Is it just me, or are there a lot of magical educational institutions in the fantasy genre? I mean, it makes sense – if you have a world where there’s a wizard in every town, they all have to learn their trade somewhere, right? What I find odd, though, is the extent to which we, the readers, always find ourselves there, going to classes, worrying about tests, and the rest of it. Now, while I do enjoy a well-rendered magic school scene as much as the next guy, I feel like this particular trope of the genre is getting worn out. I mean, consider all the magic schools out there:
- Hogwarts (naturally)
- The Jedi Academy
- The University (Kingkiller Chronicles)
- Brakebills (The Magicians)
- The White Tower of Tar Valon (The Wheel of Time)
- Roke (Earthsea Trilogy)
There are more than this, too, and there are also those other fantastic schools we see that, while they don’t teach magic, they do teach rather off-beat things like mutant powers (Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) or high-tech strategy (the Battle School in Ender’s Game) and so on and so forth. My own world, Alandar, has a magical school, too (the Arcanostrum of Saldor), and I’d bet there are at least a thousand other first novels out there all brandishing their own version of how to learn to throw fire from your hands and tell the future with a dish of water. And, while I don’t begrudge anybody from trying to figure that stuff out in their fantasy world, I am getting a little tired of having to take the curriculum myself.
I don’t want to go to class with these kids. I don’t want to meet their teachers. I don’t want to see their tests or worry with them over their tuition or any of that. It’s becoming exhausting for me – I feel like I never get the chance to graduate from these places. Once I’m out of one, I’m enrolled in another. It’s starting to drive me crazy. I have now forsworn ever writing any further magic school scenes that deal with the troubles of students learning the mystical arts (I have done it in the past, but no more). Why? It’s done now. Beat to death.
Now, there are some very good reasons why this trope has infiltrated so much of the genre and, honestly, one of the reasons it bothers me is that I, myself, am a teacher and reading this stuff just makes me feel like I’m at work to some extent. Most simply, though, the primary reason we keep seeing magical schools is that so much of this genre is targeted at kids who are still in high school or college. Hell, the Young Adult Fantasy genre is almost exclusively concerned with an audience for whom a major (if not the major) source of conflict in their lives is their experiences in school. I would bet that adults like these things because they, themselves, enjoy the nostalgia that comes with being obsessed with the troubles that come with school (which, kids, if I may pull my Old Man Card here, are wonderfully simple problems compared to the Real World). Even beyond audience appeal, they also serve as excellent ways to introduce a reader to the magical scheme of the fantasy world in question – as they learn, so do you.
In all those senses, I get it; I understand why we keep going back to these places. Can we shake it up, though? Can we tell the story of a teacher instead of a student? Can we follow a student who finds school easy but their personal life hard (though I suppose Grossman does this in The Magicians to some extent)? Can we follow a student who is so terrible at school that he isn’t any good and he drops out and then finds something else to do with his life? What about not having a school, but just a master and apprentice? This has been done, yes, but hardly as often and not with as much detail. What about somebody who’s just plain old self-taught? What about somebody founding a school? What about a school that gets dissolved?
There’s a lot of stuff to be done here, but I feel like we keep running in the same circles. We got the same talented kid who has some trouble in school but overall does impressive stuff who has a teacher s/he likes, a teacher s/he hates, a group of plucky friends, and a headmaster who makes a good mentor. They go through their adventures, get their degree, and there the story stops. This I find deeply ironic to some extent since, as all adults know, that’s the point where the story really starts.
It is more dearly bought than thou thinkest.
A son wishes to know his father’s secrets. To learn them is cheap – time, patience, vigilance, cunning are all in ready supply. These are not the price. The price is in the knowing.
The son learns the father is a cheat, an adulterer, a coward, a liar. Or the son learns the father is a hero, a paragon, a faultless man of integrity. Or the son learns his father is exactly as he appears, and nothing more. The exact fact does not matter.
