Back in 1994, I bought my first White Wolf, World of Darkness game. It wasn’t, like most people who have gamed with me assume, Vampire, but rather Wraith: The Oblivion. I’d seen a review of it in issue 3 of Valkyrie magazine and it sounded like nothing I’d ever played before. One quick trip to the Virgin megastore in Glasgow later, and I was the proud owner of a lovely softback book, complete with a glow in the dark cover.
I think I consumed the entire book in a couple of days, because – some purple prose aside – this genuinely was a completely unique setting that spoke volumes to me. Up until this point my RPG experience had been all Warhammer, D&D, Star Wars and Call of Cthulhu. They were all – after a fashion – “good guy” RPGs. That’s not to say you played the bad guys in Wraith, but you certainly weren’t playing something conventional.
The background was so deep, and so unique I immediately came up with about a gazillion different things I’d like to do with this game. Sadly though, the rules left a little bit to be desired. There were some really cool things – like Shadows – in there, but how you went about implementing a lot of it felt a bit janky. This was what probably put me off running it for so long.
However, what I wasn’t put off doing, was exploring the rest of the World of Darkness. One thing that Wraith taught me was that it was only the most recent in a whole line of “you get to the play the monster” games from White Wolf. Now, whilst Vampire and Werewolf were obvious “monster” games (despite Werewolf desperately pitching the Garou as the good guys) I always found Wraith a bit of a grey area. Even the most monstrous opponents in Wraith – the Spectres – were simply normal people who had allowed their darker side to completely take over; probably because they had become some overwhelmed with the fact that they would never be able to return to the land of the living, or by the general awfulness of day to day existence in the Shadowlands. These guys were tragic, rather than outright evil.
This is what probably drew me to Mage: The Ascension. Mage, in case the name isn’t blindingly obvious, is White Wolf’s game of modern magic. Characters play humans with the ability to manipulate reality, who hang around the same World of Darkness that is populated by vampires, werewolves and wraiths. It’s a lot of fun, and one of the real stand outs is the magic system. Unlike a lot of games, which have magic points, spell slots, and defined lists of things you can cast, Mage’s magic system has a set of spheres – facets of reality that a mage can manipulate, and which allow a player to accomplish almost anything. Now, there are obviously rules – a mage needs both sufficient knowledge of their spheres, and knowledge of how to manipulate reality to accomplish whatever they’re trying, plus there are also sorts of metaphysical barriers in place to stop you just turning into Godzilla and stomping over everything but, this was a game that really encouraged you to use your imagination when cast spells. In fact, it felt kind of magical coming up with effects on the fly.
I ran Mage several times in the 90s, most notably for a group of friends where we shared GM duties. These sessions resulted in some really memorable characters being created, and have also stuck in my memory for how the games themselves felt. It had an almost Matrixesque vibe to it – where a group of reality manipulators were on the run from the Technocratic organisation that had very firm views on what constituted consensual reality, and who were very much out to punish “reality deviants”. It was a war fought in the shadows, away from the everyday lives of the masses, and which saw the characters performing feats of magic that had to be framed as coincidences to work correctly and avoid a massive backlash from the universe which would deem more vulgar magic to be paradoxical, and punish the offending mage accordingly.
Sadly I’ve not had a chance to run Mage on such a scale since then, but recently I’ve dug it out for inclusion in a World of Darkness game I’m running as a one-off. To help inspire me, I’ve taken a look at various actual plays, blogs and other online resources to see how its being run currently…and I’m somewhat surprised by what I’ve seen.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen games in the past which have made me cringe – my friend Jason used to joke that he never played in a local Mage game as he wasn’t interested in playing a superhero – but I always assumed that these games were the exception rather than the rule. However, what I’ve seen recently has fallen into several categories:
- The “mages as superheroes” games – in these sessions, it seems that the rules for consensual reality and paradox are just ignored, along with anything to do with an individual paradigm. From what I’ve seen, mages just exclaim “I’m doing <insert over the top thing>!” roll some dice and it happens. Flying, fireballs, earthquakes – it’s all here folks.
- The “this is super high tech sci fi and there are aliens everywhere” games – and I’m not talking about Technocracy games where their paradigm envisions magic as “enlightened science”. This is straight up laser blasters and space ships play, where spirits are actually aliens and the umbra is space. The crazy thing is, there are characters who don’t have a technology related paradigm but are busy cranking off spells that work. They just use ray guns rather than wands.
- The “Victorian steampunk” games – which is similar to its “super high tech sci fi” brother, except its an excuse to were a clockwork monocle, a top hat and stupid moustache, whilst calling yourself “Captain Zemo”. I could almost pardon this if the characters were all Sons of Ether, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Characters are from a grab bag of traditions, but everyone is straight from the pages of a Jules Verne story.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking other people’s fun here. Whilst those styles might not be for me, if you enjoy them, more power to you. Game on. No, what I’m surprised with is the fact that I’ve got this horrible feeling that maybe I misinterpreted Mage’s general themes. I always saw it as being about a war for reality (at least in 1st edition) where the mystical traditions struggled valiantly against the Technocratic Union who had exerted a rigorous control over the very metaphysical structure of the world, to the extent that most magic had to be disguised as a coincidence, otherwise the offending spell caster would by punished by a reality that couldn’t accept the shape it was being forced into. It was about dodging the Technocracy, picking your battles, and only bringing out the truly outlandish magical effects when you truly didn’t have any option. For characters, it focused on disparate individuals who had to work with each other, but whose views – magical and mundane – often clash, and whose styles of magic, and the mystic paradigms to which they subscribed often forced them into conflict rather than co-operation. There was also a focus on introspection – into seeing what internal barriers you had to break down to reach the next phase of enlightenment, and whether in the process of doing so you lost that which made you truly human.
In short, as I saw all those other ways of playing that were nothing like I remembered, I found myself thinking like Michael Douglas at the end of “Falling Down” – “I’m the bad guy?”