D&D General Should magic be "mystical," unknowable, etc.? [Pick 2, no takebacks!]

Should magic be "mystical," unknowable, etc.?


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Fanaelialae

Legend
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

But that presumes there is sufficiently advanced technology in the D&D universe. I know that the D&D universe encompasses many worlds, but I'd say most of them exist somewhere between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. ** - D&D is a fantasy game after all. Not a SciFi game.

I suppose the aliens from the "Expedition to the barrier peaks" could be involved, but they were never fleshed out beyond that one module.

** Personally, I don't view D&D as a version of "Land of the Lost" where different ages get tossed together.
Actually, Arneson's Blackmoor campaign was a fantasy campaign with lost technology. It's literally part of the roots of D&D (Supplement 2).
 

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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I view magic as tapping into power that exists everywhere in my campaign world. Call it the weave, aether, dark (magical) energy, what have you. Even things like anti magic zones only cut people off from easily accessing magic, it doesn't rid the area of inherent magic.
Well, that's boring! :)

I use the same underlying idea, that there's inherent magic everywhere except places where there isn't*; but I have it that anti- (temporary) or null- (permanent) magic zones do dispel the area's inherent magic. and thus...
Some creatures such as dragons have evolved to use magic internally, it's part of their very essence with is why they aren't affected by anti magic zones.
...a Dragon finding itself in one of these zones would be in a heap o' trouble - as in utterly unable to survive - if it couldn't get out within a pretty short time. Ditto for an Elf; we even have a term - "magic sickness" - for what happens to an Elf that gets caught in a null-magic zone, as it's happened in my games on numerous occasions.

The more magical a creature is, the shorter its life expectancy in a null-magic area: Dragons, Sylphs, Unicorns etc. have a few minutes but not many, Elves have under an hour, Dwarves are good for maybe a day or two, Giant [ordinary animal]s might last for weeks and in some cases might survive outright, and so forth.

The underlying reason I do it this way is to allow non-magical worlds such as Earth to co-exist in the same universe as magical worlds.

* - the presence of a specific element on the periodic table is the usual cause of widespread lack of magic.
 

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
Actually, Arneson's Blackmoor campaign was a fantasy campaign with lost technology. It's literally part of the roots of D&D (Supplement 2).

I think D&D ultimately went with Mystra, and relegated Blackmore to somewhere in the Artic as a destroyed civilization. But did they ever use Blackmore to explain how magic worked?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
If the player character wizards can use magic, the players need to know the rules - which means there need to be rules to follow. Otherwise the whole game losses coherency. Th idea that a wizard doesn't know how spellcasting works just breaks my brain.
I know how to operate various pieces of machinery but often have little to no idea how they actually work - the fact that they work consistently and do what they're intended to do when I use them is enough for me.

No reason magic can't be the same way - various people have learned how to consistently make it do what they want it to do and yet don't know how it does what it does. Put another way, they've learned the controlling mechanisms but have not learned what it is they're controlling.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
I think D&D ultimately went with Mystra, and relegated Blackmore to somewhere in the Artic as a destroyed civilization. But did they ever use Blackmore to explain how magic worked?
I don't have a sufficiently detailed familiarity with Blackmoor to say whether the magic was technology based, though I do believe that the tech was typically mistaken for magic.
 

I really like how Mage the Awakening 2e does it. That’s one of my favorite magic systems in an RPG, and certainly my favorite version of a gamble mechanic. Basically, you have your various Arcana (essentially schools of magic) which determine the base effects you can produce, which default to single target, touch range, instantaneous duration, etc. and then you have a resource called “Reach” that you can expend to scale those factors up - kind of like Metamagic in D&D. As your mastery of an Arcanum increases, you get more base effects, and extra Reach to spend on spells using the lower-level effects within that Arcanum. The kicker is, you can actually spend more Reach than you technically “have”, but if you do, the GM gets to roll some “Paradox dice”, and successes allow them to cancel out some of your Reach effects or add additional ones of their choosing. I’m simplifying a bit, but that’s the basic premise. The important part for this conversation is that it creates a feeling that magic is extremely flexible, but risky to attempt to perform feats that are beyond your level of mastery. If you stick to simple stuff you’ve done a million times and know you can do safely, it’s quite reliable. But if you push yourself to do more, the magic can escape your control. (Sort of; in the lore there’s more going on there than the magic itself being chaotic).

