The team regrouped later on outside of the crime scene, and discussed their options in Prism’s Sanctum.

“What we know is that this ‘mage-killer’ tracked our victim down somehow.” Prism reviewed their notes.

“And that the assailant has some proficiency with Life magic.” Reynard confirmed, “I saw it, nobody can snap a neck that easily unless it was in the movies. He’s pumped with magic.”

“So it could be that he caught our DMV guy snooping around? Are there any locations on the board that match up?” Jane asked as she peered at the board again.

“I’ve got an idea.” Reynard pointed out a trailer park, “My post cognition also showed me that our military man had a trailer. If our DMV guy had been snooping around there for ley lines, then he might have tripped the Military Guy without knowing it.”

“Victim of circumstance.” Jane frowned, “Hell of a way to go.”

“Better him than us.” Reynard shrugged.

Prism decided to case the trailer park and see if he could get a bead on their military man. After five hours of frustrated searching (and a failure on the first investigation roll) she finally found his trailer… and was caught snooping around.

The Military Man packed his trailer quickly and drove off, eyeing her suspiciously as he pulled out of the park.

Reynard sat on the park bench, looking at the vagrant that spoke to him. “Thanks to your investigations, we had the tip we needed.” the man spoke in a familiar tone, sharing a faraway look, “Thank you, Detective. We’ll make sure you’re compensated fairly. Don’t worry, we take care of our business cleanly.”

Prism called for backup, and Reynard and Jane cased out the second trailer park where the Military Man moved to.

“I need to know what he’s got in there.” Prism said, “Don’t worry, I’ll be careful.”

The Mysterium Mage layered several spells carefully on herself. Invisibility, a spell to conceal her magic, and a spell to make her inaudible. Prism felt herself struggle with the imago, feeling it slip and forced herself to contain the screwup. Trying to force reality to your will was very much like wrestling a snake covered in oil. One mistake and you could pay for it dearly.

Soon she was ready, stepping outside, she approached the parked trailer, and disconnected the generator.

After twenty minutes of waiting, the Military Man stepped outside to check on his generator, and Prism slid inside, turning on her Mage Sight to see if there’s anything in there of note.

What she found was a strange metal bell encrusted with jewels… but strangely, no clapper inside. She was supposed to inspect it further when she felt the trailer sway and the door close.

“I know you’re there.” Military Man said, brandishing a hunting shotgun, “You witches think you’re clever. I can’t see you. I can’t hear you… but I can still smell you, little girl.”

Prism kicked something over, goading the Man to fire his shotgun, before she deflected the pellets away, shattering the windows of the Trailer and jumped out, quickly casting a spell to conceal the bell, feeling paradox surging and twisting something inside her head as she did so. Too much magic, too quickly. Prism was dizzy with pain, but she powered through, hearing the sirens of the police coming to respond to the gunshots.

She paused by a tree, catching her breath as she watched the scene, police lights, officers responding… each one with a strange High Speech rune on their person, superimposed somehow. What was the meaning of that?

Jane observed the proceedings with a clinical eye. She wasn’t Jeanne right now, she was someone else, an assassin for the Guardians of the Veil. The response from the police officers on the scene was like clockwork.

Nobody responds within seconds of a reported shooting.

There were other forces at work. And this was high profile enough to get the Consilium’s attention. Time to see how much this Banisher has kicked the hornet’s nest then.

This marks the first session of our run through on Mage the Awakening’s 2nd Edition. I’ve been light on the mechanics on this one, but here’s a breakdown of some of the more interesting parts:

  • Paradox is much more common, akin to Ascension than the 1e of Awakening. This is a good thing, and gives spellcasting more risk than just simply failing. To that end, Prism is now carrying an Abyssal Condition upon failing to absorb all of a 4-success Paradox roll.
  • Reynard is now bestowed with the Connected condition to the Seers of the Throne. He has a bonus to dealing with them, but can be occasionally coerced to doing them a favor now and then, at risk to himself being exposed to the Consilium.
  • Jane Doe is now looking at an opportunity of getting in good with the local Consilium’s Guardians of the Veil faction with the information she’s gleaned. Add the fact that the cabal has managed to secure a strange artifact and suddenly the team has some strong leverage… if they can figure out what it does.

After the game, the players had a chance to give their feedback so far. They enjoyed the new casting system, even if it was a slog to understand the first time around. It felt more deliberate, consistent and fair.

They also realized that the way the new experience system works, it encourages player characters to take more risks and get into more trouble. Failing isn’t a bad thing now, and getting yourself into trouble is the fastest way to get experience. It’s tempered somewhat by the fact that you still want your Mage to live, so that should balance out the temptation to throw yourself headlong into trouble all the time.

Besides, you gain beats upon resolving a condition. You need to get out of the trouble you’re in, or suffer through it first to earn the experience as opposed to just amassing it by being a sociopathic ball of bad juju.

I’m enjoying it so far, and I’m glad I was able to get my feet wet again with this game. Next session, we get to meet the Consilium, and find out just how much this encounter with the Banishers will shake up the status quo.

Last weekend was the kickoff game of my Mage: the Awakening 2e game set in Chicago. It was a fairly straightforward re-entry into the Awakening universe for me and my players, but since this was only the second time we’ve had a chance to really run the God-Machine Chronicles rules through the paces, we came out of the session with a much deeper appreciation for the system.

But before that, let’s go over the characters:

Detective Jack Lawson, Shadow Name: Reynard (Played by Hikkikomori) Thyrsus of the Free Council. A dirty cop who does whatever needs doing… for a price.

Penelope “Penny” Spencer, Shadow Name: Prism (Played by Miguel) Obrimos of the Mysterium. A photojournalist specialising in the Occult with an obsession over Ley Lines and the flow of Mana in the city.

Jeanne Donnely, Shadow Name: Jane Doe (Played by Silver Countess) Obrimos of the Guardians of the Veil. A woman without a past, but an abundance of identities, somehow hoping that one of them will be a clue that leads her to the truth.

The story begins with the three characters gathered in a torn-up bedroom of a tiny flat in a bad part of town. Illuminated by just a single feeble lightbulb, the room looked like it was torn right out of a horror movie. The bed was soaked through in dried blood, but the room was otherwise untouched. Whoever lived there was a recluse and a bit of a hoarder, with stacks of papers piled up around a work desk, and a wall with a large inboard featuring a web of threads and articles tacked to a map of Chicago.

All over the room, little yellow plastic evidence markers dotted the room. indicators of the team of forensics people and cops that scoured the place already. The corpse was long gone, but the iron smell of dried blood clung to the air.

Reynard stood quietly, keeping an eye on the front door that had been cordoned off with police tape. None of them had a right to be here. This wasn’t his case, but it seemed to be a cute enough lead to look into and make a quick buck from. Both Prism and Jane had a thing for occult stories so a cut from their work for what was a quick in-and-out didn’t seem so bad.

Prism was already working through the place, taking photos on her phone, using a pen to lift the evidence markers out of the way before each shot. Jane on the other hand, had her eyes on the pinboard.

“What do you make of it?” Jane asked.

“We’ll find out.” Prism acknowledged, looking at the threads and expanding her senses, reaching out to peer into the Supernal through her understanding of Prime and Forces, adding with it a touch of Space.

The familiar faraway look of a mage gazing at something that was beyond normal sight came over Prism as she analysed the board, as she came to the conclusion that the board was somewhat magical. It had a weak Sympathetic Link to all the places on the board, possibly through the events marked down.

“Looks like our dead guy was one of us.” She said, “Jane? Fancy a look?”

Jane nodded, adding her own touch of the supernatural, accessing the vagaries of Fate. “What are you for?” she whispered to herself… as Fate replied in her head. Your answers will come right through that door.

“Someone’s coming!” Jane warned, and Reynard stepped into the living room as the other two hid away from sight.

Reynard assumed the stance of a detective at work, turning towards the figure of a slight woman, clearly from the streets, unwashed, wearing a ratty shirt and torn jeans.

