Mage: The Ascension is a Role-playing game based in the old World of Darkness, and was published by White Wolf Game Studio. The characters portrayed in the game are referred to as mages, and are capable of feats of magic. The idea of magic in Mage is broadly inclusive of diverse ideas about mystical practices as well as other belief systems, such as science and religion, so that most mages do not resemble typical fantasy wizards.
In 1996, Mage: The Ascension won the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules 1995. In 2005, White Wolf released a new game marketed under the same name (Mage) for the new World of Darkness series, Mage: The Awakening, with some of the same game mechanics but with substantially different premises and setting.
The beliefs and techniques of Mages vary enormously, and the ability to alter reality can only exist in the context of a coherent system of belief and technique, called a paradigm. A paradigm organizes a Mage's understanding of reality, how the universe works, and what things mean. It also provides the Mage with an understanding of how to change reality, through specific magical techniques. For example, an alchemical paradigm might describe the act of wood burning as the wood "releasing its essence of elemental Fire," while modern science would describe fire as "combustion resulting from a complex chemical reaction." Paradigms tend to be idiosyncratic to the individual Mage, but the vast majority belong to broad categories of paradigm, e.g., Shamanism, Medieval Sorcery, religious miracle working, and superscience.
In the Mage setting, everyday reality is governed by commonsense rules derived from the collective beliefs of sleepers. This is called the consensus. Most Mages' paradigms differ substantially from the consensus. When a mage performs an act of magic that does not seriously violate this commonsense version of reality, in game terms this is called coincidental magic. Magic that deviates wildly from consensus is called vulgar magic. When it is performed ineptly, or is vulgar, and especially if it is vulgar and witnessed by sleepers, magic can cause Paradox, a phenomenon in which reality tries to resolve contradictions between the consensus and the Mage's efforts. Paradox is difficult to predict and almost always bad for the mage. The most common consequences of paradox include physical damage directly to the Mage's body, and paradox flaws, magic-like effects which can for example turn the mage's hair green, make him mute, make him incapable of leaving a certain location, and so on. In more extreme cases paradox can cause Quiet (forms of madness that afflicts mages and may leak into reality), Paradox Spirits (nebulous, often powerful beings which purposefully set about resolving the contradiction, usually by directly punishing the mage), or even the removal of the Mage to a paradox realm, a pocket dimension from which it may be difficult to escape.
In Mage, there is an underlying framework to reality called the Tapestry. The Tapestry is naturally divided into various sections, including the physical realm and various levels of the spirit world, or Umbra. At the most basic level, the Tapestry is composed of something called Quintessence, the essence of magic and what is real, in game terms. Quintessence can have distinctive characteristics, called resonance, which are broken down into three categories: dynamic, static, and entropic.
In order to understand the metaphysics of the Mage setting, it is important to remember that many of the terms used to describe magic and Mages e.g., Avatar, Quintessence, the Umbra, and Paradox, Resonance, as well as the game mechanics a player uses to describe the areas of magic in which his character is proficient-- the Spheres, look, mean, and are understood very differently depending on the paradigm of the Mage in question, even though they are often, in the texts of the game, described from particular paradigmatic points-of-view. In-character, only a Mage's Paradigm can explain what each of these things is, what it means, and why it's the way it is.
Until the late Middle Ages, mages' fortunes waxed and waned along with their native societies. Eventually, though, mages belonging to the Order of Hermes and the Messianic Voices attained great influence over European society. However, absorbed by their pursuit of occult power and esoteric knowledge, they often neglected and even abused humanity. Frequently, they were at odds with mainstream religions, envied by noble authorities and cursed by common folk.
Seeing their chance, mages who believed in proto-scientific theories banded together under the banner of the Order of Reason, declaring their aim was to create a safe world with Man as its ruler. They won the support of Sleepers by developing the useful arts of manufacturing, economy, wayfaring and medicine. They also championed many of the values that we now associate with the Renaissance. Masses of Sleepers embraced the gifts of early Technology and the Science that accompanied them. As the masses' beliefs shifted, the Consensus changed and wizards began to lose their position as their power and influence waned.
