Probing the Enemy, Anime Style

If you enjoy anime, you may have noticed that sometimes people are in a duel with one another and they spend most of their time talking. A significant portion of time will sometimes be spent with a close up on one character, while their inner monologue provides an in depth analysis of their opponent. When done effectively, this is enjoyable because it shifts the genre slightly away from action and into either drama or mystery. In an action story it is largely arbitrary who wins. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is mostly psychological the action scene ends up being shifted towards a drama, and character development becomes the means by which the combat is decided. If the enemy’s hidden weakness is part of their tools or combat style, it becomes a mystery. Many stories use both, simultaneously.

The director and writer have a difficult task in keeping the audience interested. Often the dialogue during the fight is actually about the protagonist finding sufficient motivation and obtaining sufficient status (the theater concept of status, not the sociological one) to fight without restriction. This is the kind of battle where the main participants often have philosophical discussions during the fight. Lets call this a drama-fight.

This can largely be contrasted with the “mystery fights.” Here the director and writer have the difficult task of pacing the delivery of information about an opponents fighting style, powers, and tools. The information must be relayed quickly enough that the audience can make educated guesses about how the protagonist will defeat the enemy, and the information must be relayed subtly enough that it doesn’t become overly obvious what the writer’s intent is. This is the same challenges that confront mystery movies. The role of detective in these stories tends to be replaced by a martial artist. The climax where the detective reveals what happened is replaced with the martial artist explaining how they’re defeating the opponent. This mystery-fight is resolved much more quickly than a normal mystery, as the story relies more on the spectacle of the resolution after the climax than the gradual increase in tension prior to the climax. This makes sense: martial arts stories have a lengthy and amusing martial art battle that ends the story, and mystery stories have a long and stressful investigation with a short resolution.

For extreme ways to incorporate these into games, look at these:

Less Extreme Example: My Mage Game

While initially my mage game used a lot of “trump battles,” once I decided to start incorporating damage and health values it ended up being exactly the same as standard M:tA combat. This happened largely because white wolf is a minimalist system. My mage game now uses no house rules that pertain to combat, but I turn every battle into a “mystery-fight.” This change happened largely by accident, and it is quite enjoyable.

This is accomplished by making the enemy much stronger than the players, but making it so that all their powers fit into a narrow theme. As soon as the players figure out what that theme is, they can start to turn the tide of battle. To figure out what the theme is, the players make a variety of attacks and seeing how the enemy defends themself, and analyze how the enemy attacks them.

This works because, in M:tA, magic operates under (minimal restrictions) that vary from mage to mage: paradigm and focus. These are largely narrative restrictions, and largely designate what a mage needs to be able to do magic. There are also the thematic focus I put on the magic as the GM, and the game mechanics of spheres. It might sound abstract, but that’s Mage for you. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.

The most recent example is a fight against a Void Engineer (a statement that means nothing unless you are one of the few M:tA players still out there). The more important part is that this character had the power to understand the location of people and things with a degree of precision that is positively superheroic, and manipulate them with an equal degree of precision. The theme was precision in space. Their magic was all “correspondence 3,” which means they could sense and manipulate the location of themselves and other things. Their paradigm only allowed them to use magic if it could be explained away by luck or skill, and their main foci are observation or large movement. The fight was in a cramped office.

The void engineer’s opening move was to dive over a counter and kick a display table of fliers, in such a way that the fliers spray up into a perfect wall that obscures vision perfectly for just one second. He then launches a surprise attack from behind this cover. During this moment of brief invisibility, one player used luck magic to shoot him anyway, and the other PC uses life magic to transform into some kind of hulking, bulletproof muscleman, and attempt to grab the void engineer. The void engineers second move was to dodge to the side in such a way that a PC ended up “falling” into another PCs line of fire. The PCs, having figured out that this guy was just too darn mobile, decided they needed to stop him from moving so much. One of the PCs is a time mage, so he decided to slow down time the next time the void engineer attempts one of their fancy magical maneuvers. A different PC decided it was time to try and wrestle and pin the void engineer to the ground. The void engineer was going to try and escape outside where, with a gun in hand and lots of space, he would have a significant advantage. Unfortunately, time slowed just as he attempted to make a break for it, and then he was pinned to the ground.

