Games set in the World of Darkness were all designed as horror games. Mage though, Mage is a game that doesn’t immediately set off the horror music in your mind. Mage instead reads like a game of hope, of a search for Nirvana. Like the rest of the WoD though, Mage is a game embedded with horror elements. Sure, it’s a different kind of horror than the personal horror of Vampire: The Masquerade or the ecological and rage filled horror of Werewolf: The Apocalypse, but the horror is still a core concept within the game. Horror in Mage is often about the questions left unanswered. In a search for enlightenment, the secrets one cannot find answers to are some of the most horrifying elements.
1. Control –
The Technocracy might come to mind at first; the technological organization that believes it has to control ‘sleepers’ so that it can bring the world to ascension. This sort of control boils down in the books to long detailed and scary descriptions of mind wiping and personality manipulation. On top of that, Control is an actual ‘thing’ within the Technocracy helping to lead the world to… somewhere. Control is not only the purview of the Enlightened Citizen though. Concepts of control seep through Mage in subtle ways. The Order of Hermes believes that they control the forces of the universe. They believe that they should be the ones to herd humanity into growth and enlightenment and that they will eventually find the formula to bring the world back to the height of their power, the Dark Ages. Every Mage struggles to control the world around them, to show how their version of reality is true. Control and the lack of control permeate the WoD for Mages, and stories done well around control or a lack of control can be deeply terrifying.
2. Paradigm and Consensus –
The world is what we make it and for a Mage the world can literally be what they imagine. Or, it would be if consensus reality didn’t hate those who try to change the foundations of that reality. The Mage has to have a paradigm, a worldview that their magic is crafted around and through. This worldview can include everything from a hacker’s excitement over the connections we make through the internet, or the ceremonial magician that believes blood, symbols engraved on the floor, and incense can help them make connections with Hell. For the first group, they may think they are making connections with other people, but what if they are simply making an opening for monsters that inhabit the digital web? What happens when a Mage sends himself physically or in astral form into the web? Can a computer virus kill them? Do trolls cause them physical pain with their attacks? What does the Mage believe? Do they think they can be killed via the internet? We’ve all heard stories about people addicted to games that die of heart attacks at their computer… that explains why he died perhaps… and it fits our consensus of reality much better than the fact he caught a virus meant to harvest data and is now harvesting something else.
3. Paradox –
This ties into the last point. Paradox is consensus reality slapping a Mage for thinking they can remake the universe in their image. Paradox can appear as a shift in luck for the Mage; the things they once did with ease no become more and more difficult. Paradox can appear as a literal hobgoblin to destroy the mage. Paradox is the boogeyman for even the most static of Technomancers. Paradox is the universe pushing back; it is the power of the sleepers en masse. Does that mean the sleepers are truly asleep? Maybe they are tapping into a more universal avatar, a connection to the universal awakened entity? A good storyteller knows how to encourage her players to get their Mages to bend reality, and slowly reminds them that they are not as powerful as they think… maybe they aren’t the ones in control of the universe… oh there is that control thing again…
4. The Universe has Secrets -
Whether it is the Deep Umbra or deep in the ocean, the universe has secrets that it is trying to hide. Reality hides deeper evils than we might ever know, but the Mage is seeking ascension, so they tend to trip right over the tentacles curling around the world as we know it. Do the Nephandi truly control the Technocracy from the inside? Are the Euthanatoi actually empowering the Abyss with their interest in Entropy? What about Ether, does it exist? What is it, if it does? The Universe has secrets and it is trying to hide them but they slip out into reality and even the most dedicated of Void Engineer crews might not be successful at destroying every deviant that pops up. A good storyteller never reveals all the things hiding in the shadows of the World of Darkness, and in Mage that can be hard. Mages are seekers of truth and may run headfirst into the darkness. That drive offers a perfect opportunity to show them a tiny glimpse of the creatures hiding in the dark.
5. Magic is dying -
For the traditions; they believe the lifeblood of the universe is being drained away by stasis. Magic no longer powers the world in the way it once did. For the Technocracy, the world isn’t being locked into stasis; it is instead being ordered and brought to a greater state of enlightenment. Who is right? Is the very essence of dynamic reality being funneled into a state of greater good, or is it being destroyed by forces that seek to bring a halt to everything? Or even, is the world being slowly deconstructed from the inside out by forces of entropy and the Abyss? An Akashic performs their katas every day for years, and one day, it fails. Her actions no longer change the world in the way they always have. Do they seek a new way of doing things? Or, do they feel the creep of fear from their lack of ability to do what they have always done? Maybe magic is dying, but what is taking its place? Maybe if magic isn’t dying, it is instead the hope of the mage that is dying or already dead.
Control is key to Mage, and it is key to instilling the horror elements of the WoD in your Mage game. Don’t be afraid to use classic elements of horror, the unseen, the seen but subtly off, or even the powerful outside to your Mage game as well. One note, make sure your players know that you are going to use horror elements in your Mage game before you start to do so. Maybe wait a game or three before you begin to filter them in after the announcement, but you want them to be prepared for the real chance they may feel truly scared (if you do things right). The key to these situations is to allow a release and a chance to decompress afterward. You want horror to be powerful, but not overwhelming. Enjoy the World of Darkness, and try not to waken any Elder Gods while you are out there….
With 17 years of playing rpgs, Josh started with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs and loves the World of Darkness. Josh is the administrator of the Inclusive Gaming Network on Facebook, is running both a Mage game and a Dark Ages: Vampire game at the moment, and is an advocate for inclusive gaming spaces. He's also a father and a recent graduate from the International Peace and Conflict Resolution graduate program at American University in Washington, D.C.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.