This is going to be a two-part post for a number of reasons. First, it's a celebration. The White Wolf run of Mage: the Ascension has come to an end. And maybe that's not a reason to celebrate, per se, but it is a major event in the life of the game. The weight of the moment is definitely in the book, and I even found myself randomly crying at things that otherwise wouldn't merit it ("OMG, this is the last time they're going to take a potshot at Sao Christovao for no reason ::sob::"). Second, after reading the Prologue, Introduction, and two chapter, I'm approximately halfway through the book, and that's as good a place to stop as any. And third, you really can mentally divide Ascension between "canon" and "optional." In the book's own words, Chapter 2, "Judgement" is "as close as we get to providing an 'official' story."
I think they're being too modest. "Judgement" feels official. Mostly in a good way. Mysteries are revealed, fan favorite characters make their return, and plot threads introduced as early as The Book of Chantries are resolved. I'm not sure how well it works as an adventure, and I definitely remember feeling alienated by it back in 2004, but having read all 67 Mage books in chronological order, I would frequently nod my head and mumble, "I'm well-prepared for this."
I think, because of my hubris in devoting a whole post just to this chapter, I kind of have to try to summarize it now. . . oh, just excuse me for a moment . . . I, um, left my notes in the bathroom . . . I'll just grab my phone and my wallet and my keys and go get them . . .I'll be right back . . .
No, no, it's not that complicated. I mostly worry that I'm going to leave out some important cameo and accidentally leave you with the impression that there were portions of the adventure that weren't unrelenting fan service . . . Mostly in a good way. The NPC section warns us to "keep in mind that canonical characters should be seen as placeholders for other figures that matter in your own game," but I, the weird, obsessive rpg blogger am saying, "don't you fucking dare." If you're not going all-in on excess, you should use one of the later scenarios. The whole reason you run "Judgement" in the first place is because you want to fast-talk Mark Hallward Gillam into repeating Heylel Teomim's soul-merging experiment and then ship him with Marianna of Balador.
I know it was a concession to the idea that the PCs should probably have some role in the events of the campaign, but I can't entirely forgive Ascension for not making the female half of "Heylel's Heir" be Penny Dreadful or Lee Ann Milner. I mean, I get it. You get to publish a sidebar titled "You Are The Betrayer," but making the PCs integral to the events strikes me as missing out on what's appealing about this scenario in particular.
"RPG Adventures" where the PCs are just spectators while the GMs favorite NPCs hog the spotlight are bad, sure, but the series finale of a long-running franchise can be forgiven for scrimping on plot to just check in with as many characters as possible. I imagine there is a very narrow segment of the audience that is emotionally invested enough to care that Caeron Mustai was revealed, in a shocking twist, to be knowingly working against Ascension by using House Jannissary to cover up for Voormas and the Ksifari to feed information to the Technocrats because of an Ahl-i-Batin prophecy that the 10th Sphere would draw the Red Star, Antihelios, because it was actually Telos and would bring the world to an end even as it elevated the worthy among humanity to their final spiritual destiny, but also so jaded by all of the above that they'd sit around impatiently wondering what any of it had to do with them.
"Judgement" is an adventure for the message boards, is what I'm saying.
In this scenario, the eponymous avatars of the Avatar Storm start breaking through the Gauntlet. Some will merge with a Sleeper to create a new Awakened Mage and others will fly around wounding mages who are already Awakened. The simultaneous collapse of the Gauntlet allows gods, spirits, and the dead to openly walk the Earth. These events cause panic among the populace and the Technocracy steps out of the shadows to ensure that the world's governments can crack down more effectively. The newly awakened are often placed in internment camps, especially if they show religious and/or mystical tendencies in their magic.
The Hollow Ones rise up as an international guerilla movement because shut up, that's why, and between the fighting and their paradigm's inability to cope with the crisis, the Technocracy gradually loses the confidence of the masses. As the Red Star becomes visible to the naked eye, it becomes increasingly clear that the end of the world is nigh.
There is, however, one man who has a plan to stop it - Voormas, the Grand Harvester of Souls. Using the power of the shard realm of Entropy, he will redirect a quarter of the Avatars towards the Red Star, destroying it and forever obliterating the difference between life and death, leaving the universe in an eternal twilight of stasis.
There's no in-between state there. You can let Voormas turn the universe into a grim shadow-world or you can let it be destroyed (well, technically, you could also imitate the Void Engineers and hop into your sick-ass Dyson Sphere and bounce out of our reality), but one way or the other everyone is going to get totally fucked up. The PCs are assumed to be on team "everyone melts into the god of a new epoch."
To even stand a chance they need to unify the remnants of the Traditions and the Technocracy. This involves a quest through the spirit world where they learn that the Rogue Council was actually a bunch of Tradition Oracles, including their newest member, Dante, and that the Technocracy's Control was the spiritual manifestation of the Union's paranoia and whenever a master got powerful enough to join them, they were in fact absorbed body and soul into the composite entity.
Also, Porthos was there. Early in the adventure, there's a misleading prophecy that might result in the PCs trying to recreate Heylel Teomim's soul-merging experiment in order to create an alchemically perfect king to lead the Traditions through the apocalypse. It turns out that what you actually need is his psychopomp-summoning spell, which was contained in the same grimoire (i.e the one that could only be unlocked by the combined effort of Heylel's Heirs - Mark Hallward Gillam and the PC you suckered into playing the role). In the process of uncovering that information, you also learn that Heylel wasn't lying when he said he had good intentions and he really did what he did because his buddy Akrites foresaw disaster if he didn't. The only other person to know his secret was Porthos . . . who withheld the information at Heylel's trial because he was jealous of Heylel's relationship with Eloine, the Verbena member of the First Cabal (you know, the one that adult Porthos knew as a child).
Anyway, Porthos is an Oracle of Forces now.
In the end, you have to travel to the shard Realm of Judgement, on the Red Star and fight the House of Helekar. Not the organization. The actual House. It grows arms and legs and is a little too clumsy to use kung fu, but it deals uncountable damage when it hits and it can only be destroyed by taking out the crystal inside.
Voormas is the real final boss. Beat him and everyone dies. Or, you know, becomes the god of their own private universe that reflects their personal paradigm, which is exactly as pointless and fraught as the Virtual Adpets' Reality 2.0.
"In the end, they are games."
Overall, I really enjoyed "Judgement." I realized, shortly after finishing my recap, that even a deliberately half-assed summary that left out a lot of detail still managed to be crammed with canon wankery (and to understand this post, you'll need to have been following both the Mage: the Ascension and the It Came From the Bookshelf canon, because I can never resist recursion), but that wankery is its prime benefit. In the alternate world where Netflix declined to pick up Season 12 of the Mage tv show, but "Judgement" was released as a movie, you'd probably say "that was at least as good as Avengers: Endgame."