In lieu of time to blog recently, I thought I’d add my very small signal boost to Game to Grow, something some people I respect a lot are involved in. Basically, it is a community to share resources for therapeutic gaming, in the broad sense of therapeutic as healing.
You Are A:
Neutral Good Elf Cleric (6th Level)
Neutral Good- A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do. He is devoted to helping others. He works with kings and magistrates but does not feel beholden to them. Neutral good is the best alignment you can be because it means doing what is good without bias for or against order. However, neutral good can be a dangerous alignment when it advances mediocrity by limiting the actions of the truly capable.
Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.
Clerics- Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron’s vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity’s domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric’s Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.
Lawful Good —– XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (23)
Neutral Good —- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (26)
Chaotic Good —- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (23)
Lawful Neutral — XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (18)
True Neutral —- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (21)
Chaotic Neutral – XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (18)
Lawful Evil —– XXXXXXX (7)
Neutral Evil —- XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Chaotic Evil —- XXXXXXX (7)
Law & Chaos:
Law —– XXXXXXX (7)
Neutral – XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Chaos — XXXXXXX (7)
Good & Evil:
Good —- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)
Neutral – XXXXXXXXXXX (11)
Evil —- (0)
Human —- XXXXXXXXXXXXX (13)
Dwarf —- XXXXXX (6)
Elf —— XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (16)
Gnome —- XXXXXXXX (8)
Halfling – XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Half-Elf – XXXXXXXXX (9)
Half-Orc – XX (2)
Barbarian – XXXXXX (6)
Bard —— XXXXXXXXXXXX (12)
Cleric —- XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (18)
Druid —– XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
Fighter — XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Monk —— XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Paladin — XXXXXXXX (8)
Ranger —- XX (2)
Rogue —– XXXXXX (6)
Sorcerer — XXXXXXXXXX (10)
Wizard —- XXXXXXXXXXXXXX (14)
One of the things that I want to be better at, when I am designing D&D adventures, is designing traps. When I think about this, I think about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where three traps and a puzzle are the focus of the action and do a lot for the story. Their solutions are embedded in the film’s themes and the stick in the mind when I think about the movie.
There are a lot of issues that come to mind when I try to come up with traps for a D&D adventure. I wanted to write out my thoughts on traps, just in case some of you have the same challenges designing your own adventures.
Think about who built the trap, and why. Are they still maintaining it regularly? Checking for dead victims and clearing their bodies out? If so, are there signs of their passage? Maybe they don’t clean the blood-stains completely enough, and this could be a hint for the PCs as they explore. If there is a pit-trap, for example, with spikes at the bottom, is anyone climbing down there to remove the dead bodies? Is there a trapdoor down below to allow access? If so, the PCs might climb down, find the trapdoor, and circumvent other traps, or ambush whoever it is that created the traps in the first place.
If the bodies aren’t being cleared, there might be some obvious hints that there is a trap nearby. These hints could be great foreshadowing, actually. There is a fantastic illustration in the 5E DMG, seen below, that is an example of what I have in mind here. The wizard is reaching toward what is obviously a trap, and you can clearly see the bloody marks and hand-prints from previous victims. This trap might even require a Wisdom save to force yourself to reach in there without shaking or hesitating. But I love the idea of bloody marks, or the stench of decaying bodies beneath a trapped floor, warning the PCs that something bad is ahead.
This foreshadowing effect of non-maintained traps also solves the problem of PCs calling for Perception rolls every 10 feet as the move through a dungeon. If you are exploring an ancient tomb, defended by traps that re-arm themselves and don’t require maintenance, then you’ll run into previous victims, and might even get some hints as to what threats await.
How Does It Actually Work?
Things like “pressure plate” are kind of thrown around, without always thinking about they really work. I’m not saying you have to go get an engineering degree to come up with traps for your D&D game, but take a moment to think through how the trap could work. If nothing else, when your PCs start prying it apart to disable it, you’ll be able to give a good description.
