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|Designers||Stewart Wieck, Christopher Earley, Stephan Wieck, Bill Bridges, Sam Chupp, Andrew Greenberg|
|Publishers||White Wolf Publishing|
Mage: The Ascension is a role-playing game based on World of Darkness published by White Wolf Game Studio in 1993. The characters portrayed in the game, referred to as mages, are capable of acts of magic. Magic in Mage incorporates ideas from mystical practices, science, and religion. A mage's ability to change reality is based on what they believe rather than on a static system.
Mage was influenced by the White Wolf game Ars Magica, but the two games have different settings and premises. Similarly, White Wolf released Mage: The Awakening in 2005 for the new World of Darkness game. The new game features some of the same mechanics, but uses a different premise and setting.
Following the release of Vampire: The Masquerade, Mage became White Wolf's 2nd of 4 games set in this universe.
The first edition of the game was released by White Wolf Publishing on August 19, 1993, at the Gen Con Gaming Convention; it was followed with a second edition in December 1995, and with Revised Edition in March 2000. Onyx Path Publishing released a fourth version, the 20th Anniversary Edition, in September 2015.
In Mage: The Ascension, players take on the role of mages and discover that they have the ability to shape reality through magic. This process is referred to as Awakening. Awakening is a mysterious, often traumatic experience wherein a person's Avatar, a tutelary consciousness or Daemon, "wakes up" within the mage, granting them magical abilities.
There are four factions: the Technocracy, the Marauders, the Nephandi, and the Traditions, all of whom struggle to persuade the "un-awakened" masses, known as Sleepers, that their beliefs are best. This struggle is called the Ascension War, wherein the four factions vie for control of reality.
- The Technocracy is a worldwide conspiracy of hyper-rational mages whose paradigm is considered to dominate reality with their belief that science is the ultimate way to advance humanity. They fight for the extinction of magic and the supernatural and consider their own will working "awakened science". Depending on the edition, they have more or less successfully convinced the Sleepers that magic and the supernatural do not exist and never did.
- The Marauders are mages who have been driven insane by their mind-bending powers and are consumed by their own individual beliefs. Chaotic and disorganized, the Marauders pursue their own warped agendas to the exclusion of all else.
- The Nephandi are forces of corruption and destruction. They are mages who have sold their souls to demonic forces or Lovecraftian horrors in exchange for power. They are committed to the particular agendas of their individual patrons, but all of them pursue the destruction of everything.
- The Traditions, which are the default character faction, are a diverse confederacy of wizards, sorcerers, mystics, and mystic-minded technologists and scientists who have banded together to resist the Technocracy's control of reality.
Most mages and factions within the game work toward an occult goal known as Ascension. The nature of Ascension is open to interpretation, and each faction and sub-faction in the game differs on their views of what exactly the Ascension is.
The game was designed to draw characters from the Traditions, and later, members of the Technocracy. The Nephandi and Marauder factions mostly filled the role of antagonists. A fifth faction, the Crafts, was added in the second edition of the game. The Crafts were mystic cultures from around the globe that possessed the ability to do magic, but did not participate directly in the Ascension War.
Magic, Paradigm and Belief
The beliefs are an essential theme in Mage, and it forms the basis for the game's magic. The magical techniques characters employ vary from ancient shamanic practices, to Medieval sorcery, to religious miracle-working and rational science or science-fiction technology. The extent a mage can alter reality is limited only by their belief. Their beliefs, practices, and tools make up a paradigm that provides the mage with a framework to understand reality or explain how the universe works, and employ techniques to change it according to those beliefs. Paradigms are usually a mix of the cultural beliefs taught to the mage by their faction or sub-faction and their individual interpretation of them. Players determine what their characters believe and how that is expressed in their characters' magic.
Reality & Paradox
The idea that belief creates reality, and that those ideas create conflicts is an important theme in the game. Everyday reality is governed by the collective beliefs of Sleepers known as the Consensus. The Consensus more or less mirrors real-world assumptions about how the world works. For example, most people have a general understanding that magic or the supernatural do not exist. While this may not be universally true, in Mage, enough people believe it to make it so. Mages have tremendous power to reshape reality, but they must hide this ability from the Sleepers or suffer cosmic consequences.
