Magic, Technology, and Justification


There’s always a problem in superhero games with magic and technology. For one thing, Magic and Technology never seem to get along. There’s always an innate preference for magical origins and backgrounds among many groups of players because of this:

As a technology based character, you have to come up with pseudoscience that explains how your powers work. As a magically based character, all you need to do is say “Well, it’s magic. It doesn’t need to be explained. I have a mentor who taught me, and this is how my magic works.”

Most GMs will take this with a grain of salt, but what this actually leads to is flimsy character concepts and poor sets of background skills. According to the Champions Universe 6th Edition rules, Defender doesn’t even know enough about science to build his own armor, and Witchcraft barely knows what she’s doing with magic, having barely any knowledge of specific magics.

In general, I’m not happy with this view of gaming. When I design a superhero game world, I want all that stuff to be on a level playing field. It’s not fair that a scientist character has to pay points for ten to fifteen different sciences, and the mage writes KS: Magic on his sheet and gets away with it.

I offer a few solutions to this dilemma.

1) The Champions Universe says that everything comes from magic. To me, this is like having to swallow a jar of acid for any technological character. Technological characters should be based on technology, not on the concept that their technology secretly comes from magic, thus allowing the technologist to have as flimsy a set of background skills as the mage. My problem with this is based on these things:

A) It takes away the technological character’s raison d’etre. What’s the point of having a technological character if it turns out to just be magic after all?

B) The concept of human achievement. “I built this. Yes. That’s right. I don’t have any powers of my own, I just used my natural intelligence to build this supersuit.” If you’re into feeling like a second stringer and like your character’s whole life is broken, the discovery of or out of character knowledge of this piece of information may be for you. However, I would never play a technologist in the Champions Universe, because the technologist is always doomed to be wrong. That’s right, the technologist will never be correct about anything, because when it comes to basic things like physics, the science of dimensions, physics, astronomy, and electrical engineering, the mage will always be intrinsically better, because using simple logic, his specific skills work better than mine, because he has the advantage of inside information. The mage is always better. That’s not fun.

C) The core of a technological character is his technology. The core of a magical character is the unexplained. However, in a game system, it’s not fair that magic should be more ridiculously powerful because people don’t have to explain it in character generation. Natural intelligence notwithstanding, the technological character operates at a complete disadvantage, even if the mage is mentally impaired and has a low intelligence score. That’s not fair or right.

2) Equal Justification: In this solution, the mage has to pay for magic skills he knows about the same way the super scientist has to pay for science skills he knows about. This is probably the fairest way to do it overall. It keeps the mystics mystical and the scientists scientific. It’s sort of a separate but equal solution, but since magic has nothing to do with your race most of the time. (It is recommended that if being magical is an inherent function of race in your superhero gameworld that you not use this solution) it’s the fairest way. This way, there are things that the mage can’t know or do and the scientist can’t know or do. You’re not running a game for just one person, you’re running a game for a group.

3) Blending Magic and Technology: In general, I don’t recommend doing this. I did it once, and after three sessions I realized that this was unbalanced, unfair, and bad to the GM who was running the game. It isn’t just that it stepped on other PC’s toes (Because you just took two extremely powerful concepts and blended them at no cost to yourself, but with a huge potential social cost to those around you), but that you took up two complete sets of skills, and that means that either a different character will likely get stepped on, or someone will always be eating your dust because you can combine two things that should really not be combined. People think that technomancy is the art of controlling machines, but really, technomancy, as far as magic is concerned, is a form of magic that affects machines specifically. If you’re okay with this, you can develop a set of rules under which technomantic magic functions, but really, I object to technomancy because it makes being the team scientist pointless. What’s the point of paying for all those skills and cool armor if some technomage can just twiddle his hands and do in three seconds what takes me a base time of a day with a skill roll? Yes, I know, Doctor Doom…

BUT…consider this:

1) Doom is a master adversary. He is probably the most feared supervillain in Marvel. When someone thinks of the most dangerous adversary of the Marvel Universe, everyone always says Doom.

2) Doom generally, with the exception of “Unthinkable,” a truly dreadful Doctor Doom story, does not use magic against nonmagical opponents.