“I’m going to have to ask you to stop right there, ma’am.” he said, taking out his badge and flashing it, “Detective Jack Lawson, and this here is my crime scene.”

“Hello Detective.” the woman’s voice held a funny accent. Educated, enunciated. “You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe you. This crime scene belongs to another Detective. You shouldn’t even be here.”

A cursory scan and Jack felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He caught the dark lines under her eyes, the rank smell and bad teeth. He saw the marks on her arms, scars of substance abuse. Whoever he was talking to, it wasn’t this girl.

“I’ve come to tell you that you should leave well enough alone.” The girl said, “Whoever did this took one of our own. And we mean to resolve our own business.” She glanced over his shoulder to the doorway leading to the bedroom, “That said, we’re not against overlooking this transgression in exchange for information on any leads you might find. You are a detective after all.”

Jack frowned, “You’ve got me at a disadvantage.”

“Just as it should be.” the girl replied with a wry smile, “We’ll be in touch Detective Lawson. If you play well, we’ll make sure to reward your effort handsomely.”

Lawson said nothing else, instead tailing the woman as she walked out, watching as her confident stride fell into a junkie’s staggering gait not long after she’d left the apartment building.

He lingered outside, before messaging the others, “Do what you need to do. We’re being watched.”

He met up back with them not long after. “All done?”

“We know what the pinboard does.” Prism replied, “Sympathetic connections across a whole range of places. Weak, but serviceable.”

“But no motive, and no suspect.” Jane added, “Aside from our little visitor from the other guys a while ago.”

“The dead guy’s one of them.” Reynard confirmed, “But now it’s time to see what really happened.” He cast the spell, crafting it with his will, setting it’s parameters and fashioning the Imago with High Speech before letting it go, and peering into the past… just before the time of death.

The vision was crystal clear, and Reynard recounted the details to the rest of the Cabal, how the victim came home from work, settling in on the bedroom to work on the inboard. The victim was some mid-level employee working for the DMV, a regular nobody that kept track of records that could be used to track people down. A perfect position for a non-ambitious member of his conspiracy.

He heard a sound, startled, heading to the door as it was kicked open. He was supposed to say something when the sight of his assailant silenced him. Seven feet tall with muscles straining from under a military surplus jacket. Rough, massive hands reached for him, and snapped his neck, ending him even as he was desperately scrambling to put together a spell.

“All your fault.” the military man whispered, talking to himself as he hoisted the dead man into the bed. “You’re all puppets.”

He stepped outside and pulled in a large duffel bag, again, military surplus. “Nobody else can do this.” he muttered, “I’m the only one that can.”

Reynard continued to narrate how the giant stripped down naked and began to break the man’s limbs at key joints, threading some heavy duty fishing line through them like one would a puppet, tying them in a strange formation above the bed. It was painstakingly slow work, and when he was done, the man took a hot shower, scrubbing himself clean of the blood, and left.

The detective turned to his two companions. “Things just got a lot more interesting.”

“Not one of ours.” Prism said, “Both the victim and the suspect. This has nothing to do with the Consilium.”

“But it does.” Jane corrected, “Remember, this is a mage killer. Just because his first victim belongs to the other team doesn’t mean he won’t strike one of our own next time.”

“But what led him to the guy?” Prism turned to the pinboard on the wall, “I think the answer is staring right at us.”

This writeup is getting a bit long so I’ll cap it off here. I’ll pick up on the second half of the session where the team confronts the killer in my next entry, and reflect a bit on just how the new 2e system works to push the atmosphere of horror and influences how people play.

Today we talk about group dynamics and table management both in and out of character. One of the unwritten responsibilities of a GM is the fact that you are often the de-facto leader of the table, and the task of managing player expectations and experiences falls to you.

Think of yourself as a moderator in that sense, where your goal is to ensure that everyone (including yourself) has a good time with the hours and effort that everyone invests in the game.

That said, let’s look at 2 specific concerns raised so far:

Find out what they want

Different players want different things from a game. This is why I tend to stress the pitch phase of a game with a lot of dialogue with your players. Tell them what kind of game you’d like to run, and ask them if they’re willing to give it a try and what they’d like to do in it.

