Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Cost of Imperfect Decisions

I was writing a post about moving away from "genres" as video-game descriptors in favor of a taxonomy based on "core aesthetics", or what TTRPG theory calls "creative agenda". But then I found out someone beat me to it so you can just go read this.

So here's a different thing I've been thinking about lately and it has to do with hidden information.

And in this case, I'm using a technical game-theory definition, in case you were thrown off by my noodling on Twitter a while ago about Chess vs Rock-Paper-Scissors. Or at least the Wikipedia definition, which is:
In game theory, an extensive-form game has perfect information if each player, when making any decision, is perfectly informed of all the events that have previously occurred.
Chess is an example of a game with perfect information as each player can see all of the pieces on the board at all times. Other examples of perfect games include Tic-tac-toeIrensei, and Go. The formal definition can be easily extended to include games with exogenous uncertainty from chance events, such as in Backgammon, or simultaneous move games, such as in the iterated prisoners' dilemma, or both, such as in Goofspiel.
Many card games are good examples of games with hidden information; for simplicity, I'm going to talk mostly about those and mostly about one-on-one scenarios.

During a given turn cycle, you might make many decisions, informed by many factors. Some factors either public or known (to you) information, like the cards already in play and in your own hand. Many are unknowns, like the card's in the villain's hand.

Making the right decision in the context of these unknowns is a major element in the play skill underlying these games. One way to describe this process can be summarized in two questions:

What do I think they have?

How much does it hurt if I'm wrong?

The first is the probability space of the unknowns, and the second is the penalty. The combination of the two dictates what, for lack of a better term, I'm going to call the attention curve: How much mental effort it costs to make the right decision. Which I will now illustrate with an MS Paint chart.

Attention curve is a kind of tension: your game will feel better if it has natural ebbs and flows. If it never rises, the game is non-interactive, which is often undesirable. If it's constantly pinned to high, the player will be either exhausted by the sustained effort, or completely tune it out, like a Michael Bay Transformers movie that never gives you a chance to figure out what's going on.

You don't want to be Transformers. You want to be John Wick.

Let's look at some ways to regulate this, then.

One is to reduce the penalty. I'm going to set this aside and maybe talk about it in another article, because it's a very dangerous knob to turn. It's almost always symmetrical and goes into issues like counter play, opportunity cost, and making sure both players have a satisfying experience. Remember, the villain is a player too, and they want their decisions to matter. So let's set that aside and focus on the other: managing the possibility space.

You want ways for players to reduce unknown information from "every card in the game" to a size they can make reasonable predictions about based on known information.

A good, and popular, example is resource costs. If the opponent has only N resources available, you can dismiss from consideration all cards that cost more than N, for whatever that resource happens to be. If the villain doesn't have UU mana available in Magic: The Gathering, they can't cast Counterspell and if they have only one card in hand, they can't cast Force of Will. If they don't have 8 credits in Netrunner, they can't rez Heimdall 1.0; if they haven't scored any agendas, they can't rez Archer.

Note that these rules are often not ironclad. Often skirting them involves either a combination of cards designed specifically to permit it, or a "broken" card that leverages resources too efficiently. The villain may only have one card in hand, but it could be Ancestral Recall to draw Force of Will and a blue card. They may only have 1 credit, but that's enough to rez Howler to put in a rezzed Heimdall. But these are plays that require a series of cards and outcomes that represent a very small possibility space; they also (usually) cost the villain additional resources (you'd rather use your Ancestral proactively, not in a desperate bid for countermagic; you'd rather install & rez Heimdall naturally instead of trashing it at the end of the turn to Howler) and so lower the relative penalty.

Getting your Tinker countered by Force is a blowout. Making them blow Ancestral and 2 of the 3 cards they draw off of it to Force your Tinker is much more favorable.

Meanwhile, one of the flaws of many games is the lack of a resource cost. Consider playing into a trap card in YuGiOh (I know, imagining playing YGO can be very painful; if you experience any headaches, lie down and think about Richard Garfield until they go away). Many powerful reactive trap cards in YGO like Mirror Force and Bottomless Trap Hole have no resource requirement and therefore no "shields down" moment: either the villain has them or they don't, and there's not a lot of counterplay. The only thing you can do is play to minimize the penalty they inflict on you.

That's not the only reason resource costs are a good design element (or that YGO is a terrible game) but it's a compelling factor.

A halfway implementation I'm not a big fan of is Hearthstone's "secrets" mechanic, where you pay the resource to create the secret and it fires automatically in response to a specific trigger (depending on the card). It often barely counts as hidden information, since each class only has so many secrets at a given mana cost, so it's often the same as playing any other card except it does something later instead of now (there are a few cards that put secrets into play on their own that can weird this up and expand the possibilities). The trigger conditions really only come in two forms: you can easily play around them, or you can't and have to walk into it eventually. Either way, while it may affect my decision making, it doesn't really change my attention curve; it's just an on-board trick like any other.

More and more, I'm convinced that this property, or something like it, contributes to the success of the most engaging and successful asymmetric games. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Yeah that happened.

