Categorized | Reviews, RPGs

Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition Review

Posted on September 5, 2018 by Shannon Hennessy

What is reality?  I mean, think about it for a minute.  Since the dawn of human sentience, we’ve been thinking about things like “Am I just a bit-part player in someone else’s dream?” or “Is everything around me real because I want it to be?”

Is reality real?  Or is it what someone else wants it to be?

That sentence sets the groundwork for about 95% of the conflict in Mage: the Ascension.  There are warring factions in the world around you.

Some would answer that question with “Absolutely.  Reality is something that must be maintained and is what it is because it is the best possible environment for humanity to exist within.”

Some would answer that “Reality is what we need it to be.  When we need to elicit change, it is one thing.  When we need stasis, it is something else.  But have no illusions, WE are the masters of what reality is and is not.  You need only the will to change things to make them change, and the knowledge of the Spheres to make it happen.”

Still others would answer the question with “What IS this ‘reality’ that you speak of?”

They are the ones to be feared.  We’ll get to that, though.

And still others would say “Your reality is a mockery of mine.  Your reality DESTROYED mine… and I want it back.  I also have the allies and means at my disposal to take it back.”

They are the ones you never bargain with.  Never commerce with.  Never underestimate.  They are to be destroyed.  Outright, with prejudice and without the slightest hint of regret.  We’ll get to that, too. 

    First, the housekeeping:

    I use a five-star system, pass or fail.

    1 star for appearance.  Yes or no.  Is the book beautiful?  Does the book strike me, inside and out?  Was there as much care for internal artwork as with cover art?  Does the book “live deliciously?”

    1 star for overall content.  Yes or no.  Does the book DELIVER what it said it would deliver?  Is the book claiming to be core rules nothing more than a gateway to a half dozen other sourcebooks that will be required to run the game coherently, or is the book a game in and of itself slapped betwixt two covers?

    1 star for readability and proofing.  Yes or no.  Mistakes are made.  I’ve written sections for these books, and I know for a fact that you can spend hours and hours and hours going over them with a fine-toothed comb and there will STILL be an error here or there.  It happens.  Names get spelled wrong, pages end up breaking in odd places, etc.  In the end, is the book put together PROFESSIONALLY?  Is it obvious that someone TOOK THE TIME to edit the book REASONABLY?

    1 star for viability.  Does the book add to the existing mythos of the game it supports or not?  Can the game be played – FOREVER – without the book?  Will it make the game A DIFFERENT GAME if the book is added into the mythos?  This star is really for Storytellers.  As a Storyteller, I’m going to ask myself “Should I pay money for this book to give players something wonderful that they have not seen before?”  Is is a Player’s Guide to the Technocracy – which, back in the day, RE-DEFINED Mage: The Ascension COMPLETELY – or is it just another grimoire of “pew-pew!” Thaumaturgy Rites?

    1 star for overall quality-in-ownership.  I’ve written some SHITE.  Seriously.  There are things floating around out there that I SINCERELY WISH did not have my name attached to them.  Did the developer of the game line get too busy to redline what was being submitted to him or her appropriately?  Did the developer drop the ball after the contributing freelancer wrote a bunch of garbage to fluff a wordcount?  Is the book I paid for supposed to be what I’m reading?  Am I expecting too much professionalism from a legacy company that has put out some of the greatest Storytelling games ever created?  Or am I expecting a book to be something that it isn’t.  Am I wanting a book to be written one way while, what was published, is something completely different.

    In all honesty, I think that of the five stars, that last one is the MOST subjective, even though I will do my absolute best to remain entirely objective throughout my reviews.

    Now that THAT’s all said and done, let’s get into the book.

    Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition is the cornerstone of a game that is based on being what is, for all intents and purposes, as close to a god-like being as a mortal is able to get in the World of Darkness.

    “Well that’s a very bold statement, Shannon.  I mean, there are Tremere that…”

    I said mortal.

    And the Tremere were Magi LONG BEFORE they ever dreamed of becoming vampires.  Let’s not cloud the water with mention of the Tremere at this point, because when you see what is available to magi who Awaken and tap into the Spheres… you’ll also see that the Tremere – COLLECTIVELY – crippled themselves magically and limited themselves to an afterlife of blood magics don’t really come close to what TRUE MAGICK – magic with a K – can do.

