Thursday, August 21, 2014

Playing the Wizard

Whilst reading an old issue of The Strategic Review from 1976 (the TSR magazine that preceded Dragon) I came across an article that the late Gary Gygax wrote about magic in Dungeons & Dragons.  It was most enlightening and I discovered that far back in '76 Gary was thinking many of the things I have thought myself without realizing Gary thought them too.  Allow me to quote the piece:

      "The four cardinal types of magic are those systems which require long conjuration with much paraphernalia as an adjunct (as used by Shakespeare in MAC- BETH or as typically written about by Robert E. Howard in his “Conan” yarns), the relatively short spoken spell (as in Finnish mythology or as found in the superb fantasy of Jack Vance), ultra-powerful (if not always correct) magic (typical of deCamp & Pratt in their classic “Harold Shea” stories), and the generally weak and relatively ineffectual magic (as found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work). Now the use of magic in the game was one of the most appealing aspects, and given the game system it was fairly obvious that its employment could not be on the complicated and time consuming plane, any more than it could be made as a rather weak and ineffectual adjunct to swordplay if magic-users were to become a class of player- character."-G. Gygax, The Strategic Review, Vol.2, Issue 2, April 1976.

Note the bit where he says that the magic in Tolkien is "generally weak and relatively ineffectual".  Harsh stuff.  Magic is a complex concept in both fiction and reality.  Yes, I said "reality".  Unlike a sword swipe or arrow hit (both of which can be problematic as well in gaming) we often don't know what to do with it.  As gamers we know we need magic, for it is a staple of fantasy, but how powerful should it be and how much of it should a player have are the problems we often face.  Again I quote Gary:

     "Magic is great. Magic is powerful. But it should be kept great and powerful in relation to its game environment." Ibid.
A wizard doing wizard shit
Now here's where my point begins to show itself.  Magic is a matter of scale.  In a superhero game wizards are like Marvel's Doctor Strange, characters of vast and vague powers on par with the superheroic greats.  Doctor Strange seemingly has no limits save those directed by the plot.  When he shows up as a guest in a comic he is often a powerful guide or deus ex machina while in his own title he must face all the trials and travails of any other hero.  An in-universe explanation is that in his own title he must face powerful dimension-ripping threats that only he can and thus his powers are taxed by the threat level.  The meta-logical reason is, of course, that a hero must always face conflict in order for the story to be interesting and thus he must face conflict that is a real threat else the story is of no interest.  The scale becomes an issue only when the hero, in this case Doctor Strange, must interact with other heroes in their own title, which is set up for their level of conflict.  Thus in a game with a variety of characters of different types, such as the classic Fighter, Cleric, Mage, Thief archetypes, the scale must allow for all characters to experience conflict and resolution more or less together.

Yet magic is great and powerful.  It is the "rules bender", but not breaker.  A sword is predictable, as is a mace, a bullet or a fall from a great height.  These physical items obey physical laws, but magic is the great exception to the rules.  Thus magic and its practitioners are themselves exceptional, but as it is a game there must be rules for magic as well.  Gary Gygax noted that the rules that scaled back magic users presented in Supplement 1: Greyhawk were done because he observed that wizard types were just too powerful.  It was all done in the name of balance (Gygax uses the term balance, but this is not the MMORPG balance that is so disgusting to me today).  Not a balance of outcomes, mind you, but for scale.
What you don't need is your wife coming home and finding a bunch of wizards in her kitchen doing wizard shit.
Playing the wizard can be a pain in the ass.  Some games (I'm looking at you 3rd edition DnD and Pathfinder and you, MMOs, don't think you aren't guilty too) have gone so far as to give EVERYBODY magic.  Well that's not good, dammit.  More and more super-special abilities means you have to increase the wizard's magical powers or do away with him altogether.  Sadly being a wizard is rather like being Sherlock Holmes in a war movie.  Holmes is a detective and that is where his skills and abilities shine.  If he is also a 23rd level ninja assassin then what is the point of having the rest of the group?  If everyone is a super detective what is the point of having a class devoted to it?  One of the truisms of MMOs, and of gaming in general, is that everybody fights.  Everybody fights because combat is the chief (and easiest) means of conflict and resolution.  Can you program a game full of puzzles?  Of course you can but once you know the solution to a puzzle it is no longer a conflict.  Hundreds (nay thousands) of monsters, however, are always a threat thus always a conflict to be resolved.  Since everybody fights the wizard must fight as well and he must be given the tools to do so.  It is not much fun to sit at your computer just buffing and healing your buddies (although some people seem to like it and specialize in it).  If everybody else is a ripping fun pirate you don't want to be a dockmaster.  Or maybe you do, I'm not judging.  On the tabletop the GM is expected to make a game where everyone can interact and have fun.  If the game itself keeps pushing more and more toward pure combat to solve all problems (now I am DEFINITELY looking at you 4th edition) the wizard must become just another combatant.  Thus the weak dagger and lack of armor become supplemented by magical force armors, blasting spells and no place for the subtler spells that divine information or warp reality in minor ways to the benefit of the team.