To know is to cease to hope. Learn, and kill possibilities with broad strokes. Slay thy dreams with every learned fact. Build thy prison out of truth and evidence. Watch thy youth die at a pace with thy tutelage.
Think thou that I and my brethren were ever thus? We once walked with men in an age before thy reckoning. We were scholars, prying at the seams of Truth, seeking the answers to all questions. We learned them. We Know.
The Knowing had a price. Death became our slave, pain our tutor, power our currency. We were undone; our humanity withered with our imagined wisdom. We cared not. We wished to Know, and there was no price too high. It is only now, with the perspective of aeons, that we can savor the rich irony of our quest. We wished to become gods through our learning. Instead we have become servants; slaves to the Truth. Custodians of the Answer.
The wonder in our souls is but a half-remembered whisper. Our curiosity is as dead as the cities that birthed us. We are men no longer. We are husks, hollowed out with secrets. Thou cometh hither to seek such secrets; for them thou shalt pay. This, though, I give thee for free:
Ask not. Let thy secrets lie. Dwell in the possible.
Author’s Note: This is a discarded chapter from a novel I’ve been working on the past few years. Hool’s story has changed somewhat, but this little scene is still worth a gander, I suppose. Not perfect, but not bad, either.
Snow. Not yet, but very soon. Brekhool could smell it in the air—a clean, fresh scent that burned her nostrils. She looked up at the sun—a cold metal plate shining through the gray autumn sky—it was early in the year for snow. A long winter was ahead.
“Hool.” Hapta growled. Brekhool laid her ears back against her broad skull as she looked over at her pack-sister’s whelp. Hapta was ten years old now—practically grown—but he was lean and his gray fur was thin around his back and shoulders. She hoped he would not survive this winter’s frost.
Hapta flared his nostrils and showed his teeth between black lips. “Momma waits on the hill, Hool. Jump.”
Hool closed her left paw into a fist and rolled her broad shoulders into a backhand slap that sent Hapta tumbling into the dirt. When he rolled to get up, she put her knee on his back and pinned him. Twisting his ear to her muzzle, she let her snarl rumble around his flat head for a moment before speaking. “You are not so big to show teeth, pup. Next time you try, I will skin you.”
Hapta went limp, but did not beg. Hool thought about making him, but he was right—everyone was waiting on the hill, and they had been waiting long enough.
Settling down on to all four limbs, Hool trotted off to the south across the vast grasslands of her home. Ahead, she could see the holy hill named Adoo—the highest point for a very long way. At its top stood the grotto of sacred trees where the whole of Hool’s pack was gathered around, watching her approach. In the crowd, she could pick out her eldest daughter, Groodan, and her second son, Hoodrad, but the pups were nowhere to be seen. Sniffing the breeze, she could catch the barest hint of their scent, and guessed they were near the center of the grotto—probably to get a better view. She reminded herself to scold Groodan for letting them slip away again. The girl-pup would be a terrible mother. Half her litter would end up griffon food for certain.
She stood and climbed on two legs up the slope of the hill. The pack, their eyes down and ears low, parted around her, some rattling bone charms and muttering to themselves. Hool could only catch pieces of their prayers, so it was difficult to say who was with her or against her.
It was cold at the top of the hill. She wished she could have brought a hide to wear, but Mogro the shaman had been very specific—no hides, no charms, no weapons. A shaman speaking from a holy hill was not to be denied, and so she came naked. As she suspected, she spied her youngest—Brana and Opa—sitting quietly at the front of the pack. Their ears perked up when she passed by and Brana opened his mouth to speak, but she stilled him with a hard glare and he sat down again—such a good pup, he was.
At the center of the grotto, in a ring of dirt and dry leaves, waited Broda. She had shaved parts of her black fur to the skin in the traditional patterns of a warrior, though the effect was not flattering—Broda was always too bony to look menacing. As Hool entered the ring, Broda showed her teeth and stomped on the ground. Hool did not meet her gaze, and instead looked at Mogro, who came to stand between them.
