Monday, December 28, 2015

Magic is Lazy

A Magical Arcane Sorcery Filled Ruin

An adventuring party enters a forbidden chamber, deep within the dark recesses of an ancient ruin.  Worn and crumbling stone pillars line the room, with a glowing golden throne situated neatly in the center.  A robed skeletal figure rests upon the throne, the fine quality of the long deceased’s garments a hint that this skeleton is out of place.  

The party’s thief carefully sneaks into the chamber first, her confidence bolstered by her enchanted elven boots of stealth.  The wizard quietly whispers a few words, creating an arcane barrier protecting him against opposing magic.  With a swoosh, the warrior draws her giant two-handed sword from its rune-carved sheath, while speaking a secret phrase that causes the blade to glow with white fire.  Fearing for the worst, the cleric quietly calls out to the thief, begging her to keep away from the throne until he has the chance to investigate the skeleton using one of his scrolls.

But it is too late.

While the thief succeeded in being silent as she crept into the chamber, she never saw the dark sigil carved into the stone floor.  Instantly struck by some form of dark magic, the thief falls at the feet of the robed skeleton.  Revealing the truth of its undeath, the skeleton rises and points its finger towards the fallen thief, a faint hum of energy filling the room.  But before the skeleton can act, the cleric charges forward with a holy symbol in hand, as he cries out in desperate prayer to the sun god.  An arc of golden light stretching out from the holy symbol strikes the skeleton in the chest, causing it to collapse.  

The thief awakens just a few minutes later, roused by one of the wizard’s potions.  Once the party regroups they begin to raid the chamber for loot, riches, and magic items.

*     *     *

This is a pretty typical scene for a dungeon crawl in any fantasy role-playing game.  A team of magical or magically augmented characters engages a magically cursed undead creature.  I would venture that most of my gaming-life has been spent in these kinds of encounters, especially as I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons over any other RPG system until I entered my mid-thirties.  Actually, over the last few months when I haven’t been gushing over Star Wars, I’ve focused a lot of my time on fantasy gaming between my Dungeon Crawl Classics and Cypher System Fantasy campaigns.  

But looking back on the obviously stereotypical encounter I described earlier, as well as many (if not “most”) other scenarios in my fantasy games, I’ve come to discover a dark secret:

Magic is lazy.  

Magic certainly powers a lot of themes and tropes in a fantasy campaign setting.  I guess it is safe to say that the setting wouldn’t be “fantasy” if some kind of magic wasn’t already at work.  Some fantasy settings may use very little fantasy, keeping it mysterious and sinister, while others have entire worlds dripping with arcana.  I remember running Eberron in D&D 3.5 and 4E, where just about everything in the campaign was infused with some kind of magical power.

Need a magic train?  Shove a magic engine inside!  Magic airship!  We’ve got trapped elementals!  

Actually, at least the trapped elemental makes some kind of sense.  There’s a reason that airship is flying, an arcana-infused scientific reason.  Of course then I start thinking about “what is an elemental?”  

Perhaps my recent television and gaming habits are the culprits for my constant need to question everything in an obviously fictional universe.

Ninth Doctor, Ninth World

Let’s travel back to November 2012.  My wife and I were looking for something interesting to watch on Netflix, having just ditched traditional cable television.  We were both fans of Torchwood: Miracle Day, so we decided to start watching the original series.  The two of us were so in the dark at the time that we didn’t even realize that Torchwood was a spinoff of Doctor Who.  Soon we were a pair of neophyte “Whovians”, starting with the Ninth Doctor in the relatively new Series 1, gobbling up episode after episode.  

What captivated my interest with Doctor Who, aside from the many well-written characters, was the way the show handled the supernatural.  A lost spirit wasn’t a “ghost”, rather it was some kind of temporal echo, or perhaps an ethereal alien stranded on earth trying to communicate with its home.  There was a common theme for many of the episodes, of starting a story with something resembling the arcane or occult, but ending with a relatively plausible explanation.  This was unlike anything else I had ever seen on television.  

I simply fell in love with the idea that everything has some kind of scientific explanation.  At the time I was running a regular Savage Worlds homebrewed steampunk campaign called “Clockwork”, and I stole heavily from the Doctor Who and Torchwood concepts.  Nothing was magical; everything had either a scientific or pseudo-scientific background.  

What Doctor Who started, however, Monte Cook finished.  

In the summer of 2013 I got my first look at Numenera, a science-fantasy world where the “magic” and “sorcery” is all powered by a billion years of science and technology far too advanced for a futuristic society to fully comprehend.  A nano (science-wizard) may summon forth a “fireball,” but the flames are not enchanted, but just the air combusting due to rapidly moving nanites.  The healer may pray while closing a wound, but actually it’s her mutation that allows the cells of her own body to assist those of her patient.  

Often in Numenera, neither the game master nor player truly know “why” a power, cypher, or artifact “works”, but can rest assured that the answer isn’t just “it’s magic.”  Even with Numenera’s sister game, The Strange, the idea that an alien dark energy network creating new realities adds a little validity to worlds powered by magic.  

