D&D, Mage: the Ascension, and literalization

April 29, 2016 at 9:00 am
filed under Roleplaying
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Inspired by On cultivating the fantastic

Back in the ’90s and aughts, there were Debates in the Mage community around different ways of handling magic. If you’re not familiar, Mage was set in the modern times and the “real” magic in Mage was in the Spheres. The Spheres were described what you could do as you advanced in mastery of a particular Sphere of magic, such as Life or Time or Matter. Most notably, the Sphere descriptions had very, very, very little mechanics. They were quite deliberately underspecified.

One of the limitations of magic in the Mage setting was whether a given magical effect was “coincidental” or “vulgar.” The material described vulgar as something that a mundane observer would perceive as impossible, such as shooting a fireball or growing claws. Coincidental is just that: a gas main ruptured, ignited, and exploded very much like a fireball. Those aren’t claws because you can see the (phony) prosthesis.

The debate hinged on the word observer: is the observer your average bystander, a sort of invisible movie extra? Or is the observer more akin to the Game Master, living in the mage’s head, peering over her shoulder? Here’s my favorite example: a mage pulls a $20 out of a wallet. A hypothetical average perceiver (HAP) would see nothing amiss. A hypothetical omniscient perceiver (HOP) knows the wallet was empty seconds ago.

Here’s the punchline: D&D is better played with players-as-HAP than players-as-HOP.

Okay, now hold that thought.

Sorry, what?

How quickly do goblins reproduce? What does an owlbear in a dungeon eat? If a wild elf poops in a forest, and no one is around to smell it, does it produce an odor?


I think these questions come from innocent but misguided curiosity. Now, I’m a huge fan of curiosity. It’s my curiosity that has driven me, in fits and starts, to “figure out” D&D or the World of Darkness. Among other things, I was afraid of logical inconsistencies or anachronisms or questions with awkward answers, so I’d delve into exhaustive detail.

How we got here

Perhaps not surprisingly, I’d end up frustrated. Take Mage’s Spheres for example. Each rank has, at most, a couple of paragraphs of description, with brief examples. How can you build a specification based on that? It’s not much different when you try to turn D&D monsters into a “real” ecosystem, or when you try to rationalize the impact magic has on a society.

Why do we do this? Well, in our modern world we’re more or less used to authoritative, specific knowledge. Science exists as a system for obtaining verifiable, falsifiable knowledge of the world. We live on a planet in space, with continents and oceans. And so on. There’s mystery if you want it, but in general, we have a system of knowledge and ready access to it.

The choice to imitate this in a fantasy milieu is just that: a choice.

We can imagine a world without a vast wealth of knowledge easily enough, as that’s actually the milieu games like D&D come from: wild speculation about weird creatures in far-away lands, alchemy and chemistry as cousins, and only a vague idea of what stars really are. In a world whose age is potentially unknown, you have an incredible amount of room to improvise.

HAP and HOP again

Remember the punchline? The PCs should be HAP because, to a first approximation, the PCs never have authoritative knowledge.

This is just DM common sense, right? Tell the PCs that goblins live in this cave. You still need a good reason to tell them how many there are, such as a spell or because they hired a scout. Even then it’s more likely to be a range or guesstimate, isn’t it?

Here’s the problem with overspecifying: not only does it suck out the mystery, it also ties your hands. Arguably certainty increases the odds that you’ll end up with inconsistencies– an inconsistency in a world of ambiguity is a mystery. An inconsistency in a world of certainty is a mistake.

If the players are unlikely to care or unlikely to find out easily, and if it’s not central to any of your plots or ideas, just hand-wave it. The players will fill in the blanks if they care at all, and you’re free to support or defy those expectations however you like.

just in case

So, again: how quickly do goblins reproduce? Who knows? Basically no one, right? Then why should I bother figuring it out? I’m better off asking myself when I want them to hit a population explosion is and draw up a rough calendar structure.

From an in-game perspective, how would you even acquire that knowledge short of magic anyway? You can’t easily sample different goblin populations and growth rates, build a statistical model, and so on. If you could acquire knowledge that detailed, unless you were planning something Interesting, why would you waste it on goblin mating habits? I mean seriously. Even if you’re some evil dude breeding goblins on purpose, it’s far more straightforward to, you know, make sure they have room and resources to grow.

If you want goblins to come out of their lairs to attack in great numbers, there are better, vaguer examples:

It almost doesn’t matter unless it’s something the PCs can find out. The most likely sources of knowledge are goblins (liars), eyewitnesses (unreliable), or clues (conjecture).

When the PCs have limited knowledge, it reduces certainty. A world which is not systematized is unpredictable and unsafe. Knowledge is imperfect, incomplete, obsolete, misleading, and/or lies. Communication occurs in context of a dangerous, potentially balkanized world; with spies, intrigue, and magic; where demons and devils see humanoids as their playthings.

Now consider how hard it is to get eyewitnesses to a crime to agree on details.

If you wish to cultivate the fantastic, certainty mustn’t come for free.

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