Reality is not fixed, but rather a set of agreed upon assumptions enforced by the collective will of humanity (AKA Sleepers). Mages are those people who recognize that reality is not static, and realize that through the application of their will, usually channeled through rituals or other similar "mystical" or "scientific" practices, reality can be changed.
The specifics of their own belief, called a Paradigm, guides them into joining either one of the nine mystical Traditions (an ancient fellowship of mages of varying points of view), one of the five conventions of the Technocracy (an organization founded at the beginning of the age of reason to bring science and truth to humanity), or to strike out on their own as Orphans (unaffiliated mages), Marauders (mages whose paradigm has overwhelmed their sense of reality), or Nephandi (mages seeking to destroy or corrupt the world).
The central theme of Mage is the search for Ascension, not only for the individual but for all of mankind. What Ascension is and how it is achieved is purposely left undefined.
For a quick-and-dirty overview of how to go about creating magickal effects in-system, see Magick for Dummies. This article is more of a theoretical and worldview-centric text.
Aristotle claimed that all things were created of four essences – earth, wind, water, and fire. He also claimed the sun and astral bodies were composed of a fifth essence – Quintessence. However, Mages know that Quintessence isn't just a cosmic phenomenon – it is all around us. Everything has some Quintessence in it.
Quintessence is in the air all around us, although in minor quantities. Some locations draw Quintessence into them; these are called Nodes, centers of magic. Mages will fight and die just to control the power of a minor Node.
Quintessence is often used to power spells, especially in the Prime Sphere. Also, a Mage can spend Quintessence to Overpower their Rotes, making their spells last longer and do greater things (or even just making them easier to cast).
Arete is a measure of a Mage's enlightened will, his basic understanding of magic and his ability to control it. As the Mage's Arete increases, he begins realizing more that he is not a slave to reality – reality is a slave to him.
Arete is valued highly among the Traditions, as high-Arete Mages tend to be wiser, more in control of themselves, and more dedicated to their purpose. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule.
Whereas Spheres represent a character's magical knowledge, Arete represents his magical power. Mages never learn Sphere Levels above their Arete – trying to understand secrets before one is ready to wield them has had catastrophic results in the past.
Arete exists as a hazy in-character concept, a metaphor for enlightenment. A Mage might speak of his master as having strong Arete. He will never say "My master has Arete 4!" The numbers are to allow the players to keep track of how their characters are progressing. A Mage with Arete 2 may well seem more enlightened than one with Arete 3, but there is some block in his mind that prevents him from capably grasping that level of magic. Fortunately, although it is difficult to increase Arete, it is nearly impossible to decrease it. Once the walls are torn down, they are never rebuilt.
The Seeking is a quest for enlightenment, and how a Mage increases his Arete. Over time, people build up barriers to themselves – obstacles they believe they cannot overcome, or goals they feel they'll never reach. The Seeking is the time when the Avatar takes a hand in guiding the Mage, breaking down those barriers and allowing the Mage to continue pursuing enlightenment.
This journey to enlightenment is not simply a metaphysical one, however. While the Mage certainly has to overcome barriers in his own mind, the true test of the Seeking is overcoming those barriers in the world around him. The Seeking should be a moment when your character breaks out of his normal way of thinking, steps out of his rut, and sets himself on a new path. The Mage may take chances he might normally never take, or act unusually; during the Seeking, the Avatar is whispering right into the Mage's ear. The Avatar wants you to succeed, but you have to walk the path yourself.
The Seeking is a goal that is defined by the Avatar and the character's particular paradigm. These goals can vary, and the end result is often not as important as the journey and what the Mage learns during that journey.
"Throughout the past few months, the Euthanatos have been a thorn in my side, and that frustration is keeping me from realizing what my next step in magical study should be. My Seeking goal is for my character to stand up to the Euthanatos, and see one of them beg me for mercy. They represent the kind of bullying which drove my character to tears as a child, and by standing up to them, she can put all that teasing and torture behind her."
That's a short description of a Seeking, but it would be acceptable. It doesn't matter if he actually succeeds or not – as long as he learns something from the attempt, an ST would be justified in giving him his next point of Arete.
Mages are inherently magical creatures, no longer exactly human, but not exactly inhuman either. Resonance describes the degree to which your character has left his humanity behind, and is becoming a magical being.
Resonance can have a strong effect on your character's personality. A Mage with high Dynamic Resonance might find it difficult to do anything related to preservation or protection.
