I have never held any shame in explaining that the primary reason behind my current (and at this point lifelong) infatuation with geekery; role-playing games, board games, card games, fandom, etc is because of my brother. My brother had seduced me into running a campaign set in the world of Middle Earth after he bought Iron Crown Enterprises Middle Earth Role Playing. We were both fans of Lord of the Rings, and both thought that Hero Quest was one of the best board games in the entire world. He explained the Middle Earth Role Playing book as being the same thing, but with less restrictions and endless characters and campaign. Role playing was a new and unique experience for me, being no longer just a game—but carefully developed understanding of how people (and other things) think and behave, about their cultures and how that influences them and their society…and about how it influences them personally. After we had completed our Middle Earth campaign, my brother went looking for other role playing games and came across Vampire: the Masquerade. Unsurprisingly, we had both been avidly devouring Anne Rice novels at the time (as had the inventors of Masquerade, which is quite obvious when you read it). The role playing experience expanded from exciting epic fantasy adventures to dark, gritty, emotional, real-world monsters and their nightly struggles. I was so enamored of this game that when I heard that there were others in the same world, I immediately went out and purchased my first copy of Mage: the Ascension (2nd Edition, though at the time I had no idea). This was around 1995, give or take a year.
I sat down and consumed this book cover to cover. I have a lot of memories of doing so. I remember the feel of the pages beneath my fingers. I remember the curl and yellow where I had spilled water on them. I remember the smell this book had. I remember where the binding first began to break. I remember the darkly beautiful introduction involving Senex, the Old Man—and how I came to admire this person in his seeming power and wisdom. I devoured the book, and then read it again. Why did Mage: the Ascension grab me the way it did? Why, after going on two decades of enjoying role-playing games is this game still the one that matters most to me, and has the most effect on me?
There are a lot of reasons. I could tell you that I was a teenager, first son of four, the youngest autistic. When my mom wasn’t working, she was working with my youngest brother. We did not have much money. The five of us, plus a room mate lived in a three bedroom apartment at this time. There was little in the way of privacy, and at the same time, there was not enough attention. I also suffered from Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety. I used to be heavily involved in drugs. I used to cut myself. A lot of these things are not extraordinary, but I think, looking back on it and considering it now, that I perceived them on an extraordinary level. I still suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, though I have learned methods of staving off the worst of its effects. Anxiety is still especially difficult for me to deal with, but like with the depression, I have learned a few tricks that make it easier to deal with.
What is most important here is that I was very sad, and I was very sad because I knew that something was missing from my life, even if I did not know what it was. This was when I encountered Mage and discovered a revolutionary idea. I had an epiphany. I had…an awakening. The concept behind Mage is that belief is truth, which of course leads to making truth subjective. But more importantly, if you believe in something hard enough—deeply enough—to the point that it shifts your consciousness and your soul and your very being—your belief is true. When you are hopeless, and you feel that you will always be hopeless, this is a real life awakening.
I have played Mage almost consistently in one form or another for about half of my life. I have played Revised and I have also played Awakening from the new World of Darkness (in fact, I am currently running an Awakening campaign) but although I enjoyed Revised for being a crisper and cleaner and somewhat easier to understand version of Mage, and although I think when it comes to dealing with gamers who are more focused on the rules than the roles, Awakening surpasses Ascension, the world that was presented to me by Senex, Atropos, Dante, Porthos, Penny Dreadful, Mister Mistoffelees, Voormas, and of course, the repulsive and alluring, Jodi Blake seems to always revolve at the center of my heart.
I realize it may sound silly to hold a game so close to one’s heart, and we’ve heard plenty of stories of people who take that too far and get too lost in a false reality and lose sight of the real one…but that’s exactly why Mage is so eye-opening. Mage forces you to question the validity of reality. It breaks open the shell that you are forced to survive and thrive in and invites new philosophies on what matters, on what is important: of what survival actually is. I mentioned above that I was not in a stellar situation when I was growing up. My formative years were a disaster, to say the least. I was failing out of high school in my sophomore year. My life was music, drugs and misery. I understood the concepts they wanted us to master in high school. I never found the work difficult. In fact, when I realized I was failing out I opted to take the CHSPE examination which is a California high school diploma for students who wanted to go to university early. I didn’t take it because I wanted to go to university. I took it because I wanted out of a life that seemed doom to failure. So I got out.
I abhorred high school, and I am not using that word because I have a thesaurus handy. There is no word that comes closer to exemplifying my feelings toward the two and a half years I spent in high school. I loved writing and reading and I was fantastic at math, but the teachers I had (with perhaps one exception) were disgusting, limited, selfish individuals. Or maybe it was the system they were forced to work in. I was young enough that I might never have seen the difference. Above all, I detested history. What use, I would argue with my teacher, is memorizing names and dates of dead people who have no effect on my life. He was a particularly unhelpful educator, and was quicker to punish me than answer questions. I think I ended up having Saturday school booked so often by him that I was going to school six days a week. Eventually I decided not to go anymore, and while they were threatening me with suspension, I was studying for my CHSPE.
I went to community college when I was 16, not because I wanted to, but because that was essentially the deal I made with my mother upon passing the CHSPE. I was not even remotely ready for it. My antipathy towards education of any type was overwhelming. I passed a piano class and maybe a painting class—I don’t even remember if I managed to do that. But I was learning nothing from the education system.
But I was not failing to learn. After my first few months of playing Mage: the Ascension, I found myself running to the library and the bookstore. Who were the Indian Death Cults that had birthed the Euthanatos? I discovered Indian History, I discovered the Thuggee, I discovered Hinduism. From there I fell into comparative religion, and obsessed over learning more about Buddhism and Islam, and I devoured philosophy where I discovered subjectivism, the premise that Mage was based on. I swallowed Incan, Mayan and Aztec culture whole. I dreamt of Loas and Kachinas and Hsien. Mage opened a door which gave me the power to believe.
Today, the genre I most typically write is fantasy. I would argue that it could be called urban fantasy, or even magical realism. I dabble in sci-fi and literary fiction. But my fantasy dares to stray from knights and dragons and princesses and castles. My protagonists are rarely Eurocentric, but even when they are, I end up basing them firmly in their cultural history, and leave them surrounded by kachinas and narakas and daevas, because I love them too much to not bring them into the worlds of my invention. Mage opened my eyes to histories and philosophies and beliefs I would never have discovered in the so-called American Melting Pot (so melted that there is nothing left but a black sludge that we scrape at and feast on and call culture). Maybe you won’t ever read or play Mage, that’s okay: but look beyond the whitewashed America when you dare to dream, when you dare to imagine, and most importantly, when you dare to believe.
I still suffer from the problems I described above, even if some of them are getting a lot better. I still live a hard life, and that’s not a sob story—we all live a hard life. We all struggle. We are all unhappy sometimes, and for some of us, that’s most of the time. But although Mage is only a game, it is also a work of art and philosophy which taught me one of the most important things I’ve ever learned in my life, my first step toward my personal Ascension: Your belief is your truth. Believe it and make it true.