Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Whence Magic?

If you’re building a fantasy world, crafting the system by which magic will work is one of the earliest tasks to tackle. Anthony, over at of Pedantry, believes that magic and science don’t mix. He’s usually right, but it’s not always so. Magic, being utterly fictitious, can work in all sorts of ways, some of which are very compatible with science and others which are extremely not compatible science. Here follow a few broad categorizations of magic that I was able to think of off the top of my head.

The small man had tightened the slipknot around the pommel of his rapier and let the wire trail behind him, flexible as a whip. “I’ve grounded my sword,” he said. “Now any death-spell launched against me, striking my drawn sword first, will be discharged into the ground.“
- Fritz Leiber
Magic as science by other means: this is what most of us assume D&D magic is like. Wizards exert their exceptional intellects to understanding, binding, and commanding mysterious forces. This is magic as a sort of engineering of the mystical. It is easily compatible with science, and, in fact, will obviously overlap with that in many ways. Magic is just another force in the universe to be studied, like gravity, heat, or magnetism. It may retard science in some areas, since necessity is the mother of invention, but what science is done will almost certainly be practiced by wizards.

I learned—even before my waking self had studied the parallel cases or the old myths from which the dreams doubtless sprang—that the entities around me were of the world’s greatest race, which had conquered time and had sent exploring minds into every age. I knew, too, that I had been snatched from my age while another used my body in that age, and that a few of the other strange forms housed similarly captured minds.
- H.P. Lovecraft
Magic as super-science: it would seem that super-science would be most compatible with science as a magical system. That is true only if the culture at large grasps the principles behind your super-science. If instead you have a fallen culture, or a culture that has stumbled across the artifacts of super-science but doesn't really understand how they work, science and super-science can clash horribly. History is full of sound scientific principles that were just plain wrong. In the age of steam, it was assumed that the human body could not withstand speeds greater than 40 mph. Concepts that we today take for granted (the existence of germs, the principles of magnetism and the flow of electrons, the mechanics of combustion) were all at one point anathema to the cutting-edge science of previous days. The greatest wizards in such a setting would be those with the most rigid of minds, slaves to dogma and ritual which would yield predictable and consistent results.

“And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Magic as language: in Tolkien's middle earth the key to wizardly power is knowing how to speak the languages of the elements. Gandalf and Sauroman cajole mountains and rivers, beasts and insects to do their bidding. In this world, power is based on relationships and the natural world is not a thing to manipulate but an entity. As such, science must be practiced with delicate care and respect. Too close an inspection of any natural phenomenon risks invasive rudeness, and the last thing you want to do is cause offense to something as potent as the West Wind or Mount Doom.

”Sir Gareth, do not sound your challenge yet. Until noon the Red Knight’s strength increases, after then it wanes, so if you will wait for a little the advantage will be yours.”
- Mallory

Magic as fairy-tale logic: simple, declarative statements that are true. I love this sort of thing, because it gives players all sorts of hand-holds to fiddle with, as well as interesting challenges to overcome. The troll cannot be killed unless you stab him in the heart, and he keeps his heart locked in a chest hidden inside his tower. The prince will remain a frog until kissed by a beautiful maiden. The ring can only be destroyed by the fires of the volcano in which it was forged. While such magic is internally consistent, as Zak points out, it’s inherently unscientific. There is no why; the rules simply are. The best wizards have a bard’s ability to recall detail and a lawyer’s instinct for finding the loopholes. There’s some overlap with engineers in these skills, but it lacks the universal underpinnings of science entirely.

And Ouphaloc, seeing the great craft and evil in the starveling boy, gave succor to Narthos and sheltered him. He dwelt for years with Ouphaloc, becoming the wizard's pupil and the heir of his demon-wrested lore. Strange things he learned in that hermitage, being fed on fruits and grain that had sprung not from the watered earth, and wine that was not the juice of terrene grapes. And like Ouphaloc, he became a master in devildom and drove his own bond with the archfiend Thasaidon. When Ouphaloc died, he took the name of Namirrha, and went forth as a mighty sorcerer among the wandering peoples and the deep-buried mummies of Tasuun.
-Clark Ashton Smith

