Sunday, December 15, 2019

Mage: The Ascension (1st Edition Core)

When I decided to buy every Mage: the Ascension book, it was on a whim. I had a chunk of money from an unexpected windfall and as a sort of "ha, ha, wouldn't it be wild if . . ." impulse, I pulled up a list of all the Mage books, added the ones I didn't already own to my Amazon shopping cart, and saw that the total was less than the money I had to spend (although not by enough, it turned out - it was touch and go for a couple of days), and I was like, "wait, could that really happen, a complete collection of a seminal rpg?" So I took the plunge.

I don't regret it, but it does mean that I am coming at this without a plan. I doubt it comes as much of a surprise that I have opinions about Mage, but I've got 50+ books to read in this series, so I've got to pace myself. I don't want to get to Mage: 20th Anniversary Edition and find myself forced to stitch together bits and pieces of posts I've made months before.

It also doesn't help that it's been a couple of years since I've read a Mage book. Not since my M20 book arrived in the mail, actually. So the natural thrust of this post - "let's go back to the beginning and gawp at what's different" - is proving a bit more difficult than I anticipated.

Like, did you know that the potential for the Void Engineers to defect to the Traditions was already there in the first M:tA book ever written? I always figured it was a fanon thing. A faction that was initially written to be villains becomes so popular with the fans that the books wind up teasing them joining up with the good guys. But no, it was a part of their deal right from the start.

Shit or get off the pot guys!

So there's a bit of fun to be had trying to figure out the things this book got wrong about the game Mage: The Ascension would eventually turn out to be. My vague memories complicate that goal, but don't completely obviate it.

I've got a list of stuff here that's pretty esoteric to non-fans, but potentially dynamite to nerds like me. The Technocracy created the Gauntlet! Technomancers (a word used more or less wherever later editions would use "Technocrat") use spells! That weird thing where some among the Traditions believe Copernicus moved the Earth in the heavens when he came up with the heliocentric model? Canon!

I should probably focus on more thematic stuff, though. How does the first edition of Mage support the various flame wars that have consumed the community over the years?

First, it's pretty squarely RBD/HAP. . .

Oh, there are possibly people reading this who haven't been squabbling over Mage rules for the last couple of decades. Short version - in Mage you run the risk of Paradox if your magic is too obvious and disruptive, but it's possible to avoid Paradox by shrouding your spells in coincidence. Instead of hitting someone with a lightning bolt, you divert electricity from a power outlet to shock someone, you find a twenty dollar bill in your pocket, who's to say anything happened at all - that sort of thing.

Simple enough, but over the years, there have been many arguments about what counts as a "coincidence." Arguments that have a whole raft of abbreviations associated with them. Suffice to say, there's a strict interpretation and a casual interpretation . . . and then there's Mage 1e's interpretation, which lies far beyond even the most generous definition of "coincidental."  Taking the text at face value, it seems to suggest that coincidental magic is something reality does for you. A mage will cast a spell using the coincidental techniques, and then they wait to see how it will work out. They don't even know beforehand. But more than just calling upon luck, this version of coincidental magic will hide behind illusions. If a regular person witnesses a coincidental spell, they will see whatever they need to see to make sense of the effect.

It's actually kind of a remarkable rules choice. Even 26 years after the fact, I feel successfully trolled.

The most interesting thing I've learned, however, is something I don't necessarily want to get too into just yet, if only because it's going to be relevant to almost every other book down the line, and I'm convinced there's going to be a better place to talk about it. Still, it's important to document, so here it goes - the Mage: the Ascension 1st Edition core book makes a critical world-building mistake that is going to haunt the whole series and is responsible for all of its most contentious and least productive arguments - it conflates the villainous organization, the Technocracy, with metaphysical materialism and the cosmological principle of stasis.

The reductionist way to look at is that it has a central conflict of science vs faith, but there's a little more to it than that (. . . most of the time, sometimes it's exactly that). Later, more sophisticated analysis is going to try and associate the Technocracy with the modernist project at its most thoughtlessly arrogant. Scientism instead of science. You know, the type of "classical liberalism" that is deeply illiberal. The context-free "facts and logic" that are driven almost entirely by rage and traditional prejudice.  The Technocracy eventually becomes identified with colonialism, not just of the land, not just of culture, but of the very underpinnings of reality itself.

