Mage: the Ascension has, from its beginning, been a bit of a weird old game. The central “consensus reality” conceit – without which the stack of cards largely collapses – is a particularly Marmite-y aspect of the game; out of all the people I have encountered in person or online who’ve said that they just weren’t able to get along with Ascension, I’d say that the consensus reality aspect is the first reason the majority give for why they don’t get along with it.
Beyond that, the setting is very much hardwired around a conflict between establishment science and various flavours of cultural belief steeped in the supernatural, a conflict couched with all the sensitivity and nuance that you’d expect of White Wolf in the early 1990s (absolutely none).
This and other aspects of the game make it highly controversial – even among fans, interpretations of the setting vary widely. In every platform I’ve ever discussed White Wolf games on, two things have been true: when it comes to the Chronicles of Darkness, anyone who isn’t outright wrongheaded understands that Beast is absolutely fucking terrible and is very eager to explain why they despise the game, and when it comes to the old-school World of Darkness discussions about Mage: the Ascension have a tendency to spiral into wide-ranging philosophical debates.
This means that when it came to Onyx Path producing a 20th Anniversary Edition of the game, funded via Kickstarter, there was an absolute shitton of conflicting expectations involved. For the most part, the other 20th Anniversary Editions have generally been regarded as, at worst, nice celebrations of the games in question and useful compilations of material, and at best substantial improvements and refinements over the material produced for the classic-period game.
However, so far as I can tell the reception of the 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage has been somewhat shakier. I suspect that this was inevitable; more than any of the other major World of Darkness lines, Mage changed radically from edition to edition in terms of its overall atmosphere and approach to such an extent that whichever direction the 20th Anniversary Edition jumped, someone would have been mad at it. But is that the full extent of the issues, or is there more to criticise here? Let’s delve in…
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
Back in 2014 (yes, it has taken that long for the stretch goals I wanted to cover to come out), the original Kickstarter campaign raised some $672,899 dollars. This made it far and away the biggest Kickstarter campaign in the tabletop RPG field of 2014, comfortably raising over twice that of the nearest competitor (the Paranoia debacle), and at the time it was the second highest-grossing tabletop RPG Kickstarter ever. At least part of the book had been written (or at least drafted) by the time the Kickstarter happened, since Richard Thomas of Onyx Path was able to offer a breadcrumb trail of extracts in project updates to whet the appetite of backers and potential backers.
What Level I Backed At
Seeking Awakened (nonUS/Canada): You will receive a copy of the Deluxe Mage 20th Anniversary Edition, a copy of the Mage 20th PDF, and the Mage 20th PoD as close to cost as we can give you (see description in the text to the left). You’ll get digital wallpaper featuring a collage of the stunning Traditions art of Echo Chernik. You or your character’s name will be listed on the credits page as a Mage. You will also receive the Mage 20th Storyteller’s Screen, a sturdy three-panel screen featuring a beautiful collage of the stunning Traditions art of Echo Chernik on the outer side, and on the inside there’s a selection of charts and other info to make the Storyteller’s job a little bit easier.
In addition to the above, this also qualified me for various stretch goals, of which I review those I was actually interested in below.
Delivering the Goods
The predicted delivery date on my tier was March 2015, I actually got my copy of the deluxe printed rulebook in March 2016. That said, of course I got the PDF substantially earlier – there was some issues with the gold leaf drying properly on the deluxe editions, and if I had a burning need for a physical copy earlier I could have used that voucher for an at-cost print-on-demand copy. Regular updates ensured that I was never unclear on what was going on or why things were delayed, at least in terms of the core book; the stretch goals took substantially longer, however, with the final one (The Book of the Fallen) not available in printed form until 2020.
Reviewing the Swag
Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition
Mage: the Ascension is a game about competing equally-valid, equally-invalid philosophies trying to determine the direction of reality. I’m not going to get into a broad discussion of its basic premises (or how silly I find a lot of it is) here, because I’ve already done that elsewhere; instead, I’m going to talk about the enormous challenge this edition faces in presenting a definitive Mage overview, and how the design team – helmed by White Wolf long-timer Phil Brucato – tries to overcome that challenge.
