Mage the Ascension: Resonance and Hubris

Super Massive Power Surge by stylage.jpg

Image credit: http://wiki.wodgotham.com/index.php?title=Mage_101

Recently I hosted Session 0 of my first Mage the Ascension chronicle in…years. Maybe 10 years? Mage is a game that I played a lot in college and with my college group in the couple of years after, but since we’ve all moved away from each other Mage has fallen by the wayside.

There’s something about Mage that fits really well with undergraduates. It’s all about ideas, and focused on the self, and changing one’s beliefs. It was a blast, and when I was talking with gamer friends now it turns out some of them were interested in a Mage game. So here we are again.

I’ve already written out my my opinion that M20, the recently released 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage, is inferior to the Revised edition of Mage released 17 years ago. Basically, it takes twice as many pages to accomplish less clarity, and mashes together multiple sets of sub-rules without putting as much effort as I’d like in streamlining them and making them consistent with each other. In addition, they cut out a rule that I really liked, that was the center of an important house rule I’ve had for Mage: Resonance.

In the Revised version of Mage, Resonance is a way that your magic is expressed to the outside world. It is like a smell, or taste, or color that marks your magic as yours as opposed to anyone else’s. It might be Dynamic, Entropic, or Pattern Resonance, and the Resonance is kind of like a fingerprint. The more Resonance you have, the stronger and more obvious your fingerprint. At a certain point, it’s probably like a calling card that anyone, magical or otherwise, can sense.

In the RAW, the downside of Resonance is that the more you accrue, through things like Paradox backlash, the more obvious your magic becomes, making it easier for enemies to find you. It can also have an effect on places where you use magic a lot. For example, if you have a lot of Entropic Resonance, plants might start dying around you when you use your magic.

Now, Mage the Ascension has always dealt with the theme of hubris, a particularly powerful temptation for Mages. There have also, from the beginning with 1st Edition, been particular Mages known as Marauders, who have fallen into a madness which not only corrupts all of their magic, but even their minds, bodies and surroundings.

In my Mage the Ascension games, a house rule developed which connected this idea of hubris, which didn’t have mechanical teeth so to speak, with Marauders, who were interesting but who seemed somewhat disconnected from the system. Any time a player rolls Arete, she can also roll Resonance along with it. If she does so, her character takes an automatic point of Paradox, and her Resonance is considered to be more powerful and noticeable.

For me, this house rule solved two problems. One was to make hubris, the “quick and easy path” in Jedi terms, truly tempting. Extra dice! The other was to connect this to the fall into Marauder-hood – you draw on this power again and again, accruing more and more Paradox (in addition to what you’d normally accrue), which results in more Resonance, which further twists your magic, which also tempts you with more dice for your effects, etc.

The end result is that arrogant, reckless mages are incredibly powerful, and also on a swift slippery slope towards madness and self-destruction. This simple house rule seemed to connect themes of Mage, to add teeth to some of its core ideas, and gave players an interesting choice to make every time they rolled their few, precious Arete dice.

I recommend it in your own games.

Mage Revised > M20

Image result for mage the ascension 20th anniversary edition

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.

Mage Core: Mage the Ascension in Fate Core

chantry

I’ve seen plenty of discussion of how someone might adapt Mage the Ascension to Fate Core’s rules, but I didn’t find someone who had actually laid out how to handle the hack. I like the idea, and I wanted to present something that’s immediately usable. So, what follows is my own hack, which I think you could just take and run with if you wanted to.

First, changes to the baseline metaphysics. I’ve narrowed Mage down to seven spheres rather than nine. I dropped Entropy because I have always thought that it probably just reduced down to Time, and didn’t think that both were necessary. For a Fate Core adaptation of Mage, I decided to drop Prime, because the Quintessence/Paradox economy is doing to work differently in a Fate game than it does in Ascension. The Fate point economy mimics the Quintessence economy somewhat, and I decided to make Paradox into a stress/consequence track alongside the mental and physical tracks.

Aspects

A high concept Aspect, a trouble/Paradox Aspect, an Avatar Aspect, a Tradition/paradigm Aspect, and a mundane Aspect.

Starting with a high concept, of course, I like the idea that the trouble Aspect could be rooted in Paradox if that makes sense. If I was running Mage Core I would recommend that to players. Then there is the Avatar Aspect, which I think should be a source of plenty of compels during the course of a game as the Avatar pushes the Mage to grow and change. A Tradition or paradigm Aspect also makes sense as a way to further define the character. Last is the mundane Aspect, as I like the idea, especially early on, of reality-bending Mages trying to hold down jobs and raise families.

Custom Skill List

Awareness (includes Empathy and Notice)

Contacts (includes Rapport)

Drive

Expression (includes artistic Crafts)

Fight

Investigate

Lore

Manipulate (includes Deceive and Provoke)

Resources

Shoot

Stealth

Streetwise (includes Burglary)

Tech (includes technical Crafts)

Will

In Mage Core, the top of the Skill pyramid is +4. I noted what I changed, in terms of combining or splitting up Fate Core default Skills to help with finding Stunts.

Spheres as Extras

OK, so, here we go. As mentioned above, I’ve narrowed Mage down to seven Spheres: Correspondence, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Spirit and Time. Time absorbs Entropy and Prime fades away because it isn’t as necessary in Mage Core, as it is mostly a meta-Sphere in Mage itself.

I’m taking from Ryan Macklin, and setting difficulties for Sphere use at intervals of 2, for the same reasons he lists in his own post about “Mage the Coreing.”

