Thursday, January 30, 2014

Training in the Use of Magic

I received the comment below on a 2010 post, from Taren. It's a good chance to change the subject. The comment has been slightly tailored; be sure to have a look at the whole:

"I have a question about your handling of the spells... so let's say a caster has his 8 spells learned and those are what he has available for the day... and forever (until he goes up levels). How do you handle the idea of having the character discover new spells or learn from a defeated wizard's spell book? Do you allow the character make a change to his list at some point, and have that be the new list henceforth? Would your character have to wait until he acquired a spell slot at a new level? I ask because I have in the past liked giving unique spell books or spells as part of a hard-won treasure. I'm wondering how you handle that sort of thing."

Starting with the post about magic changing the world, I've been hearing things suggesting that magic is seen very differently by many people in the blogosphere than how I see it. Two examples (among many others) would be the ability of one person to pour magic out from their hands like a flooding river or the idea that 1 person in 10 could be possessed of magic. I find both ideas ... bewildering.

Let us say that magic exists, but that it hasn't been 'discovered' yet. That is, the exact sequence of phrases, gestures or mindset hasn't been stumbled upon, or perhaps it was but it has long since been lost ... and all this time we've been living in a world with magic, but that it's hidden to us. This would mean that everything we've learned from science (which is a methodology and not an ideology, though it is often described as one by those who do not understand how it works) retains its merit. Moreover, physics continues to function as it always has, only that it can be circumvented by means that we as yet do not understand.

A sword, then, still swings through the air like a sword. It still resounds upon armor, it still cleaves flesh. The physical means by which the sword is compelled remains one that is exhausting, and one that takes experience and training to employ well. It is an effort, not merely physical, but mental as well, and as one swings a sword for several hours, surviving in a battle that rages on and on, one's mind degrades from dehydration, sugar depletion, excessive hormonal activity and so on. Hell, five minutes of such work would be enough to leave the fighter panting and needful of a moment's respite ... which good training acknowledges, as full-on physical and mental activity is debilitating.

We must assume, then, that magic, engendered somehow from or through the user, either as a source or a conduit, must also be at least mentally exhausting. Consider that I want to do something simple, something first level, like employing spider climb to scale a wall. What is the spell, exactly? What are the physical manifestations? Game editions don't care about things like this, because they're not about imagination, but rather about mechanics, but let's examine what must be happening. The fingers and body of the recipient must be somehow modified in order to make them able to climb the wall. The body is reshaped, perhaps with Peter Parker's finger spines, or it is magnetized in a manner that allows adherance even to non-metallic surfaces. At the very least, the recipient's body has been loaded up with POWER, which it is presumed has no effect upon the recipient either mentally or physically. The person can just climb walls now. That's the only change.

What kind of remarkable control does that require? I should think, if any sense of reality is there to be embraced, it must be a spectacular amount of control. Overloading the recipient in some manner could conceivably kill them, whereas too little power will have no effect. This is incredible fine-tuning on the dial, which the user of magic must employ with perfect ability. How long does it take to learn to tune this finely? Can it be picked up in a day? Or does it take a long time? If one has already learned to tune other spells, does it automatically follow that every spell is tuned to the exact degree?

How about this flow of power? Sitting here quietly, not producing magic, only compelling my fingers to move quickly over a keyboard, I can feel the effort. My knuckles feel the tinge of arthritis. I occasionally make a spelling mistake, which I fix, or I make a typo I don't notice at all. I'm acting quickly, but I'm in a quiet room, without distractions, thinking my way through this post and feeling relatively quiescent. I would find it particularly difficult to write this post in the midst of a raging battle.

So as a user of magic, I'm fine-tuning this immense power that is flowing through me, feeling my stress rise, my blood pumping harder to compensate for the effort that only my brain is using, just as an astronaut learns to control their body functions, their stress, which is amazingly difficult to do when out in space and in an extraordinarily dangerous environment. Using the mind in that environment is taxing in the extreme. Similarly, the user of magic is in the midst of a battle ground. He or she has no armor, no meaningful weapons, and they have to concentrate amid swordblows and movement, screaming, men dying, while they fine-tune the shit of out that magic to a perfect, non-dangerous degree. As the power pours from them, or through them from another plane of existence, how many calories does that burn? What is the depletion to their platelets and their hydration? How is it they're able to cast spell after spell without any apparent effect to their ability to move, walk, breathe and so on?

