The D and Ds of Magic

So it’s time for me to finally weigh in on Dungeons and Dragons, and its relationship to magic, and why so many people are utterly confused by how things actually work. I realize there’s a small contingent of people out there who assume that magic works, at least somewhat, like it’s presented in dungeons and dragons. No doubt some people are reading this article because they’ve just accidentally turned their best friend to stone and can’t figure out why doing the ritual backwards isn’t turning him back. This article isn’t for those people. Most of us know that magic doesn’t work like that.* If you haven’t figured that out, I’m not going to piss on your spiritual beliefs (good luck with that by the way), and I have no desire to make a magic is really this type article where I try to make my spirituality as Christian-like as possible so as to try to make it non-threatening to those people who would discriminate against me because I hold a different spiritual opinion which is constitutionally guaranteed to me anyways.

And, on a side note, if you want to tell me how much better things are in World of Darkness I will find you and punch you in the face at some point in the future. Since the 90’s I’ve been listening to certain Pagans prattle on about how realistically WOD represents magic and alternative spiritualities. I finally got a chance to skim through a couple books a few months back, and it is the laughably naive spiritual ideas of children who have just finished reading their first intro to Wicca book. Not only is the depiction of magic and spirituality completely made-up, but its grasp of actual mundane things which exist and are documented in the world are also laughable and naive, so much so that I can only assume they belong to tweens who have never been more than a few blocks from their home. Even assuming you could get Crips and Bloods to hang out together at a club, because vampires, there is no way you’d also have Punkers in that same club. These are counter-culture groups that have completely different cultures, and they also dance and listen to completely different kinds of music, and are sexually attracted to completely different types of people, all of the things you do at a club. This is why clubs are segregated by themes. And the only people who are going to go to a fucking vampire club are Goths and Pagans. These people are obviously too young to have ever visited a club or bar, or even to have listened to music that their parents found objectionable.

Okay, angry rant over, it’s time to get to the point. A lot of us come into magic thinking that it works kind of like DND, and if we ever decide it doesn’t, some of us become convinced that we’re going to make it work just like DND. Dungeons and Dragons has an insane amount of books. There are catalogs of every conceivable kind of monster you might run into. There are catalogs of spells, thousands upon thousands of spells, enough to cover just about any conceivable use for magic you might ever have or imagine. There are books covering every profession you might want to take, the going-ons and important organizations of every town, region, and country you might visit, every mythical race you might portray, and every plane of existence you could visit. There are books listing all of the pantheons of gods that exist and the gods in those pantheons. If you get into the fan works, there are even elaborate instructions to figure out the size of your penis, how that compares to others of your fantasy species, and how pleasured women will be by it.

We want magic, and spirituality, to be completely explainable in these rulebooks. It doesn’t matter if it’s a few dozen books like the bible, to ten thousand books, like in dungeons and dragons. We want to know that there’s a complete set, and once we’ve read it we’re done. And what a wonderful world that would be too. Imagine if there was a book of spells, even if it was in a few hundred volumes, and inside you had every spell and ritual conceivable listed in alphabetical order, and you could just look up what you needed to do that day. Imagine if there was a big book of gods where you could look up the descriptions and stats for every god in existence.

This isn’t just something we see in Dungeons and Dragons. Go watch an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Notice they have a huge collection of books, and often times the answer to all their problems ends up being hidden in the footnote of some obscure text, and it’s just a matter of using library skills to find it. Hell, the success of Wikipedia is entirely due to humans having an innate need to collect all of the relevant information in existence and add it to a single database so it can be accessed as needed.

That innate instinct exists in our magical work as well. We’re always trying to get just one more, or one dozen more books to add to our collection to make it complete. We’ll scour used book stores looking for small run self-published books and hand written journals in the hopes that it will contain at least some small nugget of spiritual truth that will help us on our path, or at least add something new to our bookshelf. If you took all the information from every spiritual work ever written and combined it together you could probably get a thousand or so pages of useful information. However there’s probably at least 100,000 in print spiritual books in the English language (actually probably quite a bit more if we’re all inclusive). When people realize it isn’t enough, they’ll start publishing their own books, they’ll make lists of as of yet discovered demons and gods, they’ll even go so far as to try to make internet databases of spiritual things, like that demon database they had on Angel.

