Dresden’s Hogwarts: Magic


Part of the reason for my months-long hiatus from blogging was that I finally read enough Harry Potter fanfic that I went from “I could do this” to “I have to do this.” If you’d like to see more of my writing, on a more regular basis, the first book of a Dresden Files/Harry Potter crossover is now getting posted twice a week on fanfiction.net. Dresden winds up going to Hogwarts after his mentor’s death, instead of a farm in the Ozarks. Shenanigans ensue.

The interesting thing about crossover fanfic is using one work’s worldbuilding to shore up the other’s, and this is potentially useful for designing games as well. My goal for the series was to make as much of the magic style from Dresden Files be true as possible without explicitly contradicting the worldbuilding in Harry Potter. Since the worldbuilding in Harry Potter is diaphanous enough to ride an elephant through in a lot of places, this had the interesting result of shoring up the whole into what feels to me like a much more reasonable structure. So this could probably be a good way to round out a setting you’re running a game in, if the supporting fiction is too thin: find a somewhat compatible property and use it for inspiration to round out your world.

Interestingly, in creating a hybrid magic system, I also came across a potential way to wrap my head around how the traditions work together with incompatible paradigms in Mage: the Ascension.

Without further ado…

This is the summary of how magic works as Justin taught it to me and I explained it to the kids who came to my enchanting tutorials. Hogwarts doesn’t explain most of this unless you take arithmancy, and even then, some of the theory is lost in the practice.

Magic is, quite simply, imposing your wishes on reality. Those with access to the gift can want something impossible to happen badly enough that it happens. When a wizard is young, this “accidental magic” is the only way he knows to enact his gift. When a wizard is old and powerful, he can, likewise, merely think magic into being. In the middle, wizards are taught complicated practices to organize this into spells that they’ll eventually try to abandon. The difference between the untrained child and the ancient master is control over these wishes. Accidental magic doesn’t do exactly what you expect to happen when you want it, but a master can create magic, when needed, every single time.

The first question you need to ask to understand how the process of magical training works is: why are most spells in Latin?

The reason is because it keeps the magic separated from your speech. If magic spells were in English (or whatever modern language you speak), you’d risk accidentally casting them in normal conversation. The pathways of your brain that control the instinct to create the magic get trained by the wording of the spell. Hogwarts professors probably don’t work hard enough to get kids out of the habit of referring to spells by their incantation rather than their English name. One day, some kid is going to talk about the fire-making charm as “incendio” and accidentally set a friend of fire.

As I understand it, every culture with magic similarly uses a language that’s not frequently used for conversation as their language of incantations. The Romans used ancient Greek, Aramaic, or Etruscan. Non-Western wizards use outdated forms of their own local languages.

Of course, you can’t just say the Latin word for something and consider that a spell. The use of a meaningful word in Latin is useful, but that’s because even if you don’t really speak it, it does have a meaning that you can latch onto. “Incendio” is a word that more or less means “I set on fire.” You could probably make the magic work with a different series of sounds, but it would be harder to remember.

The most important thing is that “incendio” is four syllables, and arithmantically adds up to a 5-4-4-6 structure (i is the 9th letter plus n is the 14th, which adds up to 23 which combines down to 5). There’s no way I could effectively summarize the exact practicals of how that number adding works or why 5-4-4-6 is a similar numerical array to related spells. You’re either just going to have to take my word for it or commit to five years of arithmancy class. Essentially, any word that was close enough to a 5-4-4-6 cadence could be used as the incantation for the fire-making spell. Why are some incantations really bad Latin? Because the more correct Latin didn’t fit the arithmancy.

There’s a ton of math in figuring out an incantation, and that’s just half of a spell. The other half comes in using your focus.

At the simplest level, the foci that I use for my magic (staff, blasting rod, etc.) are limited to particular types of spell. Spells that create or change motion are fundamentally similar in their arithmancy, so I was able to fit a bunch of them into my staff, and I have to differentiate between them by the different incantations. Also, turning the staff into different types of gestures improves the spell (but I can get a weaker version by just holding it and yelling). I’ve embedded a spell matrix into the staff, which is a three-dimensional (some say a four-dimensional) shape that also defines its parameters. The arithmancy of the incantation hooks into the arithmancy of the matrix to basically create a momentary bubble of possibility for the wizard’s thoughts to fill with the magic.

It’s all extremely technical, which is why any Hogwarts student that skips arithmancy and ancient runes has pretty much no idea how it works. They’re training engineers, not scientists. Most wizards never need to know how their tools work.

A wand is the most complicated piece of technology that wizards have come up with. If my staff is an abacus, a wand is a mainframe computer. Both can help you add numbers, but the computer can do so much more but is so much harder to understand. In a tiny, concealable form factor, wandmakers create a focus that can allow you to perform any spell, theoretically up to the maximum possible power possible.

The first drawback is the finesse issue. For whatever reason, I and a lot of other wizards have a really hard time using wands. It’s some combination of conceptual and down to sheer manual dexterity (I have really long arms and that messes up the precise spell gestures). There are probably a ton of great wizards who leave wand-focused schools thinking they’re bad at it, because they just can’t figure out the only technology those schools teach.

The second drawback is compatibility. While every focus has some degree of resonance with the aura of its user, wands are 100% locked into it. I picked the materials for my staff because they worked for me, but it’s still extremely effective in any wizard’s hands. A wand that’s a poor match, however, may barely work at all.

It comes down to the secret technology of how they fit all those spell matrices into one focus. My suspicion is that the wand bonds to the wizard to basically turn his whole body into a completion of the matrix. A poorly-matched wand means all your matrices are malformed before you even start casting.

The third drawback is the gestures. Most of the matrix for a spell is in my staff so I can get away with just pointing. But a wand has to fit every possible spell in, which means it can only carry the most common arithmantic elements of all spells, and algorithms for transforming wand motion into the rest of the spell matrix. Why do you have to swish-and-flick to levitate something with a wand when I just have to gesture with my staff? That precise motion is finishing the matrix for the spell, which I’ve already fully encoded into my staff. Wand users have to get very good at training their muscle memory.

