Mage: Discovered, Defined, Denied

It was announced recently that, after an 18-year gap, Matt Wagner is going to be doing the third volume of his Mage trilogy, Mage: The Hero Denied.

If you’re not familiar with the comics1Mage is a modern fantasy series, featuring Kevin Matchstick, a man who gets caught up in a mystical war between good and evil. Guided by the World-Mage Mirth, he reluctantly squares off against the Umbra Sprite and his five sons, the Grackleflints. The whole battle centres around the Umbra Sprite’s quest to find the Fisher King and sacrifice him, bringing about a new dark age on earth.

Well, that’s the first series, Mage: The Hero Discovered. I’m not going to go into much more detail about the series for fear of spoilers – you’ll find enough of those in the Wikipedia article and interviews I linked2. Suffice to say that the books are great, and I’m rereading them in preparation for the beginning of the third series, this summer.

How do they hold up?

Well, honestly, the first series feels a little dated. Part of that is that it is dated – it’s over 30 years old. And while I love Matt Wagner’s work, both as a writer and as an artist, he has grown and matured as both in the time in between. By the time the second series starts, in 1997, his skills are greater, and the execution is better. The second series also feels a little less tied to a specific time and place than the first3.

But the stories are good. Pure. Solid. They deal with mythology and archetypes and humanity and choices. With belief and doubt. With sacrifice. And there are a couple of scenes in each series that always give me a lump in my throat.

The stories are very much tied to Kevin Matchstick’s age. Discovered is a young man’s story, about finding his place in the world, and figuring out how things work. Defined is a mature man’s story, about growing into responsibility and self-awareness. After 18 years, I’m very curious to see what Denied chooses as its themes.

Gameable Bits

Anyway, as I’m reading through Mage: The Hero Defined, I keep coming back to the thought that it would make a great setting for a game. Here’s the basic setup elements:

  • A number of archetypical heroes from the past, and from various cultures all over the world, have manifestations in the modern world. These make great PCs.
  • In addition, there are other beings of power – witches, giants, ghosts, mages, possible Olympian gods, young women with magic baseball bats and classic cars – who make great PCs for players who don’t want to pick a heroic avatar.
  • Nasty creatures – trolls, bogarts, harpies, kelpies, red caps, succubi, etc. – are preying on mortals.
  • Due to the machinations of the Big Bad, these nasty creatures and the heroes and the heroes’ companions are all drawn to a city where an evil plan is coming to fruition.
  • Hilarity4 ensues.

One of the key bits from the comics that made me keep thinking about it as a game setting is that each of the heroes has a tag, relating to which heroic archetype they represent. So, you’ve got the Coyote, the Ulster Hound, the Hornblower, the Olympian, the Monkey King, the Sun Twins, the Dragonslayer, and so on. That just sounded so much like the high concept from a Fate Core character that I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Even the non-heroes – characters like Mirth, Edsel, Sean Knight, Gretch, Isis, Magda, Ishtar – are drawn from archetypical sources, giving them fairly prominent high concept aspects, as well: The World-Mage, Bearer of the Weapon, Ghost Defender, Head-Baning Giant, Weird Sisters, etc.

Throw in a little bit of power using extras and stunts, and it becomes pretty easy to build pretty much any character that appears in the comics, and to extrapolate to your own characters in the same setting.

And, in Fate Core, building antagonists is easy5. So, not much of a problem to build monster-of-the-week-style challenges for your characters. A little more time investment required for bad guys that are gonna stick around for a bit, but still pretty quick. And since a lot of the nasties are drawn from world mythology6, you’ve got a rich vein of source material to mine for it.

So, yeah. I figure a couple of hours of prep work, tops, and then you’re ready to have the greatest heroes of the ages drawn to Montreal to thwart the Pale Incanter’s scheme.

Go ahead. Read the comics. Give it a try. Let me know how it goes.