Magic as alien knowledge: sometimes, knowing too much is dangerous. If we assume that the human mind developed as a specialized tool for understanding the three-dimensional world which our hands and bodies can most readily manipulate, it stands to reason that truly alien realms might utterly confound it. Indeed, thinking in terms such worlds require might even damage our minds in the same way that using a socket wrench as a hammer could break the tool. This is the magic Lovecraft writes about. Intellect, science, and knowledge are all counterproductive; the greatest wizard is the one who is already mad. The study of magic is aided by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, mind-numbing rituals, and physical deformations. Sometimes, this magic comes from outside our world. The sorcery of those who make pacts with demons is an example of this. However, in a Lovecraftian universe, the natural world explained by human science is but a thin and friendly veneer over deeper and hideously alien truths. The relationship between science and magic is complex; eventually, the two will overlap and at that point science and the civilization it supports will be obliterated.

Art by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Anthony Frederick Sandys, and Francisco de Goya.


Trey said...

Good post.

Magic (in D&D) has reproducible methods and reliable results. It seems pretty scientific. I think what people object to mostly is magic being applied is scientific ways--magical assembly lines, cars, etc.

richard said...

magic as solipsism. Everyone has their own reality and the magician is the one who can make their own overcome those of the people around them.

Magic as exchange with Some Other Entity is pervasive and, I think, missing from this list. It doesn't automatically have to lead to devil's bargains: voodoo, pokemon, sacrifice and luck/blessings all work on this principle.

Subtly different from both is magic as status, or administrator privileges: there is a natural hierarchy in the world and you must be at least this magically powerful to call effect x. No contract is implied, but some external agency chooses a few figures out of the multitude of humanity to direct the course of destiny.

Ken Hite reckons most magic systems work on principles similar to electricity, but that's more a question of the mechanics rather than the source of magic.

I would really like to see a thoroughly worked out system that was completely different from all this, but I don't think I could write it.

Maroon said...

"Magic (in D&D) has reproducible methods and reliable results. It seems pretty scientific."

Except nobody cares why magic works. Reproducibility may be the desired result of science being done, but it doesn't mean science happens every time you reproduce something.

I like how Jack Vance explained the wizards of the Dying Earth: vancian magic is craft. You find out what works, and you don't ask silly questions -- it might upset whatever it is that is actually doing all the work. Magic as dangerous machinery left behind by its creator.

trollsmyth said...

Trey: I think what people object to mostly is magic being applied is scientific ways--magical assembly lines, cars, etc.

True, but once you decide that wizards can grow more powerful through experimentation, it's hard not to see mass production as the final result.

Richard: Thanks for those. Might also add "magic as exploitation" where you actually do bind supernatural beings to your will, and they get little or nothing in return. I'd say Pokemon is more this model, but that's because I'm old and cynical. ;p

I would really like to see a thoroughly worked out system that was completely different from all this, but I don't think I could write it.

How do you mean?

Maroon: Yeah, D&D magic seems to exist in an odd realm between magic as science by other means and magic as super-science. The magical research rules of 1e and 2e strongly imply that it's science by other means, but everything else seems to reinforce the notion that nobody really understands how it works, and that such understanding is clearly not required to make it work.

3e's sorcerers only reinforce the super-science notions. You could, however, make a case for Richard's solipsism thesis in 4e, since the rules strongly imply that things like fire spells don't actually create fire; instead they cause burns on your foes. And solipsism may be the only way to explain the bard's ability to taunt people to death.

richard said...

how do you mean?

Alas, if I knew that in detail I'd write a post, or maybe a game, about it.

I guess I mean that magic in one sense is a stand-in for the unknown and unknowable - if there's no core of mystery it's not magic any more - but that in order for it to be part of an interactive game it needs to behave in familiar enough ways that players can make meaningful decisions and plans around it. So it always ends up tied to metaphors of the familiar - and when familiarity is lost so generally is suspension of disbelief (which I experienced with D&D because Vancian magic made no sense to me as a non-Vance-reader, and which I've only recently figured out with POW, now that I've read around it a bit).

