First off, I have to declare a conflict of interest. One of the authors of this book very generously sent me a few physical books over the years, and I'm so grateful that I might be inclined to go easy on it, just out of sentiment. Luckily, this is a White Wolf book with 5 different authors, all credited collectively, so there's no way I can know which section of the book I should go I easy on. Anyway, you should check out The Well RPG, if you can.
Now, let's tear this thing apart! Or not. The only thing that really bugged me was the opening fiction. It was about mystic happenings at a midwestern LGBT convention and it's one of those things where 2006 White Wolf was pro-gay rights, but that manifested as edgy anti-gay villains who could be bigoted in a really upsetting way. Also, there's some graphically described heterosexual sex that maybe I'm just being a prude about, but which made me kind of uncomfortable. Like, okay, this guy is having spiritually significant sex, but that's not really the mood I'm bringing into this thing.
That's just the opening fiction, though. The rest of this book is more of the best part of the Mage: the Awakening setting - specific magical traditions organized around unique mystic or setting ideas. They're a little bit broader than those in Legacies: the Sublime, with groups like the Forge Masters, who base their magic off of blacksmithing and the Skalds, who use musical magic and remember ancient stories, but another word for "broadness" is "versatility."
And versatility is necessary, because the Mage: the Awakening setting, as presented thus far, is kind of impossible to use. It all comes down to a persistent refusal to openly tell us what's actually canon. How reliable is this book, regarding 7000-year-old history? Many of these legacies, being ancient, start their history sections with descriptions of various relationships with Atlantis - the Dreamspeakers and the Elemental Masteries were the magic of those outside Atlantis, the predecessors to the Forge Masters practiced their arts in Atlantis, the Thread Cutters were exiled from Atlantis. All of which implies that Atlantis actually existed. . . which is just ridiculous.
I mean, it's not prima facie ridiculous. You could make a game where Earth had an ancient magitech society that collapsed after storming the gates of heaven, with a modern conspiracy that seeks to find and monopolize the lingering remnants of its power. I'm imagining a fun pulp fantasy, maybe with aliens and undersea cities and rayguns. You know, not the World of Darkness vibe at all. The Atlantis of Mage: the Awakening is New Age metonymy for general enlightenment, too thoroughly Neoplatonist to actually be a real place. When renegade Thrice-Great Hermetics talk about newly discovered planets being missing rungs on the Celestial Ladder, that's a fun detail when talking about broken technology, but a big pile of nothing when it's an allegory for a metaphysical journey into the heart of meaning (which is probably why it's such an unpopular theory among mainstream Hermetics).
As a result, the question most frequently on my mind (aside from "why must the Guardians of the Veil be such buzzkills?") was "what's real?" What facts are worth getting emotionally invested in? There's a group called the Echo Walkers, who disrupt people's souls so that they can learn more about the primordial spiritual origins of humanity (as exemplified by "the Ones Before," angelic precursors to the human species), and they're very interesting villains . . . except "The actual merit of the data presented at this council is probably negligible. The mages have become so blind, and usually mad, by this point that their delusions simply feed into one another."
Sure, a group of powerful shapeshifters with a bizarre and pointless obsession with questions that can never be answered might actually be a frightening in an absurdist horror sense. They don't want anything real, and therefor they can never be satisfied. They're just going to keep hurting people forever, unless the PCs stop them. But at the same time, the game is supposed to be about mysteries and if you've got dark sorcerers exploiting forbidden knowledge, then maybe the reason their magic is so dark and forbidden is because it's really based on knowledge. The Logophages are another antagonist faction that destroys mystic secrets they deem too dangerous (and thus earn the ire of more conventional mages who believe that magical lore should be the exact right level of secret so that they're the only ones who know it), and maybe the game works better if they have a point.
It can be a real problem. Many of the game's most interesting ideas happen when they pitch a weird group who believe in serious fantasy nonsense, but there's a persistent reluctance to actually commit to the fantasy. We'll never learn a damned thing about the Ones Before, or even whether they exist as anything more than the pretty lights that show up in the gap between someone's soul and their consciousness. And a Thrice-Great Hermetic can spend however many sessions it takes gathering seven secret names from the spirit courts of classical astrology in order to send a once-in-a-lifetime message to an ascended master who dwells beyond the Abyss and the reply they get is "hackneyed, as if some merely human intellect tried to come up with something a superhumanly wise spiritual master ought to say."
Reign in your damned cynicism, mid 2000s White Wolf, it's hurting the art!
Which brings me back to the versatility I was talking about earlier. Mage: the Awakening may refuse to commit, may refuse to be an actual fantasy setting, but your game is going to make choices about truth and falsehood, whether Atlantis is literal or a metaphor, whether plans to breach the Abyss are completely hopeless or merely very difficult. And if you do make the commitment that the books lack, then Legacies: the Ancient will probably be helpful no matter what you decide. I think, overall, I prefer Legacies: the Sublime, because it's weirder and more specific, but both books are worthy expansions to the world set out in the core.
Ukss Contribution: The Elemental Masteries are a collection of five legacies that each focuses on control of one of the four classical elements (plus Void). They're probably the most generic legacies we've seen so far, distinguishing themselves mostly through internal cultures that play off elemental symbolism (and one of the sample characters may or may not be a centuries-old Catholic saint, in another clear example of Mage being too cowardly to just come out and do something cool), but they are all pretty solid. I'm not sure I'd want to use them as NPCs, because other groups provide more interesting antagonists, but they are all malleable enough for a PC to put their mark on them.
The coolest thing about the Elemental Masteries, however, is the suggestion for how they can be expanded. Not all cultures respect the same set of elements, so you could easily have Tamers of Trees, or Iron or Ice or Rain or Sand or Blood. I'm not saying the book should have gone with any of them (like, seriously, there was no way they were going to get away with not doing the European four), but they do leave me intrigued. I think Ukss will have Tamers of Sand, because that's the one that sounds the least useful and I enjoy a challenge.
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