Here’s what I have so far: each Sphere is an Extra, rated from +1 to +5. Basically the same scale as in the books. But the difficulty for various magical effects varies from +0 to +8. This is to help adapt to how Fate points change the math, and also to force situations where mages succeed but take Paradox. For effects that require two Spheres, base the difficulty on the highest Sphere and then increase it by 1 for each additional Sphere. A character begins with 6 Extras to spend on Spheres, just like the initial 6 dots in Ascension. Following are example effects for each level of each Sphere:

Correspondence

Use of a Sphere at a distance requires Correspondence

+0 Perfect spatial perceptions

+2 Clairvoyance/clairaudience into nearby space, create a ward, pull a small object through space

+4 Create a pocket of space, scry/search through space, teleport, quick/slow travel

+6 Create doors/portals between locations, colocate two places, create space from nothing, destroy space

+8 Perfect co-location, step outside of space, create a permanent portal

Forces

Forces effects deal +1 damage

+0 Sense energy

+2 Increase or decrease present forces

+4 Transform or destroy a force

+6 Change properties of force (so electricity grows and consumes like fire, fire is attracted to metal, light is smothering like pressure, etc.), create force from nothing

+8 Create new types of force, so you can make plasma that passes through all matter, drop a room to absolute zero, eliminate friction temporarily, cause fission or fusion reactions, make atomic bonds fall apart, or change Earth’s magnetic field.  Affect exotic types of forces, e.g. dark matter and dark energy, plasma, gravity

Life

+1 damage to living things

+0 Perceive living things, sense health

+2 Treat a mild physical consequence, speed or slow recovery, Skill bonus, clear physical stress, affect simple life like plants

+4 Treat a moderate physical consequence, increase physical stress boxes for a scene, deal damage to living things, augment a Skill for a scene

+6 Treat a severe physical consequence, transfer properties from one form of life to another, create life from nothing, shapeshift between plant and animal forms

+8 Complete transformation, imbue life with unique properties, transform into a mythological creature

Matter

+1 damage of objects

+0 Perceive matter, including composition, chemistry, etc.

+2 Change shape of matter, make it malleable

+4 Alter density, destroy matter, alter properties within constraints of the material

+6 A blade can be light as air, or a metal can be almost indestructible, or a shirt can be bullet-proof, create matter from nothing

+8 You can now give objects and substances unreasonable properties, allowing them to pass through walls, or have edges only a molecule wide, batteries that recharge themselves, or a body of liquid metal that can change forms and hunt down John Connor

Mind

+1 emotional stress when dealing damage

+0 Detect minds, read emotions

+2 Command, read surface thoughts, increase or decrease emotions

+4 Enter dreams, see Dreaming, read thoughts, destroy thoughts, change memories, bonus Skill for a scene, alter perceptions in target and create illusions

+6 Project into the Astral Plane, possession, create an illusion over an area, create a personality trait from nothing (with Prime), create a basic intelligence 

+8 Sever mind from body, open a portal to the Astral, create an illusory world and plunge someone into it, recreate personality (rewrite Aspects)

Spirit

+0 Spirit sense (Umbra, Dreaming, Shadowlands)

+2 Reach across the Gauntlet, affect spirits

+4 Step across the Gauntlet, strengthen or weaken the Gauntlet, bind a Wraith, heal/rend spirit-stuff, let a spirit manifest

+6 Open a portal in the Gauntlet, bring a spirit across into the material world, awaken the spirit of an object, open a portal from one spirit world to another, shapechange in the spirit world

+8 Awaken the spirit of a place, co-locate the spirit world and material world

Time

+0 See fate and probability, perfect time-sense

+2 Increase/decrease probability, augury – see into the past or the future

+4 Create/destroy probability, slow/speed time for one target, reach into an immediate past/future

+6 Determine fate, create a pocket of time, grant extra actions, hang an if-then effect, travel into a future or a past

+8 Change a timeline permanently, rewind or fast forward time for an area, create a portal in time, go outside of time

Paradox

Rather than impose Paradox for particular magical effects, I think it makes sense in Fate Core that Paradox is a way to succeed with a cost when using magic. You throw more hubris into the effect, draw on your resonance, try to force it, basically, and you still succeed but at the cost of Paradox.

In Mage Core, Paradox is a stress track, and also has it’s own dedicated consequence track, apart from the mental and physical. Paradox is its own thing in Mage, and Paradox consequences result in things like Quiet.

The Paradox track would start with two stress boxes, of course, and there isn’t currently an obvious choice of Skill to add additional boxes. That doesn’t seem like something a Skill should do, really. Maybe higher Sphere levels could add boxes – three boxes for a +3, four for a +4 and five for a +5 in your highest Sphere perhaps.

Rotes

I have a special rule that I’ve used with Fate Core in the past that I want to adapt to Mage Core. When a character makes use of a rote, and describes it, then the player can set aside one Fate die and set it to “+”. This is similar to a +1 to the roll, but also means that there will be less volatility in the result, which will now range from -2 to +4 instead of -4 to +4. This will, just as in Ascension, encourage players to come up with plenty of cool rotes and procedures for their characters. At least that’s the goal.

Traditions and Other Setting Stuff

I backed the 20th Anniversary Edition of Mage the Ascension, and it is superb. The work they did updating the setting and game assumptions for a 21st Century audience is good. The problem is, when I sit down and want to run a Mage game, especially with people who are not already used to OWoD, it’s daunting. WoD games made a lot of sense in college and after, when we all had way more time, no matter how busy we thought we were, to do things like soak damage and memorize magical effects and so on. I just find that I need a game that is faster and more loose, and I think that the fluidity and flexibility of Fate Core lends itself very well to Mage the Ascension.

What did I miss? Anything you want to add?