"The Orphans' Survival Guide," White Wolf Games

Pros: Necessary information if you want to have an orphan mage in your chronicle
Cons: Shtick is waaaaay overdone! Minor case of multiple personality disorder
Rating: 3 out of 5

First published 1/5/1999
Previously published on RPGNet

“The Orphans Survival Guide” is “A Handbook for Rebel Magi in Mage: The Ascension.” It’s about mages who don’t follow either the Traditions or the Technocracy. Maybe they started out in one or the other and left (more properly called an Errant or Renunciate), or they were self-taught, or they were taught by someone who didn’t belong to either hierarchy.

Flavor and Style

This book has a shtick as big as the Eiffel Tower, and it waves it about in the wind as though it was the most important part of the book. It’s nice that White Wolf wanted “Orphans” to have a consistent feel, and I like the whole ultra-personal, street-bound idea of a game, but it’s over-done. Sometimes more is less, not more. While I appreciate the author’s desire to get across the brutality, dirt, degredation and disgust of life on the streets, it gets to be a bit much sometimes. I don’t think there’s anyone who would call me squeamish, but there are things in here I just didn’t need to know in that much detail. If people are too disgusted to finish reading your carefully-crafted paragraphs on the effects of dumpster-diving on people’s digestive systems, then what good have those paragraphs done?

For flavor and style, stick with later chapters rather than earlier ones. Especially Chapter 5, “When the Fire Starts,” the chapter on Storytelling an orphan chronicle. It may get a bit in-your-face, but it does it to make a point, not to wave its shtick around. There’s a difference.

Living on the Streets

Not every orphan mage lives on the streets. Not that you’d believe it to read this book, of course. I think there’s one orphan in the templates who truly isn’t a part of street society, and one place in the chapter on locations that may cater to non-street-level mages. Luckily when you get to the Appendix section on popular magickal styles, you will find that some of them lend themselves pretty clearly to non-street-level mages.

I agree that many orphan chronicles should be set on the streets, just because it’s more interesting there. I don’t agree that they all should (and that’s essentially what’s said). Be creative, guys. If you had an entire chapter on the Hollow Ones, then you should have had one as well on non-street-mages.

Oh, and some concepts get very repetitive, especially toward the beginning. Yes, we know that survival is the hard part. You’ve already told us that a dozen times.

Advice to Storytellers

Chapter 5, or “When the Fire Starts,” concentrates on advice to Storytellers. For the most part it’s a great chapter, and I’d recommend it even for Storytellers who don’t plan to run Orphan chronicles. There’s a fair amount of decent advice, with good examples.

This chapter makes the all-too-rarely-made point that being a mage does not necessarily mean being rich, or strong, or in control, especially if you’re an orphan. It stresses the human level of an orphan chronicle – these chronicles aren’t about travelling around the universe or fighting off hordes of nexus-crawlers. There’s less distinction between Awakened and Sleeper here, and I think that’s an interesting direction to explore.

Templates, Famous People and Useful Places

The Chapel Perilous, with its “hideous shambling things” beneath the basement, is a bit over-the-top. It is, however, nice that the subject of vampires as predators is adressed (here and earlier in the book); after all, the street-orphans are living in exactly the segment of society that vampires like to prey on. As for the Heights, it’s nice to finally have (by implication) a place involving orphans who don’t necessarily live on (or very near) the street. All of the locations have interesting ideas to them; I wouldn’t use any of them unchanged, however.

The template chapter makes the point that not all orphans are goths. Hallelujah! The Wall Street Wizard, a non-street-orphan, is nice, but none of the templates are incredibly brilliant.

