Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

On magic—

An upside to dead hard drives and digging through old backups, hoping against hope you stashed file X away on that dusty 250 meg Zip: you run across old correspondence. This, then: part of a four-year-old exchange with a prosepctive player in a role playing game that never quite got off the ground. I was trying to explain what it was I wanted from magic, in this ambiguous other world, and explain my dissatisfaction with the name-the-spell-and-roll-the-dice mechanics of the magic systems available in most commercial games, and in the course of laying it out, well—read for yourself, if you like. —I’m not “back” yet, by the way; you’ll know when I am: there’ll be a whole re-design and everything. A sleek new front end and some tinkering under the hood. And yes, it’s been two years since I started this blogging thing (hereabouts): thanks to wood s lot and language hat, who noticed, and where were the cards and flowers from the rest of you? And I was going to say something about the monumental effort that is the Koufax Awards, but cutting and pasting old correspondence is easier. Enjoy; I’m off to wrestle with CSS and figure out what I’m going to do with six whole header tags.

I’d like to know more about the magic. Not just about the “system” (if there is one) that your character learned, but how she came to learn it, and the story behind it. I don’t want to know it, or all of it, before we begin play; I’m perfectly comfortable letting it be something that develops as we go along—but it is something that I want to be privileged in the character’s narrative. Is seeing auras something that she can just do? Or is it a formal school of Liannan magic? Does everyone take on, or at least invoke, aspects of their deities? Although we do need to think of it in a list as a starting point, and to prevent the dreaded Assumption Clash (at the start), I’d like very much to as quickly as possible move past it, to the point where the magic is more holistic, organic—magical.

Of course, she is your character. Not mine. (And you know all this.)

My other point: my own preference for the invocation of magic would be to keep it as naturalistic as possible. (I think that’s the word I’m looking for.) Since we want to keep things ambiguous—and we do, trust me. Thus, instead of saying, “I want to use Waters of Vision to try and figure out what Huxtable’s up to today,” saying “I stand up suddenly, walk over to the dresser, and peer into my reflection. Then I pick up the pitcher and pour some water into the bowl. [Imagining as I am the pitcher and bowl that grace the guest rooms of every decent house in Western movies, say.] I splash some on my face, rub my eyes, flick some water over both shoulders to slake My Lady’s thirst, mutter ‘Wongoti rhanun maah affata maah,’ under my breath, and think dark thoughts of Huxtable. Where is he? What is he doing?”

Re-reading all that, it comes across as a bad White Wolf “how to pose” essay. Sigh.

I know you know all this. And yet I feel compelled to say something about it: to avoid Assumption Clash, and also to forewarn (and thus forearm) us both against taking the magic for granted, relying on the system, instead of trying to elicit that which the system is designed to facilitate. Relying on the system has the paradoxical effect of making the magic both more and less real: on the one hand, it removes everything from the realm of concrete action and physical description, distancing everyone from what’s really going on; on the other hand, by invoking rules, one lends an air of authority if not verisimilitude to the proceedings. “I’m using Waters of Vision to try and see what’s going on” implies that the magic is real; “I’m peering into the water in the bowl on my dresser to see what I can see in the ripples” leaves crucial room for doubt and ambiguity.

(The paradoxical epistemology of rpgs: precisely because they are so subjective—based almost wholly on the subjective cause-and-effect dialogue between players and referee—they end up being much more objective than the real world.)

Am I making any sense? Is this in any way helpful? Or am I worrying enormously over nothing at all?

I do intend to start compiling a list of Liannan linguistic terms any day now. (I did find chapters of Lowell’s book on the Martian canals, with pencilled maps and catalogs of canal names—so we can name features on Mars what the original Victorian areologists would have named them, and not base it on today’s names. But that’s a different matter entirely.) And again, your character doesn’t have to be from the Liannan culture; make up your own. (Somewhere in there, the Liannan morphed from being all Canal Martians to being a specific culture of same. Sorry for the confusion; it’s all still a tad bit in flux.) Feel free. Once we know some specifics, we can start to build the bigger picture of Mars/Melender. But I’m liking the Carolinian/Indonesian feel so far, so I think I’ll run with that, myself. “Wongoti rhanun maah affata maah,” roughly translated, would mean “Wring the tears from my eyes that my sight be clear.” Though I’ve probably mangled the grammar horribly.

But like I said: there aren’t any linguists playing. (Unless you’re holding out on me.)

Yes, I intend to pick at everyone’s characters to some extent. You just had the bad luck to a) pick a role which is crucial to one of the main themes I want to toy with (and dissatisfactions I’ve had with games in the past); and b) you got the most in the fastest. I’m going to have a knock-down, drag out fight with K next on the not-so-fractious South.


I have, as you’ve probably gathered, a profound ambivalence towards the subject.

