What is Mage: The Ascension?
Continuing in my series on using the wonderful HeroQuest RPG for various other settings, this week, I’m going to talk about the original Mage: The Ascension RPG, originally published by White Wolf back in 1993.
Mage is an amazing game of modern-day magicians who hide in the shadows of our world from the evil Technocracy, an organization that hunts them down wherever it finds them. Mages follow various paths or Traditions that describe in general terms how they see the world and how they choose to work magic. The ultimate goal of the mage Traditions is to help humanity Ascend to a higher state so that everyone—and all of reality—can be enlightened.
Mage: The Ascension was my personal favorite of the World of Darkness games that came out in the 1990’s. Everything about it was just so cool—it was The Matrix six years before there even was such a movie—but with more magic and a much wider world in which to play.
Now, I’m not going to complain about the Storyteller System, the set of rules used by White Wolf in all their World of Darkness games. It was functional and mostly worked as advertised at the time. The system has gone through a number of tweaks and modifications over the years in subsequent editions, but the core of the Storyteller System is still there.
There were times, though, when I felt that Mage deserved something looser, more freewheeling and simpler. After all, much the magic system in Mage was designed to be very open, to let the players think up their own effects and aspects of the magic they used.
And magic in Mage was ultimately just another way to resolve a conflict, or augment another ability that would be used to resolve a conflict.
And that’s where HeroQuest excels.
Characters in Mage were described by nine attributes (divided up into Physical, Mental, and Social) and three categories of skill-like elements (divided up into Skills, Talents, and Knowledges). All magic was divided up into nine Spheres in which the character would have a rating in one or more. And there were some additional stats that described various other things that allowed the character to interact with the rules of the game.
But, like my approach always is when using a different system for a game, the idea is emulation, not conversion. I’m going to look at the key elements of a Mage game and talk a little about how it work in HeroQuest.
All of the attributes (physical, mental, social) and abilities (talents, skills, knowledges) were designed to produce a pool of dice that would be rolled by the player whenever the character wanted to do something to affect the game world. The normal HeroQuest abilities replace these with no difficulties. In fact, in HeroQuest there is no reason to have an ability unless it is special in some way to the character and is something that they will use to resolve conflicts.
In a modern-day game, there are some things that most people can be assumed to be able to do—driving a car, for example. However, most people would not be able to drive a car on a highway, weaving in and out of traffic while being chased by black-suited goons riding in SUVs while shooting at the driver.
So it is important to make sure that if a character wants to use an ability that most normal people would be expected to have to resolve the types of conflicts that come up in a Mage: The Ascension game, those abilities should be called out and given a rating.
This means that one player may assume his or her character can drive a car without needing to note it down on the character sheet. But another player may want to have Stunt Driving as an ability with a rating so that he or she can have his or her character act in high-speed chases on busy highways with a decent chance of succeeding.
This is one area where the group of players should sit down and discuss those kinds of abilities before the characters are created, so that everyone is on the same page about what a typical person can do with no rating. Such things that should be agreed upon include (but might not be limited to):
- Driving a vehicle
- Operating a computer
- Doing basic research
- A non-professional level of athletic endeavours
- Basic first aid
This way, players can choose to call out important abilities based on their character concepts while leaving those normal assumed abilities off the character sheet.
In standard HeroQuest, Hero Points act as both a spendable bonus on rolls against abilities, and as advancement points. If using HeroQuest for a Mage: the Ascension game, I recommend splitting Hero Points into two different pools.
Hero Points are used for advancement, just as in the regular game. The number you give out should be adjusted to reflect the pace of advancement you want for your campaign.
For the spendable resource, I recommend calling it Willpower. In this way, it acts in a similar manner to Willpower from the Mage rules. You could even use Nature and Demeanor from the Mage rules as a way to regain Willpower, thus tying a roleplaying aspect to it.
Needless to say, magic is the big element in Mage: The Ascension that needs to be added to really make it a Mage game. It needs to feel right, even if the rules aren’t the same.
Note: I’m not going to get into a long explanation of how magic works in the original Mage rules. I assume you’re familiar with the original game and are looking for another option to use when running it, so I’m going to gloss over a lot of stuff and just focus on the core elements.
