Mage: The Awakening is a tale of hidden powers, ones that are hidden in plain sight in a world almost our own, a tale that is yours to tell. It opens with the musings of own newly awoken to his powers, a guide to those going through the same process. Becoming a mage is much more than a career choice, but once awakened a life of study and training awaits. The basics are simple a mage taps into a higher power, drawing on an area that is inaccessible to most people, the original home of the soul from which most of us are irrevocably separated. But not mages. Hay can reach across the abyss between this higher plane and the ordinary world and drag mystical power back to do, well, pretty much whatever they want. The abyss is a bit of a problem, though. Therein lies madness, hence all the training, to be able to access power without going out of your head.
Once past this opening, we reach the Introduction, which explains the nature of the alternate reality of this game. It's a heady blend of power and wisdom, the power to work magic and the wisdom to know when it is right to do so. But power corrupts, that is one of the underlying themes of the game. Mages are not all virtuous, noble souls, few are good at sharing and they all like to get their own way. Ancient mysteries beckon, and this game is about the exploration of self as well as of solving them.
Chapter 1: Arcanus Mundus continues in similar vein, expending on the world-view, reality as it is viewed by mages (in as much as they agree about anything, that is!). The basic idea is that although we ordinary people may think that we understand the world, we are but sleepwalking through it and it is only mages who are awakened to its true reality. This may explain why mages tend to be an arrogant bunch, it also satisfies that feeling most of us have that there is some kind of underlying pattern or logic if we could only but see it. Get into this mindset and you begin to understand what makes mages in this game tick.
There are tales of the origins of magic as practised today, scoffed at by some and held to be literal historical truth by others. Then we hear how magic developed and the different strands that arose over time leading to the various factions through which the modern mage must navigate his way. The fundamental truth behind it all is that mages can bend reality to their will by force of mind alone - but it is a dangerous thing to do any many the mind, if not life, has been lost in this quest.
Mages refer to their discovery of their powers as Awakening, often a period of great stress as - to begin with - most are not even aware of what is taking place. Often it is more akin to going mad. Then it is a matter of learning about reality, understanding the strands of the tapestry - for until you understand them, how can you hope to manipulate them? The overall sweep of this chapter, however fanciful, has a coherence to it that leaves you feeling that this just might be real, creating a solid grounding for the alternate reality of the game... for if we did not dream we would not be role-players.
The discussion then moves on to details of the various factions and groupings, the philosophies and paths that mages can follow, the organisations and fellowships that they might join. Coverage is extensive: the intention is that you will be provided with all the information you need to make appropriate choices during character creation.
In Chapter 2: Character we find most of what we need to start building a mage character. For the rest, you will need the core World of Darkness rulebook. Here, though, is the process of creating characters along with the traits and systems necessary to perform the task. It is all about creating a rounded, realistic character - not just the most potent mage you can manage, but a believable individual to be your alter ego within the alternate reality of the game. The basis for the process is your concept of who your mage is, how he came to be awakened and what his intentions are now that he can wield magic.
The actual process of applying a mage template to a World of Darkness character is explained, but the main thrust of the discussion remains focussed on creating a detailed and rounded character who is a lot more than the magic he can wield. The option is also available to create a 'normal' character who has not yet awakened and include this pivotal moment in your game, or as a prelude to it which will be played out in full rather than treated as something that has happened already. Perhaps you will already know, from the previous chapter, which order and path you will choose, or this may still be open to discussion or even chance to decide as he awakens to his new capabilities.
Mechanically, everything is quite straightforward. You start with attributes - physical, social and mental - choosing which of these is your primary area of ability and so on, allocating dots as appropriate. Then you pick skills - these all the regular mundane things that the character knows how to do, be it ride a bike, cook a meal or construct a legal argument that will stand up in court. It is only then that you start to look at the magical aspects of path and order.
The discussion moves on to the differences between each path and each order, in both game mechanical and more philosophical terms. This enables you to think about your choices in terms of the sort of person you want your character to be as well as to enable you to fill out the character sheet appropriately. More follows - traits, merits, virtues, vices - to empower you to determine the style and substance of your brand-new mage.
If you have chosen to play out the character's Awakening in a prelude - usually played one-on-one with the Storyteller - there then follows all the details that the both of you need to make this happen. It is all about setting a scene, and as much about establishing who your character was and who he will become as the pivotal moment that changes him for the rest of his life. There is a lot more information to absorb, but character creation in this game s intended to be approached in a reflective and thoughtful manner - although once you are used to it the actual mechanics are relatively speedy to implement.
Next, Chapter 3: Magic - unsurprisingly the longest chapter in the book - delivers an extensive discussion of how magic works, covering both in-character magical theory and practical game mechanics. Yet it is more than mere spellcasting. Mages can sense things others cannot, they are aware of the active presence of supernatural beings or even operational spells even without trying. Once they pay attention, they can discern much, much more. The purpose of this chapter is to get you to think like your character does, do not just skim through in search of the mechanics of spellcasting and other powers but study it to gain an understanding of the nature of what your character can do. Because to cast a spell it is not sufficient to know it, the mage needs to imagine the effect that he desires to have upon reality before it can take place. This means that with sufficient knowledge and visualisation a mage can concoct new spells, even on the fly.
