Ch-Ch-Changes: A comparative review of Mage: the Awakening

by Nancy Schultz

Well, here we are at the release of the latest line for White Wolf's new World of Darkness. For most people, the book just became available on August 29, but I managed to be one of the lucky 300 (plus those who won them as prizes) to get my hands on one at Gen Con. And let me tell you, the slow drift away from the previous incarnations that we saw with Vampire and Werewolf gathered up steam and left a nice wave in it's wake with Mage: the Awakening. Let's take a look at how much has changed.


Mage: the Ascension joined it's Old World of Darkness (oWOD) companions in a purple soft cover with the folds of purple fabric surrounding a Tarot Card drawn by Joshua Gabriel Timbrook, specifically, and appropriately, that of the Magician - or in this case, the Mage. The pages are clear and readable, with the chapter splash pages being a dark gray, almost black, with white text. All fonts are nice, simple clear serif fonts, making the whole thing very readable. Mage: the Awakening joins the new World of Darkness (nWOD) in a hefty metallic aqua blue hardcover with a broken tablet depicting a hand holding a sword, implying that the tablet is under water. In a second illusion on the cover, the symbol of the five towers (discussed below) is also visible on the cover at certain angles. The pages are generally clear, speckled with gold and gray with generally black text, though some artwork, shadow images, side bars, and section headers are in gold foil. The splash pages are in a rough, very light gray with some light images and italicized text.

I love the cover of the new book, but my praise for the new book over the old ends there. I'm not a fan of Josh Timbrook's art, so I found it overused in Mage: the Ascension, but at least there were other artists to break it up. Mage: the Awakening sports the artwork of a single artist… and yet there's no visual continuity, and much of his line art is not to my taste. So I have to call the artwork about even. With the gray and gold specks, I found myself more than once checking to see if I had dropped a crumb from the chips I was eating on the pages, and the gold-foil text can be difficult to read if you're reading in direct light. So for readability, I have to say that Ascension was the better book. Still, the cover is very pretty, and I have to give the art designers props for making the interior of the book look good, if not exactly great in the readability context. It certainly is readable, and clearly more so than sections of the 2nd ed book, but not as clearly readable as the first edition one.


I played and had the dubious pleasure of Storytelling for Mage: the Ascension Characters, so again, I paid a lot of attention to the differences between the two systems. And there was a lot to pay attention to.

Beyond the basic differences between the Storyteller and Storytelling systems, we continue to have a consistency between the nWOD games I was promised in Vampire: the Requiem and saw clearly in Werewolf: the Forsaken, which of course was not there in the oWOD. In this case, the morality trait is very similar to the Morality put forth in the World of Darkness Corebook, only adding on additional qualifiers for the use of Magic. I find this to be very appropriate as, unlike Vampires or Werewolves, Mages are still essentially human, and therefore should have to deal with the same morality codes as humans.

In both Ascension and Awakening, magic is a nebulous, powerful resource with which the characters can reshape the world, and in both, it is codified into a number of categories. While some of these categories share the same name in each edition, the similarities start to crumble away after this point.

Mage: the Ascension had nine spheres of magic with five levels of each. Spells were cast by deciding which sphere or spheres best covered the results, determining if the spell was Coincidental, Vulgar or Vulgar with Witnesses, rolling a dice pool dependant on the combination of sphere and vulgarity, then applying the results. The line between Coincidental and Vulgar wasn't especially well drawn, but essentially anything that could happen without the influence of magic according to the predominant beliefs of the area was considered Coincidental, while if magic (as opposed to miracles) was required, it was Vulgar. Coincidental spells were easier, with the die pool being based on the character's Arete (understanding of magic) score, a rating which none of the character's sphere's could exceed. Vulgar spells used only the value of the highest sphere being used. A failed spell, or even a successful one, could induce Paradox, a force of disbelief which imposed its will on magic.

If the preceding paragraph is confusing, then I feel I have captured casting magic in Ascension quite accurately. The levels of subjective interpretation were rather high, and if a storyteller and a player were on the same page, things could go well. If not, things got ugly. Adding to all this confusion was the rather artificial addition of keeping all magic within the realm of a mage's paradigm, a concept which many of Mage's players and detractors never quite applied correctly… yours truly included.

