Friday, January 2, 2009

Magic is MAGIC

For too long have I endured conventional D&D magic over-rationalized in terms of real-world physics. My attitude comes from years of gaming with a particular group that viewed wizards as too powerful. They even implemented a house rule that crippled wizards with an extra skill roll with every spell cast.

James over at Grognardia wrote an interesting post about the implementation of pulp fantasy styled magic in D&D. His idea, as I understand it, is to require a greater level of D&D spell component detail in order to make it resemble the magic as presented in pulp fantasy literature. I'm not so sure that is a good idea.

Magic is MAGIC. It doesn't make any rational sense. That is its nature. If magic is quantified, I believe it leads to game worlds such as Eberron where mechanical devices are powered by magical means. Yes, it is interesting to explore these ideas and it can make for fun gaming. But it departs from medieval fantasy and into the realm of science-fiction.

James is not at all suggesting that elemental-powered steam engines should be a part of the game. He is merely suggesting that magic could have a more "realistic" flair if it were rationalized in terms of increased spell component requirements. I don't think that is necessary. And I'm not convinced that such a change would give D&D any more of a "pulpier magic" feel to it. I say that if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Take for example the bag of holding. Much theorizing about the nature of this ubiquitous device has been made over the years. Questions have been presented about whether it can hold material in terms of volume or mass. How sharp do objects have to be before it can accidentally rip it open? Can it hold water or do liquids seap through the material of the bag into some other extra-dimensional space? If sharp things can poke it, what's to stop leakage? If it's absolutely water-tight but can be pierced, what is the nature of the bag's lining? Even if an object weighs less than the bag's carrying capacity, can it be stuffed in the opening?

And then there is Hermione Granger's bag of holding. If you've read all of the Harry Potter books, you know what I'm talking about. If you've only seen the movies, let me explain. At a certain point in the saga of Harry Potter, he and his friends go camping. They carry with them a tent and all the other various types of camping gear. Harry and his friends are wizards that use spells and magical devices. They take with them a tent that is much larger on the inside than it is on the outside. It's like a tent with a permanent Mordenkainen's magnificent mansion spell. Inside the tent is a small apartment with beds and a kitchen. In order to pack up their camping gear and take it with them, Hermione fashioned a small purse into what D&D gamers will instantly recognize as a bag of holding. Her version has an enormous carrying capacity. And she is able to stuff a bulky tent, a large oil painting, people, and God knows what else into this tiny little purse.

If I was a player in my old group and tried to create a bag of holding just like Hermione's it wouldn't have been allowed. It would be able to carry far more than a bag that size would normally allow. It would be able to care sharp things! It would be able to carry things that were much bigger than the opening of the tiny little purse. And clearly it would be able to hold other extra-dimensional magic devices without ripping a hole in space-time. Perhaps my game group would have allowed such a relatively powerful device if it cost much more than a regular bag of holding. But even then there would be severe strictures because of the tendancy of that game group to over-rationalize the physics of magic.

Rationalizing magic is pointless. It is something that occurs in fantasy literature. Since it is something that can only exist in the imagination, it can do anything. Quantifying or rationalizing it leads to a maze of rule judgements that leads to splat books that players think they need in order to enjoy the game.

Thinking of new and interesting ways of implementing magic should be the reward of a powerful imagination. If the power of imagination is directed towards how magic should be limited, I think that is contrary to the goal of having fun. Leave the hard physics and rationalizations to the fighters and weapons based upon the realities of the medeval history of warfare. If you, as a player, can think of a brilliant way of escaping from a dragon's lair with a hilarious combination of rope trick, a bucket of whipped cream, and fan dance, then have at it! If the wizard at the table comes up with imaginative solutions to problems using spells in a way that's not defined in any rule book, give it a chance. Don't worry about it setting precedents. It's magic! Spells defined in the RAW is how magic works in tried-and-true ways. But who's to say it can't be improvised? Who's to say magic can't do this that or the other? The DM and the rules lawyer, that's who.

In my own games, I dispense with the accounting of spell components altogether. I just assume that wizards always carry around spell component materials and spend their spare time collecting them. I assume that they have to periodically buy a new spell component pouch between forrays into the dungeon.

Powerful spells with expensive and rare components can make for interesting quests. But having to constantly worry about them for the most mundane spells is, in my humble opinion, a waste of time and counter to the spirit of free imagination. It starts the gamer down a road from which it is difficult to return.


Kurzen said...

Magic feels quantified in D&D because it *is* quantified. One of my biggest gripes is the magic system is horribly cumbersome and terribly designed - no real system at all, just hundreds of special case rules. I far prefer a system where spells are created dynamically, such as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and D6 Fantasy. The magic in those games don't feel like technology.

Norman Harman said...

@Kurzen I use to hate D&D magic, but I've since been convinced it's cool. The argument that convinced me for Vancian and against mana point or codified systems, (I was into Rolemaster with it's spell lists) went something like this.

It's D&D magic's lack of system, no standardized mechanics, it's non-design and cumbersomeness, how each spell is it's own special case makes it all much more mystical and magical.

(although, many of those have been reduced as the edition # increases),

It's all arbitrary. You can't just double the mana put into casting to double the effect. Players can't say "well if I take this list of spells I'll get this at 1st and that at 2nd". It's whatever you find or can research and have the intelligence to understand.

Nothing is guaranteed. Most spells can be resisted. Many have saving throws. There's all sorts of monster & encounter special rules that say well this spell does this instead or these spells don't function.

It's a chaotic mess.

Just like magic should be.

Neon Elf said...

I have to agree with the over rationalization of magic. Someone in my group once asked if a touch attack spell had to touch skin, or if armor was sufficient. What a debate that spawned! questions like that only matter if you have a really codified system. I would prefer a system more like Heros where there was a "basic ability" to the spell (damage,modify environment,mental effect, etc) and the special effect was whatever the player wanted. This way wizards get to make their own spells, and put as much power into it as they want.

I think that creating your own spells would make wizards feel more personal. It'd leave signatures, and make a game more interesting. The problem with the special case madness we have now, is that if you can't find it in a splat book, it takes some real time, research, and consideration before a GM and player could agree on a new spell.

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