Dragons of the East – A Mage: the Ascension Review

Coming out in 2000, a couple of years after the Year of the Lotus, Mage: the Ascension finally formally expanded into eastern Asia with Dragons of the East.

Note that, as one might expect from a 14o-page supplement (aimed primarily at American and European audiences), Dragons of the East is probably best suited for having a group of more ‘traditional’ mages (or Technocrats) visiting the location – this sort of book just isn’t going to be able to cram a detailed understanding of mystical China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. That’s not a drawback, it’s just the lens I examine the book through.

There’s about 15 pages of real world history of the above-listed countries, with China and Japan having the most prominence (India is also covered in this section and Hinduism is covered as well, but the new mystical material doesn’t really touch on India/Hinduism, since the existing Traditions already touch on that part of Asia). Note that, as Dragons of the East is now almost two decades old, the ‘modern days’ material is going to be a bit out of date. That’s followed up by another 15 pages or so of real world discussion focused on the religious traditions of the area – Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto, and Hinduism. Both of these discussions are relatively shallow of necessity. However, they give a good summary for these purposes – it’s enough to let the reader place the mystical content within context (this becomes especially pertinent for the China material, since it’s represented by multiple mechanical ‘splats’ in the book, and some of those are tied to specific historical time periods and religious traditions).

The remainder of then covers that mystical content – one chapter on mystical history, the Akashic Brotherhood, and Chinese mages; one chapter on all of the other mages; and one chapter on east Asia’s Technocracy and Technocracy analogues.

The mystical history provides context for the interrelation between the Akashics (with a bit of information on five different sects), and two new crafts, the Wu Lung and the Wu-Keng. The Wu Lung is, generally speaking, the (Han) Chinese craft. Although it claims origins in the mythological Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors period, it has it’s ‘real’ beginnings in the warring states period (from around 475 BCE to 221 BCE). Most notably, this time period saw the development of a variety of philosophies that are still known today, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism (much less broadly known outside of China today, but highly influential within China). Their worldview includes the celestial bureaucracy, and their accomplishments included the ‘ascension’ of the man who would become the Emperor of the Yellow Springs (there are a lot of cross-references in Dragons of the East to other east Asia-focused titles, including Dark Kingdom of Jade). If player characters are running into Chinese mages from outside of the Traditions, they are very likely to be running into members of the Wu Lung – there are billions of people worth of cultural traditions to back up their paradigm.

The other craft, the Wu-Keng, are a much narrower concept. Their roots are older than the Wu Lung, going back to the religious practices that were more prominent in China prior to the warring states period (for example, the pyromantic ritual practice of oracle bones, which I believe gives us our earliest known information of any significance on Chinese history). However, the Wu-Keng have strayed from this concept – having been pushed aside by the Wu Leng, the Wu-Keng have effectively been reduced to serving as concubine-slaves to demonic forces. Dragons of the East tries to put a little subtlety in there, but they’re pretty thoroughly unsuitable as PCs, and narrow even as NPCs.

The ‘all the other mages’ chapter includes some very limited pages on non-Akashic Tradition mages appearing … but it’s mostly about how they don’t. Rather, this chapter mostly covers non-Chinese crafts. Rather than attempting to be pan-national groups (as the Wu Leng mostly are for China), these crafts are narrower in scope (some of them very narrow). From Japan there are the Go Kamisori Gama, who draw on ninja mythology.  Cambodia get the Toc Faan, who are cannibals – there’s a twist there in that some quirk of their demonic pact makes them more moral the more they engage in cannibalism (except they can’t stop or they’ll be killed) … but still, the Storyteller is really going to have to work to get a good fit for that into a story. The Tai Hoi Li are a craft that exists entirely in certain difficult-to-access parts of the underground tunnel systems created during the Vietnam War. The Sons of Tegri are (like the Wu Leng) something of a national craft, this time for Mongolia – like many crafts/traditions, they have taken a beating but are still in the game. They are a shamanistic, Spirit-focused craft.

Additionally, this chapter covers relationships between mages and other non-mage supernaturals. Of course, it isn’t going to substitute for having all of those other books, but it gives a solid, rough rundown (you can go buy everything about hengeyokai and kuei-jin and the hsien and the Yama Kings … but you shouldn’t have to).

However, I think that, aside from the Wu Leng (and some content for Akashic characters), the most useful chapter might be the last one, which covers the Five Elemental Dragons. These are a distinct concept from the Five Metal Dragons, which is just the presence of the five Technocratic Conventions. Instead, the five Elemental Dragons are sort-of the homegrown east Asian version of the Technocracy, although still far more respectful of cultural traditions. I think a good example is building that gleaming, high-tech hi-rise building – but making sure to build it in accordance with feng shui. There’s a bit too much “wise Asians pull one over on the oblivious, overconfident Westerners” here – the Technocracy seems completely unaware that the Five Elemental Dragons even exist (even as many Elemental Dragons are also members of the Technocracy). This is, however, to some extent an artifact of these ‘conventions’ being more likely to show up as NPCs – just as mages in China will have to deal with their counterparts in the Wu Leng, Technocracy characters in east Asia are likely to have to deal with their counterparts in the Five Elemental Dragons. And that’s probably a better story if the Technocracy doesn’t already have a deep file on them.

The Five Elemental Dragons are:

  • the Zi Guang (the Wood Dragons) – Focused on Life, the Zi Guang engage in large-scale Chi management, working with communities acting together according to plan and tradition;
  • the Saensaeng (the Earth Dragons) – Focused on Forces, the Saensaeng are based on traditions of honor and beauty – although much of the ‘convention’ resides in South Korea, it’s ideals are fairly consistent with what you might associate with the samurai and nobility of ancient Japan;
  • the Miao Guan (the Spirit Dragons) – The least technology-focused on the ‘conventions,’ the Miao Guan focus on Mind and their techniques are based on either meditative practices (for defense) or flat-out psychic powers (for offense);
  • the Taiping Tianguo (the Water Dragons) – This Entropy-focused ‘convention’ is the loose cannon of the Five Elemental Dragons, pushing ahead at any cost and willing to take risks;
  • the Zaibatsu (the Fire Dragons) – If the Saensaeng are associated with historical Japanese values, the Matter-focused Zaibatsu are based around modern Japanese corporate life and culture.

All together, Dragons of the East injects some solid east Asian focused content into Mage without trying to do too much. It’s very difficult to try to introduce an entire new set of mechanical concepts to fully cover an entire set of cultures, but Dragons of the East wisely sticks to a more limited presentation that can help bring a reasonable taste of the east to Tradition mages or Technocrats who have cause to leave their comfort zone. Some of the crafts are so narrow that it seems like it would be difficult to ever use them, but the pan-Chinese Wu Leng and the Five Elemental Dragons should provide a solid foundation of more generically handy concepts for the Storyteller.


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