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.

Making Ars Magica a little bit more like Mage – by weakening niche protection

I never got to see any kind of Mage chronicle that involved detailed rules about large amounts of Tass. When I was a Storyteller, I ran some games where Mage NPCs had large amounts of Tass, but I never managed to get the players involved with Tass management.

By contrast, in Ars Magica, there are fifteen kinds of raw Vis. (Mage Revised has Resonance for Quintessence, but Ars Magica had it years earlier.)

Ars Magica sometimes requires more than two scores, with one as a requisite, but so far as I can tell, Ars Magica has no way to allow casting two different spells, with different verbs and different nouns, at the same time. Mage, by contrast, allows various sorts of “conjunctions”; a Mage effect can have a Prime 2 effect fueling a Matter 3 effect while a Correspondence 2 effect channels information to a Mind 1 effect, and the whole thing is Matter 3 Prime 2 Corr 2 Mind 1.

A great deal of the complexity of Mage effects would become available in Ars Magica if Ars Magica spells could use more than one verb and more than one noun in the same spell. Suppose you have skill 10 in Verb 1 and skill 15 in Verb 2 and skill 5 in Noun 1 and skill 10 in Noun 2. Your basic Verb 1 + Noun 1 total is 15; your basic Verb 2 + Noun 2 total is 25. If the wizard just has to add all his totals together, his skills get higher as his magic incorporates more elements; 15+25=40. It would be just as easy to cast a level 40 spell with two verbs and two nouns as it would be to cast either single spell.

Another approach would be to condense Creo, Perdo, Muto, Intellego, and Rego into a single skill – call it Ago for “I do.” In that system, one would need to have a total of Ago and Noun adequate to the requirements of the spell. This would weaken niche protection, of course.

For historical reasons, TRPGs tend to feature extensive niche protection. Most TRPGs are designed with the idea that four players should sit down with the GM and each player should pick a class that is good at one specialty but bad at the others. Thus in D&D you get Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, Thief. In Mage, you get nine spheres, with enough weird exploits to ensure that a group of four players can select different spheres and use different gimmicks in play. In Ars Magica, you could easily design a group of five specialists, one for each of the verbs.

However, if there is just one magic skill (not unlike GURPS Magery) then the game balance of Ars Magica is thrown way off. For example, Ars Magica normally uses the notion of spell penetration, which is very annoying when a starting Creo Ignem specialist tries to throw a Level 25 fireball at (e.g.) a faerie with a faerie might of 20. The roll might be good enough to cast the spell without fatigue, but not good enough to get past the faerie’s might. On the other hand, the specialist might either have a specialized spell penetration skill, or else the insight to cast a Level 5 Creo Ignem spell. The faerie would probably be vanquished by the level 5 spell, since the casting total would provide spell penetration. It’s not a terribly elegant system – but then again, I can’t think of any detailed TRPG that really deserves to be called elegant.

How Can Paradox Become More Deterministic? Give Stats For Axioms

Torg was a game that gave stats for axioms, and some gamers have suggested that it influenced Mage.

The thing about Torg was that it didn’t just assume that the referee would be able to hand-wave a judgement about what a character believed – beliefs were determined according to numerical values in a certain vector. Belief can be calculated.

If I ever run Mage again, I suppose I will have to hand-wave Paradox again. However, if I homebrew an entirely new system, axiom violations could be done on the Torg system rather than the Mage system. The “spheres” would be more fundamental than the “paradigms,” but in any event, it would be necessary to have some automatic logic calculator to determine the propositions in play.

If the new game also has three spheres instead of nine, or an Ars-Magica-style verb-noun system, it will be quite different from Mage. (It would be straightforward to use the three “spheres” to classify the verbs and nouns in a GURPS Thaumatology style, and then the characters could be built with GURPS rather than with White Wolf rules.)

Five Spheres Instead of Nine – or even Three Spheres Instead of Nine

I believe Mage: the Awakening has ten Spheres – I believe they have split Entropy into Fate and Death. A more sensible alternative, to my mind, is just to condense the nine spheres down to five. I would not be surprised if the original analysis – back before 1993 – began with five spheres (possibly working from Ars Magica, or from various New Age pentagram ideas) and attempted to split them up just to add obscurity to the system.

Considering the lists of effects from the previous post, here is a much-condensed list of alternate Spheres:
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Ars Magica effects that got recycled, with and without meaningful rule connections

Opening the Intangible Tunnel is a Rego Vim spell from p. 234 of 3rd edition Ars Magica. It uses an “arcane connection” – e.g. a lock of the target’s hair – to open up a magical tunnel that allows the casting of spells on the target.

This kind of effect can be replaced with Correspondence effects in Mage.

Hermes’ Portal is a level 75 Rego Terram spell, which creates a permanent teleport gate. The same name, Hermes’ Portal, is used on p. 186 of Mage 1st Edition.

Black Whisper is a level 30 Perdo Mentem spell which duplicates Entropy 5, allowing destruction of a mind with words.

Ball of Abysmal Flame was a level 30 Creo Ignem spell before it became one of the first Mage rotes.

The Seven League Stride was a level 35 Rego Corporem spell before it became the most famous Correspondence 3 effect, on p. 185 of Mage 1st edition.

