If you’re not familiar with the comics1, Mage 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.
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.
- And can’t be bothered to follow any of the links above.
- After 30 years, are spoilers still a concern? Best to be safe, I guess.
- 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.
- And by “hilarity,” I mean chaos and carnage.
- And will get even easier and better, I’m betting, with the publication of the Fate Adversary Toolkit coming this summer.
- Maybe leaning a little heavily on the Celtic and Greek.