Magic This, Magic That, Magic Everything

By far, my largest “issue” with magic is how it has the capability of stopping the creative process.  Once the storyteller says that something is “magical”, the players stop asking questions.  

Eureka, the item is magical, case closed!  Now let’s add it to our stash!

Perhaps the characters will pick up the item, and make sure that it isn’t “cursed”, but really that’s just another way for something to be enchanted.  If it’s a doorway or portal, they may need to dispel the magic to move on to the next chamber.  Rarely is there an opportunity to figure out “why” something is enchanted, or how it came to be so, unless the item is some kind of artifact.    

Personally, I’ve had more fun placing non-magical yet unique items in fantasy games than magical artifacts.  At least it forces players to keep looking for answers regarding the item, or find more creative ways to use them in the game.    

Magic weapons are by far the worst offenders.  In the many incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons there are many monsters that can only be hit by some kind of unique substance… or a magic weapon.  Finding a handful of cold-forged iron spears or a quiver of silver arrows could make for their very own adventures.  Or the players just grab their regular magic swords (since they all have them by fourth or fifth level) and take down the were-creatures or ghosts head on.  

This is just another reason why I’ve come to enjoy Dungeon Crawl Classics so much… magic is so limited, and so mysterious, that magic items are incredibly rare…

… but me being “me”, I still crave a deeper explanation on what is making something “magic.”  

Making the Typical Atypical

Let’s take that short scenario I crafted earlier.  Here’s a list of everything that could be powered by some kind of magic:

  1. The glowing throne
  2. The thief’s enchanted elven boots
  3. The wizard’s shield spell
  4. The warrior’s flaming sword
  5. The cleric’s scroll
  6. The dark sigil in the stone
  7. The undead skeleton
  8. The sun god
  9. The priest’s light spell
  10. The healing potion

Why do these items/powers/creatures work or exist?  The easy answer, as I’ve mentioned already, is to just say “magic”.  Perhaps your campaign would categorize some as “wizard magic” and others as “priestly magic”.  

But as a fan of both Doctor Who and Numenera, I’m fairly spoiled and want more answers.  If I were to give this a “weird” twist for Numenera the list would look like this:

  1. The throne is surrounded by the glowing guano of mutated bats
  2. The boots are crafted with leather from a very quiet feline creature that lurks the Beyond
  3. The nano’s shield “esotery” is actually a swarm of quickly flying nano-bots
  4. The flaming sword is actually part of a crashed starship’s reactor, and the flames are just exhaust
  5. The words on the priest’s scroll (a cypher), if spoken with the proper pitch and tempo, can allow the user to access a dormant portion of the Datasphere
  6. The dark sigil just marks the boundary of a high frequency sleep inducing harmony
  7. The skeleton is a mostly destroyed cybernetic organism, but the processing unit in the skull still allows minor motor control of the synth “bones”
  8. The sun god is an AI that exists in the Datasphere
  9. The sun god creates a “portal” between the sun itself and the skeleton, allowing a gout of hot plasma to destroy the creature
  10. The healing potion is a perfectly sealed Crystal Pepsi from a billion years in the past

Okay, I’ll admit that my first ten items were very stereotypical, and I spent much more time on the Numenera list, but that gets to my point.  As game masters, perhaps we should be spending this kind of time when we are creating magical items or encounters.  I’ve been running mostly fantasy campaigns since the middle of the summer, and I’m certainly guilty of an overreliance on stereotypical magic-based explanations.  

Let me see if I can find a happy medium between the two lists… a way to embrace the fantasy world while still adding some plausibility to the creation of these items:

  1. The glowing throne is surrounded by bio-luminescent fungi.  Not magical, but definitely worth some gold pieces as alchemical reagents.
  2. The thief’s boots are made from real elf skin, which makes them exceptionally silent.  These could be magical and quite possibly cursed by the ghost of the dead elf used.
  3. The wizard’s shield is conjured from the elemental plane of air.
  4. The warrior’s flaming sword gains its power not through the weapon, but the rune-carved scabbard.  The soul of a long-dead general is trapped in the scabbard, and she imbues the blade with magical power each time it is drawn.
  5. The cleric’s scroll is just a list of directions of things to look for in order to determine whether or not something is or is not cursed.  
  6. The dark sigil in the stone is a cautionary boundary marking the safe distance between the characters and the bio-luminescent fungi.  The fungi is toxic!
  7. The undead skeleton is still simply an undead skeleton, its soul forever trapped and bound to the chamber.  
  8. The sun god may be good and just, but is also parasitic in nature, as a portion of the god’s power actually takes over the cleric’s body and soul as move up the ranks of the priesthood.  
  9. The priest’s light spell is the parasitic sun god letting off a little energy.
  10. The healing potion is a curative tonic that has crossed space and time to find itself in this fantasy world.  In reality, it’s still just a refreshing Crystal Pepsi.  
I may have to use this list in an upcoming adventure now!

Bringing Magic Back

What are your thoughts?  Is magic a complex power source in your campaigns, or an under embellished crutch?  Do you find yourself trapped in worlds infused with too much magic, or have you found some kind of balance?  

How have you been able to keep magic mysterious and wonderful in your games? 

You know now that I think of it The Force is kind of lazy too.  

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