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D&D Burgoo: Magical Ethics

Clem is stirring the Suggestion Pot with this query:

“It occurs to me that nobody has said much about ethical screening and training of mages.  Consider: If you are going to enable someone to throw fireballs and petrify people and screw around with the weather, wouldn’t you want to be pretty sure they won’t run amok with the ability?”

Spell slingers

Judging from how some players have their wizards sling spells, often heedless of the consequences to the others around them, it’s pretty clear such training is lacking in the implied world of D&D. 

Of course, more than a few mages might feel they’re above such societal constraints. When you command powers beyond those of mortal men, why saddle yourself with their little rules?

What little we’ve seen of fantasy worlds, even those where magical instruction is institutionalized, as Clem suggests, ethical training isn’t a priority.

And on it goes …

While I’m sure there are examples of the sort Clem suggests, I can only think of two that feature ethics in any significant way: The Tower of High Sorcery from Dragonlance and the White Tower from The Wheel of Time.  The Tower robes its wizards by outlook (white for good, red for neutral, black for bad), while the Aes Sedai of Tar Valon must take an oath not to use their powers to harm nor to speak untruths. Both put their students through a series of tests, culminating in a potentially deadly encounter to prove they are worthy of weilding magic in the world at large.

Your homebrew

So what does this mean for your game world? 

Clearly it is an opportunity for a DM to impose a little order – or at least make the players stop and think about the consequences of their actions – by having wizard training of the sort Clem suggests. By making it a part of the game world – and explaining it to spellcasters at the outset – then they know they must behave according to a sort of code.

Whether this code is strict as a paladin’s code – where a mage’s magical powers depend on adhering to proper behavior – would depend on a lot of things. (Certainly, magic users with an evil bent would need a loophole, otherwise there would be no villains). But perhaps an oath binds the players, requiring them not to stray from the light else they risk losing the ability to cast as many spells or the most powerful ones.

The alignment system is supposed to be a sort of check in this direction. But there’s a reason Boccob is the main diety for spellcasters under the Third Edition rules, for example – he’s neutral in outlook. Wizards want the freedom to act. 

Expecting discipline of the sort Clem suggests could easily be a part of the flavor of a homebrew world. But it’s difficult to achieve. Mages are no different than fighters, rogues and clerics. Some are good. Some are bad.

And some are taking point in  your party’s marching order.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "D&D Burgoo: Magical Ethics"

#1 Comment By Brent On September 23, 2008 @ 6:39 am

Heh. And compare this to Japanese fantasy worlds, which often feature rigorous training for magical users. I’m particularly thinking of “Fullmetal Alchemist” and “Someday’s Dreamers,” both of which feature worlds where clerical orders rigorously hunt down unlicensed magic users.

#2 Comment By nblade On September 23, 2008 @ 7:18 am

Brent got me thinking on the one hand that this may be a cultural problem for us. I think for us most portraits of wizards and the like tend to be a bit aloof, a bit detached from the masses, and usually a bit on the crazy side. With examples like that why wouldn’t players be a bit of the same.

On the other hand, players are players. In DnD I almost never really worry about the alignment of the players. Most players I know tend to hover around NG,NE,N,CN,CG. Very few seem to chose a Lawful tone. They tend to know how they will act. The very freedom thing you mentioned, is what the players want. They want to have the freedom to act and do anything in their power. Sadly, this means that they don’t have magical code of ethics.

That said, It might be interesting if there was a code of ethics. Of course only Lawful NPCs would follow it. Netural ones, would mostly do so. Chaotic ones, would almost never follow it.

Of course as Wizards are not the only one with some sort of ethical issues. Clerics have their own. Clerics in most games heal the party with issue, but shouldn’t the cleric usually only heal those that fall within the guidelines of their faith?

#3 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 23, 2008 @ 8:00 am

nblade asks: but shouldn’t the cleric usually only heal those that fall within the guidelines of their faith?

Not necessarily. Generosity and outreach are the keys to growing a faith. I think a ministry of healing would go a long way toward attracting converts — even in an adventure setting.

