In 1996, or close thereabouts, I brought home a thick purple tome from my friendly local gaming store. At that point, I had collected every World of Darkness game line in print, except one, and now it was finally in my hands. That game was Mage: the Ascension, the second edition of the game specifically, and it would go on to be life-changing. In very short order Mage became my favorite game, my go-to game, the game I had memorized perfectly. Its systems changed the way I thought about games, and it’s setting changed the way I thought about the world.
Mage was one of the few games out there to have a dynamic magic system. Rather than having long tedious lists of spells with ranges, durations, saves and components, Mage simply had Spheres, broad areas of influence that a given magician could manipulate to create the effect they wanted. A few other games have tried this before – the idea was essentially cribbed from Ars Magica – and since, but Mage remains one of my favorite versions of this system.
Then, in 2000, White Wolf Game Studio decided to update the game into a Revised edition. Many of their popular game lines were seeing a needed revision, although the new revisions would come with some setting decisions that would prove controversial and sometimes unpopular with the long time fan base. I was greatly excited by the chance to buy a new, revised version of Mage. The first book I owned, though well-loved, was riddled with errors, and I was looking forward to something clean and updated, with more content and more possibilities. One of my favorite thing about the setting was the sheer possibilities. It was a game where you could do anything. I couldn’t wait to see what they did with it next.
They blew it up.
The Revised Edition as I mentioned before included many changes that proved controversial. Several of these changes had been mandated by a previous developer, and mostly were focused on getting people to play the game “the right way”. Spirit realms were closed off to keep games more focused on Earth. The Ascension War, the primary conflict of the setting, was declared to be over; mages should be focused on winning the hearts and minds of the little people and not on petty espionage. Magic was made much harder, and more punishing, even for small effects. The attitude was that ideally a mage never used magick. The last one did it for me. It was a dark time. Flame wars on White Wolf’s message boards raged constantly back in those days of a more primitive Internet. It burned me out quickly, and I really just couldn’t turn back to the game I used to love. Several more books came out for Mage after that, but the magic had died for me somewhere. In 2003, White Wolf brought an end to their World of Darkness line, and finished Mage with a book entitled Ascension. It was the last book I would buy for the game. Even the developer and writers of that book seemed to admit there still seemed so much left to cover in the Mage setting, but time had run out.
White Wolf was eventually bought by CCP, the makers of EVE Online. In turn, a small studio named Onyx Path was formed, to make something of all the intellectual property that CCP had acquired, and new anniversary editions began to be printed. Last year, a friend of mine graciously helped me to kickstart into the Mage the Ascension 20th Anniversary project, and this spring I received a backer’s PDF copy of the book. Maybe this time I would fall in love again. Maybe this could bring the magick back.
The book is quite an impressive overall work, clocking in at 698 pages. This thing is a monster. Almost all of the previous anniversary editions are hefty reads, but this monster is gonna be a table cracker in print. I normally prefer dead tree for all my gaming-related reading needs, but I’m not sure I would be able to lift it. Heft is good; I like heft. So that is a start. It’s also in full color, and quite the pretty book.
For the anniversary edition Onyx Path managed to acquire the original developer, Phil Brucato, to do most of the writing, and it shows in a conversational, even flippant, style. It’s certainly easy to digest. Concepts come across cleanly when given the proper page space, although the writing may not be for the easily offended, as there is quite a fair amount of cursing and political jokes made.
The first section of the book covers setting material: what is a mage, how does magick work, why is magick spelled with a “k”. It’s written as a fairly good if breezy introduction to the basic constructs of the game. It’s where we also start seeing the “Future Fates” sidebars.
The original flame wars between the 2nd and Revised editions of Mage: the Ascension were quite intense, and the secondary flame wars surrounding the release of the New World of Darkness game Mage: the Awakening were similar if not as intense. The 20th Anniversary edition has quite a job to do in trying to mend the past and be an edition that can service fans of all the different versions of the game at once, and the decision seems to be to make no decision at all: decisions about whether or not to include a given setting element are left from group to group. It’s not a bad way of doing things, certainly, but it does seem a bit incomplete at times, as the options seem to range from either “This thing happened” or “this thing didn’t happen” with very little in the way of maybe simply doing things differently. Indeed, several things do have to happen for some of the setting elements to make sense. The other odd thing is this is the only one of the Anniversary games to present the idea that time hasn’t even passed and the whole game could still be taking place in the Clinton era, which isn’t a bad option but does seem an odd choice to include; after all, what is the point exactly of a new edition that doesn’t upgrade the setting?
