Mage 1st Ascension Cover with Dice

Mage: the Ascension is a table-top roleplaying game originally released by White Wolf back in 1993, when I was fifteen and knew all there was to know about everything. It was the 3rd main-line in the World of Darkness and it is the roleplaying game that has most strongly resonated with me over my roleplaying “career”. 

It was the first game that I ran as a multi-year campaign, and where I first developed a sprawling mass of sandbox plots as long as your arm. The kind of plots that would need a bulk-buy at String & Pin, specialists in conspiracy board supplies, to map out. (Technically, I ran a Mage the Sorcerers Crusade campaign, but let’s not split hairs this early in our relationship eh?). I’ve covered the process I use to create a shorter campaign, and every so often I get the itch to run the game again.

I’m assuming you wouldn’t be here unless you had some level of interest in Mage. The release of Mage 20, which updates the 20+ years of materials to a more modern informed era, provides a good entry point for anyone wanting to run the game now. If I was to execute on my plan to run it, then I’d be using that ruleset by-and-large.

But when I cast my gaze over the bookshelf of purple I feel the nostalgia of a sunk cost fallacy wash over me… As I said, I was in my mid-teens when the game was released and late teens when I got to actually play and run it. At that time I thought I was a man of the world; studying philosophy as well as the physical sciences. I was grappling with my own sexuality, the near-death of my Father, as well as the Problem of Evil and the basics of quantum physics.

Teenagers - Move out, Get a job - Quick! while you still know everything!

As the game line released, I bought books and maybe read them. And when I read them it was through the lens of the spring of my life; the salad days before the main course started to get served.

Now as a gay married man with an adopted son of our own and a deeper appreciation of the world that convinces me that I don’t actually know and will never know how it works, I’m going to take the time to properly read and evaluate the whole game line. I’m going to go on a Seeking to find the Avatar of Mage the Ascension across the 90 or so published works, one book at a time.

I’m going to be assuming that the readership knows the basics of roleplaying games, and Classic World of Darkness in general terms, as well as some interest in underlying philosophical questions. Knowledge of Mage the Ascension is not assumed nor required.

So, what is Mage the Ascension?

So before I start, let’s establish some basics. Describing Mage the Ascension is not easy.  At its most basic, it’s a table-top roleplaying game set in a dystopian and gothic modern world which is a darker reflection of our own. The characters that the players portray can alter reality in increasingly substantial ways.

How, when and why the titular Mages make these changes to reality depends upon their own motivations and the story that is being told (and to a certain extent when in the game’s development we’re reading). The World of Darkness is populated by lots of other, powerful creatures. However, it is the fluidity and breadth of their potential that separates Mages from the rest.

Sure Vampires and Werewolves and Wraiths (oh my!) do weird stuff. But they do weird stuff that is restricted by delineated rules. Power A does no more and no less than what is written down in the sourcebook. The magick system for Mage the Ascension is highly flexible, bounded by some combination of imagination and each campaign’s tolerance for internal consistency. 

Oh, and Mages are mortals. You know, like they can die. Or sprain an ankle. Or really enjoy some proper fish and chips with the husband and kid every once in a while. Possibly after a trip to the Aetherial Realm of The Citadel of Hyperion, but everyone has to have a good work-life balance right?

Fish and Chips. Mages can turn Vampires into this if they want.
Battered Fish and Chips. Apparently, Mages are turning Vampires into this kind of stuff all the time.

Now let’s back-up past that slightly irreverent tone, because I think that this is important to understanding Mage.

Mage the Ascension is about the consequences of altering reality

There are at least a couple of ways you can go with ‘…the ability to alter reality in increasingly substantial ways.‘ You can focus on the outcomes of that ability without as much concern to the how and why. This can lead to a gonzo game where our characters are superheroes with a Swiss Army Knife of abilities to solve their (suitably) cosmic problems. This is Mage the Marvel Avengers.

