Z*ro F*cks Fr*day–Dexter Magic vs. D&D

TL;DR: An example from actual gameplay shows how D&D leads to ontological hurdles that Dexter Magic gives zero fucks about.

In my post on Fate Magic Without Hack, I complained that D&D and GURPS magic systems force-feed half-baked metaphysics with any serving of Magic. It’s a personal gripe. I’m an academic logician, and metaphysics is part of the job. It’s not the part I enjoy most, though, so I’m not excited when it bleeds into a game I’m in.

That was a bit abstract of a complaint, so today, I’d like to go for a sample magic problem inspired by actual play. Then, I will propose an alternative solution based on Dexter Magic

The Example

This example is inspired by a game I played with a group of former D&D players. The setting is “middle” fantasy (high-fantasy magic, but narratively restricted) with a catch-all Magic skill. The system is Fate, but D&D’s schools of Magic are folded in: an N/PC must reference exactly one D&D school in their High Concept and can only use their Magic Skill within its boundaries. There is no set Spell list per school, though. I omitted the players’ names because I did not record the session and did not want to put my words into someone else’s mouth. Also, I changed the PCs’ names, because why not.

Badruddeen al-Afzal, a Master Transmuter with Great (+4) Magic, is in a party with Sort-of-Paladin and Sort-of-Rogue, about to confront a couple of thieves NPCs currently on the other side of a locked door. Badruddeen has not come out as a mage to the party yet and intends to magically pick the lock in a way that would be inconspicuous to Sort-of-Paladin. So, no turning the lock into soft cheese.

Worth mentioning at that point is the elevator pitch for Transmutation, one of the Schools, or Domain, or whatnot, from D&D: a Transmuter “manipulates the physical properties of both items and living creatures.” Bear in mind that the D&D Spell list for the Transmutation thingummy was not ported into that game, though. Just the definition.

[Badruddeen’s Player] “I try to change the lock from an Locked Lock into an Unlocked Lock.”
[GM] “Sorry, I call the Bogus Rule on that. I can’t see how it changes the physical properties of the lock.”
A 2-minute discussion ensues, to the effect that GM’s view prevails.
[Badruddeen’s Player] “Ok, I’m happy with that. Badruddeen’s a chaos mage after all, and chaos does not always work.”
[Sort-of-Paladin’s Player] “Well, I guess I’ll bash the door open then.”

So, who’s correct? Pick your favorite, review your argument mentally, and then proceed.


Here’s the thing: the question of whether “being a Unlocked Lock” is a physical property of a Lock is a tricky ontology question. I’m not kidding. I’ve attended ontology seminars where questions like that were debated for hours. I’ll dumb down the ontology discussion in a minute, but first, I have a confession to make. 

Depending on the day of the week, I may concede that ontology is a worthy academic pursuit. For instance, you’d want an AI to be able to categorize the world the same way as a human being. So you’d like to teach it well-defined categories.

But ontology bores me to death. I tend to zone out when colleagues discuss it. So, I’m not dumbing it down because I have a poor opinion of your understanding, but because I just can’t do better. Thus, if you’re a professional ontologist, don’t read too much into what follows.

There are two ways to understand the “physical properties of a lock” as far as ontology is concerned.

  1. The physical properties common to any lock of a type—here, a mechanical lock: having a cylinder with tumblers, a cam, a deadbolt, etc.
  2. The physical properties specific to that lock, including (possibly) the relative positions of tumblers in the cylinder, cam, and deadbolt.

Here, two philosophical issues are at stake: the type-token distinction and the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic properties. Skip the bullet list if you don’t know about that already or don’t want to follow the links.

  • if you understand “properties” as “properties of a type” or don’t accept extrinsic properties, you’d side with the GM.
  • if you understand “properties” as “properties of a token” or accept extrinsic properties, you’d side with Badruddeen’s player.
Fig. 1. Cylinder, cam, deadbolt, etc.,
and the glorious splendor of their relative physical positions.

No doubt an ontologist would come up with more nuances, but that will do. See, two rando ontologists would only agree upon this: the relative positions of the tumblers, cam, and deadbolt define the material configuration of a physical system. But is this configuration a physical “property” of the lock? That’s an open problem.