Unfortunately magic doesn’t work like Dungeons and Dragons, even though we so desperately want it to, and even though we seemed hard wired to work best within a system like that. For a couple of reasons, magic and true spirituality require experimentation and exploration. We are seekers of knowledge and truth heading into the unknown. That’s not the sort of universe we’re built to exist in though. We’re built to exist in a universe where everything is explained in a set of books, which can be read, remembered, looked up, and rules lawyered. That’s why people are naturally attracted towards closed dogmatic systems of spirituality. That’s why Christianity is so popular. That’s why as its gotten more popular, Wicca has embraced a more dogmatic system closed off to new developments, and also the reason why the more it embraces a system like that, the more popular it becomes. Copyright law is probably the only reason why there hasn’t been a council of Trent within the Wiccan religion to give us an authoritative set of Wiccan texts and interpretation of Wiccan spiritual dogma. In about a 100 years though it will probably have happened.

The first reason why this system doesn’t work is that there’s just too much to ever get an authoritative book about anything. Let’s take the gods as an example. How many god’s does dungeons and dragons have? That’s not rhetorical, I really don’t know. My main exposure to the gods of DND is playing the Krynn trilogy on PC back in the late 80s, and I’m pretty sure there’s more than just that. Official published gods maybe number in the hundreds or thousands. Add fan published works and maybe we can push the 10,000 marker, maybe.

How many actual gods are there? That’s hard to say. Looking on Wikipedia, there’s probably a few thousand gods listed in the Greek pantheon alone, which admittedly is a rather large pantheon. Remember though that this is just what has historically survived of the Greek pantheon. The actual list of ancient Greek works which still exist is rather sparse. There are meanwhile a couple thousand pantheons that do or have existed on Earth, at least ones that we know of from recorded history. We’re already looking at probably close to a hundred thousand gods, at least, which still have their names written down.

That’s just the gods we know about though. If you go looking around with magic, you’ll start finding gods that have never been written down, or at least you’ll find evidence of their existence. The vast majority of gods make no attempt to interact with humans on a personal level or let their names be known. What we see in history represents a small fraction of gods which have made themselves overly available to humans. It’s sort of like if the only humans you know of were celebrities.

So how many gods are there? Millions at least. Maybe billions. Maybe more than billions. I really don’t know, and honestly after millions it sort of leaves the realm of a number I can in any way manage.

But let’s just limit ourselves to human known gods. That’s maybe a hundred thousand. It wouldn’t be easy, but 100,000 gods is catalogable. Wikipedia did it. But go read those Wikipedia descriptions. A small number have long detailed articles. Some gods only have one or two line sentences describing them. Sometimes multiple gods are described in a single sentence. These descriptors a lot of times are sparse on actual spiritual information, and instead consist of archeological discoveries, roles in ancient fictions, and modern pop-culture appearances. To really learn about a god you’d need to explore that yourself.

So is that doable? I’ve tried doing it to a smaller extent, and although successful, it poses problems. To begin with, how many different, probably new, gods can you contact in a day. If you’ve only done it a few times one is probably enough to knock you on your ass. I can probably do a few dozen in a day if I really wanted to. That many gods is not a pleasant experience though. It’s strong energy, it’s exhausting to take it in, and different gods will conflict with each other. After four or five, you’re most definitely getting pretty sick from it. At about a dozen you’re going to be really sick. A few dozen will end very unpleasantly.

If you’re willing to make the sacrifice, how much information will you get? Confirmation on which gods are real and maybe two or three sentences worth, if you’re lucky. Doing that many gods at once isn’t going to give you much opportunity to explore them, and after a while you get sick and they start blending together.

Get it down to two to four gods and you’ll just being exhausting yourself instead of getting sick, and maybe have a paragraph or two each. At one god a day you’ll maybe get some good insight into that god. At this point you’re at one god a day, and how many thousands do you have? To really get to know a god though you have to contact them multiple times, probably over a period of at least a couple years. Realistically, in a span of five years, a truly dedicated person could reasonably put together a book of a hundred or so gods.

Mind you, that’s just gods. That’s not spells, or rituals, or the Kabbalah, or the Tarot, or types of spirits, or names of demons, or even alternate universes (of which there are most definitely so many I can’t express the number in the length of a blog post, or encyclopedia, even using exponential powers, and of course assuming that it isn’t an infinite number, which it most likely is).

Another problem is it takes a really long time to get good at this shit. Like most things in life, learning a spiritual discipline takes about five to ten years of dedicated practice (and I mean dedicated) before you’re good at it. It takes at least two to four times as long to become an expert at it. I don’t think anyone can really master anything.

