Monday, June 20, 2016

Magic works as written, because it's magic

The other day in game, we had someone throw a Missile spell right near 1/2D range. That surprised some of my players - why do Missile spells have half damage ranges? Especially explosive missile spells?

My short answer was, because they do, and they always have, and GURPS has a history of making spells effectively less powerful the further out you go (be it by effect or by difficulty to cast.) Even if it didn't though, the spells says it has a half damage range, so it does.

I mean, "logically," a thrown missile spell shouldn't dissipate, because it's magic. But equally logically, a missile spell should, because that's how magic works. Logically, a magically created fireball should have issues with a No Mana Zone, except it doesn't, because just as logically it's a physical manifestation of a spell and there isn't any "magic" to the missile, just the creation and launching.

But it does A not B, C not D, E not F, because it's magic and the spell says that's what happens.

That's kind of the point of magic.

It's magic, not science.

First and foremost, spells are magic, not science. You have to look at them through the lens of "and then a miracle occurs" as the middle step between "I cast [some spell]" and "[this thing happens]." It only has to follow physical laws if the spell invokes them. No Second Law of Thermodynamics has to hold back spells that create or destroy matter unless the spell says so. You don't need to consider drag of an subject with the Flight spell on it, just encumbrance carried by the subject, because magic. You can be Invisible and that's that, no "but wouldn't I be unable to see if light is bent around me? Wouldn't robots see me if it was clouding minds? Wouldn't . . . " - no it wouldn't. The spell just makes you invisible, and doesn't blind you, cloud minds, affect light in any strange way, etc. It just does the thing.

That thing may have physical and scientific consequences (Earth to Air the support beams, the ceiling might fall, a Fireball might start fires), but it might not (Create Earth doesn't summon earth from somewhere else to obey a physical law, a Teleport spell doesn't cause an implosion of air rushing in to the spot you left.)

It's internally consistent, not externally consistent.

Spells follow their own logic, not an overall system of logic. For example, the Missile Shield spell averts any missile from hitting you by some small margin. So if I throw an axe at you from one yard away, it misses, because that's what Missile Shield does. If I swing it from one yard away, it does nothing, because it's not an attack covered by the spell. Punch you with a rock in my fist? Not affected. Throw it or drop it? It's covered.

But the Bladeturning spell works regardless of it's a missile or not. But equally, if it's an impaling tip, it doesn't turn that. or even a spear with a cutting edge. Missile or not, because that's how the spell functions. It doesn't matter if that's how another spell does it.

You could tidy up the spells by making them work consistently with each other, but as long as the spell itself works with the wording it's got, and it has consistent effects, it's good. That Sunbolt creates a missile that can't be turned with Missile Shield is totally fine; the spell has its own internal logic and then meets the internal logic of the other spell and wins out.

It works how it works.

Spells do what they say, not more or less. Well, possibly less, but not really more. "But doesn't that mean . . . " is the start of an exercise in creativity, for sure, but it also is a way to expand a small investment in points into a catch-all spell that does everything. The old "Why can't I create air pockets in someone's veins with Create Air or destroy the oxygen in their brain with Destroy Air?" thing is cute, but the spells don't say they do that. There may be spells for that, but you'll need those spells.

This is not to say that you couldn't have a magic system with scientific underpinnings, or which has a consistent explanation across all fields (no Missile Shield spell, only a "weapons between the sizes of X and Y miss automatically," say, or wishing spells affect probability only, or creation spells that actually move matter around but don't create it.) But that's not necessarily the system at hand. It's not the system I run, either. Science and logical consistency across spells and effects is for figuring out edge cases or where specifically invoked. It's not a trump to how the spells are written. And "It's magic" really does count as a valid explanation of why something occurs in a magic system.


  1. This echoes my big frustration whenever someone asks me what a "realistic" magic system would look like. It wouldn't look like anything. It's magic. Magic isn't real. When you're designing a magic system, you should create something with suitable themes and mechanics for the game/setting you're trying to create, rather than worry about what is "realistic."

    I have similar sentiments about discussions about whether or not magic or powers in movies are "realistic," as in "It's so unrealistic that Rey was able to do the Jedi Mind Trick without training." Really? Says who? On what scientific study of the Force are you basing this?

    In fact, the more I dig into the mechanics of how powers typically work in games, the less "realistic" I find many of these nerd-discussions, because they seem to assume that characters can do what they do with perfect precision and with infinite resources, ie "If Gandalf can throw a fireball, why doesn't he just constantly throw fireballs all the time at all the orcs and totally win all the battles. The fact that he doesn't do this is so unrealistic!" Oh, I don't know, maybe because there's some underlying rules there that they didn't bother to explain to you because they would rather have cool fight scenes than dry discussions of thaumatological theory..

