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Tabletop Meditations #8: Magic

Magic in RPG’s can be approached in one of two primary fashions by the game system itself. These tworpg theory - magic ways are essentially defined as Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic. The latter, Technology as Magic, starts in the known, the audience already has a fair idea of how it works, and works to create mystery by obscuring the knowledge of the audience of said technology with the ignorance of its characters often substituting mystical names for technological terms. Magic as Technology on the other hand, begins with the unknown and has to strain to quantify magic as technology using its own mystical terms. Basically one simply obscures known machinery and the other tries to construct said machinery from a fuzzy set of its own rules. It is from these core ideas that each builds its atmosphere and all other aspects of its magic.

In the context of TRPGs (Tabletop Role-Playing Games) this means that the way the rules that govern the magic system and the flavor of that system will be dependent on which core idea it’s using. Fantasy TRPGs need a rule-system whether this system integrates certain aspects of the game such as magic into the core system or uses a separate more modular approach the system will have to deal with magic using rules. Essentially in fantasy-gaming the ill-logic of magic is logically structured.

“Fantasy was accompanied by strict rationality: players followed complex rules laid out in dauntingly thick rulebooks. […] This combination of logic fancy was pursued in the name of modern enchantment, as players imagined themselves as heroic warriors, clever thieves, or subtle mages exploring a mysterious world teeming with adventure and danger.” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press.101]

Rules are a necessary logical component, the ‘hard’ bits of a rule system as opposed to the soft, which places RPG fantasies and thus RPG magic into an awkward place where it is required to maintain a careful balancing act between mystery and being ‘workable’ (in game terms). This of course affects play in a fundamental way as well as how the Game-Master (GM) and players may portray magic in character within the confines of the game world. When using magic that works from principles already well-known to the participants out-of-game, or at least has that feeling of mundanity to it, magical abilities and spells are less a subject of wonder and taken more for granted with certain types of players using their meta-knowledge to quantify every bit of magic they come across sometimes to the detriment of the game.

These types will attempt to pierce the veil and remove any unknowns they stumble upon especially when confronting opposing magic-users ferreting out potential weaknesses and gaps in their mystical abilities which they or their companions can take unfair advantage of. If done from within the game with characters that are supposed to be knowledgeable in such situations this is in fact a good thing though a clever GM may be able to counter such meta-gaming if they know their players well enough.

I am of the opinion that using the Magic as Technology approach is the better choice regarding TRPG magic systems. Science as magic drains magic of all of its, well, MAGIC. As science provides technological explanations built right in, it does provide a suspension of disbelief but it reduces, greatly, the air of mystery that magic should have hovering all about it. What I mean by that is when working a game from the Technology as Magic angle you start at a well-defined and completely known place with little or no pall of mystery hanging over magic lacking an element of the unknown to it.

When you start in the reverse position, Magic as Technology, you start in the void and have to work on ways to quantify it or give it shape allowing for a system designer to leave it ‘workable’ but also allowing them to leave gaps in non-game areas creating sometimes as a side effect (and with little added effort) the ‘fluffy’ bits.

When referring to ‘magic’, I am referring to the supernatural ability to make things happen whether they are seemingly scientifically impossible or not with ‘technology’ being the machinery developed from the practical application of science/knowledge; both in the context of tabletop role-playing games. Both technology and magic seem to want to arrive at the same basic end, make something that would’ve otherwise been without them impossible to happen.

However, each starts at a very different place. As I stated before technology starts within the known with results that will be repeatable with little variation and its effects with a definite cause distinguishing it from magic. Magic will have results that will be mostly repeatable (to make it usable within a gaming context) but with unpredictable variation and the cause of its effects might be no more definable than “it’s magic”. Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic are very different in concept and in execution.

Technology as Magic is the mistaking of highly advanced technology as magic basically best described by the famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It being the third of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws. Clarke’s Three Laws have everything to do with the ability to have vision beyond the limits of contemporaneous science and not using those current limits as the measure to gauge what is impossible. Proceeding from Clarke’s 3 laws magic, though it may be able to perform the impossible may still only be misunderstood technology.

The only thing left to distinguish it from technology, after disengaging it from sci-fi tropes, is the mystery of it, the apprehension of its dangers, and to wrap it in plenty of atmosphere. However, when dealing with technology even misidentified tech it is easy to predict that those studying it using scientific principles will eventually figure it out especially if those investigators are following the spirit of Clarke’s Three Laws, unless the investigators are prevented from probing its mysteries by certain social aspects such as superstition and religion especially when it comes to things forbidden or sacred. The discovering of the mysterious tech’s principles and mechanisms will push the boundaries of the current scientific knowledge throwing a big wrench into any ongoing campaign. Technology has predefined boundaries which must be pushed outward by investigation and experimentation.