The amount of time it took to write up and test my Mage rules hacks wildly exceeded my attention span, so I've moved on to other matters for now. I still have the notes I was working on; I expect I'll get back around to them at some point.

Meanwhile I'm trying out the new Destiny expansion this weekend. I expect I will have opinions. I may share them here or elsewhere (probably G+).

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Gilded Mage

I'd apologize for these titles, but in the words of Lewis Black, "I don't give a fuck."

This is a an index for my M20 reviews I can point/link to as needed.

A New Mage Dawns
In which I record my first impressions.
Mage of Aquarius
In which I pontificate on M20's handling of reality/consensus and the cosmology and spirit worlds.
A Coming of Mage
In which I reflect on how M20 has been updated for the Century of the Anchovy.
Minimum Mage
In which I elect to punt rather than post a 4k word angry rant about something I love.
I will update this post if I put up another sub-review, so feel free to keep it for reference. System hacks will get their own list once I have enough up that I feel it makes sense.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Minimum Mage

Y'know what? Fuck it.

My M20 System Review, Abridged:

The Magic System: Slightly clearer than previous versions. Still very fiddly and prone to arguments. But arguing is part of the fun. I'll have a future post where I discuss system overhauls I might like to try, but for now, this section ranks "Pretty Good".

Chargen: Still has fucked up costs where overspecializing at chargen saves you a ton of XP down the road. Any GM who can do math can fix this themselves. Ranking:"Still White Wolf".

Everything Else Except Combat: You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll roll your eyes, but you can play a game, and again, it has some solid improvements over the previous version, particularly around writing out rules that used to be extremely vague and often handed by the GM going "Uh... I dunno, here, try this". Final ranking? "Wordy But Playable".

Combat: A flaming dumpster of burning tires, combined with the wailing and the gnashing of teeth and the oh god no my eyes. Ranking: "Worse Than Watching Zardoz Sober".

It is the Year of Our Lord 2015, the Century of the Anchovy, 3181 YOLD by the Discordian reckoning. No one is re-rolling initiative every combat round. We have shit to do.

My advice for now is to run combat the way you run any opposed task: you and That Guy announce what you want to do, roll your opposed combat stats, and whoever gets more hits (sorry, successes) wins.

I'm working on a slightly more complicated combat engine that I'll post soon, now that I've gotten "actually review shit" off my to-do list, but needless to say, at no point does it involve rolling initiative.

I am so over that.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Whoops and Stuff

I'm sure you're all waiting for more Mage reviews, but this next post is a doozy and I'm breaking it up. And I'm trying to find a way to break it up that isn't all my complaints in one post and all my positive opinions and recommended fixes in the other.

Also Monster Hunter 4U.

And also Splatoon.

Y'know. Priorities.

Anyway, this project is not abandoned, merely challenging. I will be finishing the system review in 2-4 posts (at least one of which will be entirely about the Sphere system), then I'm going to move on to a series on things I'd fix and how (aka, How I Will Run Mage When I Run Mage Again). I don't yet know what form those posts will take (ie, whether they'll just be casual writeups or more formalized system documents). Let me know if you have an opinion!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Coming of Mage

Quick procedural note: These posts have been slowed by illness replacing a good percentage of the free time I had allocated to writing them with "sitting around being miserable and high on NyQuil". I'm going to try to get the next one up before Friday, but no promises; If I don't, I'm out of town Friday - Monday and it will probably be mid-next-week before the system reviews go up.

Let's talk about metaplot.

Now, White Wolf wasn't the first company to do it – there are something like a million years of Shadowrun backstory, times two if you count its attempt to tie in Earthdawn. But from 1992-2004 it was everywhere, and for that, I blame the success of Vampire: The Masquerade. It taught the industry you could package ten pages of NPC write-ups, ten pages of superpowers the PCs can't have, and eighty pages of exposition together, give it a quick desktop-publishing pass to randomize the fonts into illegibility, and sell it for a cool $25.

Then they published Dirty Secrets of the Black Hand and it was all downhill from there.

Basically accurate.
Mage was not immune to the phenomenon, though my love for the game is such that I tend to view it with slightly-rosier-than-usual glasses. You had some good stuff and some dumb stuff. Then you had Samuel Haight (who is mostly Werewolf's fault but hey) and the Technocracy nuking the underworld. In the end, it all led up to a big fiery catastrophe when White Wolf made the controversial decision to close down all their old successful popular lines and replace them with shitty terrible new ones about Atlantis.



Well, ten more years down the line, here comes an anniversary edition tasked with looking back over the detritus of the setting and sorting out a new canon. It's been a hell of a ten years. The world has changed, our perspectives have changed. Mage is a game that, I think, needs to be on the zeitgeist, and those old WW books are just nineties as hell.

On top of that, some of those old works had… issues. This was the company that released the cringefest that was World of Darkness: Gypsies, and honestly, having a faction called "Dreamspeakers" where all the vaguely-tribal brown-people magic lived was even at the time a recognizably terrible idea. (A totally believable consequence of letting the Order of Hermes organize everything, but still terrible.) So there were updates needed even beyond just tacking ten years onto the timeline.

