Friday, December 10, 2010

The Structures of Magical Revolutions


We’re all familiar with the advance of technology and the shifting--sometimes radically--of scientific ideas. The ether theory gave way to special relativity; the bow gave way to the gun. So why is it we seldom see any advancements in the technology of magic, or magical paradigm shifts, in rpg settings?

Not that magic isn’t shown as changing over time, but it's almost always a fall from a more advanced state, even a golden age, to its current one. Mostly, though, this seems to just a change from more magic to less. Sure, this gives a convenient rationale for ancient magical ruins and magical items laying around, but there are other explanations for that stuff, surely.

Why can’t magic missiles be more powerful today than 100 years ago? Maybe old spells have completely fallen by the wayside due to improve defenses (maybe, though, those defenses have been lost too?). Or how about old magical theories giving way to the radical new theories of a Magus Einstein? Different magical schools/styles need not be equally valid views that just add “color”, one could be more true than the other. What would that even mean: more powerful spells? shorter casting times? higher levels attainable? bragging rights in the outer planes?

Anyway, its something to think about: What are the structures of magical revolutions?

12 comments:

Greg Christopher said...

The problem from a design perspective is that unequal choice leads to everyone choosing the strongest option. How would you differentiate?

migellito said...

I like this idea a lot. I think not only improvements in efficiency and output of specific spells or spell types would occur, but also changes and discoveries regarding casting systems.

Which reminds me, I need to get back to posting my variant magic systems!

seaofstarsrpg said...

Greg, unequal does not mean the small as unbalanced (necessarily). For example the magical school specialist in Pathfinder, you trade being good at blowing things up (envoker) for being weak on subtlety and information (banned schools illusion and divination, for example). So, I think you could model it in a playable way, but it would be difficult.

"The Adept of Kasj have developed a magic ray that ignores our arcane shield."

"Luckily we have just perfected the Armor of Shimmering Force, it will stop their ray."

Scott said...

It seems like you'd have to work with an Ars Magica/Pendragon time scale of years or decades. New ways of thinking require some time to disseminate, then get reviewed, tested, and adopted, even today.

Any setting in which magical knowledge is jealously guarded by secretive or balkanized factions (like the usual guilds and cabals) will be unfriendly to the sort of Kuhn-contemplated, widespread shift to which the blog title refers. E.g., the Eleusinian Mysteries weren't submitted for open peer review. And even in the 16th century, higher math retained some occult associations.

There's also an issue in settings with powerful established religions (such as pre-industrial Earth), in that promulgating any radical new model of How Things Work may get one in dutch with the Church(es), and that has a chilling effect on dissemination and adoption. It seems like this would (and did) combine with esotericism to put a damper on intellectual revolutions until the setting's equivalent of Modernity, or some other conjunction of skepticism, inquiry, and decentralization of religion.

This doesn't mean there couldn't be revelatory discoveries within the magical community, but in most traditional pre-industrial settings, the same factors that retarded scientific revolutions before the Enlightenment would still be in play. (Since you're developing a post-Enlightenment setting, many of those wouldn't apply.)

It's an interesting question, and just teasing out potential answers and issues seems fun, especially (again) since you're running a setting after the Reformation, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution. It could be fertile ground for a magical Einstein or Manhattan Project, or wizardy brain-drains like Operation Paperclip working on Something Big.

Risus Monkey said...

Gurps Technomancer covers this a bit and in a modern fantasy game, I do think magic would be constantly advancing. But it certainly chnages the feel of a game. It largely removes a cool reason to be exploring ancient ruins if you can't hope to discover some lost secret to give you an edge. Then again, the ideas aren't mutually exclusive. An older spell combined with new theories might lead to a significant advantage and thus a perfect macguffin.

Anyway, back to work... deadline from hell in exactly 2 hours.

satyre said...

Some specialisms may be preferred by location (schools of demonology may draw adverse attention in nations ruled by paladins) or by inclination (elves prefer charms and illusions as they don't burn down forests).