Onyx Path have said that they don’t consider the various 20th anniversary World of Darkness games to be fully-fledged “4th Editions” of the game lines in question so much as they are “best of” compilations of previous editions. Take, for instance, the Vampire: the Masquerade 20th anniversary release, which provides a lot of detail on the Camarilla-Sabbat conflict that came to increasingly dominate the game line during its run but also gave the Anarchs a much-needed dose of vigour of the sort they had early in the game’s run and also presented the option of using the True Black Hand, a faction which was ruthlessly excised from canon during the game’s original run because some people thought it was too silly for a game about magical vampires conspiring in the shadows of human cities in a world shared with werewoofles and wizards and demons – oh, my!
The fact is, though, that this “compilation” approach is comparatively easy for Vampire and Werewolf: the Apocalypse, because the core premises of those games didn’t really change much between editions – the metaplot may have shifted one way or another, but ultimately the depiction of what vampires or woofles were, how they were socially organised, what it was like to be one and what major issues were facing them didn’t change very much.
This was not the case with Mage. In its 1st Edition it presented this very stark, black-and-white take on the setting – the mystical freedom fighters of the Traditions were the good guys, the authoritarian conspirators of the Technocracy were the baddies, and covert operations in the everyday world freely mingled with tripped-out expeditions into magical otherworlds. 2nd Edition was broadly similar, but introduced a whole lot of nuance, which I guess depending on your preferences either toned down the obnoxious elements of the original or watered down its flavour – but it was still open to the sort of wild, tripped-out otherworldly adventures depicted on the classic GM screen illustration.
The Revised Edition, however… that was another matter. This incorporated a whole bunch of metaplot events and presented a much more dour and downbeat take on the setting, possibly as an attempt to make it a bit more tonally consistent with the gothic-punk pessimism of the wider World of Darkness franchise. The Technocracy had basically won, for starters; on top of that, the metaphysical Avatar Storm made visiting the otherworlds of the Umbra vastly more difficult and dangerous than in previous editions and outright destroyed or rendered accessible a large number of distinctive locations there. To cap it all off, the leadership of the Traditions had been exterminated, leaving the remnants of the mystical alliance as scattered, isolated cells.
The sum effect of all this was to present a much more pessimistic, down-to-earth game. In particular, by confining mages to the mundane world (or at least making visiting the mystical otherworlds incredibly dangerous), a situation was created where the forces of Paradox that lash out at mages who make their magic do stuff that can’t be written off as coincidence would pretty much always be policing things. The nice thing about having the otherworlds available was that you could change up the pace a little and let the players blow off some steam and get really crazy with their magic by taking them on a trip to the otherworlds, where Paradox doesn’t hold jurisdiction and by and large magic can get way, way crazier than it otherwise can. This darker, grimmer, drab take on the setting was essentially characterised by White Wolf backpedalling away from this sort of action as fast as they possibly could.
With this anniversary edition attempting to provide a definitive overview of three different games with extremely different tones, with at least one edition massively reshaped by precisely the sort of metaplot incidents the World of Darkness 20th Anniversary books work so hard to allow you to ignore if you want to, the Mage 20th Anniversary designers had a real tough problem on their hands. Their solution is to provide a whole bunch of sidebars throughout the book, explaining what happened in the original metaplot and giving pointers on the different ways you can spin the matter in question. Take the Avatar Storm, for example – the relevant sidebar explains how you can either decide that it never happened, or that it happened but it’s blown over now, or that it’s happening right now, and gives you the information you need to implement those decisions (including rules on how the Avatar Storm works).
In principle, that’s fine, and each of the individual sidebars seems reasonably sensible to me in what it says. The tricky thing in practice is the sheer number of these sidebars involved – and whilst there are a bunch which you probably won’t have to make a call on before starting play, there’s an awful lot where it would be really quite important to make a decision one way or the other when you are figuring out your personal take on Mage. It’s at the point where it’d be really useful to just have a checklist of all the different sidebars and the different options presented that you could fill out when preparing a campaign.
Another major problem the game has is that, whilst Vampire and Werewolf are built around core concepts which are amenable to being boiled down to their essentials and presented in a very information-rich way, Mage really isn’t like that. Mage threads on online discussion fora have an infamous tendency to turn into massive rolling debates, partly because like The Matrix it takes a bunch of big philosophical ideas that are ripe for amateur armchair philosophers to chew over indefinitely (incidentally, the bit in the Matrix sequels where Neo’s superpowers start working in the “real” world makes much more sense if you assume that Tha Matrix takes place in a world where the Virtual Adepts rejoined the Technocracy and won the Ascension War) and partly because the game line has offered so many differing interpretations of different setting features that you can find textual support for more or less any position.
