Monday Review: Tome of the Mysteries for Mage: the Awakening (Warning: Long)

Posted: September 22, 2008 by pointyman2000 in Mage: the Awakening, Reviews, Roleplaying Games

Tome of Mysteries Cover

Tome of the Mysteries Cover

Mage: the Awakening is a big game with lots of rules.  But even for a book of that size, the nature of it’s freeform spellcasting system, and the esoteric nature of how effects are organized in the Atlantean paradigm could use a little bit of help.  This is where the Tome of the Mysteries comes in.  This supplement was not the first to come out for the M:tAW line, but it was certainly the one I’d recommend that people pick up first if they’re looking to get a  better understanding of the Magic systems and philosophy of M:tAW.

Tome of the Mysteries is a hardcover supplement that does exactly what it sets out to do:  to further define and clarify the magic of Mage: the Awakening.  The book wastes no time getting into the meat of the matter, starting off with a description of the 13 Practices of the Atlantean spellcasting paradigm.   Each of the practices is not only described in context of the “reality” of the game world, but they also provide a concrete example of a spell rote of the said practice, before going into how each Practice can be used within the game.

Having had a chance to collect the older Mage: the Ascension supplements, the presence of a Metagame portion where the book discusses the Practices as how they can be used by a GM as elements in a story, or as plot hooks, and how certain Orders go about teaching their fledgeling mages how to use the Practices is a gold mine.  I can’t stress just how impressed I was upon seeing such a thorough treatment.  Each of the 13 practices is given this kind of attention, and I felt that this chapter alone made the book worth buying.

GMs of the game will be even more grateful as Tome of the Mysteries dwells even deeper into the nature of spellcasting and how magic turns around to influence the caster in the second chapter dealing with Spell Lore.  Where the corebook goes into the mechanical “how to’s” of spellcasting, the Tome of the Mysteries goes on to focus on the flavor of spellcasting.  Touching on the “how it feels” and “how it’s done” outside of the rules and into the descriptions.  This is especially helpful for me as a GM primarily because well… I don’t really practice magic, and while it’s easy to draw on comic books and other media to get a visual of what a spell might be, it also helps to have a primer on how it might feel.

The rest of the Spell Lore chapter goes on to add even more Rotes that the players and the GMs alike can use in their games, as well as a discussion of Factor Bonuses, which are small symbollistic add-ons to a spellcasting attempt to boost a Mage’s sympathy with the spell and gives small +1 or +2 die bonuses to the spellcasting roll.  This is quickly followed up by a description of each of the Skills in the game and how they can be used for spellcasting and even more sample rotes that incorporate the Factor Bonus mechanics.

The Third Chapter discusses the possibility of introducing a different Mythos as a basis for a Mage’s belief structure.  Not all magic has to come from a belief in Atlantis.  While the elements (Mudras, High Speech, the Practices) are the same, they could just as easily have come from a different culture entirely.  This opens up the floodgates to futher customizing a mage character by adding the same cultural diversity that featured so prominently in Mage: the Ascension.  One particularly interesting bit in this chapter for me is the discussion of the different types of Mudras, or physical gestures to aid in the casting of magic such as:

  • Asana – Static body postures or stances
  • Darshana – Particular gazes and facial expressions
  • Mudra – Hand gestures involving both hands
  • Nata – Ritual body movement, such as a kata or a dance
  • Pranayama – Breathing control and internal meditation

This is the kind of detail that I love.  Options aside from the tried and true Naruto-ish hand signs (Warning: Youtube Video) are a great way to break out of the norm.

The third chapter goes on to discuss the role of special Glyphs, High Speech, specialized Path and Order Tools… including options for encoding Magic in tattoos.  In addition, they also provide a sample variant Mythos to use or study as a basis for making custom culturally influenced groups.

The chapter then goes on to discus an alternative magical “praxis” or style of magic:  Techgnosticism, which pursues the Ars Nova, which seeks to cast aside old and outmoded forms of magic and integrate the technology that people have come up with ever since the fall of Atlantis.  This is a cool way of giving a nod back to the old Technologically aspected mages of Mage: the Ascension such as the Sons of Ether or the Virtual Adepts.