Steering the topic back to esoterica, the other cool thing about Awakening 2e’s magic system is that you can give yourself bonus dice (which can help you contain the effects of paradox - you only need one success to achieve your intended effect, and you can spend additional successes to cancel out the effects of the GM’s successes on their Paradox dice) by using symbolic and ritual elements in the casting. Theoretically a mage can do magic naked, blindfolded, and gagged with their hands behind their back. But using magic words, gestures, tools, and other accoutrements makes it easier to reliably achieve your desired effects, and reduces the risk associated with over-reaching.
I have such a love hate relationship with it. I'm an enormous fan of Ascension, and still a big supporter of Awakening as a game concept (as in, I back and buy the products), but I can't get into an actual game of Awakening anymore because of the sheer amount of math necessary to play it. It's tongue-in-cheek referred to as Mage: the Arithmetic among my peer group (a play on Pathfinder being called Mathfinder, I suppose).

I'm totally off topic, now.
 

I know how to operate various pieces of machinery but often have little to no idea how they actually work - the fact that they work consistently and do what they're intended to do when I use them is enough for me.

No reason magic can't be the same way - various people have learned how to consistently make it do what they want it to do and yet don't know how it does what it does. Put another way, they've learned the controlling mechanisms but have not learned what it is they're controlling.
True - but I don't assume that no one knows how a computer works or could build one. It's not a mystery just because I don't know it.

The idea that, to some people, magic needs to be a mystery is a mystery to me.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I have such a love hate relationship with it. I'm an enormous fan of Ascension, and still a big supporter of Awakening as a game concept (as in, I back and buy the products), but I can't get into an actual game of Awakening anymore because of the sheer amount of math necessary to play it. It's tongue-in-cheek referred to as Mage: the Arithmetic among my peer group (a play on Pathfinder being called Mathfinder, I suppose).

I'm totally off topic, now.
I adore Awakening conceptually, but yeah, actually playing it can be a challenge for a number of reasons. I think a lot of CofD 2e suffers from ideas that look great on paper but in actual practice end up being rather unwieldy. Probably because Onyx Path recognized that a significant portion of their audience is people who spend a lot more time reading and discussing the books than actually playing the games, and started writing for that audience (and by that audience; a lot of their freelance writers were drawn directly from that well). I say this as a member of that audience myself, or at least I was when 2e started coming out.
 

Yaarel

Mind Mage
I feel all magic is human in origin (humanoid).

Despite finite appearances, the consciousnesses of humans are infinite mystical beings.
 

MGibster

Legend
I know we get a lot of "it depends" answers in this kind of thread, but should we? If we're talking about gaming in general, sure, it depends, but we're talking about D&D. And for the most part, the universe pretty much works the same across all D&D settings so far as magic is concerned.
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
On another note, the idea of magic and science being in opposition to each other is a very modern one. In a more historical view, science is magic. Take metallurgy, for example. In many ancient cultures, metallurgy held a special, mystical significance. Smiths could create incredible works by treating the metal they worked in just the right ways - ways which were esoteric to others. A “magic sword” would just be a particularly well-made sword, who’s properties might seem miraculous to someone who knows nothing of the science behind it. These techniques were probably arrived at through trial and error, but when you found something that worked, you kept at it, which meant things like saying particular prayers at particular points were often considered by the smiths themselves to be as important to the process as any of the direct physical actions.
A great example of this from history are the early Norse smiths, who would make weapons from bog iron, using bones and blood to try and make magical weapons by "imbuing the weapons with the spirits of the creatures the bones/blood came from". They were actually making a rudimentary type of steel, but they thought it was magic.

Another example is people making weapons out of meteoric iron, believing the weapons were supernatural because they were better than the other weapons they had, but this was just because iron is a better material to make a weapon out of than copper or bronze.

If you don't understand what's going on, you're more inclined to think that it's magical. We used to do this with lightning (Frankenstein's monster being brought to life through electricity, the Flash getting his speed from lightning), chemistry (alchemy), electromagnetic radiation (glowing radioactive ore), and we still do it with Quantum Physics.

If we don't understand something, we very commonly label it as "magic".
 

It also makes it hard for gaming if you have spellcasters in your game. The magicians need to have some understanding of the scope of what they can do for a game to work. (If you don't have actual PC spellcasters but do have magic that's another story - the modern campaign where the players are investigating weird occult phenomenon that has no rational explanation without access to the occult themselves - or with access that they can use but not understand - is a trope that works in a horror game quite well IME).
I tried to have a game where there is nagic but the players can't play spellcasters - nearly had a riot on my hands. Players hate magic if they can't have any.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
A great example of this from history are the early Norse smiths, who would make weapons from bog iron, using bones and blood to try and make magical weapons by "imbuing the weapons with the spirits of the creatures the bones/blood came from". They were actually making a rudimentary type of steel, but they thought it was magic.

