Thursday, June 16, 2016

Putting The 'Fun' In 'Functional' Part 1 — A Magical Study Fueled By Desperation

Note: This started out as a project exploring AD&D's magic system. That's still the primary focus, but it can apply to other story forms as well.

If given a chance in a video game RPG (which apparently includes games originally intended for computers, that was not the case when I was a kid) I will almost invariably pick some flavor of magic-user, usually one with a lot of protection and ranged-attack spells. My reflexes are horrendous, so if I have half a chance of killing a monster before it can get close enough to take a swipe at me, I'm all for it. Heck, if the game has some sort of software-assisted targeting system, I'll take any ranged weapon. Magic, especially combined with a large area of effect, is my saving grace more often than not because the one thing that's worse than my reflexes is my aim. (Something that becomes painfully obvious whenever I try to solve puzzles in the various Legend of Zelda games. The only reason I can think of for not letting you auto-target those stone braziers in the Gerudo Training Grounds is that the game designers were feeling particularly sadistic that day. At least it isn't as bad as the ranged weapon mechanics in Morrowind. Ye gods, why has no one fixed that?) Any spell that causes massive damage within a certain radius of the caster instantly goes to the top of my must-have list.

That's video games. My first character in AD&D was a fighter. A simple, base-rules fighter who, within a few adventures, accidentally invented the Molotov cocktail and picked up herbalism as a proficiency. Almost 20 years later I have yet to play any sort of magic-user in a pen-and-paper game. There's a simple reason for that and it goes to the very heart of the D&D magic system. Even the 'alternate' systems presented in AD&D's Players Option: Spells And Magic are merely slight variations on a theme.

Long before I first heard the term 'Vancian magic,' requiring the memorization of spells to be used during the day (and then only being able to use each spell once because the mage 'forgets' the spell once it's cast) didn't make sense to me. It makes even less sense now even though I understand why they designed it that way. Limits are necessary if you don't want your game to start looking like every shonen manga ever written.

Just so you know, I like shonen manga, but just try to imagine DMing a game where half the PCs can level a city whenever they want. Or pick up some of the books in the Star Wars expanded universe. The lack of limits on what can and can't be done with the Force resulted in some serious narrative messes.

So I got where TSR was coming from, but I was equally convinced that there had to be a better way. Thus, I decided to take the spells and schools of magic and simply write my own system around them.

That lasted a few days, mostly out of stubbornness. AD&D magic is a wreck. Half the spells in the Evocation school can just as easily go in Alteration. The other half can either go in Alteration or Conjuration. A substantial number of the Necromancy spells seem to affect undead more as an afterthought than as a product of their nature. The 1st-level 'chromatic orb' demonstrates a complexity and potential power on par with the 9th-level 'prismatic sphere.' (Yes, you can't access the really potent stuff until later levels, but it's still a huge spell for 1st-level.) You can detect magic at 1st-level but you can't dispel it until 3rd. 'Protection from evil' is 1st-level but 'protection from cantrips' is 2nd-level. You don't get protection from something as mundane as a rock until 3rd level, though I'll give them credit for giving 1st-level mages a general purpose shield spell (it's just not terribly effective against physical attacks, the most common source of injury to a low-level adventurer). Despite a 4th-level mage being able to do things like create life from shadow, understand languages, practice a form of no-error teleportation, and change the physical form of others, telekinesis isn't available until 5th level.

And it just keeps going! It's one of Hermaeus Mora's Black Books without the Lovecraftian spawn. This is what happens when dozens of people revise and expand on an already unwieldy system for over a decade.

Don't know who Hermaeus Mora is? Look him up. Or better yet, play Skyrim with the Dragonborn DLC installed. Pleasant dreams.

I've now chucked everything from AD&D in terms of magic except for things discussed separately, like saving throws (I'll probably get to those later after I've worked the bugs out of everything else). I've also kept Mr. Gygax's Dragon Magazine (#59) article "Cantrips: Minor Magics For Would-Be Wizards," though I've modified the cantrips based on the Far Realms descriptions since, among other things, a 1" casting range is just pathetic. I might as well just pinch the guy myself instead of casting a spell. I just really like the article and I'd like to keep some of the basic ideas if nothing else.

So what does that leave me with? Honestly, not much. That's what this first article is for. I'm going back to the source.

