Monday, May 27, 2024

The Cost of Power

One of the many ways that fantasy roleplaying games differ from their pulp fantasy inspirations concerns the use of magic. With comparatively few exceptions, pulp fantasy depicts magic as, at best, wild and unpredictable and, at worst, as outright diabolical. RPGs, meanwhile, treat magic almost as a form of technology, an instrument that is neither inherently good nor bad and that, if used with appropriate training, rarely if ever presents any danger to its user. 

The most obvious exceptions that come to my mind are Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu and Stormbringer, both of which explicitly caution against the use of magic by characters, precisely because of its inherent danger. A more recent exception is Goodman Games' Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game. Of course, two of the aforementioned RPGs are based directly on foundational works of pulp fantasy, while the other self-avowedly looks to pulp literature for its inspiration. There may be a few other contrary examples here and there, but, for the most part, fantasy roleplaying games have followed the lead of Dungeons & Dragons in treating magic purely instrumentally – differing from safe, reliable technology only in esthetics.
Back in Dragon #65 (September 1982), Phil Foglio lampooned this to good effect in his What's New with Phil & Dixie. In this particular strip, Phil claims that the differences between medieval and science fiction RPGs can be summed up in one word: none. When Dixie objects, he then provides her with a series of examples to prove his point that, while tendentious, nevertheless contain a ring of truth. The comic even invokes Clarke's Third Law for additional support.
If you look at the history of the hobby over the last half-century, the paradigm of magic-as-technology has clearly been the most common. Whether that's because D&D set the pattern by adopting it or because it's just a simpler and perhaps even more fun way to handle magic, I can't say. Still, as a fan of dangerous magic, it's hard not to be a little saddened by how rarely it's been employed in RPGs over the decades. Perhaps it's time for a change ...


  1. While the idea of diabolical or fallible magic is prevalent in pulp S&S books, you see far less of that kind of thing in classic fairy tales (at least, amongst any wizards worth their salt) and these provide at least some of the inspiration for D&D. Gygax was no great fan of LotR but (per his son) was a HUGE fan of Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and Gandalf's magic is nothing if not proficient and pure.

    To its credit, old D&D DOES take pains to make some of the more potent wizardry more dicey affairs (no pun intended). Contact Other Plane, Teleport, and Reincarnation aren't without their dangers; the same holds true for conjurations (Elementals, Cacodemon, and over-taxed Invisible Stalkers). Gate can accidentally bring undesired attention from powerful others (very pulp, that), Astral travel is not without its dangers, and many potent spells require high material costs or exact a heavy toll on their casters (aging from Haste and Wish, personality change on Polymorphed henchfolk). It's not all wine and least, not in 1st edition AD&D.

    But if a LOT of magic seems safe and secure compared to its pulp counterparts, it should be noted that magic-users are hamstrung (er, "balanced") in ways that don't apply to their literary forebears, specifically with regard to weapons and armor. So...yeah. I'm cool with it. Plenty of other RPGs offer more dangerous magic (both Ars Magica and DragonQuest had some pretty nasty "fumble" charts for spell-casters)...but D&D is dangerous enough. Let the thieves be the gamblers with their chance at misreading scrolls (though ALL casters have issues reading scrolls of higher level magic). The dangers that need to be "built-in" to the system are there to prune the unwise from the magical ranks. What...have you never seen a magic-user blow themselves up with a fireball or rebound a lightning bolt?
    ; )

    1. You're absolutely correct about fairy tales and their importance in understanding Gygax's vision of the game. None are specifically cited in Appendix N, but he does mention the stories his father told him as a child and the role they played in forming his sense of fantasy.

  2. I adored that Phil Foglio strip when it appeared, and even xeroxed a panel for use in a high school paper I wrote.

  3. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplaying also has radically unsafe magic that can easily corrupt, injure or kill a would-be caster and/or their allies, and being identified as a magician can result in being burned at the stake. It's something to be used sparingly and comes with real risks and social drawbacks.

