Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Lost Mystique of the MU, and How to Fix It (Long Rant)

I once made up a dumb quote. It went like this; “Fantasy is just retrofuturism for the Pre-Sciences.” It's pretty dumb, I know, but I think it has a lot of merit. Fantasy worlds and media tends to focus on the beliefs of ancient peoples, and then show those beliefs as being how the world actually works in the body of fiction. Gods are real and grant blessings or curses. Secret knowledge can cure diseases, or create energy or matter from nothing.

Side note: I began writing up  this "rant" several months ago, and lo and behold Goblin Punch had to write an article about this very thing I'm complaining about and beat me to it.

This is a short essay about magic users, why I'm upset with them, and why I changed them into something else. I've marked this as a 'rant', which is a tag I usually use for long rambling nonsense like this, so feel free to skip it if it isn't your thing.

Art @Sarunas Macijauskas
Note- This isn't talking about Magical or “Supernatural” elements as a whole, but specifically the type of “Magic” that spellcasters can use. Witches, Sorcerers, etc. Casting spells and making charms are both common things in fantasy media. Having a role dedicated to the pursuit of magic is sensible, logical, and fits in perfectly with a game about loose archetypes. The Fighter. The Magic-User. The Holy Man. The Elf. These are classic classes which the original game of D&D was built around. Over time, these roles changed to be less thematic and more practical, though paradoxically some of the implied coverages of the classes (the Fighter, specifically) was reduced to give rise to extra bonus classes like the Barbarian and Ranger. Please note, I am not actually a D&D historian, so any of all of this could be wrong, but it's right for my essay.

While some worlds feature wild magic, natural magic, or supernatural elements, this is distinct from the concept of “Magic” as a craft or profession. Magic is a force that can be manipulated in the form of spells, items, incantations and so on. The idea behind giving magic a purpose and a use in a game is extremely simple. For one, it gives a use for “smart” characters. While in real life smarts is obviously really good, you need something in a “game” where the players control the character using their real life intelligence. Obviously in real life being smart is extremely beneficial as it comes with the ability to create plans or understand the natural world better, but in a fantasy game? Players already do that. Player characters instead need a vector to be smart, and in a world without computers to hack or technology to build and repair, making smarts central the “magic class” makes perfect sense. Wizard means Wise Man after all.

We can see this role personified in fantasy media as the Wizard. This is a catch all category, including Sorcerers, Half-Magic Gish types, Evil Witches, Druids to an extent. Putting this role in a game to play makes sense. Plus, magic systems are some of the easiest things to tweak and hack, and making up new spells and magic unique stuff is both easy, rewarding, and lets you flex creativity.

"Pig in Time" @Andrea Radeck
However, there is a problem. Fantasy Magic as we see in media doesn't exactly match the magic we see in games. This is a general rule, not based on the specific games people play. While Vancian magic isn't common outside of Dying Earth and D&D material, it has all the trappings of standard pop culture and fantasy magic. Spells to turn people into animals? Easy. Spells to control weather? Sensible. Spells to summon beings from other worlds? Control minds? Cast wishes? Etc.

These have the surface level of magic being the same, but the magic we want to see and enjoy conceptually doesn't really work in game rules. Now this isn't to say there aren't some games with better magic systems then others mechanically or flavorwise, but most games there is a disconnect between magic and fantasy magic. It's gameified for use in the game, but cannot be specific enough to allow for all the cool interactions we'd like to see and give each spell a high fantasy/mythological feel. It also can't be general enough to let the players run amok with it, as they would quickly find a way to break the system. Even with the best possible group and DM, I struggle to think of a way to put magic into a game that would be as cool or flexible as the magic we see in books and TV.

This disconnect is the same as the one in video games. In a video game, your character might be a Wizard with a few select powers and spells, but you'll get quests where you need to find a specific item for a specific NPC to cast a specific ritualized spell that you simply don't have access to. Why? Obviously it's the limitations of the medium, but tabletop games still have this issue. Your Wizards can't suddenly put two and two together and think of how to end the evil rampaging spell by mixing a few magical reagents and using their knowledge to know it will be strongest when cast on the full moon. This shit isn't in any game books and has to be made up by the spots, which hey isn't that bad and I want to do it, but you can't make a rule to do it.