It's Supernatural

And that's not just a Katy Perry reference. If we're going to make a magic system reflecting real world traditions (which is what I want to do) we first have to acknowledge that it's based on paganism. Actual, old-school paganism, not this neo-pagan weirdness that seems to take up over 90% of the Google results whenever I try to search for anything related to the Celts. Crazy, crystal-worshiping hippies. The Moragan was not an all-loving fairy flitting around promoting peace and grooviness. She (or they, there may have been three of her) was a war goddess who sent her ravens onto the battle field to eat the eyes out of the heads of fallen warriors. She was badass.

(I worship One God and One God Alone, but mess with the gods of my ancestors and you will feel my wrath.)

Ahem. Take a look at the words we associate with magic. You'll probably first note that most of them are from Latin. The big thing is that they're almost all derived from words meaning 'to sing,' 'to appeal to,' 'to talk,' 'to make an oath'... See the pattern? Even terms not of Latin origin (and much less well known) follow this line. If you've played Skyrim, you may remember the Gauldur Amulet from the 'Forbidden Legend' quest. The name is derived (like many of the names in Skyrim) from Old Norse, in this case galdr, a form of ritual singing. Songs are magic. Love songs were forbidden in much of Old Norse country because it was believed to ensnare the mind of the recipient. Didn't stop a lot of love-sick Vikings from waxing poetic about their best girls. Related, both the Celts and the Norse believed that writing was intrinsically magical, which is why we don't have any written records of what druidic practices actually were aside from some highly biased Roman observations.

In short, words are important. Even more important is keeping your word. In a very real sense, every time you promise something you are casting a spell on yourself in the form of an oath. If you broke an oath back in the old days, the world made sure bad things happened to you. It didn't matter if you made the oath to a god or a normal human (though the consequences of cheating a god tended to be much steeper), a broken oath was a very bad thing. (Okay, the world is still like that, it's just not necessarily quick or obvious.)

A similar principle was at work in a traditional geis (the Scots spelling, 'geas,' may be more familiar), which bears no resemblance at all to what's portrayed in the anime Code Geass and its derivative manga. At least AD&D is pretty close with their 'geas' spell. A real geis is actually a form of taboo. Observing the restrictions of a geis was believed to bring power while breaking the restrictions would bring doom, probably in the form of death. Typically, the geis was placed on men by women (who may or may not have been disguised goddesses).

Remember that famous bit in Macbeth about "no man of woman born" being able to harm the title character? That's another form a geis, one prophesying how a person would die so that he could (theoretically) avoid those circumstances.

Another thing to keep in mind, related to the topic of oaths, is that 'casting spells' nearly always required the cooperation of spirits. The villagers wanted to clear some trees to make room for crops? They were worried something might go wrong? Then someone with the right credentials (a village elder, a priest, someone with authority) would go to those trees and convince the spirits living there to let the villagers cut them down. Usually some kind of deal similar to a business transaction had to be struck. The villagers were allowed to cut down the trees if, say, the first five sheaves harvested from that field were offered to the spirits in return. Or maybe the villagers had to build a shrine for the spirits as a replacement home.

Protection from evil spirits usually worked by either enlisting the help of benevolent spirits or taking advantage of some idiosyncrasy inherent to the 'evil' ones, such as tossing cucumbers into water believed to be infested with kappa. Note that spirits weren't usually evil as a hard and fast rule. Dangerous and frequently hostile, yes, but if treated with respect, they could be quite helpful. The previously mentioned kappa, for instance, best known for drowning children, could be a great help to any farmer willing to put in the effort of befriending one as the spirit would help irrigate the fields and otherwise bring good fortune. They're also said to know a great deal about medicine and to have taught humans how to set bones.

Aside from protection and negotiating property rights, the most common use of traditional magic was divination. It's believed that the Norse 'seidr,' a variety of (probably) shamanistic ritual primarily practiced by women, is related to the Proto-Germanic 'saidaz,' which is in turn cognate with the Lithuanian 'saitas,' meaning "sign, soothsaying." It's also related to a number of Celtic words for magic and all of these go back to the Proto-Indo-European word for string or rope. (Kind of an odd jump there, but since distaffs were apparently associated with seidr practice I guess it makes a kind of sense.) Being able to predict everything from bad weather to wars was even more important back when a bit of extra planning meant having enough to eat through the winter.