Training. Lots and lots of training. Phenomenal amounts of training. Training that goes past what's done with the sword, far past what is done with one's hands in a stressed environment operating complex and precise apparati. Training on levels we haven't yet sought for. As much training as a doctor receives. Potentially much more.

Let's consider a doctor. The first knowledge they gather is general knowledge - and there is a hell of a lot of that. To become a general practitioner requires terrific amounts of memory, and the ability to regurgitate that memory at will, preferably without many mistakes or having overlooked something. This takes years. And then, if that doctor wants to learn to do something specific, like heart transplants, this takes even MORE time. The process is slow and methodical and requires not only patience, but aptitude. Merely knowing how to do it or having the will to do it does not necessarily mean that one has the emotional strength to gut out the process. Many, many doctors who want to be specialists in some capacity don't make the cut. That is why there are so few people who can perform those very difficult surgeries that some of us need, and which we must be flown to Atlanta or Geneva in order to receive.

Now, here is our user of magic. Let us call him Bob. Bob has had his training (an extra 2d8 years according to the DMG, but traditional elves have had even longer to get good at this - or maybe they're stupider than humans and it takes them longer to learn the same spells humans do). Bob has spent his years trying to move a feather and light a candle, and while a lot of the stuff his tutor tried to cram into Bob's head hasn't taken yet, Bob is strong enough to throw spells 3 times a day (I'm going to go back to original D&D ideas here, so suck it up Pathfinder lovers). After three, he isn't "out of spells" ... he's exhausted. He's blown his ride. His heartrate has hit the ceiling, his mind is mush, and he's doing pretty well at that point to throw a weapon - badly - at an enemy. He hasn't practiced his weapon throwing skills because he was trying to get that fine-tuning just right, so that he didn't blow himself up when he tried to cast his shield spell.

But as Bob does more of this, and grows experienced, he realizes in a flash what his master was trying to say about that damn sleep spell over which Bob never got the hang. We would say Bob was second level, but really he's just learning to control his heart a bit better, to give himself more endurance, and that fine-tuning is coming easier to him ... now he can throw four spells before hitting his wall. And at 3rd level he can throw five, and at 4th level he can throw seven. And so on. That wall is getting farther away, he's learning little tricks and he's picking up on methods of channelling that energy that never occurred to him in the dull laboratory of his tutor. Bob is seeing his way to being a wizard.

This makes sense to me. What does not make sense to me is Bob stumbling into a tomb, finding a scroll, and instantly being able to cast that spell at will ... like a surgeon watching some innovative brain operation, shoving aside the attendant surgeon and then taking over the operation. That's the sort of thing that happens in bad television in the 60s, where the doctor is a TV Star ... but I can do without it in my D&D world.

Can a user of magic suddenly change their minds about the spells they have? Can a surgeon suddenly be an engineer? Or an astronaut? No. It took a lot of practice and training to use THOSE spells. This is how the process is conceived of in my world. I recognize that it compels the player to live with the spells they have, but ... sorry, no sympathy. Work with what you've got. That is the game. Circumventions in skills and abilities are ideas that were spawned by players who could not learn to work with the skills they had. Next time they play a user of magic, they can try different skills. They can try a different class. But no, I'm not interested in do-overs with the same character.

From the above, it should be possible to reason out the rest of Taren's questions. It isn't about how I apply the mechanics to my game. It is all about how the reasoning behind the game demands mechanics that FIT the process.


Giordanisti said...

Do you have any sort of system for a character opting to take a large amount if time and effort to train in learning new spells (as opposed to immediate learning from scrolls)? Just as a doctor can learn new procedures or expand their fields of knowledge through study, couldn't a Mage find a suitable teacher and/or text that could augment their arcane knowledge? I would imagine that most adventurers wouldn't want to take the months/years off from the road that would be required, but surely a more patient type of player would be willing to put in the time and resources.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I do have this system. It's extraordinarily adaptable, detailed, involving and player-friendly, while not forgetting that this is a game.

