Is It Magic?

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
As I was escaping an ancient shrine set deep in a crevice the other day, I found a small tunnel that lead upward and promised to let me avoid backtracking through the entire cavern to exit. The tunnel was roughly carved, as though someone had cut the bare minimum amount of rock to create a hidden exit. After a short climb, I came to a lever set in the floor, a seeming dead-end. I pulled the lever, and somehow, a wall slid out of the way, further into the uncut rock, revealing a passageway to safety.

I had only one explanation for the mysteriously impossible masonry: magic.

It occurs to me that these sorts of things happen frequently in medieval fantasy: scenes that present themselves as perfectly normal, but would in reality be possible only with magic.

What odd events (tropes?) have you seen that some people take as "medieval" when it's better considered "magic?"

Here's another one:

A swordswoman cuts an arrow out of the air before it delivers her a fatal blow. Twice in a row. Is it magic?
 

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W'rkncacnter

Adventurer
A swordswoman cuts an arrow out of the air before it delivers her a fatal blow. Twice in a row. Is it magic?
well, aside from the possibility of it just being dumb luck, what exactly are we considering "magic"? is magic specifically practices and rites that result in supernatural outcomes (i.e. casting spells or performing rituals), or is it anything supernatural at all (e.g. superhuman speed)? if magic is only the former, then i would say no, there's a good chance this isn't magic. if magic is the latter (and thus technically both), then again, aside from the possibility of this being dumb luck, it's very likely magic.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Neither of those are ostensibly magic, the swordsman just has incredible skill and the escapee has unbelievable luck. Narrativium is a powerful force beyond mere magic
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
A few times since I've gotten back into D&D, I've gotten lost in on-line rabbit holes researching real life locks, traps, and secret doors from ancient to medieval times to mine ideas for my games. A lot of D&D trap tropes really can only be explained by magic or anachronisms. I'm fine with both in my games. D&D is not real history and it is a magic world.

Even with simple things like false floors and false walls, who is maintaining them? Amenhotep III's tomb's false floor pit trap depended on people living nearby, "paid in perpetuity", to replace the false floor when activated by looters.

One thing that has inspired me in my games from the real world is that instead of elaborate mechanical traps, poison gas etc., just coat loot in poison as some ancient cultures, like the Maya and Inca did (Cinnabar/mercury, for example, though likely more for decoration than as a "trap"). I'm not sure how long a neurotoxin will remain deadly, but I can hand-wave that, but then archaeologists are warned to take special precautions when encountering red pigments.

Or just poison the entire area with something like mercury, as was done in some ancient Chinese tombs. Qin Shi Huang's most famously, but also those of the Duke of Qi Huan and King Helu of Wu. I'm not sure that the use of cinnabar and mercury was really meant to deter looters, than as decoration or the belief in its preservation effects. In a sense, the way contact poison is used in D&D, at least in terms of various poison traps in ancient tombs and such have to be explained away as magic or some special fantasy poison that can retain its potency for great periods of time.

Mechanical traps, such as the crossbow traps recorded to have been placed in Qin Shi Huang's tomb are extremely unlikely to remain operation for long periods of time, even if plated in chromate.

Falling rock traps, like the Spanish death traps set to protect gold mines in the Americas could certainly be used in D&D as non-magical traps. Typically, they are just boulders propped up precariously. Sometimes complex wooden mechanisms were used to move boulders around. One could image complex mechanisms with more durable material like metal and stone being used in a D&D world. We don't have to be limited to what exists in the real world to think about what could have existed if anyone wanted to bother with more Indiana Jones style traps.

But Rube Goldberg style traps are a quintessential part of D&D and are fun. I like to look at what was done, or could have been done, in real-world historical periods as inspiration, but D&D traps fall apart under any scrutiny without magic.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I had only one explanation for the mysteriously impossible masonry: magic.
Are you asking whether someone in medieval times would have regarded the lever and door as magic? I doubt it. Levers and gears have been around for thousands of years, and people then were just as clever as they are now. Anyone who'd seen the portcullis or drawbridge of the local castle, or loading cranes on the docks, would understand the principle, if not the details.

As long as the door doesn't give a happy sigh and say, "Have a nice day. Share and enjoy!" I doubt many people would mistake it for magic.
 

Levers, doors, traps - for me those are just mechanisms. Unless the players are particularly inventive or it matters for some reason we just roll with it. I have used sprung traps, either from previous adventurers or mechanical failure. I call those my "overthinking" traps.