    So what IS a magus in the World of Darkness?  They are, quite simply, the masters of reality.  They are human beings who have experienced Awakening.  They can see reality for what it is on a component level and understand that their place within it is as master and commander.< Chapter One: The Mage’s Path is the mood-setter for this MONSTER of a book.  This isn’t just a Lexicon and a bulleted list of game terms and concepts… although, in some cases it is that and does indeed include those things.  This is a chapter that takes the time to look at some of the most deeply disturbing aspects of the game itself and explain them in nearly exhausting detail.

    I say “exhausting” because I KNOW how hard this chapter was for someone who KNOWS MAGE to write.  For them, all these concepts just “hit” the first couple of times that they read them.  Turning around and having to EXPLAIN THEM in a coherent and organized fashion so that someone who has never opened a Mage: the Ascension book can understand them and go “Man… that sounds cool as shit”?

    THAT’s what I mean.

    Chapter One does it.  The writer(s) DO IT.  From beginning to end.  Awakening, Avatar, the factions at play, the Ascension War, Hubris, the Night-Folk, what “reality” is and the power it has over the magus, what “reality” isn’t, the pit-falls that can lead a magus to death, insanity, or worse.  They’re all here.  Explanations on all of the factions, why they quarrel and have made war on one another for centuries, even Doissetep – which, for me, was a done deal in regard to its destruction – is covered.

    This IS your primer for Mage: the Ascension.  This is a beautifully orchestrated chapter that is organized in a manner that makes it PERFECT for print to hand to your potential players who are curious but perhaps not committed to playing a Mage game.

    I don’t usually DO THIS, but I’m going to QUOTE the book directly, because I think it’s important.  This paragraph is the LAST paragraph in Chapter One, and it is the PERFECT summation of things:

    “And so here’s a Truth for all of us. One with a great big capital “T”:  

    Truth is an illusion.  

    “Reality” belongs in quotes.  

    All of us, mage and mortal, create the world we share.  

    Whether we want it to or not, for better and for worse, it reflects the things we bring to it. Some of us wield more power over it than others, but none of us are helpless.  

    Your will reshapes reality threefold. What you Will, will be.  

    Heaven and hell are both in your hands. And so if you want a better world, then go out there and make it happen.  

    Not with toys or wars or fireballs down Main Street, but with an open heart, a ready mind, and the courage to look beyond yourself even as you watch your own reflection and wonder where your next move waits.”

    FUCK that’s awesome. 

    I truly wish I had written it. 

    Chapter Two: Magick – The Art of Reality is where the brick hits the window.  In a GOOD way. 

    I used to explain to people that Paradox was the immune system of “reality.”  “Reality” is a living thing – remember, you’re dealing with a dude who cut his teeth in the World of Darkness on the Wyrm, Wyld and Weaver cosmology of Werewolf: the Apocalypse, so yeah… it’s ALL ALIVE – and it wants to protect itself from change.  Magick is forcing a magus’ idea of “reality” into the EXISTING paradigm of “reality,” and all of this is explained in Chapter Two.  What is Magick, what is Magick doing, what are the effects of Magick on the Dominant Paradigm of “reality”… it’s all here.

    The differences between Coincidental and Vulgar Magick?  Here.

    How to begin to “think” like a Magus who has spent her entire life learning that water is wet and where there’s smoke there’s fire and how she can make those things NOT TRUE? Here.

    Chapter Two serves as sort of a handbook on how a player can start to THINK like a magus and embrace their birthrights as Awakened beings… and then talks about the Spheres of Magick that govern all “realities.”

    Chapter Three: The Shadow World is where things get… dicey.  This chapter covers a lot of the concepts that, to be completely honest, are the most difficult for Mage players to wrap their heads around in the beginning.  Now, people who understand the World of Darkness are going to probably understand things like “Fetters help you rest and regain Pathos,” or “Your Caern is where you go to regain Gnosis you’ve spent.”  For a magus, it’s a little bit different, though.  Similar, but different.

    This chapter covers things like Quintessence and Tass, which while similar, are NOT the same thing.