Some of the “Noted Shadows” (famous orphans) were fun. There were a number of plot hooks left dangling, which is the meat and bread of some Storytellers; it would certainly make the characters easy to work into a campaign. The wacked-out former MiG is a great idea, but a few of the details really need better explanations (for example, if a dead Man in Gray is going to help rescue our newly-Awakened MiB from the NWO before they can reprogram him, the author should **** well put in a word or two about why. Just because a MiG is dead doesn’t automatically set him against his former loyalties.). Also, the millenial Y2K plot has already become very, very old, and waaaay too out-of-hand. I already saw this plot in the tabloids, and it certainly didn’t deserve the better part of 2 pages in a White Wolf book.

The Hollow Ones

Enough with the name-dropping already! This chapter is worse about dropping the names of historical figures than a weekful of the most outdated plot threads on alt.games.whitewolf. I do, however, like the fact that the Hollow Ones are painted as being fairly screwed-up. Not only do they have their cliques and rivalries, but they’re fairly prone to going Marauder. The description of what the Hollow Ones do to traitors was pretty ho-hum until it got to what they did to the technocracy infiltrator. But, seriously, all Hollow One avatars have wings?? Nice image, but…it’s predestined that you have to join the Hollow Ones, or will be forever excluded from them, based on whether your avatar goes for the feathers look or not? That seems to go directly against the fact that membership in the Hollow Ones seems to be based more on social status and attitude than on anything else.

Mage as Mage, vs. Mage as Person

“Your senses are your best weapon.” Take that, everyone who thinks that a low-level mage with only level one Spheres is useless! It just isn’t so – unless you’ve created a mage who is only a mage. Mages were people before they were mages, with likes, dislikes, hobbies, and professions. If your mage is good at other things besides magick, then it won’t matter that they aren’t Masters of their craft yet. And level one sensing effects can be very useful indeed, as this book shows. Rah!


Bits of fiction pepper this book, both at the beginnings of sections and chapters, and within the information narrated to the reader by various characters. They’re beautiful. Gorgeous. The story at the beginning finally, after three years of playing Mage, really brought home to me what the Awakening is like.

The Magick

On this subject, this book has a minor case of Multiple Personality Disorder (not nearly as bad as the one in Wraith’s “Renegades”, thank goodness).

I like the “magick must be special” concept. It isn’t whether you do the right ritual – it’s whether it feels like you do the right ritual. Orphan magick is rarely huge and flashy. But the idea that orphans all find their magick by instinct, and thus have a clearer perception of how magick works (“our kind have always seen the arts within the Arts”), is overstated. Yes, I imagine this would happen on a regular basis. But not until a much later section of the book (presumably written by a different author) is it addressed that orphans might also follow established belief systems (black magic, Paganism, Voodoo, “wishcraft,” etc.). Just because an orphan suddenly finds herself being able to do unusual things doesn’t mean she won’t think it’s spirits working through her, or devils. Heck, some orphans are even budding technomancers.

Now, I like the section in the Appendix detailing common uses for various Spheres on the streets. I didn’t like it when one of the “narrators” brought up the Spheres and lectured on them, even if by other names. I suppose it was necessary to address them, but I really liked the concept of seeing magick in terms of what it’s needed for, rather than a bunch of abstract Spheres. There’s all sorts of possibility for unusual world-views when the characters have never heard of Spheres. What about an orphan who has learned how to heal but has no idea that shape-shifting might fall under the same realm of ability? I very much enjoy the abstract Spheres concept, but I didn’t want to see it in this particular book.

It’s nice to see magick not always viewed as a tool or gift. Sometimes it does what it wills, not what the mage wills, especially if you’re an orphan without benefit of formal teaching.

The handful of rotes provided in the Appendix aren’t particularly startling, but they are good, basic things appropriate to the living-on-the-streets orphan. They will certainly come in handy.

All in All

I’m glad I bought this book – but then there’s an orphan mage in my future. It’s indispensible if you want to run an orphan chronicle; it’ll make you answer questions you didn’t even know to ask about your character. It’s well worth the $16. Just keep your eyes open for the stuff you’ll want to trash or rewrite, and if you’re planning on reading it for fun, then the attitude might get to be a bit much.

Posted in Gaming, Reviews

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