Another example is people making weapons out of meteoric iron, believing the weapons were supernatural because they were better than the other weapons they had, but this was just because iron is a better material to make a weapon out of than copper or bronze.

If you don't understand what's going on, you're more inclined to think that it's magical. We used to do this with lightning (Frankenstein's monster being brought to life through electricity, the Flash getting his speed from lightning), chemistry (alchemy), electromagnetic radiation (glowing radioactive ore), and we still do it with Quantum Physics.

If we don't understand something, we very commonly label it as "magic".
I agree with your examples, but not entirely with the framing of “they thought they were doing magic.” I get where you’re coming from, they found approaches that worked but misunderstood why they worked, but I think saying “they thought it was magic” is still looking at “magic” from too modern a perspective. They were doing what they undrerstood to be proper smithing techniques, because it achieved good results. The ritualized elements were, in their understanding, part of what made it work as well as it did.
 

At the heart of this question is the tension between hard and soft magic but in my opinion one cannot really do soft magic in an TTRPG as that become a game of "GM may I"
All TTRPG magic systems are hard magic, in that they are codified in the rules even if things can go wrong.

There absolutely are soft magic systems. As you say, they can easily be a game of "GM may I?" but they exist.
 


Vaalingrade

Legend
Arthur C. Clarke was a science fiction writer, not a fantasy writer. I think if you asked J.R.R. Tolkien for his opinion on the subject, you'd get a very different answer.
There didn't used to be a difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy. It was all Speculative Fiction being called Fantasy.

There's a reason Spider-Man first appeared in Amazing Fantasy.
 

I voted that magic should have a "mystical" component to it, because by definition it should. One of the narratives that I've been using in my Eberron campaign is "previously unknown magic." Baked into the Eberron lore is a terrifying, powerful, but lost magic in the 13th Dragonmark: the Mark of Death. Since some Dragonmarks are only heritable gifts it adds another layer of mysticism to it. Also, the Dragonmarks allow you to create new magic, like Warforged: a race of living constructs with souls. I like that there is something that is not in the spell books, a powerful magic that could spontaneously appear in an unlikely source. That really separates magic from technology or science as it's not repeatable nor predicable.
 

I look at high-level physics equations and they might as well be arcane sigils to me.
Having studied the mystic runes, I can usually explain their overall meaning to those not initiated into the deep mysteries of the Kuwan Tomb and Kalul-Yuss, but true understanding requires years of study.

(More seriously, even as a physics student I found a lot of it mystifying, but most of the strange symbols are actually straightforward if you have a little bit of calculus knowledge already. Most are either "condense 3 equations into 1 equation so we don't have to write as much" or "this is just the label we use for this important number or the standard label for a measurement." Like how pi is the symbol for the number you need in order to calculate a circle's area, or x is usually the independent variable and y is usually the dependent variable. It's just Greek symbols and high-level math symbols because all the English letters had already been used up, and it's easier to know what's going on if you don't repeatedly re-use the same symbols.
 

I voted that magic should have a "mystical" component to it, because by definition it should.
Not...really? I mean if you dig deep enough in dictionaries you'll usually find references to the word "mystical," but several don't include it in the relevant definition being used here (that is, not the mere legerdemain that is actually possible IRL, but actual supernatural power). E.g. Dictionary.com gives, "the art of producing a desired effect or result through the use of incantation or various other techniques that presumably assure human control of supernatural agencies or the forces of nature." (It uses "mystical" only for metaphorical uses of the word "magic," e.g. "magic beauty.") Merriam-Webster doesn't mention "mystic(al)" at all: "the use of means (such as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces." Collins: "Magic is the power to use supernatural forces to make impossible things happen, such as making people disappear or controlling events in nature." (Though it does reference the use of the term to refer to a "mysterious" or otherwise ineffable quality that makes something exciting--again, metaphorical uses only.)

So...yeah. The definition, when it comes to legit "powers," doesn't require mysticism. But it also doesn't forbid mysticism, and metaphorical uses of the term are sometimes explicit about it being a mystical thing, others eschew such references, and some imply "mystical" without actually using the term.

The only thing it actually seems to require is control, which is the one thing most pro-mysticism folks seem to dislike!
 


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