First off, I am returning from just about abandoning this blog for the entire month of May. I hope that I’ll be able to post here more regularly in June. May saw an end to six months of unemployment, as well as the writing frenzy of the second Dust to Dust world event, so the things keeping me away were good things, but still.
About two months ago, I started up a Mage: the Awakening game, described here. This is the second chronicle of new Mage that I’ve run. I can’t offer meaningful comparisons between this game and Mage: the Ascension, because I never played or ran that edition of Mage, and only own the books because a friend was dumping his collection in the course of a move. Someday I’ll read them, I imagine, but that’s not what I came to tell you about.
From all these years of playing D&D, I have come to expect a certain kind of complexity in the final effect of a wizard’s spell. Whether it’s Pages from the Mages, Spell Compendium, or just about any of the 4e controller classes, I’ve come to expect some spells to do damage and something else. This is entirely possible in Mage, and the book goes to some length to offer rules for this. Relatively obscure and complicated rules, but rules nonetheless.
In the two Mage chronicles I’ve run, I’ve started the PCs as Sleepers who Awaken during the first session. I do this for a number of reasons: because the transition is interesting (though it’s an area that I don’t always handle as well as might be hoped), and because it’s easier to integrate characters into the tightly-woven setting of Awakened Boston if they’re newly Awakened rather than long-time mages. Most importantly, because the setting of Mage is complicated (Orders, legacies, local cabals, all kinds of stuff), and since it’s absolutely not reasonable to ask players to sit down and read the many relevant parts of the books that only I own. So I’m trying, with what I think is some success, to run the game on the assumption that the characters have justifiable ignorance of the world around them. Sometimes I stumble over things I have forgotten I need to reveal. One of the problems of this approach is rotes, which according to the fiction players learn from their orders. Except, of course, that these PCs are five sessions in, and we’re nowhere near having them join orders, as far as I can tell.
Just looking at the rulebook, though, the treatment of rotes is kind of odd. The book gives the initial impression that there are maybe one or two rote versions of any given improvised spell, each of which is aligned with an Order, and that’s that. This doesn’t make a damn bit of sense with what rotes are, and a further reading undermines the notion thoroughly. So what are the attributes and skills that make up rotes? Well, they could be just about anything; though you wouldn’t bother to learn all of them (by spending experience points), it’s totally reasonable that there might be a huge variety of different rotes representing the same improvised spell.
This leads me to consider writing and introducing rotes that do some of the more gamist things that I have in mind, and handing them out as the result of dedicated research (for which, thank God, there are extensive rules), teaching, or loot. For example, a Death rote (possibly with a lesser Life requirement) that amounted to the D&D spell Vampiric Touch is pretty reasonable and classic. How about this:
Hand of Greed and Gluttony
Dice Pool: Presence + Occult + Death, or (in another imagining) Dexterity + Larceny + Death; the version introduced would depend entirely on what kind of character might potentially receive it in-play
Practice: Unraveling and Ruling
Action: Instant; subtract target’s Stamina
The mage must first grab hold of the target, with a roll of Strength or Dexterity + Brawl – target’s Defense. If successful, he can cast this spell as an instant action the following turn. Each success deals one point of bashing damage to the target. For every two successes, the caster enjoys the additional benefit of one temporary health level that can only receive bashing damage. At Death 5, this spell deals lethal damage, and the temporary health levels can receive lethal or bashing damage.
(On one level, I would be inclined to require Life 2 to cast this spell, looking at its secondary effect as a kind of triggered Self Healing, but I’m torn – the player in my game who might ever want to cast this spell doesn’t have high Strength, high Dex, or high Brawl, so do I really want to make it harder by also requiring two dots of Life?)
In Which A Lesson Is Learnt
When our hero set out to write this, he – er, I – had been under the impression that I was going somewhere that Mage rules-as-written would not support all that well. Given the mass of the Mage core book, thisis kind of a ridiculous thing to expect – there are all kinds of rules in there that I’ve glossed over to date, just because my Mage games so far have been relatively low-powered, and the improvised spells were entirely sufficient to the players’ needs. What I’ve learned as I poked around in writing this is that there are plenty of rules for mages to do a whole crapton of horrible things to their opponents in a single round of casting, if they can crank up their dice pool through some means. It’s just that the game stores all of this information in a very dense and forbidding seven pages that are pretty much solid charts. This means that while I’ve read them before, they didn’t stick with me well, since I was observing their existence but not really learning them. My players (both chronicles) have not yet hazarded its murky depths (but for those reading this post who want to try, check out pages 117-124 of the Mage core book).
It’s often said that the best way to learn a topic is to teach it. To this I would add, “…or otherwise design new and applicable material for it.” I like to think that I will have additional ideas in the future for exciting or just insane new conjunctional spells, including the rote combination that makes it possible – and honestly, I’m more interested in rote combinations that communicate theme and don’t screw over the player in question than I am in following the logic of Orders the players haven’t joined.