Mage: the ascension magic, doing it like the Lady

My parents are moving out of the house they’ve lived in for the past 25 years and moving into something significantly smaller. This means that they want to get rid of all the stuff they don’t have room for – including my old stuff. And so, my mother brought a big box of old roleplaying books. Among these books was Mage: The Ascencion, one of the roleplaying games I liked best, but never really got to play, except in brief, one shot sessions – and this is really a game where you need to have a campaign in which to define your character and, not least, the way you cast spells.

Mage: the awhatening?

If you don’t know Mage, it’s a very post-modern game of ordinary humans who suddenly Awaken to find that they can influence the world with their will. In this world, reality is literally a product of the collective minds of every ordinary human (the “Sleepers”), and so reality changes with the mindset of each new age. Magic that follows the rules of the current reality will be easier to perform, while magic that breaks it risks incurring “Paradox,” reality’s way of fighting intruders.

Each Mage will quickly find himself a certain style of magic and join a corresponding group that centres around that style of magic. Player characters will usually join one of the nine traditions,* such as the Order of Hermes, specializing in “classic” magic with spells and symbols, the eastern artial artists of the Akashic Brotherhood or even the mad scientists of Sons of Ether or the Cybermages of the Virtual Adepts. Opposing the Traditions are three other factions, chief among them the Technocracy, divided into technical Iteration X, biotech Progenitors, political New World Order, financial Syndicate and space-faring Void Engineers. The remaining two factions are the mad Marauders and the devil-dealing Nephandi.

Magic in Mage is left very open. There are nine “Spheres,” each of which you can have up to five Dots in – as per WoD standard. Each dot allows you to do more things with what that sphere governs. Dot 1 usually deals with sensing, dot 2 allows minor manipulations, 3 is minor transmutation (so changing something into something else, or creating from nothing), 4 is major manipulation and 5 is major creation, at least when talking about the spheres that deal with “things”: the spheres of Forces, Matter, Life and Mind (to a certain extent). So in order to halt a speeding bullet, you’d need Forces 2, throwing lightning bolts or powering your computer without a power source is Forces 3, while Forces 5 would allow you to create a major thunderstorm.

Casting a spell involves describing what you want to do, finding out which spheres you need, then describing how you are going to go about casting that spell – what kind of ritual you’ll use, etc. Then you roll your “Arete” (a stat for your magical prowess) to find out if you succeed.

*: In the revised version, there is a tenth tradition, “The Hollow Ones,” but I was never a fan of them.

Problem: the Solving

I always loved the feeling of the book, but the magic rules always seemed a little too stiff to me. You’re supposed to design flashy, showy spells, but the rules seem to encourage precise, inconspicuous spells, and there’s little in the rules to encourage flashy storytelling – that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it’s not that well integrated into the rules.

There’s also an issue with the spheres: they are sometimes quite rigid, to the point when it seems a little silly. A beginning mage can do almost nothing, and sometimes you want to do a little effect when you realise you can’t, because you haven’t got the right sphere. Also, with each dot of a sphere being such a big step, it makes little sense that increasing your knowledge of, say, Forces doesn’t always increase your ability to manipulate forces

So, a more flexible system that encourages storytelling great spells would be good. As written, there is a big difference between the magic system and the rest of the system, and the book even devotes a chapter to magic, independently of the other rules. This to me makes a lot of sense to me: the game is about ordinary humans who attain the ability to bend reality to their wills while still essentially being humans – as opposed to Werewolf and Vampire, where you actually turn into a supernatural being. Of course the reality bending is going differ from doing mundane things.

With this in mind, and with Apocalypse Drow still relatively fresh in my mind, I had a thought to change the way magic works, using parts of the system from Lady Blackbird to better simulate magic.

Gathering: the magic

In Lady Blackbird, you have a number of traits, each with a number of tags. When you want to act, you take one die, plus one per applicable trait plus one per applicable tag. So, for instance, the character Cyrus Vance has these traits and tags:

  • Ex-Imperial Soldier: Tactics, Command, Soldiers, Rank, Connections, Maps, Imperial War Ships
  • Smuggler: Haggle, Deception, Sneak, Hide, Camouflage, Forgery, Pilot, Navigation, [Repair], [Gunnery]
  • Survivor: Tough, Run, Scrounge, Endure, Creepy Stare, Intimidate, [Medic]
  • Warrior: Battle-Hardened, Shooting, Two-Gun Style, Pistol, Fencing, Sword, [Brawl], [Hail of Lead]

It strikes me that a lot of these are very much like “skills,” and that they are a little boring, really. What I’d like to do is convert all the things about a character that affects his spellcasting into traits, and then give him a bundle of tags to attach to that. The tags should be aspects that are easy to weave into a spell, and which improve the play experience of playing the game.

The things that could be turned into traits are for instance: the Mage’s tradition, the Mage’s specific group (if he has one), the Mage’s concept/personality, and the mage’s spheres.

Let’s exemplify with my old character from a one shot thing I did. My character was a hermetic mage (he was a member of the Order of Hermes) who was an avatar of Odin, as such using runes to cast magic, and who used his PDA to write runes on. He also had a spear-like thing as a focus, and he had a glass eye. Being hermetic, he had a fair amount of Force magic. His Traits might look like this:

  • Order of Hermes: Scholary, secrets, language, ritual, secret names, House [whatever]
  • Avatar of Odin: Lost eye, spear, rune magic, crows, Old Norse
  • Technomage: PDA, Computer, Programming,
  • Forces sphere: Speed, Lightning, Electronics, Weather, Battle Magic, Spear
  • Entropy sphere: Soothsaying, Wyrd, Throwing Runes, Looking into Mimirs Well

These traits and tags could use some work, but you get the idea: have effects and foci connected to the traits. You then take one die per trait and tag that applies to the spell you are casting and roll them all, determining success based on how you roll.

