The Price of Magic

Magic is supposed to be evocative and wondrous, but often it’s as thrilling as using a paperclip.

Neat, clean “fire and forget” spells are b-o-r-i-n-g. They’re a tool, just like a flashlight, and about as involving.

In some systems spells have drawbacks — penalties attached to their use. But ad hoc, arbitrary consequences attached per-spell, with no consideration for cosmology or worldbuilding, are also boring. They are meaningless.

A great magic system has a cost, a price that must be paid, and it’s a price that ties into the cosmology of the setting. The setting is reflected in the magic, and by learning of the magic, you learn more about the setting.

One great example is Call of Cthulhu’s Insanity. Now, “Lose 1d4 SAN” isn’t interesting all by itself — that’s just a dry mechanical description. (But even that is more thrilling than some systems.)

But the consequences of actual insanity — becoming paranoid, depressive, manic, whatever — is interesting. The notion that magic warps your mind, makes you slightly insane at first, then more and more insane as you use it more, is compelling, especially in terms of role-playing a character. How do you play a man who is losing his mind? And the mind-warping power of magic ties into the nature of existence in CoC: human minds cannot grasp the truths of eality, and trying to do so drives you insane.

Magic then becomes not an add-on rules set, but an integral part of worldbuilding. Done properly, it enhances everything else in a setting. (As is the case with both Shadowrun and Earthdawn.)

Magic should always have a price (and not just because of game balance). Whether it’s a sacrifice involved in acquiring the power (losing an eye and hanging on a tree for ten days), learning the power (going insane), or utilizing it (blasting the vegetation around you to dust), there should be some cost involved.

Ideally, the price should be colorful, present some roleplaying opportunities and challenges, and be tied into the cosmology of the setting. This “price” is what makes magic involving.

Magic, how you use magic, and what magic you use should be choices with consequences. Choices are the core of roleplaying, and when magic is fraught with uncertainty, those choices are more meaningful.

Cinematic Indulgences: Worldbuilding Weirdness

Modern Military Fantasy
The UK cover.
(Loads better than the American one, in my opinion. Better title, too.)
My theory on speculative fiction: Like a rollercoaster, a piece of genre fiction has a little sign before you get on — You must tolerate this much bullshit to enjoy your ride. Too much bullshit, and you can’t enjoy the ride. Call it the Bullshit Tax. (To mix the metaphors thoroughly.)

What do I mean? Epic Fantasy is based around magic, usually powerful magic. If you can’t accept the existence of magic, or find it aggravating, Epic Fantasy just isn’t for you. Powerful and pervasive magic is the Bullshit Tax for epic fantasy.

In other words, I’m talking about the premise. When considering suspension of disbelief, works of fiction basically get their premise “for free”.

“What if Elvis was still alive, and was an avatar of Cthulhu?” If you can’t accept that, don’t read the story.

Yet even granting the author their premise, one can criticize how it’s developed, both in world background and in the story. Sooner or later, you have to be able to say: No, that makes no sense. And aspects of Shadow Ops: Control Point, even granting the premise, make no sense.

Magic returns to the modern world. Okay, that’s cool. As a premise, I can buy that.

Magic is innate, and can manifest at any age. When it does, it is often uncontrollable. Again, no problems.

Some kinds of magic are inherently harmful. That’s not a big stretch.

Harmful magics are banned by law. Okay, that’s a little odd. How do you ban something that is innate, especially when no external force can prevent it?

The law is a behavioral regulator. By punishing specific actions, it discourages those same actions. In its ultimate form, it prevents actions by incarcerating or executing people. In prison, you can’t rob a bank. Dead, you can’t kill others.

The law is only effective to the extent that it can affect behavior. In this world, people can only control the magical abilities of others personally, one-on-one, by riding shotgun over them at all times (an expensive and difficult endeavor). And Selfers either lack control, or refuse to control themselves. So how can the law regulate their behavior?