Mage: the Awakening, on the surface, seems equally confusing. Now there are ten Arcana to choose from, though many are the same as Ascension's Spheres, with five levels. In keeping with the adjusted power levels of the nWOD, what is possible at each level is slightly greater than it was in Ascension. Again, you cast spells by choosing which sphere covers the desired effect best. However, dice pools are no longer determined by who is watching and how obvious the magic is. Now dice pools are based on whether the spell is a Rote (a formula long perfected by the mage's Order) or an improvised spell (cast off the cuff). Rotes are cast with skill pools augmented by the Arcana, allowing for much higher pools at lower levels than Improvised spells, which use dice pools consisting only of Gnosis (again, the term for a Mage's understanding of Magic) and the Arcana used for the spell. Paradox still exists, though it's origin is different, and rather than accumulating a pool of Paradox, it impacts the Mage's dice pool and increases the possibility of failure...probably with catastrophic results.

I have to say that while I'm still trying to wrap my head around Awakening's spellcasting rules… I feel much closer to understanding them after a mere three days (at the time of this article's writing) than I did after some 9 years of trying to figure out Ascension's rules. The definitions of the ten Arcana seem to be better written and clearer, and yet not at all to the detriment of a flexible Magic system where anything is possible with the right Arcana.

Magic is only the beginning of the changes between the two systems. Both systems have groups which determine which spheres your character has an affinity for. In Ascension, it was your character's Tradition, or the magical organization that taught the Mage her magic, and you had one affinity sphere representing your character's training. In Awakening, it is your Path, the style of magic that your soul is drawn to, which determines which two Arcana your character has a natural affinity for, and which one Arcana your character struggles with learning. The organization the character joins is called an Order, and they provide certain skill specialties for purposes of casting Rotes.

I talk more about this in the World section, but I really prefer Paths over the Traditions. The Paths do have a certain tendency towards stereotypes, as do the orders, but they are not culturally based stereotypes, and actually fall under the category of Archetype much better than the Traditions.


Mage: the Ascension was about the battle for reality. You were a member of one of nine "traditions" of mages in an uneasy alliance to try to bring your vision of reality to the fore to help humanity ascend to a higher plane of understanding. Your opponents included mages who were winning the war for reality by disguising their magic in technology, twisted and corrupt mages who served creatures from hellish realms, and marauders of madness, mages who had lost all contact with reality. Like most of the oWOD, your PC was on the losing side of an epic battle. Each tradition of Mage had it's own cultural-social niche, if you will. From the Martial Artist Akashic Brotherhood to the sensualist neo-pagan tree hugging Verbena, a Mage's tradition probably said more about the mage than any other aspect of the character. The origins of Magick, the nature of the Truth… that was left up to the individual Mage, and the past didn't matter except as it could help determine the future.

Well, all of that... except the enemies who serve the evil beyond... is nowhere to be found in Mage: the Awakening. This Mage is about the journey. Learning about the power you possess and what you can do with it. Learning where it comes from and what has been done before. Here your Mage belongs to one of Five Orders…or else none at all. Your soul is called to the five watchtowers that are part of the legacy of a lost land once ruled by Magi…a land that the authors of Mage have chosen to call Atlantis. Your enemies are not those who fight for their own version of reality, but those who would keep humanity away from their birthright of Magic and keep the world asleep from the possibilities. Or even other Mages who seek to keep you from learning their secrets.

This new world of Mage has good points and bad points. I find I like the freedom of the Orders much better than the rigid stereotypes of the Traditions. Yes, you didn't have to play the stereotype, but each tradition had certain aspects that could not be avoided. The Path and Order setup of Awakening allows for concepts from the beginning that weren't introduced as viable in Ascension (to those wedded to the books, at least) until the various tradition books were introduced. As for Atlantis, I personally have no problems with this idea, but Atlantis brings along with it a large quantity of baggage that others may find rather off putting.

Final Thoughts

I know I have consistently come out in favor of the nWOD with each of these releases, and yes, that does continue here. The system is simpler, and much of the baggage of cultural straight jacketing that weighed down the old Mage is gone. However, the new Mage is burdened with it's own baggage which, while fine for me and my games, will certainly not be to the taste of everyone. More so than either of the previous games, many of the things people loved about the old Mage are not here, which may make it difficult to adapt to the new version of the game. At the same time, much of what may have kept people away from the old Mage is also gone, giving people a new start.

Either way, I think the new Mage is worth a look, even if things aren't quite what they were before. A cleaner system, and world that better allows a Storyteller to craft their own battles are clearly what has set the nWOD apart from the oWOD, and I've found it to be a consistent improvement for all of the new games.

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