Magic is something that I’ve always wanted to believe in, rather like God or an afterlife, but for the longest time I was never quite able to bring myself to make the leap of faith required. I have, sort of, on the point of magic at least (and it is, somewhat, related to, if not God, then some of the questions God was created to answer). —Though it has been pointed out that I am making that leap on the word of a known pathological liar.

Then, I always thought Sherlock Holmes got it wrong—when you’ve discarded the improbable, whatever’s left, no matter how impossible, is usually the truth.

But magic isn’t something to believe in, to my mind. It’s a way of thinking, a way of perceiving, a way of being; not something that is or is not, not something one does. Magic, to my mind, is essentially passive; it is almost entirely about perception. (Which makes it incredibly powerful; knowledge, after all, is power.) (And perception, as any student of management skills will tell you, determines reality.) Still. Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Healing? I tend to ascribe most of it to the placebo effect, I’m afraid—which is not to denigrate it at all. The placebo effect is incredibly powerful (1 in 3 is better odds than a lot of medicines being sold for two and three digits a gram), and knowing how to elicit that and use it is a necessary skill to being a healer—one given terribly short shrift, these days. And it can be argued that to successfully harness the full power of the placebo effect, the healer must know that what he or she is doing isn’t a placebo him or herself; the idea that the sole purpose of the trappings of ceremonial robes and eldritch tomes and magical words and angels and devils is to convince the magician that she is capable of doing this thing that all experience says is impossible. Ego boost. Not that I’m going to quibble if I ever find myself with a mysterious ailment unresponsive to the usual treatments. There is no objectivity in a foxhole.

Wealth spells? Synchronicity; coincidence (which is not a dirty word); the old trick of remembering the hits and forgetting the misses. Divinatory preparation of one sort or another which leaves one better able to grasp opportunity when it knocks; psychological reprogramming, almost, to deal with whatever mental blocks might be present. —And did you notice what I’ve tried to do? Already, I’m sliding out the back way, trying to explain one mindset in terms of another: magic in a scientific sense. As if there is a deeper reality, an objective cause-and-effect relationship underlying the outward skin; a backstage to sneak into, waving my press pass, where the band is hanging out with gorgeous groupies and good booze and the Truth. Doomed from the start.

(A wealth spell is performed; a recalcitrant creditor sends a long-overdue check the next week. Are they related? Did the one cause the other? More to the point: would it have happened if you hadn’t? What-if games; endlessly fascinating, ultimately futile. I, myself, am ultimately agnostic on the subject—who can say?—but Descartes’ wager is awfully enticing. Might as well believe there’s a connection; what have you got to lose?)

Maybe I’ve just been reading too much Lao Tzu.

Did Crowley really practice what he preached, with regard to wealth spells? Somehow, I doubt it, but that’s probably just my terribly prejudiced (if terribly fond) view of the cantankerous old prankster. “Do as I say, don’t do as I do,” he says, eyes twinkling; “Say boots without shoes.” Indeed.

What don’t I believe in?

The numinous. I don’t believe the spirit realm or astral plane or whatever you want to call it is somehow separate from the physical; there is only one place, and that’s inside my head where I remember and process the impressions I receive from my senses. Period. (You might be real; then again, you might be a figment of my imagination. It’s an overactive one, honest.) The physical/spiritual split is one of many unfortunate remnants of the 18th century, when we first approached these ideas and concepts with a rigorous scientific mindset (or at least what passed for same at the time). (I do tend to find it odd that so many people who profess to hold holism in such high regard never question this ultimate dichotomy. Then again, I have a profound mind/body split to deal with myself—I can never get used to the fact that me, this point of consciousness in space and time, depends so utterly on this sack of meat and water and cascading chemical reactions. Gives me the willies, it does. Peoples is a paradoxical lot…)

Which actually takes care of a hell of a lot of it, I think.

I also tend not to lend much credence to fields, auras, brainwaves, action at a distance. Yes, I know such things have been measured and detected (by objective means; I’m sorry I keep falling back on that, but I do)—Kirlian auras and such (and I remember the lovely photos of Bowie’s hand before and after snorting cocaine)—but much, much too small, both in terms of power and in terms of information-carrying capacity, to account for the phenomena they are generally supposed to cause and/or influence and/or account for. Though and at the same time I don’t rule out the possibility that in some fashion picking up cues from someone’s electromagnetic field—dueling kinesthesiæ, perhaps—is a part (and perhaps even an important part) of the general ability we have to synthesize sometimes astonishingly accurate (and sometimes ludicrously wrong) overviews of someone’s current state from tiny cues in body language, facial expression, vocal tone.

Feh. Could I qualify it any more, you think?

Where do I stand, then.

Yes, I do believe in magic. Though putting it that way is deceptive. One doesn’t believe or not believe; one is either capable of perceiving the world in those terms—or at least appreciating that perception—or one isn’t.

