Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Broken City: Background Goes Splat

Different game systems have different strengths and weaknesses. Some are easy to pick up and play with no preparation. Some have rules that cover every scenario you could want. Some give you a set of tools that are flexible. Some are written in friendly, accessible language. To me, the biggest strength of the World of Darkness games is the depth of background they provide for players and games masters. From the Corebook to the most obscure supplement, every book is packed with story elements to inspire you.

  However, the problem with this is there is so much to learn, and you have to know what to pick and what to leave. It's important to remember as a GM that you get to spend 6 months or however long learning and memorising this stuff, but you'll have to roll it out to your players in game and big chunks of exposition are dull when really everyone wants to be having arguments and blowing things up.

  A big portion of this is how you utilise character classes (what in traditional fantasy games might be things like fighter, thief, wizard, etc) These are sometimes referred to Splats, for reasons too complicated to go into, and World of Darkness games use what we'll call a "dual-axis splat system".

  Okay, here is your warning: this post is about to dive deep into the Mage: The Awakening background and setting. If you thought things were already nerdy and complicated, you ain't seen nothing yet.

  The "dual-axis splat system" basically means a large part of your character is defined by two choices. For Mage, these are Path and Order. Path is what type of mage you are and what type of magic you are strongest at. Each Path has certain personality traits that are associated with it, and archetypes they fit into. Choosing your Path is a meta-game decision, meaning the players pick it, but their characters have no say. It's a bit like being sorted into a House in Harry Potter - JK Rowling decided Cedric Diggory was a Hufflepuff; Cedric didn't.

Mage Paths
Acanthus - Free-wheeling, easygoing enchanters, strongest in Time and Fate magic
Mastigos - Ambitious, driven warlocks, with dominion over Space and Mind magic
Moros - Grim, stern necromancers specialising in Death and Matter magic
Obrimos - Devout, bold theurgists with power over Forces and Prime magic
Thyrsus - Passionate, wild shamans most capable with Spirit and Life magic

  The second splat is Order, which is what sort of role your character plays within the Mage world. Joining an Order means you get trained and carries both benefits and obligations. Choosing an Order is an in-game decision, meaning your character is the one who decides where they're going, and it can produce some in-game drama and intrigue. It's like picking a career, or a university. My players are at this point in their game - 4 out of 5 have picked Orders and have just started training.

Mage Orders
The Adamantine Arrow - Warrior wizards focused on action and betterment through conflict
The Silver Ladder - Ambassadors and advisers, determined to help Mage and non-Mage alike
The Guardians of the Veil - Spies and secret police responsible for keeping magic hidden
The Mysterium - Scholars and explorers gathering and preserving ancient knowledge
The Free Council - Modern upstart Order of activists and inventors, finding magic in the modern world

  It's easy to see how these two decisions can go a long way to defining your character within the game - you're essentially deciding your personality and your role in the world. Within a group of players, there's usually a fairly even split of choices, but there doesn't have to be. There can be duplicates or omissions, and players can emphasise different aspects of Paths or different roles within Orders.

  As there are five players in my game, I decided that each Path had to represented. There are in-game reasons for this I won't go into, but it also ensures balance in gameplay. Each Path has certain specialties, and if you miss one out, it's harder to tell certain stories, especially early in the game. If no-one is Moros, you're less likely to have someone who can deal with ghosts. If there's no Acanthus, stories about destiny or prophecy are trickier. Forcing players into a "no duplicates" policy restricts them slightly, but I think it pays off.

  The players themselves have decided to split themselves between Orders. There was a lot of in-game discussion about this subject, and as each Order has their own magical traditions and secrets, the group decided to try and game the system and share this information between themselves. We'll see how this works out for them... (cue evil GM laughter)

  Of course, this is the standard background for the Mage game. If you decide to mess with it, things get even more complicated, which is what I'll get to next time...

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