Friday 28 June 2013

Mage: the Ascension


Interview with Phil Brucato co-creator of Mage the Ascension (extracts)

“One of the main things, the Sphere system itself was already done by that point.

One of the things that really drew me to Mage, I never liked playing magic users. I found them boring,. For me, for every other roleplaying system up until Mage, it was; you’re a weak little dude who runs around and you got this big book of spells that as a character and a player you have to memorize, and a spell does this much by this much for this many turns, and it does this; its all very mechanical.

I’m pagan. I’m pagan to a degree I believe in magic, I’m familiar with the way that magic works in the real world, whether you’re looking at that as art or as a fantasy construct or as a belief system. And its not like that. It’s not a ten by ten square of effect and a dice for every level of the magic user. I never liked that. I always played thieves and fighters and stuff like that. I never wanted to play a magic using character until I read the manuscript for Mage 1st edition. I said holy fucking shit; Magic is an extension of the mage, Yes! That’s the way it works.

The Sphere system is definitely cumbersome, it can get very frustrating to work with. Mage is one of those games where its either its fantastically easy and intuitive for the people with that kind of mindset and its phenomenally complicated and brain breaking for a different mindset. One of the things I realized is this is going to be one of those games that only the right people like. A number of people are not going to like it. I’m coming to the table with the knowledge that some people will absolutely hate this. I’m not going to make it trying to please everybody I’m going to make it for the people who get it. Of all of the stuff in Mage I think the thing the original designers did absolutely right is that concept that magic is an extension of the person who uses it.

A big part of what I brought into that was the idea of reinforcing the belief of the mage, taking the mechanical element of Foci which you discard when you get to this part and extending it to the Foci of your ritual tools which are a symbolic extension of your beliefs. You believe in something and because you believe in something you believe the world works like this. Because you believe the world works like this you use this tool to direct your Intention this way, thus you use the tools that channel your belief toward your desire end. As Crowley said it; ‘Magic is the art and the science of altering reality in conforming with will.’ That’s what I wanted to bring to it. That element was originally there but I wanted to reinforce that what you’re doing when using the spheres is you’re taking you’re belief and you’re changing the world with it, rather than just ‘I cast my fireball at you, ha ha ha’."

Arete (pronounced: ah’ret’tay)

"It’s a Greek word. It means excellence, translates roughly to excellence. Getting Arete is not just a matter of spending points on it; its also a matter of the Seeking. The concept of seeking is already there but I wanted to play it up more. The idea that you didn’t just spend points to get better, you had to actually expand your consciousness. Arete in a rough English translation for it is excellence, is achievement, understanding, it doesn’t have a direct English translation to it but what it means is to cultivate your heroic self to a greater level.

Not just Power. Because power is not excellence. This is one of my primary themes throughout Mage. Power is a trap. At times it is necessary to have power. It is necessary to understand that you can claim power from within yourself. But most people look at power as something to take from people, and to have. To put yourself over people. We see the results of that every day, everywhere from the schoolyard bullies to abusive parents to rapists to dictators to the bankers who find that there is absolutely nothing wrong with impoverishing whole nations, as long as they get theirs. That’s why power is a trap. That’s one of the other primary things that I brought to Mage was the paradox (small p paradox) that in order to be a Mage you had to understand how to claim power and to have the confidence which is another aspect of Arete, the confidence to wield power. But you had to understand that if you pursued power for its own sake you will destroy yourself and everybody around you. Which is also an intrinsic part of many real world magical practices.

So I wanted to make it that getting Arete is more than just a point spending exercise in order to allow you to throw more dice around; it is actually involves roleplaying challenges, storytelling challenges and the growth of the character and going back to that Aspecting thing; the growth of the player through reflecting on what her character does and what her character is like.

One of the things I always wanted is; What do I the player walk away with after a game? I might have some cool stories but do I learn anything for the real world? Can I bring anything from that into the real world? We look at the things that our characters can do and we go; ‘hmm so that’s what my fantasy self does, what can my real self do?’ And the idea of expanding Arete to a greater level; how you expand the character and yourself, not just the amount of dice you can throw when you throw a firebolt down mainstreet."