The more information you have about the style of play they expect, the easier it is to understand what kind of game to run. A lot of times that a player group feels “problematic” stems from the dissonance of expectations between the participants. Maybe one player wants more drama and character acting, while another just wants to cleave orc heads.

Get the group to sit down and buy into the central concept and themes and adhere to them. Write them down if you have to to form a social contract of sorts if you feel the need to.

In this way you get to mitigate the incidences of players who are out to “derail” your game by acting against the established mood of the game.

Help! My Players are kicking the asses of my monsters in combat!

This is a very common sensation for a lot of GMs. There’s something to be said about the gut-level panic at seeing the players wipe out an encounter that was meant to be more difficult.

But fret not, this is merely an illusion.

Players who are rules-oriented are naturally able in terms of wiping the floor with the enemy. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

The best way to overcome this panic is to think of it from the perspective of the world they occupy. That kind of sublime skill in the art of slaughter is bound to pick up a ton of complications that players can’t just shrug off. These can range from job offers to apprentice applicants to rival combatants that seek to test their might against the players.

In addition, if you’re looking to make the players sweat a bit, throw in a mix of challenges. Think of GMing as boxing. Throwing jabs for an entire match isn’t going to get you anywhere, you need to mix it up with a combination of jabs, straights, hooks, and uppercuts aimed towards both the head and the body.

So don’t be afraid to throw players in mix of social and physical challenges. Maybe they get forced into a fancy dress party where they could start a war by sneezing wrong. Or they could be caught in a devious trap somewhere that requires puzzling their way out of it. Engage them on all fronts, and always, always follow up with consequences.

Remember that RPGs are also about playing a role, and that the player characters don’t exist in a vacuum. As they do more impressive things, more people are going to pay attention and soon things will snowball into more challenging scenarios that don’t always play to their strengths.

That said be careful to not get too caught up in this that you ignore their strengths all together. Let them wipe out an enemy force in a single turn, they deserve that. But don’t let up when they find themselves sweating bullets in a social scene, because they deserve that too.

Hey everyone, due to popular demand, I’m shifting gears to move on to a topic that seems to be of interest to a lot of GMs: Improvisation at the table.

GMing is often portrayed as being similar to juggling, or other feats of mental and physical dexterity. While there is some truth to the number of things to keep track of when running a game, I also feel that this paints an unfair picture of the role of a GM as being incredibly difficult.

So here I’m going to try to paint a different picture, and that all starts with the ability to improvise.

Improvisation in the context of running RPGs is the ability to keep a game moving despite not having and set plans. Take note that this doesn’t mean the absence of any plans, but rather having the flexibility to run a game from point A to point B without having any rigid paths set down.

Let’s break it down to it’s components, shall we?


More than anything else, the ability to improvise relies on having a goal. By having a set goal for each of the characters in the game, you have something to steer them to, rather than letting them run aimlessly around your setting until they run into something.

Goals don’t have to be big, but they have to at least impart direction. Players appreciate it when their characters feel like they’re getting somewhere, and that happens only when they achieve a particular goal. When thinking of goals, think of where you’d like to bring the character next.

“Get Gerry the Paladin to discover a clue that leads to a Heretic Cult” works well since it engages the character in an issue that matters to him personally and leaves the door open for the rest of the players to join in and help.

“Have Alia encounter her uncaring father, the King in the middle of the banquet” is another because it helps push an ongoing plot hook and opens it to new consequences that can spin off into different directions.

The Journey

Now that you’ve got Goals down, how do dress up the journey to make it look like you planned everything down to the smallest detail?

That’s where the second article comes in. By structuring your descriptions and plot elements along the Themes, Mood and Motifs you’ve chosen early on, you can improvise a scene easily by checking against the three.

Let’s go back to Gerry the Paladin for a moment. If the Theme is “Grimdark Fantasy” and Mood is “Black Comedy” and Motif is “Skulls and Superstition” then you already have a good idea of the broad strokes involved in setting up a scene.

