When I first read about Mage: The Ascension in the early 2000s, I didn’t get certámen at all. In a game that, on an initial surface-reading, is about modern wizards struggling against an oppressive world order, an ancient rite of dueling made no sense to me at all. Why would someone do that? How does it make sense to resolve disputes through magical prowess when the complaint has nothing to do with that?
The answer on both the in and out of game levels is historical influences. In the game world of Mage: The Ascension, certámen dates from the medieval days of the Order of Hermes. Dueling has been going on for a long time in some form or another. It’s not surprising that wizards would develop their own system, particularly the Order of Hermes, a bunch of politicking back-stabbers if ever there were. It’s a testament to the influence of the Hermetics that they could finagle the rite of certámen into the structure of the Traditions Council. They also browbeat the other traditions into accepting their sphere-based view of magic as the lingua franca of mages, so they clearly had the chops — or everyone else felt sufficient pressure from the Daedaleans that they accepted all sorts of Hermetic demands and nonsense to throw in with the group that had the most sound power base in Europe. Certámen as a valid means of dispute resolution among the traditions must have done a lot to shore up the dominance of the Order of Hermes, given they invented it.
Out of game, certámen was in Mage: The Ascension because it was in Ars Magica, the original home of the Order of Hermes. The basic idea of the Order, if not the entirety of their magical worldview — or I theorize, having read only the most recent edition of that game’s corebook — was ported from one to the other.
Additionally, certámen plays a role in the punk aspect of Mage: The Ascension. Yes, I said “punk.” In particular, the part of punk that centers around fighting against the establishment. In the first edition of the game, mages everywhere are hunted by the seemingly omnipresent Technocracy. Within their own ranks, the older, sedentary mages of the traditions use certámen to keep the young generation in line. It also served as an example of how one of the Traditions’ greatest enemies was their own hidebound practices, unable to keep up with the times.
Until I read Dark Ages: Mage, I didn’t really get or even think very critically about certámen. Up to that point, I ignored it outright. Dark Ages: Mage provided actual rules for a wizard’s duel and even gave it some historical context, in that the techniques came from Roman mages, with the forms named gladius and such. For whatever reason, understanding that the rite had a history that could be traced, both across game lines and within the history of the game world, made me think about it and connect its presence in the Mage universe with comments other people have made about the punk aspects of the original World of Darkness game lines, namely stephenls on the forums over at RPG.net.
So now I get certámen. I still wouldn’t want to use it in a game of Mage. It’s too much a stick for the GM to push players around. “The Hermetic master conquered you at the ancient rite of certámen. Go do what he wants.”
Has certámen ever come up in one of your Mage games? What happened?