Thinking on a Mage Game

Self care is retreating into worlds of imagination and letting the world burn. OK, no, we have to try to fight the good fight forever, I’ll be back to it, but for now I’m letting entertainment take me away. That means RPGs in this household, and the month of Halloween means spooky themes.

So I’m trying to run a short term game in Mage: The Ascension, with the aim of spookiness, and I’m not even using the Nephandi. Using the theme of Bad Religion, I’m making a story that’s Celestial Chorus cultists vs. Technocracy authorities. Waco in Oregon, with my player running a child in a bad situation.

I’m confident the player won’t read this, so I’m using this space to make my notes. Some of y’all nerds may find this interesting, if only to quibble and deride, or as a launching point to describing your own experiences with the RPG in question, or whatever. The rest of you can skip it.

>>PC is older brother in small family of four. Ma and Pa have been taken into a semi-rural cult of heretical catholics, under the guidance of a rogue Celestial Chorister.

>>The mage in question has found and cultivated an unusually large group of people with minor occult abilities, and taken his successes as a sign that global ascension can be achieved.

>>The ATF is interested in the cult, having been tipped off about them doing culty things, and wanting to know if that included a weapons stockpile. Through the ATF, the Technocracy gets a notion it could be reality deviants and sends in some agents.

>>PC is disturbed by his parents bringing them into a cult, and further when they actually start to get powers. They’re trained as weak hedge wizards, the power that grants them enforces faith and turns them into zealots.

>>Mage cult leader recognizes a true mage’s avatar is bound to PC’s younger brother, and tells the family the child is special, could be a saint if raised in the light, and they get weirder.

>>PC should get idea of escape, maybe is approached by agents during a supply run in the nearest suburb. May possibly betray fam.

>>I was thinking of having the technomancers offer to turn the PC into a cyborg that can mow down the whole cult from the inside, get some body horror in that way. Not sure tho, and probly the kid won’t go for it.

>>I should have alternate plans for each path the player can take. Not sure what to expect yet. But I’m starting tonight anyway, and winging it. Will add edits to this post as things become more clear.

>>Just remembered I was thinking the kid could try to contact the catholic church for help with the heretics scaring him, and have the Celestial Chorus send in someone to try to rein in the rogue mage.

>>First sesh. PC (age 16) is named James, his little brother (age 7) is named Peter, Mom and Dad are still Mom and Dad, the rogue Chorister is Father Tony, and four years of background were passed mostly in summary mode. Parents have magic ability to summon a light, may require killing a bird, or they just did that for fun.

>>We were hoping to do a lot more RP this Halloween than ended up being possible, and I came to realize what I ultimately wanted out of this game required too much groundwork to function as a spooky good time thing. Live and learn. I wish that wasn’t so often the case with RPGs. 😛 Anyhow, might finish it some day but life is so hectic and there’s so many things ahead of it, it’s not seeming too likely.


  1. lanir says

    Sounds interesting so far. There was plenty of bizarreness going on with that mess in the real world so adding mages to it works just fine.

    I approve of avoiding the nephandi. The one thing about the old World of Darkness lines was they tried too hard to shoehorn demon worshippers into many of them. And they don’t even tie into the Demon game. They’re just there to be cardboard cutouts. Like pulp fiction nazis and other sorts of moustache-twirling bad guys. It really sort of goes against the grain because the strengths of those systems was being able to make interesting bad guys.

    I actually started running a Vampire: the Dark Ages game last weekend for my Halloween game. It kind of had to be that because I have one player who gets weird around modern fantasy/supernatural settings which rules out almost everything but spooky D&D stuff. And I needed a break from D&D.

  2. says

    I like a good moustache twirl but I was feelin’ something else on this one. Definitely understand why some people would give it a pass, and I agree old WoD got silly with it.

    I loved the feel and design of V:tDA, thought the writing was better than average for that edition. Never got a real chance to play it tho. Tell me about it! 🙂

  3. Nichtschwert says

    Technocrats offering blatant hypertech to unEnlightened individuals would be pretty out of character. More likely that they’ll interrogate them, and then send the indoctrinated person or a clone back in to spy for them while the black suits gear up to contain the occult threat. When they realize that an actual mage is pulling the strings, they’ll likely try to capture him covertly and if that fails flatten everything with hitmarks.
    Idea for your consideration: if the pc ever runs afoul of the technocrats, have a really nice guy in a suit make offers of assistance in return for information, but not take no for an answer.

