This article originally appeared in Pyramid #11
Unto The Source Of M A G I C K
Designer's Notes: GURPS MAGE: The Ascension
by Robert M. Schroeck
There is a deep and abiding attraction to magic in the human soul that seems to find its greatest expression in the popularity of stage magicians and in the preponderance of roleplaying games with strange and mystic powers available for the asking. Mage, I think, is the game that finally fulfills the deep, secret longings buried in the heart of every player who ever created a wizard character.
Magic is what first attracted me to roleplaying games, 15 years ago. Magic is still what I choose most often when I roleplay today. I remember the friend who introduced me to fantasy roleplaying with a certain well-known game chattering excitedly, "And when your magic-user reaches 30th level, he becomes a god!" The concept was exciting and frightening and challenging, all at the same time, and I was saddened and a little disappointed to find that no such thing happened, at least not in the official rules. It was the secret desire to be godlike, to have ultimate control over the universe, that led me to play mage characters over and over again — but I never got exactly the feeling that I wanted. It was close, but never close enough.
Mage keeps the promise that no other fantasy game has for me. Mage gives its characters magickal power like no other game, and I am finally satisfied. I am also honored to have been the one allowed to adapt it to GURPS.
I won't bore you with a long recitation of how I juggled numbers to work things out. The most important part of Mage is its feel, and that was one of the toughest things to bring across. More so than with either of SJ Games' previous adaptations of the World of Darkness, Mage is highly dependent upon its players and how they react to the setting. The workings of its magick are only as good as their imaginations, and firing those imaginations was the task I had to address. The actual game mechanics, which were adapted from White Wolf's Storyteller system, were easily handled in comparison.
For those of you unfamiliar with Mage, what gives it its power is the incredible flexibility of its magick. And this flexibility is rooted in a remarkable philosophy. Reality, this philosophy says, is not fixed. It is a multiple-choice test, with the right answer being the one the most people pick. The way people decide they see the world is the way the world is, until they change the way they see it. Reality is a consensus phenomenon.
Mages are those who are gifted with the ability to overrule the consensus, and magick is the result. There are no spells in Mage; there are only 9 bodies of knowledge, each explaining how to manipulate a particular facet of reality: space, time, inanimate matter, the mind and more. These bodies, called Spheres, can be used alone or in conjunction with each other. If you know enough in any given Sphere, there are almost no limits to what you can do.
And here is where the imaginations of the players become important. There are no spell lists to run down in a moment of need to see what you can use, no tedious research rules for creating new effects and — and many GMs will cheer — no "Johnny One-Spell" wizards. Mage's magick is almost entirely improvisational. The mage creates the effect he wants on the spot, at the moment he needs it, by sheer force of will. Magick violates reality, though, and this incurs a price. A mage can be hurt or killed by the forces of Paradox that manifest in the wake of his magick. But magick can be disguised — made to look like coincidence. And here the imagination of the player is vital, because the player of a mage must be able to think on his feet, not only to create the magick he wants, but — when necessary — to hide its true nature.
The challenge of writing Mage was to present some necessarily numbers-heavy game mechanics without losing the imaginative spark that drives them. To this end, I tried to concentrate all the primary magick rules in one tight section, leaving the remainder of the book to the densely-packed, detailed background that has come to distinguish the World of Darkness. These details — the history of the Mages and the secret Ascension War that rages across the earth and the Umbra — hopefully serve as inspiration; seeing what Mages past have accomplished, players will be less concerned with their prejudices about what is or isn't possible and more concerned with simply accomplishing what they need to do.
And the possibilities are great. Mages from the World of Darkness put their compatriots from GURPS and other games to shame. A sufficiently knowledgable mage can, if he bends himself to the task, singlehandedly wipe out a city or create a pocket universe. There were a few complaints during playtesting that "attack" magick — particularly from the Forces Sphere — was terribly deadly; a minimum damage roll was frequently 3d, with many more dice being common, for an effect that took only 1 second to create. This is as it should be. Mages bend the underlying fabric of reality to their will; the limits applied to their lesser brethren do not apply to them. Part of the subtext of the game is the responsibility of such power. Also important is using it with care, for the World of Darkness is full of dangerous foes who are watching for or are attracted by the profligate use of Magick.
All in all, it is a difficult and entertaining premise for a campaign. With its new magic system and the imagination it requires, Mage may prove to be one of the more challenging GURPS supplements yet, for both players and GM. It is a demanding game in a demanding setting, but those who are up to the challenge will be amply rewarded.
Article publication date: January 1, 1995
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