Aug 24, 2017

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A plea for systematic magic

Abstract

Magic is roleplaying games always seems a bit arbitrary. It is not governed by an overarching principle that is founded in the inner logic of imaginary game world. Instead, we usually get a random collection of spells. Probably based on what the developer thought to be cool. This text will attempt to explain why that is not the best solution and what I think should be done about it.

Definition of magic

First, allow me to clarify: When I say "magic", that does not necessarily mean spells and wands. Many RPGs have some kind of magic without clearly labelling it as such. Jedi powers, biotics, psionics and other things are basically just magic in disguise - some form of supernatural power which normal people in the real world do not have and could not achieve. Even if biotics, for example, are not presented as supernatural powers within the game world of Mass Effect, they are still supernatural in our world. Basically they're just that: Cool space-magic.

For the purpose of this article, I shall consider all these things simply as magic.

Immersion and realism vs. plausibility

Immersion is a very important aspect of roleplaying games. It allows the player to become a part of the game world. You are no longer sitting in front of a computer, you are actually walking through the world which the game's creators have thought up.

This illusion depends heavily on the believability of the world that is presented to you. If you cannot believe that the events on the screen are real - or could be real - then you will probably not be able to accept them. You see something that - at least apparently - does not make sense and wonder: "How is that possible?" And when the game world does not offer a seemingly plausible explanation for it, you will, instinctively, fall back to the real world. Then you are back in front of your computer, looking onto the imaginary world from the outside and realise: "Yes, this can be because it is just fiction. It is not real and therefore can exist despite the observed inconsistency or contradictions".

However, it is important not to confuse realism with plausibility. To make that distinction clear, allow me to define these two terms for the purpose of this text. Realism is something that could actually happen in the real word. The one which you and I actually have to live in. Something is realistic when it can happen in our world and is explainable by the laws of nature that define our world. Plausibility, on the other hand, only means that a world (or universe, however you want to call it) is consistent with its own laws of nature. And that events in that universe abide by the laws of that universe. These laws can be different from ours.

For instance, summoning a demon to do your bidding is unrealistic. It cannot happen in our world. If it can happen inside a game world where the laws of nature permit it, then it can be plausible, however.

The imaginary universe must not have the same scientific model as ours. It can have its own and that one can be different. The fictional universe may violate the laws of nature of the real world. But it should still be consistent to its own model.

Weren't you supposed to talk about magic?

I was. And now that the foundation is laid, I can do just that. Magic, in most RPGs I have seen in my life, is rarely that which you could call plausible.

Just pick a game that has a fireball spell and ask yourself: How does that work? Where do the flames come from? What is actually burning there? Why am I not burning myself? Who invented this spell and how did he or she come up with the idea?

And why does a game have a certain selection of spells and not a different one? We know the reason when we leave the imaginary world. It's because the developers wanted it this way. Or needed it to be for reasons of game design. But once you made this realisation, you have already mentally exited the game world. Immersion has been broken.

And that is bad. Ideally, an investigative player who pokes about the fictional setting, turns over every stone and looks in every crevice should always get a satisfying answer from the game. This is what literature calls verisimilitude: The believability of a work of fiction.

Obviously, that ideal may occasionally be difficult to achieve. It may be acceptable to make exceptions for purposes of game design, dramaturgy, or similar aspects. But only after careful consideration and only if there's no other viable option. Most current RPGs don't even try to present a plausible magic system.

Minimalistic models or the principal of Occam's Razor

Ok, now we have established that there should be reasonable explanations for everything, including magic.

But what if I just explain it this way: It is a fundamental law of nature in my fictional universe that there is such a thing as a fireball spell. And a demon summoning spell. And a lightning spell. And that the fireball spell doesn't burn your hands - that's also a basic law of nature. And all the other minute little details that seem implausible are also just laws of nature. And thus, everything is explained.

But that would be bad style. Because it would be a lot that the player just has to swallow. The less you just have to accept without question and the more you can deduce and explain, the better the setting's design. Hence, I think creators should adhere to the principle of Occam's Razor: Make as few assumptions as possible.

Take the game Mass Effect as an example. For all we currently know about our universe, there is no such thing as a "Mass Effect" which gave the series its name. But if you believe that one single, fictional element, then almost everything else suddenly makes sense. How this effect could be used in starships or weapons or shields. Even biotics are explained. But most fantasy RPGs do not achieve this level of verisimilitude.