So let's dive into the M20 and see how it handles 2015.

First up, the Traditions. The best part here are probably a solid couple of paragraphs on coming up with better names for them. Some of these work better than others. The Dreamspeakers shuck off the label a cabal of bearded white dudes tagged them with a hundred years ago and become the Kha'vati; the Sons of Ether and the Akashic Brotherhood dump their "ladies need not apply" monikers in favor of the Society of Ether and the Akashayana; the Cult of Ecstasy realize no one was taking them seriously at all and reinvent themselves as the Sahajiya; the Euthanatos get tired of people improperly pluralizing them and revert to the Chakravanti. All those are clear upgrades and I will be using them henceforth and forever.

On the side of clunkers: Sure, "Virtual Adepts" has that mid-90s odor of too-precious semi-ironic-but-not-really post-cyberpunk, but "Mercurial Elite"? First off, you can't put "Elite" in the name of your fancy-ass magical internet faction without it looking really stupid, especially to people who were actually on the internet in the 90s. Second, that's a terrible name even independent of making me remember that "1337speak" was a thing. I plan to ignore this change and pretend it never happened.

And "Verbenae"? Did the Verbena see everyone doing name swaps, decide they had to get in on this action, and then promptly run out of ideas? That's not a new name, that's a typo. I won't have to pretend on this one, I'll just frequently forget about it.

(In keeping with their reputations as the Traditions' voices for not doing anything new ever, the Order of Hermes and the Celestial Chorus remain as they are and have ever been.)

All of that is under the heading of the "New Horizon Council", which is the sort of post-metaplot idea that while the world may not have ended when Mage Revised did, a lot of shit went down and life got real hard for a while. The Trads went down but not out and had to rebuild, this time with younger leadership and greater recognition of both its past tragedies and triumphs (while at the same time losing a ton of the old Merlin types enables them to make new and terrible mistakes from inexperience). It re-centers the Traditions as a dynamic force instead of "We hate indoor plumbing" and I'm a big fan.

And then… it promptly rolls half of it back by doing the longer multipage-per-Trad writeups with the old names.


Why would you do that?

(There actually is an answer: in deference to nostalgia, the writers wanted to use the old stylized headers for the Trad writeups. But I think that's a dumb answer, I'd much rather they have gone full steam ahead and committed to the newer and mostly better names throughout the book. Minus several points here.)

Anyway, the NHC is a great plan. The late Mage metaplot blew up a ton of the old Tradition strongholds and the Technocracy declared victory; M20 does a pretty solid job of pulling threads out of the rubble and weaving together the image of the Technocracy's declaration as a George W. Bushian "Mission Accomplished!" type of thing, the Avatar Storm as nightmarish but temporary, and the foundation for the NHC evolving out of mages kicked in the rear by the Rogue Council/the Sphinx. And it has good sidebars on how to ignore some of those plot points if you want to, which is pretty critical because they were not, let's say, universally beloved amongst the Mage fandom.

The individual traditions (names aside) have also been cleaned up and made a little easier to get a handle on as both game elements and factions. All the traditions except the Euthanatos (neƩ Chakravanti) get badly-needed column space on their culture and practice instead of a boring list of subfactions and mandatory paradigms; meanwhile the Chakravanti, who have always had the opposite problem, also come a little closer to the mean and get the clarity they've always needed in the corebook to avoid coming across as the faction you pick if you want to feel good about murdering people. They're all solid writeups for groups under great and many pressures but ready to take on the challenge.

So, the Traditions in 2015: Battered, weary, but unbowed. I can work with this.

On to the Technocratic Union, everyone's favorite dickish-but-arguably-justified-but-arguably-still-evil frenemies. I would say the interpretation of the TU and where they fall on the line from "Skynet" to "unpleasant-but-necessary, like the IRS or the DMV or insurance companies" has been the Mage setting element most likely to morph from writer to writer, and is definitely among the top 5 perennial flamewar topics.

In the interest of forestalling that, I'll confess my own perspective on them. I've always liked the TU as a rational but ultimately antagonistic element. To use a WW2 analogy, if the Trads are the US, the TU is Stalin: you'll ally with them against Hitler, but never forget they don't like you and they are not your friends. And while any individual low- to mid-ranking TU operative might even be a decent fellow, they will also shiv you in the kidneys if they're ordered to, and that order will come. If not today, then tomorrow.

As a faceless force of mechanistic evil, they step heavily on the Nephandi's territory when there's no reason to (if you need evil borg, you just use fallen technocrats). As the secret heroes of the setting, they're just… assholes, and I'm kinda over that.

M20's proffered default position is carefully triangulated; it offers a vision of the Technocracy as dangerous and corrupt but not unsalvageable. It heightens both the threat the inner circle represents and the growing power of the reformers. I think this is a reasonable way to go, though it may take careful handling to avoid using the reform elements merely to retell the same stories behind the VA and Etherite defections.

It doesn't strictly resolve the question of Nephandi corruption in the leadership, but makes it a fairly obvious hook and leaves the extent of it up to GM control, which seems like a nice compromise that allows both TU fans and haters to work with the material.