Ultimately, advanced users tend to start getting into magic without words or foci. Without the words, you have to create the spell in your head without the mnemonic aid triggering your brain. Without the focus, you have to fully visualize the matrix. Without either, you’re basically relying on your imagination to fully generate an extremely complex mental construct with no aids other than your own brainpower. You quickly find that using words and tools to train your unconscious mind to do the heavy lifting makes a big difference.

And, when it comes down to it, all of this is training your brain. Arithmantic correspondences and spell matrixes aren’t real. Non-Western traditions use completely different methods of structuring their magic. Western wizards use the structures they do because they’ve been codified and imbued with meaning, so it’s something your brain can latch onto. I’ve heard some people suggest that part of it is also a “universal unconscious” thing: if enough people with the power to make their wishes reality think that the letter A is equal to 1, then that becomes true. I’ll leave that up to the Department of Mysteries to weigh in on. All I know is that every bit of it is a mental construct.

You are a wizard. Your thoughts and desires can make impossible things happen. Every bit of magical praxis you’ve been taught is simply about making it easier to do what you want and harder to have accidents. It all comes down to: if you wish hard enough, you can change the world. Magic is just a set of tools to help you make the best wishes you can.

D&D 5e: Wizard School Courses


A friend suggested he was working on a Harry Potter-style D&D game, with the premise that each level 1-7 was a year of school (not unlike my own previous suggestion to start PCs at higher level). That got me thinking about how to set up a system for taking classes (the most thrilling challenge for any adventurer, I’m sure).

This is primarily meant for a game as described, where the first few levels are reframed as apprenticeship at a Wizard-only school, you level at the end of every school year, and academics feature heavily. But you could also use it in more standard games as a new downtime action for PC Wizards in a location with Wizards interested in training others (customizing for this is discussed more later).

The Coursework

Each course features four Wizard spells. Successful demonstration of each spell from the course is required at finals to get a top mark for the course (with progressively worse marks for being able to demonstrate fewer of the spells). Roughly at the 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, and finals sections of the course, you can make an ability check to learn a spell in the course’s sequence (it’s up to the GM whether they have to be learned in course order, with the more valuable spells later in the list, or whether the player can pick the order).

If you start already knowing one or more spells from the sequence, you obviously have more chances to learn the spells you don’t know yet (Hermione Granger carefully arranges her starting spells and free +2 spells per year to always go into new courses with at least one spell already known). At the GM’s option, each course might feature a related extra credit spell that you can get if you learn all four spells and still have a skill check left. Extra credit spells are likely to be spells from non-core books that you want to keep pretty rare but do want your PCs to have an opportunity to learn. For example, Hermione is taking Introductory Abjuration and already learned Mage Armor and Shield as part of her starting loadout (from reading all the books the summer before). She has four chances to learn the remaining two spells, and if she learns them with checks left over, she might have a shot at learning Snare as extra credit.

The difficulty of these checks should probably be 10+Spell Level, unless you want low grades to be more common.

The abilities and skills involved should be somewhat idiosyncratic and based on the teaching style of whatever instructor is teaching the course. Arcana should be the default, the other Int-based skills available to all Wizards (History, Investigation, and Religion) should also be very common. Other proficient or Int-based skills (Insight, Medicine, and Nature) should come up occasionally. The rest of the skills should only come up if you genuinely believe the player will be more amused than annoyed (likely as a joke that everyone winds up with one really hard course in their loads each semester, such as Basics of Motion being a PE course that uses Athletics).

So, for example, a first-year course catalog might look like:

  • Knowing Your Role:
    • Diviner Aleric provides a practical symposium on the basic spells that may be expected of the party’s Wizard.
    • (Arcana; Detect Magic (1), Alarm (1), Feather Fall (1), Sleep (1))
  • Making Friends and Influencing People:
    • Enchantress Bethany gives new students a crash course on social skills and their magical application.
    • (Insight; Unseen Servant (1), Comprehend Languages (1), Charm Person (1), Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1))
  • Introductory Divination:
    • Diviner Aleric provides instruction on the most basic of divination arts for the beginner.
    • (Arcana: Detect Magic (1), Identify (1), Comprehend Languages (1), Find Familiar (1))
  • Introductory Abjuration:
    • Abjurer Clio leads a symposium on how abjuration interacts with priestly magics, and which is stronger.
    • (Religion: Mage Armor (1), Protection from Evil and Good (1), Shield (1), False Life (1))
  • Basic Skullduggery:
    • Daveth the Trickster introduces students to the most common tricks of the underhanded, how to spot them, and how to use them.
    • (Investigation: Expeditious Retreat (1), Illusory Script (1), Charm Person (1), Disguise Self (1))
  • Introduction to Combat Magic:
    • Evoker Elisha will expect you to come prepared to manifest your will in the form of eldritch might!
    • (Arcana: Witch Bolt (1), Magic Missile (1), Chromatic Orb (1), Burning Hands (1))
  • Introduction to Area Effects:
    • Conjurer Franklin will introduce you to the great and storied history of magics that affect an area.
    • (History: Fog Cloud (1), Color Spray (1), Burning Hands (1), Thunderwave (1))
  • Basics of Motion:
    • Dame Gretal expects all students for this course to be in trousers instead of robes and warmed up before class begins.
    • (Athletics: Expeditious Retreat (1), Jump (1), Feather Fall (1), Longstrider (1))
  • Introductory Conjuration:
    • Conjurer Franklin explains the grand history of conjuration, with a particular focus on the life of Tenser.
    • (History: Unseen Servant (1), Tenser’s Floating Disk (1), Grease (1), Fog Cloud (1))
  • Applied Attack and Defense:
    • Evoker Elisha suggests that you take at least one of her classes! You will need them or they will laugh at you!
    • (Arcana: Detect Magic (1), Magic Missile (1), Shield (1), False Life (1))
  • Avoiding Combat:
    • Transmuter Harlowe demonstrates the bodily trauma involved in adventuring, why you should avoid it, and several mechanisms for doing so.
    • (Medicine: Silent Image (1), Fog Cloud (1), Disguise Self (1), Sleep (1))
  • You are Not a Bard:
    • Troubadour Isabel is willing to cross-train those interested in the shared arts, and learn how Bardic magic differs.
    • (Performance: Silent Image (1), Charm Person (1), Longstrider (1), Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1))
  • You are Not a Druid:
    • Jarek Moonblood will cross-train those interested in the intersection of Druidic and Wizardly magics.
    • (Nature: Detect Magic (1), Jump (1), Longstrider (1), Thunderwave (1))
  • You are Not a Warlock:
    • Kelline Winterbound believes that, if you can find her, she might tell you secrets that are useful to you. But there will be a price.
    • (Investigation: Illusory Script (1), Protection from Evil and Good (1), Comprehend Languages (1), Witch Bolt (1))
  • Introduction to Battlefield Control:
    • Abjurer Clio would like you to reflect on your dominance of the battlefield is like unto godliness.
    • (Religion: Ray of Sickness (1), Chromatic Orb (1), Color Spray (1), Thunderwave (1))

