Sunday, May 17, 2020

Magic from the Machine

A post last week led to discussion of what constituted science fantasy. In discussion those admittedly ill-defined genre boundaries, I thought of one type that is fairly common in comic books but not that common elsewhere: the blurring of technology and magic.

This is not quite the same thing as Magitech, or perhaps more accurately it's a subtype of it. Magitech can be lame (or at least uninspired) stuff like magic carpet taxi cabs or soldiers armed with fireball shooting wands. I'm talking more things that have the appearance or origin of technological devices but seem to have effects that are magical. Jack Kirby employed a lot of this stuff, particularly in the New Gods, where the characters evolved from the remnants of mythological beings, but who possess and advanced technology of a sort. The Cosmic Cube is another such artifact as is the Miracle Machine in the Legion of Super-Heroes. Heaven is depicted as full of this sort of technology in Morrison's JLA.

I feel like this sort of aesthetic is ripe for use in rpgs. Maybe Exalted does some of this, perhaps Godbound, but mostly science fantasy in rpgs is pretty standard. I think it would be pretty easy too. Potentially as simple as reskinning magic items with a technological look and a few features.


Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

Here is the problem with examples you cited... All of those items were deus ex machina plot devices, which is useful for stories, but hard to replicate in an RPG.

The Cosmic Cube / Miracle Machine are perfect examples of this. The items can be used to do anything at all, but are usually given rules why the logical use for them can't be used. The characters in those stories accept those rules (generally ending the story) or they challenge them (usually used to start the story).

In a story, the writer knows what the characters will do when confronted with these rules / the device. Player characters could do anything... and what GM can plan for such a situation?

The other examples of this approach might not be as all encompassing, but present many of the same problems. You also run into the 'monkey paw' cliche, which I find to lead to GM / Player conflicts.

On the other hand, without the above benefits, the Magitech loses some of its appeal. Turning into nothing more than setting by description only; i.e. "it's magic item that's really tech because I said so.'

Maybe if it can incorporate aspects that aren't possible with 'traditional magic items':
1. Configuration by plug in (software changes, chipping).
2. Modification of special effects on the fly (mode settings on the device).
3. Intelligent items being common place (AI inside the item).

For example, a magic wand that works / looks more like a TV remote. The buttons being used to configure the effects of a fireball. Batteries used for charges. Being able to talk to it for additional effects.

The idea being... think of a current tech item and finding a way to morph it into a magic item.

Trey said...

Your example goes rather the opposite of the way I want to go. it makes a magic item even mundane, or at least no less so.

I would disagree the items I named are deus ex machinae: They are the source of problem in the stories in which they appear often, not the unexpected, pat solution. May you're trying to convey they are largely plot devices? I would agree with that, though I'm not sure that that sort of thing doesn't have a roll in rpgs.

But let me choose a different example: The Mother Box that I pictured. The Mother Box has somewhat vague powers though we need not emulate this part. The Mother Box seems to have a personality and intelligence, though a none verbal one. It has multiple effects, but the effects are not mechanically down to pushing buttons. In short, the Mother Box is weird in the way I would like this to to be and weird in a way a wand of fireballs or a fire generating multi-tool is not.

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

Good points. Yes, I think I was a bit vague in what I was trying to describe. My mind moving faster than my fingers. :)

Kind of a side topic, but it sort of relates I think. In the way the original idea creeps and deforms.

Mother Box is a hard one... I don't think Kirby really wanted to describe it's full function or how it functioned. I also think he wanted it to be largely unique. When other writers got involved, then the concept changed. It became more common for any of the New Gods to have one.

My logic being that the Forever People were teenagers on their own. Their "guardians" were the Mother Box and Infinity Man. I think this was Kirby's intention which slowly diluted and lost meaning. Though this is just my opinion.

I think it was an important side note though, as this is the kind of thing that would concern me (as GM) if an item like this ended up in the hands of the PC. Do I need to explain its function to the players? Do I have the institute rules for how the item works and how do I communicate those rules to the players? Do I have to anticipate all the possible uses the players might try? How often will I have to say "no, that doesn't work" before it turns antagonistic? Players don't like when the GN has to keep circumventing their plans, so it can get old fast.

Cosmic Cube / Miracle Machine / Deus Ex Machina... Personally, I hate these items. The Miracle Machine in particular, as I have been an LSH fan for more years than I care to admit.

Cosmic Cube is another example of the creep. What started off as the Red Skull's master weapon turned into something way more important than it should have been. It was meant as a one time story item, but then turned into a reoccurring device whenever a writer couldn't come up with another idea.

It has a sentience! It evolves into a lifeform! It's related to the Beyonders! We can make more! We made one, but we didn't realize it was broken!

I called it a deus ex machina because it eventually ends up in the heroes hands... but they almost always use (or non-use) it in nonsensical manners. Or are stopped from using it by those GM vs. player rules that I mentioned above.

Spoilers (I guess, though it has been a while now)... Avengers: Endgame is the only use of the Infinity Gauntlet (which is a kind of morphed cosmic cube) that I can recall where the heroes used the item. The Hulk uses it to undo what Thanos did. Iron Man uses it negate Thanos.

This makes sense. This is what I would expect a human hero to do. The bad guy used the item for evil. I am going to use it for (what I see as) good. I am going to undo what the bad guy did.

