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.)

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