Paradigm; it is the cornerstone upon which a mage builds their tower towards Ascension, and the chain that binds them to the earth below. As you bring your characters to higher levels of understanding, they will begin to discard their Foci when it becomes clear that they no longer need them. But why do they need them in the first place? Are they the only methods that work? In a sense we are taking limitless potential and filtering it through the characters limited perspective. The thing is, not every pyromancer uses fireballs, so the question is, “What makes them different?” Learning how the character sees the world around them is vital to guiding them through the story, but learning how the mage sees themselves will grant insight into how to run their Seekings. All of this will tie into the ways that a mage sees magic (or whatever they call it) and where it comes from.
Magic comes from within: This is one of the most popular ways to interpret power. My will shapes the world around Me. The blood of dragons runs through My veins. My desire manifests My intent. I am the sun, the source; I am Magic.
This lens can give you a compass to guide the character right from the start of the game because their magic will reflect the mage’s personality, drives, and weaknesses. When you and the player discuss the exact nature of the personal magic, ask how their magic “Feels “. How do they control it? What emotions were present during their Awakening? When guiding their perceptions, as mentioned previously, utilize the mages body as an antenna; the hair standing on the back of their neck when danger is coming, ringing in the mage's perceptions similar to a “Danger Sense”. These mages keep their magic close to chest as it can be a literal extension of themselves.
Magic comes from without: I have been granted power by another to fulfill their will. I draw upon the ancient ones that have chosen me. The staff I carry has been passed down to me and is the tool I use to change the world.
There are many Avatars who appear to their mages as gods, devils, angels, ancestors, AIs, etc. In some cases, they do actually share some history with the divine (or whatever); being a descendant of the nephilim, belonging to the bloodline of Zeus, or being the son of the man that created a too-complex digital world. If they’ve legitimately been contacted by some type of Umbral entity (a powerful spirit or demon, the ghost of their grandmother, an ancient warrior king) that can give the character a sense of connection, purpose, and direction in terms of their entire identity. The other worlds have a significant role to play with mages who seek power from outside themselves. Mages have built relationships with umbral entities long before the Gauntlet was formed. Just because it is more difficult to contact these entities in the modern era doesn’t mean mages have lost the ability to forge such connections. This can be as intimate as a personal relationship with the Divine, or as cold as syphoning power from the dead. Infernalists can find themselves bargaining for power from tyrannical patrons as easily as a shaman builds a relationship with local spirits. The Avatar can be the focus of this character’s story, or partnering with a powerful familiar could be something to explore.
Similarly, if a mage’s Avatar is just revealing itself to the mage as an angel, demigod, ghost, etc., there is no particular reason that they should know this to be the case. Even seasoned Hermetics and experienced Dreamspeakers do not interact with spirits lightly, and can’t rightly proclaim to be experts on such entities. This is an instance where Player knowledge and Character knowledge must be kept distinct and separate. A character may believe themselves to be gifted their power by gods, but all of this may just be “window dressing” for their own magical ability. As that mage progresses through their magical career and gains Arete, they would theoretically become more aware of the truth of their power’s origin.
Magic is a Science and an Art: The academic perspective would state that anyone can use the power if only they knew the secret names of things. The cosmos is a system that has rules and procedures that can be utilized. I know the correct gestures, symbols, and time to manifest change.
Both memorizing charts of planetary correspondences, and programing in Linux give the individual the understanding of a system. Once the system is understood one can utilize it. This lens views reality as no different, and encourages the player to seek knowledge above all else. This disassociation from the essence of magic can be expressed through failure as well. If the spell didn’t work it Must have been done incorrectly. A word was mispronounced, a line was smudged on the seal, the offering was not acceptable, and either way further study is required. Encourage the player to take plenty from the knowledge category, and suggest some secondary ones from the book. What do they know that the other players do not? Library and sanctum are great Backgrounds to take for this playstyle for the bonuses towards Ritual Casting alone. This academic mindset can take a lot of unique forms, and it seems to draw players who enjoy unique solutions game-wise.
Magic is a Journey: I'm just trying to figure this out as I go.
Some mages don’t get a mentor who swoops in and tells them how this whole magic thing works. Trial and error are the steps to take in understanding the universe; unfortunately error can be lethal at times. A “whatever works” attitude can be something that is developed because of this process and can leave things in a confusing mess for both the player and the storyteller. To keep you and your player on track remember the golden rule, “Have Fun”. With all the rules and depth of character that this Game can inspire keep in mind that it is just that...a game. If you and your players are not having fun then it’s not worth doing. If a player wants to explore the World of Darkness blind and develop their perspective over time that is okay! The NPCs that you create can be a source of inspiration for how they choose to develop as much as the rest of their cabal.
This guide is for helping you and your players get some sense of what paradigm is and how it will relate to your characters. This is by no means meant to be hard rules for your game. There is an extensive list of sample paradigms in the M20 core book to choose from but it pays to be involved in the process. There are times where you can find the perfect fit for a player, and others where it will be a mixture of existing perspectives that bring something new to the table.