PrologueMage: The Awakening opens with eight pages of introductory fiction. The story, written as a journal by a new mage, frankly left me cold. It was solidly written and helped to introduce the settings take on mages and mage society but it just didn't have the imaginative "spark" and tone that I've come to expect from White Wolf introductory fiction (see more about this at the end).
IntroductionThis truly begins the book. A single page of "flavor" story text (a format which is used throughout) is followed by an introduction to the basic concepts and themes of the setting. It also includes the ubiquitous World of Darkness Lexicon.
I've always found it interesting that White Wolf chooses to put the Lexicon in the front. I usually don't read it till I've read through much of the book. Back of the book might be a better place perhaps?
Chapters 1-4This forms the bulk of the book and includes:
Chapter 1: The Secret WorldThe background setting, which includes a link to a sunken island called Atlantis, has caused some controversy amongst Mage enthusiast. Personally it is as interesting as any other legend or myth that's been used in the WOD core books. My only problem with this section is that, like all the other flavor text, it is flat and not terribly fun to read.
Chapter 2: CharacterThis section details character generation and does a servicable job of it. On the surface the number of options presented to a Mage player are staggering but this section does a good job of trying to help the player focus all the detail down into a playable character. Like all WOD books it is probably best to go in with a solid idea of what you'd like to play and then find a way to use the mechanics to get there.
Chapter 3: MagicMage has always been known as having one of the most inventive magic systems in RPG's and that is still true with this new variation.
It is obvious that the game designers really wanted to make the magic system more accessible to newcomers,thus the game relies much more heavily on Rotes, written spells similar to most other RPG magic systems, as a means for begining sorcerers to cast spells. 134 pages are used to detail magical Rotes from the various Arcanua and I've found in play that this has helped a great deal to get the players "into" the magic system. It is easy to say, "You can do anything." It is much harder to figure out exactly what you WANT to do. Rotes are quick and easy for players to get a feel for what each Arcanum does and what they (the player character) can and cannot do with their given magical skills.
But Mage does not end with a simple list of spells. It is the Creative Thaumaturgy section of the rules, the ability of a Magi to cast any spell (if they have the appropriate knowledge) on the fly, that makes Mage - MAGE. The basics are - Arcanum level dictates what a Mage can and cannot attempt in spellcasting. Arcana can be used together to create greater effects. But what has been added is a workable system for increasing a spells potency, range and/or duration. Each of these factors can be modified by taking a penalty to the characters dice pool. As a liberal example, taking -2 to your dice pool could allow you to increase your spells Potency, the power of its effect, by 1. Let's say it was a spell that did bodily damage - it would now do 2 dice of damage instead of 1.