Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Of Magick & Magicians

In my never-ending quest to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of the hobby's history, I've been reading the 1983 edition of Chivalry & Sorcery quite closely. Its treatment of magic (or magick, as it insists on calling it) is remarkable and I suspect I'll be raiding it for ideas in my Dwimmermount campaign.

In any case, I came across the following quote, which really set the tone:
If Magick is a form of knowledge, then the Magician should be seen as a seeker after knowledge. He is not a mere weapons technologist, as presented in some FRP games. He will not serve gold or power hungry individuals. Nor will he act as a heavily armed magical escort for glory-seeking adventurers simply because they need a compact magical S.W.A.T. team to take care of really dangerous foes. He has little interest in gaining possession of the magical devices of other Mages, because he can produce his own. His sole passion is to learn all of the secrets of the Arcane Arts -- the very secrets of the universe as he sees it. He is curious. He has to know the Truth! That Truth will most certainly give him great Powers, but it is in the knowing, not the exercise of Power, that the Magician finds his fulfillment ...

This does not rule out the excitement of an adventure. Only the Magician has some deep motive for going. He stands to learn something new or is attempting to forestall some terrible disaster. He doesn't go for ordinary reasons; for he is not an ordinary man.
I won't speak for anyone else, but found these passages quite evocative and compelling. They're a good example of understanding that magic should be, well, magical and not ersatz technology. The magic-user in D&D, even in its earliest versions, often strays a little too close to being "a mere weapons technologist" and that's a shame, because nothing about magic should ever be so simple or straightforward.

27 comments:

  1. If you liked those passages about magick, you'll really enjoy White Wolf's original Mage: The Ascension (preferably 2nd Edition) and almost any of Ars Magica's five editions (preferably NOT 3rd).

    ReplyDelete
  2. As it happens, I like both those games.

    ReplyDelete
  3. >He has little interest in gaining possession of the magical devices of other Mages, because he can produce his own<

    But why not also covet the items of others? That is kind of what D&D is about. You can make your own magical whatever down the road, but for now you just need to survive.

    C&S had a lot of great things that I used (I think charts and stuff...haven't looked at it for 20 years) in my AD&D, but my brief pondering of using some of the magic system, or that of Authentic Thaumaturgy (sp) or whatever else, would really have changed the game a lot. Not for good or bad necessarily, but it is what it is.

    I knew people in the 80's (mostly at the game shop I hung out at) who went to C&S because they didn't like the rest/memorize system of D&D. They didn't try to plug another system into it, because at that point you might as well have just played C&S instead of D&D. That's exaclty what they did.

    Although I do agree that the magic system almost always benefits from some tweaking, I have resisted giant changes so as to not make this a different style of game.

    Under the AD&D System, including the spells in UA, a wizard does not have to be a techo-weapon combat mage if that is not what they want to run. There are plenty of "knowledge" spells in the PH alone to cover a non-combat mage. I have seen smart players do it (won't be so presumptuous to include myself there) to great affect. One went on the be a big shot in the cities Sage Guild. He hardly ever cast a killing spell.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Agreed, the quote is nicely written and a fairly convincing case for a sort of "above it all" style of playing a magic-user type. In my inveterate role as devil's advocate/general pain in the ass, I'd have to say it doesn't fit too well with the pulp archetypes that come immediately to mind (not that that is necessarily a problem for me, just trying to make a point). Rhialto the Marvelous, for instance, arguably the greatest mage from Vance's Dying Earth cycle, is a self-serving, willfully ignorant glory seeker. Elric...well, nuff said. Most other wizard types are either villains (POWER!) or otherwise somewhat shady characters (Eibon of Hyperborea, the Gray Mouser) who hardly hold the Truth as a high ideal.

    Now I know I'm stirring the pot again, but trying to be constructive this time. I have heard (never played or read it) that Chivalry and Sorcery attempts to be somewhat more "realistic" in the sense that it clings to a semi-accurate portrayal of medieval European culture. Would you say that the magic-using type described in the quote is inspired by the historical alchemist? Or put another way, how do you see this approach to magic in comparison to the OD&D/AD&D spell slinger?

    ReplyDelete
  5. If you can't tell Ars Magica was a major inspiration for my Majestic Wilderlands.

    http://home.earthlink.net/~wilderlands/magic.html

    Also Harn Magic has a similar philosophy but different implementation to Ars Magica and Chivalry & Sorcery.

    http://www.columbiagames.com/cgi-bin/query/cfg/zoom.cfg?product_id=4301

    ReplyDelete
  6. One thing that would worry me is the possibility that this would make the magic-using characters a huge focus of the game, which is great in Mage or Ars Magica, but poison to your typical D&D campaign.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thinking about D&D, I'm actually okay if most NPC wizards think like this, but the PC wizards have in fact mostly gone outcast/ rogue/ mercenary, and have semi-corrupted their pristine magic for baser rewards. This is more like Cugel or the wizards from Vance. It also keeps the party motivation all synchronized.

