My Love Letter to “Mage: The Ascension”

Even though I’ve played dozens upon dozens of different RPGs, if you ask me what my favorite game is, the choice is clear: It’s Mage: The Ascension (2nd edition, to be precise.) It’s not the game I’ve clocked the most hours playing, or spent the most money on, or wrote the most about. I can’t even recall playing in a campaign as a Mage that lasted for more than a few sessions. Why do I have such fondness for the game, over 10 years since I picked up the book? Simple: it’s the first RPG that felt like it rewired my brain.

The basic premise of Mage: The Ascension is that everyone has the capacity, at some level, to shape reality. This capacity, personified as a mysterious alter-ego called the Avatar, is dormant in most people, who are known as sleepers, whereas Mages (and/or their Avatars) are said to be Awakened. Because they’re awakened, Mages can consciously affect changes to reality via willpower, beliefs, and specific magical techniques.

Wikipedia Entry for Mage: The Ascension

It was the mid-90’s when I would first pick up the book from a far off game store, ferried there by my one gamer friend who could drive. I don’t recall what made me buy it, other than a very probable “this looks cool”, though it must have beat out a number of other games in my very limited gamer budget. I had played some Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse and wasn’t all that impressed, so there must have been something else about that purple and gold cover that drew me to it.

It wouldn’t be until a week later when I would be on a vacation with my friend The O that I would get a chance to dive into the book fully. I sat on the beach in Ocean City and read the whole thing from cover to cover (yes, I chose reading an RPG book over swimming in the ocean, I’ve earned my nerdity).

Here was a game that took magic from being a big list of concrete spells and encouraged, no, demanded that you be inventive with your spheres of influence, combining them to form all kinds of effects, while keeping in mind how such an effect would strain against the consensus reality. Clever coincidences were your most reliable weapon, while blatant disruptions were your most powerful and most dangerous.

The combination of all the possibilities of magic, alongside a set of evocative factions, characters easily came to mind too. From a Degenerate gambler who would throw darts at a map to determine his next move,  to the escaped Technocracy experiment whose psychic abilities threatened to consume him, to the Syndicate operative whose stock projections were no match for eldritch horrors. All of them used “magic” and yet were completely different in play and personality.

It wasn’t just the spell system and the characters that fascinated me, though that was certainly the one that drove play the most. The concept of consensus reality and paradigms made me look at the world around me in a different way. Each different paradigm used was a complete model of how everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) worked, all competing to be the dominant one in reality. Science, technology, religion, philosophy: all were determined by belief. That was an eye-opening idea to a teenage me, who was still grappling with how everything just in my own life fit together, not to mention the very structure of reality.

Not to say my grasp of reality was tenuous and I would start chanting to invoke my Forces 3/Prime 2 effect, it just gave me a heck of a lot to think about, and was an experience that has yet to be fully matched by anything else I’ve read.

Why didn’t Mage take hold more in our group? Well, it certainly had its fans. However, the basic rules ended up having some pretty severe flaws, which would later lead to a revised edition that was poorly received by us (perhaps my first true Grognard moment.)  Many of the games turned into “World of Darkness” kitchen sink games, such as a game with a Vampire, a Werewolf, a Mage, a Faerie, and a Wraith (the Wraith being especially hilariously disconnected from the main game.) Those combination games could be amusing in short bursts, but I always felt like it shortchanged the Mage: the vision of the universe laid out in the book just didn’t seem to sync up with those presented by other books. Especially in those combo games, it was clear that it can be difficult to run a game for characters who can do almost anything, limited only by their spheres and imaginations.

The most damning strike against the game though was how few of us seemed to “get it”- it was usually clear who had a consistent paradigm to their character, and those who took more of a stock approach, and those play styles didn’t always gel. It wasn’t a matter of the players involved being smarter or anything: it just takes some mental hoops to really get into Mage, and it often showed. The revised Mage: The Ascension book did some great work patching up the core rules and putting more emphasis on paradigm, while making it even harder for other players in our group to get into. Later, in the “New World of Darkness,” Mage: The Awakening would continue the trend of making the core rules much more usable, while tossing out much of what I enjoyed in the old game and forging something new. I wasn’t going on the Internet raging about how much it sucked, it just simply wasn’t my game, and I was willing to part ways. Bartoneus later experimented with a 19th century Mage game that used the new rules and the old setting, to limited success.

