Thursday, July 26, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Zamora

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. -- Lord Acton, 1887

In Tuesday's post about lessons learned from Conan, I mentioned the idea that magic should be feared.

That's a bit of a misstatement; what I really mean is that magic-users should be feared.

Magic is power. Those who study it seek power. Even those who stepped onto the magic path interested only in knowledge wind up gaining power whether or not they want it, and as Lord Acton proclaimed, the simple possession of power threatens to corrupt even the stoutest soul.

In this regard, magic is an almost perfect metaphor. It can corrupt its users not only psychologically but spiritually and physically, too. We have a long tradition of sorcerers who can be identified by their scarred flesh, inhuman gaze, and bizarrely misshapen appendages. Wizards immerse themselves in taboos: they associate with dark forces, study death, and (most likely) challenge or at least question the authority of the gods.

It's the wizard, then, that's feared. Magic use is a symptom of darker purposes and intents, and those are what inspire fear.


  1. The power-mad wizard violating the laws of nature is a product of Abrahamic religion and its concept of "sorcery". RuneQuest and my sporadic studies of ancient cultures present a different archetype: shamans, priests, mystics, or wise folk who're slightly spooky but pillars of the community. Not unsurprisingly, $OUR magicians are holy folk and $YOUR magicians deal with demons. Monotheism throws the distinction between holy miracles and evil sorcery into sharper relief.

    While dark wizards and demon-summoners make great stories, other cultures' concepts of evil can keep players on their toes. For example, breaking the social order can disrupt the natural order, as demonstrated in Egyptian mythology and Shakespeare's Macbeth. Norsemen embodied chaos as giants of ice and giants of fire. Many African cultures believe in "witches" whose very presence brings disaster, through no action of their own. Imagine, then, adventures where the source of evil isn't a wizard but an unpunished crime, elemental forces out of balance, or an innocent who unwittingly attracts disaster.

    1. You're quite right. This applies even to fantasy fiction: for example, Tolkien's wizards are the wisest of folk(serving Sauron is a matter of allegiance rather than wisdom, Saraman once tended the forests and talked to the trees before he turned evil).

      In fact, the word Wizard is derived from the word 'wise' in the first place.

      Magic was to be feared by the Christians who were persecuting the Pagans, because the Wizard and Witch were Pagan figures who had powers that did not come from the Church (e.g. healing).

  2. That was an underlying joke of our last campaign where the Cleric never fully trusted the Wizard. I'll admit I've never seen it done in a game where there was a legitamate chance the Wizard would go crazy.