(Say I’m in an apartment that is empty, and I hear my flatmates bounding up the stairs from outside, animatedly discussing something. Some time passes, and I realize that the front door never opened, and the apartment itself is silent. I poke about. It’s still empty; no one stands on the steps, waiting for the door to open. Later that evening, it turns out neither was anywhere near the apartment at that time. Perhaps we ought to whip out Ockham’s razor at this point—but which way should it cut? In the end, “intense auditory hallucination” is no more simple nor explanatory than “premonition.” Whichever way you slice will ultimately be determined by your prejudices and perception—things you bring to the table. The skeptic will find the idea of “premonition” distasteful, and feel that some hallucination or intensely relived flash of memory a far more simple explanation [though he couldn’t point to the specific mechanisms and parts of the brain involved, or the specific stimulus that resulted in the response in question]; the magician would find the idea of premonition far simpler—or, given that others had similar experiences in that apartment throughout the summer, that there’s something about the location itself, the apartment, perhaps, which causes temporal or psychic echoes [though she would be hard-pressed indeed to cite the specific mechanisms whereby these things occur, nor would she be able to ascertain directly whether the echoes heard ever “actually” happen in the “real” world, at some other time].

(Me? I generally shrug and leave well enough alone.

(And if you believe that, I’ve got a lovely bridge to sell you. All right. I generally try to appreciate both sides of the equation, and take up one or the other as it suits me, and keep my back to the wall and my eye on the door and plenty of wiggle room all around.)

Okay. So I heard people who weren’t there, pretty clearly.

I’ve thought thoughts I’m pretty sure were being thought by the person next to me, and not the thoughts that would ordinarily be flowing through my stream of consciousness at the time. (I tend to lose patience with most descriptions of telepathy—that’s not what thinking’s like, at all.)

I’ve seen someone’s vague premonitions come rather startlingly to pass, in a way which pretty much rules out subjective interpretation. (But not lying, to be sure.)

I once wore an eyepatch for a live-action game (I was playing Peter Norton, a part Cherokee riverboat gambler—ah. It’s a long story) and experienced some rather intensely odd visions through the covered eye throughout the day.

People who were close to me—and people who weren’t, especially—have told me they come from Other Places or Other Times. My response has varied from guarded acceptance to having a difficult time keeping a straight face. I have been embroiled in their personal mythologies, and wrapped up in crises I couldn’t begin to explain today, but certainly seemed terribly important at the time. (A summer’s afternoon, a crown in a tree—okay, I wasn’t there for that bit. I’m sorry; I’m being maddeningly vague. To say nothing of coy. Perhaps I should just move on.)

What else?

Well, there’s the guy in Amherst, Massachusetts who took an ex of mine under his wing. They both fight psychic evil in their sleep, and he’s both summoned the Christ spirit down to officiate at a handfasting and banished Set from this plane of existence. (Ever notice how the most powerful wizards are almost always working at the mall?) (Of course, they could just be taking Crowley at his word. I really think that sort of thing worked much better at his class level in an Edwardian English economy. But I’m teasing, now. Slap my wrist.) I later learned that the mythology of the whole fighting-psychic-evil-in-one’s-sleep thing was based on a then-popular series of trashy fantasy novels…

And yes, I once sat on a couch and felt someone elicit some impressively tangible sensations in my hands without touching them. Suggestion? Hallucination? Supercharged Kirlian auras? Ancient Chinese secret? Magic?

Obviously, I’m rather skeptical. I would even call myself a skeptic, to a certain extent, except that it clashes with my boyish charm and gee-whiz enthusiasm, and most people who call themselves skeptics give skepticism a bad name. (Rather like those die-hard atheists unable to wrap their brains around the idea that they could be clinging to the lack of God through faith and faith alone…) My classic example being Tarot cards: while I won’t ascribe to them any supernatural or paranormal powers (seems rather silly to do so to something mass-produced by US Games Systems and distributed willy-nill across the country—how many people and machines have fondled that pack before you picked it up, smelling of incense?), I do find them terribly useful in a, well, magical sense. By focusing on a problem, question, or situation, and then interpreting and reinterpreting it through the symbolism and structure of a Tarot layout, I can be forced into thinking about it in new ways, gain new perspectives, make connections I hadn’t made previously. Magical—and yet not at all supernatural or paranormal. Useful—but not every time, and not always to the same degree. But most skeptics will dismiss Tarot cards and Ouija boards and the like out of hand as piffle, as nonsense, as things only fools and weak-willed simps would believe in—strictly out of prejudice. Terribly irrational on their part, don’t you think?

I adore The Amazing Randi; I think he’s doing a terribly important thing, and I wish more people paid attention to him. But he’s a complete asshole, and as fanatical and dogmatic as the people he’s arrayed himself against. Makes a person sigh, it does.

Science and magic aren’t incompatible in the sense that it is possible for individuals to appreciate both. Magic is lovely, dark and deep, and it does work; science is one of our most impressive collective accomplishments. I see both of these statements as true, without snapping my rhetorical neck. (And scientists are just as capable of bad science as neo-pagans—or pagans of any stripe, to be sure—are of bad magic.) Rather like general relativity, and quantum theory: both work in their respective milieux, though both are contradictory, and fail when they cross to the other side.

Christ. Stop me before I start quoting Zen koans. Please.

I suppose, then, that my view of magic is ultimately passive. Will in accordance with change, not change in accordance with will. Might explain why I’ve gotten so little done with it.

(I do quite like the dictum that one must, of course, buy a lottery ticket to be able to win the lottery. Chop the wood. Carry the water.)

The $64,000 question, of course, is what does this have to do with your character, and her magic?

I believe rather firmly that there is no power inherent in systems of magic, pantheons, words, wands, rings, etc. These are merely the tools used by our brains to work with some terribly numinous stuff, metaphors which enable us to grasp otherwise slippery, preverbal and postlogical concepts. (Which is why these things are all so damned hard to talk about.) Thus, there’s nothing more real or true about, say, Martian magic than Hermetic. Both are means to a similar end, rather like Islam and Christianity. (Actually, that’s a terrible analogy.)

Your character will be speaking with something when she speaks with her god, but her god is, ultimately, a mask. It remains to be seen how much of that mask is created by the thing in question, and how much by your character.

This does not in any way lessen the importance or even reality of the systems, pantheons, words, wands, rings, or masks. In fact, learning the “truth,” coming to see the reality, may very well destroy your ability to work with it in the first place.

Okay. Given that it’s been almost a week now since you sent me the letter in the first place, I should probably wrap this up and whip it back.

One hopes this hasn’t been too deadly dull.

B’s been in touch and has expressed a guarded interest. He’d prefer a Monday or Tuesday night slot. Sigh.

And Jenn’s reading a biography of Alice Roosevelt (Teddy’s eldest daughter).

And I’ve just got my hands on Luc Sante’s Lures and Snares of Old New York.

This thing could take off yet.

More later.

  1. Bill Humphries    Jan 19, 09:54 PM    #
    It was reading The Iron Dragon's Daughter that did it for me... made me glad I don't live in a world full of magic.

    We can be taken out at any time by a solar hiccup, a big rock, a neighboring supernova, or a Venusian-style repaving of the planet -- who needs supernatural big-bads in real life?

    But I'm a bastard materialist, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

  2. --k.    Jan 20, 08:36 AM    #
    Oh, I definitely agree with you as to how pleasant it is, this dearth of "supernatural big bads." Heck, the dearth of super- or preternature in general--nature alone is wild and woolly and spooky enough for me.

  3. Jennworks    Jan 21, 01:24 PM    #
    In other news
    Though Kip isn’t officially back yet, he has made quite a few posts recently, including ones one magic and fucking....

  4. charles    Jan 21, 05:07 PM    #
    Very interesting. Unsurprisingly, I am of much the same mind when it comes to magic (and God(s)).

    It is interesting the degree to which it would be very difficult to have RPG magic operate like real world magic, where that ambiguity is left open. How much do you think this is based in the desire of most players and most GMs to have significant plot, and to want characters powers be clearly useful, and how much to you think it is related to the difficulty of maintaining ambiguity under as sparse of environments as most roleplaying games involve? The sparseness seems important to me, in that it limits what things it is possible for a character to focus on. It is difficult to have ambiguity when there is an underabundance of things among which to either find things hiding in plain sight or to see patterns that aren't really there.

  5. random encounters    Jan 22, 07:15 AM    #
    Making Magic... magic.
    A long email exchange on magic in rpgs -- not a lot that resonated with me, but I did want...

  6. John S.    Feb 5, 10:55 PM    #
    Charles wrote:

    It is interesting the degree to which it would be very difficult to have RPG magic operate like real world magic, where that ambiguity is left open.

    Wrt ambiguity. The degree of ambiguity all depends upon the viewer, I see far less than you do, and I have good friends who see even less than I do. Ambiuity is not innate, it is a choice and the deeper one gets into the world of magic, the more it goes away. I see and talk to angels, and dragon and have touched someone's energy all the way across the country. I live deeply in a world of magic, neither you nor Kip do. There are others who live in it even deeper. This choice has consequences, not all of which are positive, magicians have always lived on the fringes of society and fit in poorly with the mainstream. As I get back further into things, I find an increasing number of things in my life that I simply cannot say to non-magicians and a wider gap betwen my own world and yours.

    A magic system you created to emulate real-world magic would be ambiguous. One I created would have many subtle effects that looked like much like coincidence to most people and others that could only affect magicians and similar folk.

    It would be fascinating for each of us to create magic systems based upon what we had seen and done with magic. I am certain that ours would be very different indeed.

  7. Charles    Feb 6, 08:37 AM    #

    A magic system you created to emulate real-world magic would be ambiguous. One I created would have many subtle effects that looked like much like coincidence to most people and others that could only affect magicians and similar folk.

