Magic Basics

For those that haven’t played old or new Mage, a brief primer: all spellcasting revolves around a collection of nine or ten conceptual groupings of magic (“Spheres” in old, “Arcana” in new). You raise these elements in a similar fashion to any other power group in WoD: by spending character points to fill in dots. The groupings are:

  • Correspondence/Space: Teleportation, scrying, and more strange manipulations of positions
  • Entropy/Fate & Death: Manipulating probability and decay (this is two arcana in new Mage, splitting Entropy in half and each gaining a few new tricks)
  • Forces: Manipulation of physics, particularly fire, cold, light, sound, and electricity
  • Life: Manipulation of biology, including transformations and healing
  • Mind: Anything having to do with mind reading or control
  • Matter: Manipulation of chemistry, letting you affect basically any non-living matter
  • Prime: Tricks to let you get more mileage out of the quintessence/mana resource of the game
  • Time: Speeding up time, precognition, postcognition, and trying to time travel if you’re really powerful
  • Spirit: Interacting with and summoning the spirit world (both nature spirits and ghosts in old Mage, but ghosts moved to Death in new)

These are conceptually sound, and basically survived intact through two revisions of old Mage and into the new edition. The important thing to consider is that they do strongly define how mages break down in specialization. The guy with Correspondence is going to scry and teleport all the time. The girl with Life is going to focus on buffing herself physically and healing. In typical WoD style, it will be a long time before you have a broad base of competency, so often the game breaks down to using your “hammer” of specialized magic type to turn your problems into nails.

The other major similarity across both editions is the idea of Paradox. Effectively, reality thinks magic is wrong, and punishes mages in various ways for using it in an obvious fashion. If you throw a fireball or teleport across town, you’re going to take Paradox as either damage or other nasty results. So you can’t go all out very often. Instead, magic is meant to be subtle (“coincidental” in old, “covert” in new): magic that would either go completely unnoticed or could be justified easily as something weird but possible.

While I’ll probably talk later about how there’s actually a pretty big difference in how the two editions handle this, the takeaway is that it sets a pretty strong limitation on player character behavior. Mages will spend a lot of their time doing research (sensory magic is usually totally fine) and building up subtle buffs, and may never get to flinging around fireballs unless things have gotten very dangerous. In either edition, a player that attempts to walk in and play a classic fantasy mage is going to quickly be beaten down by Paradox.

Rote Learning

Perhaps the biggest surprise transitioning to new Mage from old is the rotes. Old Mage always toyed around with the idea of a rote—a predefined “spell” that you could use more easily than making it up as you went—but the mechanical support for them was always somewhat incomplete. The thing was, the rules at their base level really wanted you to be coming up with crazy things to do with your magic on the fly, so you weren’t really punished in any way for doing so. You could say, “Hey, can I combine Life and Time to lock onto that guy and rewind to see where he’s been?” and if your GM bought it, you could do it. If you wound up doing that a lot, you might buy it as a rote and get a small bonus for using it, but the watchword was experimentation.

New Mage still allows this, but there are much more extensive breakdowns of what can be done at each level of each arcana, and they’re pre-packaged as rotes. Each of these often has a special case rule: this effect gives you armor equal to X for Y duration, that effect allows you to generate strength equal to X and dexterity equal to Y for concentration duration. In old Mage, the spheres would often give you several big ideas of what you could do, but they weren’t broken down with as much granularity and, more importantly, they generally referred you back to a single chart for things you could do with a given result (as far as damage, duration, range, targets, etc.).

It used to be a big learning curve for players to figure out how to interface with the system. Old Mage was daunting. The inclusion of extensive lists of predefined cool things you can do and exactly how you do them is almost certainly a boon to new players. I do wonder if it’s ultimately a limitation to experienced players, however: in old Mage, you could very quickly memorize the conceptual space available to your spheres and then you only needed the two page global chart to basically figure out the results for anything you wanted to do (and even that was pretty easy to remember for simple things). Nearly twenty sessions in with new Mage and we’re still having to look up the particular effect description to figure out how it works.

But what really bothers me about these rotes is that they’re very arbitrary. The proudest nail on that front is mana costs. Some rotes require you to spend mana to use them or allow you to spend mana for a special effect. Others are completely free. In almost every case, this seems to be purely a game balance decision without any real justification in the world fiction. Armor spells let you spend mana to raise the duration to a day so they can be fire and forget and you don’t have to work out the successes to duration chart. Invisibility requires you to spend mana to use it, even though every other effect at that level is free to use, probably because GMs don’t want their PCs to be invisible all the time. Fireballs are free (at least as often as you want to suck up the Paradox), even though in that case you’re actually creating energy such that spending mana might be justified.

Further, the rotes listed in the book use the arbitrary skill combinations that I disliked so much in Fading Suns and original Changeling: when you don’t have a rote written on your sheet, you just roll your arcana rating plus your Gnosis (your central magical “level” stat), but when you do have a rote you replace the Gnosis with an attribute plus ability. This attribute plus ability is usually very arbitrary: though they do try to make the ability one of the ones that is the specialty of the mystical order that invented the rote, each effect is seemingly randomly assigned to an order. Manipulating light has a rote combo used by group X, but manipulating sound (at the same level of Forces) uses group Y’s justification. And even if the ability is germane to the order, the attribute is almost completely arbitrary: one of the players in our group was annoyed that his magical archetype told him not to worry about mental attributes, but then all of the effects for that archetype’s favored arcana used mental attributes in their rotes.

Even if you happen to find a rote where the combo is something you’re decent at (or the GM is nice enough to let you find a custom rote that deliberately plays to your strength), the benefit is often marginal. Given that characters start with fairly limited points and spend the same experience pool on arcana, attributes, abilities, and rotes, but have a secondary experience pool that’s used to raise Gnosis, replacing Gnosis for an effect with an attribute plus ability is often going to be a fairly minor improvement unless it happens to be something you’ve focused on. With similar rates of increase between my normal and Gnosis exp, my character is very close to getting four dice from Gnosis, but still has only a small handful of attribute plus ability combinations that are better than four dice. So there’s a huge part of the game that I’m unlikely to interact with very much beyond the rotes I got as a bonus at character creation unless the GM keeps ignoring the book and letting us learn rotes tailored to our focus traits. Which isn’t really ideal.

Part 3