nWoD Review No.4 – Mage: The Awakening
Each review will take the form of a quick skim through for first impressions, followed by a more in depth look page by page…
I was a massive fan of Mage in both its first and second edition incarnations. I felt that revised – while a rules improvement – killed of a lot of the point of Mage. The Avatar Storm was a huge stinking pile of shit and trying to wrestle the glorious monster that was Mage second edition back down to street level was both doomed to failure and counter productive.
Mage was the ‘universal field theory’ by which the entire oWoD hung together.
I LOVED it.
Unfortunately much of my experience with it was through long term exposure in The Camarilla where the existence of people who could do neat stuff just by thinking about it really hard and believing in it was too much for certain people to deal with or understand, also we had to go along with canon.
So, while Mage 1st and 2nd gave me multiple orgasms of gamer joy, revised took a big dump on my head.
My decision whether to have anything more to do with The Camarilla or the nWoD line rests entirely on the contents of this book as it is the only thing that might ever, truly tempt me back.
Needless to say, this MASSIVELY colours my opinions on anything Mage related and will affect this review considerably one way or the other.
Now, I’ve heard of the Atlantis connection, and frankly the whole idea gives me the heebie-jeebies before I even open the damned book.
Pretty cover though.
Again with the confused and messed up formatting. Worst in the In-Character sections of text but present elsewhere here and there. Overall though the layout seems fairly clean.
Once again, much of the design, in this case the symbols of the various orders, seems overwrought, especially compared to the iconic images and symbols of the oWoD games.
The organisation reminds me far more of Ars Magica (or Order of Hermes) houses than it does of the old Traditions. I’m not sure how I feel about that, it seems to ‘hedge you in’ a bit.
My word, an umbra diagram that makes sense…
Holy shit, they tied magely power with a single sense of morality. Stupid, stupid, stupid… Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks when you read it more closely.
Magic looks to be roughly the same, with a better explanation of what sympathetic magic is, but it remains to be seen if that holds true.
Some things seem better explained – the capacity of the powers, others seem to use fairly impenetrable language. It seems as though things have been depowered and more tightly classified, which may be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.
There seems to be much more emphasis on set spell effects, something that was a weakness of the LARP version of oWoD mage and of revised. Rotes were never the point of the old Mage and Mage has always BEEN the sphere system.
*headdesk* Tremere… I thought we’d seen the last of them. I hoped we’d seen the last of them. Lich or Vampire, we can live without ‘em.
OK, I am perturbed. The freedom of the old Mage, so important to its sense of fun and adventure seems to be somewhat absent and nothing is leaping out of the page and saying ‘Play me’ - on with the more detailed assessment.
Step by Step
Pretty, very pretty indeed. It is evocative, much more so than any of the other nWoD covers so far and even recalls the older, purple velvet Mage books with the sweep and flow of the water. Title font is terrible again though.
Not too bad, actually mildly titillating (in a Mage interest sort of way) but the attribution of the remark reconfirms warning signs of a more structured and less open game by evoking the feel of the Order of Hermes.
Messy and somewhat painful to read, that fits the ‘voice’ of the story but makes it hard to pick up what you’re getting into with the game, though the demonic/cthuloid hints tie in with the core book sensation.
Well, it seems they’ve disentangled Mage from real world traditions and magical thought which is a bit of a shame. A strength of the old Mage was its philosophy and thoughts on the nature of reality, which described the act of Magic perfectly well. Now, instead we have a ‘higher reality’ a one-true-way above the magical traditions of the real world. To change that is to lose something I think and while I wanted the other games to be revolutions Mage always was a constant revolution, at least to me. Too much change to Mage’s fundamentals means it is not Mage any more, but something other. This is one of those fundamentals.
Many of the basics seem the same, ‘spheres’ under whatever names, the nature of Paradox, good balances and controls on excessive effects as ever.
It looks like there is also a lack of an overarching enemy, at least in the sense of the technocracy. Again this feels somewhat restricting, it makes the game ‘smaller’ in the same way the Avatar storm did with the oWoD Mage. You can tell a man by the quality of his enemies and the enemies here are vague or relatively unthreatening. While I never agreed with the portrayal of the Technocracy in either instance they were an effective and terrifying enemy.
There doesn’t appear to be any ‘war’ here. Magi don’t seem to fight for any higher purpose past themselves and many of the conflicts seem to be internal. Again, I’m not so sure about that or how suited it is to group play. It would seem that they would tend to be arrogant selfish pricks!
I really get the feeling Erik Von Daniken should have been on their recommended reading list. Ugh.
At-fucking-lantis. This is going to be the major block in my path in liking this game. Atlantis just doesn’t seem to go well with games. The Atlanteans in Con-X were just horrible and it does seem to be, somewhat, the kiss of death. This is probably due to all the baggage around Atlantis. It just seems too cheesy and horrible to be taken seriously as a magely origin.
Atlantis, and dragons… what next?