Example for a fantasy RPG

Ok, now that I have droned on about how not to make it, let's have an example of how it could be done. In a fantasy world setting.

Let's say that in our imaginary universe, there is such a thing as telekinesis. And this shall be the only fictional element that sets it apart from our reality, at least as far as magic is concerned. It shall be the only axiom you have no choice but to simply accept.

Then this could explain spells that throw enemies through the air. Push them away, pull them towards you, slam them in the ground or choke them like Darth Vader. You could compress the air around you into a shield or turn simple stones into deadly projectiles. You can even explain spells that put someone to sleep (gently squeeze the arteries supplying the brain with oxygen) or levitation (push yourself off the ground). Just from the premise ("there is telekinesis"), it just follows naturally how people might use it, once they have it. How they could come up with these spells and perfect them over time. There is a lot of really cool stuff you could do with that.

But fireballs, teleportation, shape-shifting or summoning demons would be just as impossible in this world as it is in ours. And everyone would understand why!

Work approach

The common approach to adding magic to an RPG is that you just come up with a bunch of spells that seem cool. Or worse: That you think you need to have because it's genre convention. Honestly, wouldn't not having a fireball spell be a really refreshing new spin on magic in fantasy RPGs by now?

I think the best way to achieve systematic magic is to start with the axiom. Add something to the game world (like telekinesis in the example above) and then think about how to turn it into offensive and defensive weapons and other useful applications. By doing that, you're basically going through the same process that the inhabitants of your fictional universe would go through to utilise this magic. And that would, automatically, result in a systematic, believable and consistent magic system.

It may be a bit more work but I think it's worth it. And it doesn't have to result in only lame spells that nobody wants.

Benefits

So, explanation models, magical theories that actually merit the definition of "theory" (e.g. falsifiability) and rules and regulations.

Can I be any more OCD about something that's "just a game"? Who cares about this anyway?

But there are some very nice benefits from that approach. Yes, if you define RPGs as: "I run around, kill stuff and collect loot and gain levels", then this text seems probably strange to you. See my definition of RPGs for further information.

If developers restrict themselves to adding only a few axioms to the model of their game world and deriving spells from that through logically consistent deductions, they add to the believability of the game world.

If you believe that RPGs should let you immerse in a fictional world and developers heed my advice, then, if you are a playing a mage, there is no longer a divergence between character and player knowledge. Your character is a mage and therefore, should not only be able to use magic but also to understand it. But if magic is arbitrary, you as the player cannot understand magic. Because there is nothing to understand. It's just that - arbitrary and random.

With a consistent model, however, the player can have the illusion the he actually understands magic. This furthers immersion in multiple ways:

  • The player understands another part of the world and thus is immersed deeper.
  • There is no divergence between player knowledge and character knowledge (at least not as far as magic is concerned), so the player can better identify with his or her character.
  • Since there now is a logical derivation for each spell, developers can draw from that in terms of lore. They can add tomes and stories about how people explored and researched magic and came up with the different spells. This adds depth to the world's background.

Conclusion

Bottom line: Systematic magic adds to believability and depths of the game world and hence, is a good thing to have. It may require a bit more effort to properly set it up but I seriously doubt it'll break any budget. It happens early on in the design process when you are fleshing out the details of the world anyway. And does not require any more additional programming hours or assets then any other set of spells.

I would like to see something like this in a RPG one day. So far, I cannot think of one that does it. Except, maybe, Mass Effect (see above). But even that could be a bit better and is sci-fi, where you need at least the appearance of scientific consistency. But "fantasy" is no reason or excuse to not do it as well.

Some arguments against it and what I think of them

Broader applicability

You can make the case that verisimilitude is actually always a good thing and there are many ways in which developers can harm the internal consistency of their universes. That by restricting myself to magic I'm kind of missing the broader point.

And you would be right. This is a problem which often occurs on a larger scale than just with magic. The reasons why I focus on magic in this article are:

  • Well, I just like magic. I play as a mage whenever given the chance. So it's just something that affects me directly.
  • Sometimes, things are easier to explain by giving a concrete example instead of just talking about generic, abstract concepts. And magic can serve as a good example to actually explain the broader problem of believability.
  • Even in games that make everything else right (or mostly right), magic is often ignored. Many developers seem to think that since it's "just magic" and since "magic" is not real by definition, they don't have to make the effort to embed it into their world's model.