Special shout-out to bringing back Secret Agent John Courage. That guy's hilarious.

Then there's the new thing, the Disparate Alliance. See, Mage 2e had a proliferation of Awakened-but-not-affiliated independent crafts and orders all over the place; for a while you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a generations-hidden splinter cabal of Ex-Ex-Ex-Freemasons, a "quirky" little cult of personality, or the sorcerous equivalent of the Judean People's Front.

Mage Revised wiped a lot of that out; in the MRev metaplot, after the Technocracy finished declaring victory over the Trads, they went around stomping on all the little minifactions that had grown up over the years, probably so the writers could stop trying to remember them. Some of them got joined (under various levels of protests) culturally or magically similar traditions, some just vanished.

I was fine with this, but whatever. M20 brings them back under the guise of the Disparate Alliance, a super duper secret conspiracy that (judging by the Tradition writeups) everyone knows about but is convinced they're the only ones. There's a bit about them knowing (or lying, or being wrong) about Nephandi in the Technocracy but they don't trust the Traditions because of something something Hollow Ones metaplot metaplot blah blah Horizon War.

I don't care so I kinda started skimming. Maybe you can tell.

To me, the DA needlessly eats into the conceptual space of the Traditions. We already have a faction of wildly different mages banding together despite themselves, blending ancient knowledge with modern sensibilities and fighting to survive against an oppressive totalitarian Big Brother. It's called the goddamned Traditions. The Disparate Alliance is like if halfway through Return of the Jedi, a random character had shown up on screen, announced that xe was part of the "Insurgent Coalition (Similar To But Legally Distinct From the Rebel Alliance)" and was rebelling against the Empire and the Rebels because, and I quote, "Fuck the police".

There's definitely room for stories about unaligned mages sidelined in the struggle, tiny fish that exist in a world of bigger fish at war. But I find it hard to get hepped up about them organizing because seriously, any given disparate craft is like twelve people. That's not a conspiracy, that's an AA meeting.

They get a bunch of pages that are, frankly, the first thing in M20 that I think is genuinely a pointless inclusion. They don't add nearly enough to the setting to justify their existence and I intend to ignore them wholesale.

And that brings us up to the present day.

I… don't really know how to review the section that tries to bridge the cultural and technological changes from the original Mage era to today. Probably because I lived it. I was an adolescent when I first encountered Mage, and now I'm (stifling laughter here) an adult (allegedly).

The growth of social networks, wireless internet, mobile smartphones, the surveillance state, Twitter, Google, drones: all of these and everything else besides could be brilliant, fertile soil for a Mage game. Sure, the corebook does mention the option to keep playing in an eternal Clinton era, the way Call of Cthulhu is forever a 1920s period piece, but… why would you?

Don't do that. The world is more interesting than that. Ignore that sidebar. Play Mage today, or even better, tomorrow, or the day after the day after tomorrow. That's how, I think, it was always meant to be played.

More to come.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mage of Aquarius(/Let the Sunshine In)

In which I discuss M20's handling of philosophy and cosmology.

an XKCD comic about Mage, or possibly particle physics, or probably both

A couple weeks ago I posted about my vague dissatisfaction with some elements of Mage's core conceit and, more specifically, the way it comes across to the players. (Push that onto your stack, I'm coming back to it.) It spun off an interesting side-argument on Twitter about whether the nine spheres were actual metaphysical pillars of reality or merely a convenient way the Order of Hermes (and by extension, everyone they badgered into using their terms as an inter-Tradition pidgin language) grouped related arts and they only reason they were codified on a character sheet was because you had to attach numbers to something if you wanted to pretend to have a system.

I argued the latter position, but it turns out I was wrong, because Shade and Shard Realms exist and there are nine of them and they correspond to the nine spheres and also the nine planets (except Pluto got de-listed as a planet, which M20 implies was a petty Technocracy swipe at the Euthanatos for closing off S.R. Entropy, which is hilarious and will be canon in every game I run for the rest of time).

(These realms aren't new, but it's been a really long time since I read The Infinite Tapestry and an even longer time since I actually used it in a game, so I just plain forgot about them.)

I found this on the old White Wolf forums. I have no idea of the original source.
My favorite thing about this book might be putting all that shit in the core and doing a pretty good job of setting down and sticking to terms. M20 finally has what you actually need, soup to nuts, for the Umbra. And at no point does it tell you to go read a Werewolf book instead.

Thank fuck for that. (Sorry, Werewolf fans, but I kinda hate your game. Nothing personal.)

I don't, by the way, want to poop on the old Umbra books – The Book of Worlds and The Infinite Tapestry are, in my opinion, each among the top books of their editions. But those are in-depth coverage of people and places of the spiritual world; the core book still needs to give enough to work with, and we finally have it.

On top of that, almost every topic of "reality" vs "the consensus" gets similar treatment. Rather than the position of previous editions that "literally everything is up for grabs (but also there are mummies and were-spiders because reasons ::jazzhands::", M20 stabilizes the universe a little, bridging what were previously oft-contentious arguments.