But, if nothing else, how does the trigger activate? Does the pressure plate work a lever, or is there magic that simply detects when someone steps on a particular stone in the floor? Is the poison needle in the lock spring-loaded, or does it use the force of turning the knob, or is it just hidden in the mechanism so that whey you reach to push the door open, you prick yourself?
Think about how it resets, and think about what it means if the trap is a one-off. If the trap can’t reset itself, then it will only work once, and either you will need NPCs to periodically reset the trap, or you will be able to follow a path of dead predecessors and unlucky adventurers pretty far into the dungeon before you encounter a trap you’ll have to bypass.
I would say, rather than see these as problems, make them features. Built the menace in your deathdrap dungeon by showing a dozen previous adventurers (their equipment stripped of course) who died in gruesome and horrific ways before the PCs ever arrived. Maybe describe them as apparently more accomplished and powerful than the PCs. Maybe one of them was famous, or a member of an Adventurer’s Guild that the PCs recognize. Then, suddenly, no dead bodies. Now the PCs know they’re in for it.
Not Built to Wound
Much as I hate to just kill PCs outright with a single die-roll, one has to consider the fact that traps would not be build to wound intruders in most cases. They would be designed to kill. Now, PCs are obviously extraordinary people, but in the Monster Manual most basic humanoid NPCs listed in the back have two hit dice, meaning any given trap, even the most basic sort, should do at least 10 damage on average. This would be enough to kill curious farmhands, and who would go into the trouble of building a trap when someone who isn’t even an adventurer could just take the damage and continue? This means, in DMG terms, that we’re looking at at least 2d10 damage for any trap that isn’t designed to be a nuisance, or a warning, or only designed to stop kobold children.
Think about how your traps function – what is necessary? And then what would those necessary elements smell like? Sound like? Would they have an effect on the texture of the walls, ceiling or floor? Would they kill off the local lichen that has covered other passages? Would they attract insects?
I had fun looking up what various highly flammable fluids would smell like when building a trap in a previous game. So the PCs encountered this sweet, chemical smell in a certain corridor, and didn’t know what to make of it (failed Intelligence: Nature check). So when they set it off, they got doused and then set on fire.
But if there is, say, ten gallons of highly corrosive acid suspended above the PCs’ heads, ready to sluice down onto them and melt their faces, what does all that acid smell like? Is it in an airtight container? If not, it’ll be possible to smell it, or even hear it bubbling menacingly. (I know acid doesn’t just sit there bubbling, but let me remind you, we are playing pretend.)
Speaking of playing pretend – given the resources available to the average D&D dungeon-builder, I’d expect a lot more magical traps than mechanical ones. Your usual D&D world has little or no gunpowder, but a significant number of people who can throw fireballs. Even for first-level casters, you have magic missiles that can’t miss, and alarm spells that can’t be circumvented, simple illusions, color sprays and thunder waves. Why build a complex mechanism to push people over a ledge when you can just have a triggered thunder wave to shove them off? The DMG doesn’t have a lot of details around how to build traps, and only a few examples, but I’d take as a starting-point any spell with an interesting effect in the PHB. Why have darts shooting at your PCs when there could be rays of frost, both damaging them and slowing their escape? Why have a poisoned needle in a lock’s mechanism when it could just trigger a poison spray? And at higher levels, I’d expect far worse.
The Trap Is People!
In a previous game, I planned a series of ‘traps’ that were actually just kobold-like creatures being assholes. They had constructed these no-win situations where it looked like the PCs could get their hands on treasure, or even objects that were needed to solve a puzzle-door that would enable them to continue, but while they tried to get to these things, there would be creatures in various parts of the room, fully prepared, shooting them or lighting them on fire or flinging things at them.
So imagine even a group without a lot of resources at their disposal, but they know that adventurers will come to try and take what they have, and they have weeks, or months, or hears to decide how to mess with those adventurers. Having the trap be people has the added benefit of letting them taunt the PCs while they damage and hinder them. Of course, if you choose this option, when the PCs finally get their hands on the culprits, expect some epic butchery.
