Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Problem with Magic


The name, almost literally, conjures up certain images for us. Certain assumptions, certain expectations, and certain dreams. Gandalf and Merlin. Ged and Elric. The enemies of Conan and allies of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. From Harry Potter to Harry Dresden. Even Old Ben Kenobi plays the part well.

And, yet, RPGs seem to consistently fail to capture the mystique and majesty of magic. It is a list of powers, a bit of extra book-keeping, and a pain in the ass to balance. Why is this? Well, it's very easy to lay the blame at the feet of D&D. (And, admittedly, I tend to more often than I care to admit.) After all, they took one specific archetype that is quite deliberately unusual ("Vancian" magic), and then very deliberately devolved it into a system of rules suitable for miniatures combat. It was then re-evolved, if you will, into a system suitable for a true RPG. Mostly.

However, much of the problem is actually endemic to the role-playing game. The nature of what makes for good fiction, what makes for good religion/science, and what makes for a good game are all quite different. As a related note, there is precious little fiction that describes actual magical traditions in a true and realistic fashion. Real magical traditions, much like real science, real economics, or real politics, are either too tedious, too complex, or too subtle to make for exciting and accessible conflicts. However, that doesn't mean that many authors aren't capable of capturing the feel of a given magical tradition, even if the details are off. So, similarly, we'd like an RPG that captures that same feel.

Magical Mystery Tour

One of the first hurdles to overcome is mystery. In both fiction and reality, magic is very deliberately mysterious and poorly defined. It is not always consistent, and is not always reliable. Even traditions and depictions that do have intricate rules are usually exceptionally complex. An RPG, however, needs a clear, concise system. It doesn't need to be reliable. However, in my experience, unreliable magical systems are often extremely frustrating to the player, which runs counter to most design goals. So, we end up needing a list of "spells" (or some equivalent), specific conditions under which they do and do not work (or at least a clear way to calculate the probabilities of them working), and a relatively simple system for telling us how many "spells" can be used at a time. This generally ends up being well-known to most of the players, for fairly obvious reasons. Having clear, concise, well-known rules for magic really undermines any mystery it might be shooting for.

Along with the mystery of how magic works, RPGs tend to erode any mystery of why magic works. Setting information will almost always detail where magic comes from (in more or less detail, depending on the designer). It is very rarely left completely unspecified. This is for good reason. For the GM to make reasonable calls about the effects of and on magic in unusual circumstances, it helps considerably to know just what magic is. However, this knowledge very rarely stays with the GM. Some players will read the details because they are playing mages, and have some "need to know." Some players will read the details because they also are, were, or are planning to be a GM for the setting. Some players will read the details because they are just so fascinated by the setting that they can't help devouring every detail they get their hands on. Some players will read the details because they are dicks, and are looking to gain some advantage. Regardless of the reason, players end up with knowledge that their characters don't have. And, no matter how good a player may be at separating OOC and IC knowledge, simply having the knowledge at all erodes or ruins the mystery.

A Balancing Act

Magic, in fiction, is rarely "balanced." Gandalf is, quite simply, more powerful than any other member of the Fellowship. There are always counter-balances in the story. The wizard is restricted by his knowledge of consequences, or the magic is tiring, or is too slow. But, inevitably, the wizard is a peer with kings, champions of the realm, or, in some stories, servants of the very gods. It is hard to keep these paragons of wisdom and holders of dark secrets on a level with regular soldiers, let alone a band of outcast misfits destined to save the world.

To be honest, a fictional wizard's magic is also a plot device, to be used at the whim of the author. In an RPG, you cannot exert the kind of fiat control that an author has. Sometimes, it may be cool for a wizard to light his pipe, or even the candles in his room, with merely a thought. When that same thought is turned to burning through a rope to drop a chandelier on the enemy, it may be inappropriate. An author simply chooses to have the wizard not burn through the rope, and resolves the scene in some other way. A GM does not have that luxury. He needs to have a reason to give the player, so that the player will opt not to burn through the rope. Again, limits must be imposed, limits that generally are not present in fiction. And, further, those limits may end up stifling other cool actions, such as the wizard escaping from being tied up by burning the ropes. The flip side to this, as well, is that the wizard is often, even in character, simply a tool of destiny, there to lead and guide the hero. For reasons that are generally glossed over, a farmboy with a sword makes a better hero than a master of mystic might.

Years of Work for Moments of Wonder

A fictional wizard does a lot of his action "off screen." He spends years honing his craft, and making enchanted items to assist him. He sets up wards on his house, and spends hours engaged in divination to see the threads of fate around him. Then, when the moment calls for it, he is prepared to act in a decisive and powerful manner. (And, in truth, this is how most real traditions function as well.) In most "traditional" RPGs, this kind of action is extremely hard to model. "Downtime actions" are hard to regulate, hard to track, and easy to abuse (and equally easy to under-utilize or mis-apply). More modern systems often resolve this by simply handing the wizard a batch of "script control" points. This allows the wizard to achieve the effects of precognition and contingency plans by retconning said plans. Simply adding the proper descriptive text ("Ah, yes, the bones told me that would happen.") adds the right atmosphere and mystery. But, such a system also tends to discourage more proactive applications of the mystical arts.