Maybe you liked the idea of putting everything down to the consensus, but I've had the "fine, explain vampires still being a thing" argument a few too many times (and this was before I could blame Twilight).

At the same time, it also nods a bit more in the direction of a diverse consensus and acknowledges that frankly, science is not universally accepted either. The devil may go down to Georgia but a lot of evolutionary biologists won't.

So to pop stack, we come back to "is the secret to Real Ultimate Power for Mages to just read the book they're in", and M20 does a really good job of untangling that too. It makes it very clear that other than Technocrats, the Awakened, by and large, do know what the shit is going on. But lacking both the will and expertise to bang on reality directly, they rely on tools and structures of beliefs to ease the path until they achieve mastery (ie, buy up their Arete and Willpower).

This isn't a new approach, by the way! It has some support in previous texts. The problem, historically, has been that other interpretations also had support in different (and even sometimes the same) texts. And I'm the kind of person who likes the core book to lay it out clean.

The handling of the Technocracy is a little weird in this respect but they've always been in a sort of Orwellian doublethink willful ignorance category so it works thematically if not practically.

M20 also gives GMs a spectrum to use where Tradition technomages get some advantages (their stuff is usually more coincidental) and some disadvantages (they abandon tools and foci more slowly). That's a neat compromise and I'm very happy with it.

I'm torn on taking on the topic of paradigms in this post, because it may be better served as part of the post on Sphere magic, or even spun off into its own thing. For the moment, since I'm also hopped up on NyQuil, I'll give a capsule review. I think M20 goes a little too far in fleshing out certain types of paradigms when I generally would prefer players to think of that on their own, but I can easily imagine it being useful for newer Mage players. Generally the coverage of the topic is far more useful than what we've gotten in corebooks past so consider that only a minor complaint.

Overall, my opinion of M20's handling of Mage's cosmology and philosophical elements: Very high.

More to come.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A New Mage Dawns: First Impressions

I hadn't really intended this to become a mono-Mage blog. But I'm not going to apologize for that either, because Mage is awesome. Mage 20 just sent out backer PDFs a few days ago, and let me be among the first to say:

Welcome back to the stage of history! (Soul Calibur)

I'm going to be talking a lot about Mage in the next few days, obviously. The plan is to do this post, which is strictly general first impressions from my initial reading, then a series of deeper dives: one on philosophy and cosmology, one on updating the setting to 2015 and factional politics, 1-2 system posts (probably one on everything except magic and one on magic, but there may be more crossover than that). Then a wrap-up post where I'll also talk about actually running the game.

So, let's get my first impression down. Here it is.

Holy shit there are a lot of pages here.

OK, I'm going to circle back around to that point in a moment.

When I first heard about M20, my second reaction (after "Hooray!") was on learning they were going to try to be all things to all people. As a veteran of the Mage Wars, I had my doubts about how they were going to accomplish this in a reasonable amount of text.

Well, it turns out the solution they took was to redefine "a reasonable amount of text". Particularly considering "all people" included, apparently, Dark Ages and Sorcerer's Crusade fans (all four of them!). But this isn't one monolithic, bloated text the way it might seem from the page count. It is large because it contains multitudes.

It's Mage 2nd, and Revised, and the Traditions, and the Technocracy, and Sorcerer's Crusade, and Dark Ages, and Ascension, and ignoring Ascension, and Transmissions from the Rogue Council, and all the metaplot of the 90s and all the notes on how to ignore it.

Is it still kind of an unwieldy text? Yes. But it doesn't feel monstrously padded out the way, say, D&D 4e or Mage: The Awakening did, where the page count was mostly an endless listing of abilities and options swimming in a sea of contextless crunch. It's long because it has promises to keep and miles to go before it sleeps.

(Walt Whitman and Robert Frost references: checked off. My high school English teachers would be so proud.)

That said, there are a few sections where I started wondering when the next chapter break was going to be. The history section is the most tedious. While it does a better job than previous editions of setting down how things played out, and particularly in applying a less Eurocentric perspective to the events, it's also just… so… long. And every paragraph ends with an Event In Capital Letters. That's how you know they're Special and Important! (Spoiler alert: your players are never going to memorize this shit, and dropping hints about how current events have their roots in the Treaty of Seventeen Pears following the Second War of Crom the Destroyer No Not That One The Other Crom is wasted effort unless you are prepared to attach those hints to anvils. And have a hand-out ready to go. Trust me on this.) I feel like this could have been trimmed down.

Every White Wolf game's backstory. Ever.
Tangentially: Mage has always been infested with the need to capitalize every damn thing. I can't decide if it's intentional self-parody, an annoying stylistic choice, or both. I have decided not to emulate it quite to its full extent, so if you're about to post a complaint about my failure to match the capitalization of a term from the text, do please forbear.

Setting the length aside then, let's discuss the book entire. Thankfully, left behind in the dust of the 90s are a multitude of borderline-illegible fonts. They are not missed. The text is well-presented in a sane and countable quantity of typefaces, and makes excellent use of sidebars to highlight optional/alternative elements.

