Oct 112005

I got the book a couple of weeks ago and, except for skimming through some of the mechanics, have read the entire thing twice and returned to some sections several times. I kept trying to NOT compare it with the previous incarnation, Mage:The Ascension, but that’s impossible. They share the same name, same company, and same ideas, so comparison is inevitable. Something about the whole game and setting bugged me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then I read a customer review on Amazon that threw the whole thing into focus. The main points that stood out for me are:

“The new Mage, however, seems to have corrected the wrong problems to some extent. The new setting is fairly rigid, requiring that “doing magic” be defined in terms of “casting spells.” More to the point, it is a vision of magic that seems entirely derived from post-17th century European thinking on the occult. Thus, while its certainly open to the player to make a Hawaiian kahuna, the setting’s new rigidity forces that character to “do magic” in a manner much more like a German occultist. The five “optional societies” are all European-style secret societies, reminiscent of the Masons or the Order of the Golden Dawn.

This can be explained by the new Mage’s systematic avoidance of one of old Mage’s central themes: consensual reality. In old Mage, things worked because of belief. Mages had the supernatural will to bend or break the rules according to their own belief system. The central conflict in the setting was ideological, with various forces trying to “wake people up” to their view of reality. Throwing fireballs around was a bad idea because the collective view of reality wouldn’t accept it. The new Mage is not at all about consensual reality. It is about Atlantis or, more generally, the idea of a Lost Civilization that perfected Magic and was destroyed by hubris, and the mages are the scions of that culture. My issue is that while that is a fine myth, it’s *only one myth*. A panoply of other “myths of the creation and destruction of magic” exist around the world, but the new Mage treats them as false, and Atlantis as true, in a way that is, to my mind, quite unfortunate.”

Things I don’t like:

– The magickal societies. They’re just not interesting or compelling to me at all. The original Mage had nine main societies (the Traditions), five branches of the Technocracy, the Marauders, the Nephandi, and a collection of unaligned groups (Crafts). They were all very diverse culturally, geographically, and magickally, with distinct histories. The new version attempts to cram all the different worldviews of magick into five arbitrary and contrived Orders that all originated in Atlantis and, as mentioned in the above review, all have the exact same “post-17th century” European occult feel to them. It’s as if they made an entire game system based on the Order of Hermes. Only the Mysterium sparked any interest in me, because I like the idea of “exploring the dark corners of the Earth” and hunting lost lore and artifacts, like a wizardly Indiana Jones. (My favorite Traditions from the old system, btw, were the Cult of Ecstasy, Euthanatos, and Order of Hermes).

– The Order-specific variations on spells (or “rotes”). They seem to be an unnecessary waste of printing space to me. So what if Silver Ladder mages roll, for example, Wits+Occult+Spirit instead of Perception+Occult+Spirit for a certain rote? Whoop-de-do. I know it was done for flavor, but it tastes pretty bland.

– The symbols of the Arcana (“Spheres” in the old system). It’s a minor point, but the old symbols were much more distinctive, being actual alchemical symbols. The new ones are forgettable.

– The pale gold ink and cursive font used for the rote names, among other things. It’s very hard to read.

Things I do like:

– The splitting of the Entropy Sphere of the old system into the Death and Fate Arcana of the new. They were kind of lumped together in old Mage to maintain numerological consistency (9 Traditions, 9 Spheres), but they’re different enough to warrant their own categories and magickal effects.

– The Fate Arcanum. A very good treatment of magick that affects luck, destiny, and chance, with a lot more variety than I thought possible from this type of magick. Very interesting read with a lot of gameplay uses.

– Prime, Mana, Tass, and Hallows. One of the most confusing things about the old system for me was the method for regaining Quintessence (now Mana) using Prime magick, Tass, and Nodes (now Hallows). Even after several revisions it still seemed kludgy and unclear. In the new system it all makes sense at last. (Sidenote for anyone who has ever been to Overton Square in Memphis: does this place not feel like a Hallow?)

– Foci. No more need for a different focus for every Sphere, and penalties for not using them. Now it’s just a bonus if you DO use one.

I could add lots of things to both lists, but those are the ones that stand out to me the most right now.

I wanted to like the new Mage. I tried to MAKE myself like it, because it’s obvious that White Wolf put a lot of effort into this and, well, it’s Mage. The production values are great, the mechanics are well thought out and clearer than in the old system, and the whole setting is very cohesive and self-consistent. Unfortunately it’s a cohesive, self-consistent setting that leaves me cold, and I find I have no desire to actually even play it. Maybe some homemade fusion of elements from the old setting with the new mechanics would entice me, but the game as written just doesn’t.

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