Against the Borgia: Creating a Mage Campaign

In Mage the Sorcerers Crusade, Roleplay by Paul2 Comments

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln

As mentioned in my bio, I am a massive, massive fan of White Wolf’s Mage: the Ascension, and it’s historical ‘spin-off’ Mage: the Sorcerers Crusade. The release of the 20th Anniversary via Kickstarter has re-energised the game for me, and whilst that weighty tome focuses on the modern game it is a work of joy to use it as the basis of a MtSC campaign.

The purpose of this article is to talk about the specifics of setting up a MtSC campaign in the existing situation, with M20 released. In particular, how to introduce a player to the game that is new to both roleplaying and Mage in general. This is an important point, as I would approach the campaign differently if I was running it for experienced Mage players. Bear that in mind as you read through.

The questions and concepts are heavily tied to the MtSC gameworld, and to an extent the game and world rules of that particular situation. Whilst these can be extrapolated out to cover alternative history games, modern Mage games and RPG campaigns in general, if I have to decide between generalising and talking roleplay or alternative history over MtSC-specific, I’m going to be staying more specific.

This article focuses on the process and ground-work involved in building the campaign. Future posts will talk about the Player Character and the process of creating him and then I’ll follow up with the actual play reports.

MtSC is one of roleplayings most loved games, and I’m hoping to inject some excitement back into the game by starting to blog about an actual, live, running campaign!

Questions to be addressed in this article are:

  1. General campaign Mood and Theme
  2. What period of history to choose?
  3. How much real-world history vs Dark Fantastic history
  4. Cross-over with other WoD lines
  5. M20 ruleset and How Do You Do That?, in particular the change to the emphasis on Paradigm, Focus, Instrument
  6. House Rules and Emphasis on ST running the rules
  7. Relationship map
  8. What next?

Mood and Theme: Or what are we wanting to explore here?

I’ve spoken in reverent terms enough times about MtSC to my friend Joe, that he’s always been keen to get involved in a game. So much so that he bought a copy of the core book through eBay. Over glasses of wine and whatsapp text messages we spoke about the kind of game that we’d like to play.

Awww, don't they make a lovely couple!

Awww, don’t they make a lovely couple!

Joe had been watching a TV documentary about the Borgia’s and was fascinated by the level of influence and control they had on their world. He was enthused by the story of Rodrigo, Cesare and Lucrezia; so much so that he wanted to get in there and explore their world from a player’s eye view. Combined with the obvious synergy with another of his favourites, HBO’s A Game of Thrones, it was a no-brainer that the accumulation of power, the choices that accumulation forces and the consequences of making them would be the theme of the game.

This is a base Mage theme, and is something I always like to return to in any game I run. I also think that Joe will be a great player to explore this with… And what a timeframe to explore that theme in! If this was just a straight-up historical game, that would match the Borgia dynasty perfectly.

The Mood, though, was less clear: I want a general undertone of darkness, but I also want to have a celebratory mood that colours the initial choices and a greater sense of desperation as the campaign moves forward. There’s plenty of evidence that the Borgia appointment was met with celebration in the streets of Rome, and his skill as an administrator started to place the Church in a much more stable position. I want to reflect that honeymoon period in the game, and let it bleed into bad assumptions about what might happen in the future.

I’ve seen that happen in real-life quite often: when the sun’s shining and there are no clouds in the sky, it’s easy to forget to take a rain jacket with you. And sometimes the weather just doesn’t play ball!

I decided that the initial mood would be celebratory, and that I wouldn’t get too bothered if a different mood emerged into dominance later on down the line.

What period of history to choose?

Well, that’s pretty obvious isn’t it. But where in that period to start? Do we want a long intro wherein the player character follows Rodrigo’s rise, becomes a stalwart of his administration and feels any fall more particularly? Or do we start more in media res, perhaps with Rodrigo as Pope and the wheels just starting to fall off?

