Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Fantasy Versus Science Fiction...Total BS

The following post may have the possible side effect of making me somewhat unpopular, especially with those who can't tell my serious bits from my humorous ones. Luckily, I don't really care too much 'bout those people. I'm also not entirely sure where one ends and the other begins in this post to be honest...

To me, one of the major differences between Fantasy and Science-Fiction is the level of BS and how well it works in the setting you're creating. Perhaps level isn't quite the right word though. Nature? For instance...

In 9.9 out of 10 Fantasy settings I encounter, the bottom line answer for the why of all things is 'Magic'. Of course it is. It's Fantasy. At the same time it seems to me that very few writers and even fewer gamers determine what, if anything, magic is. I guess what I mean is, I feel you could put any word there and it would be just as valid (or invalid).

"How is it that these great and terrible winged lizards fly through the air and breath fire o' mighty and majestic master?", asked the young apprentice of Morbrood the Less-Dated.

"Why it's poop my boy", exclaimed the dateless Morbrood, "Everyone knows poop can do anything".

Now I know what you're thinking. Science-Fiction is the same thing. But it isn't to me.

In Science-Fiction, the BS needs consistency. It needs to make sense on close inspection, even if it's only internal sense in the setting. Just saying, "It's Science!" just doesn't cut it. In Fantasy, the cop-out is excepted, even expected. In Sci-Fi it comes off as lazy or poorly thought out.

Kind of a double standard. See, I think magic should mean something too. It should be something, even if that something is difficult to handle and impossible to fully understand. It should represent an idea or a concept on the nature of the nature of things and not simply be a word whose very definition is 'to hand wave; to not have a real answer. See also 'Full of crap.''

Not sure why this was on my mind but it was and so now, like an embarrassing youtube video of that party you went to last weekend, it's on the internet.

Barking Alien


  1. Hey man, funny or serious post, you bring up a valid point. There should be more than simple hand waving, "It is magic," BS. Makes me think more about the very nature of magic.
    Thanks for the post.

  2. I think you're largely right. Magic ought to be consistent in what it can or can't do and follow some rules. I don't think a setting needs to pass a really rigorous examination in this regard, but it shouldn't slap you in the face with obvious inconsistencies.

  3. Thanks guys.

    One of my biggest complaints about magic in traditional Medieval Fantasy games and settings is that it really never feels 'magical' in the sense that it's awe inspiring, surprising or even disconcerting.

    More often magic is a scapegoat, a crutch or a technical weapon. I'd like to this it can be all of these things and more but to do so you definitely need a clear idea of what it is in your universe and how it works.

    Remember, you don't have to reveal all its ins and outs to the players but you should have a solid idea for it yourself (as the GM) and a better answer than 'It's hocus pocus!' for the 500th time.

  4. Indeed, magic needs to be more than an excuse for breaking the physical rules. It needs to be part of the world with system (not always logical) of its own and consequences for its use.

  5. Modesett digs into some of the technical side of magic in his Recluce books I've read 3 or 4 of them and they're cool, especially if you're looking for that sort of thing.

    I wrote up a pretty detailed mahic system for a fantasy hero game a long time ago (because I could) that described where magic came from and where it went and how people tapped into it. I was pretty pleased with it. When I showed it to my prospective players the main response was "So...I can't just take a variable power pool?"

    I think as people who run games we care more about this sort of thing than people who play them as the world has to "work" for us on a large scale, while the players aren't as concerned about that kind of thing - some, maybe, but not all of them.

    I might have to dig out my old notes and post them up - should be good for a week's worth of posts, at least : )

  6. @Blacksteel - The trick is, don't explain it to them. ;)

    I have a reason why magic works the way it does in my world but I also have built into the setting that the average practioner of the mystic arts hasn't a clue about how it really functions.

    They know things that scratch the surface and so they can make things happen but true understanding of what the Arcane is doesn't reveal itself to everyone and certainly not easily or without a terrible cost.

