Tuesday, April 28, 2020

(M: tAs) The Spirit Ways

What a ridiculous lifestyle I've chosen for myself. Now I've got to explain The Spirit Ways to you . . . Who's going to explain it to me, huh?

Oh, all right. The Spirit Ways is in many ways the best Mage book yet. But it's also the one that's most likely to get you punched in the mouth by an Aboriginal Australian, and it all comes down to the fact that Mage: the Ascension probably shouldn't exist.

Seriously, who told you that it was okay to make Mage, White Wolf? Where did you get the fucking gall, the absolute hubris to try and bring Mage into this world? Grr. . . Aghh!

(reminder that I actually really love this game - it's like having a cool party bro who also started a cult)

So what's the deal with this book in particular? Well, it sets out to describe shamanism in the World of Darkness, and it includes the line, "Of course we have reason to doubt if whites even have souls."

Don't worry, I'm not about to lay any sort of "reverse racism" conspiracy theories on you (but also . . . ouch), it's just, this book is loudly, angrily, and . . . imprecisely anti-colonialist (like, seriously, just let the native kids wear blue jeans and t-shirts - the problem with their treatment at the hands of the Brazilian government doesn't really revolve around fashion), which leaves me with an intense curiosity about exactly how white this writing team was.

It's on the right side of issues like colonialism and slavery, but then it says things like "[captured Africans were] being educated to the ways of the white man's cruel god." And wow. I'm not sure I'm even allowed to have an opinion on this issue. Yes, missionaries were a part of the European imperial project and the forcefulness and impropriety of their attempts at conversion were a major factor in the obliteration of native cultures, but also . . . that's the faith of their descendants you're talking about and . . .

I have no idea where I'm going with this. I guess it's just not the sort of discussion we should be having in an rpg book . . . right?

I don't want to tread into "keep politics out of my tabletop rpgs" territory. It's just that there are some issues that are so sensitive, so immediate, and so fraught that they deserved to be discussed openly and frankly, by people who know what they're talking about, not couched in clumsy fantasy allegory by a freelancer who did an admirable, but clearly insufficient amount of research.

I mean, if you're going to say with a straight face that "Australia can prove once and for all that such a situation is possible, white man living in harmony with his Dancing brothers" that's got to indicate that maybe you need to widen your net a bit with your sources (although, between this and Trinity's version of Australia becoming a haven for immigrants . . . maybe there was someone at White Wolf who was giving them bad information).

The Spirit Ways winds up recapitulating the original sin of the Dreamspeakers' creation by treating "shamanism" as a kind of globally homogeneous practice. And even when it acknowledges that the Verbena, the Cult of Ecstasy, and the Euthanatos all contain elements of shamanic practices, only the Dreamspeakers get it completely right (everywhere, all the time). It almost breaks out into self-awareness when discussing the Order of Hermes - "the distintiction between shamanism and religio-magical beliefs becomes a very thin line, often crossed" - but it never quite sees past the implicit racial coding in its descriptions.

So why did I say that The Spirit Ways might be one of Mage's best? Well, firstly, it's really not all bad. Aside from some painfully 90s-liberal blinders that lead it to describe Africa as "hell" (though at least they blamed the right culprit, even if they attributed it to "the West's rape of the Earth mother" and not "the IMF screwing them re: infrastructure funding") and Siberia as "paradise" (::shrug::), and a tendency to tread dangerously close to "noble savage" stereotypes, it mostly puts in an effort to be inclusive and respectful (even if it sometimes seems performatively so). For all that it acts like it can talk authoritatively about shamans on six continents, it also usually takes pains to remind the reader that practices vary.

(Though, the four things that all shamans have in common, according to The Spirit Ways - "Every shaman, bar none, knows how to play . . . the drum . . . knows at least one technique for entering the spirit world and exiting it successfully . . . is capable of healing at least a few types of sicknesses" - also, they all undergo a painful symbolic death as part of their initiation.)

But more than just grading on a curve, The Spirit Ways is genuinely fun, hitting a great balance between fantasy, horror, and intrusive mundanity. Shamans are just mages. Putting a pin in the colonialist framing of shamanism (which weighs heavily here even though the book tries to use that framing to establish an anti-colonialist identity for its heroes), all this book is really describing when it talks about intermediaries between this world and the spirit world, who make deals with divine beings in exchange for incredible powers is mages. When your definition of "shaman" is broad enough to cover 80% of humanity's territory and 90% of its history, it's not that much more of a stretch to just tip in the rest of religion and mysticism and call it a day.

And when you view The Spirit Ways as nothing more or less than a Mage: the Ascension supplement, then what you get is a guy who talks to a cockroach to save himself from cultists . . . and who receives that aid in the form of a swarm of cockroaches crawling down his throat to move his body around like a super-strong puppet. You've got a mischievous mentor character taking his apprentice on a sojourn into the spirit world, where wisdom comes in the form of riddles. You've got healers of sickness, both physical and spiritual, moving into the blighted cities (White Wolf really hates cities, for some reason) to become the focal point of new communities. You've got World Trees and strange drugs. And the thing where you can go on a Dream Quest to work large-scale magical changes on the world? That should be a mechanic instead of a rote.

Like I said, it's pretty great. Even if there are times I want to hide my face in second-hand embarrassment.

One last thing I want to mention - I'm pretty sure this book is non-canonical when it comes to the Celestial Chorus. It makes it pretty clear, several times, that shamans as a group hate the Celestial Chorus due to the damage Christian proselytizing did to traditional religious practices. But the books have always been really inconsistent about how much of that the Chorus was involved in (sometimes they are responsible for the Inquisition, sometimes they fell to the Inquisition). The Spirit Ways portrays them as the masterminds behind the western imperialist program of conversion, but that's a depiction that at odds with both their most recent material and what I remember of them from Revised, so for now I'm just going to call it an outlier.

Ukss Contribution: Mages can make a particular type of magic item called a fetish, which is basically a physical item with a spirit bound inside who may or may not use their powers on your behalf, based on a variety of factors. Most of the Traditions find the creation of fetishes to be needlessly cruel, usually because the more powerful sorts of spirits need to be forced or tricked into the items.

However, the Dreamspeakers make ethical fetishes by binding only Gafflings, the lowest rank of spirits. According to this book, they actually enjoy inhabiting a well-made fetish because they want to feel useful. I think that's pretty cute.

I'll probably drop the word "fetish," both for the obvious reason and because it feels a little appropriative, but there will be minor spiritual beings who make their homes in precious items and help out those items' owners from time to time. I'll probably call them Gafflings, even though the term is a bit broader than that in the World of Darkness source material.

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