Resonance is the balancing factor of the Mage world. As you gain more Resonance, you become less human, and more of a magical being. High Resonance may cause a Mage to begin losing his humanity, and extreme Resonance might cause a person to become one with the magic, no longer a person at all. Resonance is not a good thing. It is magical baggage, spiritual weight that can crush a Mage long before he ever reaches Ascension.
Your Resonance type is based on your Avatar Essence. Thus, there are four types of Resonance: Dynamic, Pattern, Primordial, and Questing.
- The Mage is driven towards change and motion.
- 0-3: The Resonance has no noticeable effect, although he may seem a little 'out there' at times.
- 4-6: The Mage begins to experience occasional hallucinations, small voices in the back of his head, and shifting shadows.
- 7-10: The delusions become more common, as the Mage drifts further into his own fantasy world. The Mage may touch things that others cannot see, walk through walls as if they weren't there, and climb invisible stairs. The Mage's emotions come to the surface, such as his teeth sparking and hair standing on end when he shouts. The Mage can begin to accrue Paradox without ever actively casting an Effect at this point.
- 11+: Past this point, there's no telling what might happen to the Mage. Perhaps madness... or true enlightenment.
- The Mage is driven towards protecting things, keeping them as they are.
- 0-3: The Resonance has no noticeable effect, although the Mage may seem reluctant to make major changes to the world around him.
- 4-7: The Mage likes things as they are, and works within the system. These kinds of Mages often use modern technology in their workings. They prefer reliable things – things that will work the same way, every time you use them.
- 8-10: The Mage becomes obsessed with minute details and cold facts, being unable to cope with change and wonder. He will do anything to prevent changes to his world – including attacking things that violate his worldview, such as dragons or Mages using vulgar magic. The Mage becomes slow and steady, perhaps taking on the qualities of steady things, such as rock-like skin which crumbles when he moves. The Mage can begin to accrue Paradox without ever actively casting an Effect at this point, and also start to become a font of Banality.
- 11+: Past this point, the future is unknown. A Pattern Mage may finally understand the world... or finally become unable to cope with it.
- The Mage is driven towards contemplation of life and death.
- 0-3: The Resonance has no noticeable effect, although these Mages can be a little uncanny, feeling ancient even if they are themselves young.
- 4-7: The Mage finds himself drawn to places full of life or death, such as cemeteries or forests, slaughterhouses or maternity wards. He may contemplate death often, and cut himself just to feel the rush of pain through him. Or he may become jubilant, filled with a celebration of life, taking joy at the simplest things in nature.
- 8-10: The Mage is filled with Jhor, the taint that comes with living too close to life and death. Plants die in his presence, and people are chilled by his passing. He is unable to speak to people without contemplating their death, and is unable to handle an object without attempting to destroy it. Perhaps his skin grows pale and death-like, or his scent becomes like the grave.
- 11+: Past this point, the path is lost. Perhaps a Primordial Mage gains mastery over life and death... or perhaps he simply finds the death he sought.
- The Mage is driven towards the completion of his goals.
- 0-3: The Resonance has no noticeable effect, although it can be hard to pry a Mage away from his goal.
- 4-7: Although the Mage may change his goals often, whatever he is currently pursuing becomes a burning fire in his heart. He has difficulty doing anything not directly related to pursuing his goals, even if it would be for the good of all. His goals at this point tend to get more elaborate and loftier, which makes his pursuit of them all the more frenzied.
- 8-10: The Mage chooses a goal, and pursues it until completion. He is unable to do anything whatsoever which is not directly related to his goal. Mages at this level often use Rotes which allow them to forego food and sleep, and pursue their goal night and day. When they finally achieve it, they feel no accomplishment, they simply start pursuing a new goal. This may not sound so bad, but such a single-minded Mage will find it nearly impossible to interact with the world around him. The Mage has difficulty speaking with people, always looking through them at the task ahead. His eyes may glow, or he may float above the ground, to show the immense passion flowing through him.
- 11+: Is it even possible to feel such passion for your goals? The path of the Questing Mage may end with inevitable self-destruction... or maybe his goals will finally lead him to Ascension.
It's not clear exactly what causes a Mage to gain Resonance, but possibilities include: serious injury, magical combat, excessive Paradox, traumatic events, contact with a node, learning a high-level Sphere, going into Quiet, or using an occult ritual, among many other possibilities. For the most part, Resonance will result from Paradox backlashes (see also: Paradox Flaws).