Daimons appear to be the new Avatars and play some part in testing a new Mage for worthiness before granting awakening, rather than an awakened Avatar being the channel for supernatural power though these ‘watchtowers’ appear to be the method by which newer Magi can be called forth (watchtowers being spiritual beacons from the otherwise unattainable higher planes).
This game just throws you in at the start with an awful lot of jargon and concepts without explaining them as well as the other books have explained themselves.
The history isn’t a history; it takes the form of a myth with a great many provisos as to what may or may not be true and a blockage upon people scrying back that far. This has advantages and disadvantages. I like there to be a ‘truth’ as much as possible for a game so that players can actually make progress. This does leave you more freedom to cut your own path though. Once again, in reference to LARPs however, people are screwed as they will contradict each other massively.
The battle then, in Mage, seems to be to ascend still, to join the battle in the higher supernatural realms for the control of reality but it is a personal and not a sect-led quest and does not have as much immediate relevance to the role of characters.
If reality, however, is not defined by will (at least not that of the sleepers) I have to wonder where Paradox comes from and how it is justified in this setting. Aha, it seems that using the laws and powers of the higher realms (that exist behind a spiritual gap called ‘The Abyss’) pokes holes between realities for a moment through which harm, madness and other taint from the abyss or the higher planes can leak. I suppose that makes sense – though it doesn’t explain why witnesses make it worse.
Mages are divided by their type of awakening and which Watchtower they get associated with. These bear closest resemblance to the old ‘Essence’ trait that determined the type of avatar one had but they seem to be somewhat broader and somewhat more important than Essence ever was.
Given the much more intensely personal (and competitive) nature of the feel of the game thus far I find the reasons to come together in Cabals less than convincing and wonder how a group dynamic is really supposed to work, even at tabletop scale, let alone at LARP scale.
Besides the Watchtowers Magi are defined by the Order they join. If Watchtower is the spiritual choice then Order is the choice of will ‘What do I want to be’ rather than ‘who am I’. I don’t find them particularly inspiring though and they really don’t have the hooks of the old traditions. The old Mage was broad in terms of play and capability but you could define your character quite tightly through the traditions and through merits and flaws. The new system denies you one way to define yourself and the new orders are too vague, it’s like trying to sculpt smoke.
The opposing groups, such as they are, are the Seers of the Throne, who are sort of a Fat Free Illuminati or a Technocracy Lite. Rather grey and uninteresting.
The Banishers are a more interesting group, awakened mages who defy the awakening, usually due to some personal horror or harm. These make for far more engaging bad guys but you would mostly see them acting individually.
The Mage society seems far more ordered and cohesive than of old, much closer to the organisation of the hermetic order which, again to me, seems contradictory to the nature of Mages as explained in the text up to this point.
One hook that is reasonably good is the hunt for old artefacts and lore from the fall of Atlantis. Even with the facial tic that Atlantis gives me tomb-raiding and lore hunting IS one viable reason to bring a group together and a good carrot to lead them into adventure. Such jet-setting though would seem to contradict – once again – the ordered and personal-level that the setting seems to be trying to emphasise.
Character creation is covered using the standard add-a-template method of the nWoD. Which is nice. Mages especially though I can see suffering from the base-character competency problem as a wide variety of skills are generally useful and complimentary to such a character.
There are 10 sphere now, due to Entropy being split up into Fate and Death
Gnosis is the replacement term for Arete, at least its easier to pronounce.
Now we hit a major problem, Morality. Its grating enough in Vampire that humanity is so strictly (and IMO erroneously) defined but here your Wisdom (the replacement morality for Mages) is directly tied into your Magical ability in a number of ways with little room for personal ideological ‘wiggle’.
This annoys the crap out of me. Between the morality system and the wisdom system you are really turned away from some interesting concepts and any really nasty ‘bad guys’ that you come up with are going to be crippled to a degree against any PC goody-two-shoes.
This one’s a bit of a deal breaker on the new Mage and a strong part of the ‘hedging in’ and extra defining of the new game.
Magical ‘Style’ is the only place where ideological or cultural significance really plays much of a part in magic. I played Orphans quite a lot in the old Mage so appreciated the pick and choose option of what you used to cast your magic but if these beliefs aren’t significant why do they arise? Again, the new Mage seems to be tight in the wrong places and loose in the wrong places.
Even the choice of Arcana (Spheres) is restrictive compared to the old Mage, channelling you into playing a certain way with certain powers right from the start. You had a lot more freedom to define your capabilities before.
Rotes are also far more important, set spell effects rather than off-the-cuff freestyle magic which was a major selling point on the old Mage system, this is far less dynamic. While it is NICE to have mechanical support for rotes they quite strongly go against the feel of Mage (as it was) for me.
Mages seem to have the highest number of new merits, which mainly replace old backgrounds which will be thoroughly familiar to old players despite the new names.
Gnosis ties in with the blood potency of Vampire and the Primal Urge of werewolf. Oddly enough it now seems that (save for exceptional circumstances) the vampires are the only ones who can LOSE levels of their overall supernatural potency! Previously it was the other way around and that places the vampires at a reasonable disadvantage against the others now.