Note how all the actions were pretty normal combat actions for a game of Mage, but by providing a powerful but narrow theme to the enemy’s magic it was possible to treat it like a mystery to solve. Once the players figure it out, the problem is really easy to solve. This makes it quite different to play than a “trump battle,” where it plays more like a puzzle.

Drama and Dragons: the end result

I have decided that for my intense role-playing game I will be using Mage: the Ascension, revised edition. I’ll be using all the material from the Drama and Dragons and some older ideas:

  1. A reward system that implicitly creates a tutorial for role-playing.
  2. Status as a mechanic and as the reward for in-universe actions. The method for acquiring will introduce a “soft PVP” where the players are rewarded for solving problems faster than other players.
  3. Scheduling based mostly around short periods of on-line play. Guidelines for what players may do with and without the GM will be needed. A short form for the players to fill out will be needed so the GM can keep track of everything that happened.
  4. Pressure from the environment to help keep the players working together, if necessary.
  5. Exploring deep topics has been integrated into the role-playing reward system.

I am revisiting reward systems in Mage: the Ascension. My goal is to create a guide and reward system for role playing that doesn’t use any XP at all, that also fits how a fractured game schedule impacts play.

Here is the Diamond of Roleplaying:

Prep 1

Acknowledge Responsibility

Prep 2

Define Personality

Write Backstory

Tier 1

Voice-Act Emotions

Posture, Gestures, and Props

In Character Reflection

Tier 2

Imply Personality in a Desctiption

Imply Actions with Dialogue and Sound Effects

Initiate In Character Conversation with another PC


Low Status


High status

Tier 3

Mediate a discussion between two PCs Use “platform building” to include elements from Backstory Resolve a conflict by going from high status to low status

Tier 4

Roleplay the development of a new ability

As Low status, persuade a high status PC

Tier 5

“Deep Topic” Objective


Here are some clarifying points

Prep 1 and 2

All prep work must be completed before the PC may join the campaign.

Acknowledge Responsibility: Each player is partially responsible for maintaining the mood of the game and ensuring that the players and the GM are having fun. Being granted the options to build a platform gives the player control over how their history impacts play. High and low status allow PCs to have control over each other. These give each player authority in areas where players normally have none. There is obvious potential for abuse, so playing in this game requires that players are mindful of how their behaviour impacts other players.

To ensure that players are mindful of this, each player must write something they will do to use either platform or status to improve the game. This also serves to make sure that the player has the minimal understanding of improvised theater concepts. This can be short: even one sentence is sufficient.

Define Personality: In a game of Mage: the Ascension, this is done as part of character creation. Personality refers to Nature, Demeanor, Essence, and Resonance. Players ought to be aware that traits will be more important than most games.

Write Backstory: This may be point form, if the player prefers.

Tier 1

Tier 1 can be done during play, or in writing in the form of a journal entry. A journal entry must be e-mailed to the GM and all the players.

Voice Act Emotions: When done in written form, this is accomplished by writing dialogue in which a player’s choice of words and sentence structure implies an emotion. This is often harder than speaking with a voice that carries a particular emotion.

Posture, Gestures, and Props: This is when a player uses body language, gestures, and real world objects to convey information about their character’s emotions, beliefs, or actions. When done in written form, this is a description of body language. Once again, it is probably easier to do this during a session than in writing.

In Character Reflection: This is when a character thinks about recent plot events in a campaign, and comments on it. The commentary may be in the form of a dialogue with other PCs, or it may be written down in a journal. This is perhaps the only one that is easier to write than it is to do during a session.

Tiers 2- 4

Tiers 2-4 all can only be done during a session. They cannot be done with a journal.

Imply Personality in a Description: this is when the player adds description to what they’re doing in a manner that implies one of the components of their personality. For example, a Mage with a demeanor of Curmudgeon is fixing a car and says “when the hell was the last time you took this piece of crap in?”

Imply Actions with Dialogue and Sound Effects: Instead of telling everyone what you’re PC is doing, act it out by making declarative statements and sound effects. This is how action is often portrayed in radio plays:

Initiate In Character Conversation with Another PC: It is easy to respond in character. Being the first person to begin talking in character is harder. Choosing a topic that will get other PCs to respond is harder still. If a PC manages to succesfully initiate a conversation, they have done something difficult and a little bit intimidating.

