Archive for February, 2022

The Ritual

February 5, 2022 1 comment

Talking about Victor Turner yesterday gave me an idea.

Once a year, at the summer solstice, those mages sufficiently trained in the Hidden and True Arts may ascend the Holy Mountain and conduct a ritual, which has the power to change the fundamental workings of the world. For each sufficiently trained mage that takes part, one word may be uttered in the Original Language. The sentence that these words make up becomes true at the end of the shortest night, so that the people of the world may marvel at its working through the longest day. Only one mage utters the sentence, and then that mage’s voice is lost, forever.

There are few sufficiently trained mages and they are all highly suspicious of one another, so it has been many years since a ritual took place that was both substantive and widely approved. Two mages were able to augur “Caesar drowns,” but they could not recruit a third who would trust them enough to add “today.” The three mages who decreed “monkeys can fly” were regarded as both imprudent and carelessly incomplete: they neglected to impart to monkeys the will or urge to fly, so they remain (mostly) bound to their trees.

Still, the ritual stirs powerful hopes and fears. The sufficiently trained mages of some lands are feted and treated with lavish courtesy. In other lands they are killed on sight. They are almost always held prisoner in one way or another. Except, it is said, for a secret order of mages who live somewhere on or in the mountain, who have sworn to counter any sufficiently dangerous sentence.

Melasti/Temple Procession. Ketut Parwita Bali, 52-72 cm. Paper, 2000. From

An addendum to the previous post on magic and technology

February 5, 2022 1 comment

In discussions following the previous post, I realized that I never really explained why I wasn’t happy with writing magic into my games. (this is pretty self-indulgent and all about me, me, me. Fair warning.)

Magic can absolutely offer a coherent system, separate from the regular systems of the game, just like another branch of technology. Why not? Paolo offers: “I’m not sure if wonder is required. Wise folk do not wonder at magic as much as mundanes, maybe at some point of experience and learning you become wise to all the ways of the world and stop wonder altogether.”

I’m happy to play games on that basis, but I’m not happy to design that way. If the magic in my games feels like that, I will wonder why I am not just using an easier-to-understand technological explanation. More, I will feel like I’m cheating the magical of its full potential. Adding magic tends to break the tension of simple tactical situations, which I love as a (sometimes) historical gamer. As Chris K put it, “If what you really want is a deep investigation of tactics, then it makes sense that you wouldn’t want something to disrupt the intuition of those tactics unless it gave you something more worthwhile than that intuition.”

So then Paolo got me to read a bit about Daniel Dennett and taking an intentional stance on the world, which is essentially what we do when we think we’re dealing with another thinking agent. And that held a side-note that encapsulates what I think the cost of including magic is…

“Eleanor Rosch [argued for] the “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”. Rosch argues that, implicit within any system of categorization, are the assumptions that: (a) the major purpose of any system of categorization is to reduce the randomness of the universe by providing “maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, and (b) the real world is structured and systematic, rather than being arbitrary or unpredictable. Thus, if a particular way of categorizing information does, indeed, “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort”, it can only do so because the structure of that particular system of categories corresponds with the perceived structure of the real world”.

Up to now, I have considered magic and technology to be functionally identical in fiction – they have inputs and outputs. They may operate on separate systems inside the fiction, they may have different organizing principles, but from a stance outside the fiction, that’s just window dressing: you can reskin one as the other and proceed.*
1. “it’s magic” generally ends arguments, while “it’s science” starts them. “Magic” is a sufficient explanation or rather a signal that no further explanation will be given.
2. it is therefore generally impossible to see all the way around a magical explanation: the magicness leads out of view, which means there is some part of the situation which cannot be fully grasped/operationalized/made predictable. It is always narratively acceptable, because it is already anticipated, that magic may be turned against the user, because the user (and audience) never fully understands what they are doing.

So magical explanations never “provide maximum information with the least cognitive effort.” Instead they add a cost of difficulty involved in imagining them and communicating them, with their full implications and use cases. This is essential to those “devil’s bargain” or “three wishes” stories: the bargainer never really understands what they’re agreeing to.