One navigational hazard: the book still presents system elements in a very awkward order. Every White Wolf/Onyx Path book has done this for as long as I can remember (not to mention a fair number of other games), so maybe it's just How Things Are and will never change, but I greatly appreciate when system elements are arranged in the order I'm going to want to look at them during character creation. That way I can proceed gracefully from start to finish instead of flipping back and forth between the setting chapter for factions, the char-gen chapter for traits, the magic chapter for spheres, the "miscellaneous system shit" chapter to make sure my traits will actually help me do the things I want to do, and the second appendix for (gods help us all) merits & flaws.

At the very least, the electronic version could have taken advantage of the PDF format and provided an efficient path of hyperlinks. But alas. It's not worse than the majority of published RPGs, but it's not better either.

The artwork is… strictly speaking, the artwork is "uneven", but that's not quite right. There's the new art, most of which is excellent; the old art, most of which is fine; and the Technocracy art, most of which is, well, pretty bad. Maybe it's a subtle conspiracy on the part of the layout team to make the Technocracy seem crappier?

Also on that topic: of all the Mage books I've read, other than those specifically from the Technocracy perspective, this is the one most critical of the Traditions, both their ideals and practices. It goes out of its way to hit on their mistakes, the shortcomings of their philosophies, and the benefits the Technocracy has brought to the world (directly and indirectly). It doesn't quite paint them as villains the way some parts of fandom have; rather, the text pushes hard on the idea of them as "fallible, but learning" – they've screwed up, a lot of them are still assholes, but on the whole they're trying and there's hope.

Part of this is compensation for the line's historical tendency to hold the Traditions up as the both (a) obvious good guys and (b) battling on the front lines in the war against antibiotics and flush toilets, which was prone to causing no small amount of cognitive dissonance on the part of players who by and large have been pro- those things.

I mean, I appreciate the struggle for ideological freedom as much as anyone, but I also have a deep and abiding love for air conditioning.

Part of it has also been folding a lot of the Revised-era "de-villainization" of the Technocracy into the core. Over the lifetime of Mage, the Technocratic Union went from "literally Skynet" to a misguided but principled faction long since taken over by internal corruption, self-serving leadership, and ends-justify-the-means expediency. (In other words, Republicans.) And the new core reflects this, making Technocracy PCs playable right out of the gate.

I don't want to exhaust this topic too much here, because it's a pretty deep one that deserves (and is getting) its own post, but it's something that stuck out at me.

The other section that I want to mention here only briefly is the chapter on running Mage.

It's fantastic.

More to follow.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mage Sold the Homeworld

I've been thinking about Mage: The Ascension again lately (which is to say, I have been conscious and have not suffered a massive, personality-altering head trauma) and I have some opinions about the topic of genre.

See, as a role-playing game, I generally think Mage is pretty great at being about the things Mage is about. (Hang on, I'm going somewhere with this, and it's not Tautology Club.) If you want a game about eternal wars between secret societies, grappling with individual enlightenment vs consensus reality, the Gordian knot of science and belief and safety and choice, or etherships and dragons battling the Zigg'raugglurr in the orbit of Saturn, Mage is as solid a choice as you'll ever find.

But I finally realized the impetus behind some of the design decisions in Mage: The Awakening (aka "the shittier Mage game") that had always puzzled me: Mage is bad at an awful lot of very well-established and traditional fantasy plots, for reasons that are very tricky to fix. Mage's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: the Sphere system.

The best thing about Mage is that any kind of magic works. The worst thing about Mage is that any kind of magic works.

If you were running a Star Wars game, and someone sat down at your table and said "I want to play a Jedi who shoots lightning out of his hands," you'd probably respond, "Man, that's hella dark side." And you probably would not let them get away with "No, see, I don't believe that shooting Force lightning is evil. In my paradigm it's totesy finesy."

In Mage that's just how shit works and you're kinda expected to go with it. (Well, you're justified if you throw dice at them for using the phrase "totesy finesy", but to be fair, you said "hella" so let's not pretend you have any kind of moral high ground here.)

Different games are different though, right? Lightning bolt is a 3rd level spell in D&D and it's only evil insofar as it's not very good. (I'll be here all night. Try the veal!)

It's more about… hrm.

It's about hidden knowledge. Dark secrets. The occult, in the oldest sense of the term. The unknown and, possibly, the unknowable.

Mage spills the beans on page 4: You can do anything you believe you can, and for everything else, there's Willpower points.

So a character arc of magical self-discovery has to deliberately start from a point that the player knows damn well is literally wrong about the universe, and the uncovering of mystic and forbidden arcana is rendered irrelevant as soon as the Akashic down the hall goes "Oh, that's a Mind 2/Forces 3 rote. We learned it in Punching Gods 201. Same effect, but less evil and forbidden. Silly Hermetics."

The text does make some nods in the direction of "this is basically all names and ideas the Hermetics came up with because they just fucking love naming things", but that merely explains the issue, it doesn't do much to resolve it.

What are we actually trying to resolve? Hell if I know. Something about this just bugs me. Maybe I want to play an inheritor of forbidden knowledge without the game making fun of me.