    Free League's Forbidden Lands is another modern RPG where magic is so prone to catastrophic failure that I question if anyone capable of doing basic probability calculations is ever going to play one of the caster professions (essentially D&D-style classes). You can just barely cast simple spells safely with the right mix of prep and materials, and the more powerful spells are staggeringly potent, but regularly taking any risk at all while casting absolutely will kill you sooner or later. Magic in FL is stupidly risky when compared to supposedly "mundane" professional tricks like an peddler's ability to reliably pull gear and cash out of nowhere, none of which backfire the way magic does.

  4. I’d argue that using magic in 1st Edition is incredibly dangerous. It may not accidentally cause demons to appear or vaporize you to cast it, but the act of walking into a dungeon full of monsters and traps armed only with a robe and the one instance of Detect Magic you prepared for that entire day is pretty deadly. If we extrapolate from Clarke’s Third Law, it might be sufficiently close to technology, but it is tantamount to walking into a warzone armed with a thermometer.

  5. There are some official rules, check out the incantations in the 3.X version of Unearthed Arcana. Between backlash, which is automatic, and failure results the caster(s) can suffer greatly. As for unofficial rules, I adore the tables and suggestions in the article Oops, Sorry in Dragon 163. It is all about spell botches and the fun both the DM and player can have with them.

  6. Dangerous magic can certainly add to the plot of a good fantasy novel... And holy moley, I had forgotten all about Phil and Dixie! That was a great series... tangentially, I think I need to pull out my SnarfQuest compendiums for a repeat reading!

  7. Golly it sure is odd that this here vancian magic system is some sort of science fantasy!

  8. Cf. Terithran by Ronald Hall.
    White Dwarf #13 (June 1979), pp. 12-13.
    FIEND FOLIO, p. 87.

  9. The simplicity and reliability of magic makes sense when considering how basic early D&D really was. The rules for magic make it easy to explain and use at the table. You have a set number of spells, you can use them once per game.

    Heck it's so easy it can be ported to board games like Dungeon! That just gives the wizard cards to represent spells.

    The problem with D&D magic (and other rules) came when people wanted in world explanations to justify the game mechanics.

    I'm all for adding the complexity of more robust spell systems, but I'm also happy with accepting game mechanics as ways to speed or simplify play.

  10. league's symbaroum and cubicle seven's broken weave both offer recent examples of spellcasting made dangerous through corruption mechanics...

  11. The original version of the Deadlands hucksters (the primary "arcane casters" of the setting) was so dangerous that playing one usually led to swift death for the character.

  12. Which is why my favourite game was 1st edition Pendragon (which you ran for us), in which no player plays a magician, but every character encounters magic with awe, fear and envy.

  13. Perhaps not entirely comparable here, but it seems to me that D&D's (5e) Sorcerer class feature of 'Wild Magic (Surge)', certainly can lead to 'interesting' and/or even outright deadly results.,state:sub-wild-phb=b1

  14. I hate magic as mundane, and dispell that as quickly as possible...

  15. IIRC HMS Apollyon spellcasting had a risk vs reward mechanic where the more potent spells were less reliably cast

  16. Uh, rolemaster spell failure? :)


  17. In Shadowdark, you must roll dice to be successful in casting a spell, meaning there is always a chance of failure. In the World of Xoth campaign setting, magic is limited to sorcerers and is always a dark, nefarious and corrupting affair.

  18. I wouldn't say technology is neutral at all.

    Technology almost always spawns from the economic system that spawns them... and economic systems can be very "value driven" in terms of production, expansion, etc. They can have variable uses but their "telos" largely mirrors their economy.

    Technology/tools developed by hunter-gatherers are far more anarchistic in use and less specialization in reproduction.

    Technology developed in agrarian economies start to become about intensive production, ecological "terraforming", far more division of labor/specialization, warfare, medical tech for viruses/diseases because of proximity to domesticated animals, etc.

    Magic in most medieval fantasy games is fairly bent on combat/feuding/warfare. Magic in a less militaristic (or semi-shamanic) society would probably develop FAR differently... Even things like revenge against witchcraft starts to develop in settled horticultural/pastoral societies because of their relationship to their biosphere (feast/famine paranoia).

    Magic can mean many things based on the society/economy that develops it.

    A bushmen trance dance for communal healing with a sharing economy is far different logic than 4+ medieval gangsters with phantom uzi's and bazookas in purpose of plunder.