    Mechanically, at least at first, magic in my homebrew D&D-But-Not setting is that same as that in the default D&D rules. It isn't until later in a character's life, levels and adventures that they may (may!) get the smallest of looks behind the curtain to see how things truly function.

  7. While I can see where you're coming from, I do think it's much harder to divvy it up than you think. I know what's SF and what's fantasy - but the edge cases are always an issue. SF rarely explains high-tech successfully (some of the best never do) and one of my favourite settings treats science and technology as a form of magic (Mage the Ascension). I've seen plenty of SF with magic-like technology or just magic (Mr Lucas - I'm looking at you!) and fantasy with some of the best-worked out explanations of magic I've ever seen.

    Seriously, I like my magic unexplained - that makes it wondrous for me. But I do like it to be consistent!

    Where D&D and it's derivatives are concerned though, I agree with you - 100% :)

  8. @Astronut - I am not in disagreement with you at any point in your comment. I concur on all counts. A lot of what you reference though could be looked at as very particular blend of Fantasy and Sci-Fi. Surely Star Wars falls in that category and I would go so far as to say the more you explain the nature of the universe of Star Wars the less cool you make it (um, Midi-Chlorians anyone?)

    Still, I think an explanation and or understanding of the nature of Magic helps you the GM build a consistant and 'believable' (using the term very loosely) world. Again, to maintain the sense of wonder, no one needs to know that explanation or understanding but you.

    There post seems to have garnered more comments and attention then I have seen on my blog in a while. I'll try to do more of these as I consider the next campaign I intend to run, which is likely going to be one or the other (Fantasy or Sci-Fi).

  9. Fantasy: only "the heroes" and really powerful supporting characters have a chance to win the day, usually with "magical" aid.

    Science Fiction: anyone can push the button, pull the trigger, or talk to the other side and win the day.

  10. Raven - not in all cases. One of the premises of the Lord of the Rings is that the "regular guy" was the only way to win the day, not the more traditional hero types. SciFi flips this around too even going back as far as the Lensman books where only special individuals are worthy to wear the lens.

  11. Indeed, while anyone can push the button or pull the trigger, it isn't just anyone who gets to. With a few exceptions (which made for great episodes I must confess), Ensign Parker and Lt. Morobushi aren't the ones who save the Enterprise.

    Now these points, while interesting and perhaps the source of a future point, are a bit off topic. I am not addressing the nature of the characters who use the BS but rather the nature of the BS itself.

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  13. Arthur C Clarke once said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".

    In a fantasy setting the education level of most characters precludes them from accessing or understanding the science or "technology" of why magic works. They just accept it (with a bit of awe, wonderment and fear) and go about their lives. Heroes may be exposed to it a bit more and therefore have a bit more respect and less awe. Mages and clerics may even think they understand how it works with their rituals and incantations, but they are generaly in awe of more powerful mages and clerics.

    In Sci-Fi the general education level is such that most people know how a communicator, blaster or hovercar work. They might not be able to build one from scratch but they understand the general principles. If they were to land on a primitive planet they would be treated as Gods (cue Ewok village).

    Ultimately it's the education level of the observer which matters. When you say that the Sci-Fi BS comes across as "lazy or poorly thought out" it's just our own 21st Century knowledge level trying to make logical sense out of the situation.

    Many is the time I've had to rein a player in when they've used 21st century knowledge in a medieval setting to save someone's life or to invent their way out of a situation. Players reacting badly to the Sci-Fi BS is just the same, they're trying to understand it with their 21st Century knowledge and they can't.

    Star Trek uses this BS approach on a weekly basis and they call it "Treknology" and fans accept it. You just have to find your magic phrase like "Alien Tech" "Nth Dimensional Physics" or "Polarity Reversal". Try it...

  14. "When you say that the Sci-Fi BS comes across as "lazy or poorly thought out" it's just our own 21st Century knowledge level trying to make logical sense out of the situation."

    Actually I was saying that about the magic in a lot of fantasy settings but it holds true for both.