A central conflict of the game where the majority of Sleepers believe exclusively in the static reality offered to them by the Technocracy, but the truth is that all paradigms are potentially valid. Despite their power, all Mages must couch their magic in the belief of the Sleepers in order to avoid the consequences of not doing so. When a mage performs an act of magic that conforms with the Consensus, this is called coincidental magic. It is magic that, if witnessed by a Sleeper, could easily be dismissed as some understandable phenomenon. The main benefit of coincidental magic is that it is easier and less risky to perform than vulgar magic (magic that conflicts with Sleeper belief) because it works with Sleepers' beliefs rather than defying them. The use of vulgar magic results in a violent clashing of reality, belief, and ideas known in the game as Paradox. When a character fumbles a magical working or changes reality in a manner that conflicts with the Consensus they incur Paradox in the form of Paradox points. This is made much worse when the magic is vulgar and witnessed by Sleepers.
Paradox is reality trying to resolve contradictions between the Consensus and the mage's efforts, and is usually only incurred by the mage who performed the offending magic. How Paradox manifests is up to the Storyteller, and is decided based on how many Paradox points the player has incurred. By nature, Paradox is unpredictable and almost always creates trouble for the mage. It can manifest in the form of physical damage (Backlash), temporary or lasting warps in reality around the mage (Paradox Flaws), insanity (known as Quiet), or in more extreme cases, Paradox Spirits. Paradox Spirits are nebulous beings that purposefully set about resolving the contradictions, usually by directly punishing the mage in some manner, sometimes going so far as to transport the mage to a Paradox Realm, a pocket dimension from which it may be difficult to escape.
In the game, Mages have always existed. Early mages cultivated their magical beliefs alone or in small groups, generally conforming to and influencing the belief systems of their societies. Myths suggest that the precursors of the modern organizations of mages originally gathered in ancient Egypt. This period of historical uncertainty also saw the rise of the Nephandi in the Near East. This set the stage for what the game's history calls the Mythic Ages.
Until the Late Middle Ages, mages' fortunes waxed and waned along with their native societies. Eventually, mages belonging to the Order of Hermes and the Messianic Voices attained great influence over European society. Absorbed by their pursuit of occult power and esoteric knowledge, they often neglected and even abused humanity. They were at odds with mainstream religions, envied by noble authorities and cursed by common folk.
The Order of Reason
Mages who believed in proto-scientific theories banded together under the banner of the Order of Reason, declaring their aim was to create a safe world with Man as its ruler. They won the support of Sleepers by developing the useful arts of manufacturing, economics, wayfaring, and medicine. They also championed many of the values that we now associate with the Renaissance. Masses of Sleepers embraced the gifts of early Technology and the Science that accompanied them. As the masses' beliefs shifted, the Consensus changed, and wizards began to lose their position as their power and influence waned.
The Order of Reason perceived a safe world as one devoid of heretical beliefs, ungodly practices and supernatural creatures preying upon humanity. They intended to replace the dominant magical groups with a society of philosopher-scientists as shepherds, protecting and guiding humanity. In response, non-scientific mages banded together to form the Council of Nine Traditions, where mages of all the major magical paths gathered. They fought wars, both academic and physical, trying to undermine as many discoveries as they could, but technology made the march of Science unstoppable.
Rise of the Technocracy
From the turn of the 17th century on, the goals of the Order of Reason began to change. As their scientific paradigm unfolded, they decided that the mystical beliefs of the common people were not only backward but dangerous and that they should be replaced by measurable and predictable physical laws and respect for human genius. They replaced long-held theologies, pantheons, and mystical traditions with rational thought and the scientific method. As more and more sleepers began to use the Order's discoveries in their everyday lives, reason and rationality came to govern their beliefs. However, the Order of Reason became less and less focused on improving the daily lives of sleepers and more concerned with eliminating any resistance. Since a reorganization performed under Queen Victoria in the late 1800s, they call themselves the Technocracy.
The Technocracy maintain authoritarian rule over Sleepers' beliefs, suppressing the Council of Nine's attempts to reintroduce magic. The Traditions replenished their numbers with former Technocrats, vying for the beliefs of sleepers and with the Technocracy, and perpetually wary of the Nephandi and the Marauders.
Finally, from 1997 to 2000, a series of metaplot events destroyed the Council of Nine's Umbral steadings, killing many of their most powerful members. This also cut the Technocracy off from their leadership. Both sides called a truce in their struggle to assess their new situation. Chief among these signs was the creation of a barrier between the physical world and the spirit world.
These changes were introduced in supplements for the second edition of the game and became core material in the third edition.
Later plot and finale
Aside from common changes introduced by the World of Darkness metaplot, mages dealt with renewed conflict when the hidden Rogue Council and the Technocracy's control encouraged the traditions and technocracy to struggle once again. The Rogue Council only made itself known through coded messages, while the surveillance created by the leaders of the Technocracy were to counter it.
This struggle eventually led to the point on the timeline occupied by the book called Ascension. Ascension provided multiple possible endings, with none of them being definitive.