    Finally, you've got Elves with their widespread magic-use, what are their goals (perhaps largely a jest in many circumstances)? I don't see much benefit to prescribing a fixed motivation to every member of a certain class.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Let me stress BTW that I am not advocating the total abandonment of D&D's traditional approach to magic and magic-users. I'm only saying that I think there's something to be learned -- and stolen -- from C&S's more "elevated" treatment of the topic. Obviously, as someone who knows and loves the pulp fantasy roots of the game, I don't have any problems with mercenary and venal mages, but that doesn't mean I can't learn some useful lessons from other approaches.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My biggest complaint about D&D since its earliest days (yeah, I know, I complain about D&D a lot) is that it is the most 'unmagical' feeling fantasy game I have ever encountered. Its magic is more akin to science and technology, far more a gadget then a thing of mystery and wonder.

    Instead of playing against that realization, I have tried to go with it in the few D&D campaigns I've run, embracing the end result of a magically achieved near-advanced society (Continual Light streetlamps, fairly common and affordable healing and disease control, magically capable constables to prevent arcane crimes, etc.).

    I'm not a big fantasy fan but when I do play it I want it to feel fantastic and generally prefer Ars Magica, Mage, Pendragon and others with a perception of magic similar to that described by C&S.

    AD
    Barking Alien

    ReplyDelete
  10. "My biggest complaint about D&D since its earliest days (yeah, I know, I complain about D&D a lot) is that it is the most 'unmagical' feeling fantasy game I have ever encountered."

    This can be true, but I feel that a good DM can more than compensate for this. Remember: The magic rules are constraints on *PC magic-users*, not on magic in the DM's campaign as such.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Its magic is more akin to science and technology, far more a gadget then a thing of mystery and wonder<

    But isn't that a lot of fun, and a reason why a lot of people want to run M.U.'s?

    It has been a long time since I read The Golden Bough, but in most areas of the old world (and some of the new world) magic was of the "throw down two sticks and skull, spit on them, and then wait for the rains to come." Boring, and the type of thing that isn't going to help get you alive out of the dungeon.

    I went through a Wiccan stage in my early 20's (most of us fallen Catholics like to experiment), and I actually was out in the wood or up in the yard at nights lighting candles, ringing bells, burning incense, and praying for this and that. Sometimes my wishes came true, sometimes they didn't, but the chicks sort of dug it. Personally, for a game I think the *wizzbangpow* of D&D magic, or Harry Potter's Wizarding World magic (very much like advanced technology) is way more fun.

    I get panicky lately that you are just trying to have a different game but still call it "D&D" James, but you are right. It's cool to take some small distinctions from other games. I have never known a DM who didn't think the magic system needed at least a little tweaking. Lots of holes in it.

    ReplyDelete
  12. This post is driving me nuts. I've been trying to track down an affordable copy of the FGU version of C&S and have failed miserably.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I have a soft spot for C&S, even if the detail could drive one to distraction. I loved the approach to magic and the pseudo-medieval setting. Too bad it's attempted revival (the 3rd and 4th editions) went nowhere.

    ReplyDelete
  14. This image is certainly closer to the wizards of myth and fables, but for my own enjoyment, I prefer the backstabbing bastards of Jack Vance, whose magic in the Dying Earth stories is quasi-technological - conforming to rigid rules but ill understood by its users. In many ways, the D&D magic system is more appropriate to a game which, while it adopts some historical trappings, is very 20th century in its philosophy. (Coincidentally, I also consider pulp quintessentially modern literature.)

    The SWAT team aspect is more an outgrowth of D&D's dungeoneering tradition than its pulp heritage, and I appreciate it in moderation, but lose interest when taken to its extremes (there is a sort of efficiency in play that I find boring either as a DM or as a player).

    ReplyDelete
  15. Melan, you took the words out of my mouth re: Dying Earth.

    The magic of the Dying Earth is barely understood by those rare erudite few who are able to use it at all. Magic does have a technological appearance there not because magic itself is reduced to a mere technology, but because the understanding of magic even by those who know it best is so impoverished. It's as if to say that mystery devolves into technology when the ability to perceive it as mystery is lost.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Speaking of essays on the nature of rpgs in C&S, my favourite has to be "Monsters Are People Too" by Ed Simbalist(Sourcebook I). The example of the goblin patrol leader totally changed how I think about monsters. Very highly reccomended.

    [The accompanying essay on "How To Design C&S Monsters" (ibid) also has some wonderful ideas on the nature of magical universes (and the creatures therein).]

    C&S was, IMNSHO, one of the first games to get gamemasters to ask "why is this so?"

    ReplyDelete
  17. While I do like to maintain some arcane stuff in D&D, Gygaxian Naturalism suggests that Mages have jobs and use their magic for profit and the benefit of the community. There are hints at that with Unearthed Arcana's cantrips, and the social economic stuff Gary started writing for D&D and ended up putting into Dangerous Journeys and LA.

    It stands to reasons that Wizards would have to do something within society--they shouldn't just sit in the tower and ignore society.

