[M:tAw] What is Mage: the Awakening About? (Long, but Awesome)

Posted: June 21, 2010 by pointyman2000 in Advice, Articles, Let's Study, Mage: the Awakening, Mage: the Awakening 101, Roleplaying Games, World of Darkness

Once in a while I stumble into brilliant people who have the ability to explain something with a clarity that is beyond my meager abilities.  Today, that person is Mailanka from RPG.net, who went on to try and explain Mage: the Awakening to those who don’t “get” it.

So in the interest of preserving his post, I’ve decided to put it up here in my blog for those who want to understand Mage: the Awakening.

You know what helped me understand Mage? Screwing around with it and asking questions. Vampire: the Requiem, for example, explains itself much better than just about any vampire game I’ve previously played and certainly better than Mage did, and yet, I didn’t really get it until I sat down and started to plan a campaign for it, and then suddenly the quality of its craftsmanship leapt out at me and I got it. Mage is exactly the same. (Arguably, all StephenLS is doing in those threads is asking questions and exploring, exactly the same thing I did when I started making characters and working out the implications of Mage).

Everything you need to know is right in the core book, and most of it is found in the magic rules. I’ll do this very simply, because ultimately what makes Mage complicated is not the facts of the game, but how they interact.


  • Mages have real ultimate power aka Magic.
  • Magic has certain rules and is hard to understand.
  • There’s a group of bad guys called Seers of the Throne who stomp Mages who don’t serve “the Exarchs.”
  • There used to be an awesome place where all Magic was known (“Atlantis”).
  • Magic, when screwed up, causes really bad things to happen (“The Abyss”).

So what does a Mage do? Let’s start with that first fact: Mages have real, ultimate power. What would you do with real, ultimate power? Anything you want! Some people might joke that they’d become super-heroes and solve crime. Fair enough. I think many of us would seek immortality, get that pretty girl (or boy) to fall in love with us, or do something very personal (“Resurrect my father, who died of cancer when I was a child”). Regardless, we all have something we’d want to do with that Real, Ultimate Power, and all of those are completely possible. Resurrection is a little tricky, as is immortality, but they’re certainly within the realms of power for an Archmage. The trick is, of course, reaching that level of power. HOW do you use Real, Ultimate Power to achieve these things?

Well, you don’t know that, so you have to study. Magic has rules and is hard to understand, remember? You have to experiment or find lore. Experimentation is dangerous, as a screw-up can lead to the Abyss leaking into the world (Paradox rules), and lore is hard to find. However, if you can find “Atlantis,” you have the Holy Grail of Real Ultimate Power, and anything is within your reach. Even becoming a god.

And the Gods, “the Exarchs,” wouldn’t much like that. Afterall, they did it, so there’s nothing to stop you from doing it. Nothing but them, of course, and their Seers of the Throne. This is why the Seers stomp all mages not under the thumb of the Exarchs: to prevent them from becoming gods.

So, we have young mages experimenting, which can cause the Abyss to leak in and destroy the world. If you found out a mage was screwing with Things Man Was Not Meant To Know (in the classic sense of “Man wasn’t meant to know how to defeat death,” not “Cthulhu”), what would you do? Stop him, of course. And how do you do that? With Real, Ultimate Power, of course. I mean, you could use a gun, but why, when you have something so much more effective, secret, lethal, untraceable?

And we have mages looking for lore that would eventually allow them to transcend and become gods, which makes them alot of enemies. The result? First, searching for lore is so much safer than experimentation, so you might help them find that lore. And, of course, they need to be protected. Hell, YOU need to be protected. You wouldn’t want to die just because a Seer of the Throne found you, right?

So you band together, form an alliance. Mages that help one another navigate the dangers of magic, share lore, and defend them against the attacks of other mages (specifically, the Seers of the Throne). Hence, Orders. But what’s the most dangerous thing to Mages? If I asked all of you, you’d all disagree. “The Abyss!” some of you would say. “The Seers,” others would reply. “Ignorance and screwing up magic” others might say. Sift through the Orders, and you find all of these points. The Adamantine Arrows seek to defend Mages from external threats like the Abyss. The Guardians of the Veil seek to defend mages from themselves. The Mysterium seeks to protect mages from ignorance and the mistakes of the past. The Silver Ladder seeks to protect mages from the Exarchs (by defeating them). The Free Council seeks to defend mages from the other busy-body Orders, returning to the purity of “If you have Real, Ultimate Power, you should use it.”

