#RPGaDay2015 28: Favorite Game You No Longer Play

RPG-a-day-2015Today’s topic stings a little bit. I haven’t regularly role-played for almost a year now, owing to other commitments. And my game library is ludicrously over-sized relative to the percentage of them I have actually played, or at least played or GMed more than once. So picking a favorite out of the games I no longer play would almost be like picking my favorite game, period.

Cover of Mage's 20th anniversary edition. Pictured in a Tarot card, Dante as the Mage works magic with the tools of the Virtual Adept: computer, credit cards, gun and soda can (energy drink?).So for the sake of form, let’s say Mage: the Ascension. I ran a campaign for a while, until I fooled myself into believing I had too few players to make it good. Mage has always been one of my favorite games since I first discovered it through the back door of someone’s fan site — I bet it was some gem of the 90s web like Anders Mage Page — and one I found myself collecting in lieu of playing. I even went so far as to back the big anniversary edition, which is slowly slouching toward reality.

I don’t imagine receiving the Even Bigger Purple Book will magically enable me to run or play Mage any time soon — in fact, the projected size of the tome seems wildly impractical for any use that doesn’t involve it majestically perching on a lectern, ready for consultation; chains to secure it being unnecessary by virtue of its heft — but the unthinkingness with which I leapt to join the crowdfunding campaign, even after years of not playing Mage, tells me a lot about the level of esteem in which I hold this game.

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#RPGaDay2015 20: Favorite Horror RPG

RPG-a-day-2015I feel like there are the games we call horror games, and the games that are truly horror games. People call Mage: the Ascension a horror game, because it’s a cousin of Vampire: the Masquerade and it has themes of the consequences of hubris, a la Frankenstein. And then we have the personal horror of Vampire itself, where the player’s character is the source of repugnance. Beyond that is the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu, in which characters discover the full dimensions of their insignificance in comparison to the true powers of the cosmos.

Which of those we find truly horrifying depends on the person. I have a friend who maintains Lovecraft’s conception of the universe is not horrifying, because as of the 21st century, we have assimilated what his characters dreaded to be the case as reality. It can’t be horrifying because it’s not unknown. My point of dissent with her argument is that regardless of what we think we know, there’s always a bigger issue, a bigger shell around what we know, that we don’t know. And the contents of that bigger shell are still unknown and still horrifying.

What that has to say about my favorite horror role-playing game is left as an exercise for the reader. If you’ve been reading Held Action for a while, you can probably figure it out.

Mage 20th Anniversary’s PDF Materializes

Given the lack of substantive news on the development of Mage‘s 20th anniversary edition — “It’s in yet another round in editing!” was the refrain that I picked out from most of the backer updates — and that I don’t follow news from Onyx Path, I will cop to being downright astonished yesterday afternoon when the email came through with a link to the PDF version of the core book. The Mage anniversary project was something I backed almost out of thoughtless reflex. I don’t know that I ever expected it to truly be done, and certainly not within the time frame they estimated.

And while the project certainly isn’t done, the PDF release is a significant, publicly visible milestone to reach. As in, “Oh yeah, this thing is going to be real! Some day, there will be a new, big, fat purple book on my shelf.”

I only skimmed a few pages last night, but wow. Talk about diving right back into the thick of 1990s White Wolf role-playing material. All that defiant, first-person writing in italicized capital letters, occasionally with lots of exclamation points, really stirs up memories. (And gets the eyes rolling, but Mage as written is what it is, until I make it suit my preferences.)

#RPGaDAY 11: Weirdest RPG Owned

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

The weirdness of my role-playing game library expresses itself in more subtle ways than, say, your Maids and your Creeks and Crawdads. Check out my friend Joe’s list of really atypical settings for that kind of thing. No, the oddities of my library are far more occulted to the unsuspecting reader. The prime candidate is, of course, the Suppressed Transmission collections. Not a role-playing game, per se,[1] but columns by Kenneth Hite that are near paens to the high weirdness of history, bunk science and mystic traditions. They’re a glorious goldmine of tidbits like the possible true identities of Shakespeare, the effect Dr. Frankenstein’s research may have had on history and the cavalcade of forms that ultraterrestrials have taken over the years. Riding shotgun with the Suppressed Transmission collections is, of course, Mage: the Ascension, which also drew from, and spindled more freely, occult traditions to populate its factions of will-workers.

