Friday, December 30, 2016

Playing with Cosmology (5e and BX)

This past week I have been trying to watch the show The Magicians which is based on the Lev Grossman novel by the same name. If I had to describe it in a sentence, I would say that it is Harry Potter for adults. Unfortunately that isn’t high praise.


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.

19 comments:

  1. FrDave:
    I would disagree with you about Harry Potter and would encourage you to give it a second thought. I find it's worldview to be much like that presented in LotR. God is not explicit but the assumption of morality is. While set in a postmodern world, it explicitly rejects that view as acceptable.
    As far as the plot holes go, well, I'm beginning to learn that real life has an unfortunate number of plot holes itself :) . . . which is why we say "Come, Lord Jesus, come."
    BTW, love your blog. It's on my must read list. :)

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    1. Thanks for the kind words...

      Real life may be crazy, unfair and full of tragedy, but it all makes sense on a macro level because there are rules as to why things are the way they are (sin — Come, Lord Jesus, come).

      I am a Big Picture kind of thinker. The rules of the worlds presented to me in entertainment have to make enough sense that I can suspend my disbelief. I am no snob, some of my favorite movies of all-time are B-movie gold. In every case, however, the rules are set in place and followed throughout.

      Harry Potter violates this from the get-go. I am just not up to the herculean task of suspending my disbelief to actually enjoy this series.

      Plus, it is not as if I haven't tried. Harry Potter is a series I am forced to be well versed in because it is a topic of discussion I have to have with parents, children and my own kids.

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  2. While it's an interesting setup for a fictional setting to follow up upon, I wouldn't say that it's the obvious conclusion of what would happen. Sexuality is a fundamental part of creation but the church has not been historically championing it. Just because it's part of the natural world doesn't have to automatically make it dogmatically good. It can still be seen as the root of all evil and corruption. Whether an aspect of human life is promoted or suppressed depends on other factors than whether it's natural or not.

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    1. There are two misconceptions here:

      Firstly, sex has been championed by the church historically. There are two feasts in the Orthodox Church that celebrate conceptions that are not the Annunciation (they happen through normal means and not the descent of the Holy Spirit). Plus, sex within marriage is not only seen as blessed, but necessary. Couple are expected to try and have children.

      Secondly, that creation is inherently evil or the source of evil (sex, money or whatever). On the contrary, God declared His creation very good. The Orthodox Church actually had to tackle this with Iconoclasm because one of the theological arguments against icons was that mere wood and paint were not worthy of depicting that which is holy. This view was outrightly rejected.

      The source of all evil is the separation of humanity from God. Period. That separation can cause humanity to use God’s very good creation in ways that enforce or further that separation. For example, sex is meant to be a physical expression of the love of the radical other. This love, when applied over time (as in a marriage) allows us to see in ourselves the love God has for His creation. Sex can also be used in a selfish way where its end merely stops at pleasure. This closes off the possibility of seeing God’s love through the sexual act and separates us from Him.

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  3. My view of Harry Potter is that of the Orthodox reader, John Granger. I find the Potter books to be edifying.

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    1. Good. I am glad you do. In some ways, I wish I could get past the normalization of bigotry and racism, the special privilege Potter has over every one else and the fact that every time he messes up he gets rewarded instead of having to pay for his mistakes and therefore learn like the rest of us, but I just can't.

      There are a bunch of stories I love that others can't stand because they can't get over certain issues with the story. This is a case where I am the one who can't see past the problems.

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    2. The trouble with the Harry Potter stories, in my opinion, is that you continually have to err on the side of what the story tells you rather than what it shows you if you want to enjoy it. The area that bothers me most is in the books' attitude to bullying. Narration tells us that bullying is bad, and the heroes call people they do not like bullies (often, it should be said, accurately). However we're repeatedly shown that the main characters are just fine with bullying as long as it's targeted at people they don't like. This could be a humanizing flaw in our heroes if the text treated it as an ethical problem, but it doesn't, and none of them really consciously work to overcome it. Good people are good because their interests align with Harry's, not because of any particular moral fiber on their parts.

      I suspect a lot of this stems from the series' awkward transition from cartoon slapstick to a more or less "played straight" fantasy story. In a world of few consequences magical slapstick can be funny. In a world that asks you to consider the consequences, slapstick is monstrous and cruel (as the beginning of book 4 demonstrates for us in particularly jarring fashion).

      I find the idea that there cannot be any morality without a divine arbiter to mete out punishments and rewards quite alien, and more than a little distasteful. It strikes me as a worldview that is chillingly lacking in empathy.

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    3. What you describe is exactly why I can't just enjoy this series. For me, I felt really uncomfortable with the whole attitude towards muggles. In what way is the word "muggle" different from the n-word?

      I find the idea that there cannot be any morality without a divine arbiter to mete out punishments and rewards quite alien, and more than a little distasteful. It strikes me as a worldview that is chillingly lacking in empathy.

      It isn't a question of meting out justice, but rather a question of goodness. In the Christian worldview, everything good has its source in God. Therefore ethics, morality, etc. all have an external, eternal and unchanging source. Thus, what is good can be universally understood across all languages and cultures.

