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October 18, 2005

Magic and fantasy

Mash: "Any sufficiently coherent magic becomes indistinguishable from technology."

Which can be a bad thing, or if well handled a good thing.

Chris Gardiner speaks dismissively of the "magic as energy science" syndrome, and points to Mark Oakley's Thieves & Kings as a sensawunda-based alternative. Thieves & Kings-style magic meets Mash's wish for "that dream-like quality" with bells on, and if made available to players in a RPG would undoubtedly also realise Mash's fear of "alienating your players through a too-strong sense of dislocation between what they try and what happens."

How do we reconcile the wish and the fear? Basically there are two methods: neutralise the fear, or scorn the wish.

Neutralising the fear means creating a fantastic, narrative-oriented atmosphere within which magical elements can be quantified and given a cause-and-effect relationship. An example of this is White Wolf's Werewolf, where magical effects are the gifts of spirits: spirits who are intelligent and independent, and must be negotiated with and won over in order to obtain their favour, and who may prove capricious or contrary. The rules put some quantities around this narrative, and in my experience the narrative and rules work well together to build an animistic, otherworldly feel while giving players a clear connection between investment -- both mechanical and in-character -- and results.

Scorning the wish means creating a world that is predictable, but based on fantastic assumptions, and those fantastic assumptions are interesting and atmospheric enough to retain a sense of difference even in the face of the Reverse Clarke's Law. Those who studied magic during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not searching for some "dream-like quality where you can't be sure of... cause and effect." That's rose-tinted modern fantasy. The real magicians were energy scientists. They wanted to figure out how to cure warts, or raise the dead, or transmute lead into gold. They wanted recipes that worked! They wanted cause and effect! But that doesn't mean hermetic or mediaeval magic texts lack atmosphere: far from it. Read Kieckhefer, read around Bacon and Dee, read the Victorian revivalists like Waite and Crowley. The failed sciences bleed atmosphere.

(There are other strategies. I've gone with Mash's assumption of a "physics engine" style of RPG system because that's my own preference. In a "narrative style" RPG system, physical cause and effect are put in service to a higher level narrative resolution, and "dream-like" magic becomes manageable.)

But what's wrong with this picture? We're conflating fantasy and magic; specifically, we're conflating fantasy with magic in the hands of player characters. Mash contrasts "magic in D&D... merely a mechanical tool, like a sword" with "the Green Knight [embodying a] sense of arbitrary fate." Well, hey, if you want dream-like qualities or a sense of arbitrary fate, I have a Vietnam scenario to sell you. Or Heart of Darkness, or whatever. Or come to that, I can run you a game in the spirit of the Odyssey or Argonautica, something which is explicitly fantastic but where magic never has to be defined by energy-science laws because the magic is never allowed into the hands of scientific-era players. It's okay for NPC-only magic to defy player analysis when the magic defies character analysis.

So where are we? We don't need fantasy to establish a dream-like atmosphere. We don't need magic to establish a sense of fantasy. We don't need energy-science rules to handle magic. But, for certain energy-science rules, we can have rules and retain a fantastic (but probably not dream-like) atmosphere all the same. Fantasy, magic and dream are orthogonal.

Ladies and gentlemen, I now call upon Mr Nigel Evans to present his famous exposition on the distinction between magic and spellcasting.

October 18, 2005 in Games | Permalink


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I presume you've encountered White Wolf's The Sorcerer's Crusade, where science is thematically cast as just one amongst the several strands of magic? They go at least some way down the track you suggest with "The real magicians were energy scientists."

Looking again at that post, I noticed a couple of interesting anomalies myself, forming the nascent core of yet more lengthy discussion to come. :)

Posted by: The Aforesaid Mash at Oct 19, 2005 1:17:31 PM