Dragon Magazine rants 2 – Language

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The second article of Dragon’s first issue, Languages, deals with in-game linguistics, with a slight emphasis on percentage statistics (mainly concerning the possibility of a random monster/being knowing a given language – I imagine that back in the day randomness was a big thing for DMs), and raises some pretty interesting issues and questions, both rule-wise and from in-game points of view.

Let’s take a look at language’s hard association with Intelligence. In the first edition of D&D (as well as in all other onwards, up to 3.5 – as for the fourth, I cannot comment, since I have no familiarity with it), the language ability is depended on the Intelligence attribute. In the article it is said that a human with an Intelligence score of 3 will only be able to speak one language (Common in this instance, since this is considered the default human language), and with a pretty limited vocabulary at this. This view perceives language as a purely mental activity, which could be conquered and enhanced via intellectual bravado alone – if one can memorize all the dictionary’s pages, one will be a master of that language.

The thing is, language is never detached from in-life experience and interaction with other users (persons) and carriers (texts and other written language forms or symbols) of it – something that they finally got right on the fifth edition, in which language at character creation is solely based on race and background (socio-cultural factors), and then on training, namely learning it via a tutor, spending time in order to interact with speakers and/or texts, etc – Intelligence is not central to it. Thus, instead of setting language upon a pedestal, as a prize protected by a riddle-ridden gauntlet, which is to be gained after a purely mental quest, it is best seen as a matter of entering into a network of interaction with entities that use it or carry it. A quote from Tim Ingold’s “The Perception of the Environment” is quite close to what I describe:

Language cannot properly be said to be handed down – it endures, but it endures as a continuous process of becoming. Individuals do not receive a ready-made language at all, rather, they enter upon the stream of verbal communication.”

To wrap this up, if languages had to be depended on an attribute, I propose that due to language learning’s deeply social nature Charisma (or even Wisdom, due to its more intuitive nature) would be a slightly more fitting candidate than Intelligence. Still, I think that fifth edition’s attribute-less, socio-cultural take on language is much more representative of language’s nature.

Onwards now to spells as speak with animals, plants, etc, with a quote from the article that I found somewhat hilarious: “I have encountered one character who took “Wall” as a language and attempted to interrogate dungeon walls as to what lay behind them. In my dungeon, the walls drunkenly replied, “I don’t know; I’m plastered.”” Apparently, there wasn’t a Stone Tell spell at the time, so the player’s choice to take “Wall” as bonus language was both amusing and innovative.

Now, casting a spell which bestows the “gift” of (our) speech on a creature not normally being able to speak it, seems straightforward enough: we seem to suppose that all beings are memory and experience containers, and thus, by bestowing upon them the gift of speech, we are able to tap into their informational reservoir; it would not be so amiss if I said that we see them as a multi-sensational sensors, which wait for an interface to appear, through which to communicate to us their experience – especially considering the spell description that the animal or the plant WILL provide the information (if existent), no ifs and buts. This approach however, takes for granted certain things, two of which are: the organisms’ willingness to cooperate with the caster (implying a charm of sorts) – all in all, a pretty anthropocentric view; the organisms’ ability to store their past (namely, their before-the-spell’s-casting) experience.

Α look is on the order, at how deep is the effect of this humble first-level divination spell called Speak With Animals (same goes for Speak With Plants, and Stone Tell): The spell seems to attribute a symbolic mode of thought and communication to non-human entities, for that is exactly what language is. We are talking heavy magic here, changing the whole mode of thought, perception, and experience of a being, even for only its duration. It implements within their thought process:

a. the idea (and the acceptance of this idea) that particulars sounds correspond to particular meaning,

b. an understanding of time as perceived by us – so as to be able to communicate even basic concepts as “now,” “before,” and “after”

c. the sensoral ability to receive, process and emit linguistic information to and from another creature (be it telepathically, through vocal and auditory systems, etc).

I realize that now I am entering under the spell’s hood, something that I try to avoid as far as magic is concerned, but the ramifications and the scale of what a simple first level spell can do were far too inviting.

(Let’s also note here that with Speak To Plants or Animals, we imposes our mode of thought upon the entities affected by the spell, an action that could be even scrutinized from an ethical point of view.)

In the article there is also a mention of animal languages, focusing on the existence of common languages for wide taxonomic categories: is there an Equine language spoken by all Horses, Mules, Donkeys, Unicorns, etc? Once again we have a projection of our way of thinking to non-human entities. We tend to see species (another human invention) as “neighboring” by virtue of similarities that We find among them, as well as theorizing that since all humanoids in a fantasy world have a way of inter-species communication (the Common tongue), so it will probably be with all other similar species – never mind that this is a pure anthropocentric view of other beings. We obviously talk about an imaginary world, and since it is humans that play it, there is bound to be anthropocentrism, but it is interesting, I think, to see how this view is embedded inside the game world, for it could bring light to real-world human view of non-human entities.

Finally, the article also touches upon the subject of the language in which persons think, mainly in order to examine if it is possible to read the thoughts of a person whose language you do not speak – ending up in situations where one could take advantage of the obscurity of his native language in order to guard his thought from magic intrusions. Still, I think that reducing the thought process in pure language is something of a radical simplification. For it is not too usual to think without images, sensations, mental nudges, thought noise, and other things thrown around some words. It is unusual to think in pure language, even in cases where we need to put our thought into writing or speech.