    What demonstrates that it is ambiguous is that different people will read it differently, so the system you describe for yourself is also the system that I would create. The incredibly difficult part with creating such a system and having it remain ambiguous in play is that the connection between the magical acts and their effects need to be hidden from the players in such a way that you and Barry can both play in a game and you would come out feeling you played in a game where magic worked, and Barry would come out feeling that he played in a game where magic didn't work. While one might argue that the ambiguity need only extend to the characters, I think that questions about the basic nature of the world are relatively hard to firewall. I doubt that you would enjoy playing a deluded magician in a non-magical world, and I doubt that Barry would be satisfied playing a deluded materialist in a magical world.

    You raise another particularly tricky part of the problem when you point out that you see and converse with Dragons and Angels. While in the real world, it is perfectly possible for you to see and converse with Angels and Dragons, and for these conversations to have real world effects, and at the same time, for me or Kip or Barry (to span a big part of the lower range of belief) to not believe that there are Dragons or Angels, I continue to think that this would be very hard to replicate in a roleplaying game.

    I will write more on this, but I must go off to work now.

  8. --k.    Feb 6, 10:40 AM    #

    Part of the challenge for me at least, in this game (the Miracle Club, it would have been called: the first name of the Theosophical Society, held for all of one meeting, when it was more a society for paranormal investigation and ghost-busting rather than Helena Blavatsky’s personal, well, “cult” is too strong a word, but, anyway, this would have been as you can probably tell from the references to Mars and the Confederacy this was one of those alternate, counterfactual histories—the hinge point being that someone other than Sir Austen Henry Layard stumbled over the remains of Sumeria in 1850; call it Space: 1891 [a Forgotten Future]—so the Miracle Club would most likely have kept on ticking as the Miracle Club, with the PCs as psychics or skeptics of one stripe or another, looking into this or that incident which might or might not have been an irruption of the Numinous, or Old Farmer Brown in a mask of India-rubber, who would have gotten away with it, too, had it not been for you meddling kids, or at least that would have been the plan, and have the folks at home caught up? Good)—part of, if not a great deal of, the challenge of this game would have been maintaining that specific ambiguity: presenting events and resolving actions such that both the Martial priestess and the Brooklyn skeptic could have their world views if not wholly respected at least not wholly discredited. —That the Martial priestess would have been played by someone who does, indeed, live deeply with magic, and the Brooklyn skeptic would have been played by a cheerfully dismissive materialist, added more than a dollop of fuel to the potential fires I wanted to harness—not explode. The Things You Weren’t Meant to Know but Would Gradually Have Found Out About over the projected course of the campaign could have been encompassed by either a scientific or a magical model; I wanted to watch the players build these models and knock them against each other and tussle back and forth while also trying not to get eaten or possessed or butchered or driven catastophically mad. And though I wouldn’t have in anyway pushed the priestess to a crisis of faith or the skeptic to a collapse of reason, I wouldn’t have shied away from it, either, if the opportunity presented itself.

    Or anyone else standing between these two more-arbitrary-than-they-might-seem poles. (Note, for instance, that the priestess’ crisis of faith would not necessarily or in all probability have involved a choice between magic and not-magic.)

    —And then Chas. comes in while I’m typing and says what I just said, but more clearly. You live in a world where you talk to angels and dragons, John; Alan Moore lives in a world where he talks to an ancient Roman snake puppet; I don’t talk to either—but I live in a world in which you talk to angels and dragons and Moore talks to a snake puppet. There’s a number of different ways I can model this world: you and Moore are deluded; you and Moore are experiencing something materialistic enough—tapping neurons and hacking thought processes to achieve various mental results that are for you best modeled as conversations with angels and dragons and snake puppets; you and Moore are, indeed, conversing with actual angels, dragons, and deified puppetry. (Please note these are grotesquely simplified sketches.) —And there’s a number of different ways I could then react to these models: were I to think you were both deluded, I could denounce you at every opportunity as fools, spreading cognitive poison to the more gullible, or I could nod and smile and agree with what you say while privately chalking it all up to charming eccentricity.

    Where I am, and what I was trying to outline with this age-old too-long email, is somewhere in the middle between the second and third positions (where else? Is there a border, a doorway, a boundary, a shoreline? There I am!): I live in a world where people talk to angels and dragons and deified puppets; I don’t myself talk to such things—but I recognize that, were I to put in the time and work necessary to work with these ideas and “become” a “magician”—well, there’s no guarantee that I would talk to angels, or dragons, or puppets. But I cheerfully recognize that the possibility exists.

