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Petri Wessman's weblog

Minireview: The Free Council (Mage: the Awakening)

The Free Council is the thinnest of the five main “splat books” for the new Mage. Now, a small page count might be caused by the focus group being so simple to describe that it doesn’t take all that much space, or it might be caused by the focus being so vague that the writers didn’t really know what to do with it. Guess which one this is?

The problem with these sorts of “anarchist” groups is that, by definition, they don’t conform to just one modus operandi or stereotype, which makes describing them tricky – they tend to become grab-bags for everyone who didn’t fit into the other more well-defined groups, the “Other” category. Whether it’s this group of “young idealists”, the Anarchs / Carthians or Vampire, or some other such group, the main problem is “what is the unifying theme with these guys?”. Here, the easy answer would have been “techno-mages”, since most members are modern in their outlook and comfortable with technology. The book doesn’t quite go there, though there are lots of nods in that direction, with various ways of combining magic and technology.

The main problem here, to me, was that it just wasn’t all that inspiring a read. I’d expect a book like this to include lots of off-the-wall ideas and have lots of energy, but it’s much the opposite – the style is dry, and while there ware fun ideas here and there, it didn’t really inspire me to play these guys (even though that should have been an easy sell). Some of the Legacies were interesting, but all too much of the information given was just shallow hand-waving instead of concrete hooks to help me run (or play) Free Council members. Part of the problem is, of course, the somewhat vague nature of the group’s ideology (with the meta-problem of White Wolf trying to cram everything into just five Orders, instead of the original Mage’s much more organic structure). That said, I’m sure that a better book could be written around the subject. This one is resoundingly “meh”.

The book follows the typical structure of these things: we get a history of the group (some of which was credible, some of which was not), we get some idea of how their day-to-day life is structured and how their politics work, and we get a pile of crunch (rotes, equipment, Legacies, etc).

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Minireview: Reign of the Exarchs (Mage: the Awakening)

White Wolf’s record with pre-generated adventures and campaigns is… spotty, if we’re being generous. While there are gems in there, many of them are overly-railroaded things where the PCs just get to watch various NPCs do their thing. Since I was still a bit lukewarm towards the new Mage, I wasn’t expecting much from the only campaign published for it. Well, chalk up one more in the “new Mage book ends up being much better than expected” department.

I’ll go one further: Reign of the Exarchs actually made me want to run the new Mage. No mean feat. It really is that good.

It’s a (very) loosely connected set of five scenarios, each concerning an ancient artifact, of reputed Exarch origin (having belonged to a mythical “Dethroned Queen”, who once may have been one of the Exarchs). Of course, that sort of setup is somewhat cliched, but it’s not really a “find five mystical McGuffins!” plot – it’s more clever than that. Now, as adversaries, the Exarchs are deliberately vague in the new Mage game line (a fact I find detracts from the game a bit, leaving it with a poorly defined main “bad guy” set). This book follows that premise, and I must admit here it works nicely; while the PCs encounter numerous followers of the Exarchs (or at least, people who believe they are serving the Exarchs), there is never any direct proof that the Exarchs even exist. It adds a very nice layer of paranoia to these scenarios, which is of course the intention for the whole game line.

Each of the scenarios is written by a different author and has a very different theme and plot structure. I find this to be a good thing, but readers hoping for a unified tone for the whole campaign may see it as a minus. All are competently written, and while I ran into some uncaught grammar mistakes, it wasn’t anything above the White Wolf norm of bugs. It’s quite a readable book.

The five scenarios can be run in any order (except for the last one). There is a default order (the one in the book), but it’s only a suggestion. None of the scenarios absolutely depend on the others, so some can be skipped if the PCs refuse to do things that the writers intend. This is nice design.

The first scenario is a setup for the PCs. A stranger, on the run from bad guys (or so he claims) invokes the Right of Hospitality on the PCs. It’s assumed that the PCs don’t buck tradition, and give shelter. Political shenanigans follow. Some assumptions about how the PCs work and live is made here, along with some assumptions about the local political setup, but those are easy enough to work around if they don’t match the assumptions. The scenario assumes some competence (i.e. experience) from the PCs, so it’s probably a good idea to either beef up default new characters a bit (if creating PCs just for use in this campaign) or to run some other scenarios before thumping this on the PCs. It’s a fun scenario overall, and lets politically and socially savvy PCs do their thing. Of course, the PCs can short-circuit the whole thing by refusing to follow the Right of Hospitality – in which case the GM can dump other sorts of fallout on them.