The metaplot of the game involves a four-way struggle between the technological and authoritarian Technocracy, the insane Marauders, the cosmically evil Nephandi and the nine mystical Traditions (that tread the middle path), to which the player characters are assumed to belong. (This struggle has in every edition of the game been characterized both as primarily a covert, violent war directly between factions, and primarily as an effort to sway the imaginations and beliefs of sleepers.)
Council of Nine Mystic Traditions
The Traditions (formally called the Nine Mystic Traditions) are an alliance of secret societies in Mage. The Traditions exist to unify users of magic under a common banner to protect reality (particularly those parts of reality that are magical) against the growing disbelief of the modern world, the spreading dominance of the Technocracy, and the predations of unstable mages such as Marauders and Nephandi. Each of the Traditions is a largely independent organization unified by a broadly accepted paradigm for practicing magic. Though unified in their desire to keep magic alive, the magic practiced by different Traditions are often wildly different and entirely incompatible with one another.
The nine traditions are:
- Mages of Akashic Brotherhood are ascetics, martial artists, and monks, largely drawing from Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, and Hinduism. They are masters of the sphere of Mind.
- Mages of Celestial Chorus are pious believers in a supreme being that encompasses many religions that believe in one supreme creator. They are masters of the sphere of Prime, the raw essence that fuels magic itself.
- Mages of Cult of Ecstasy are intuitive seers using sensory stimulation, consciousness-expanding techniques, and meditation. They are masters of the sphere of Time.
- Mages of Dream speakers are shamanistic emissaries to the spirit world. They are masters of Spirit magic.
- Mages of Euthanatos are Thanatoic will workers and killers drawing from a legacy of death-cults in India, Greece, and the cultures of the Arabs and Celts. They are masters of the sphere of Entropy.
- Mages of Order of Hermes are formalized sorcerers, alchemists, and mystics drawing from classical occult practices. They are masters of the sphere of Forces.
- Mages of Sons of Ether are inspiration-oriented scientists dedicated to fringe theories and alternative science. They are masters of the sphere of Matter.
- Mages of Verbena are blood-shamans, healers, primordial witches and warlocks. They are masters of the sphere of Life.
- Mages of Virtual Adepts are technological adepts capable of informational wizardry. They are masters of the sphere of Correspondence, magic dealing with three-dimensional location, space, and communications.
The Technocratic Union
The Technocracy is likewise divided into groups; unlike the Traditions, however, they share a single paradigm, and instead divide themselves based upon methodologies and areas of expertise.
- Technocrats of Iteration X are experts in the arena of the physical sciences.
- Technocratic Progenitors are masters of the biological sciences as a whole.
- Technocrats of the New World Order maintain control of information and knowledge, controlling the thoughts and actions of the masses.
- Technocrats of the Syndicate control the flow of money and power between disparate groups.
- Technocratic members of the Void Engineers are explorers of the unknown. This not only extends to outer space, but to extradimensional planes of existence.
The Marauders are a group of mages that embody Dynamism. Marauders are chaos mages. To other mages, they appear immune to paradox effects, often using vulgar magic to accomplish their insane tasks. Marauders represent the other narrative extreme, the corruption of unrestrained power, of dynamism unchecked. Marauders are mages whose Avatars have been warped by their mental instability, and who exist in a state of permanent Quiet. They cannot become Archmages, as they lack sufficient insight and are incapable of appreciating truths which do not suit their madness. In the second edition of Mage, Marauders were much more cogent and likely to operate in groups, with the Umbral Underground using the Umbra to infiltrate any location and wreak havoc. In the revised edition, Marauders were made darker and less coherent, in keeping with the more serious treatment of madness used for Malkavians in Vampire: The Masquerade Revised Edition. In this edition, the Regulars are a cell of the Underground, and like the other cells have highly compatible Quiets.
With the Technocracy representing Stasis and the Marauders acting on behalf of Dynamism, the third part of this trifecta is Entropy, as borne by the Nephandi. The Nephandi are morally inverted and spiritually mutilated. A Nephandus retains a clear moral compass, and deliberately pursues actions to worsen the world and bring about its final end. To this end, the Technocracy and Traditions have been known to set aside the ongoing war for reality to temporarily join forces to oppose the Nephandi, and the Marauders are known to attack the Nephandi on sight. Some of their members, called barabbi, hail from the Technocracy and Traditions, but all Nephandi have experienced the Rebirth, wherein they embrace the antithesis of everything they know to be right, and are physically and spiritually torn apart and reassembled.
