Friday, April 25, 2014

Late Review: Mage: The Ascension, 2nd Edition



Mage:  The Ascension, 2nd Edition
By:  Phil Brucato, Brian Campbell, Chris Hind, Deena McKinney, Kevin A. Murphy, Nicky Rea, John R. Robey, Kathleen Ryan, Allen Varney, and Teeuwynn Woodruff
1997, 290 pages

Inspired by the successful completion of Mage:  The Ascension:  20th Anniversary Edition’s Kickstarter campaign, I pulled my copy of Mage:  The Ascension, 2nd Edition from my bookshelf to read and review.  One of my biggest faults as gamer, and I’m sure that I share this fault with many of my readers, is that I had rarely read a role-playing book cover to cover until just a few years ago.  (Hence, the name of my blog.)  Instead, I would skim through it focusing on character creation rules, combat mechanics, and anything interesting that stood out to me.  I’d read what I thought was necessary or important, and then during gameplay I would figure out the rest, picking up bits and pieces as they came up in game.  So, despite having owned a copy of Mage, 2nd Edition, for over 15 years, I hadn’t actually read the book.  I had no idea what I was getting into when I started to read it closely and critically. 
            I want to like this book.  I want to give it a good review.  I never want to say anything bad about a Classic World of Darkness book because I love the system and I feel obligated to defend these games against naysayers.  I loved playing Mage on the few occasions I had a Storyteller willing to run it.  This book, however, is awful.  The artwork is terrible, especially the example Tradition Mages in the Character building section.  The editing is atrocious with frequent references to material that was cut, most notably in the Backgrounds section.  The Magick System is indecipherable as presented in the book with too few examples of how it’s supposed to work, especially when combining separate magickal abilities called Spheres to generate individual effects called conjunctional effects.  Despite all of these problems, I want to like this book because the ideas are outstanding.  Mage:  The Ascension, 2nd Edition fails in presentation and execution of the material. 
            Mage:  The Ascension, is a difficult game to explain and therefore difficult to review.  There are so many ideas at work within in the game and each of the concepts builds on the others creating a delicate balance.  If you take one piece and examine it, the entire game starts to fall apart.  Mage:  The Ascension resists deconstruction into its component parts, and that’s usually how I approach reviews.  I look at the parts, see what works and what doesn’t, and then I decide if it’s good or bad.  This is my fourth attempt to write a coherent review of Mage:  The Ascension, 2nd Edition, and I’ve decided to take abandon my usual method for reviewing Classic World of Darkness books.  Just summarizing one chapter would require explanation of other parts of the system and its concepts.  Instead of attempting to present an objective and holistic view of the book, I will attempt to convey my general feelings about the book.  I’ll start with the parts of the book that I hate.  Then I’ll continue with the sections and ideas that I like.  Otherwise, I’ll make almost no attempt to be coherent in the structure of this review.  My assumption going into this review is that the reader is at least familiar with some of the concepts of Mage and may have played the game in the past.  This is probably going to read like a rant against Mage:  The Ascension, but I hope you enjoy it anyway.
            The elephant in the room when anyone wants to play Mage is the Magick System.  Magick is spelt with the “k” to differentiate it from the magic used by the vampires such as Thaumaturgy or the magic of mortals.  Unlike Dungeons & Dragons or other systems where wizards chose from a list of spells that they know, Mages can do anything as long as they can explain how the effect would happen using their Spheres, the individual areas of magick such as Matter, Forces, Entropy or Life.  Each Sphere covers a different area:  Forces covers any force, Matter is used to manipulate inanimate objects, Life affects living material, and so on.  Mages can combine their Spheres and improvise effects, any effect.  The only limitation is what the Storyteller will allow a player to do based on the rank in those Spheres.  A lot of game time is going to be spent adjudicating these effects.  The book offers very few examples of how to create these conjunctional effects which are the heart of the Magick system.  There are some simple rules to follow such as you must use Life to affect anything living, but do you need Life to effect the electrical impulses in someone’s nervous system, wouldn’t that just be Forces?  Entropy, the magick that affects chance, seems to allow a Mage to manipulate someone’s mind without using Mind magick.  The system is so conceptually difficult that without an extensive and diverse set of examples and explanations, everyone is going to come away with a different interpretation of how the system should work, and this will lead to arguments at the table over what a particular character is capable. 
This how the Magick System works...kinda...I guess
            The Spheres are not well defined.  Matter is supposed to cover anything inanimate.  Life covers everything animate.  However, which Sphere is used to cast a spell on a cotton shirt?  Cotton should be in the domain of Life since it’s a plant, and anything related to plants should be Life.  Life covers anything that is living or used to be living, even the undead.  But a cotton shirt is a product of manufacturing, and the cotton in the shirt could be considered inanimate.  Entropy effects are based on the idea of random chance, such as the roll of some dice, but one could argue that anything is random chance, such as the random chance that a gas main will break or a bookshelf will give out and fall on an opponent.  Anyone familiar with even basic physics understands that matter and energy are interchangeable.  So, shouldn’t Forces and Matter be interchangeable?  Couldn’t an expert in Forces Magic manipulate atomic forces to reconfigure atoms in oxygen to create another substance?  The Mage isn’t necessary affecting Matter, he or she is manipulating the nuclear forces holding the matter together.  The edges of each Sphere start to bleed together and the rules become fuzzy.  Power gamers and min-maxers thrive in the fuzzy space between rules. 