Wizards suffer from other problems as they make the translation into RPG terms. In fiction, they are often rare, and often chosen by fate, bloodline, or the touch of some greater power. This works well, as it explains why there is a wizard with a group of individuals looking to change the world. It creates problems, however, when a second wizard wants to join the group. The party either suddenly becomes a significant power bloc in the arcane community, or verisimilitude is broken as the supposed rarity is clearly no longer in effect.

The training of a wizard is a difficult thing. In both fictional and historical traditions, it takes a lot of dedication, hard work, and focus to bend the laws of reality. It also takes sacrifice. But, in RPGs, it is assumed that if you write "wizard" at the top of your sheet, all the rest of that is assumed. It is up to the player (and, in some cases, certain restrictions enforced by the setting) to bring the effects of a lifetime of toil to the table. It is a very rare system that assists in this process, beyond "wizards are frail and suck in combat, because they spent all their time growing up reading."

You Rush a Miracle Man, You Get Rotten Miracles

There are aspects to the actual casting of magic that become difficult to translate effectively. Ritual magic, particularly in real-world traditions, is a very lengthy process. A proper blessing (or curse) rarely takes less than five minutes, and often as much as an hour. Contacting the spirit world is often a matter of hours. The conceit of an incantation that can be tossed off in seconds, in the midst of combat, does not have many analogues that pre-date D&D. And, yet, requiring those kinds of rituals often means that the wizard is simply left out of combat. After all, he is frail.

The "combat wizard" as mobile artillery is also a conceit that does not have much historical or fictional precedent. A wizard's contributions to the battle were generally in the form of precognition, scrying, laying blessings upon the fighters, and healing them afterwards. Very traditional, but also pretty boring for the player of the wizard. And, even more particularly, extremely hard to model well in the miniature combat systems that shaped D&D, and hence most RPGs that came after. And, so, masters of the elements who were able to toss around fireballs and lightning bolts became the order of the day. As RPGs have developed, this concept of a wizard's role has stuck fast, and for good reason. It is, generally speaking, what the players want.

Taking all of these points into consideration, it becomes obvious that trying to duplicate the role and actions of a fictional wizard or historical practitioner is going to be an uphill battle at best, and most likely futile. The RPG wizard is simply a different beast, with different assumptions and needs shaping him. And, yet, it is not impossible to shape the rules and the play environment so that Merlin can still feel like Merlin.


  1. Ok, you've explained the problems articulately. What's the solution? Low magic settings help as they minimise the inconsistencies and maximise the mystery. The issue is as old as roleplaying and will take a better mind than mine to resolve. Ars magica might come close though.

  2. Heh, if I had the solution, I'd be publishing something much more interesting (and profitable) than an obscure blog in a dark corner of the internet.

    I have a number of ideas of ways to fix the issues. And, there are a number of RPGs out there that do a pretty good job at it. Ars Magica is an obvious choice. Unknown Armies does a great job of capturing the "mysterious" and "arcane" qualities. The original Mage game had a lot of great bits. Witchcraft, a forerunner of the Buffy/Angel/Unisystem system, tried very hard to accurately capture the magical traditions, but IMHO ended up sacrificing playability to do so.

    One of my primary solutions is to work to radically downplay magic in combat. First, make magic take longer and use involved rituals. Second, have magic be much better at divination, trickery, and protections, and less good at blasting things. Third, have magic last longer, so that a wizard is more concerned with being well-prepared than being quick on the draw.

    I also really want to find ways to bind magical ability to lifestyle patterns, the way Unknown Armies does. D&D tried to do a bit of this with spellbooks, material components, and memorization times. But, most players thought those were more trouble than they were worth, and skipped them. If you could find a way to make that sort of thing fun and engaging (and, ideally, customizable to distinguish one wizard tradition from another), you could go a long way to recapturing the feel of mysticism and reinforcing the idea that this power comes with sacrifice.

  3. I'll have to think about this.

    I've had some decently good experiences with the kind of ritual magic you're discussing, though I think having really tolerant GMs helped.

    Have you looked at the Dresden Files RPG's approach to putting magic together? They take a personal cost approach to 'casting, divide magic into immediate effect and long-term, and then beyond that into different fields, and cost based on the effect the spell will have (which could get around your "lighting the candles" issue)--and once you make sense of them, the thaumaturgy rules are downright fascinating. The one catch is that unless you want both parties to spend half the game with their noses in the books, there's a certain degree of ad-hoc involved.

    Part of the problem with ritual magic, I think, is also the difficulty of finding uses for it (particularly when the rest of your party is a bunch of impatient swordslingers). I was in a game once where my character used a hastily improvised ward (read: in advance, she tied a bunch of vines together and stuck them to the walls in a way that forced the undead to slowly tear through them rather than crawling under them like she could, then plinked them to death with her crossbow while they were disassembling the vines) to take out three undead, but it only worked because she was working in a specific place and fully expected to be attacked--from what I've seen with the average D&D game, most players would rather go to places and fight things than shape the battleground and then lure the opponent in to them.

    I'll have to think on this more; I rather like playing ritualist mages.

  4. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the DFRPG magic. I want to see it in action at some point.

    You have definitely touched on one of the issues of ritual magic. It really requires a whole different approach to the game to shine. The standard "kick in the door, kill the monster, find the treasure, repeat" methodology simply won't work with it.

    Another issue, of course, is that making all magic ritualistic means that a surprised mage is usually stuck with twiddling his thumbs or running for his life. That's one of the reasons that I would pair ritualistic magic with storing spells in items (like the petrification acorns from Willow).