Mage the Ascension: Resonance and Hubris

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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.

Simplifying Combat in Vampire the Masquerade

My V20 game that I’m currently running seems to be coming to a head. Multiple Sabbat packs will be attacking an ancient vampire and his minions, and a second ancient might join the fray. In the past, this has been the point where we have a whole session where two hours or more are all one fight.

One big culprit here is Celerity. Probably the biggest. Each round of combat involves multiple turns for a number of the characters. Not only does Celerity make it less fun to be in a fight when you don’t have it, but there is more time spent as a player sitting on the sidelines messing with your smartphone or whatever while everyone else has multiple actions.

A second issue is that resolving a single attack requires at least four dice-rolls: the attack roll, a defense roll, damage roll and soak roll. One thing I really like about NWoD is that this is all simplified to one weighted roll per attack. I used to like the variability and flexibility of the OWoD system, but that was also back when I played with the same group every week, and we had tons of hours to devote to gaming minutiae.

Fix 1: Celerity
In the past I’ve adapted the LARP rules for Celerity, as I actually like them better than the V20 or previous rules, but in writing them up for this game, I realized they would just add another layer of complexity. We have two players who don’t give a damn about the system and would rather it not get in the way, one who is in his very first tabletop RPG, and a fourth who is up for whatever, so I decided to go with simplification.

What I decided was that Celerity would simply add to all Dexterity rolls. I had changed initiative to Dexterity + Wits (rather than Wits + Alertness), so Celerity would also add to initiative rolls. This would be the equivalent of the LARP preempt ability that Celerity grants, and it just makes sense that characters with Celerity would act first. This would also add to pretty much all attack rolls, move around rolls, and so on. I decided Celerity would cost no blood, since frankly this is quite a nerf. I have also not been allowing split actions, and so the extra Celerity dice would not be useful for that either.

So far, the players seem to be happy with it, though one player moved her Celerity 3 point to become a Fortitude 4 point (from out of clan to in-clan), which was fine by me. When I make a change like this (and I don’t seem to be able to resist) I always give players a chance to adjust accordingly.

Fix 2: Fortitude
I also wanted to nix the soak roll, and so I had to address Fortitude first. I decided that Stamina + Fortitude + Armor would be the difficult of damage rolls, but this meant that Fortitude would be less useful overall. (You still roll it to avoid fire and sunlight). So I decided that for a blood point, a character could add their Fortitude to their normal Health levels temporarily. These would be health levels that you couldn’t heal, but would be a buffer between you and real damage.

Again, so far, so good.

Fix 3: Defense and Soak
As mentioned above, there is no longer a soak roll, but the difficulty of a damage roll is the target’s Stamina + Fortitude + Armor. I also decided that the maximum for this difficulty would be a 9. Beyond that point, the extra health levels help, and you have dice to roll against fire and sunlight, but I found that my players had a lot more fun if they could at least bruise powerful NPCs in a fight.

Similarly, I got rid of the defense roll by simply having the difficulty of an attack roll be the target’s Dexterity + Athletics + Celerity. Again, with a maximum of 9. This really short-changes my super-powerful Elders, but also makes dealing with those Elders a bit more fun in this game, at least so far. This could easily be adapted to another house rule (or is it a house rule?) that for difficulties over 9, you simply need more successes. So difficulty 12 = difficulty 9 with three successes required for the first success.

Problem: Stakes, and other attacks that are more difficult than normal. Not sure what to do with this, but it basically makes staking a bit more likely and common in the game, which frankly is not a problem so far.

Again, players are liking the rules change, I have to explain rules much less often during the game, and fights go a lot quicker overall.

Mass Combat
The next session of my game is going to be a big-ass combat, with more than 20 named NPCs. Obviously, this is nuts, but the players are feeling it and are excited about it, and it is kind of what has been set up to happen. They are attacking an ancient vampire and his minions, and have the assistance of a couple of NPCs in their pack as well as a Black Hand cell. Late in the fight, another ancient might jump in with her minions to try to diablerize the PCs target, her enemy for the last 3000 years.

So, cool stuff, if it goes quick enough to be at all interesting.

First thing, for the most part, I’m going to hand-wave NPC vs NPC parts of the combat. I have a very good idea of who would win in a given fight and how long it would take, leaving me to focus on the PCs. For the NPCs vs NPCs, I just note what the PCs would see (she tears him up with claws; he empties his clip into her, etc.) and move on. If they want to get detail, they have to go look. Otherwise, it’s a mess, as fights should be.

