Wednesday, November 11, 2020

(M20)How Do You DO That?

Oh, I thought I was going to be so clever. I had a plan. You see, over the years (and especially over the last year), I've noticed certain . . . shortcomings in Mage: the Ascension's magic system. These would always get a call-out in my notes, but usually they were in books that had more interesting things going on, so I'd barely mention them. But I knew that sooner or later, I'd get to this book here, the one that's all about the magic system, and it would be so utilitarian and uncontroversial that it would be the perfect place to talk about the various ways that Mage's highly-technical, highly vague magic system failed to truly deliver on the varied, specific mysticism of its ridiculously ambitious premise.

What I failed to anticipate, however, was that How Do You DO That would be a strong candidate for the single worst mechanical book of any game I'd ever read. This is a Players Option: Skills and Powers-level debacle. Whatever problems Mage's magic system might have are far in the rearview mirror, because even by the standards of Mage, this book is a total mess.

I'm not sure how to even begin. So . . . regular Mage: the Ascension magic is like this unholy amalgam of a word puzzle and an odds-pushing dice game. You've got nine Spheres of magic and five levels to each of these Spheres. The first step to casting a spell is to frame your desired outcome in a way such that it can fit into as few of these 45 categories as possible (or, at least, into the subset of that 45 which you happen to possess). This may take a certain degree of glibness, but creativity is encouraged. Then, you consult the third axis of effect, the Magickal Feats chart and you start to negotiate - is it a standard feat like "altering your shape" or is it a difficult feat like "transforming yourself into a radically different shape." Then, since there's something like a 95% chance that whatever you want to accomplish is going to take more successes than you can reasonably hope to achieve on your 2-3 dice, you have a choice to make - is this worth giving up several of your combat turns to do, or, if you're out of combat, are you likelier to succeed before you inevitably roll a botch. Then you roll the dice a whole bunch of times until your Storyteller begs you to stop.

This is not a great system for any number of reasons, but it is, at least, vaguely functional. How Do You DO That is, ostensibly, a guide to step 1. It promises to give you examples of common effects and tell you where in the 9 x 5 x 20+ matrix these effects should stand. Unfortunately, the answers it gives you are frequently wrong.

I know, I know. What kind of stones I must have to claim that the book is the one that doesn't understand the magic system. How Do You DO That? was written by Phil Brucato himself, the main credited author of the M20 core. It is, by definition, as authoritative as you're going to get. And I honestly don't know what to tell you here. As far out on a limb as I am here, How Do You DO That? frequently gets the rules of the game wrong, and often in ways that take an already shaky magic system and make it complete garbage.

I'll give you an example of a simple, concrete error to try and ease you into my thesis a bit. The section on bypassing common security measures says "Entropy 2 . . . can toss glitches into equipment." And it absolutely can't. Entropy 2 is one of the most sloppily written Sphere levels, and thus the one most likely to get thrown randomly into a conjunctional effect "just in case," but the wording of Entropy 3 definitely resolves this ambiguity. Entropy 2 allows you to "Control Probability" which can, and often does mean just about anything, but Entropy 3 allows you to "Affect Predictable Patterns" and it explicitly calls out "making computers fail" as part of what it can do. You could, I suppose, make the argument that any given machine always has the chance to fail, and thus Entropy 2 should allow you to manipulate the probability of it failing, but by that logic, any event that has some finite probability of actually occurring, Entropy 2 can cause to happen.

Now, I trust, you can see why me picking on poor Entropy 2 is a low-hanging fruit in the realm of arguing about Mage on the internet, but it's important for you to understand that when I talk about How Do You DO That? introducing new bullshit into Mage's magic system, I am not talking about a book with any great degree of mechanical rigor. I would classify a lot of this book's mechanics more as "vandalism" than "innovation" (let alone "explanation" :shudder:).

Let's just jump right in to the worst example. Telekinesis requires the Mind Sphere. . .

I read these books alone, at night, in a quiet hotel lobby and I very nearly rioted. This is not just a bad rule. It's not just an erroneous rule. It is, in fact, a full frontal assault on the very premise of the game. 

Because you don't need Mind to move objects with the Forces Sphere. You need Mind to move objects with your, um, mind. Your Will alone, acting through nothing more than your knowledge of Forces 2, is sufficient to move objects. But if you want to move objects with your mind, you need Forces 2 and Mind 3.

I'm not sure I can even do anything here but rephrase the problem in increasingly dumbfounded ways. The rules are requiring the Mind sphere because the decision of how and where to move the objects is made in the mind, or perhaps because the mage believes their mind is responsible for the movement, but taken to its logical conclusion, this sort of reasoning would lead you to always penalizing a mage who believes in a particular theory of magic - if your elemental powers are a gift from the spirits, your Forces effects would require the Spirit sphere to use. If you believe that your martial arts practice cultivates internal energies, you need to supplement your moves with Prime.

Oh, wait, those last two examples are real. What's especially egregious about the second one is that you also have to spend Quintessence on effects that don't normally require it. Good thing you have Martial Arts equal to your Sphere level, or otherwise you wouldn't be able to use those techniques . . . like a common Brawler.

That's the hardest thing about this book to swallow, these weird, out of nowhere attempts at verisimilitude that mostly serve to elevate Brucato's personal hobby horses to the level of canon (one thing I can be absolutely certain of after reading this book is that there is nothing in the universe that will summon a taxi cab to you besides the Mind Sphere . . . or Entropy 2).  You can use martial arts as a mystic practice if you are a fencer who wields a sword with the Martial Arts skill, but not if you're a swordfighter who wields a sword with the Melee (aka "sword-wielding") skill. Although, in that case you should probably have Melee at a decent level because a realistic martial artist trains their Melee as a common secondary skill (don't blame me for this, blame the sidebar on page 59).

In order to create something with Matter magic, you also have to know how to build it without magic. No waving a magic wand and changing a pumpkin into a carriage, not unless you are already a master carpenter. And no cheating by downloading skills into your brain. This is explicitly called out as "a cool fantasy," but Brucato is not in the business of making a cool fantasy game, and thus it is not allowed.

And I haven't even gotten to the math yet. You know how you're supposed to use magic to deflect an incoming bullet? You're supposed to use your Arete as a dodge roll. If you followed the core's character creation advice (and you shouldn't have), that dice pool is 2. You could do worse by standing up, slack-jawed, and staring at the gun, but not by a lot. The thing that made me write "ARGH!" in my notes, however, was the subsequent suggestion that if you rolled double the attacker's successes, you could reflect the bullet right back at them.

I guess I should just go ahead and add "completely overhaul the Ascension magic system" to my rpg bucket list.

Ukss Contribution: Since this wasn't an offensive book, merely an ill-favored one, I guess I should probably pick something. I liked most of the example fictions (except the anatomically dubious one that suggested lady witches masturbate with their broomsticks . . . because Brucato), but it was a throwaway line near the beginning that I'll most remember fondly - if you transform a murderer into a mouse, you'll wind up with a mouse that looks like it wants to murder you. Cute.


  1. Wow. That sounds like an absolute mess. Here's hoping all of my games are at least more internally consistent than that.