By comparison with Broda, Mogro was a giant. Though old and graying around the muzzle, he was broad as a stallion and stood head and shoulders above all the gnolls present, even Brekhool herself. He wore many necklaces of holy bones that clattered in the wind, and he leaned upon a great staff that bore the ears, fingers, and teeth of defeated foes on long rawhide strings. It was said that when Mogro grew angry, even the earth trembled.
What little noise there had been before Hool entered the ring at the center of the grotto was now gone. All eyes were on the shaman. For long moments only the rustle of the dead leaves in the wind and the faint clatter of Mogro’s holy bones disturbed the silence of the hill. Then, some of the younger pups began to grumble and whine at the delay, and their mothers snarled for them to be quiet. Behind her, Hool knew that Brana was fidgeting, but he made no sound. Such a good pup! She would make certain to hunt him a fine scatterlark for breakfast tomorrow.
“Do not listen for your children, Brekhool. You have other worries at this moment.” Mogro’s deep voice was like a thunderclap. Dead silence followed his words. Even the wind died.
Hool bowed her head. “Sorry, Wise Mogro.”
He held up a hand and then raised his staff. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, why do you come to Adoo?”
“I come to be First of my pack.”
Mogro shook the staff twice. “Your pack has its First, and it is Broda.”
Brekhool’s ears flattened against her head. “Then I will throw her down.”
Mogro shook the staff twice more, and turned to Broda. “What say you, Broda, First of your pack?”
Broda’s yellow eyes burned. “Let her come.”
“So be it.” Said Mogro, and he drove the staff into the earth.
Broda roared and leapt at Hool. Bearing her teeth, Hool threw her shoulder into her rival’s path, and knocked the lighter gnoll sprawling on the ground. Teeth bared, Hool pressed her advantage, leaping on Broda’s back and bringing her fists down on the back of her head. Flipping over, Broda and Hool grappled and rolled in the dirt.
Around them, the yips and barks of the pack cheered them on. Hool heard Opa singing, “Momma mighty, big and tall! Momma mighty make her fall! She is ugly, she is mean! Break her bottom, make her scream!”
Brekhool was far stronger than Broda, but Broda was very quick, and so the two wrestled for some time without either gaining the advantage. Finally, Hool managed to wrap her jaws around Broda’s forearm and bore down, breaking it. Broda yelped and punched Hool in the nose hard enough to make lights dance in her eyes. They broke apart, and circled one another around the ring.
Broda snarled, nursing her arm. “You will not win, Hool. The sky and the earth are singing for me.”
Brekhool wiped blood from her nose. “The sky and the earth sound a lot like my pups.”
Broda charged in again. Hool evaded her jaws and kicked her in the knee. As she went down, Hool was on top of her, raining blows on her face and neck. She heard Brana and Opa cheering as she smashed Broda’s head into the ground over and over.
Sitting on Broda’s chest, Hool roared in her face. “You killed Agmor so you could be First!”
Broda twisted and tried to scramble away, but Hool grabbed her ears and wrenched her back into the hold, still roaring. “You killed him with poison, like a dirty human!”
“No!” Broda yelped, weakly trying to ward off the blows.
Rage thrilled through Hool’s body, and she smashed her rival’s head against the ground so hard that one of Broda’s teeth came loose. “You will say it! You will say you poisoned my Dadda, or I swear I will take your throat, and wear your skin as a coat!”
Broda made another escape attempt, but did not get far. Hool sat on her chest, her golden eyes blazing with anger. This was it! This was her moment of triumph! A whole year she had waited for this moment, waited for the murderess to be at her mercy. No more being called a liar. No more ugly whispers behind her back, no more vicious rumors being spread by Broda and her brood. It all ended here and now.
“Say it!” Brekhool roared, striking Broda again. One of her rival’s eyes was swollen shut, and blood was pouring from her nose and mouth.
Broda coughed and barked a single word, “Wind!”
At that moment, a great gust blew through the grotto and hit Hool with such force that she was thrown across the ring and against the trunk of a tree. Her breath rushed past her lips, and she fell to the ground, dazed and gasping. Her thoughts screamed, “No! Get up!”