If you’re paying for the courses (either as part of fees for a school game, or for the downtime action in a regular game), the cost of the course should be around 25-50% less than scribing the spells individually (to compensate for chance of failure, increased time, and getting spells you might not want). School specialization should result in gaining Advantage on the roll to learn a spell, rather than half cost.

In a downtime action, the time spent should obviously be highly compressed, though still longer than just scribing the spells individually.

For a school game, each one obviously takes all semester, and maybe a whole year (depending on how many spells you want PCs to know). You should probably also have the skill checks spaced out between multiple courses, rather than rolling for every course in the load at the 25% sections; that way, you get a steady progression throughout the year when you’re not otherwise gaining levels.

Additional Suggested Courses Through 4th Level

Note that the distribution of spells is based on rarity across class lists. Spells that are Wizard-only only appear once in the courses, if they’re on 1-2 other class lists they appear twice, if they’re on 3-5 other lists they appear three times, and if they’re on 6+ other lists they appear four times.

  • Living Your Role: Mage Armor (1), Magic Weapon (2), Scorching Ray (2), Invisibility (2)
  • Surviving the Fight: Protection from Evil and Good (1), Blur (2), Spider Climb (2), Rope Trick (2)
  • Practical Divination: Identify (1), Darkvision (2), Locate Object (2), Detect Thoughts (2)
  • Introduction to Sanctums: Alarm (1), Continual Flame (2), Magic Mouth (2), Arcane Lock (2)
  • Practical Motion: Jump (1), Gust of Wind (2), Levitate (2), Shatter (2)
  • Practical Battlefield Control: Ray of Sickness (1), Blindness/Deafness (2), Crown of Madness (2), Hold Person (2)
  • The Cutting Edge of Arcana: Phantasmal Force (2), Cloud of Daggers (2), Crown of Madness (2), Misty Step (2)
  • Practical Skullduggery: Darkness (2), Alter Self (2), Invisibility (2), Knock (2)
  • Four Types of Pain: Scorching Ray (2), Cloud of Daggers (2), Melf’s Acid Arrow (2), Shatter (2)
  • Practical Illusion: Blur (2), Mirror Image (2), Invisibility (2), Blindness/Deafness (2)
  • Becoming the Primary Target: Ray of Enfeeblement (2), Flaming Sphere (2), Phantasmal Force (2), Suggestion (2)
  • You are Not a Cleric: Gentle Repose (2), Blindness/Deafness (2), Hold Person (2), Locate Object (2)
  • Of Light and Darkness: Darkvision (2), See Invisibility (2), Continual Flame (2), Darkness (2)
  • Practical Transmutation: Alter Self (2), Enlarge/Reduce (2), Magic Weapon (2), Knock (2)
  • Whispers of the Spider Queen: Darkvision (2), Spider Climb (2), Web (2), Suggestion (2)
  • Noun Preposition Noun: Cloud of Daggers (2), Crown of Madness (2), Glyph of Warding (3), Protection from Energy (3)
  • Disciple’s Enchantment: Detect Thoughts (2), Suggestion (2), Fear (3), Hypnotic Pattern (3)
  • Disciple’s Area Effects: Flaming Sphere (2), Shatter (2), Lightning Bolt (3), Fireball (3)
  • Disciple’s Control: Web (2), Hold Person (2), Slow (3), Stinking Cloud (3)
  • Four Weird Tricks: Magic Mouth (2), Blink (3), Major Image (3), Hypnotic Pattern (3)
  • Disciple’s Divination: See Invisibility (2), Locate Object (2), Tongues (3), Clairvoyance (3)
  • Air Magics: Gust of Wind (2), Gaseous Form (3), Sleet Storm (3), Fly (3)
  • Strength and Weakness: Enlarge/Reduce (2), Ray of Enfeeblement (2), Remove Curse (3), Bestow Curse (3)
  • Disciple’s Necromancy: Gentle Repose (2), Feign Death (3), Vampiric Touch (3), Animate Dead (3)
  • Disciple’s Motion: Levitate (2), Slow (3), Haste (3), Fly (3)
  • Disciple’s Illusion: Mirror Image (2), Nystul’s Magic Aura (2), Nondetection (3), Major Image (3)
  • Nope!: Misty Step (2), Dispel Magic (3), Remove Curse (3), Counterspell (3)
  • In Your Face!: Water Breathing (3), Stinking Cloud (3), Tongues (3), Sending (3)
  • Disciple’s Defenses: Dispel Magic (3), Magic Circle (3), Protection from Energy (3), Leomund’s Tiny Hut (3)
  • Special Topics: Scry and Fry: Nondetection (3), Clairvoyance (3), Fireball (3), Haste (3)
  • Disciple’s Abjuration: Magic Circle (3), Glyph of Warding (3), Remove Curse (3), Protection from Energy (3)
  • Special Topics: Verb Nouns: Dispel Magic (3), Bestow Curse (3), Feign Death (3), Animate Dead (3)
  • Special Topics: Adjective Nouns: Phantom Steed (3), Gaseous Form (3), Hypnotic Pattern (3), Vampiric Touch (3)
  • Special Topics: Single-Word Names: Fear (3), Blink (3), Sending (3), Tongues (3)
  • Finding Things and Getting There: Clairvoyance (3), Locate Creature (4), Dimension Door (4), Arcane Eye (4)
  • Adept’s Abjuration: Magic Circle (3), Counterspell (3), Banishment (4), Mordenkainen’s Private Sanctum (4)
  • Four Bad Things Done Well: Fear (3), Confusion (4), Blight (4), Banishment (4)
  • Adept’s Transmutation: Water Breathing (3), Polymorph (4), Stoneskin (4), Control Water (4)
  • Special Topics: Faking Your Own Death: Feign Death (3), Water Breathing (3), Dimension Door (4), Polymorph (4)
  • Direct vs. Secondhand Violence: Lightning Bolt (3), Blight (4), Locate Creature (4), Conjure Minor Elementals (4)
  • Adept’s Illusion: Major Image (3), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Greater Invisibility (4), Phantasmal Killer (4)
  • Fire and Ice: Sleet Storm (3), Ice Storm (4), Wall of Fire (4), Fire Shield (4)
  • Stone Magics: Fabricate (4), Stone Shape (4), Stoneskin (4), Conjure Minor Elementals (4)
  • Special Topics: Terrain Control: Leomund’s Tiny Hut (3), Ice Storm (4), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Wall of Fire (4)
  • The History of Four Great Wizards: Mordenkainen’s Faithful Hound (4), Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere (4), Leomund’s Secret Chest (4), Evard’s Black Tentacles (4)
  • Putting Your Enemies Off Balance: Dispel Magic (3), Hallucinatory Terrain (4), Polymorph (4), Confusion (4)