      Take away God, where is the source of all good? It necessarily becomes internal, ever-changing (because we are always changing) and fallible (because no one is perfect). Thus, there are 7.4 billion versions of "good" which is to say there is no good but my own and what I can impose upon others. In such a scheme, there really isn't a lot of room for empathy. Whereas, in a world where all good comes from a God who created humanity according to His image and likeness, empathy is the default position.

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  4. If you're willing to try them, might I recommend the Rachel Griffon novels for your magic-school-shenanigans edification?

    Amazon link

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  5. @ Fr. Dave:

    "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."

    Not necessarily...it really depends on how the institution (the Church) is portrayed in your campaign setting. It may not be wholly benevolent, it might be downright corrupt, it might treat magic the same as the government you describe (or worse, depending on the relationship between church and state in the setting).

    But I can certainly see the possibility of magic working hand-in-hand with the Church. And even if your campaigns normally pit (lawful) civilization versus (chaotic) wilderness, there can be internal conflict within the lawful civilization at the same time...a fight for what the civilization stands (its soul).

    This type of dual-struggle is a common theme to the original Warhammer Fantasy RPG, though it would work much better (IMO) with a strong, monotheistic Church similar to real world Christianity.

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    1. The original Warhammer Fantasy RPG has a feel to it that I have always loved and tried to infuse in all of my FRPG campaigns...

      I understand how one can argue that the church (especially in its Roman Catholic and Protestant versions) wouldn't necessarily embrace the whole magic thing; however, our experience of this is colored by the fact that magic doesn't exist as a natural phenomena and those that claimed magic use were often doing so in a way that was at odds with the church.

      Remember, though, that the way we experience science and technology are very similar to the way magic is depicted in fantasy. The whole science vs. Christianity is a false dichotomy. The vast majority of scientists were men of faith and a huge chunk of scientific achievement happened under the auspices of that faith. I would argue that the whole postmodern schtick that rebels against anything having to do with faith is actually a-scientific if not outright anti-science.

      This is one of the reasons my thought experiment led me to the conclusion that the Church would embrace magic, because it embraced science.

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    2. @ Fr. Dave:

      I'm just saying that the Church might have some hypocrisy in how it acts towards magic depending on its level of corruption and desire to retain power for itself. It might understand magic as a tool and blessing of God and still outlaw it (or its non-churchy use) for the simple reason that it poses a threat to its power...the same as a government might.

      If the Church is wholly benevolent, than perhaps only "chaotic" or "evil" magic would be condemned (as might any chaotic or evil action)...but the historic Church was hardly what I'd call "wholly benevolent."
      ; )

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    3. I'd make a distinction between those individuals in church history that were less than benevolent and the church herself; however I would agree that those types of people would exist, even within the church, and they would abuse magic and those who used it. None of that changes the fact the the default stance of the church would be to embrace magic.

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  6. Just finished watching the first season of this show last night, and I would suggest that you give it a go (based on what you have said about the series in your post, you only have a couple episodes left as there are only 13 in all). Things are not necessarily how they initially seem. The big bad guy and his actions towards the "chosen one" make a little more sense at the end.

    Does it suddenly become super amazing, no. But I really enjoyed it, and think it might at least soften some of your objections.

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    1. No. In fact, it got worse. Two things: if there is no Christian God, who in any world is the good guy? Who am I supposed to count for? Why?

      BTW you do realize that the Virgin Mary imagery and the subsequent rape following the declared faith is a reinterpretation of the Annunciation story that just makes me sick to my stomach. How is this supposed to be entertaining, let alone "good?"

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  7. Your conclusions are pretty similar to mine while constructing a medieval alternate world where magic exists. I set it within the century before the Reformation, so while the Orthodox church celebrated and taught magic as a natural and good part of creation, the Roman Catholic view was at best tolerant, but more often fearful and begrudging in the same way you describe governments. If the game took place during the Reformation, there would definitely be factions for changing the Catholic view on magic, and in general Protestant practice would go in every which way.

    More to the government side of things, I'd made magicians almost exclusively members of the nobility who closely guard their secrets within their family. And one of the big conflicts was a new school (literally) of magic founded during the crusades and willing to teach anyone who dedicated themselves to their order. The nobility was not happy.

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  8. According to The Great Courses lecture series on The Middle Ages by Prof. Phillip Daileader of William and Mary University

    The medieval churched recognized two types of magic: benign and hurtful. Hurtful magic dealt with curses, hexes, plaques and the like and was considered demonically inspired; i.e. witchcraft.

    Benign magic was tolerated if it acknowledged the preeminence of the divine and did not disrupt societal order. Benign magic dealt with mundane aspects of life such as fertility, husbandry, agriculture, weather forecasts, etc., Benign magic was often the pre-science of the age. Hence, a Christian king could have an astrologer or a physician in his court without fear of excommunication. In order for a RPG to assimilate these ideas, it has to expand beyond a three-point alignment system and incorporate good and evil.

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    1. Not necessarily. "Hurtful" and "benign" are two categories of magic. "Law" and "Chaos" are also two categories, as are "divine" and "arcane." How hurtful and benign fit into the given categories of a campaign are really up to you.

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