Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Guns, Phones, & Magic

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.


Filed Under: Design, Geek Life - Comments: 13 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Very interesting post, and there are many examples that come to mind of how these things are dealt with in different media.

    On the subject of mobile phones, it’s has become rather a cliché for people in films to lose or break their phones, or to travel to awkward locations with no reception. It has become rather easy these days for those of us with such new technology to call for help or even to check information on the internet (Bates motel recommendations perhaps?).

    Magic on the other hand has been portrayed in so many ways it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s interesting to note how little magic is used in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings compared to say, Harry Potter where magic is used casually.

    Continuing with Harry Potter, you mention the impact of commonplace magic and that particular series highlights it (although doesn’t do a great job with it in some respects). The majority are in complete ignorance of all magic, whilst those with the ability rely on it for a range of tasks, to the point where they lack understanding of “muggle” technology because they don’t require it.

    On the other hand, you mention the Dragon Age series, which has a major theme about conflict between magic-users and the rest of the population. I’d have liked that to be expanded upon really, I felt like they didn’t make the most of that idea.

    Most recently though, I’ve been playing Mount & Blade: Fire and Sword. I’d played the two previous M&B games, and had become quite used to the advantages of cavalry, heavy armour and such. Fire and Sword adds in basic firearms (muskets and the like) which make the combat rather different. It’s easy to see how firearms completely changed the battlefield as they became more powerful, more accurate and easier to use.

  • Felix Pleșoianu said,

    I’ve encountered the topic before in the context of world building. I would add that in a world where magic is real, you’d see all kinds of small manifestations thereof in nature, much like with electricity in the real world. And any magic people do would run a chance of affecting more than they want… or realize.

    One author who gets it right is Brandon Sanderson. He loves making up magic systems which clearly obey some laws yet manifest in many ways, while not being so powerful as to break the setting if you stop to think about the implications. On the minus side, I suspect most roleplayers would reject them as too weird. 😛

  • Drake said,

    Purple. Purple, Jay.

  • Bad Sector said,

    Now that’s weird 😛

    I finished reading Matt Barton’s Dungeons and Desktops a few days ago and it made me want to play some oldschool RPG games i had around. So i played a bit of Daggerfall (which although i progressed much more than the last time i tried it, i eventually stopped playing it for the same reason i stopped Oblivion – too much random “same” stuff), Baldur’s Gate (i *so* don’t like the bird’s view, but it somehow makes me want to continue my game – and unlike what i initially had in mind, it doesn’t take itself too seriously…) and Might and Magic 6 (which i had progressed in a while ago but forgot to keep the savegames after a format).

    Anyway, the above put me in some sort of oldschool gamedev mood. My GPU is almost fried and shuts itself down when i try to use any sort of 3D acceleration (even a triangle causes the whole screen to go full garbage and after a couple of seconds the GPU shuts down followed by the rest of the computer, requiring a full restart) so this rules out any development for the moment, but still it is in my head.

    Now this morning i went out to meet a friend of mine and it was about a month since the last time i left the house (for a reason not related to buying stuff like food and such). He’s also a game developer (artist) and we started talking about several stuff and i mentioned him how i am considering making a game like some old RPGs, although probably smaller in scale and more hack and slash-y. The conversation turned to a Flash game i started a while ago, Kryfo, which never went much beyond the “idea testing” phase.

    I mentioned the game in the forums actually 🙂

    If you remember, the whole idea was about disappearing knowledge with monsters appearing while in some places there were “oases of knowledge”. In these oases there would be actual magical devices that would cause the people’s intelligence to not be affected (or increase) and in every other place the intelligence would lower – in some places even to the point of getting a behaviour no more than of that of an animal.

    My major problem with that was why would that happen and what the motive would be. Also another problem was that i wanted to focus a bit more on the action side of things and… that i like steampunk so i wanted to put some of that in there :-P.

    So i thought a story (non really concrete, as i said this was mostly in “idea” form with few things written – mostly in mockup game script form) where magic was abundant and everyone and his dog would have access to it. Thanks to magic, the society would have developed to have “magical machines” with arcane/magic and science fused to one thing (like many modern machines depend on a combination of different sciences – most prominent being the computers we use :-P) and thanks to premature industrialization, common people would be able to use magic.

    The problem was that only few people would really understand magic and the rest would use premade recipes – sometimes meddling a bit with them without knowledge. As demand for more and better magic devices increase, it would only take a while for things to turn bad with people “messing with powers they don’t understand” (around this point you can start noticing at holes on the idea :-P). However, with the major forces being centered around making more money (magic sells after all), one couldn’t expect that the magic industry would suddenly decide to stop itself – which wasn’t helped that many influential people didn’t even believe or understand what the problem was. It was an unstoppable race downhill.

