I had really high hopes for the 20th Anniversary edition of Mage the Ascension. Mage is one of my three favorite OWoD games, the other two being Vampire and Changeling. For me, Mage was the core game – a setting that could account for all of the other game lines and settings within it’s expansive, flexible worldview. I got a kick out of PC mages in my games encountering other supernaturals who functioned according to rules they could understand, with some study. Mage was, and is, the game line that lets you peel back the curtain on the World of Darkness and not only learn about its inner workings, but have an impact on what the WoD is and what it means.
Running the Revised, essentially 3rd edition of Mage the Ascension always required pages of house rules. This is honestly true of World of Darkness games in general, at least in my experience, but Mage is definitely a game that drifted a lot as we played it for about a five-year span from 2000 when it was released until around 2005 (we in this case being my college gaming group). But Mage begged for this kind of drift, I think, with a flexible magic system that was, at best, evocative but ill-defined.
The 20th Anniversary edition of Mage clocks in at well over 600 pages, or twice as long as Revised. Including the How Do You Do That expansion, it approaches 800 pages. But in those 800 pages, there is less clarity than in the Revised edition’s 300 or so. Poor rules were kept and expanded upon (I’m looking at you, Martial Arts/Do), interesting rules (like Resonance) were dropped (though left in as a sidebar and a very optional rule). How Do You Do That, in particular, is a hot mess. For some reason telekinesis requires dots in Mind, and periodically magical effects arbitrarily require the expenditure of Willpower because…they seem hard. As if enlightened magick was not, as a rule, hard.
I like some of the updating for the setting that M20 provides, though that is hardly worth the price of the book (or the time spent reading it). For some players, the grim reality of Revised was too much, and with a more multicultural viewpoint the Ascension War seems far less over than it did in 2000. White Wolf always had a problem with representing non-Western cultures well in their books, and Revised was no exception, fascilating between some real research into Hinduism on the one hand and on the other the hi-ya antics of the orientalist Akashic Brotherhood.
The truth is, thought, that M20 is simply not worth the price of admission. In stark contrast to the overall success of Changeling 20th Anniversary, M20 adds to the noise and the mess rather than refining and clarifying. It does gather up a lot of material from the various Revised splatbooks, but it just kind of crams them together next to each other rather than working to make them more consistent with one another or simpler, which is what I’d hoped for. If you are a Mage the Ascension fan, I think you can stick to Revised and just update the setting as you like. Say the Ascension War was declared over before it truly was, the Technocracy’s victory was premature, and get on with saving the world.