Which is a pretty good hook for a villain, especially if your heroes are a multicultural alliance of radicals. But, here at least, none of that is really apparent. The Technocracy's flaw is that it's too rigorous, too concerned with the material world, too wedded to the idea of objective knowledge and too eager to define all of reality.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but Mage: the Ascension is basically a game which asks, "what if your religion gave you super powers?" And while you don't have to (and probably shouldn't) just play a character who shares your religion, it's nonetheless relevant that some of us who love the game are atheists, materialists, and humanists.  Because of that, well, a lot of people in the fan base who in real life wore themselves out arguing that there is good in atheism, good in materialism, good in humanism, they found themselves arguing that there must, therefor, be good in the Technocracy too.

I think that might make a pretty amazing game, honestly. If the conflict were just about methodology and priorities. Sci-fi vs fantasy, security vs freedom, reason vs intuition. But that's only intermittently the game we actually got, and thus a lot of Mage arguments just wound up being players slugging it out over their real world beliefs.

Yet the "the Technocracy is just a personification of the sins of the West" theory doesn't really pan out either. Its implicit construction of "power = science = the consensus" did not age particularly well (it's the prime reason I'm going to call Mage: the Ascension the most 90s game ever made, though funnily enough, it doesn't make much of an appearance here), and I have a feeling that it probably was never as strong a correlation as the books might suggest. In the years leading up to this book, science said there was an AIDS crisis and power didn't do anything about it.

So what you've got, especially here in a time when nobody noticed when 95% of your art was of white people, is a vision of the Traditions that feels distressingly right-libertarian. Consensual reality (a term that has not yet been coined) is the collective heritage of all humanity. The Technocracy are Marxist-Leninists, who ostensibly want to hold it in trust for a time when the people are ready to take possession, but somehow never forget to pay themselves first. The Traditions are anarcho-capitalists, who want to homestead it at will and make only token provisions for those who lack the power to stake their claim.

Again, an interesting conflict, but it winds up being punk without solidarity, which is possible, but never appealing.

But, of course, a lot of that won't be apparent for some time to come. It gets its start here, though.

I got my start with Mage: the Ascension, Revised and while it's totally cliche to say that your favorite version of a game is the one you were introduced to, there's a lot of texture in the later books that I'm desperately missing here. What I called "the weight of canon" in Vampire: the Masquerade winds up being "living up to the promise of multiculturalism" in Mage. Of course, the later books were simply drawing on half a decade's worth of research done for various supplements, but it was kind of jarring to read about the Euthanatos and not see one word about heretical Hinduism or to see a version of the Dreamspeakers that was so blandly New Age that it barely even counted as cultural appropriation.

I'm going to be very interested in seeing how the game evolves as time goes on, though ironically I have the feeling that this first book is going to wind up feeling like one of the least essential.

Ukss Contribution - Another occasion where I'm definitely going to have to pace myself. Nearly every cool thing about this book, I'm going to get another chance to select. Best to go with something fleeting and specific.  The Verbena sacrifice blood to their sacred trees and that turns them red. It's probably the purest fantasy line in the whole book.


  1. As someone who ONLY tooled around with 1E Mage before burning out on the franchise, it's really surreal to read your list of early-installment weird ideas. I'm all like "of course the Technocracy made the Gauntlet, that was perfectly obvious," because I never read the material where that stopped being the case.

    I will say that, for all the Mage arguments where people just angrily defended their real-world beliefs (which I have always assumed were the actual goal of the game's writers), the other reason for pro-Technocracy opinions seems to be that the World of Darkness is just too overblown for the petty evils of the status quo. When you're compared to The Camarilla and Pentex, almost any group looks good.

    Regardless, it's really cool to hear that later iterations of Mage have a more nuanced, multicultural look at the traditions of The Traditions. Looking forward to their entries!

    1. The problem with the Technocracy creating the gauntlet is that it's too fundamental to the way the spirit-world works in the WoD. It's there to keep spirits from too casually interfering in the material world. So a lot of the more idealistic games posited a time when there was no barrier and the worlds were close to one, but as time went on it became apparent that this time was so nakedly mythic that it must have occurred prior to recorded history. Thus, antagonists like the Technocracy and the forces of the Weaver were retconned into merely strengthening the gauntlet.