Monday, December 18, 2017

Gladius of the Defender, A Homebrew Mage: The Ascension Wonder

Wonders that instruct or help with mundane tasks are great, but sometimes you need something you can count on in a fight, am I right?

Below is a Wonder I made for just such a purpose. Created for the mentor of one of my players, it may get passed on to him in the course of our gameplay, should anything dire happen in the course of the chronicle. (Dire? In the World of Darkness? Bwahahahaha!) Feel free to use it in your own Mage game, along with any of the Mage creations I've posted previously and will likely post in the future. And if you do use any of them, please tell me all about it!

Gladius of the Defender
4-point Artifact

When Inez Lellouche first joined the Knights of Radamanthys in the Chakravanti shortly before the Reckoning, her mentor Aramus gifted her with a remarkable Wonder that she has used as both focus and weapon in the course of her duties. This blade, a classical gladius, was passed on to Aramus from his mentor, and Inez will pass it on to her student when the time comes. In the meantime, it is an essential part of her arsenal as bodyguard to her chantryleader, and as mentor to her young charge.

In the hands of a Sleeper, this is just a short, wide-bladed sword that does Strength+2 damage. However, when the blade is unsheathed by a mage, it guides the wielder's sword arm to block, parry, and/or deflect any incoming physical attack, whether from melee or ranged, bullet or energy weapon, up to a number of times equal to their Dexterity rating each round of combat. The mage may make a free reflexive defense action to roll Arete (difficulty 5) and add each success to any roll used to dodge or block a direct attack. If all successes of the incoming blow are negated, the attack is deflected harmlessly, but scoring additional successes means the sword deflects the incoming attack back at the attacker. Damage for the counterattack is rolled as normal, adding each success beyond those necessary to negate the original attack roll as extra damage dice. However, failing the Arete roll does not trigger the artifact's counterattack effect but still permits the free defense roll, and botching the roll prevents the free defense roll entirely.

Use of this weapon can become vulgar depending on the attack being deflected. While it is ineffective against non-targeted attacks such as fire, smoke or falling debris, it can potentially deflect attacks from military-grade weaponry, up to and including guided missiles. Care should be taken in regards to when and where the blade's power is used.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Magick System of Mage Part 2, or "Wait, There's MORE?!"

I could spend a blog post a week writing about the Mage: The Ascension magick system for two full months, and still not cover every facet of that magnificent free-form system. There's so much good stuff that Satyros Phil Brucato put into M20 and its books that it would be impossible to do them all justice here, but there are key components that might not jump out at you when faced with chapters of rules crunch. Here's another piece of the magick system that you should know when choosing Spheres for your character.

Last month, I posted a breakdown of the Sphere system at the core of the magick system. And last week, you may have noticed that the primer I posted listed one of those Spheres (Time) with a number next to it (1). But what does Time 1 mean in the context of the magick system? I'm so glad you asked!

No, Bill, what are you- THAT WAS MY KEYBOARD!!!

Each of the nine Spheres listed on a character sheet has five dots next to them. Each dot represents one rank in that Sphere, a measure of how skilled your mage is at manipulating that facet of reality. Max ranks denotes mastery of that Sphere, and no ranks means your mage hasn't learned how to do anything with it yet. The more Spheres you have ranks in, the more versatile you'll be in casting magick.

But what does each dot signify? Is this like Starfleet or something, where the more pips you have, the higher your rank? Well, yeah, kinda. The breakdown looks something like this:

Rank 1: Extrasensory Perception - Considered a "sight beyond sight" rank, the first dot in a Sphere lets you perceive it in an enhanced manner. For example, Time 1 would let you see exactly what time it is without a watch or sun/moon position, Spirit 1 would let you see un-manifested ghosts around you, Forces 1 would reveal the source of sound or lightwaves, etc.
Rank 2: Minor Manipulation - Once a mage can see the Spheres in a different way, they can start interacting with them in small ways. Life 2 would let you heal yourself, but not others. Forces 2 would let you direct sources of light and sound to aid in stealth. Correspondence 2 would let you affect something that is nearby but not in your immediate field of vision.
Rank 3: Greater Control - Rank 3 is when a mage learns how to affect those Spheres in more obvious ways, effecting other people, places and things. Forces 3 would let you transform heat into cold and light into sound. Entropy 3 allows you to throw around blessings and curses. Matter 3 would let you convert copper into gold.
Rank 4: Major Command - This is when magick starts to get big and noticeable, affecting the Spheres in profound ways. Mind 4 allows for mind control, or astrally projecting yourself elsewhere. Prime 4 would let you drain a place of power of all its magickal energy. Forces 4 can affect weather patterns, either clearing up clouds or turning them into rainclouds.
Rank 5: Ultimate Mastery - The pinnacle of the Sphere ranks, mastery of a Sphere means you know that facet of reality inside and out and can use it to miraculous effect. If you can imagine it, you can do it. Everything from creating duplicates of yourself to pocket realities falls within the rank 5 effects, including time travel... though ultimate power also comes with ultimate consequence if it's abused.
That's a hell of a paradox backlash, Genie.

And that's how the Sphere ranks work! Using the above guide, you can form your own magickal effects for whatever best fits your character. For example, if you have a mage who wants to teleport himself between his home and his chantry, you would use Correspondence 3 to jump between those two locations, or Correspondence 4 to create a stable portal that others could also use to travel between those locations instantly. If you just wanted to pull your keys from one location to another, however, you'd just use Correspondence 2, and maybe Matter 1 to make sure it was keys that came through instead of something else.

Got any questions about Sphere ranks and how they work? Ask them below and I'll be happy to answer them!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Nate's Avatar Trance Club Mix, A Homebrew Mage: The Ascension Wonder

One of the fun bits of Mage: The Ascension is creating magickal items that your character and others can use in-game. Collectively called Wonders, these include everything from minor charms and primers to powerful talismans and artifacts. They can be purchased at character creation through the Wonder Background trait, or acquired through the course of the game. Some mages specialize in Wonder creation, and your character can either seek them out to have one made especially for them or become a crafter of Wonders yourself.