#4 Comment By Rafe On September 23, 2008 @ 8:06 am

Personally, I’m not a fan of magical orders or a rigid structure for it. Sects, perhaps, but not orders. I already have issues with the fact that most D&D systems have “laundry list” spells, and 4e actually makes this worse. I like magic to be an unknown to some degree. It’s uncommon, possibly rare, and never seen in common, everyday situations. (No flying mugs in inns, etc.) My preference is for a sense that magic is harnessed from otherworldly sources, or dark worldly sources, rather than something that is learned from a book like a recipe for chicken carbonara.

The Black Company campaign setting rules for magic are the best there is for OGL/d20, that I’ve seen. It allows for the most flexibility: you can augment range, target #, damage and you can blend spell effects. Use the Air and Healing Talents together to create a healing storm, etc. Want to protect your allies? Augment the Force Talent to boost the AC bonus from +1 to +3, and also apply it to all within 20′. Etc.

Hope that’s not too off-topic, but my personal stance is to de-codify arcane magic.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On September 23, 2008 @ 8:16 am

The lack of ethics doesn’t stand out (to me) more than does the lack of ethics for anyone else in the game. Fighters can cut down a person every second, rangers can murder from a mile away, and psions can make your head explode.

What stands out is that all organizations that instruct in violence in the real world (that I can think of off the top of my head) teach ethics. Whether you’re learning karate or how to fire a gun, instructors are always talking about discipline, control, and respect, both for the power you have and the people around you when you’re using it.

The world(s) of D&D likely do teach such ethics, but there are two things working against it. The first is the master-apprentice relationship, the second is the existence of … alternative ideologies.

The master-apprentice relationship means that many ethics codes of magic are going to be highly personalized. This blends with alternative ideologies. While one code will say, “Use your magic only to defend the defenseless and never for personal gain,” another code will say, “Suffer not the weak to live.” There’s no universal code for how magic ought to be used, but there are probably dozens if not hundreds of different ethical legacies about magic.

#6 Comment By nblade On September 23, 2008 @ 8:29 am

[1] – You kind of make my point. Each Faith would dictate who they would heal and who they wouldn’t heal.

#7 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 23, 2008 @ 8:40 am

NBLADE: Yes, they would. I was just saying the default position isn’t necessarily to refuse to offer healing. The default position might be to heal all-comers, unless certain folk prove themselves unworthy in some fashion.

The fly in the ointment is that PCs shouldn’t always assume that the cleric in their party would heal themselves regardless of circumstances (or how they treat the cleric or his/her sensibilities). Simply, that’s taking advantage of another PC, and that’s not cool.

This discussion offshoot might be worth a post on its own.

#8 Comment By nblade On September 23, 2008 @ 8:42 am

@Rafe – The problem is that DnD by in large is High Fantasy game. Which introduces some the elements you don’t like. While the “Black Company” rules sound interesting, It would not be for people not use to playing some sort of spell-user IMHO.

@Sarlax – Very interesting observations. Again, players no matter what the alignment seem to want to do anything they want. The more I think about it, the more I think that the players and the NPCs they typically encounter tend operate outside the normal ethics taught. After all most spell-users don’t adventure, nor does the average member of most of the other classes.

#9 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 23, 2008 @ 8:51 am

Rafe says: My preference is for a sense that magic is harnessed from otherworldly sources, or dark worldly sources, rather than something that is learned from a book like a recipe for chicken carbonara.

You know, nothing might serve as a check on unethical behavior more than revealing that magic has a dark source. That would require mages to either cast with abandon (and be corrupted totally) or be very careful about tapping that power (and thus stay in the light as much as possible).

Male casters in the Wheel of Time face this dilemma. The more they cast, the greater their chance of going mad from a dark taint. And there are already taint and sanity mechanics out there that could serve to put this approach into play.

#10 Comment By Brent On September 23, 2008 @ 8:59 am

Why do people play D&D?

