Even though I’ve played dozens upon dozens of different RPGs, if you ask me what my favorite game is, the choice is clear: It’s Mage: The Ascension (2nd edition, to be precise.) It’s not the game I’ve clocked the most hours playing, or spent the most money on, or wrote the most about. I can’t even recall playing in a campaign as a Mage that lasted for more than a few sessions. Why do I have such fondness for the game, over 10 years since I picked up the book? Simple: it’s the first RPG that felt like it rewired my brain.
The basic premise of Mage: The Ascension is that everyone has the capacity, at some level, to shape reality. This capacity, personified as a mysterious alter-ego called the Avatar, is dormant in most people, who are known as sleepers, whereas Mages (and/or their Avatars) are said to be Awakened. Because they’re awakened, Mages can consciously affect changes to reality via willpower, beliefs, and specific magical techniques.
It was the mid-90’s when I would first pick up the book from a far off game store, ferried there by my one gamer friend who could drive. I don’t recall what made me buy it, other than a very probable “this looks cool”, though it must have beat out a number of other games in my very limited gamer budget. I had played some Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse and wasn’t all that impressed, so there must have been something else about that purple and gold cover that drew me to it.
It wouldn’t be until a week later when I would be on a vacation with my friend The O that I would get a chance to dive into the book fully. I sat on the beach in Ocean City and read the whole thing from cover to cover (yes, I chose reading an RPG book over swimming in the ocean, I’ve earned my nerdity).
Here was a game that took magic from being a big list of concrete spells and encouraged, no, demanded that you be inventive with your spheres of influence, combining them to form all kinds of effects, while keeping in mind how such an effect would strain against the consensus reality. Clever coincidences were your most reliable weapon, while blatant disruptions were your most powerful and most dangerous.
The combination of all the possibilities of magic, alongside a set of evocative factions, characters easily came to mind too. From a Degenerate gambler who would throw darts at a map to determine his next move, to the escaped Technocracy experiment whose psychic abilities threatened to consume him, to the Syndicate operative whose stock projections were no match for eldritch horrors. All of them used “magic” and yet were completely different in play and personality.
It wasn’t just the spell system and the characters that fascinated me, though that was certainly the one that drove play the most. The concept of consensus reality and paradigms made me look at the world around me in a different way. Each different paradigm used was a complete model of how everything (and I do mean EVERYTHING) worked, all competing to be the dominant one in reality. Science, technology, religion, philosophy: all were determined by belief. That was an eye-opening idea to a teenage me, who was still grappling with how everything just in my own life fit together, not to mention the very structure of reality.
Not to say my grasp of reality was tenuous and I would start chanting to invoke my Forces 3/Prime 2 effect, it just gave me a heck of a lot to think about, and was an experience that has yet to be fully matched by anything else I’ve read.
Why didn’t Mage take hold more in our group? Well, it certainly had its fans. However, the basic rules ended up having some pretty severe flaws, which would later lead to a revised edition that was poorly received by us (perhaps my first true Grognard moment.) Many of the games turned into “World of Darkness” kitchen sink games, such as a game with a Vampire, a Werewolf, a Mage, a Faerie, and a Wraith (the Wraith being especially hilariously disconnected from the main game.) Those combination games could be amusing in short bursts, but I always felt like it shortchanged the Mage: the vision of the universe laid out in the book just didn’t seem to sync up with those presented by other books. Especially in those combo games, it was clear that it can be difficult to run a game for characters who can do almost anything, limited only by their spheres and imaginations.
The most damning strike against the game though was how few of us seemed to “get it”- it was usually clear who had a consistent paradigm to their character, and those who took more of a stock approach, and those play styles didn’t always gel. It wasn’t a matter of the players involved being smarter or anything: it just takes some mental hoops to really get into Mage, and it often showed. The revised Mage: The Ascension book did some great work patching up the core rules and putting more emphasis on paradigm, while making it even harder for other players in our group to get into. Later, in the “New World of Darkness,” Mage: The Awakening would continue the trend of making the core rules much more usable, while tossing out much of what I enjoyed in the old game and forging something new. I wasn’t going on the Internet raging about how much it sucked, it just simply wasn’t my game, and I was willing to part ways. Bartoneus later experimented with a 19th century Mage game that used the new rules and the old setting, to limited success.
Now, I’m digging back into those old books, the binding on that original hardcover that had gone to the beach barely holding it together, as I work on my hack of the Leverage RPG for Mage, and it’s fun to look back at this game that was so influential to me. Not everything holds up: I’m not sure I ever liked that cheesy comic in the back used to give an example of play, for instance. Overall, I’m really enjoying a possible merger of new core RPG tech and one of my favorite game settings of all time. If I’ve found a new ideal gaming paradigm, I’ll let you know.