I think tied in here somewhere is a longer discussion of magic, of "enlightened Sphere Magick" vs "static magic", of Avatars and understanding and enlightenment and a way to square the impossible circle, but none of that can happen unless you're willing to do something about Mage straight-up telling everyone the secret truth of the universe in the opening fiction.

A player shouldn't feel stupid and limited for having a paradigm and using a focus. We should think of ways to obfuscate the endpoint if we want to make the journey more interesting and unpredictable.

I'll tell you what the endpoint isn't though: fuckin' Atlantis.

More to follow.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Believe in the You That Believes In Yourself

If you neither know nor care about tabletop RPGs in general or Mage: The Ascension in particular, you can skip this post.

Ground rules: This is a public post about Mage: The Ascension, and as all Mage players know, while we didn't start the flamewar, it was always burning since the world’s been turning. Be civil. (This is not so much for regular readers, who I know to be mostly reasonable people, but for any randoms that happen across this post.)

Further notice: This is from my personal preferred approach to Mage, which is RBD/HYP. Consult Appendix A for explanations if this means nothing to you and you would like it clarified.

Consider the case of two (fairly stereotypical) mages. Artimus, a disciple of the Order of Hermes, uses her knowledge of numerology and the holy tongue of Enochian to bind elements and spirits to her command. Zedra, a junior fellow of the Society of Ether, recently defended her doctoral thesis, "Antineutron Generation Under Hazard Conditions", and has several papers out for review with titles like "Exothermic Outcomes in Etheric Probability Theory".

In other words, both specialize in blowing things up. Artimus mutters the Lesser Binding Evocation of Balceor, while Zedra has a widget-y looking thing she calls a "short-range quarkflopper" that can also open simple locks, tell time, and deliver a stirring rendition of "Behold the Lord High Executioner!" from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. The outcome either way is something they want to explode does so.

So far, so good.

Now, for whatever reason, they face down something they can't just blow up. For reasons. Let's say a mechanical construct they need to disable without scattering it across a city block.
Zedra: "Uh. Shit. I'm gonna need to head back to my lab and build an, uh, antimechanical neutralizer. Something something dampening field blah blah quantumcakes. I can't justify a fast effect under my paradigm."

Artimus: "It's cool, I already got this. I review the correspondence tables in my head and adapt the invocation. I call on (glances at notes) Barachiel, called the Angel of Lightning, to siphon off its motive power and still its fists." (rolls dice)

Zedra: "… Well balls. At least I'm better at extended ritual effects, since my paradigm is all about research, deliberation, and building cool stuff."

Artimus: "Really?"

Zedra: (checks the rules for rituals) "No. Not really." (makes a frowny face)
I guess the main question we need to answer here is "is that okay?".

I mean, maybe that's fine! Trying to find some notion of "balance" in Mage is… sort of adorable, but pretty fruitless. Like a sad puppy, who is sad because she has no fruit. If the players behind Artimus and Zedra are fine with it, there's no problem. At your table, anyway.

And I also don't want to go overboard in adding more modifiers and nonsense, because frankly outside what I think is an elegant core (the Spheres), Mage's magic system is ten pounds of clunk in a five pound bag and the last thing it needs is more incidental +1s that everyone will forget about anyway (and is that to target number or dice pool?).

But let's return to Zedra, who in this example, is not too happy with this situation. She likes the idea of the Society of Ether and wants to do the Mad Science thing and all that jazz. But as a player, she's a bit put-out that she's disadvantaged herself to no gain by building around a paradigm that really works best in a laboratory, while Artimus just has a printout of the Wikipedia entry  "List of angels in theology" and is basically good to do whatever by playing Wizard Mad-Libs.

Sure, there are interpretations of SoE-dom that are more tolerant of fast effects, but I think we want room in the game for players to have different approaches to willworking. Paradigm should be more than deciding which variant of "Expecto Explodum!" you shout while waving your Tradition-appropriate focus vaguely in the direction of the target.

Mage has tried, at some points, to approach this through Merits and Flaws, where Zedra might take a Flaw like "restriction: ritual magic only" in return for some bonus points at character creation. I'm not a big fan of this approach, and not just because the traditional White Wolf bonus point costing is busted in half on first principles. I don't like it because it frontloads the rewards and I think it lacks flexibility.

(I do have some thoughts about another possible system. I have placed them in Appendix B.)

At core, Mage is about belief shaping reality. Peoples' beliefs are complicated things, often irrational, a mix of knowledge, opinions, "common sense", phobias, desires, unjustified optimism, and existential dread. A character's paradigm should be equally complicated, or at least it should aspire to be. Artimus believes that she can call the bindings that pull on the world equally well in her ritual sanctum as on a city street, while Zedra believes she needs lab time to research new theories and assemble them into prototypes. While one of these beliefs is certainly "easier" in some sense to use as a basis for gameplay, I think it's incumbent on Mage and on the GM to allow both to exist in play, without either being allowed to steal the spotlight.

