Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 20, 2011
No, this isn’t a post about mixing guns, phones, and magic in the same fantasy setting. Though as a fan of urban fantasy – I’m 100% for it!
This post is actually about attitudes towards magic in fantasy worlds. Specifically RPGs. It’s something I’ve touched on before, and will again. It’s about the impact of “magic” on a fantasy world and the characters in it.
In most RPGs, magic is fairly mechanical. In many action-RPGs, a spell-casting player character spam-fires so much magic that it makes Tim the Enchanter look positively subtle in his application of the arcane arts. There’s not a whole lot “magical” about that kind of magic, really. Magic is like a gun… you pull the trigger and it goes off, though perhaps not always with perfect accuracy or reliability. And yet this incredible power seems to have little impact on the game world, which seems to just shrug it off and treat it as a tacked-on appendage to the culture. Which I guess it is.
One of the few pen-and-paper RPGs I have played that really had a different feel to magic was Mage: The Ascension. In that game, magic was pretty open-ended, flexible, and – most interestingly – had to be kept secret. Flinging fireballs around in Times Square was just not going to end well. Magic practiced in the presence of mundane witnesses (“sleepers”) was best performed with subtlety, lest their subconscious reinforcement of their expectations of reality make the magic to backfire in some way. In fact, the whole background story involved an “Ascension War” where two major factions of mages were warring over the sleepers’ perception of reality to make their style of magic more dominant… and the “Technocracy” was winning.
I have loved that system and how well it incorporated magic into the the world. Whereas in most games, magic has something of a tacked-on feel. Usually, the worlds are just idealized variants of medieval Europe, but with the lots of wizards and magical monsters. But wouldn’t these beings alter the entire world and culture by their very presence? Would we even get anything resembling medieval European culture if wizards, druids, and reliable magical healers could be found in almost every community, and most regions sported at least one dragon and other powerful monsters?
And what would be the attitude of the commoner – or anybody without access to magic – towards all these magic-using folks? Or does everyone have access to magic in some way?
I sometimes use the firearms analogy – particularly how the presence of firearms (and cannons) changed the face of medieval warfare. Although I think the longbow did plenty of that on its own. But when arrows, bolts, and gunfire could allow any farmer with minimal training to take down a fully-armored knight who’d spent a lifetime in the saddle practicing warfare, things were gonna change.
In Frayed Knights, I fiddled with these ideas a little myself. The casual attitude of adventurers towards magic is one example – including the reference to sorcerer-turned-ferret Kagin as a “spell monkey.” The historical ease of flight and of magical tunneling (though, as Chloe explains in one dialog, she does NOT do that kind of magic) has caused a relative dearth of castle-like structures (which are still vulnerable from above), and has instead encouraged underground fortresses.
I stumbled over another gun analogy recently, chatting online with an acquaintance in Australia. I grew up in the 80’s in the Washington DC area, where gun ownership was much more rare and restricted, and the attitude at the time could get a little paranoid about handguns. I live in Utah now, where guns are much more commonplace, many people have concealed carry permits “because they can,” and the attitude towards handguns and gun ownership (at least outside of downtown) is casual enough almost to the point of invisibility. It’s no big deal. I was involved in a new startup once where our potential investors wanted to “scope us out” and invited the founders not to a traditional game of golf, but to go shooting. This was fortunate for me, as I sucked less at shooting than golf. And we secured the funding we needed. So it was all good.
In a world where the power offered by magic is a rare and inaccessible to the common man, one would expect a lot more paranoia. Those known to possess those powers might be viewed with suspicion at best, or possibly hated and feared. And the less well-understood magic is, the more suspicion and anger generate from random events. Did your cow die, or your crops get blighted? Maybe it was the work of the old woman who lives up the hill who some suspect is a witch. Has the local priest been known to cure people dying of illness, but for whatever reason couldn’t or wouldn’t save your brother?
But in a world where the power is relatively common – and practically anybody could get their hands on a reliable potion or minor magical trinket – what would magic become? Would people talk about using magic as casually as people in the United States talk about flying across the country? Noteworthy more as an event than as an act of “magic?” Like the attitude towards guns in many communities in Utah, is it considered no more interesting (or threatening) than someone’s ownership of an automobile?
Another analogy – the telephone (and cell phones). Communication in the modern western world is so constant and ubiquitous that it’s more notable when it is not there. I remember how much more slowly news and information flowed when I was a kid – and how we were still out of communication much of the time – and even then what we had was miraculous. A couple of years ago, I was in Hawaii, shopping in an open-air market for a gift for a friend. I had a question about his preferences, and so I whipped out my cell phone and called his wife with my question. I was having a casual conversation with a friend from three thousand miles away, and the only concern was the time difference. What kind of impact would something like this have made on a fantasy medieval culture? And how would someone from even our not-too-distant past react to our casual approach to cheap, easy, near-instantaneous communication and access to information?
And is it really “magic” when it becomes predictable and commonplace? Doesn’t the word suggest something that in violation of the understood natural laws of the world? If it’s a predictable system, with its own understood laws, doesn’t it become some kind of science?
These kinds of questions should be answered in a fantasy game world, even one that’s just part of a dinky little indie RPG. No, they don’t need to be front-and-center (though I felt that the degree to which it was in Dragon Age was very well done). But a world where it at least seems like these questions have been thought out are answered intelligently really becomes much more alive to me, even if it’s just a little five-hour dungeon crawler. Where indies may lack the budgets to throw incredible visuals into their games, nothing’s stopping them from filling them with imagination.
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