None of this is the dazzling display of mystic shock and awe that modern fantasy fans are used to. That kind of magic is very much a product of the 20th century and is probably related to the movie industry, though comic books certainly helped. It also has the potential of making a lot of people very uncomfortable. (I can almost hear my readers groan about having a hard enough time convincing loved ones that RPGs aren't Satanic without stuff like this popping up.) It gets better. Trust me!

Obey The Law

"Science is a way of talking about the universe in words that bind it to a common reality. Magic is a method of talking to the universe in words that it cannot ignore. The two are rarely compatible." Neil Gaiman, The Books of Magic
While Mr.Gaiman has a point, any fictional magic system has to have certain rules, restrictions, and other easily recognizable features that are consistent throughout a work. In prose, it allows the author to answer the inevitable reader question, "Why didn't he just ___?" In a game, it's necessary if you want anyone to play it more than once. Lucky for me, and everyone else trying something similar, real-world magic traditions come prepackaged with a set of rules that have been studied by people who might benefit from a little less naval gazing and compiled by others with more practical intentions.

Every magic tradition has some laws, but no one magic tradition has all the laws. A few are nearly universal, though.

Contagion No, you can't catch magic from someone like you can a cold. This is the idea that a part is still connected to the whole even if not in physical contact. It also applies to someone's possessions and the more important the item the better the link. So someone's trash isn't much use but someone's favorite hat or an old toy is great and hair clippings or a tooth are ideal.
Sympathy This can be used instead of or in combination with Contagion. It's the idea that something that resembles something else can be used to affect the something else. It's involved in the onmyodo practice of shikigami. Combining this with Contagion is the basis of 'Poppet' magic (the most commonly known form being voodoo dolls).
Correspondence This is the basis of astrology and applies to more than just people. Herbs and other living (and non-living) things can have astrological profiles as well. If two things share a profile then they'll probably work together. It's also similar to the (discredited) Doctrine of Signatures, though apparently whether using a target's name is Correspondence or Sympathy depends on who you ask.
Consent This is either that magic works better on people who believe in magic or that it's possible to consciously resist magic and therefore far easier to operate on a willing target. The latter interpretation is almost certainly the basis for saving throws.
Equivalent Exchange If you've read and/or watched Fullmetal Alchemist, you're probably familiar with this term. In brief, it covers the idea that you can't make something from nothing. It also applies to various shamanistic practices, as demonstrated in the scenario I described of the villagers with trees they needed to clear. If you're dealing with intelligent entities, it's important to make sure you know what you're paying before sealing the deal. A monkey's paw is when the price far outweighs the benefit (assuming there's a benefit in the first place).
Reciprocity Karma or, if you prefer a more Christian term, Natural Law. The idea that actions have consequences for good or ill. Though the Arcana Wiki is correct in there (generally) being no such thing as 'white' magic, 'black' magic is very real. As in out-here-in-reality real. You may look at me funny but, as mentioned earlier, I'm Christian, the existence of spirits both good and evil is part of my belief system. Another part of my belief system is that attempting to contact spirits, regardless of intent, is much more likely to get the attention of the evil ones. You will not like the results. Now, the magic we're talking about in this article is primarily just a tool. If it's good or evil is up to you. Might as well blame the hammer for the door falling off your cabinet.
Reversal Basically, if magic did it magic can undo it. No idea why this is a controversial idea, it seems pretty basic. Possibly the controversy comes from the "without having to be physically destroyed" part. It runs somewhat counter to the whole 'toss into the depths of Mount Doom' approach we've become accustomed to. I'd save the drastic measures for the big magic, though, and leave dispelling more everyday magic to this rule.
Distortion This one I can actually see as causing controversy as it's basically a fancy way of describing 'No Ontological Inertia.' (TV Tropes will devour your soul.) On the other hand, it's a pretty good way of describing magical effects that require constant focus or rely on the existence of some item or set of circumstances to work. If you knock Melvin the Magnificent unconscious while he's levitating you and the rest of the party over a canyon you better hope someone has a way to break your fall without breaking every one of your bones (and that particular someone is willing to save your idiot hide).
Balance Related to Equivalent Exchange and Reciprocity, it not only deals with the idea that magic can't create or destroy physical things (just move them around) but that it can't make immaterial things like good fortune, either. If you cast a spell of good luck now you're just going to deal with an equal amount of bad luck later. It seems to mostly be a modern phenomena, existing particularly in stories, and is amusingly described as "the Marxist theory of magic."
Backlash To quote Arcana Wiki, "If you don't know where it's pointed, it's pointed at you." Who here's seen The Sorcerer's Apprentice? (The live action movie with that guy who later did Hiccup's voice in How To Train Your Dragon.) Okay, remember the musical Tesla coils? Now imagine your spell as being the electricity generated from one of those coils. That energy has to go somewhere, but you forgot to set up another coil (or anything large and metal) to take the hit. Wait, there's a lightning rod made of meat right there. Zap! And this is why wizards need safety gear. Sure, the 'safety gear' is more likely to be a poppet in the caster's likeness rather than an orange hardhat, but the principle's the same. (The poppet gets flash fried instead of you, the hardhat gets split like an over-ripe melon instead of your head.) Of course, it generally isn't practical to bring a poppet or two (or three) with you on every dungeon crawl, let along set it up properly for every casting, so it's a good idea to double check your targeting data before pulling out the mystic bag of tricks.