There are whole Mage sourcebooks dedicated to magickal items. The Technomancer's Toybox and Forged By Dragon's Fire contain some cool (if technologically dated) stuff, and the more recent Book of Secrets has a chapter with up-to-date Wonders and the rules associated with them. Below is a homebrew Wonder created for my chronicle, presented for inclusion in your own Mage game or as inspiration for your own Wonder. Enjoy!

Nate's Avatar Trance Club Mix (Primer)
2-point Wonder (Arete 1, Time 1)

Traditionally, when one thinks of a grimoire, the image of dusty tomes of forgotten lore springs to mind. One might even consider the oral grimoires of Traditions who pass information down verbally instead of written record. Very few mages, if any, would think of a mix tape as a grimoire, but that was exactly the inspiration behind Nate's Avatar Trance Club Mix.

An Ecstatic of some renown, Nathaniel "Nate" DeLaurentis was a musician and DJ who traveled the world and beyond until he met his end in the Horizon War. Before the Reckoning took him, however, he crafted a CD of his life's work, a legacy left to his chantrymates in San Francisco. Every week, the new chantryleader plays the full collection at the nightclub connected to their holdings and watches the crowd for those who are stirred to Awakening by the eclectic mix.

Lovingly mixed by Nate as a compilation of original works that blend from one song into the next, each piece of the club mix was inspired by his own Awakening. The first track hooks a listener with a simple but catchy beat, and the tracks that follow lead them through the chaos of discovery, the shock of Awakening, and finally the joy of ecstasy. Through each track, the bassline evokes the Lakashim, the divine pulse that thrums through all of Creation. And as a bonus track, Nate added a curious piece that imparts a unique way of perceiving Time through music with creative use of looping and repeating rhythms from earlier tracks.

Any musically-inclined mage may benefit from the primer, but the Sahajiya have a special connection to its usage. For obvious reasons, mages who are hearing impaired are unable to make use of this primer.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Shadow Scryers, A Homebrew Mage: The Ascension Spirit

Official supplements are great, but they're not comprehensive. Sometimes you need a creature or NPC that doesn't exist in available books, or you need to tweak something that exists to fit your chronicle better, or maybe you just want to throw something unexpected at your players. In that case, you might just need to build something new to drop into your game.

That's how I ended up with the Shadow Scryers.

Below is the information I wrote up for the homemade spirit I created for my latest Mage chronicle. Feel free to use it in your own games, or tweak it for your own purposes. Enjoy!


"Look, shut up a second and listen to me. I'm not safe here. Call it paranoia or whatever, but I swear, when I left Blake's hidey-hole with the relic, something followed me and I can't seem to-"

Malcolm whirled, certain he saw something moving at the edge of his vision. The motel room was empty of anything that shouldn't be there, other than himself, the cell phone he was using to check in with his pal, and his bag by the door, but he couldn't shake the feeling that someone or something was watching him.

"...I have to go. If you don't hear back from me in one hour, get to the chantry and get help."

He hung up his cell phone, then opened up his custom camera app and scrolled through the different filters. First Material, then Flora/Fauna, and on and on. When he cycled to Spiritus, Malcolm nearly dropped his phone. Standing in the far corner was a tall, slender, shadowy humanoid figure staring at him with milky white eyes.

Swallowing his fear, Malcolm moved slowly, cautiously, toward the door, silently praying that whatever that thing was, it wasn’t easily provoked. He glanced away only for a second to grab his bag, the one hiding the stolen relic, the spirit's empty eyes following him all the while.

Unlocking the door made the spirit's head tilt ever so slightly, but it made no movement to intervene. That was fine by Malcolm. He opened the door just wide enough to slip through, then sprinted the rest of the way to his car and peeled out of the parking lot.

And still he felt as though he was being watched.

Much like their close Sendings cousins, Shadow Scryers are spirits compelled to serve a specific purpose. Where Sendings are messengers – disembodied communications with images and voices but no set form to speak of – Shadow Scryers are spies, intended to quickly locate and quietly observe a person or place and report back their findings.

Spotted easily enough by mages well-versed in the spirit ways, those with only a heightened awareness of their surroundings might catch fleeting glimpses of movement in their peripheral vision. When discovered, a Shadow Scryer continues observing until action is taken against it. When attacked, it defaults to the flight category of "fight or flight" reactions, sometimes instilling sudden and crippling terror prior to fleeing, to better avoid being pursued.

Shadow Scryers vary in appearance, taking the form of urban legends, mythical creatures, ghostly figures, even aspects of long forgotten gods and mages. Despite their name, they are not formed from shadow, although they do prefer darkened corners when spying. Although these entities appear to have some form of sentience and survival instincts, their silence makes discerning their true purpose all but impossible.

In game terms, Shadow Scryers can be summoned and compelled to act by any mage as per the Spirit/Dimensional Science Spheres. These spirits make ideal eyes and ears for those who wish to avoid direct attention, but still want to gather information from afar. It should be noted that these entities are not fighters, but their instincts strongly deter those from following the spirit back to its mage master.

Willpower 3, Rage 4, Gnosis 10, Essence 25
Charms: Flee, Influence, Soul Reading, Terror, Track

Monday, November 20, 2017

The Magick System of Mage, or "What Do You Mean, There's No Spell List?!"

"Mages are supposed to have spell lists, right? Where's the spell list for Mage?"

The short answer is, there is no spell list. At least, not like you'd find in a game like D&D.

Jareth is totally a D&D sorcerer multiclassed as bard.

The long answer is, Mage's magick system is so robust and versatile that a simple spell list really wouldn't do it justice. Since this game assumes you're playing a mage, there's no need to call attention to whether you're playing a sorcerer or a cleric as you might in other games. There's no spell slots to keep track of, no daily limit to the amount of spells you can cast, no need to mark down which ones you can use for the day... in short, Mage is all about making your mage a badass who can cast a wide variety of spells, not just a short list of them.