Next up is Living under the Mysteries, which discusses the necessity for secrecy in Awakened society.  Mages are secretive not only because they choose to be, but because it’s necessary for their own safety.  Sympathetic links are sources of power, and are also weaknesses, as those with access to a Mage’s true name will have an easier time in striking against that mage from afar.  While this is familiar territory to the corebook, the Tome of the Mysteries goes on to discuss Counter-Espionage techniques used by the mages in order to foil those who would try to collect vital information.  Protection, espionage and Information are all detailed, before moving on to another of my favorite topics:  the Ethics of Magic

The Ethics section is by far one of my favorites.  As a rather introspective game, the concept of Mage as a game of Personal Horror necessitates a bit of soul-searching.  It’s not all about what changes you do on the world around you,  but also how your magic changes you in turn.

Magic, by it’s very nature is an extension of one’s will as channeled through one’s Awakened soul.  As such, it is a very personal power, tinged with the caster’s own hopes, fears, imagination and emotion.  Murder by magic isn’t anything like killing with a gun, or even with your bare hands.  You can permanently scar your soul by the act of using the most primal part of your soul to end someone’s life, and that’s what it’s all about.  Magic can do a lot of things, but it’s taking responsibility for what you do with it that matters.

Finally chapter three closes with the Duel Arcane, and how it’s used in the context of ritualized combat between mages to settle differences without killing each other.  It’s an interesting element to inter-mage rivalries that might come in very useful in more political games.  I haven’t had a chance to actually see a Dual Arcane in my campaign just yet, but I’m looking forward to it.

Chapter Four details Magic Manifested, going into the details of the various magical items, and how to make them.  This chapter comes in as a big help for those who play Moros characters, adding more flexibility and use for the Matter Arcana.  The following rules on Alchemy further enchance these, allowing for the creation of all sorts of things from tinctures, to salves to potions and oils, all of which can be used to great effect as they can be imbued with the spells cast beforehand.  Chapter four finishes off with a discussion of Soul Stones, and how they can be used, including a particularly interesting bit about learning another person’s Legacy against their own will, something that will probably be very useful for GMs looking to turn these into plot hooks.

The last Chapter of the Tome of the Mysteries is the one geared towards GMs.  It’s interesting to see that the authors acknowledge that NPC creation in mage has a potential to become quite burdensome given the sheer number of options and rotes in the game, and they give serveral sensible (and relatively fair) options to handing NPCs.  Further information on what to focus on (like what their Nimbus is like, and what their spells might be) is also really handy.

Paradox is finally given it’s due, with a further discussion on just what each of it’s manifestations could be like.  While Paradox is no longer as vicious as it’s older incarnation, it’s still a source for unexpected turns of events, and in particularly devastating displays, it can serve as an instant plot hook.  Even as a long time Mage GM I found myself appreciating the usefulness of this portion of the book.

The topic then goes off to discuss Archmastery.  This is the only portion in the book that seemed a little off to me, in that while it was excellently written, and gives insight to just what the Archmages are… there’s really no point as to which the players might actually achieve this level of Awakening (unless we game for years).  Still, the discussion of Archmagedom is an interesting intellectual exercise, as I can’t imagine using them as NPCs, without making the players feel like lackeys being submitted to odd quests “I need you to collect the seventh son of a seventh son, as I need it as a component of my spell.”

The last of the book details the quick road to power: Abyssal Magic.  Rather than just calling upon the Supernal Realms for their magic, the Mages get a quick boost of power by letting the Abyss taint their spells.  The costs are many, but the equivalent power boost is enough to make mages consider it in truly desperate situations.

I like the discussion of Abyssal Magic for the sheer storytelling potential it has for a story of a fall and possible redemption.  The Abyss is powerful, but stories of redemption are made even more impressive because of the nature of the fall.  However I don’t recommend running it for any but the most mature and stable groups that understand this sort of game.  I can easily see it crumble in the face of players who see mechanical power and don’t really care much for character stories.

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Overall, the Tome of the Mysteries is an excellent supplement, and could easily count as a requirement to any Mage: the Awakening campaign.  The rules are sound, the options open up possibilities to take the game to other directions, and the discussion of Ethics and the nature of Magic are all so well done that they’re essential reading for players and GMs alike.  If you were to get only 1 supplement for Mage: the Awakening, make it this one.

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Tome of the Mysteries is available via DriveThruRPG for $17.99 or roughly PHP 774.00

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Comments
  1. Lykos says:

    A very insightful review! I always find dissections of the exact content of books like these very useful. I’m looking to run a Mage campaign in the future, and your website seems to be the best resource I’ve found, when it comes to Mage info! I’ll definitely be reading more.

    -Lykos

    • Hi Lykos and welcome to the blog!

      I’m glad that you’re finding the site useful! Mage has a lot of layers to it and I find it best that I dissect it to digestible chunks for me to learn best. Do feel free to ask any questions or join in any of the discussions here.

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