Dragon Magazine rants 1 – Magic & Science


(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.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 2)


First Part here.

B: Tabletop Progress

It could be said that the origins of tabletop RPG’s (and by extension of CRPG’s) can be traced back to tabletop/board games, as well as on storytelling and character acting. Let’s examine how progress appears in each of these:

A game, of any genre and form whatsoever, includes in its structure the notion of progression, of working towards an objective. The objective could be set by the game itself (via existing rules) or by the player, and could be set in stone, or be constantly changing. Whatever its nature, an objective requires a response on the part of the player, leading towards either its completion or its abandonment. A response is a choice and an action, however trivial it may be, physical or mental in nature. The player, responding to an objective, re-establishes his position inside the game’s infrastructure, for better, for worse, or inconsequently.

In the vast majority of board games, the whole of action takes place on a single gaming session (which, in extreme cases could be separated in more temporal spaces, but this is purely of a practical nature), the players antagonizing or cooperating towards a number of objectives, which are pre-existing (of the session itself) and incorporated in the whole structure of the game. The game progresses as one, more, or all of the players draw closer to the completion of the objective(s). This progression could entail an increase in difficulty, resources, risk, complexity, or any combination of these. The fact remains, that the players are presented with a goal, which they must achieve, so as to win the game. One could speak about two basic game states: Win and non-Win. The Win state is presented as the desired one, as better for the player than the non-Win one, which is the absence of the Win state, as far as the game is concerned. Thus, the notion of progress appears. One must work towards the improvement of his state. This is not to say that the path towards the Win state is trivial to the player experience of the game; in most cases this path is the game itself, and many players are only interested in this path, in the feel of the game mechanics and their implementation inside the game. But the idea of progress is essential, since it showcases the starting and end point of this path of indulging in the game mechanics.

The difference of progress between board games and tabletop RPG’s lies mainly on the former’s independence of each game session. Progress in a board game is self-contained inside each session. After each session of play, whatever progress has been made (leading to victory, or not) is erased, discarded, so as in the next session all players begin at the starting point, the whole of progress being in front of them (apart from meta-thinking and rules/structure understanding). Thus, progress is contained and remains unimportant outside a particular session. The mental image of a cyclical process is fitting, the linearity of progress being apparent only in each session.

On the other hand, RPG progress is cumulative between each game session, at least as far as the same story (and probably the same characters, but not always) is utilized. Especially the concept of campaign (as a grand story arc, or a collection of adventures) is based upon the characters’ progress inside the story. The lack of “Win” states, in fact the absence of win conditions in the rules, makes it possible for the players involved to keep setting new goals for the characters ad infinitum. Long-term thinking has a definite place here, since the character development is crucial to the evolution of the campaign itself. What has been mentioned in Part A is applicable here. There are of course the exceptions of the one-shot sessions or adventures, which however are not the norm, are more akin to a board game or a small theatrical play, and almost always do not take into account a large pillar of the genre, namely character development (through game mechanics). Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu adventures is a prime example of situations that tend to escalate frequently towards that kind of experience.

Apart from board games (and gaming in general), storytelling and acting/impersonation of characters, are also pillars of role playing games, maybe the most important ones. But progress in storytelling is only a necessary characteristic from a technical point of view: since a story must be told, recited, its external structure must have a beginning and end, though its content can be free of such linear shackles. On no account is the ending to be considered, from a formalist standpoint, as an improvement of the beginning, or vice versa. Still, the gradual revealing of the story’s content, plot, and folds, can be considered a sort of progression towards improvement of knowledge of the listener, concerning the specified story, creating thus a progress through quantitative assimilation. But between that and the betterment of the individual that assimilates the story lies a wide gulf, that is totally subjective and circumstantial.

The notion of Progress & RPG’s (part 1)


A: A general perspective

The concept of progress is deeply rooted in the RPG genre (pen & paper or otherwise), the most obvious expression of it being the whole leveling structure. A character (or a multitude of them) almost universally sets out (the spatial verb is not ambiguously chosen, for progress is based upon spatiotemporal pillars) as a “low-level” (meaning weak in comparison to most challenges lying ahead) person, who is bound to improve (in an array of personality characteristics – physical, mental, social) as time passes, space is explored, and she indulges in actions that either hone her skills, expand her understanding of the world, help other beings, etc. This improvement is of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature, as will be apparent below. The implication of a forward movement towards this practical betterment of the being is evident.