White Wolf's 1e Mage was a big deal for me: it built a system around a new metaphor - bullshitting, basically. And it took a whole load of mental player effort to think about what you could do in this new game space. I'd like to see another totally new metaphorical approach. Some other activity related to roleplaying that made so much sense but still came from a new direction and offered new possibilities.

richard said...

...I'm totally with you on Pokemon, BTW. In the DS games much is made of how the good Pokemon trainer (specifically the PC) is a friend to Pokemon rather than a task master. I can't see the evidence for this myself: the PC seems to be the sort of friend who just demands you do stuff.

Dan said...

I love this kind of thing. I think every world-builder needs to know how magic works, in order to make informed decisions. Official campaign settings tend to hand-wave it, which to me is pretty inexcusable and causes contradictions.

However, part of the debate over at On Pendantry and Tao.. is how the society as a whole interacts with magic, not just the magical practitioner.

Here's an example. Supposing that, whatever model of magic you choose from the above post, there is a cure poison spell.

Now, a magic user could team up with a herbalist to try out lots of new drugs, and experiment to find the optimal doses. This would proceed much faster than in our world because of the reduced risk of poisoning the subject (not to mention less cruelty to animals).

This can occur in all kinds of fields, where judicious application of a spell makes regular experimentation easier.

If you don't want this kind of thing to happen then you need to decide why. Possibilities for Sociological constraints on magic:

1) Magic knowledge is a closely guarded secret. Practitioners are jealous not just of magical knowledge, but all knowledge gained with the aid of magic. Perhaps they do know the best medicines, but they're not telling.

2) Magic is mistrusted/illegal. No-one can do the experiment above because they would get arrested for it.

3) Magic has unpredictable side effects that make it impractical. In the herbalists experiment the subject develops mildly poisonous saliva for a while, much to the detriment of their spouse.

4) Magic is considered holy, and can only be used for noble causes. Natural philosophy is not considered a noble cause.

5) Magic requires an altered state of consciousness in which the practitioner becomes disinterested in natural philosophy. eg "the world is just a dream, there is no point in researching it" or "the magical currents tell me I am required elsewhere".

6) Magic requires urgency. A spell will not work unless the practitioner has the utmost need for it to work. Herbal research is just too mundane.

...unless the subject was the magic-user's spouse, and they were both kidnapped by an evil herbalist! Forced to take part in his research! Hmm I think I feel an adventure coming on...

trollsmyth said...

Dan: Here's another reason why that sort of cooperation might not happen: there's already a spell that does that task, so why bother finding ways to do that with herbs?

None of us have hookups in our homes for gas lighting, because we have electricity which does the job more efficiently and much more safely. Likewise, why would anyone bother with herbs that might induce side-effect and are subject to the whims of weather and season, when reliable, works-every-time, and safe magic is available?

As you say, if magic isn't safe and readily available, sure, people might experiment with herbs or other means, but if it is, nobody is going to bother. They've got better things to do with their time. Necessity, not idle curiosity, is the mother of invention. I'm sure there's a way to light our homes using complex interactions between various liquids to create safe and bright fluorescence, but who cares, so long as electricity does the job safely and cheaply? Your mousetrap needs to be better, not just different, before the world will beat a path to your door.

richard said...

There are 2 more aspects to this magic business that I think bear investigation - both fall under "why magic?"

1. Is cheap, reliable magic distinguishable from technology - aside from optional window-dressing (wands, smoke, crosses)? If not, why would the dm bother with it? Explaining it, inventing a system, understanding how it works?

2. is magic a figleaf for arbitrary limitations on technology? ie you can have mortars (fireballs) and antibiotics (cure disease) but not cellphones or motorboats or motion sensors because its magic. If so, then I propose that the smartest magic system might be predicated on what makes the most fun game, or that generate the most "adventurous expectancy."

Thinking about it, that seems to have been the guiding light for the rulebooks' spells, though of course I don't agree with all of them.

trollsmyth said...

Richard: Yeah, the nice thing about magic is that it allows you to justify anything, pro or con. "A wizard did it" has become the de facto answer to the strange and bizarre in most campaigns.

Theodric the Obscure said...

A very nice laying out of the issues--thanks for the clarity and scope!