For many, it’s an escapist chance to skulk through a dungeon and swing a sword or blast an enemy with eldritch fire. So, they don’t particularly want a rigorous legal or moral structure that limits their character’s potential actions. They just wanna be able to do stuff. They already have plenty of rules in their real lives.

Which is not to say that games *shouldn’t* have these things, of course.

#11 Comment By Target On September 23, 2008 @ 9:40 am

Just because the campaign has an ethical code for magic users doesn’t mean theat PCs must follow it. A mercenary company may well hire an unlicensed mage. Perhaps they are cheaper. Perhaps licensed mages all work for the King. Plus there is the added bonus of having a built in nemesis to come knocking at the most inopportune times.

Another spin would take the opposite side where the PCs hunt rogue magicians. You can throw in a little moral quandary where they discover that they are working for the wrong side.

As a note on the side debate: I’m currently playing as Cleric type. In my party is a 12 year old god-king (think pharoah) of a fallen tribe. The god-king is obviously outside of my pantheon. I often find myself in a bit of a quandary. As the only source of healing currently available to the party, I don’t want to be a fun-killer by refusing healing. On the other hand, there are certainly times where I’m not sure my character WOULD provide said healing. I’d love to see this topic get discussed in it’s own post.

#12 Comment By NeonElf On September 23, 2008 @ 9:41 am

Basically you’re just asking for more lawful players that play lawful.

Lawful doesn’t mean “follows the law of the land” just that the character follows some internal code, and believes in the rule of law over force. It certainly doesn’t mean the stereotypical Paladin type who think no one lies and everyone is basically good unless they see it with their own eyes (that’s just silly).

I actually have two characters in my group, one is lawful good and one is chaotic good. They have epic arguments on how to achieve their goals because of this difference. They always agree on what the goal should be, but they can’t agree on how to achieve it. I can’t remember specific arguments now but it’s entertaining to watch them.

@Rafe: I agree with your view of the formalizing of spells, however a typical “high fantasy” setting has magic everywhere. It is fun, for me at least, to show the players that sorcerers are out there, from the garbage man to the kings councilor, to the first mate on a ship. I made the rule that anything that causes XP loss (like making magical items) actually causes you to lose memories. Therefore while magic is prevalent, magical items are uncommon in my game world.

#13 Comment By Sarlax On September 23, 2008 @ 9:49 am

You know, nothing might serve as a check on unethical behavior more than revealing that magic has a dark source.

I don’t know about that. Martin’s running a Mage game in which I’m a player, and the whole cabal just had the very awesome experience of crafting soul stones and creating a demesne for the first time. Our PCs went through a long debate about the implications of carving up our souls and risking madness to obtain power, but as players, we all really wanted it.

Something than can be taken from this experience is that while a code of some kind exists, it may not be a deterrent to abuse. Mage features Paradox, a penalty for using powerful magic, the severity of which can be strongly influenced by your Wisdom (a measure of magical morality). IE, if you’re “evil,” it’s harder to escape the consequences of your magic. Nonetheless, we all went for it, and three of us suffered a Wisdom loss for it.

If a player is already inclined to “play for the power,” magic having an evil origin/huge consequence may not do anything to slow them down, but it could serve as an awesome roleplaying hook. I know that I’m very much looking forward to roleplaying my mage with his new diminished morals and his struggles to reconcile his likely new behaviors with the high-minded ethics he espouses.

#14 Comment By Scott Martin On September 23, 2008 @ 9:57 am

I think the more formal schools of magic can feel very authentic– if the masons and cartwrights have guilds, you’d figure that spell casters would have a society. You don’t want to hear what happens to people who try to cast spells without their guild license…

The real question is how easy is it to resist the information? Wanting to provide ethical guidelines is nice, but if everyone learns 2-3 spells each time they level (often every week or two in the game world), then the GM is going to have to “nerf” the wizard’s list, exempt their free spells from the restrictions, or something similar.

Given the other classes in D&D, ethical training is something a wizard could tout– but even if every wizard was restrained by training, sorcerers, warlocks, and dark clerics require no training.

