Niven’s Law and Fantasy Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology – Niven’s Converse to Clarke’s Law

In my last post I discussed the application of Clarke’s Law to SF Roleplaying, and how too zealous an application can mar the SF feel of an ostensibly SF setting, by making tech seem magically limitless.  It might be objected that in good fantasy fiction, magic does indeed have limits, and omnipotent magic is just as problematic to Fantasy settings as  omnipotent tech is to SF settings. I think that’s true, but the kind of limits that seem magical differ from the kind of limits that seem scientific.  I’d go so far as to say that a too-literal application of Niven’s Converse is as bad for Fantasy as a too-literal application of Clarke’s law is to SF.

The kind of limits that seem scientific/technological are limits that at least seem like the limits we observe in physical laws:  the square-cube law, exponential decay, the laws of thermodynamics.  In SF settings for instance we tend expect that just making something bigger won’t make it more effective (if a robot the size of a house is good, a robot the size of a sky-scraper is even better!), that effects drop off with range (no pistols that shoot from the Earth to Proxima Centauri), that there’s no such thing as a free lunch (you can’t just get unlimited power for your ship by using your antigrav drive to create a perpetual-motion pump).  It doesn’t really matter if the phenomenon is entirely fictional, like hyper-drive, or psi powers: if it seems to follow some of the same basic principles that we’re familiar with, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.  An example might be Psi powers being blocked by lead or strong electromagnetic fields.  There’s no particular reason that they should be, and nothing in particular in real-world accounts of people who claim to have experienced such phenomena that suggests it should be true, but we’re used to other physical phenomena being constrained in exactly that fashion so it makes it seem more plausibly a physical/biological phenomenon instead of purely supernatural.

Magic, on the other hand, at least in fairy tales and legends tends to have completely different things that serve as stereotypical limits.  Magic usually has very narrow limits on the circumstances in which it can be invoked, such as requiring hard-to-get materials, being cast in the dark of the moon or at a solstice, not being effective against a virgin or a man not of woman born, requiring a special status to attempt (genii or fairy, having sold your soul to the devil, being the seventh son of a seventh son).  Within those limits, magic doesn’t seem to be at all concerned with mundane physical limits. Transformation of a human to a toad, or to a dragon, doesn’t need to account for different masses. Nor is distance any obstacle: if you can fulfill the conditions under which the spell can be cast, such as requiring a drop of the victim’s blood or a lock of his hair, it doesn’t matter how far away the target is, or how many intervening barriers. Transportation all the way across the world requires no greater expenditure of magical effort than across the room, nor is doing it in the wink of an eye more taxing than a more sedate pace, say as fast as a horse can gallop. Above all, magic is about getting something for nothing, or at least something concrete and physical here and now for something metaphysical and down the road, such as your soul, or some years of your life–or somebody else’s.

In fact, even thinking of magic as requiring “effort” or some amount of “power” tends to put it on a physical basis that is at odds with the magic of legends and fairy tales, though it’s become extremely common, if not the default mode of thinking about it in modern day fantasy tales and especially fantasy games.  This is where Niven’s Converse starts to bite, and I think rob fantasy of a lot of its magical feel.  Once you start to think of magic as being a sort of technology, perhaps with slightly different rules but having the same sort of underlying assumptions as mundane tech, it’s hard to stop before you’ve essentially turned magic into its own sort of electricity, powering devices that might as well be from an SF story as a fairy tale. The fact that it’s super-convenient to do so when it comes to writing game rules that balance character types against each other and keep the magic users from just waving their hands and solving all their problems makes it even more tempting to the game designer/GM.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my Elves and Espers setting does that good and hard, but I do it knowing full well that it makes magic in the setting seem more like SF…that’s more or less the point of the fantasy/SF mash-up. Unfortunately, I think, I also tend to do it in settings that are supposed to be pure fantasy, and I think they feel less magical for it. It’s just so easy to think of spells in physics-ish terms as having range, area of effect, duration, requiring more “power” the larger the target or greater the duration, having power for magic be as interchangeable as electricity, weakening with time or distance, and so on. Doing so also automatically makes it easier to compare against abilities that are based on nothing more than physics, such as firing arrows, riding horses, or digging tunnels.

As time goes on, I have a greater appreciation for some of the features of the original D&D magic system. Leaving aside the peculiar Vancian “memorizing” of spells (which I covered elsewhere), it had some magical seeming properties:

  • Spells were sui generis: each had its own rules and properties.
  • The “power source” of a spell was unique to that spell, you couldn’t trade them off or increase or decrease them except by using a different spell.
  • There was no real balancing of the effects of spells against physical “work”.  Spells were graded by level, but within a level it wasn’t, say, harder to create something out of nothing than to influence somebody’s emotions or gain some information.