I’m not trying to run an alternative history of ‘what happens if the Borgia didn’t collapse?’, so I’m happy that the general historical events can be maintained, and the characters can explore some of the specifics of those events. For some groups this might be an issue, but for us it isn’t a challenge at all.

I also like a three-Act story: Rise, Apex, Fall. So I decided we’d start the game with the election of Borgia. I could produce background information that set this event into context, and it would provide a real showpiece for the first session. What gets more political backbiting than the election of the next Pontifex Maximus? Borgia’s election was the first to take place in the Sistine Chapel and set in that hallowed hall, the basic positions of the starting power blocs could be made clear. The della Rovere’s Cardinals against Ascanio Sforza’s Milanese contingent with the Spanish outsiders buying votes.

Pretty much like the West Wing, yeah?

Pretty much like the West Wing, yeah?

It could be West Wing meets Songs of Praise (link goes to a video).

My aim is that the basic personalities and politics of the historical period will be maintained, and a large part of the fun of the campaign is going to come from roleplaying out how they may well have happened within the conceits of the Dark Fantastic world.

How much real-world history vs Dark Fantastic World?

Or, how much is this an alternate history roleplaying game and how much is this is a Mage game in tights?

My thoughts on this are that less is probably more in this campaign. I’ve played a long and involved campaign where the magickal factions were dominant and drove a lot of the actions in the world. And it was great fun. That campaign was heavily cross-over and pretty much nothing happened without being instigated by some Hermetic Covenant or Order of Reason Lodge.

I don’t want to overwhelm Joe with a load of factions, and I also want the history to be more than just background. I want Joe’s power to be as much mundane political influence as command of high ranks of Spheres. As such I decided that the factions all exist to a greater or lesser extent, but they are much less prevalent in their overall influence and also in the number of the awakened amongst their ranks than a standard reading of the gameline would suggest.

Factions are going to be much more constrained to their most natural locations; so no Dreamspeakers in Europe, few Batini and no Europe-wide viasilicos network for the Order of Reason with modern-day levels of co-ordination.

I’m not planning on fleshing out the consequences of all of this on the standard timeline, factions. They’ll have less relevance to the game, and as Joe has such little experience with the gameworld that they won’t necessarily miss their existence. This isn’t Order of Reason vs Traditions for the soul of humanity, this is how much power can my soul carry without taint.

I did, however, need sufficient presence to set the game apart from a pure alternative history, and to have sufficient magickal structure in the world that Joe’s character would be able to have a mentor and for Joe to see enough of how Mage plays to get used to the Spheres and what they could do. We had discussed some of what his player character might be, and therefore what kind of faction might appeal. He’d said that he wanted a character well-placed in the upper echelons of the Papal curia, but no mention of religion. For my perspective I thought this would be more likely to be High Guild than Choer Celeste or Gabrielite for instance.

I had considered the Order of Hermes here, as I think that they are pretty good for starting roleplayers to the Mage world, as they tie into the more well-experienced ‘Fantasy Mage’ archetypes. However, I also think that they bring a lot of baggage with them in turns of the organisation of the Order, and that wasn’t what the game was shaping up to be about.

As it turns out, the character creation relied more on ‘well-placed in the upper echelons of the Papal curia’ than any Dark Fantastic story element. And that really fitted, and was informed by, the initial feel for ‘less is more’. I really like that because it means that those elements can just emerge in the game which will create a sense of depth to the gameworld.

It allows us to explore the world of MtSC at the level of the individual character rather than how the splats interact with each other. I can keep the more esoteric aspects of the setting in the background, and show them rather than have to tell them. I’m fully aware of the penumbra, the gauntlet, the spirit world etc and how they can be used (and you can bet the NPCs will use them) and then Joe’s character can encounter them naturally in the world.

How much cross-over with the WoD Lines?

I love cross-over. I love the depth it provides to the world, the ability to mess around with player’s perceptions and to make the world feel more rich.

But, as established, less is more.

