Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Nothing Magical in D&D

Yep, I’m back…back to (nearly) full health, back to work, back to writing (I hope…this is my first stab at anything), back to ranting. Ready to throw out the next bone I’ve got to pick with Dungeons & Dragons.

I hate the lack of magic in the D&D game.

You see this photo? I took this picture with my cell phone back in October while wandering Greenwood. Halloween styling, you know? I thought it was a real piece of old school horror/mystical imagery: the skulls, the skeleton, the “Gypsy fortune teller,” the tarot cards and crystal ball. This display was in the front window of a local flower shop.

At the time, I snapped the picture with the intent of posting it to the blog and talking about the lack of magic in D&D…but October turned out to be a busy month for me and then there were the holidays, etc. But while delving back into the world of fantasy literature I remembered I still had the image stored on my phone and, well, it’s time for Rant #2 of the New Year.

For my taste, there is a profound lack of magic in the game.

What? Disagreement? The appearance of enchanted items and mythical monstrosities and pages and pages of “spells” is evidence to the contrary?

Hardly. There’s nothing all that magical about the treatment of such things in D&D - neither by the game, nor the players (and I include “DM” as a player in this context). When I say “magical,” I’m talking about effects that produce a sense of wonder and a healthy fear (or respect) for the profund mystery of the supernatural. That ain’t what you get in D&D.

See a magical monster: “How do we kill it? How is it vulnerable?”
Find a magic weapon: “What is its bonuses? Does it have charges?”
Cast a magic spell: “What is its effect? Does the target save? How many spells do I have left?”

There is no sense of wonder, nothing that evokes awe in the players. People who play D&D are considered “people of great imagination,” both by outsiders and by themselves. Ha! To me they’re just about the most blasé bunch of adventurers you’ll find in the fantasy game world.

Everything is sooo “ho-hum” to the D&D player when it comes to magic. You find a shiny sword…perhaps it glows in your grip or seems incredibly sharp despite its great age. What do you do?

Player #1: “Hey, who needs a magic sword?”

Player #2: “My cleric can’t use one.”

Player #3: “My dwarf can but I already have a magic axe. Do you think it’s a better weapon?”

Player #4: “Maybe the thief should keep it; she can use it and it’s one more magic weapon doing damage in encounters. Plus, extra backstab damage!”

There’s nothing magical about a magic weapon (or any magic item…they’re generally treated in similar fashion, perhaps with a bit of caution against possible booby-traps, i.e. “curses” or malignant enchantments) in a game of D&D; only a question of its practical value. It’s like finding a box of unused hand grenades while patrolling the jungle in some 3rd world bush war or something: a handy windfall, not anything supernatural or mystical.

Contrast that with the fantasy literature purported to be the basis for the game. Remember my previous rant? No one in a sword & sorcery tale takes such an item for granted. Enchanted items are viewed with suspicion and superstition; fear, awe, and wonder…and a healthy sense of whoa!

Likewise, no one’s blasé about enchantments encountered during adventures or the strange and twisted monsters they encounter. Hell, few fantasy heroes will ever seek to go toe-to-toe with a magical monstrosity unless they either A) have a distinct advantage, B) are faced with life or death choice based on circumstance (i.e. no choice), or C) have been invoked to high passion/emotion (usually revenge or love for an imperiled/harmed companion). Few epic heroes march like Beowulf into the jaws of the dragon…and even Big B might be constrained based on who he is (as Beowulf, he has an honor and duty to fight the monster…to not do so is to extinguish his identity as surely as his death).

But on a D&D adventure, an owl bear is simply a large beast with claws, beak, feathers, and fur. A dragon is simply another beast that may require more cunning tactics to defeat due to breath weapon and spell use. A group of gnolls or bugbears? The only question is: how many are they?

Monsters may be monstrous, they may have a weird appearance, they have dangerous attacks…but it is still just a “thing” to be overcome, through combat or stealth or trickery. Nothing about the D&D monster is respected, save for its potential to kill your character. It is simply a barrier to the accumulation of treasure, i.e. experience “points.”

Where is the awe, the fear at the un-naturalness? Where is the desire to bow down and worship the supernatural monstrosity…or the urge to kneel, weep, and pray to one’s own God for salvation? Nothing compels players to treat these twisted nightmares of imagination as anything more extraordinary than a rabid mastiff.