Instead, Mage's freeform magick system revolves around two important mechanics: Spheres and Arete. The Spheres embody the nine spheres of influence (get it?) that mages can use in their magick. These are:
  • Correspondence - the Sphere of spatial location. Any spell that you want to cast over a distance greater than line of sight will use this Sphere, such as scrying, teleportation, or co-location.
  • Entropy - the Sphere of probability and decay. Any spell that affects chance or fortune will use this Sphere, from curses and blessings that affect people's luck to affecting the health or decay of a person or thing.
  • Forces - the Sphere of energies and elements. Any spell that incorporates fire, electricity, radiation, wind, gravity, light or sound will use this Sphere, from invisibility to cones of silence to changing the weather.
  • Life - the Sphere of organic patterns. Any spell that affects a living creature, person or animal, will use this Sphere, including healing magicks, shapeshifting, or altering someone's apperance or physical attributes.
  • Matter - the Sphere of inorganic patterns. Any spell that affects non-living material, from chairs to buildings (even corpses, for you necromancer types) will use this Sphere to conjure and shape them as you please.
  • Mind - the Sphere of mental prowess. Any spell that affects the mental faculties, either yours or someone else's, will use this Sphere, from creating simple illusions to outright mind control and manipulation.
  • Prime - the Sphere of raw magickal power. Any spell that creates something from nothing will use this Sphere, in addition to enchanting people or items, fueling magickal attacks, and powerful countermagick defenses.
  • Spirit - the Sphere of the Otherworlds. Any spell that affects spirits, ghosts, and the realms outside of and beyond the physical will use this Sphere, in addition to travel to other worlds and realities.
  • Time - the Sphere of temporal location. Any spell that you want to send forward or backward in time uses this Sphere, which is useful for precognition, speeding up your reaction time, and even freezing another spell to go off under special circumstances.
Aang excels at the Forces Sphere.

Any time a mage casts magick, they'll use the above Spheres to figure out if they can pull it off. If you're lacking ranks in a particular Sphere, you may have to get creative to come up with an alternate way to pull it off, pending Storyteller approval. Fortunately, the Spheres overlap with each other in significant ways, and a truly creative player can do a lot with just a few ranks. While it's tempting to throw a lot of points into Spheres so you can do crazy things with them, there IS a game mechanic in place to make sure players don't go too wild with power. That mechanic is Arete.

Arete is like the "cast magic" trait of Mage. The higher the score, the more your mage understands how reality works and how it can be shaped by the Spheres. As a result, you can't have more ranks in a Sphere than you have dots in Arete. If your Arete is 3, none of your Spheres can have a rating higher than that. That's also the highest rating you can have as a beginning character, and it's the most expensive trait to raise with experience points as the game goes on. Sorry, power gamers.

Arete is also a rolled trait. Unlike the Spheres, which are primarily a way of tracking what your character knows, Arete is a reflection of what they can do. If we're going off of the aforementioned Arete 3, that's 3 dice you'll roll to cast an effect, versus a target number of the Storyteller's determination. The more dice you roll that meet or exceed that target number, the more successes you'll be able to put toward making a strong magickal effect.

That's because Willow needs to raise her Arete instead of her other traits.

For example, one of my players wants to scry into a nearby building. He wants to look beyond his line of sight and through the walls blocking his vision to get a better idea of the layout. Correspondence is used in this effect for sensing beyond his immediate area, and Matter is used to get a measure of the physical structure itself. If he wanted to take note of how many people are inside, he'd throw Life into the mix, but he doesn't have that Sphere yet, so he'll settle for the building layout. To cast the effect, he'd roll his Arete of 2 and hope for at least one success if he's in a hurry, or take his time with it to roll multiple times and accumulate successes for the effect.

There's a bunch of other smaller things that go into casting magick in Mage, but those two elements are at the center of it all. Once you wrap your brain around those, the rest is gravy.

Do you have any questions about the core of Mage's magick system, or how it's used in actual play? Post them in the comments below and I'll jump on those lickety-split!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Street Level Mage vs. Epic Fantasy Mage, or "This Is Gonna Get Weird."

If you've been playing/running Mage: The Ascension for as long as I have, you may have noticed a sharp tonal shift between Mage 1st and 2nd Edition (or pre-revised) books and Mage Revised (AKA 3rd Edition) books. There's even a slight tonal shift between Mage's 1st and 2nd Editions, but it's not nearly as abrupt or impactful on Mage's overall setting. And for those who have never played any of those editions, or only played one of them, let me nutshell this shift for you.

"...Not quite what I meant, but close."

In Mage's pre-revised editions, things were weird. 1st Edition kicked it off with the Book of Chantries, which introduced some pretty "out there" concepts such as animate castles housing a cult of assassins and a proto-Hogwarts of politics and power stationed on a realm tied to Mars (the planet, not the Greek god), and the first Digital Web book that introduced us to a realm where the internet was a virtual cyberpunk world unto itself. Mage 2nd Edition continued that trend with Horizon: Stronghold of Hope, Beyond the Barriers: The Book of Worlds, and Digital Web 2.0, all of which threw open the doors of possibility and invited players and Storytellers alike to take their games out of the familiar and into some truly weird worlds where anything is possible. Want to throw your mages into a video game? How about an epic battle on the deck of a spaceship against alien horrors? How about an old-fashioned trek through mystical lands filled to the brim with creatures that you've only heard about in myths and legend? All of that is doable in Mage, and more!

Then Mage Revised came along and slammed those doors shut with a heavy gust of wind from the Avatar Storm. This plot element, designed to make crossing over into these fascinating and bizarre worlds more difficult, was part of an effort to ground the game in the same gritty, vicious streets of the World of Darkness' flagship game, Vampire: The Masquerade. As a result, Mage Revised only gave us one book on the worlds beyond, The Infinite Tapestry, and that tome was not nearly as extensive as the Book of Worlds was.

Now, I like Vampire just as much as the next WoD fan, but Mage is so much more than just the cityscapes and the wilderness between them. Forcing that narrow view on longtime fans of the game felt insulting, as if we were being told that our style of play was wrong and that surviving the mean streets was the only way to really play Mage.

I'm here to tell you, both playstyles are valid.

Street level Mage is a great way to introduce those new to RPGs and/or the World of Darkness to the setting. Starting off in the familiar is not nearly as jarring as throwing players immediately into a bizarre high fantasy setting that is completely foreign to them. There can still be weirdness in the dark corners of familiar cities, and as the players become more comfortable with their surroundings, you can gradually build up to the unique and wondrous vistas that Mage is known for in 2nd Edition. Or, you can choose to ignore those other worlds. If the gritty, urban fantasy-style focus of Mage Revised is your cup of tea, that's valid, too. There's plenty of story to be told on the earthly plane without taking your player's characters out of the world they know, and the concerns of humanity are much more relevant to mages than those in worlds beyond.

