Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why Don't Wands Break Down?

From the Turkey City Lexicon (an entertaining dictionary of writing terms which I've run into several times in the past, most recently via David Isaak's blog):
  • AM/FM
    Engineer's term distinguishing the inevitable clunky real-world faultiness of "Actual Machines" from the power-fantasy techno-dreams of "Fucking Magic.
I'm pretty sure this bit of the lexicon refers to the habit of certain sci-fi books to feature Futuristic Technology that never fucks up, always acts perfectly. In essence, it's Magic.

But hey, why should Fucking Magic always work so perfectly, anyway? In fiction I've read, guns jam. Cars break down. Pipes get clogged, tires go flat, doors creak, metal rusts. But I can't remember the last time I read about a magic item suffering the effects of wear and tear. This is especially noticeable in Aar Pee Gees (role-playing games) that bother to implement the effects of slamming a sword into giant rats and creepy fucking monsters but work perfectly if you're using that sword to zap something with frost magic. Even if it's completely broken (unusable, in game terms). Magic mechanics are usually limited to 'mana' or 'magicka' bars; in other words, treating magic power like batteries. (Or, as in D&D, you get a limited number of 'spell slots'.)

Outside of the RPG world, in fiction, these limitations are usually ignored. Even the books based on D&D rarely if ever pay attention to 'spells per day'. (I admit I've not read many of these books, as they're often... well, terrible.)

In the world of books, the last time I remember seeing magic breakdown appear was the second Harry Potter book, where a character breaks his wand, and it spends the rest of the book making spells rebound, blowing bubbles and making someone barf slugs for a couple hours. But this wasn't wear and tear, note, it was the result of being snapped in half. I can't think of an instance where a wand stopped working because of, say, a faulty magic spark plug.

Now, sure, it would be a little silly if Sauron's One Ring ran out of battery power if worn too long, but what about the many, many modern fictive magic worlds that are less Epic and Mythic and more down-to-earth? Something to dump in the idea pool, at least...


Luke Maciak said...

Hmmm... Good point. But I guess we would have to distinguish between two types of magic here:

1. spells which are cast in real time
2. enchantments on magical items

Most fantasy settings love artifacts that are terribly ancient and unimaginably powerful because... Well, they are cool. But I'd imagine that in a world where magic would actually exist an enchanted sword would sometimes need maintenance or recasting of said enhancement - especially after heavy use.

Most RPG's both pen and paper or computer based do have some restrictions on magic items that zap things, or cast spells themselves. Wands and staves usually have "charges" and once you drain them you either have to wait till they recharge or the item is simply spent and must be re-enchanted or discarded.

Additive or buffing items (like the Mighty Sword of +1 Strength) usually never get depleted however. They probably should.

As for cast spells many systems require skill checks before casting and have miscast effects which work similar to "fumble" rules for physical skill checks.

In most games I played the duration of spells that can be cast by PC's is strictly defined and the caster must periodically renew the spell to keep it in action.

I guess simple solution in most RPG's which keep track of item durability scores would be to simply tie enchantment to that. Once the durability falls below certain level the enchantment may fail to work. Fixing the item may or may not restore power to the enchantment - but in most cases it should probably be renewed since the spell.

Jake Jesson said...

Hey, Luke -

Sorry to have missed your comment all these months. Better late than never, eh?

Anyway, I posted a (somewhat long) reply to your comment here: