Sunday, 17 January 2021

Another Magic-System: With or without Rhyme and Reason

A brief exercise in in-universe writing: An excerpt from the fictional textbook "Paths of Wisdom: an introduction to the magcial arts". 



If you just want an overview of the rules click here.  



Chapter 5: Practical Applications of Magic

Paragraph 1: The brief history of magic

1.1: Oswald's Slab

Somewhere in the Swirling Downs, on the top of an otherwise unremarkable hill, stands Oswald's Slab. This is generally considered to be the first account of the workings of magic, placed there at least over a century ago (though some speculate it was placed as far back as two or even three centuries). Its author is not known with any certainty, though graffiti near the bottom  of the slab reads: "Oswald". Accounts on the material of the Slab differ, but the Downs being what they are, we cannot use this to discredit these stories. What all accounts agree on is the content of the Slab, Oswald's Five Tenets:

The Gods are Order, Sameness, Repetition. They ARE the Law.

They fight Chaos, Difference, Exception. It has many names, but you know it as: FREEDOM.

Call it in its native tongue, and it will show itself, but never the same!

It is an affront to the Gods, the LAW, the ultimate expression of FREEDOM. 

Come together in FREEDOM, together we are stronger than even the Gods. 

                                                                                                                        ~ Oswald

Pilgrimage in Medieval Europe | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art |  Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Depiction of a pilgrimage into the Swirling Hills

Clearly, the last line is heresy. However, experience has shown that the first four of Oswald's Tenets must have some truth to it. Any practising miracle worker will affirm that if the Gods have the ability to create exceptions, they have yet to show it; they are ostensibly very orderly beings. And as practising mages we can assure you that is not smart to call upon the God's if you've performed any magic within the last day. However, these could be mere coincidence. What gives credit to Oswald's Slab as pertaining to the actual practice of magic is the third tenet. This is a clear reference to the necessity of chanting in the Magical Word and the shifting nature of this language. Really, it is the third tenet only that cements the Five Tenets as the first study on the workings of magic

A Brief Summary of Chapter 4 The Workings of Magic in Theory: To cast a spell yo uhave to chant it in the Magical Word, sometimes just called the Tongue of Chaos. It is not advised to memorize this language, as prolonged exposure to it has some unpredictable effects. Instead, most of us read aloud from a book or scroll, though it could feasibly be written on any surface. Due to the chaotic nature of the Tongue of Chaos, the meaning of the words shift whith every spell casting, i.e. the chances of casting the same spell twice are almost zero. For more on the nature of the Tongue of Chaos see Language of the world by Deribell et al.

1.2: Persecution of the art of Magic

If we have to credit Oswald's Slab as the first attempt to outline the workings of magic, we should also acknowledge that it started the tradition of the persecution of the magical arts. The very first of the Divine Conquests was an attempt to destroy the Slab for its heretical claims. Due to its usefulness most temple orders are otherwise quite tolerant of magic. They warn against the dangers of magic, in the same vain in which they warn against the evils of murder or the desecration of graves: The Gods do not favor those who commit such acts. This is a self-evident act. The reason we do not see practitioners of magic offer much to the Gods, is because the Gods tend to return such tribute with their fury. The Steward's Parable is the most famous example of this:

The steward of Bontebaard committed a sin, 
for he cast a spell on his envious cousin
to redeem for his actions he prayed to the Gods
who were abhorred by his presence and plagued him with warts

However, Oswald's Slab is often used to argue that underlying all magic is a heretical desire: to become greater than the Gods. Hence, the First Divine Conquest was only the beginning, and since then we have seen two more. The Second was a declaration of war on Onderburg, to stop the heretical uses of magic that it is infamous for: deliberately disturbing the resting places of the dead to create undead forces. The Third, which is raging at the time of writing this book, is aimed at the city of Vliegveen, renowned for being ruled by those with the best understanding of the magical arts. The accusation being that if one esteems those that possess the largest amount of magic, you are in effect either saying that the Gods use magic, or that they are not held in high esteem.

What is the purpose of weird and vulgar medieval illustrations? - Quora 

 Defending against the first raid of the First Divine Conquest

Outside of the Divine Conquests there is of course the very legitimate fear of the dangers that accompany all magical practice. As all well versed mages know there are in essence two ways to cast magic: One is to just chant the words without any precautions or method, which we have dubbed 'Desperation Magic' (see chapter 4 paragraph 2.4), which has a high risk of terrible fallout. However, the second way of casting ('Methodical Magic') also has its risks. While it is true that proper preparation makes magic more predictable, disruption of that preparation has guaranteed dire consequences. Hence, some communities persecute users of magic out of the simple fear of losing their lives (though these fears are often overblown due to ignorance). 