The upshot of this is that this book manages to be longer than both the 20th Anniversary editions of Vampire and Werewolf, but at the same time also seems to spend much more time waffling about setting stuff, partly because more time is needed in order to really provide a proper explanation of the stuff in question (not to mention all the different interpretations of those subjects the game line has supported over time).
Whilst a lot of flexibility can be afforded with the setting, obviously you can’t write out three separate takes on the rules. This becomes a bit of a problem when it comes to the magic system. As the designers point out, magic in Mage has been the subject of numerous messageboard flamewars and intense debate, with a wide range of interpretations offered both by fans and by official material. The designers lay out the different interpretations given, but make it clear that they officially endorse one particular interpretation and don’t think very much of the others.
One axis of interpretation comes down to whether or not a particular act of magic counts as “coincidental” – something which could be mistaken for mere chance – or “vulgar” – something which is blatantly magic and thus attracts backlash from reality in the form of Paradox. The tension here is between the “Hypothetical Average Observer” – an ordinary person who happens to be watching what you are doing and is capable of being fooled or misdirected – and the “Hypothetical Omniscient Observer”, who knows everything that is going on and can’t be fooled. The designers side with the former, reasonably enough, because as they point out if you take the latter interpretation more or less nothing can ever be coincidental and that’s no fun.
Where they bug me is how they interpret what Spheres – areas of mystical competence – are needed. Some schools of thought take a “results-based” approach, where you work out the Spheres based on the result you want to achieve, whilst others go with a “process-based” approach, where you look at the process you want to use to accomplish the results. The designers go with the latter interpretation, which is much more restrictive.
This is highlighted by the example given – using magic to make a taxi show up just when you need it. As they explain it, this isn’t a mere matter of using Correspondence (the Sphere that allows action at a distance) to transport yourself and using the taxi as a “skin” for the spell – you need to tack on a bunch of other spheres to the spell, like Prime to make a taxi appear that didn’t previously exist or using Entropy to manipulate the probability of an existing taxi showing up and getting really lucky with it or whatever. This unfortunately creates a situation where, rather than being able to get the results the Sphere descriptions suggest you should be able to get out of them, in practice you have to go all around the houses to do those things – and furthermore, it puts the designers in the position of insisting on how it’s really very difficult to accomplish something with magic which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t that important and probably wouldn’t be denied to the player if they just tried to hail a taxi using mundane means anyway.
What particularly ticks me off is the tone the writers take when they implore you not to use the interpretation of the magic system in the 1st edition of Mage – they high-handedly declare that it’s “broken” and simply say that you should ignore it, without really explaining why they think that is the case beyond the fact that it’s a much looser and less restrictive take on magic than they present here. It particularly bugs me because early on characters are likely to have only a few Spheres to begin with, so the effect of this interpretation is to make their magic incredibly restrictive.
This is all rather counter to what I am beginning to see as the definitive Mage image, and I am increasingly inclined to say “Up yours, Brucato, I’m going to use the 1st edition interpretation of stuff and have magic go absolutely wild”. You see, the narrow interpretation here seems to be driven by a deep worry that if you don’t go restrictive with this stuff, Mages end up extraordinarily powerful and the campaign goes completely out of control. As far as I am concerned, I have no interest in any campaign I run remaining strictly “in control”, and I equally have no problem with Mages turning reality into play-doh if they can cook up a cool-sounding way to get away with it. It is true that if you go with this take on things Mages end up absurdly overpowered next to other World of Darkness player character types, so I might go more by-the-book on this in the event that I ever run a crossover game; on the other hand, crossover games in the classic World of Darkness are absurd and pointless and don’t really work because the game lines’ metaphysical underpinnings, assumptions, and histories are mutually incompatible and in any crossover you end up having to choose whose take on reality is correct and everyone else ends up looking like superstitious chumps.
Another thing that the book tries to do is take a more balanced approach to the setting; whereas previous core books were very much written from a Technocracy-focused point of view, here the designers take a more balanced approach, highlighting the negative and positive aspects of more or less all groups except the Marauders (who in succumbing to cosmic solipsism become a danger to others and a nuisance) and the Nephandi (who actively want to destroy the cosmos) – and even in the case of the Marauders there’s some acknowledgement that treating them as “mad” may be kind of a misnomer since they’re the way they are because they fully appreciate and embrace the completely subjective and mutable nature of reality. Yes, the Technocracy may have supported the Axis (along with some in the Traditions) and in the balance of things are probably nastier and more oppressive than the Traditions, but there’s little reason to think that any particular Tradition getting the upper hand over others wouldn’t end up creating something just as oppressive and the basic idea that a consistent reality that operates according to well-established rules and has a baseline level of stability so people don’t have to worry about being spontaneously turned into newts on the whim of some Reality Deviant has its plus sides.