The second scenario involves a friendly NPC (ideally foreshadowed before this), who starts behaving in a strange way. Lots of investigation is involved, and it may lead the PCs into very strange places. The nice thing here is that what the PCs do will have a huge effect in what happens to the NPC, and followup results (some of which are potentially very very nasty). Also, the scenario gets points for introducing a group of Seers who aren’t (strictly) bad guys. Should be good for lots of potential moral conflicts, along with some creepy scenes.

The third scenario is easily me favorite here, but unfortunately I cannot say much about it here without spoilers. Written by the esteemed Robin D. Laws, it’s a total con job on the players (not the PCs), allowing player preconceptions to lead them into ruin. It requires quite a bit of setup and is probably a bitch to run successfully – but damn, if it works the results should be awesome. The player expressions when they realize what’s really going on should be priceless. This is a really fantastic scenario, and very very imaginative.

Fourth is a “layers upon layers” scenario, where an investigation about weird scrawled symbols leads to the PCs getting attacked by something extremely nasty, and further investigation reveals more and more players in the game. Where does it end? Does it end? That’s one for the PCs to figure out. The nice thing here is that it’s quite possible that the PCs never get to the bottom of things, and that’s fine. This one works nicely even if the PCs fall for the first level(s) of misdirection. They just lose out on some extra complications.

The last scenario offers a potential way to actually ascend to the Supernal, to join the Exarchs. Maybe. First, the PCs have to claim the artifact, which probably involves a commando-style raid on a Seer stronghold. Next, the PCs need to decide what to do. Do they really want to activate an artifact that reputedly makes you into an Exarch? Do the Exarchs even exist? If not, what does the artifact really do? It’s a nice combo of stealth + action and paranoia to end the campaign.

Like I said, I really liked this book. While there are nits to pick (“why do the Exarchs, if they exist, allow these weapons against them to exist in the first place?”, for example), there’s nothing that I could not either ignore or explain away. The scenarios do a great job of throwing all sorts of unexpected stuff at the PCs, ideally keeping them in a somewhat paranoid state. Many of the scenarios do require some prepwork, though, and many contain elements which should ideally be introduced in earlier parts in order to keep the story flowing along. In other words, this isn’t something that a GM can just quickly read and then start running, it’s more like a detailed framework for a campaign that still needs a bit of customization and detail-work before showtime. Most GMs will probably want to inject their own scenarios between the ones here, and tweak some of these to better suit their style.

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Minireview: Tome of the Watchtowers (Mage: the Awakening)

It’s a well-established fact that the Mage: the Awakening core book is a lousy introduction to the game. Besides being boring as hell to read, it does a poor job is explaining many things in a way that makes any lasting impression on the reader. Among there less than ideally detailed things were the Paths. The basic idea behind the paths was quite straightforward, but what the five Paths actually were and represented was much less so. The obscure faux-Greek names did not help, either.

Tome of the Watchtowers attempts to fix that. The structure here is very simple: the book has five chapters, one per each Path. We get general descriptions, historical notes, some example NPCs, a new Legacy for each, and such.

It’s starting to become a pattern that I read a Mage: the Awakening book not expecting much (good) from it, and end up very positively surprised. It happened here, once again. I was expecting a very dry discourse on the metaphysical Paths, but the actual writing was mostly high-quality and quite entertaining. Also, a lot of the ideas here are quite cool and often quite non-stereotypical (not always, though). Best of all, it actually gave me a nice mental image of what the Paths are, which I was mostly lacking up to now. I’m still a bit confused about the Martigos, but less than before.

That’s not to say it’s all good. Some of the details were a bit weird, and overall the flipside of the “gave a good mental image of the Paths” is “resorts to gross stereotypes”. We’re told that virtually all Obrimos are and stay religious. Say what? So no atheists Awaken as Obrimos, and nobody gives up their religion on Awakening (even though that events is supposedly a world- and illusion-shattering event)? Also, we’re supposed to believe all Thyrsus mages are busy reverting to a primitive and bestial state. That really does not sync with their supposedly common “shaman” role.

So… some good, some bad. I found the “good” to be much more prevalent here, mainly because this book gave me a handle on what the Paths are and how they can be used in a game. However, the reader needs to be wary of some at times irritating levels of stereotyping, especially in the Thyrsus chapter.

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Minireview: Sanctum and Sigil (Mage: the Awakening)

Sanctum and Sigil is a book about Mage society and politics, and if we’re honest, I was expecting this one to be a bit of a tedious read: a book in a game line not best known for being a great read, and one that focuses on internal organization and politics. Well, I’m happy to be proven wrong; while there are some slightly tedious bits here, it’s mostly very interesting and well-written.