Or you can focus on the how and why you’re altering reality. This leads to a delightful exploration of philosophy, paradigms, alternative* viewpoints and what happens if they are brought to bear in a meaningful way upon the world. This way of playing treats the game as a search for the boundaries of what the player thinks is true and valuable in the world. An exploration of morality and… well, I guess an intellectual pursuit pretending to be a game. This is Mage the Epistemologists.

(* I really hesitate when I say ‘alternative’ here… Alternative to what, exactly? And what gives me the right to present these as being better than the other implied-worse option? I call them alternative in contrast to the Western scientific paradigm that is the baseline reality in Mage).

My personal preference is strongly for the latter of these two options. I want to use Mage as a vehicle to explore questions of identity, truth and what it means to make oneself, and by extension society, a betterperson.

But… I’m not entirely sure that makes a great at-table experience. Running Mage, for me, always runs the risk that the players need to like gazing at one another’s navels frequently enough to sustain the game.

It’s not as black and white as either Gonzo or Intellectual Pursuit though is it?

A fair and reasonable objection here would run along the lines of: ‘Hold on there, you’ve presented a false dichotomy. You can run a game that blends both.’In fact to run a Mage game true to the sourcebooks you shouldbe running a game that is at once an exploration of truth and choice and consequences, but also a riotous trip into some kind of sci-fi, pulp, urban fantasy mish-mash. The sourcebooks allow for and suggest both. 

And you’d be right. To a large extent I’ve created this problem so that I can sell you the solution. You see my main problem is that I think that Mage is supposed to be the intellectual game. And I think that running the game differently is somehow selling it short.

But, well, I’m not convinced I’ve actually understood what Mage really is and I am open to admitting I should challenge my perception. Therefore the solution is to search for the soul of Mage the Ascension, it’s Avatar perhaps, one book at a time. In release order. And to blog about what I find.

So I’m going to take myself on a Seeking. I’m going to spend some xp to increase my Arete by a dot or two by going on a metaphorical journey through the canon of Mage the Ascension to see if I can find it’s soul. 

We’re going to go on a journey to find the soul of Mage the Ascension. One Published word at a time.

And although the main Mage-guru has already gone down that path, I intend to do it as well. But rather than trying to consolidate the disparate text into a definitive sourcebook for the modern era, I’m going to read through each of the books, pull out the items that I think are interesting in some way and offer my commentary and observations through the Gonzo <–> Intellectual spectrum that I’ve created.

Mage sourcebooks are a mixture of information about the game world and the actors within it, the rules and mechanics that govern how they relate back to the game, and the meta-plot that White Wolf used to drive the story forward/justify selling more books as their business model required. We’ll focus on each of them.

But what we’re not going to do is worry too much about the fact that the books are very much of their time. Satyros Brucato, the lead developer for most of the line, has gone on the record many times (not least of which in this very interesting interview with The Mage Podcast) to explain that when they were written, everyone was young, lacking in contacts and research materials that are available now and western society didn’t consider cultural appropriation too much of an issue.

Simply put, we live in a different world to when the games were produced. I’m not that bothered about adding more to that discussion excepting where it impacts on my intent to explain the game.

Be my guide, dear reader!

I’m sure that this will be as much about learning about myself as it will be learning about Mage. I’ll be uncovering and exposing my own ideological biases and unconscious assumptions, and I’m relying on you, dear readers, to be the Beatrice to my Dante challenging my take and the assumptions it is built upon.

Please comment on the individual posts, or perhaps in the various locations that I’ll promote this series. Unlike a usual ‘let’s read’ I’m not going to go blow by blow through each part of the books, but will be guided by the following questions:

  1. What do we learn about the setting, implied or not from the books?
  2. What do we learn about the setting from the rules given in the books?
  3. How does this change and evolve as the game grows?
  4. As we integrate each of these publications into our mental view of the personality of the game, what is our view on the essenceof Mage the Ascension?

So… Wish me luck as I go ahead on my journey to find the ultimate answer to the question of “What is Mage the Ascension?”

Next up: Mage the Ascension Core Book 1st Edition – Introduction Chapter