Art @ThemeFinland
Magic in games sucks. I hate it. Reading spell lists got boring after my first game. I want too much out of it, I'm not even saying it's objectively bad. I just don't like it. If spells are too orderly and procedural, like having ice, fire, and lightning balls all listed out with the same mana cost and damage but just with different elements, I'm bored. If you have D&D of a few basic attack spells but in different intensities and forms; Shocking Grasp, Burning Hands, Cone of Cold. All different forms of attack but all doing the same basic thing, which is more interesting but doesn't feel complete enough.

Like I said, I'm enormously picky. I want myth and legend, or more accurately, my shitty pop culture understanding and personal feelings of it, to be codified into game rules. Thus losing their 'magic' no matter how good it is.

I feel like games can do a lot better. Some of this discussion is spurred on by balance, but it's not an exclusive issue. Magic is something I've thought about a lot, even on this blog. I've read many rulebooks exclusively for their magic content, and have had many online discussions about magic. As such, I feel as though my homebrew can be put to end this entirely self centered problem, though I am by no means claiming to be the absolute most expert in this topic. It took a long time, but I think I have finally found the solution.

The problem is the archetypal Wizard.

The Wizard doesn't exist in mythology, really. It does, but not the fireball slinging Wizard of D&D fame. As many have stated before, the “self learned scholar who learns magical power” isn't much of a thing in traditional fantasy. Almost all Wizards are Gods, angels, or supernatural innately. Magic tends not to be the province of humans, except for the real life magic of folklore. Things like drawing a talisman to ward off evil or creating a curse tablet to spurn the lover who left you. We can see here that the type of magic avaliable to the “player characters” would be more subtle stuff- based on Fate, the supplication of the spirits, alchemy (to explain their limited understanding of chemistry), and so forth. This is the way these people thought the world actually worked. It's retrofuturism of prescience.

The other problem is that this type of magic that isn't really present in myth and legend, it is also too exclusive. The idea that magic items are “enchanted” by a Wizard to give them power is one of the most cancerous ideas ever. I despise this concept. Ancient blades of power are forged through secrets that blacksmiths know, not some arcane mana-points Wizards put into it. Anyone can pray to the Gods for guidance and a blessing against the forces of evil, not just a specific class or feature.

Art @pita
But magic is cool! People like the Wizard. I like the Wizard. They are the perfect self insert for the “nerd” type of stereotype, using intelligence and cleverness. To possess forces beyond the physical body. It's extremely interesting, both to imagine and use in a game, to have these types of powers. It's not even exclusively a power fantasy either, it makes for interesting gameplay. What other character type can reasonably have abilities this powerful? If you gave it something like super heroes, they'd be too powerful conceptually to exist in these kinds of worlds because they'd just always have access to these powers. But by putting it into magic, he can give it rules and restrictions. Checks and balances.

Magic is also extremely easy to build for. Entire magic systems, fictional or otherwise, inspire entire ideas out of them. How settings work. How empires and warfare would work with access to powers like this. I've created entire backwards ideas just for this- Gold and gems are among the few things magic can't duplicate. It has “antimagical” properties innately. That's why Kings and Queens wear crowns and jewelry on their heads and bodies. It's a great little idea that nestles in your head. Not just that, but magic systems almost by themselves define the fictional world they are in. I've created what feels like dozens of magic systems myself for this exact reason.

The best magic systems are, in my opinion, either closely tied to the setting they come from, or things so tightly interwoven with a class or identity they become indistinguishable. This faerie class by ATWC is still one of my absolute favorite “casters” I've ever seen, it's at the very least the best Elf-as-class expy I've ever seen. But I have a problem with these solutions. I don't have a super specific setting, I'm not Tolkien. I want gameplay classes that can fit into many different settings or campaign types. As generalist as possible, lacking flavor, but having flavor on the back end. Of course, this entire rant can just be ignored if you like making classes based on thematic concepts. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just not something I'm personally doing. Hence the issue.