But let’s return to that Real, Ultimate Power. What are the rules associated with it?

  • It’s easier to cast something you know than something you don’t know.
  • If you control someone’s soul(stone), you control them utterly.
  • You can affect (or kill) anyone, anywhere, anytime, but you need to know their name.
  • Magic leaves behind traces of itself
  • The more powerful the magic, the more dire the consequences of its failure

The first rule leads to rotes and specialization. If it’s easier to cast magic you know than you don’t know, it makes sense to study, and it makes sense to make the most of your study time. So, you need a strategy, ideally one that’s self-reinforcing. If you want immortality, you should study magic that will eventually lead to immortality (magic like Life or Death). If you want temporal power, you should study magic that will lead you to that (magic like Mind). Of course, these Arcana have more possibilities than just these, and so you have to search within your spheres for something that works for you.

Of course, clever players, given great power (“You have been granted three wishes!”) will use that power to get more power (“I wish for more wishes!”). And what’s more power than another mage?. Two mages, each studying different things, both working to the same ends is far more powerful than one. But to whose ends? We’ve already established that different Orders have different goals. I think it’s safe to say that different mages within Orders will have different goals as well (One might want to resurrect her father, the other wants immortality). Who gets their way? The one in control, and that means soulstones.

But how do you get power over another mage? Easy. You have lots of magic that can do that. Mind, for example, or threatening to kill a mage or his loved ones, or by tangling up their fate so they’re destined to lose. But you can’t do that unless you know their name, unless you have a sympathetic connection. Thus, you want to know people’s names, and you don’t want people to know yours (even if you’re not a jerk, you wouldn’t want other people controlling you. Free will is worth having, right?).

Fortunately, you have a weapon against all that: Magic leaves traces. If someone is hunting your family or otherwise trying to control/kill you, you can turn on Mage Sight and take a look at the sort of magic that’s being tossed around and try to figure out what’s going on. If you can figure it out, then you can start to hunt them back and that means figuring out who they are and turning the tables on them. You may not believe in controlling another mage, or in killing, but it’s either that or being killed or controlled.

Which brings us to our final point. Magic is like an arms race. The more powerful the magic, the more obvious the magic, the more powerful the mage, the more dangerous and costly the magic. It’s all right there in the rules (Powerful magic is Vulgar and tends to cost mana, it tends to leave a bigger resonance, and the more magic you know, the more Gnosis you must have, and the more Gnosis you must have, the more paradox you cause). That means you save your big guns for when it’s most needed. Use a scalpel rather than sledgehammer. That is, of course, unless you’re backed into a corner. If you’re going to die/lose your soul anyway, who cares if the Abyss comes spilling in? Bring down the fire! Thus, if you’re hunting another mage, you cannot let him know. You MUST be subtle, otherwise A) He’ll hunt you back or B) realize he’s going to lose, and unleash the dogs of war.

This means mage is alot like the cold war. You have quiet agents silently hunting Truth, evading the “Eye of the World” (the Exarchs, and the eyes of mortals who are under their thrall and unravel your magic anyway), and trying to defeat their foes without tipping their hand, lest nuclear war be unleashed. And you continue to fight this cold war not because you want to, but because by now, neither side can afford to let the other get the upper-hand, regardless of what initially caused the conflict in the first place.

Stephen compared Mage to Shadowrun, and I think that’s pretty close. Powerful mages will either completely lose themselves “in the street” and become powerful figures of a magical “underworld,” or they’ll ensconce themselves in powerful fortresses of ivory and power to fend off all comers. They’ll seek ultimate power for their own reasons, and they’ll use catspaws to do their dirty work (a layer of distance keeps their foes from retaliating). Weak mages need help and so they’re willing to do the dirty work of powerful mages (or they’re blackmailed into it by powerful mages quickly threatening to pwn them), because it’ll earn them scraps of knowledge and power which they can cobble together into their own power structure and become powerful themselves.

All of this is there in Mage. They clearly show it in their little vignettes and their stories, and they suggest it in the setting material. They don’t really explain it well, but partially, that’s because it’s complex and emergent. It sort of naturally happens when you study the implications of the rules.

