While the “ostracized student discovers he/she gets to attend a secret magic school” is a proven concept, The Magicians suffers from many of the giant plot holes Harry Potter does: if there is a giant bad guy who only one or more children/unexperienced magicians are “destined” to take out why the hell do you leave them on their own and keep them in the dark about their role and responsibility in the world!? In both cases, this lack of supervision and information leads the “protagonists” to actually making the situation much, much worse.
I have to admit, however, that as much as I despise the Harry Potter series, at least I don’t feel like I need to take several showers after seeing/reading it like I now feel like I do after trudging through several episodes of The Magicians. The reason is simple: whereas Harry Potter wraps its postmodernism in a fun children’s adventure, The Magicians wears it on its sleeve for everyone to see. This is its great weakness.
I have concurrently been reading The Great Good Thing by one of my favorite authors Andrew Klavan. He doesn’t much show up as an influence in my RPG hobby because his is the genre of crime thriller, but this book is a self-meditation on his journey from being a secular Jew to being baptized. It was an emotional roller coaster for me, because he and I had similar journeys. In it, he expressed an opinion that I found refreshing (if only because I finally found somebody who put into words something that I have been struggling to make cogent for years). Of the Marquis de Sade he says:
Here, at last … was an atheist whose outlook made complete logical sense to me from beginning to end. If there is no God, there is no morality. If there is no morality, the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain are all in all and we should pillage, rape, and murder as we please. None of this milquetoast atheism that says, “Let’s all do what’s good for society.” Why should I do what’s good for society? What is society to me? None of the elaborate game-theory nonsense where we all benefit by mutual sacrifice and restraint. That only works until no one’s looking; then I’ll get away with what I can. If there is no God, there is no good, and sadistic pornography is scripture.Several of the protagonists in The Magicians are hedonists and the story makes it very clear that the Christian God doesn’t exist, or if He does He is one of many and He does so for the express purpose of making magic available to the hedonists so they can go on pleasuring themselves and that to be left out of this great gift is to not live life at all.
It is revealed that the big bad guy (known as “The Beast”) is actually a pedophile trying to make his own magical murder/rape/torture world to allow him to explore his particular predilections to their fullest. In a world where God and morality exist, The Beast makes for a really creepy bad guy; however, in a world where God does not, what makes The Beast any better or worse than the hedonistic heroes? By what standard are the heroes right and The Beast wrong?
This got me thinking about a cosmology where magic is real and which institutions would support it and which ones would actively suppress it. I came to the surprising conclusion that the Church would have been to one safe haven for the magicians.
Hear me out: if magic is real, then it is part of creation. If it is part of creation then God, creator of all things, put it here for a purpose. If there is a purpose to magic given by God, then it must be a tool by which we can experience God and fulfill our role in salvation history by edging closer to the Image and Likeness of God that He endowed to us upon our creation. Thus, the church would be THE institution within which magic would be studied, taught and explored.
On the other hand, governments would see magic as a threat to power in the same way they see guns as a threat to power. Government would, of course, use magic to gain and maintain power in the same way they use guns; however, just as they do around the world with guns, magic would be largely illegal in the hands of the average citizen. This pits the Church against the State in a very compelling way (and not unlike the first three centuries of Christianity).
To put this all in context of D&D (especially 2e and beyond) it is the first time I have been able to envision a cosmology where Domains really work in a Christian context. If one were to envision a Christian University founded by monks in order to teach and study magic, there would be various “schools” within the university that would specialize in various types of magic: the Domains.
In such a cosmology, clerics become mages. My favorite curiosity of the retro-clone Delving Deeper starts to make sense:
At 2nd level a cleric acquires a spell book containing his 1st level spells and can thereafter cast a number of spells each day appropriate to his experience level.This also opens up the possibility of having the Turn Undead ability of clerics being limited to one school and therefore making it possible for other special abilities to take its place. This mechanic is already in place in 5e, where the Channel Divinity ability can be used for different purposes depending on which domain the cleric belongs to.
In context of BX, this can be expressed by any number of special abilities. According to the ACKS Player's Companion, which reverse engineers the BX classes in order to be able to then build your own world-specific BX classes, a cleric can give up Turn Undead in order to get two custom powers at 1st level or more if they are delayed until higher levels. These might include the ability to use magic items only magic-users could use, using spell slots for extra melee damage or gaining access to appropriate spells from the magic-user spell lists.
Such a cosmology is radically different than the Christian Civilization vs. Demonic Wilderness that is the assumed structure of all of my campaigns and doesn’t seem to suggest a campaign where players exist on the fringes of Civilization making the Wilderness safe for everybody else. Rather, it suggests a campaign that takes place right at the center of civilization, in an urban environment where the conflict is not between Civilization and the Wilderness, but between two radically different visions of what Civilization ought to be.