The second section starts getting into one of the most important part of the setting, which is the various factions and groups available for play and as antagonists. Some of the art in this section is really amazing. First we have the Traditions, who were the only playable faction originally and who are made up of a diverse collection of magical practitioners and styles, including pagan witches, Buddhist martial artists, aboriginal shamans, mad scientists and Christian theurgists. That is only a small sampling, and doesn’t even cover those groups in their entirety, but I hope it paints the picture. The groups are often presented with two different names. The first name is the name they were originally given in the old setting. These are presented first, largely for intellectual property reasons. The second name is the “new” name for the group, which sometimes improves upon an old name – for example the mad scientist Sons of Ether changed to the less sexist Society of Ether – while others are less impressive – the Virtual Adepts change to Mercurial Elite, which doesn’t seem to be all that much of an improvement, and largely seems unneeded. Most of the others seem to be shifts to foreign names that may or may not be improvements, although they do generally seem less descriptive.
Next up in this section we get a brief overview of the Technocracy. Originally the Technocracy were the main villains of the game, but over the years they were rearranged to be a more shades-of-gray PC friendly faction when the possibilities of Technocratic monster hunters and other ideas started becoming more apparent. The only strange thing here is there is a noticeable dip in the art quality. While the pieces for the Traditions and the Disparates, the next section, are very vivid, the Technocracy portraits are much flatter and relatively uncreative.
The next section is the Disparates, and here I’m torn. The Disparates are not a faction from any of the original books. Instead, they are a new faction cobbled together from the old Crafts from the 2nd Edition. Crafts were smaller groups of mages who didn’t belong to any of the big factions, and who maintained a certain level of cultural independence and remove from the Ascension War. Ultimately the game makers decided no one knew what to do with them, so the Crafts were removed from the game in the Revised edition. It was one of the previously mentioned controversial decisions. It was also at the time a decision that ended being a little racist in some aspects, as magical style seemed to have less to do with what group a Craft was folded into than the members ethnicity or country of origin. In the Anniversary edition, these various Crafts are now part of a super secret alliance called the Disparates. They seem cool, and it’s good the game makers found something to do with them, but here they feel almost a bit redundant. They are the other secretive group of unlikely allies fighting against the Technocracy. It just seems pointless, and in a book this big with so much to cover, there seems like there are more important things to devote word count to than something that could easily be made into a supplement. More on that later.
While the overall descriptions are good in this section, the individual blurbs seem to not quite hammer out how a groups beliefs translate into magical practices. For instance, the Euthanatos/Chakravanti are described as being strong believers in reincarnation -it’s basically their whole schtick – but how that translates into magick is very poorly described. I find this especially true in the Disparates section.
We then see a discussion on the factions that are always antagonists in the game: the super evil Nephandi, and the chaotic Marauders. Both of these have been traditionally forbidden for being player characters – Nephandi for being too repugnant, Marauders for being to broken – and the Anniversary edition doesn’t break any new ground here. For what’s it’s worth, both groups feel as if they get quite a lot of coverage in what is really quite a small space.
After a thorough introduction, we’ve reached character creation. This is honestly where things start to go off the rails for me. First of all, each group gets to start with one “Affinity Sphere”. Spheres are your areas of magical influence. The Affinity Sphere is a sphere that you learn a little more cheaply than other Spheres. Most groups get a choice of two or three possible Affinity Spheres, sometimes four or even any – except members of the Order of Hermes, who get one, and only one. Why? Because fuck Hermetics, that’s why. It’s not a huge game balance issue, but it feels so easy to correct that it’s quite irritating.
