Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Magic In Design

So we have magic in D&D, and we have D&D's implied setting. We have a continuum of responses on how to reconcile magic and how it affects the daily existence of our fantasy constructs:

On one end, magic doesn't alter the fundamental fabric of an implied setting. This could be accomplished in a number of ways, but at its extreme, the affect of magic on the setting is completely ignored on the macro level. Society runs like our anachronistic notions of how medieval life might have been.

One justification here could be that magic has no net affect on the history and development of a setting. For example, Alexander the Great gets a Raise Dead on 323 BC, but a weak later an assassin hits him with a Disintegrate spell, so the whole affair is a wash. Or use any other justification one desires.

The other end of the spectrum, easily enough, is a setting that is devised, designed, and developed with the affect of magic in mind. For example, continual light spells function as medieval gas or electric lights, so work can be performed at night, leading to a more advanced industrial capability, etc etc etc.

Your mileage may vary, feel free to pick any point on that continuum. I hope this is all very obvious.

This campaign leans heavily towards the "no net affect" aspect of magic. I want to play in a pseudo-historical 17th century, so why would I want to drastically alter the social and technological fabric of the world? But I also want to play D&D, so magic is definitely in. So there's your justification for why I hate science. Or magic. I can't even tell at this point.


  1. "On one end, magic doesn't alter the fundamental fabric of an implied setting. This could be accomplished in a number of ways, but at its extreme, the affect of magic on the setting is completely ignored on the macro level. Society runs like our anachronistic notions of how medieval life might have been."

    I presume here that you are not making a remark upon how the presence of magic might affect science on Earth, but rather that you are making a statement regarding how magic has influenced science in your world. Therefore, this is a dogmatic statement about your world, and not subject to debate.

    My problem with this would be, then, my feelings that running in your world would be consistently frustrating and limiting. Over and over, my character would have conceptions about how another's behavior ought to go according to my understanding of human beings, only to be thwarted by the DM's reply, "Not in my world."

    I've played in worlds like this. I didn't get much out of them.

  2. Yes, everything I post to this blog is dogmatic to my world, that is the only purpose of this blog, to create a space for my world where I can solidify thoughts into text rather than have them float away. If anyone else wants to come through, take a peek and lift something, they are free to do so.

    Ultimately, it is all a selfish pursuit (Ayn Randian!) and an excuse for me to waste a few hours reading about the 17th century and pretending how cool it would be to run a D&D game based on those readings.

    I'm not offended that you don't want to play in this world; I can't imagine anyone else not named Anthony who would.

  3. I'm tempted to state that magic is simply a means to the same end as science, but that's an imposition laden with a level of bias that I don't think would bear objective scrutiny to your particular campaign setting.

    But consider: magic is a branch of knowledge based (albeit via esoteric application) on natural law. It's an expedient whose absence requires more manual effort through the combination of more mundane components.

    I can invent a substance called Greek Fire from naturally obtainable materials, apply some ingenuity to creating a distribution mechanism, and figure out the mechanics of making it safe for me but dangerous for my foes. Or I can use a fireball.

    It's a sort-of "get what you pay for" trade-off. You can arrive at a certain effect by putting in a lot of elbow grease and sweat equity. Or you can learn to point your finger and get the same result, but the effort is astoundingly esoteric and random (and therefore known to only a handful and mastered by even fewer).

    If the magic-way of doing something represents a sufficiently divergent path from common-sense knowledge of natural law, it follows that it would be supplanted by more mundane (though easier-to-grasp-and-improve-upon) conventions. So it becomes easier to invent gunpower and give your every soldier in your army an arquebus than it is to teach them all how to cast magic missile.

    But that's just one possible rationale. I don't want to presume to tell you how magic should be in your campaign.

  4. Here's a model of magic that would not impact scientific progress: the mystery cult.

    In our own history, magic has fallen into three general categories: illusion (eg stage magic), early science (eg the Baghdad battery) - and theology (eg gnosticism or yoga).

    There was of course much overlap.

    If we look at mystery cults like Mithraism, Zoroastrianism or the Cathars, we have a model that works nicely for a non progressive magic.

    Firstly the cults themselves are secretive. Only those initiated into the mysteries are allowed access to the knowledge. And then they only get higher knowledge as they advance in levels (oh ho!). Only someone at the master level would have been taught enough of the previous learnings to start making inquiries of their own. (They become become grad students!)

    Second feature of mystery cults: gnosis. The concept that some knowledge can only be gained by one-to-one contact with the divine, or some kind of enlightenment. This knowledge by its nature cannot be transfered from one person to another. All that can be done is guide a student to maybe achieving enlightenment on their own (c.f. Buddhism). In most relevant faiths this state tends to result in a lessening of interest in the mortal world.

    (Right there we suddenly have a model of magic which does not alter the fantasy world in terms of inquiring minds - it will alter it in totally different ways of course. We also have a wonderfully flavorsome backstory for wizards and how they operate.)

    These feature are important because: the progress of civilization depends not just on one person making a discovery - it depends on the ability to share that discovery, for it to spread. One reason why the Renaissance happened was because of the number of different peoples working together in cities and the new systems that allowed spread of information.

    Scientists need a forum. Each generation needs to learn from records made by the previous generation, in order to build on top of them (Jack Cohen used the word "extelligence"). This cannot happen when knowledge is closely guarded.

    I highly recommend the book "Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation", by Steven Johnson. It has a lot to say on this subject.

  5. Nearly any and all interpretations can work in the right application. What Erin mentions is probably how it will look (at least at this early stage in design), but I am not going to try to presuppose any laws on magic outside of what the rules already state. I think the rules for magic work just fine and they can be safely compartmentalized away from the historical aspect of the game and into the meat and potatoes part of the adventurers on adventure. If/when I wanted to expand and integrate interpretations of magic, Dan's ideas might work well to provide lore without compromising the aforementioned compartmentalization.

    In the end, I've chosen a weak interpretation (no net effect) because I want to highlight the campaign's hook, historical adventuring in the 17th century. I would hope the end product does function according to conceptions of human behavior and natural 'law', but through the lens of the 17th century.