    1. Well there is realistic versus suspension of disbelief. If Rey starts using that Jedi mind trick with no training then there better be some explaining because we have six movies of how Jedi training works (so six anecdotal sets of examples) and if something contradicts our belief then there better be some explaining even if its just your belief was incorrect the whole way through. One of the criticisms of that movie is its similarity to shows like Lost where the mystery just isn't resolved in the movie (episode). We can suspend our disbelief but our mind demands and explanation and we shouldn't have to wait till the next episode in a movie

      Bringing people back from the dead and timetravel tend to destroy suspension of disbelief in fiction (though not necessarily at all in RPGs) because once that happens the audience will just say 'oh every problem should just be solved that way'. You can deal with it (much like RPGs do) with strict rules.

      I actually think there is something in GURPS that tries to be the realistic magic. Psi try to be 'realistic' (as far as people controlling something with their mind in a pen and paper can be) in the sense that you pick up a rock and hurl it with ST, you heat stuff with pyrokinesis. Sure you can build fireballs with 1/2D or whatever you like, but what we are given tries to make it what these fantastic powers might look like with a small dose of reality

    2. Movies are like stocks - past performance is not a predictor of future performance. It's a clue to future performance, of course, but that's all.

      How you develop your system to work - what it's consistency and logic is - will determine the effects. But even Psi ends up with a lot of "you can do X and Z but not Y effects" just because you have to cost it out and define it.

  2. I like the "each spell has an internal logic" method a bit because it smacks of Wizards who've not got any real idea of the laws at hand beyond "Hey, if you do these things, this will happen.". Very "natural philosophy" in feel.

    1. Thanks, that's a good way to describe it.

      I also like how that ties to Unachimba's programming analogy. These are the spells people made so far, and they do the following things (but not these other things.) There may be others out there, and it's possible to make more.

    2. Thanks! I followed up with Unachimba; programming is one of the design allegories I liked from what I think was Thaumatology.

  3. I had a conversation with my brother where I was discussing the pricing of an advantage, and then he brings up L'hopitals Rule, and starts talking about how torque and gravity interact and this and that and-
    "Uh, no, it cost x points because it's magic."

  4. In my experience, D&D players are used to pushing spells to their 'realistic' limits, and finding innovative offensive hacks.
    Or anyway, I've had trouble with ex-D&D players probing the exact limits of 'living being' for Ignite Fire. Does that include hair? Clothes? Sigh.

    1. You're supposed to be able to light clothes on fire with Ignite Fire. This is quite distracting and gives the person with burning clothes a -2 to various rolls until extinguished (as well as burning damage).


    2. That would be the limit then ;)

      But I think the discussion was started by the hair suggestion ("but it's not living!"), then a lot of pouting while we hashed out the difference between "it's magic!" and "but why not [this]?"

      And one of the selling points of GURPS was (at least implied to be) More Realistic Than the Other Game! So "Magic!" was a awkward argument.

    3. Except that "Magic!" ultimately is the argument for a magic system. Either it's a spell that does X and Y without a scientific explanation, or it's science and the explanation drives the utility and limits. So if "Ignite Fire" isn't "I concentrate, a miracle occurs, and then it does what the spells says it does and only that" but is "I concentrate, then I excite the molecules in something potentially causing it to burst into flame" you've got science, not magic. Either way, if you've expanded it from "as written" to "does whatever we can justify" it's certainly not a cheap and easy spell anymore, either.

  5. The spells work like that because the person who programmed them set them to work that way. How else to explain why a spell does X, but can sometimes do Y, but never Z? sure some things are set by energy or skill level, but other things just are and nothing the wizard does will change that.

    Much like a CD is 74 mins long some of the conditions of these spells weren't thought through.

    1. And developing your own spells is an option, if you want an expanded version of one.

    2. The Programming analogy is one I liked for spell design (I think Thaumatology brings that up? Or was it Magic?). I'd fiddled around with that as an element of a sci-fi with magic setting that never went anywhere. I'd done Spells as Advantages as the specific implementation, and had a little bit of fun with it. True to the Programming Nature, I included things that were effectively "bugs in the code" to temper the points cost a bit. The one that springs to mind most readily is an energy blast spell that includes a mana leak. Cast once, and constantly lose MP or FP (never decided which to use) until 0. Bugs and quirks add character to what are otherwise just feel like high level skill rolls.

      A lockpick spell that also heats the target lock up by a few hundred degrees, if you will. Or a Create Food that just gives you cheap, low-fat Braunschweiger (the horror).


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