Fantasy Wargaming, cover to cover (IV)

Chapter II : Myth, Magic & Religion (or, “Mana maketh man”)

This chapter is, in my opinion, the most important of the whole book, because it explains the reasoning behind pretty much everything to follow, especially in the rules section. Also, I don’t think the rules make a lot of sense without the context these provide, so I’m giving this chapter a very slow reading and will break up the commentary over a few posts.

The author(s)* explains that because the supernatural (magic) is so central and distinctive to fantasy, it must be carefully considered, and the goal is to create a concept of magic that is both self-consistent and true to the “culture” of the game world (medieval northern European culture). To do this, he tackles three big questions:

  1. What is the supernatural?
  2. Where does the Power come from?
  3. How does the Power operate?

For #1, he accepts a definition** that magic is “using invisible and incomprehensible means to achieve visible and comprehensible effects.” You will notice (as the author notes too) that this actually makes magic indistinguishable from science, religion, and medicine in the medieval world view. No real distinction is made for the sake of the game either, except that medicine and science are largely left untouched, while religion and magic are treated in depth. I take it this is because magic and religion — the supernatural — have a distinct source of power (which is addressed in question 2), as opposed to science and medicine, which I imagine are “powered” by nature.

So for #2, the source of supernatural power is the “higher” and “Lower” powers: the gods, the astrological planets, nature, places, and so on which are considered to be sources of power by various people in various cultures. This power is referred to generically as “mana” although the Polynesian concept is merely an example and not the only form it takes. Clearly the author is thinking in anthropological terms. If “mana” is the stuff of magic power, and it comes from those things believed to be sources of mana, we have a sort of circular definition, except that there really is new information in the statement about belief. In fact, this is the “unified field theory” the FW author(s) take so much pride in (and it appears in all caps in the text):

Their power comes from your belief; the greatest source of mana is yourself.

This later restated with respect to religion as “It is the person’s worship of gods that gives them their power.” This section has some the very few citations to the works consulted in the research that went into the game, although they are rather indirect. But it appears that the authors drew partly on Godfrid Storms’ Anglo-Saxon magic (1948), Witchcraft in Europe, 1100-1700 a documentary history, edited by Alan C. Kors and Edward Peters (1972; a later edition covers 400-1700 CE), and Paracelsus (an occultist who wrote many works on medicine, astrology, botany, and general occultism).

The answer to question 3 is that mana is built up by ceremonies or rites. The gods accumulate mana from worship (which also explains why some gods are jealous of other gods, and even want their followers to evangelize for them…more worshipers means more mana!). But even mortals can accumulate mana through rites and ceremonies, and the distinction between “divine” and “arcane” magic, in so far as it exists at all, is that “clerics” build up & expend the mana of their gods, while “mages” build up and expend their own personal mana.***

So, that answers the “big three” questions, but a fourth piece of the puzzle for FW is the reality of the supernatural order and the abode of the “higher and lower powers.” This is called the Otherworld or Ethereal Plane in FW. It is the home of the gods, and all spirits, including the spirits of living beings (the spirits of humans, for example, roam the Ethereal Plane freely while alive and then join their god(s) in the their respective “halls” on death). Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory of Christianity are in the Ethereal Plane, as are the pagan Asgard, and the gloaming remains of the Celtic underworld, Olympus, etc. (these are fading because belief in them has mostly disappeared in the middle ages!). Likewise the Moslem paradise, and Hindu & Buddhist otherworlds, are all in the Ethereal Plane. The “geography” of the Ethereal Plane is indistinct and not really mappable, so there is no diagram as you’ll find in Gary Gygax’s illustrations of the outer planes. But like the fairytale world of the “Neverending Story” movies, these realms exist because and and as long as they are believed in.

The Ethereal Plane and Earthly plane can and do intersect at certain highly magical points, the most important of which being Faery, the realm of the fairies or elves.

Well, this is a lot to think about, huh? I’ve always liked this way of reconciling “divine” and “Arcane” magic, and I especially like the possibilities it raises for evil spirits, demons, and tricksters to set themselves up as gods in backwater regions, perhaps compelling or forcing locals to worship them. It also gives a neat mechanic for “sacred groves,” “haunted houses,” and other places to gain and maintain supernatural auras. I think a really terrifying and surreal game world could be made from all this! (But what could be more terrifying and surreal than the medieval imagination?

Mad Meg, again.