    So some sorcerers decided to take the matter at their own hands and formed a society to find a solution to this problem. Since they couldn’t demand from people to stop using magic or police magic use (which would need aid from people that had no interest in policing it) they decided to make people “forget” about magic by casting a world wide spell on the earth that would drain the intelligence of human beings. Special devices would counter the intelligence drain effect and those special devices would be placed in areas where these sorcerers would be after the spell.

    The idea was that the spell would only last for a while, but to cast it they needed tremendous effort and the society had to use people that weren’t as proficient as their members were and some of them didn’t had the most altruistic reasons to cooperate with the society. Even within the society, not everyone agreed with the idea – some even thought that the spell would be a good chance to not just police spellcasting but totally make magic something that only themselves would have access too, eventually making them the same as gods.

    Of course, as expected, people messed with the spell and the whole thing backfired, making the whole world a land where intelligence is permanently something that is found only in areas where these devices were originally placed. The sorcerers quickly separated (they were already all over the world, as needed to cast the spell) since everyone had his own goals and regrets (not all of them) about the whole thing – and it didn’t took long to for them to start backstabbing each other.

    Well, this is in some extra detail than i originally planned when i started typing this comment the idea behind Kryfo. Actually this is just one of the ideas, another one was about “intelligence poles” that were created by sorcerers to increase their own powers. To do that, they would need intelligence to be drained from other areas (using some sort sort of power “saturation” around these poles) and this would create the problem. The whole “sorcerers try to gain more than they could chew” idea is a constant part though 😛

    In any case, the player would simply wander on an abandoned village (the one in the demo i showed in the forums) where such a device (or pole) was in effect and gain consciousness for the first time (…probably). In the story i had mentioned above the village would be abandoned because the wizard and his assistants that lived there was killed by another one. In the pole story, these poles would be carriable and one of the villagers would routinely wander off in the forest to find other people which were still in an animal state (and most of them would end being dead since we humans can’t really match up to other animals in wilderness :-P) and the player would be one of them.

    In any case, i never went more with this idea because at some point i thought that it if people aren’t interested in playing a simple FPS game like Rombo, then there is no way they would play a turn based first person Flash RPG. Ok, some would play it, but after almost a million play sessions for three games, i’ve only made about $140 over the course of two years. So basically i thought that it isn’t worth the effort 😛

    That would make more sense as a downloadable, but i’m not sure if i can make such a game myself :-P. Although trying to come up with a story was interesting since every story i had in the games i’ve released so far were as cliche as they could be (not that the one above is soaked in originality but it isn’t “bad wizard is bad, go fetch the trinked that would kill him” like in Rombo or “princess is kidnapped by monsters, go rescue her” like in Dungeon Knight :-P).

    It still is tempting though… 😛

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’ve always thought about this, and it is one of those things that bother me about traditional fantasy, where magic does indeed feel tacked on.

    World building is all about exploring and seeing the ramifications of included elements. I can’t remember who said it, but I always remember the quote: “Predicting the automobile was easy – it was predicting smog, traffic jams, oil shortages, and making out in the backseat that were hard.”

    I remember reading a novel a long time ago, where magic was commonplace, and used much like we would use technology today. The magic was fueled by mana, a natural resource from nature that was like a spirit fuel for all magic. Well, in a kind of parallel to our dependance on oil, the citizens of this world were using up mana faster than the planet could replace it, causing large sections of the planet to become dead and uninhabitable. The rich and powerful hoarded mages and fought over patches of the planet that were still green. That’s the opening scenario of the book,and then one mage discovers that mana can be extracted from the living souls of human beings. . . . His nation becomes a war machine, rolling over the other nations with magic power on a scale not seen in centuries – all the while jealously guarding their new-found knowledge. It was great stuff, and a welcome change of pace.

    Then of course there is Asimov’s great quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Most of our modern gadgets; things like the Kinect, our TVs and computers, our cell phones, our robots (golems?), etc. would all seem like magic to a person from the Middle Ages. Even if you explained it to them it would still seem like magic – “Well, you see the screen is made up of liquid crystals, thousands of them, too tiny to see with the naked eye, that have light passed through them while electric power is passed through strips of metal laid out in circuit designs inside . . . .” I mean, come on, doesn’t that sound like magic? Tiny crystals that are liquid yet solid, powered by energy flowing through diagrams etched in metal. Wow. We are straight up wizards. ;P

  • Tariq Kamal said,

    You know, I’m not sure if I’ve shared this link with you, but it’s an article from James Maliszewski about something called “Gygaxiam Naturalism”:


    Basically he talks about how Gary Gygax, in designing D&D, didn’t just slap on a magic over Ye Olde Medieval Landes: he treated his creation as a living, breathing world, and not just a obstacle course and resource pool for his players. So while yes, you had obvious things like how hard it was to kill a creature, and how effective that creature was in killing you, and what its death would give you, the player, he also made sure that creatures were part of a living, breathing world.