Finally, in several city states, magic is persecuted not because of its supposed herecy or inherent risk, but because of its revolutionary potential. Remember that, as we outlined in chapter 4 paragraph 3.1, the more people contribute to the chant, the stronger the spell becomes. Imagine the king of Guldenhal trying to quell a peasants revolt if those peasants are armed with a magical tome. Even if a spell of that scale will be easy to disrupt, the magical mishap will likely be of such a scale that it probably isn't preferable to the original spell (for more on magical mishaps, see chapter 4 paragraph 3.3).

1.3: The discovery of Rhyme and Reason

It is unknown who first came to the conclusion that we could bring some semblance of order to the art of weaving chaos. The oldest known record of spell recipes dates back to about 70 years ago. A small pamphlet credited to a Ada Bladdewijs describes some ways to make spells more stable, last longer and affect more specific targets:

To prolong the effect of an exception based on fire or light, chant it while making a candle of bee's wax, for its luminous colour and their fiery spirit. If you light the candle, the spell will last as long as the candle lasts. 
To ensure a debilitating exception hits a specific person, chant it while brushing a lock of their hair. This will tangle the exception into their hair. The bigger the exception the bigger the tangle, so this is best used for small ones. The exception stops once they use a similar brush to comb the tangle out of their hair. 
To affect multiple folks with exceptions that harm or hurt, chant while drawing a circle with salt, as it is known to increase pain. Everyone within the circle will be effected by the effect of the exception.


Recipes like this seemingly started to pop up at various places around the same time. Initially, the response to this was to find other such functional formula's, hopefully enough to fit all possible spells in. But all of this came to a stop when Agnas and spouse Yuliah started to collect and bundle these recipes. They found out that there were many different recipes to bring about a similar effect. What seemed to be a highly specific practice turned out to be way more flexible or, pardon the pun, chaotic than was initially thought. 

Medieval Magic: A Brief History - HistoryExtra 

A rendering of Agnas an Yuliah at work

Agnas and Yuliah published their findings in the revolutionary book Rhyme and Reason, in which they argue that for Methodical Magic to work, one doesn't require highly specific recipes but just the titular rhyme and reason. As long as it intuitively makes sense why a certain method would work it will probably have the desired effect. Their advice to see if your method has rhyme and reason is as obvious as it is ingenious: ask others if they think it makes sense. For a more elaborate discussion on the Principle of Rhyme and Reason see chapter 4 paragraph 4.2.

The amount of lives the Principle of Rhyme and Reason must have saved can only be enormous. We now only have to rely upon Desperation Magic in, well desperate situations. And though disrupting the method a mage uses to cast their spell can have terrible consequences, the same can be said for disrupting a smelter or woodworker during their craft. 

1.4: Distribution of magical labour

One topic Rhyme and Reason overlooked is that of collaborative casting. There is evidence that the practice of collaborative casting must have predated the first scholarly work on the subject by a few decennia. In the report of the Battle of the Flies, dated 32 years before the publication of The conquest of magic, there are multiple allusions to a distribution of magical labour, though this one is the most obvious:

It was found to be more effective to send volleys to the circle drawers and incense throwers than attempt to hit the well protected chanters. The results of disrupting spells was devastating on both sides, but against an opponent with superior magical capabilities such losses are a prerequisite for victory. 

 Life in Medieval Times - Unit Plan for Grade 8 students -

Peace talks following the Battle of the Flies

Collaborative casting is still hotly debated, as there is little consensus on if it is theoretically even supposed to work, let alone how it would work. What is particularly puzzling is the fact that multiple people can contribute to different aspects of the same ritual. There are basically three schools of thought on why this works: 

  • The Young School believes that all people share in a collective subconscious. Thus, they argue, this is really only one utterance of the Word, which would explain why different people can say the same thing in the Chaotic Tongue. This position is highly contested, as there is no further evidence of such a subconscious existing.

  • The School of Michael and Jilles believes that rather than a collective subconscious, it is Chaos as primordial voice, that speaks through the mouths of the participants. This is a slightly more nuanced position. They stress that the same people aren't sharing in a single utterance, but that rather the utterance is a multiplicity, i.e. simultaneously one and many.

