Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Meaning of Magic

A long-standing beef many gamers have long had with D&D's magic system as written is that it functions identically for both clerics and magic-users, even though clerics are generally held to receive their spells from their deities rather than through memorization. I say "generally held," because OD&D never made this connection explicit, although, to be fair, AD&D did and that edition has exerted the strongest influence over the game's development over the years, while OD&D is relegated to being an evolutionary "dead end."

That's unfortunate, because the AD&D's interpretation makes no sense. If clerics and magic-users both use the same game mechanics -- memorization, spell slots, etc. -- then why do they use two entirely different spell lists? Likewise, why do they learn spells at different rates? Simply saying, "Because the gods grant a cleric's spells" isn't a solution, since it only highlights that, if a cleric's spells have a different origin than a magic-user's, then they should use different mechanics -- at least that's what it says to me.

You'll note, though, that I say "if a cleric's spells have a different origin." That's because I've come to believe that they don't have a different origin and the only way to make sense of the similar but not identical mechanics for both spell casting classes when it comes to magic is to assume that all magic has the same origin. OD&D never spells out this origin and that's for the better, since it lets each referee decide for himself what best suits his campaign. Nevertheless, reading between the lines, it's easy to get the impression that magic is some kind of "natural" aspect of reality that spell casters know how to tap into and manipulate to create various kinds of effects.

If that's so, what differentiates a cleric from a magic-user and why do they have very different spell lists? Again, OD&D isn't explicit on this point, but it is suggestive. A cleric has Wisdom for his Prime Requisite, while a magic-user has Intelligence. Under OD&D as written, neither of those ability scores has any game mechanical effects, except the determination of the experience point bonus (if any) the character receives. And yet the rules specify two different abilities as the Prime Requisite for these classes. What does that suggest? To me, it suggests that Intelligence and Wisdom represent two different "philosophies" or approaches to magic, the former about understanding the ambient energies of the universe in order to control them and the latter about using those energies to achieve enlightenment -- in short the Way of Intelligence and the Way of Wisdom.

Under my interpretation, both are "sorcerers" in a broad sense, for both tap into the same universal power source. The difference is that magic-users bend that power to their wills, which is why they acquire spells faster and their magicks are generally destructive and self-aggrandizing. Clerics, on the other hand, bend themselves to match the warp and weft of the universe's power; they improve themselves in accordance with its laws. Many clerics use gods -- who are more truly distant "supernatural" beings -- as foci in this process of magical enlightenment, but not all clerics do so. Many are reclusive hermits or wise men who achieve wisdom without the need for intermediaries. OD&D clearly supports this, since the rules barely ever mention gods at all or their connection to clerics. Likewise, both pulp fantasy and chivalric romances, both of which were major influences on OD&D, often include the character of a wise old man with the ability to heal or read the fates without any explicit notion that their powers are "divine," even though both abilities are closely tied to the D&D cleric archetype.

But what of evil clerics, which OD&D calls, suggestively, "anti-clerics?" My own feeling is that such individuals are twisted reflections of true clerics. Under the direction of their foul deities or, worse yet, demons and devils, they seek to put the Way of Wisdom toward corrupt ends. Like shadows, though, they cannot exist without the light. Evil clerical magic is thus a mirror image of the good, a pale imitation. Under OD&D rules, anti-clerics could only cast the reversed versions of clerical spells and I think this notion works well with my interpretation.

Like many aspects of D&D, its magic system isn't one that can withstand close scrutiny, as it's mostly a convenient game mechanic rather than a carefully considered metaphysical system. Nevertheless, I think the system we have can be made to work in a way that's more internally consistent, flavorful, and evocative of the game's pulp fantasy heritage.

16 comments:

  1. I've never had this problem with the magic system personally, probably due to my dislike for spell points...and a lack of giving it any serious thought. But this is useful theory of magic for them what needs one!

