And I Say It’ll Be Alright

I wonder if my issues with Mage: the Awakening aren’t my issues with the new World of Darkness in general.

In the 90s, the game lines were almost explicitly about taking everything resembling a horror or occult mythos and tossing it into a big melting pot. Original Vampire had pretty obvious influences from every major piece of Vampire genre fiction out there, and you could conceivably run a game where Near Dark collided head first with Necroscope by way of the Lost Boys if you had such a mind. Changeling made splats out of any kind of humanoid creature that could remotely be associated with a myth or faerie tale. And Mage was built from a lot of genuine occult beliefs attached to a substructure of the 1990s zeitgeist. The old WoD was, in many ways, set up so that you could just roll in with whatever mythology, horror, and pop culture background you had and find something relatable to build a character around.

Because of this, though, the old WoD lines could be considered a little immature. Drawing from every source imaginable for your setting introduces thematic dissonance, and it was hard to tell a player that she wasn’t matching the intended feel of the game line when she was clearly basing her roleplay on the obvious source material for her splat. The new WoD games, in addition to trying to clean up some of the metaplot bloat of the old lines, seem to have had a less explicit goal of homogenizing the character types so they could actually be directed at a specific story and theme, rather than being a strange amalgam of pop culture. The new WoD games are much more consistent in tone and intended direction.

Unfortunately, though, to my mind that makes them a little boring. While there’s a lot of stuff in these games, it’s all uniform enough that none of it pops out. Old Mage was all like “whoa, crazy kung fu monks and weird shaman guys and mad scientists and magical hackers!” New Mage is more nuanced, and asks you to have a strong idea for a character or game to impose on the setting, rather than those ideas popping out at you. There may actually be a lot more things you can do in the new setting without all the cruft from a few dozen other media properties fighting with you on what you want to do, but the text itself isn’t very exciting.

The rules are the same way.

New Mage has rules for magic that are all about minor bonuses and gradual upgrades in power. There’s much more consistency across different power types, and they’ve gone out of their way to make each arcana useful in as many typical game situations as possible. There’s less of a sense of odd imbalance like Life 3 giving you a huge bag of tricks from healing, to the best attack in the game, to shapeshifting, to stat boosting while Time 3 mostly just lets you get a few extra actions. There are clear and gradual paths to improvement, and a lot of fun to be had in figuring out how to get a few more dice for a useful effect.

But they’re lacking in the excitement of old Mage. That was a game that really wanted you to figure out the handful of incredibly unbalanced things you could do and make use of them as often as you were willing to soak up the Paradox. The first time I ever saw old Mage in action was a con game that ended with the macguffin pile of deadly toxic waste getting transmuted to water like it was nothing. I’ve had players cover themselves in frictionless force fields to escape at high velocity down a skyscraper’s stairwell. I’ve used that same one-trick Time speed power to take out enemies by accelerating just their heads so the blood rushed out of their brains faster than it could rush in. You could probably do some of these wacky, immature, exciting things in new Mage, but the rules are tuned to support a much more sedate and serious setting, so they’d be fighting you at every turn.

Ultimately, new Mage is a perfectly workable rules set. It’s got a lot of warts, but there aren’t any really glaring flaws to make it unplayable. Its only real sin is probably just being based on an updated but still aging 1990s rules set while dumping the idiosyncratic charm that made that rules set fun. That is, there are a lot of modern game engines in which one could more easily run a consistently toned and subtle modern occult game, and it’s weird to have dropped the gonzo 1990s tone of the setting while keeping all the cruft of a 1990s rules engine. New Mage is completely serviceable, but that’s not really high praise for a successor to a game that still stirs the imagination a decade later.

But I have to admit I could easily be succumbing to nostalgia, and, if Mage: the Awakening was the game I had played first, maybe I’d be just as excited about that.