    I think this whole thing could be a very special experience. So well done and good luck. 🙂

  4. Nichtschwert says

    Oh yeah I walso wanna weigh in on the Nephandi issue!

    It is true that nephandi stick out like a sore thumb as the truly, unrepentant evil, icky assholes in a game about conflict between worldviews. As the game developed, even the main antagonists – THe Technocracy – got more and more fleshed out and les and less villainous. They’re still very clearly the personification of the oppressive, close-minded establishment, the conservative world government that shuts down dissent with force, silences the outcries of the downtrodden, pollutes the planet and keeps harmful hierarchies in place, but they have understandable, human motivations and it’s completely possible to play heroic technocrats trying to make the best of a terrible situation.
    This is one of the greatest strengths of this game, in my opinion. It’s all grey-in-grey. The Traditions may, after centuries of introspection and social change, have become a lighter shade of grey and the Technocracy, may be a pretty dark grey, but they’re all grey, nonetheless.

    Now the problem with the Ascension War is that the enemy, usually the technocracy, is a bit difficult to explore when your encounters with them are incredibly hostile, as they tend to be. This kind of portrayal makes the enemy look monolithic and just vile.
    Enter the Marauders. These guys are so dangerous, that Traditionalists and Technocrats grudgingly team up to bring them down. Of course, Marauders are Mages with a magical mental disorder, so the writers did the only right thing and humanised them, as well. They’re dangerous, yes. They need to be stopped, yes, but they’re not doing any of this out of malice. They’re ill, incurably so, but they’re also suffering. Fighting a Marauder is grim business, because it’s dangerous, takes sacrifice and leaves you feeling hollow as you’re basically killing someone who likely never meant any harm.
    This means that if you want to explore the relationship of the characters with the enemy via a Marauder, it’s gonna be a distinctly dark, thought-provoking and ultimately pretty sad story. Thereis nothing triumphant about murdering a crazy person.

    And this, I feel, is why the Nephandi are a great plot-device in the game despite the fact, or perhaps, BECAUSE they don’t follow the general rule of “Worldviews are not inherently evil”. Use a Nephandus instead of a Marauder and your Enemy-Mine-story can be one of understanding, heroics and triumph. You get to learn to know the people you usually fight against. YOu can talk to them. You can engage with them philosophically, maybe find some common ground. This is exciting stuff! And at the end, you can work together to bring down a legitimate Evil, feel that triumph and then go back to waging the ascension war against former allies, perhaps with a bit more respect for the individuals you worked together with.
    This is also cemented in the Lore. One of the top earthbound members of the New World Order is a former Cultist of Ecstacy, who worked together with NWO Operatives to destroy Nephandi cults in France during WW2. They clicked so well and worked together so effectively, that after the war was over, he defected to the Technocratic Union and is still a valued, powerful member.

    The books tend to get a bit too far into detail with the Naphandi’s evil and sometimes they wallow in their absolutely disgusting practices and I’m not too fond of that, but narratively, they serve an important purpose. They’re evil. They’re not victims. They all chose this and they’re killing the world because they want to. Killing one is doing the world a favour. And it allows you to tell stories of engagement with ideologically different people, which is always exciting and one of the core topics of the game as a whole.

    Wow, this turned into quite the rant. Hopefully someone will enjoy reading this.

  5. says

    I knew someone in my comments would be a fan of that Mage RPG. It’s fairly divisive, like, some people think it’s too OP or pompous in the philosophical aspects, other people like the philosophy aspect a lot. I think maybe it lets people who are otherwise metaphysical materialists indulge in the kind of free-associative creativity of magical thinking. The context of a game grants one license to do what you’d normally avoid. Or something else.

    I have mixed feelings about the game but I really liked the Technocracy sourcebook, so I’m inclined to use it? At the same time, I haven’t read it cover to cover, or not in ages. Did I miss that part about the Cultist of Ecstasy? That sounds interesting.

  6. Nichtschwert says

    Yeah the technocrats source book is also what got me into the game.

    The cultists thing is from the revised NWO source book. Also a great read.

  7. lanir says

    Per Edit 3, I also had envisioned my Vamp game running throughout October and finishing last weekend. Timing ended up being off so I got things started and yesterday they got themselves to right outside the door to the main plot. I stopped because we were close to our end time and I didn’t want to have to explain it again next week. There’s about one to three sessions left depending on what they do.