Alternate Vampire: Sorcerers

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Continuing from last week, for Mages, I stuck closer to the canon splats, but the whole idea of Paradox, consensual reality, and all the normal magely threats seemed like too much baggage for a Vampire game. Instead, I gave them the simpler problem of whether to pursue safe magic that’s incredibly slow to learn, or quick power that’s dangerous as hell. That created some ideas for how to realign the Traditions.

Occult 0

There are a number of mortals that can manipulate supernatural forces via various mystical traditions. Some of them are powerful enough to battle a Kindred head-to-head, particularly if given time to prepare ritual magic. It is uncertain how many are present in Atlanta, as the term “Arcane” originates with the Wise.

While there are no specific accords with magi in the city, they tend to leave Kindred alone if left alone and claim little territory that the Camarilla is interested in. Kindred of the city are not barred from antagonizing them if the situation demands it, but should avoid doing so for the safety of others if at all possible. Many sorcerers seem content to be left alone to research, but leap into action to burn to ash any clear and present threats to their security.

When in doubt, contact the Tremere to investigate further (a boon will be owed).

Occult 1

The ability to perform magic is actually surprisingly common. Not just the charms peddled in the mall bookstore’s New Age section, but acts that would make even the most hardened skeptic admit something strange was happening.

The problem is, you have to have real skill to reliably, repeatably perform these actions. Any kid with a spell can sometimes get a result on Samhain at midnight in a graveyard using inherited candles and a real Latin incantation. Sometimes. And half the time, it’s more dangerous than was intended.

So, yeah, magic’s not really a secret. It’s just the people that can do it reliably don’t like to advertise. Too many rival groups might try to co-opt them, and too many impressionable kids might try to copy them and screw it up.

Occult 2

There are two paths to magic: the easy way and the hard way.

The hard way requires decades of study. It’s the historical wizarding traditions you see in all the fiction: you might apprentice for seven years before you cast your first spell. But it’s safe power. You’re going to be the most terrifying elderly person on the planet.

The easy way is to make a deal for power. Otherworldly entities and the things that go bump in the night love to offer you abilities beyond your wildest dreams. A lot of times, the price is obviously too high. But some things don’t ask for outright supernaturally enforced obedience and corruption, they just shove years of magic right into your brain. Even if you didn’t owe (and you do), the spells aren’t really yours in the same way they would be if you’d practiced for years. You’re bound to screw them up magnificently in a pinch.

So if you see a kid claiming to be able to do magic, stay away: she’s a danger to herself and everyone around her. If you see an old person claiming the same thing, run. If she’s on the level, you’re screwed.

Occult 3

Why don’t wizards make themselves more well known, other than just general self-protection?

Magic, when it comes down to it, is arcane: it works best when done in secret. A powerful sorcerer in the country in the middle of the night with only his victim to see him can work terrible magics indeed. The same spell is virtually meaningless in the middle of the city at noon with hundreds of watchers.

Nobody really knows why this would be the case, other than it just feels right, and feel is very important to magic. Places where your intuition tells you the walls of reality are thin are the places where wondrous things can happen. So if you’re being pursued by a sorcerer, get to somewhere brightly lit and populated as soon as you can.

Of course, if it’s a wizard skilled enough to curse you from a little dark shop across town… well, people collapsing mysteriously in a crowd is tragic, but it’s not exactly weird…

Occult 4

All scholarly traditions of magic are directly linked to the Hermetics: it all shares a unifying series of praxis. The practitioners of these traditions might not get along, but they can learn from one another to a large extent if they do.

There are several broad types of shamanic traditions that are much less closely linked:

  • Those who speak to the spirits of nature and dreams
  • Those that learn from the spirits of the dead
  • Those that reach to spirits of the body and soul
  • Those that take inspiration from the intelligences of the astral plane

Occult 5

There are five houses of Hermes:

  • Akasha: Eastern wizards that merge martial art and magic
  • Celestine: Catholic wizards that see magic as part of the divine
  • Flambeau: Wizards that fit the expected pop culture stereotypes
  • Thig: Modern wizards using computers to aid in mystical calculations
  • Vervaine: “Hedge wizards” that master magic mixed with naturalism

GM Notes

Sorcery is dominated by two methodologies, the practice of which is not compatible and the practitioners of which don’t really get along:

  • Hermetic Traditions follow a slow and hierarchical path of discovery about the self and the world. They pick up magic very gradually, but minimize risk and can reach a quite powerful old age.
  • Shamanic/Warlock Traditions bargain directly with spirits and other beings for power. They are typically solitary or in small groups, each with a very different style. They tend to become powerful quickly and then die young as their bargains catch up to them.