In the process of giving an updated spin on the various factions, the designers address something that happened over the course of the Mage product line: the way a lot of the Traditions started out being vague, broad categories which in principle were presented in a culturally neutral sort of way for the most part but in practice were rather Western-centric a lot of the time, aside from some explicitly tied to particular cultures or categories of cultures in a mildly problematic way, and then over time gathered a whole bunch of cultural baggage that often got presented in a really problematic way. Rather than rewinding this process and trying to do a less Western-centric take on the original broad categories, the designers accept this process and then make tweaks to the factions to try to make them less problematic.
For instance, in the case of the Euthanatos, the initial concept (creepy death cult of mages whose Paradigms generally revolve around death) became problematic over time with the accretion of additional details (tying them in with Thugee in particular). Admittedly, some of that was suggested in the 1st edition core book because it mentions that they have a base in Calcutta because it’s meant to be a “good place to study death” for some reason (probably glib Western-centric assumptions about what life is like in India), but particularly in a post-colonial age of global capitalism the fact that a group has an HQ somewhere doesn’t automatically mean that they are tied in with the local culture to any significant extent. Either way, here they get an optional rename (the Chakravanti) and are presented as being more into reincarnation than death as such – which may help a little, but means that some styles of death mage that used to be valid takes on the concept no longer fit. Call this an instance where I am glad to have the 1st edition rulebook handy so that I can take a look at the original broad concept and see about broadening it out rather than making it even more specific as the designers have done here. (Other revisions don’t really go far enough to be much help at all – regardless of the tweaks to the Akashic Brotherhood, the fact remains that their iconic character illustration from their double-page spread describing them is a kung fu guy doing kung fu, just like it was a kung fu guy doing kung fu back in 1st edition.)
Another thing I’m not sure about is the way the Disparates – a bunch of magical paths that never joined the Council of Traditions – get handled here. Brucato and his team seem to have decided that they’re good stand-ins for various cultures overlooked by the Traditions setup, which I guess is an interesting idea but in practice means that they repeat the thing where a bunch of cultural practices end up getting shunted into factions based on seeming like they kind of fit into the same broad category. On top of that, they come up with a new plot feature – the Disparate Alliance, a council of the Disparates promoting more collaboration and which are painted as being the “good guys” of this edition. Even if you don’t take up the idea that the Traditions and Technocracy are both puppets of Nephandi, which would make the Disparate Alliance our last best hope to save the cosmos, the fact is that the Disparate Alliance don’t seem to have any negative characteristics, unlike the Traditions or the Technocracy; the worst thing the book says about them is that they’re not enormously united and aren’t very powerful, and that’s a logistical problem, not an ethical or moral failing of the same magnitude the Traditions or Technocrats are toting around.
The way I see it, by assembling the Disparates into an Alliance of their own Phil and the gang have destroyed the whole point of playing a Disparate, which is to play a member of a mystical small-t tradition that has made a collective decision not to take sides in the Ascension War, either because they’d prefer to just hunker down and try to just survive or because they have their own agenda which makes it difficult or impossible for them to work with the Traditions. Ultimately, if these groups were really that open to the idea of banding together to watch each others’ backs against greater forces that can crush any one of them individually, they’d have already joined the Traditions. Thus, the Disparate Alliance feels at best deeply redundant, at worst actively ruining the point of being a Disparate to begin with. The authors evidently want it to be a more culturally sensitive and less Western-centric spin on the Traditions, and I have some sympathy for that motivation, but ultimately if you want that you can just revise the Traditions accordingly – as, indeed, they make an attempt to do.
One thing I do like about the treatment of the Disparates here is that it offers a rare example of Mage 20th unabashedly recognising and embracing how gosh-darn silly some of the game’s setting elements are – specifically, rather than trying to come up with some sort of pretentious explanation that they are something much deeper and more special and more significant than they actually are, it just plain accepts that the Hollow Ones are basically goths who derive magic from their gothness. The text likes to claim, over and over again, that Mage was supposed to be a “satire”, but the thing about satire is that it’s supposed to be a form of comedy and the thing about comedy is that there’s a difference between a really dry delivery of a joke and basically not joking at all, and both this book and the various earlier editions of Mage didn’t really do much in the way of joking. (The Technocracy section here is a welcome exception to this – you’ve got to it when the designers aren’t afraid to call the Technocratic re-education and punishment centre “Room 101”.)
