Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Two ways in which a world can be high magic

So, it has finally become Wednesday again

For reasons I won't go into here, a weekly schedule is not possible as of now, so I'll strive for a new post every 2nd week for now.

One definition - but not the only one - of "high fantasy" is that it's fantasy taking place in a magic-rich world. More on high fantasy and other subgenres in this blog post, though. Here I'll look at high magic, by contrasting two very different fantasy worlds that, in spite of their stark differences, can both reasonably be said to be high magic.

One is the well known setting of Dungons & Dragons-Land. TSR Wizards of the Coast have always been doing their best to maintain the pretence that it is several worlds each with their own identity, but with only a little analysis one finds this to not be the case: D&D-Land is one place, all the same, regardless of whether it's called Abeir-Toril, Oerth or Krynn.

The other setting is the - so far - rather less well known Ärth1.

Both are unquestionably high magic settings. But the shape of the high-magic is very different, and I think that there are three main aspects to this difference.

D&D-Land has almost all of the magic concentrated in a few individuals, such as Elmonster, Khelben Blackstaff and - eventually - Raistlin Majere, with the common people having no magic available to them, whereas Ärth has magic much more distributed.

D&D-Land is in this regard not entirely unlike the Star Wars universe, where you have a very few individuals that are blessed with inborn Jediness, and everyone else can just go and sit in the corner, to watch the epic struggle. At best, if they're portrayed by Harrison Ford, they get to make an important moral choice once, but unless you've got metric assloads of midichlorians in you, you're simply not going to make a difference in that galaxy far, far away.

Ärth still has its magical powerhouses, a few dozen individuals who are active wielders of very powerful magic, whether spell-shaped or differently shaped, and it also has some extremely strong magical items. But it has a lot of lesser magics too, and in some corners of that world (the Keltic lands, especially Ireland and of course the magocracy of Bretagne) the average person has seen magic being actively worked more than once. Everybody knows someone who owns a magic item (see the next section), even if sometimes they think of it as a "relic" instead, or assume that the item is the results of very skilled craftsmanship and isn't actually magical at all.

This difference in how the height of the magic is high, is due to the world builder having a different (and, arguably, much higher quality) mental model of how individual humans can differ from each other, how humans can change, how much humans can change, and how quickly humans can change. And for how the learnable kinds of magic can be learned (learning being one of the most popular and common forms of change).

Usage and purpose
The second difference is the uses to which magic is put. D&D-Land is all about +1 swords and other magical war-gear for heroes to use. That's all there is in D&D-Land.

Ärth has those too, but the vast majority of permanent magical items are ones that deal with the concens that real medieval people had: Enhanced human fertility, less risky and less uncomfortable childbirths, enhanced food output from flocks, fields and orchards, protection versus ordinary but deeply unpleasant diseases, and protection against minor curses and other "evil" magics. Yes, the most common permanent magic item in the Ärth setting is a fertility charm, because for medieval people, producing children was extremely important. Most children died before reaching adulthood (and magic that is not unreasonably powerful will only partially mitigate this) and, with no welfare state, once one became old and infirm, one absolutely had to have surviving children that could take care of one.

If I were to write a top 12 list over the most common magic items, one entry would actually be a magical sword, but it'd only be slightly magical. The other 11 would be ones you'd not find on a random treasure table in any D&D book. Also the various amulets to protect against magics and diseases would be mainly to protect against the petty magics that a typical peasant would be likely to be pestered by, such as ones in the style of the Evil Eye, and diseases such as the measles and the flu, rather than powerful spells and exotic diseases that a dungeoncrawling adventurer would be worried about.

This difference in how the height of the magic is high, is due to simple awareness of what the medieval world was like; the issues and concerns and worries of the average - common - person. The world builder desiring to have Ärth be shaped like an actual world.

Subtlety, or lack thereoff
The metaphysics of D&D-Land change periodically, as the RPG rules are improved altered. In the previous metaphysical paradigm, that of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition (including the Revised Edition), spellcasters had an easy-to-cast spell (i.e. of the lowest possible spell level), one they could trivially use several times a day, that unfailingly determines whether an object is magical or not. Now in the new metaphysics of 4th Edition, this is no longer a usage-limited spell, but an ability that can be used as frequently as desired, with no brake of any kind on usage.

Where's the room for doubt? In what way is dramatic potential enhanced by this ability to effortlessly and unfailingly divide the world cleanly and objectively into that which is magical and that which is not?

The answer is that there is no room for doubt, and that dramatic potenial is not enhanced but instead diminished. These are bad world building decisions. The metaphysics of the setting have been desiged in such a way that the emergent world is a pretty damn shitty place, if one ascribes value to dramatic potential.

Ärth does it differently. There are several kinds of magic, arranged in a simple pattern to indicate distances. The further away from each other two kinds of magic are, the more exotic they regard each other as being, and the more difficulty they have in working with each other, including detecting each other. One of the most common forms of magic is the one called Traditional Magic, the learnable one that involves the casting of spells (the other kinds of magic are not spell-shaped). One of the kinds of spells (there are kinds 24 in total) is MetaMagic, also called utility magic. This is the go-to place if you want to detect, analyze or nullify magic - any magic.
How a desirable outcome is made to emerge
However, Traditional Magic has an easier time working with its own kind of magic (Traditional) than with magics that are exotic from its point of view - when seen from its frame of reference. Thus there are three3 spells that can detect magic. The simplest spell, the one fastest to learn and easiest and least risky to cast, can only detect Traditonal Magic. The most difficult spell, the one hardest to learn, take the longest time to cast, is the riskiest and most difficult to cast, can detect any kind of magic. In between is an intermediate spell which can detect slightly exotic magic.

