04 June, 2015

Storifying Mage: the Ascension (Part 1)


With the arrival of the 20th Anniversary Edition of “Mage: the Ascension”, I’m really happy with the way the background material has been updated to reflect the changes in the sociological and technological landscapes over the past two decades. What leaves a bit to be desired is the game system that was cutting edge back in the early 90s as a story driven set of mechanisms, compared to almost everything else on the market at the time, but now feels a bit clunky after all the theorising and envelope pushing within various parts of the hobby.

I love the game, but I can admit that it has shortcomings. For me, those shortcomings are in its slow crunchy combat system, and the way certain elements of the game just don’t mesh together. A few bits of it just seem tacked on because they link the game to other parts of the World of Darkness, some even seem to actively hinder the ability to actually tell a story.

I posted yesterday that I was thinking about this, and like many of my single sentence cryptic posts, it generated more interest than my typical posts here on the blog. I’m starting to get some of my thoughts in order, and while a few of them are vaguely presentable, I’ll probably take a couple of days to work my way through the transformation of the game.

As I write this, I find myself in two minds (but that’s probably a Gemini thing). I‘ve stated on many previous occasions that I believe game hacks to be one of the lowest forms of game design. But one of my most popular games, FUBAR, was basically a hack and an attempt to fill in the blanks for +John Harper's Ghost Echo. Here I am again, writing a hack for a game I love, and trying to mould it into something that even better fits my current gaming sensibilities. I’d like to think that along the way, I’ll come up with some interesting new ideas that I might be able to port back into my other current projects (Walkabout, Other Strangeness, Darkhive, FUBAR).

Enough with the preamble, on to the design concepts.

Fundamentals

  1. I want to keep the existing character sheet, it’s got lots of cool stuff on it. I’ll be adding a second sheet to it with more stuff to prompt story and chronicle the adventures of the mages.
  2. By virtue of keeping the character sheet (and because it’s one of the best pats of Mage anyway), I’m keeping the concept of Spheres and Arete as driving forces for Magic(k). I’m basically keeping most of the mystical superstructure of the game and rebuilding the chassis.
  3. I want backgrounds to become more prominent in the game, since these are things that tie the character into the world and provide instant relational effects that can be used to drive story.
  4. I’m trashing merits and flaws, which each have their own quirky subsystems, are often imbalanced with respect to one another, and clear fodder for min-maxers… I know, because I’ve played in those sorts of games. These will be replaced by something similar but different.
  5. Natures and demeanors should become more prominent, perhaps forming a fundamental path toward gaining experience, or even providing an inherent mystical resonance (which seems appropriate in a game where the will of an individual is exerted on reality to invoke changes in the environment).
  6. Experience as it stands is very arbitrary, get points for showing up, get points if the GM likes you, get points for engaging in the GMs story. I’m actually thinking of self-guided experience, akin to keys in The Shadow of Yesterday, or even applying the concept where every time you engage an action using one of your statistics you earn a point towards it (two or three points if you fail because you learn more from your mistakes), and once X number of points are acquired you can boost the relevant statistic. (Much more thinking about experience is in order)
  7. Combat seriously needs to be streamlined. No hit roll, then dodge roll, then damage roll, then soak roll (that a minimum of 4 rolls in total) for each and every strike.
  8. The core system needs to reflect player choice in the narrative through their characters, more than just a variable degree of pass, then fail, or botch determined purely by the dice. That’s descriptive post-hoc story, where players try to rationalise their actions in the face of random chaos rather than some of the more recent game innovations that have allowed players to prioritise the outcome of their actions toward the goals they deem most worthy (completing “Task A”, completing “Task B”, or avoiding any detrimental effects, but hopefully earning enough successes to achieve all three).      
  9. I think the core system needs to move from a task oriented model to a conflict oriented model. Here I’m thinking something more akin to the variable dice in Star Wars Edge of Empire, or Otherkind dice. Where we look at the flow of activity, wait for a point where there could be an interesting twist in the narrative that might go in a few different directions, then pull out the dice for a quick resolution. Combat would be a sequence of these quick resolutions building up in dramatic tension until the conflict is broken up, one party remains standing (after others have backed off or been neutralised). I'm tempted to play with something similar to the recent work of +Kyrinn S. Eis, with her "Yes & No + Unexpected" system. 
  10. I’m also thinking of an idea where player don’t have to write up their whole character sheet at once before play begins, they just fill in the most important concepts to their characters then keep aside some points to customise on the fly. Attributes must be filled in, allocate half of the ability points (keeping the rest in reserve), allocate a couple of spheres (holding back on the rest). This way there’s less chance that players will waste their starting points on abilities that they just don’t end up using. It will make character generation quicker while also allowing for hidden surprises during the course of play. I haven’t entirely worked out how this will work in conjunction with the experience system and other game elements.
  11. The final transformed game should be generally compatible with existing sourcebooks, where players engaging in this variant might be able to pick up an official Mage sourcebook and pluck ideas from it directly, or only require subtle modifications to utilize such ideas.



I’ll work through these changes and ideas over the next couple of days.
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