Mysteries in a Magical Universe

The Classical and Medieval worlds were rife with mysteries that were supposedly solved through complex theological, philosophical, and other means. We, in our modern scientific world, see these solutions as quaint superstitions at best; the setting of the sun is explained by a Geocentric universe, the origin of humanity is found in the myth of Adam and Eve (or, if you wish, Ask and Embla, Phaenon, etc. etc.), myths of afterlives, the existence of demons and angels, and so forth.

However, in a world permeated with magic such as those most often found in fantasy RPG campaigns, this becomes harder to sustain, as magic allows a level of certainty on these sorts of answers that is rivaled only by modern technology. Not sure what happens to souls after death? Use your astral spell to travel to the outer planes, and get a first-hand look. Is the world round or flat? A jaunt in a spelljammer ship can show you definitively. Do demons or angels exist? Well, yes, and so do gods; they take physical form and walk the earth. In many ways, “mechanistic” magic gives more certainty than technology ever could, thus robbing the world of mystery.

In such a world, mysteries come from paradox.

One mage ventures to the outer planes and reports three infinite layers of Hades, “adjacent” to which are four layers of Gehenna and six layers of Tarterus. A few years later, another attempts to recreate the journey and only finds a single plane, also called Hades, but which is home to both demodands and daemons. Who is right? Who is wrong? It’s a mystery, and the Oinodaemon isn’t talking. The mystery grows when the player characters, on two subsequent journeys, find both conditions, or maybe one that is completely different. Instantly, mystery is reintroduced into the campaign, through paradox.

In such a situation, the players will likely try to come up with a rational explanation. Was one an illusion? Let them attempt to come up with logical explanations, but never, as a GM, allow yourself to be boxed in by them. Even when they see what they believe is “conclusive proof” that one or another side of a paradox is “the truth”, the inherent mystery of the universe is always there, lurking in the background, ready to turn their rational, machine-like understanding of the world on its head.

Allowing for paradox also allows for radically different cosmologies adopted by different cultures, none of which has to be The True Cosmology. The worshipers of the Holy Family in my own campaign believe in a Sacred Island where all the faithful go after they die, and a fragmented underworld of Hell, the Abyss, Hades, etc. for evil-doers. Does the fact that the people of the Golden Kingdoms believe that when they die their soul will go to dwell on one of the stars in the heavens, with each star being home to a particular family, invalidate (or is it itself invalidated by) that view? Can both be true? Could neither be true, despite the fact that both are based on direct observation or revelation at one time or another? Of course, all of the above.

Even in a world with magic, nothing says that the universe has to be cataloged, logical, and 100% rational. Much like with the concept of mythic time, don’t let your own modern predilection for absolute certainty and logic get in the way of introducing a little mystery into your campaign now and again, even if it’s a mystery that is destined never to be solved.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

6 thoughts on “Mysteries in a Magical Universe

  1. al-Ghazzali and Descartes both started out by judging the information from their senses to be unreliable. Really, there's nothing science can offer us that will reduce that sort of level of mystery – in the face of determined doubt, we're still in the same philosophical position they were in and which we've always been in.

    If anything, scientific thinking has taught us to accept uncertainty more than we did in the "middle ages:" we now know that our models of the world are our own inventions and subject to revision – I'd say we're probably more conscious of a cosmic mystery tofay than ever before.

  2. I disagree, Richard.

    To take but two examples; the germ theory of disease, which was arrived at through observation and the application of the Scientific Method, is a much more accurate predictor of the way the world behaves than the theory that disease is caused either by demonic spirits or by "miasma".

    Secondly, the overturning of the geocentric view of the universe made possible spaceflight, orbital satellites, and all the benefits we derive therefrom.

    The fact that detailed scientific views of the world are constantly being updated to make them more accurate predictors of real-world behavior is not a weakness, nor is it a cause to throw up our hands and say that because science doesn't have 100% of the answers now, we have no better model of the way the world works than people were when diseases were caused by demons and the Sun orbited the Earth.

  3. I think you've got it exactly right: the mystery comes from competing perspectives both appearing to be literally true.

    Of course, as Richard alludes to, there is nothing to stop people from having a nonrational approach to observation in any case.

    @Joseph – You are correct, though I'd add the advance of science and the triumph of the scientific worldview doesn't stop people from rejecting what pieces of it they will for reasons of irrational belief–despite the fact those pieces rest on the same foundation as the bits that wholeheartedly accept.

  4. I was tired when I wrote my comment yesterday and I wrote rather obliquely, regarding both what I meant and what the post was about – sorry about that.

    Regarding the actual point of the post, I agree completely, although I think the problem of cosmic certainties in games & fictions is more about the fact that the gameworld's creator is right there at the table, and it takes extra thinking to keep things mysterous when you have the 'right' answer to hand. There's another approach to reintroducing mystery that can be used even by DMs who've let the first set of cats definitively out of the bag – CoC's layers-of-an-onion approach, where every answer reveals a deeper mystery. I guess that's what you're talking about with trying to rationalize paradoxes – the deeper mystery exists in the players' minds, even if the DM doesn't know what it is.

    Regarding the tangible benefits of science and throwing up hands – sorry for any misunderstanding, but that wasn't what I was trying to say at all. What I really meant was that it's hard for us not to short-change the certainty felt by people in ages past regarding their own explanations. A lot of lazy writers have postulated that people in the past lived in darkness and mystery, and that today we march in the light, but we shouldn't conclude therefore that those past people felt their world to be dark. I rather subscribe to Wells' image, that where other systems of thought show mankind in a comforting house or cathedral if creation, science offers a comparatively comfortless outer darkness, illuminated uncertainly by a flickering flame of the attestable. In fact it's highly unusual in allowing that it doesn't know stuff, prima facie. Or to put it another way, you don't need observable magic to create unshakeable certainty or to demystify the world – priests of all religions have been doing that with words and rituals and impressive buildings for a long time.

  5. I think that one of the things that creates excessive certainty in games is the overuse of categorization. For instance, why should two people call two different monsters of similar species by the same name? Why does everyone call them "orcs"? Even in Tolkien, they were variously "orcs", "goblins", and so on.

    In your example, who was it that called both planes "Hades"? If no one particularly names the place, then it's up to the players to give it a name. That name might or might not correlate with a place of similar name visited by another mage. Or else, if different people in the plane call it by different names, then the players get to choose among them.

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