  1. And can’t be bothered to follow any of the links above. []
  2. After 30 years, are spoilers still a concern? Best to be safe, I guess. []
  3. Okay, that last bit is just my feel. Objectively speaking, the second series hits the time and place even harder than the first, but has more of a mythic overlay to it. Somehow, it doesn’t feel as dated to me. []
  4. And by “hilarity,” I mean chaos and carnage. []
  5. And will get even easier and better, I’m betting, with the publication of the Fate Adversary Toolkit coming this summer. []
  6. Maybe leaning a little heavily on the Celtic and Greek. []

Character Building

I’ve been a little lax about posting this past week or so because I’ve been caught up in preparation for a few games. One of the games is a playtest of the new Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay*, another is the next installment of the Hunter – Shadow Wars episodic campaign, and then there’s the bookkeeping for the Storm Point campaign, and the pregame development of Scio Occultus Res.

But the work I’m doing on the games has got me thinking about building characters in games, and the different systems the games offer and why, and the different goals and ideals that players have when building characters. See, I’ve been building some pregens for the WHFRP playtest, some NPCs for the Shadow Wars game, and watching my players build their characters for SOR. I’ve also been reading some other games, like Starblazer Adventures, Mutant City Blues, Two-Fisted Tales, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Burning Wheel, and Mongoose’s latest iteration of the classic Traveller.

What I’ve noticed is that character building systems in game sit on a continuum of customizability, ranging from games where you pick an archetypical character and play it to games where you build each individual aspect of the character. There really isn’t anything at either extreme of the continuum; even a system that focuses on archetypes like Feng Shui or Shadowrun lets you customize a few aspects of the character, and even a game where you build almost everything from scratch like Unknown Armies or Spirit of the Century has a few predefined elements that you need to use to create your character.

In the middle of the road, though, you find the race/class systems, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the skill-based systems, like Call of Cthulhu. Each still has components of the other in it – you get to pick skills and feats to customize your character in D&D, and your choice of profession shapes your skill picks in CoC.

This says to me that , as gamers, we tend to like the ability to build the kind of character we want to play in a game with few restrictions, but we also want a bit of a structure to help realize the ideals we have in relation to the rules. It also seems that the more detailed and low-trust* the rules system is, the more the structure is needed to make the mechanics of character interact properly with the mechanics of task resolution and other systems.

Character building also sets the tone for the game. Consider that, in D&D, most players look at the concept of roles for picking their classes. Now, roles really only impact the game in combat, which leads to the tacit assumption that combat is going to be the most important part of the game. The majority of rules in the game deal with combat in one way or another, from the powers of the characters to entire books of monsters to fight. Now look at a game like Mage: The Awakening. In that game, first you build a normal human, then transform him or her into a wizard. That leads to the tacit assumption that the themes of transformation, alienation from mundane life, and the price of power are going to be present in the game, leading to a more introspective, internal focus for play.

Some systems even have mechanics for building in backstory for your character. The Burning Wheel is a primary example, along with Traveller and Spirit of the Century. Some things you get to pick, but some you don’t, and your choices may restrict or open certain other choices for you. Classic Traveller even had the chance your character would die during character generation, forcing you to start from scratch with a new character*. This can be very useful for games where you really want a bit of depth to the characters, and it leads to assumptions that character history and motivations are going to feature in the game.

Traditionally, once you have your characters created, you throw them together into a group, have them meet in a tavern, and they all decide to risk their lives together. Kind of cheesy, but it works. Now, however, many games are going out of their way to build in reasons why the characters work together, helping the GM give the disparate characters a history together. The brilliant novel idea from SotC and other FATE games is one example, where everyone winds up with connections to at least two other people in the group. WHFRP now has a party sheet, which gives the group a reason to work together, along with benefits and perils specific to that type of group. Traveller mixes and matches this, giving characters a chance to link themselves to other characters during character creation, and then pick a group skill package to represent why they’re together and what they get out of it.

As a GM, I like these sorts of ideas. It takes some of the pressure off when the players are the ones who decide why they’re together and what they want from each other.