But, we’re roleplaying in the Eternal City with a story focused on a Spanish Pope… If that doesn’t cry out for Lasombra vs Ventrue then I don’t know what would… With a timeframe just after the Council of Thorns and the whole Sabbat creation thing…

So Vampires are in… And they’re going to be a powerful influence in the longer story-arcs of the game. They’re going to be the chess masters that drive the actions of the pieces in the game; they’ll nudge and move the game world rather than feature scene to scene.

And if I’m bringing Vampires, I’m probably also bringing Wraiths (damn you the Giovanni of Venice!). But I’m going to model them as spirits rather than through the Wraith ruleset, with the fiction of that timeline informing the look and feel of the underworld.

Given the experience of the player I also don’t have to worry about maintaining much in the way of power-gaming between the respective games. I’ll use the rules from Vampire where I need to, and will avoid just hand-waving the powers and effects where necessary.

Now, I think it is important to understand how I intend to use the Vampiric aspects of the setting. Primarily they are going to act as proxies for national interests. The Lasombra will represent Iberian interest, the Ventrue and Malks Rome and the Giovanni will be all about Venice.

Magick Rules: M20 or straight up MtSC?

Th advantage of M20 (apart from really strengthening the wrist) is that it brings clarity and consistency to the magick set and aren’t so different from the 2nd Edition rules that informed MtSC. So I want to use that as the base of my ruleset, but Joe has invested in the MtSC corebook and it’s the only one that he has for the Mage rules, so I can’t deviate massively from that.

The Paradigm, Focus and Instrument ‘rules’ will be in play, but these are unlikely to become important until the second or third sessions in. The first session will be more introducing the basic mechanics, exploring some of the character relationships and the character themselves. I’ll cover it in the character creation post, but we didn’t delve very deeply into these aspects in character creation.

"So Paul, tell me why you didn't have a fully fleshed out paradigm?"

“So Paul, tell me why you didn’t have a fully fleshed out paradigm?”

That might sound like a reason to call in the Inquisition, but other than talking through what they meant I wanted Joe to have some grounding in the game before we really started to think about it in meaningful terms for his character. In part that’s because I expect to do a lot of the heavy lifting for Joe in the first session to allow him to focus on the story and character elements. I’ll be using Ars Cupiditae as the basis of their paradigm and winging it from there.

One aspect I do like in, the M20 rules is how clearly it lays out the impact on how mundane skills can be used to impact Magick rolls and this is something that I’m quite keen on. For some reason I never really played this into Mage games previously, and I do think that it really makes the characters’ magick seem much more like an extension of their skills, capabilities and approach rather than an additional thing they can do.

I will also be importing the M20 botching rules and keeping the Scourge dice for paradox.

I do need to work through the rules changes more thoroughly and at that point I’ll produce an article running through what I’ve taken from each ruleset. For the ‘world building’ side of things, MtSC is my one and only.

House Rules, and how much will the ST run the rules of the game?

Ordinarily, I prefer my players to have a fairly high degree of rules mastery of any system we’re playing. It helps them take effective action within the game, achieve their goals and therefore have a greater amount of fun. I’m not talking completely dominate the game world Mary Sue, style, but just see their character concept come to life more clearly.

I also have a few standard house rules that I employ within MtSC. For instance, I usually allow a willpower spent to use an effect that technically requires a sphere higher than the character possess, with the difficulty being one category higher. IF they really, really need to bust it out then they can impose their will that bit stronger… At the risk of it all going to shit that much harder.

However, with a new player I decided to keep the rules uncluttered. I also decided that in the first two or three sessions I would focus more on what the player wanted to do and for me to navigate through the best way to find that in the ruleset. That might mean I’m “playing” their character more than I would normally do, but I am careful enough and have a strong enough relationship that I’ll not impose on the player’s agency unnecessarily.

As such, no house rules and I expect to have to do much of the heavy rules lifting. What this means at this stage, is that I don’t have to provide a particular house rules document for the player.