    Chantries are covered, as are Constructs, their Technocratic equivalents.  Sanctums and Nodes are important and covered.  I dig how the author breaks things down in an almost “Okay, here’s what you need… so here’s where you go to find it, and here’s how this place or that place does what it does” sort of way.

    I also TRULY DIG the way Chapter Three works, at its end, as an introduction to Chapter Four.  You’ll close out Chapter Three learning about what’s out there, that there ARE places out there OTHER than THIS world, and that there’s a Gauntlet that you need to cross to get to them.  The whole “skin of the onion” analogy is quite ingenious and makes more than perfect sense.

    It even makes mention of the Avatar Storm, which I thought was a nice touch.

    Chapter Four: The Worlds Beyond explains how you CROSS the aforementioned Gauntlet that separates the World of Darkness from the worlds that exist beyond it for magi to access.

    Here we learn about the High, Middle and Low Umbra.  Again, if you’re familiar with Werewolf or Wraith, these concepts are ingrained in you.  However, I think it’s safe to say that there are destinations out and about that the magi are aware of and have access to that a ghost or a werewolf couldn’t dream of.

    There is a Brief Guide to the Otherworlds which is HIGHLY useful for people who might not “get” immediately what is being talked about when you get into terms like “Penumbra” or “Mount Qaf.”

    Then, in detail, the High, Middle and Low Umbras are explained in travel guide form.  Important places, what a magus can expect to find there, whether or not she will be welcomed there and, if she is, for how long, and of course – the one you’ve all been waiting for or wondering about – the Digital Web.  VERY special care and detail is taken with this one, because honestly?  We could talk about Heaven and Hell all night long.  We’ve been told there are streets of gold there and that there are levels of fire and ice down below… those, essentially, have been defined for thousands of years for us.

    The Internet is different.

    The internet BARELY EXISTED when the 1st Edition of Mage: the Ascension was Published.  The idea of the Virtual Adepts, at that time, was ASTOUNDING.  I mean… we had Tron and maybe a couple of other movies to give us some help with our visuals – later, we had The Matrix – but really?  NOTHING in the WORLD has grown and expanded as quickly as the internet has over the past twenty years.  So there’s a whole lot of high-quality thought and effort put forth here by game writers who are probably NOT moonlighting as systems engineers and the like.

    The Digital Web and the associated sections for it deserve a special “fist bump” for quality and attention to overall detail while incorporating them into a game set in the gothic-punk World of Darkness.

    Chapter Five: Ascension Warriors details the antagonists to and for the magi, and their varying factions with histories of each – the Marauders, the Nephandi, the Council of Nine, the Technocratic Union, and the Disparates, who are magi that have no allegiance to any agenda but their own.

    This chapter effectively updates the Player’s Guide to the Technocracy, which is quite possibly my all-time favorite World of Darkness supplement ever produced.

    Everything you need is here, with beautiful and updated art for each “flavor” of magus you might want to play.  There’s a lot of new ones, too, in the Disparates – or at least, new to me.  The Templar Knights are pretty interesting, albeit scary as hell in that they could EASILY be an Inquisitorial force not at all unlike the Grey Knights of the Warhammer 40,000 universe of Games Workshop.

    Information is provided for Nephandic and Marauder characters, serving as a sort of mini Book of Madness.

    Chapters Six serves as the Player’s Guide, while Chapter Seven is the Storyteller’s Handbook.  Chapter Six tells you HOW to play a magus, in again, exhausting detail with very few stones left unturned to even make a small FAQ with.

    Chapter Seven is where Storytelling is focused on, because in the end, NOTHING is more important than the story that is being told to the characters along with the parts that they play within it.  This chapter is also something that I would recommend to ANYONE playing with the idea of writing fiction of their own.  It doesn’t necessarily cover “How do I handle coherent dialogue” or questions like that… but IT DOES help someone who might not know where to start, carry forward or finish a story that they have bouncing around in their head.

    Will Chapter Seven help you to become the next great horror fiction writer?  No.  It will, however, help you learn step-by-step strategies to running the best possible RPG story you can.

    Chapter Eight: The Book of Rules is just that.  All of the rules sets/mechanics that you’re going to need to know as both a player and as Storyteller to run Mage: the Ascension.

