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Storytelling advice: how to create challenge in Mage?

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  • Storytelling advice: how to create challenge in Mage?

    I'm an experienced Chronicles storyteller, with ~3 years' worth of Changeling and Werewolf under my belt, plus some shorter games here and there. I'm having a lot of trouble calibrating my current game of Mage, though; I'm struggling to find the balance between challenge and mystery and smooth, engaging play. Some initial warnings:
    1. We've home-brewed the setting a fair amount. I have fundamental issues with the "everyone picks the red pill" aspect of Mage in the way many people had issues with Promethean, so there aren't Seers--or at least, aren't Seers as we know them from the book. Rather, most of the antagonists are left-handed Pentacle mages of one variety or another, and of course not every story has an antagonist at all.
    2. We tell high-stakes stories. Even though we start as starter characters, our tales inevitably end up in some sort of "save-the-world" scenario. This is a personal failing for which I do not apologize .
    The short version of my current modus operandi is this: after an investigation, present a catch-22, and ask the players to resolve it using their magic. I have to resort to the catch-22 because we have a particularly cheese-happy player running an Acanthus, and well, we're all Changeling veterans. We have a liberal interpretation of what Fate magic can do. How can I provide challenge to godlike mages without using a formula that sets up my players, rather than their characters, to be stumped?

    Long version of the problems follows.
    ----------------------
    Opening Story: By the miracle of having fabulous players, this actually ended with an incredibly dramatic confrontation between players. I would call it a big success, but the climax I had prepared was a dud. When tasked with a narrative demand for high magic, the players stumbled and seemed to feel betrayed that I hadn't left them an obvious solution. Mages are reality-changing, I thought, so I can let them surprise me. They ended up doing so, but it was dominated by one player who didn't seem too thrilled to take charge, while the others sat dumbfounded.

    Second Story: This one didn't get miraculously saved. Because I want to tell a longer-term mystery in addition to the classic Chronicles adventure-of-the-week, I used this story to seed a few setting ideas, including the Annunaki. It revolved around a sort of "meta-fate" unfathomable to the Acanthus, and a "singularity"/null point in the Great Fractal of Fate. An Acanthus was trying desperately to resist/undo this null point--i.e., make an impossible event come to pass--in a time loop, obviously failing and drawing paradox with each iteration. Since the first story's demand for high magic didn't go over well, I decided magic was basically a non-starter against the Scelestus. I'll just make it a situation in which they need to convince the parties involved to stop the time loop, I thought, They love talking. Let's just say they talked about different magical approaches for two hours. By that point, I would have sacrificed my narrative and downed the threat level of the Annunaki just to move things along. But they just talked about what to do--didn't even decide to do anything. In the end, I had to narrate how the time loop reset yet again and they just fell out of it once the Scelestus gave up on his obsession (which made some sense in context, but brevity demands I leave it at that).

  • #2
    If your players are new to Mage, perhaps presenting them with simpler challenges is the right thing to do - at least at the beginning. They might need to practise their magical problem solving skills before you throw impossible tasks at them. Then, as they get into the groove, you gradually increase the difficulty level.

    From a different angle, instead of presenting them with puzzles to solve, you might present them with dillemas:
    Link
    Link
    Link

    These choices are more obvious, which might put your players back in their comfort zone. Advanced problem solving is not necessary to progress, but if they exhibit some they can find a third, better solution. And even if they don't, their choices still matter.


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    • #3
      Your second story gives the impression that your preference for high-stakes stories is in conflict with your wish for long-term stories. If the stakes are always the world, then failing is always a terminal problem. The players can talk and talk and talk, because the only consequences are the end of the world which they can be relatively certain you aren't going to do because it would end the game.

      I'd consider lowering the stakes to something you are actually prepared to go through with.


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      • #4
        My advice for the high-stakes vs long-term is to start out small and let the stakes increase naturally during the course of the campaign. That way you don't have to figure out the big plot until after the characters have started to look into it. It's how we've been able to play Vampire for five years, probably averaging one long session (~6-10 h) per week during that time.


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        • #5
          Your second story gives the impression that your preference for high-stakes stories is in conflict with your wish for long-term stories.
          Sorry, to be clear, the high-stakes story is the story of the overarching chronicle. We're still in the early stages. The stakes of these individual stories are substantially lower, either innately or simply because there's a "cavalry" ready and willing to come in. The group over-represents Ad Arrows, and their commanders explicitly told them multiple times that they're mostly in these places to scout--the problem solvers would... solve the problem. In fact, the cavalry charging in was the point of "failure" for the group that I did enforce, and they definitely felt that failure despite everything working out okay. Especially since they got arrested right afterwards as part of a pre-planned hook for a story to come

          It's the players' distaste for failure, not the story consequences, that drive them to throw themselves against the wall over and over again. This group knows me well enough to recognize that I don't let failure end the story. Heck, I don't think I've ever killed off a PC in a Chronicles game.

          ...Instead of presenting them with puzzles to solve, you might present them with dillemas (sic):
          We think alike, my friend. But I'm of the mind that if I can't both present a dilemma and a proper game challenge, I'm not doing my job right. Both of the first two stories had strong dilemma game; I've realized with this group I definitely have to start by testing their moral waters. If I don't, they'll end up allying with the faction I intended to be antagonists

          For the record, two of my four players are new to mage, two aren't. I think the Ascension veteran among them is actually enjoying the game so far, but another player that was very excited to dig into Mage (he'd played two or three sessions with other groups, but we're his "main" group) is starting to think he likes the idea of Mage rather than the game in play. I'm beginning to agree; while I love it as Storyteller, I care more about the enjoyment of my players, and it's not clear I'm in the right place yet.
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          EDIT: Part of the issue might simply be a player dynamics one, despite the fact our group has been playing together well for a long time. Half our players are on the fence about Mage overall, just because they're new to the setting, and therefore aren't contributing their usual share. This confuses me and the other group-minded player, making him contribute less himself and giving me the impression things aren't working. It might just be that all I need to do is balance out the player dynamics, and the solutions will come as quickly as they did in previous games. Easier said than done, but I thought it was worth mentioning.
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          EDIT 2:
          Originally posted by Tessie View Post
          My advice for the high-stakes vs long-term is to start out small and let the stakes increase naturally during the course of the campaign. That way you don't have to figure out the big plot until after the characters have started to look into it. It's how we've been able to play Vampire for five years, probably averaging one long session (~6-10 h) per week during that time.
          I hear you there! I tend to start with a "theme" in mind. My Changeling game had the idea of "internecine bickering among a celestial conspiracy between the Dark Mother and the God Machine," and the characters and plot fell out of my players' interests. This game started with "left-handed mages working with powers outside the ten arcana," but most adventures will focus on other setting aspects, like artifact weapons, exploring mage society, unique kinds of goetia, and so on.
          Last edited by pondrthis; 12-30-2018, 12:58 PM.

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