This was intentional. The Order of Reason perceived a safe world as one devoid of heretical beliefs, ungodly practices and supernatural creatures preying upon humanity. As the defenders of the common folk, they intended to replace the dominant magical groups with a society of philosopher-scientists as shepherds, protecting and guiding humanity. In response, non-scientific mages banded together to form the Council of Nine Traditions where mages of all the major magical paths gathered. They fought on battlefields and in universities trying to undermine as many discoveries as they could, but to no avail - technology made the march of Science unstoppable. The Traditions' power bases were crippled, their believers mainly converted, their beliefs ridiculed all around the world. Their final counteroffensives against the Order of Reason were foiled by internal dissent and treachery in their midst.
However, from the turn of 17th century on, the goals of the Order of Reason began to change. As their scientific paradigm unfolded, they decided that the mystical beliefs of the common people were not only backward, but dangerous, and that they should be replaced by cold, measurable and predictable laws of nature and respect for human genius. They replaced long-held theologies, pantheons, and mystical traditions with ideas like rational thought and the scientific method. As more and more sleepers began to use the Order's discoveries in their everyday lives, Reason and rationality came to govern their beliefs, and the old ways came to be regarded as misguided superstition. However, The Order of Reason became less and less focused on improving the daily lives of sleepers and more concerned with eliminating any resistance to their chokehold on the minds of humanity. Ever since a reorganization performed under Queen Victoria in the late 1800s, they call themselves The Technocracy.
Finally, from 1997-2000, a series of metaplot events destroyed the Council of Nine's Umbral steadings, killing many of their most powerful members. This also cut the Technocracy off from their leadership. Both sides called a truce in their struggle to assess their new situation, especially since these events implied that Armageddon was soon at hand. Chief among these signs was creation of a barrier between the physical world and spirit world (the Umbra). This barrier was called the Avatar Storm because it affected the spiritual being of the Mage (the Avatar). This Avatar Storm was the result of a battle in India on the so-called "Week of Nightmares."
These changes were introduced in supplements for the second edition of the game and became core material in the third edition.
This struggle eventually led to the point on the timeline occupied by the book called Ascension. While the entire metaplot has always been meant to be altered as each play group sees fit, Ascension provided multiple possible endings, with none of them being definitive (though one was meant to resolve the metaplot). Thus, there is no definitive canonical ending. Since the game is meant to be adapted to a group's tastes, the importance of this and the preceding storyline is largely a matter of personal preference.
Mages divide themselves according to their cultures, beliefs and even historical accidents or arbitrary alliances. The primary groups include:
Like other storytelling games Mage emphasizes personal creativity and that ultimately the game's powers and traits should be used to tell a satisfying story. One of Mage's highlights is its system for describing magic, based on spheres, a relatively open-ended 'toolkit' approach to using game mechanics to define the bounds of a given character's magical ability. Different Mages will have differing aptitudes for spheres, and player-characters' magical expertise is described by allocation of points in the spheres.
There are nine known spheres:
Deals with spatial relations, giving the Mage power over space and distances. Correspondence magic allows powers such as teleportation, seeing into distant areas, and at higher levels the Mage may also co-locate herself or even stack different spaces within each-other. Correspondence can be combined with almost any other sphere to create effects that span distances.
This sphere gives the Mage power over order, chaos, fate and fortune. A mage can sense where elements of chance influence the world and manipulate them to some degree. At simple levels machines can be made to fail, plans to go off without a hitch, and games of chance heavily influenced. Advanced mages can craft self-propagating memes or curse entire family lines with blights. The only requirement of the Entropy sphere is that all interventions work within the general flow of natural entropy.