Between the handling of the Disparates, the “this thing is supposed to be satire even though that really isn’t how it reads thing”, and various other features of the text, it seems to me that Phil and his co-designers have very developed views both on Mage and on magic as a subject, and there’s points where this brushes against Onyx Path’s whole “we’re trying to be a bit more careful about stuff White Wolf may have handled in a clumsy or glib way back in the 1990s” house style. On the one hand, the game remembers to exhort people to be culturally sensitive; on the other hand, it’s very ready to slam Abrahamic religions in unflinchingly hostile terms. (Brucato is infamous for this: if I remember right, he’s responsible for a classic-era Werewolf supplement from back in the day seriously suggesting that the Abrahamic faiths were all inspired by an evil spirit named Patriarchy.) On the one hand, it encourages people to be careful about what content they toss into their home campaigns, especially when it involves the sort of theme which is very likely to be triggering; on the other hand, the opening fiction includes a really explicitly blunt and unpleasant allusion to familial sexual abuse.
This is made more acute by the fact that Brucato is an actual occultist with a very particular take on magic and gaming and the intersection between the two. For instance, in advising people not to run games based around parties of Nephandi player characters, the book offers the obvious reason why (such a game would be very likely to degenerate into a pissing contest to see who can be nastiest, which is the sort of thing which is funny once, when you are 13, but stops being enjoyable after that), but also brings in some of his own reasons which are, shall we say, less likely to be shared by a wider audience – namely, that by playing such characters you are making contact with a dark side of your own inner self and inviting decidedly negative forces into your life. Likewise, the text has a tendency to declare that magic is the way it is in Mage because This Is How Really Real Magic Actually Works, but making such universal assumptions about magical practices is a decidedly Citation Needed move – particularly when what you are actually talking about is a fictional riff on Chaos Magic, which claims to offer a universal theory of how All Magic Everywhere works but actually bakes in a whole swathe of assumptions that aren’t necessarily shared by the magical practices of all cultures.
Oh, and it also does the classic White Wolf thing where whenever it’s getting snobby about people who want a flashier, more action-packed take on magic than what they are offering, they can’t resist the chance to have a crack at Dungeons & Dragons.
One thing the game does acknowledge and makes no apologies for is that the Mage setting is kind of firmly rooted in a bunch of very 1990s assumptions about, for instance, the masses being brainwashed by television and spirituality draining away from the world and so on and so forth. For the sake of accepting the setting as it is presented here, you also are pretty much asked to accept that the Technocracy is the establishment and the Traditions aren’t, which doesn’t quite work. Lots of very privileged people dabble in occultism – particularly the Masonic-y Golden Dawn-y occultism of the sort that the Order of Hermes is supposed to be a stand-in for, and religion (as the text itself notes) hasn’t actually lost its power in the world.
Anyone who lived through the Bush administration could well start to imagine that certain Christ-centric subfactions of the Celestial Chorus had defected from the Traditions and gone into an alliance with the Technocracy in order to kick off a holy war their conception of God demands but which the other Traditions would never have supported. But ultimately, to produce a game which accommodated such nuances you’d have to do a really comprehensive setting rewrite, which really isn’t in the scope of this 20th Anniversary edition – particularly when the introduction of stuff like the Disparate Alliance is already stretching it as far as the “summing up past editions rather than being a whole new edition in its own right” mission statement Onyx Path regularly cite in relation to the 20th Anniversary editions goes.
I give Brucato some shit here, and I pretty much stand by it (that abuse reference in the opening fiction is really nasty, as in “this is genuinely going to trigger a bunch of people who read the book and don’t see it coming” nasty), but ultimately I have to concede that Phil was probably the right guy to helm the project. For one thing, he was in charge of the game line from summer 1993 to 1998 – so he pretty much picked it up once the original main designer, Stewart Wieck, gave birth to it and raised Mage as though it were his own purple-clad Indigo Child. For another, whilst the Very Developed Opinions expressed by him and his co-designers often grate, at the same time I am kind of glad they are there. I would much rather have a book I occasionally get angry and but occasionally get very enthusiastic about than one turfed out in a joyless, rote manner by somebody without any particularly strong feelings about the material. Yes, Phil’s opinions are very prominent in the text – but precisely because they are so prominent, I can quickly identify when Phil is being needlessly opinionated again and take those parts with a pinch of salt.