Role-play High and Low status: Status is assigned according to some rules detailed below.

Mediate a Discussion between two PCs: Adding a third participant to a conversation greatly increases the complexity of the social behaviour. Being the third person is particularly difficult, and is thus in a relatively high tier. The character might be attempting to encourage both sides to see each others’ points of view, supporting one side but sympathetic to another, the “rope” in a verbal tug of war, or arbitrating the dispute.

Role-play the Development of a New Ability: An increase in a skill is worth drawing attention to. If a character was a crappy fighter, but spent some points on increasing their brawl skill, be sure to draw attention to this. This can be done during a normal use of the ability, by initiating a conversation with another PC, by practicing with another PC, or anything else you can think of.

As Low Status, Persuade a High Status: Back in my sociology called, the Prof called this “the Doctor-Nurse Effect.” It is how a low status character presents their ideas and opinions to a higher status character, so that it does not infringe on the higher status character’s authority. Examples include making suggestions, and asking for permission to do what the character knows is the right course of action.

Using platform building and going from high to low status are self explanatory, if the theater concepts they are drawn from are understood.

Tier 5

In my article on Deep Topics, I suggested that players think of whether they want their objective to change the world for the better, support something worthwhile, or destroy something undesirable. These categories are so similar to the way essences impact seekings that that step is unnecessary. If a character has a Dynamic essence, they need to make change. If they have a Pattern essence, they need to support something. If they have Primal essence, they need to destroy or eliminate something.

However, I want there to be two dimensions to a character’s seeking: material and mental. In M:tA there is a spirit world, and there are beings made up of pure thought, and there are platonic forms that actually exist in a transcending realm of some kind. The game’s universe is well set up to make it possible to play internal changes to a character, instead of implying them through subtext. So, I’ve made a Seeking check list:

  1. Identify Deep Topic

  2. Player uses their essence to help them narrow down what they can do that relates to the topic.

  3. Player confirms the objective by contacting their avatar, a spirit, a mentor, etc. For the sake seekings only, a character can contact their avatar with some kind of big ritual appropriate to their Tradition. Hermetics would do something with chanting and glyphs, cultists would expand their mind with alcohol and dance until they become possessed by their avatar, etc. Every mage will have at least one point in avatar by now, but some players will have more options if they have spirit magic or points invested in Mentor.

  4. Player must use magic to help address this problem.

  5. The GM ensures a complication occurs along the way that can be solved in an open ended way.

  6. The player chooses to responed rationally, emotionally, or by seeking out an authority.

  7. The way the player chooses to solve the issue may result in acquiring more resonance.

  8. The player highlights the way they changed to other players while role-playing.

  9. The PC may choose to gain either 1 dot in Arete or 1 dot in a sphere. Arete is worth more experience points, but the spheres will often be more useful immediately and later.

Rewards for Each Tier

  • The first time a PC completes tier 1, they gain 1 dot in Avatar.

  • The first time a PC completes tier 2, they gain 1 dot in resources, allies, or influence. They are limited to mundane allies who don’t even know the supernatural world exists.

  • The first time a PC completes tier 3, they gain 1 dot of resonance. The PC may choose where it applies.

  • The first time a PC completes tier 4, they gain 1 dot in resources, allies, or infleunce. They are limited to mundane allies who don’t even know the supernatural world exists.

  • When a PC completes tier 5, the GM will provide them with a seeking. The reward for completing a seeking is normally an increase in Arete, but the player may choose to increase a sphere instead, if they prefer. This is because the theme of worldy versus transcendant concerns are often represented mechanically by making choices between acquiring more Arete or Spheres, and this method of acquiring seekings will likely be much faster than spending experience points.

As the game goes on, the background rewards will change. In this stage, the goal is to set up PCs so that resonance and backgrounds are the mechanical reflections of the conflict between a Mage’s mundane concerns and magical concerns. As the game continues, the various backgrounds from Guide to the Traditions will be added in, which provide a way to resolve this conflict more or less for good. For example, a mage with high ranks in chantry and a large cult doesn’t necessarily need to keep a normal job anymore.