The first part of the book focuses on the internal organization of a typical “pentacle mage” society, with various titles and areas of responsibility. Maybe more emphasis could have been placed on this being just a template, not a uniculture (a big problem in the whole game line, in my opinion), but ignoring that it’s an interesting enough discussion. Next up there’s discussion on how mages choose their sanctums, with various options and some rules crunch. Lots of good stuff here for PC groups wanting to flesh out their “home base”. The book finishes off with some example sanctums, and also includes some antagonist groups along with their own home bases. We also get an example nutshell of an initial political setup to throw your players into, with some NPC groups and their motivations detailed. Very nice for kickstarting a new campaign, and quite easily portable to whatever location you want.

I found this to be a surprisingly interesting book, with lots of information directly usable in a game. It does a good job in filling in lots of useful information about the day-to-day life of mages and the practical side of things.

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Minireview: Secrets of the Ruined Temple (Mage: the Awakening)

The biggest complaints about the new Mage game tend to deal with two things. First off, the original presentation is boring and lacks any clearly defined antagonists (the main “big bads” are so vague as to be non-issues, at least initially) and second is the fact that it ties the origin of all mages into a monomyth about Atlantis. A not all that interesting monomyth, to boot. Secrets of the Ruined Temple attempts to fix some of those issues, and while it doesn’t totally succeed it’s still a welcome addition to the game line.

First off, there’s Atlantis. I’m one of the people bothered by it: both by the fact that it’s Atlantis (Enoch, Babel or whatever would work much better for me), and the fact that it reduces a game that should be about secrets into one with a (boring) “known history”. Well, the first part of this book confuses the issue. Maybe Atlantis never existed, maybe it was something totally different than commonly pictured, maybe it only ever existed as an Astral realm, maybe it actually doesn’t exist yet but will sometime in the future. Lots of fun discussion, and suggestions on how to handle the Atlantis thing in your game. Of course, most of the other sourcebooks still talk about Atlantis like a concrete fact, but… this is better than nothing. I still hate Atlantis, though.

Then we have content that the book title and cover art implies: tomb raiding. Well, sort of. Since the core game has the problem of being directionless and boring, this book provides one possible game focus: searching for lost (Atlantean, yech) ruins and going all Tomb Raider / Indiana Jones on them. So far so good, and we get some nice ideas of what said ruins might contain in the way of content, traps, guardians etc. There’s even a short mini-adventure, as an example implementation. I liked that.

However, there is a lack of “show, don’t tell” here. We’re told about a lot of possibilities, but all too many of the ideas presented seem… well, lackluster and somewhat boring. For ancient ruins built by an equally ancient (and magical) civilization, many of these somehow lack “oomph”. The writers do try, and sometimes succeed, but I get the feeling that the dead weight of Atlantis is hurting things, even here when the writers are trying to shake things up a bit.

So… don’t expect to pick up this book and transform your game into Indiana Jones and the Tomb of Magical Horror. There are nice ideas here, and the discussion about alternate Atlantis myths and realities is welcome, but the GM needs to do quite a bit of work to turn this into something actually exciting.

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Minireview: Tome of the Mysteries (Mage: the Awakening)

The Mage: the Awakening core book is horrible. It’s dry, confusingly written, and devotes all too much page count to rotes (i.e. “hardcoded” spells, as opposed to freeform ones). I’ve been told that Mage has potential as a game, but you really need to read some other sourcebooks to see that – and Tome of the Mysteries is the most often quoted “must-have” book. I can see why.

The book is a lengthy examination of how magic works in this game, with emphasis on freeform magic use. We’re given a system for categorizing various effects, giving the GM and the players guidelines at how many dots are needed for different things. There’s also a lot of discussion on how magic works in general (in the game, that is), including how it feels to cast it and other “fluff” but very important things. Given how dry the core book is, you might think that a book on the mechanics of magic to be a tedious read – but it’s actually not, most of the book is very well written and illustrates at time obscure points and effects in an engaging fashion.

The book ends with some more esoteric stuff, like use of Abyssal magic and the possible powers of Archmages. The Abyssal stuff is fun, a classic “get power fast, but at cost” trap with lots of story potential. The Archmage stuff is more abstract and not really all that useful, but at least it’s something.

Overall, this is a fantastic book for anyone actually thinking of running or playing in this game. It lets the players use freeform magical effects without too much GM headache, and provides a very nice conceptual framework for talking about them… and one that is also usable as an in-game subject of discussion.

