Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Mage: the Ascension, Revised Core

I absolutely love this book, though I'm forced to admit that this feeling is probably not based entirely on its merits. It is, in many ways, a flawed book. Some of that is old Storyteller system crumminess that I was too mathematically naive to pick up on (for example, if you use the rules suggested for "simplifying stealth," it is nearly impossible for the stealthy character to be detected). Some of it is omissions that border on the unforgivable - no spirits stats whatsoever, sparse information on the Technocracy, and no example wonders or devices.

This was something I noticed way back when. The book would drop casual mentions of Tradition mages having to dodge HIT Marks, but then nowhere did it provide stats or descriptions of said devices. I gathered from context that they were some kind of robot, but it wasn't until I read some of the supplements that I learned they were supposed to blend in with humanity, like the Terminator.

Even so, the Revised core's flaws don't detract from the warm glow I get just handling this book. This was my first Mage book, my first World of Darkness book, and quite possibly my first non-D&D book, period. It opened up my imagination in ways that I never expected. And there are just hours and hours of happy memories associated with this specific physical object (unlike Aberrant, I never had to replace my Mage core due to having a soda spilled on it). It was a joy to be able to read it again.

So I know that I'm not going to be able to be complete objective here. However, with that grain of salt in mind, I actually do think the Revised Core has a lot going for it. Due to the aforementioned oversights, it's not as good a core qua core as 2nd edition, but it's got a more confident voice. The world is portrayed with more conviction, and the various Traditions feel like fuller, more complex organizations than they have in the past.

The trickiest part of judging Mage Revised, however, is that the core is also a soft reboot of the setting, and . . . Look, new Mage is good, but it's not the same. Personally, if you came to me and first described Mage, Revised and then described Mage, 2nd edition, well, I'd probably be in awe that you could describe Mage, 2nd edition, but after I got over my shock, I'd agree that Revised sounded more like a World of Darkness game.

What Revised is trying to do is to dial in on a purer strain of gothic-punk fantasy. Magic is dying, and it's taking the world with it. You're small and alone, but you're also keeping the faith. A mage is a candle in the dark, seemingly helpless against the forces that would snuff it out. And yet even that is better than ignorance. The Sleepers face all the same dangers, but without the defense of knowing what's really going on. You get to choose whether you want to help them.

It's a good premise for a game. And there are aspects of the Revised system that are effective at selling it. The addition of Resonance mechanics is my favorite bit. Mages now have a magical aura that surrounds them at all times. At low levels, it's detectable only by the specially sensitive, but as time goes on, it becomes overpowering. The fiction indicates that Sleepers can pick up on Resonance subconsciously. As a mage gets drawn into the Awakened world, their relationships start to suffer. They become alienated from friends and loved ones who sense their strangeness and begin to pull away, from self-preservation, if nothing else. There's no mechanic associated with this, but it's a recurring theme.

I really like Revised Mage's new claustrophobic feel. There's a magic world. It contains wonders, but it's weird. It exists alongside the mundane world, on unlabled streets and in the creaky old houses all the schoolchildren fear. If you had the eyes to see it, it would be everywhere, but only very weird people have those sorts of eyes.

In fact, it's such a good niche that it feels almost churlish of me to point out that both Unknown Armies and Changeling: the Lost fill it better. Which isn't to say either of those games is a replacement for Mage, Revised, but just that "desperate times in the occult underground" isn't Mage's only interest. It also still really wants to be the "world tour of occultism" game, and sometimes those impulses dovetail nicely and sometimes they work at cross purposes.

I think White Wolf did Mage, Revised a great disservice by placing it in the older Mages' continuity. Crossing into the spirit world is dangerous, even deadly. The old masters are all dead or vanished. These are ideas that fit right into a melancholy world of dying magic, where the players are the last embers of an extinguished flame. But to make those fit with the old Mage, they blew up the spirit world and they killed off the masters. People cared about those things. They're going to miss them now that they're gone, maybe even feel a little betrayed that the stories they've been telling are no longer supported.

Plus, it's inelegant worldbuilding. Not necessarily unrealistic - big sudden events that shake up the status quo do happen, especially at the beginning of stories - but one that puts too much emphasis on concrete cause and effect. The world is broken, but it didn't break overnight . . . the Technocracy's Code Ragnarok notwithstanding.

The biggest flaw with Mage, Revised (aside from the magic system, which I'm going to have to go into detail about sooner or later) is that its central conflict didn't age well, at all. Like, I'm talking about 18 months after release it's going to feel like it was written in an entirely different universe.

See, Mage Revised contends that the Ascension War is pointless. It's called, at one point, a "deluded attempt to remake the world in their image." The Traditions lost thanks to the Technocracy's strength of arms, but then the Technocracy lost when it turned out that Sleepers were too apathetic to embrace their sci-fi Utopia. It's an idea that sort of works, thematically, with the rest of the game, but is also weirdly elitist and weirdly sheltered, a kind of naiveté that masks itself as cynicism (i.e. peak White Wolf). Ultimately, it feels a lot like someone really bought into those 90s "end of history" and "the parties are both the same" narratives.

That's why it's been my opinion for awhile that Mage: the Ascension couldn't really adapt to a post-9/11 world.  Revised pictured a world in stasis, where the experts were firmly in control . . . and that obviously didn't work out, but even from the beginning, Mage has drawn the wrong battle-lines. You want to talk about the national security apparatus? You want to talk about the highest levels of capitalism? Okay, we can talk about how they're authoritarian institutions that strive to embed hierarchies into every aspect of human life, but what we can't say is that their defining traits are "reason" or "science." The closest they ever get is a sort of tunnel vision efficiency at optimizing their quantifiable short-term goals (procurement budgets and shareholder value, respectively), and even those are frequently undermined by a devotion to "conventional wisdom," that seems to have come from nowhere in particular. Even order is a secondary concern to "never admitting a mistake."

But at the same time, it would be a mistake to thoughtlessly attribute all opposition to these forces to a desire for tolerance, diversity, and individual freedom. Sometimes a reactionary is just a reactionary, and while in some sense you might declare that Al Qaeda and the Bush Administration had the same goal, it would be ludicrous (not to mention at least three kinds of offensive) to theorize that they were controlled by the same conspiracy.

But Mage can't let go of conspiracies. They're baked right into the game at a fundamental level. It also can't let go of the idea of civilizational conflict. That's kind of central to the whole "Ascension War" concept. Revised tried. It inherited a premise of "the West is under attack by a coalition of ancient superstitions - as it deserves to be" and tried to segue that into "the West won the clash of civilizations - and that's bad," but it never quite roots out the false dichotomy.

There are no "sides." There are no conspiracies. There's just the simple truth that power has a million ugly ways of expressing itself. Sometimes your neighbors are the worst of your oppressors.

Although that's a bit headier a level of conversation than we really need to be having. Point is that Mage: the Ascension, Revised was a period piece almost as soon as it was written. If you want old-school paranoia in a magic-noir universe, then it's frickin' great, but it's something that needs to be treated a lot less seriously than it takes itself.

Ukss Contribution: I kind of like Avatars. Their presentation here is not the strongest. "The shard of Prime that allows the use of magic is the birthright of a very select few." But the implication that they are distributed randomly and are not related to one's degree of spiritual attainment is not necessarily one that will endure. If you boil them down to their most basic concept "reincarnating personal godform that goads its chosen towards enlightenment" is a pretty interesting idea for a religion.

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