    So, in other words, while powerful wizards are fierce and scary, they should be balanced with this knowledge

    ReplyDelete
  18. Great post, great thread. I've always liked that quote, as well as the intro to the man-at-arms that deals with his social position.

    C&S... somewhat more "realistic"I used to think this when I played it as a teenager, now I really don't. Perhaps there's more of a reach for a "Robin Hood naturalism," but it's still far from "authentically medieval" whatever that means. In particular, I think the magicians are nothing like anything but literature (cf. Brunomac)... and that's good. My only question is, are they satisfying to play. IMHO, yes - more than D&D MUs and almost as much as Ars Magica magi.

    mystery devolves into technology when the ability to perceive it as mystery is lostThis is a delicious reversal of the popular trope. Thank you. I think rarity and reliability are probably also large factors.

    Wizards would have to do something within society--they shouldn't just sit in the tower and ignore societyI'm not sure the Brooksian/capitalist Town Alchemist is the answer, though. I know it's tempting to look at John Dee and 16th century Prague and say "they exist!" but if they hadn't been a bunch of old frauds who failed to produce any reliable results, I think we would have seen a totally different social situation - one uncomfortable for the alchemists.

    Most of all I'd like to see a game that provides a clear structure or rationale for why wizards might want to sequester themselves and be scary tower-dwellers - something that replicates itself in play, and doesn't just rely on a popular idea of medieval witch-burning peasant mobs. Even Ars Magica (at least up to 4e: I didn't catch 5) doesn't provide this.

    ReplyDelete
  19. I think I'm going against the grain here.

    I find that quote, and the whole C&S, to be very bland and dry. Mages are wisdom seekers, sure. Mages are in it not for power, but for the Art. *sigh*

    Just like Ars Magica I find this a game where makes pretentiousness get in the way of fun.

    Give me the leering sorcerer who summons a succubus and wants power to rule the world over these dry wisdom seeks, any day!!

    ReplyDelete
  20. My reluctance in fulfilling the idea of magic as knowledge is that I am happy with Vancian magic as is, and that ideal clashes with a looser interpretation of magic as art or knowledge. Seeking knowledge of Vancian magic is, in my mind, seeking to find new ways to bind the raw wild power of magic to do extraordinary things.

    Maybe Korgoth is right in that this is due to an implied degradation in the understanding of how magic works. Then what if some PC manages to break that barrier down, and gains insight, that in my mind could possibly negate the prior understanding, and so rules, for magic? It's a game-changer, something you have to be at least a little prepared for.

    That's where my mind is going anyways.

    ReplyDelete
  21. slightly off topic here, but has anyone done any work on converting Ars Magica style casting (especially the spontaneous creation of spells) into D&D format? I very much like a lot of the basic concepts of Ars Magica and have been thinking about ripping of the magic system and transplanting it into my next D&D campaign, but if someone else has already done the work so much the better...

    ReplyDelete
  22. I did it once, and having done it I realized that some players felt it was totally pointless, and the others loved it.

    My impression was that it in fact turned the game into Ars Magica...

    ReplyDelete
  23. Just to clarify (again): I am not advocating the replacement of the D&D magic system nor am I saying that the pulp fantasy roots of the game, including its venal, "technologist" wizards, ought to be abandoned. I am only saying that there's something to be gained by looking at other sources and mining them for ideas and flavor. Even the tastiest pulp fantasy meal can sometimes use a bit of "exotic" seasoning, don't you think?

    ReplyDelete
  24. Just to clarify (again): I am not advocating the replacement of the D&D magic system nor am I saying that the pulp fantasy roots of the game, including its venal, "technologist" wizards, ought to be abandoned. I am only saying that there's something to be gained by looking at other sources and mining them for ideas and flavor. Even the tastiest pulp fantasy meal can sometimes use a bit of "exotic" seasoning, don't you think?Sure thing. I'm just not sure where this:

    Only the Magician has some deep motive for going. He stands to learn something new or is attempting to forestall some terrible disaster. He doesn't go for ordinary reasons; for he is not an ordinary man....takes us..? I can envision this in restrospect as a reason for Mordenkainen the Mage to go adventuring, but I cannot do the same for one of my PC magic-users. They just don't tick that tock, nor do any PCs that I've DMed for. They're in it for the same reason that any game persona is, to garner gold, to acquire power, to get more spells, to woo wenches, etc. The idea is intriguing from a metagame perspective, and it would be nice if some player out there would oblige, but I just don't see it working as a real PC motivation for adventuring. I guess what I'm saying is that there has to be a payoff, and knowledge for its own sake ain't one, at least not in a gaming setting.

    ReplyDelete
  25. I just don't see it working as a real PC motivation for adventuring.I'm not convinced C&S manages to sell it. Ars Magica does a good job, building some motivators right into the mechanics of being a magus: it's a heavy investment of time, you'll be wanting life-extending potions, which require rare ingredients, etc. There are rules for researching new spells, and the players are encouraged to come up with their own. stuff like that

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.