A result is that players start to look to classes with some magical abilities but much more combat prowess and just blast and chop their way through any problem they encounter and if that doesn't work they cast Bitch Until I Get My Way.  Let us not forget scale.  If you have wizards versus wizards you can see the scale must accommodate this concept.  Wizards versus warriors is a different scale entirely.  Ultimately you are part of a team and the team should succeed or fail together.  Trying to collect as many kills as the fighter is not your goal.  The combat-oriented members need to understand this as well.  At the highest levels the wizard types have some truly frightening abilities, but they need to be in scale.

But then what is that scale?
Look, if you will, at the Harry Potter series of novels and media derived from those novels.  Harry is a wizard in a "wizarding world" to use the accepted phrase.  In the wizarding world magic is used in place of technology both mundane and complex.  People don't listen to rock music, they listen to music that is more Ren Faire inspired.  Wizards and witches don't have electricity.  They use candles and lamps, but they do have clocks and doors with hinges.  J.K. Rowling has cleverly crafted a world that is inside our own but feels like it is stuck, more or less, in a medieval fantasy setting, yet existing side-by-side with the mundane, or muggle, world of buses, movies, and world conflict.  What is important to note, however, is that although magic is commonplace to the wizards and witches of the stories, it is still magic.  It still impresses and inspires wonder.  Not everyone has the same amount of skill or understanding of magic and it cannot solve every problem.  Hell, it can't even solve most problems.  That's the scale of Harry Potter.

The average RPG has to deal with the scale problem as well.  If your party is full of people that ROUTINELY SLAUGHTER THE SHIT OUT OF DRAGONS then the ability to summon and control a dragon is not that impressive.  Not at all.
If you have a list of purely mechanical spells that are just damage numbers delivered in a few different ways, then there is nothing magical about you at all.
If everyone else has abilities that are given spiffy names but are just debuffs, DOTs, and stuns, and really that is all your spells are, your game has a lack of scale.

You should never find yourself saying, "SIGH, I guess I'll play the wizard."  You should proudly say with a gleam in your eye, "Me?  Oh, I'm playing THE Wiiiizzaaarrrddd!"

When you cast even the simplest of spells the party should not be saying, "Ah, yeah, cast a minor cantrip there, didn't ya."  Nay, they should look on your simplest spells like they've just seen David Copperfield pull Criss Angel out of Miley Cyrus's twerking ass.
"How'd he do that?" they say.
Followed by, "No, why'd he do that?"
Because I can.  Because I command the forces of magic.  I'm a WIZARD, dammit!
For the imagination impaired
Ultimately Gary was wrong, really.  Gandalf's magic is not generally weak and relatively ineffectual at all.  He is a wizard in the truest sense of the word.  He is wise.  His wisdom is beyond the ken of mortals and his ways are subtle.  One does not just stand on a bridge and face down a balrog unless one is packing powers that man simply cannot conceive.  Don't think of it as a boasting old man, think of it as a man that knows the secret and true names of demons of the abyss (he should, they went to school together where Gandalf was voted most likely to be reincarnated from outside of space and time and the Balrog of Moria was voted biggest flirt) and was literally naming and invoking unseen powers too vast for human minds to contain in what LOOKED LIKE an old man boasting on a bridge.  And sometimes it is as subtle as knowing to say mellon to make a door open.  That is what it is supposed to mean to play the wizard.

That's what I want it to mean and in a perfect game, it would.

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