PART I: WHAT’S MAGE, AND WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Q: For people who may not know about it already, could you please describe what Mage: The Ascension is all about, and tell us what Mage means to you?
Put simply, Mage is a collaborative story-telling game about people who believe in what they do so strongly that their beliefs literally change the world.
Such power, though, is dangerous. And because these “mages” – devotees of magic, faith and science – disagree about how it should be used, they wind up fighting shadow-wars to advance their various beliefs. Some pursue a personal “Ascension”: the transcendence of human limitations and existence. Others try to run the world they way they believe it should be run, justifying what they do in the name of Ascension for all humanity. In the meantime, they make a major fucking mess of everything they touch. Mage has many themes, ranging from complex esoterica to simple human needs. One of the primary themes, however, is this: Believe in what you do, but be careful not to destroy everything you love. Although Mage has an epic scope, its core is deeply personal. “If you had the power of a god,” Mage asks, “what would you do with it? And what would such power do to you?”
Speaking personally, Mage has been my work, my quest, my manifesto, my lover, and often my nemesis. Despite the many projects I have done since 1989 – hundreds of stories, articles, books, comics, essays, blogs, screenplays, games, and even self-help books – I keep coming back to Mage. It keeps coming back to me as well, often in ways I don’t expect. Mage fans pop up everywhere, and although I changed my name to Satyr around 1999 in order to be someone other than “That Mage Guy,” folks light up when they find out that I did Mage. In actuality, Mage is the collaborative brainchild of dozens of talented people. My bond with Mage, however, runs deep. Mage is very much my baby, and even when I’m doing something else, Mage is never far from my heart.
Q: You’re especially well-known for Mage. That series seems to call to you, based on your writing, and it seems to call to a particular set of fans as well. The response to the 20th Anniversary Edition Kickstarter campaign shows this enthusiasm. What’s that like for you?
I feel deeply gratified. Who the hell knew, 20 years ago, that this stupid little RPG would mean so much to so many people? The thing is, though, Mage is anything but “stupid.” Underneath all the fantasy elements – Chantries and Horizon Realms, Fallen mages and Mad Marauders and all the epic trappings that make up the Mage universe – the series tells us that we MATTER. Anyone could be a mage, but mages are exceptional people. To be a mage, then, is to make a big fucking difference in your world – you’re a force for change whether you want to be or not. That’s not an easy thing to be, but it’s better than being a nobody. Mage tells us that we’re important, but also warns us to be careful with our power.
That message, I suspect, resonates deeply with a whole lot of people.
(“Orphan,” from Mage 20; art by Steve Prescott)
So often, we are told to be small. Mage tells us to be big. The world insists that we’re ordinary. Mage shows us otherwise. We’re usually told to sit down, shut up, take what we’re given, and be productive little drones in a consumer-based society that keeps us wanting more. Mage says “Fuck that – be your own damn hero!” That’s not an easy path, but it’s worth the risk. As I often say, Mage is about giving a damn so much that you hold the keys to reality itself. That message of empowerment is more relevant now than it ever was before.
When Stewart and Steve Wieck, with the rest of the original creative team, wrote the first Mage: The Ascension rulebook, they wanted to get folks thinking outside the box. When I took up the reins with the first sourcebook, The Book of Chantries, I brought in themes of passion, consequence, and the path of personal transformation. As part of my own spiritual and artistic path, I work to inform and inspire my audience through art and entertainment. Mage provides an ideal vehicle for those pursuits, and so it strikes some pretty deep chords for everyone involved. As I said in Deliria: Faerie Tales for a New Millennium, “to write is to tell the truth, even in the midst of fantasy.” Beneath all of its mystic satire, Mage rings true to those who understand it.
And seeing now just how many people understand Mage… yeah, that feels really wonderful.
Q: You make a point of saying that Mage is not an instruction-manual for actual occult or magical power – that it’s just a game. Yet in your writing, and in the fans’ response to that series, it’s clear that there’s something sublime and transcendent in the concepts that the game is based upon. Why is that?
I got into gaming shortly before the “satanic panic” of the 1980s began. During that bout of extended social idiocy, certain people claimed that RPGs were gateway drugs for occult indoctrination. That was nonsense, of course, especially in the early ‘80s, when the most esoteric thing you could find in an RPG book involved arcane mathematics on the “to hit” chart.
Even so, I knew from experience that RPGs do have a certain psychological power. They give players a collective “theatre of the mind,” in which they take aspects of themselves, dress those aspects up in wild clothes, and act out things that would be impossible for them to do in real life. For folks whose everyday lives are dull, wounded or repressed, that sort of “aspecting” can be pretty heady stuff. I have known people who’ve gotten a little too attached to their characters, if only because those personas seemed more interesting than the person looking back at those players from a mirror. I’ve written elsewhere about this aspecting phenomenon (see https://satyrosphilbrucato.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/aspecting-song-of-my-selves/ and https://satyrosphilbrucato.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/gaming-the-magic-avatar-part-1-of-3/), and so folks who want to know more about it can look up my observations there. For right now, let’s just say that while I knew firsthand that the Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons folks were utterly full of shit, I also knew that interactive entertainment can be a powerful tool for self-transformation… and a tricky medium when folks forget where the game ends and reality begins.
