The Sun Is Out for Another Day

The accounting is difficult, particularly over a decade later and including crossover games, but I think I wound up running or playing in more sessions of Mage: the Ascension back in the day than any of the other World of Darkness line. Vampire is up there, given a particularly long Giovanni Chronicles run in college, and Changeling probably stands out as the game I’ve run most, but it’s hard to compete with Mage for player buy-in. Distilling all the narrative power of Hackers, The Matrix, Kiss of the Dragon, and more into a single RPG where you get to play modern-day wizards was pretty much like crack for a late-1990s gamer.

So when Harbinger started running the new WoD version, Mage: the Awakening, earlier this year, I was down. We’re nearly twenty sessions in at this point, and I’ve mostly reached the point where I’m not constantly wrong about my expectations about how a rule should work. Awakening is a pretty different game than Ascension, despite significant shared terminology and rules structure. A lot of the differences are in the setting, of course, as the game is clearly shooting for a low key mages in trenchcoats feel as advertised in the pre-1993 products, rather than the sometimes gonzo Matrix-esque battle of occult misfits vs. their technological overlords that was Ascension. But rules follow fiction pretty heavily in this edition, so the impact of the setting has had a pretty profound effect on the rules.

I’m a huge fan of Ascension, but I understand that it had its own problems. I’ll do my best to take off the rose colored lenses and give Awakening a fair shake. Will I succeed? I guess we’ll find out.

Core Mechanics

The very basic dice mechanic for new WoD is the same as old WoD: combine attribute and ability into a big fistful of dice and let fly. Then count dice that meet or exceed a target number and consider those successes. Use those successes to produce a result.

Most significant is that, like some of the older non-WoD games like the Aeon-verse, the dice go up against a fixed difficulty rather than the GM altering the target number based on the situation. For most of the older fixed-target games, that target was 7. For new WoD, it’s 8.

I didn’t really understand how much a normal DC of 6 had made on my old assumptions about White Wolf’s dice engine. A fixed difficulty of 8 makes a pretty profound difference in the probability of success. To wit, even without a “1s cancel successes” rule, even a big handful of dice is likely to roll few successes. You’re still statistically likely to get at least one success on 3-4 dice, but additional successes are more elusive. We have a common quote at the table: “look at all those 7s.”

This creates the first profound difference between old Mage and new Mage. In the previous game, at least the way I always saw it played, there was a huge meta game for spellcasting rolls of always trying to scrape together enough situational modifiers to lower the target to the minimum difficulty of 3. This was balanced by the fact that you usually weren’t going to be rolling many dice for your casting rolls. Awakening has to turn this on its head: the new mini-game is trying to roll as many dice as possible for an effect you want to succeed.

The dovetails directly into the next major mechanic difference between old and new WoD: dice penalties. Difficulty in the game is now only rarely a success threshold (because getting more than one success isn’t reliable even for large pools), and never a change to the target number (except maybe in extremely rare circumstances). Instead, difficulty is often in the form of a penalty to your dice pool (e.g., “-4 dice to try this because it’s hard”). This is another pretty significant change: dropping dice against a target number of 8 is far more likely to produce completely failure than raising difficulty to 9 or 10 ever could in old WoD: 10 dice still had a 90% chance of success against difficulty 9, but a steep enough die penalty can reduce an expert to unreliable pretty quickly.

Finally, the least significant but perhaps most exciting difference in the two dice engines is rolling 10s. In old WoD, you could often reroll 10s for extra successes on your best attributes or abilities. In the new system, every 10 explodes in this way. This is exciting when it happens, but does have the downside of making successes periodically very swingy. I’ve frequently seen two players roll for a task and the one with a lot of dice gets a success or two while the one with only a couple gets a series of 10s and lots of successes. Does the excitement balance the reduced predictability of the results? Probably, but mostly because I doubt there are many GMs banking on “he only has 5 dice, so he can only get 5 successes.”

Part 2