Published on September 22nd, 2014 | by Luke Turpeinen4
Guide to the World of Darkness, Part Three (Mage)
Choosing which version of Mage to play is probably the most contentious argument you can have with fans of the World of Darkness. While the split between classic and new Mage is a large one, the divisions existed before as well.
Second Edition Mage (the Ascension) was pretty wacky, with alternate dimensions and hidden astral planes and onieronauts. The change to Revised Edition got rid of a lot of the archmages and horizon realms, cut back the war with the Technocracy and re-focused the game on the daily life of mages. Players who liked Second Ed were upset by the changes, though there are many people who prefer Revised.
The switch to the new World of Darkness was contentious as well. Many critics of Awakening complained that while the other two “main” lines of the World of Darkness got a re-vamp (pun intended), Mage got a re-imagining. That’s not an un-fair assessment, but just because Awakening is a much different game doesn’t mean that it’s bad. And its essential theme of modern mages working within society to achieve a higher plane of existence is still 100% in tact and central to the premise.
Mage the Ascension
Before there was even a World of Darkness, the game that would become Mage was in its infancy. Mark Rein-Hagen (Vampire: the Masquerade) and Jonathon Tweet (Everway, D&D, 13th Age) published Ars Magica in 1987, the setting was a historically based version of Europe in the High Middle Ages where the common beliefs and superstitions were literally true. Magic, sorcery and alchemy work and supernatural creatures like faeries, djinni and angels exist.
Mage the Awakening was written to be Ars Magica in the modern age, with the added idea that human paradigms actively shape reality. So in the High Middle Ages, the supernatural existed because of the belief in them. When a group of people who could bend reality to their will (ie: mages) decided to instead build a new set of rules not based on the traditions of older cultures, the scientific movement was born. Eventually this Technocracy wins in convincing the world that these new beliefs are better than the old ones and they continue progressing science, but this being the World of Darkness, things go horribly wrong.
There is a sub-theme in the game of the stagnation of the corporate, developed world: anti-modernism, if you will. All of the traditions are groups who reject the mainstream way of thought, because that’s what being a mage in this modern world means. The implied argument being that though we’ve raised the standard of living for individuals since the Middle Ages, it hasn’t made anyone happier and the Technocracy exploits people much more than the Traditions ever did. I can buy that because they’re living in a World of Darkness and there is some crazy stuff going on there.
Now that you have some more back story, lets jump into comparisons.
Main Conflict: The Magical Traditions vs The Technocracy
The Pitch: Reality can be bent and broken by those with the imagination and the will to shape it. By convincing enough people that your reality is “true” then you can make the actual laws of reality change. Mages who guard the Traditions are constantly waring against the scientific minds of the Technocracy over the minds of the people.
Consensual reality is a really cool idea. In Mage, reality is molded by the way people think the world is, which means that if you can convince enough people that a thing is true, then reality warps to accommodate that viewpoint. That means that our current scientific model could be re-written to be based on magic again, which is what the Traditions are trying to do, while the Technocracy are defending the status quo.
The Technocracy are amazing foes, and in a lot of ways are the good guys of the game. The last time the mages were in charge we were in the Dark Ages- there was little medicine, food, quality of life of any sort. If nothing else, the Technocracy uplifted the masses out of poverty in a way the mages never would have. Even if the Technocracy is evil and stagnant now, it needs reform, not destruction.
There was a really high level of magical power in Mage. More so in Second Edition (2e) than in Revised, it seemed like every mage had a pocket dimension and every Tuesday there was a war on the astral plane that corresponds to Jupiter. I prefer Revised, but I consider both saturation levels good and I feel both to justice to the setting.
The mechanics really encouraged players to think outside of the box and come up with non-linear solutions to problems. Not only did you have to be prepared all the time, you had to be willing and able to quickly improvise your way out of situations with the magic at hand. Being able to use only a few spheres of magic to achieve any effect is difficult and rewarding.
Sorcerer– There were two versions, WoD: Sorcerer and Sorcerer Revised. Both dealt with a way to wield magic that wasn’t as powerful as the enlightenment in Ascension. These spell casters were also called hedge wizards and became pretty popular in their own way.
Mage: The Sorcerer’s Crusade– Instead of joining Vampire in the dark ages, Mage decided to do an Italian renaissance setting for its historical piece. Sorcerer’s Crusade was perfectly timed at the time when the Technocracy was at its most innocent and idealistic while also being about equal in power (maybe even the underdogs to) the Traditions. This is one of my favorite World of Darkness settings ever.
Dark Ages: Mage– Revised Edition brought back historical Mage, this time with bigger mechanical changes. The idea was that because
the world’s (Europe’s) paradigm was not the same as it was in modern (post-Italian renaissance) times, the magic systems based on paradigms would operate differently. It was a neat idea, though it didn’t hold my attention.
Technocracy– There is no doubt that many players feel that the Technocracy seems more empathetic to the human cause than the Traditions. It’s totally possible to run a Technocracy campaign and there are plenty of books that cover their sub-faction.