Hermetic Traditions

  • House Akasha (Akashic Brotherhood): Representing much of the Eastern thought that incorporated Hermeticism, this group tends to be blend rituals with martial arts. They thrive on enchanted equipment and even spelled tattoos. Flashier magic tends to focus on scrolls and herbalism.
  • House Celestine (Celestial Chorus): A splinter of the tradition that went very religious in antiquity, they house most of the Catholic mystics within the orders. They like to hide their workings in Christian trappings, chanting spells, using Bible codes, and the like.
  • House Flambeau (Order of Hermes): A collection of elementalists, these sorcerers tend to be the most like the common conception of a wizard. They have no particular agenda other than attempting to amass the most possible mystic power within their lifetimes.
  • House Thig (Virtual Adepts): A recent splinter of several of the other houses, this group seeks to use computers to speed up a lot of the long calculations inherent in the art. Since this involves a lot of time around these devices, they’ve also begun experiments using the Internet and other telecommunication to send spells all over the world.
  • House Vervaine (Verbena): Sometimes called “hedge wizards,” this group tries to live in harmony with nature and invest their magics in gardens and preserves. Unlike traditional witches, they command spirits rather than the other way around, spending years working at their arts. They have the best magics of healing of any group.

Shamanic Traditions

  • Cult of Ecstasy: A loose term for Tantric and other hedonistic paths that consider pursuit of Ananda/Bliss to be the foremost goal of a sorcerer. They tend to pursue magics to alter and affect the human form and manipulate the perception of and actual flow of time.
  • Dreamspeakers: A vaguely derogatory term for a vast swath of dissimilar native shamanic traditions. They are becoming increasingly marginalized over time. They tend to be the best at actually controlling spirits rather than being controlled by them, and manipulating magical energies.
  • Euthanatos: A catchall for death cultists in all their stripes, most of these serve ghosts: either to gain power from them, or help them move on. They are the best at energies surrounding death and fate, and often deft hands at manipulating minds and spaces.
  • Sons of Ether: Inheritors of the tradition of the muse, these are largely secular humanists that attempt to channel extraplanar genius into their works. Rarely flashy, they instead tend to have a tremendous collection of holdouts and enhanced equipment.

The Fire-Drinker

Player Notes

“And on to general warnings for this Elysium… It has been brought to my attention that Devin recently had her work to gather influence in the local churches stopped by a local pastor. His name is Benjamin Crow, and he preaches in a Pentecostal church up somewhere in Marietta. He apparently drinks fire as an alternative to snake handling; our research into his background reveals that he was in a carnival before getting religion in World War II, so it’s likely just a trick. More importantly, Basil’s investigation of the man turned up a strong feeling of True Faith, including possibly the ability to sense the presence of Kindred.

“Until we know what we’re dealing with, Kindred of the city are not, under any circumstances, to engage with Pastor Crow. It’s entirely likely that he’s just a clever old preacher who noticed some irregularities with his friends in the business, but the Faith would make it dangerous to risk a confrontation. He’s old and has so far only been a nuisance, so it’s best to just wait him out. If you do catch wind of his involvement in any other Kindred business, inform your primogen or me immediately.”

GM Notes

Benjamin Crow was born in 1922 and may be an illegitimate son of Aleister Crowley. He was raised in a carnival, and had become an expert entertainer by the time he was 18, specializing in fire-eating. He fought in WWII, where he came to the attention of the Order of Hermes. Initially apprenticed in Flambeau, his religious convictions led him to House Celestine.

Now 70 (but barely looks 60), he had retired to Marietta to simply preach to a small, pentecostal church. However, he quickly began to pick up that Atlanta was a hotbed of supernatural problems, particularly from the Cainites. While he’s wise enough to not begin any encounter by throwing fireballs, they’re never far from his fingers and he’s largely convinced that Cainites are better off being burned in celestial fire to free them from their unholy existence.

He’s been quietly working to try to find and destroy Kindred influence in the city, particularly over religious leaders. He managed to completely stymie Devin’s takeover of the Methodist convention, and she’s now aware of his involvement, and he’s learned enough about Anna to be worried. He’s gotten word of Niki, and is saving her as a potential ally if he requires one, as she seems to have no interest in religious institutions.

Most Physical Rolls: 3 (6 if given time to prepare)
Most Social Rolls: 8 to persuade, 6 to lie
Most Mental Rolls: 7

Has Stamina 3 and, unless completely caught off guard has, 5 points of Forces armor. Is old, so first health level is permanently lost.

Prefers to use what is effectively Forces/Prime to attack with 4 dice in public up to 10 dice at the heart of his power or at other significant mystical location/event. This is often a celestial fire attack (aggravated damage) coupled with flight and invisibility for mobility.

Has True Faith.

The Gunsmith

Player Notes

“In other news, we’re pleased to note that Silas tracked down and dealt with the source of incendiary bullets that some of you were reporting. If you hear of any more, let one of us know.”

Dear Mr. Powers,

I heard about you on several technologist BBSes. For various reasons I am unable to travel out of the South to look for venture capital. I know what I am offering is not exactly your standard investment, but I hope you will at least consider funding my research.

I have enclosed a simple example of what I can do. It is a .30-06 Springfield rifle cartridge. I have replaced the standard load with a heat seeking explosive round. It should attempt to tumble toward the center of mass of the heat source within two degrees of its firing direction to compensate for movement or poor aim.

If you like the sample and would like to talk about funding, please contact me at the attached pager number and I’ll call to set up a meeting.


A Local Inventor

GM Notes

Elaine Brown (b 1976) is a 16 year old Son (Daughter) of Ether whose muse has brought her a lot of skill in designing weapons. She works after school for her cousin, Al Brown, who runs a gun store in Druid Hills. His shop has become renowned for its variety of custom rounds. By night, she invents a wide variety of munitions and automated weapon systems, as well as miscellaneous tech that strikes her fancy, a large number of which only work for her.

Her more mundane loadouts included some experiments with incendiary and wood rounds that came to Kindred attention. At Joseph’s urging, Silas got in contact (though she dealt with him via an armed, voice-altering remote drone) and offered to fund her work in exchange for avoiding selling certain types of weapon to the general public (and alerting him if anyone else requested the work).

The first one to look for such things was Anna, a few days later, working on her own to try to make a deal; Elaine saw her off with shots and Anna probably wants payback. Meanwhile, Burdell is more surreptitiously asking around and trying to find her actual workshop. If this keeps up, it might quickly ruin the deal with the Prince and turn Elaine into a heavily armed threat for the Kindred of the city.