  • The Sensible School is quite banal about it. They ask: how does the spell know that separate actions are part of a ritual? Well, by whatever means it knows that, it must also know that all these separate participants are contributing to the same spell. The Sensible School doesn't so much answer the question, as they downplay its unicity within the field of magic.

We will elaborate on these and other schools of magic in chapter 7.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

Ethics and Morality in TTRPGs

I studied philosophy at university and am currently a philosophy teacher at a high school. So, obviously I think philosophy is rad. However, if teaching to a bunch of kids who didn't get to choose my course has taught me anything, it is that philosophy isn't for everyone. That said, practical philosophy is usually (wrongly) considered to be the most interesting and approachable kind. So even if you aren't into philosophy, maybe give this a read?

Anyway, let's overthink make-believe games from the perspective of moral and ethical philosophy (yes, there is a difference. Just stick around until the end if you're interested in it).

Three dimensions of RPG ethics

I think ethics and morality come into TTRPGs in three ways. 

First, there are game mechanics/world building aspects that tie into morality. Alignment is the most famous of these, though any gamification of morality and any worlds with some objective good and evil will fall into this category, which I'll call "in-universe morality". 

Second, there are ethical dilemmas and moral calls to action placed in the game by whomever is running it to entice the players. The first is there to force them to make difficult decisions as their characters, the second as a hook. I'll call these "gameable ethics and morality"

Finally, there is what I would like to call "the ethics of running games". This basically comes down to running a game you can stand behind, concerning what you put into your world, how you depict these things, but also how you interact with your players and what player actions you tolerate.

In-universe morality

This discussion mostly revolves around alignment, however I think it applies to any world or system that makes a claim to objective goodness or evilness. I am not going to make any statements about whether or not using in-universe morality is good or bad. Personally, I dislike it, but that isn't the point. What I do want to do, is make clear the underlying assumptions of in-universe morality are, that I feel people often take for granted. 

  • First, all in-universe morality assumes that there are objective labels that can at least in some cases be applied unequivocally in your game. E.g. if you have 'good' as alignment, you are implying that you are able to apply that label to certain things or acts within your world. Which means you invariably take the high ground in worlds like that.

  • Second, in-universe morality does not assume you believe such labels can be applied in the real world. You might very well believe there is no absolute goodness in the real world. However, this is a thin line. By saying 'this is what goodness is in this fictional world' you are often communicating 'this is what I think goodness is in general' even if you don't hold that belief.

  • Third, there is the implication that as the GM you to some extent force your beliefs about alignment on the players. You might not mean to do this, but you are doing it. Even if you are open to suggestions from players about whether or not something is more or less good, your initial response will be to describe the act or thing in question as 'good' and as GM that carries weight. 

You might be able to live with these assumptions; universities seem to agree with you, as they keep teaching morality and pay good money for people researching the subject. But, just know that there are compelling arguments against objective, universal morality. And I personally find them more compelling than arguments I've heard in favour of it. 

Gameable ethics and morality

A moral call to action can be a pretty good way to get your players to do stuff. In fact, I think a lot of traditional hooks that aren't motivated by rewarding the player with money or stuff are moral imperatives: 'Save the village from destruction', 'Rescue the child from the monster', 'Help out the oppressed elderly person', or anything of the sort will usually get players moving. 

Moral dilemmas are an equally useful tool. The crux of a lot of the 'game' aspect of RPGs is making meaningful choices. From asking your players to choose between something they seem to care about and in-game advantages, to choosing between one thing they want and something else they also want, these dilemmas are nice examples of meaningful choices.

As tools, moral imperatives and moral dilemmas can be used to different ends. One end towards which these tools can be used is the smuggling in of objective labels of good and evil, without explicitly using in universe morality. If you as the GM feel like there is a 'right' choice in your moral imperatives or your moral dilemma's and make the entire world react as if there is only one correct choice, the world basically still has an implied in-universe morality. Which, depending on your beliefs, is something you might want to lean into, or something you might want to avoid.

However, you can just put this stuff in the game and let your players decide what they or their characters think is important. You just don't punish them for deciding not to respond to a moral imperative or for choosing what you believe to be the wrong thing in a moral dilemma. Rather than appealing to some universal morality, you instead depend on the individual ethics of your players and their PCs. It doesn't matter whether or not it is 'the right thing to do' to prevent the death of an innocent person, at the cost of blowing the cover of the rebellion who is trying to end the tyranny of the monarch. What matters is whether or not your players feel it is the right thing to do. 