Onyx Path do, at least, put That Image on the opening and closing spreads, so regardless of what is delivered in the pages between, the true psychedelic gonzo silliness of my preferred flavour of Mage is acknowledge, and I’ve got the tools here to make it purr.
That said, as with any of the 20th Anniversary editions, there’s so much stuff offered here that it can be handy to have an earlier edition’s core book handy to provide a more focused and manageable statement of the game; I tend to find the 1st editions offer a pure example of the various games’ central ideas freed from the accretion disc of continuity, canon, metaplot, and stuff added by meddling designers intent on discouraging players from “doing it wrong” that these games tended to gather over their lifespans; Mage is no exception here, because its 1st edition may be broken, but it is broken in a glorious way that I have no desire to see definitively fixed.
It’s nice, it’s purple, the illustration is a nice assembly of iconic characters from the various factions. At the same time, the panels are in portrait orientation rather than landscape (a common failing of Onyx Path screens), and they don’t use the one true canonical Mage referee screen image.
How Do You DO That?
This book apparently originated as an extended set of examples in the magic chapters in the 20th anniversary core rulebook, before it was decided to spin them out into a separate product for reasons of space. The end result is actually remarkably useful; Phil Brucato largely steps away from providing a deliberately ambiguous in-character ramble about the setting and instead simply concentrates on an no-bullshit accounting of various different ways you can bend, fold and mutilate the magic system as presented in the core book to accomplish various effects.
In some respects I’m still not keen on Phil’s specific take on the magic system – in particular, I find the insistence on having some points in the Prime sphere in order to create stuff out of nothing, even if said stuff isn’t meant to have any sort of persistent existence, ends up being incredibly limiting because it requires all sorts of stuff to have a bit of Prime involved, with the upshot being that it ends up being a disproportionately important sphere and yet costs exactly the same as all the other spheres.
However, whereas Phil is more restrictive than I would be in a lot of cases, there are other cases where he points out quite significant things people can do with only a modest investment in a single sphere, which is helpful because otherwise almost everything is locked out of the reach of starting characters, and I think it would be still useful to have this book even if you were going for a more liberal approach; you can take it as representing a calculated overestimate of what is needed to get the effects in question, as a starting point for negotiating whether someone could get away with doing this stuff without necessarily having all the prerequisites Phil thinks you need.
What it’s particularly useful for, even aside from the actual pricings involved, is as a deep source of ideas for things you can do with magic; I think this can be extremely helpful in helping players get over the sort of choice paralysis you sometimes get in Mage through the sheer flexibility of the magic system, which in turn I think can help make the game a bit more approachable – and since it has quite a daunting reputation, this is very handy.
The Book of Secrets
Whereas How Do You DO That? offers an extended book-length discussion of what is essentially one particular topic (albeit a topic with numerous wrinkles), The Book of Secrets does much the same for pretty much everything else. It’s a 300 page slab of material which didn’t make the cut for the Mage 20th core book, ready and primed for you to sprinkle on (or not) as you so choose.
100 pages consists simply of an extended range of examples and options for character generations – all the merits, flaws, archetypes, personality traits and other funky bits and pieces you could possibly want to build a character out of which didn’t fit into the core book. We also get an extensive set of expanded and optional rules for particular niche cases, to use if you fancy a bit more rules crunch for the situations in question and to be ignored if not, a nearly 50-page discussion of the whole “personal magical paradigm” business and its associated bits which really helps unpacks a central pillar of the game (and offers a substantial number of worked examples to help get your gears whirring), and a 40 page discussion of additional aspects of the major factions, like how they handle internal discipline, punish transgressors, and exert influence over the Sleepers.
Possibly the most useful chunk of the book, though, is the nearly 50 pages of essays and discussion at the end. This is basically Phil’s extended rambling commentary on more or less any Mage-relevant (or tangentially relevant) topic that comes to mind for him, to the extent that it risks becoming “Phil’s Blog: Printed Version”. In the context of some game lines this would be massively self-indulgent and annoying, but in this case it’s remarkably helpful; whether or not you personally agree with him or find his personal style engaging or enraging, there’s no getting around the fact that Phil as primary designer on the Mage 20th line has had an enormous role in shaping it, and of course that’s on top of the influence he has had over the games’ previous editions.
