In yesterday's post on the article "Realistic Vital Statistics," reader Joe Nuttall rightly notes that "the desire for 'realism' ... didn't start in the Silver Age." I completely agree with his statement. The desire for greater "realism" is a tendency as old as the hobby itself. Indeed, I'd suggest it predates it and is in fact a strand of DNA retained from roleplaying's wargaming roots. What's interesting is that some of what we call "realism" isn't actually about realism at all; rather, it's about "properly" translating something into game mechanical form. This could be falling damage or heights and weights or it could be, as it so often was in the Silver Age, the "laws" of drama. But back in the Golden Age, there was a quite (in)famous example of attempting to promote "realism" so understood when dealing with magic.
First published in 1978 (and revised and expanded two decades later), Authentic Thaumaturgy was written by Isaac Bonewits and published by Chaosium with the provocative subtitle of "a professional occulist on improving the realism of magic systems used in fantasy simulation games." Bonewits is usually touted as "the only person ever to earn a degree in Magic from the University of California," a statement that's always baffled me. In the late '60s and throughout the 1970s, he was an important and influential figure in various occult organizations, including the Reformed Druids of North America, where he acted as a priest, and the Church of Satan, though his association with the latter was short-lived due to differences of opinion with its founder, Anton LaVey. I mention all of this background because it's now commonplace to mock the "Satanic panic" of the 1980s as being wholly without foundation, especially when it came to our hobby. But the fact is that, from the first, fantasy roleplaying did attract people with genuine interest in the occult, many of whom infused their gaming with ideas derived from their esoteric beliefs. Authentic Thaumaturgy is one of the more famous examples of this.
I didn't see Authentic Thaumaturgy back in the day, but I knew of its existence. It was one of those books, like Arduin, that older gamers of my acquaintance spoke about in hushed tones. I got the sense back then that Authentic Thaumaturgy was viewed as a book of "real" magic and thus to be avoided. But, like so many such things, the reality was quite different. When I finally got a chance to see a copy, I have to admit that I was disappointed by what a slight and banal thing it was. This was no black grimoire but a rather amateurishly put together bit of theorizing that took itself very seriously, as so many of us are wont to do. I don't mean that as a criticism of Authentic Thaumaturgy, which for all its faults, is an intriguing book. I mention it mostly to put the book's reputation and reality into context, at least as I experienced it in the early '80s.
Though published by Chaosium, Authentic Thaumaturgy was not written with RuneQuest or any flavor of Basic Roleplaying in mind. Indeed, the book isn't really written with any RPG in mind. Instead, Bonewits devotes himself to providing theories of magic for use in gaming, whatever game you happen to be playing. His goal is not specifically to "convert" anyone to his own beliefs but rather to show how one can take a "realistic" approach to magic and use it as a basis for presenting magic in a roleplaying game. To do this, Bonewits presents various "laws" of magic, along with discussions of the essence and limitations of magic, all of its written in a rather dry, almost academic tone. Bonewits himself clearly believed in much of what he was presenting in Authentic Thaumaturgy but he wrote like a professor rather than an evangelist.
Unfortunately, it's this dryness that, in my opinion, limits the book's utility as a gaming supplement. Don't get me wrong: it's fascinating reading, both as a historical document and as an exploration of a contentious topic, but most of it is not immediately useful in bringing magical "realism" to one's games, or at least it didn't seem so to me. And, like all types of realism, I'll admit that I don't see the point. Bonewits, for example, takes Gary Gygax to task for his presentation of magic in D&D and, while his points undoubtedly have validity from a certain perspective, they also miss the point that, while D&D magic may not be "realistic," especially to an occultist, it is eminently playable. Like the much derided abstractions of D&D's combat system, D&D's magic system has survived because it works, despite the efforts of generations of game designers who think otherwise.