Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Mage: the Ascension, 2nd edition core

I was pretty eager to get into this book. As a revised-era Mage newbie, I read a lot of stuff online about how 2nd edition was a mythical golden age, when the developers actually cared about the game and weren't trying to pigeonhole gritty urban themes and blah, blah, blah. Also, a lot of stuff about Sons of Ether fighting the Void Engineers around the moons of Jupiter. Needless to say, I was extremely curious to see whether the old core book lived up to the hype.

Eh. I'd say that compared to Revised, it's a better core book for a worse game. I admired how thorough it was - it covered the various spirit worlds, the Digital Web, potential crossovers, and the internal politics of the Technocracy (things that were missing from the Revised core), but then it's still a version of the Storyteller system that lacks bashing damage.

The thing I'm noticing most about Mage as time goes on though is that there's this narrow band where it's at its smartest and it's a compelling philosophical storytelling game and on the other end, there's a much broader patch where it's at its dumbest and it's a fun superhero game, but the bulk of the actual writing is in the space between those extremes and it often feels like it's floundering as a result.

Take the conflict between the Traditions and the Technocracy as an example. Sometimes, it's just an example of some impossibly earnest, impossibly shallow mid-90s environmentalism. Industry is destroying the trees, man, and the cities are so ugly and sterile and filled with bad thoughts, unlike nature which is beautiful and noble and filled with good thoughts. And the whole vibe is "cyborgs vs elves" and it's glorious . . . so long as you don't think too much about it.

Alternately, there are flashes of insight where Mage actually lights on the conflicts that define our world - the overreach of the Modernist project and the way that the principles of the Enlightenment arose in the context of a rapacious colonialism that seems to be its own antithesis, but then the societies that emerged in this era never really resolved these contradictions, so you have to wonder whether there is really a conflict at all. Maybe the widespread "paradox" of "liberalism for some" is not a hypocritical failing of the philosophy, but its desired end-state all along. Maybe the very idea of historical progressivism is inherently hierarchical, establishing an unquestionable aristocracy of "experts," who rule over "the masses" in the name of improving material conditions, but which is so non-porous and self-selecting that those in the disfavored class are doomed to eternal subservience. . .

Except that's usually just one isolated sentence, and it never addresses the follow-up questions, about how to avoid a political nihilism that serves only to empower the ruling class or how a group like the Traditions, which defines itself in terms of elitism, can possibly embrace the radical equality that is the necessary counter to the Technocracy's stratified liberal "meritocracy." Most of the time, Mage's level of critique is completely off-base. Like, there's this painfully Cold War era line, "What the Technocrats ignore is that their warped form of communism (like that of the Soviet Union) still requires elites to impose the supposed equality."

Now, I don't want to get stuck playing Soviet apologist here, but it's such an odd form of attack, not least because The Technocracy is so quintessentially American. One of its conventions is so thoroughly associated with modern capitalism that it's not even clear what magical powers they have other than shit tons of cash (seriously, it's in one of the later books that the Syndicate winds up getting Spirit as its specialty sphere because . . . money is bad for the soul?) But more to the point, it's also bizarrely circular - the problem with the Technocracy is that they want to impose equality, but they're not really equal, so support their rivals who reject equality in its entirety, because an unequal society that doesn't try is superior to one that does. It all has a vaguely John Birch society feel to it, but with magic instead of racism.

The best summary of  the half-assed version of the Ascension War is "the great sin of the Technocracy is not science or even murder - it is oppression under one vision." Which seems sinister when you're talking about lifestyle or culture, but is kind of silly when you realize they're actually talking about physics, and that the one unforgivable sin in the Mage universe is to be certain about anything. It's a tendency that extends beyond the Traditions vs the Technocracy. Even within the Traditions, it applies.

The Traditions' descriptions have a section where they discuss the stereotypes they have about all the other Traditions, and almost universally the Order of Hermes is derided for learning magic from books. Supposedly, it's because the Order of Hermes is the most hierarchical of the Traditions, but it strikes me as a strange coincidence that you can sort the Traditions by both their popularity and by the value they place on academic rigor and the two lists would wind up being quite nearly the same. Mage's metaphysics can't account for true knowledge, because when belief defines reality, then there's no such thing as a false belief. Thus any desire to "learn" or, god forbid, "teach" becomes a stealth attempt to control what people can create.

There are times when it feels like someone behind the scenes once got a D- on a chemistry test and thereafter resolved to create a fantasy world where that could never happen.

Anyway, fundamental skepticism about the game's mission statement aside, the thing that interested me most about the 2nd edition is the canon creep. The Verbena have diverged from their splatbook presentation and are less cuddly Wiccan. The Celestial Chorus is even more ambivalently presented than ever before, associated with both inquisitorial fundamentalism and heretical universalism (it actually gets called a "meta-religion" at one point, despite that label applying to basically all the Traditions). There's also some noticeable imports from the Akashic Brotherhood book. Do is core now. Also "drahma" appears, suggesting that it wasn't a typo after all.

We're also seeing the first hints of the millennialism that so characterizes the late-period World of Darkness. There are dark speculations that the world is coming to an end, and that the Ascension War is merely a backdrop for the Final Nights, but they're so brief that they don't really qualify as a theme . . . yet.

Overall, I'd say that this is a decent attempt at Mage. I feel justified in my belief that the revised era is the high-point of the series, but if the 2nd edition supplements wind up embracing the goofier elements of the core (more spaceships and witches on Mars), then I may have to revise that assessment.

Ukss Contribution: One of the examples of magic mentions bringing a haunted painting to life. That's pretty cool. One of the rare occasions where Mage gets away from the mechanistic precision of its magic system. It's a recurring irony that for all that the game is about the infinite variety of fantasy, its freeform magic system winds up feeling pretty homogeneous, probably because it can only cope with a very specific level of abstraction (all Forces are one and the same, but there's no way to interact with concepts like "family" or "destiny). So animated gothic painting lady is a nice change of pace.


  1. When belief defines reality, there's no such thing as a false belief, only a *weak* belief and a strong one. One belief that overrules another. Which in the end, when two mages go head to head, comes down to a probabilistic exercise rooted in talent and training but ultimately dependent on chance... i.e., who rolls better. Truth is random?


    1. I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but I suppose, by the rules of the game, you're right. Although I'm not sure that rolls are necessarily meant to represent something random in the fiction. The randomness we perceive as players is probably down to a determinism in the setting that is simply too complex to model.

  2. "It all has a vaguely John Birch society feel to it, but with magic instead of racism," is both the best sentence I've read this month and a great encapsulation of the difficulty I've always had really getting into Mage.