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Mage: Had We But World Enough, and Time

My most recent session of Mage: the Awakening has reminded me, quite directly, of the problem of time in the system. I'm not talking (well, not directly) about the Realm of Time, which - all things considered - is pretty cogent. No, in this case I'm going back to the problem of extended casting in Mage, which I discussed at great length back in this post. My issues do still boil down to "I wish the books had included advice about this."

The particular case from this past session was that the PCs are finally getting around to putting some magical security on their Sanctum. They started, of course, with a Ward - that's a spell that stops others from teleporting in, scrying on you, or using sympathetic magic against you. Super useful, right? (That noise you just heard is the sound of a thousand D&D 3.x villains who died to Scry-Buff-Teleport tactics facepalming in their graves.) A Ward is also sort of a foundation for future protective magic. This spell is intended to be cast using Extended Casting - that is, a ritual casting in which you can keep going and just build up more and more successes.

Okay, let me back up and talk about Extended Casting a little bit more. With Extended Casting, you put together your dice pool as usual, but instead of applying penalties to that dice pool to affect more targets, extend the duration, or whatever, you just need to build up more successes, and when you're done you basically distribute those successes among the various spell factors. This is an intimidating mess to read on the page, though it's actually very logical when explained in brief. Most things you could do with a ritual have some kind of natural limit to how much Potency you'd bother giving the effect, since this is mostly-not-useful for combat effects (unless you're hanging spells with Time or creating contingency effects with Fate, but that's not what I'm here to talk about).

Not so with a Ward, though. Since the Potency of incoming spells is tested against the Potency of the Ward, there's no conceivable upper limit to how much you might want. The book only mentions Potency 5 in its example, but I can find no reason that the cabal's warlock couldn't create a Potency 20 Ward (which is what he did), or greater if he had cared to do so. Except that... what does it matter? An attacking wizard who is casting his own ritual to scry, open a portal, or whatever can just park his butt and keep building up Potency until he succeeds; the baseline Ward effect described in the book doesn't include any notification to the defender that his Ward has been attacked but has shrugged off the attack without effect.

So what this comes down to is that the mage with more time on his hands (assuming roughly equal levels of Gnosis to get them on the same ritual timer) will win - time is the only balancing factor. At Gnosis 3-4, you get a ritual roll once an hour, and the rules do point out that a mage can't really push past 24 hours without sleep, barring magical aid. I realize, also, that the rules are designed this way quite consciously; within the greater World of Darkness, mages are unbeatable if they're given time to work, more so than any other type of supernatural being. What I don't grasp is how a Storyteller is supposed to maintain both challenge and verisimilitude in the struggle between magical spy and magical security.

An amount of time expenditure measured in hours isn't really enough to justify enemies showing up to interrupt the process when the conflict has not yet been clearly initiated. The Storyteller has to give the PCs some downtime, right? And how do you figure out what NPCs can reasonably do on attack or on defense? If the answer to that is "roll a big pile of dice for that NPC until you feel that NPC should keel over from exhaustion," I put it to you that that is ridiculous. What the game needs, I feel, is some kind of intrinsic brake on Extended Actions of all kinds, but especially rituals, since magic can change the world in much bigger ways in a much shorter span of time than, say, research in a library. That same factor needs to discomfit PCs and NPCs about equally, so that the Storyteller has some fair way to judge what an NPC can put into an attack or a defense. There's just no dramatic tension in situations where the player can keep rolling until their character keels over from exhaustion, if that point is 24 rolls down the line.

I've talked before about how D&D has odd interactions with time - the pacing of an adventure (save the world in a single day!) against the pacing of Craft skills, spell research, or enchanting magic items. The new World of Darkness (and presumably its predecessor editions) has some similar problems, except much greater in scope. My players frequently comment on how less than two months have passed in-game, in a time that has taken us nine months to play. I'd like to see Mage take chronicle-level pacing into account a little better; maybe I need to dig out Ars Magica for some pointers.

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