"The wheel of quintessence was something that was established when I got there. In terms of how I personally view quintessence, first and foremost it’s a game mechanic. How I view it as a metaphysic: I see it as the quantum energy beneath and within all things. It is a theory of quantum physics that all space is occupied in some form or another, that molecules have… that there is this unstable state, that what we perceive as solid matter is more of an illusionary concept, that we place molecules into, than it is their natural state. Quintessence is what is called in Taoism the Unformed Block. Quintessence is the essence of possibility within all things that is shaped and channeled to become what we see and perceive and work with. It is both flowing energy and, static is the wrong word, and stationary. It is the unchosen possibility. Once you choose it, it takes a certain state. It’s the state of Shroedingers cat when you haven’t opened the box. All this goes into the high flung metaphysic that Mage is infamous for. Essentially its unformed possibility and that’s what mages work with, is unformed possibility.”


“Reality is like thunderdome: when two realities enter, one reality leaves.” Mage20

“One of the fundamental elements of what Mage became came out of endless conversations, endless 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning talks, we would spend hours talking about what is Reality? What is Quintessence? That’s frequently when we came up with our best ideas.

I realised through some of those conversations that the core element of Paradox is a Mage causes two realities to exist simultaneously. Only one of them can exist at that time. If the Mage is subtle enough, informed enough, enlightened enough, knowledgeable enough and strong willed enough, her reality will triumph. If she’s not, the overwhelming weight of reality will go [slap] with her. That’s essentially what Paradox is. When I had that realization I was like, that’s what Paradox is. Both in terms of game mechanics and in terms of the setting.

All the groups have different; ‘oh the paradox effect is this’, and ‘oh paradox is this’, ‘no its god punishing you’, ‘no it’s the weight of static reality’, ‘it’s the punishment of the technocracy and the enforcement of oppression upon our kind’.

No. What it is; you are changing the course, you are diverting the current. I describe it as: Think of reality as flowing water. You can step into it, you can splash around in it, you can submerge yourself in it, but if you get a big boulder and drop it in the middle, its probably going to knock your feet out from under you and then you’ll drop it on your head. Unless you drop the boulder very carefully don’t drop it on your feet, at which point reality will go around it. But reality is not going to stop because you dropped a boulder in it; reality keeps going. Your boulder or your effect on reality is going to splash back on you. The bigger you try to make it, the more its going to splash back on you. Coincidental magic is not just hiding your magic so the technocracy doesn’t get you; coincidental magic is going; huh, zen. What can I do the most effect with the least amount of disruption? Its like Aikido. What you’re trying to do is take reality and go, instead of going, I punch reality and punch it in the face! Well reality punches you back. And if you punch hard enough you might give reality a bloody nose, and then reality will kick your arse. But if you can use aikido on it, which is part of what Tao is, its reality-aikido. Its taking reality and making reality flow, as opposed to making reality punch you. Every once in a while you have to punch reality in the face and hope it doesn’t punch you back.

Which is another one of the (small p) paradox of being a mage. By being a mage you change reality, you redirect reality, you pit yourself against reality and you realize you have to be stable enough, strong enough, knowledgeable enough and confident enough to do it. By doing that you risk everything; you risk yourself, you risk damaging the world around you, you risk the things and the people you love, you risk your beliefs. Sometimes you have to risk, which is another essential part of how I believe real life actually works, and its one of the things I have heard a lot of people who love Mage have said; ‘Mage inspired me to believe in myself and believe I could change the world’. That is something that I absolutely believe in. Not only can we change the world but we have a responsibility to change the world.

The reality of the world is, especially these days, the reality of the world is that there are a lot of motherfuckers out there. There are s lot of selfish, greedy, stupid, blockheads out there who want to sit on top of you, who want to sit on top of the things and the people who you value, who want to crush you for their own gain. They will do it if you let them. Don’t fucking let them! And I don’t mean don’t let them as in become one of them; I mean stand up to them and realize that you are not powerless. That to me is the core. If there is one take away from my approach to Mage, if I had to sum it up in one sentence it is this; you are not powerless.

And the paradox of realizing you are not powerless is that it is very very easy to become one of those oppressors if you’re not careful. That is one of the elements I have running through it is that the Technocracy is corrupt. The Marauders obviously are fucking scary. The Traditions are corrupt. The more these Mages get powerful, the more their power oppresses other people. They have to have the power to change the world, that’s what they’re there for. But they become as Pete Townsend put it, meet the new boss same as the old boss. Your small p paradox in Mage is you have the power, you must use the power, but the power can destroy you and everything you hold dear. But you must use it; use it carefully."

