Friday, February 3, 2023

Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition

 Mage: the Awakening, 1st edition has a bit of a problem - it will inevitably be compared to Mage: the Ascension, and Mage: the Ascension was frequently bad, often offensive, but also chaotic and weird and surprising and thought-provoking. Awakening is not bad, and less guilty (though not entirely innocent) of offense, but it's also less of those other things as well.

So there's this totally unfair knee-jerk reaction that comes with reading this book. I remember it from 2005, but surprisingly, I also felt it again over the last couple of weeks, despite the fact that I'd long since come to terms with it. Sometimes, I'd read something in this book, like "the relationship between the Supernal Realms and mortal religions does not demand a causal link whereby one creates the other," and I'd think, what is this Mage-lite bullshit? 

Totally unfair, like I said. The notion of "secular magic" is largely something created by the 20th century fantasy genre. Historically, most magical practices were also religious practices, and most religions believed in magical phenomenon. If you want to make a game about magic-users that sticks close to the real world, then you're pretty much voluntarily stepping into a religious quagmire. And knowing that, isn't it the mature, responsible choice to say, "yes, we know we're playing with real beliefs, but we're going to take a step back and refrain from trying to rope real religions into our fantasy world." What kind of arrogant, reckless, degenerate would you have to be to write a fantasy setting where all the world's religions were founded by alien space bats?

The kind to make Mage: the Ascension, that's who! And some of that is undeniably lost. It's probably for the best, but it does wind up saddling Mage: the Awakening with an identity dilemma straight from the start. The other New World of Darkness games were reboots that attempted to narrow in on a purer form of their predecessor's genres, but Mage: the Ascension never really had a genre. Its short-lived stint as a gritty street-level urban fantasy game petered out about a half-edition after it began and there were few who yearned to see its return.

So Mage: the Awakening largely doesn't try. It instead attempts to invent a new genre of urban fantasy that could fairly be described as "gnostic horror." And it's like, let's shamelessly plunder the aesthetics of the Golden Dawn and freemasonry, take the ranks and degrees really seriously as the center of a mystic system that foregrounds the incompleteness of the human animal, and then make magic itself a metaphor for humanity's yearning for perfection. But secretly, you can't win, because the world's broken and that's where the horror comes from.

There are parts of this that work. The goetic demons, spiritual manifestations of the mage's vices, summoned into reality and ritually defeated, are exactly the right tenor of high Hermetic religiosity. "I will be free of sin, no matter what blasphemies I must enact to do it!" And the fact that you don't have to try and beat them, you can just give them a bunch of little jobs to do - that's an amazing topper. Really sells the intersection between hubris and power.

More good stuff - the Astral Realms. Go into a trance and journey deep into your unconscious, first into a world built from your own dreams, then deeper into the collective dreams of humanity, and then deeper still, into the dreams of every living thing on the tree of life. A neat hierarchy of mystic secrets, a place you'd want to have adventures, and a plausibly compelling spiritual system. 

Likewise summoning monsters from the Abyss between worlds. And "the Seers of the Throne" is a great name for an antagonistic group of mages that horde worldly power and have mind-controlled agents seemingly everywhere.

But then you get the stuff about Atlantis and that's not so good. Unfortunately, it's also the bulk of the game.

I get it. Atlantean conspiracies are part and parcel with the 19th century European occultism that powers so much of this game's overall vibe. But it's largely the part that we politely pretend doesn't exist. It is at an unfortunate intersection of archeological wingnuttery and scientific racism. It's the difference between "I, a humble shopkeep by day, by night approach the throne of God!" and "white people secretly built the pyramids." Thankfully, Mage: the Awakening doesn't go quite that far, and I'm sure it uses Atlantis in an entirely innocent way, but the cost of that innocence is that we get accounts of a 17th century meeting between European pagan sorcerers and indistinct Native American sorcerers where the Americans have heard of Atlantis, organize themselves according to the four Atlantean Orders, but also have different names for everything and it's kind of embarrassing to read. Like, the existence of Atlantis isn't meant to privilege European spirituality, it's actually just the European name for a global phenomenon, and so other people would have different accounts of that phenomenon, all just as valid.

Sure. Your heart's in the right place. You don't want to make a fantasy setting where magic works just like Europeans say it does. But then, you put Atlantis in the game. Yes, as a semi-real metaphor for an ancient time of advanced learning and lost wisdom, but the wisdom is still "magic works just like Europeans say it does."

Now, I don't want to get too harsh here. I don't think Atlantis is intrinsically racist. There's a version of it that's just goofy. And it's mostly the goofy version that we see in Mage: the Awakening, even when it tries to take Atlantis global. It's just that, by taking it global, you can't help but be occasionally reminded that the racist Atlantis still exists.

But if we spot White Wolf goofy Atlantis, that still leaves the problem that parts of the game are interesting gnostic hermeticism, parts are boring gnostic hermeticism, and the rest is goofy. The result is that Mage: the Awakening never quite comes into its own. The greater specificity of its influences should be an advantage over the old version of Mage, but somehow it is both less generic and more bland. I don't think it's bad, exactly. There were times during the reading where I definitely felt the game's potential, but I think it's a more pronounced version of the flaw I pointed out with second edition - this game really wants to be pulp fantasy, but it's stuck trying to pretend it can do horror.

Ukss Contribution: Goetic demons. They're a successful horror concept. They're a successful pulp concept. They're an interesting philosophical/religious concept. I'm definitely going to base a mystery cult around these guys.

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