    Am I comfortable saying that angels and dragons exist? Well, no. “Angels,” “dragons,” and “exist” are in that sentence so totally open to interpretation and reinterpretation as to be useless as words—heck, almost useless as concepts. Do note above that I merely disavowed the existence of “supernatural big bads” above; Assumption Clash isn’t merely a bane of gaming. —Okay, I also disavowed the existence of the super- or preternatural, but that’s because I’m a holist; separating the natural from that which is “above” the natural is to my mind silly, and anyway I at least allow as how my own model of magicians as the differently thinking is wishy-washy at best; a cheap way to keep myself comfortably on the majoritarian side of the divide while still piddling about in tidal pools of gosh-wow. (Callow, youthful, undergraduate me wishes to note that there is a subtle but nonetheless profound difference between this outlook and the statement, “I don’t believe, but I believe that you believe,” and that might have made all the difference in the world.)

    So it’s basically a convoluted way of saying fuck-all, but that’s me in a nutshell. And anyway, whichever way you turn (along, I hasten to add, this grotesquely simplified axis, this model of a model) you end up with thoroughly useless tautologies: I speak with angels because I believe I speak with angels; he must be mad, because he says he speaks with angels. If I am missing out on the potential of one side or the other, well, at least my options are open.

    Always remembering that there are no “sides,” either. Nor cat, nor cradle. But it is a fun game, isn’t it? And you can tell stories with it, and pass messages in code, and make pretty patterns, and…

    Anyway: this game. I do think that the idea of attempting to preserve this overall ambiguity, which respects (and challenges) both a skeptic’s model and a magician’s model of the world (the Scully and the Mulder, and it’s only now I thought of trying to muddy the debate further by dragging them into this)—I do think this is still a laudable idea for a game, worth pursuing; certainly, it models the world as I think I know it, or would like for it to be, thus rather neatly covering both the simulationist and escapist axes of gaming for me. And I do still think that systematizing magic in the rules in any way upsets the balance and threatens the ambiguity—an interesting problem in game design, which is the reason it would make a good idea for gaming in the first place, and also the impetus that sparked the above and aformentioned age-old too-long email. But: that sort of goal is probably too much for a game that also supposes a complicated alternate history of 19th c. imperialism in the inner solar system—better to wed it to a leaner, meaner, easier to kick-start setting. (A variant of the one hedgehog rule, perhaps, applies.)

    Which is why this game never got off the ground; the notes and background have shifted, mentally, from the gaming archive to the one-of-these-days-real-soon-now fiction archive, and what notes I have made about running something at some point have revolved around the meta-D&D Meritocracy, about which perhaps more some other time.

  9. Vincent    Feb 9, 09:32 AM    #
    Well, I don't know about magic (although I've talked to angels, demons and fairies myself, or at least I believed I was) so here's me, practical and game design-y.

    First, conflict resolution, not task resolution, in a big big way, absolutely critical. (Here's what I'm talking about.) The resolution mechanics don't tell whether you successfully cast the wealth spell, but whether you make rent this month.

    Second, arrange it mechanically so that, at the real player right now level, an act of magic creates its confounding data. Whenever you have your character do a spell, you have to suggest a coincidence or two to go with it. For instance:

    What's at stake: do I make rent this month?
    GM: Make a Cash On Hand roll.
    Me: I do a wealth spell. Also, as it happens, this one guy Ted owes me two hundred dollars.
    GM: Cool. Take a bonus to your Cash On Hand roll.
    I roll. Victory!
    Me: I make rent! I knew that Ted guy wouldn't leave me dangling.

    Ted retroactively always existed in the game world, but none of the players (including me) knew about him until just now.

    Third, get the players' buy-in to the ambiguity. They should all understand and agree that "is magic real?" isn't an appropriate what's-at-stake.

    ...And I don't mean that you should talk about it up front and have them sign a waiver or whatever. What I mean, in practical terms, is: have something gripping for the players to engage with that depends on the ambiguity. That might be something mechanical, like a Psychic Openness stat, although you'd have to balance it wicked carefully. It might instead be something in your setup and ongoing situation, some intercharacter or character-setting dynamic that nobody'd want to fuck up. I think your Miracle Club has the raw ingredients you'd need to create such a dynamic, it'd be just a matter of pushing them into line.

  10. Vincent    Feb 11, 07:07 AM    #
    I should be working on other things, like work or maybe Dogs in the Vineyard, but instead I threw together a mechanical solution. Check it out: Ambiguous Magic.

  11. --k.    Feb 16, 09:12 AM    #

    Here’s the (long-delayed) thing: while your system does provide a mechanism which makes the character’s “belief” in “magic” (wait, should I have scare-quoted “character,” too?) contingent on something more objective than player preference (or fiat), there’s still a problem for the ambiguity camp: there’s still this thing, “magic,” quantified (to whatever extent) and thus granted legitimacy by the system. The fact that the system takes time out to say how it works gives it weight; the fact that a character that believes in magic gets a bonus—however rationalized, however nebulous, however easily dismissed—makes magic an edge in the game: one that can be lost, sure, but it’s gone from being an ambiguous state within the larger, more objective view of the game world to being a tool—a hammer, a knife, an extra die roll that you can lose, okay, fine, by having your character fall from grace, but. And if you attempt to counterbalance by giving the forces of “skepticism” and “reason” their own die roll(s)—special “debunking” powers, like the ill-conceived Reason regio from 4th ed. (or was it 3rd?) Ars Magica, you don’t restore the ambiguity—you just make them two warring factions, cliques, gangs, spheres of superpowers, whatever.