    So far it seems to be going alright. I think the best idea I had for the game was making a sheet of quick background snippets. They all pushed a general archetype, mentioned an event that did not work out well for the PC as well as turning into a vampire. Then reminded them that they’re with their friends because they need them to survive and working together is probably the only way to fix whatever injustice or injury was done to them. All about a paragraph in length. I made a few more than I needed and randomly passed them out to people, leaving the extras on the table and encouraging the players to swap until they were happy. Originally this was a compromise between pregen characters and asking my group to flesh out a story-centric character for a game and setting they’re not familiar with but I may keep using the idea elsewhere.

    I’m running the module Clash of Wills with some adjustments. I ran it because I had it on hand but I don’t necessarily recommend it. It contains some pretty awful examples of mysogyny and unless your group enjoys stomping that out, it can seem pretty ugly. I though it would be easier to get the PCs motivated by giving them something they want to do with their backgrounds rather than going the route the module did and having the NPCs praise them at the start, then ask for favors. So I injected a conniving middleman they love to hate and then went with the normal module storyline. The middleman will show up at the end and give the strong impression that they’ve forwarded his political goals. My group has been very cautious but gotten involved in all the small stuff along the way. They’re about to kick off timed events that won’t wait for them to traipse across the countryside though, so things should take off pretty fast next session.

  8. says

    Sounds like you got the chops Lanir. And good looking out on the triggery front. I’m a careful cat too. Generally I get away with dropping my edgity content with minimal forewarning, but I keep an eye on reactions so I can learn if I should adjust anything going forward with given players. And I avoid some kinds of stuff altogether.

  9. lanir says

    Finally finished the Vampire: the Dark Ages module. Some of the players liked it more than others but they all liked it a lot more at the end. I went a bit light on the sexual assault stuff (it was NOT subtle or avoidable) and they still decided the guy put forth as the cause of that behavior needed to meet a sudden, bad end. I let them know this was a moral challenge to their Road/Path (changes names in different versions – they were all following the Road of Humanity) and then since they had no idea how it worked, gave them the option of roleplaying or rolling dice for it. I asked them to rank on a 1 to 5 scale where 5 was “That guy needed killing, end of story.” and 1 was “I have real problems with this. We shouldn’t have done that.” Based on the choice I explained that if they were okay with it, they lost humanity. If they were not completely fine with it, it would haunt and trouble them for some time but no loss of humanity. Probably can’t do that again but it worked great to get them more invested in what their characters were doing. Also awarded some XP because everyone explained it well and stuck with their character’s viewpoint.

    Caveat: Below I’ll talk about Clash of Wills in a vague but potentially spoilery way. It’s a lousy module though, nobody will want to run it for their group anyway.

    The module had some issues. I had originally planned to run something different but came up against time constraints and ran this module instead. It basically didn’t give social characters much to do and mental characters probably even less which was problematic as I’d billed the game as more social than the group was used to. The primary reason it was good as an “intro” module was it would almost certainly set the PCs up with some allies and enemies in the end, and possibly a place to call their own as well. It also had a couple interesting NPCs. The bad parts were… everything else. A nasty little man with a little bit of power threatening a woman to get sexual favors, everyone interesting is setup to die or come out with severe mental trauma, some thought was given to every other time the PCs might react by fighting their way through a social scene but nothing whatsoever about what happens if the nasty guy shows up dead one morning, combat encounters scaled oddly and it all came down to combat in the end anyway. Also, as a final insult the mission the PCs were sent on would wrap up favorably on it’s own if they just took a vacation and ignored the quest for a couple weeks.

    I let my group save the interesting people and by killing sexual assault guy, my group managed to cut off that nonsense. They gained an allies rather than making enemies of all the people who liked the NPCs that were supposed to die. Basically there weren’t too many better options for coming out of it and all I did was avoid cheesing a scene that should take time by having it instantly resolve before their horrified eyes and avoid adding extra combat encounters since they weren’t a combative group.

  10. lanir says

    Forgot one positive note in Clash of Wills. The module had a talking scene partway through with several NPCs in the room but one obvious person everyone would want to speak to. They spell out that you should have one of the other NPCs engage a PC who isn’t talking to the main guy. That’s a neat trick to keep more of your group engaged. I’ll keep in mind for later.

  11. says

    Designing a module ain’t easy, I’m sure, so some amount of suckiness is forgivable, but that one deffos sounds like it is pushing the limit. It’s funny to take throwaway NPCs and make something of them. I’ve done that with a few Pathfinder modules. In fact, I’m curious how many other people do that, and of them, how many people have Balenar Forsend from “The Fallen Fortress” in their parties.

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