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Magic and Technology in RPGs

Magic and technology in RPGs are usually unhappy companions. Allowing players to get their hands on technology can often unbalance the game. Occasionally, technology is little more than a kind of MacGuffin and plot device, like in the D&D adventure, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks or the Legends of Skyfall gamebook, The Black Pyramid. Fiction like the Shadows of the Apt series merge the concept of magic and technology well in a steampunk fashion, but the concept of magic is largely ritualised. The Dresden Files series has wizards unable to use complex electronics or technologies: light-bulbs explode, computers fizzle, and mobile phone reception dies. In Shadowrun, cybernetics interfere with the body’s aura, reducing magical ability.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C Clarke

However, what happens when magic is the technology? Babylon 5‘s Technomages use science to give the appearance of magic, through cybernetic implants created by the Shadows, but that’s not the same thing. Don’t get me started on genetics, and the midichlorians, in the Jedi of the Star Wars prequels. I’m talking about when magic sees everyday use.

Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom will feature characters of varying levels of magical ability. Even those without any magical skills will be accustomed to seeing its use in daily life. As I’ve mentioned before its likely that I’ll use the FATE system (Fantastic Adventures in  Tabletop Entertainment). I’m relieved to hear that in the new version of FATE (which raised funds at a near-astronomical rate on Kickstarter) will feature a new magic system as an extra – it is a bit confusing in the Dresden Files RPG as it currently stands.

Back to the original focus of this blog, and that’s the use of magic as an everyday technology. I’ve broken it down into concepts as to what magic might be used for.

Magic as a tool. A magic-culture is likely to use magic everyday. Water Elementals keep the streets and sewers clean, stone-shaping spells are used to work minerals and strengthen walls. Spirits or demons are bound into compacts or agreements that bind them to a family line for protection or favours. Magical constructs and items are commonly used by artisans or craftsmen.

Magic as a plot device. More for GMs, lost magical devices or knowledge can provide a significant hook for PCs. It certainly appears to be magic anyway – a lost device, cursed item, sword that will save the realm etc.

Magic is outlawed – those who practise magic are persecuted and even actively hunted by society. This may the “wrong” kind of magic, a misguided view of magical purity, or there are very real dangers in casting spells or using powers (like warp entities in WH40K!).

Magic as science – there’s very little difference between a golem and a robot (or Terminator!). Streets are lit by continual light spells. Magical fire is used to forge metals into far stronger alloys, burning far hotter than forge’s fire. Research carries on into making magical spells more effective and theory becomes reality. universities teach magic as part of their syllabus.

Magic for defence – do not mess in the affairs of wizards, particularly when they are organised. A high-level wizard is a nightmare on the battlefield, able to deal with a force many times larger than himself. If your entire nation of wizards and magic users are given military training then it is unlikely weaker nations will pick a fight (no one wants to wake the dragon!).

Magic for decoration – illusionary artwork, magical tattoos, cosmetic appearance – all these can be achieved using magical spells.

Economy of magic – it’s quite possible that magic itself can have an impact on the economy. Wizards that can transmute gold can devalue the coinage. Travel spells render normal land travel obsolete for the shipping of goods or people. Precogs can advise on investments.

Social status – magicians are the nobility or cultural elite, especially in feudal states. This “Pureblood” outlook often creates a cultural elitism that can itself springboard into an adventure.

Magic for travel – as well as mentioned under “Economy of magic” above, states that make heavy use of travel spells like teleport or Elementals will be able to move far faster than normal. They can also move people and objects quicker, including armies.

It is fairly easy to come up with ideas once you have concepts like this in mind!