Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Mythology Talk: Why Maging is the Hardest

A while ago, we jokingly posted a bunch of unhelpful suggestions from our playtest players, who are bad at suggesting things for us to write blog posts about. One of the posts they suggested was entitled "Why Maging is the Hardest", and was mostly an in-joke based on the fact that the mage characters in our playtest games, especially Bernard the Calamitous, are somewhat constant failboats characterized by no one believing them, accidentally ruining everything with terrible social skills, and using spells that backfire and blow up their party members.

But there's actually a good reason this keeps happening to them, and we're going to explain it today! This boils down to the fact that HJ is based on mythology and folklore, and traditionally, people in mythology and folklore just generally tend to hate Sages (and/or mages).

They hate Sages because Sages ruin everything - or at least, they always feel like they do. Sages show up and tell everyone that awful things are about to happen and then want people to reward them for this service. Sages screw around with magical spells and objects and curses and then, when those things sometimes backfire and scramble the king's brains or tear a slash in the fabric of space-time, they pretend it wasn't their fault or try to convince everyone that it was a necessary side effect of their very important maging work. Sages perform experiments when they don't know what the results will be, and then sometimes those results rain a plague down upon the local countryside. Sages learn all the local politicians' most damning secrets, apparently just for fun, and then accidentally tell them to other people. And they're never sorry, the jackasses.

The thing is, Sages usually actually mean well, or at least they mean well more often than they mean ill. It's just that their powers are scary and most people around them don't understand them very well, which makes sense because the Sage is by definition the person that understands everything better than anyone else. It's hard for the average person to understand that, after some weird dude shows up and explains that your father is going to be bloodily assassinated, it was not in fact that weird dude's fault when that did happen. It looks a lot like they were telling you that they were going to kill your father, or possibly that they did something magical where they caused this to happen by seeing it with their mage brains. The point is, they know things people shouldn't know, and that looks a lot like doing those things, and that means that no one likes the Sage.

This doesn't mean everyone always hates Sages, of course, or that Sages never get to be cool and impressive. Obviously, the Wise Old Sage is a common mythological figure, as is the Benevolent Gandalf-Like Wizard. But they're less common than Evil Wizard, Reckless Experimental Mage, Gloating Prophet, Heartless Agent of Destiny, or They Who Know Too Much types of characters.

So players of Sages tend to find themselves sometimes falling into these roles in HJ. This is especially common if they're primarily Sages - that is, they Sage real hard, and their other skills are used to support their Saging, rather than being separate areas of expertise.

To use Bernard the Woeful as our example again, he is primarily a Sage with a side order of Creator, with a little bit of Hunter and Lover thrown in for flavor. His Creator powers (as they do in myth with figures like Hephaestos or Volund) often appear like offshoots of his Sage powers, since creation and maintenance of magical stuff is so closely bound to the ideas of knowledge and unseen skill. His fellow Heroes know he's a mage, and they know he's good at knowing things, understanding things, interpreting things, and sometimes doing some weird rave moves that affect the fabric of reality or something.

Unfortunately, they hate all those things (even though they like Bernard himself!). He's not a great Lover or Leader, so nine times out of ten they don't even believe him when he tells them some piece of knowledge he came up with - it sounds ridiculous and made up to them since it conflicts with their own experiences. He's just some weird dude who runs around slapping burgers out of peoples' hands and ranting about a supernatural taint in the meat, or screaming "DON'T ANSWER THAT" at the top of his voice every time someone gets a phone call before explaining in what he thinks is a rational tone that the person on the other end is a malevolent fairy. Then, once they do end up discovering that whatever he told them was correct, they resent him for being right and for not saving them from whatever the danger was, and sometimes even suspect him of causing it himself in order to retroactively prove himself right. They never thank him for it.