In Mage, magic is broken down into nine Spheres: Correspondence, Entropy, Forces, Life, Matter, Mind, Prime, Spirit, and Time. A character’s rating in a sphere determines how much the mage knows and is able to do with that category of magic. A different rating, Arete, is used for the actual spellcasting.
In HeroQuest, this can be simplified to just using the spheres as discreet abilities and pulling Arete into the sphere rating. The granularity of the original Mage is not really needed here.
When looking at keywords, I would not recommend making Arete a keyword with the various spheres as break-out abilities under it, if you want to keep the feel of the original Mage game. Doing it this way would mean a character has access to all the spheres, and is simply better at some of them. In the original game, a character with no dots in a sphere simply cannot perform that type of magic.
I would suggest making the spheres themselves keywords. This neatly addresses the situation with Rotes (pre-packaged spells that the mage learns). A sphere could have an overall rating, and then the Rotes are used as break-out abilities. If doing it this way, I would also increase the cost of improving a sphere keyword, making it cheaper to add and improve Rotes than to improve the overall ability. Personally, I would put the cost at 3 times normal to improve the keyword—it’s expensive, but the benefits could be worth it if the player has developed a bunch of Rotes under that keyword. It gives the player an interesting decision to make.
This also nicely reflects the fact that improvisational magic is harder to do than Rote magic. Improvisational magic uses the base Sphere keyword rating, while the Rote rating is likely to be higher (and thus more likely to succeed in a contest).
In Mage, the rating in a sphere determines what the mage knows and can accomplish with his her magic. In HeroQuest, however, a rating determines how good the mage is at resolved contests with his or her magic. This is an important difference.
So how does one reflect the increasing amount of knowledge a mage possesses as he or she plays through the campaign?
Personally, I think that this is a case where you can take the rating as an indication of how much the mage knows, as well as his or her ability to use that knowledge to resolve conflicts. My rule of thumb is that the mage possesses the equivalent of one dot in a sphere for each full 10 points in the rating.
For example, a mage with a rating of 17 in the sphere of Matter has the equivalent knowledge of the first dot in the Matter sphere in the Mage rules (called Matter Perceptions).
As soon as the mage’s rating in the sphere is increased to 20, the mage has the equivalent knowledge of the second dot in the Matter sphere (called Create Unified Patterns).
At 10M, the mage has the equivalent of the third dot in the Matter sphere (called Alter Matter/Pattern Disassociation).
At 20M, the mage has the equivalent of the fourth dot in the Matter sphere (called Transmutation/Quilled Forms).
And at 10M2, the mage has the equivalent of the fifth dot in the Matter sphere (called New Substances or Structures).
Now, each GM can adjust these values for his or her individual campaign, based on how quickly the he or she wants the mage player characters to reach the higher sphere abilities. For example, the GM may decide to lower the rating to every 8 points instead of 10. This means a mage who places a 17 on a Sphere starts with the equivalent ability of 2 dots in the sphere instead of 1. The third dot abilities would come at 4M, the fourth dot at 12M, and the fifth dot at 20M.
I’m using the original Mage: The Ascension rules from 1993 here, so later editions may (and probably do) have slightly different rules for Paradox. But I think this system works well enough as it is.
- If an effect is Coincidental, then the character only gains Paradox if the result of the contest is a Complete Defeat or Major Defeat.
- If an effect is Vulgar without Witnesses (defined as no Sleeper witnesses, so other mages don’t count), then the mage automatically gains one point of Paradox. The mage gains additional Paradox points if the result of the contest is a Complete Defeat or Major Defeat.
- If an effect is Vulgar with Witnesses, then the mage automatically gains one point of Paradox. The mage gains additional Paradox points if the result of the contest is Complete Defeat or Major Defeat, and the GM then determines if there is a Paradox Backlash.
How much Paradox?
When the result of the contest in which magic was used results in a Complete Defeat or Major Defeat, the mage may gain additional Paradox. The mage rolls the Sphere rating in a new contest against the following Resistance:
- If the effect was Coincidental, use the current Base Resistance.
