Two aspects of Mage: the Ascension; and general insights on gamers who use game concepts to trigger their personal neuroses

There were at least two aspects of Mage: the Ascension that really captivated me, and that also attracted a lot of contempt from other gamers.

1 – The game world was supposed to be a subjective reality with polycentric authority. There was supposed to be no one true reality. (I know a lot of gamers who initially agreed to this premise, then went berserk trying to deny it. Their neuroses were threatened, and they fought fiercely to defend them.)

2 – Quintessence and Tass were supposed to be interesting prizes, counterbalanced by temporary Paradox points. (I know a lot of gamers who turned every usage of these game elements into a fun-destroying battle of neurotic over-reactions.)

In my opinion, most groups never really got a handle on point (1). The notion of subjective reality would be hard enough for a philosophy class, and harder for a single-author artwork like a surreal movie. Trying to shoehorn such a weird concept into the ego-driven chaos of a role-playing game is far beyond the talents of most TRPG groups I’ve played with.

There are a lot of New Age self-improvement motivational speakers who are happy to talk about “subjective reality”, e.g.:

I don’t plan to turn this blog into a New Age buzzword festival: I just want current and former Mage players who feel frustrated by the treatment of subjective reality in Mage books to be advised that there are plenty of alternatives out there.

As for point (2) – well, we have had games like that since AD&D made us cut up monsters for potion components, and Ars Magica similarly had a lot of monsters that could be broken down for vis. The thing that makes Prime different from the five arts of Vis is that Vis was supposed to be magic-specific and Prime was supposed to apply to all of reality. But, as mentioned above, Mage didn’t really do a good job of getting its players on the same page about reality.

In practice, any TRPG is only as coherent as the team of participants that make it happen. If any members of your team annoy the rest of the team badly enough, that team will break up. TRPGs are vastly more fragile than e.g. a game of Skyrim. Your copy of Skyrim won’t stop executing even if you build your characters in ways that they designers would have considered distasteful. Even if the designers let some neurosis creep into the design, the computer program isn’t sophisticated enough to mimic a full-scale neurotic gamer breakdown.

You can easily make a game of Mage that would cause all your former gaming buddies to recoil in horror and add your cell phone number to their blocked lists. You could presumably make a game of Mage so disgusting that all the designers and players whom you had never met would join in solemn conclave and denounce you as a disgrace to the game. (Tabletop gamers love denouncing each other – check out some of the vitriol that gets thrown at the author of F.A.T.A.L. if you’re in the mood for internet drama.)

Whether or not a TRPG triggers your personal neuroses, you probably have several personal neuroses you don’t know about, and you probably find reasons to trigger them. Figuring out the reality of your mind is a big challenge. I can’t offer much advice on how to solve the challenge; I’m still working on my own neuroses.


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