Maybe a system approach is the right answer, or maybe it's something the GM can address with a softer hand; playing up opportunities for Zedra to prepare and execute, rewarding her diligent research with advance warning. It's also something that can be handled "above" the table, perhaps with the two players deciding that, while both are equally capable of ritual magic, Artimus might be the kind of person that disdains it, relying heavily on her improvisational skills and leaving Zedra as the party's prep specialist.

And that doesn't mean Zedra will never improv; it means that when she does, it should be an appropriately dramatic moment, a high note for the character.

(One thing I do really think: if we want "laboratory mages" to be a style that's not strictly disadvantaged in play, the tax of requiring Time 2 to create an effect that can be triggered later has got to go. This is part of a more significant reworking of the casting system generally that I'm waiting until I have M20 to really start hacking away at.)

These are not the only solutions and again, it may be that at any given table, there isn't even a problem. However the GM decides to handle it, it's something that, like PBD vs RBD and HAP/HOP/HYP, they should decide on early and be consistent about, because if it does come up, it's better to have a ready answer and a rationale than to make a call on the spot that has impacts down the road.

Appendix A

The Mage rules are, speaking generously, open to interpretation in many areas. In a (somewhat successful) effort to avoid at least rehashing the same arguments ad infinitum, a vocabulary has evolved.

RBD (Results-Based Determinism): The spheres required for an effect are determined by the desired result. That is, if the result is “I want to be on the other side of the city”, that is a Correspondance effect, even if the coincidental method by which this is achieved involves a suspiciously convenient taxi and a string of green lights. This is in contrast to PBD (Process-Based Determinism) where the spheres required depend on exactly what you want to happen. I prefer to play and run under RBD because under PBD one can argue that Entropy does literally everything, especially if one has at least a pop-cultural understanding of modern physics.

HYP: On the question of “what is coincidental vs vulgar”, the two “strong” schools are HAP (Hypothetical Average Perceiver) and HOP (Hypothetical Omniscient Perceiver) and the problem it speaks to is the lucky whiskey flask – that is, if get shot, but use an effect to prevent damage and explain as a suddenly-materializing whiskey flask I just happen to have packed in my front pocket that day, is that effect coincidental or vulgar? Under HAP, the average onlooker saw nothing out of the ordinary, so it’s coincidental. Under HOP, an omniscient perceiver saw a whiskey flask materialize in my pocket from nothing, so it’s vulgar. Both approaches have problems and advantages. I prefer the weak approach of “Harass Yon Passerby”, where I (in my imagination) approach a bystander who knows nothing about the game or systems and ask them if what just happened sounds magical. The correct response to which is “Is the whiskey flask either a decade-old gift from a recently-deceased loved one, or a gift from a partner on the day of a cop’s retirement?”

More information about HAP/HOP/HYP and RBD/PBD is summarized here by Mage author Stephen Lea Sheppard.

Appendix B

I realized, thinking about this, that there was a good place to tie it in, and it's a place that, despite the efforts of Revised edition, gets basically ignored: Essence.

Remember Essence? To me it always seemed like a thinly veiled attempt to wedge Werewolf's cosmology into Mage, then create a "balanced" path that they called "Questing" because "obviously correct" would have been too on-the-nose. I think we can use that. Here are some thoughts, which might be broken but in my defense, it was like that when I got here. (Also "Questing" is a stupid name.)

Essence is a description of the mage's avatar, the enlightened source of their willworking that binds reality. It should have some impact, then, on how that binding occurs. The advantages of each last the mage's entire life; the disadvantages fade when they reach Arete 6 and begin to understand magic in terms of will alone. The disadvantages can also be suppressed for a single effect if the mage uses the "surpass focus" option (which costs a point of Willpower and applies +3 difficulty).

Pattern avatars are builders and shapers. They work best with mages who plan ahead. Advantage: Effects cast by Pattern mages with a duration other than Instant or Permanent are immune to erosion from disbelief, and Pattern mages may prepare a number up to their Arete of 'one-shot' effects within their sanctum and trigger them later without requiring the Time sphere. Disadvantage: Pattern mages cannot perform non-ritual effects.

Dynamic avatars howl their demands at the world, and are well-suited to mages that improvise on the fly. Advantage: Dynamic mages calculate the base difficulty of a spell using the second-highest Sphere instead of the highest and do not take any penalty for casting an improvisational effect without a rote. Disadvantage: Dynamic mages cannot cast (non-Permanent) effects with a duration longer than their Arete in rounds.

Primordial avatars seek a ground state, dampening the extremes around them, whether that represents the beginning or the end of all things. Advantage: Entropic mages make countermagic and unweaving rolls at -2 difficulty. Disadvantage: Anytime a Primordial mage spends Quintessence, they must spend one additional point.

Balanced avatars exist close to the Tellurian, the tapestry woven from worlds that embodies all the states of chaos, birth, growth, and death. Advantage: Whenever a Balanced mage burns off Paradox, calculate the effects of the backlash as though they had one fewer point. Balanced mages have no specific disadvantage.

(There might be a lot wrong with those rules, but it was a spur-of-the-moment idea, so judge appropriately.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


This is a place for me to put stuff that's too long for Twitter and has more involved formatting/linking requirements than I can do easily in G+. In other words, pretty bloody seldom. But hi.