The Disparate Alliance
The Disparate Alliance is a newly created network of independent Crafts that have chosen to take the matters of the Ascension War into their own hands. During the Age of Information, small mage societies and groups called crafts began reaching out to each other. With no desire to join the Traditions and a general hatred for the Technocracy, they decided to band together.
The five founding crafts are
- The Ahl-i-Batin, Arabian mages originally based in the Middle East and North Africa, this group has expanded worldwide. They practice magic with a strong focus on subtlety, and seek to bring Unity to the world.
- The Children of Knowledge, are LSD and other psychedelic-using alchemists hoping that these drugs can open peoples minds.
- The Hollow Ones are mages who have either been orphaned by or rejected the Traditions, and refused to join the Technocracy. They are a craft composed of ragtag who take what they like from every tradition and fuse it together. Their magic often uses whatever they have to work with, referred to as gutter magic. They draw members from various subcultures and counterculture groups ranging from afrofuturists, cosplayers, cybergoths, emos, goths, new agers, skaters, hip hop, and ballroom voguers.
- The Ngoma, proud sub-Saharan African ritualists and knowledge-seekers that strive to unravel the mysteries of the cosmos and the gods.
- The Bata'a, Followers of voodoo, vodun, Santería, Candomblé, Obeah, Hoodoo, and other Afro-Caribbean religions
They were then joined by five other crafts
- The Kopa Loei, Polynesian mystics who are working to return ancient wisdom and culture to their people and balance to their islands.
- The Knights of the Temple of Solomon, also known as Knights Templar, dedicated to the Christian God.
- The Wu Lung, Confucian dragon wizards who practice Chinese high ritual magic, alchemy, and a special fighting technique known as Kuei Lung Chuan.
Other Crafts that have been considered for membership include:
- The Balamob, jaguar-priests from Central America
- The Thunder Society, North American native shamans that are working to heal their communities and tribes.
- The Uzoma, Yoruban mediums and spirit intercessors
- The Navalon, breakaways from the Utopian faction within the Technocracy who revere the ideal of Camelot and King Arthur
- The Mirainohmen, Japanese technomystical tricksters who use psychic bonds with technological spirits in order to rearrange identities and undermine social preconceptions.
- The Red Thorn Dedicants, a cult of magic-using Bahari that revere Lilith
- The Itz'at, Mesoamerican seers and prophets
- The Go Kamisori Gama, technomantic ninja assassins with a vendetta against the Technocratic Union
Rules and continuity
Like other storytelling games, Mage emphasizes personal creativity and that ultimately the game's powers and traits should be used to tell a satisfying story. One of Mage's highlights is its system for describing magic, based on spheres, a relatively open-ended 'toolkit' approach to using game mechanics to define the bounds of a given character's magical ability. Different Mages will have differing aptitudes for spheres, and player characters' magical expertise is described by allocation of points in the spheres.
There are nine known spheres:
Deals with spatial relations, giving the Mage power over space and distances. Correspondence magic allows powers such as teleportation, seeing into distant areas, and at higher levels the Mage may also co-locate herself or even stack different spaces within each other.
This sphere gives the Mage power over order, chaos, fate and fortune. A mage can sense where elements of chance influence the world and manipulate them to some degree. At simple levels machines can be made to fail, plans to go off without a hitch, and games of chance heavily influenced. Advanced mages can craft self-propagating memes or curse entire family lines with blights. The only requirement of the Entropy sphere is that all interventions work within the general flow of natural entropy.
Forces concerns energies and natural forces and their negative opposites (i.e. light and shadow can both be manipulated independently with this Sphere). Essentially, anything in the material world that can be seen or felt but is not material can be controlled: electricity, gravity, magnetism, friction, heat, motion, fire, etc. At low levels the mage can control forces on a small scale, changing their direction, converting one energy into another. At high levels, storms and explosions can be conjured. Obviously, this Sphere tends to do the most damage and is the most flashy and vulgar. Along with Life and Matter, Forces is one of the three 'Pattern Spheres' which together are able to mold all aspects of the physical world.
Life deals with understanding and influencing biological systems. Generally speaking, any material object with mostly living cells falls under the influence of this sphere. Simply, this allows the mage to heal herself or metamorphose simple life-forms at lower levels, working up to healing others and controlling more complex life at higher levels. Usually, seeking to improve a complex life-form beyond natural limits causes the condition of pattern bleeding: the affected life form begins to wither and die over time. Along with Matter and Forces, Life is one of the three Pattern Spheres.
Dealing with control over one's own mind, the reading and influencing of other minds, and a variety of subtler applications such as Astral Projection and psychometry. At high levels, Mages can create new complete minds or completely rework existing ones.
