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.