Sunday, January 26, 2014

Review: Mage: The Ascension

Touted as possibly one of the best roleplaying games to be published by some of my friends, Mage: The Ascension is certainly one of the finest publications to come out of White Wolf and World of Darkness, and remains one of the most innovative in my opinion.

The premise is remarkably simple, and strong. It goes something like this: reality is simply a reflection of common sense rules and paradigms derived from a consensus of everyone on the planet. The war for reality has long since been won by science and the technocracy. Those who wield the power of science are "correct" because they have persuaded the vast swathes of humanity that science is the only credible explanation for the world around them. Moreover, science also offers tangible benefits: medicines, electronic devices, and a lack of "supernatural" monsters in the darkness.

Now enter the mages. Those people who have awakened to the reality that they are able to shape the world around them by their thoughts, willpower, belief and actions. But they are not all powerful.

If they cast a spell that goes against the common sense, everyday experience of the vast swathes of humanity, a contradiction results. This is known in the game as paradox and results from "vulgar" magic such as conjuring and throwing a fireball down the street or turning a person in to a giraffe. Consensus says this is not possible, therefore the mage gets a metaphysical slap / backlash to the face from the consensus. Paradox is essentially reality trying to resolve the actions of the mage against the consensus and is a type of backlash in essence. But it can cause horrendous and random effects. This might be as benign as excessive fingernail growth, but could be as disastrous as summoning spirits who punish the mage to resolve the discrepancy between the mage and reality, or banishment to a labyrinthine pocket dimension.

These effects can be avoided by employing coincidental magics instead of vulgar (throw fire ball down the street type) magic. Coincidental magic represents things that might happen anyway and is not overtly magical in nature to a casual observer. For example, instead of throwing down a cloud of darkness to provide cover for sneaking about, the Mage might cause a street lamp's bulb to blow up. That happens every once in a while and agrees well with the consensus reality of every day people. If they're being chased down a lane-way, their assailant tripping over untied shoelaces could plausibly happen (but spontaneously combusting is going a bit far and would probably result in some paradox!).  Racing someone to a destination could be achieved through teleportation, but the mage better be sure there are not any witnesses at the start and end points. And arriving just before their competitors seems wiser than being hours in front. Risky and borderline for paradox, but still plausible so long as none-mages ("sleepers") didn't witness it.

Combine the above with a variety of possible backgrounds (religious inspired magic from the Celestial Chorus; blood-witches from the Verbena; etc.) and an aggressive technocracy who strive to keep control of reality for (originally) the good of everyone and hunt down vulgar mages who threaten to change the reality consensus, and you have the makings of one great role playing game.

Added to this are the rules from White Wolf that are similar to Vampire: the Masquerade (etc.), but could easily be implemented without any die rolling (IMHO), causes this game to really shine. There are a whole heap of expansions for it (many of which I have never owned or read), but I don't think they're necessary for the full enjoyment of the game. With an innovative storyteller / GM, the basic rulebook is really all that is required. If you have never come across this gem from the 1990's, you should ask your (older) GMs about it. Try it - you'll be pleasantly surprised I think!

(NB: I don't regard the successor "Mage: The Awakening" as being anywhere near as good as the old version of the game, so if you can get your hands on The Ascension version, I'd suggest that'd be a superior resource to check out).

1 comment:

Farmpunk said...

Ascension was one of my all-time favorite world settings, as well as it's spin-off Socerer's Crusade (Mage in the Age of Discovery)

It took the right group to play, much like Wraith (which is also a great gem of an RPG, the mechanic of a player portraying another player's shadow could work great)

The Order books and Technocracy books are good to have, and fantastic reading.

The world has a LOT of flexibility for storytelling. One of the problems can be a lack of boundaries though. IT can become easy for someone to try and powergame, but Paradox can help a GM keep people in check.

I always wanted to do a game with all Sons of Ether or Void Engineers in deepspace.

Now that I think about it, I wanted to do Firefly using Mage, before Firefly came out.

I sold all of my White Wolf books last fall to a local LARP group here in Indy. I haven't used my books in 15yrs, and the money was more useful to me than 2 milk crates of books.

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