Rosch’s “maximum information with the least cognitive effort” strikes me as especially important in RPGs, where everyone is being asked to imagine hard and operationally all the time, and even more important in online games, with their limited duration, thin channels for communication, and uncertain levels of attention. A grenade has a great information/effort ratio: the player knows what it does and has a strong sense of the limits of their knowledge (“just how far do I have to throw this thing to be safe from it? I dunno. So it’s a risk”). A vaguely-worded spell at least costs more effort to parse out and probably also has unknown unknowns, even after the player thinks they understand it.

And that’s why I am so happy to find a payoff to declaring a game token to be magical, rather than technological.

* My son objects that I have now twisted the words magic and tech so far that nobody else uses them the way I do, but I think the way I used to use them was flabby and uninformative. In the Dennett link, above, the word “aboutness” is used. And I can see that it’s an annoying word – I had to look it up to understand it – but I can also see how a polyvalent and vague word like “meaning” would just cause confusion in the discussion they’re having.


Here: Alex offered a really neat method:

“So my version of surprising magic, which I used in a campaign a few years ago, was that mages could develop new spells out of words of the names of spells they already knew. When they created the spell, they would write down what they wanted it to do. I would not read their version, but would develop my own (usually slightly ironic) interpretation of the name, which I would write on an index card and put aside. There were a few basic guidelines about, eg., how damage or bonuses could scale, but beyond that they had carte blanche and spells were level-less. (There was an understanding that if anything seemed truly busted we would talk through it.) When the player first cast the spell, and not before, they would test their magic lore skill to see if they had designed it properly. If they succeeded, they would use their version; if they failed, they would use mine.”
…and that could be refined by having the loser of the dice contest add a twist/modification, so it’s always a hybrid.

An example from play:
Player: my spell is called “summon places”.
Me: ok, write down what it does.
We each spend about a minute jotting down our idea.
Some time later, she says: I cast summon places.
Me: Roll arcana.
She rolls arcana and fails.
We flip my card: Chunks of architecture fall from the sky.
In real life we stopped here, but for the sake of thinking it through let’s add a step where she’s able to work in an idea from her card.
Player: my card says it allows me to travel to a given place, it’s a teleport spell.
Me: ok, chunks of that place are falling from the sky. Which place did you target for this casting?
Player: oh. The vampire’s castle…
Me: welp

…this whole discussion would’ve been better handled as a comic in the series “philosophers play D&D.” Since it wasn’t, I can only offer by way of apology a scene where Basil Fawlty misuses the intentional stance:

On the difference between magic and technology

February 4, 2022 2 comments

I’ve wrestled for decades with Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It seems true. It definitely contains a nugget of wisdom. It’s a license to Space Opera to your heart’s content. But for writers of fantasy games it leaves a giant, nightmarish question:
“so what’s magic for, then? What’s special about it?”

I maybe take Clarke’s quote to heart more than most. I have a hard time drawing hard lines between magic and tech – to me, netrunning in Cyberpunk looks like a magical activity: nobody around the table really knows how the engineering works (especially in the game world, which is always slightly ahead of our own). You can effectively run it just like a divinatory trip to fairyland or a religious ritual, which has concrete effects in the mundane world. And it shares the basic structure of rituals – while you are in cyberspace, the normal rules are suspended and a new (maybe inverted, maybe logically consistent but alien) world holds sway.* You return with privileged knowledge from your encounter with the Deep and Secret – either revelations about how the world has always worked or a change you’ve made in the programming layer, which is now manifested down here in Everyday Praxis.