Likewise, there's nothing wrong with the fantastical approach to Mage, so long as everyone understands that this is not D&D and you can't just run screaming at a dragon and expect to survive thanks to oodles of hit points. Even in its most high fantasy settings of gryphons and airships and floating castles, there's an element to Mage that drives home how human these characters really are. Despite their reality-bending powers, mages are still mortals who can be felled with one well-placed bullet, or one careless step on a rickety bridge, or one tragic encounter with the wrong creature. But they are also capable of amazing feats of resourcefulness and invention, and for centuries have crafted otherworldly vistas beyond the earthly plane. It's a tragedy not to showcase, even just once, the worlds that mages can make possible.

In the end, this should be an agreement made with your players as to what sort of Mage game they're going to be playing. It'd be upsetting to players who want to focus on earthly goals if they spend all their time exploring alien civilizations, and the same is true of those expecting a true wizard's journey into unknown worlds if they never leave their city of origin. Talk it over with them and try to accommodate their expectations.

And remember, there's no harm in letting things get a little weird for a few sessions.

Do you have any questions about street-level Mage vs. epic fantasy Mage? Post them in the comments below and I'll happily answer them all!

Monday, November 6, 2017

And Now For Something A Little Different

My talented partner, SB, is planning on running a tabletop game set in the World of Warcraft, and I've already made my character. I haven't played World of Warcraft: The Roleplaying Game in many, many years. It was my introduction to WoW, strangely enough, and the game that got me interested in checking out the MMO to see what it was all about and to explore the world that I was only imagining around a table. While I've played off and on since the days of the Burning Crusade expansion and the introduction of blood elves, it'll be nice to jump back into that world with more creative freedom than an MMO typically allows.

While we don't have a start date for the first game yet, I've started preparing for our eventual first session by writing up a short bio/intro for my character, Cynlan Dawnstrider. Inspired by the character vignettes that used to open every episode of Critical Role, I decided I was going to hit the highlights of who my character is and what major events shaped him into the character the other players will eventually meet. I've also decided to share that intro with you all below, along with an image of the character I'll be playing, generated from in-game assets with the help of Wowhead's dressing room feature.

Like most blood elves, Cynlan was once a high elf born into a magister family - House Dawnstrider, to be exact - to parents who had mastered the magical arts. Unlike most blood elves, Cynlan had no talent for the arcane and quickly earned himself a place of ridicule in the family. He did, however, discover a knack for working with metal, and soon grew that talent into a skill for engineering. Little did he know just how valuable that pursuit would be once Arthas set his sights on Quel'Thalas on his path to becoming the Lich King.

His family dead and his home in ruins, Cynlan eagerly joined with the United Blood Elf Engineers' Union and pledged his services to their surviving ruler, Prince Kael'thas Sunstrider. In the process, he was swept up in an unfolding chain of events not of his making, events that severed the newly renamed blood elves' ties to the Alliance who wrongfully imprisoned them... events that allied them with Lady Vashj and Illidan Stormrage in Outland.

Ill-prepared to deal with the hardships of Outland and slowly falling under the sway of the fel energy needed to stave off a crippling mana addiction, Cynlan was desperate for a means to return home and regain some semblance of normality. He found the perfect opportunity as part of the unit that delivered a captured naaru to Silvermoon City as a source of power to curb their addiction. With the bulk of the city's reconstruction handled already, Cynlan languished without a purpose... until one day, the call went out to recruit for a new organization to protect the Quel'dorei from the forces of darkness: The Blood Knight Order.

Now having discovered an affinity for divine magic that rivals his parents' talent for its arcane counterpart, Cynlan Dawnstrider rose through the ranks, first becoming known as a dragon slayer, then becoming renown as a Champion of the Order. Augmenting his combat training with engineered wonders, Cynlan puts the "knight" in Blood Knight, and stands ready to protect his people from any evil that dares threaten them.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Running a Technocracy Game, or "Are We Bad Guys or Good Guys?"

The World of Darkness, despite its name (or maybe because of it) is not black and white. There's no clear-cut good and evil like you have in D&D. Quite the opposite, there's a whole spectrum of gray that exists in the WoD, and within every Mage faction. The Traditions can be bad guys, and their longtime adversaries can be the heroes. This blog entry is going to look at how to flip the expectations of a Mage game to run a Technocratic Union chronicle.

"You didn't know about level 7? There's a lot you don't know about the Union."

To start, the Technocracy has noble origins that carry over to its modern incarnation. Their core mission statement is simple: Protect humanity from the evils of the world. This is commonly defined as supernatural creatures such as vampires, werewolves, ghosts, spirits, faeries, and anything that seeks to harm or dominate humanity. Unfortunately, that also includes mages.

"But wait, aren't Technocrats mages? They use Spheres to create effects just like the Traditions, right?" Yes and no. While the Mage game system is the same, the Technocracy has its own non-magickal terminology. They don't gather in chantries or cabals, they organize themselves by construct and amalgam. Technocrats don't belong to Traditions, they are a part of a Convention of like-minded people. They don't cast magick, they enact procedures. And so on and so forth, separating themselves from anything potentially mystickal about who and what they are.

Except for the Harbingers of Avalon, but that's a whole other story.

"But how do you reconcile the fact that they've been the bad guys in Mage since first edition?" Here's where we get into those shades of gray. Like any large organization, the Union has good people and bad people within it. Most of those bad people are commonly encountered by the Traditions, and that's okay. The Technocracy also has good people with enough common sense to realize that an open hand can be just as effective as a closed fist. And even the actions of good people can be viewed as horrible to those on the wrong side of their acts. I'm pretty sure the vampire caught feeding on a hapless mortal is going to paint the Technocracy as the bad guys when they rush in to save that person. Just be careful if you start getting lenient with the things that go bump in the night. Control keeps tabs on every agent in the Union, and excessive breaches of their protocols will earn an agent a quick trip to Room 101 for conditioning to bring them back in line with the Technocracy's goals. (But even then, local protocols can be amended for special circumstances.)