It was too late. Hool rolled to her feet just in time to catch Broda’s charge in the chest. Her head hit the tree trunk with a crack, and the world spun. She heard the pack howling, but whether it was from joy or shock, she couldn’t tell. The next thing she felt was Broda’s teeth at her throat.
She had lost.
“Enough!” Mogro took his staff from the ground. “The challenge is ended.”
Broda released Hool’s throat and limped to Mogro’s side. “Thank the wind and earth.”
“She is a liar, Wise Mogro!” Hool had pulled herself up by the tree and was still dizzy.
Broda growled. “You are not First, pup! You are defeated!”
“You nasty, dirty human-pet! You used magic, that was human magic that threw me!” Hool looked around at the pack. Their eyes were downcast. “Listen to me—the wind does not pick gnolls up and hurl them against trees. Don’t be stupid!”
Only Mogro looked at her. “The wind does what the wind wills, Brekhool. All the stories tell this. Did not Broda call out to the wind for aid?”
Hool snorted. “The wind does not obey Broda.”
Mogro nodded his head. “It did just now. You must accept it.”
“I will not. It isn’t possible.” How could it be? Broda? A wind-master? No. Never—she cheated. She had to have cheated. This couldn’t be happening.
“You will submit to me, Hool.” Broda said, showing her bloody and uneven teeth.
Hool looked to the rest of the pack. “Are all of you blind? Can’t you see what happened? It isn’t possible! She is a liar! I have seen her with the humans—she makes deals, she trades with them, she goes to their cities. How can you follow her?” Her voice cracked, and she realized she was close to howling. She closed her mouth and took a deep breath. “Mogro, please.”
Mogro shook his head. “The battle is finished, and you are the loser. You must obey Broda.”
“She will never obey me.” Broda snorted. “She thinks that just because she was Agmor’s favorite pup, she is special.”
“Do not speak his name, Broda. I will kill you for it.”
Broda looked to the pack. “You see? Even when beaten she threatens me! This is against the laws of the pack. Brekhool is dangerous, and a threat to us all.”
The pack kept its eyes lowered to their First, but there were a few snorts and yips of assent. Hool looked at Brana and Opa; their eyes were not dropped. They glared at Broda, and showed their teeth. Broda saw them, and growled. “Look at her pups—even the littlest ones defy me!”
Hapta was the first to speak, “What should we do, Momma?”
Broda turned slowly to Hool, her battered face leering. “Brekhool, daughter of Agmor, you are not our pack any longer.”
Gasps and barks of shock all around. Brekhool herself blinked. “Wh…what?!”
“You heard me, Hool. You are not of our pack. Go away and never come back.”
“No.” Hool looked to Mogro, “She can’t do that!”
Mogro heaved a great sigh that caused his jowls to flutter, and shook his staff three times. “It is so. Broda, the First of her pack, has banished Brekhool. She is never to return.”
“No! My puppies!” Brekhool yelped.
Mogro’s black eyes were stern, impassive. “You must go. Your puppies remain with their pack, as it should be.”
Terror made a knot in Hool’s stomach. It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be. “But…where? Where can I go? There is nowhere else!”
One by one, the pack turned their backs. An older gnoll picked up Opa and Brana and turned them around as well, even as Brana’s soft voice asked, “But why? Why does Momma have to go?”
Broda, snickering, turned her back as well, leaving only Mogro. Hool threw herself to his feet. “No, I won’t go! I won’t leave!”
Mogro kicked her back. “You must go.” Then he turned away.
Hool remained at the top of the holy hill named Adoo for many hours, howling at her pack to look at her, but none did. Brana and Opa had to be carried off, so that they could not speak to her. Finally, weeping, she slowly made her way through the crowd and down the hill again. Every step was heavy, and with every foot she drew away from her family, her home, her people, she felt an unbearable anguish build in the depths of her body. It was as though she were slowly tearing off an arm, so great was the desire to turn back, to stop the pain growing greater and greater. When she finally turned to look, the pack had moved on and the hill was empty, but for one.