    I mean, you could still play a game that hinged on that ambiguity with this system. It’s just that the system itself doesn’t provide the ambiguity. It’d still be up to the players: which it always is, of course. This is hardly new. The best system in the world doesn’t guarantee a good game. Every player group hacks the system to meet its needs and expectations.

    There’s two observations in the post above germane to gaming: one is the problem of how on earth do you preserve the ambiguity of something usually spelled out in step-by-step rules with points spent and dice rolled? —The other is my vague dissatisfaction with magic in gaming in general. Magic is usually little more than special effects: trappings simple or elaborate wrapped around the approved vectors whereby you, the player, can bring force to bear on the various problems presented by the game. Because consistency and continuity are good strong bricks for imaginary worlds, and because gaming groups usually fall back on party balance to help maintain a sense of fairness, using the rules to regulate each character’s abilities so that no one outweighs any other in the raw ability to affect the game, what you all too often end up with is nothing more than gussied-up die rolls. Your creo ignem spell is at its base a 6-die killing attack with an area effect that doesn’t work so well in the rain. Your telepathy and clairvoyance is nothing more than a way to soak up more information in character. God is just another NPC to bully (politely) for another clue. The game presents you with Gordian knots, and so everything on your character sheet ends up looking like a sword. And because of the consistency and continuity and fetish for regulated character balance, you end up hacking away at the very things that make magic, well, magical: the spontaneity, the unpredictability, the wonder and the terror, the irruption of that which ought not to be but is. —Any magic sufficiently reproducible is indistinguishable from technology. But gaming systems all too often demand that reproducibility, or at least accept it unquestionably as How Things Are Done. I might as well have been bitten by a radioactive wizard.

    (Even Ars Magica isn’t so much a system of magic as it is the natural philosophy of some other, alternate world…)

    And mostly of course I’m being a crank. Of course people can play games that are magical. I’ve played in some. And they all were magical because of the players and not the system, but that’s always the way, no matter what, so what’s my beef? And anyway, the system I’m complaining about isn’t so much any one game but more the overall way that gamers in general tend to approach it; I might as well Canute the sea, and complain about the wacky reality TV that the kids these days listen to. But to do something about something, we need to talk about it, and I do think there’s plenty more room for games that approach magic (and, I should probably add, the mystical, since to be fair I’m being selfish with my definition of magic, and only approaching it from one perspective: there’s a bunch of people scratching their heads, I’m sure, at the idea that magic is somehow not reproducible, of course it is, why they were talking to Bacon about it just the other day) with an eye towards the scarey shivery wow (do we need to get into the fact that gaming, like theatre, is itself an essentially magical act? Maybe not now), and even moreso the idea that there could be a system, or if not a system a game, that respects both magical and skeptical characters (and did you notice what happens to that balance, and your treatment of skeptical players, if you as a GM believe that gaming is an essentially magical act? Whee!), and preserves that essential, weaselly ambiguity.

    But I don’t think you’ve quite hit on such a system just yet, Vince.

    —Eh, maybe I’m just cranky because I haven’t hooked into a character idea for the proposed Known World Ars Magica game. My blind mystic Mahabharatish monk just isn’t catching fire. Phooey and pfeh. Maybe I’ll do up the fraternal twins who finish each other’s sentences, instead…

  12. Vincent    Feb 17, 07:02 AM    #

    That actually clarifies a lot. Check me on this:

    You want a game where a) any individual character might or might not be a magician and b) it's no mechanical advantage or disadvantage. c) Whether any particular character does magic or not, magic permeates the game d) for the players - which I'm unclear: e) including the GM? Thus the experience of playing the game - not your character's experience, your own - is one of wow, shudder, looking over your shoulder, and catching your breath.

    f) The role of in-game magic, then, that is the magic that your character might or might not do, would be to catch the wow-shudder at the player level and carry it down into the in-game, so that the in-game and the process of roleplaying can work its own magic on it and deliver it back up, trans-frickin'-formed. I, playing, narrow my eyes and watch closely what our characters are doing, then sit back with my eyes wide, startled, then take a guilty-sneaky glance heavenward becaus what we've done seems beyond our mere selves. Like that?

    If I'm even in the ballpark, you're quite right: my system doesn't do it. All my system does is preserve ambiguity for the magician - that is, the character. The players get to see behind the screen.

  13. --k.    Feb 26, 03:57 PM    #

    Yes and no.