    It supports the differences in the way the Clerics and Magic-Users learn new spells as well, in that clerics gain them through revelation but magic-users must discover them through research, plunder or trade.

    One could easily use this explanation to justify adding other types of casters and spell lists -- perhaps even basing them on other statistics. What might the CON based Way of Discipline or the DEX based Way of Alacrity be like?

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  2. James Edward Raggi IVMay 5, 2008 at 6:14 AM

    "If clerics and magic-users both use the same game mechanics -- memorization, spell slots, etc. -- then why do they use two entirely different spell lists? Likewise, why do they learn spells at different rates? Simply saying, "Because the gods grant a cleric's spells" isn't a solution, since it only highlights that, if a cleric's spells have a different origin than a magic-user's, then they should use different mechanics -- at least that's what it says to me."

    Not by the book or anything, but my feelings on the matter:

    Simple: Magic is magic, clerical magic and magic-user magic are really the same things, they're just accessing it differently.

    Clerical magic is delivered by the gods, or the servants of the gods. "These are the things we think you should be able to do." Cure Light Wounds was probably the same from the time people first had communication with deities/from the time the deities created man.

    Magic-users take the magical power and decide for themselves what they want, and through their research figure out how to achieve it. Sure, in "current time" we have Bigby's this and that, all that Mordenkainen stuff, but at some point in the past, Magic Missile was some brand new thing someone figured out how to do and it was probably called Bob's Magic Missile until it became ubiquitious. George's Spellificent Slumber got so common people just called it Sleep for shorthand.

    But it's essentially the same amorphous *stuff* that people are utilizing through the form of spells, which is why clerics and magic users have essentially identical ways of organizing, preparing, and casting their spells.

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  3. Ha! This is great! Thank you very much for posting this. There are all sorts of neat directions you can take these simple ideas.

    - Brian

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  4. Re: Way of Discipline, etc.

    That's an interesting thought. It certainly lays the groundwork for differing approaches to spell casting in OD&D. I'm not sure I'd necessarily use any of them myself, but then I'm a traditionalist (big shock, I know).

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  5. One could easily use this explanation to justify adding other types of casters and spell lists -- perhaps even basing them on other statistics. What might the CON based Way of Discipline or the DEX based Way of Alacrity be like?

    Perhaps DEX-based magic is called being a high-level thief? And STR-based "magic" manifests in low THAC0s and lots of hit point, allowing high-level fighters to vanquish foes far too dangerous to be faced by normal men?

    - Brian

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  6. Re: DEX magic, etc.

    I'm not keen to go that route, as I think it's a case of stretching a principle too far. More to the point, it makes D&D more magical than I want it to be -- certainly more magical than a pulp fantasy interpretation of it can bear.

    That said, I think it'd be fine under some interpretations of the game. It's just not one that much interests me at the present time.

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  7. Yeah, it would stretch the game away from its core archetypes, true. I'm just tossing ideas around. The multiple flavors of psion based on different prime stats was one of the things I liked best about 3e psionics.

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  8. IIRC, when Men & Magic mentions spell books, it says “spellcaster” rather than “magic-user”, which can imply that clerics require spell books too.

    Now, in my mind, magic-users—even lawful ones—tend to be jealous of their spells. They are loathe to share power with another magic-user. Even with an apprentice, the master generally only shares some of his spells.

    (Magic-users who serve good causes probably rationalize this thinking that it is important that they keep power like theirs from falling into the wrong hands.)

    Many orders of clerics, however, are different. (Again, in my mind.) They are about advancing a cause instead of advancing themselves. So, an order will make all of its spells available to all of its members.

    Well, OK. They may hold certain spells back for only the elite within the order.

    They are, however, loathe to share a spell with a different order. So different orders may have different spells.

    (One of the things I like about “clerics require spell books” is that avoids the “why didn’t the gods ever grant this spell before” when you introduce a new cleric spell.)

