Welcome to Paradox
Earlier, I described this game as “Mages in Trenchcoats” with the intention that this game has a far lower gonzoness cap than old Mage. Superficially, it’s set up so starting characters don’t have access to the really exciting spells until quite a while into progression, and Paradox is easier to come by. The tone indicates that you’re meant to really try to keep all this stuff secret.
But then one might look more closely at the rules and realize that Highlander was big on trenchcoats, too: gonzo swordfights in trenchcoats. In particular, Paradox isn’t nearly as bad in this game as it was in old Mage. There are several ways to mitigate it outright (from magical tools to spending mana), and when you do take it you still have options. The first is to take it as backlash and soak up a couple of points of bashing damage; it can’t be healed with magic, but it will be gone on its own pretty quickly. IIRC, Paradox damage in old Mage lasted a lot longer. Even if you choose to let the Paradox flow into the world and cause havoc, it’s more on the order of cool special effects like electrical storms, temporary insanity to roleplay, and scary eyes than real drawbacks. For most characters, they only last for a scene. Eventually you start summoning antagonistic spirits, but the lower order effects aren’t actually that terrible.
So behind the surface caveat to avoid going vulgar whenever you can, because it will cause Paradox, there’s an actual realization that it probably won’t be too bad until you do it a lot. I’m not sure whether this is a case of the rules not supporting the intended feel of the game, or just the intended feel of the game being unclear from a superficial reading.
One Permanent Willpower
One thing the game does, just as an aside, that really bugs me is rely on “spend a permanent dot of Willpower” for anything that needs to be lasting. In particular, making a spell permanent or creating a magic item is based on this cost, as are other things like inducting apprentices into your magical legacy. This reminds me of the old joke from 2nd Edition D&D about the poor foolish wizard that used up all his permanent Constitution to make a bag of +1 sling stones: the enchant an item spell consumed a permanent resource there as well. Since restoring an expended Willpower is a fixed and fairly expensive experience cost, this system pretty much implicitly makes permanent items or effects not worth it unless they’re incredibly powerful. Cool little magical doo dads that perform one minor function can’t cost less to make than world-shaking items of power, so PCs are unlikely to fiddle with them. Which makes me sad.
Rituals, Durations, and Spell Limits
An area where new Mage has a pretty significant leg up on old is structure for non-instant casting. Old Mage likes to talk a lot about rituals, but I can’t recall much support for them since there wasn’t a real limitation against making an extended casting in regular combat rounds rather than over hours. The newer game has a fixed divide: if you want to make more than one roll toward a spell, you have to go to a ritual casting mode with some fixed timing (hours rather than seconds).
Even with the greater focus on the difficulty of a ritual, you could still build up a lot of successes with an extended casting. In particular, it’s not hard to make any spell with a base duration of a scene last a long time. To counter this, the game makes a big deal about how many active spells you can have at all, and how many buffs you can have on yourself before taking major penalties. To be fair, old Mage didn’t make having a lot of buffs nearly as attractive as new, but it was pretty easy to stack stuff up if you had a mind to, and that could have been troublesome. I still remember a rote concept of mine that I think would have been legal that would have allowed ritually building up a pretty obnoxious pool of aggravated damage blasts to be used at will. New Mage at least puts some structure on that kind of game breakage.
On reading back though the rulebook for these reviews, I have to admit that part of my problem with the game is just that there’s a lot of cool stuff that you may never notice if you don’t make a concentrated effort to read the book cover to cover again once you have a firm grasp on the basics. Old Mage, as I’ve noted before, had some teething pains for new players, particularly with grokking paradigms, but once you got over a few conceptual hurdles you’d have players operating at a pretty high effectiveness as far as being able to make full use of the available rules options. New Mage has a lot of cool stuff that’s just buried in the text. You can chant in the language of magic to make spells more potent. You can bind spells to sigils to make them last longer. You can weave spells together to cast a multi-purpose effect or have multiple minor buffs only count as one for spell limits. All of these are cool things that will probably drastically change how I interface with the game system now that I’ve found them, and they’re all mixed arbitrarily throughout a pretty dense rules chapter.
A large part of the problem is that the headings are in a hard-to-read cursive font in reflective bronze ink (and the sidebars are often in the same ink). But even were the text easy to read, the information is not at all organized well. There are several pages of charts for modifications to spells that are mostly a complete reprint (one’s for fast cast spells and one’s for rituals, but the only difference is that “drop 2 more dice” is replaced with “spend 1 more success” all the way across). Some things are called out in sidebars that break weirdly across pages. The spell effects listings are in three columns with minimal column breaks (the text wraps as it will for the most part).
If this game had been given to an editor and/or layout designer more focused on making a whole raft of fiddly but interesting rules easily accessible, rather than going for graphical style and dense prose, this could have been a better game. Even if it would have been technically the same game… layout is more important than a lot of people seem to realize.