This never happens in the comics. The hero gets the item, but never actually uses it. Some moral rule prevents them from using it. Or some glitch in the item stops them. And the writer can write the character to be okay with this. Where the GM cannot write how the players will react to this.

(I know... I am way off topic here as I can't imagine putting a world altering device in the hands of a PC. You might as well just let the PC take over being the GM at that point.)

The Miracle Machine... I can't remember a more powerful item used for almost nothing in any comic. The LSH hid that thing in their basement and was pulled out as the "cliff hanger fixer"... Other than being the basis of the LSH Tabloid (which I love) and driving Matter Eater Lad temporarily insane...

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

Now back on topic, after my wild train of thought essay...

My main concern with the Magitech concept is that there is something original to it. It's a personal opinion, admittedly, but I would want it to be somehow distinctly different than being just a magic item with a tech skin over it.

If it's just described as tech, then it doesn't matter to the plot. The item is magic, its tech, its a hybrid of both, ends up being nothing more than window dressing. I would want it to be somehow different than how magic items are normally handled / described.

It could be something as simple as "magic items" are things that no one really understands how they function. They are magic. They just do. The same way magic turns up in faerie tales. When the writer says something is magic, no further description is required.

(Though that would just beg the question as to who is making the magic items. Since someone would need to know how they work in order to create them.)

Magitech could be something that taps into the magical energy of the world (mana, leylines, what have you). The tech giving a non-mage a way to wield and manipulate the magical energy.

Example: The Star Wars setting could be considered Magitech. Only the magic in this setting is called the Force. Light sabers could be wielded by non Jedi / Sith because the device itself is allowing the fighter to tap the force without understanding it.

Uncle Owen did call Old Ben Kenobi that old hermit wizard in A New Hope, right?

Trey said...

Mister Miracle has a Mother Box in his first issue. While that comes after the Forever People, I don't think it was so long that the concept really had time to drift. His is pretty much an all purpose tool.

As to a Mother Box and what to do about it's function. I would make it's powers vague, but let it be known they were governed by something like a reaction roll. It doesn't become antagonistic because it is known I'm not deciding capriciously--the dice may be deciding capriciously not me. I would also goals be a thing that could be influenced, but not manner of achieving those goals.

While I'm not sure magitech has to be entirely window dressing, I'm not willing to say that cosmetics is all worthless in this respect. Think about effects based superheroes games like Champions. An ice blast and a fire blast are bought the same and act the same in basic mechanics: they are ranged attacks and "ice" or "fire" are special effects. But those special effects have implications for modelling reality in situations beyond just shooting a bad guy with it because in the fiction ice and fire are different.

Well done magitech might be mechanically the same as a magic item, but ought to have implications about how the setting works that might led players and campaigns to interesting places.

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

Just some random short thoughts. To make up for the long rambling ones from yesterday.

Well done magitech might be mechanically the same as a magic item, but ought to have implications about how the setting works that might led players and campaigns to interesting places.

Absolutely agree. Otherwise it reminds me of some of the bad 80s movies that just used because "heck, the set and props were free!"

Ah, Champions. One of my first RPG loves. Don't forget, if you want that blast to be both fire AND ice, you have to pay more for it!

Mister Miracle having a Mother Box doesn't surprise me either. I think Orion was reveled to have one fairly early on too. Both of which sort of makes sense, as they were the traded sons. I think the initial function of each of their boxes suited their back stories, but I am out on a limb with that one.

Keep up the good work. I always find your posts very thought provoking.

Trey said...


Regarding Champions, if you wanted a blast to be fire and ice at the same time you might have to pay more, though I'm not sure, but I don't think you should have to more for a blast that could be fire OR ice.

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

If memory serves...

When buying a blast you had to define it work against Physical, Energy, or Mental defenses. If it worked against two, then you had to pay double.

Then I think you had to define the nature of the attack; fire, ice, electricity, magic. The first one was free, but each additional one was x1.25.

Defenses were bought the same way. Whether it was a resistance or an invulnerability.

You could also gain points by defining a Susceptibility with the same rules.

I liked the dynamics of these rules because it made the definition of the powers special effects more important than just window dressing. It had a real effect on the out come of the game. Something that a lot of RPs at the time didn't really pay attention to.

Trey said...

Champions 4th edition and 5th edition are the only ones I am familiar with. They don't limit the nature or mention addition costs. From the 3rd rule book: "The energy may be lightning, fire, cold, sonics,radiation, rubber bullets, or whatever. Rather than trying to list each type of Energy Blast we could think of, we let the player choose what type of energy to project."

It does not mention here multiple effects, but if you can have any effect, I do see why it would break the rules to be able to pick a different effect and a different time.

Trey said...

No wait, I found it: "If the parameters for the special effect are limited, as in 'all hot/cold special effects,' then the advantage is +1/4. If the special effect for the power can be anything, then the advantage is +1/2."

Jason Galterio (Legionair) said...

3rd and 4th were my main releases. I lost interest when they went the cartoony direction with 5th.

After the powers section there was a modification section that further defined the individual powers. I think it was something like "Extra Effect" and "Against Additional Defense."

So the 5 points per 1d6 of damage could become 6.25 per 1d6, etc. etc.

As in a lot of things, the first one was free. But you had to pay for each additional hit.