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.