Horizon: Stronghold of Hope is something of a high point of, well, hope for the mages of Mage: the Ascension, later effectively excised from the game as the Traditions “lost” the Ascension War and the more cosmic aspects of the setting were cut off by the maelstrom. But, using Horizon already means going back over two decades to when flip phones were cutting edge technology, Pokémon was first released in Japan (it wouldn’t hit the U.S. for another two years), and the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” was topping charts. So if you’re doing that, you probably don’t mind rewinding the clock a bit in-setting either.
Horizon was the original Horizon Realm – a stable world carved out of the umbra by the archmages who had just brought the Traditions together as a (semi-)organized group; a world where mages could be free to engage in grandiose magics without much to worry about on the paradox front. Horizon: Stronghold of Hope presents the realm as it enters a new spring – weighed down for centuries by political infighting, but with that stagnation about to be broken through by younger (though still exceptionally potent) mages.
Horizon opens with a 30-page in-character tour of the realm, visiting the wards of each of the nine Traditions, as well as previewing significant NPCs, the council chambers, and the political machinations taking place (including the interference of forces from the ever-jealous Doissetep, and how they were cowed).
After about 10 pages cover the history of the realm in bullet points, another 40 pages are dedicated to a more ‘objective,’ gazetteer-style description of the realm. While the in-character perspective provides more information on the feel of the Tradition wards, this section provides detail on everything else – the nodes that fuel the realm, the paths to get there, the guardians on the way, Horizon’s (pretty cosmic) magical defenses, the population (of the central mage-infused city, Concordia, and the rest of the ‘planet’ that’s part of Horizon), etiquette, practicalities (such as economy), and local cabals and their politics. Finally, about 10 pages covers stand-alone write-ups of major NPCs and magical guardians.
The art is standard White Wolf/Mage fare for this era. I’ll admit my preference for Vampire extends to the art, but Mage is just fine. At least, the art itself is just fine. I find it more noticeable these days that most of the art has nothing whatsoever to do with the nearby text – it’s Mage imagery, but it’s random Mage imagery.
A chronicle using Horizon: Stronghold of Hope probably focuses on mages who are new to Horizon (after all, the players are from Earth, not some cosmic magic realm, and there’s a much more interesting perspective change if the characters can be impressed with all of this open magic, instead of finding it humdrum). There will probably be significant politics because the primary story of Horizon entering spring is a social one – casting aside the old and embracing the new (plus I always thought it was missing the point to play in the World of Darkness without at least some significant social/political element of the plot). The second stage of such a chronicle could see heavier combat, as the unified (or, at least, more unified) forces of Horizon try to go on the offensive in the Ascension War, but the particulars of that would be an extension of what has happened in Stronghold of Hope, rather than something presented in the book.
There are suggestions for playing as archmages, but a lot of that boils down to how out-of-touch they are with human existence – the player-characters are better cast as the younger set. There is some crunch tucked in the back, as one might expect. But it is centered on the archmage level, leading off with methods for achieving (or at least approaching) eternal life and ending with level 6 spheres.
All told, Horizon: Stronghold of Hope fills a particular niche in the world of Mage. It’s a niche that has since been largely removed from the setting, but Horizon presents it reasonably well. Sure, there’s crazy magical stuff going on, but Stronghold of Hope presents ways for more ‘normal’ mages to be injected onto the scene and more traditional challenges before the magical big guns get unleashed (and it doesn’t require the characters to flit from realm to realm across the Umbra, personally invoking such potent forces themselves). All told, I find the more human storytelling of weaker mages on Earth to be more compelling, but some adventure in Horizon can make for a nice change of pace.