Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2014/06/27/tabletop-review-mage-the-ascension-20th-anniversary-edition-quick-start-rules-free-rpg-day-2014/
It’s always weird and interesting to see Onyx Path Publishing (and before that White Wolf) taking part in Free RPG Day. The day is meant to foster relations between gamers and their local brick and mortar stores. Unfortunately, World of Darkness products, both Classic and New are very rarely found in retail stores. Except for a few special cases, their products are sold online via Print on Demand, DriveThruRPG, or via Kickstarters. Now, OPP does try to extend an olive branch to publishers, but I’ve yet to see a gaming store actually take part. If you take a look at the WoD Kickstarters you can see how small a percentage this is (.1% for The Book of the Wyrm, .2% for Anarchs Unbound and Mage 20. So on and so forth). What’s more, even over at the Free RPG Day Facebook page there were some very polarizing emotions about OPP taking part. Some people were excited. While others…not so much. There’s definitely a rift between the B&M community and the creators of World of Darkness products and the Free RPG Day releases just seem to rub salt in those wounds. I didn’t attend a single B&M store that was happy about OPP getting to take part, which is a shame because back in the 90s, I purchased so many classic WoD products from local stores. There’s definitely a rift that needs to be mended, but when the last page of your offering for a retail store is an ad for upcoming M20 releases and you only mention DriveThruRPG as the place to get them…well, as big a fan as I am of OPP, I can definitely see why the retail side of the hobby is irked with them.
Last year we got Reap The Whirlwind which highlighted the all new (and improved) version of Vampire: The Requiem. It was a great piece that was newcomer friendly (although everyone was technically a newcomer to that version of the game) but the adventure sucked and the eventual release of Blood and Smoke didn’t happen until six months later, leaving newcomers that picked it up with no way to get further V:TR releases from retailers and what was available online was outdated as they were for a previous edition. Good intentions, but bad follow through. This year’s release is a little bit weirder. Not only do we have the same problems with the “adventure” and a long delay between the Free RPG release and the eventual publication of Mage: The Ascension 20th Anniversary Edition, but there was a potential new wrinkle. Mage is by far the most esoteric game out there, it’s one of the harder games to explain to newcomers, and it definitely would not be my first choice to give to someone as their first ever tabletop experience. I think OPP would have been better off with a release for Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It’s been out for a while, there are several supplements, sourcebooks and adventures published for the 20AE version and it’s certainly more accessible to newcomers. How on earth would they going to make M:TA a game to quickly jump into and play like the other Free RPG Day releases for this year? I was VERY morbidly curious.
It’s also very easy to write an intro adventure for Werewolf, unlike say Mage where the very Quick Start Rules comes out and says, “Mage doesn’t lend itself well to ‘modules.’ Linear adventures that lead from Scene One to Scene Two to Scene Three and eventually to a one-size-fits-all climax are alien to this game.” Well, not only is that a decidedly false statement (anything can be turned into a dungeon crawl. ANYTHING.), but it’s also one that comes off very arrogant and off-putting. It also means that this is going to push away newcomers instead of bring them in. I mean, if you’re a GM and you agree to run something for Free RPG Day only to find the game you chose doesn’t actually have an adventure but a cursory look at the rules while saying, “Oh, we don’t believe in traditional adventures, per say,” well, you’re going to get a very flustered individual who now has to come up with something off the fly that will most likely not be very good, leaving everyone involved with an unfavorable opinion of the product. God forbid everyone involved using this QSR is new to the WoD or gaming in general as you will get a complete and total mess occurring. It really feels that OPP put out these QSRs more as a teaser to older gamers who have been playing Mage for the past two decades rather than with any intent to bring newcomers in. Because there is honestly nothing here that is going to pop for someone inexperienced with the setting, while delighting long time mainstays of the product with nostalgic memories…and who certainly don’t need a QSR set to play the game. So I’m not sure exactly who the guys at OPP were writing this QSR for.
So the half-hearted attempt at an adventure is unfortunate in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean the entire product is poorly done. Far from it. The mechanics and explanations for them surpassed my expectations. I went into this piece thinking, “How on earth are you going to explain the spheres and how to use them mechanically in a few pages?” Well, OPP got around that by creating a much larger QSR than usual. Most companies’ QSR offerings are about twenty pages. Mage 20AE has 47 pages of content – much of which is devoted to the rules. Sure this means this isn’t a QSR you can just sit down and play on the fly, but man is this thing robust and really well written. Maybe part of it is me being skewed by having played Mage since the day it came out and already knowing the rules inside and out, but I felt the QSR did a masterful job of breaking down the rules in a fraction of the pages that my old dog eared physical copy used. Of course the sheer volume of rules will no doubt overwhelm newer, younger, or more casual gamers, which again makes me wonder who the intended demographic for this Quick Start Rules set is. Still, I WOULD give this to a newcomer if they were joining a Mage game with people who are already familiar with the mechanics and setting. That way they have a crib sheet of sorts and the blanks can be filled in by the more experienced gamers.