The lady cutting arrows out of the air? That's not magical either, but it is uncanny. Only the exceptional or highly trained can do so.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
well, aside from the possibility of it just being dumb luck, what exactly are we considering "magic"?
I'm leaning toward "supernatural events caused by people or animals," but anything supernatural is either behind the magic-side of the line, or sitting on it.

Are you asking whether someone in medieval times would have regarded the lever and door as magic? I doubt it. Levers and gears have been around for thousands of years, and people then were just as clever as they are now. Anyone who'd seen the portcullis or drawbridge of the local castle, or loading cranes on the docks, would understand the principle, if not the details.
This was the kind of hidden door that would lead a clever person to be dumbfounded. A portcullis has significant amounts of human engineering surrounding it. The example just had a non-adjacent lever.

As long as the door doesn't give a happy sigh and say, "Have a nice day. Share and enjoy!" I doubt many people would mistake it for magic.
That's highly improbable.

Levers, doors, traps - for me those are just mechanisms. Unless the players are particularly inventive or it matters for some reason we just roll with it. I have used sprung traps, either from previous adventurers or mechanical failure. I call those my "overthinking" traps.

The lady cutting arrows out of the air? That's not magical either, but it is uncanny. Only the exceptional or highly trained can do so.
Uncanny = magic, at least in terms of Uncanny X-men. If I were playing an archer, and my target kept chopping my arrows out of the air, I'd expect some magic (or supernatural being) to be involved.

Baron reminds me of another possible magic encounter: perpetually self-reloading traps. Or anything in perpetual motion. Is it magic?
 

Uncanny = magic, at least in terms of Uncanny X-men. If I were playing an archer, and my target kept chopping my arrows out of the air, I'd expect some magic (or supernatural being) to be involved.

Baron reminds me of another possible magic encounter: perpetually self-reloading traps. Or anything in perpetual motion. Is it magic?
For me, uncanny are for those things that aren't magic but derived from skill or talent. It might be highly improbable, but it functions in an anti-magic field. But, that's me.

For self-reloading traps, is there a mechanism, however "Rube-y"? If no, then it is magical.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
Uncanny = magic, at least in terms of Uncanny X-men. If I were playing an archer, and my target kept chopping my arrows out of the air, I'd expect some magic (or supernatural being) to be involved.

Baron reminds me of another possible magic encounter: perpetually self-reloading traps. Or anything in perpetual motion. Is it magic?

52 yr old Ozzy bushmen catching arrows


and Ive had ancient dungeons with corroded acid sprayers and otherwise broken traps
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
52 yr old Ozzy bushmen catching arrows
Please may all archers targeting me use only 1/4 draw.

I'd be very interested to see a YouToob of a sliding rock secret door. Not made with plaster in Hollywood (although, could medieval artisans make a decent-looking plaster rock door?).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Not made with plaster in Hollywood (although, could medieval artisans make a decent-looking plaster rock door?).

Would concrete do?

Honestly, in the OP, I don't understand why magic is invoked for the door, when clever stonemasonry and artifice with weights and gears is a reasonable explanation.
 
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James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
There is a lot in fantasy, especially D&D, that is handwaved away. Anything that seems anachronistic or defies physical laws as we understand them is "magic".

Even things that are explicitly stated to be magic rarely have any explanation as to how/why the feat was accomplished, beyond "a Wizard did it...probably", or "an act of the Gods".

I remember in an adventure encountering a waterfall frozen in time, presenting an impenetrable barrier akin to a wall of force. As a much less experienced player, I assumed that the means by which this was accomplished were naturally part of the game's lore/rules, but after making a few checks, the DM shrugged and said "uh, an artifact was used".

It's probably best not to scrutinize these idiosyncrasies of the game too much. If you stare at the window dressing for awhile, you might realize that it's a matte painting or a mass of pixels, and maybe that takes the sense of wonder out of the proceedings.

It is frustrating to a point that precious few people who live in a D&D world are asking the kinds of serious questions about how their world works that real-world scientists have done for centuries, and that if your character wanted to to delve into this sort of thing, there is no set path. Often, we're told magic has laws it must abide by, but beyond player spells and abilities, the idea of laws goes right out the window if it makes for a cool adventure.

Unfortunately, at some level, you just have to shut your brain off and enjoy the game. Even if you could find a true answer to how dragons fly or breathe various forms of energy at people, it probably wouldn't help you very much, because figuring out how to warp or prevent these abilities, or emulate them yourself, would probably toss ideas like game balance out the window.

The game doesn't currently make a distinction between "weird natural phenomenon", "beyond human abilities", "outright violations of physical laws", and "good ol' spells", even when that would be useful to have. So like anything else, if there is an answer, it's up to the DM.