Brana sat at the edge of the grove, his fluffy mane of gold fur waving in the wind. The little gnoll, no more than two years old, raised his head and howled.
It was the last time Brekhool heard his voice.
Most role playing games involve some kind of magic, whether they actually call it that or not. If it’s a fantasy setting, you’ve got wizards wandering around; if it’s science fiction, you’ve got psychics; if it’s modern, you have eldritch rituals and witchcraft and some such. With rare exception, however, magic is seldom ‘magical’ in RPG settings. It might be interpreted as such by the inhabitants of that setting, but when the rules get slapped atop the sorcery, it rapidly becomes what I’d call ‘mundane’. It is rare that I’ve run across a magic system I’ve liked, including the ones I’ve created myself.
How Magic Usually Works
In most role-playing settings, magic give characters the ability to alter the environment for the purpose of destroying enemies, assisting friends, or acting as a toolbox by which the player can do things he otherwise couldn’t–climb cliffs, open/lock doors, clean his room, carry stuff, etc.. In this role, I usually fail to see how magic differs from, say, equipment. I’ve got a longbow and you can throw lightning bolts–what’s the difference, really? Well, usually it’s two things: (1) magic is more potent and (2) magic costs more. The lightning bolt really only differs from the longbow in the fact that it does more damage than the bow (in most cases) and it requires the character to pay some kind of price for its use, including things like being lousy in combat, taking some kind of drain on their person (aging, a headache, the chance they might catch on fire, etc.), or having some kind of limit on the number of times it can be used.
All in all this arrangement is fairly functional and easy to manage. The trope of the wizard who can throw giant fireballs but can’t defend himself in a wrestling match is well known, as is the ambitious sorcerer who calls down a little too much power and burns themselves up. My problem with it is that, all-in-all, it is fairly uninspiring stuff. I don’t really want magic to be equitable to equipment–I want it to be special, impressive, even frightning. Now, some systems try to achieve this to varying extents (Riddle of Steel is probably my favorite–http://www.driftwoodpublishing.com/whatis/), and others don’t even bother (4th Ed D&D, for instance, has some of the most boring magic in existence, and it is literally indistinguishable from the abilities of other non-magical players). This is not to say magic isn’t fun (the only character I ever play these days in D&D is a wizard), but it really doesn’t capture what I want magic to capture.
What Magic Should Be
To my mind, magic should be unique, impressive, flexible, and dangerous. I want wizards to toss spells that do more than simple damage to their enemies–I want them to do things that make everybody else in the game go ‘whoaaa.’ I want wizards to have a few spells they use regularly (the simple stuff, like telekinesis and little bolts of energy or whatever), but also have access to spells that they only ever use once and that very well may be unique to themselves. I want the execution of those really impressive spells to have a huge cost for the wizard or the environment or the plot or something. In short, I want magic to be a Big Deal.
This goal, of course, raises a lot of problems in an RPG. The first, and the one most often groused about, is regarding ‘game balance.’ Now, first of all, I don’t really think game balance is all that important in an RPG, mostly because game balance is a concept best applied to competitive or adversarial games, like Risk or Warhammer or Baseball. Since an RPG isn’t adversarial or competitive, but rather collaborative, it shouldn’t really matter if one player is ‘better’ than another. Furthermore, if you’ve got a good GM who allows players to solve problems creatively and is able and willing to raise or lower the level of challenge to make sure the game remains interesting (and you’re using a system that allows such things–i.e. not D&D), then the comparative power levels of the PCs and NPCs doesn’t so much break the game as dictate tactics. Obviously you should not engage the superwizard in a wizard’s duel–you’ll die. Figure out a way around it, folks.
