Home > Uncategorized > An addendum to the previous post on magic and technology

An addendum to the previous post on magic and technology

February 5, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

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:

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