One of the things I realized, as I was writing my first post for May’s RPG Blog Carnival on Fantastic Creations, was that I was taking the basic premise of the carnival for granted. Given: that it’s better for the creation to be fantastic–more than just a simple tool or a packet of numbers, but something capable of evoking wonder in its own right–than not. This isn’t anything I’d ever argue with: I like my magic items well-historied, my spells visually breathtaking (unless the idea is not to be seen casting them), and all in all my magic quirky and unique, doing things I’ve never seen in someone else’s setting or in ways that the system itself implies but never actually commits to. But at some point, someone is going to ask why. This is my answer.
What it boils down to, in the start, is that we are dealing with speculative fiction. I’m not completely against the idea of almost everything operating under a set of clear and replicable rules; if I was, I wouldn’t be a science major! On the other hand, for some people, having magic (or sufficiently advanced technology) as predictable as science stifles some of the enjoyment. My tastes lie somewhere in between; I want my magic to appear to have enough rules that I can attempt to puzzle them out, and that I can tell a deus ex machina from a surprising but inevitable use of metaphysics, but not be too constrained. Just as we have bumblebees capable of flight despite the mathematical evidence to the contrary, so too do I want my magic systems capable of things that its users do not quite understand. If our world still has things that we don’t understand, why shouldn’t a world we create?
Putting the fantastic into one’s creations also gives the audience a better sense of what they and their effects might look like. Consider D&D’s +3 sword–no non-numerical enhancements, mind, just a simple +3. We know it aims better; we know it hits harder. But what do we visualize as it does so? Or do we just take its better aim and harder hits for granted? On the other hand, if you write one +3 sword as inherently attracted to blood, another as holding the spirit of the world’s greatest swordsman, another as having been forged and reforged to come closer to the Platonic ideal of “sword”, another as being blessed by a god to be a mortal echo of his own divine weapon–then not only can you better see what it is these magic swords do, but it makes them different, not a large batch of +3 swords all on blue light special this week at MageMart. This in turn matters because we ourselves are accustomed to a world of mass production; set against this, items that are uniquely shaped for their own purposes, regardless of the similarity of their effects, create a further contrast against the world that we know.
Last, and perhaps most important for me, the fantastic creation is like a signature for the creator. If all the worlds I let myself travel to have the same sorts of magic, and the same sorts of items, what use is there changing between them? But if in one, people are seeing emotional damage as physical, and in another sympathetic magic ties the condition of the statue by the field to the crops in its shadow, and in a third there is an item that must be kept under the tongue–nowhere else–to protect from a certain type of magic, then I know I’m looking at something new, that the world’s creator is trying to make it something more than a shadow of the other fantasy worlds. Effort matters.
That, then, is why I prefer my items fantastic. How do you like yours? Why?