How We Roll Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade (Part I)

Some time ago, I decided to take my old Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade tomes for a tour with our Sunday “play anything but 5e D&D” group. Now we have a really nice campaign going for about nine months, and I thought it would be nice to write about it. I hope to help other people who want to run Mage, but get puzzled by the inherent complexity of the setting and themes explored in the game.

It took me some time, but I’m writing here again. While I really enjoy putting my thoughts about different RPG-related things online, I find it hard to do it consistently these days. In the last months, I’ve started two or three texts that I’d like to finish and put here in the future, but I didn’t get the time or energy to finish them yet. Life has changed a lot: another move for work reasons and, with that, another new city. I should be getting used by now, but it’s still complicated. One thing that didn’t change, though, is that I’m still playing a lot, and I’m thankful for that.

Right now, I’m running a weekly D&D homebrew campaign, still run my Great Conjunction Ravenloft campaign (should start Ship of Horror soon) about once every 4–5 weeks, and, because most of us are not OK playing only D&D all the time, I also run a Mage: The Sorcerers Crusade campaign about twice per month, the one I’ll talk about in this post.

For starts, M:tSC is probably one of my favorite RPGs of all time. It has a setting that I’m quite comfortable in, a system full of idiosyncrasies — that I’ve learned to cope with — , but perfectly usable, and what I see as the most powerful (in more than one sense, actually), flexible and complete system of magic of any RPGs I’ve played to this date. It also helps that I love a good “this is how it started” tale, and I believe its core rulebook makes an excellent job portraying the renaissance heroes that would become the main antagonists of the modern game.

I decided to write this post for a simple reason: when I say that I have a permanent M:tSC campaign running for nine months now, it’s common to hear from fellow roleplayers: “how?”. Most of my friends seem to have a lot of difficult preparing and running WoD games in general, but they appear to have an extra hard time with Mage. I understand that, and I’d love to help anyone who wants to create a campaign for a group of true magicians.

My own campaign in a glance:

Our main location is the city of Lübeck, in northern Europe. While characters do travel around a lot, they are always returning there, and all but one of their cabal members have a permanent base in that city. Many M:tSC campaigns that I’m aware of focus on either Mediterranean or Iberian locations, so I wanted to create something different. I decided to use Hanseatic locations and expected players to go along and build some enlightened scientists and guildsmen for a healthy amount of infernalist confrontation (thanks to the rise of Tezghul, the Insane), but that’s not what they wanted to do, and I ended up with an unlikely reunion of council magi: a Verbena, a Hermetic, a Chorist and a Solificati. Together, they’re supposed to have an important role in stopping Tezghul and his minions in a few years (we are now in october of 1450). What happens before they arrive there? We are playing to know.

The First Tenet: It’s not about being, it’s about becoming.

Many fellow players give up on playing Mage with me once they learn that all characters start with no more than a single dot in Arete or any of the nine spheres. I’m fine with their decision to go play with someone else, but I stand by my choice, and I believe it’s one of the most important things to make the game run as I intend it to run. I say that because, to me, Mage is not a game about being, it’s a game about becoming. What do I mean with that?

Part of understanding Mage is understanding that slinging spells is completely secondary to changing reality or enforcing reality as one sees it. Once you understand it, you also understands that slinging spells is only one way to change or enforce a given reality around you, and the game of shifting paradigms becomes apparent. Yes, it’s challenging, but it’s well worth the effort, as I see it.

Given this necessary consideration, what I enjoy about the game is not creating badass enemies or impossible puzzles that my players can defeat with clever use of true magic. I know that this kind of stuff is also interesting, and I use it as well, but I expect my games to be more about journeys of mystical discovery. Each step in the development of a true magician is an improvement in self-knowledge and awareness, and I expect players to play through that more than I expect them to interact with the implied setting.

