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On the difference between magic and technology

February 4, 2022 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. trey
    February 23, 2022 at 7:08 pm

    If magical delivered repeatable, predictable results then it would be a science. In every game world I’m familiar with it does so, because it has to for the game mechanisms to work. If magic works by cajoling other powers to do things then the “science” is the means those other powers use to do the magical stuff. Honestly, I can’t think of a fictional magical system that really isn’t a science.

  1. February 5, 2022 at 7:57 pm

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