Modelling magical innovation depends on what you're trying to achieve but the simple rule of thumb that a variant is overall worse than the current version is good. Depending on edition, there are rules for spell research that can generally be followed.

Say a wizard finds an ancient scroll of fireball used in naval warfare. It might have a +25% range modifier but only do d4 damage per level to a max of 6d6. Later the wizard finds a regular version of fireball but can choose which they memorise.

Those systems who use player feats to modify spells may spawn spells with the feat's effect built in but at a higher level.

ckutalik said...

Funny I was just reading a section of that T.S. Kuhn book again after seeing it applied to the history of roleplaying games in Shared Fantasy.

I agree that a magical society would likely have paradigm shifts with certain magic forms getting trumped by others and then reintroduced later in some new form?

Trey said...

@Greg- I think seaofstars provides some come answers. Suffice to say I think there are several different ways of accomplishing balance even if magical power levels are not in a head to head fashion.

@Scott - You make some good points, but I don't that a world with reproducible, reliable magic would necessarily have to follow the patterns of esoteric knowledge in our world. Technological knowledge did advance in real history (with some periods of setback), and theoretical knowledge flourished and was propigated in the ancient world. I think those sorts of models might not be unreasonable for "real" magic.

And of course, my nod to Kuhn was just for a pithy title. There are very good criticism of his theories, of course, even in regard to the phenomena he sets out to delineate.

@Satyre - Good thoughts.

@Ckutalik - Interesting. I haven't seen Kuhn's work applied to rpgs.

graham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
graham said...

"Why can't magic missiles be more powerful today than 100 years ago?"

I think the biggest problem is that it challenges the connection of spell power with spell (and character) level. Magic missile gets powerful when it is cast by more powerful magic-users. Wizard Lock is better than Hold Portal.
Vancian magic, and magic systems in games, contradict the idea that magic as a field can develop and advance. If you create a better sleep spell, is it still a first level spell? What do the differences between spell levels mean?


There aren't paradigm shifts in magic because any kind of real development of the field can only pursued by the most skilled practitioners, and any discoveries they might make cannot be easily passed down to students.
You can produce firearms and arm the peasantry with them, but if you want to arm the peasantry with fireballs you need to train them all to be fifth level magic users.

Trey said...

Hey, Graham. You raise a good point, though I think all of them are problems with implementation not absolute prohibitions. And of course they only effect certain sorts of level based magic systems--which suggests systems could be modified. I don't known that anything about Vancian magic (in the sense of magic that appeared in Vance's stories contradicts the possibility of this).

As you asked: How much better does a spell have to be before its a spell of a higher level? I think this is a question that could be answered easy enough, though obviously each GM decide it differently. Magic missile which just does a different die in damage could easily be a fisr level spell.

What do spell levels mean? Well, more knowledge required to cast, lesser known spells, perhaps even generally more powerful--none of that suggests their can't be improvement within levels.

Also, all of these objections apply to a paradigm shift occurring in current game time. What if it was in the remote past? Maybe higher level spells are the paradigm shift, so that ancient scrolls are generally of more limited power, and some isolated, more primitive magic-users are limited in the levels they can obtain. Higher level spells could only be learned in the most cutting edge teaching centers.

I guess what I'm saying is I was mainly thinking about settings. It could modify the game mechanically, but not necessarily.

Harald said...

I think this is an interesting question, and I'm looking at it from outside of the level-box.

The major question, as I see it, is whether you want this to happen in game, or if it lies in the fluff. In game, I think you have two options. One is an Ars Magica approach, where decades pass in a single session. The other means you need to have some sort of arcane think-tank, or somesuch, actively pushing the boundaries. In the latter case, this would rapidly spark major conflict, as rivalling factions scrambled to gain the upper hand.

In my world I've put this in the fluff, and when we started play, the PCs were amongst the few magicians out there. As play has progressed, more and more are Awakening, and magic is now starting to shape the world. The magic system remains untouched.