Thursday, April 28, 2011

Realistic Magic

I wanted to make two points with yesterday's post: 1) that magic would enable other sciences to leapfrog forward; and 2) there would exist other sciences, because human beings are insanely curious and investigate everything.

Yesterday I mentioned Asimov's story Olympics. Curiously, there's another story in the same compendium of Asimov short stories (Nine Tomorrows), called A Feeling of Power.  Zzarchov needs to read it.  I think I may sum up that tale tomorrow (clever punning there, but you need to read the story to know why).

I think where it comes to the troubles of magic actually existing, we are at an impasse. When one fully considers the implications of magic in any world, given the potential of spells such as wish or permanency, Zzarchov is right about the removal of the laws of physics and the creation of a totally alien world.  Or he would be if it weren't for one rather salient point.  That point being, for every magic, there is anti-magic.  For every individual or god that wishes a thing into existence, there is another individual or god that banishes it.  In short order, the most powerful beings in the universe, topped by the DM - who obviously exists and the most powerful being - would gather together to quickly expunge any force or power that moved against the status quo as agreed upon.  It may seem cheap and convenient, but if the world exists at all, it must exist according to the whim of those most powerful beings who posit its existence.

And therefore, the laws of physics, or anything else, must be in accordance with the laws of the most powerful beings.  It must be in accordance with the DM.  A position I will take when I argue, the DM's world must serve the players, at least with regards to enabling the player's conception of the universe to be one which they can predict the results of their own actions.

Every DM - not just me personally, but every person who wishes to run a world that is practical to play - must run according to familiar principles of causality.  We can propose a world where all the effects stemming from actions in that world are random and whimsical - hammers that spontaneously shoot off in random directions when let go, horses and wagons that leave the ground and fly backwards when a trot is increased to a gallop, drink that is alternately poison or nourishing depending on the hour of the day and so on - but that world and running in it gets awfully boring, awfully fast.  A player soon understands that he or she is being fucked with, and the fucking isn't pleasurable or interesting.  I would argue that 19 worlds of 20 fail miserably because the DM is more interested in supposing things to be fanciful than in worrying about causal relationships.  Players soon learn there's no point in making plans - the DM will screw with plans.  The DM will screw with everything, and everything quickly loses its meaning.

You, me, everyone - we exist in a conditional arrangement where we wish to control everything, but in which we control almost nothing.  And still, we are rewarded with seratonin chemical releases when we successfully control some part of the world ... so we keep trying.  As we gain some skill at some particular process - a videogame, say - we gain experience with the observed cause and effect within that process.  We learn that if we do this, that happens.  And if we don't do this, that doesn't happen.

When the effects change without apparent causes, we get angry and unhappy.  We ask, "What the fuck happened?" and we want an answer, right now, explaining it.  From a very early age we learn to hate the answer, "Because I said so," as we realize instinctively that it is not an answer ... or rather, it is a restraint against our control.  If the reason is that I'm not fast enough, or that I'm not strong enough, I can work at being faster and stronger.  But if the reason is that someone else is in control, the answer is no longer self-improvement, it is the elimination of whatever is in control.

The DM and his or her world must not act as a impositional dictator over the player's actions.  The world must be a learning annex, allowing for player improvement and development.  The player must know why things are happening.  The player must be able to apply his or her experience of the real world, and get results back from the fantasy world that make sense.  One can only go so far into the Vale of Weirdness.

However right Zzarchov may be in his arguments about magic and the world, the arguments are immaterial because the world must be THIS world ... it's the only one we're familiar with.  I have no idea the actual effects of magic would be in an actual world - obviously, who does?  But I know what the effects have to be.  The laws of physics must remain intact because ... well, they must.  The game must be playable.  Conjecturing about magic doesn't change that.

I'm satisfied the gods have their reasons to force players to use manual labor where a tidy spell would do.  I'm satisfied that the gods allow only the set standard spells to be in existence, and that the casting of those spells is universal and controlled.  I'm satisfied because I'm not running a simulation here, I'm running a game.