And hey, sometimes it can be fun to play the bad guys. If you want to embrace the ruthless, faceless side of the Technocracy and steamroll the Traditions, go for it! There's nothing saying you have to be a goody two-shoes in a suit, and cutting loose against those hated Reality Deviants may be just what you're looking for. There's no wrong way to play the Technocracy, as long as you keep their core concept of "protectors of humanity" front and center.

More like protectors of the status quo, amirite?

A Technocracy game might be a good place to start a group that doesn't want to buy into the whole metaphysical mumbo-jumbo of esoteric pratices and "magick with a k" style of gameplay. If your group likes unofficial government agency stories like S.H.I.E.L.D., Kingsman, and the like, the Technocratic Union might be just what they're looking for. Aside from the Mage 20 corebook and Book of Secrets, I'd recommend the Guide to the Technocracy and the assorted original and revised Convention books for this type of game, bundled together conveniently at DriveThruRPG!

Got any specific questions about running a Technocracy-centric Mage game? Drop 'em in the comments section below, and I'll answer them in detail!

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Running a Nine Traditions Game, or "What's Our Goal Here?"

Considered by some as the "default good guys" of Mage, the Nine Mystick Traditions are the most prominent faction and the one which most (but certainly not all) sourcebooks are written for in general. But what should you know when running a game that focuses exclusively on the Traditions?

Well, yes, but let's go deeper than that, Mordo.

For starters, let's take an abridged look at their reason for being. The Nine Traditions came together back in the 1400s because the Order of Reason (the precursor to the Technocracy) saw how humanity lived in fear under certain mystickal practices and sought to do something about it. The Order went on a sorcerer's crusade to dispel superstitious thinking with reason and science, and to break the hold that wizards and druids and the like held over the populace. In so doing, they waged war on anyone who even looked like they were influencing communities with magick. In desperation, some of these magickal traditions reached out to others of like mind across the world, and they banded together to protect each other from the Order of Reason and to maintain the wonders of the world.

How does that translate to your game? Well, the Traditions and the Technocratic Union have been fighting a war for the fate of humanity over the past 500+ years. That makes them natural antagonists to spur your mages to action. Whether they're moving against your mages directly in the form of Black Suits and cyborgs, or indirectly in the form of financial or bureaucratic manipulation, the Technocracy is always looking for ways to eliminate the presence of "reality deviants" in their area.

Technocrats aren't the only threats to the Traditions, however. Marauders wreck havoc wherever they roam, endangering lives with their very presence and weakening the stability of reality itself. Nephandi actively work to destroy the world, and have a reputation for working with independent cults and infiltrating organizations like the Traditions to achieve their goals. And there are always spirits, ghosts, demons, and other unspeakable horrors that slip through the cracks of reality to threaten the world.

All that aside, maybe the greatest threat to the Traditions is humanity itself. There's a reason that the Nine Traditions keep themselves and their magicks secret from those who have not yet Awakened, even as they struggle to help enlighten them, and that's because humanity has always feared the power that mages wield. You only have to look back through history at the various real-world inquisitions and witch hunts to know that there will always be those who will attack any openly-practicing mage because they don't fit humanity's narrow definition of normal. This threat can be non-Awakened authorities, religious leaders, landlords, neighbors, even their friends and family. Anyone could cause the Traditions a lot of trouble if they're properly motivated, despite a mage's best intentions. Anyone could be an antagonist.

Because every World of Darkness game pits a fearful populace against your character.

Beyond antagonists, the Mage 20 corebook and the Mage 20 Book of Secrets contains ample and current information on each of the traditions, their structure, justice system, areas of influence and more. The Mage Revised sourcebook Guide to the Traditions also offers a wealth of information on the Traditions around the time of the turn-of-the-century Reckoning, and there are the various original and revised Tradition books that offer a more in-depth look at each individual Tradition and their history, practices, and goals.

Got any specific questions about running a Tradition-centric Mage game? Drop 'em in the comments section below, and I'll answer them in detail!

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Following Up That First Session, or "Where Do I Go From Here?"

Congrats, you've just run your first Mage game and things didn't go horribly wrong! The next game session is planned, the group goes home, and... now what?

"Yay, we finished the first session and still like each other!"

First of all, before anything else, take notes on how the game session ended so you can pick up from where you left off at the start of the next session. Where the characters are, which NPCs are involved in the scene, and any other details that will be relevant to reference when you run the game again. Unless you have the world's best memory, jotting down a few notes will help you maintain continuity between sessions and helps to avoid disagreements, especially if you had to end in the middle of an encounter.

Not everything has to remain exactly the same between sessions, however. Learn from the first session to address areas that might need some work. If you're trying to go for a political plot, but your players are itching for a fight, it's time to revisit your game notes and adjust accordingly. Pay close attention to the things your players latched onto in the first session. If a player wants to learn more about a particular piece of lore, find a way to make that happen. Giving the players a path to achieve their goals will help keep them invested in the game. Be careful not to give them everything all at once, though. Don't overwhelm your players. Moderation is good for longevity.

Likewise, make sure your players are happy with the characters they want to play. If something need to be fixed on a character sheet, it's better to do that early on than it is after several sessions have passed. Let the players shift points around if they want so they can play the character they want to play. There's few things players hate more than feeling as though they're locked into a character that doesn't feel like it measures up to what they imagined.

Also, some quick tips regarding rules:
  • Are there certain rules bogging the session down as they're referenced again and again? Bookmark the ones you need to consult most often so you can skip straight to them instead of having to remember if they're on page 353 or 535.
  • Do your players ask for the book every few minutes to figure out how the magic system works? Print out a copy of the Mage Quickstart for them, specifically the rules bits so they can have their own quick reference.
  • Are there any rules that seem needlessly complicated to you? Change 'em, or ditch 'em completely. House rules are common fixes at any game table to tailor things more to your group's play style. Just make sure you stay consistent with them.
  • And always remember the Golden Rule: The rules are what you want them to be. No more, no less. They're a guideline to telling an awesome story with your players, but if they get in the way, change them or ignore them. You're the Storyteller. What you say, not some rulebook, is what matters.

Listen to Barbossa, folks, he knows what's what.

Now that we have the basics of game prep hammered out, it's time to step it up a notch and get into the details of Mage: The Ascension with the next entry. If you have specific questions about any elements of Mage's sprawling setting or rules system, drop them in the comments below or over at my chronicle thread on the Shadownessence forum!