Still not really sold on this incarnation of Mage, but this book does improve on the core book a lot.

This book used to be out of print and very hard to find at a reasonable price (annoying for such a “must have” book), but it has recently been entered in White Wolf’s “print-on-demand” program and is now available directly.

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Minireview: Astral Realms (Mage: the Awakening)

Astral Realms is a very interesting sourcebook for the new Mage game. It expands the “astral realms” lightly described in the main game into… much larger and more detailed entities, and it also expands the default options mages have for accessing those realms (largely making access easier). The realms themselves are somewhat confusing; some are private “headspaces” detailing the internal landscape of a single mind (though this stuff is not traditional telepathy in any sense, these are true realms). while others are much larger shared realms detailing things like mass shared consensus and “pop culture”. So it’s the movie Inception, old Australian “dreamtime” and Dr. Strange all rolled into one.

There’s a lot of story fodder here. Starting from scenarios like Inception where you engineer changes on a target’s mental landscape (which may or may not reflect on later actions or mindsets), to expeditions into lost realms which may at one time have existed in the “real” world but now only exist as shared dreams. While dying in these realms usually just means that you are dumped out and wake up, that’s not necessarily the case – it’s possible to get trapped, sometimes for good, and losing or risking your sanity is a very real danger.

If there is a fault here it’s that the concepts involved are somewhat complicated, and the reader can become confused at times at what is actually being discussed. Fortunately, the abstract stuff does not form a huge part of the book, with most emphasis given to more practical in-game applications and descriptions of example astral realms (some of these are extremely interesting and could be used as-is in most Mage games).

Good book, and a surprisingly nice read too; this game line isn’t exactly light reading at all times, but here the writers have (mostly) managed to take an abstract and somewhat difficult subject and write a very readable and interesting book about it. One of the better Mage sourcebooks I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read all that many yet.

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Minireview: Truth Until Paradox, edited by Stewart Wieck

White Wolf doesn’t have a very good track record with gaming fiction, in general. While there have been some rare spots of light here and there, in general their gaming fiction has been on the horrid side of things. That’s not to say that gaming fiction tends to be exactly quality material in general, but White Wolf’s output has usually been especially dire. There seem to be two reasons for this: the writers aren’t usually very good, and secondly the proofreading and editorial control tends to be shoddy at best. There are exceptions, of course.

Truth Until Paradox, a collection of short stories centered on Mage: the Ascension, is unfortunately a typical showcase of an old-school World of Darkness fiction book. While Mage is an awesome game, these stories are… simply not very good, as a whole. It’s not a total loss; some of them are interesting, and a few are in the “almost good” category, but most are mediocre or downright bad. To compound the problems, the proofreading is bad even by White Wolf standards, typos jump at you from all over the place. Some of the stories contain nice core ideas, but lack writer skill to pull off. All the stories are (as far as I can figure out) written for this collection: they all happen in or around the Bay Area, at a certain point in (game) time. As such, this is a nice idea, taking a snapshot of a certain flashpoint time and place in the game world, and having writers write stories around that. Here, the execution makes the whole thing fall a bit flat.

It’s not all bad. Some of the stories are quite interesting, and even some of the not-that-hot ones are interesting from a game viewpoint, as they contain information about some game metaplot events. There’s a certain amount of historical interest here, since the book operates around the 2nd edition of Mage and not the hugely controversial revised edition. Mage fans might want to give this book a read, but others are advised to steer clear.

In the interest of full disclosure: I count myself a Mage fan, and I’m still glad I only paid a few euros for this at a Ropecon used books stall (where I also bought a few other World of Darkness fiction books, more about those later).

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Minireview: The Silver Ladder (Mage: the Awakening)

I still haven’t read much from the new Mage; what I’ve read has failed to really resonate. The core book is dull beyond words, and the “Gnostic prison” world is interesting in theory but poorly implemented – the bad guys are so vague they may as well not exist at all… and let’s not even start on “Atlantis”. I’ve heard that there is a pretty good game hidden inside all the crap, but so far I’m not totally convinced. I’m trying to keep an open mind, though.

Anyway, I recently got the Silver Ladder book because it was on sale at the game store. Now, having read it, I’m still not quite convinced by the game. It’s not a bad book by any means, but neither does it contain enough to really wow me. It does have some pretty cool small tidbits, though.