My system for a player increasing the number of spells they have is called "adventuring."

Taren said...

Thank you very much, Alexis, for responding to my question.

I love your description about magic use, thank you. It's vivid and specific, and eminently usable. I do agree that the laws of physics should still apply, i.e. all the destructive energy that goes into a fireball has to come from somewhere. The magic user has figured out a way to harness and deploy the power at will. Nice!

I understand you, then, that learning a new spell comes from adventuring and gaining experience. Bob might acquire a spell book as spoils of war but simply can't understand any new spells from it until he reaches a new level, and even then might not.

As for scrolls and the like, I imagine you're referring to learning a spell from a scroll, rather than using the scroll as a one-off item. Thank you for raising that point; hopefully I'm understanding you correctly.

It might be analogous to me
dissecting a stick of dynamite and thereby understanding high explosives... not so likely.

I might be able to light the fuse and create an explosion, but I doubt I could thereby build a functioning rocket.

I like the restrictive approach to spell acquisition, actually. Makes gaining a new spell a much bigger event in a character's life... and true to form vis a vis scarcity/value ratio, will be appreciated that much more.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Or reproduce the dynamite from scratch having held it or used it, Taren.

I subscribe to the argument that the magic ink of the scroll disappears as it is read. A scroll may be written into a 'spellbook,' the list of spells from which the mage may choose from, with a 'write' spell - but no other class has this ability.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Let me revisit that flippant comment to Giordanisti.

A mage starts at an average of 33 years of age (24+2d8) in AD&D, a number I don't feel compelled to change. Assuming they started training at age 11, that's an average of 22 years to learn only three 1st level spells, plus assorted cantrips. 'Training' is obviously an incredibly inefficient way of learning ... and in any case, where it comes to technical arts, there comes a point where only experience is practical in development ('retraining' is a government joke). At some point, a mage NEEDS to be in combat to understand how to be more competitive in combat. I realize a lot of 21st century arguments can be advanced about that - but there comes a point where a painter can no long be "taught" to paint - their style can only be criticized by people who believe in other styles. I feel users of magic would find another opinion about magic use pretty much useless.

Giordanisti said...

If you'll allow me to dig a little deeper into specifics, I have a couple more questions. Let me know when I'm being too pedantic.

So the Mage trains with a master for 22 years, and at the end can cast 3 first level spells. As he gains levels, he learns more about practical use of his personal art, and can cast more and better spells.

Where does the knowledge of these new spells come from? Was he taught the fundamentals of every spell he will ever know by his original teacher, and is simply figuring them out as he grows in power? Is he simply experimenting with himself over time with magic, and finding what are to him "new" spells, but have been discovered before by every other growing Mage as well? Or are these new spells a sort of abstract assumption that the Mage occasionally meets a mentor or opens a book on his travels, and the practical use of the spells he comes into contact with slowly percolates until he is ready to use it?

Thank you for the responses, Alexis, this post has cemented a lot of the wishy-washy parts of being a Mage for me!

Alexis Smolensk said...

At different times, I have advanced all three of those explanations, Giordanisti. I think it would have to be all three, don't you think?

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

"After three, he isn't "out of spells" ... he's exhausted. He's blown his ride. His heartrate has hit the ceiling, his mind is mush, and he's doing pretty well at that point to throw a weapon - badly - at an enemy."

How do you model this mechanically in your game?

Apologies if you've answered this elsewhere in your blog - I think I've read it all, but there's always cracks in the memory or things I've missed.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I model it mechanically by embracing a lot of the original AD&D precepts. A first level spellcaster starts with limited spells or cantrips, depending on class. Spellcasters, in general, have weaker THACOs, or armor use, just like the original game imposed. I'm not changing mechanics - I'm only explaining them BETTER than the book does.

Charles Taylor (Charles Angus) said...

OK, it seemed like you were saying that a spellcaster would be less effective generally due to exhaustion after casting their last spell - I don't use Vancian magic, but spellcasters can be exhausted by casting in my system, at which point they mechanically become fully-encumbered and 0-level.