The writers at White Wolf and Onyx Path Publishing are poets and philosophers, first and foremost. Each experience is meant to challenge the player and storyteller to explore, without limits, the nature of “otherness.” Characters walk cautiously through the uncanny valley, tiptoeing along the line that separates the peaks of humanity and the depths of monstrosity. Mage: The Awakening promises the player a chance to see the supernatural through (mostly) human eyes, while giving them the power to change things as they see fit. Most Chronicles of Darkness games are receiving an update after the base book got its second edition, and Mage is no exception. The 2nd edition released relatively recently, and I’ve since had a chance to read through it rather extensively. Does the new edition add more to what made the first so incredible, or does it tip the delicate balance that the creators established in their original work? Here are a few key differences between the two iterations that should help us answer that question.
1 . Spellcasting
Mage: the Awakening holds aloft creativity in the same way that Dungeons and Dragons heralds adventure. Both editions of the White Wolf game emphasize imaginative spellcasting; the spells in the book are merely examples of what one can achieve with each new level of knowledge. The two books differ in this area in the way that spells are cast. The first edition is somewhat less complex. Players need only roll their Gnosis (overall magical knowledge) plus Arcanum (area of expertise) when they wish to cast a spell, accounting for Paradox (otherworldly complications) if the spell is vulgar or obvious. Successes accrued after rolling make the spell more powerful, so if the player doesn’t wish to tinker too much with a simple spell, they have only one or two steps to consider. One must account for increased spell factors such as size of target or area of effect, but simple spells eschew these additional factors. If the player knows the spell by Rote, they have a different dice pool altogether.
In the second edition, the player has a few more things to consider. If they wish for Potency, or power, of a spell to be increased, they must take a dice penalty prior to casting. This same concept applies to any other factors that they may wish to increase, such as area of effect or size of the target. They must then consider whether they wish to Reach or not, that is increasing the spells factors by a significant jump or adding special effects. Is the spell one of your Praxes? Take that into consideration as well prior to casting. Rotes make a comeback, but in second edition are a bit simpler, only adding dice instead of changing the dice pool drastically. The upside to the added complexity is a more complete toolbox for building the exact spell you wish to cast. It may take a bit longer to get your dice pool together, but once you’ve compiled everything, you know exactly what’s going to happen if you succeed or fail. That is, unless you trigger a…
2 . Paradox
Paradox occurs, in both versions, when a spell goes awry and invites the chaotic influence of the Abyss into the world. In the first edition, Paradox had specific effects that altered reality if the Mage cast their magic in front of mundane witnesses (here called Sleepers) or used certain “vulgar” spells. The Mage could then contain the Paradox, letting it eat away at their physical body, or let it loose into the world and triggering one of several deleterious effects. In second edition, the concept is similar, yet the rules have changed significantly. Paradox is caused by a Mage overreaching his or her means, or by casting a spell that is obviously magic in front of Sleepers. Here, instead of certain spells always triggering Paradox, the Mage is safe if he or she casts the spells in secret. Even so, Paradox can be mitigated by once again containing it within the Mage’s body, spending Mana (the game’s mystical currency), or releasing it into the world as before. When the Mage contains Paradox in the second edition, however, they have a chance of taking damage, but moreover they gain a Paradox condition, which alters the way their mystical resonance affects the world. When they release it, the Storyteller is encouraged to create a temporary reality-damaging effect that fits with the spell being cast. The main difference between these two systems is a renewed emphasis on creativity. Instead of limiting the Storyteller to a few printed effects, second edition leaves the creating up to the narrator. This is a welcome change, as it makes Paradox less frequent but far more interesting.
3 . History
The history of magic and those who wield it is presented quite similarly in both games. There are distinctions, however, in how the information is presented. In the first edition, nearly all Mages accept the history of Atlantis, a magical city or civilization in a time before time. There, Mages ruled and kept the world in balance. There was a sundering, of course, and certain selfish Mages separated the world into several parts, including the mundane ( Fallen) world that we experience, and the Supernal world. Between them lies the Abyss, a chasm of chaotic unreality that seems to possess a will of its own. The story is one of good versus evil, or more accurately, of the humble versus the prideful. Hubris is the sin of the Mages, and in first edition, it is what makes Mages into monsters.
In the second edition, this history is retold but is left vague. Is Atlantis part of the great Lie that is the Fallen world? Many Mages believe so, while others think of Atlantis as a metaphor for the time before The Sundering. In second edition, Mages are monsters not only due to their Hubris, but because of their Obsessions (note all these capital letters). When a will-worker learns of a Mystery, they cannot simply sit idle and let it fester. They must learn, and this need soon becomes the driving force in the Mage’s life. They will often forsake relationships, duties, and necessities in order to study their Obsession. They often view people as obstacles in their goal to understand the Mysteries, and will bypass or even eliminate these obstacles as a programmer might delete a flawed line of code. The history of the Mages as a Mystery in second edition, in my opinion, makes it all the more effective and helps to establish our next key difference.
4 . Tone
When Mage: The Awakening was first in my hands all these years ago, I marveled at its openness. Most games have magic systems that are clearly defined and limited, often for the sake of balancing mystical classes with the mundane. Mage had no such constraint. If you could dream it, you could do it. The rules were present only to guide you to that end, and to make it so that you couldn’t annihilate reality during the first session (that’s reserved for the last session, typically). As such, the tone of first edition is that of wonderment and philosophical exploration. Players are encouraged to test their powers, albeit within their Sanctums and away from prying eyes. In second edition, players are instead naturally encouraged to work their magic when they feel they need to seek out the nature of the Mysteries. Second edition is about discovery; discovery of self and of the proverbial “other.” It asks how far will we go to learn, and challenges us to go farther than we would in our own lives. The game questions our morality, not in the traditional sense, but in a fundamental sense. Does morality apply to a being not of this world? Does a mind make the person, or is it the Soul? That which drives us places us in danger, but also fulfills us in the end. How far are we willing to go for that fulfillment, that sense of catharsis?
Both editions certainly have their strengths and weaknesses, and I cannot say definitively which is superior. If you don’t have the updated base book for Chronicles of Darkness, you may be best off with the original, as you’ll have more supplementary material to work with. However, if you’re interested in the new system, I highly recommend it. A lot of the fluff material is the same, so you can apply old supplements (to an extent) to the new game. Either way, I hope you get a chance to enjoy this incredible, visceral, imaginative magical experience.
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, contact him at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com/contact . He’s the ST for his Mage game, but would most likely play a Mastigos if given the chance.
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