Forces concerns energies and natural forces and their negative opposites (i.e. light and shadow can both be manipulated independently with this Sphere). Essentially, anything in the material world that can be seen or felt but is not material can be controlled: electricity, gravity, magnetism, friction, heat, motion, fire, etc. At low levels the mage can control forces on a small scale, changing their direction, converting one energy into another. At high levels, storms and explosions can be conjured. Obviously, this Sphere tends to do the most damage and be the most flashy and vulgar. Along with Life and Matter, Forces is one of the three 'Pattern Spheres' which together are able to mold all aspects of the physical world.
Life deals with understanding and influencing biological systems. Generally speaking, any material object with mostly living cells falls under the influence of this sphere. Thus, being alive protects a thing from direct manipulation by the Matter sphere and vice versa. Simply, this allows the mage to heal herself or transform simple life-forms at lower levels, working up to healing others and controlling more complex life at higher levels. Usually, seeking to improve a complex life-form beyond natural limits causes the condition of pattern bleeding: the affected life form begins to wither and die over time. Along with Matter and Forces, Life is one of the three Pattern Spheres.
Matter deals with all inanimate material. Stone, dead wood, water, gold, and the corpses of once living things are only the beginning. With this Sphere, matter can be reshaped mentally, transmuted into another substance, or given altered properties. Along with Life and Forces, Matter is one of the three pattern Spheres.
The Mind Sphere is very self-explanatory, dealing with control over one's own mind, the reading and influencing of other minds, and a variety of subtler applications such as Astral Projection and psychometry. At high levels, Mages can create new complete minds or completely rework existing ones.
This sphere deals directly with Quintessence, the raw material of the tapestry, which is the metaphysical structure of reality. This sphere allows Quintessence to be channeled and/or funneled in any way at higher levels, and it is necessary if the mage ever wants to conjure something out of thin air (as opposed to transforming one pattern into another). Uses of Prime include general magic senses, counter-magic, and making magical effects permanent.
This sphere is an eclectic mixture of abilities relating to dealings with the spirit world or Umbra. It includes stepping into the Near Umbra right up to traveling through outer space, contacting and controlling spirits, communing with your own or others' avatars, returning a Mage into a sleeper, returning ghosts to life, creating magical fetish items, and so forth. Unlike other Spheres, the difficulty of Spirit magic is often a factor of the Gauntlet, making these spells harder for the most part. The Sphere is referred to as Dimensional Science by the Technocratic Union.
This sphere deals with dilating, slowing, stopping or traveling through time. Due to game mechanics, it is simpler to travel forward in time than backwards. Time can used to install delays into spells, view the past or future, and even pull people and objects out of linear progression. Time magic offers one means to speed up a character to get multiple actions in a combat round, a much coveted power in turn-based role-playing.
One of the plot hooks that the second edition books put forth were persistent rumors of a "tenth sphere". Though there were hints, it was deliberately left vague. The final book in the line, "Ascension" implies that the tenth sphere is the sphere of Ascension (in as much as spheres are practically relevant at that point in the story). As the book presents alternative resolutions for the mage line, Chapter Two also presents an alternative interpretation that the tenth sphere is "Judgement" and that Anthelios (the red star in the World of Darkness metaplot) is its planet (each sphere has an associated planet and umbral realm).
The various sphere sigils are, in whole or in part, symbols taken from alchemical texts.
Because Mage's themes are potentially quite complex and esoteric, and because its Sphere system rules are relatively open-ended, Mage is often daunting, particularly to novice roleplayers and those accustomed to other games whose rules govern the use of magic with greater precision but less flexibility (e.g., games with catalogues of established 'spells.')
The third revision of the rules, Mage: The Ascension Revised, made significant changes to the rules and setting, mainly to update Mage with respect to its own ongoing storyline, particularly in regards to events that occurred during the run of the game's second edition. (Like other World of Darkness games, Mage uses a continuing storyline across all of its books.) Some fans preferred the second edition without the changes.