Day 7 of #RPGaDAY
7. Most “Intellectual” RPG Owned.
This one was a bit of a struggle to decide on. I pondered Dogs in the Vineyard briefly, but a) I’ve only ever skimmed it so couldn’t really do it any kind of justice and b) at least a couple of my friends are discussing it today. Apocalypse World is a deeply interesting game, but one I don’t really get on with on a mechanical level.
But then inspiration (in the form of Ellie suggesting things) struck, I should talk about the game that first made me consider the the intellectual side of roleplaying – or at least something beyond the standard heroic narrative of fantasy fiction. So today, we’re looking at Mage: the Ascension.
This may come as a surprise to some of my friends, as I’ve been very vocal about my preference for Mage: the Awakening, but while I prefer the New World of Darkness take on Mage, it didn’t have quite the same effect on me.
Mage: the Ascension is a game about reality. More precisely, it’s a game about the fundamentally fluid nature of reality, and how anyone with sufficient willpower and a strong enough belief in how they think things should work can change the rules of reality, at least on a localised basis. So far, so straightforward(ish), but there’s quite a lot more to it…
Every human has, in theory, the ability to shape reality (a power known as magick), but it’s dormant in most. A few manage to rise above this dormant state, Awaken to their potential as a mage, and can consciously mould existence to their will. But this requires the mage to have absolute conviction in an alternative vision of reality, a paradigm unique to them. Needless to say, this makes most mages a little… odd… as they deny elements of what everyone else holds to be true. Mages with similar beliefs band together into Traditions that share a broad paradigm (religious faith, ritualised Hermeticism, super-science, and so on) and affinity for manipulating a given aspect of reality. These Traditions (try to) work together to help others reach the Awakened state, and reshape the world into a form that is more accepting of magick.
Speaking of which, reality itself isn’t a static thing. Rather, it’s formed from the consensus beliefs of everyone in the world. Even the dormant, sleeping mind can nudge things slightly in the direction it believes, and millions or billions of people all believing the same thing can be an unyielding force. So, the Awakened have to be careful about how they do their magick, as anything to extreme or overt can bring the full force of reality against them, resulting in chaotic energy known as Paradox as the status quo tries to restore itself.
The Traditions are opposed in their efforts by the Technocracy, who share a paradigm that broadly aligns with the current consensus belief of humanity – not least because the Technocrats have been guiding the consensus in that direction since the Renaissance. They have a single vision for the form the world should take, and they’re willing to oppose anyone who would challenge this. They view the Tradition mages and other supernatural creatures as “reality deviants”, and try to either bring them into the fold or wipe them out.
So, the game requires you to get your head around a lot before you start playing. You need to understand that reality only works the way it does because everyone thinks that’s the truth, that anyone can reshape the world through an act of will, and there’s a hidden war for the fundamental laws of existence itself. And that’s before I even get onto the Metaphysic Trinity of magic – Dynamism, Stasis and Entropy, the forces that make up the universe. There’s a lot to talk about there, and certainly far more than I can do in a 1,000 blog post!
And then you come to character creation. While the process of assigning dots to your assorted traits isn’t that complex, you need to get inside your character’s head right away and understand how they believe reality works. That’s no small ask, and certainly not a concept I’d want to start someone new to RPGs with…
I’ve got issues with the rules of the game as well. For a setting that’s all about individuality and shaping the world to your beliefs, the concept of the nine Spheres of magick seem quite regimented by contrast. (I’d argue this approach makes a lot more sense in Mage: the Awakening, where its ten Arcana really do describe the fundamental truth of the world.) The magic(k) system also suffers from a lack of solid examples – it’s very open, but more often than not determining the precise effects of any spell took some time and negotiation with the ST. None of these are fatal flaws, but I’m hoping to see the magic system brushed up a little for the 20th anniversary edition that’s coming out later this year.
Despite the issues I’ve mentioned, I think Mage: the Ascension is a very important game. It handed players some pretty challenging concepts, and didn’t talk down to them. It gave players a lot of freedom to pursue their character’s goals, and gave STs a huge set of worlds to play with. It challenged you to remake the world in your own image, stand up against overwhelming odds, and try and better the rest of humanity in the process. And I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this game has to offer in this post. It’s a huge, baroque, enthralling setting, and one I’d encourage every gamer to read at least once.
The inevitable DriveThruRPG link can be found here. The revised 2nd edition core book is probably a good place to start, although it may be worth waiting until the forthcoming 20th Anniversay edition is released at the end of this year.