Related to the game balance issue, however, and something that is (to my mind) more important, is the fact that magic, if too powerful, kills the challenge inherent in a game. Players always want to do things easily and almost always want to avoid difficulties or risk whenever possible. Paradoxically, if this desire is indulged, the game becomes no fun. If I ever have to say ’congratulations, you infiltrated the Tower of Despair and escaped with the Crown of Doom without anyone noticing’, I have failed as a GM (that is unless, of course, the Tower of Despair isn’t the main objective of the mission but rather a sideshow that is best dispensed with quickly, but I digress…). Danger is essential to fun in an RPG. It comes in many forms, of course–not all danger is purely to life and limb–but it must be present. Something must be at stake, and there must be a very reall chance of losing it. Therefore, magic that is too powerful without there being some kind or price inherent in it can kill the game and, furthermore, granting players power that they will abuse for the purpose of eliminating challenge is counter-productive to a successful game. This kind of ’game-balance’ (not the intra-character kind) must be carefully managed. Again, a flexible GM can fix this often enough (by raising the level of difficulty on the fly), but all-powerful wizards can still derail this if magic isn’t properly managed.
So, with these things in mind, let me outline how the ideal system of magic should work, so far as I’m concerned:
If and when a wizard throws a curse at a person, that person should suffer for it. There is nothing I dislike more than a system where somebody gets hit with a giant lightning bolt and keeps going like nothing happened. Super lame. Combat spells should hurt, defensive spells should be potent, movement spells should do what they say they do. Shadowrun was always pretty good at this (http://www.shadowrun4.com/), as is Riddle of Steel. I, of course, like deadly games, so perhaps that’s just me.
Spells should be applicable in multiple situations or, barring that, wizards should have general knowledge of entire schools of sorcery so that they can execute spells that fulfill a variety of roles. If you can produce a telekinetic blast, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to produce a telekinetic hand to pick something up or to hold somebody in place. Talislanta is pretty good at this, as is Riddle of Steel (which is actually too flexible, but anyway).
Wizards should have sharp limits to their power in that they should either not know everything or not be good at certain things or have magic that possesses certain liabilities (like the need to carry around certain objects to do it, or need certain quantities of time, etc.). This is needed so that a wizard can still be challenged and, furthermore, so that the other players won’t feel useless. This is one area where Riddle of Steel falls a little short–those wizards can do just about anything, though they need a few seconds. Talislanta is marginally better, with all their various Schools of Sorcery having unique and particular limitations to their use.
Those who use magic should be wary, since it should exact a stiff toll on them if they overstep themselves. I want wizards to have the capacity to obliterate city blocks, but should be forced to balance that with whether or not it’s worth it. This effect needn’t always be physical. You don’t need to burn out you brain or age, for instance–you could instead simply owe progressively more of your soul to the underworld, or be forced to repay the favor the Gods did you in some fashion to be named later. In terms of price, Shadowrun is okay at this (wizards who overstep themselves routinely fall unconscious) and Riddle of Steel makes an effort (but who really cares about aging their character? How is that interesting?), but no system I’ve seen really nails this idea. Burning Wheel (http://www.burningwheel.org/) leaves the possibility open in their Magic Burner, but don’t really explore it much.
Finally, magic should be really cool in its application and execution. I don’t really want it to function identically to other game mechanics–it needs something special. It must be at least partially apart from the other ways of doing things because that’s what it is–magic. I understand and appreciate the wish to streamline rules and gameplay–I really do–but I don’t wish it done at the cost of flavor, if you will. To this end, D&D falls flat, as does Talislanta. Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and Shadowrun do it pretty well, but often at the cost of extremely clunky rules and confusing sets of new stats. I’d like to find a balance, if possible.
As those of you who know me can probably guess, I have been tinkering with an attempt to create my own ideal magic system for some time now. It is all going along with my revamp of the rule system I created for my own fantasy setting, Alandar (in which the story “The Martyr” is set, incidentally, along with a novel I’ve written and a huge quantity of background material). Perhaps someday, perhaps even on this very blog, I’ll debut it. It isn’t ready yet, though. Not yet. For now, I and all of us must make our way as best we can with the magic that we’re given, as pedestrian as it might seem.