Dragon Magazine rants 1 – Magic & Science

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(For this (hopefully weekly) column I’ll be reading issues of the Dragon Magazine, starting from the first one, trying to find one or more articles in each worth of commentary/ranting. I kick off with Issue 1, and the first of the two articles which I found interesting in it.)

The first issue of the Dragon magazine, released on June 1976, is (not unexpectedly) somewhat underwhelming considering the magazine we knew during the ’90s and ’00s. Just 32 pages long, it still managed to cram inside: the first parts of 2 fiction stories, several small articles (dealing with both role-playing and strategy wargaming), many advertisements, and even a small piece of writing from Fritz Leiber (a very small gazetteer of Newhon).

Two articles are of particular interest to me here:

Magic & Science (Are they compatible in D&D) by James M. Ward

Languages (or, Could you repeat that in Auld Wormish?) by Lee Gold

The first one, Magic & Science, is trying to tackle a subject which apparently had already surfaced even back in the first days of role-playing, namely the role and (acceptable) level of science in a magical fantasy setting. The writer proposes a somewhat weird scenario, in which a particular culture has three types of “scientific” items: a hand-catapult discharging some spheres, categorized by colour, each colour having a spell-like effect; some other blue spheres that are somewhat autonomous, movement-wise, and can emit rays and force fields that emulate spells; and the anologic computers which can counter magic, analyze enemies, and emit an attack ray.

Firstly, there is no mention of how these items work; essentially they are stored, “delayed,” spells, camouflaged only on a surface levels as technological items. They could be paralleled to wand charges, since they are expendable. The fact that the “how” is nonexistent, makes the whole science point going astray. Since science is chiefly concerned with the “how” of things and events, the author here pulls a very thin camouflage-rug above what is considered magic in the game. But what is D&D’s magic really?

I consider science something that gives reliable and identical or similar results under repeatable occasions. In this light, D&D’s magic is a kind of science, due to its reliability. Being a wizard, if you know a spell, its gestures, vocalising, and have any necessary material ingredients, along with a suitable spell slot, then you can reliably cast the spell. Thus magic appears as something that can be rationally studied, analysed, and assimilated – something that more or less follows a scientific method. Sure, its effects can be beyond the reach of that cultural era’s science and technology, even beyond ours, but the method followed is deeply rational.

Let’s take a look on a short elaboration on real-world occultism, from “The Varieties of Magical Experience”: “Important in the practice of magic, we have found, are intuition, imagination, and the emotions; rationality plays little part in magic because magic occurs when one lets go of rational thoughts. When the imagination is permitted full play there is room for a shift in the perception of reality. There can be a change in consciousness, so much so that physical boundaries and distinctions between real and unreal often dissolve. Such experiences are not able to be measured scientifically. Rather, the person might have a noticeable experience of deep inner change, or a knowing, or a sense that something significant has happened.” (my emphasis)

One more passage, this time from an article from the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin, on which I stumbled while writing this post, and which, though mostly concerned with magic in fantasy literature, has many points that I believe are relevant to the D&D case also (D&D is explicitly mentioned, and not in a good way): “Because this is magic we’re talking about. It’s supposed to go places science can’t, defy logic, wink at technology, fill us all with the sensawunda that comes of gazing upon a fictional world and seeing something truly different from our own. In most cultures of the world, magic is intimately connected with beliefs regarding life and death — things no one understands, and few expect to.

It is my opinion that magic, as loosely defined in the above passages, is what is somewhat missing from the game (or rather from its rules), not science, as the writer was complaining. Despite its enchanted cloak, if one gets down to the nuts and bolts of the magic system of almost any RPG, you have blueprints that are bound to work, like a very rationally designed mechanism.

If one takes a look at the wizard class, starting with a stat view, where Intelligence is the single most important stat, the class seems like a fantasy version of the modern scientist. Intelligence, or rather raw mental strength is what makes spells more effective. In the 5th editition’s Player’s Handbook it is written that “lntelligence measures mental acuity, accuracy of recall, and the ability to reason.” A description permeated aesthetically throughout with cold logic, with an aura of clinical precision.

Concerning D&D spells, most of them affect the physical world, which from a game-rules point of view is comprehensible. But most of the effects are things that could be replicated by a sort of advanced science. There is little of the esoteric, since it is obviously difficult to incorporate this in a game. The spells are certain to satisfy the players’ craving for powers beyond the norm, for their having abilities that are beyond the vast majority, their will for omnipotence, their lust for wonder. But it seems that D&D magic also reinforces a clinical, rational way of thinking, and presents a rather standarized image of magic, not much full of wonder.

Concluding, I again stress that it is quite understandable for a rules-driven game to structure its magic on a rational and not-so-enchanting way. This goes hand to hand with D&D’s focus on linear character progression and advancement (for more on this, see here). But the quest for a more magical magic system (or rather the complete absence of a system) is a worthy undertaking for an adventuring party or three.