The notion of Progress is deeply rooted in western thought, as much as is the linear concept of time. Those 2 concepts are irrevocably intertwined in the mental construction of evolution through time, namely the idea that as time progresses, so civilization as a whole evolves, improving in comparison to its past aspects; not necessarily in every single time step it takes, but on a macro temporal level – for example: “civilization (and through it humanity) has improved during the last century, it has moved forward”. It seems that our linguistic mentality has connected the spatial (and subjective) term “forward” with the future (though on a subtler level this is not always the case – see for instance the phrase “winter has moved on”, which refers to a past season as having moved on, implying forwards). Still, it is good to remember that progress is not a humanity-wide idea (the Australian Aborigines for instance have no concept of it).

Returning to role playing games, let’s trace progress inside the mechanics of the genre. As mentioned, leveling is perhaps the single most obvious mechanical structure that is tied to the progress wheel. The whole leveling process is usually depicted in tables, in which a direction is specified as that of progression through the levels (usually from top to bottom, but not always so). Story matters aside (though even there we say that we want to see how the story unfolds or progresses) one of the reasons that we play RPG’s is to improve our character. How is that achieved? It depends on the game system, but in most of them, the experience point gain is central. Experience point: the word experience refers to a past event, experienced by the character, that has in a certain way enriched the character’s being, thus making it more “powerful”. All past experiences that matter (a thing decided both by the rules and by the dungeon master – in the tabletop/pen & paper variety) are enumerated and categorized, each translated to a certain number (or fraction possibly) of points. These are added up, summarized, and the specific nature of the event experienced is lost once turned to points (we do not usually have many categories of XP – for instance social, combat, etc). Thus, knowledge (as experience) is revealed in the game as cumulative and progressive, always adding upon the existing corpus of experience, as it was considered by science before quantum physics (and philosophy) came in to view. Whatever one experiences (apart from certain niche encounters – as are the level-draining undead in D&D for instance) contributes towards this character’s betterment.


Thus is leveling made possible through the adding up of past experiences, leading to the Level-Up! Moment, the culmination of the effort and time invested (see below), and an improved character. But what is exactly entailed in this improvement? Most, if not all, of the character improvements are of a practical (as far as the game world is concerned) nature. Incoming damage threshold (aka hit points) is increased, more skills are added to the character’s arsenal, some innate powers could appear or be awakened, and inherent stats (corresponding to physical, mental, or other abilities) are improved. The practical nature of the improvements is necessary, in order for the player to fully reap the fruits of his labour. If the improvement was of a theoretical, conceptual or mental nature, then they would simply serve the character and not the player, apart from situations of great identification between the two. To clarify this, how can a player feel, understand, and experience an attribute improvement, for example the rise of his character’s Intelligence by a number of points? Only through indirect means, by application of the new attribute or attribute bonus in situations where it is required to overcome an obstacle, or through the empowerment of a spell, the acquisition of a new one, etc, since direct perception of the improvement is out of the question (the player’s intelligence, if such a thing exists, is obviously not raised by the raise of the character’s one).

Thus, one ends up leveling through the accumulation of experience through a number of encounters experienced by his character, in order to improve the character, so as to be able to see the change in the overcoming of more encounters, which are required to level furthermore; a hamster’s wheel of sorts, that obviously does not take into account the desire of the player to experience a story or a game world. My focus here concerns the leveling mechanics and their progressive nature, which is somehow reflective of the frantic and vain quest for progress that permeates the western thought, at least from the Enlightenment paradigm shift onwards.

Of great importance is the idea underlying the whole aforementioned structure, that one can improve through devoting a quantity of a “currency” towards that improvement, whereas the currency is time, effort of thought, hand-to-eye coordination (in certain cRPG’s). This exchange (one could say investment, though an investment is an exchange nonetheless) is in the core of most RPG’s. Time improves the being. Improving it in a way that is meaningful for (and is subservient to) the situations arising inside the game worlds, governed by the game rules. The progress framework is set by the game itself, and the character follows this (more or less) linear course through it, a course whose end point is occasionally the level-cap.

Second Part here.