Spell use, of course, is the most jaded and cynical of all the “magic” found in D&D. What is the ability to cast spells but a simple class ability, no different from a fighter’s ability to wear armor and shoot arrows?

Certainly there is no respectful treatment for spells or those who use them. The only pertinent information players require is the number of spells available and the variety of spells in one’s repertoire. No one consults a priest or wizard on the meanings of dreams or omens, or ask for soothsaying on the future. No one worries that striking or attacking a sorcerer will bring all manner of curses and demons down on the head of the offender. No one wonders at what infernal powers or celestial beings were cajoled into granting the spell-worker his authority over the forces of nature.

Nope, a magic-user is just a dude in a gown, perhaps with a pointy hat and wand, certainly slinging a heavy spell book…and probably the guy forced to carry the light source and extra gear for the party.

And YOU, fair reader, may say “yes, of course it’s like that because that’s what’s in the GAME RULES. In D&D, magic-users (and clerics and druids, etc.) are none of those things found in that good old fantasy literature.”

And I say unto you:

That’s my point exactly.

That’s what sticks in my craw about the game. D&D does NOTHING mechanically, system-wise, to instill any sense of MAGIC or wonder or the supernatural in the players. Ho-hum, it’s O so very interesting to have D&D’s “magic” because it adds a different variety of challenge. But if a glyph of warding is no better or different from a trip-wire arrow trap (save that it requires a different method of disarmament), don’t tell me D&D is some sort of wonderful “fantasy” game based on “fantasy literature.”

And the problem is, I’m not sure how one would make it more magical except by getting “buy off” from all the players that they’ll metagame (i.e. “act out”) the fear and awe and superstition, even while trying to figure out if the magic sword is +1 or +2. But that’s hardly satisfying…I don’t want to have to tell players “okay, suspend your disbelief.” They’re already doing that by pretending to be dwarves and elves. Wouldn't it be cool if the game would do a little bit of the work for you? Meet you halfway?

I think it is the lack of real magical mystery in the D&D game that partly drives James Raggi to do the things he does: Death Frost Doom, for example has multiple instances of unexplainable “weirdness” that attempt to instill awe or dread in a party. But I’ve read play-test reviews where the DM’s players were completely unimpressed with ANY of it, saying, “oh, ok, so what? Where’s the treasure?” Now, I’m sure there are DMs that can exercise a Svengali-like influence over their players generating a suitable mood of discomfort and fear and superstition, BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT THE D&D GAME DOES. And just playing the game as written (with its silly premise) is not going to get anywhere close to it.

D&D lacks magic. All you get is an adventure game with a few types of technology, some different types of fauna from what you find at the local zoo, and a couple character classes with super powers of a decidedly UN-mysterious nature. Compared to the books that “inspired” the game, that’s pretty lame.

“Mundane adventure in a pedestrian world.” Make that your tag-line!


  1. Ok, so this begs the question: what can we do, if anything, to inject that magic into a D&D session?

  2. you're on your own with this one, since I think your problem here is with gaming in general, not any specific system. No one ever REALLY worried for their sanity when playing Call of Cthulhu.

    as for magic items, yeah a lot of them suck, and that's part of the reason players aren't bowled over by them. In fantasy literature, I don't think anyone would ever take the time and effort to enchant a magical weapon that improved the wielder's likelihood of striking an enemy by 5%.

  3. Fear and awe are driven by lack of knowledge and uncertainty. Mechanics are the bane of "magical" and "mysterious". One reason I rarely follow any mechanics / rules when creating magic, fear, or mystery in RPGs I run.

    The absolute worst offenders are campaign worlds use magic in place of technology. Or assume everyday use of magic.

  4. Or, better question: what can be done MECHANICALLY in a set of rules (not talking just D&D here, actually) in order to get some magic?

  5. I think this is one of the many aspects of the game that can’t be fixed with mechanics. It takes a DM who is willing to go a bit farther. It can take some effort by the players too. But it can be done. I’ve seen it many times. But mechanics are what gets in the way of it instead of a way to create it.

  6. Well, one of the things that I've thought about for making magic items a little more magical (haven't really thought about doing it with magic) is to let them do something that kind of breaks the rules of the game. Sort of like how each item in the Legend of Zelda allows you to do something you couldn't do before.