She might be interested in trying to get some alternate startup funding from Maxwell…

Most Physical Rolls: 4 dice (6 if given time to invent something to help)
Most Social Rolls: 5 dice
Most Mental Rolls: 8 dice

Stamina 3, Armor 3 (microweave body armor with reactive force fields)

Attack: Various guns with 7 dice and special loadouts (likely doing agg damage) as well as potentially two or three other 6 die attacks from automated drones.

The Danforth Archive

Player Notes (General)

From The Who’s Who of Amazing Stories published in 1981:

Danforth, Alexandria – While most likely a pseudonym, the name Alexandria Danforth is remembered for inspiring several pulp and sci-fi novels in the 1950s.

The woman herself appears as a footnote in the World War II history of MI5. While her background with the agency was not recorded, it is most likely that she was a maths teacher brought in to help with what would eventually become the Ultra project to decrypt Axis communications.

She is recorded as having a stubborn belief in the “universal unconscious” and a specific theory that any plan committed to paper, especially if of sufficient “weight” to the course of history, would be imprinted on this unconscious. She agitated for resources to develop a machine that could access this information and, thus, copy Axis plans “from thin air.” Her superiors found this theory to be “the worst kind of mystical hoodoo” and never funded or even encouraged pursuit of the theory.

The idea did come to light after the war, and became a common trope in several short story magazines of the next two decades. Danforth was not heard from again after the war, and her fate is uncertain.

(Specific PCs)

A few months ago, your sire had you go dumpster diving for shredded documents at a few tech and financial firms. You’ve been meticulously reassembling them, and she’s been very pleased when you get her a list of bank data or passwords. Recently, one of the documents turned out to be a dot-matrix wireframe blueprint with the caption “Original Plans, Temple of Zeus?” and the page header “Danforth Test 5.” Unfortunately, it could have come from one of several dumpsters you hit in your original search…

A few years ago, “The Danforth Deconstruction” began to circulate as an interesting variation of the Traveling Salesman problem among computer scientists. They are thought exercises revolving around the most efficient way to search a non-indexed database for fuzzy search terms. The common theory on the BBSes discussing the problem is that someone’s gotten access to a mass of scanned and badly OCRed data that they need to sort through quickly.

GM Notes

Alexandria Danforth was an apprentice of House Bonisagus before being drafted for the war, and returned to her training afterwards. Her quest to apply modern technology to the problems of magic was instrumental in reforming the tradition as House Thig. While she disappeared even to her own house in the 1970s, she left behind copious notes. As computer processing power has increased, the house has come up with prototype systems that can access what they have come to refer to as The Danforth Archive.

Unfortunately, information appears to be stored by an unintuitive format that pays more attention to the date of creation and emotional state of the creator of documents than any more searchable type of order. Documents appear easier to find the older and more important they are and may only appear if they’ve been subsequently destroyed. Thus the operators of the device are having a tremendously hard time producing anything of value, or, more importantly, even verifying that what they’re finding is genuine archaeological data or some kind of obscure wish-fulfillment of the operators (always a problem in psychosciences).

Thus, House Thig is discussing trying to make peaceful contact with a Cainite of sufficient age and reasonable disposition that could point them at a plan created in the past and verify its accuracy when retrieved.

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Conclusion

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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.

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 3


Miscellaneous Rules

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.


System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 2

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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

System Review: Mage: the Awakening, Part 1

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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

Don’t Waste Your Tass


This is Mage: the Ascension converted to Don’t Rest Your Head, as inspired by Fred’s recent post about hacking DRYH. You could probably run Mage: the Awakening with it by changing a few trait names and groups. Familiarity with both DRYH and Mage will probably make this make more sense.


Player characters have three major traits:

  • Arete: The sum of a mage’s fully controlled magical potency, Arete is a fixed pool that rarely changes in the course of an adventure (though it might increase over time). It is also a good reference for the character’s skill at mundane activities, so will generally be rolled for everything. It is very similar to Discipline in standard DRYH. When Arete dominates, the player may reduce Resonance by one die or remove a Paradox check as her mage masters reality sufficiently to undo previous mistakes.
  • Resonance: As a mage bends reality, his or her changes tend to build up a mystical “tone” that makes further changes to reality both easier, and more dangerous. Reality, already bending, is easier to adjust, and this spills over even to mundane activities (just like Arete, Resonance is rolled for everything). It is very similar to Exhaustion. A mage can voluntarily take on one die of Resonance each roll. Additionally, if Resonance dominates, she must take on an extra die of Resonance as reality gets strange. If Resonance exceeds six dice, the mage experiences a Quiet. The higher a mage’s Resonance, the more likely other supernatural beings will be to notice and identify her.
  • Vulgarity: When casting magic, a mage often has a choice of how coincidental or vulgar to make the effect. The more vulgar the effect, the more power the mage can usually unleash. Thus, the more vulgar the effect, the more Vulgarity dice can be added (up to six). It is very similar to Madness. GMs should attempt to come up with a way for any effect to work as coincidental if the player wants it to; for example, a coincidental teleportation may somehow arrange for an available taxi cab and clear traffic (though going vulgar would obviously be faster). If Vulgarity dominates, the mage suffers Paradox as described below.

Each mage has a Tradition, with an associated Skill. The Skill works identically to the Exhaustion talent in DRYH, setting success to a minimum of Resonance and allowing the player to take on an additional die of Resonance to instead add total Resonance as bonus successes.

  • Akashic Brotherhood: Do (acrobatics, meditation, and combat involving martial arts or melee weapons)
  • Celestial Chorus: Song (any voice-based interaction, including intimidation, negotiation, commands, etc.)
  • Cult of Ecstasy: Cool (any interaction about knowing useful people, getting by via being interesting, or playing music)
  • Dreamspeakers: Wisdom (any interaction with spirits and surviving in and navigating in the wilderness or Umbra)
  • Euthanatos: Death (stealth, guns, and any combat where killing the opponent is a primary goal)
  • Order of Hermes: Knowledge (ritualized magic, book learning and research, and dealing with spiritual or supernatural politics)
  • Sons of Ether: Science! (making or understanding most things relevant to physics, chemistry, biology, etc.)
  • Verbena: Myth (any interaction with bygone beasts or physical supernatural beings like vampires, werewolves, and fae)
  • Virtual Adepts: Hacking (any interaction with, mediated by, or greatly assisted by a computer system)

Additionally, each mage has at least one Hobby which is a more limited Skill that is specific to the character’s background (effectively, any one skill off the normal Mage skill lists).

