Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice

Improvised Radio Theatre - With Dice! is a podcast by Roger Bell_West and Michael Cule, in which we pontificate on role-playing games.

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Let's Not Become Blasphemous This Early 01 April 2017


This month, Roger and Mike talk about the core concepts of magic, and distinguishing personality from backstory in character generation.

With spoilers for Dennis Wheatley's The Ka of Gifford Hillary and Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away.

We mentioned

Ars Magica, the Belgariad, Dennis Wheatley, The Man Who Folded Himself, Time Patrol series, Maelstrom, Hârnmaster, Thaumatology: Age of Gold, In the Land of Invented Languages (Roger's review of this popular history), Lord Darcy and particularly The Muddle of the Woad, The Magic Goes Away, An Adventure in Space and Time, Remington Steele, the Central Casting series by Paul (now Jennell) Jaquays, The Grognard Files, Aunt Petunia and The Eastercon.

Music by Kevin MacLeod at

  1. Posted by Dr Bob at 02:37pm on 01 April 2017

    You've got last month's blurb on this episode. Meanwhile... I have vague recollection that there are Native American religions where everyone has 2 or 3 souls. One stays with the body when the person dies, so you can ask grandfather for sage advice at his graveside (or run screaming from his evil ghost, depending on the tradition in question). The other soul disappears off to the afterlife. This multiple soul theory is also handy for explaining things like dreams, vision trances, concussion, comas (one soul gone wandering, other stays put). Sometimes the 'extra' soul doesn't live inside your body but reside in your shadow or your reflection or the like. The character backstory I dislike is the sort that LOOKS as if it is plot hooks for the GM ("Me and my darling wife are on the run from the Mafia"), but when the Mafia turn up the player ignores them and/or refuses to engage with that plot. And when the darling wife is kidnapped by the Mafia they sulk, because they regarded her as 'equipment' not 'plot'.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:10pm on 01 April 2017

    I haven't had that problem, but I suspect GURPS could be handy in its approach. "You got points for Dependent (Wife), and that gives me free rein to muck you about by this handle." If you don't want your wife to get kidnapped to force you to do One Last Job, don't take her as a dependent.

  3. Posted by Dr Bob at 12:54pm on 02 April 2017

    Actually it was a GURPS game with a wife & child as a 25 point dependent in which the worst sulking occurred! Me and the co-GM went "But you got 25 points for them - that means they are plot fodder!" and the player replied "No they are my sacrosanct backstory of perfect domestic harmony."

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 01:26pm on 02 April 2017

    My inclination wold be to quote the book:

    You must take care of your Dependents. Furthermore, your foes can strike at you through them. […] If your Dependent ends up kidnapped or otherwise in danger during play, you must go to the rescue as soon as possible. If you don't go to his aid immediately, the GM can deny you bonus character points for "acting out of character."

    And if they still don't agree, strike them with ot. PDFs will never supplant nice heavy hardbacks.

  5. Posted by Phil Masters at 04:22pm on 04 April 2017

    The ideal product of RPG character creation is an interesting character who is ready to participate in good stories facilitated by the GM and emerging from the game system. It sounds as though your correspondent is being presented with boring characters who've already participated in good stories in their past. In other words, he's got the player equivalents of a railroading GM - frustrated fiction authors.

    The one thing I'd add to the suggestions given in the podcast in this circumstance is to as WHY? a lot while the players are reeling off their bad fiction. This boring-seeming character fought princesses and romanced dragons; WHY did he participate in these cliched events when he could just have gone home? Go all Method on the players (sorry Mike). If it doesn't get you a personality, it might at least get you a list of enemies who've picked on the PC in the past.

  6. Posted by Phil Masters at 11:26pm on 04 April 2017

    By the way, Mike - you received a deeply inadequate precis of the opening scene of Casino Royale. The whole point there is that Bond's appearance of stress over his first kill is transient, and, well... Watch it up to the credits.

  7. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:24pm on 10 April 2017

    As a player I find it much easier to come up with backstory than I do my character's personality. To a large extent what they've been through defines their personality, or at least that's the way I try to do it. Events I can remember, but a random list of personality traits are likely to be forgotten during play. I have no idea how well this works out for the GM and the other players, I may be awful at it for all I know.