Gnosis is the be-all and end-all of a Mage now, far more than Arete ever really was.
As with the other nWoD books things are, generally, far better explained than in the old days but of the new books Mage is the least clear – which is a shame since it would benefit most from effective descriptions and examples. There is simply too much terminology thrown around but then White Wolf have always been keen using a lot of pretty words.
Magical tools, that assist with willworking are more defined again, once more restricting much of the character’s freedom to define their own way and will of doing things. These restrictions are beginning to mount up.
Magic is much better explained but hard to read due to the layout and text choices. Headers do not stand out making finding references quite tricky on the page.
Coincidental is now ‘covert’ Magic though there is less justification in the setting material for hiding magic and this doesn’t quite hold together under close scrutiny. Magic in general is much better explained but that also means much more rigidly defined. What constitutes sympathetic magic is explained well and ties into the system much more clearly.
The effect of fame, or ‘metaphysical weight’ on the difficulty to cast magic on people is well explained and helps keep some magic in check but I can see it being horribly abused in LARPs or cross-cultural games with non-magi taking fame in order to be armoured against Magic.
What, how much and how powerfully a spell can affect a large number of people, the range of its effect and so on is very clearly defined with actual tables. Something the older games did lack and this is somewhat welcome but not especially adaptable to truly outside-the-box effects. It is also reflected in dice-pool penalties rather than successes or some other mechanism which I get the feeling wouldn’t work too well in play.
Overall however, the casting system is more complicated than of old while also being more restricting with a profusion of different modifiers, methods and interpretations that are quite confusing.
Thankfully there are rules here, right from the start of the line, for interactions between Magi and other supernatural races and powers. No more arguments on that one thank god.
Paradox is, like everything else, much more clearly defined and yet far less free. The effects are much more narrow and less ‘gonzo’ than previous editions. Again, much like a lot of the other changes this can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view. This also follows for the lengthy spell descriptions and masses of rotes which take up an intimidating portion of the book, rather than being a few examples.
One advantage for Mages is that their Magic, even when vulgarly displayed, tends to cause disbelief amongst those observing. So, much like Werewolves, they have their own protective madness hiding what they have done now, similar in effect – if not nature – to Arcane in the old.
Unity of spirit worlds across lines is very much welcomed as well, something that caused no end of problems between the old Werewolf and Mage.
As with the other nWoD books the storytelling advice is reasonable but once against tries to tell you how you SHOULD play to a great degree.
The section on Antagonists is especially useful as the antagonists are neither clear nor inspiring in Awakening but even the fleshing out they get here doesn’t help particularly. The individual enemies, or ‘Monsters of the week’ are far more interesting.
Legacies are, once again (And I apologise for the comparison) ‘Prestige Classes’. An extra layer of character specialisation and definition akin to Bloodlines or Lodges.
These are still fairly rigidly defined however and while new legacies are likely to emerge with new books that is just replacing the line bloat of crafts with something new (rotes and legacies).
NB: The Uncrowned King bears a resemblance to Warren Ellis…
There’s those Tremere again… I can’t even bear to read it.
There do exist rules for creating ones own legacies, again a problem I foresee chewing up Mage in organised play in LARPs.
Boston… again, setting information I’ve not found that useful, at least in such abridged form, but it does give useful NPCs. It would be nice if White Wolf would do a setting outside the US at some point, after all, part of the appeal of such games is exploring new things.
And we end with some more IC waffle and another reasonable appendix. Huzzah!
I have high demands of a Mage game and these haven’t been met. The factors should be clear from my comments above but they can be summarised to an extent.
• Too ‘tight’ where it should be loose, too loose when it should be ‘tight’.
• Emphasis on rotes.
• Complicated (but better defined) magic system.
• ‘One True Way’ of Magic.
• Thematic and metaphysical inconsistencies.
• Relatively unsuited to group play.
• Ill defined play roles and enemies.
• Morality = Magic.
• Relative lack of freedom.
This is a reasonable game in its own right, the same way Tank Girl was a reasonable movie despite only having very superficial resemblances to the comic books. However, to one who has supped at the glory of Mage 2nd Edition in its heyday this is a bitter pill and not a fulfilment of promise.
If Mage 2nd Edition was The Invisibles (Wild, free, out there), this is Harry Potter (You're at school).
Style 3 – Pretty cover, average interior. It felt somehow wishy-washy and directionless. It didn’t have any real ‘zap’ to it and the overall impression of the game was ‘mushy’. It doesn’t stand out.
Substance 3 – Well explained but what it is explaining is uninspired, see above.
Overall rating 3 – Deeply average, not enough to win me back to White Wolf or The Camarilla.
NB: If you didn't LIKE how free and easy the old Mage was, if you prefer things more defined and quantifiable then this will suit you a lot more. I'm being fairly generous by calling it average (from MY point of view) but if the things I loved about the old Mage were the things you hated, you'll like this one.