Laws Of Magic Part II – Synchronicity, Sympathy, Contagion, and The Doctrine Of Signatures.

For Part I (Background and Correspondences) look HERE.

Synchronicity says that “there is no such thing as “coincidence”“. Did the questioner draw The Moon as the card that would stand for them in the Tarot Reading? That Meant Something.

Like most laws of magic… this is kind of problematic in the real world. I cooked a turkey not so long ago, and between the time I put it in the oven and the time I took it out literally thousands of people died. Does that mean that I killed them with the dark power of my cookery? Of course it doesn’t. Better than a hundred people die every minute these days and those thousands of deaths were pure coincidence. Humans just have a tendency to remember it better when two events of interest or importance turn up close together (the root of “where were you when famous event X happened questions) – so they commonly see causation and relationship where none exists.

In Classic Fantasy it is Synchronicity – often in the guise of “Fate” or “Destiny” or “The Will Of The Gods” – that drives the plot. It’s why people die at convenient times, why it is a kind traveler who stumbles across the infant heir rather than a pack of wolves, why adventurers always arrive in the nick of time, why seers and madmen utter true prophecies, and why consulting Tarot Cards or the I-Ching (or the flight of birds, or the shapes formed by hot wax dripping into water, or the shape of a sacrificial animals liver or some such) can actually reveal glimpses of the future. There isn’t really any good reason why a great comet passing should signal some equally great event, or why the ancient prophecy should be translated just as the characters need that information – but that’s how it almost always works in classic fantasy.

Of course, when it comes to the “reality” of a game setting… Synchronicity rules the universe for a very simple reason; game masters have strictly limited time and a lot to cover. That means that if they take the time to describe something it is almost certainly relevant. Better game masters will throw in some red herrings and items that are potential lead-ins to new adventures or optional side-quests from time to time, but only a very few of the most hard-core “sandbox” game masters will simply let characters go wherever they please instead of trying to keep them involved with the material they actually have ready. Like it or not, most game masters aren’t really that good at improvising and find it quite impossible to keep track of everything if they start having to answer off-the-wall questions about areas they haven’t prepared notes on yet. There’s a reason why Chekov’s Gun (and it’s Brick Joke and McGuffin variants) are major tropes.

And so the player characters are the ones to witness the murder, hear the victims final words (no matter how they try to stop him or her from dying), get accused of said murder when the guards arrive a few moments later, and stumble across all the necessary clues and plot coupons as they flee the guards to hunt down the actual murderer and prove their innocence. RPG plots always involve heaping helpings of coincidence, and a bit of railroading, because otherwise a group of player characters can be counted upon to start off investigating a mystery in Pennsylvania in 1929, set off for Chicago to talk to Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone, and somehow wind up helping defend Beijing against Genghis Khan in 1214 – insisting all the while that they are hot on the trail of the Jersey Devil and without ever actually reaching Chicago or explaining what they wanted with Capone in the first place.

In active play in most game systems, Synchronicity lies at the heart of divination and destiny – and it often lies at the heart of every act of magic. There isn’t any good reason why singing a particular song while keeping time with a rod of alder wood and wearing a vest with a particular set of symbols sewn on it should summon a charging rhinoceros to strike whatever the spell caster is pointing at. It just happens. And if it happens reliably, despite the lack of any apparent reason why it should… then you have a powerful spell.

In one setting…

The first “wizard” was a peasant farmer who was singing a nonsense-song while waving his arms to scare some birds away from his crops while wearing a cheap copper ring with hid zodiac symbol on it (and a few other details) – and the result was summoning am obedient swarm of ghostly troops for a time. He happened to be a keen observer, and he managed to recall just what he’d been doing – and after several tries… he did it again. After a few months of practice he could do it fairly reliably.

By the time he died many years later… he was rich, powerful, and influential – and he’d managed to unearth two more (if far lesser) spells (“cantrips”) from among the lands other practitioners of folk magic.

Today, almost a thousand years later… the light-haired Wizards of his line command seven of the twenty-two major spells that are rumored to exist, and perhaps half again that many of the forty-three known minor cantrips. (Sadly, two of the major spells will not work for people with dark hair and one only works for females). In other lands other families and traditions exist – each devoting long years of study to mastering the intricacies of those few spells they know and jealously guarding their arcane secrets.

This magic system has no theory, no consistency, and no logic to it whatsoever – but it’s very, VERY, classical. You can do anything at all if you can just find the secret spell that does it and it isn’t too hard to perform – but there’s really no way to “research” a new spell; it’s either out there to be found or it isn’t. You could spend multiple lifetimes doing random things, and even if something magical happened… there’s no guarantee that you will be able to figure out how to get it to happen again. The critical elements that made it work might note even have to have to anything to do with you at all. New spells are fabulous rarities.

Given that there is no underlying logic to synchronicity at all, it’s hard to work it into active play outside of purely arbitrary requirements for various acts of magic and divination – but it tends to rule the plot. Still, if you want to let the players get their hands on plot-based powers… the most classic way is to use one form or another of Whimsy Cards (or my own Runecards) to allow the players to twist the plot a bit. Alternatively, you can use Tarot Cards (although that will call for a lot of interpretation) or something like the free Scion Legend Cards. In Eclipse, you can use the Narrative Powers Template or just invest a few points in abilities like True Prophecy or Destiny Magic (scroll down).

