Mage: The Ascension
by Phil Brucato, Brian Campbell, Deena McKinney,
Kevin A. Murphy, Nicky Rea, John R. Robey,
Kathleen Ryan, Allen Varney, & Teeuwynn Woodruff


Review by
William H. Stoddard

World of Darkness roleplaying game series

White Wolf Publishing: Atlanta

2nd edition: 1995
290 pages

October 2011

A freeform roleplaying system

Mage: The Ascension was part of the first World of Darkness series (1991-2004) from White Wolf Game Studio. This began with Vampire: The Masquerade, which rode on the popularity of Anne Rice's vampire novels, in the same way that Dungeons and Dragons rode on the post-Tolkienian wave of fantasy in the late 1960s and early 1970s. White Wolf brought a new style of play to gaming, owing almost nothing to the older hobby of wargaming, and a great deal to live theater; and it brought in a new player population, including a larger proportion of women. White Wolf labeled its worlds and its aesthetic as "gothic-punk": its settings might be shadowed and obsessed with ancient history, but they also were corrupt and violent, giving both character-focused and action-focused players something to work with.

I had the ironic thought, some years ago, that the initial series of World of Darkness games might almost have been written as a systematic philosophical rejection of all of Ayn Rand's ideas. Changeling: The Dreaming rejects her aesthetics, saying that beauty comes solely from deception and illusion, and any concern with facts represents being enslaved by banality. Werewolf: The Apocalypse opposes her economics, with stories of heroic lycanthropic eco-guerrillas at war with big business and industry. Vampire: The Masquerade rejects her politics and ethics, focusing on a race of beings who live by preying on humanity rather than trading with it. Wraith: The Oblivion rejects the metabiological foundations of her ethics, with characters being ghosts who find values to pursue that don't relate to survival or life. And Mage goes clear to the root, postulating that all of reality is subjective, that whatever is believed is true — and that since different people believe different things, the mage's greatest fear is Paradox, the collision of incompatible subjectivities. The core of the game is a systematic exploration of this theme.

To create a work of fiction, though — whether a novel, a story told in the marketplace, or a roleplaying campaign — it's necessary to turn its theme into a conflict. In Mage, logically enough, the conflict is over just how subjective reality is. The most important contenders in most campaigns are the Nine Traditions, whose members believe in subjectivity and seek to preserve a space for it in the world, and the Technocratic Union, whose goal is to eliminate that space. Ironically, the portrayal of the Technocracy shows that its adherents actually know that the objective reality of the sciences is all a huge, consistent illusion, whose power comes from human belief in it: They really believe in metaphysical subjectivity, but hate and fear it and work to destroy it, rather like an "atheist" who knows God exists but hates him or feels betrayed by him, as opposed to just not believing in him. What the Technocracy aims it is to have everyone's subjective belief, including their own, given to a single consensus vision of the world. That is, their approach might be compared to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idea of the Social Contract, where everyone agrees to take part in voting to determine the general will and then to do whatever it ordains, as opposed to John Locke's version, where everyone agrees to work together to protect each other's rights of private choice and private judgment. That goal is more akin to the approach of the Traditions, where different and often clashing schools find ways to cooperate on protecting each other's autonomy.

In this same analogy, one of the two smaller forces in the setting, the Marauders, are effectively mages who've never agreed to any Social Contract at all, but pursue totally subjective personal visions — and are largely immune to Paradox because they don't care about contradictions. The other smaller force, the Nephandi, are more or less worshipers of traditional devils or Lovecraftian mad gods. They're really a poor fit to the overall theme, being distinguished not by their attitude to subjectivity but by being deliberately Evil, like pulp or comic book villains; I've never thought their inclusion was a good idea.

In a standard Mage campaign, players will have their characters enter the conflict on the side of the Traditions. Following White Wolf Games' usual practice, the system gives them several ready-made identities to assume. Nine, in fact: five primarily Western groups (monotheists, pagans, Hermetic sorcerers, sex cultists, and death cultists), two non-Western (East Asian martial artists and tribal shamans), and two renegade Technocratic factions (Victorian mad scientists and cyberpunk neuromancers). (Later supplements introduce an older faction, now disaffected, based on Near Eastern mystical traditions such as Sufism, and go on to call attention to the underrepresentation of non-Western beliefs and provide some narrative threads about its problems.) For the player who finds such structures intolerable, there's also an associated non-Tradition, the Hollow Ones, named for Eliot's poem but in fact embodying Western aesthetic decadence from Baudelaire to the New Wave and Gothic movements (obviously they knew their intended audience!).

These are tied in with the game's central rules idea: Its treatment of magic. Obviously, if reality is subjective and magic is based on asserting one's own subjective viewpoint, the common game treatment of it as a kind of toolkit, with a long list of standard spells with fixed effects, isn't going to fit well. At the same time, "Your character can do anything you can imagine" doesn't make for a very good game; the player whose story embodies the biggest power fantasies and the most self-aggrandizement wins, and the game is over. Keeping a game or a story going requires some limits that the protagonists have to overcome. The authors' solution to this problem was an ingenious compromise: They provided a measure of just how much power a mage's subjectivity had over reality, Arete, and a set of areas in which that power could be exercised, the nine Spheres (one for each Tradition). Each Sphere, in turn, had several different levels, based on how much imagination it might take to envision doing various things. For example, the Sphere of Life went from a first level that allowed the equivalent of medical imaging and gene sequencing, to a fifth level that allowed unrestricted shapeshifting and creation of clones or homunculi.

Each Sphere came with a dozen or so examples of magical effects or "rotes" that its various levels could accomplish, taking up an average of two pages. But these were pointedly offered as illustrative examples. Players were encouraged to make up their own, by thinking about the kind of thing they wanted their characters to do in abstract terms. In fact, Mage as a whole — both its game rules aspect and its narrative background — could be taken as one large celebration of the power of abstract thinking, of grasping reality in principles and general patterns rather than in concrete-bound particulars. And the improvisational aspect also made playing the game a celebration of freedom of choice, not only by playing a character who fought to defend it, but by exercising it in the role of that character.

I'm not sure if I'd call the magic rules in Mage: The Ascension the best freeform system ever created; the system that accompanied the Buffy the Vampire Slayer roleplaying game was a brilliant success too, when I used it. But the two systems stand out for me as rival pinnacles of game design.

The other analogy that occurred to me about the first World of Darkness games was the human life cycle. Changeling seemed to be about childhood, focused on "let's pretend" and the threat of adult banality. Werewolf was more about adolescence, with tribal loyalties inspiring intense emotion and violent action. Vampire was about young adulthood — the college student who can now stay up all night, get involved in political cliques, and pursue status. Mage was about adulthood: taking on the job of shaping the world. And Wraith was about old age and preserving one's values in the face of annihilation. Mage struck me, and still strikes me, as a roleplaying game for adults, and about being an adult — about growing up to be one's own master and create one's own world. I think it was one of the classic games of its decade, worth preserving and even still worth playing.


© 2011 William H. Stoddard

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