Monday, December 21, 2015

M is for Mage

The Magician
scan from the Rider-Waite-Smith tarot
apparently public domain, retrieved
a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Back in 1996, a gaming friend got so worked up about the second edition of Mage: The Ascension (White Wolf Games) that he went out and bought copies of the game book for a handful of us who he wanted to play with.

Personally, I've never been a big fan of the "storytelling" systems so it was a bit of a hard sell, not just for me but for all of us.

It's hard to say why, exactly.  Partly, it was just that it was a very different game from what I started with and what I'm used to - and I've never been big on tossing away something that works perfectly well just for the sake of novelty.  A bigger part of it was the image I had of it - some intensely creepy people were getting into Vampire back then, and I had...misgivings [1] about the whole thing.  On top of that, I had never really bought into the vampire mania that had driven the initial offerings [2] and it seems a bit of a stretch to invest myself enough in the default world to make game play of any interest.

But my friend really, really wanted to play, and since I knew his tastes were broadly similar to my own [3] I thought I'd give it a fair try.  Man, was I in for a surprise!

The game naturally used White Wolf's signature mechanics, but that's a trivium: the big thing for me was the way in which they had put together the spheres/schools of magic, the whole idea of Paradigm and Paradox, the secret metaphysical war being waged between those schools over control of not just our senses but the very foundations of reality.  The Technocracy as an oppressor.

I'm not sure how it would read to me now, but at the time it really resonated with the kinds of far-out ideas I was looking for in fiction and in metaphysics study. [4]

I started to really get into it, and ended up reading the rules from cover to cover after flipping through whetted my appetite for more.

We got a bit more enthusiastic about it after that - I got on the band-wagon and started talking the game up to the others, and finally we all agreed to try a session or two at least.  The one thing we could all agree on was that we trusted our friend to have the necessary background in various esoterica and to put the work in to make the game a success.  We gathered at my place to work out characters, to figure out how we were going to go about this.

The game allows for mages of different schools to work together, but we needed to figure out a back story that would make sense, or somehow figure out how to run a game in which we worked alone or in small teams actively competing for control (while simultaneously fighting against the Technocracy).

Sadly, despite the excitement that we managed to generate in those first few sessions, we never really managed to do anything substantive.  We were, of course, crippled by the fact that we were trying to play a very different kind of game while simultaneously trying to learn a completely new set of rules.  In the end, it just seemed like too much work, and our friend who started out so enthusiastic eventually threw up his hands in frustration.  We went back to our other games, and never cracked that book again.

Looking back, I wish we'd been able to make it work.  I still think the basic idea is incredible, but I can see now that we just weren't properly prepared for it.  Too few of us had enough knowledge of the esoteric to riff off, though we could probably have generated a creditable Call of Cthulu/World of Darkness mashup setting as we went.

But really, the main problem was type of game.  Really, we just weren't in the right mental space.

If we had been playing more traditional-mechanic intrigue games at the time - things like Cyberpunk 2013 [5] or Shadowrun, or even Traveller really - or if we'd played enough Amber at the time to really get into the idea of multi-narrative games, where the players are working toward individual goals, and only in cooperation or conflict as the events dictate, I think it could have gone very differently.

I almost never get any chance to game these days, and I don't have any idea where I'd get a group of people into this kind of game, but boy do I ever wish I could get a chance to play in an actual functioning long-term Mage game now.

Or maybe more accurately:

I wish I could go back to the 90s and do it better.

But then, that's just the kind of change that causes Paradox.


1. A polite way of saying that some of the people I knew playing World of Darkness games I would have gotten up and walked away from had they sat down beside me.  Yes, it was that bad.  Not universal, but enough to put me off.

2. As interesting an idea as Anne Rice had with her Vampire Chronicles books, I'm afraid angsty pseudo-goth vampires don't hold much of a draw for me.  That said, I suspect much of the "vibe" being given off by the people who put me off the game had more to do with Lost Boys than Lestat.

3. Read: he found the Vampire crowd just as distasteful as I did.

4. In those days, I was doing a deep study of various fringe religious beliefs and their relations/origins in traditional or indigenous religion and ritual - sue me, I'm an anthropologist, it's a professional risk.

5. Yeah, that long ago.


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