Stephen studied Boston. I say: Create your own setting. What does a powerful mage really look like? He has a fully developed strategy

  • (“Real power is found in the Astral, so I shall perfect my knowledge of dreams and transcendence to achieve it.”)
  • (“I seek immortality. One way to do that is to cast Regenerate on all parts of my body, but that only lasts for a month, so I’d need to do it again and again, and that’s a spells constantly on all the time. But if I enchant an artifact that regenerates anyone who slumbers inside of it, then I can have my cake and eat it too. Of course, that involves knowing a good enchantment spell and keeping my lazarus pit from my enemies…”)
  • (“I can’t resurrect my father without being an archmage, but I know someone who can: Gods. Maybe I can find someway to convince a god of the Spirit World to bring him back, and if I can’t, maybe I can force them to.”)
  • (“Everyone is trying to kill me, so I’ll kill them before they can get to me. That means mastering some kind of killing spell, some way of figuring out who needs to be killed and doing so in a way that keeps them from knowing that I did it.”)
  • (“Hey, you can turn Mana into Tass. I wonder if you can make Tass permanent, and then what would happen if you gathered a WHOLE LOT of it. Would I be able to be a sort of power-broker among mages, trading mana for favors?”)

he likely has lower wisdom (which might mean he’s a little mad), he has enemies, and he has an agenda. And he has gobs of Gnosis which means he has a powerful resonance and lots of paradox, which means he uses his magic rarely and prefers catspaws.

What does a young mage look like? He’s got a couple of minor tricks but hasn’t really explore the full potential of his power. He’s loud and obvious, and attracts the attention of subtle, silent elders, who watch him and either seek to destroy him or bring him into their games to serve their agenda. They tempt him with secrets, but he’ll soon realize they don’t have his best interests in mind and he’ll have to find a way to break free and gain power in his own right.

And so we end up with a game of magical conspiracy and espionage, with great mysteries, great rewards for understanding them, and unfathomable dangers lurking beyond human comprehension.

I love it.

If you cobble together your own group of mages, explore their past, explore their strategies, explore how they evade the Seers of the Throne (and how and why individual Seers hunt other mages), explore their relationships, I think all of this just leaps out at you, personally.


I find that I agree with Mailanka’s interpretation wholeheartedly, and many of my players understand the Cold War-esque nature of the game.  Hopefully this post also helps other people who stumble into my blog to see the game in a new and interesting light.

  1. Hikkikomori says:

    I think he put too much emphasis on the Seers of the Throne. Which he likes to safely quantify as a tangible force of evil.

    But he missed the point entirely that in Mage, the evil is YOU.

    Personally, I think of Mage in these terms:

    If you had a silent, untraceable gun that can shoot from anywhere – What’s stopping you from killing everyone you hate?

    For a less violent example:
    If you had the ability to heal all diseases regardless of origin, strain, or form – What’s stopping you from curing Cancer? AIDS? Death?

    The answer is YOU.

    Or hopefully, someone more reasonable than you, esp. when you are drunk with power.

    Or at least it dawns on you, or at the very least your character quickly, that leaving a trail of bodies all around the world will surely ping someone’s radar.
    Curing currently un-curable diseases will send not only the medical community into an uproar, but the entire world as well.

    Then they people will start to find out why.

    And this is even all before you count the other players on the field – ie. other Mages.

    Then it gets fun.

    Then you realize, a gun might have been much more convenient after all.

    • Hikkikomori says:

      And no.
      The Seers don’t bother with every upstart Mage that awakens.
      Its like try to rebuke every child that doesn’t want to eat its vegetables.

      And no matter how strong their influence is, there is still a limit to what they can do. To what they can see, hear, and act upon at any given point in time.

      Just don’t do something stupid to grab their attention.

  2. dirty yasuki says:

    Well when you put NMage that way, I guess that whole Atlantis background isn’t so bad afterall. hehehe

    Ohhh bookmarking this for future reference.

    • Honestly, the “Atlantis” angle is only big for the people who decide to make a fuss about it. I’ve run two mage campaigns and there’s not been a single Atlantis reference because everyone is too busy trying to stay alive or outsmarting the opposition.

      • Hikkikomori says:

        Why bother with Atlantis if it’s already difficult as it is trying to earn a living and trying to dodge other mages from mind-controlling/killing you.

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