For instance, take the 5th level spell Teleport:  “Instantaneous transportation from place to place, regardless of the distance involved, provided the user knows where he is going (the topography of the arrival area). Without certain knowledge of the destination teleportation is 75% uncertain, so a score of less than 75% of the percentile dice results in death.”  To me that is a ton more magical than 3rd edition’s rule that you can teleport 100 miles per level of caster, with 15 paragraphs and a table detailing how much you can carry, how familiarity with a locale is rated, the chances of arriving off-target and so on.  But even that is more magical than, say, Hero System’s Fifth Edition, where Teleportation is just a movement power with normal Endurance cost, and with a maximum range of 1 scale inch per 2 character points, to any location within range that can currently be perceived with a “targeting sense”.  (In its defense, the Hero System is supposed to be generic, but that naturally comes at a cost of losing flavor when it comes to specific genres.)

To be sure, there were other features of white-box D&D magic that undercut the magical feel, and made many spells seem just like a special ammo load (precision about ranges, a legacy of its miniatures war-game heritage comes to mind), but I think many later efforts to rationalize the system, including my own, went off in the wrong direction, falling afoul of Niven’s Converse. Instead of just removing the inconsistencies and arbitrariness of the war-gamey parts of the magic system, but leaving the inconsistencies and arbitrariness of magic operating by a completely different set of rules than physics, FRPG magic systems tended to both make expression of the rules concerning spells more voluminous, consistent and precise and make those rules much more like the rules of physics, or at least SF physics.  At the end of the day, there was little discernible difference in feel between spells cast by a wizard, spells cast by a priest, psionic abilities of one kind or another, or “spell-like” abilities from using a hi-tech item.   Magic had become sufficiently “advanced” that it really was indistinguishable from technology, at least from the point of view of the game and its players.

This isn’t an original observation, and there have been many attempts over the years to address the problem, such as trying to create magic systems that reflect more clearly the “Laws of Magic” gleaned by anthropological study of magic as real-world cultures have believed it to have worked. John Kim has a rather lengthy essay Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems that’s well worth reading (btw, I was the player of the character mentioned in Example 1 of Section 5). One problem with modeling your FRP magic system too closely on real-world magic is that real world magic doesn’t work, and some of the stuff that’s “true” according to real world magical tradition is there to make it harder to test and verify, or to give an easy out to the practitioner when it doesn’t work. Most of the time in an adventure-oriented FRP game, you want magic to be practical, so for instance death spells that take months to cast and if they work appear to be coincidence, aren’t what the players are looking for. Fairy-tale magic is a lot better for settings where there is overt magic, but fairy-tale magic is often so potent that it’s only found in the hands of NPC antagonists or sometimes mysterious mentors. It can take a lot of work on the GM’s part to create magic for the players to use that doesn’t end the adventure with, in essence, “and I magic us out of trouble.”  Giving players one or two specific abilities, like being able to talk to animals, or a pair of seven-league boots, can be a lot easier on the game than letting a player be a full-fledged sorcerer–but doesn’t really answer for the player who wants to play fantasy so he can play a sorcerer.

There’s also the factor that, after thirty years of D&D, and countless stories and games derived from it or influenced by it, some second or third hand, there are a lot of people including some who’ve never actually played D&D whose conception of magic and what feels magical is much more influenced by D&D than by earlier sources. To them being able to throw a fireball is the hallmark of a wizard, even if you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a pre-D&D source in myth or legend. When it comes down to making magic in your game feel magical to your players, you may have to include fireballs if that’s what’ll give them that fantastic tingle.

There’s no easy answer to preventing magic from feeling just like another technology, if that’s your goal. We’re so steeped in technology that even for things that aren’t technological in origin in our world, we often think about them as if they were technology, or try to treat them like technology. (Insert long rant about social engineering and/or modern management practices here, if you will.) Next time I try it, here are some approaches I’m going to consider:

  • Make spells sui generis. The way one spell works may not imply anything about any other spell, including spells of similar effect. Perhaps depending on where you learned it, Magic Missile is a physical arrow that needs a to-hit roll, or an unerring blast of light, or something else.
  • Make many spells the results of negotiating with sentient entities: you summon a djinn or elemental and it can do whatever is within its powers, but you actually have to role-play out the process of cutting a deal with it.
  • Have spells have no common source of power. No mana, or end cost, or magic points. If the conditions are right to allow you to cast the spell, including restrictions on ingredients or time of day or what-have-you, you can cast it. If certain spells do require power, have the power be the result of a specific action such as sacrificing an animal or praying in the sacred grove at the full moon, and have the source of power be thematically appropriate to the type of spell.
  • Design spells so they employ magical reasoning (effects resemble causes, contagion, similarity, etc.).
  • Grant characters specific magical abilities, without necessarily allowing them to learn new abilities…new abilities have to be gained through adventuring or deals with magical creatures, if at all.
  • Downplay physics-like considerations in spell-casting such as range, volume, density, duration. Spells should mostly cause permanent effects until reversed voluntarily or through being broken (spells should always have some way of breaking them built-in, such as a kiss from a prince).
  • Emphasize conditions for casting/breaking spells that have mythological or fairy tale resonance, including what John Kim calls morality, ethics and intangibles.  Spells that cannot work on the true of heart, or that can only be cast by evil creatures, or the seventh son of a seventh son, or can only be broken by true love, etc.
  • Do not allow the commodification of magic items: even if you have Ye Olde Magic Shoppe, each item in it is unique and has its own story.