those humans who, for whatever reason, have had their awareness opened up to the Supernal World, the higher realm of archetypes and ideals which the Fallen World, the place of impure matter and grubby compromises, is a tepid shadow of. The idea that the Fallen World is all that exists is a Lie crafted by the Exarchs, shadowy powers from the Supernal World.
Having become aware of the Lie, Mages spend their time in pursuit of the occult mysteries they perceive all around them – even more than Hunters, they’re the World of Darkness splat most likely to set up one of those red string conspiracy boards in their home – thus advancing their understanding of the Supernal World and the power they can access through the archetypes therein (which is how their spellcasting works). They must beware, however, of both their own hubris (which can cause them to become lost in their magical workings altogether) and of Paradox, a dark force which may arise from the Abyss whenever magic is worked (especially if it is done irresponsibly). If the Supernal World is the dwelling place of the archetypal forms of all things that exist, the Abyss is the abode of rejected universes and entities denied existence – but which hunger for it constantly.
In this context Atlantis is nothing more than one of many myths that Mages tell themselves about the Time Before – the era prior to the Exarchs establishing the Lie – and as such the Atlantis stuff genuinely is not that important. Far more important is the interplay between the various major sects of Mages – the Diamond alliance of four flavours of traditionalist faction (one martial, one covert, one religious, one political), the modern Free Council who are allied with the traditionalists, and the hated Seers of the Throne, who far from battling the Exarchs choose to serve them, earning wealth and temporal power in return for binding Sleepers deeper into the Lie.
Yet more types of mages exist out in the periphery, practicing forms of magic that the traditionalist Diamond, their Council allies, and their Seer foes alike all consider to be beyond the pale – Reapers who destroy or steal souls, Scelesti who tamper with the Abyss itself, and so on. However, none of the great orders of Mages are perfect, and all are infiltrated by Left-Hand Path Mages to various extents. (For instance, the Free Council is all about personal freedom… which you’d think would tend to make them something of an inadvertent haven for the nastier variety of Mage. After all, if free will and personal rights are paramount, what about – say – the right and freedom of the monstrosities of the Abyss to existence, or the right of a Mage to defy death and become a Lich or to destroy a foe’s soul if that is their true will?)
One could even envisage a take on the Seers of the Throne where past the shallow motivations of wealth and personal power there is actually a very important motive – namely, the conservation of existence as we know it (much like the old Technocracy in Ascension). I could absolutely imagine the more mature Seers taking the view that the Exarchs have set up the Lie the way they have for the sake of maintaining tight control over who gets to Awaken, for every person that Awakens is a potential tool of the Abyss. (Conceptually speaking, there is no reason to believe that the Abyss did not precede the Lie – if the Supernal World is the home of things that Are, and the Abyss is home to things which Are Not, it follows that you could collapse the Fallen World altogether and have everyone and everything ascend to the Supernal and there would still be an Abyss.) Given the sheer irresponsibility shown by the Scelesti and the threat posed to Supernal and Fallen World alike by their activities, could the Exarchs have a point in denying this power to those who are not responsible enough to use it?
As such, rather than being locked into a state of absolute war like the Traditions and the Technocracy were in Ascension, the major factions in Mage are all painted in various shades of grey. Whilst it would seem hard to run a game with a mixed group of Seer and other mages (all the other five sects are substantially more willing to collaborate by contrast), nothing is necessarily stopping you from doing that, or from running an all-Seer game, and an all-Seer game wouldn’t necessarily devolve into cheerful fascism the way a Technocracy game in Ascension would tend to. Particularly since one has the distinct sense that the Silver Ladder or Guardians of the Veil, two of the major Diamond factions, both have the potential to be every bit as hierarchical and corrupt as the Seers – and all Mages, to one extent or another, are at risk of descending into hubristic elitism as a result of their heightened state of awareness compared to the common run of humanity.
So being a Mage in the Chronicles of Darkness means chasing after your mysteries and obsessions, and is much less about fighting a constant war against other Orders. The Diamond and Council certainly are not friends of the Seers by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time they will not automatically see eye-to-eye on any issue themselves, and there is neither the sense that the Seers and other Orders are at the sort of full-blown knives-out shoot-on-sight war that the Technocracy and Traditions in Ascension are. The Diamond and Free Council certainly don’t seem to be forced into a desperate underdog battle to nearly the extent that the Traditions are, nor do the Seers seem to have the overwhelming advantage the Technocracy do. One could imagine encounters between Seers and members of the other Orders being cautious but not necessarily descending into violence or magical attacks; under some circumstances, like fighting Scelesti, they may even be allied, and you can envisage a Seer and a Free Council member developing a personal admiration for each other even though they have fundamental philosophical differences.
All of this means that the Mages of Awakening put more energy into plumbing mysteries than into fighting wars; one gets the impression that the main time members of the other Orders end up fighting Seers is when they and some Seers end up gunning after the same mystery. The nice thing about this is that it feels distinctly wizard-like; this “no, really, you are all playing wizards” approach extends to the basic flavours of Mage, since whilst there is a good range available from shamanic types to witchy manipulators of the strands of fate to dark delvers into one’s inner darkness and so on and so forth, they all feel conceptually like Mages. This is a great improvement over Ascension, especially in its earlier editions, in which some Traditions seemed to be set up so that if someone really didn’t want to play a wizard they could at least aesthetically pretend they weren’t. (Note how the early iconic art for the Akashic Brotherhood was a martial artist, note the mad scientists and hackers as character options.)
Another significant break from Ascension is the way Awakening drops the whole consensus reality thing. (Some in the Free Council buy into the idea, but they’re demonstrably wrong.) The Supernal World has an objective reality to it, magic has a particular way it works, deal with it. That doesn’t mean that the door is closed on improvised magic by any means; in fact, the game overtly says that part of the fun is cooking up clever ways to accomplish the effect you want with the magical tools available to you (and in particular has an admirable refusal to declare that the game is “broken” just because a particular effect can be achieved with ease with one route but is more difficult by another route) – but it does mean that the setting seems less prone to get bogged down in Ascension-flavoured flamewars about what consensus reality actually means. Plus, it means that there’s less in the way of martial artists and Lawnmower Man VR hackers and mad scientists and the like, which again helps things feel wizardy.
Between this and the welcome 2nd edition policy of including all the required rules in the book rather than making you jump about between this and the core Chronicles of Darkness rulebook, this is a decidedly nice presentation of Mage. It very much feels like the sort of “wizards in the shadow of the modern day” game which people may have been expecting back in the day before Ascension threw everyone a consensus reality-flavoured curveball. Not that Ascension isn’t fun in its own right – but it doesn’t feel like it scratches the originally intended “modern day Ars Magica” itch the way a solid Awakening campaign just might be able to.