This will also change the internal conflict to be about acquiring supernatural power versus acquiring wisdom. This conflict will be ongoing, and there are no mechanics that resolve this conflict. It will instead intensify or diminish based on player actions alone.

Status Game

Acquiring High Status

When two or more players are present during a session, high status is acquired at the beginning of the session with competing rolls. Usually, this will be charisma+leadership, but many other skills are likely. Sometimes it makes sense for it to be charisma+influence. On rare occasions it might use appearance. Using magic to gain high status is frowned upon, as it would need to be some kind of mind control. Using magic to boost one’s own skills is acceptable.

Manipulation and social skills may be used to acquire high status, when a character has low status.

Status and Problem Solving

When confronted with an obstacle, the way a PC responds determines whether or not they switch status. A low status character becomes high status by overcoming the obstacle, or helping to overcome the obstacle. A character with high status must give directions and be obeyed by another PC to maintain their status. If they fail to do this while overcoming the obstacle, they become low status.

An obstacle is an event imposed by the GM that forces a response from the players or forces the players to abandon their current plans.

Acquiring High Status Between Session

If at the end of a session a PC has the support of the broader supernatural community in the region where the session ended, then they begin the next session with high status. That community must be able to act on the party in some way. For example, a PC who has all the vampires on their side might gain high status when in a city, but won’t have high status if they are hanging out in the country with werewolves.

If there is an expert on a topic related to the PCs’ current mission, and that expert is supporting a PC, that PC begins the next session with high status.

This is to encourage the PCs to do some politicking during their downtime.

Failure to Play Status

If a character fails to act according to their assigned status during in-character dialogue, they may either try again or they lose a point of temporary willpower.

Scheduling Rules

Resonance and Backgrounds

Once per session, when a PC uses a mundane background, they must also identify the resonance that is closest in dot value to the background. If there is a tie, the player may choose which one to use. The player rolls the number of dots in the background and the number of dots in resonance. If there are more successes for the background, then it works normally. If there are more successes for resonance, the resonance has a disastrous side effect that interferes with the use of the background. If there is an equal number of successes for both, there is a near miss as the resonance almost causes a disaster, but the mage manages to avert it.

A player may spend willpower on the background or resonance rolls. A player may not spend willpower on both; that is counterproductive.

If a PC doesn’t use any backgrounds during a session, this section does not apply.

Resonance can also negatively effect supernatural backgrounds that are social, such as mentor, node, or wonder. Nodes and wonders can be confiscated. Resonance has -3 to its dice pool to effect these, however, so mages will very seldom have to worry about this.

A player may suggest what form the resonance takes when it interferes with their character’s background, but the GM has has final say. The GM is encouraged to be mean-spirited.

Fractured Gaming

If the player is unable to get someone to role-play with them in a week (probably due to conflicting schedules) they may write a journal entry about their day-to-day life.

When the GM is not present, multiple players may meet up to role-play making plans, an in-character discussion, or a magical ritual, so long as their meeting occurs in a place that is safe. The rules for how to do rituals are pretty specific, so I don’t think there is much room to abuse the system without a GM present. Players are expected to be honest when it comes to using backgrounds and resonance rolls, and when rolling for the rituals they are performing. They must keep a log, which will minimally detail what backgrounds were used, what resonance was rolled, what mundane abilities were used as part of the ritual, what modifiers effected the difficulty of the arete roll, the number of succcesses, and the intended magickal effect. Note that the GM must read the log before the effects can be determined.

When the GM is present, the players will be presented with a goal that focuses on an investigation. They will be presented with obstacles related to survival in a harsh environment, or escape from terrible monsters.

Alternately, a player may make a request for a particular type of mission. For example, some Order of Hermes mages like to hunt vampires and use their blood as tass. It’s against the Traditions’ rules, but that doesn’t stop them. This is also the best way to include a seeking.

When all the players are present, they will be able to combine their clues. This will hopefully help them solve the mystery, and take action.


