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.

Clarke’s Law and SF Roleplaying

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Clarke’s Third Law

Any technology indistinguishable from magic might as well be fantasy. – Macy’s RPG Corollary

Old-time SF author E.C. Tubb died on September 10th, 2010, which prompted me to begin reading his most famous series: Dumarest of Terra.  Dumarest was the inspiration for several  features of the early SF RPG Traveller, most notably the concepts of “Low” (risky but cheap cryogenic suspension) and “High” (expensive but safely awake) passage on starships, but a lot of the feel of the setting as well, with humanity spread out so far among the stars that there’s no central political control and Terra is just a legend.

Dumarest is entertaining enough in a pulpish way, but one of the things that strikes me when reading it is how much it feels like science fiction, despite having no recognizably “hard” science elements. The mechanics of interstellar travel, for instance, isn’t explained at all, not even in the hand-waving way of “hyper-space” or “FTL” drive.  All you really know about it is that it takes a long time: not so long as to make interstellar tourism impossible, at least if you’re rich enough, but long enough that even  in “High passage” people have to take a drug called Quick-Time to slow their metabolism and perception to endure the journey.  Worlds exist with unusual features such as not rotating that aren’t worked out at all, let alone with Hal Clement-style rigor. So what makes it feel science-fictional, in a way that many modern SF stories and RPGs do not?

I think the thing is that even without any attempt at explanation or justification in terms of real science, the technology is portrayed as having limits and inconveniences that give it a distinctly un-magical feel.  Cryogenic suspension isn’t a Sleeping Beauty spell. Besides having a 15% fatality rate per trip and being incredibly painful to wake from, such that without pain-killing drugs passengers will scream their lungs raw as they wake, low passage takes its toll on the body.  Low-travel passengers such as Dumarest have used up a lot of their body’s reserves, and are literally half-starved.  High-travel passengers, no matter how wealthy, even be they princes of their home planets, must endure side-effects from the Quick-Time drug slowing their reflexes fractionally for days afterwards.  Solar storms can make travel impossible, even for the most heavily shielded starships, high winds on a planet can make air-travel impractical even though there is anti-grav technology, and so on.

It further seems to me that this sense of the limitations of technology and science is something missing from a lot of recent SF and SF RPGs.  It’s as if people have taken Clarke’s Third Law too much to heart and decided that if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, the best way to go about imagining advanced technology is to treat it as if it were magic and anything is possible.  This may be exacerbated by movies, TV, and computer games, which powerfully influence our imaginations when it comes to picturing SF worlds. Advances in CGI mean that anything we can imagine depicting can now be shown on screen, with no real constraints.  A space-station the size of the moon is no harder or more costly to depict than a space-station the size of an oil tanker.  Or maybe not: it was always possible to write about a space-station the size of the moon with no more effort than a more reasonably-sized one.  And yet I wonder…did convincing the reader take more effort before people were used to seeing photo-realistic depictions of such wonders, moving in real time?

It’s not that I think SF games are better if you have to plot realistic Newtonian orbits, or if they have no tech that you can’t point to at least a pop-sci article in the paper to justify…Heaven knows Dumarest doesn’t even make gestures in that direction. It’s that what’s missing is the sense that the physical universe places constraints on technology that cannot be overcome with “sufficiently advanced” tech.  The result is that all these SF worlds feel as if they’re taking place in a virtual reality, and if that’s the case then for all practical purposes they might as well be fantasy games instead of SF… the  difference coming down to nothing more than the style of accompanying illustration.  There’s nothing wrong with playing fantasy with SF trappings, after all that’s more or less the point of my whole Elves and Espers campaign setting, but I can’t help feeling that a steady diet of it isn’t taking full advantage of the unique features of SF as a genre.

Take Firefly, for example.  There’s nothing the least bit realistic about some of the basic features of the setting, such as all the terraformed asteroids and moon-lets of the ‘Verse, or the ease with which ships travel between them or run across each other while travelling (c.f. Pournelle’s Those Pesky Belters and Their Torch Ships), but there are features that give it a strongly SF flavor despite it being largely and unapologetically a Western in Space.  The biggest thing is that ships require fuel and constant maintenance, and both of those require money.  (This was an important feature of Traveller, as well.)  Even Star Trek, which makes worries about fuel and maintenance irrelevant except for the occasional plot-point, and which introduced truly fantastic tech such as transporter beams at least took the trouble to include limitations such as being unable to beam through shields which made it feel a little more “grounded”–even if the limitations were really there to plug the plot holes that having an instant “Get Out of Jail Free” card would have introduced.

I think this gets exaggerated in SF RPGs, because there is a tendency to gloss over such limitations and difficulties that are implied to exist in the technology as being irrelevant to, or worse detracting from, the sense of adventure.  That tends to happen even in fantasy games, where logistical rules such as encumbrance or spell components are often the first things to get tossed aside in the pursuit of more “heroic” feeling games, but at least there the typical low-tech setting implies constraints that the characters tend to live with.  Without a spell, nobody tries to converse with somebody in a city hundreds of miles away; in a modern setting, people think nothing of pulling out a cell phone… in a future setting, players now tend to assume that they ought to be able to do at least that much, but without stopping to consider whether that implies infrastructure such as cell towers and satellites that the world they’re exploring might not have.  Surely whatever far-future they’re in where they’re exploring worlds ought to have licked whatever technical problems that might present?   The recent Doctor Who series (in)famously introduced a cell-phone that could make calls not only across whatever planet they are on, but even across time itself.  That’s a bit magical even for Doctor Who fans.

I think that, especially for RPGs, even if you’re really aiming for SF with no hard science at all along the lines of Star Wars or Doctor Who, it’s helpful to avoid falling back on Clarke’s Law to justify all your tech doing whatever is most convenient at the moment.  Think about some limits that might be implied by the fact that this is dealing with physical objects in a “real” world, and not CGI or magic, and enforce them.  Consider whether the items require power and how much,  or have limitations on range, reliability, maintenance, and so forth.  RPGs are about making interesting decisions, preferably ones informed by your character’s beliefs and personality, but at least ones with tactical and strategic trade-offs  It just strikes me as more interesting if your communicators can only contact the ship as long as it’s in line of sight above you and not when it’s blocked by the bulk of the planet, unless you take the trouble of dropping a bunch of geosynchronous relay satellites in orbit first.  Even more so if they’re expensive enough that it’s worth the trouble to retrieve them when you leave, and it takes time to do so, so that one day you might be faced with the choice of cutting and running when some enemy shows up or leaving your comm net satellites behind and it’s actually a hard choice.  Every game should have interesting decisions the characters face, but game that aim to be SF should make an extra effort to make those decisions feel like they’re grounded in the science of the setting however outre.  Bonus points if the players can reason about the “science” to arrive at true conclusions and workable plans…such as by tricking the enemy into thinking the landing party is still on the planet by programming the abandoned comm satellites to keep pretending to relay messages.  Avoiding the reckless application of Clarke’s law is, in my opinion, a big help in keeping your SF feeling like SF.