First things first, I want to say that I fucking loved Mage:The Ascension with quiet sort of desperation that is best described as "courtly love from afar". During the early '90s, people kept telling me, "you have to check out White Wolf games, they're the shit and awesome and cool and all that." But, the games they had so far seemed to have either been a case of playing angsty, blood-sucking ambiguously gay porn stars or every variation of Wolverine that Marvel Comics thinks it could have gotten away with. Then, Mage came out, and like somebody slipping me the red pill, I fell into this world of wonders, joys, amazement, and magic. And, this was a universe of urban post-modern magic that I could get behind, unlike Unknown Armies which seemed to always be a case of "everybody's smarter than you are, and the only way to get ahead is to go mad." The game had magic, worlds of possibilities, enemies ranging from "we're good guys, only different" to "shoot them in the head, now" bastards. The magic system was free-flowing and it let players get away with one of the most important talents (I think) a player at a game table should have-using bullshit and amazement to succeed by entertaining other people. Yea, it had some mechanical issues and some other problems, but I liked it.
Even better, you could have played as the theoretical "bad guys", aka the Technocracy, with zero irony. And, from a personal perspective, you could easily see how the Technocracy was a much better bunch of people (making the world a better place and kicking the ass of any supernatural monster that would eat people) than the Traditions (whom were stuck in the "only the right people" can find the way to enlightenment). They weren't evil, just somebody on the other side of a long war that kept seeing monsters being allowed to roam free when the Traditions were in charge, and doing something about it.
Most importantly, if you knew the right powers, you could turn vampires in to lawn chairs and margaritas. I wish I was making that up. You could, with the right Spheres of magic, turn vampires into lawn chairs and margaritas and sit on them in the sunlight. That's awesome, almost as cool as a gun that shoots shuriken and lightning.
When I was down to a game budget of about two game lines, Mage:The Ascension and Champions was it-Champions because The Best Gaming Group In The World was playing it and I was a part of it, and Mage because I loved the game. And, life was as good as it was going to get for me, game-wise.
So, around '02, White Wolf Games came to the realization that the game mechanics for the World of Darkness was breaking down, they were running out of ideas to throw at players, and quite frankly the market for the books was over-saturated. In that, they decided to reset the whole game line, blow the universe up, and rebuild it. Part of this rebuilding was to totally revise all the game lines, and to separate out the game rules from the setting book. And, this actually worked pretty well, as the World of Darkness rule set is pretty good with a few flaws in it. My big issues with it is that there's a lack of the snarky commentary in some of the sections, you have to buy martial arts as "powers" and not skills, and some of the damage mechanics seem funky. Oh, and the morality system seems to be built in to involve a nagging mum effect. But, unlike most "generic" rules, you can pretty much run a low-level supernatural campaign with just the core rulebook and be done with it. This counts, in my mind, as a Very Good Thing. And, by doing this, you can turn over the page count in the setting rulebooks to more neat stuff, and in the case of the newest Mage game, Mage:The Awakening, more ways to turn vampires into lawn chairs and party drinks.
Except...well, it's harder. The new Mage background is one of "only one path to enlightenment" in the form of Atlantis (which they're very clear is a. not just the place that Plato described during the era of Ancient Greece and b. was done in as much by hubris as people being mean to each other). Sometime in the really, really far past, a bunch of powerful mages climbed up to power, there was treachery, betrayal, and two major factions tore the universe apart. This condemned most of the human race to becoming Sleepers, and creating an Abyss that wants to devour everything. But, five of the mages created the Watchtowers and some humans can awaken again from Sleep. Bra-fucking-vo, you stupid bastards.
First of all, I want to talk to whomever set up and laid out the book-unless you wanted to make the point of "magic is hard to understand and read, and requires dedication", the book layout sucks. Odd uses of text fonts and font colors, breaking the text up with mystical symbols...ugh. Irritating. Next, the magic system has been changed-you can debate better or worse, but the changes have broken the nine Spheres into ten Arcana, with one that you're weak in and two that you're strong in. The magic changes also mean you have to learn Rotes-basically spell "short hand" for certain effects to make it easier to cast and handle. And...all the magic is that of Atlantis-they "won" the magical decisions war, and that means that everybody uses their language and terms and concepts.
Oh, and Paradox is no longer "reality biting back", and more "you failed to negotiate well with the Abyss that straddles the Real World and magical power". The enemies no longer range from "kind of like you, but playing with different rules" to "bug-fucking nuts", they're now "the world will run by the rules of the guys that caused the Abyss" to "various categories of bloody lunatics". And, unlike the "we're making the world a better place-once we figure out what 'better' is" of the first Mage, the new Mage is a Gnosticistic romp through "becoming something more and greater than God". Yay. And, the new morality system that permeates the game system has it's expression as "Wisdom"-messing around with the powers of the universe unwisely is a Very Bad Thing and is like doing cocaine. And, as just about anybody that has done cocaine can tell you, you start out doing well and it all goes downhill fast and very mess.
Except most people that do cocaine won't start developing extra limbs or an evil twin. Usually.
I really, really wanted to love this game. And, I do like it-I just don't have the same absolute lust for buying books and such that I had for the previous version of the game. I get the feeling that if I wanted to pull off the same game effect that I had in Ascension, I'd have to drag out my copy of Genius:The Transgression, and it's not even an "official" game (but it is so awesome, it should be). It feels like you're trying to play a game where you can be John Constantine without irony or "messing around with mechanics" that a lot of other games have. That Neil Gainman (who is one of the authors that I like when he's "on" and despise when he's "off") is one of the big game-world influences disturbs me as well.
So, in a nutshell-the new World of Darkness is pretty cool. Mage:The Awakening is neat, you won't feel like you lost money buying it, but it doesn't have the same flavor as Mage: The Ascension and that is a bit disappointing. Now, it's going to be sunset soon, and I've got these great lawn chairs and margaritas to share...