Monday, October 9, 2017

The First Game Session, or "Herding Cats is Hard!"

OK, you've got your players, and they have their character sheets. You're all gathered 'round the gaming table (virtual or actual) and you're ready to start them on their grand adventure. You get their attention from behind your ST screen and the conversation quiets so the game can begin. All eyes are on you. No pressure.


You said it, Jen.

The first game session sets the tone for everything that follows. You're introducing the players to your style of running games, they're getting to field test how well the dots on their sheet translate into the character they want to play, everyone's getting a feel for the setting and the rules and maybe even each other if you've never gamed together before. That's a lot of first impressions to balance, and we haven't even factored in everyone's play style and player personalities, let alone character personalities and how all of this clashes in the moment.

Running a Mage game can feel like herding cats sometimes. So, here's some tips on how to bring your gaming catnip to the table:
  • Have a "cheat sheet" of minor story ideas (AKA subplots in the writing parlance) to throw at your players. Not everything in Mage has to be world-shaking horror. Smaller, street-level problems and moral quandries are especially good for the first few games, building up to the bigger stuff later on. My very first game with this new Mage group started with helping a kid who was being chased by two suited thugs, and escalated from there.
  • Encourage your players to form their own bonds of friendship. If your mages are in the same chantry like mine are, odds are good they've seen each other at least once, and may at least know each other as acquaintances prior to game start. Who knows who, and for how long? They don't need to be the best of friends right at the start, but they don't have to be perfect strangers, either.
  • Set the atmosphere. Don't forget to throw in a little something for all 5 senses. What does the night air smell like? What sounds fill the air, both near and afar? Perception and Alertness checks aren't just for what the characters see. Important clues can come in any form, from the coppery taste of blood to the squish of something under their shoes. For Awareness checks, describe that feeling of hair standing up on the back of their neck, or the power emanating from something or someone.
  • Don't have your players roll for every little thing. The rules are there to help move the story along, not to get in the way of a good time. Simple or obvious tasks don't need a roll unless there's some circumstance that would cause them to otherwise fail. For example, unlocking a car door normally doesn't need a roll, unless that player is unlocking their car door in a hurry before a Nephandi descends on them with death and terror.
  • When the rules get in the way of telling the best story possible, fudge 'em. That's why there's a screen for those running games - all your players need to know is that you're rolling dice. That doesn't mean you have to stick to that result. If you just rolled all successes on a damage roll, and that result would kill that character, scale it back to just incapacitating them.
  • And while we're on the subject of killing characters, this should never be your goal. Put the characters through hell, absolutely, but character death just because of a bad roll is anticlimactic and punishes the player for something beyond their control. Fudge those rules, or at the very least, check in with the player to see if they're OK with the character dying. Offer to have them go out in a blaze of glory, or make one last proclamation (or death curse!) before their character passes into the Great Beyond. Character death should have impact, either in-game or, even better, emotionally with the players. I still tear up thinking about the "last will" I wrote and read aloud to the group my character sacrificed himself to save.
Last but certainly not least, don't forget to have fun! Games should be fun, whether you're playing or running. Mage is a storytelling game, so as long as you and your players are enjoying the story and having a blast, that's a win!

Now you, too, can herd your own cats - er, players!

Next up: How do you follow that first session? Where do you go from there? If you have specific questions, and I mean any kind of questions about running a Mage game, drop them in the comments below or over at my chronicle thread on the Shadownessence forum!

Monday, October 2, 2017

Consent and Gaming: A "How to Run Mage" Interlude

Before the first game session, before any dice are rolled, it's important to establish a place of safety and trust for your players. That means establishing boundaries.

Back when I first started playing tabletop games, consent was not ever discussed. We were young teens playing Vampire: The Masquerade, a World of Darkness game by White Wolf Publishing. We were playing monsters in a setting that's supposed to be dark and deadly. This character is draining blood from this hapless mortal! That character just frenzied and ripped that NPC's limbs off! Rawr, edgy and dark and what monsters we are, rawr! No boundaries, this is totally a mature game setting, grow a pair and get to being a tortured soul in an evil and dangerous world!

And that's not even getting into the Sabbat vampires like this one.

As we grew older and matured, however, we understood that there are some topics that are off-limits to some people. Everyone's threshold for tolerating adult subject matters is different, and this should be taken into account by everyone around the table, especially the person running the game.

One of the first questions I asked my gaming group before we even started the first Mage session was, "Are there things I should know to steer clear of in this game, things that might make you super uncomfortable or pull you out of the enjoyment of the moment?" It's a simple but important question. What are the "hard pass" topics among your group? What would they like to avoid confronting even in a safe, controlled fictional environment? Which messed up scenarios are OK, and which are off the table? Knowing the answer and respecting your group's boundaries goes a long way toward making game night a safe and trusted place to relax and really get into each session.

If the discussion of consent isn't initiated by anyone else, speak up. Lead the charge. Make sure that your voice is heard and that your limits are respected. Failing to respect your fellow gamers in that regard can derail a game session real fast, and could cost you a player (or a friend) in the process.

Your game does not need to be Care-A-Lot, but it does need consent.

GMs, if you find that someone is starting to feel very uncomfortable with something happening in-game, it costs nothing to call for a quick break to check in with them. If someone is deliberately making someone else uncomfortable, call for a break and take them aside to ask them to knock it off. If they persist in making others uncomfortable, it's time to ask them to leave.

Players, you have no obligation to stick it out if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable in a gaming group. That goes double for your GM. What do you do if the GM is forcing you to confront something in the game that is a hard pass for you? Remove yourself from that situation and find a gaming group that is more respectful of your comfort zone.

In the end, running tabletop RPGs isn't a job, it's a hobby. A game. And shouldn't the gaming table be a place where everyone can come together and have fun?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Mage Character Creation, or "What cast of characters am I working with?"

So you've got players, and you've got an idea of what kind of game you're going to run for them. Grab those character sheets and pencils, it's time to crack open the rulebook and get to character creation!

My intent here isn't to rehash what the rulebook says about creating a character. Point allocation is covered pretty well within those pages. No, my goal here is to dip into the deeper meaning behind all those dots, to get to the core of what character creation really is, especially in regards to Mage: The Ascension.