As an example, from the point of view of Traditional Magic, Nature Magic and most Folk Magic is slightly exotic, whereas Satanic and Divine Magic, and some Folk Magic, is very exotic. These kinds of magic can do different things, serving different purposes, and the emergent effect of the way the metaphysics are constructed is that most users of Traditional Magic end up dismissing or ignoring most of the other kinds for reasons that are not entirely irrational. Divine Magic is so extremely rare that one can often get away with pretending it doesn't exist, and folk magic is mainly concerned with the worries of the common people, and therefore something that a Tower Mage-style user of Traditional Magic will scoff at. Thus when encountering anything unusual, the average Traditional Magic user - who is likely to be a somewhat arrogant fellow - will cast the simplest spell-of-detection, or perhaps the intermediate one, and if he does not detect magic, he will conclude that no magic is at work; that whatever-it-is is just a highly unusual natural phenomenon: the subject matter of natural philosophy, rather than of magical theories.

Most other types of magic cannot detect magic or do anything similar to MetaMagic. The main exception is the very rare Divine Magic, which has issues of its own (stuff to do with something called Masking, which I won't go into here), that causes its users to tend to be paranoid and to assume that almost all non-Divine Magic is Satanic.

In this way, thoughtful and skilled engineering of the metaphysical premises (the exact delta-W, or one aspect of delta-W, anyway), much room is carved out for doubt (rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty?), and dramatic potential is greatly enriched.

This difference in how the height of the magic is high, is due to the designer of the metaphysics being unafraid of - and able to tackle - a little complexity.

The sweet spot
In some RPG worlds, and in some fantasy novels (often shading into science fantasy, or outright going there), the magic is ramped up, very high magic indeed, which has the result that the world becomes completely de-medievalized. Sometimes this is done by extremely capable writers, often science fiction writers who want to take a stab at fantasy, and other times by almost as highly capable writers who are well versed in matters medieval, but who want to try something different.

Most often, though, it's done by worldbuilders who could not hit the sweet spot even if they wanted to. Who cannot design a metaphyics for magic such that that which emerges does not de-medievalize the world. These worldbuilders either cheat and ignore emergence, dictating that all of the world that is under their control (i.e. everything in a novel, or everything except the player characters in an RPG campaign) fails at being human, being ambitious and greedy and eager to secure oneself and one's loved ones against basic needs. Everyone fails at this. Nobody even attempts to exploit the magic, the same way real-world humans almost instantly started trying to exploit nuclear fission as soon as it was found to be doable.

Or else they extrapolate honestly from the premises - the metaphysics that they have designed - and find that the emergent result is very post-medieval, and then they regretfully stick with that world.

Going very low on the magic - rare magic rather than common magic - is also an option. For non-interactive fiction, this makes it very easy on the writer, in that the extrapolative burden is extremely light. Delta-W will be very low. It also greatly reduces the intellectual burden for a GM, but that is something I may talk about in another place, some day.

Also a few details
There are a few other touches in the metaphysical model for Ärth that I consider to be good. Or rather, the opposite choices were made by other metaphysics designers/world builders, for reasons which I cannot understand.

For one, many fantasy worlds assume that the learning of magic is dependent primarily upon intelligence. Again, I ask, in what way does this enhance dramatic potential? Won't it make for a better world if there is not 100% overlap between Mensa and the Mage's Guild? If there can plausible be a highly intelligent character who has no aptitude for magic worth speaking of?

Secondly why is all magic learnable? And all only one type of magic? Why not have several types of magic some of which are learnable and some of which you're born with? More variety tends to lead to greater dramatic potential.

Thirdly, the paradigm for many fantasy worlds seem to be generalist spellcasters. If you are a student of magic you might as well study all aspects of magic. There's little opportunity cost to it, career-wise. Crudely put, one can with some truth say that the only thing you need to know about your spellcasting enemy in D&D-Land is his overall powerfulness (his "character level" - one of the most offensive and contra-realistic concepts I've ever come across). Spellcasters are almost never intrisically interesting in terms of what they can do, because the metaphysical model is badly crafted. A world in which most spellcasters specialize in a subset of spells, on the other hand, is simply richer.

Peter Knutsen typed these letters

1. There's an old tradition of giving more-or-less medieval settings a name that is Earth spelled alternatvely. In addition to Oerth and Ärth (which is far more medieval than any other such setting I'm even peripherally aware of) there's the setting for Steve Jackson Games Banestorm world, called Yrth. A world which, by the way, has many of the faults I've outlined above, primarily because the magic system is not at all well thought out and carefully crafted.

3. Actually, there are almost certainly more than 3 such spells, but they come - will come - in sets of three; for instance three that work at range, and three that require the caster to touch the item. So while it's a lie to say that there are three, it is not misleading.

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