Now, by no means is this supposed to advocate for having there be zero consequences for the choices of your players. That would make these tools less about meaningful choice, which was exactly the benefit they had. However, frame it as if people in this world have opinions about your players' actions. The people of this town hate your PCs for letting the innocent bystander die when they find out you could have stopped them; they are not part of the rebellion and only care about struggling to survive this harsh world. You can make your players feel bad about their choices, without moralizing.

The ethics of running a game

No matter your stance on in-universe morality (both on covertly using gameable morality to that end or overtly by having Good and Evil be part of your universe or system) as the GM you have an ethical responsibility towards your players. The reason for this is quite simple: It is implied in most systems that you sign off on anything happening in the world, meaning you are complicit in your players' actions. When a player says 'I want to lure the deadly monster towards us for no other reason than because I think it would be funny', you saying 'sure, go ahead' makes you complicit in the potential death of the party, because you signed off on it.  

Not only are you partially responsible for what your players do in your games, you are also responsible for what your players encounter, how the world reacts to their actions and how you interact with your players both inside of and outside of the game. Sure, players have some of these responsibilities as well, but the nature of most TTRPGs is such that there is a power imbalance, an implied hierarchy, and as such you as the GM have more responsibility than your players. Simply the fact that, if you don't show your players can't play at all, while if one of them doesn't show it is up for debate whether or not the group will still play, proves this point. 

TTRPGs are inherently DIY, so there is no excusing your behaviour by saying that you are just 'running what is in the module', or 'playing the system as it is written'. Anything you don't want to include, you can just leave out or even just reskin. Note, that the choice to take no stance on a subject is also a stance. Because if you think that your players should be able to do whatever they want, you value something (freedom to do whatever you want) over something else (e.g. a safe play environment). The idea that abstaining is being neutral or apolitical is my personal number one frustrations with a lot of contemporary discourse.

Distinguishing ethics from morality

Now for those who stuck around mostly to find out what distinguishes ethics from morality.

As Michel Foucault defines morality it is a "code", i.e. a set of rules that applies to a moral community. For Peter Singer, the moral community includes anything that can suffer, and the code is 'do what decreases the total amount of suffering in the world'. For nazi's, the moral community includes only the 'chosen race', with codes that are supposed to bring about and protect this 'chosen race's' supposed supremacy and purity. 

Ethics, by the definition of Foucault in the same work, are a way in which the subject relates to itself. Morality implies an ethics; to be able to do what would decrease the total amount of suffering in the world you need to be a certain kind of person. Trying to be that person, and all that that entails, is ethics. The nice thing about looking at ethics this way, is that it doesn't require morality to function. Depending on your values, you will try to act a certain way. You don't need universal codes for that. 

Personally I dislike morality. Not because I think there is no reprehensible behaviour, I have strong opinions about lots of things (including teaching morality at university). Neither do I dislike it because I think the freedom to have differing opinions is more important; I am not a tolerant person, some behaviour truly disgusts me. It is mainly because morality can easily function as the basis for oppression. If I make a claim of knowing for a fact what is right and what is wrong, I might be completely blind to my own biases and wrongfully condemn entire cultures on the basis of deeming my own cultural background to be 'the default'. 

This isn't speculation. There are many historical examples of universal morality being used to legitimise the oppression of various people groups.

In conclusion

What I want to leave you with then, is not a moral code that you should uphold as a GM. Nothing like 'make sure the table is a welcoming place', or 'address problems as they arise'. As advice, those statements might be very useful, but their applicability is limited. If you are dealing with untolerable behaviour, you might not want to welcome those acting that way at your table. If you feel unsafe, you might not be able to address a problem as it arises. 

So instead, consider what you can live with. Both in how you run your game, in what you put in it, and in how you deal with your players. I'm not suggesting you strive for perfection; this is just a hobby for most of us. However, keep in mind that you do have an ethical responsibility and keep in mind that doing nothing is also taking a position. Just ask yourself: am I ok with how I am running my games?

Monday, 28 December 2020

Mankement: An RPG-setting that reflects what it is.

In this post I will try to define what a TTRPG is to me and how I can show that in my setting. I will then give you an overview of my current setting Mankement by relating it to the system I am working on and its development. 

What is a TTRPG?