And, of course, some character generation systems appeal more to different players than other do.

Me, I like random in character creation. I like rolling the dice and having them dictate aspects of my character, trying to fit the disparate pieces together into something that I want to play. Others I know hate the random method, because they have a much more developed idea of what they want their character to be, and don’t want to let the dice ruin it. And some just don’t like the inequity of randomness, where some characters may start out just plain better than others. I can understand that.

And then there are those players to whom the system trappings of the character are just so much decoration -  the real heart of the character is his or her inner life. See, I like a character that can do something mechanically different from the others in the party; it gives me the chance to stand out in areas where I excel, and it prevents me from stepping on other players when their characters have the chance to shine. But I know some players who are more than content playing the “other fighter” because the attitude, behaviour, motivations, drives, and reactions are all different.

These things come up in character development, too. Some plan out each little advancement, whether in a level-based system or a skill-based system, doing their best to tweak their character to fit the ideal in their head. Others take advancement as it comes, and make their choices based on what seems to fit best at the time. This has some connection with the optimization ideas I discussed back here, but it’s not always about min-maxing.

I think this is part of what keeps most character generation systems near the mid-point of that continuum I mentioned earlier. Developers are trying to make a system that works for the largest number of players. Which is good, because you want more player buying your stuff, but leads to a bit of conservatism in the big games out there. In RPGs, the big guns are definitely Wizards of the Coast, with D&D, and White Wolf, with their World of Darkness games. Both of these have stuck very strongly to their core race/class, abilities, and skills through multiple iterations.

It’s the independent games that are pushing the envelope, coming up with cool new ways to build characters. The FATE games, The Burning Wheel, and Dogs in the Vineyard all have innovative new twists to their character creation that can be looted for other games – the novel idea from FATE, the idea of drives from The Burning Wheel, and the crux moment from Dogs in the Vineyard are all things that can usefully be lifted into pretty much any game.

And then there’s creating NPCs. This is, of necessity, different than creating PCs. As a GM, when you create an NPC, you generally have a specific purpose for him or her, a story role or goal that the character fills. Maybe he’s the villain, or the mentor, or the annoying dependent. Maybe she’s a love interest or a rival or an obstacle. This purpose shapes the type of character you create, but I also find that I shape the character based on what I know about how my group reacts to different things. In the Storm Point game, for example, I know that if I send a halfling NPC anywhere near the party, I’m just asking for him to be distrusted (and possibly stomped), so I only use a halfling if that’s the sort of reaction I want to provoke, or if I’m trying to prove to them that all halflings aren’t deceitful, manipulative crooks.

Of course, you don’t need nearly as much mechanical background for NPCs as you do for PCs. All you need is enough information for the NPC to serve his or her purpose. For longer-running NPCs, you may eventually need to come up with an almost-complete set of stats, but if the only reason the PCs are going to talk to the bartender is to find out that the guy they’re looking for isn’t in the bar, you barely even need a name.

Having said that, one thing that I did in the Dresden Files playtest is create a number of characters along side the players, and then use my characters as NPCs during play. This worked especially well using the DFRPG rules, because of the novel stage, where my NPCs wound up with nice connections to several of the PCs. This meant that the PCs had NPC contacts they could call on in play, contacts that they had a history with. I really liked it.

I think the point I’m trying to make in this post is that there are a myriad of systems for creating characters, and a myriad of ways that players – and GMs – look at making characters. Whatever method you use has got to suit both the game and the players, and that you shouldn’t be afraid of mixing and matching elements from other games to make the types of characters your group likes. Remember that the game isn’t what’s written in the rulebooks; it’s what happens at the table, when you and your friends sit down and start playing.

Do what you need to do in order to give yourself the characters that you need. Characters that you will remember and talk about. Look around, try out new things, read other games, experiment. If something doesn’t work, stop doing it. If something does work, keep doing it.

And remember. Games are supposed to be fun. Have fun.