    * * *

    Yeah. From a sword & sorcery point-of-view, it can be better to view the cleric as a “white mage” than a priest. (Anti-clerics as evil priests fit into most sword & sorcery worlds better than clerics as lawful priests.)

    Mechanically, I have always seen the oD&D cleric as really the “fighting-man/magic-user”. He gives up some of the fighting-man’s combat prowess for spell casting. He gives up the magic-user’s spell selection for one more in line with his in-between role.

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  9. I know split classes are anathema to your OD&D orientation, but I wonder how a cleric/MU would work on this schema, deriving power both through wisdom (dao) and intelligence (will)?
    ...actually, was it ever OK to be a cleric/MU?

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  10. Hi James,

    I recently discovered your blog in the process of reacquainting myself with the AD&D world of my childhood/teenage years and I have been enjoying it tremendously. I wonder how long you can keep posting so often before you exhaust yourself!

    Anyway, this post about magic and its comments reflect a lot of what I've been thinking about in the wake of reading a bunch of D&D-influencing fantasy books, including Three Hearts and Three Lions (at long last). In that book, the same hag heals Holger and then, calling it just a bit of "white magic", summons a clearly brimstone-snorting demon from hell to advise him on his troubles. In this context, "white magic" is etymologically the same as a "white lie"-- still morally turpitudinous, but hey, I'm not hurting anybody so there's no need to call the Inquisition, right?

    This suggests to me a milieu (arguably appropriate for pulp fantasy) where all magicians get access to a spell list re-compiled to include both cleric and M-U stuff, and whether it's "black" or "white" is just a matter of prevailing local standards, which could range from fanatically scrupulous to totally hypocritical.

    Thanks again for an entertaining blog,

    Rod

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  11. Mechanically, I have always seen the oD&D cleric as really the “fighting-man/magic-user”.

    I think that's absolutely correct. It's one of the elements of the cleric that keeps getting lost or watered down in subsequent conceptions of the class and it's one I'd like to see brought back to the fore.

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  12. Re: cleric/MU

    These were always possible, at least from AD&D on (technically, you can do it in OD&D too, but there are few rules for multiclassing). While it's true that I'm not keen on multiclassing in general, in this case, there is something "dramatically" interesting about a guy who tries to combine the will-working of the MU with the "zen" of the cleric. Such a person would either be a madman or a saint, which is why I think they have a place in the game, especially in a pulp fantasy conception of it.

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  13. Re: Combined spell list

    My main objection to it is my principle that "D&D is always right." The game has always made a sharp distinction between MU and cleric spells, with MUs not being able to heal, that I didn't feel I could just change that without justification. Now, I think it'd be possible to go this route without too much trouble -- I believe TSR's old Lankhmar modules did just this -- and I think it definitely captures some of the flavor of pulp fantasy. I simply prefer to keep the classes and spell lists distinct out of respect for D&D tradition.

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  14. “(technically, you can do it in OD&D too, but there are few rules for multiclassing)”

    Although, this is actually a place where oD&D has something to say. Men & Magic p. 10

    “In any event Magic-Users cannot become Clerics and vice-versa.”

    ...but, ya know, them is only what we call “guide-lines” (^_^)

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  15. You're right! I'd totally forgotten that line. Guideline though it may be, I always take very seriously those rare occasions were OD&D specifically rules something out. The game is so rarely definite about anything that, when it is, it's something worth paying attention to.

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  16. So, I've just decided that I'm going to start my own OSR Blog as I pick up 1E again after a many year absence.

    I decided to read you blog from the beginning because I've been enjoying it rdecently as I drifted towards the decision to start up with AD&D again.

    Back in the day, we just made sense of that sort of nonsense with the ruling that clerics didn't have to memorize their spells beforehand and always had access to their full spell list.

    It never seemed to unbalance things for us and made a pretty clear differentiation between the two classes.

    D.

    P.S. And thanks for a great blog!

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