    What I do know is if I write more than a few sentences of back story Roger as GM tends to think I've gone way over the top. Solution when Roger is the GM: I write the back story and then keep it to myself and just play out the consequences.

  8. Posted by Shimmin at 10:06pm on 10 April 2017

    It's so unusual for me to have caught an episode with comments still live!

    I have some thoughts about magic, but many of them are ill-formed at this point so I'll mull over them a bit more. One thing that did occur to me is that the "levels of access" metaphor might be quite useful in establishing who can do magic, why, and why things stay that way.

    Basically, the idea I had is that learning to interact with (or perhaps even perceive) the lower levels of reality requires a change in the way you actually think, and perhaps even your 'essence' (whatever part of the soul-fragment that may be!).

    So an ordinary human might learn a few simple magical tricks, becoming rather strange in the process.

    A full-blown magician is further removed from humanity, since their dabblings with low-level reality have altered not just the kinds of things they care about (which is a fairly common trope), but on a more fundamental level, the sort of entity they are. They have become part of the code, the things their minds are capable of contemplating have shifted. To continue the 'code' metaphor, the software and perhaps the OS of their minds have had to be rewritten, and that has a lot of consequences.

    And so it goes on.

    This means you never end up with the issue of hubristic humans gaining godlike powers and throwing their weight around, because in the process of gaining those powers, they cease to be humans and become... well, Gods or SysOps or whatever you wish to call them, beings that are no longer concerned with everyday mundanity but have become of the nature of reality.

    Or something.

    Another consequence of this is that if people are or become aware of it, it makes deciding to learn magic a bigger decision. You aren't simply gaining power, each step is another sacrifice of yourself and the things you care about right now.

  9. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:16pm on 10 April 2017

    That's a very interesting approach, Shimmin. I'm not at all sure how you do it mechanically but it's certainly something I've thought about.

    Partly I think of the gradual loss of empathy towards humans who after all have the lives of gadflies and can be rewritten at your transcendent whim: they cease to be real to you. (But does something else become more real?)

    And partly I think of the way the gods get trapped in their roles. The god of the storm can never be gentle. The goddess of healing can never kick ass.

  10. Posted by Dirk the Dice at 11:18pm on 10 April 2017

    Phil, Mike was referring to a discussion within the GROGNARD files podcast where we were referencing this fight scene:

    We were reflecting upon the words of Hitch, "how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man."


  11. Posted by Tim Soholt at 02:17pm on 11 April 2017

    The Dresden Files RPG has an interesting take on the price of magic. Basically, when you run out of Refresh (starting Fate points) by taking on too much power, you lose your ability to resist your own nature - your Aspects become not just role-playing hooks with mechanical support, but incontrovertible elements of your being. It both makes perfect mechanical sense given how the Fate System works and captures the inhumanity but exploitability of powerful magical beings we see in the novels.

  12. Posted by RogerBW at 05:27pm on 11 April 2017

    Goodness, lots of comments. Thanks, all!

    Owen: I generally expect a player to know more about the character than the GM does.

    Shimmin: with more mystical imagery, the lower soul is burned away and the upper soul replaces it, perhaps? (And this might take place multiple times on multiple levels.) But getting players to go along with a process like this is something I think I'd want to talk about up front.

    Tim: I wonder whether one might do something along the lines of flattening a stereotype into an archetype. So as you get more magical, you become everyone's idea of who you are, then the simplistic cartoon version of who you are, and you end up as something like Zeus who is hugely powerful but entirely predictable because he has a very simple set of drives and desires.

  13. Posted by Shimmin at 06:25pm on 15 April 2017

    Michael, Roger, I like both of those ideas. Definitely something that needs beating into shape, but I think it could be very interesting if worked out. Whether you ran it as a game of ascending into godhood, or simply with that as a facet of the setting, it'd be a nifty variation.

    Mechanically it would need to depend heavily on the system. In some systems you perhaps actually could mechanise the archetype idea: you begin with a full-developed character, but with each shift in magicalness your character is simplified until you're left with only a few keywords, or as Roger says a very limited set of drives and spheres of operation (storms, philandering, wrathful).

    It's definitely something I think you'd want built into the setting and clear to the players, even though probably not to the inhabitants of the setting.

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