But if that’s a reliable technology, a skill the players can deploy at will, then how is it different from Library Use?
Shouldn’t there be something extra about magic? Some wonder? Isn’t it cooler to be a wizard (or hacker) than a middle manager?**
DCC’s answer to this is magic is dangerous and unpredictable, which is great as far as it goes (in particular it makes players grateful for what they get out of magic, rather than dissatisfied and ambitious regarding ways they might exploit it) – but then it’s really just a risky technology, like early explosives. “The wizard’s going to do their thing? OK everyone, retire to a safe distance. Wait and see if it works” (and that’s one of the great vices of netrunning, as done back in the 80s: it’s an interlude in the game where all the non-hackers are not needed around the table).
Mage’s answer (and Ars Magica’s, to a lesser extent) is magic is a special skill system, where you get to invent new skills/effects on the fly. Which is super cool, and sits right on the bridge between Old School concrete reality and Storygame negotiated worlds – here is a particular moment where you get to author part of the rules. ApocWorld players are probably yawning right now, but it gets at the realization I’ve just had this week. Finally.

Magic is the capacity to add surprise.

Like the deus ex machina of Greek theater is a surprise (and hated by Aristotle for it), it suddenly provides an alternative path to the one everyone’s expecting. It turns away from the predictable course.
Magicians in fiction are generally exceptional and unexpected in their fictional worlds. They herald a power outside the control of other people. Even D&D’s rather staid one-spell-a-day MUs are a novel threat because you don’t know what spell they have until it’s happened. And (early) D&D explicitly doesn’t let them keep doing it. You get one shot of lightning, not a handgun. The spirit of surprise is in there, even if it’s not always actually surprising in play.

Surprise. The ability to surprise the enemy, the other players, the DM.
I reckon if your magic isn’t surprising, it’s just technology (and would be better represented as such, so it can be fully understood by player tacticians).

Now that we know this, what can we do with it?

1. Learn from theater. If a deus ex machina just manufactures a happy ending and cancels the drama that comes before it, that’s a horrible audience experience. But a deus ex machina that heightens the drama or opens up implications for where things could go next? That’s like an achievement unlocked.

2. Maybe build surprise into the systems, so that the magic always catches the players and DM a bit off guard. Draw a tarot card (or an oblique strategy) and apply its implications on top of your intended effect. Allow a bit of player narration, if that’s not part of your usual toolchest, or ask someone uninvolved for something extra that happens, incidental to the intended payload. Magic systems that come down to bargaining with NPCs are always good, because the NPC can demand something in return – maybe something deferred. And you could roll on reaction tables, to see where this relationship will go next. Whole adventures can come out of these debts – or massive complications to the current adventure (“I see you’re rescuing a princess. Get me her brother.” Or “I’ve always hated their vizier – he’s a wizard, you know. Kill him for me, but you can’t involve me.” Or “all that treasure you’re collecting needs to be poured into the hole in the sea, or the world will drown.”).

3. Don’t be afraid of being excessive in adding surprises. They’re supposed to be uncontainable in the common order of things. When Tolkien wrote Bilbo’s ring into The Hobbit, it was just supposed to be a ring of invisibility – an extra secret, that Gandalf foreshadowed (“He’s an excellent burglar, even if he doesn’t know it himself”). Maybe Gandalf selected Bilbo through divination, but the birds didn’t tell him why Bilbo was the right choice. That’s magic for you. It’s a license to go further than anyone expects.

ETA: I added a post that explains why I think magic needs this extraness. If you don’t need it, don’t read it.

* I could go on about liminality and the enhanced status of the nerd, but that’s more about the ’80s origins of Cyberpunk than anything relevant here today.
** This essay brought to you by my reading China Mieville’s The Scar, which taught me that what I really despise is magic that is just another technology. When the metallurgists in The Scar want super strong chains they call in thaumaturges to add an extra layer of magitech and I just don’t care in fact I am physically repulsed. It feels like such a waste of imaginative potential. The wonder that Mieville’s missing is right there in that word: “thaumat-urge” – “wonder-worker.” And thauma literally comes down to “a thing to look at,” from the same root as “theater” – the place where you go to be enchanted. Where you’re willing to accept a deus ex machina. Also, thanks to Adam Thornton, this no longer says “cooler than a plumber,” because as he pointed out, plumbing is deep wizardry.
*** I can’t leave without posting Inosuke pulling a perfect deus ex machina. Magic.