In the mean time, here it is.
Make Magic Weird Again
Hey everyone, just a few disjointed thoughts and musings this time. I’m still working on the setting, and hope to have something substantive enough to run some sessions with this summer. I feel a burst of inspiration coming up, spurred by finally picking up and starting Jack Vance’s Tales of the Dying Earth, which obviously has a lot of parallels to what I’m trying to do with Xish and the Crater. I’m only a couple chapters in, but I’ve already seen a million ideas I want to steal.
What I want to talk about right now, though, is the obvious thing to talk about when Jack Vance comes up in the context of D&D: magic. I have to say, it’s been kind of surreal to see just how close to the magic system we all know and love Vance’s original iteration actually is, and also how different. What really stands out is just how weird the magic comes across, the way Vance writes it.
That stands out because, at this point, D&D magic is the banal default. It’s in a thousand officially branded books and, I’m sure, even more unofficial ones. You use it every time you sit down to play Dungeons & Dragons, regardless of what edition you’re using. When you read about it, whether in Dragonlance Chronicles or some Salvatore bullshit, there’s nothing particularly interesting about it, and it’s more often than not described in a rote way, because those authors know you already know how it works. At the gaming table, it’s pretty much taken for granted. It’s just a set of rules that define and constrain the kinds of actions your wizard can do in order to actually be useful.
But when Vance describes that shit, he never lets you forget how strange it actually is. Here’s where he gives us our first glimpse of how magic works, in the first couple pages of The Dying Earth:
The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. There were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.
Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.
Reading Vance has made me realize that, as mundane as it’s come to seem after years of playing, D&D magic, even divorced from its source, is still really weird. Think about it: in D&D land, spells are strings of words so powerful and rarefied that just reading them puts the spell into your brain, in a way that it literally takes up space in there, and it’s discharged out of your brain wholesale and manifested into the world just by you saying those words again. Shit is fucked up, for real.
But how to communicate this, as a DM? How do you make magic weird again? I think this is a problem whose potential solutions are mostly going to have to be tested in the field, so to speak, but I have a few ideas.
The most obvious one, I’ve already hinted at: actually take a second to describe what memorizing spells feels like. Make it clear that it’s not just a matter of sitting down, opening a book, having a little read, and then going to bed. Vance always makes it clear that this is a process that takes effort. One neat thing I’m thinking about ways to incorporate is that, at least so far in the story, the hardest spells for Vance’s wizards to memorize aren’t necessarily the most powerful ones, they’re the last one or two that they cram into their heads, regardless of what the spells actually are. I like this because it implies that spells aren’t supposed to be in your head at all, let alone five at a time – it’s something you have to train yourself to be able to do, because that shit ain’t natural.
I’m not quite sure how you’d effectively communicate this in game – maybe require INT rolls or something for your last couple of spell slots filled: if you fail you still have the spell, but you’re fatigued all day. I’m not entirely satisfied with that, but it’s something to mull over.
Another idea I have is a bit of a gimmick, but I think it would work. It’s illustrated nicely by citing the first couple of times Vance gives us the list of spells a wizard prepares. The first time, the spells are: the aforementioned Call to the Violent Cloud, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, the Excellent Prismatic Spray, and the Spell of the Slow Hour. Later, another wizard settles down and brain-crams: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, that Excellent Prismatic Spray again, the Charm of Untiring Nourisment, and the Spell of the Omipotent Sphere.
You see where I’m going with this, yeah? That dusty old scroll or tome your wizard just found? Instead of telling them “It’s a scroll of Sleep,” tell them it’s a mildewey parchment whose contents purport to describe the means of casting “The Fifth Bolt of Unconsciousness.” And because spells are just weird syllables that in themselves don’t indicate anything about what a spell actually does (at least, that’s how it’s coming across in Vance so far), don’t tell your player what the spell is actually called in the rulebook until the first time they cast it, or maybe only give them some cryptic remarks that the wizard who last had this book scrawled in the margins. And make them write “Fifth Bolt of Unconsciousness” on their sheet. Like I said, gimmicky, and maybe you players will hate and even if they don’t they won’t appreciate the extra work you put in (they never do), but I think it helps magic feel like a real thing in your world, and not just a set of rules for doing certain things to monsters.
Which brings us to the final thing I think you could do, also pretty obvious: don’t just say “Okay, you cast fireball,” have the player roll their dice, and then move on – take a second to tell everyone what casting a fireball actually looks and feels like. I feel like there’s a lot of room to get creative with this; mechanically, the only things that really matter about a spell are the numbers and the in-game effects, which means you make the standard spells seem completely fresh just by describing them differently. Remember that Call to the Violent Cloud, from The Dying Earth? In effect, it winds up being the equivalent of Plane Shift, i.e. a spell to enter a different dimension. In narrative terms though, what happens when it’s cast is that a sentient cloud is summoned, which the wizard then commands to take him to the dimension he needs to go to, and it heaves up and bats him around for awhile before depositing him there. How much weirder and more, well, magical does that feel then just “And then he cast Plane Shift and now he was in Baator,” or whatever?
To sum up: Vancian magic doesn’t have to be boring and routine, because in Vance, it’s fucking not. I’m not claiming to be the first person to have ever realized this. Maybe everyone reading this is just going “Well, duh,” but for me it’s been pretty eye-opening.
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