Manifesting a harmful school of magic means the death penalty. What? Manifesting a Prohibited school (which makes one a “Probe”) is an instant, universal, and unappealable death sentence? Are you kidding me? That answers the previous question, but with something that’s far, far worse. And not just morally. But let’s start with the morality.

Justice is based on the desire to render to each offender what they deserve. The punishment is proportional to the severity of the offense. If you steal from a person, you make restitution. Even those who support the Death Penalty do so because they see it as a just punishment: if you murder, you sacrifice your own life.

How is killing someone just for manifesting magic, and not for anything they’ve done with it, in any sense just? “You have the capability to do Y, so we will execute you.” That’s simply wrong.

The next problem is practicality. As noted above, the law exists to influence behavior. Penalties attached to actions discourage those actions. Arbitrary and draconian penalties, on the other hand, often encourage the opposite.

You’re a nice, normal person who’s just become a Probe, simply by breathing. Now, you WILL be executed, no questions asked, no trial, no hope of appeal. What do you do?

Flee. Rebel. Strike out. Wreak vengeance.

If they’ve have done nothing wrong, and have no hope, then desperation will drive many Probes to do horrible things, out of panic, anger, or despair. People rebel against injustice, and this is an unjust law.

And who will bear the brunt of these outbursts? The people around them and the law enforcement agents assigned to capture them. Congratulations, you’ve just taken a difficult, but manageable problem and turned it into a nightmare.

So the law is morally wrong and fails to discourage the behavior it outlaws. Yet somehow it’s politically feasible.

Politics is the art of the possible. And, as a matter of sheer practicality, I don’t see how it’s possible for such laws to be passed in the first place.

The Death Penalty is hideously controversial. How much more controversial would a law that mandates the Death Penalty for every single Probe, without trial or recourse, be?

Yet we’re to believe that everybody in America just accepts it. No protests, no civil disobedience, no pastors appealing to the consciences of their congregations (a magic Martin Luther King, Jr.), no opinion columnists elaborating on how impractical and unjust these laws are, no civil rights lawyers slavering to make their bones taking a test case to the Supreme Court, no governors who commute these instant death sentences, no Presidential pardons? No controversy, ever?

Can you imagine the news stories? “Next on 60 Minutes, the story of teen prom queen Sally Pretty, the vivacious blonde from Cornfield, Kansas, who just last week was giving her valedictory address at Smalltown High, and this week finds herself in front of a firing squad at the tender age of 18.”

The Death Penalty is one of the most circumscribed outcomes in American law. It has already been outlawed once by the Supreme Court (in 1971), and allowed only under narrow circumstances (including requiring an entirely separate trial, held solely for sentencing purposes). The total number of executions in America since 1976 (according to this site) is 1321. For those opposed to the Death Penalty that’s 1321 executions too many, but in any case, it isn’t a common event. (By way of comparison, more than 40,000 U.S. citizens die every year in car crashes.)

Probes are so common, there’s an entire branch of the military dedicated to (or at least tasked with) hunting them down. How many Probes is that? No way of telling, but let’s suppose it’s .001% — 1 out of 100,000. That’s 3000 probes instantly executed. 1 out of 1 million is still 300 probes, dead. And if it’s more common, the numbers go up, drastically.

The book would have us believe that society accepts, as a settled matter of Constitutional law, that some citizens can be executed immediately, just for becoming capable of manifesting a specific school of magic, and for no other reason.

Call me a dewey-eyed optimist, but since we have enough trouble executing two brutal murderers (like the Hi-Fi killers), I do not see Americans accepting a regime that executes 3000 people who have done absolutely nothing wrong.

I do not believe it. It’s too large a Bullshit Tax, which is why I didn’t enjoy the ride.

[Ob. Gaming reference: We’re talking worldbuilding. As a GM, you worldbuild, even when running a published setting. Be sure your settings don’t have a higher Bullshit Tax than your players will be willing to pay.]

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Intrigued? You can buy Shadow Ops: Control Point at Amazon.com.