Most spells do not match up exactly with their later adaptations. For example, Intellego Mentem has the level 30 spell Peering into the Mortal Mind and Muto Mentem has the Level 20 spell Recollections of Memories Never Quite Lived, which allows changing memories. Both Vampire and Mage had various similar effects.

It is also interesting to compare Invisibility of the Standing Wizard – a Level 15 Perdo Imagonem spell – to the first dot of Obfuscate in Vampire: the Masquerade.

Directly siphoning Life into Quintessence with Prime 5 Wonders

Thebian and JustJohn…again, two users of the White Wolf forums, have kindly educated me about an aspect of the Mage rules that I had never really used properly – the distinction between fixed and free Quintessence.

Thebian wrote:

Prime 3 is enough to channel free Quintessence, but fixed Quintessence (which things are made of) requires Prime 4 (for inorganic) or Prime 5 (for organic) to turn into free Quintessence that the caster can use.

Thus the “thirsty blades” of the Mage Storyteller’s Handbook were doing Prime 5 effects. In the 1st edition rules, they would have been five-dot Wonders.

When I look back at how 1st edition was written, there is a Prime 4 effect for destroying inanimate objects only. The authors could have gone the extra mile and explicitly articulated the notion that Prime 5 would allow a similar effect on living things.

Page 215 of 2nd Edition – A rank 5 variant destroys living beings.

Re-analyzing Mage Spheres in terms of Ars Magica verbs and direct objects

I have often tried to compare the spheres in Mage to the verbs of Ars Magica.

Recently it struck me that “Fount of Paradise,” the Prime 5 effect that creates Quintessence within a mage, can be considered “Creo Stable Quintessence.”

“Bond of Blood,” Prime 3, is “Muto Pattern to Unstable Quintessence.” It can get one point of Quintessence, which must be used immediately, out of any pattern.

However, there is no particular fixed amount of Quintessence that would be needed to create a kilowatt of electricity; one needs Forces 3 Prime 2, regardless of whether one wants to create a watt or a kilowatt from nothing. Prime 2 could be considered to unlock “Creo Pattern,” and that Pattern can be Matter or Forces – I suppose it would work for Life as well, but there are many examples of Forces 3 Prime 2 and Matter 3 Prime 2 throughout the books.

Likewise, “Flames of Purification,” Prime 4, is “Perdo Pattern.” It can be combined with “Bond of Blood,” Prime 3.

It’s slightly annoying that the systems don’t match up neatly with similar Mage effects, such as the “Thirsty blades” I had thought I had seen somewhere, but are apparently not in “Forged in Dragon’s Fire.” on page 60 of the Mage Storyteller’s Companion.

According to that book, each healthy human contains 10 points of Quintessence, and the proper artifact can drain all of them. If a cabal of mages with such weapons were to get into combat with every adventure, they would have plenty of Quintessence points. Of course, a trail of murdered bodies would doubtless attract attention – but the Tass would flow freely.

I might be tempted to actually start recruiting players for a Mage chronicle based on such a premise.

“The player must devise a means by which the same effect can result through a different appearance. The description can only involve “realistic” events, and must be at least remotely believable.”

One problem with adjudicating Mage: the Ascension is that it is very hard to distinguish between what the Storyteller believes is possible in real life and what the fictional NPCs believe is possible in the game.

For example, the Storyteller might be an atheist who disbelieves the reports that Saint Joseph of Cupertino flew through the air by the miraculous power of faith. If that is the case, it will be very hard for that Storyteller to allow players to even discuss those reports of miracles. The tendency is for such a Storyteller to hear “flying” and automatically say “fantasy.” The Storyteller won’t even discuss coincidental, vulgar without witnesses, or vulgar with witnesses. The Storyteller will very often say, “Flying is something Superman does, and this is not a four-color superhero game, pick a different effect.”

Even in the loosest version of Mage rules, there is language that would seem to discourage miracles. E.g. p.172 of 1st edition Mage: “The player must devise a means by which the same effect can result through a different appearance. The description can only involve “realistic” events, and must be at least remotely believable.”

However, there are many other relevant passages in many rulebooks. Page 182 of 2nd Edition Mage notes that mythic threads and particular foci may make the difference between vulgar and coincidental. Page 185 of the same book notes “Away from the cities, people still believe in things other than Science. … Christian ministers … can get away with more than they normally would be able to. … flying on broomsticks is never a good idea these days.” The rules leave it open to interpretation whether flying in the traditional Christian manner of Saint Joseph of Cupertino is just as vulgar as flying in the pagan manner of a broomstick-rider.

The practical difficulty in running Mage is that various participants will have drastically different notions of what is remotely believable. Some Storytellers will say that flying humans can be coincidental (if they resemble Saint Joseph of Cupertino) and other Storytellers will say that flying humans are always vulgar.

Do I really know the rules for Mage: the Ascension?

All tabletop role-playing games can lead to rules disputes.

Some games have weirder rules than others.

Mage: the Ascension is a game with very strangely written rules, and it has often been the battleground on which fierce rules disputes have been fought. I might try to run a chronicle with those rules, but I anticipate that some of my players might question whether I understand the rules at all.

One major purpose of this blog will be to write about the rules of Mage: the Ascension, in order to provide a trail of documents from which I can argue that at least I have done the background reading.