Game design is telling people how to play. You might hear other explanations, but they all boil down to that. And everything you put in an RPG product is part of that telling. Today I want to provide an example of where game design failed.

The prime indicator of a game not working right is when playing groups sit down and wonder: What are we supposed to play here? Or rather often the GM wondering what they should run. A game where this happens surprisingly often is Mage: The Ascension. Many groups don’t get much further than the characters meeting. If your group is different, congratulations, you made it work. So what’s the problem?

The epic conflict fought by other people.

The central conflict presented in the game is about reality. In the game it is inherently democratic. What the majority believes is true. There might be local differences in belief and thus reality. And so different groups are fighting about the hearts and minds of mankind to make their reality true.

Sounds good? Sorry, but that has nothing to do with you. There are no rules or guidelines on how to win those hearts and minds. Your character might mind magic people, but it’s unclear if and how that affects the big picture.

Why war in Disneyland?

Apart from the “real” world, there are other worlds besides that are more fluid. Mages like to make homes and palaces there, which is certainly nice. And the major factions are actually warring there. So you can fight space ships on your flying carpet. Cool.

But it’s unclear why they are doing that. Or why an entrepreneuring group of PCs would want to go to one fairy madhouse or other. In fact the source book of Worlds, explains that there are at least three versions of Mars helt by different factions at the same time. So if there is basically infinite real estate out there, why fight about it?

It’s Mage Hobo please

So if the Ascension war is out and the the other worlds are kinda pointless, we could do some interpersonal stuff maybe. There are even different factions our characters belong to.

Nice try. Apart from some very bad stereotyping, there isn’t very much about how those factions work. So you can maybe talk about your worldview of being an animist while they bind angels to their will, but that might be good for about half a session. Worse, you likely don’t know anyone. You can by mentors and allies at chargen, but that competes having magic items and better magic in general. So it is very much possible that characters come out of chargen, knowing no one. (How are they part of a Tradition then?) They might also not have any goals. Because the game doesn’t tell you what a mage might want or does all day.

When there’s something strange…

Now, since we have no real base for politics or the big conflict, we could try some paranormal investigation. That might a natural idea, when the game is about Mages living among us.

The problem is that if your characters can do one thing, it’s uncovering mysteries. When they find a murder victim they can look back in time and see who did it. Mages will cut through typical mystery and horror plots like a hot knife through butter.

Still this is probably your best bet of getting the game working. The PCs are multi faction group of trouble shooters that are consulted by local mages when they can’t handle their backyard anymore.

Of course nothing in the game tells you to do that. In fact it runs counter to certain character options like owning a big library or magic holy place.