You get a nice little writeup of all the important points. All the universal WoD elements are detailed along with information specific to Mage like Spheres, Arete, Quintessence, Paradox, and of course how Magick (Yes, with a k at the end) works. This is a pretty comprehensive guide to the core truncated rules of Mage: The Ascension and while it is well done, it also does show that this is more complicated than the hack and slash dungeon crawl type of game. Again, this means you’re going to need to read this QSR a few times over in order to really get a feel for the game. Otherwise, you’re going to be checking the rules every few minutes to see what your character can or cannot do. Anyway, as much as I hated that the QSR did with the adventure side of things, I absolutely loved what it does to explain and show off the unique mechanics of Mage.
It’s also worth noting that the book only gives a fleeting description for each of the Nine Traditions and the five conventions of the Technocracy. You get two pages to cover all of the sects in these big two groups along with brief write-ups of the Nephandi and Marauders. Long time gamers might see this and go, “But there is so much more information to be had? Why is this so short?” Well the answer is that: a) there wasn’t enough room b) by being brief but informative, you pique curiosity and c) it keeps from overwhelming newcomers. You will also see some changes here. The Askantic Brotherhood is now the Akashayana and the Sons of Ether are now the Society of Ether. This may seem like an inconsequential change to some of you, but it’s very much keeping in line with OPP’s attempt to be all-inclusive and gender neutral. This is a company that bends over backwards to be inviting to women and LGBT gamers and even in small changes like this, you can definitely see Onyx Path and its writers practice what they preach. Good show! Of course, no one is going to freak out and call you a misogynist if you refer to these traditions by their old names out of habit.
Speaking of all inclusive, you should take a look at the five pre-generated characters in this game. You have only a single male character, along with three female (one black, two white) and a FTM transgender character. I really like that they did this. Sure, it definitely feels like the men outnumber the women in the tabletop gaming scene, especially if you’re an older gamer, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. There are a lot of great female writers out there putting out products for the WoD, Castles & Crusades, Pathfinder, and Shadowrun. There are also a lot of female gamers out there. I was very impressed to see that a third to a half of the gamers at the store where I picked up this QSR at were women. I can also tell you from experience that my time with WoD games, that the women players often outnumber the men. Especially with V:TM. So sure, your group of gamers might be four dudes and none of you really want to play a female or transgender character. That’s okay. Just remember you can always change the gender of a pre-gen. Women will be happy to see they have more than a single female pre-gen to choose from (as is usually the case) and transgender gamers will just be happy to see someone thought of them! Again, as uninviting as this QSR is to the adventure side of things, World of Darkness games really do try to be as welcoming as possible to all races, creeds, sexual preferences and so on. That’s really a lovely thing to see.
So while there isn’t an actual adventure to use with the QSR (which is a shame), you do get a few things to help an experienced Storyteller craft their own. While again, that does mean this QSR isn’t something you can just play with on a moment’s notice, it does mean that a veteran of Mage CAN use it to teach newer or younger gamers about the system in a very nice manner. You have seven and a half pages of sample NPCs, enemies and allies and ten story hooks, each a paragraph long. This is nice, but a hand holding adventure would have been a much better choice if this was actually meant to be for people new to Mage rather than longtime fans like myself who backed the 20AE Kickstarter project.
So as we come to the end of this review, I have very mixed feelings about this QSR. As a fan of Mage: The Ascension, I really liked what I saw and it has made me all the more excited for the eventual release of the weighty tome (or in my case, PDF) that will be the final product. I thought the piece did a good job of explaining the esoteric nature of Mage in a short amount of space, even if it will take much longer for a gamer to understand and play this than the other QSRs released this year. I really wish there had been an adventure geared to showing newcomers how to play and/or run Mage, but the pre-generated characters are wonderfully done, lavished with detail and diversity alike. I still feel this is best viewed as a teaser for longtime Mage fans that something that will really help people brand new to the game be able to grasp the concepts and themes of the game. However, with the help of an experienced WoD gamer, this can be used to teach the core mechanics and how to play the game. Hopefully enough so that they want to buy the 5-600 page AE version when it comes out at the tail end of this year or (more likely), the beginning of 2015.