Mage: the Ascension and the Tangle of Entropy


A friend of mine is currently putting together a Mage: The Ascension game for us to play over the intertubes in the near future. This has been a good way for close college friends to keep in touch and keep in the hobby when we are separated by thousands of miles.

One thing that precedes any of these games, and has for years now, is a significant discussion of house rules. We house rule everything under the sun. It’s part of the reason I stick with trying to be a game designer – I’d find almost the game I want to play, with almost the system I want to use, that is almost as consistent as I’d like. I got tired of almost. Anne Lamott says “Write the story you would want to come upon.” In the same way, “Design the game you want to play.”

If you’ve played Mage, you know that it is a game about everything, in which your characters can do almost anything. That’s the point, and that’s the incredible design challenge behind the game – to deal with characters who have improvisational reality-altering power with anything but a narrativist hand-wave. Because of this, we’re tweaked our own ideas of what the Spheres do and some of the assumptions behind the game – we’ve hacked it significantly, such that I can’t even run it as written in the book anymore at this point – and I don’t mind. Our system is better in a number of ways.

But we got caught up in arguing over what Entropy, the Sphere that oddly covers both decay and chance, should function. The discussion ranged over dozens of emails, with all six of us chiming in at various points. There were votes, counter-votes, suggestions, and near-treatises written on the topic.

Ultimately, our ST had to say “Ok, this is over. I’ll figure it out. Moving on to character backgrounds and group template…” (well, he doesn’t say “group template” but that’s the stage we’re in) It was sort of a necessary anticlimax.

I can’t help but think that we, the players of a game like Mage, have these long discussions because the designers of Mage didn’t. That is, I’m sure they had lots of design discussions – but were they the right ones? Mage is probably still my favorite WW game, but it is also the one for which I have the longest house rules document. In part, it’s a labor of love, like custom random-encounter tables for my pubescent AD&D escapades.

It is also one of the things that, as I said, motivates me to design games, and to pay special attention to magic systems, which are almost 100% garbage in the RPGs out there for the past 30 years.

After all of those emails back and forth, I’m left with the deep feeling – this could’ve been done better.

I will do it better.

We’ll see if I live up to that.

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