"Your personal beliefs are the things that shape your vision of the world, they are also going to shape your magic. They are going to shape the way your magic affects the world for other people. The awakening moment is when you realize that you are not powerless. When you realize that you have the potential to change reality, you have the potential to move the world. You have the potential to be a god, and you realize that. Not just; ‘oh wow, like I can like cast magic, you mean like magic is real, oh wow let me get out my tarot cards and like foretell your future?’ No. It’s the moment where physically, mentally, spiritually, energetically, you go; holy fuck I get it. That’s a real thing.

Mage the Ascension is a metaphor for a lot of stuff but at the core of all the game fictions and the constructs and the spheres and the world changing magics and all of that, there is this ultimate realization of; wait a minute, I can do this. That realization on a metaphysical level is what the Awakening is. It’s the moment of; holy shit, I’m not powerless, I’m not a drone, I’m not a slave to reality and I’m not a slave to what other people enforce on me.

Another small p paradox of the mage is that by realizing this the mage suddenly gets swept up onto a whole other level of being played as a pawn and has to deal with that.

The Awakening is whether, the Awakening could be like the sort of thing you are if you were raised in a mystical culture and ‘oh yes, my ancestors gave me this thing and I went on a vision quest and grandmother spider came to me and told me that I could and I followed the vision and I did it’ or it could be the catastrophic moment where somebody busts into your house, sets it on fire, ties you to the bed, runs out laughing and you go; ‘No! This will not happen!’ It really depends on the character. And the Awakening itself is a fundamental part of the character and the characters story. Everyones is different.”

from the Fragile Path

Interviewer: “With this idea of Cabals and Chantries, what kind of things will we be seeing in Mage 20 with regard to that element?”

“It’s people. It’s the human element. That’s one of the small p paradox. One of the first lines of Mage20 is ‘the problem with men and gods is too many men think they’re gods and too many gods act like men’.

One of the driving ideas of the mage society is even when you have all these high flown ideals, even with all of these powers, even with this ‘I can conceive of the nature of reality, look the motes of quintessence out of thin air and weave them’; you’re still a fucking human being. That’s also a paradox, one of the things that drives the older mages crazy, particularly Porthos, my avatar and aspect during those days, one of the things that drove Porthos crazy is the recognition that they have the power of a god but he was still a man, with human urges, human grudges, human ideals and aspirations, human limitations, human frailties, loves, passions, aggravations, and the power to throw mountains, and he had the responsibility he felt to change the world for the better. But he found himself going; ‘I don’t know what better is any more, after five hundred years I don’t know what that looks like. Oh crap, what am I now’?

On a smaller level cabal politics, on a larger level the factions and the various different, whether you’re talking about the Nephandi or Marauders or Traditions, they’re still functioning with the same question; I am a person with inhuman powers. And an inhuman duty, responsibility, desire to use them. But I am still a person; I still fuck, I still shit, I have cramps, I have headaches, I have loves and I have wounds and I have these things in me and I have to be careful with what I do with them. But those things make me who I am.

I’m not a vampire remembering who I was years before, I’m not a spirit synthesis of human spirit and beast, I’m not a ghost, I’m not a changeling left behind by the Faye or transformed; I’m a human being with inhuman powers and an inhuman place in the grand scheme of things. And sometimes that can be as big as the self destruction of Dositep where basically you had these four hundred, three hundred, five hundred year old high school students blow the place and each other to bits over their internal rivalries. Or you have;

I was playing in a game back in the 90s. I don’t remember the exact story, her lover and cabal mate had died horrible and been damned and her character fell into a gorrible depression. She was drinking and drugging and fucking everyone in the bar just to blot out the fact that her lover was damned and she knew it and couldn’t do anything about it. And my character the unaligned mage was like, here take my hand. And opened up the spheres for her, just one level, just the perceptions, lets go for a walk. They went hand in hand for a walk in the park with the spheres on, all the ones that they had. And Jennifer says just look, you don’t have to do anything, just look at how wonderful how the world is. And that pulled her out of the depression. Not because I had used mind to rearrange emotions but because I just said; this is who we are; just look at what we can see.

And that I guess is another major theme in Mage. Look at the world with bigger eyes. Look at the world with a more expansive view. Because its not this little fucking consumeristic box that we are sold, where you get up and you go and do your thing and you buy stuff and you come back and watch the television and take orders from everybody. It can be bigger than that. It can be better than that. And when you look at how much bigger and better than it can be; it is better."

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