Similarly, when he does magical things, mostly they just try to stop him or get him out of the public eye. Was he trying to disenchant the fairy connection to that phone, thus enabling them to make calls again without accidentally getting sucked into another world? Well, to them, it looks like he's just being really weird and creepy at them and their phone, and then gods forbid he doesn't make the roll and it explodes, because then he just looks like he attacked their personal electronics with the power of his mind. Was he closing a hole between worlds that allowed a terrible being from the depths of Hades to attempt to reach out into the land of the living? The group is all busy fighting for their lives and has no patience with his decision to stare blankly into the distance for ten minutes while they're all getting shot before declaring that they should be grateful that he rescued them. Was he trying to break a curse that held several zombies in thrall, forcing them to continue attacking people in the area until they were laid to rest properly? Congratulations, the entire neighborhood has reported his cavorting in front of the graves to the police as "unauthorized necromancy".

Essentially, Bernard the Intensely Unfortunate is just the poster child for why maging is often, well, really hard. He knows things other people can't know and does things other people can't understand or even see evidence of happening, so he performs a constant swing back and forth between being considered totally useless and being considered a dangerous loose cannon who ruins everyone's life. It doesn't really matter what he does; if he doesn't perfectly solve everything for everyone forever, he's going to get yelled at. The other players are sympathetic to his plight and often joke with his player, because they've all been there; everyone who's played the Sage is used to being the group's least favorite yet most demanded person.

There are quite a few Sage powers in HJ that mirror this tendency in myth; in particular, Sages have quite a few powers wherein they learn some important information, but can't know ahead of time what it is or how it affects others, For example, the Knowledge Blessing Rare Breed allows them to recognize special enemies they might be facing and relay key information to their fellows in time for it to be used handily. Mechanically, this is great, since it allows them to instantly tell the other Heroes what special powers the enemy has that they need to defend against, and what weaknesses the enemy has that they can exploit... but in a story setting, what it really looks like is that every single time the group fights anything, the Sage runs out in front, announces, "Wait! It's a rare Hungarian fire-breathing dryad, I've read about this!", and then everything is suddenly on fire. Sage powers are often a risk vs. reward situation, and since the other Heroes can't know that's happening, they don't always take the assurance of "Trust me, it would have been worse if I didn't do that!" when they're all dying and wondering how their lives have come to this.

Naturally, not every Sage power does this, and many are just normal, straightforwardly functional Blessings as in any other Aspect area on the Web. Not every Sage is doomed to be Bernard to Beleaguered, either; for example, Sage-Lovers probably have a much easier time convincing people to believe what they say, and Sage-Warriors don't have to worry all that much about their comrades in arms thinking they're useless when it comes down to a fight. But no Hero can do all things, or even really come close, so even carefully tuned Sages with a wide array of skills will probably find themselves hit by the "you said this would happen and then it did and I hate you" stick once in a while.

So, yeah, maging is the hardest, but largely because that's how mages tend to operate in mythic stories. Much as Tricksters always end up shooting themselves in the foot at some point or Lovers end up attracting unwanted attention and having to get rid of it, Sages usually have to handle the consequences of being the only one who actually knows what's going on while the less erudite scream at them to stop fooling around and do something, already.

(Special thanks to the player of Bernard the Chronically Despairing for letting me use him as an example all over this post.)


  1. "Sages screw around with magical spells and objects and curses and then, when those things sometimes backfire and scramble the king's brains or tear a slash in the fabric of space-time, they pretend it wasn't their fault or try to convince everyone that it was a necessary side effect of their very important maging work....And they're never sorry, the jackasses."

    Oh Gods, truer words were never spoken about the Hindu Pantheon. "Why did you give that face-eating demon superpowers?" "You're non-Sage minds could not comprehend." "Why am I being made to sacrifice my eye when a lotus would do?" "Same as above." "Why is my goddess wife drowning all our babies the moment they're born?" "Ditto mark." (that last one is especially annoying when you consider that Ganga could have very easily told Santanu what the F was going on).

    Imagine an entire Pantheon of Sage specialists where everyone is convinced they've found the answer to life, the universe and everything. Makes you feel for Indra...poor guy is the only person in that whole line up who hasn't sprung for a dozen dots in Sage.

    Thanks for this post :) I loved it, given that any character I make is going to be heavily Sage focused, it's good to know what I have to look forward to.

  2. As long as sages get additional power to compensate for the additional bullshit, it should all be good.l