I recently posted about the intersection between magic and technology, riffing off of the well-known Arthur C. Clarke quote, and then applying my thinking to various kinds of speculative fiction. But this of course begs questions – what is technology, is one question, but I think that we have a good sense of this, living in a technological society. What is magic, though?
I’m not going to get anywhere a definitive answer. Magic always has an imaginative definition because, as far as I understand the world we all share, magic is imaginary. Or, at best, metaphorical perhaps. We create the meaning of magic, through art and culture – we also create the meaning of technology, of course, but through distinct means because our activity in the world and understanding of it is mediated through technology. (It’s something to think about and explore, though – to imagine how the world would appear if our activity in it and understanding of it was entirely mediated through magic. But that’s another question for another time)
First I’ll talk about what I think magic is, and then I’ll talk a bit about what I think magic should be in order to be compelling and meaningful.
Magic is Minority Religion
This is always my starting point with magic, because it is where magic comes from in our own world. If you think about it – druidism, kabbalah, hermetic magic traditions, secret societies and so on, where we get our magical traditions in our world, are all just minority religion. Imagine the pre-industrial world: a priest chants a prayer to a god, expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s religion. A wizard chants a spell to the spirits of the world, or in the Old Tongue, etc., expecting a supernatural outcome, and that’s magic. Sorcerers and djinns in Islamic stories are similarly holdovers from the pre-Muslim belief systems and animism that existed in the regions that Islam conquered. “Medicine men” and “witch doctors” are just practitioners of religious that existed before the currently dominant ones came to power.
Magic is Intrinsic (Arises from Character, Situation, Place)
Technology differs from magic in that technology is always instrumental. Anyone can pick up a smartphone and, theoretically, use it to do the same things. Not so with magic. Magic arises from a person’s identity, or from a particular situation, or from a specific place, in a way that technology does not. In the classic example, a person often must be born with the ability to use magic – like Harry Potter compared to a Muggle. Often this is literally genetic, with magically gifted bloodlines, or is because of someone having elves in their ancestry, or dragons, or demons. A person might be changed by contact with magic, or by a trip to the Perilous Realm, and when they return, they are attuned in a new way to the supernatural.
Magic might also arise from a particular situation, or confluence of events – the Night of the Eye on Krynn, or Tarmon Gai’don in the Wheel of Time, or an astrologically auspicious day in Chinese legend. This could be as simple as when the shards of the magical sword are reforged, or as complex as the interweaving of deceptive prophecies in the Mistborn trilogy.
Magic can be intrinsic to a place. The One Ring can only be unmade in Mount Doom where it was forged. The True King can only come from Avalon when the time is right. Sun Wu Ying is born on the top of the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit and nowhere else. This place might be a place in the world, or a place that is in itself magical, like the classic Faerie, or Shangri-La, or Atlantis.
Magic Arises from Story
Magic is always an element from a story. One does not need a story to understand the functioning of an internal combustion engine, but one does need a story to understand the functioning of magic. This is true whether it is the magic intrinsic to a person, a situation, or a place. In some situations, like the Neverending Story, it is the story itself that is magical. Otherwise, the magic will only function in, and make sense as part of, a story. Even in the coloquial meaning of “magical”, referring to something that was especially interesting or unexpected or moving in our lives, we will have to tell a story to make sense of it to ourselves and to others. And sometimes, “you just had to be there.”
Magic is Numinous
In this case I am using numinous in its philosophic sense – the sense of an encounter with Other, sometimes seen as a divine or supernatural or otherworldly presence or truth. As much as magic can be intrinsic to character, story, situation and place, magic is also an intrusion into the everyday world. To be in the presence of magic is to be in the presence of Other, of something that is outside of our normal experience. Magic an have its own rules, different from the rules of everyday life. There is a sense of joy, or wonder, or fear, or even alienation in the experience of magic. This is why in our descriptions of events, we might describe an experience as “magical” because it stands out from the rest of our lives.