Author's freedom

Another possible argument might be that it is the authors prerogative to make the game in whatever way they want and I have no right to criticise. But I beg to differ. While it is certainly true that any author can do with their imaginary worlds whatever they want, this does not exempt them from criticism. A good, believable and plausible fictional universe is, in my opinion, a sign of good craftsmanship.

Many times, magic is used in books, movies and games as an all-out excuse for bad writing. Wrote yourself into a dead end? Well, let's just change the situation for no apparent reason. Why was this possible? Because it's magic! Do not ask any more questions! Magic can do whatever the author wants it to do whenever it suits his needs. And it fails whenever that is dramaturgically necessary.

I do not deny that sometimes, authors have to make concessions to dramaturgical needs. But a really good craftsman can weave a tale that is not constrained by the internal laws of his fictional universe but instead thrives on them. Think about it. The internal laws didn't fall from the sky. The author himself made them up. And then he started a story that would later lead to conflict with those laws. Had he thought things through from the beginning, this probably wouldn't have happened.

But even when it does happen, not all is lost. You can still save your work. Just give a plausible explanation why this time is different. It's not perfect but usually, I'm willing to go with it if the story is otherwise captivating and good.

Rules are not a substitute for plausibility

But what about the many pen and paper RPGs out there? Like Dungeons & Dragons or The Dark Eye? There, magic is governed by clear rules outlined in a rule set.

Yes and no. These rules serve as a restriction to prevent players from using it as all all-out excuse. You can't just say: "And then I wizard the entire orc army away!" You actually have to meet the requirements (know the spell, have enough power, etc.). Using magic costs you something (usually mana) and in many cases, your attempt can fail based on how good your character actually is in the art of magic. If you could just do anything at any time in any place by yelling "it's magic", the game would be over pretty quickly. The rules are there to keep the game going. They are not - or at least not primarily - meant to enhance immersion.

Here's a dare: Pick any pen and paper RPG and then explain to me how magic exactly works there and how each of the available spells can be derived from that! If you found one, please let me know!

No explanation is no solution

Why explain magic at all? If it is just there without any given explanation as to how it works, then we avoid contradictions and conflicts between the different parts of the game. First, you ask the developers to try and give a consistent magical theory and then you yell "Gotcha!" when they trip over it in the course of their narrative.

This line of reasoning, while not completely without merit, ignores the fact that this is basically a cop-out. Imagine what stories that might result in if authors did in everywhere. If nothing were to follow cause and effect and everything was just random. You wouldn't accept that. You would demand that the author presents a reasonably explained chain of events. D happened because of C, that one because of B and B could only occur because someone did A.

Why should magic by an exception to that?

Doesn't that destroy the magic of magic?

You can make the argument that magic actually should be this foreign, mystic power that you cannot understand. If you have the time for it, check out this YouTube video by MrBtongue (about 9 minutes long). He explains the idea quite eloquently with the example of how Sauron in Lord of the Rings enchants the people with his words and how "demystifying" this event would probably have a negative dramaturgical impact on the situation. How it makes Sauron seem even more powerful and mysterious because we don't know how he did that.

And let's face it: He has a point. However, I think there's another consideration to be made. There is a reason why he uses the Lord of the Rings as example. Because that's book. And in books or movies, you are just a passive observer. You are not Sauron. You do not see that world from his perspective but from the view of his opponents. In RPGs however, you are supposed to actively play a role (hence the name). And if you are playing a mage, then you should understand what you're doing.

Let's take MrBtongue's own example: Imagine Sauron walked away from that mass charm scene and then his assistant Igor (which doesn't exist in the books and was just added by me to make a point) asks him: "Master, how did you do that?" And then Sauron says: "Well, Igor, to be totally honest with you - I have no frigging clue!" Even if he might not admit it to others, he would at least have to admit to himself that he has no idea how he does what he does. Would this still be such a powerful plot device? Or would it not, in fact, reverse it into its opposite and effectively destroy the atmosphere?

Different media require different considerations. Things that might work in literature or movies need not automatically work in computer games as well. Therefore, I contend that, since Sauron himself should know the secrets of magic, if you are supposed to play Sauron, you should know them, too. Or, more generally speaking, if you are supposed to play a mage, you should know how the magic actually works.

Only then can you really comprehend your mage character on what is basically the one defining aspect of his chosen profession and thus, an integral part of his identity.

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