On top of all that, giving spells to people is one of the only ways to get the fantasy game out of its rut of human-capability. You can also offer things like superhuman races or mutations, magic items, and other powers that the DM rules in stead of a set spell or magic system, but those alone won't work alongside the abilities of player character needing a “magic expert”. The Wizard doesn't fit into what I consider the gameplay loop, not just of my pseudo-OSR standard D&D homebrewing, but into most games. Creating classes based on gameplay needs is superior to creating one on a thematic basis, because it the gameplay centric classes, like the “tank” or “healer” if you want to use video game terminology, can be directly interfaced into gameplay.

But there's a problem with all of this. This is invented. It wasn't wholly invented by D&D of course, but it partially was; you can see its influence in early video games. If it wasn't Gygax somebody else would have probably capitalized on the Gandalf/Odin symbolism and make something popular. Once again, I want to stress that I'm not saying Wizards only came from this; there are Conan's rival sorcerers, Lovecraft's occultists calling upon the power of the old gods, and other examples. But the countless video games, movies, newer fantasy books and so on, in my opinion, have been tainted. Magic is a force to be manipulated, not the way the fantasy world works at its core.

Art @Christina Kraus
The Fantasy World isn't the real world. This is my biggest problem with magic users and magic since I started this hobby. It took me a long time to start understanding it, but I think I am ready to explain it. The problem is people can't throw away their understanding of our world, taught to you in schools and based on scientific learning. You can't immerse yourself in a culture that is objectively wrong. But you can, because in the fantasy world, they are right. Another great resources to help me understand this better was this blogpost by Skerples, which is highly recommended for reading this essay. His writings on Medieval culture and beliefs are extremely helpful for anyone who wants to better make or break fantasy worlds. Another is this excellent summary from darkshire.net

In the fantasy world, dragons do not fly because they have some special magically force that uplifts them. Nor do they need (though many have) some lighter then air gas-sac to explain this issue away. They fly because the God of Fire created them to serve as his messengers. The normal human weaknesses we understand innately do not exist in the fantasy space unless you chose them to be there. People in real life come back from long military campaigns with injuries and wear that makes them permanently crippled for life. In the fantasy world, fighting hard and surviving literally let you cultivate your life force and make you more powerful. Diseases are caused by foul smelling vapors and miasma, and fate is determined by the motions of the stars.

Of course, I'm not decrying sci-fi depictions of fantasy or more realistic, grounded campaigns. I'm just saying that they existing as this sort of “norm” is a problem. Magic Users are not necessarily the only people using magic. In fact, making a 'magic expert' a class at all presents the issue where they must be the best at magic, but since magic can do anything, and you put that magic in the control of the players and give them the direction, and pretty soon it is a toolbox. It's not mythical, it's not special, and it doesn't give the same "feeling" of what I'm after.

Meanwhile, mythology is rife with warrior-wizards. Some dude who kills hundreds of enemies, by himself, is not “mundane”. And you may say that those characters are Gods or blessed by a God- but neither are Wizards just “normal people” either. But yet you want high fantasy Wizards with low fantasy, “mundane” warriors? It's nonsensical. Also, I don't want to derail this too much into a hypothetical discussion about class balance, it isn't just about warriors vs wizards. My problem is farther reaching then that.

So I don't want these systems. I don't want magic in neat little spells, I want magic that everyone can use and profit from, something that makes the world of fantasy feel fantastic. I like Wizards, but I don't like them at the same time. Making rules for players to use magic that ticks all of my boxes is either impossible or so out of my reach as a designer I simply can't. Does that mean that magic should only be in the DM's toolbox as a Deus Ex Machina? Probably not- but can you do something close, while giving the players some fun enjoyment to be had? I don't see why not. I think you can do it, and if you can, then we can try to make it.

Of course, the problem then becomes, how do you gamify this?

