Friday, January 7, 2011

More Mage

First, if you haven't read Dave Chalker's love letter to Mage you probably should. It'a great piece, and makes a great bookend to Ryan Macklin's similar letter a while back and Daniel Perez's letter to Vampire: the Masquerade.

I admit I love this kind of positive stuff, if only because you see so little of it, yet it's so important to why we game. But beyond the general, I want to point back to Dave's post because I think he finally managed to crystallize some things about mage for me.

I've mentioned before that mage contained multitudes - that one of its big strengths was that you could slice it a thousand different ways and come up with a thousand different games. A lot of that capability rested on the robustness of the ideas and the mechanics, and they were very robust, so much so that I think they almost pulled the game apart.

One one hand, the ideas were incredibly robust because it was, at its heart, a game ABOUT ideas. It was a literal expression of every half-assed philosophical discussion ever had at 3am, only with fireballs and trench coats. It let you go as far towards relativism or truth as your personal taste allowed, and if that didn't match up with other people at the table, that was JUST FINE, because the whole _point_ was that you had differing world views.

For better or for worse, the ideas of the game also paid you back depending upon what you brought to the game. If you wanted to half ass it and just do cool kung fu or get drunk and mind control chicks, that was an option, but if you really wanted to think about a worldview, and what it meant if it was big T Truth, you had all the space in the world to do so. I will even go so far as to say that without at least some thought, the game got lame very fast, especially once the Technocracy got folded into the table. If you wanted to do magic and also have ideas, that was ok, but it only really shined when you wanted to have ideas, and let them be magic.

The mechanics this was paired with seemed ideal at first blush, and by this I mean the magic system. There were other rules, and I'm sure they're important to someone, but magic was rather the point of the exercise. The sphere system was flexible enough to represent almost any effect, and freeform enough to put that capability in players hands. That was a big deal. Trusting players with that kind of power has dangers, but it can lead to the best sort of game, as mage highlighted.

See, there were a couple of ways to approach the sphere system, but there were two big ones. The first was "I have this kind of magic, I want this kind of effect, what kind of spheres does that take?". The second is "I have these spheres. What can they do?"

And that, there, is where the wishbone splits. Both approaches are potentially awesome, but they make for RADICALLY different games. The former dovetails with what I was talking about regarding a game of ideas. If you're playing the idea game, and your power comes from the burning fire of your soul, you're not going to use it to summon cream pies, no matter what your dots say you can do. The latter is what really cemented Mage's reputation as a supers game without tights. Once you start building powers from spheres, the sky;s the limit, and you end up with lists of effects that puts Champions to shame.[1]

But the thing I really need to underscore here is that this branching goes in two different but seriously awesome directions, which only became problematic if they mixed. The two approaches mix very poorly, resulting in the usual cascade of RPG bitching and moaning of people not getting it or spoiling their fun. That one game could do this thing is, honestly, a pretty amazing thing.

Now, I should note that I'm not hating on new Mage. I actually love it, albeit for a whole other host of reasons. But it's pretty interesting to dust off old mage and see what thoughts it brings.

1 - Which highlights the irony of using a more skill-list driven approach to feel "more magical".


  1. I will even go so far as to say that without at least some thought, the game got lame very fast, especially once the Technocracy got folded into the table. If you wanted to do magic and also have ideas, that was ok, but it only really shined when you wanted to have ideas, and let them be magic.

    Not sure what you mean by ideas. Are you talking about as a player expressing your character's paradigm?

  2. Looking back, I think that the reason many my Mage games broke down was due to the people loving their pet area of the setting, but then approached the system from a what can Spheres do mentality.

    I wonder if Mage were to be taken from a Apocolypse World approach of moves for paradigms how different the game would be? Could you even have the Ascended game with Spheres? It might be worth a Hack.

  3. @chris Pretty much. it was very easy for some technocracy players to forget that they even had a paradigm, just layering powers (or super science or whatever) on an assumed layer of normal.

    @dave The Change Reality move is actually kind of a hot thought.

  4. For me I really enjoyed the two different approaches to the Magic because it meant I had a decent collection of set things my character did on a regular basis, but when push came to shove I had my spheres to fall back on and improvise new things with. Often I played it out as surprising even to my character and sometimes just actively ignored it in character while others would question it or have it actively change some of the assumptions my character had.

    We also had several great games run using the Technocracy book rules to play AS technocracy characters, which all ended up really fun and entertaining for all of us. A large part of that was probably to the GM in the end though more than anything else.


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