All mages have ratings in Spheres (Correspondence, Entropy, Forces, Life, Mind, Matter, Prime, Spirit, Time) which define what kind of effects they can produce. See the Mage rules for what is available at each Sphere level (Spheres are not simplified over regular Mage to make magical advancement a major element of long term play).

A mage that must take on more than six Resonance dice instead enters Quiet. The mage will typically snap, automatically solving whatever problem she was currently facing with some overwhelmingly vulgar magic (that somehow avoids Paradox), and then leave the scene to cause mad havoc across the city for a while until finally calming down (and dropping all non-permanent Resonance dice). Henceforth, one Arete die is permanently replaced with a Resonance die (which still counts against the limit of six). A mage that runs out of Arete in this way (or a master that gets a seventh permanent Resonance die) becomes a Marauder and is permanently insane and stuck in her own mad vision of reality.

Whenever Vulgarity dominates, the mage takes Paradox. A mage can suffer up to Arete in Paradox (check off a box). Whenever a Paradox box is checked, the player must decide on Feedback or Fallout. With Feedback, the mage suffers damage from the wracking Paradox and might come away with some kind of Paradox Flaw; she is incapacitated by the pain and unable to contribute meaningfully for the rest of the scene, but is not totally helpless. With Fallout, the Paradox instead has bizarre, unpredictable, and often horrific effects on the environment and bystanders (the GM is not expected to be kind), and the GM gains another Echoes die, but the mage is otherwise unharmed and able to keep contributing. If the mage suffers Paradox and has no remaining boxes to be checked, she is spirited away (either claimed by a literal Paradox Spirit or by a nearby Technocratic reality police squad). She may be returned later with lingering side effects determined by the GM.

All mages can use Tass to alleviate Paradox and Resonance (one spent Tass removes one die of Resonance or one check of Paradox). Tass comes from nodes or from other useful confluences of Quintessence. The GM is encouraged to give players Tass as a reward for accomplishments and to track it as tokens.

Making a Character

Answer these questions:

  • What is your name?
  • What happened to make you Awaken?
  • Why did you pick your Tradition?
  • How are you at odds with your Tradition?
  • What is your Avatar and your path to Ascension?
  • What just happened to you?

Fill out the following stats:

  • Take 3 Arete (and, consequently, 3 empty Paradox boxes)
  • Write your Tradition and its associated Skill
  • Pick one Hobby
  • Assign Spheres:
    • Take one rank in your Tradition Sphere:
      • Akashic Brotherhood: Mind
      • Celestial Chorus: Prime
      • Cult of Ecstasy: Time
      • Dreamspeakers: Spirit
      • Euthanatos: Entropy
      • Order of Hermes: Forces
      • Sons of Ether: Matter
      • Verbena: Life
      • Virtual Adepts: Correspondence
    • Assign five more ranks to Spheres (to a maximum of Arete in any Sphere)

The GM can award ranks of Arete, additional ranks of Spheres (to a maximum of Arete), and additional Hobbies as character advancement in long term play.

Here is a character sheet (Big Photoshop Editable Version or Small File Version).

GM Dice

Instead of one pool of Pain, the GM constructs challenges out of the following pools (any of which can independently Dominate):

  • As players use magic, Echoes begin to build. Echoes represent reality attempting to snap back and correct the deformations made by the mages. Add one Echoes die every time a player wins a challenge using magic and gets more successes than the current Echoes pool (e.g., if there are currently 2 Echoes dice being rolled, and the player wins with 5 successes, Echoes is now 3). Always roll Echoes against the players; things get consistently harder in general the more magic they use. When Echoes dominates, some mundane detail that they thought they’d accounted for or had taken for granted pops back up to cause a major complication. Reduce Echoes by one die whenever it dominates, and it also can slowly fade over time (one per hour or scene where no magic is used).
  • Whenever facing agents of the Technocracy or other challenges that represent the government, bureaucracy, or other mundane order of the world, roll Stasis dice (1 for a minor problem up to 6 for a major opposing Technocrat or large opposing force). When Stasis dominates, the local environs have become a little more influenced by the Technocratic paradigm: security gets harder, citizens phone 911 sooner, and issues require more forms and paperwork.
  • Whenever facing Nephandi, evil spirits and supernaturals, or mundane challenges inspired by moral decay, roll Corruption dice (same scale as Stasis). When Corruption dominates, the local environment is infected by apathy and malign supernatural forces: casual violence and crime gets worse, local denizens and wildlife are more likely to attack the characters, and progress is more likely to require bribery.
  • Whenever facing Marauders, natural or otherwise capricious spirits or supernaturals, or mundane challenges inspired by chaos or insanity, roll Madness dice (same scale as Stasis). When Madness dominates, things get a little crazy: bizarre and unfortunate coincidences happen with greater regularity, poltergeists and other capricious spirits have easier access to the world, and people are more likely to go mad.

The GM can mix and match the dice if it makes sense for the challenge. A corrupt politician might be Stasis and Corruption dice, an evil natural spirit might be Corruption and Madness dice, and an overly complicated and arbitrary bureaucracy might be Madness and Stasis dice.

Mage: the Ascension Short Paradigms

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Some friends have been badgering me to run Mage, not that I have the time. But it did remind me that I’ve never been totally happy with some of the Traditions’ paradigms. Or, rather, that some traditions are long on “stuff they do” and short on “why they think that works.” Dreamspeakers, Euthanatos, and Virtual Adepts have always been major offenders. Even the excellent Ascension Campaign 2000 got trapped into explaining more about why Euthanatos kill people than why they think magic works. So, here are my ideas in as short a form as possible. I think all of these are generally in line with the canon splats, but may err on the side of boiling complex mystical beliefs down to something that can be explained to a new player.

Akashic Brotherhood

Do is the way and the way is Do. The world is full of chi and your body is the richest source of it. Knowing ourselves, we can order our minds. Ordering our minds, we can direct our chi. Directing our chi, we can command our form. Commanding our form, we can control our environment. Controlling our environment, we can change our world.

The smallest thought, from the mind of a being in harmony with himself and the world can change everything. By practicing the forms of Do, we bring mind, soul, body, and chi into the harmony required to make our own reality.

