Thursday, February 25, 2010

Journey of a thousand miles

Dammit, Daniel, what the hell did you start? I've already talked about how Daniel's love letter to Vampire: The Masquerade inspired me to write about one of my early paradigm-breaking games: Ars Magica. Now Mike Laff has taken up the torch to tackle his take on Werewolf. THEN come to find out that none other than Ryan Macklin has a sweet spot for Mage: The Ascension, a game that is also near and dear to my heart and my favorite of the original World of Darkness games. Here's Daniel calling from his box seats encouraging Ryan to join in the fray, to which Ryan replies, "I have no time!" quickly followed by, "I will require some egging on, so you know."

Ryan, I just went to the store and got a dozen or so right here.

When Mage: The Ascension first came out, early publicity made it look like a modern take on Ars Magica where magic was stored on hard drives and spells could be sent through a telephone or fax. That in and of itself was quite cool. The game that came out was nothing close to that. Well, that's not exactly true, but the author himself stated that the game took a radical turn in an unplanned direction.

In the Bibliography of the first edition of the game, Stewart Wieck speaks of how reading Robert M. Prisig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had an "unmistakeable effect on the design of this game." The game was no longer a game of modern magic, but became a search for Truth.

Mages awaken to the truth that reality is not static. If one has the proper vision and mindset and a little bit of know-how, reality can bend to the mage's will. At it's heart, this is no different than what Aleistar Crowley's definition of magick presented in Magick in Theory and Practice:
MAGICK is the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will.
But there is more to it than just that. There was a deeper Truth that each mage was seeking. Once awakened the soul, or Avatar as it was called in the game, would seek Enlightenment. Enlightenment was actually an achievable goal in the game. It was the title given to the highest ranking of Arete, the measure of a mage's skill in magic (I would say that Arete was the measure of the soul's belief in the Truth it was seeking).

How do I know that Mage is about seeking Truth. Stewart tells me so on pg. 21 of the first edition of the game (emphasis mine):
Mage characters are not the purveyors of parlor tricks and fireballs depicted by most traditional sources. Of course, in the course of day-to-day life, mages will most certainly evoke such magicakal manifestations - and would hardly be enjoyable roleplaying subjects if they did not. Even so, mages of the Storyteller System, and their magical powers, represent much greater philosophical truths.
Now here in the next sentence of the same paragraph is where I believe Mage: The Ascension drops the ball:
Such truths may never arise in a direct way within the game, but they permeate the setting nonetheless.
May never arise in a direct way? Why not? And what about Enlightenment and Ascension? It gets about a page worth of treatment that boils down to a process that a mage must go through to increase their Arete rating. I get the feeling in many games this was handled with a little hand-waving and a nod from the Storyteller (GM).

Please don't get me wrong. I LOVE Mage: The Ascension. I loved it enough to buy all the source material I could get my hands on. I do love the gothic punk setting with a little cyber-twist thrown in. But what happened to Mage seems to be the same thing that happened to Vampire (and possibly Werewolf): it became a game of super-powered lunatics battling across the universe. There were plenty of bad guys to fry with bolts of lightning and balls of fire.

To me, Mage was about a personal journey of discovery, possibly an inward journey reflected by the world around the mage. I can sum it up in a movie: The Matrix. When this movie first came out, I said to myself, "This is what Mage could have been." Neo's journey of self-discovered showed him the Truth. Yeah, I know, there were a lotta kick-ass fights and shit blowing up too. My point is, Mage could have been something more.

I think this urge to dig deeper into the Truth that Mages were seeking has been with me all the while. I never found a group to play the game in the style I was thinking. I think it all bubbled up during Game Chef 2008. In that year's event - the first and only such event I've participated in - I was inspired by Elizabeth Shoemaker's photographs to produce Stigmata: A Question of Faith. It is the only RPG design project that I have ever seen through to the end. It was a valuable learning experience in a number of ways, but I digress. I think Stigmata was what I wanted Mage to be: a search for Truth. In my game, Truth could only be found by helping others heal their pain which hopefully made your character's cross a little easier to bear. 

I kid Daniel that it's all his fault, but really, I started on this path a while ago. A recent post from Shaun, the host of This Modern Death, regarding doing some productive project during the 40 days of Lent has me taking a turn down a path I've not visited in a while.

I like to think I'm a spiritual person, while maybe not being overly religious (a distinction that I have only recently begun to understand). But faith is something I've always struggled with. As a result of Shaun's post I've decided to dust off Stigmata and work on it again, this time with some help. I've approached a friend of mine, a mentor actually and the priest that performed my marriage ceremony, to help get some of the religious elements of the game straightened out.

After talking to him about this last week I was firmly settled that Stigmata was a game about a spiritual journey. He asked me who the game was for. I answered, "For me...right now." Then he asked me a surprising question: can a game BE a spiritual journey? That is my homework until we meet again to discuss my Lenten project.

Which brings me back to Mage and Ryan. I feel that Mage at its core is about a spiritual journey. Much of the language of the first edition was steeped in religious trappings: the path to Ascension was filled with Epiphanies and Avatar is just another word for soul not to mention the Celestial Chorus. So this all has deep meaning for me.

And Ryan, I'm not sure if this is egging you on or not. I don't even know if what I'm thinking of when I look at Mage is even close to what makes you love the game. I know you're a busy man and the last thing I want to do is add more stress to your life. But if you are passionate about exploring the core of Mage, then I'm offering to take the journey with you. No pressure, no deadline. Whenever, whatever.

Follow Your Bliss,


  1. I need to chew on this a bit, but I'd like to see a copy of Stigmata if you can send one.

  2. Yeah, I hear ya. Anyway, a copy is on it's way to you now.

  3. Psst, you got link.

  4. I think a game can definitely be a spiritual journey, and I look forward to seeing where you go with the idea.

  5. @Doug, thanks. You can see in my latest post the direction that I'm going. I'll be sure to keep posting to keep you advised of my progress.