In the mythic past, a mysterious island existed with a single towering mountain encircled by dragons which lived upon its summit, and its image called to sleeping humanity. Over time, the dragons left, and the mountain continued to call. Some humans answered the call and sought out the island to see what it promised them. The humans who moved there discovered the first secrets of magic, and through magic they created a mighty city-state that is now called Atlantis, though its true name has been lost to time.
However, mages were filled with hubris over what they could achieve, and created a Celestial Ladder to reach the heavens and attain greater mastery over the world. Once the ladder was finished and mages began to climb it, there was conflict over how best to lead the world. Over the course of the battle, the ladder shattered. This separated the Earth into the Fallen World and the Supernal Realm, with the chasm of the Abyss in between. The Fallen World is the world of the everyday, and mages have come to understand that it is a lie.
The Supernal Realm is the truth of reality and the origin of magic. It is ruled by the Exarchs, powerful mages who had successfully climbed the ladder and taken control of the Supernal Realm. The Exarchs wish to snuff out the memory of Atlantis and knowledge of magic so they will remain the supreme masters of reality. The Exarchs are more like god-like forces than human beings now, and they act on the mortal world through servants.
Resistance against the Exarchs is possible because of the Oracles, a small number (probably five) of Atlantean mages who also climbed the ladder. They each created (or maybe are) one of the Watchtowers, which are both locations in the Supernatural Realm and paths of magic. The Oracles use their Watchowers to call to humanity in the Fallen World, since Watchtowers are one of the few things in the Supernal Realms "visible" from across the Abyss. Each mage visits a Watchtower during their Awakening, and their magical abilities are forever affected by that journey.
Fragments of the organizations, artifacts and writings of Atlantis survive to the present day, and mages hope to use this knowledge to further their various causes, though as a whole they hope to gain a stronger connection to the Supernal and oppose the Exarchs' rule.
Mages ‘awaken’ to the ways of magic. It is unclear whether this is mostly accidental or as a result of a person's nature or understanding.
The process of awakening can be slow or fast, but there are two major ways in which the event may manifest: the Mystery Play and the Astral Journey. In both sorts of ‘awakenings’, the mage-to-be goes on a journey that culminates with them arriving at or in their respective Tower and inscribing their name upon it.
The Mystery Play is a waking dream, where the magical symbolism of their awakening is overlaid on top of the ‘real’ world. Other people, places and real world events mesh together until the Mage arrives at a skyscraper, a phone booth, a grove or some other place that represents their Tower and somehow write their name in both the physical and astral setting, such as a hotel ledger or a statue's plaque.
Astral Journeys, which occur when the potential mage dreams, are common to those who deny or resist the ‘awakening’. Astral Journeys feature strange settings, objects and people, in a full sensory experience.
- Main article: path (MTAw)
When a mage Awakens, his soul travels out of his body across the yawning chasm of the Abyss to the Realms Supernal. He is guided through the void by the light of a Watchtower with which his soul most closely resonates. The Watchtower and its surrounding Supernal Realm dictate a mage's path, and that path determines what sort of mage he becomes. Choosing one's path is often one of the earliest steps in character in Mage: The Awakening. There are also a number of "sub-paths," called legacies.
While a person's Awakening and his Path determine what sort of mage he is, that doesn't necessarily give him an idea about what it is he's supposed to do. To provide that direction and a sense of society, mages have formed expansive magical orders, some of which have traditions that stretch all the way back to mythic Atlantis. A mage that rejects a place among the magical orders is known as an Apostate.
- Adamantine Arrow
- Free Council
- Guardians of the Veil
- Silver Ladder
- Seers of the Throne
- The Mad
- Main article: Arcanum (MTAw)
The ten purviews of mystic influence, the Arcana encompass the entirety of reality. The five Subtle Arcana, those which influence things with roots in the Supernal World, are each paired with one of the Gross Arcana - the "material expressions", related to the Fallen World (mages' name for the mortal realm). Each pair forms the ruling Arcana of one of the five Supernal Realms, from which all Mana and magic are drawn. Since each Path's watchtower resides in a particular Supernal Realm, mages of each Path have a natural affinity for the associated ruling Arcana. Each Realm also has an inferior Arcanum, one with less power in that Realm, and which associated Path mages find harder to learn.
The Realms (and corresponding Paths) have the following ruling Arcana (in Gross/Subtle pairs):
- Arcadia (Acanthus): Time/Fate
- Pandemonium (Mastigos): Space/Mind
- Stygia (Moros): Matter/Death
- The Aether (Obrimos): Forces/Prime
- The Primal Wild (Thyrsus): Life/Spirit
- Main article: Legacy (MTAw)
As mages increase in mystic knowledge, they may craft their souls to join a Legacy. These Legacies bestow magical abilities on the member called attainments, which come Paradox-free. Joining a Legacy (or, with sufficient enlightenment, forming one) makes the character magical in nature as opposed to simply channeling magic.
The Legacies can be taught by certain orders or adopted by any member of a specific path.