Elemental, My Dear Watson

Hold off on the torches and pitchforks, my fundamentalist cousins, there's one more magic tradition to discuss and it does not involve the channeling of spirits.

Well, it might, but they would be the fermented kind. I'm talking about alchemy, which is actually the scientific precursor to our modern chemistry, which still uses alchemical devices and symbols. No joke, once you get past the sometimes vaguely gnostic philosophy and occult trappings, alchemy was a serious pursuit of understanding the workings of the universe. It was also expensive, so many alchemists with more hutzpa than ethics turned to conning gullible nobles with false claims of turning lead to gold. (A claim, I might add, that may have been false but not by much. Lead and gold have a very similar atomic structure, so it is possible to transmute one to the other. It would just be far more expensive than the resulting gold would be worth.) So there were some valid reasons for villainizing the practice but it still stands as an important milestone in scientific history and as a fun model for fantasy magic.

Alchemy dates back much further than the Middle Ages, though. A form of it may go back as far as 5000BC in Ancient Egypt. It was certainly a going concern among the Greeks and Romans. Our word for it comes from Arabic and much of what the Late Medieval and Renaissance practitioners didn't get from Greek sources they picked up from the Islamic Golden Age.

This association with Greece also brings up a related principle, the four classical elements. (Five if you count aether, most seem to ignore it.) Fire, air, water, and earth are not limited to the Greeks, either. The Egyptians also used this elemental model and it was part of at least some Indian traditions, as well. All substances in the mortal world were said to be composed of these four elements in different ratios, with both physical and spiritual aspects. Our current understanding of the elements includes a much larger periodic table, but it's interesting to note that the classical elements correspond to the four known states of matter.

Fire — Plasma
Air — Gas
Water — Liquid
Earth — Solid

The best part of all this is that alchemy provides a scientific foundation for a magic system that already comes with a variety of disciplines that can be re-imagined as "magic schools." And it provides lots of room for spectacular pyrotechnics! There is no down side!

Well, maybe if I go with a precise definition of alchemy for the magic system since it would just replace having to memorize the spell 'fireball' in AD&D with carrying around Molotov cocktails. Not necessarily a bad thing, but who said I was going with strict adherence to real world alchemy? There's nothing in the basic principles that disqualifies the rest of the magic traditions I already touched on. The difference is in how one goes about reshaping the energies of the world.

So, am I missing anything? Hmm. Considering I've brought alchemy into this, I should mention Hermetic magic. This variety is fairly new as magic traditions go. While Kabbalah is supposed to date back to the time of Eden and there are connections to some ancient beliefs, the actual Hermetica (writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, supposedly a combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth) only dates to the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Otherwise, most of the information comes from the 15th century at the earliest, mainly because of a guy named Paracelsus. He may have been the first to come up with the idea of elementals. His fire elemental was called Vulcanus, but for reasons I don't understand it's almost universally translated as 'salamander.'

This still doesn't give me, or anyone else, a coherent fantasy-magic system, though. There's a lot of pieces here, but the puzzle still has to be put together. Which is what I'll get to in the next article.

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