Consider also the weirdness of “What on Earth was the designer thinking?” There’s no end to that question in role-playing games, where half the time the writing of a book seems to be so intensely personal a process that the designer maybe doesn’t share their thoughts out loud with neutral observers until they feel the project has progressed too far to make any sweeping changes. The example that first comes to mind is Time Lord, the Doctor Who role-playing game published by Virgin that famously lacked suitably robust character creation rules to serve the breadth and depth of types of people the Doctor travels with.[2] This lack was made up for an appendix release some time after publication to the internet, and you can usually find it appropriately appended to digital versions of the text in circulation.

And finally, an honorable mention goes to Deadlands Reloaded, as it is literally set in the Weird West.

Weirdness: it’s where you least expect to find it. That’s what makes it weird.


[1] Though Hite discoursed occasionally on tying the disparate lunacy of his columns together into overarching campaign frameworks.

[2] Particularly in an era when the property’s ongoing materials was purely novels, which had a limitless budget, so far as make-up effects went.

#RPGaDAY 6: Favorite RPG Never Get to Play

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

The cheap answer is “all of them.” Yes, I get to play often enough and yes, I enjoy playing those games with my friends. But I don’t think it will surprise anyone that Pathfinder is not my favorite role-playing game.

Mage: the Ascension's cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

Mage: the Ascension’s cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

It is, of course, Mage: the Ascension. The odd sibling out of White Wolf’s core three role-playing games, Mage benefited from having such a broad scope — “You play wizards who can do things by wanting it really hard!” — that an amazing breadth and depth of points of view clustered under the eaves of its luditorium to play. So unlike Vampire and Werewolfin the original World of Darkness, Mage could be about street punk mages sticking it to the man of the wizardly establishment, science heroes duking it out over the moons of Jupiter or the archetypal struggle against the monolithic Technocracy. When your players’ characters can do anything within the scope of their mystical paradigms, the prospect of engaging all of them at once is more than a little daunting.

I ran Mage for a while, in Quarterstaff Games’ play area as an open game. You can read the session notes, if you like. As it was only the second campaign I’d ever run — after a brief, wildly uneven Mutants & Mastermindsgame — you can’t fault my audacity. But that was running, not playing. The only time I’ve ever gotten to play Mage was in college, and that was such a wash-out on my part as a player and a person, we will never speak of it again.

Maybe someday, though. I just need to meet an industrious GMing type who loves Mage, but cannot abide crossovers. They must be out there.

Linear Sorcerers in Mage’s Traditions

Mage: the Ascension's cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

Mage: the Ascension’s cycle of creation and destruction, as rendered by Rungok.

For years, I was never really clear why the revised edition of Mage: the Ascension kept bringing up practitioners of linear magic, which is magic that is not the kind of dynamic will-working that your average mage-type starts off with, but the typical “five dots and five specific powers” of White Wolf’s other games. Sure, it’s inexplicably paradox-free, but it’s limited. You get the five or so powers in a path and that’s it. There’s none of the flexibility of will-working. Some traditions are depicted as holding linear magicians in rather less esteem than their True Magick counterparts. While the Traditions aren’t in a sufficiently plush position on the occult stage to be so snooty about the dynamic-linear divide that they don’t allow those sorcerers membership, it still seems odd that

Then, in a thread discussing the disconnect within Tradition Book: Order of Hermes Revised, I find the comment that makes everything click, “Moreover, many (most?) of the Sleepers who undertake study with real Hermetics will become Hedge Wizards/Sorcerers of varying quality, not unlike the millions of Sleepers who work for/with the Technocracy as engineers, programmers, and the like. Some few will Awaken, but a bunch of allies (consors?) who share your Paradigm enough to not count as “witnesses” are valuable in and of themselves, to say nothing of whatever minor (or not so minor) magic-lite techniques that may be able to enact.”

Aside from the practical advantages listed above, it’s that Traditions and Crafts with a “knowledge is the key to mystical power” paradigm educate everyone the same. All the recruits go through the same education of sympathetic correspondences and Enochian chants. It’s that some of those students awaken, becoming capable of dynamic will-working, while others master the linear arts taught within the curriculum. It’s the difference between Harry and Ron, who slog through Hogwarts as average students, getting better at the required work with practice, and Hermione, who masters everything and turns out to be such a gifted student that she composes her own spells and modifies standard formulae to her needs.