    Take one of the early 'magic sword' weapons: Sword +1/+2 vs. Lycanthropes. The effects on the game is basically 'do more damage more often to lycanthropes.' Not super fun. But what if that sword could force a Lycanthrope to return to human form if it hit?

    Telecanter did some cool stuff like this with the Five Swords that he created:

  7. I agree with Robert and Jamie: the DM has to work to imbue that magic into the game, and one aspect is to make magic items do unexpected things. For instance, I introduced an enchanted spear into my campaign that the players found in a dungeon. It SOMETIMES heals those who hold it when they are injured. The ability is sporadic. It's not a guaranteed thing, so the players never knew when it would actually work. It added mystery to the item and also some tension, i.e. we really need this thing to heal someone right now! Please work! I also think that it's perfectly within the GM's right that not all the properties of a magic item can be identified by casting an "Identify Magic Item" spell.

    Beyond magic items and with regard to that mystery and magic feeling a game should give, well...if we're not talking mechanically-induced magic, then it's the intangible interplay of GM and players. The GM can hope to foster gaming magic by digging deep and really showing the players that he/she is really happy to be running a game for said players. It's the right attitude that is the foundation of the experience, IMHO. Sure, you're going to have off weeks, but cultivating a sense of excitement when at the table is really important. Everything else flows from there.

    I think I need to do a post on my blog to flesh out my thoughts...

  8. "King Arthur Pendragon" (in the first and latest editions) has one solution: take all magic out of player hands. Magic can frame a story or add some weirdness, but the players can and should defeat enemies through purity of heart -- or its mechanical equivalent -- and force of arms. FFG's RPG 'Grimm' likewise throws in magical occurrences, beings, and items, and the PCs -- modern children stuck in a land of twisted fairy tales -- can at best use their "Gaming" skill to figure out some of the rules.

    John H. Kim also wrote an essay on this problem years ago:

    Honestly, though, I don't think mechanics will fix anything; the more well-defined the rules of magic are, the less magical they become. I'd say analyze the fairy tales, novels, movies, and other works that evoke a sense of wonder.

  9. The Iron Goat makes a good point.

    Magical weapons from fantasy literature are often pretty damn powerful; and when they're not, they're damn cool and unique to make up for it.

    Exaclibur is unbreakable and its scabbard protects its wearer from physical harm/bleeding.

    Tyrfing " would never miss a stroke, would never rust and would cut through stone and iron as easily as through clothes.

    The Dwarves made the sword... However, in revenge they cursed it so that it would kill a man every time it was drawn and that it would be the cause of three great evils. They finally cursed it so that it would also kill Svafrlami himself."

    Stormbringer has a mind of its own, can kill with a scratch by drinking souls, can cut through nearly any material, confers strength and vitality, and curses the wielder with bloodlust.

    Kusanagi can control the wind:

    Sting glows when orcs are near.

    Sacnoth was indestructible and the only sword which could kill Gaznak. And the eye of Tharagavverug in its hilt watches for its bearer and guides him away from danger. (It also inspires great fear in evil creatures, and can cut through fortress doors)

    Kossal is an enchanted vibrating bastard sword that can cut through anything given time.

    See also the twelve swords of power:

    So indestructibility and cutting through anything are pretty common. Common, but also way more powerful than +1 to hit and +1 to damage. Those powers are more properly: ignore AC from worn armor, breaks opponents weapons 1/6 chance. or something.

    Also: more curses.

  10. I've run into this same problem in the past. I just get so tired of saying "Here's your +1 Sword." Or "Drink your Potion of Healing."

    My new policy, which my players really enjoy, is simply: "You will never find a magic item straight out of the DMG in my campaign. Never!"

    So all my magic is either my own creation or inspired (or copied) from other sources (such as different games, bloggers, forums, etc).

    I do the same thing with monsters. So I also tell my players: "Don't bother studying the Monster Manual."

    So all monsters and magic items are going to be completely new and unfamiliar to the players. They literally have no idea what to expect.

    And my players really like it. It adds fun. It adds a sense of wonder.

    In fact, the other day I had my players run into a pack of Goblins and they seemed stunned! So it added some surprise and fun back to a previously overdone monster.

    Not saying this works out perfectly, but it's been a nice change of pace for us.

  11. play with young kids and you will see there is plenty of "magic" in rpgs.

    most experienced players are just jaded, that's all.

