Posts Tagged ‘rules’

I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function.  I think rules are important to creativity.  You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is.  If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article.  I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.

Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.

First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“.  I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?”  This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me.  I consider it to have a fatal flaw:  it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“.  In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.

In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story.  Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one.  Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories.  That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter.  Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances.  Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part.  The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions.  When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.

If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe.  There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were.  That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.

One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book.  I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do.  Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers.  Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses.  I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out.  It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power.  Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications.  Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.

These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do.  The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility.  That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems.  That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.

If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story.  To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem.  Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying.  Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools.  This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no.  This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.

Case study:  the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work.  Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.

This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic.  It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense.  The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be.  That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much.  Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices.  I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative.  I suspect other authors do as well.

Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too:  Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler:  he answers in the affirmative)

Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices.  This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate.  Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion.  As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding.  That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!

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I’ve written about magic and its function before, most notably in my Merely Magical and Mix and Match Magic articles.  I’m a scientific fellow by nature, but magic is so useful for fiction that I’d be remiss in ignoring it.  Beside that, it’s fun to think of the intersection between magic and science.  Cue Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So lately, I’ve been wondering… how do magic spells with conditions work?

I work with computers all day long, as an artist, true, but I understand a little bit of programming.  There are programs that are constantly looking for input that is then acted on.  The computer has to constantly run routines that ask “is anything happening now?” and “how about now?” or “maybe now?”… it’s always paying attention, ready to spring into action.  This takes processing power.

How about magic?

I’ve been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies again lately, so I’ll use those as an example (here there be spoilers!).  In the first one, the Aztec curse is lifted when the gold is returned and the blood debt repaid.  Is there an ancient Aztec spirit checking DNA?  Maybe it’s just checking with its fellow spirits in a vast Aztec post-mortal spy network.  They are always watching, dun dun dun…  The gold would be a bit easier to explain as it’s a simple count… but how to know if they are the right coins?  Again… Aztec ghost spy network, or maybe just a ghostly assayer working with the DNA specialist.

What about the whole Davy Jones myth (in the movies)?  He was cursed because he wasn’t faithful to his ladyfriend… but how did she know?  Maybe that one is easy to explain with a bit of mindreading and/or scuttlebutt, but what of the apocryphal Will Turner variant?  According to what I’ve read online (yes, I was curious, hush), Will isn’t stuck on the Flying Dutchman at the end of the third movie because Elizabeth was faithful to him, and he to her.  Who checks on these things?  Who or what is watching, and how does one get privacy in such a world?

Perhaps magic itself has a level of sentience?  At least enough to run simple “pass/fail” monitoring checks at a low level all the time?  If so, how much does magic think?  How smart is it?  Can it be fooled?  How much power does it take to run these checks?  Are there limits to its perception, whether temporal, spatial or something else?  Can it be blinded or deafened?

And what if the rules change?  Is magic capricious?  In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, why could Balthazar and Dave drive through their own reflection to escape a magical mirror trap, but Horvath needed external help to escape the same sort of trap?  Does one need a certain velocity to just blow out of the trap (shades of Back to the Future, where the tech may as well be magic), or some other quirky condition?

The Looking for Group webcomic is one I’ve wondered about lately in that regard as well.  The first minor arc in that comic has our central hero incinerated (into ashes!) and then revived by a local priestess, whole and healthy.  Later, that same priestess can’t revive her adopted father, merely because he had suffered some sword slashes to vital arteries.  Similarly, she couldn’t fix her uncle’s lost arm (though an artificer managed to make a perfectly functional magical metal one).  Did she lose power?  Are ashes easier to revive than a whole corpse (albeit minus some blood)?  Did magic’s function change?  Is this just the Power of Plot changing the rules in the name of Pointless Drama?

I know, this is overthinking things, but I believe there’s merit in having consistent rules that magic function by.  That sort of logical underpinning can make a world more interesting.  It need not be boiled down to a quantifiable science (though that might be interesting), but a bit of logic and consistency can go a long way in selling something as fantastic as magic, something that inherently goes against our intuition.  Even if the end player/reader/viewer doesn’t get these rules explained explicitly, just the fact that they are there and that the creators use them is a boon to the presentation.

On the other hand, capricious, chaotic, unpredictable magic has its place, too.  I just think that authors, game designers and worldbuilders should put a bit of thought into how and why magic does what it does instead of just making random stuff up and changing the rules as they go.  Maybe that’s a level of Batman-crazy preparation that we typically only see in someone like Tolkien and his linguistic and historic backgrounds of Middle Earth… but I think it’s worth it.  It seems to me that having that sort of underlying superstructure makes a magical world cleaner and more interesting, if only because it’s easier to be immersed (you’re not always asking “wait, what?” as you play along) and easier to expand (known rulesets are easier to follow, or break as occasion demands).