            The entire magick system is incredibly unbalanced, but not based on the statistics on the character sheet.  Instead, the more knowledgeable a player is about a particular field of science, for example, the more broken that player’s character could be.  This is not necessarily a case of a character using out of character knowledge.  For example, there are two Mages equally focused in Life magicks and both with Science and a specialization of botany, the character played by a person with knowledge of botany or biology is going to be much more dangerous because of their real world knowledge.  The botanist would know that there is a variety of Juncus that lives in salt marshes that has needle like leaves so sharp that those who study it must wear eye protection in order to avoid having it pierce their eyeballs.  A character with that knowledge could turn a grass covered lawn into the equivalent of a bed of nails.  Player knowledge is much more dangerous in Mage because any effect is possible.
            Like other White Wolf Games, instead of character classes, the players chose from various groups of Mages, called Traditions, that are defined more by their worldview that their abilities.  These different Traditions draw their inspiration from a variety real world and fictional concepts.  The Order of Hermes manipulates magick based on the classic wizard; they use staves, wands, and books as their foci for conjuring and using magick.  The Verbena are essentially witches, either of the Wiccan variety or the more classic Salem style. The Sons of Ether (in later editions they became the less misogynistic Society of Ether) manipulate magick through super science and based on a kind of Jules Verne-style characters such as Captain Nemo.  Each of these groups approaches their use of magick in completely different ways.  Sometimes these groups try to be too broad.  The Akashic Brotherhood are Shaolin monks with magic powers, and are supposed to be representative many different traditions in China, Japan, and the Koreas.  This is a very broad and stereotypical grouping, but it’s not as bad as the Celestial Chorus who are supposed to be composed of Mages who work their magick through prayer to a god, gods or goddesses.  This Tradition must have been created in a utopia because I can’t imagine any other way you’d get so many religious traditions to agree that there is a “meta-god” that encompasses every religion and deity.  The Celestial Chorus makes less sense than the magick system.  Even various Christian denominations have trouble agreeing with each other, and this book wants me to believe that a bunch of mages, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and more, all got together, put aside their differences, and just agreed to believe in an Ur-deity.  My suspension of disbelief only goes so far. 
            Mage:  The Ascension 2nd Edition has to cover a lot of information in a very small space.  The book is only 290 pages, not counting the Appendix.  Obviously, the book cannot cover everything related to Mages and their magicks, and sections needed to be cut.  However, the editor failed to re-read the book after the edits had been made and those sections that were cut are still referenced throughout.  The most obvious section with cuts and remaining referrers is Backgrounds in Character Creation.  The Chantry, Familiar, and Sanctum backgrounds are referred to throughout the book, but they are not included.  (They can be found in other books.)  These three backgrounds are even included in character creation charts on pages 138-139. 
For Mage, 2nd this is good art!
            The artwork in this book is just bad.  There’s no other way to describe it.  I rarely discuss artwork in my reviews because illustrations in RPG books typically don’t stand the test of time.  White Wolf books were written in the 1990s, the era of Rob Leifeld and Image Comics, and they are very much of that time. I am perfectly happy with a mix of good and bad artwork, but Mage 2nd Edition just has so many bad pieces.  Not only are they bad but they are poorly used.  Often the illustration on a page is unrelated to the text next to it.  The worst art, unfortunately, is found in the Character Creation Chapter where the book should be showcasing the Traditions available for Player Characters.  Character illustrations in the character creation chapters should inspire players to choose a Tradition and embody the essence of the Tradition.  However, these images are at best obvious or boring and at worst can deter players from choosing a Tradition. The worst offender is the Order of Hermes.  It has to be the worst illustration in any World of Darkness book.  Flat, ugly, boring, and obvious.  One only need to turn to the other Second Edition rule books to see better examples of character artwork from the same period by the same company. 
            Mage:  The Ascension cannot be a standalone game.  It’s not designed with that intent and cannot be run by anyone who is not already familiar with the rest of the World of Darkness.  The book even admits that in the section where it discusses possible antagonists and allies.  Mage:  The Ascension functions as a meta-system that encompasses the all of the previous World of Darkness games and expands that idea.  It uses many of the familiar themes and puts the entire setting into perspective.  This is the “meta-story” that fits all the pieces together, and although it doesn’t offer any answers, Mage explores the vast possibilities of the game.  For those gamers who enjoy running crossover games where players can choose any supernatural character from any of the main rule books, Mage offers a central point and easy enemies for any group of protagonists because the Technocracy, the central antagonist for Mage, wants to destroy everything supernatural.      
Not only can this happen, it will happen!
      
