I’ve never played Mage or Sorcerer. I did rather like the setting for the New WoD Mage, but haven’t done anything with it other than confabbing on a crossover fiction project (Three Shades of Night). Now, the 20th Anniversary edition might interest me in the future, but for now, let’s put aside the usual WoD idea of Mage, and just talk about Magic.
Because we all agree (and I’m sure this is why people play Mage, too): Magic is awesome.
Magic, sorcery, ritual spell-casting, thaumaturgy: Whatever you call it, it’s one of the FUN things about fantasy and supernatural-based stories. From the Disney movies to Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to vampires and werewolves, to every other fantasy world or urban fantasy story out there, in movies, TV or books—we all love the magic-working, and seeing it in three-dimensional, incredibly realistic Industrial Light and Magic glory on the big or small screen.
That goes for supernatural/fantasy roleplaying games as well. And it’s also one of the places where rules and game systems –whether for a tabletop, pencil-and-dice game or a big online Multiplayer Universe –have the biggest challenge. Because you want magic to be Cool, and kickass and useful, because, well, it’s MAGIC—but you also need to keep balance in the game, so that magic is not a Get Out Of Trouble Free card for every occasion, and a talented mage and an experienced fighter are still about on the same ‘level’ of power in terms of what they can survive and accomplish during the course of a story.
There also needs to be some sense of logic to it. Spell-casting needs to have particular consistent results and limitations, whether that means it functions like a recipe (eye of newt, anyone?) or a perfectly performed ritual of spoken words and focused thought, or the gradual construction of a web of energy and power. Every power has to have a drawback or cost when used. Fighters get fatigued or wounded (or both). Mages, at least in the old D&D system, could only have so many spells and magic tricks available at a given time, and most of the time could only use a given trick once, so they had to pick their timing carefully.
The system provides limits, and limits are used to focus the story. Or to be more precise, to make sure that when the magical guns come out, they’re used not to automatically destroy all monsters or solve all problems, but to accomplish particular things that aid the characters and advance the story without overwhelming the plot. Like all the other things vampires can do—shifting shape, reading minds, moving quicker than the human eye can see, hiding just out of sight—it’s an ability, a tool in the toolbox the characters have when it comes to pursuing their goals or solving the dilemmas the plot has woven for them. Sometimes it’s not even the best tool—but it’s they have to work with, so that’s what they use. And if they’re clever and careful about it, it can be very effective indeed.
We didn’t really use the magical rules (Thaumaturgy paths and rituals) as written, though they were still a source of inspiration for particular spells or effects. We did use basic principles of magic that have appeared in many other sources. We did not limit magic and thaumaturgy to just the Tremere, but it is rare among other Kindred clans, especially in the modern era—whereas the Tremere have made a specialty of it.
Hermetic magic relies on symbolism and ritual to accomplish its goals—”as above, so below” and so forth. The will is focused through the repetition of incantations, the use of symbolic gestures, correspondencies (symbolic connections between things), props (crystals, symbols drawn in ashes or blood, incense, etc.), and focused meditation. The more symbolic references and common attributes one can draw into the ritual, the stronger the association becomes between desire and reality, and the more focused the will. For a spell to affect a person, for example, it’s necessary to have representative parts of that person – an effigy, their name written on paper or spoken aloud three times, their hair, some article of clothing or personal possession, and of course, blood – which for a vampire is one of the strongest correspondencies of all. Blood is also what powers all Kindred magic, regardless of clan—human mages can power their magic from different sources, but for undead vampires, the same blood that animates them and fuels all their other abilities is also the fuel for their magic. Of course, at least for some rituals, the blood spent doesn’t have to be theirs….
One difference we did come up with for the Tremere and Tzimisce is that the Tremere, because of their Hermetic practices and the nature of the clan, can combine their powers in a ritual, to create very powerful effects. However, Tzimisce tend to be more powerful as individual sorcerers (using primarily a spirit-magic and elemental approach) but are virtually incapable of casting magical rituals cooperatively. In fact, since Tzimisce koldunic lore is passed from teacher to student on an individual basis, no two Tzimisce tend to do their rituals in quite the same way.
The Tremere, on the other hand, use and teach the same rituals in chantries all across the world. They’ve all learned out of the same books, and that makes it easy for them to join in circle and combine their strengths into a common spellcasting or ritual—which also means that whoever is leading the ritual can also draw upon the blood-energies of all the Tremere involved in that particular circle. (In fact, that’s one of the first circle experiences Tremere apprentices have—being batteries to power greater workings. As well as doing the scut-work of preparing the circle and ritual tools, serving the post-ritual drinks, and getting to clean up whatever mess their is afterwards. Being an apprentice is hard work.)
One of the most powerful Tremere configurations is the sodalicium—the circle of seven Tremere working together. A chantry that has seven trained Tremere magi who can work together in sodalicium is a very powerful chantry indeed. And for very special workings—such as the Assamite curse—they can also link chantries in a network of shared power, through their shared blood (and the blood of the Council). Halloween night is often used for such rites (or at least for keeping up the practice so should an emergency arise, the Tremere are all familiar with it).
We’ve yet to face a serious human magus so far. There’s a nasty group of hermetic cultists who’ve shown up in the past (original Baltimore chronicle), but they so far haven’t been of that caliber. But there’s always the future…