Even in our world, we can encounter things the ancients built and ask ourselves "how was that done? could we even do that with our current technology?". That doesn't necessarily mean magic (or aliens!) was involved. It's just a mystery, and sometimes there doesn't need to be an answer- just knowing such mysteries exist might make the world seem a more wonderful place.
 

W'rkncacnter

Adventurer
I'm leaning toward "supernatural events caused by people or animals," but anything supernatural is either behind the magic-side of the line, or sitting on it.

Uncanny = magic, at least in terms of Uncanny X-men. If I were playing an archer, and my target kept chopping my arrows out of the air, I'd expect some magic (or supernatural being) to be involved.
i mean...okay, but idk how useful of a definition of magic this really is. "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" comes to mind.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I'm leaning toward "supernatural events caused by people or animals," but anything supernatural is either behind the magic-side of the line, or sitting on it.

Define "supernatural" in a way that does not use the word "magic" or one of its synonyms.
 

aco175

Legend
I keep picturing the Hobbit movie when they finally get the key in the door and push it open. Suddenly the perfect wall of stone opened in a perfect rectangle. Was that magic or good dwarf engineering?

Would all those things be called miracles in a low-magic game?
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Honestly, in the OP, I don't understand why magic is invoked for the door, when clever stonemasonry and artifice with weights and gears is a reasonable explanation.
Well, that's why we have to ask, "is it magic?" If it's not, why would someone employ an architect, a small team of miners, and maybe a playwright for weeks on end to design the device, carve it out of solid stone (not just the door, but the space needed for the mechanisms and the door-storage once it's open, as well as the pulleys needed to reach the lever), and then dress the whole area as though it never happened? Assuming, of course, that the services of a magician are or have been at some point available.

i mean...okay, but idk how useful of a definition of magic this really is. "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" comes to mind.

Define "supernatural" in a way that does not use the word "magic" or one of its synonyms.
If defining "magic" is a sticking point, this is probably not the thread for you.

I keep picturing the Hobbit movie when they finally get the key in the door and push it open. Suddenly the perfect wall of stone opened in a perfect rectangle. Was that magic or good dwarf engineering?

Would all those things be called miracles in a low-magic game?
Hiding a keyhole so that once a year (?), only moonlight illuminates its position in the door, but daylight doesn't? Sounds like magic to me. I'm sure those dwarf-masons were good, but no-one's that good. Miracles? Depends on the setting, I guess.

Is it magic? A knight uses a special maneuver to jump several times his height (off the screen), and float in the air for a bit before landing on his opponent, lance-first to cause extra damage. Does the shape of the armor somehow grant flight? Is there some secret to jumping that his order knows that's unknown to the general public? These "dragoons" aren't known to be magical, but what other explanation is there?
 

aramis erak

Legend
Define "supernatural" in a way that does not use the word "magic" or one of its synonyms.
"Can not be explained using processes known to and broadly accepted by Natural Philosophers/Scientists and/or engineers."

Note that the underlying "why does the process work?" isn't in the definition. My engineer friends are very clear that one need not have any knowledge of why a process works to use and even tune a process. The few working science researchers I've known completely disagree with the Engineers... but those researchers don't own any patents, and the engineers do...
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
"Can not be explained using processes known to and broadly accepted by Natural Philosophers/Scientists and/or engineers."

So, if you don't have natural philosophers, scientists and/or engineers... everything is magic! Willow bark tea? Magic! Rain falling in regular seasons? Magic!

Basically, magic is ignorance. We can work with that.

Note that the underlying "why does the process work?" isn't in the definition. My engineer friends are very clear that one need not have any knowledge of why a process works to use and even tune a process. The few working science researchers I've known completely disagree with the Engineers... but those researchers don't own any patents, and the engineers do...

Insofar as you can find a radio station without knowing how radios work, and drive a car without knowing anything about compression ratios, yes.

But try to build a radio, or a car, or even repair one, without that understanding, and see what happens.

The engineers totally understand the processes they work with. Those patents represent understanding of processes. And, don't wave around patents as if they are an achievement if you aren't also going to note published papers on the scientists side.
 

billd91

Not your screen monkey (he/him)
Hiding a keyhole so that once a year (?), only moonlight illuminates its position in the door, but daylight doesn't? Sounds like magic to me. I'm sure those dwarf-masons were good, but no-one's that good. Miracles? Depends on the setting, I guess.
Depends on what you mean by magic. I’m reminded of another Tolkien reference when various Hobbits were asking about elf magic and were told by the elves they didn’t know what they meant for it was simply the elven way of making things whether cloaks or rope. Dwarven masonry or elven magic in fantasy RPG can fit the same mode - natural to them, magical to anyone else.
 

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