So, with D&D’s Magic whachamacallit, you must have clear-cut answers to hard ontology questions just to make an in-game determination. To be fair, D&D has spell lists, and Unlock Door may or may not be on the list for Transmutation. But knowing it would not solve anything. If it’s not, you may want to create a custom spell. (Is it ok to do that? I have no idea.) And it’s an ontology question all over again.

Can you imagine what would have happened if a professional ontologist had been in that game?

Dexter Magic Rocks and Transmutes Locks!

I’m okay with extrinsic properties, but I know it’s an opinion, and there is no testable fact-of-the-matter. At game creation, I had defended an alternative approach to magic that might have prevented that discussion, but it had been democratically repelled. But mainly, to me, it’s a topic for a day on the job, not an evening on a hobby. So I kept my mouth shut during the Lock-Unlock discussion

Now, I have a still-very-hypothetical “Fate of Falkenstein” campaign in (distant) preparation. Castle Falkenstein‘s is not unlike D&D: it has mana, spell lists, and four thingamabobs: Emotional, Material, Spiritual, and Elemental. And I can picture arguments about borderline cases between Emotional and Spiritual, or Material and Elemental. That would be ontology creep all over again. So, I’m not going to let my players choose democratically.

How would I handle it? Easily. With Dexter Magic. As a reminder, here’s the basic write-up for Dexter Magic.

Because I am [Narrative Permission] and want to use Magic to [get Effects with Trappings], I will need [Components]. The caveat to my spell is [a Possible Fallout].

As a purely counterfactual scenario—also, because I’m too lazy to take another example—here’s how I would apply the write-up to Badruddeen’s case. First, I’d assume that the Default magic level is Good (+3), for low-to-medium fantasy. Second, I’d ask Badruddeen’s player to read aloud the write-up while filling the blanks. The result would be something like that:

Because I am [A Master Transmuter] and want to use Magic to [Discreetely Transmute a Locked Lock into an Unlocked Lock], I will need [to put my hand on the doorknob]. The caveat to my spell is [that Sort-of-Paladin might dox me as a mage and drag me to the Inquisition].

With that, I’d read aloud a note with Dexter’s guidelines for adding to the Default cost.

  • Components: from +1 (unchallenging to procure) to +4 to [Skill] (a dangerous side-quest).
  • Caveats: from +1 (1-2 Stress) to +4 to [Skill] (fallout might spur an entire storyline).
  • Spell Effects & Trappings: +0/2/4/8 to Default Rating if altering an Exchange/a Scene/a Session or Episode/a whole Campaign. 

To the Good (+3) Default, I’d add Fair (+2) Difficulty because opening the door would give the party the drop on the bandits and the initiative in a Conflict. I’d add nothing to the skill for Component (there’s no component to procure). For the caveat, I’d only add +2, not +4, because Sort-of-Paladin is a PC, and he could be Compelled to go easy on Badruddeen. 

So that would be an Overcome roll with Effective Magic Skill of Great (+4)+2=Fantastic (+6) vs a Difficulty Rating of Good (+3)+2= Superb (+5). And because an Overcome action is not very interesting, I’d probably offer Badruddeen’s player to waive the roll on that one.

And you know what I would have zero fucks to give about? Ontology.

Fig. 2. Player Advisory–Fuzzy Ontology

Wrapping Up: Ontology is Bogus

All in all, the fallout from Badruddeen’s ontological hurdle was not so terrible. The player established some lore—chaos magic is fickle—and did not lose much (picking a lock is a minimal spotlight opportunity). Also, it gave Sort-of-Paladin a moment (“Nobody expects the Presharan Inquisition!”) and preserved Sort-of-Rogue’s niche. And honestly, I’ve seen discussion on wording an Aspect lasting longer than that. So it did not even disrupt the session’s pace that much.

Still, I’d rather not have ontology creeping into my games, and that’s why I’d choose Dexter Magic over any other magic system for Fate, any day.

And that’s all for today, folks.

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