Likewise, if Alia’s elements are a Theme of “Romance and Espionage”  Mood is “Secrets and Shadows” and Motif is “Renaissance Italy” then you have a solid image upon which to play towards that encounter with her father.

Confidence and Delivery

Ultimately, improv also relies on confidence and delivery. Never admit to not having notes. In fact feel free to shuffle some papers or index cards behind the GM screen.

Use silence. Rather than saying “umm…” take a moment to sit quietly, take a sip of your water, and go through your options in your head.

Listen to your players. If your players are caught up in the moment and suddenly come up with a theory that blows your reality out of the water, go with their theory. It’ll make them feel clever, and you’ll benefit from looking like a clever bastard.

And that’s my 2 cents on Improv. Obviously it requires that you know your player characters really well. It’s best to rely on improv when you’ve already got a better handle for what makes the characters tick. When I start a new campaign, I begin with an adventure or two that is really well planned and has many opportunities for the players to step in and do something by themselves. Once I know what hooks get bites, then I start shifting to improv mode.

Now Renegades are the people with their own philosophies
They change the course of history
Everyday people like you and me

– “Renegades of Funk”, by Rage Against The Machine

Welcome back! Today we’re talking about Themes and Moods. These are old tools that I’ve admittedly cribbed from the World of Darkness games, but I’ve found them quite useful so I figured I’d pass it on.


Themes, in the literary sense, is the main idea of a literary work. In the context of RPGs, a theme informs what the campaign is about. The events of the game, the way the conflict is structured and the kind of encounters that the players will find their characters in are all informed by this.

For my Mage: the Awakening game, I’ve decided to focus on two themes:

  • Family is Everything – Being a Mafia inspired setting, the Mage game will have moments where Loyalty is painful, and Betrayal doubly so.
  • Magic is a Drug – The temptation to use Magic is a constant in the lives of a Mage. While some spells are “harmless” there’s always a more compelling motive to use it beyond what is considered moral… But if you’ve seen the truth of the world and know that there are no Angels or Demons watching over you, then what’s stopping you?

Okay, so you’ve identified one or two themes you want for your game, now what? Well, if you’re planning your session, see if there are ways by which you can enforce these themes, either symbolically or directly. Maybe in this game an NPC that the Cabal loves like a brother betrays them in a moment of weakness, or the love of a woman, or some other cause. Or perhaps that “harmless” floozie from the other cabal is finally revealed to be in a constant haze because she’s been feasting on the dreams of those around her, driving them to misery and she just. can’t. stop.

That said, learn to mix it up so that you don’t end up sounding too preachy, or too heavy for your players.


The other half of the equation is the Mood of the game. If the Theme is the cerebral part of it, then the Mood is the emotional tone.

While Mage is often about power struggles, this particular game should be a mix of emotions. I want Mages to forge incredibly intimate ties with one another, to see each other as Family. Much like the Mafia movies, weddings and friendships are key moments that deserve their spot in the sun. That said, when the rain comes, it comes down hard.

The Moods for my Mage Game are:

  • Joie de Vivre – The exultant celebration of life. Mages have seen wonders that so many mortals never will, and it is because they hope to see it again, Mages cling to life with a ferocity that is unmatched.
  • Paranoia – The flipside of this is that Mages also live in a world surrounded by so many threats that it is also possible that a single misstep could cost them dearly. This Paranoia could poison friendships and ruin reputations or worse.


Here’s something that isn’t from the World of Darkness, but is in line with the Themes and Mood of a game. Being a game inspired by the mafia culture, society and conflicts, the game also carries some of its motif.

A Motif is a distinctive feature or element in literary work. In this case, I plan to give the mage game a strong 1920s’s art deco vibe. From fashion, to architecture to automobiles, there will be elements that harken back to the heady days of the Prohibition era. Cabals will meet in renovated speakeasies to conduct their business, wear snazzy pinstripe suits to high society functions and have jazz music playing in the background.

The setting will still be 2016 of course, but these elements will help paint the world and make it much more memorable.

So, what do you guys think of Themes, Moods and Motifs? Is this something you think you can use? Let me know in the comments!