Players must submit the following information by e-mail to the GM to schedule their sessions:

Objective: (what the PCs are doing)

Players Attending: (list the players)

GM Presence: (confirm whether or not they want the GM to be present, if it is optional. If the GM is present for something that does not require the GM’s presence, the players can expect some complications to occur)

Date and Time:

Resonance and Background Check: (everyone must confirm they did these checks)

Ritual Planning: (if applicable, the players should describe what their ritual will accomplish and how, so that the GM can give them some guidelines on how many successes they’ll need)

Environment and Action

Survival Pressure

Survival pressure can take many forms. Since the plot involves supernatural creatures and spirits causing trouble, I’ll be able to easily and plausibly introduce a very wide variety of obstacles. Players can expect the majority of obstacles to be reminiscent of scenes in disaster movies. These will be presented as open ended challenges

Open Ended Problems and Creative Solutions

M:tA excels at allowing players to be creative with problem solving, and I intend to use that to the fullest extent of my ability as a GM. Environmental obstacles will be open ended problems. Social and violent problems often seem very immediate in role-playing games, but this will be avoided.

Players must receive enough of a warning that they have time to pursue their own solutions to problems. This amount of time will vary from as little as a Fighting will only occur rarely; most violent encounters the players will know about in advance, and they will be able to use the full flexibility afforded by their skill set and magic rituals to deal with the problem before a combat scene erupts.

Note that the obstacles end up forcing the players to deal with them, so “open ended” does not mean that the player chooses their own objective. It is open-ended in how the PCs solve a problem, not what the problems they choose to address are. Player drive objectives and plot points are not going to be discouraged, but those need to be made by collaborating with the GM. Seekings are largely player driven with this model, and will give the GM plenty of inspiration about how to make player-specific plots and objectives.

Plot and Deep Ideas

The game will be set in the Yukon. The players will be a cabal of mages sent to investigate what appears to be a group of nodes appearing spontaneously in the wilderness. The wilderness is largely outside the control of the technocracy, and these nodes could be very useful to the Traditions. However, the spirits in the region have given warnings to the traditions that these nodes are not safe. The PCs are the magi chosen to investigate.

Character Creation

The players will need to think of their own “cover” for being in the north. Eco-tourism and jobs related to farming, mining, or lumber are reasonable options. The game will not feature a lot of travel to new regions, so the player’s cover will need to allow them to stay for a long time, but it will feature a lot of travel within the Yukon. The Yukon is a big place, with many impediments to travel. A super rich corporate executive might need to have a private jet to make all their meetings and keep their job, but that same plane won’t be useful getting to the farthest northern villages. A lumberjack with a powerful truck and a snowmobile might be better equipped for that.

Players may not take the Questing essence. The questing essence is redundant in this game, since the seekings contain discrete objectives already with this house rule.

White Wolf Lore

Players do not need to know a lot about white wolf lore to play in this game. They need to know what each of the traditions are, what the technocracy is (no knowledge of its component groups is required), and that other supernatural beings exist (but no details about them). Any additional required information can be given from skill checks, if it comes up in the course of play.

Players with ample knowledge of the white wolf lore are encouraged to make their characters have ties to the material with which they are most familiar. This is done with merits: medium, kinfolk, ghoul, etc. A player who knows a lot about the technocracy may want to take two traditions (with the appropriate merit) and be both a technocrat and a mage.

Players who know very little about white wolf lore and wants to learn more during play is encouraged to begin play with 4 or 5 dots in mentor. They should make their character eager to partake in tradition politics and favour trading, so there are lots of reasons for them to interact with and learn secrets about the broader supernatural world.

Deep Ideas

This game is well set up to explore broad moral or social themes, and player choices during character creation will imply many more deep ideas. Mage is almost implicitly about elitism: mages and technocrats alike are more capable than other humans, and exploring what responsibility (if any) mages have to mundane humans is a part of the game.

Other obvious themes for deep ideas comes from the setting. Rural society differs greatly from urban society, and the majority of mages (like humans) live in cities. This can introduce a variety of political, economic, and social ideas. The large amount of wilderness introduces all kinds of topics drawn from environmental ethics. The large Native American population allows the game to explore topics relating to modern colonialism.

Player backgrounds don’t need to play into these ideas. They can easily come up with ideas that they would prefer to explore.