The Price of Magic and the Weak Anthropomorphic Principle

The player character generation screen in the ...

Yes, I miss Master of Magic.

The idea of magic is always a bit suspicious.

Magic promises something for nothing. A few mumbled words, a gesture, sketch a pattern in the dirt – and wonders happen. There’s no need to worry about how it works, or where the energy comes from, or what is and is not possible. You get what you want without a lot of work.

Sadly, everyday experience tells us just the opposite – that everything has it’s price. That the power has to come from somewhere. That some things simply are not possible – and that getting what you really want is almost always quite a lot of work.

In fiction, the use of magic often has properly ironic downsides, or requires payment in terrible supernatural coin, or is an exchange of favors with mysterious powers, or is extremely limited in use or application – and it’s never quite dependable.

Of course, in fiction, you only have one author involved – and he or she doesn’t have to answer questions about all those unspoken rules, or have people wanting to find ways to bend them. In games you tend to have a lot of “authors” – most of whom will be trying to slip things past the editor.

In games, magic is usually “paid for” in what’s called an “Opportunity Cost”. A character who’s invested in magical powers simply does not have the time and resources left over to invest in stealth and combat skills, or gaining the favor of gods, or developing powered battle armor, or learning to be a super-engineer. Given limited character-development resources nobody can afford to do EVERYTHING well – which helps keep adventuring (and gaming) a group activity.

A lot of people find that kind of unsatisfying though. They can see how long, hard, training with a sword builds up skill and endurance. They can understand the way in which an engineer works puts together devices that took days or weeks to learn. They can even see the way in which most in-game religions operate (I have power; you work for me and I’ll give you some). After all, that’s not very different from the way in which any crime syndicate works – and a business is simply a one-word minor variant (I have money…).

The relationship between sitting around with a book, or creating some talisman, and gaining supernatural power is a lot harder to make out – and there’s a long tradition of distrust of scholarship anyway. When people know things you don’t, you can never be quite sure of what they’re up to.

Gamers are even harder to convince; after all, sitting around, studying massive esoteric tomes, deciphering strange notations, and memorizing complex procedures, sounds an awful lot like what they’re doing for fun – and the notion that it’s “work” and so “should” have a magical payoff doesn’t seem quite right.

Adding some special prices, or weakening magic so that it’s an inefficient investment, or asking for some rare special talent, always sounds attractive; it helps explain why there aren’t mages all over the place!

Of course, every character type with exceptional abilities runs into that problem; why aren’t there priests with miraculous powers all over the place?

The trouble is, most games want many different character options to be attractive. If you add an extra price to magic, and don’t upgrade its power similarly, you’re making magic an unattractive option.

There’s really only one good option. In cosmology it’s called the Weak Anthropomorphic Principle – which states that it’s not surprising that our corner of the universe seems to be precisely designed for our sort of life to exist in it since otherwise we wouldn’t be there to look at it and talk about how wonderful that is.

In games you’re always playing the survivors. Except in Classic Traveler, where your character can die in the character-creation minigame (examined further HERE) before ever meeting the rest of the party, you never play the kid who slipped up in basic combat training and killed himself with his own sword. You never meet the would-be assassin who poisoned herself with the vapors during her first attempt to brew up some poison. You never play the apprentice mage who burned out his mind when he failed to properly handle the power of his basic magical exercises, or the priestess who lacked sufficient faith or talent to be granted power and spends her life as an acolyte in a temple.

Yes, you’re always playing the lucky, LUCKY, bastards who made it this far relatively intact – and so are still in playable shape, regardless of any disadvantages you may choose to heap on their heads in search of extra power or role-playing challenges. Call it the Weak Amusement Principle – since it doesn’t, in itself, promise anything further in the way of a good game.

Still, it’s why a good character backstory should have a few major decision points, some excitement, some implied risk, and a few unlikely bits; those are the things that have made the character into an unlikely adventurer – while thousands of others are safe at home. (For a quick-and-short example tossed together for a PBP game, here’s Orin).

Unfortunately this doesn’t explain why most games allow characters to cross-train without any particular risk. There are a few games out there where attempting to take up magic, or swordplay, after character creation might eliminate your character, or where such cross-training is simply forbidden – but they’re rare.

That’s because most games also subscribe to the Strong Amusement Principle; things only go wrong for the characters when it’s exciting or interesting. The player characters are the ones who wind up on the mighty quests, at the center of important events, and performing heroic deeds – not because they’re inherently better than everyone else (we know they’re not, since NPC’s like that farm kid over there can be promoted to PC status at a moments notice), but because outside forces – the (hopefully subtle) manipulations of the players and game master – have focused on them.

Cross-training mishaps aren’t usually much fun unless you’re playing out the cross-training, and so they don’t usually happen to player characters. The can and should happen to NPC’s though; they aren’t protected by the Strong Amusement Principle that’s running the game.

So that’s where the “price of magic” should turn up; it should appear in unlikely backstories, described (but not actually played out) moments of peril in cross-training, and in the form of disasters happening to unlucky NPC’s. Magic (just like powerful priestly abilities, master-level swordsmanship, and incredible skills) SHOULD be dangerous and unlikely – but the player-characters are always doing dangerous and unlikely things and coming up winners.

Those player characters are truly lucky, LUCKY, bastards. Go ahead and play it up a bit.

You can go too far of course; when you start to think that “fun for the players and success for the game” necessarily involves an unending stream of “fun and success” for the CHARACTERS, you’ve gotten into the Overreaching Over-amusement Principles – or OOPs – of game design. There are always more characters where those came from; taking away long-term bad effects, loss, and death, also takes away any real sense of accomplishment. Inevitable victory isn’t nearly as much fun as you might think; gamers tend to like real, rather than simulated, challenges.

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One Response

  1. Great post Thoth. I’ve always love the Burned-out Mage from Shadowrun 1st edition, and now I can play him in traditional fantasy thanks to you connecting the dots. Much appreciated!

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