*Although the copyright statement and foreword point to this book being a group effort, I’m beginning to think that either Bruce actually wrote the whole thing from notes from the group’s work, or else the chapters were each written by a distinct member of the group and edited by him. After chapter II, we begin to see a lot of personal pronouns, reinforcing the idea that there was one author. I’m no philologist or anything so I won’t try to identify the different authors, I’ll just note this impression. I’ll use “he” to refer to the author(s) from here on out, rather than a plural pronoun.

**He uses quotes but does not cite his source. Again, if only this book had included a bibliography! It’s written by at least one Cambridge scholar, for christssake!  This sort of definition is pretty common in modern occultism, where authors try to gloss over the difference between science, religion, and magic too.  It brings to mind Aleister Crowley’s motto for one of his occult organizations (I forget which): “The goal of religion, the method of science.”  As if.

***Scare quotes here to indicate the terms “divine magic,” “arcane magic,” etc. are not actually used in FW.

Published in: on July 29, 2010 at 10:04 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I just wanted to stop by and say that I found this book in a local library and had no idea whatsoever how to play it. It was extremely interesting, but a tad to simulationist for my tastes. I’d have it still, but there’s no way I’m going back to that library until I pay my substantial late fees.

    • Yes, very very simulationist. That was all the rage in the early 1980s. Reading the magic rules section probably counts as several degrees of initiation in the Golden Dawn.

      You really should pay your overdue fines. Do you know what the difference is between a librarian and a ninja?

      • A librarian tells you to be quite and a ninja silently kills you.

  2. Fantasy WG is actually pretty playable as writen. It is just poorly organized It is not that differnt from AD&D but the attribute modifiers are “hidden” in each “skill/spell/combat” roll. With alittle simplification I think it would run quite well.

    • I mostly agree with that. I think the key would be to find (or invent, more likely) an underlying mechanic for all the charts. They generally go failure/partial success/total success, or failure with penalty/failure without penalty/success with penalty/success without penalty, or something like that… a few are just success/failure.

      Lots of the factors going into the calculations involve a “surplus” agility or intelligence over what the obstacle requires, and that would be pretty easy to turn to a degree of difficulty offset by flat agility or intelligence bonuses.

      Degrees of difficulty (DD) are a feature of the magic & religion rules already. I actually plan to try to work something out when I’m done this series (parts up to XIV are already written and scheduled to appear daily, and that takes me up to the combat rules. Combat, magic, and religion will take another 6-8 posts, and then one for the bestiary & its finally over. I’ve actually read through & taken notes for everything to 1/2 way through religion.

      Rewriting the rules, if I really follow through with that, will take some serious work though. Are you in? 🙂

  3. Yes I would like to rewrite the rules
    I think that physical test (mudane tasks?) or whatever you would like to call them follow a simple resolution. Abilities seem to have either a major influence on a task roll, a minor, or none. Major influence looks like (Score-10)/2 would work. Minor is +1 for 14+ and -1 for 8-.
    The other modifiers are mostly just luck, fatigue and wounds.
    So I think you could list each ability like the author did (find secrete doors, pick pocket) and have a base calc. Or better yet have a list of abilities and corresponding tasks that they have major and minor influence on.
    Major influence: Morale, Berserking
    Minor influence: Combat, Climbing, Hiding

    The GM could Ad hoc modifier and contributing attributes pretty easily. EX: Say a fighter mount is hurt in combat and he is trying to keep from falling off. The GM could say that it is and Agility roll with minor charisma adjustment (or vise versa depending on how you see riding) or even with minor Chr and PHY since you could try to muscle the horse.

    They you apply the DD and compare roll on universal table.

  4. Just found this and am very happy to have done so. Like you, I am of the opinion that this game has gotten unfairly represented. I, too have considered the idea of revising it, or at least writing a game inspired by the concepts it contains.

    One thing I’d long noted, and wondered that the original authors had not even hinted at, was what would happen if, say, a Romantic Knight (to use a term from Pendragon) were to contemplate the object of his romance. Do the rules on transferring mana to deities hold also to transferring it to mortals? Further, what abilities could mana give to a mortal without magical training? Some minor benefits, say, similar to Force Points in WEG Star Wars (difficulty modifiers and the like)? Perhaps it is difficult to kill a king because of the loyalty of his subjects, and their “deep meditation/study” or even rhetorical “incantation & ululation” at feasts or the like, giving him a ready supply of mana he can use, while a despised king is more likely to be assassinated since he lacks the constant mana infusion that such fame brings him. Probably it would be best to give a greater amount of minor magics (and a simplified system for the minor ones) for such characters to make use of, rather than inventing an entirely new mechanic.

    • That’s an interesting idea. I like it.

      I’ve kind of given up on rewriting or deriving a similar game though.

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