    It’s a lesson that more often than not is missing in a lot of games and fantasy works.

  • Bad Sector said,

    There is a chance that sometime in the future we invented time travel, went back to middle ages to show them our tech so they advance faster, but instead of advancing faster they couldn’t understand the tech and thus magic was born 😛

  • Modran said,

    Add to that the fact that in most games, magic is for fighting. You’re lucky if you have a spell for flying, and one for teleporting, but you have 5 of fire, 4 of ice, and so on, and so on.
    If I had access to magic, I would use it just as we use technology: to make my life easier :p.

  • xenovore said,

    I’ve contemplated magic systems while doing world design, and I like to compare magic directly to the technology level that we have today: electricity, communications, petroleum, modern weapons… I.e. if magic is to be ubiquitous, then how would it take the place of electricity, firearms, bombs, gasoline-powered stuff, etc. There would probably be magical solutions to lighting, heating, transportation, lawn-mowing, hedge-trimming, cloths-washing, telephones, etc. And if people couldn’t all use magic directly, they’d know a guy down the street who could. (Harry Potter does feel this way to some extent: magic there tends to be quite utilitarian.)

    And that all sounds quite mundane to me, pretty boring stuff really — I don’t want a magic system that everyone accepts and uses. I want magic to be mysterious, and perhaps a little scary.

    One way to make it more interesting is simply to put some limitations on it:
    * Not everyone has the intelligence to figure it out. (Sort of the standard D&D take on it.)
    * Not everyone has the ability to tap the power source. (Wheel of Time uses this.)
    * The power source is scarce so not everyone can find it and use it.
    * The power source is too abundant/powerful for most people to want/be able to access it (without dying).
    * Magic was once ubiquitous, but somebody killed a whole bunch of people with it once, so now it’s banned/limited to a select few.

    Everyone should read the Darksword trilogy by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. It has some interesting ideas for what might happen if magic were common-place.

    Quote: “If it’s a predictable system, with its own understood laws, doesn’t it become some kind of science?”

    I think there should be a science — a defined framework and laws — behind a magic system; at least the designer should know the science behind their system. It can still remain weird and mysterious to the reader, or the game player; at least initially — it’s always fun and interesting to figure out how a magic system works (e.g. Wheel of Time again).

  • xenovore said,

    The word I was looking for which sums up the final paragraph there: coherence. A magic system should feel coherent — like, maybe it doesn’t all make sense but it’s still in harmony with itself. For example, if you can summon dogs, you should be able to summon cats. Or badgers. Or weasels. Or any other small mammals. Or any mammals at all. Or if not any mammals at all, a clearly defined reason for why only small mammals (e.g. too much mass takes too much power). Anyway, I think you get what I’m saying here…

  • xenovore said,

    Ok, last post… (Can you tell I love talking about magic systems?) =)

    I forgot to mention another world setting with a cool magic system: Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea. (Another series everyone should read.) There, magic is somewhat ubiquitous — everyone knows about it — but there at some great limitations that keep it from being taken for granted:
    * You have to possess some innate ability to even be able to work magic.
    * Serious magic requires the “true names” of everything in the world; a lot of effort must be put forth to simply find and learn these names.
    * All parts of the world are interconnected and balanced, so magic cannot be used frivolously — making it rain here might create a desert there.

  • WCG said,

    I must admit that I’m tired of magic. There’s too much magical-thinking even in real-life, and in fantasies, it’s just a way to do whatever you want, without thinking about it.

    I still play fantasy RPGs, of course, but I’d love to see more SF RPGs (NOT first-person shooters!) which use technology, instead of magic. A sufficiently-advanced technology can do anything magic can do, but it has to make at least SOME sense.

    And the user of that technology doesn’t have to know how to make it, but only how to use it. That means that anyone can do it, but training and experience still matter.

  • Jonathan Lovelace said,

    Another possible limitation on “magic” is that it takes so much effort to use it that if there is a nonmagical way to do something, you generally use that instead. The best exploration of this that I’ve seen in fiction is Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife series, which (aside from having the heroine save the world in Chapter 4 of the first book) has a scene in which the hero shows the heroine how a Lakewalker (groundsense, the magic equivalent, is a Lakewalker racial trait) moves a bowl across a table: he reaches out his hand and shoves it. The only even remotely frivolous use of groundwork (i.e. magic) they use (as far as I remember being mentioned) is bouncing mosquitoes and (as children) calling fireflies.