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Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Skepticism in the Age of Magic...

Skepticism is alive and well in the real world, where evidence for the supernatural is remarkably elusive.  In ten-thousand years of history we've seen one magical explanation after another overturned by naturalistic evidence.  A process which, incidentally, never happens in reverse.  I'm not saying the supernatural doesn't exist, only that the skeptics aren't stubborn or unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination...    

And that's good.  A healthy skepticism is the spice of life and brings contentious debate to just about everything.  But what about our fantasy worlds, where magic is on constant display and the gods intervene in a way that would convert Richard Dawkins and make The God Delusion a ridiculous proposition?  Is there room for skepticism, much less outright atheism, in such a setting?  To be clear, we aren't advocating an atheistic or naturalistic campaign unless that's what you happen to want, but only a world where skepticism is reasonable and the accepted cosmology less than certain and up for debate.

So first, and as a disclaimer, we can always imagine a low-magic world where the supernatural is rare and suitably understated.  Magic, when and if it occurs, can be written off as coincidence and monsters as a feature of the natural landscape.  But we aren't really talking about that universe, although skepticism surely lives there as well...  


No, we're talking about the "mage on every corner" type of world.  What sort of debate can possibly exist when your party members are happy to demonstrate magic and what it's capable of?  As it turns out, doubt can thrive even in the face of seemingly obvious evidence to the contrary, and the following might help to make it all happen:

#1 MAGIC ISN'T REALLY MAGIC

Nope.  It's more of a natural energy that can be harnessed and released by means of specialized formulas to some predetermined end.  This is hardly a new idea, and D&D broke with millennia of tradition by imagining it as anything other than the work of bound spirits flexing their muscle.  Not really that big of a deal except when it runs counter to the prevailing view in academic circles.  A benign contention to be sure, but one that adds flavor...   

#2 THE GODS AREN'T REAL

This is a bigger deal.  The gods don't exist, and any power supposedly granted through worship is really magic of the more ordinary sort.  Once again, D&D already imagined this with respect to lower-level spells, but ours applies to everything.  Now this is the stuff of heresy - and inquisitions.  How dare those ungrateful apostates deny the blessings of faith and reject the gods who make it all possible?  And what of The Church and its place in society?  This usually ends with thumb screws in a dungeon somewhere.       

#3 THE GODS ARE REAL, BUT...

Again, no.  They're really just powerful beings who've mastered natural energies and probably steal a bit from the faith of their followers.  This isn't a new idea either, but it really lays the ground for skepticism - and heresy - in an otherwise magical world.  Perhaps it's apostasy in the eyes of The Church, or maybe the so-called gods resent any revelations as to their true nature.  This one leads to sprawling cosmic quests in other dimensions. 

All of the above can upend the social order and make the skeptics reservoirs of authentic knowledge in a superstitious age.  Of course, just because some things are possible doesn't mean everything is real.  Far from it.  Charlatans abound, and perhaps that shady peddler sells more fake amulets because the real thing exists!  Either way, we don't have to imagine bland worlds of uniform belief.  Yes, gods and religions are constantly warring for human attention.  But if the gods and magic aren't what they seem, things can get hairy quick, with crusades and inquisitions vying with charlatans for mortal hearts and minds...

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