Getting to the meat of the campaign: The Relationship Map

The relationship map just before Session 1

The relationship map just before Session 1

A social, political campaign with sessions focusing on particular events in the rise, apex and fall of the House Borgia in Renaissance Italy. I need to be emphasising the fractious nature with the vested interests that played out through this time.

As such, I decided that I would start by mapping out the relationships of the power blocs at a simple level: ally, enemy, neutral. Yeps, real-life isn’t as simple as that but at this stage the clarity is more important than the subtelty. I also decided that I would treat the power blocs as ‘units’ at this stage and wouldn’t be particularly interested in how they were represented by individuals in the game.

I’ve already spoken about how the Cainites would be proxies for the national interests, and rather than think about the individual Lasombra, for instance, I would just consider them to be a unified Clan with a single political agenda in relation to the Borgia. My question then is more ‘Do the Lasombra support, oppose or not care about Borgia?’ rather than ‘What’s this particular Lasombra’s agenda towards them?’.

So I pulled out a blank sheet of A3 paper (I find the larger sheet helps give space to my thoughts), a mechanical pencil and started to draw up mind-map style the power blocs. Firstly I stuck ‘Borgia’ in a circle in the centre and then thought about the historical power relationships.

The della Rovere, the Milanese, the French, the Venetians etc. I added those in as simple blobs and decided on ‘ally’, ‘enemy’, ‘neutral’ firstly to the Borgia and then to each other. This is as at the point that the campaign started; these alliances are going to drift and change over time, and I used various historical resources to decide upon it trying to keep as true to those resources as possible.

I then added in Vampiric power blocs that related to these ‘national’ interests. The Lasombra aligned with the Spanish, the Ventrue and Malkavian supported the Roman interests (represented by the della Rovere faction), the Giovanni the Venetians. I stopped at those Clans as, well less is more for the supernatural remember!

I then added in the Magickal factions: again trying to keep it as simple as I could. The Gabrielites and the Choer Celeste need to be plotted, as do the High Guild. I added in a couple of other of the factions as well. Now I’m treating each individual faction as being perfectly aligned to a simple relationship status; that is clearly not going to be true and as the game develops and individual NPCs get fleshed out there will be more variance in that. For now, though, it stays at this simple level.

After the character creation session I added in the PC’s specific relationships to his Allies. This placed them within other factions that I hadn’t needed to consider.

And finally, once I had considered the first session I added in some specifics about that and the emergent story that will arise from that event.

Each of these ‘factions’ has an overall relationship to the Borgia and to any of the other factions that I reasonably decided they’d know about and have a policy for. I’ll stress again: when individual NPCs get created to represent the factions they’ll either align with this relationship map (for the majority) or have some individual reason why they wouldn’t, which would hopefully add some interest and additional depth to the NPC.

For Joe, I laid out the historical relationships as his character would only have awareness of those political factions at the start of the game. So, he knows that the Borgia and the della Rovere are mortal enemies, but not anything about the machinations of the Cainites (or even that there is such a thing!).

This document is the core of the campaign. It’s something that will be amended to reflect the ebb and flow of power. I intend to add in other relationship metrics: for instance, ‘fear’ or ‘respect’ would help flavour why a power is allied with the Borgia and give me insight into how they might be leveraged or react.

All well and good, but what happens now?

Well, we need to create our key dramatis personae. The catalyst through which the gameworld will be changed, and the tabula rasa that will be imprinted upon by the choices made.

Yes, our player character.

Throughout the latter part of this article, you’ll have seen that this was an iterative process; parts of the campaign development happened after the character creation and the character creation depended upon the campaign development. That helps tie the PCs to the gameworld and allows me to focus my energies on those elements that are actually important to the game.

No point in considering what the Caliph of Cairo thinks when they’re highly unlikely to ever appear!

That character creation will be the focus of the next article.

Hit me up in the comments section if there’s any feedback on this or questions you want to ask!

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    1. Author

      It’s a single player game I’ve created for Joe to play as an excuse for us to get together. Pretty infrequent at the moment though.

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