Now, I’m digging back into those old books, the binding on that original hardcover that had gone to the beach barely holding it together, as I work on my hack of the Leverage RPG for Mage, and it’s fun to look back at this game that was so influential to me. Not everything holds up: I’m not sure I ever liked that cheesy comic in the back used to give an example of play, for instance. Overall, I’m really enjoying a possible merger of new core RPG tech and one of my favorite game settings of all time. If I’ve found a new ideal gaming paradigm, I’ll let you know.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.

Comments

  1. You know what this is? This is your entry into my “Why I Love Thee” series, which started with my love letter to Vampire: The Masquerade. Rockin’.

  2. I got in around Revised edition, but man this one was a deep one! Never has an RPG triggered so many late night philosophical rants around a couple cups of brew at a local diner afterwords.

    I must confess though that my favorite character concept for it was initially created as a “Hollowed One”. I had a crazy Entropy character that was all about luck, fate, playing the cards etc. I probably should’ve been Euthanatos but I wasn’t so keen on karmic justice and death…..I was just about “playing the game” and stacking the cards of reality in my favor. My roomate used to get frustrated with me, and demand I scheme up a proper paradigm for him…..

    So i sent him a link to the song “Roll the Bones” by RUSH, as well as Ghost of a Chance, and said “There it is!”

    I did have some other fun characters schemed up….hate to say it, though, I ended up using them as NPC’s for a Vampire chronicle just so I would have an excuse to use them with my group.

  3. Daniel: Good company to be in!

    Rev: My gambler (who also was a master of Entropy) was a Cult of Ecstasy- part of the reasons I liked the factions so much is that they didn’t weld you to a particular sphere.

  4. Wow! This felt like you were reading my mind and writing what I was thinking! My binding and cover were falling apart too. I played Mage for one epic campaign and it was my best effort as a GM. Thanks for bringing back all the memories.

  5. I loved Mage: The Ascension. The new Mage seems fine, but I’ve never been able to get into it. It lacks the reality-bending and the awesome doomed backstory, where even the antagonists, the Technocracy, have failed at controlling the consensus.

    I love the ideas so much that I made my own game inspired by Mage, called Belief.

  6. Yea. All of that, absolutely.

    I picked up Mage fresh out of high school, at a time when I was very much a straightlaced “I won’t be in the same room as booze or the bad thing” kind of fellow…and so was utterly shocked to realize that my absolute favorite Tradition was the Cult of Ecstasy. Years later and with my Masters in Eastern Classics (which always felt more holistically represented by the Cult than the Akashics, to me), I honestly think I have to credit a lot of how I’ve evolved through the years and adapted to crises to the bite-sized philosophizing that came out of Mage. And every time I share some random piece of trivia, I think back to the Technocracy, since one of the “rotes” you could take as a technocrat involved spouting some random fact with perfect certainty.

    You think Leverage is going to be a stronger system to hack Mage into than Fate? After the Dresden Rpg I’ve felt that Fate would be an easy stitch to do up some Magery.

  7. Chip Warden says:

    Yeah, I liked Mage so much I read almost all of the books in the bibliography: “Finite and Infinite Games”, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, “Lila”, most of Carlos Castaneda’s books, and so on. Wow, what a game.

  8. Yax: Coincidence, or the book’s binding wasn’t all that good for the print run 🙂

    Gregory: I’ll check it out!

    Seth: Dresden/FATE would be awesome too. The advantage Mage has for me is ease of changing roles into spheres and having a really good mechanic for Paradox built in. Each way makes a different kind of game though.

    Chip: Wow, forgot Finite and Infinite Games was in there- I only read that years later based on an unrelated recommendation, and loved it.

  9. Mage presented something for me slightly different to what you described – it gave me a framework for flexibility of magic, which was missing from the market at the time. The only other game I knew about at the time which didn’t use “n spells of level x, n spells of level z” was ArsMagica, which is imho still a great game. Mage and ArsM – I see a pattern. 🙂

  10. I had a similar experience with Mage 2nd ed. We’d played Magic: The Gathering and I later got into Jyhad, WotC’s original Vampire TCG. That led to Rage, which led to Werewolf (something my older brother LOVED), Vampire and, finally, Mage. Mage was always my baby. I read through it several times and had new philosophical ‘awakenings’ every time. It had all manner of effects on my young mind. Foremost among them was a far better ability to see things from other perspectives. Every little thing in Mage fit differently in every paradigm and when you’re the Storyteller for people as varied as our group you see a lot of different viewpoints. I bought a second copy as my first started to wear and it’s still in excellent condition. It’s been years since I”ve looked at it, but I’m anxious to give it another read. It was one of the most mind opening games I’ve ever seen.