The book describes one of the five major Orders, the “Silver Ladder”. In the core book they are placed in the “leaders” slot, like the Ventrue are in Vampire. As such this isn’t a very colorful role, so they were left quite bland. This book expands on that core idea and describes what the Order really is about, and it’s more interesting than the core book proposition at least. The Order wants humanity to ascend, and want to be their guides in that path and take the role of “Vizier Behind the Throne”; benevolent guiding voices. That’s the theory, anyway. Obviously, many individual mages are in it purely for power (even though the Order tries to weed out the pure power-seekers), others may have good intentions but lack the personal drive and commitment to really push for change. The Order has no use for the weak – after all, they posit themselves as the “spiritual leaders” of future ascended humanity.

Perhaps the most interesting bit in the book has to do with the methods the Order uses to achieve its goals, one of which is “Cryptopolies”: small-scale secret societies formed by and guided by the Ladder, populated (mostly) by normal mortals. The members are monitored and subtly nudged in “correct” directions (as defined by the Ladder mentor), and especially promising individuals are exposed to magic to see how they react. Some even Awaken at that point, which the Ladder contains a huge win. Of course, most do not and some even go insane, such is the price of transcending the human condition.

There’s a lot of other stuff here to expand the Order from a two-dimensional “we’re the leaders” bunch to a more subtle magical transcendentalist society, and much of it is pretty good stuff on the idea level. The problem is the execution; while the book isn’t as dry a read as the Mage corebook, it’s still dry in most places and was frankly a bit of a chore to read through. In contrast the Vampire “Ordo Dracul” book, which describes a vampiric group with some goal-level overlap with the Ladder, was an extremely interesting read. I’m not sure how much is due to the base game (the new Mage forces the writers to resort to language usually only found in philosophy textbooks), and how much is due to the writers themselves, but there it is. In the end, this book had nice bits but overall wasn’t a very engaging read.

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Minireview: Chicago (World of Darkness)

World of Darkness: Chicago is a huge setting/crossover book for the (new) World of Darkness. And I do mean huge… at 400+ pages, you could use this as a melee weapon. Fortunately, it’s both a good book and a (surprisingly) good read, so that page count isn’t a bad thing. Even though it’s titled as a general “World of Darkness” book, it’s really not. It’s a crossover book for Vampire, Werewolf and Mage; while a “normals” WoD campaign can get some mileage out of this, the bulk of the book is for the three main game lines.

After some initial chapters detailing the general history of Chicago, the book splits into three parts: unsurprisingly, Vampire, Werewolf & Mage. The Vampire section is easily the best, it’s a showcase of how to create an interesting (vampiric) political situation for a city without leaning much on stereotypes. The NPCs are interesting and the given political situation is full of options and dangers, without being too much of an instant powder keg. Too many vampire games start off with the good old “the old Price has just been deposed” trope. Well, here that has happened…. but it was some time ago, and the new Price is already entrenched, but not too entrenched. There are tons of PC options both for supporting the current regime and opposing it (and also lots of “don’t care” groups). This book is worth the cover price on the strength of the NPCs in the Vampire section alone, they are quite excellent.

The Werewolf section isn’t quite as strong, but does contain some very cool touches. I especially liked some of the Pure packs lurking in the suburbs, some quite creepy stuff going on there. Also, many of the totem spirits used here are interesting and not at all “nice” (I say that as a good thing). The fact that Chicago has a long and bloody history, both in human terms and in terms of the meat packing and slaughter industry, makes for lots of very nice spirit-world options.

Last and unfortunately also least is the Mage section. While not strictly bad, it’s nowhere are tight and interesting as the previous two chapters. There are some interesting NPCs here, but a lot of the main elements seemed quite off to me. Real names are supposed to be a big deal in this game… but here we have a major faction leader openly using his real name and also being the head of a big corporation. The bad guys, supposed to be shadowy puppeteers who may not even exist, suddenly have a headquarters in some highrise building, and the Pentacle mages actually seem to know who and where they are. It’s quite inconsistent with the game, as originally written. At times it shows quite badly that this book was written quite a while ago, back when Mage was still trying to figure itself out. I’ve been told Mage has improved over time, but here it’s a bit of a mess. Still, there are quite a few nice NPCs here who could be used in pretty much any game.

There is some interconnect between the three main parts of the book, but it’s a bit rough – the Mage section has a nightclub/pub which is portrayed as a major meeting point for supernaturals, but this isn’t mentioned in the Vampire or Werewolf parts. Still, the book does try to provide for crossover use, and succeeds to a point. Overall, it’s a very solid city sourcebook with coverage for the three main supernatural splats. Even if your campaign isn’t set in Chicago, there is lot here you could steal for many other WoD games.

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