In D&D, you don't really have to get deep into who a character is, beyond picking a race and class and rolling up stats. Your elven ranger doesn't need to have an epic motivation to go dungeon-delving, and if all you want to do is roll dice and kill monsters, more power to you. But the heart of Mage is the idea that their magic powers are borne from belief and the strength of will to turn an idea into reality, and that kind of information lives in a character's concept and backstory.

Now, that isn't to say that you need an essay from each player on who their character is (although the rulebook does provide several questions for the players to answer if they want to deep dive into what makes their characters tick). It does help if they can give you a brief character concept as a basis for what they want to play. They don't necessarily need to know exactly which Tradition they want to play right at the start, so long as they know what kind of character they want to play. Does one want to play a mad scientist type? Does someone want to play a Harry Potter type mage? Does another want to play a shaman, or a neo-pagan, or a martial arts master? Once they figure out what they want to play, you can help each player figure out the details of what allows them to use magic in the game.

Once concept is in place, point allocation becomes less of grabbing stuff that looks cool and more of what supports the vision of that character idea. Not that grabbing cool stuff should be denied! By all means, permit your Hollow One player to have a raven familiar and let your Etherite adventurer have his ray gun weapon. But don't allow your Dreamspeaker player to get Requisitions or Alternate Identity just because. There should be a reason behind every dot on that sheet, even if that answer is "My DJ Ecstatic has 2 dots in Firearms because her father owned guns and made sure his teenage daughter knew how to use them."

I was lucky - even though my Mage game is online, I was able to help half of my players with character creation in person. The other two who couldn't complete this step in person created their characters over voice chat with the book on hand. This took a little longer to do, what with scheduling and all, but it all worked out and each player was able to email me a PDF copy of their character sheet for reference, along with a brief history of their character. In the end, we ended up with (below, from left to right) Vhara, an Akashayana yoga instructor; Nathan, a Chakravanti photographer; Kai, a neo-pagan Verbenae; and Alina, an ex-military Virtual Adept.

And just like that, the characters assemble and we're ready to game! If you have any questions about specific parts of the character creation system, post them below or over at my chronicle's Shadownessence thread! Next up, the first game session!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

My Thoughts on the Comic Book Adaptations of the 21st Century

In the wake of the flood of superhero TV we're getting from ABC, the CW, Netflix and soon more, I've come to a decision - I'm not going to watch anything and everything comic book related anymore.

There once was a time when I absolutely would. Gleefully. Hungrily. I'd devour comic book movies and TV show to support what used to be a very niche market, and the better of them I'd rewatch to help support putting better comic book fare in multimedia. In my teens, I watched the crappy Judge Dredd movie, then watched the far superior Dredd of a few years back several times. I've watched every Marvel movie for years, even before the MCU was an idea. I've watched every Batman and Superman movie for years, even when they were utter crap.

Now, here we are. For the most part, comic book movies are far better than they've ever been. They're not an afterthought to appease a rabid fanbase that just wants to see Spider-Man swing across a New York skyline, or mutants waging war with crazy superpowers. There's still some bad ones out there, but now they're the exception, not the rule. Video game movies still need to get there, but at least comic book movies have arrived. They're mainstream. They're everywhere, in movie theaters, on TV shows, and there's only going to be more.

So, yeah, given the glut of comic book adaptations making their way to screens big and small, I don't feel like I have to watch them all. I can choose which ones I want to put my money and time toward, to show support for the best of them as opposed to all of them. No more dragging myself through stories like Iron Fist just because I feel like I have to, a sentiment I've felt with the upcoming Inhumans show. I can watch The Flash without having to follow along with Arrow and not feel bad about it.

We'll see if others follow suit, and how comic book adaptations fare from that.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Mage Game Planning, or "I should probably figure out what my game is about, huh?"

Running a game isn't just a matter of having a rulebook, some players, and lots of dice. A good GM screen helps, too, amirite?

But seriously, it helps to know what sort of game you want to run, and what your players are interested in playing, before you start your first session.

Mage: The Ascension is a multi-layered Black Forest Cake of story possibilities, with several playable factions, diverse character concepts, and a multiverse of settings and time periods to use as the backdrop of a game. From gangs to gods, back alleys to alien worlds, and whatever else your imagination can conjure, Mage has you covered. Add to that the flood of rules, both standard and optional, provided in the 20th Anniversary Edition and you have everything you need to run any sort of game you could imagine. So, where does an enterprising Storyteller begin?

First, you should have some idea of what you're comfortable running. If all your players want to play Technocratic Union agents when you're more comfortable keeping the focus on the Nine Mystick Traditions, your game is going to have problems. Which factions are off-limits? Are you keeping things street-level, or going for more of an epic scope? Starting level characters, or more powerful characters? Are there any areas/powers that you would mark off-limits? Are there any game ideas that your players would prefer over others, or places they don't want to go in their games?

For my Mage game, I knew I wanted to run a chronicle firmly within the rules and setting established in the Mage 20th Anniversary rulebook. I also knew I wanted to use the wealth of Mage material I had collected over the years, and to introduce my players to both rules and game world gradually so as not to overwhelm the new players with everything at once. The ultimate goal, to give the game an ever-widening epic scope that the players could fall into easily, with each session pushing their characters deeper into events that would determine the fate of reality itself.

I was flexible as to faction - traditionally (heh), I've run games using the Traditions and the Disparates, but I've always wanted to run a Technocracy chronicle. I left that decision up to my players, some of whom were new to the idea of Mage, with these two options:

* M:tA - Traditions Ascendant: Mage is a game of urban fantasy, where magic is real and changes the fabric of reality itself. In Traditions Ascendant, you would play a mage of the Nine Mystick Traditions, sworn to keep the fire of ancient magic alive in a world growing increasingly tech-centric. Be careful how you work your will in public, though, lest you attract all the wrong sort of attention!
* M:tA - Technocracy Ascendant: As above, but instead of playing a Tradition mage, you would play a newly recruited agent of the Technocratic Union. The Technocracy has sworn to protect humanity from supernatural threats, and it'll take every ounce of your considerable will - not to mention advanced scientific Procedures - to get the job done. Just don't call what you do magic or you might end up on their list of Reality Deviants, too!