“However, the unexpressed converse of Clarke’s “Law” has proved even more attractive: if technology looks like magic, could magic not have been misunderstood as technology?” [Clute & Nicholls. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 765]

A perfect example of Technology as Magic can be drawn from the fiction of Henry Kuttner and his 1965 novel The Dark World:

“And such minds, with their new powers, would develop tools for those powers. The wands. Though no technician, I could understand their principle. Science tends toward simpler mechanisms; the klystron and the magnetron are little more than metal bars. Yet, under the right conditions, given energy and direction, they are powerful machines. […] Well, the wands tapped the tremendous electromagnetic energy of the planet, which is, afterall, simply a gargantuan magnet. As for the directive impulse, trained minds could easily supply that.” [Kuttner, Henry. 2008 ed. The Dark World. Paizo Publishing. Bellevue, WA.  84-85]

Functionally within TRPGs this idea is very ‘easy’, the rules governing this false magic are the same as those dealing with technology only the terminology would need be altered to transform technological functions into pseudo-mystical terms which may carry some shallow sense of mystery with them. Within the game the characters may regard the tech as magic and may treat it with reverence and fear but eventually through simple in-game experience eventually they will begin to move from ignorance towards knowledge at least in the use of it and maybe even gaining basic repair skills when dealing with it.

Probably, sooner than the character the players will begin to recognize, if they hadn’t already, that the game’s ‘magic’ is just technology wrapped up in pseudo-mysticism. The game will inevitably move towards discovery as the players and thus their characters figure out what works, what doesn’t, and the how and why of it all. Technology as Magic will always move towards just technology throwing off the thin veil of fantasy revealing the game to be within the realm of sci-fi. Granted, this could come off as pretty cool the first time but inevitably players will feel the lack of mystery in that aspect of the game unless they are primarily interested in that genre.

The immediate advantages to this approach especially within the context of RPG’s are that the terms are easy to communicate, the game rules which deal with in-game tech will be doing double-duty needing only a quick reworking of terminology when dealing with tech-magic, and the idea has a potential ‘twist’ to it. As stated before this type of ‘magic’ is starting at a common and well-known place and so it follows that its terms are typically explicit right off the bat making it easy to communicate its ideas. This allows the ease of expressing descriptions and leaving a lot not said as it doesn’t need description.

This also leads to the ease of imagination; those involved can more easily picture techno-magic with less descriptive text. The game rules will be trim as there does not need to be a whole subsystem for magic only the system of rules meant for technology with some modification when it comes to the names for things and their functions translated into mystical sounding terms. It helps also to grant magic itself a little more believability up until the magic is revealed to be technology (the twist). Of course, this reveals the potential ‘twist’ of this approach to be somewhat hollow.

The ‘twist’ is a one-shot, after it’s been utilized that’s it, it’s done, the players (more likely just their characters) have discovered the mind-blowing secret to the game world and that’s it. So this strength is somewhat lacking and exists more as a bonus than a solid advantage of the tech-magic concept. Another major weakness, probably the most obvious in starting with technology and moving into mysticism is that any air of mystery is essentially shallow and the nature of any inherent dangers will already be known.

Magic as Technology is trying to treat something that cannot be decidedly defined within mundane scientific terms but can still be accessed and used with at least a fair amount of reliability to achieve desired ends. It only requires that parts of its system be known in order to be of use. This allows the impossible to be made possible and which works fairly reliably but it is not entirely clear how it works and any explanations will ultimately refer back to some ambiguous ‘source’ or power. It may provide obvious violations of scientific laws though it may also go along somewhat with them on occasion wherever it may lend credence to the magic in doing so that is.

Of course, a sharp Game-Master will know that if you introduce too many predictable scientific laws into the magic system then players will be quick to take advantage as those principles may be very familiar to them providing open and clear avenues for them to essentially ‘break’ the current incarnation of the game.

A perfect example of Magic as Technology in fiction can be drawn from The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud: “Adelbrand’s Pentacle … its extra lines and incantations double locked the door and forced you to remain for further orders. It was a complex magical formula that required adult stamina and concentration [.]” [Stroud, Jonathan. 2003. The Bartimaeus Trilogy Book One: The Amulet of Samarkand. Miramax Books, New York. Pg.80] In the Bartimaeus trilogy magic is treated as a science but there is always more to know and there is a long history and legacy of magic penetrating society.

Magic is definitely defined as supernatural (i.e. summoning demons to do your bidding much as in the Sorcerer Rpg by Ron Edwards) but magicians are specially trained through tomes and incantations to summon the demons who are the root of their power and a source of unpredictability and great danger (mostly due to their potential in being characters themselves and not just a mindless ‘source’; essentially NPC potential). The magic is given its own internal logic not logic based on science essentially being a technology of pure magic.

Functionally within TRPGs Magic as Technology is quantifying the functional parts of magic in terms that allow it to be manipulated in-game by the participants without revealing it in toto. It provides a mystery to be explored by the players’ characters in-game, it brings with it a sense of the mysterious which can be exploited by the GM, and requires only portions at any one-time to be known to be used.