*About which I will post a full report when the playtest is done. Back

*Low-trust is not necessarily a bad thing. It means that both the players and the GM can have a solid, shared understanding of just what is and is not possible for the character. High-trust is not a bad thing, either. It means that both the players and GM have more of a chance of surprising each other with something cool. Back

*Mongoose’s new Traveller has a more interesting (IMO) mishap table, where something bad happens and you have to leave your current career, but it retains the death option in what it refers to as Iron Man Character Creation. Back

Hidden Things

A while back, I promised my friends Penny and Clint that I would run a small game for just the two of them, something that we could pick up and play when other folks aren’t available. At the time, it was going to be The Phoenix Covenant, and I did a fair bit of work getting the campaign ready. Then I started burning out on D&D, and didn’t want to keep pushing on that particular campaign. So, I sent out a set of options for discussion, and we settled on playing Mage: The Awakening, influenced in part at least by the success of the first Hunter game I ran a couple of weeks ago.

This is the initial pitch for the Mage game, pulled from the list of pitches I sent:

Mage: The Awakening – The past is reluctant to give up it’s hidden secrets, even to one with the power of a wizard. But you search for traces of the occult history of the world, hidden in archaelogical digs, museum artifacts, urban legends, and strange pocket worlds and times. You will find not just the truth, but the TRUTH.

After some discussion, we decided to set the game in the early 20th century, during the height of archaeological exploration and at the beginning of the decline of secret societies like the Golden Dawn. The ideas I have in mind are a mix of Henry Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Warren Ellis‘s magnificent Planetary comic series. Basically, I want a mix of pulp and noir: the cinematic action, globe-trotting adventure, weird science and magic of pulp blended with the moral relativism, conspiracy, and paranoia of noir. After doing a little bit of research on the era, I picked 1910 as a starting year because of some things that I don’t want to talk about just yet – I know that at least one of the players reads this blog.

So, with those decisions made, I got to work on a wiki for the game. Since I discovered Obsidian Portal, this has become one of my must-do items when I’m building a campaign that’s going to follow an extended story arc, as opposed to episodic campaigns like the Hunter game.

My first idea for the game was just to use the published material for Boston that’s appeared in the Mage books, just back-dating it as necessary. I don’t feel the need to be absolutely accurate and faithful to reality in building a historical campaign: to me, evocation of the feel of the period is more important than strict historical veracity. That said, I try to at least pay lip-service to the truth, so certain elements were going to have to change. Just not all that many.

But this weekend, I read through Boston Unveiled, as opposed to just skimming it as I had done previously. The chapter on the history of the area convinced me that using the by-the-book political situation they posit in 1910 would be far more interesting to me than the one that currently holds sway in modern times. I started rewriting the Boston entry on the wiki, and changing the other entries for the major cabals and events. I’m still not quite done, but I think it’s going to be fun.

One of the things that I’ve realized is that I have to be careful with this campaign framework. It has real potential to devolve into a series of MacGuffin hunts, and that can get old. In order to try and avoid that, I’ve given the framework an overarching theme – the idea that the Bonehunters want to restore Atlantis and take the fight to the Exarchs in the Supernal Realm. This means that they’re going to be facing the Seers of the Throne, who make great Nazi-esque villains in a Mage game. It also means that some adventures and subplots are going to revolve around dealing with threats from the Seers and other opposition; not everything adventure is going to be about rushing off to the ruins of Crete to try and find the Minotaur Device at the heart of the Astral Labyrinth.

And, as I always try to do in small games, a fair bit of the agenda is going to be set by the players and the characters. I’m going to be throwing out a number of plot hooks and loose threads, and seeing what interests them, what they decide to pursue and what they decide to ignore. That will shape the flow of the game, as well.

As I work on the background, my players are reading up on the game and generating some ideas for their characters. I don’t want to get too locked into things until I know at least what their concepts are, but we’re getting very close to being able to start the game. Perhaps even before Christmas.

Oh. The name of the campaign is Scio Occultus Res, which is Latin for To Know Hidden Things.