The upshot of that is that if you can figure out Phil’s particular way of looking at things, you have the best shot you can possibly have of getting your head around why Mage 20th is the way it is – and if you don’t like the way it is, it helps give you insights into how to change it so it’s more like whatever it is you actually want it to be. Phil’s commentary here is not only directed at directly and overtly addressing a great many of the design decisions underpinning Mage 20th, but it also has Phil largely letting down the I’m the Big Game Designer Telling You How It Is shields and speaking to you on more of an eye-to-eye level, which is a great help in getting a handle on his overall approach. If you like Mage and want to make Mage 20th work for you, that’s invaluable; if you don’t like Mage (or just specifically dislike Mage 20th) then you can safely ignore this book, because it’s basically “Mage 20th, only more of it”.
Gods and Monsters
One of the perennial problems with the Storyteller system and its descendants in general is that it builds NPCs and monsters using more or less the same tools as player characters – which means that if you want to prepare some specific NPC stats rather than just saying “OK, I’ll put this number of dice in their pool because this is a thing they can be expected to be good at”, it can be a bit time-consuming. Whilst most core books offer some example NPC stats, they’re almost always a sparse offering.
Gods and Monsters solves this problem for Mage, at least as far as non-mage characters go, by providing a deep bench of NPCs – both fully statted characters with full backgrounds and templates for characters in particular niches, with a good dose of good old-fashioned mortals and mere hedge magicians alongside the titular powerful spirits and mythic beasties.
The nice thing about this supplement is that, because it concentrates on non-mage supporting characters, there’s a reasonable proportion of character builds in here which do not rely on Mage-specific features – especially when it comes to the Muggle stats. As a result, those statlines are also useful for providing mundane NPCs for other World of Darkness games as well.
Another interesting thing Brucato does here is offer suggestions on adapting the Ars Magica idea of troupe play to Mage, so the players don’t just play their own mages but also play an expanded cast of non-mage companions to the party. In some respects, this brings the entire World of Darkness project full circle, since the original inspiration was the idea of doing Ars Magica in the modern day; as with Ars Magica, embracing troupe play can also help make the game more manageable to referee, since you aren’t dealing with all the PC mages trying to get off spells at once.
The Book of the Fallen
This is the Nephandi supplement for the 20th Anniversary Line. The Nephandi, if you recall, are the really astonishingly hideously evil subfaction of Mages. Whilst the Traditions, Disparate Crafts, and even the Technocracy all contain their fair share of ruthless reality bullies, they also contain people of good intention who genuinely believe that their particular cause makes the world better. The Marauders are incredibly dangerous to encounter, but that’s largely because they have succumbed to an extreme form of hyper-solipsism. (It’s hard to be purposefully malevolent if you don’t really believe there’s anyone to be malevolent towards.)
The Nephandi, though, are outright villains one and all, and have been consistently presented as such throughout the entire course of the Mage game line despite all its major shifts in tone. Actively working towards the destruction of everything for destruction’s sake, their Avatar inverted and working towards self-destructive ends through the metaphysical process known as the Caul, the Nephandi are hated and feared by all the other factions – not least because they are poorly understood, and because it’s really hard to tell the difference between a zealous member of your faction who just wants to make sure you’re not being too cautious about fighting the Ascension War and a Nephandus who’s deliberately stoking things up to apocalyptic heights.
They are also the selfsame Nephandi that Phil Brucato kind of doesn’t want Mage participants to roleplay too much as, not just because he thinks that there’s a psychological burden to roleplaying as an evil person but also because he considers playing Mage a quasi-magical act (or even a full-blown magical one). As such, Phil stuffs this book with disclaimers: it isn’t intended as a guide for playing Nephandi PCs (though Phil at least dials his ego back enough to admit that he can’t actually stop you doing that), you should use the content in this book cautiously because Phil bases his characterisation of the Nephandi mindset on the behaviour and outlook of actual abusers, yadda yadda.
Fair enough. I completely support the idea of including trigger warnings and content warnings and the like in the back cover blurb and at the start of a book if it’s dealing with troubling matters that can reasonably be anticipated to hit people’s buttons. Even coming from that perspective, however, Phil goes overboard here. It comes across as this utterly patronising lack of trust in the reader; he feels this need to butt in and repeat his caveats and warnings near-constantly.
One of the perennial issues that World of Darkness games have is that their designers won’t let go of the idea that the way you make interesting NPCs is by building them as though they were PCs. In many ways, this is completely right: giving NPCs the same game mechanical depth as PCs emphasises that they are just as much people as the PCs are, simplifying or abstracting out aspects of NPCs is going to encourage you to think of them as having less substance than PCs.
