The Lingering Gygax Fallacy

There’s a major thing that’s always bothered me about pretty much all Fantasy stories and especially game settings and even more especially roleplaying games published since Dungeons and Dragons came out. For some reason, Gary Gygax separated Wizards and Clerics, which later became a separation of arcane and divine magic, and this assumption has been played out blindly ever since.

The huge problem is that if you go back into actual human beliefs about magic and religion, they are intrinsically connected. This is very important because it prevents either from becoming arbitrary with reference to the other. The big example of this arbitrariness is found in D&D – any edition you prefer. Arcane magic is completely illogical and absurd. You chant nonsense words and wave your hands (or whatever) and for no apparent reason things happen as a result.

Divine magic in D&D is equally absurd. You do the same as a wizard, but you get slightly different arbitrary results. You’ve got a slightly better justification – it comes from a deity – but even then, the deity doesn’t really impact your life beyond that aside from telling you what weapon it prefers.

This is stupid.

If you look at pretty much every culture, there are generalizations you can make about their view of the supernatural. First of all, none of it is arbitrary. It is embedded in the culture’s mythology and structure and history and values. What D&D calls divine magic is better described as official magic; that is, the magic that people perform who belong to an official state or mainstream cultural religion. Arcane magic, better referred to perhaps as the occult, is simply magic performed by those outside the norm. Put simply, a medieval priest calls on God or Jesus, a medieval peasant might call on local spirits or ancestors or pagan deities, etc.

This has always bothered me about fantasy roleplaying games, and it isn’t even always reflected in fantasy fiction. In the Lord of the Rings, magic is intrinsic to the world. It is a fundamental part of some races or beings, but there is clearly a power present that is drawn upon. Of course, Tolkien was writing before D&D, so he didn’t codify or systematize the way magic works. Post-D&D, almost every author has to do so because that kind of systematization is just in the genre now. Inescapable.

Another example might be Robert Jordan. He’s written that he intentionally left religion in the usual sense out of the setting because there is his own idea of the intrinsic power of Aes Sedai – much like Star Wars, you’re born with a certain sensitivity to it, and it can be trained – its basically a slightly more complicated Force.

Way back, one of the main motivations behind creating Epic was to have a magic system that actually makes sense in reference to the religions and occult practices in the world. Central to this was to come up with a system that covered “arcane” and “divine” magic, and other forms of magic, in a more interesting way.

One of the biggest disappointments of D&D 3.0 and 3.5 was that they basically didn’t touch the magic system, except to make magic items profoundly less interesting. Its just such a stupid system – not only is it absurd compared with ‘real world’ beliefs and practices, but it isn’t even very interesting as a stand-alone system.

One thought on “The Lingering Gygax Fallacy

  1. I think what Gygax was doing was trying to fill roles he saw in fantasy literature, which are distinct, but in doing so he created a strange divide between arcane and divine. That is, the role of the “healer” and the role of the “mage”. It is a pretty common trope in fantasy that there is some magic (which may not even be magic) that is essentially passive and benevolent and usually calls on a greater power. Another kind of magic is like a force that people manipulate for their own ends and results in dramatic effects with high consequences.

    Other interesting divisions in thought about magic include the divide between magic as a technical science and magic as supplication/negotiation. This is a similar divide. On the one hand you have alchemists, scientists etc… who believe that the right combination of factors can force the desired result. On the other hand you have shamans, witches, sorcerers etc… who make bargains with higher powers to get the desired result.

    In other words, I don't think it's totally inaccurate to say there is some sort of divide in types of magic, but that the divide that resulted from Gygax choice is a bit arbitrary. Of course, the real problem is not the divide between wizard and cleric, but the fact that there is no further work done to flesh out precisely why and how each of their magic works. Wizard magic just works. Cleric magic works because gods make it work, but why?

    See the real problem isn't these roles – it's the stupid spells/levels system. If clerics were defined as magic users that have to negotiate with higher powers for their magic, and wizards were defined as magic users that have to combine the right esoteric knowledge, materials and symbols to generate their magic… it would be more interesting.

    Imagine a cleric who had (instead of a spell list) a list of effects that his patron had empowered him to be capable of doing, but each time he called on an effect he became more indebted to his patron and if he desired to learn new effects his patron would require more from him etc…

    Imagine a wizard who had a series of complex rules about combinations of elements and material components etc… who each time he wanted to generate a new effect he would have to experiment with the combination (having it blow up in his face a few times) until he got it right.

    Playing a Wizard or Cleric would then be more about roleplaying out the means of your art, rather than just saying “I cast Fireball!”

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