Something else that might be imported is the Pool: in Lady Blackbird, you can add more dice by spending your “pool.” In Mage, you have something called quintessence which is originally meant to lower difficulties and power certain effects. But I think it would make sense to have it give you extra dice, as well as doing all the other things it does.

There is probably more that would need changing. But this is an outline for making a spell-casting system for Mage that makes a little more sense to me.


10 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by sigridsvane on April 23, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Oh! Oh, yes! Ooh, I wanna play with that! In the Apocalypse/Blackbird setting I found the system more applicable for player interaction than for actual battle, possibly caused by the more “moral” tags, but I can see it in the mage context. How each mage can develop personal spells based on schools and traditions, but also on personal experience. Cause, basically, in a party of all mages, everyone being able to do the same things by the book is pretty boring 😉

    Not too familiar with character development in Blackbird, but would the addition of tags due to personal and/or professional development be included?


    • Posted by Elias Helfer on April 23, 2012 at 10:49 am

      Your comment wasn’t eaten, I just had to approve it.

      The system of Lady Blackbird does allow for more traits and tags. It’s not that developed, though – Lady Blackbirds is made to be used with pregenerated characters.

      The point would exactly be to personalise the magic. It always seemed to me that you to easily ended up with some very boring, generic spells. Of course, you might need some rote spells, but they could be pregenerated with tags built in. so you’d cast your “runes of thunder”, which you know involves Forces (battle, weather) and Avatar of Odin (runes, spear). Moreevocative than “lightning bolt”.


  2. Posted by sigridsvane on April 23, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Argh, it ate my comment… anyways, I love the idea, giving mages a much more personal play style.

    I don’t know much about the Blackbird setup, but is there an addition of tags with personal/professional development? Would make sense to me in the context of campaigns.


  3. Good idea to use a system such as Lady Black Birds to produce the desired types of magic. My own favorite would have been to use TSoY/Solar System instead, from which lady Black Bird’s system to some extend with keys and pools are derived.


  4. Posted by johsbusted on April 23, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    This is awesome, Elias. Just awesome.

    I especially like that the system is a magic system and all of the tags is about the use of magic. I’m not sure that the solar system are quite right.


  5. I like this idea, I also have an old and unrequited love of Mage: The setting is juicy, the rules are clunky.

    I love the idea of using traits and tags to power your magic. Keys would also make excellent sense in terms of magical paradigms, you gain experience by reacting to the world according to your unique perspective.

    A good thing to bring in from FATE would be Maneuvers, which is that instead of directly attacking a foe, you place a temporary aspect on her or the setting, that gives you a bonus to a later roll. This leads to some interestingly cooperative combats in which several characters will prepare the attack of another to improve their odds. I could easily see this work with magical fiction, where one wizard will counter the shields of the evil sorcerer so his friend can launch an attack.


  6. […] Elias har skrevet en blogpost om hvordan Mage: The Ascencions magisystem skal hackes. Ikke bare hackes, men hackes godt. Læs posten. […]


  7. Posted by ludofex on April 24, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    I’m a bit surprised that you say: ” You’re supposed to design flashy, showy spells, but the rules seem to encourage precise, inconspicuous spells”. As I’ve read Mage the whole point is that you are _supposed_ to make precise, inconspicuous spells (when you use magick at all), since otherwise Paradox will come and ruin your day. And my experience with playing Mage is also that this is where most of the fun comes from. You can’t just cast a fireball and obliterate your enemies, since you probably can’t summon up the power or handle the paradox – but you just might be able to cause a spark in a gasline or cause the guard’s cellphone to overheat or something third.

    This is not to say that the Mage syetm shouldn’t be hacked or that it was the most elegant thing ever, but I do think it encouraged the kind of magick the designers intended, and that it was fun to play around with.


  8. Posted by Elias Helfer on May 6, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Thanks for your comments, everybody. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’d like to do something about Mage – we’ll have to work something out sometime…

    @ Morten: I’m not familiar enough with the Solar System to really know whether or not it’d be better – I did scan TsoY, and it didn’t seem that much more appropriate, but maybe I need to look into it some more.

    @ Keys would indeed be very appropriate. There were some rules for magical experience in Mage: Revised, and those rules could easily be transferred to keys. It makes sense to me to have magic develop on its own scale. So keys are definitely a good way to go.
    You could also use secrets to a certain extent. Each tradition has some things they should be able to do, independent of their spheres. An example could be Sons of Ether, who might have a Secret of the Machine, or the Akashic Brotherhood with Secret of Serenity.

    @ Nis: I’m not saying it wasn’t fun to play with, but I did think that it was a bit unrewarding to design a spell using a complicated design process, and then roll two or three dice and have it fail in the end. When I say “showy spells,” I guess I’m being imprecise. I don’t want to be throwing loads of vulgar spells around – you are quite right, it’s designed to have you make coincidental spells as much as possible. But a coincidental spell can still be showy, in the sense that I mean a spell that makes the others at the table go “cool!” Just like the spells you suggest. But I guess I felt to a certain degree that the system often hindered that kind of spells.

    By the way, you mention paradox. That’s another thing: as far as I remember, paradox came in two flavours: the weird and special stuff, and pure mechanical punishment. I’d like paradox to always be weird and special, and not to be something to kill you or take you out of action without your consent. But I’d have to look at it again to remember exactly what that’s all about.


  9. […] other systems capture this element of wizardry far better, like the above mentioned – and Mage, of course. But I do feel that there is something else that could be […]


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