The oddities that were added to the game didn’t add to the fun of playing so were mostly just fun to read. I would have liked more interesting rules about belief crafting and how to mold people’s paradigms for fun and profit- these would have been more useful and interesting.
Rules are often contradictory and the basic premise of the magic rules was so contentious on forums and newsgroups that the sides started using acronyms to identify their opinions on the topic (the RBD/PBD and HAP/HOP splits). If you get into classic Mage, you should read the linked article as it may help you understand the rules and choose an interpretation that you like.
The fight between science/technology and magic/religion was contrived at times. There was support for playing techno-mages, but they only came in mad scientist and cyberpunk varieties. Having your characters all be Luddites was kind of odd.
Sorcerer’s Crusade– This one bears repeating. The game goes with a generally more romantic setting, and there seems to be a lighter shade of grey than most other World of Darkness games. That’s not to say Sorcerer’s Crusade is light-hearted though, it’s not, but it’s just not grimdark either.
Forged in Dragon’s Fire– I’m someone who likes crafting rules in games that detail magic items, but I felt the rules in the core book were lacking. This is a great resource for people who want to introduce a weird macguffin or useful artifact into their campaign.
Manifesto: Transmission from the Rogue Council– A book about bringing the Ascension War back into Revised Edition, with a focus on a more down-to-earth mood. The Rogue Council are basically
freedom fighters terrorists fighting against the Technocracy controlled governments after the Traditions negotiated a cease fire between the two factions. An interesting perspective to play a modern fantasy game.
Mage the Awakening
Main Conflict: The Pentacle Mages vs the Seers of the Throne
The Pitch: Reality is a Lie, one told by the Exarchs to keep humanity in spiritual chains. Truth, actual reality, is beyond our grasp in the Supernal Realms. There are those who have glimpsed the truth, and they are able to bring Truth to the Lie to break its rules. Some choose to serve the Exarchs and become Seers of the Throne, others look for ways to protect the world or uplift humanity to an enlightened plain to fight the Exarchs and claim Heaven for our own.
The conflict against the Exarchs and their lackeys, the Seers, is much more relatable than the fight against the Technocracy. The conflict is more about systems of control, democracy vs fascism and freedom of information.
The magic in the game has more of a unified theme. The game still lets you customize your style of magic and the way you view the relationship between the physical world and the supernal, but overall the setting approaches magic from a very Gnostic viewpoint. This makes it easier to explain how mages work together in groups of varied traditions.
The mechanics of Awakening make much more sense. The rules about vulgar/coincidental magic are cleaned up and clarified from Ascension and the magic powers are much easier to read and understand than the Spheres were.
The Watchtowers, the beacons of magic that mages channel power through, make for some great character archetypes and the lore leaves room for more of them if a group wants them. The Watchtower archetypes are very broad, but Legacies help narrow down theme and style if you need mechanics for that.
Keys of the Supernal Tarot– I enjoy tarot cards, so when I saw a book all about incorparating it into Mage, I got excited. There are a few rules for how to incorporate card readings into the setting, both as a magical tool and as a merit. The Supernal Tarot as an artifact is described, but this is just the first chapter. The rest of the book is a hodge podge of cool mechanics, characters and places- each one themed to a different card in the Major Arcana.
Tome of the Mysteries– The core book does a great job of listing a bunch of spells and gives great examples for creating your own or using improvised magic, but this book goes into the mix even further. If the game wasn’t fiddly or customizable enough for you before, this supplement helps make it so. It also helps show how cultural traditions shape the way people do magic.
The core book is very thorough in the topics it covers, but it’s not very good at giving the reader a sense of wonder about the setting. A lot of the coolness and mystique is buried in scattered parts, and it took a couple supplements to really flesh out the interesting parts.
The setting is very Gnostic and it assumes certain neo-Platonic ideas that are pretty hard to ignore. I like those elements, but if you want to change them, it does fundamentally change the conflict and nature of the setting.
Atlantis, and myth surrounding it, seems central to the story and it comes off as kind of New Age in parts. While the core book does state that the story is either a metaphor or otherwise not literal, it is originally presented as The Truth that All Mages Know, which is boring.
Charles Vess does all of the art in the core book, and a lot of it is REALLY good. Then again, a lot of it is REALLY bad. The Free Council iconic character in particular stands out as being terrible and for a while he was a standing joke on the official WW forums.
Secrets of the Ruined Temple– This book really got in and tore up the idea that Atlantis is monolithic or “true” in a way that the rest of the world is not. Secrets explores the idea that Atlantis could be fictional, that it was destroyed so completely that it ceased to have ever existed, or that it is will be built and destroyed in the future and the relics we have now are going backwards in time towards creation.
Seers of the Throne– The idea behind the Seers is that there are people in this world who sold out to the Exarchs, who keep magic out of our world, in order to have dominion over the rest of humanity. Seers shows you how to use the group in a campaign and how they interact with the player characters as high class antagonists. It frames the conflict solidly into that of class warfare, but with a magic twist.
Really, I love most of the Awakening supplements, and though I feel these are the best/ most essential to the setting, you should pick up any supplement that catches your eye.