Lazy fiction + my beef with D&D magic (aesthetically)

If you follow this blog at all you know that I have a kind of love-hate relationship with D&D. There's so much to love but there's also a lot of stuff that annoys me in little ways. This is at least partially one of those posts.

There's something I've always wanted to do with D&D (and others), but never realized in practice, because while it might look simple at first glance it's hard to do in a game. Not hard hard, but hard in the sense that we are often so entrenched in certain procedures and lazy handling of the fiction that we simply don't muster the strength to break out of it.

Consider the following: the party finds a Ring of +1 Intelligence. The wizard (presumably) puts it on, gets the bonus and we move on. Thus magic becomes boring and mundane, reduced to lots of little pluses and minuses. It's just math, accounting, going for the bigger numbers. And you know what, that's fine. I know the thrill of getting bigger and better stuff for your character, leveling up, taking new feats and powers - it's intoxicating. But it can also promote lazy fiction.

The question then becomes what does the +1 Intelligence mean, within the game world, within the fiction? How does one become "smarter" by wearing a magic ring? Well, let's first look at what intelligence does in the game: it influences knowledge, spellcasting and skills (depending on edition). So how about when a PC puts the ring on, the DM says something like:

"Whispers of countless spirits fill your ears. Trapped within the ring they have served generations of magicians, viziers, sages and scoundrels, accumulating odd bits and pieces of secrets and hidden lore. When you consult the ring's whispers, consider your Intelligence one point higher for all purposes." (which also suggests why I'm such a gushing Apocalypse World fanboy)

It's still a ring of +1 Intelligence, but now it somehow feels more magical, more tangible within the fictional space, you need to consult the spirits to get that bonus. If you want you can throw in some potential danger, too, like the spirits in the ring slowly drive you to madness (it doesn't even have to be mechanical!) to make it even more magical in the way magic in weird fiction, fairy tales, sword & sorcery fiction etc is: strange, foreign, with its own rules, dangerous, powerful but with a price. Or maybe check out the Screaming Mace by Zak. That thing doesn't even have any mechanical effect and it's one of the best magic items I've ever seen in the game, precisely because it feels truly magical.

This isn't just about magic items either. If 10 is the average ability score of a normal man, then a PC that rolls up an 18 in Strength is going to be exceptionally strong, a unique specimen, especially in the little village he comes from. What does that mean in the fiction? How do the people of his village treat him because of it? He's the village's hero basically, even at lvl 1. The cool guy, the star quarterback, the jock? Or is he a big dumb lumbering man that people say is descended from giants? What do the numbers mean?

This all also ties into what I've been saying about asking questions. If the player describes the PC wearing a fur coat, yes, sure and...where did you get it? Is it a bear's pelt? Who killed it? Who did you buy it from? Who made it for you? Where did you get the skills to make it? And so on and on, any number of possible questions based on the player's answers. Spread every detail into a wider piece of the world, weave it into the tapestry, root it into the fiction. Figure out relationships, meanings, effects blah blah. It's very much what I crave in gaming, but am to lazy to pull of a lot of the time.

A large chunk of D&D is fairly bland and generic (well it seems bland and generic now because we're used to it, otherwise it's a crazyhouse). It's supposed to (in theory) emulate everything in fantasy from Howard to Tolkien to Vance and a plethora of other influences. There's something there (perhaps moreso in the earlier editions) that invites you to make it your own. Out of the box it's just enough of a blank slate that you can paint a lot of stuff on top. It is relatively fluff-agnostic. Do I want rayguns in my setting, and spaceships? Are elves actually sharp-toothed frost-covered cannibals? Are beholders a race or a failed experiment? (some people don't like this and stick to whatever is "canon" in the books and it's also why we have massive published settings, that's cool too.)

Examples: do check out bankuei's simple recolour of 4E Essentials classes to create a new, interesting and vibrant setting. Or perhaps the more eccentric oD&D homebrew setting Planet Algol. Or one of my favourite rpg tools: Judd's "Make your own New Crobuzon" thingamajig. What emerges from the procedure of MyoNC is a set of setting assumptions that quite far from vanilla D&D. Or consider the simple hack of making the Yak Folk and Kenku core races and removing some of the more traditional ones, going for a more "tibetan" baseline (someone did this but I can't find their blog now). It's what I said about Eberron a while back: I'd like it better if the new races (shifters, warforged, etc.) were core and it would get rid of dwarves and elves and the rest of the classic demihumans (which are holding it in vanilla-territory). Such paintjobs of D&D are simple, because it is (as metioned) largely fluff-agnostic.

All this setup for one simple statement: the most fluff-full (?) part of D&D is its magic system. The long spell lists are the most setting-establishing part of the rules (even if most settings ignore the implications of the existence of such magics). D&D's pseudo-Vancian mechanics and its spell lists are its most unique and flavorful element and what all D&D settings ultimately fall back upon. And while it's really easy to recolour gnomes as swamp-turtle-people or recolour fighters as either samurai, gladiators, tribal warriors, knights, huscarl, gunslingers or any other fighty type or archetype, it is considerably harder to recolour D&D's magic. It would require massive rewrites for the most part and every little change has potentially cascading effects. D&D magic very much sets the tone and aesthetic of the game (unlike its other elements) and it is this inflexibility that I sometimes resent. If I want to seize the hidden promise and make the game truly my own, I need to wrestle the magic system.