Monday, January 29, 2018

Easy Magic Turns Everyone Into Magneto, Not Gandalf

Over at Dvyers, we see yet another lament about the ease of magic use in D&D.

It's not that hard to figure out. It's because the most vocal players are Mech Pilots, and therefore the game is define by what their robot can do. A Magic-User that isn't using magic is a broken robot, so that is why the restrictions in the rules hindering the use of magic by players playing Magic-Users got removed with each successive edition until we reach the current day.

This is Revealed Preference in action. Players define their gameplay experiences in RPGs generally by what their man can do, first and foremost, and how they behave at the table reveals this; it's a persistent pattern of behavior going back 40+ years. It's not at all a surprise to see that this transferred to PC and console RPGs, where the Mech Pilot paradigm is even stronger due to inherent limitations of the medium.

As Dyvers notes, this has terrible consequences for world-building and verisimilitude. It can't be easily fixed by commercial producers due to that same tendency directly conflicting with the world-building and verisimilitude issues, so many don't even try anymore and embrace it; this is not just a gaming thing, or a Western thing. Anime and Manga in Japan has been about this for years now, in various titles. (e.g. Black Clover, Fairy Tail)

The result is exactly what you expect: magic-use becomes little more than myth-flavored super-powers, and users little more than superhumans. The better works play with this to good effect (see Clover), while the lesser bother with it only when its convenient, and in gaming this reliably means Caster Supremacy = Easy Mode. As D&D is the biggest gaming influence around, that's where Caster Supremacy first arose and thus is Patient Zero for this contagion.

It's hard to argue against being a Magic-User when there's little risk, few consequences, and huge benefits. It's akin to eschewing modern man-portable ordinance in favor of using a knife when fighting against superior numbers. For tabletop gaming, this is something a user can handle at home; for videogames, it means constant bickering between those embracing the power and those trying to compete against it (and often failing).

Over time, it becomes harder and harder to hold out because more and more people see a player who isn't using magic as a liability to be shunned. Games are about getting shit done, especially group play, so it's no different than ambitious sports teams cutting loose their dead weight when push comes to shove. Why? Because power is what gets things done, and magic has far more power than not-magic, and being shy about it isn't going to help cross that finish line.

Which is why it's not Gandalf that you get when magic is too easy. Gandalf has to be wise to win. Magneto doesn't, and easy magic doesn't prompt players to cultivate wisdom- just power. It's not surprising, therefore, to see Raistlin Majere retain his popularity despite all the shit he brings upon himself. He is, after all, what too-many player-run magic-users actually come across as.

The only way out is back the way we came: Make Magic Difficult Again.

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