Second, I have to have a way to keep track of NPC dots and numbers without having a fat stack of character sheets. Even the 3×5 cards I usually use for NPCs are a bit too large, as I want to have them out on the table so I can move them around. I decided to cut the 3x5s in half, and to have some notes for the combat only. What I have on the lined side of each card:

Name, Type (ghoul, clan, generation, etc.), Nature/Demeanor if they might come up in a fight
Physical, Social and Mental dice (these are just average pools for rolls of each type)
List of powers and level
Primary attack
Secondary attack
Special effect (if any – for example, Majesty with the Courage roll difficulty, an aura, etc.)
Path (if any) and Willpower
Blood pool total/Blood spent per round
Any other little note

Then, on the un-lined side of the card

Initiative number (I rolled ahead of time)
Boxes for the health levels, assuming that everyone has activated Fortitude who has it

And that’s it. We’ll see how it works on Sunday night.

Recent Developments in V20

I’m very excited about the release of Vampire: the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition – I’ve already ordered my own copy and it’ll be a great early birthday gift when it comes out.  You can see the huge banner above.

I’m also following the open development process, reading and commenting in the few cases where I think I have something smart to say.  Here is some of what has been going on lately:

The Tzimisce Clan document is up, as well as the Gargoyles and Giovanni.  These have been out for a few days, but I was away at UnConference11 and didn’t have time to do much reading while I was getting ready and certainly not while I was there.

I’m currently working on a one-shot to possibly run with friends while on vacation in a couple of weeks.  I actually don’t expect us to have the time, nor for enough people to have the inclination, but it takes my mind off work.

With any luck, when my V20 book arrives in October, I’ll have figured out the basics of keeping a human larva alive and will be able to have some bitey adventures.

V20: Vampire the Masquerade 20th Anniversary Edition

Not too long ago, White Wolf announced that they would be releasing a 20th Anniversary Edition of Vampire the Masquerade.  20 years ago, VtM’s huge impact on the gaming industry and overall geek culture began.  In terms of system mechanics, Vampire was a hymn to Shadowrun and others before it, but there was some kind of sweet spot that was waiting for something like Vampire the Masquerade to strike home.
According to demographic research done for Wizards of the Coast, Vampire is responsible for bringing in a huge number of women into the gaming hobby, what was up to that point apparently the purview of war-gaming grognards…or something.  I didn’t start gaming until around 1991, and I started with Mythus and then GURPS, but one can imagine what a hobby with even fewer women would have been like.
From their official comments, it would appear that V20, as they are calling the anniversary edition, would only be available to those who are attending the Grand Masquerade in New Orleans this year.  Fortunately, I am pretty sure this is not true.  I asked the question via Twitter, using their preferred hashtag #v20, and got a quick response that the book (which is going to be around 400 pages) is going to be available apart from the Masquerade – they just aren’t sure about the details yet.
I like how White Wolf is going about this process.  They are actively soliciting and responding on a forum devoted to the topic of the new edition, and they are also posting drafts of the rules and text that will go into the final book.  The book is going to have new, full-color artwork from ‘classic’ Masquerade artists, and will not be a new edition, nor will it be the beginning of a new round of book releases for Masquerade.  They are saying that it is simply something for those who have been playing Vampire since it was released 20 years ago.
That’s what they’re saying now anyway.  As always, we’ll see.
I’ve been following the hashtag #v20 on Twitter, and that is where I am getting most of my information and updates, apart from the documents they release and the forums, where I am participating as time allows.
I can honestly say that this announcement has re-ignited my desire to play Vampire the Masquerade.  I started in 1998, my first year of college, and I played in games for the next 7 or 8 years with the same group of great people who are still some of my closest friends.  Before I played VtM, I was actually kind of contemptuous of a game that seemed to be all about being goth and bemoaning one’s fate and blood fetishism.  And yeah, there’s some of that.  What I got was a fantastic game and great memories and friends.  I’m not really a fan of vampire fiction or movies; I’ve never been even remotely goth; but VtM is still one of my favorite games out there.  I’m really excited about the new edition, and will definitely get myself a copy when it is available.
In the meantime, for any other fans, I recommend checking out the open development documents and blog, the forums, and also following the news as it comes out.  You ask questions and much of the time, one of the guys working on the book answer you.  That’s one thing I really like about our little hobby – the people at the very top are not so high up as to not be accessible to even casual fans.

Hunter: the Vigil and the New World of Darkness

The New World of Darkness games seem to be intentionally designed to give players insane results. In the old world of darkness system, you could get crazy results, but it was because you gamed the system well – you set up a roll with lots of dice and low difficulty.

In the NWoD, everything is target 8, so successes can be relatively rare, but you also have “exploding dice”, re-rolling 10’s and sometimes even 9’s and more rarely, 8’s as well. This means that the most common results of rolls are one or two successes or a large number, and it comes out of nowhere. It is also less under your control. Even when you can make some of your successes explode, they are relatively rare, so its more of a game of luck and randomness.