My players unanimously voted for the Traditions option, which helped to shape the direction of my epic game narrative. I opted for basic character creation rules, no merits or flaws to complicate things, and from there, it was just a matter of settling on a date for game.

I had my players, I had the general gist of the game I wanted to run, now it was time to flesh out more of those details with player characters! We'll delve into that in the next installment. Post any questions you might have below, or over at my chronicle thread on Shadownessence, and I'll be happy to address them all!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mage Pre-Planning, or "OK, I want to run a game, how do I do that?"

If you're a player of tabletop roleplaying games, chances are you've already got a head start on running a Mage: The Ascension game. You've got dice and pencils and character sheets and rulebooks, or at the very least access to them. You know what your ST, or Storyteller (AKA: GM, Game Master, DM, Dungeon Master, person running the game, etc.) does that you like, and you have some idea of what you might change if you were running the show.

Now, if you're totally new to TTRPGs, you have a bit more work ahead of you. Unless you're running your game over an app or service that offers digital tools to run a game - and there are several out there that offer things like a digital tabletop, voice and text chat, file sharing, die-rolling and more - you're going to want to stock up on dice and pencils and... yeah, the stuff I listed above, including the rulebook of the game you want to run. Your friendly local gaming store is just a Google search away, and those stores always welcome the business. Sure, you can find a lot of that stuff online, but I'm a big fan of supporting small businesses, and game stores are firmly in that category. Amazon isn't going to miss your dollars, I assure you.

As a side note, Mage will save you money in one area: Miniatures. Unlike D&D and its close cousins, buying and painting miniatures isn't a requirement, and neither is a battlemap for them. I know some people like that part of gaming, and I certainly have miniatures of my own that I use for my other gaming group, but Mage and its sister games are part of a ruleset that encourages more free-form gaming and doesn't want to bog players down in such rigid details as how many squares away is the bad guy and if you'll provoke an attack of opportunity from the minions around him. Having some indication of environment and clear descriptions of people and places does come in handy, though, and we'll get into that later.

So, you've got your dice, your pencils (only noobs use pen), your sheets, your books, what else do we need?

Oh, right, players!

If you're part of a gaming group, chances are good you'll be able to recruit them into your game. It's how I got my first players, by recruiting straight from my gaming group. I also recruited from friends who wanted to check out what this RPG thing was all about. Between fellow gamers and my own circle of friends, I had the beginnings of my very own gaming group. If you're OK with casting a wide net, you can usually put up a notice in your local gaming store informing other gamers that you're looking for players. Most gaming stores even have table space for running your session at the store, if you're not comfortable inviting strangers into your living room, and I've run game sessions in cafes before.

So, how does this translate to my own Mage game prep? Well, I've been at this gaming hobby for a while, so I already had dice and books aplenty, dating all the way back to Mage: The Ascension 1st Edition (and you can get just about every Mage book as a digital or print-on-demand copy from Drive Thru RPG). I wanted to game with people I already knew, so I tapped my gaming partners, as well as friends who I'd gamed with before and their significant others. Out of the 7 people I approached, 4 of them said yes. Not half bad! Since my players are scattered all over SoCal, I set up a Facebook group and Google calendar for coordination, and opted for Discord as our gaming medium.

Next we'll discuss deciding on what kind of game to run for your players, but if you have questions regarding the pre-planning stuff above, post them below or over at my chronicle thread on Shadownessence. I'll answer every question that comes my way!

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Introduction to Running Mage: The Ascension, or "I've got a GREAT idea!"

"Hey, it's been a while since I've run Mage: The Ascension, maybe I'll get a group together and run my favorite game!"

The above words are how it always starts. It begins with the idea of running a tabletop roleplaying game, and ideally ends with a great story told by friends who sat around that tabletop and shaped the narrative with their own characters. But how do you get from the idea to successfully running a game?

When you figure that secret out, let me know, I'd love to hear what it is.

Kidding, just kidding.

Truthfully, I started running TTRPGs shortly after discovering them. I started out, as many do, as a player in someone else's game. I sat there as a moody teenager with my bag of dice and pencil-marked character sheet and thought "You know what? I bet I could do what that person behind the cardboard gaming screen does. How hard can it be?"

Incidentally, anyone who asks that question, ironically or not, has absolutely no idea how hard it can actually be.

Like any skill, the more you run a game, the easier it gets. I started running Mage: The Ascension games in 1997, and wow, that was 2 decades ago and I wasn't prepared for that glimpse into my own age. Ahem. In that time, I've run games for groups of various sizes, from one-on-one adventures to a table of six. I've run for players who were completely new to TTRPGs as well as veteran roleplayers. I've also played in more RPGs than I can recall (good gods, I'm feeling my age tonight) so I know how it works on both sides of that cardboard screen.

Tabletop RPGs have seen a resurgence of late in popular media. A great many Kickstarter fundraisers have centered around games, even the Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition by Onyx Path Publishing. TTRPGs can be found streaming live on Twitch channels, not the least of which is Geek and Sundry's own Critical Role and the Star Trek-inspired Shield of Tomorrow. (Incidentally, the GM who runs SoT was one of my Mage players in L.A. for several years, and he makes an excellent Akashayana character.) With their uptick in popularity, folks may want to know how they can set up their own cardboard screen and start their own roleplay sessions, and I'm always happy to share what I know.

Since I recently started a new Mage game with new players (a brief overview of which can be found in this link to the Shadownessence forums), I'll use that as the primary focus for my advice. While most of what I've learned can be applied to any tabletop game, this will specifically address complications that arise in the course of running the Mage rules, of which there are so many that a new Mage Storyteller might feel overwhelmed. I'll give insight into the pre-planning of the game, making characters, starting the first session, and more. Expect some prose to give insight into the game itself, and maybe even a few "what if" scenarios to explore options that didn't happen, but could have. There might even be some crunchy house rules that you can use as-is or for inspiration to make your own house rules.

So, get comfy! We're about to explore one of the most complex but rewarding tabletop games out there - Mage: The Ascension!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Oh Hi There...

*knocks the dust off the blog*

'Bout time I posted in here again, eh? New blog series coming soon, and here's a teaser:

It's good to be back.