  11. No surprise that my experiences with Mage, much like many of you have said, mirrors Dave’s because I was one of those who played in the WoD and Mage games back then. Probably the most successful ones I remember were the Technocracy games that Josh would run for us. I know my few attempts at running it were hit-or-miss, but I also was a very inexperienced and unskilled GM back then. Now that I have 2 years of D&D DMing under my belt, I’m incredibly anxious to get back to some of the other game types like Mage and give them a try. I’m hoping to revisit the 19th century Mage world I was developing too.

    The Virtual Web 2.0 book and some of the integration of Weaver/Werewolf ideas into Mage were some of the parts that really grabbed “highschool Danny” the most. But Dave is dead on with the whole Paradigm, magic, and Paradox stuff just absolutely blowing our minds compared to other RPGs back then.

    My book’s binding is in decent but not great shape, because I take care of my books. 😀

  12. Mage and it’s predecessor, Ars Magika, definitely win my vote for best magic system. One of the few games where magic feels like magic.

    Now D&D magic gets criticism, but most of it’s defenders assume it’s because of the Vancian system. Partly that maybe true, but I think it’s also just the lack of imagination gone into the spell lists themselves. The D&D wizard has become it’ own thing and own stereotype over time, but the magic of myth, legend and mystical traditions – even in good fantasy fiction – has always had a feel that D&D and most fantasy RPGs never succeed in emulating. They are always focussed on the what, not the why or how (and when they do go into the how it is always rather lame gods and magical fields).

    Magic, wherever it appears and truly resonates with us, is always about finding understanding and meaning in the world as part of a constant journey. Mage does that. Other games do not.

  13. I loved the original Mage. It’s true it didn’t fit with the rest of the World of Darkness games, but for the best of reasons. Vampire, Werewolf, and Changeling were all about the manifestation of new desires and potentials combined with the sudden discovery of long-established conspiracies. As Nathan Gribble observed, this is an exact metaphor for adolescence. Mage began in the same way, but under the inspired direction of line editor Phil Brucato, it took on a more mature, spiritual viewpoint. Mage was a game for grownups.

  14. Rafaminey says:

    Couldn’t have written any better than you man… 100% agreed… One orbes thing that I loved about Mage were the novels, specially the trilogy… Have you read them?

  15. Ha! I remember you going to Ocean City with me and reading on the beach, but I have no recollection of it being Mage! How old were we? I was always there with you Dave: Mage was always one of my favorite game settings and I always tried going out of my way to play it at Balticon when someone would be running it (Hell, I even tried at Gencon last year). Looking back in retrospect, had I known how much I would like Mage, I would’ve read it on the beach too!

  16. Buffzilla says:

    Also one of my all time favorite systems. Loved exactly what so many hated about it… its DEMAND on the players to make up their own spells, their own effects, essentially writing their own spellbooks… and boy, did I ever fill me up some kick-ass spellbooks!

  17. Doug Nordwall says:

    Man, how I miss Mage. And the fans of it are few and far between. But I still love it to this day. As with some in here I went and explored new media (music, books, etc) from the recommended list and found many favorites. By far my favorite RPG of all time. My Prime-blind Al-i-Batini calls…

  18. Mage is still an active game on the net. There are still some MUSHes (text based interactive roleplaying) that still have 2nd Edition.

    I’d love to see an active Mage sphere on Cajun Nights. Any old MUShers out there wanting to come back to the old black and white of typing your roleplay, come visit us

    http://mudstats.com/Game/CajunNights.aspx

Trackbacks

  1. RT @criticalhits: New Critical Hit: My Love Letter to "Mage: The Ascension" http://bit.ly/et6uPf

  2. Do @davethegame’s love letter to old Mage http://t.co/mInXh6c reminds me how much it hinged on an idea rather than rules.

  3. […] the Game over at Critical Hits had such great things to say about Mage: The Ascension, that we wanted to get our hands on a copy just to see what all the love […]

  4. […] of room for modern games beyond heists and capers. Enter my early ideas about combining it with Mage: The Ascension, to which I (and as I discovered recently, many other gamers) have very fond memories […]