Art @Vlad Tesoff (NSFW)
So here's where all this comes from. I started playing tabletop games about 8 odd years or so ago, though I technically started much earlier then that playing “Adventurers” with whichever of my friends on campouts would tolerate playing pretend. And I guess what I did with the extra tent pole? It was a Wizard staff, you bet your ass it was. I remember learning about tabletop games like D&D and was mystified. In truth, most people learn D&D as their first game, but I kind of had an outsider perspective. I never knew exactly how D&D worked, how rolls and stats worked, what HD and AC and all that was until many years later. Instead, I read the monster manuals on the computer, or read the rulebooks for other games I found online like Ars Magica and Unknown Armies. I scoured the White Wolf wikis for every scrap of lore I could learn about Vampire, Werewolf, Wraith, Changeling, and Mage. And in short? I was really, really interested in the magic systems.

But enough of a history lesson. Why am I telling you this? So I can say my next bit with authority. The Wizard isn't a role. It's a thematic role, not a real one. Games are based on gameplay and game mechanics. Roles are based on those mechanics. The idea behind a game (and the game-world you want to present to be as logically consistent with the game as possible, but that's a topic for another day) is that the characters and archetypes for a group are all doing something central and important for the game. There is no practical difference between a character who has an unlimited use magical ranged blast power and a Fighter with a bow. Hanging up these classes and archetypes on the symbols and aesthetics instead of the practical terms isn't in my opinion great game design.

But then there's the other problem, what is great game design?

In my opinion then, the best games are designed with the core gameplay in mind. I've kind of fallen out of favor of calling myself an “OSR” blogger because my stuff is more DIY. It's idea vomit, not based on old D&D manuals and not necessarily trying to replicate the gameplay and experiences of those people. And I want to mention I understand people who only want that kind of experience. Actual OSR gameplay is very much like historical reenactment in a way, it's like somebody bringing foam swords to a reenactment battle so they can have more fun when hitting each other. It's not the point of the exercise, even if it appears similar at a distance. So then, what is the core gameplay? What archetypes or classes are central to the core gameplay loop?

Well, in my opinion, the core gameplay elements are Fighting, Bypassing Obstacles, and Resource Management. Other elements of the game such as mapping is a mostly meta-game outside of the game (so you don't need a cartographer class), or things like social mechanics (which are mostly roleplayed and can be done by any character, dragging a diplomat along with your party wouldn't be fun in most games about dungeon exploration and high fantasy exploration, but they could be in say, a long distance silk road style game). Exploration and wonderment is also core to the game, but is something everyone is doing when they play, there's no real room for an 'explorer' class unless you're adding these thematic roles I talked about. This would mean if we were going to be “good” designers and cut down the classes or roles of the player characters to just those three tenants. Fighting. Bypass. Resources.

Well, what fantasy archetypes fit those closest? That would be Fighter, the Rogue, and then a Healer or support. This is an opinion of course; some could say the oldschool games with just Fighter, MU, and Cleric fit this description, but I personally prefer the whole “creative solutions” is better then a spell to handle things. It just fits anyway; the Rogue is more common of an archetype then a problem-solving Wizard who isn't a magical demigod. But I've ranted about this enough.

I ended up thinking long and hard about what kind of magic system I wanted in my game, and I decided that for the sake of my game's world, balance, and so forth- I wanted a support. I was done with the spell mastering, generic MU. Now I went through several steps- from imagining the fantasy class incarnations of the MU as more specific, interesting, and evocative. I thought of creating a unique magic words magic system, the second draft of with will probably never see the light of day. I instead thought of changing my class dynamic entirely. I went from mentally removing the concept of the Cleric (for the simple 3 class system of Fighter, Rogue, Magic-User that you see a lot in pop culture and I personally enjoy), to basically getting rid of the MU and putting the Cleric back in. But the problem persisted. I still like the aesthetics of a magic using robe guy. I still like the squishy guy in the backline. I still like the scholar and clever Wizard dude who mixes potions. I just don't like his artificial place of importance, his spells with no seeming guiding principle.

Eventually, I settled on creating a white magic user. Something that had a strict role in the party; as a support. The original idea was simple, a “class” that had the same weaknesses as a Wizard, but with the Cleric spell list. I really liked this idea at first, and after experimenting with the 2d6 rolls to cast spells vs a contested opponent I shamelessly stole from another blog, This was the original draft of the Sage class, which I fortunately already found the perfect name for. This later was changed again when I realized that the magic was unnecessary too. I want to be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the old fashioned “keep everything as grounded/boring as possible to make the more magical parts stand out!” even though that's basically what I ended up doing. But it's because, in my opinion, I hope to have created a new movement or paradigm shift. You can think that is hyperbole for what I have created, and you might be right, but I sincerely think what I ended up settling on is pretty good.

