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

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


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I see it like the button next to an elevator. You push the button and sometimes the doors open right away, and sometimes you have to wait for the doors to open (also sometimes the doors open even when you don't push the button). Maybe the doors normally open faster between the hours of 2 and 4pm and slower at 9 am, 12 and 5 pm, but could be slow during those times too.

With that set of information, what do you "know" about how the button and the elevator doors work?

I can think of wizards as operating with this level of understanding. They know that if they press the button something will happen eventually but also that unexpected results may occur (e.g the door opening without pressing the button). Maybe they develop schedules to try and optimize the fastest result, maybe those work consistently, maybe they don't.
Then how do the wizards build new buttons?

Because wizards can make spells. Not just cast them, they can invent new spells.
 

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My definition of knowing is that you have to understand the why, not just the how. You don't have to understand the why perfectly (at the quantum level, as you put it) but you need a solid understanding how why it works, not just how to make it work. If you've learned how to fix your car's engine, but you can't extend that knowledge into fixing other engines, then you don't actually understand how an engine works, you've just figured out how to fix your particular engine. Which isn't really knowing (or, at best, is an extremely narrow and limited case of knowing).
Right and I would argue that if to design and build new devices, you need to understand not just how to use the tool but how and why it works. Otherwise you're not able to redesign it.
If your definition is that you just need to understand how (ie, you repeatedly try random things until you get the result you want, and then just repeat that) then, sure, I agree that D&D magic is by definition knowable.

That's a really low bar though. That's like someone claiming that because they can brute force a combination lock by trying every possible combination, they know how combination locks work and how to circumvent them. If that's the extent of their understanding, then I would argue that they do not understand combination locks.
But that assumes wizards can't design new spells, which RAW they can. It's not a totally randomized process where you end up with a random spell - you set out to create an iceball, and you create an iceball.
And while we can certainly combination locks in the RW, it's not hard to imagine a "combination lock" designed by a godlike intelligence that is simply beyond the capacity of lesser intelligences to comprehend, and hence, unknowable to those lesser intelligences.
Sure, but those lesser intelligences also can't design new combination locks. Wizards, in this analogy, aren't brute forcing the lock - they're locksmiths. Who don't understand why turning the tumblers makes the thing open, somehow.
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
Right and I would argue that if to design and build new devices, you need to understand not just how to use the tool but how and why it works. Otherwise you're not able to redesign it.

But that assumes wizards can't design new spells, which RAW they can. It's not a totally randomized process where you end up with a random spell - you set out to create an iceball, and you create an iceball.

Sure, but those lesser intelligences also can't design new combination locks. Wizards, in this analogy, aren't brute forcing the lock - they're locksmiths. Who don't understand why turning the tumblers makes the thing open, somehow.
They have to do research to create those new spells right? That research could easily consist of finding experiments from other wizards who were attempting similar things. In other words, similar combinations to the one you're trying to find. Then, having narrowed down the possibilities, the wizard experiments until they brute force the combination they were looking for. At no point in that process do they understand why the combination works, much less how the lock itself is constructed.

In case you're wondering, in this scenario, the original wizards were probably given the original combinations, or they brute forced random spells.
 

They have to do research to create those new spells right? That research could easily consist of finding experiments from other wizards who were attempting similar things. In other words, similar combinations to the one you're trying to find. Then, having narrowed down the possibilities, the wizard experiments until they brute force the combination they were looking for. At no point in that process do they understand why the combination works, much less how the lock itself is constructed.
Yes, they find previously discovered knowledge. If it's been written down, it's known.

How can something be both known and unknowable?
In case you're wondering, in this scenario, the original wizards were probably given the original combinations, or they brute forced random spells.
Yes, at some point they didn't know. And now they do. Unknown is not unknowable, any more than not done is impossible, or undiscovered is nonexistent.
 


Fanaelialae

Legend
Yes, they find previously discovered knowledge. If it's been written down, it's known.

How can something be both known and unknowable?

Yes, at some point they didn't know. And now they do. Unknown is not unknowable, any more than not done is impossible, or undiscovered is nonexistent.
I already explained this. Various combinations were brute forced and recorded. That doesn't mean that they understand why the combinations do what they do, much less how the lock itself works. In fact, the lock may be so complex as to be beyond the comprehension of mortal minds (in which case, it is unknowable).

As far as I'm concerned, to be considered to truly know something, one must understand why something works, not simply how to make it work.
 


The thing is that everyone can understand science to a degree. But the principle of D&D is that only some people can understand and manipulate magic.
Dyscalculia would like a word.

But, even barring that, I guarantee you that at absolute best only some people understand and can manipulate quantum physics. We rely on it every day (e.g. many phone touchscreens make use of electron tunneling, an inherently quantum-mechanical effect, to achieve a thinner device with no loss of function), but if you asked someone to explain why electromagnetic radiation propagates through space, the vast majority of human beings would have no idea. Even those who actually have the necessary math background often don't know. And it would be very difficult to explain to someone who doesn't already have at least a year's worth of both calculus and physics classes under their belt (preferably more)--aka, initiation into the foundational mysteries. Richard Feynman, one of the greats of modern quantum theory, explicitly said in his lecture The Character of Physical Law, "On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." Our knowledge of QM has not advanced so dramatically in the decades since he said that (just under 60 years ago) to change this very much. It may be the case now that some understand it, but likely not even a majority of actual quantum physicists, and definitely not a majority of people who make use of it in their daily lives.

Some D&D magic is knowable, or some aspects of it, but it does not mean all magic has to be knowable.
Which is a perfectly valid stance to take (hence why I tried to cover the gamut of options above). Fortunately, I'm not seeing much in the way of "wow you really missed a key response option here" replies, so it seems I did at least a passable job.
 
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Potayto..potahto.

"I found a new thing that makes something happen"
"I created a new thing that makes something happen"

The nice thing about experimentation is that you can find out whether things work no matter how much you know about why it works.
I don't see how it matters. If you want making a new spell to be not really making it, just have it be that way for your campaign.
 

Yora

Legend
Magic should be something that is fundamentally different from the mundane. You can observe it, and you can poke at it, and you can figure out that certain kinds of poking produce a consistent effect that can be used to your advantage. But nobody actually knows what's going on and how it works.
Which is why warlock is the main spellcasting class in my setting, followed by druids. Mortal magic ultimately comes from spirits, and what exactly spirits are is unclear. (The only other spellcasting class are bards, which work mechanically as always, but are priests who are calling on divine spirits for their enchantments and illusions.)
Magic items are commonly physical remains of magical creatures that still hold some of the creature's power. Some are always active, others need to get a nudge by someone who can feel magic to release their power. Sometimes they work immediately as they are chopped off the original creature, but the process of creating magic items is really mostly modifying remains to make it possible to activate their powers when desired. How their power really works and where it actually comes from remains a mystery to the creator.
 

I don't see how it matters. If you want making a new spell to be not really making it, just have it be that way for your campaign.
Sure. For the record I went with multiple flavors of "it depends" for my poll response. I find both versions of magic compelling for different reasons and I don't really think they are incompatible with each other.

Ultimately I'm more interested in how the practice of magic and the understanding of it impacts societies than I am in there being one better or worse version of magic.
 

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