Looking at it that way helps me make a lot more sense of linear sorcerers’ place in the world of Mage.

The Thief of Olympus

Apropos of nothing save that I’ve liked this passage since I first read it in Tradition Book: Order of Hermes, thinking it encapsulated the promise of a literal renaissance of a proud fraternity languishing in senescence and at the time not many Mage: the Ascensionfans gave the potential of that revitalization much credit, consider this:

Hermes Trismegistus, from Wikipedia.

Hermes Trismegistus, from Wikipedia.


The idols of today’s youth ride broomsticks or wield spells. They fight balrogs and cyborgs, learn witchcraft and microtechnology. The children themselves bear Tolkien and Linux for Dummies in the same bookbag; chat in cybertongues to distant friends; don virtual disguises to enter imaginary worlds where aliens and faeries are one and the same.

And when they mature, these brave children learn to think around corners. To fly on words and unlock puzzles, weave illusions and craft new colors. Mastering arcane codes and words of power, they’ll summon Umbrood that Great Solomon never knew existed.

And some of them even make that final leap: Awakening to our Reality.

How Hermetic.

How like that Trickster, to confound his enemies this way! For using Technocratic tools to undo Technocratic Order is a jest worthy of the Thief of Olympus. Mythic Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle; modern Hermes steals the “cattle” from the Technocratic god — using their own goads to do it!

Tradition Book: Order of Hermes, pg. 34, by Stephen Michael DiPesa and Phil Brucato

Role-Playing and Board Game Garage Sale

The time has come to weed the game library. Behind the jump you will find role-playing games, board games and card games I would like very much for someone else to own. Generally speaking, it’s all older stuff, so if you’re looking for titles from the 90s and early 00s, this might be the sale for you.

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What’s the Use of Certámen?

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?

Retooling Mage: The Ascension

Something about role-playing inspires a do-it-yourself attitude in many hobbyists. If they don’t like something, they’ll often modify to it their needs, or roll their own. So it’s no surprise that Mage: The Ascension, a game about independent individuals all proclaiming they understand the true secrets of the universe — and perhaps later learning that it’s all an illusion of sorts — should accumulate more than a few projects to do it right, better or to taste, depending on the author. Sometimes I think it’s a right of passage, whereat the burgeoning role-player decides that in the end it’s all made up and hell, they should do it the way they prefer.[1]

At any rate, yet another discussion on RPG.net of where Mage: The Ascension went wrong — or right, depending on one’s perspective — or whose fault or genius it was got me thinking about the Mage conversions that proliferated over the years. I mean, this is a game whose last supplement was published in 2004 and people are still not only casting blame and gnashing teeth, but trying to do it their way. So here’s a quick rundown of the Mage conversions I’ve run across on the web:

  • Mage! was a conversion document by an RPG.net poster by the name of Redfox Whiteruff for running a Mage game using the Aeon variant of the Storyteller system, particularly the version in Adventure! The PDF doesn’t seem to be in circulation on the web, or I’d link to it.
  • Unisystem Mage was my own modest attempt at a Mage conversion. I’ve yet to playtest the thing, so all I can say is it exists and is freely downloadable.
  • World of Darkness HERO, by Robert Harrison, encompasses much of the original World of Darkness as it stood in the second edition era, written for the HERO role-playing system.
  • Malcolm Sheppard released notes almost immediately upon publication of Mage: The Awakening in 2005 to use the new ruleset to run traditional Ascension games. They’re quick and dirty, but really that’s all one needs.
  • Mage: The Dirty Version, also by Malcolm Sheppard, is a more drastic retooling of the core premises of Mage, altering content to fit the new view.
  • Ascension Nova, on the other hand, is a currently on-going effort to perform a more robust marriage of the Storytelling system and the Mage: The Ascension setting material.
  • GURPS Mage: The Ascension and GURPS Thaumatology get honorable mentions; the former for being an official conversion of then-contemporary Mage to GURPS third edition and the latter for providing a ready made structure to rebuild the Sphere magic system in the fourth edition.

05/28/2010 9:38 AM: Shame on me for failing to include Malcolm Sheppard’s “dirty Mage” reinvention.


[1] Which is not to say “it” is necessarily inconsistent or arbitrary; just arranged to suit one’s own preferences.