    Let’s back up a moment—

    What I had was a group of player-characters, the flimsy pretext for which was their common membership in The Miracle Club: precursor to Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, it was constituted for the express purpose of investigating paranormal phenomena. The idea was to mix famous mediumistic cases from history (updated, since this would be taking place ca. 1891, about 20 years after the last big spiritualist revival in the states) with old Call of Cthulhu modules (remixed, with lots of snare rushes). Some would end up falling out in the Scooby Doo rubber-mask camp (those meddling mediums!); some would be more ambiguous (spooky synchronicities, internal character drama, quasi-psychic prodigies, talented stage magicians, charismatic mountebanks); some few would slot into the overarching cosmotheological conspiracy (the Cthulhuish stuff. Esque. Whatever).

    Now: playing would be (among others) Person 1: secular, materialist, atheist, capable of appreciating fictional magic on an aesthetic level, and debating the ethics and morality of imaginary systems, but cheerfully contemptuous of the idea of magic or the paranormal in the real world. And Person 2: a magician and priest with an active ritual life and frequent contact with a variety of spirits, cheerfully syncretistic in his approach to magic, religion, and daily life: all one to him. These two (when considered in this light only) form the poles of an axis along which you’d find the rest of the players, some down toward Person 1’s end, some with me, skipping cautiously through the tide pools, and some wading out toward Person 2. —And me, remembering that the Miracle Club’s original goal was to investigate, not necessarily believe, and being perhaps more charitable in my interpretation of what that meant (it did, after all, become the Theosophical Society in the real world), cheerfully urged the various personages to create characters whose attitudes toward magic and the paranormal would be most comfortable for them. —Person 1, as I recall, waffled between a stage magician and a disenchanted rabbi; Person 2 was diving headlong into the Martian priestess discussed above.

    The trick, then: a system which provides enough magic for Person 2 to structure a character capable of simple acts of divination, misdirection, clairvoyance, and bodily enhancement through magic, while respecting Person 1’s belief that it was all just guff and hooptedoo. Part of this, of course, is an approach to the presentation of the thing: stressing the description of the ritual actions Person 2 performs, rather than merely stating airily that one is casting Waters of Vision and would the GM be so kind as to roll the dice? That way, Player 1 can maintain the perspective that Player 2’s behaving rather oddly (these Martian priestesses, can’t take ’em anywhere) and if Player 2 sometimes comes up with some startling insights thusly, well, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. —Sure, Player 1 has to accept that every now and then, when the narration is from Player 2’s POV, it seems to suppose this magic stuff is real, and works, and anyone who doesn’t see that is a headblind fool; then, Player 2 has to deal with performance and ritual and the fact that every now and then, when the narration is from Player 1’s POV, this magic stuff is nothing more than the self-deluded ravings of a useful and charming kook.

    Well, maybe not that extreme. But maybe you get the idea.

    The point being the fun of watching how the group so polarized (and I would not be counting on Players 1 and 2—and hey, would you look at that, I’ve gone and conflated player with character in the above, whoops—I would not be counting solely on 1 and 2 to shoulder the burden, I’ve exaggerated it for simplicity’s sake, there were other vectors, and anyway, it never got off the drawing board) would handle ambiguous situations: the Scooby Doo rubber mask might fool them, or some of them; the ambiguous borderline might rattle them, or be written off, and the slowly acreting Big Thing—which, being old and terrible and vast and cosmotheological and Cthulhuesque, would be as shattering to Player 2’s paradigm as Player 1’s. Or anyone else’s.

    So your described gaming experience more fits what might be the experience of players and characters between these two unfairly drawn poles: maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, and maybe they’ve done something and maybe they haven’t, but every now and then there’s the shiver. Which they dismiss, or hold tightly, depending. —What bugs me is that any game and system which offers magic (or psychic power) as an ability to the characters necessarily assumes this magic, this paranormality, is real, and all the to-hit tables and spell names and points spent just reinforce that idea. A skeptic is a crank in this world, foolish, sadly limited, disbelieving something so potentially empowering, so paradoxically material, present, verifiable, real. Well, of course, you might say: what use is spending points and effort to acquire powers that aren’t real? But here in the real world, we have Person 1 and Person 2, and neither is objectively any kookier than the other, or any further advantaged or disadvantaged, really…

    I mean, I most likely would have handled it the way I usually do: personally, stripping as many of the rules out of the way as possible, rolling the dice as little as possible, and personalizing game narration to lightly Rashomon our way through the trickier bits. (I’m not much of one for systems.) But! It’s a systemic problem for fantasy in gaming, potentially crippling; through gaming, it’s affecting genre fantasy in other media (I could go all wiggy and blame Jack Vance, but that would be horribly unfair, if maliciously funny): and so I find myself mulling it over. How would you? What would you? Could you, even, with players who weren’t quite yet willing to stretch themselves?

    And so.

    (Chas, feel free to leap back in at any point.)

  Textile Help