Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Buttwyth Magick

I try to keep it positive in these pages, for the most part, but today I'm straight-out bitching about something that I'm tired of in the hobby. If you'd prefer to avoid negativity, carry on  looking at kitten memes. The rest of you, strap yourself in. It might get all snarky in here.

When I say "I'm tired of" this, I really mean something closer to Every time I hear this phrase I want to seize someone by the throat and toss them into a wood chipper as a lesson to others.

You know this phrase. I'll bet someone has pitched a game at your table using it in the last few months. First, they'll launch into a description of a concept that's actually pretty interesting, like "I'd like to run a game set in early America, before the time of the revolutionary war..." or "I'd like to run a game set in a dark, cyberpunk future where human freedoms are trampled underfoot by all-powerful corporations..." or "I'd like to run a high-school romance game full of comedy and awkward relationship moments..."

Then comes the Wood Chipper Moment.


Is there anything more cliche in roleplaying? Sure, I like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings as much as the next person, but for the love of The Amazing Randi, guys, can we stop this? Stop it now, before I'm forced to jam a phoenix feather wand through your eyesocket and into your brain while shouting "EXPELLIARMUS!"

I know, I know. Magic has been part of the hobby since the early days. Y'all can't crawl through dungeons and punch dragons in the speedbag without a wizard or a druid who's got your back. Having characters who can cast spells is as familiar and comforting as a big glass of hot chocolate with marshmallows shaped like little homunculi floating on the top. And oh, us gamers like to have our Awesome Powerz.

See, the problem is this: gamers tend to think of magic as the all-purpose spice of gaming. If a setting needs a little BAM!, you just sprinkle a few magicians in there. Voila! A tasty dish of Moo Goo Guy Gandalf.

They think that. What it's usually more like is ketchup, though. You squirt a big red blob onto something that was once food, and now it just tastes like... ketchup. I like ketchup on my burgers and fries, but I'm not sure I need it on my steak or my fettuccine alfredo or, god help us, cheesecake.

Magic often just makes things murky, and it's a distraction from the things about a setting -- especially historical settings, but others as well -- that make them interesting in the first place. Westerns are plenty interesting without adding in hedge wizards riding tall in the saddle. The American Revolution would not have been more dramatic if there were sorcerers at Bunker Hill. If you want to make a game about relationship drama, then make a game about relationship drama and set aside the notion you need to BAM! some magic in there because... reasons.

I own a lot of games, but I can count on one hand the number of RPGs that I own that actually do a good job of making magic an interesting part of the system or the setting. EVERWAY, FOR FAERIE QUEEN AND COUNTRY, and UNKNOWN ARMIES -- you get a gold star. As wise game designer Greg Stolze says in his wonderful, underrated fantasy game REIGN, the trick is to give careful thought to what magic actually does and how it works in your game. What are the implications of magic? How's that change the world? If your setting is only different cosmetically from the genre / historical era you're playing in, maybe you don't really need that big blob of red ketchup in there.

Next time you find yourself, or someone you love, attempting to invoke the dark power of Buttwyth Magick, ask yourself: Is this really adding anything to the game? Or is it just there because magic is always in roleplaying games?

I'll be standing in the corner, ominously pointing at the wood chipper.

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