3) Doom knows he shouldn’t have done it. (See Master Adversary Above)

So as a master villain, it might be an okay idea. But, in general, it’s not a good idea to do it in a game where your PC is one of a large group of people and there are limited skill selections available where there won’t be necessary overlap.

Those are my thoughts on magic and technology. Feel free to crucify me upon a cross of words.

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2 Comments

  1. Jesus, Mike. Your posts are too damn long. 🙂 Learn to be more concise! Replying to them is difficult. 🙂

    1) The idea that the entire universe is based on magic is stupid. I haven’t read the background in detail, so I am forced to ask if you can SUMMARIZE why that’s the case in the CU; I’ve heard you say it but I don’t know what your sources are, exactly, or why you say that’s the case.

    2) I am a fan of using a similar system to D&D’s schools of magic to science–much like you do in your home game. Whereas a scientist might have: physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, etcetera; a mage might have divination, enchantment, evocation, etcetera.

    One problem I have had with your game is a lack of firm definitions of what covers what. This leads to either entirely too specific or entirely too generic characters when it comes to either technology OR magic. I have seen situations in your game where something comes up, let’s say: “I want to do a DNA test on Bob; I have genetics at 11-” “Well, Bob is a mutant squid, so you need Paranormal Biochemistry, not Genetics”. Your players in my experience have had to guess what skills might apply in what situations.

    I’m all about PCs getting background skills, but you run into a few problems in this arena with the system I have seen you build to address it. It is far more efficient points-wise to build a non-science, non-magic based character: you aren’t required to build skills in like those above.

    Now, a requirement that every character regardless of origin spends a minimum of X in skills might work…but you still run into the problem of “not knowing what skills to have”. You should–in the case of both magic AND technology–come up with a number of skills that provide the granularity you are seeking and are in keeping with their cost. Rather than having Bob need to specialize in thirty-seven different science or magic skills to be able to do something (“Well, I understand you want to make the bad guy’s blood boil, but Transmutation isn’t enough for that–you need Blood Magic”) break everything down into (let’s say) 10 skills that cover the broad areas of science and 10 that cover the broad areas of magic. These are the PRIMARY skills that will be utilized in every test a character will make that is scientific or magical. So, if I want to genetically sequence someone’s DNA, I would use Genetics regardless of who they are or what their deal is.

    Should a character wish to specialize (say, a superhero geneticist focused on paranormal biochemistry), he could have those skills as *secondary* skills supporting the main skill. He won’t NEED them to be able to do or learn something, but having them provides the benefit of being able to roll twice to increase his chances with the main skill.

    3) Technomancy. Having the advantage of knowing your early trauma in encountering a particular player who beat the crap out of this idea, I don’t think you’ve really recovered and been able to think this through. Using a framework such as the above–there are twenty skills, let’s say–there’s no reason why a character couldn’t take 10 and 10. But here’s the beauty of it: you can restrict them (“You must always have 3 more skills in one category than you do in the other category”); you can balance them like you do defenses/attack (just as you might say “Bob can have 12d6 attacks but he must then have 20 points max in defenses as opposed to 30”).

    Another way to balance this (and I recommend it) is to base magic skills on something OTHER THAN Intelligence. Yes, certainly, scholarly mages are the norm but magic isn’t logical on the face of it. Perhaps magic skills should be a PRE-based set of skills, representing the need to be attuned to the magical forces of the world rather than book learning. The argument balance-wise then becomes “but PRE leads to good PRE attacks while INT doesn’t do that!” to which the riposte is, “INT gives you good Perception, dude, which is much more key than PRE attacks in most cases”, etcetera, etcetera.

    Anyway, these are my thoughts. Hardly a crucifiction.

    • Scott,

      The “Official” Champions Universe situation is like the Shadowrun universe. The mana level fluctuates, and that allows things that violate the baseline laws of nature – basically, our world – to exist. So super-science only works because there is the reality-warping magic field that makes it happen.

      (It’s mentioned in the Chapoions 3000 book, as well, that the magical aura went up just before the superheroes of that era.)

      So when the aura goes down, superpowers stop happening, super-technology stops being created, and mages go underground because their power level has dropped a large chunk.


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