- If the effect was Vulgar without Witnesses, use a High Resistance.
- If the effect was Vulgar with Witnesses, use a Very High Resistance.
The mage gains Paradox based on the result of this contest.
|Contest Result||Paradox Gained|
If there is a chance of Paradox Backlash, the player must roll his or her Paradox flaw against the current base difficulty. If the Paradox flaw scores any type of victory in the contest, then a Paradox Backlash occurs. The severity of the backlash depends on how strong the victory was. In addition, the mage’s Paradox flaw is reduced by an amount based on the strength of the Paradox Backlash.
|Paradox Flaw Victory Result||Strength of Paradox Backlash||Paradox Flaw Rating Reduction|
|Complete||Very strong effect||-12|
Any mage who has gained Paradox points notes this down as a flaw called “Paradox” with a rating equal to the current number of Paradox Points he or she currently has. This flaw may prevent the use of Quintessence to assist with magical effects.
Any time a mage wants to use his or her Quintessence ability to augment a magical effect, he or she must roll his or her Paradox flaw against the current base resistance. If the Paradox flaw scores any type of victory in the contest, then the mage is unable to use Quintessence.
The Paradox flaw rating may be reduced by taking another type of HeroQuest flaw with a rating of 13. The GM should use the Mage core rules on Paradox Flaws to determine the kinds of effects that happen to the mage, using the chart below.
|Mage Paradox Flaw Equivalent||HeroQuest Paradox Flaw Reduction|
|1-point flaw effects||-3 to Paradox flaw rating|
|2-point flaw effects||-6 to Paradox flaw rating|
|3-point flaw effects||-9 to Paradox flaw rating|
|4-point flaw effects||-12 to Paradox flaw rating|
|5-point flaw effects||-15 to Paradox flaw rating|
Quintessence is a magical resource that is used to help power spell effects. When a mage gains Quintessence, he or she should receive a temporary ability to reflect that. The ability rating should be based on how much Quintessence the mage has received.
If a mage with a rating in Quintessence acquires more, the rating should increase rather than gaining a second ability with another rating.
When the mage wishes to use the Quintessence to power a magical effect, he or she can either use a rolled Augment, or simply use a quick augment (rating divided by 5) as noted in the HeroQuest core rules on page 55 in the breakout box titled “Quick Augments.”
Either way, when a mage uses his or her Quintessence to add an augment to a magical roll in a Contest, the rating of the Quintessence ability drops goes down, representing that the resource has been reduced. Use the Resource Depletion Table in the HeroQuest core rules on page 89 to determine how much the Quintessence rating drops, based on the result of the contest where it was used.
All the Other Stuff
As magic is at the heart of Mage: The Ascension, I’ve dedicated most of this post to outlining how it would work. There are all kinds of other elements in Mage, like developing chantries, becoming an apprentice, talismans, Paradox flaws and Quiet, and more.
However, it’s actually pretty easy to look at the rest of that stuff in the point of view of HeroQuest if you’ve got the basics down.
For example, if a mage wants to rise to a position of power in a Tradition, then the GM should use the rules on Communities starting on page 87 of the HeroQuest core rules. Becoming an apprentice is a form of Relationship (HeroQuest core rules, page 60). Paradox flaws would work like any other flaw (HeroQuest core rules, page 14).
The HeroQuest rules provide a great template that can be overlaid on nearly any element of the core Mage game without a great deal of work. All the stuff on magic, above, was really just applying HeroQuest concepts to elements of Mage: The Ascension in a way that seemed logical to me. Of course, other HeroQuest GMs might choose to look at it differently, which is great.
I’ve focused on Mage in this post because it’s my favourite of the World of Darkness lines. But one could also use HeroQuest for Vampire, or Werewolf, or Changling, or Hunter, or any other game that has been put out by White Wolf or Onyx Path over the last 24 years. In all of these games, it’s the narrative that is important, and HeroQuest really promotes the narrative over the mechanics in a simple and effective way.
Have you ever used HeroQuest for a World of Darkness game? Which game line was it? How did it turn out? Tell us about it in the comments.