So, then, what is thoroughly imagined magic, that makes for compelling stories and games?
Magic Should Have a Cost
Hopefully this is something more than the “cost” of studying and learning magic, which almost always happens off-screen (though Rothfuss does a fantastic job of showing us the cost of learning magic as a real thing by I think, as does LeGuin in a very different way). In your classic fantasy game setting, you create a wizard character who already has spells, and who will continue to advance and learn more magic, and it would make a boring game if every time she learned another spell she had to go to school for a semester. The study that made her a wizard in the first place happened before your story begins. This means that it isn’t really a cost at all.
And this is something more than the mere opportunity cost of having to use one kind of magic rather than another – cast this spell now instead of that one, etc. Because every action has that same cost. I’m saying that magic should cost something as magic, per se. Whether this is sacrifice, or a limited supply of cosmic energy, or the need to grow in wisdom before you can control it, magic should have a cost beyond opportunity cost, and this cost should be exacted as part of the story.
Magic Should Have Rules
“Because it’s magic” is not a sufficient explanation for anything. It might be a stop-gap, like saying “the spaceship moves at the speed of plot”, but it’s hardly satisfying, and basically closes the door on ways to leverage magic in a story or game. When magic has rules, those rules can be enforced in interesting ways (as it is for Harry Dresden), or they can be hacked and manipulated to achieve surprising things (in every Brandon Sanderson story), or they can be used to raise the stakes and further the story (as with Earthsea).
The need for magic to have rules is basic if this magic is part of a game, but is also important for stories. If there are no rules to magic, you can’t create expectations and then break them, or set up foreshadowing, or provide a meaningful surprise. Magic without rules is just the arbitrary whim of the creator or storyteller, and quickly reduces to boring, or a succession of Deus Ex Magica.
Magic Should Serve the Story
As I said above, magic comes from story, and to that end, magic should serve story. Magic should be driven by what is ironic, or dramatic, or moral and immoral. Magic should have an emotional impact on the creator and audience, like any good artwork. As Brandon Sanderson advised on his podcast Writing Excuses (and doubtless others have elsewhere), magic should be both surprising and inevitable. It should elicit responses of “I can’t believe it!” and “Of course!” simultaneously, just like any good twist in any good story.
This is of course hard to do, but what worthwhile magic is ever easy?
A few weeks ago, I made the claim that Arthur C. Clarke was wrong about magic and technology when he said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But then this begs the question – how do magic and technology, particularly in imaginative fiction, interact? I thought I would talk about this by using some examples and characterizing how various creators use these two non-opposing, non-complimentary (in my view) concepts.
Dungeons & Dragons
Magic is technology and technology is technology. Magic functions according to defined rules, is highly limited in its effects, etc. This is partly necessitated by D&D being a game, and partly comes from the source material used in creating it, including Vancian magic and tabletop wargames.
Magic is technology, and sometimes true magic (which is moral and dynamic) intrudes. The example I think of is the magic that protected Harry Potter himself, which was the magic of his parents love and self-sacrifice. There are other examples, but for the most part, magic is technological in the Potterverse. Say certain words with certain gestures and it happens. You just have to know the trick and execute the trick skillfully. The only thing that is magical about magic, really, is that it is innate to a person rather than accessible to anyone. But that’s just like having an ID card that lets you access the magic.
Mage: the Ascension
Magic is magic and technology is magic. In Mage: the Ascension, it is more like what Jason Godesky once said to me – any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Once magical procedures become defined and widely used, they become technology. There is even a world-spanning conspiracy organization, the Technocracy, whose goal is to reify magic into technology to keep the world safe from magic’s volatility.
Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys
Magic is magic and technology is banal, lesser magic. Neil Gaiman has a fantastic ‘feel’ for magic, in my own view, that comes from wide reading in comic books and fairy tales and other speculative fiction. In his stories, the magic arises from the story in ways that seem both surprising and inevitable, which is the sweet spot for me. But in the American Gods universe, technology’s new gods are just arrogant, vapid newcomers, compared to the gods, who are deep and complex but also neglected and increasingly forgotten.
China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council
Magic and technology share space and bleed both ways. Magic is minority technology (the crisis engine), minority culture (the grindylow), and cosmic invasion (Ghosthead Empire, the Scar), but that magic is often manipulated through technological means. Magic seems to arise from people with outsider status, generally speaking, with authoritarians depending more on what we’d commonly see as technology – horrors like New Crobuzon’s punishment factories.
Magic is magic, and morally driven, and technology is banal, and immorally driven. Tolkien’s clear – just ask the elves. What do you mean by magic? Magic is just the way that the world works. Technology is the way the world is broken, exploited, and corrupted by those who are insatiable for power over others.
Magic is superpowers and technology is technology. Magic isn’t quite technology because it is often innate, or at least subjective, but not always. But I’ve argued that Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems in his books, which are usually fascinating and very skillfully used as part of the plot, are actually more like superpowers than magic. The difference is one that it would take a whole other post to parse out, I think, but think about the differences between Superman and Gandalf. On the surface, many similarities – they are from another world, sent to Earth (Middle- or otherwise) to inspire people, fight evil, and try to make things right. But the how, and the why, are quite different.
Magic is magic. It arises from the nature of the world, and dragons, and true names, and wisdom, and self-understanding. It is bound up in the world, and the plot, and the characters. LeGuin is a master.
Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear
So far magic is technology, but it is thought through in much more detail than normal for magic, so it is at least very cool technology. We’re kind of back to a D&D style, where magic is technology, but very complex and interconnected technology. You have players, who will lift the hood and poke at the workings of whatever game you put in front of them, and for Rothfuss, you have a main character and protagonist who is highly intelligent and curious, and pretty fearless about experimenting with the world around him to better understand and control it. That is the technocratic drive, right there.
What other examples would you add? Do you think I’m missing the point, or leaving important things out?
I recently ordered a copy of the fantasy RPG that Gary Gygax designed and published after Dangerous Journeys: Mythus was killed by TSR. DJ:M was my very first RPG, which is unusual I think, and maybe it’s given me an extra dose of nostalgia when I read about what he worked on after he left TSR and Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve written a bit about DJ:M before on this blog, a few years ago now, and I might write more sometime in the future, but this post is all Lejendary Adventures.
LA was published in 1999, when I was neck-deep in Vampire: the Masquerade Revised Edition, and when 3rd Edition D&D was deep in development but not yet released. It was published through Hekaforge Productions (a call-back to the magic system in DJ:M) and, even though it came from The Man Himself, the game never caught on. Lejendary Adventures is now published through Troll Lord Games, and according to Wikipedia there are even more adventure scenarios coming for the game. It looks like there were a couple dozen books and adventures put out for LA in all, but as someone who has been gaming since 1991 or so I hadn’t even heard of the game until recently.
One of the most striking things about LA is how much effort Gygax seems to have put into coming up with new words for familiar RPG terms. Your character is your Avatar – the bard is a Jongleur. I can see what he was getting at, but the overall effect is to just make the game a bit harder to understand. For a popular game, it is possible to change some of the terminology and have an impact, but for what is ultimately a fringe game in a fringe hobby, it seems like the wrong move to demand that potential players learn an entirely new lexicon to replace PC, NPC, GM and other familiar terms.
As I think about it, this was also very much the case with DJ:M. I suppose I accept it more from DJ:M because that game is also presenting a new sort of setting – a planetary fantasy alternate history that takes into account the various major cultures we know from actual history. But that game also had things like K/S Areas, STEEP, and Heka, so there’s that. I think that should be added to the game elements we can describe as Gygaxian, actually – neologisms that aren’t necessary, at least not in my own view. And I wonder if these neologisms had an effect on the success of his games?