    Chapter Nine: Dramatic Systems is sort of the middle-ground meeting place for Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight.  This is where you learn how mechanics effect the story that you’re attempting to tell, and how to deal with unexpectedness from your players when they might do something that doesn’t immediately fit into the story that you’re telling.

    Tons of charts, tables, and optional rules regarding actions, movement, combat, etc. Are found in this chapter, as are rules for magickal combat, close-quarters combat, martial arts, magickal martial arts, etc.  Healing and healing techniques, drugs and the usages of them – from illicit to ceremonial and the reasons and wherefores of their use in a chronicle above and beyond the obvious – magickal armor and shield generation, non-magickal armor and shield usages and how they can all protect a caster/wearer from some damage here and there, magickal hacking in the Digital Web and damage that you can take and inflict in the magickal subnet of the internet… there’s also lots of information on Technocratic weaponry and technology and associated rules for all of it.

    Rules that cover travel through, combat in, and adversaries that live in the Otherworlds are included.  Spirits… Umbrood… all the nasty (or helpful) stuff in between.  Systems for using them (and fighting them) are all included to a nearly question-proof level.

    I keep saying things like that, don’t I?  Exhaustive and question-proof?

    Let me stop here for a second…

    I think that it’s important to note at this point that if you read this book – not memorize it, but read it – you’re not going to have a single question in your head that the book doesn’t come close to answering.  People that memorize rules are, generally, boring in my experience.  In the World of Darkness, you have the Golden Rule and the freedom to drop anything that doesn’t jibe with the story that you’re trying to tell.  But what the authors of Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition have DONE is go back through time, look at EVERY SINGLE EDITION of the game that has come before this one, and made EVERYTHING as streamlined and accessible as is absolutely possible.  They have kept what works, trashed what hadn’t in the past, and moved forward.  What is done with what was kept is that it is polished and clean.  Any confusion is eradicated.  Essentially, this edition of Mage is the cleanest and most comprehensive edition I’ve ever seen.  It’s also the most in-tune with the players and Storytellers who love the game.

    Moving along… 

    Chapter Ten: The Book of Magick is what Chapter Nine is, but for the Spheres of Magick, Willpower, Arete, and Quintessence.

    All the rules for Paradoxical effects, Quiets, and the like are included.  There’s not a whole lot for me to sit here and say about this chapter other than “this is the chapter that talks about the in-game mechanics for HOW a magus does what she does.”

    This is probably the longest chapter of the book, definitely the chapter of the book where players and Storytellers are going to spend the most time, and has the most information about, well, Magick than any of the other chapters.  So in spite of my brevity in its discussion, suffice to say it serves as both a grimoire, a technical manual, a rogue’s gallery of the Night-Folk and how to expect to combat them, and is the dénouement to a spectacular journey into the “What If?” of Mage: the Ascension.

    Appendices I and II serve as sort of a Book of Magic Items and Wonderous Things for the Traditions, the Technocracy, and everyone else in between.  There’s some really interesting shit in here, but I’m not into spoilers.  Suffice to say… I’d like to get ahold of a Hacked HITMark.

    Merits and Flaws are in Appendix II, and rules are provided for CREATING magical items known as “Wonders,” and there are also Derangements for Marauders or for the magus whose Quiets have gotten the best of her over the years.  You’ll find cybernetics, biomods, and “Devices,” the Technocratic equivalent of Wonders in here as well.

    Then, there’s the Afterword.

    Man.

    Phil writes the Afterword, and while I can’t honestly cheer – because, if I might wax a bit as a middle-aged gamer and geek with a house, children, career and responsibilities that never seem to let me have a moment to smile about life or see “magick” in the day to day anymore – I can see the power in what he’s talking about.

    Empowerment. 

    Taking what you’re given, changing it, making something better out of it, and giving it back to the world.  That’s what Phil DID.  That’s what ALL OF US can do.  Not in the World of Darkness… but the world that we inhabit.

    THAT is the power of the magus.

    THAT is the ability of each and every human being on this sad little planet of ours.

    THAT is the power of Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition.

    On a 5 star scale, as detailed in the beginning, Mage: the Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition gets a well-deserved PERFECT 5 from me.

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