I believe the dynamic of the Seeking was the compelling point making me go in that direction in the first place. For those uninitiated out there, the Seeking is a kind of self-awareness personal journey the mage must go into before raising the Arete trait (a measure of how enlightened — and powerful — he is). It’s really cool, but also very difficult to roleplay properly, for two reasons: first, it’s personal, which means that, while you seek, the rest of the group waits. Second, that seeking should be full of challenges and riddles that will prepare your new stage of enlightenment. As I said, pretty cool, but almost impossible to prepare in an interesting way for each of your players in each situation where they would raise the Arete trait.

Making the Seeking work has always been one of my main challenges as a storyteller in games of Mage. I know many who simply ignore Seekings or make them a background thing, but, as I said earlier, this is an idea that I actually enjoy, and wanted to keep it for my games. That’s why I dumped the original concept of the Seeking in favor of something (I believe) better.

In my game, each mage is always on a Seeking. Players know about that, because I make it clear from the beginning what they’re expected to do if they want the next step in the Arete tray. It revolves around searching for the enlightening experience, trying to improve oneself and becoming more powerful in the process, sure, but all of that happens while their characters face threats and challenges in the real world, not in introspective journeys guided by their inner selves. And the other players get to help too, strengthening their bonds and also looking for mystical signs that show them what the next step is.

As an example, in our current story arc, our Chorist needed to arrive at the Hekla volcano, but had no idea of how he would be able to. It was something he needed to do in his own quest for improvement, and the Verbena decided to use the much maligned Paths of the Wyck to take him (and the rest of their group) there. Even experienced witches have a difficult time with the Paths, and avoid them as much as possible, but waiting for a ship that could take them to Iceland was not a choice. For the Chorist, arriving there (and doing a lot of other things that I will not detail here) was part of his Seeking. For the Verbena, unveiling the Paths and guiding his friends safely was a quest of enlightenment in itself — the Verbena are the supposed heirs of the ancient godlike Wyck, and their magic (and paradigm) is bound to this relationship. I don’t know how complicated it sounds for the reader, but this paragraph describes two months of intense gameplay!

It’s interesting to realize that, once that wheel starts turning, events that guide the following steps for their characters flow naturally, and a kind of gameplay where we don’t know what happens next, but we’re always curious about it (because every move their characters make is somehow relevant) becomes the dominant style.

I read somewhere that Ursula K. LeGuin wrote A Wizard of Earthsea because she wanted to tell a story about a young wizard — someone who would become the greatest wizard in the world one day, but not yet. As that’s one of my favorite fantasy novels, I like to think that stories about how wizards become what they are entertain me more than stories about how they use their wonderful powers to save the day. I like the sense of uncertainty and fear of the unknown, and it also helps that it’s easier to build challenges for young wizards. I know that these characters will rise to power and (probably) face Tezghul one day, as a matter of life or death, but getting to know how that happens week after week is great.

As I write this essay, our game is slowly moving from a story about recently awakened mages who can’t do a lot besides sensorial magic to a story about mages who can perform respectable magic — even if their most powerful tricks still happen in a very small scale. We are arriving at a point where a stronger interaction with the implied setting is expected, and that touches the second tenet I want to talk about: how I make the (sometimes overwhelming) World of Darkness metaplot work in our favor, instead of working against the coherence and stability of our campaign. This piece ended up bigger than I intended when I started writing, though, so I’ll continue it in a Part II, maybe in one week or two.

Before we go…

Since I’m probably writing a public essay about Mage for the first time ever, it wouldn’t be fair to finish without remembering Stewart Wieck. Stewart was one of the founders of White Wolf Game Studio, back in the 90’s, and the main designer of the original Mage: The Ascension. I genuinely admire all the early designs by the White Wolf crew, but I also think it’s safe to say that Stewart’s game impacted (and still impacts) me the most. Something about the game of “understanding reality before getting to change it” remained with me through the years.

He passed away last June, at the early age of 49, and anyone who knows about his work — from the days of White Wolf magazine to recent work with Nocturnal Media — probably understands that we have lost a giant. We’ll never know what Stewart would bring to this hobby in the next 10–20 years, but his past accomplishments make me believe that probably it would be a lot. Still, his creative spark endures in our passion for the game he helped creating. Writing about how we run Mage is my way of helping to keep that spark ignited for the years to come.