Dungeons & Dragons introduced many new terms into our language, of course, but it gets to do that because it was the first RPG to make an impact on the larger culture. After that point, though, do we really need to rename the terms in our niche hobby? I don’t think so. Or, at least, no reason to do so needlessly, when a commonly used term already exists for exactly the thing you’re describing.
Lejendary Adventures clearly presents itself as a simplified, pared-down RPG, and at first it seems like it might be just that. There are only three main Attributes: Health, Precision and Speed. This leads to some odd things, such as Sorcery being linked to Speed and Alchemy to Health, and I can only think that a different short list could have been developed. If every ability has to be linked to one of those three attributes, it’s going to result in some strange combinations.
Along with those attributes are a long list of Abilities – basically skills, many of which have names that are slightly different from the norm in fantasy RPGs, and which don’t really fit with each other – a pet peeve of mine. It bothers me when the names of a list of skills come from different parts of speech, and this is very common in RPGs because it is very hard to avoid. Even games like FATE Core do this – I roll to Fight! Now I roll to…Physique? And I roll to Rapport next. And so on. English is clunky this way, and it is challenging to come up with one-word names for various kinds of skills that are all similar parts of speech. But not impossible, and I think that LA misses the mark here more than necessary.
It quickly becomes clear that character creation is very complicated, and entirely driven by exceptions and special rules. You choose your Abilities, and then those abilities modify your Health, Precision and Speed. Then you also rank your Abilities, and multiply the totals by different percentages based on how you prioritize them. And on and on. These Abilities end up defining your character, giving the sense that LA is a skills-based game, but every time you choose an Ability, you have to revise your character sheet. (This seems like a game that screams for a digital character builder, or at least a very complicated Excel spreadsheet).
A character also has an Order, like Jongleur or Mage, that functions like class does in other fantasy games, and having specific levels of specific Abilities is what lets you rise in your Order’s rank. This is a bit like Elder Scrolls, for example, where leveling up is based on increasing your skills in play rather than the other way around. In D&D, you get experience points to level up which then increases your abilities. I will say this – the system where skill increase leads to level increase is more rational, and also allows for incremental improvement between levels.
Overall, I don’t know what to do with Lejendary Adventures because I’ve never actually played it. If I get the opportunity I definitely will, though I doubt that opportunity will come up – and if I ran LA myself, lacking the oral tradition element that I think is key to learning almost all RPGs, I would undoubtedly just run it like a similar game and not provide an experience that was, in a word, Lejendary.
In imaginative fiction, and in the many ways that people engage with and talk about imaginative fiction, this is one of the most-often referenced quotes that I hear time and time again:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
It’s a great quote. The main problem with it is that it is wrong. Or, to be more precise, if it is correct, someone is doing something wrong. For it to be true, I would have to add an addendum: “…poorly imagined magic.”
A technological device that is activated by waving one’s hands around effortlessly is an impressive piece of hardware. Magic that is activated by waving one’s hands around effortlessly is poorly imagined magic. Magic and technology are not the same – they are not two sides of the same coin, nor are they different approaches to the same thing. When I say this, I am saying it in reference to the examples we all share, examples of technology and magic from human societies, but I think these differences should also apply to imaginative fiction.
Which brings me to one important difference between magic and technology – technology has a much higher success rate in solving problems (and a much higher success rate in creating problems, but that’s probably another blog post entirely). While human societies have all practiced magic and practiced technology, it is technology that has built on the past and which has the proven track record of predictable, replicable, and sometimes staggering results.
Magic, on the other hand, as a real-world way of solving concrete problems, is at best unreliable if you believe in its efficacy at all. And when I talk about magic, I am talking about all different ways of interacting with the supernatural – religion, spirituality, psychics, fortune-telling, geomancy, mediums, faith healing, etc. This is leaving aside, for this post, moral problems, theoretical problems, etc.