One last point, not really connected to the above.  Why should a player feel somehow that magic missiles and their effects should depend upon the user?  A hammer, a sword, a pitchfork, a car, an airplane or any other tool requires the individual to adapt to the tool's use.  Why should magic be any different?


ChicagoWiz said...

I had forgotten about this story, thank you! I last read it back in the late 70s, when I was also going through a green covered book on programming theory and application. It was FORTRAN based, but the power of making these machines do things that we did on paper excited me to no end. That book was my constant companion for almost a year. I remember reading this story and thinking "How odd!"

Now I have a completely different reaction.

Zzarchov said...

I would counter that rules of physics must be familiar, but not identical. If the force of gravity was marginally less, or magnetism a little stronger, it would be irrelevant. For ages (including now) people have gotten by with an understanding of physics limited to "because god says so". This to me would seem not much different than the current set up of your world, it appears to be me to be very similar to earth at a given point, but not identical. However it also means that many things were probably justified in reverse. As an example, even if a player pointed out how orc empire XYZ means that Rome should probably never have been founded (complete with full mathematical proof or other bullshit) that wouldn't change the fact that removing the existence of the roman empire from a renaissance setting would make it too alien. So the assumption would have to be "There was a Rome, how can that be justified". So if someone said "well with magic I can generate the science needed for us to build WWI armour mass produced", that would probably change the game to a point its not really familiar. So a bullshit reason is rationalized for WHY dark ages vikings didn't use spell X to invent panzer divisions 400 years ago. The best bullshit reasoning I have heard is that magic does screw with physics, to the point life is maddeningly unlivable. The mere acts of reason, experimentation and all of civilization in fact, is deadly to magic. Once mankind started giving things names, then forging iron and working stone.. Magic has been on the retreat. Things made of magic skew scientific testing and are wholey unsuitable for advancing understanding of the universe, and are eventually consumed and turned mundane and rational in their behaviour. This is why people don't like Witches despite their use, sure they can mend a broken bone with a wave of their hand..but just living nearby occassionally causes donkeys to talk and an orchard ready for fall harvest to turn into butterflies. Of course you could just as easily argue the opposite, its all just a way to explain why the viking warrior bob is playing either can or cannot have a +5 uzi in 9th century norway.

Alexis said...

Sorry Zzarchov. You lost me. Your point was?

Zzarchov said...

Re-reading that my first point should be proper editing. I will attempt to compose something a little more succinct and legible.

Magic can be an anti-thesis of reason and science, or part of the natural world. Either way much justification is needed to explain away why the world is not alien beyond recognition.

To allow a world that is consistent for what players will experience yet still allow "weird physics" is simple, it merely requires a rework of one central tenant of existence: that everything is explainable. Raised in a household without faith this is an alien concept for me, but I have no problem in a game supposing the world really was flat, supported on the back of a giant turtle floating in an endless sea. In such in a world, every once in a great while 1+1 equals 3, and every attack has a 5% chance of succeeding.

The net goal however, is still to make it not really matter for most people and most games. The only real point is to have a framework to offer an explanation of why one of Arthur's knights can or cannot utilize and manufacture hot air balloons, telescopes and/or cannons (players always want gunpowder). Of course once there is a cannon, next stop is the revolver..

Alexis said...

After two days, I think I can name a central flaw to your reasoning, Zzarchov. You make the assumption that because magic can make a submachinegun, a mage will therefore also conceive of a submachinegun. Virtually every instrument you mention came about because of circumstances associated with the development of technology through science.

Humanity was not quite blessed with omnipotence in the manner you propose.

Zzarchov said...

I cannot deny that is largely true. The Romans had all the materials science they needed to make a hot air balloon. Plenty of the raw materials and plenty of opportunity to see a burning bag be floated into the air, the inspiration just never came.

Once one gets to the late middle ages however, that goes right out the window. At that point there was an abundance of inspiration, without the materials science to build or test the results. Many of DaVinci's inventions could never work, but with the patronage of a wizard, or a king with a court wizard, he could get them up and running in fairly short order.

Whether or not this is a bad thing or not is something else entirely. The Chinese had multi-stage rockets and the Byzantines flamethrowers after all.