Greeting from Boston in the new World of Darkness.
A wanderer through the occasional magical door, I move from world to world and when not running role-playing games for some and causing trouble for others, I make podcast columns and reviews of role-playing game material. My companions include legendary demi-lich Acererak and grandmother hag Baba Yaga and we waltz across time and space in Baba Yaga’s magic dancing hut. This is a typical life for a podcaster. By comparison, the guys behind Sharkbone actually are sharks. With freaking lasers on their heads.
This week I will be reviewing Mage: the Awakening.
I bet the mages in this world a bunch of pikers.
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Acererak, mentioned previously.
What do you mean, pikers?
Real mages and wizards dress like rejects and refugees from… some kind of pride parade, with spiky collars and leather and white after labor day.
Lots of mages in this world of darkness dress like rejects and refugees from all kinds of pride parades and seem to think formal wear includes spiky collars and leather and white after labor day.
Oh, well, in that case, lay on McDuff.
Thank you for your permission to run my own god damned podcast review.
Anyway, released in 2005 – has it been six years already – Mage the Awakening is the current version of White Wolf’s game of darkly fantastic contemporary magic.
It is a 400 page hardcover book, sporting a full color cover and with gold metallic ink type. The interior is two-color, featuring black and gold metallic inks. The interior black ink sometimes smears when touched if the book is new and the gold inked letting is hard to reading, depending on the angel of the light.
As with most White Wolf books, Mage opens with a fiction piece, an in character exercise which serves to introduce the subject matter of the book. The one in this book is par for the course, adequate and not exceptional.
Similar bits of fiction open each of the major section of the book and some of these are good.
Following the opening fiction is an introduction chapter, discussing the book. The next four chapters describe the game world, mages, character creation and how magic works. There are two appendixes, the first discussing enemies and the second providing a sample mage community in Boston – the very place where I am recording this podcast.
Long-time White Wolf go-to artists Michael W. Kaluta provides the lions-share of the art in the book. His art is good, though as the art mostly comes from him, the range of art in the book is narrow.
A good example of Kaluta’s art on page 184 – depicting the magical transformation of kernels of corn into yellow hornets. While it is a solid piece of art, it is debatable why a mage would want to do such a thing.
Well, maybe if you are at a country western buffet and a fight breaks out and you want to use corn on the cob as a grenade-like weapon.
That is ridiculous.
It would be awesome if you could come up with some kind of corn related pun to shout out. Anyway, they kind of look like bees to me.
What, really? They are totally hornets.
I think it is a deadly bee weapon.
Bees. My god.
Where was I?
Mage the Awakening as a White Wolf game in the World of Darkness, uses the Storyteller system. A series of dots on a characters sheet represent the various abilities, skills, supernatural powers and so forth a character possesses. At the time of character creation, player distributes a finite amount of dots as they choose. Experience points allow you to purchase new dots. The number of dots represents the number of 10-sided dice the player may roll to try to accomplish something. This game only uses 10-sides dice and it usually has to use a lot of them. Getting an 8, 9 or 10 on a roll indicates a success at a task – and getting multiple successes is useful. Getting a 10 allows the player to reroll that dice and if they get another success, it adds to their total number of success – and they get to reroll the 10 if they get another. It is theoretically possible to keep rolling forever if you keep getting 10s.
A drawback is keeping track of lots of 10 sided dice can be a hassle, slowing the game down when you roll six or seven or more of them, count out success versus failures and then gather your dice.
Mage possesses arguably the most inventive and flexible magic system’s in RPG's. It does not present a spells, per cea, but a dynamic system. A mage must combine different traits to produce magical effects. The list of the magic traits include Death, Fate, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Prime, Space, Spirit and Time. A mage’s power in one of these traits represents their power of things related to that trait. A mage who wishes to hypnotize someone will have to possess levels in Mind, for example. Combining the traits allows the mage to accomplish things – a Mage with the right command over forces and Space will be an exceptional shot, for example.
There are also two kinds of magic; the covert and the vulgar. Covert magic will not appear to be magic to normal people, though other mages will know better. Vulgar magic will appear to be impossible, or magical, to everyone. A good trick shot will likely be covert magic. Shooting lighting from your fingertips will be vulgar magic. Vulgar magic earns the mage something called paradox, which can inflict damage on the mage, or do something like turn their head into a pumpkin.
In this world, mages have many reasons to keep secret what they do.
The strength and draw of White Wolf’s game are the darkly tinted social and moral set up. This was true of the old Mage game and remains true in the new Mage game.
In both games, the nominal moral responsibility of mages is to pursue greater power through greater enlightenment and to assist the general population in gaining, or regaining lost glories and levels of awareness. In practice, mages inevitable fails in these goals for one reason or another, not the least because of the very human traits of vanity and pettiness.
The metaplot in the old game appeared, more or less by accident. Each of the old games presented an interesting dynamic and players and fans asked how that situation came about and where it was going next. The metaplot grew out of an effort to answer those questions – it arose as WW writers began describing how the situation came about and who the major NPCs were, creating a momentum moving the game world along. The new game-lines avoid this, meaning it is less deterministic. For example, in the old game if you played a tradition mage, it was determined your enemies were the Technocracy. The new game is looser in this – if you play a member of the Adamantine Arrow group of mages you probably do not like members of the Guardians of the Veil group of mages, but it does not mean the two groups are locked in a “to the death war” allowing for more flexibility in terms of game play.
However, the lack of a metaplot means the games also lack a built in dynamism. There is something inherently dramatic and enticing about the war between the Traditions and the Technocracy that is missing in the low key fued between the groups in the current version of the game. By way of comparison, there is something immediately understandable and interesting in the conflicts between the Autobots and the Decipticons, between G.I. Joe and Cobra…
…Between clowns and mimes.
Clowns and mimes have been deadly enemies for centuries. Didn’t you know that.
Back to the review.
The old Mage game presented a conflict between the traditions and the technocracy.
In the old Mage game, if you were a tradition mage, then you were the type that could build a freeze ray or would go dancing among standing stones while your enemies where the Technocracy, those bastards who invented digital watches and credit ratings.
In the old Mage game, If you were a technocratic mage, they were the type to make technology accessible and useful and develop responsible accounting while your enemies where comic-book mad scientists and blood spilling neo-druids.
The new game sells five social or political groups of mages, each group more or less neutral evil. Picture them as five corporations with some conflicting interests but enough mutual interest they do not fall into active and open warfare. In addition to these five groups, there are five magic paths or callings for the PCs – so the book actually provides 25 possible types of mages.
However, the new mages are all, to some degree, like darker and meaner versions of the mages in the Harry Dresden books – the PCs are likely to be rather similar Dresden, though with sharper teeth and colder eyes. Much colder eyes.
The result of this is less distinct variation between one group of mages and another group of mages – at the very least, there is less distinction between the groups in the current version of the Mage game than there was in the old game.
This scenario does not make the new weak, though it is understandable how some might perceives the new game boring in comparison to the old. Ultimately, in the new game most the responsibility for keeping the game dynamic rests with the game master and the players rather than with the writers and the books.
Candidly, I miss dynamism of the old game, with the Verbena, those occasionally blood splattered druids, and the Sons of Ether, those often comic book style mad scientists.
However, the game has moved on and in fairness I give Mage: the Awakening a 15 on d20 roll.
Say…. Where all the mages around here? This is their base, right?
They are downtown, with the normal people, rioting wildly around the movie theater as a result of Michael Bay’s “Superfriends” flick.