And that is the Sage. The non-magical variety. It has everything you could want in the archetypal MU, but none of the issues that come with it.

The Sage is a guide. The Wise-Man. They value Intelligence (for knowledge and magic) and Wisdom (for healing). Their healing is their primary 'combat' or game mechanic ability, but in universe they're all about knowledge and learning. They'll be the most literate characters in settings where that's an issue. They'll probably know the most languages, they can decipher the ancient runes. They have everything the MU has, in a nice and easily digested package. They fit into basically every setting- it's much more sensible to imagine a temple priest or old wise man from the woods as a Sage then a magical MU with this many spells and components. They also fit into basically every society too, no longer do you have to either handwave the issue of powerful entities with mind controlling, transmuting, teleporting, or other potentially setting-breaking spells. Not saying this is an inherent problem for everyone who runs a D&D game; any DM can create good reasons or sufficiently explain away this issue. They also fit, in my mind, on my imaginary list of armor classes and HD rolls- I never liked Clerics being stronger then Rogues. Now its goes Sage, Rogue, Fighter in combat strength and armor. Sages just do all of this for me in a way that I like. They fit the last checkbox on my list of checkboxes.

The best part about all of this is, as a DM, my control over the game means I can still have what I want. You can still insert all your favorite magic system ideas. The whole idea of forcing spirits to due your bidding? Magic is exclusively down through alchemy? Magical words have power if learned and spoken in the right order? All of it still works in the game with the Sage. You can slap on the Sage with some bonuses to this to make them more 'magic' focused but it probably isn't required. I want the Fighter to learn a magic word to improve his swordplay. I want the Rogue to drink a potion that lets her talk to birds so she can spy on people. This is fantasy. You don't even really sacrifice powerful end game things like high level spells and magic item crafting; the players can still get the magical stuff at the “late game” to make the game world more convenient. Instead of a flying spell, grant them a flying carpet. Like I said earlier, I think finding a way to climb out of a pit is more interesting then the MU burning a single spell to accomplish it, but with high character levels or campaigns that can scale on many different vector, the ability to make certain things trivial (usually with magic user spells in other games) can still be done. The Sage also looks and feels like a Wizard in play, squishy, all about dem' artifacts. Still a keeper of knowledge, but more about the healing art. Maybe for the pseudo-intellectuals in your group, they can pride themselves on playing the “most complex class” which is normally a MU, but in this game it's still the Sage. So this imaginary strawman I just made up can be smug and eltist about being a support class, which is a perfect solution- take that, imaginary strawman. Plus, you can do one better and make everyone capable of doing magic with the systems above. It's all based on your in game knowledge, resources, and character level or stats. How much your willing to sacrifice, or what spirits owe you a favor? This is magic in its best form.

I haven't even sacrificed the aesthetics. Sages still carry books and bags filled with stuff. They're still everything a scholarly, somewhat magical inclined character would want. Plus, you can even keep their combat abilities similar too. I have recently fallen in love with this idea; “arcane” to hit rolls modified by Intelligence and magic “weapons” in the form of wands and staves. Normally in games these are magical artifacts in and of themselves, you find a rod of fireballs. Instead, here, they're relatively common weapons for the bright and gifted. You can tell the Sage he's still a Wizard, just wave a wand and blast some energy at an enemy. It's not nearly as powerful as a Sleep spell, but hey, it's aesthetically close without having this song and dance about resource management vs impact vs cost of replacing the resources in the resource-management minigame AND much less of a hassle to balance encounters around. Plus, you can take it away; it's not that annoying problem of Wizards being at full power regardless of their situation as long as they have spells prepared. If you're separated from your stuff, you're just as toast as everyone else. You still keep resource management not based around combat with other in game items. Good players know how to use things like marbles, chalk, ropes and such to their advantage in a dungeon. These resources still run out. Using a more complex first aid system; those items run out. Create a game where they're scrambling to collect, carry, and use these over spell slots and I think you have a more interesting and engaging game environment. For everyone- the players and DM included.