Matter deals with all inanimate material. Thus, being alive protects a thing from direct manipulation by the Matter sphere. Stone, dead wood, water, gold, and the corpses of once living things are only the beginning. With this Sphere, matter can be reshaped mentally, transmuted into another substance, or given altered properties. Along with Life and Forces, Matter is one of the three Pattern Spheres.
This sphere deals directly with Quintessence, the raw material of the tapestry, which is the metaphysical structure of reality. This sphere allows Quintessence to be channelled and/or funnelled in any way at higher levels, and it is necessary if the mage ever wants to conjure something out of nothing (as opposed to transforming one pattern into another). Uses of Prime include general magic senses, counter-magic, and making magical effects permanent.
This sphere is an eclectic mixture of abilities relating to dealings with the spirit world or Umbra. It includes stepping into the Near Umbra right up to traveling through outer space, contacting and controlling spirits, communing with your own or others' avatars, returning a Mage into a sleeper, returning ghosts to life, creating magical fetish items, and so forth. Unlike other Spheres, the difficulty of Spirit magic is often a factor of the Gauntlet, making these spells more difficult for the most part. The Sphere is referred to as Dimensional Science by the Technocratic Union.
This sphere deals with dilating, slowing, stopping or traveling through time. Due to game mechanics, it is simpler to travel forward in time than backwards. Time can be used to install delays into spells, view the past or future, and even pull people and objects out of linear progression. Time magic offers one means to speed up a character to get multiple actions in a combat round, a much coveted power in turn-based combat.
The tenth sphere
One of the plot hooks that the second edition books put forth were persistent rumours of a "tenth sphere". Though there were hints, it was deliberately left vague. The final book in the line, Ascension implies that the tenth sphere is the sphere of Ascension (in as much as spheres are practically relevant at that point in the story). As the book presents alternative resolutions for the Mage line, Chapter Two also presents an alternative interpretation that the tenth sphere is "Judgement" or "Telos" and that Anthelios (the red star in the World of Darkness metaplot) is its planet (each sphere has an associated planet and Umbral realm). Lucinda Patricia is name as mage to many and is ofter referred as Vestal Virgin.
- Correspondence is a symbol for amalgam or amalgamation, "Amalgama".
- Entropy is a symbol for rotting or decay, "Putredo/putrefactio".
- The sigil of Forces is part of the symbol for "boiling," "Ebbulio".
- Life is a symbol for composition, "Compositio".
- As with Correspondence, the sigil of Matter is another symbol for the process of amalgamation, "Amalgama".
- Mind is a symbol for solution, "Solutio".
- Prime is a symbol meaning essence, "Essentia".
- Spirit may be derived from the symbol for fumes, "Fumus".
- Time is the symbol for dust, "Pulvis".
- The tenth symbol depicted in Ascension is a symbol for vinegar. Mage: The Sorcerer's Crusade also presented a symbol for the tenth sphere, a combination of the symbols for stone and distillation.
The third revision of the rules, Mage: The Ascension Revised, made significant changes to the rules and setting, mainly to update Mage with respect to its own ongoing storyline, particularly in regards to events that occurred during the run of the game's second edition.
Adam Tinworth of Arcane gave Mage: The Ascension's second edition a score of 8/10, calling it good for those who like involving and challenging games; he noted that it could be difficult for new players to grasp the entire background and how magic works, and to develop their own style of magic, but found the game-play system itself to be easy to understand for newcomers.
Mage: The Ascension was ranked 16th in the 1996 reader poll of Arcane magazine to determine the 50 most popular role-playing games of all time. The magazine's editor Paul Pettengale commented: "Mage is perfect for those of a philosophical bent. It's a hard game to get right, requiring a great deal of thought from players and referees alike, but its underlying theme – the nature of reality – makes it one of the most interesting and mature roleplaying games available."
- In 1994, Mage: The Ascension was nominated for Casus Belli's awards for the best role-playing game of 1993, and ended up in fifth place.
- Mage: The Ascension, 2nd Edition won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules of 1995.
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- From Symbols, Signs and Signets, Lehner, Ernst (1950) published by World Publishing Co., Cleveland by way of a post to Everything2.com (possibly containing the archived contents of an email to the old wizards.com Mage email list). Accessed 15 December 2006.
- Latin terms obtained from The alchemy website's copy of symbols from Medicinisch-Chymisch- und Alchemistisches Oraculum, Ulm, 1755. Accessed 15 December 2006.
- Symbols.com, accessed 15 December 2006
- A post to Bill's Mage Forum by Enantiodromos, 14 September 2003
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- Pettengale, Paul (Christmas 1996). "Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996". Arcane. Future Publishing (14): 25–35.
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