Dragon Age, Ma Vhenan: Magic and Me

Screenshot from my first playthrough of Dragon Age: InquisitionI’ve loved Dragon Age since the beginning, sinking a not inconsiderable amount of time into the first game, Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age 2 was a bit disappointing in comparison, having been rushed out and clearly suffering for it, but the story was still good. Dragon Age: Inquisition, however, has blown my mind. It captures my brain’s every spare moment, making me go back over everything that’s happened in all three games over and over again. I could probably rant for days about the complexities of the setting that this game has cracked open, and I’ll probably write a lot about it over the next couple of years, but today I just want to talk about magic.

How Magic Works

Dragon Age: Origins hooked me right away with its unique take on magic in what seemed, otherwise, to be a fairly cliche fantasy setting. The real world is connected at the metaphysical hip to a malleable alternate/reflective-ish world called the fade.

The doctrine of the humans’ Andrastean religion claims that the Maker created the fade first, with his golden city at the center of it, but he wasn’t really happy with his creation so he made the real world sometime later. At some point in the distant past, some mages went physically into the fade and supposedly defiled the golden city, turning the Maker away from humanity and leaving the city blackened. There is certainly a black city at the center of the fade now, impossible to reach but always visible.

The fade is populated by spirits, each of which embodies some aspect of the human condition. Positive-aspect spirits embody things like love, compassion, justice, and wisdom. Negative-aspect spirits, also called demons, tend to embody things like the seven deadly sins. Demons are constantly trying to get into the world of men so they can wreak havoc and that means most people aren’t really aware of their good counterparts.

Aside from dwarves, who can’t dream, the humanoid races all visit the fade during their sleeping hours, and it’s because thoughts and intentions shape and change the fade that dreams can get so strange. The average person’s connection to the fade is tenuous at best, but mages are more attuned to it. That is what gives them the ability to cast magic in the real world; their deeper relationship with the fade allows them to take the ability anyone has to mold a dreamscape and apply it to things that normally shouldn’t change so easily. Dwarves are the only race known to never produce mages since they have no connection to the fade at all.

Dragon Age: Inquisition screenshot

Unfortunately, their deeper connection to the fade makes mages dangerous — and not just because they can throw fire on a whim. They are inherently susceptible to possession by the demons that dwell in the fade and seek to enter the world of men. A possessed mage spells bad mojo for everybody, since possession doesn’t cancel out magical ability. And the more powerful demons can pass for a regular human for years. On top of that, mages who practice blood magic, using injuries and/or murder to boost their spells, can do some terrifying things and are feared by just about everybody even when they aren’t possessed.

The different cultures of Thedas, the only continent we’ve seen so far, all handle this problem of mage danger differently. Among the Dalish (nomadish elves who try to keep their ancient culture alive in spite of human dominance of the continent), they simply don’t allow more than three mages to be part of a clan at any given time. If a fourth mage is born, they are sent off to another clan who is low on mages or killed. The Qunari (whose strict socialist/communist honor code thing is a fascinating subject all on its own) are deeply fearful of magic and simply enslave their mages.

In the human societies of Ferelden and Orlais, the two countries we’ve visited thus far in the games, mages are segregated from the rest of society and live in Circles of Magi, where they are watched over by special, magic-cancelling warriors called templars. The Circles are a product of the Andrastean religion, whose doctrine proclaims that “magic is meant to serve man, not to rule him.” Templars answer directly to the Chantry (the church) and it has final say over the fate of the mages that dwell in Circles, be they human or elven (not all elves are Dalish; some live as second-class members of human society).

In theory, these Circles are a place where mages can practice their craft together without having to worry about hurting anyone else and the templars are there just in case. In some Circles, that’s how things work. Others, however, are basically prisons. It depends on who’s in charge of the templars at each Circle.

Then, of course, there’s Tevinter, another human country with a very different history and culture. Tevinter has its own branch of the Andrastean Chantry which interprets things differently. They still technically have Circles of Magi, but Tevinter is ruled by a body of mages called the Magisterium, as was true in the old days of Tevinter, and the Circles there are reportedly more of a quaint formality than anything. Not all Tevinter mages are Magisters, of course, but even lower-class mages are still not required to stay in Circles for all their days.