There are two types of magic: vulgar and improbable. The difference is in the appearance - is it obviously magic or can it be explained away as a natural (even if unlikely) occurrence? Wise mages are subtle, not letting on what they can do. To do otherwise risks a paradox, a rebellion of nature itself against what the mage is doing to it, and that has bad consequences for the mage himself. There are loads of examples and tables to help you figure this all out, although as they are mixed in with the discourse you do need to work through it all to be able to use the spells to effect. Both players and the Storyteller need to understand what is going on for this game to play well. It is complex, and intended to be so - in this game magic is the focus, rather than a useful tool to achieve other ends, even if in the course of a game mage characters will use their magic to achieve self or Storyteller set goals.
Once all the various procedures, processes and options involved in actually casting a spell have been detailed - and brought together in a useful summary of the sequence to be followed, marrying the mechanical bit of rolling dice with the concept of what the mage is trying to achieve, we move on to a vast list of existing spells. Of course, this is just the start. Any mage can 'improvise' if he has a clear vision of what effect he wishes to create, and if he likes the results can continue to hone it until it's a recognised spell that may be taught to others. The variety is great, but no mage can cast all of them - some are specific to a particular order and all require the caster to be able to cast spells using the specific arcana (areas of magic) involved in that particular spell. Mages develop their understanding of each Arcanum separately, thus giving a high degree of personalisation to their abilities. A neat point is that there are often several routes to achieving the same effect.
Appropriately, each Arcanum is discussed in turn, with an overview followed by an extensive list of spells in increasing order of power, complete with descriptions of what they do along with the game mechanics necessary to cast them. These are followed by a discussion of paradox and the fates that befall mages who manage to create it and various other matters - resonance, making magical items, fighting arcane duels and more - even creating your own spells from scratch. Players need to study Chapter 3 almost as intently as their characters study magic, or they will find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to wield magic as the game intends. Finally, Chapter 4: Storytelling and Antagonists looks at the art of running, rather than playing, the game. Unlike many game systems, however, players are actually encouraged to read this chapter rather than being told in no uncertain terms to keep out. It's intended to be a collaborative game, with Storyteller and players working together to tell a tale. This does not mean that the Storyteller has no secrets or does not provide enemies to work against them, but the general terms of what a Storyteller does is of use to all at the table in creating and maintaining the alternate reality of a Mage: The Awakening game.
You are referred to the appropriate chapter in the core rulebook for general advice in running the system. The material here supplements that advice and puts a particular Mage spin on it. It starts by looking at appropriate themes. It's an occult horror game, basically, but there are many directions in which your group can take it, depending on their interests. One common theme is that power corrupts - and if there is anyone with power, it's a mage! The central story, though, is that of the mages themselves. Take a wide view here, find out about family and friends work colleagues, people who knew the character before he awakened - and of course those who do not like him - and weave them all into stories that involve the character as a person, not just a mage nor a series of dots on a character sheet. Of such things are the most memorable games made. Mages are political animals, and even if intrigue is not a major strand in your plots the activities of other mages, especially the powerful ones, may have an impact on your party. Above all, create the alternate reality in which magic is real - let the players have a glimpse of the wonders that their characters behold and can create. There's loads of advice here to help you make this happen.
After detailing just some of the many threats that mages face in day-to-day life - from the political manoeuvring of other mages to other supernatural beings like werewolves and vampires to agents of governments and corporations who may be aware of their existence - the discussion moves on to actually running the game. The basic World of Darkness approach holds good: the characters settle in an area, get to know it and begin to make their mark in the hidden society that's just outside normal humans' understanding. Several broad themes and plotlines are suggested to get the Keeper going, but ultimately it will be up to them to devise a suitable situation with which the characters will interact. There's also advice on the mechanics of introducing and running the mighty powers that mages are heir to - something that can be quite a challenge to begin with, and detailed discussion of an array of adversaries and antagonists, beginning with other mages.
That's it for the main part of the book but there are some appendices. The first deals with Legacies, further knowledge and training more advanced mages may acquire often through ornate ritual and within fraternal organisations. Several are detailed here, but for those who really wish to delve, they are more fully covered in other books, or you can create your own, following the rules outlined here.
The second appendix presents a setting: the city of Boston. Not all mages are urban souls, but the New World of Darkness tends to base itself around cities and Boston has been selected as the exemplar for mage society. There's a bit of history and an overview of contemporary life including a rough sketchmap. However as it is based closely on the real Boston you will be able to find more detailed maps with ease should you require them.
There's a lot here, particularly pertaining to the underpinning intrigue that is rife in Awakened society Even if your game takes another path, that intrigue will be there in the background and the wise mage ignores it at his peril. A couple of atmospheric fictional snippets round off the book.
Visually it is quite a delight with some excellent line art that fuses magical and modern themes and highlights of gold - not always as legible as they might be. Ghost images occasionally occlude the text but not too badly, likewise there are some typos and jumblings of the text that a thorough proofread ought to have caught but you can generally work out what is intended. Overall it is a masterly presentation of an alternate reality so compelling that you begin to wonder if it might just be out there somewhere!
[5 of 5 Stars!]