Then we come to the skills, or Abilities as they are known in classic World of Darkness. Now, old school World of Darkness had a problem, which was the proliferation of Secondary Abilities. These were usually much more specialized off-character sheet abilities that were usually A) Useless, B) Overpowered, or C) in direct competition with one of the existing core Abilities, reducing it’s usefulness. The Anniversary editions of Vampire and Werewolf tried to clear that up by adding three new Abilities – Hobby Talent, Professional Skill, and Expert Knowledge – that work as sort of an overskill so huge lists of secondary abilities aren’t needed; think of them as similar to the Profession skill from 3.5 D&D or similar such abilities. Mage decided to throw that out the window. Instead, we are introduced to a whole host of Secondary abilities which needlessly pad out the word count of an already huge book. We get such things as:
-Carousing: Why do I need a skill to party?
-Blatancy: Hey, why try to be clever with magic use when I can just roll a skill?
-Energy Weapons: Because Firearms was just not good enough, there had to be a whole exotic Other ability involved
-Bitoech: Why is this not covered under Science/Medicine?
-Phamacopeia/Poisons: WHY IS THIS NOT COVERED UNDER MEDICINE?
The game also includes three unarmed fighting abilities: Brawl, which is the old standard, Martial Arts, and Do. Do is a special schtick for one of the player factions, so I can let it slide here. Martial Arts and Brawl needing to be separate just makes me grind my molars down. What’s the difference between the two? Martial Arts gives you supah-doopah maneuvers that you can use, while Brawl gives you bupkiss. So, there is the unarmed fighting style, and the crappy unarmed fighting style no one has any good reason to take.
This all pales to my least favorite thing though, which is the Core Knowledge Esoterica. Let me be blunt: I hate this ability. So as some back story, all World of Darkness games feature a Knowledge called Occult, and it has the unique position of being the only Knowledge that can produce inaccurate information. A successful roll on your Occult skill can tell you vampires are made of potatoes and that all the world’s arcane power is being focused in Akron, Ohio. If you want facts about supernatural stuff, then you need an ability called Lore, one of those secondary abilities that crapped on a core ability that I talked about earlier. The writer however didn’t feel that Occult was good enough now, so instead of rewriting it he opted to write an entirely new, way better Knowledge called Esoterica. Note that Esoterica is a core ability, so it crowds up the character sheet. It now can be the skill you take instead of Occult, which is now functionally useless.
I called the writer on this, saying it was a stupid treatment of the skill, and no other skill worked like that. He said that was how the Occult Knowledge worked in the other anniversary editions, so apparently his hands were tied. Note that didn’t prevent him from changing around skill categories or redefining other skills as he pleased, but Occult having to suck was written in stone by the primal gods.
Finally we move onto systems. We get a very brief overview of the core mechanic, multiple subsystems, and of course, combat quite at length. I will say the combat chapter does do an excellent job of helping to distinguish spells meant to attack versus say, spells meant to aid an attack, and how those affect things like number of actions. It can be somewhat unclear in other games for instance if a spell meant to enhance your punches can be cast at the same time you happen to be punching.
Finally, at the dead end of a book called Mage, we finally get to the magic chapter. I will say this: the new paradigm and focus rules are really good. There is a better defined, more succinct way of describing magical styles, and overall a lot of these concepts make better sense. Old school mage could be tricky with it’s foci and ritual tools, because while a gun might be your Forces focus, say, and that was great for zapping people, it was harder to justify how that let you say, see in dark.
The section on the Spheres though, and what you need to perform various effects, is painfully short and confusing. I’ve read the section was kept short to make adjudication easier, which is the most counter-intuitive thing I have ever heard. Spheres combinations are given with very little explanation why. Many spheres list things that they can do when combined, but not by themselves. It’s all very short, and almost none of the original possibilities are apparent from the very brief text. Apparently, the bulk of this material is scheduled to be released in a separate book called “How Do You DO That?”. So, a what, $100 book, and you have to buy a different book to tell you how the magic system is supposed to work? No. No no no.
The book rounds out with some sample NPCs and magic items, but frankly, I’m done. There are just too many times the book feels sparse, and like it’s word count is wasted on silliness like redundant skills or indulgent sidebars. I was hoping this might be the book to rekindle the magick for me, but tragically it just feels like the same old story. This book may be good for collectors, but it will be too expensive for a more casual RPG fan, and you can likely find a better introduction to Mage, or even a better game. The flame in my heart has gone out, so I’m going cold on this one.