            Mage:  The Ascension is so overflowing with great ideas and possibilities that anyone who reads this book is going to want to play Mage.  Yet it’s that broad range of ideas that hampers it the most.  Being able to play anything from a Chinese monk who can shoot ki blasts from his hands, like DBZ’s Goku, to a witch brewing love potions in a cauldron to a cyberpunk hacker using neural links to defeat a rogue AI is exciting, but the Storyteller has to fit all of these different archetypes together into a coherent world and story.  Unlike Vampire:  The Masquerade or Werewolf:  The Apocalypse, the characters don’t have an inherent and foundational element to draw them together.  Whether a PC is a Get of Fenris or a Glasswalker, they are both werewolves with similar abilities and concepts about the world.  Fundamentally, a Lasombra is not much from a Tremere or even a Kiasyd.  They are vampires, the drink blood to survive, and they are descended from Caine.  Conversely, Virtual Adept who understands magick as simply very advanced technology might think that a Dreamspeaker Mage who converses with the spirits of trees and the air is daft.  The Virtual Adept may even disbelieve that something like that is possible.  These are extreme examples, but because no Mage is required to believe in the paradigm of another Mage, bringing the PC’s together could lead to misunderstandings and difficulties as Technomancers like the Sons of Ether (or Society of Ether) and Virtual Adepts struggle to integrate a Verbena’s witchcraft into their modern technology-centric belief system. 
            The success or failure of any Mage game is going to rest on how well the group understands the magick system, the greater that understanding the better the chances of a successful Chronicle.  The magick system is a brilliant idea, and I love the concept of a completely open system for creating magick spells and effects.  Yet, it’s not something that can be simplified into a chart or a set of guidelines, although the author does try unsuccessfully.  Players and Storytellers are required to negotiate amongst themselves what the actual limits of the system are and will have to agree on House Rules.  Everyone will need to understand that abilities and magick effects may need to be ‘nerfed’ to maintain game balance.  Any power gamers or min-maxers who want to exploit various loopholes in the rules should really reconsider their approach to Mage.  (And there are a lot of loopholes in a system this fuzzy.)  If you think that something is amazing and overpowered, that probably means that you shouldn’t do it. 
            As a concept, Mage:  The Ascension is brilliant, but the execution of the book is awful.  This book fails in every way:  artwork, editing, system design.  Yet, despite all of these problems, Mage:  The Ascension’s core idea is so strong that it can almost overcome these problems.  Storytellers and Players who want a challenge should pick the book up and give it a try.  As written, Mage:  The Ascension 2nd Edition is barely playable, but I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys good RPGs and is willing to take a chance on a difficult system.  And anyone who is a fan of Mage should look forward to the hopefully better written and certainly better illustrated Mage:  The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition.  I know I am. 
            I will be reviewing Mage:  The Ascension Revised in the near future, and Mage:  The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition when it releases. 
            Mage:  The Ascension 2nd Edition is available on DriveThruRPG as a PDF or an original printing is available on Amazon. 
           

6 comments:

  1. Very good review. I agree with most of it; especially on how the over-dynamic Sphere system, the cookie platter traditions, the paradigm building, and the whole maleable reality thing were just too much at times and would only take away from the game.

    However, after a long, long time of brainstorming over the topics presented and further reading of real world religion and occult groups and theories you could really start grasping on how encompassing the game could be. Just like fine wine, it'd take a bit of intellectual aging to see how the open-mindedness of the game really did touch on all sorts of real life occultism.

    For instance, there really are books out there that mention how spirits are formed out of collective consciousness and become "city spirits" or even "nation spirits" that influence how people from a given area think. This one Rudolph Steiner guy claimed that in an apocalyptic future giant spider-like creatures will rule over mankind and hamper their capacity for free thinking and spiritual development. Weaver spiders, anyone? Oh, and did I mention there really is an Akashic Record among hinduists as well? A place where everything that happens in the universe is recorded and that serves as a cosmic memory?

    I could go on and on but I think I've made my point.