On the other hand, as a Storyteller sometimes you just need a generic bystander whose rich interior life we are not invited to explore. Moreover, by taking this approach to describing NPC factions, any World of Darkness book about such factions inevitably makes it much more viable to play members of such factions as PCs; The Book of the Fallen is no different in this respect, Phil’s pearl-clutching to the contrary.
If Phil grew himself a spine and broke from this pattern he could have actually made the book genuinely unhelpful for anyone wanting to play Nephandic PCs: just say “Nephandic powers are not formally statted because they’re plot devices for the PCs to foil” and you’ve already made it more difficult. As it stands, reading the book is much like Phil showing you a bunch of stuff whilst shouting “You mustn’t use this! You mustn’t!”, even when it comes to the stuff that doesn’t really deal in particularly sensitive topics.
Yeah; about that. Whilst much of the book is, indeed, dedicated to providing a deep psychological exploration of abusive behaviour and applying it to the design of malevolent NPCs, and that stuff absolutely merits the warnings Phil puts on it, there’s a lot of stuff in this book which can best be described as “ridiculous goofybollocks”. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to giving a Mage take on the Qlippoth to provide a metaphysical underpinning which, if you are of an occult mindset, might be troubling to you (it’s very much the sort of shit that genuinely dangerous groups like the Order of Nine Angles – heavily implicated in the neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division terror group – are into), but if you’re not will look like absurd waffle.
(EDIT: It has been pointed out that, especially given that some of the legacy jargon around Nephandi includes terms like “barabbi”, that a lot of the Qlippoth stuff involves grafting aspects of Jewish mysticism into the inherent worldview of the Nephandi – to the extent that Brucato insists that this is a universal experience for Nephandi and an inherent aspect of what they do – and that this reeks of antisemitism. I suspect this is the result of Brucato being steeped in the occult scene, where almost everyone appropriates Kabbalah to some extent or another regardless of their background and so someone using Qlippoth-based mysticism doesn’t really flag them as being Jewish themselves, but even so, it does feel like Brucato hasn’t done the legwork here to avoid an antisemitic interpretation of the material here. Pointing out that neo-Nazi occultists like the Order of Nine Angles are majorly into the Qlippoth would be a good start, for instance.)
And then there’s the bits which descend into outright cartoon evil, as much as Phil insists in a sidebar that he’s doing realistic evil, not cartoon evil. There’s a whole bunch of “the Nephandi are the Illuminati of the Mage setting and puppeteer other factions and a lot of the information out there about them is in fact Nephandi propaganda designed to act like a trap”, which edges towards cartoonery more than realism. There’s spoofs of Internet trolls and an evil Nephandic text that inspires a dark subculture of medieval battle re-enactors who use live blades and don’t pull their blows, which are amusing but don’t seem like good fits for a “realism over cartoonist nonsense” approach. Phil assures us that the Nephandi are not all about black metal album cover-worthy infernalism and mayhem and then serves up a bunch of that anyway.
There is, I shit you not, an entire Nephandic subfaction out to deliberately cause planetary extinction for the lulz. Phil! If your shit includes characters who are essentially Captain Planet villains, you have officially gone cartoonish.
Again, Phil’s bullshit makes this a useful book almost by accident. Precisely because the book is so inconsistent in tone, it’s got something for all your villain-related purposes. If you want a reasonably detailed discussion of abusive behaviours and how to depict them, you have that. If you want absurd nonsense, you have that. You have most things in between those two extremes and you can use the book to cherry pick the bits you want out of it.
Just don’t treat Phil’s waffling with too much reverence because it’s clear that he either doesn’t mean it, can’t tell the difference between gritty reality and cartoonish fantasy, or just doesn’t care.
I don’t particularly mind having my name in the core book for this. After all, given the scale of the project, it’s not like it’s lonely there.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
I’d say I got this one Just Right. Had Onyx Path offered the option of foregoing the deluxe printed book and just getting a PoD, as they have for some more recent Kickstarters, I’d have said Lower because I’d have gone for that, but they didn’t do that at this point in time.
Would Back Again?
Would I back an Onyx Path project again? Well, probably, I’ve backed several since 2014 after all.
Would I back a Phil Brucato project again? Eh, I am not so sure. He is against this sort of action and that means that on a fundamental level he’s kind of boring. The work done here to gather together Mage ideas from ages past is good, the interpretation he tries to impose less so.