One effect of this that I found in my own play is that it turns the game towards comedy. There is a lot of botching and absurd successes, and it is hard to handle.

The exception here is in combat, when some kind of defense number is subtracted from almost all of the dice-pools for attacks and special abilities. This means that you’re rolling fewer dice than you’re used to, which in turn means that combat involves a lot of singular successes or marginal failures.

This can get to be…a little unexciting. Your vampire grows her agg-dealing supernatural claws, leaps from the rooftop onto her opponent, slashes the claws down his back, and deals…one aggravated damage. Nowhere near a would penalty or anything. A scratch, really. Then in rage he turns around, pulls out his Desert Eagle, shoots you, and deals…two bashing. And so it goes until one of you has some exploding dice and randomly ends the battle in a paroxism of bloodshed.

I like a lot of the changes that were made to Vampire, Werewolf and Hunter. I think that Mage took a step backward both in its fluff and in the system itself in almost every way. But the dice system is just sort of hard to manage sometimes. It doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t deliver the play experience I want – it isn’t reliable when it should be, and it isn’t exciting when you want it to be.

I find that I’m left wanting to hack White Wolf’s games all the time. When we used to run V3 (Vampire third edition), we probably had a minimum of house rules, but by the end of a chronicle we had a few to make the system more playable.

I wonder – did they playtest the new system before they brought it out? It just comes off as…unfinished in a lot of ways. So you have huge, beautiful books with unfinished systems in them that don’t deliver what you want them to deliver.

I sort of want White Wolf’s graphic designers and artists and setting designers to team up with Paizo, maybe, or a team of designers who can create a game that is tight, efficient, and delivers when you want it to deliver.

We just had a session of Hunter: the Vigil with some members of our new home group we’re trying to put together, and it went really well and was a lot of fun. It isn’t like I’m not having fun with White Wolf’s games – I almost always do. It just isn’t…reliable. Their new system, its core dice mechanic, just isn’t as good as their old one, and it takes something away from the game that used to be there. I’d have kept a similar dice system, with variable pools and variable difficulties on d10s, because that just lead to a more interesting game, a system that the players can use to set their characters up for huge success or for big risks at critical moments. The dice helped the game along – not so much with the new WoD stuff. Its really too bad.

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.

Hunter: the Vigil

I don’t know if you guys got a chance to check out White Wolf’s offering for Free RPG Day, but it was a Hunter: the Vigil introductory scenario, and there was enough in there to get a good idea of what the Hunter game will probably be like, as well as how White Wolf is going about scenario design these days.

It looks like Hunter: the Vigil is going back to the roots of Hunters Hunted, rather than Hunter: the Reckoning. In Hunters Hunted, you were just regular people who hunted monsters. You did so for various reasons, and at most possibly had mild psychic powers, but ultimately you had to use your brains and teamwork to survive. Hunter: the Reckoning, in contrast, had a lot of character options that were freakishly overpowered and a other options that were almost worthless, and not a lot in-between. It was pretty easy to build a Hunter using the Reckoning rules who would never experience any danger from any supernatural. That…basically guaranteed a lack of fun (though I’ve heard the computer game was decent – never played it myself.)

In Hunter: the Vigil, you’re back to being regular mortals built with the basic World of Darkness rules. Instead of super powers, you have two special advantages when facing down the monsters. The first is Tactics – a Tactic is a way that your hunter cell has developed where they work together to augment themselves against supernatural attacks, or to work as an efficient and effective team. The two that the introductory book mentions bolster you against mind control powers and make you a better investigator, respectively. The other thing that you can do as a Hunter is risk Willpower. Instead of spending Willpower, you can risk it, meaning if you succeed you get two Willpower back, but if you fail, the failure is treated as a dramatic failure.

For scenario design, White Wolf seems to be outlining and clearly delineating scenes. Each scene has a rating of Mental, Physical and Social, corresponding to what the scene will focus on and how it will challenge the player-characters. It also has a short introduction and a paragraph of “Storyteller Goals” and another paragraph of “Character Goals”. I like what I’ve seen of the scene design system because it lends itself to a style of storytelling that I think works well with White-Wolf’s games – a kind of semi-cinematic drama. I also like thought going into what the goal of a scene is from the storyteller side and the player side.

Overall, I think Hunter: the Vigil looks promising. Its a return to grittier and more frightening Hunter stories, where you pit cunning and courage against the supernatural powers of creatures of darkness. That’s what I want in a modern-day Hunter game. When it comes out in August, I’ll be looking at getting myself a copy.