In our imaginative fiction, though, magic and technology can both be redefined and re-imagined. Magic can have tremendous efficacy, and technology can accomplish things that as of now we understand to be patently impossible. We might imagine them as opposing forces, or as comparable approaches to the same problems – but in my view this is to imagine them as other than they are.
Magic and technology both arise out of the particularities of culture (though that is often harder to see for us today, in the context of cultural and technological hegemony). Magic and technology both require a procedure to use, but magic differs in very important ways. No matter how advanced a particular technology becomes, it should remain easily distinguishable from magic.
Beliefs have no impact whatsoever on the functioning of technology, but in almost every way magic has been imagined (and practiced) throughout history, belief has been at the center. The strength of one’s belief, one’s wisdom and understanding, one’s trust in the subtle forces in the world, directly correlates with one’s ability to use magic, or even understand its function.
Almost always implicit, this connection to belief is sometimes made explicit as well. Mage: The Ascension is the game and world that come to mind that best exemplify this aspect of magic. In Mage, magic is enlightened belief, period. It functions because someone who has an Avatar believes it will function, and those beliefs shape its function at all times.
Historically, magic has been the purview of particular cultures and societies. In the Western world, “magic” has been, in many cases, simply minority religious practices, sometimes “occult” or secret and at other times simply the religious practices of minority cultures like druids or hunter-gatherer medicine men.
The More-Than-Human World
This is a phrase on my mind lately, mostly because I ran into Jason Godesky at Save Against Fear and it got me thinking about The Fifth World again, but this phrase, the more-than-human-world, fits in with the distinctness of magic very well. Technology, especially the way that my society practices it, treats the world as an object, whether that world is full of living things or non-living things, matter or energy – every single bit of it is there to be used by human beings by way of technology.
Magic differs from this view in many ways, not the least of which being what “the world” contains and includes. I’m not aware of any magical worldviews that include philosophical naturalism or reductionist assumptions. Most, if not all, include a non-material world of some kind; a spirit world, or a realm of the gods, heavens and hells, elemental planes, even alternate universes and timelines.
Magic is also almost always imagined to impact the natural world and to connect human beings with it. People transform into trees, or speak with animals, or breathe water like fish, or fly like birds. People ask questions of the stones, learn songs from plants, or worship giant bears in caves. Animals are more likely to be seen with human characteristics in a magical worldview – they have thoughts and speech and will and memory. Magic might even be driven by a fully animist worldview, wherein all living things are people, and everything has a spirit.
Drama and Story
Technology doesn’t care about what story it is a part of. Technology can certainly be used in powerful ways to fuel narrative (HAL and Dave Bowman in 2001: A Space Odyssey, among innumerable other examples), but your smartphone doesn’t care whether it’s part of a story, or what’s dramatically appropriate. Its functions are always determined.
The opposite is true of magic, at least most of the time. Magic is much more likely to happen in the nick of time, or at the climax of the action, or at the “all is lost” moment at the end of Act 2. Magic is in part driven by what is right and wrong, and by what is supposed to happen at a particular time. Some cultures reflect this with the idea of magic needing to be “auspicious” – this is particularly true in cultures influenced by Daoism for example, and is one of the core concepts behind feng shui and many kinds of fortune-telling.
Brandon Sanderson writes stories that feature interesting magic systems, and he talks about how when the magic system is used to a character to solve a problem, he wants for it to be a surprise, and also to feel inevitable. A combination of “I can’t believe that happened!” and “Of course that had to happen!” These moments are the purview of the way magic is imagined, not technology.
Magic and technology differ in other ways as well, but these are three that I wanted to highlight. The point is that magic and technology are not connected in the way that the Arthur C. Clarke quote reflects. Writers, gamers and game designers, technology should always be clearly distinguishable from magic – if not, it is a failure of how we are depicting either the technology or the magic.