Now that I’ve talked about Dragon Age‘s magic in general, there are some spoilers ahead for Origins, Awakening, and Dragon Age 2, though I’m avoiding spoilers for Inquisition.

A World Full of Magic

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Even though it was the magic of the setting that grabbed my attention most strongly, Origins hardly revolved around it. A well-written cast of interesting characters caught up in petty squabbles and grand betrayals had to be dealt with before the Fifth Blight, a threat to all of the known world, could be vanquished, but I still left the game feeling like the setting was, ultimately, all about the mages and the fade from which their powers came.

Nothing in its expansion, Dragon Age: Awakening, did anything to disabuse me of that notion. Again, it had more going on in it than the magic-related aspects; creatures called darkspawn, the source of blights like the one that nearly got out of hand in Origins, were acting strangely and needed to be dealt with. But along the way I got two party members who gave me more insight into the status of mages in the world and the nature of the fade.

One was a mage named Anders who absolutely hated the idea of being forced to stay in the Circles. He just wanted his freedom. After all, mages run around free in Tevinter and the world is still here, right? He’d escaped the Circles seven times by the time he joined my party and the templars had gotten to the point of sticking him in isolation for extended periods of time as punishment.

The other was a spirit of justice who got yanked out of the fade during my travels and ended up inhabiting a warrior’s corpse. It didn’t become a demon, though. It remained focused on the pursuit of justice and joined me for lack of any other direction.

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Between Justice (it took its purpose as a name upon entering the real world), Anders, and their conversations with the other members of my entourage, I learned some cool things about magic, spirits, and the fade. One of those was that Justice could theoretically hop into the body of a living person, co-inhabiting it, and that if he did so, he wouldn’t want to take control the person as a demon would.

That turned out to be hella-foreshadowing for Dragon Age 2, in which we encounter and recruit Anders again, only to find out that he offered Justice a place in his head at some point. Unfortunately, they didn’t remain separate; they melded together and all of Anders’ pent-up anger about the Circles over the years warped his old friend into a spirit of vengeance instead of justice… one over which Anders had only so much control.

I’m still in the process of refreshing my memory about the events of Dragon Age 2, but Anders/Vengeance and the brutality of the templars at the Circle of Magi in Kirkwall turned out to be a bad combo for Thedas. Pressure built up between the mages and templars until the mages rebelled (Anders/Vengeance, of course, exacerbated the problem) and sparked a war between mages and templars everywhere in Ferelden, Orlais, and the collection of smaller states like Kirkwall that made up the Free Marches.

I felt like my long-standing belief that Dragon Age was really all about the mages was justified.

However

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Then, along comes Dragon Age: Inquisition. It takes place a few years after the end of Dragon Age 2, right after what was supposed to be peace talks between the mages and templars exploded. Literally. A gigantic hole called “the breach” has opened in the veil between the real world and the fade, right above what remains of the temple where the peace talks were to be held. The leader of the southern Chantry, possibly the only person who could have mediated an end to the war that was tearing most of Thedas apart, perished along with a whole lot of other people. At the start of the game, the only thing anyone knows about what happened is that the player character walked out of a fade rift at ground level after the explosion and collapsed, with a green light on their hand that pulses every time the breach gets bigger.

It was an auspicious start for my all-about-the-mages theory. And although I did learn still yet more about magic and the fade in Inquisition (turns out that good spirits only turn to demons in the real world because they are forcefully pulled through and bound to a mage’s will against their purpose, which is a terrible agony for them), it also proved to be the turning point at which the writers started showing us that all the loose threads they had exposed over the course of the series are actually caught up in some very intricate knots.

Magic is indeed tied up in everything Dragon Age, but I’m not sure that I can still say I think it’s “all about the mages.” The evidence we’ve seen in Inquisition points to all the events we’ve seen so far and all the lore they’ve thrown at us in codexes being thoroughly interconnected. It’s hard to say, now, where the magic ends and everything else begins because there don’t appear to be any borders anymore.

I am looking forward to spending the next few years examining Dragon Age more thoroughly then I ever planned to. It’s a masterwork of writing and storytelling that has developed over the course of years and I cannot wait to see where it goes next.

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