Sympathy and Contagion do get some play in older games (and the occasional current “old school” game). They’re simpler, easier to explain, easy to portray, and far more immediate in application – if just about as arbitrary if you really start analyzing things. They’re covered in some detail in the Mystic Links and Sympathetic Magic Articles (Part I and Part II) and are used by the Võlur. Unfortunately – also as covered in those articles in detail – these rules of magic really aren’t that compatible with adventuring. Performing lengthy rituals that have subtle effects on targets a long ways away doesn’t make for exciting adventures.

Similarity or “Signatures” are another simple idea – that something’s appearance indicates its hidden powers. Gold shines like the Sun, so it must have solar powers. It endures for centuries untarnished, so putting gold in your food should let you live longer. A plant with fronds like fingers must be good medicine for your hands – or possibly useful for animating disembodied hands. Eating tiger penis soup (or several other similar dishes or – for that matter – phallus impudicus mushrooms) must enhance male potency (that notion – like anything that promises more or better sex – remains quite popular today, in part thanks to the placebo effect).

In reality, the doctrine of signatures is pretty easily disproven. There are a lot of very poisonous mushrooms that look a great deal like edible and nourishing ones. If “Signatures” really meant anything… then the results of eating both should be much the same – but surviving victims of the Amanita Ocreata mushroom would beg to differ.

Even games are often more sophisticated than this, and used less naive notions. For example, bat guano contains a lot of potassium nitrate, which is used to make gunpowder – so it was “reasonable” to infer that “explosions of fire” must be a part of it’s hidden properties given that neither sulfur nor charcoal were all that explosive by themselves. Ergo you could use a bit of guano as a component for your Fireball spell. You could substitute other things – but the results were unpredictable and varied from game to game, since no one wanted to compile a list of possible modifications for a thousand different components (a prospect which contributed to the general dropping of notes about how differing components might modify spells in later editions).

On the other hand, signatures – and the reputed properties of various substances, both real and mythic – are important in magical herbalism, in selecting components for spells, and are vital in alchemy and the brewing of various potions. Dragons blood may be pretty much like any other large animals blood biologically, but gamers are generally interested in it’s magical properties, not in its compatibility for transfusions.

Only a few games every really got into this kind of list though. Rolemaster – notorious for its exhaustive lists of everything – covered a lot of plants and herbs, as did the supplements from Bard Games; both their original Alchemists book and the combined “Arcanum” book covered long lists of plants, minerals, metals, alchemical preparations, and specialized spell lists, all of it more or less first edition AD&D compatible. Unfortunately, later editions of most games tended to just throw random oddities into various sourcebooks and adventures, leaving sorting out the resulting incoherent mess of special cases to the internet and to the rare players and game masters who actually cared. Bastion’s 95-page “Alchemy & Herbalists” book was about the last gasp of serious lists of the magical properties of herbs and materials. Sure, Pathfinder produced a 30 pages worth of material for their Alchemy Companion – but much of the space is devoted to fireworks, character feats, and minor magical items.

The modern gaming version of the Doctrine of Signatures no longer relies on physical sensory impressions that go right past most of the intended audience. After all, most of the current game masters and players alike have no idea of what various plants, fungi, and minerals look, smell, or feel like. Secondarily, the idea of allowing characters to acquire even very minor “treasures” by simply taking a walk in the woods and looking for plants with special properties is mostly out of fashion. Thus the current version relies instead on the descriptions in various books of monsters. Players may not be clear on what a basilisk looks like, but they know exactly what it does – and nobody will argue much with the idea that its blood is poisonous, its scales extremely tough, and its eyes capable of empowering magics related to petrification or transformation if that’s what the game master says. Thus a part of the “treasure” for defeating it may be harvested directly from it’s corpse. After all, in a world of magic, harvesting magical components from a monster is no more exotic than historical whalers hunting whales for their meat, fat, and bones.

While there’s a certain amount of squick involved in – say – chopping up that intelligent dragon that you just killed for it’s teeth, hide, and other useful bits I’m sure that some people will pay very high prices indeed for Dragon Penis Soup – and money tends to get most adventurers over ethical compunctions very quickly indeed.

Whether fortunately or unfortunately, however, you can’t just require parts from exotic monsters for basic magic. After all, if you did, that would mean that player-character spellcasters might well never get to cast any spells – and so the Doctrine of Signatures gets relegated to a ghetto of rarely-used “power components” and optional subsystems. After all, the player characters will rarely HAVE a Cockatrice Feather (or whatever) – and so there’s little or no point in spending a lot of space talking about just what one is good for. Personally, I usually let this sort of thing go on the fly. If someone wants to gather up parts of monsters and use them for magical purposes… why not? They can try things and see what happens.

2 Responses

  1. […] II – Synchronicity and The Doctrine Of Signatures. Also links so some older articles on Sympathy and Contagion (Part I and Part II) and a sample […]

  2. […] II – Synchronicity and The Doctrine Of Signatures. Also links so some older articles on Sympathy and Contagion (Part I and Part II) and a sample […]

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