Friday, October 23, 2020

Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition - Book 1: Awaken (Chapters 1-4)

Part 2 

Part 3 

 I'd have to go back into the archives to double check, but I think this may be my longest ever gap between posts. This is undoubtedly due to the confluence of many unrelated distractions - the hotel has been infuriatingly busy, there's been some minor drama with my landlord, and I've gotten really into a certain survival-crafting video game. I've got a lot of excuses lined up (not that I'm offering an apology, but still).

However, I have to admit that despite all the other things competing for my attention, a big part of why it's taken me so long to read 115 pages is because Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition isn't very pleasant to read.

Part of that is just the sheer physical discomfort of manhandling this monster of a book. It is so heavy guys. I'll be sitting in bed and eventually have to take a break to let my arms rest. I leave it on my lap long enough and it will leave a mark. I like to flatter myself that I'm not a weak man, but with the exception of Exalted 3rd edition, no other book in my collection has so consistently threatened to slip from my grasp as I lug it to and from my car.

In a way, that's a good thing. M20 is definitely a tome. There's something satisfying about playing a modern occult game using a book that feels like it was stolen from a wizard's laboratory. I can't deny that it's a challenge, though.

A more fundamental issue is that the writing, at least in this first section, is . . .  hmm. The phrase "make reality your bitch" shows up in an ostensibly out of character section.

I say "ostensibly" because I can't actually be sure. Maybe I missed something, but it's unclear who the narrator is supposed to be. They have opinions, though. 

Many mages reach for a lesser goal instead: they want to make the world ascend. And they'll tell you that's the ultimate benevolence. And they'll be lying then, because it's not. Although you may disagree with this opinion, as many mages do, in my mind such universal Ascension is the ultimate form of slavery.

What is this bullshit? No, seriously, what is it? Is this the official position of the game regarding "Ascension" as a fantasy concept? Is this Brucato popping off on millennia of eschatological and soteriological thought? Is it a character within the setting being embarrassingly cynical? I wish I could tell you which, because that would go a long way towards me being able to tell you whether this was a good introduction to Mage or not, but it's confusing and it keeps being confusing for the bulk of part 1.

I mean, I just can't let this go. "The ultimate form of slavery." What - "the guys who gave me superpowers neglected to inform me that a different group of guys could have given me slightly different superpowers using a slightly different method. I'd rather be dead."

I guess, if I squint, I can sort of see the outline of a point. People are different and thus any one-size-fits-all approach to enlightenment is going to be one that runs the risk of over-simplifying the complexities of the human condition, but if mass Ascension is even possible as a spiritual concept, then surely a respect for the dignity of the individual is part of it. It makes sense that people in the setting would not entirely trust rival visions of Ascension, but isn't the whole point that nobody knows for sure what Ascension even is?

It's a persistent problem with this whole section of the book. Someone is trying to explain to us the nature of the Mage: the Ascension universe, but they won't disclose who they are and what biases they might bring to the table. In a world where belief defines reality that's kind of a big deal. I kind of have to assume the interjections of 1st-person commentary are Brucato breaking the fourth wall to tell us that his characters are all full of shit (though the ones whose practices most closely resemble Aleister Crowley's unique brand of irreverent egoist mysticism are notably less full of shit than others - that's why the Traditions nicknamed him "Uncle Al.")

In a way, this is a return to form. Parts of it read like a Thelema religious tract, but the text as a whole would not have felt too out of place in 2nd edition (what the book calls "classic era Mage" to distinguish it from Revised). That's kind of an issue. So far, this does not feel like a game that has grown with the times.

There's even a sidebar about how ubiquitous cell phones threaten to ruin the feel of the game. It gives you three options - adapt and figure out a way to incorporate technological changes into the setting; set your game in the 1990s so that it's not an issue; make the setting a stylized anachronistic pastiche that only includes the events and technologies that serve to enhance the game. It's a deeply weird sidebar because it would have been more useful if it simply didn't exist. Making such a big, specific deal out of cell phones kind of flies in the face of the game's themes. Introducing new shit into the Consensus is kind of what the Ascension War is all about.

It makes me question why M20 even exists. My memory of backing the Kickstarter was of thinking that I owned less than a third of all the Mage supplements, so it would be nice to have an omnibus edition that put all of the metaplot and weird setting details into a single volume. It would be the last Mage book I'd ever need.

It hasn't turned out to be that, though (just as an experiment I pulled up the pdf and searched for the Hem-ka Sobk: bad news, they've been "obliterated"). Instead, it feels a lot like having Mage described to me by someone who read all the books a long time ago and is now trying to paraphrase. 

Take the idea that belief determines reality. That's what Mage is about, but it's a paradox (no pun intended). Nobody in the setting actually believes this. They couldn't. If they believed it, they wouldn't, nay couldn't believe in their specific metaphysical systems strongly enough to do magic. Why would the Order of Hermes, for example, bother with all that nonsense with the esoteric chanting, complex astrological correspondences, and dangerous alchemical experiments if they could just be the Order of Believing Really Hard instead.

Now, granted, overcoming your magical praxes was a major theme of the game, happening as early Arete 2 in 1st and 2nd edition, but the reason Revised moved it back to Arete 5 was clear - playing as mystic sorcerers who create magic through occult rituals is much more interesting than playing as psychics who manipulate reality with the power of the mind. If mages are surpassing their foci left and right, the difference between the Traditions blurs and the setting loses its specificity.

One of the big identity crises of Mage, going back almost to the very beginning, is if it wants to be a multicultural occult kitchen sink - wizards, necromancers, seers, and shamans teaming up with mad scientists, hackers, and goths - or if it wants to be a superhero game with factions that split along cultural lines, but who pretty much all use magic in the same way - as early as the original Player's guide there was a Celestial Chorister who hurled misty grey orbs that exploded into fog. "Belief determines reality" works as an attempt to explain how the first situation could come about, but once people in-setting start taking it seriously, the second situation is inevitable.

M20 takes the issue as read. There is one type of magic, the magic of will-driven reality manipulation, and with the exception of the more indoctrinated members of the Technocracy, every mage knows that. They may take some time to grow beyond their cultural practices, but they know what road they're on - the road where their powers work exactly like the game rules because the Spheres are an explicit part of the setting cosmology and not just a mechanical convenience.

That's the part of M20 that feels like it was based on Mage as an internet meme. There have been these ongoing conversations about Mage that focus on high level metaphysical stuff, and so that's what the text is interested. The ongoing effort that started mid-2nd edition to make the setting more specific and grounded in real-world mythology is nowhere to be seen. At times M20 feels less like Mage and more like our collective memory of Mage.

Maybe that's just what happens when you start your book with an overview. Perhaps, once we get into Book 2 we'll start seeing the anything-goes occult weirdness that was Mage at its bet.

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