#15 Comment By Brent On September 23, 2008 @ 9:58 am

Also note that this is all occurring in a game world. Some players are more than willing to “go to the dark side,” just to see what’ll happen in the game. If Brogo the Halfling loses his soul, betrays everyone aroudn him, then gets slaughtered by Vilar the Archon, so what? Just roll up a new character.

#16 Comment By Sarlax On September 23, 2008 @ 11:01 am

I don’t know if one can say with certainty that magical organizations like schools or guilds exist. While we can often safely assume that mundane professions operate in a similar to fashion in the way they do here on Earth, I don’t think we can say that about supernatural power.

Who knows how many wizards exist? Maybe even in the big cities there’s only a half-dozen, so there’s no body of professionals to establish a guild. Perhaps power manifests randomly in the population, without training being required, so you can’t regulate the supply of magical skill.

#17 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On September 23, 2008 @ 11:47 am

Sarlax: While we can’t say with certainty how many magical organizations exist or how prevalent wizards are.

But published campaign settings, especially the 3.5 books on Waterdeep, Ruins of Greyhawk or Ptolus, — and using them as a baseline of sorts — do seem to indicate that there are enough wizards for the kinds of organizations we’re talking about.

Of course, your campaign world may differ.

#18 Comment By Sarlax On September 23, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

But published campaign settings… do seem to indicate that there are enough wizards for the kinds of organizations we’re talking about.

It’s certainly the case that wizard organizations seem to exist in the major campaign worlds, but they often represent continent-spanning interests. You’ve got Arcanix and the Twelve in Eberron to educate arcanists, for instance, but there aren’t so many wizards that they can actually go around policing the use of magic.

A lot of the questions about the “code” will depend on how the wizard group(s) is organized. If it’s a state group, like a royal institution that is supported by the king, there probably is a set of rules the organization maintains and attempts to enforce. If it’s like a private college, there may be much less rigorous instruction in ethics.

The code might be informal even if it’s strong. For instance, in a world with no overarching wizard guild, wizards still have a strong reason to gather – to share rituals/spells. Since wizards learn new magic simply by leveling, they have every reason to get together and trade information. The power of ostracism in the world of wizards should be such that they at least give the appearance of playing by the rules, whatever they may be.

Or not. Wizards compromise the elite of the elite. They have the greatest amount of magical knowledge and they are the most intelligent, as a group, part of society. It’s quite possible that wizards dispense with notions like morality as they pursue power, putting magical learning above all else. In this kind of atmosphere, the idea of a code is simply an amusing fiction.

#19 Comment By Knight of Roses On September 23, 2008 @ 8:00 pm

Some sort of code will almost certainly be enforced, be it a strict master-journeyman-apprentice chain, guild structure, or even that the strong prey on the weak. But it is highly dependent upon the game world and play group. Some people like guild politics, others just want to throw fireballs

#20 Comment By NeonElf On September 25, 2008 @ 2:35 pm

One of my charted guild rules:

12) The conjuration, imprisonment, and/or torture of extra
planar beings, demi-gods, or evil outsiders is not to be done within city limits, or within 15 miles of any village, city, or mannor of any size.

The punishment you ask:

17) If any guildsmen disobeys these rules and statutes and if found guilty by his fellow guildsmen, he shall be punished through a fine of 50 gp for his first offense. His second offense shall be fine of 200 gp and a volley of magic missiles in front of the guild hall. His third offense shall be fine of 400 gp and a suspension from enfranchisement for one month. A fourth offense shall result in the expulsion of the rowdy from the guild, and possible the plane.


#21 Comment By Balam Shimoda On January 19, 2009 @ 11:58 am

Jim Butcher’s _Dresden Files_ novels (and by extension the role-playing game based in them) has Laws of Magic that must be observed or else the magic cops (Wardens) come and behead you. How’s that for punishment?

#22 Comment By Troy E. Taylor On January 19, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

Thanks for the link, Balam Shimoda

#23 Comment By quatch On March 24, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

[3] – If you’re willing to share, I’d love to see the full list of your wizards guild rules.