This approach can have a certain risk-factor attached to its use that technology often does not have and even if it does that risk is still within known parameters whereas magic can have very random results when it gets loose. Just as well the GM can characterize the vagaries of magic as well as perhaps the universal force of magic itself sometimes almost as a character in and of itself though fairly vague on most, and hopefully the most strategic, points of its existence leading to more of a ‘sense’ and feel rather than anything that can be easily pinned down (i.e. the fluffy bits). Its boundaries unlike those of techno-magic are not well defined and most certainly lack the comfort of the familiar.

It will defeat the meta-knowledge that players can bring with them unless they’re already familiar with that specific system of magic though if it is well-designed there will still be blind-spots and risks that they may have still only a vague idea of. It not only allows but demands exploration not just in-game by the characters but also within the meta-game by the players and the GM. They will need to experiment, probe, quest, and explore discovering its advantages and sometimes suffering its strange consequences.

All of these are great advantages in the realms of game and the fun found therein. The malleability of Magic as Technology prevents those characters in command of its power of having too much power in that their knowledge can’t be all-encompassing, they simply can’t know all there is to know about magic. It allows more flexibility for the GM to work their ‘magic’ on the game. This great fluidity is also a part of this idea’s inherent weaknesses.

The weaknesses found with starting in the unknown is that one has to struggle to quantify the ‘workable’ bits without revealing/defining too much and that an entire mystical system may have to be constructed in order to lend more functionality and believability to the magic which may move towards Technology as Magic if it is over-defined. Examples of this can be found in the various strains of Vancian Magic systems with some lacking in arcane flavor others taking care to sprinkle in the proper measure of spice and mystery. Another potential weakness is the built-in mystery of this approach which is also the primary strength.

The mystery can be a disadvantage as it makes it more difficult to quantify it logically as a rule-set. In kind, in-game effects and other aspects may be hard to describe or the GM has to give more thought as to how to communicate it as there may be a lot of possible nuance putting more of a strain on the GM especially when firing off of the cuff. Also rules cannot do double-duty as magic requires its own separate rule system adding a whole other branch to the game system rule set. In fact, the magic system itself may branch out into different subsets of itself. This is also a part of its strength in that a branching magic system provides open terrain for the participants to explore possibly serving as its own adventure within an adventure in the hands of a good RPG writer and a skilled Game-Master.

Both approaches, Technology as Magic and Magic as Technology, strive to achieve desired results using means that are potentially ‘workable’ in-game. Also, both attempt to add believability to magic either grounding it in a realistic setting and/or defining it using mundane terminology (both being methods of Rationalized Fantasy). Both approaches hinge on certain questions of coherence and believability. Coherence in terms of RPG’s is definitely crucial in terms of codifying the logic into rules that can be utilized by the participants to help build their fantasy game world and being able to frame it within a certain rhetoric.

“Coherency is crucial to creating the ironic mimesis of the immersive fantasy. It is possible to create a world in which anything can and does happen. But if one does this, then it is impossible to make the characters questioning and extrapolating beings. In a fully immersive fantasy, the actors must be able to engage with their world; they must be able to scrape its surface and discover something deeper than a stage set. An ongoing example that can arise is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Because there is no system of magic, no sense of what each kind of magic can achieve, the choice of potions versus wand spells versus magic objects is frequently arbitrary and prevents planning- Hermione’s use of a transformation potion requiring the risky business of securing genetic material is one such occasion. One cannot but wonder why there is no safer, wand-based spell. There may be a reason, but as there are no rules, Hermione cannot make choices or argue her choice.” [Mendlesohn, Farah. 2008. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT. 63-64]

Believability is required by both works of fiction and RPG’s in order to assist reader/participant immersion. If something strikes the players as completely absurd or unbelievable it can throw them straight out of the game and anyone who’s ever played a TRPG can understand how hard it may be to submerge yourself within the fantasy in the first place when you’re surrounded by interesting people. Basically, suspension of disbelief is as important to roleplaying as to fiction.

However, Technology as Magic has limited but ‘push-able’ borders, the other, Magic as Technology, seems boundless. Technology as Magic has to have the veneer of mystery applied to it, the other must be pulled out from the shadows and with some effort but which reveals only that there is more to discover. One works from well-defined and known principles and the other comes from the swirling ether of the unknown.

Magic as Technology has the advantage when referring to player exploration and mutability, and makes it easy to establish mystery even dread for the consequences (either known or completely unforeseen) which outweighs the disadvantage of the difficulty when converting it into a codified magic rules system. TRPG magic systems should have a set system which can be converted to rules and have the ‘workable’ hard-bits for the benefit of the participants but there should be enough grey areas or ‘mess’ allowing the GM some nuance and leave a sufficient level of discovery to the players. The rules themselves shouldn’t be too-complex nor be overly-defined trying to sharply define every aspect of magic though well-defined rules for magic do not necessarily stand to demystify magic either.

“It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” [Pratchett, Terry. 2004. The Wee Free Men. Harper Trophy]