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    1. Thank you for your kind words! I'm glad that you enjoyed my review!
      You make a lot of good points, and I think that Mage has a lot of potential which is why I kickstarted M20 and I'm really excited about its release. More than anything I think this book suffered from over-editing, rather than a lack of idea.
      I'd really appreciate it if you'd send me a list of those books you mentioned! I want to run a Mage game soon, and that kind of background might be helpful. THanks!

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  2. Sorry about the late reply, but finding and sorting out the books now will be a long process.

    Off the top of my mind, I can pretty much recommend you anything that Rudolf Steiner wrote that isn't about education or artistic sensibilities. Keep in mind that he is overly technical in his explanations, and you'll have to do some "dynamic reading" to not get overwhelmed.

    The Urantha Book is a classic. And very complicated as well. I remember something about it talking of universes that angels can only speculate about. That's how crazy it is. A great tool for expanding Celestial Chorus paradigm.

    There's also Carlos CastaƱeda, which you might have heard of. He's basically a guy that tried some hallucinogen plants under the tutelage of a mexican indian sorcerer. His "trips" detailed on the book are EXCELLENT for Dreamspeakers paradigm and Umbra semantics.

    Rudolf Steiner is really the best of the lot though, because he encompasses pretty much everything. From faes to departed souls, from the knights templar to Atlantis; the guy wrote a lot of stuff. Great fodder for inspiration, if you take it all with a grain of salt.

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  4. Interesting review.

    Funny that you should mention the incredulity of all those different religions getting along in the Celestial Chorus as this is actually addressed in the Tradition book for them. In short, you're right; these groups DON'T get along at all. The Chorus is constantly fighting internally over whose god is correct or best and it doesn't even end there. Even Chorusters who are the same religion but use different styles of preaching are at each others throats constantly: a Christian minister may loathe a faith healer or televangelist, for instance. Pretty much, the only reason all these different Mages work together is because of outside pressure from the Technocracy and other supernatural things. It's just a matter of survival.

    Something similiar happens with the Akashic Brotherhood, the Dreamspeakers, and the Verbena. Anything vaguely Asiatic is shuffled into the Akashic Brotherhood, anything shamanistic or animistic is stuffed into the Dreamspeakers, and anything vaguely naturalistic is punted into the Verbena. Hell, even the Order of Hermes complains about this (they used to have dozens of Houses that specialized in various magical concepts and styles, now they're all forced into the same hole).

    This doesn't excuse the book from failing to at least touch on these, of course.

    Another thing you mentioned was that it's unclear if Forces or Life would need to be used to affect someone's nervous system. The answer is: either or both, it all depends on the Mage's Paradigm. Both Forces or Life could be used to produce the same Effect as long as it fits in with their Paradigm. Paradigm is the main thing that limits a Mage.

    The core thing to understand with Mage, I think, is that when a Mage produces an Effect, they are not using powers. They are LITERALLY re-writing reality by sheer force of will. An Order of Hermes guy that creates a fireball, for instance, isn't creating fire, not really. He is re-writing the rules of reality so that fire MUST exist in that space; there simply isn't a way fire could NOT exist there.

    Paradigm is a crutch. The Spheres are a crutch. If a Mage really understood what they were doing, they could do ANYTHING, regardless of Paradigm or Spheres. But almost all Mages don't and CAN'T understand that, even if they KNOW it intellectually speaking like the Old Masters (the one exception might be those who have Arete 10 which is, like, five total. Ever. And most of those are gone).

    This is another severe weakness of the 2nd Edition book; it really doesn't emphasize how important Paradigm is to the character. That really is what limits the character's ability to do anything. When trying to do an Effect, the Storyteller should require that the player explain how he or she feels they can do that with the materials and knowledge they have available. That Mage trying to make the field of sharp leaves? That would require an appropriate skill check to see if they even knew enough about the plant (merely knowing it exists isn't enough) to make it grow here BEFORE they even cast the Effect. That Celestial Choruster who prays for someone to be struck dead? A skill check on Academics: Religion is going to be needed first. And if they're gagged or tied up? Then they can't pray. Period.

    I'd be interested to see what you thought of the Guide the Technocracy. As far as Mage books goes, it tends to have a pretty good reputation.

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  5. This is the book that pretty much ruined oWoD entirely for me. There's simply no way the World of Darkness can function as described with these demigods walking around.

    And it's almost impossible to run a plot with characters who can mind read people from the comfort of their bedrooms. And then if they don't like what they find out, teleport them into the centre of the Sun. One dude with Correspondence 4 and a bit of Mind can do that right there, and there's absolutely nothing anybody who isn't also a Mage can do about it. Rituals mean it might take a bit of time, but so long as you can spend that time down at the chantry, you can do it.

    The notion that reality is a giant solipsism I find pretty repulsive too on a philosophical level. It glorifies obscurantism. Just not cool. Completely broken and completely stupid game.

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