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metaphysics

I think I've mentioned that I'm going to be starting a campaign of Mage: The Ascension, using the Second Edition rulebook, but also with reference to the recently released 20th Anniversary edition.

The original World of Darkness games are interesting from a philosophical standpoint. I've said for years that it's as if someone had systematically set out to deny each of Ayn Rand's philosophical ideas in a game! Changeling says that beauty lies in fantasy and the denial of facts; Werewolf says that industrial production is evil and violent attacks on it are heroic; Vampire says that biological parasitism makes you a superior being; Wraith says that you can have values without being alive or needing to survive; and Mage goes all out and says that reality is subjective.

Or, at least, that's what's stated as the interpretation of the game mechanics in the standard rulebook. But I don't think it has to be taken that way.

You might think that pure subjectivity would make a "game" impossible. In an old analogy, it would be like one kid saying, "Bang! I shot you, you're dead!" and another saying, "No I'm not, you missed!"—with no way to decide. But in Mage, the idea is that everybody's subjective reality is affecting everybody else's. If you decide that the sun is going to stand still overhead, that's going to be seen by vast numbers of people who will think, "What? That can't be happening!" and by doing so, reflexively cast a counterspell that will contribute to slapping you down good and hard (a process called Paradox in the rules). In the standard Mage campaign, the adversaries, the Technocracy, have inducing the non-magically-gifted Masses to agree on a shared "scientific" vision of reality that has acquired tremendous inertia, making it increasingly difficult for the surviving mages to use their magical powers; and the mages are heroically struggling to preserve wonder and perhaps break open the iron cage of rationality and objectivity.

On the other hand, how does the Technocracy see it? One of S.M. Stirling's series, the Shadowspan novels, suggests that if an intelligent species evolves paranormal abilities, then they will never develop science; it's hard to conduct experiments that provide independent tests of your hypotheses if your wishes affect reality. Stirling doesn't suggest that there isn't an underlying objective reality, but that the mind interferes with it. So maybe what the Technocracy is doing is, first, getting rid of people with the paranormal talents that disrupt scientific experimentation, and second, using the predictability of reality to create a technology that provides increasingly powerful weapons against the talented. And then the Technocracy's hunt for "reality deviants" would actually be protecting humanity against, in effect, the kind of world that superhero comics portray, with people with weird powers fighting battles that disrupt society, or enslaving ordinary people. (At least, until technology itself empowers ordinary people enough to make them a threat to each other.)

Anyway, I'm planning to give my players a choice between those two factions. Which one they want to play will determine how I present the metaphysics of the game world to them. I'm actually kind of ambivalent about this! On one hand, I'd really enjoy another campaign of wild and crazy magical feats; on the other, it would be interesting to explore a different rationale for that set of game rules, one that focuses on fighting against mutants and monsters and considers "magic" a pre-scientific explanation for neurological abnormalities.

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