TTRPGs are weird things if you look at them. There are so many different kinds of systems, genres, mechanics and expected participants, that it will be hard to come to a definition that everyone can agree upon. Fortunately, for the purpose of today's article only I have to agree with the definition. 

  • First of all, I am talking about what happens at the table, as much as I am talking about systems. I like the emphasis on games, as in something that is being played, i.e. something that is happening. A system by itself isn't a TTRPG. Which means that for me TTRPGs are, to some degree, something that emerges through play. Which implies that players, whomever they may be and however many there are, have input in what happens.

  • Second, I think that all TTRPGs, even the most bare bones and rulings based ones, defer to some set of stable 'rules' or 'guidelines' or even just 'ruling precedent' based on which you can form expectations and make plans. Even improv theatre has this, with its 'yes and rule' and the prompt based on which you enter a scene. This is why, when two kids play make believe, they stop playing and start fighting the moment they can't agree on this stable base on which to play.

  •  Finally, every TTRPG has a level of uncertainty. This is true for games in which nothing is hidden from the players, in games without dice and in games that are completely railroaded. Because all of those games still cannot account for what goes on in peoples heads and that includes the single person in solo-RPGS. Even in games like chess and go, there are things you can only guess at. This uncertainty implies that TTRPGs are inherently DIY. No rulebook, or set of principles will ever be able to encompass everything that might possibly emerge during play. 


A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale by LadyPestilence on DeviantArt

My favourite texts are those that perform their message in the form in which they are written. We see this for example in the poem featured in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland shown above. In philosophy, Jacques Derrida is one of the absolute masters of this style of writing and my favourite text of his, Tympan (a text about philosophical eardrums and the question of what lies outside the text, being invaded by an encyclopedia entry about earworms), we see another wonderful example:

This is what I want to do with Mankement, the fantasy setting for my home-game. So let's see if I can mirror what I believe  TTRPGs to be in my setting design.

  • Mankement as a setting, is deliberately incomplete. It is made with the awareness that it needs to be finished at the table, meaning that I do not attempt to fill in details unless I have reason to believe they come up. Anything not filled out is created with random tables or decided in a spur of the moment. It also means that Mankement is bound to change depending on whatever game I run in it, and thus that 'there is no cannon', a mindset borrowed from Arnold K., Chris McDowall and Skerples.

  • The world of Mankement is a mixture of Chaos and Order. Not as lame euphemisms of evil and good, which these terms are often reduced to, but functioning as uncertainty and reliability which TTRPGs are made off. And as such, I try to explain everything in Mankement in terms of Chaos in Order. Mountains? That is Chaotic ground, trying to move upwards instead of downwards (an explanation which makes the mundane more fantastical, while also giving me an in-world explanation for floating islands). Wind? Chaotic air (which means sailors are more chaotic, which tracks. Also, it allows me to roughly model dominant wind currents, not based on air moving from warm to cold or high pressure to low, but by moving from zones of chaos to zones of order). Monsters? Orderly if they can reproduce, Chaotic if they are unique and singular. 

  • The world of Mankement is one in which the process of creation isn't finished. This is because I am not done making Mankement, and I doubt I ever will be. It also means that the world isn't a nice homogeneous mixture of Order and Chaos, but instead has regions of absolute Order and regions of absolute Chaos, both of which are uninhabitable (absolute Order precludes change, meaning that there are no seasons, there is no day or night, there is no rain) and fronts between these various regions where most people live. The world being so young also changes the tone of the game. There are very few heroes, in fact your party might be the first to make a name for themselves in any notable way. There are even fewer legends and myths, remote regions might only have stories about that time Dorian broke his ankle chasing a pig. The Gods are also new and still plentiful. Whether that is because particular faiths haven't managed to become dominant yet, or because they haven't managed to reduce their own numbers, I can't say. It also means people are still finding/inventing new Gods (again, who am I to say which of the two is happening?)

                         Formation of the Solar System

Going forward, I'll try to flesh out magic in Mankement. I know it is Chaotic as it creates exceptions (which leads me to believe religion is Orderly), and thus that I want it to be dangerous and unstable and preferably accessible in some form by all players. Other than that I haven't committed myself to any particular in universe explanation or mechanical magic system yet.

Another Magic-System: With or without Rhyme and Reason

A brief exercise in in-universe writing: An excerpt from the fictional textbook "Paths of Wisdom: an introduction to the magcial arts&q...