  12. @ IG/Heron: Maybe it's a pipe-dream but I think it IS possible to include fantasy in a fantasy, a sense of magic and wonder, that is. But, wow, is D&D stupid about it or what?

    @ Semipro: I'm familiar with Pendragon (the non-magic version) and like their take very much. However, your other link (to John Kim's article) is TERRIFIC! There's a lot of good ideas in here. Um, not his examples unfortunately (a little too skill-oriented for me), but lots o great food for thought. I'm going to have to read it twice more! Thanks!

    @ Shlomo: Man, I hope you're incorrect. It makes me sad to think I've grown beyond the days where D&D was "magical" for me.

    1. There was some talk about this late last year, probably just as you took a break. I mentioned then that I found The Caves of Chaos SO unmagical or chaotic I wrapped them in a chaotic mist that could only be navigated by chaotic creatures or those with an amulet of Chaos. Players loved it, and it helped them ID foes. I see it as having to add some fluff to the crunch - the mist didn't harm them per se, but created a sense of mystery and a believable (in a fantasy sense) obstacle.

      I see it as having a balance between fluff (exposition and fiat magic) and crunch (rules). As mentioned by posters above, one way to to do this is hide the crunch - no one wants to see the robotics or CGI scaffolding behind movie monsters, and rules are the same. Controlling info, whether rules, info like weapon effects and monster stats, brings back some magic. But what is also needed to emulate fantasy literature is a 'crunchy fluff' or magic that operates on narrative rules instead of magic points or levels. Cursing with a dying breath is one example - it is a staple of fiction, but unless the dyer is an MU with the spell, it is technically not allowed by D&D rules. A set of narrative guidelines or rulings that would allow narrative magical effects in return for terrible prices (curses, crippling, etc), would be a great boon.

      We see glimmers of this in the OSR and older games sometimes. For example, the old Palladium rpg had a table for curses of rune weapons, such as Stink and Rusting Armor, that had elements of this, but no one has ever come close to developing a narrative-operated magic.

      The OSR could probably come up with something close if the right minds turned their efforts toward it...

  13. I seem to go back to the same answers for issues like these. "Setting".

    If you setting has magic shops as ubiquitous as Starbucks, magic is not magical. In fact, the very notion of a magic shop trivializes magic.

    Spells like continual light trivialize magic.

    Any time a magic user is motivated to use magic to accomplish a mundane task, it trivializes magic.

    But people want their magic. And they want to play characters that can slay gods. ("If it has hit points, you can kill it")

    Not for me, thanks. I'll play my low level characters in a low level world. I run my world the same way.

  14. "Where is the awe, the fear at the un-naturalness? Where is the desire to bow down and worship the supernatural monstrosity…or the urge to kneel, weep, and pray to one’s own God for salvation? Nothing compels players to treat these twisted nightmares of imagination as anything more extraordinary than a rabid mastiff."

    Except, apparently, for level drain. Players seem to be more willing to let their characters die than get drained of life energy levels.

  15. I get to play an RPG rather than bowling, dealing canasta, or passing the hammer in crokinole.

    The magic is out here at the table, not in the book.

  16. faoladh - yeah, my players would much rather die than get level drained!

  17. Most magic in RPGs operates more like technology... or superpowers... safe and reliable and mostly without effort.
    I prefer it to be mysterious and dangerous and unreliable... and a lot more work to pull off (requiring lengthy rituals and odd components).
    Also, it seems to me, that MUs should probably be great showmen... charismatic magicians who can fake it when the real magic fails them.
    Most players aren't interested in that though... they're playing a wargame and they want to know the odds.

  18. I've tried to tackle this in Redwald by creating (folk)stories for each of the magical items and not giving them any powers that are mechanical. Rather than give + bonus the swords do something specific. One for example will decapitate Oathbreakers, and the other kills any unmarried men it wounds.

  19. Hey Lee,

    Just started reading your stuff yesterday, completely independently of this post, so its funny you should post here today. Love your work! I think Wudwuewyrhta is exactly what we need more of in magic items.

  20. Cheers, valiance. Much appreciated.

  21. A very interesting rule for magic use I have seen recently in...a 4e book; the Dark Sun Campaign Setting has some rules for "defiling." Essentially, a character can choose to cast a spell in a more powerful way, but to do so, he inflicts damage to his companions. The simple act of spellcasting has consequences for all the players involved. This rule creates quite a bit of tension at the table.