This rant began as a explanation over why I became invested in creating the concept behind the “Sage” class and why I truly enjoy it so much, despite it going through several, sometimes contradictory, iterations and levels. It quickly ballooned out into this massive history lesson.

Secondly, I want to state that this does not mean I am done writing spell lists, classes that use spells, or new magic systems. I enjoy these things very much, this is simply my way of finally expressing a long, complex process of figuring out what I like in fantasy, and how I solved a 'problem'. I truly believe that many people who have problems with roleplaying games, finding them meaningful or lacking in that creative spark, that this very well could be your solution. I sincerely believe in what I write here, and you, dear reader, are to be the judge of it. Thank you for reading.


  1. This is very interesting article - I bookmarked it, to read with more precision later. But immediate question that springs in mind, how do you see Sage negating magic/breaking curses and what is your position on abilities such as Dispel Magic spells (and if it is negative, how'd you work around it).

    1. Two methods. The first is the more common or simple one; it's in-game progression. Low level Sages can't break curses, but if you explore and find magic tomes or items that can break a curse, then you can do it.

      Second; tie it into regular healing. I also like the idea of using Turn Undead, which is something everyone can do but Sages do the best, as being able to remove a demonic possession or similar negative spiritual taint, which could be considered a curse. The result of "Turned" temporarily stops the curse or its spread, and a result of "Destroyed" destroys it from the host totally. This is experimental though, it would have to depend on the game.

      As for other uses of dispel magic or anti-magic, that would depend on in game progression. There is also a Clerics with Law = Antimagic concept floating around.

  2. I love the concept "Fantasy is just retrofuturism for the Pre-Sciences", I will definitely spend a lot of time thinking about this and how to reapply that framework to potentially some novel (or at least superficially novel) kind of setting.

    I like the idea of The Sage and have had similar ideas as well, although I'm not totally sure I understand how it's supposed to work exactly, possibly because I need to read more closely, but it would help to see it laid out like a character class write-up.

    I've also thought a lot about the idea of magic as something metaphysical and how to balance that with the necessities of the game. Currently my biggest hook on that, which I posted about on my blog in a post called Terrible & Awesome Sorcerers which I can't hyperlink right now but can share later if you're interested, is based on the idea that "true", mythical, metaphysical magic would be a character class or game mechanics that are "storygame"-like in an otherwise more "OSR"-style game.

    1. I appreciate your reply. I did actually write this (non-magical sage) up, though it's a bit of a mess.


      I'm currently in the process of rewriting my entire game from the ground up, so this is more of an explanation of philosophy behind the decisions rather then the decisions themselves. I'm also a fan of "storygame" magic but I like it to be gamified enough to work as well; see more blogposts to follow.

  3. I also like "skills as magic" as well. Legendary blacksmith? You can make swords that catch fire. Legendary fisherman? You can catch fish that don't exist, or fish that offer wishes in exchange for their life, etc. etc.

  4. So Sages have:
    - Knowledge of past eras
    - Wield strange weapons that few possess but all marvel at
    - Are learned (have a connection to the nobility)
    - Are not super tough but can do a lot of harm

    So Sages are Gunslingers a la the Dark Tower? Okay, I can live with that.

    In all seriousness though, this is a great article. I actually had a very similar idea for a class, though for something rather unrelated, and a much weaker concept. And I do really like the idea of a spell-less Wizard, though I'm not sure how much my players would like such an idea.

    Still, it would be a fun thing to play around with. So thanks for writing this!

    1. The Sages as gunslingers is such amazing idea.

  5. Anyone can use a crossbow... No con check to see if you can handle having it pulled for a length of time like with a bow... and a range limited light crossbow is perfect under ground. All magic users should carry one. Throwing a dart is more difficult than using a crossbow. Using a sling is more difficult than using a crossbow. Just a trigger pull makes a crossbow the fastest weapon to use, regarding getting the first damage to an enemy, also.