Thursday, July 9, 2020

(M: tAs) Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers

The new batch of Tradition books all trend in the same direction - towards making the various Traditions more and more vague. Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers is the first time this has felt like an unambiguous improvement. The Dreamspeakers were already the vaguest of the Traditions, and while they're even vaguer here, the additional level of abstraction does manage to mitigate the racism behind the group's conception. Now that you can be a Christian theurgist or European pagan, the Dreamspeakers are less "miscellaneous brown-people magic" and more "miscellaneous magic, period."

Oh, perhaps that's a little unfair. The big problem the Dreamspeakers have is the Spirit sphere. The new unifying idea behind the Tradition is that they are the mages who believe in animism. It's a neat idea for a paradigm - everything is alive and by speaking to them in secret tongues and offering them respect and tribute, you can conjure miracles - but unlike every other paradigm in Mage: the Ascension, it is objectively true. There really are spirits out there and they can do shit for you if you ask politely. So, on the one hand, "petitioning the spirits" is supposed to be a mask for the regular sphere system - you want to start a bonfire, you whisper to the spark-sprites and ask them for a favor, but that's really just a Force 3, Prime 2 effect - except that there really are spark-sprites and you really can just ask them for a favor. Having Spirit 2 will guarantee that you make contact, but if you happen to see one out and about, there's nothing stopping you from asking, and maybe that will work.

It's not necessarily a problem that there are multiple ways to accomplish the same objective, but it's a little strange that one sphere is notionally versatile enough to replace the whole magic system. The redundancy was obviously an accident, because Mage inherited the Umbra from Werewolf, but that just highlights the problem - spirits are simply a fact of life. They are a magical thing that exists prior to and outside of belief, and thus are something that every mage's paradigm needs to be flexible enough to accommodate. That they can canonically do all the same things as Sphere magic is just a rules inconsistency.

But because every Tradition does magic that targets, communicates with, and controls spirits, the Dreamspeakers don't really have anything to do. They manipulate reality by talking to spirits, but they talk to spirits with methods that are redundant with other Traditions. The Dreamspeakers use ecstatic consciousness, they bridge the gulf between life and death, and whatever it is that the Verbena are doing, they're probably doing more.

In the words of the book, "The Dreamspeakers are well-suited for a game in which the PCs are the only recurring magical element in an otherwise mundane society." Which is both a stunningly good pitch and something that cuts right to the heart of what this discussion is all about. It's The Spirit Ways all over again. Dreamspeakers are just mages. Ultimately, what they do is nothing more or less than magic. It's a particular expression of magic, one that focuses on relationships and negotiations, where your spells are also characters, and thus it's not perfectly aligned with Mage's sensibilities, but it could stand on its own. It might even be better if it stood on its own.

That's kind of the paradox of the Dreamspeakers. Their Tradition book makes the persuasive case that they should exist even while it's also demonstrating the fact that they should not. "It is the only one of the nine Traditions where someone can be a fully functional mage without ever having a physical teacher."

Not only is that part of a weird runner where random people are seen to awaken as Dreamspeakers, just because they have an innate ability to perceive the spirit world, it also describes what should be a fairly generic mage concept - that seekers might gain mystical knowledge from gods, demons, and the ghosts of their ancestors. The thing where sensitive souls have intimate discussions with their household appliances is a solid idea, but it's hard to reconcile the quirkiest elements of the Dreamspeakers with the sacred ideas that are supposed to be at the Tradition's core. As a fantasy magic system, it works, but as a metaphysical position in White Wolf's game of philosophical squabbling it's shallower than what it needs to be. Ultimately, despite this book's good intentions, it's probably held back by the Dreamspeakers' racist origins. The original faction didn't have enough of an identity to keep it together, and thus the new, more culturally-neutral identity is not quite enough to make it a distinct faction.

One last bit of interesting new canon - Tradition Book: Dreamspeakers has reversed course on the Tradition's relationship with the werewolves. Before, they were on friendly terms because White Wolf drew a fairly straightforward connection between the spirit world and environmentalism and thus the hippiest of the new age mages and shapechanging servants of Gaia seemed like natural allies.  Now, the werewolves reserve a special ire specifically for the Dreamspeakers, precisely because they have so many overlapping interests. For their part, the Dreamspeakers think the werewolves have an overly narrow view of the spirit world and place too much importance on their own particular hierarchy. It's an interesting dynamic, but also a total retcon.

Ukss Contribution: There's an off-hand line about dealing with rogue spirits by chasing them "with a spiritual spear and pin[ning] it in some nasty part of the Umbra. That's an interesting bit of fantasy imagery that I think I can do something with.

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