Celestial Chorus

Reality is the symphony of the creator. Everything is a note in its song. Some of those notes can make music of their own, creating an infinitely varied score of the cosmos itself. Yet infinite variety brings the risk of discord and dissonance. Some of the notes are wrong, and they infect the rest of the symphony with their flaws.

We have been given the gift of singing in a voice that resonates with the symphony. We can use our powers to try to fix the discord and elevate the song back to the beautiful state envisioned by its first singer.

Cult of Ecstasy

Reality has a heartbeat. We call it Ananda, the pulse of the world, but you could call it Bliss. If you can hear it and you can feel it, you can change it. We have heartbeats of our own. If you can match your own pulse to the world’s, you can impose your intentions on your reality.

If you know how to look for the pulse, there are a number of ways to meet it. The best are found in ecstasy: moments of perfect intimacy, altered and elevated states, and strains of pure music. Or, if you’re bound to be glib, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.


What we call reality is the dream of spirits. There are many worlds that border ours. This is fact. Many believe that our world is what is real, and those others are our reflection. This is wrong. These worlds are full not just of waking spirits, but of sleeping ones. Their dreams blend together and make this world.

Many know that a spirit may be roused to use its abilities in our world, and it can accomplish many things. But the wisest of men learns to subtly speak to the sleeping ones, changing their dreams and, thus, changing our perception of “real.”


Reality is a wheel. Everything turns, powered by the rush of new creation being purified and flowing into Oblivion. Entropy is progress: things that are destroyed merely have their potential released to flow up or down according to their accomplishment while extant. The only bad death is stasis; if things never change, the wheel ceases to turn.

The awake can harness the flow of change. The nearer and greater the change, the easier its motion can be used to turn our own workings. And so we make things happen, and liberate what we can from the flow to ensure that we can remove its obstructions.

Order of Hermes

The cosmos is built on rules. They are not simple to understand. They are the politics of gods and spirits, the correspondences between things that were once one, and the contagion of changes propagating throughout their spheres. Everything we think of as real is the consequence of aeons of accretion from this beautiful morass.

Any can learn some of these rules and to bend them, but only the awake have the intuition to perceive them and the will to force them to change. We are the legates of reality: first you learn the law, then you learn to use it, and then you learn to break it.

Sons of Ether

Reality is weird. Through Science! we can learn how it works. That’s not science, with the lowercase, mind you. Ours still uses the real scientific method, the one you were taught in school but not the one the Technocracy imposes (where they quietly keep sleeper scientists from asking the really interesting questions).

An awakened scientist gains an intuition for staying just inside the line between genius and madness. We discover truths that your secret masters have deemed too difficult. And then we use those theories to make tech that you couldn’t even dream of. But you will.


Reality is alive. There is a good reason why many great religions come back to a tree: everything that is has grown from what was. If left alone, reality would be a vast and amazing forest, full of wonders. But it has not been left alone, and the best parts of it have been wounded and left to die to make way for the desires of the few.

Those who awake to the nature of the world can learn to prune reality’s growth, direct it into new shapes, and even change it on a fundamental level. Blood calls to blood as life calls to life, and we use these truths to tend the garden.

Virtual Adepts

The first thing you need to know about reality is that it’s a lie. There is no space, there is no time, and what we perceive as matter is nothing but tiny charges floating in a cosmic void. Everything about it is in flux, at all times, and, if you can figure out the math and where to apply a little quantum pressure, everything is true.

Used to be by the time you’d done the calculations, you had a room full of paper and reality had moved on. But we’ve got computers, now, and they just keep getting faster. If you can intuit the right inputs and run the right program, anything’s possible.

Pet Peeve: Dual-Axis Stats


I have an irrational dislike of dual-axis stats. By dual-axis, I mean any stat that applies twice to the same task in the game, such that effectiveness at the task basically increases as the square of the stat’s level: level 2 is four times as good as 1, level 3 is nine times, and so on. Ultimately, it feels inelegant to me in most cases, and often even feels like an unforeseen side effect created by the designer. Examples:

  • In Mage: the Ascension, Arete governs both the number of dice you roll to create magical (or magickal, depending on the edition) effects and limits the Spheres you use to create these effects. Arete 1 means you can only roll 1 die and create level 1 effects, Arete 2 means 2 dice and level 2 effects, and so on. The higher your Arete, the more successes you’re going to get on effects that are more powerful and versatile to begin with. It was rare for anyone not to raise their score as high as possible in character creation without intentionally wanting to play a weaker character.
  • In the Dresden Files RPG, a Wizard’s Conviction rating determines how much Mental Stress the caster will take from using Evocation magic, and the size of his or her Mental Stress damage track. Evoking deals Stress equal to the amount your spell’s power exceeded your Conviction. High Conviction also means you can take more and bigger Stress hits. Any player that plans to play a Wizard would, like in Mage, be intentionally playing a weaker character by not buying Conviction as high as possible in character creation.
  • In a non-magic related example, the new Warhammer Fantasy RPG uses a character’s Toughness rating as both bonus hit points and damage resistance. A character with Toughness 5 will take four fewer wounds per hit than a character with Toughness 1, and will be able to take four more total wounds. In this case, the effect is diluted somewhat by having additional resistance from armor and a large number of base hit points, but a player who expects to be in combat a lot is well advised to buy up Toughness.

As mentioned, my dislike of this effect is largely irrational, when the effect is deliberately created by the designer: sometimes, a system benefits from a stat being made significant by raising on a geometric rather than linear scale. What I don’t like, however, is when this is a hidden element of the system, such that all rules indications make it seem like the dual-axis stat is just as important as stats that raise on a linear progression. In games with such deceptively potent stats, newer players may not focus on the stat, and wind up with a character that’s significantly underpowered relative to the party, while experienced players may feel compelled to max out the stat during character generation even if they’d rather make a more diverse build.

Ultimately, I’d probably be mollified if games with such stats called out the difference in the game’s character creation text. If the stat was raised by a different method than the other stats (possibly even having a locked rating based on character type rather than consuming a variable amount of creation points), that would, in my mind, be a bonus. But, really, no matter how mollified I’d be, I’ll still have that pet peeve in the back of my mind that the system would be more elegant if the stat didn’t have to double-dip into the same rules element.

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