If nothing else, looking at how things work can provide story hooks and opportunities to delve into a fictional world and issue exposition in new and interesting ways.  It’s a good thing to have readers/players/viewers wondering “how” and “why” if the answers exist and help build up the world… and it’s a bad thing if those questions just lead to plot holes and lazy craftsmanship.

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Long Arm of the Law

I’m generally a law-abiding sort of person.  I’m a careful driver.

…so when the officer pulled me over on my way to work, I wasn’t quite sure what he was thinking.

It turns out that my annual emission and safety inspection was past due, so, naturally, since (even petty) law is important to enforce (unless you’re politically connected, of course… laws are only for the little people), the officer pulled me over and cited me for it.  In the process, he found that my driver’s license was expired.  Naturally, I got cited for that as well.  I’m pretty sure he was grumpy about that, since he had that sort of stern, constipated look that officers seem to wear so well.

Yes, I’m a terrible, terrible criminal.  It’s a good thing I don’t have much dignity or I’d have been annoyed about being pulled over with the flashing lights for a paperwork infraction.

If the news radio is to be believed, he should probably have been out taking care of a homicide or something, since those happen almost every day or so.  I suppose that I should be grateful in the abstract that he didn’t have anything better to do than pull me over for a paperwork violation.  On the other hand, I kinda wish he had something more important to do.  I could give him a list.

As Denninger notes, it only takes one bad experience with officers to start to see all law officers with a jaundiced eye, no matter the real facts of a case.  (I was undeniably past due on my registration and licensing, but those are victimless and far from criminal offenses, and perhaps not even worth worrying about.  I guess the office was low on revenue, and taxing property just doesn’t pay the bills.)  The same principle works on judicial officers, politicians and…

wait for it…

game developers

As my boss suggested to our programmers, game developers are the gods of our little game worlds.  We wield absolute power over permissions, presentation and, er… Putress.  (Yes, that’s an oblique reference to over-reliance on cut scenes to tell a dev-controlled story instead of letting players tell the story.  Sometimes alliteration is a bit of a stretch.)  We build the systems that make a game function.  If players want to pick up an apple in Stormwind, they have to have a shopping list for permission.  Otherwise, there is an absolute, unbreakable ban on picking apples.

We don’t even have to rely on bored police officers to enforce things for us (though Game Masters are useful to moderate grey areas), we just have to make actions we don’t want absolutely impossible.  We are the petty tyrants and dictators of our products, we can do that.  Arguably, we should do that and not let players get full of themselves (coughEVEmonaclecough) and think they own the game.  Customers aren’t always right, though they are usually worth listening to, or at least, for the more cynical, giving them impression that they are listened to.

Of course, there’s always human error to deal with, as evidenced when Lord British famously forgot about his own immortality flag and died as a natural result, but even that was something a developer messed up.  Now, it’s true that hackers might break your game world, modders might mod, and hex editors might coopt your code, but for the most part, players have no choice but to exist and abide by a game’s rules.

All the more important, then, to get those laws right.

Petty and pithy laws, like those the officer bothered me for, might have a place in a nanny state hellbent on spending other people’s money on bad deals, but they serve little purpose in game worlds.  You think the ten dollar horse and sparklepony were something to fuss about?  How about a “right to run” tax?  Microtransaction tollbooths?  Maybe a “Random GM doesn’t like your name” surcharge?

That sort of thing really can get onerous.  Games need rules to exist and function, it’s true… but dumb rules only annoy players for little benefit in gameplay.  What exactly constitutes “dumb” is certainly contextual, and in a game with a huge, elaborate ruleset and a big playerbase, you’ll almost certainly run into differing opinions on which rules are dumb and why.  You might not even know until you do a lot of playtesting, or after the game is in the wild and you get a bunch of hate emails.  Still, as the ultimate arbiter of your game, as a designer, you have to own those rules and not be afraid of hardcoding them, enforcing them, and when necessary, changing them.

It might be good to be a minor deity, creating a pocket universe for a game, but the position comes with responsibility.  At the end of the day, though, the devs must be the “adults in the room” and lay down the law for their game.  Devs can’t afford to be squishy on the rules.  Even Magic the Gathering, a game famous for cards that break the core game’s rules, only works because those core rules are clarified as well as possible and enforced strictly so that the quirky cards work well with them.  At least, in official sanctioned play.

Playing with house rules, well… that’s another thing entirely.

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Topics may range from the mundane to the marvelous, from the entertaining to the educational. I make no claim to consistency, and updates will be unpredictable. Life does that, and I make no apologies for having other priorities.

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