Like I said earlier, fantasy deals with truth. It helps us sort things out in our real lives. Our “faerie tales” are more like coping mechanisms than like escape hatches. And so – especially when you combine that element of fantasy with the media of performing arts and social world-construction – you’ve got some pretty potent stuff at your command. Even now, most RPGs gloss over the transformative potential of roleplaying games; back in 1991, when Vampire first appeared, no one outside of White Wolf – except Greg Stafford at Chaosium and Aaron Allston at HERO Games – seemed to recognize the deeper potential of such games. As an actor, writer, and occasional mystic, however, I recognized that potential. And I wanted to run with it without running our fans off a cliff.
(Portrait of a Satyr at a photo-shoot, 1995; photo by Echo Chernik.)
In my real life, I’ve been a postmodern Pagan since my late teens. Esoterica and spirituality have always intrigued me, and I’ve got deep roots in cultural history, philosophy, psychology, and avant-garde art. I believe that the things I do have larger effects, and so it’s vital to consider the consequences before I act. Personally, I am fed right the fuck up with people who harm the world through careless, selfish activities. It’s important to me, therefore, that the things I do in art and life make a positive impact on the world.
Stewart’s vision of Mage – a game about the transformative power of enlightened individuals – suits my approach perfectly. And yet, as much as I strive for authenticity in my work, I also don’t want to live up to the old stereotype of the “occult propagandist,” or hand out esoteric toolkits to anyone with a few bucks and a gaming group. Because the mystic arts are real disciplines (and because messing around with them can have all sorts of ugly consequences), I kept actual practices out of the Mage line. At times, this led to conflicts with some of my collaborators, one of whom insisted that we were shortchanging the material and cheating our fans. As I told him, though, Mage is not an occult textbook to begin with – it’s a game about personal transformation. Magick, in Mage, is a metaphor for growth.
(Beyond those considerations, real-life esoterica is complicated, obtuse, frequently boring, and often ridiculous. Different practices use wildly different principles, and it would be impossible to do justice to them all in a fantasy game series. Considering that real-world occult practices also tie into deeply held cultural and spiritual beliefs, it would be insulting to trivialize them that way – especially if the game held up one specific belief-system as the “One True Magick.” I wasn’t willing to do any of those things, either.)
In all of my work, I strive to bring out a sense of the sublime. I really do believe that we’re living out a crazy and often frightening miracle through the passion-play of human existence, and I want to inspire people to want better, and be better, than they might accept otherwise. The sense of what I often call “miracles just out of sight” is integral to my life and art. Mage taps into that sense, and gives folks a vehicle for exploring it themselves. In an artistic sense, Mage is authentically magickal – not in the sense of teaching occult rituals, but in the sense of changing your world through imaginative intent.
Q; The entire World of Darkness works as a commentary on its times, and yet one might say that Mage is the one that goes the deepest and flies the highest with regards to the truly transcendent concept involved in that series. What are your thoughts on this?
The entire World of Darkness is a socio-political satire of the world at large. That was always our intent. Andrew and Daniel Greenberg, Mark Rein•Hagen, Sam Chupp, Bill Bridges… we were all deliberately taking a wrecking-ball to social comfort-zones and convenient lies. We wanted to get people thinking as they ran their personal shadow-selves through our satirical chamber of horrors. That freaked some people out, especially in the early days. We had folks trying to ban us, shut us down, drive us out of business because we dared to be “pretentious” enough to bring taboos and subversion to the gaming table. And y’know what? We DID upset some apple-carts that needed to be tipped over. Issues of gender, race, identity, truth – we put them front-and-center in our weird little world, and I’m proud to see the results.
Gaming, when I began, was such a fucking white-boys’ club. Girls were discouraged or harassed, gay fans kept their closets shut, and folks outside the Standard White Fantasy Default were passively and sometimes actively discouraged from joining the gamer subculture. Although these things are still true now, they’re far less true – and FAR less acceptable – than they were around 1991, much less 1980. (I discovered gaming in 1978.) And although White Wolf has played just one part of that overall transformation, it is what we set out to do in the 1990s. Our work wasn’t perfect, nor was our behavior, but the legacy speaks for itself. It makes me happy to see fans of all genders and ethnicities at fantasy conventions. I’m ecstatic to hear from fans in Africa, Asia and South America, and I aim, especially now, to make Mage a global force for social change. RPGs are big enough to include everyone.
As I mentioned earlier, Mage is about empowerment. That’s a fucking radical idea, especially these days, when we have a mass-media machine that makes money by keeping us in fear. Mage says, “Be aware, not afraid,” and gives people the tools to look past the big game that’s being played at our expense. I suspect that one of the reasons that so many Mage fans have taken the concepts of the game into their everyday lives is because Mage invites its players to look beyond the obvious surface of things, to look at what they see, and to change those elements – both internal and external – when they don’t like what they perceive.
Beyond its themes of power and pride, Mage stresses change and ultimate transcendence. I don’t see that as “a ‘90s thing” – I see it as a message for Right Fucking Now.
(Society of Ether, from Mage 20; art by by Echo Chernik)
(This Q&A came by way of a blogger whose name I have not yet learned. As he has not, to my knowledge, posted this interview as of yet, I am posting it myself. 🙂 )