That’d be fine if magic were a thing. It’s not. It’s thousands upon thousands of things. We have a finite amount of time in a day, and as an added catch if we completely dedicate ourselves to spiritual pursuits and only spiritual pursuits, we’ll actually mature spiritually much more slowly than if we spend the majority of our lives living our lives and keep our spirituality as a side hobby. So we have to pick and chose which things are important to us. Some things offer such great returns and are so universal to everybody they’re almost always recommended, like astral projection, energy work, and meditation. Other things are maybe not so useful, at least to everyone. Mediumship has a pretty nice payoff, but it’s not for everybody. Maybe you have better things to do with the next five years than learn how to read a natal chart. Personally I could care less whether or not Furries should be considered a kind of Otherkin, because there’s nothing in that sentence that interests me in anyway, and Furries are just plain weird anyways and I really don’t want anything to do with them.

This is also why you see so many magicians jumping from thing to thing all the time. This year they’re giving Yoga a whirl. Next year they’ll be into Voodoo rituals. After that they’ll be reading those Hindi texts. There’s so much cool and interesting stuff out there you have to jump around and take the spiritual equivalent of introductory courses in this stuff so you can get an idea if any of it is for you and if anything can be incorporated into your personal practice. What you decide to keep is the stuff you’re going to be dedicated to for the next five to ten years before you really start to get good at it.

This means it’s going to take a huge chunk of your life just to get to the point where you’re good at something. It’ll take an even bigger chunk to become an expert at it. Then you’re looking at putting twenty or so years of information into book form, which if you write fast you might be able to do it in five years, and it’ll be several volumes long no doubt. Then you’ve managed to cover one of several thousand (at least) different skills, and it’s only about as complete as a science textbook, because, as I said, you’ll never completely master anything.

And that still doesn’t mean what you’ve written is authoritative. I’m assuming you read and like my blog, because you’ve gotten this far down an article. At times though, I disagree spiritually with Mr Stenwick over at Augoeides and sometimes these disagreements even become public in our comment sections and blog posts. So if you’re looking for information we disagree about, which of us do you believe?

Obviously Mr Stenwick because he is a well educated and respectable magician, miles ahead of most everyone else on the blogosphere in terms of restraint and class, and he has managed to make fairly regular blog posts for a very long time. I post whenever the hell I feel like it, I incessantly talk about Batman, being Batman, my love of penguins, and my unrequited crush on Eliza Dushku even though those these things have nothing to do with spirituality, all while showing a general disdain for hard work, dedication to the craft, and spiritual people in general. But now suppose I was actually a respectable magician. Then who would you believe? That answer’s a lot harder now, isn’t it.

Most of the time you’ll find heated debates about the most simplest and universal of things if you look for them, like the basics of astral projection or how meditation is supposed to work. Even dismissing the realm of theory and only dealing with the personal experiences of famous magicians, you still end up with conflicting views about the nature of the universe and how it works. Even if everyone wrote down everything they figured out spiritually and everything that ever happened to them, and you could somehow access all of it, it still wouldn’t help you figure out who was right about what.

The only option left for the magician is a personal spiritual path, and personal spiritual exploration. There are guidelines that we can find. Sometimes a book will send us off in the right direction. Other times it may shave off a year or so of study by helping us build a foundation from which to start our own exploration of the subject. But its not like dungeons and dragons, and it never will be. There isn’t a book, or set of books that contains everything we need to know. There isn’t some dogma that will explain everything to us. We can’t rules lawyer our way into making the universe act a certain way, and we can’t win spiritual arguments by relying on the words of so called authoritative experts.

We aren’t seeking knowledge. In Dungeons and Dragons, you can buy every book TSR and Wizards of the Coast has ever published, and then you’ll know everything there is to know about Dungeons and Dragons, the official stuff anyways, you just have to keep buying the new releases as they come out. But with magic, you’ll never be able to know everything there is to know. In a lifetime, you won’t even come close. If you lived a thousand years, you wouldn’t be able to learn a billionth of what’s out there. What you’d be capable of figuring out would be a fraction so small you probably couldn’t conceive of a denominator that big.

Instead we’re seekers of enlightenment and truth, and most importantly spiritual doers, we do things spiritually, as opposed to knowing things spiritually. In a lot of ways, we’re like Indiana Jones. He doesn’t know all about ancient artifacts. He would like to know all about them, and put them in books that can then be taught as course work to his students, but it’s not possible. Instead he gets a base understanding of them from the sources available, then goes off and explores how things like the Ark of the Covenant and Holy Grails and Flying Saucers really work, and he’s honest about the fact that he’s really just making it all up as he goes a long.

Plus given the choice between being Gary Gygax and Indiana Jones, I think most of us would rather be Indiana Jones. I’m not saying this to dis Mr Gygax, but it’s fucking Indiana Jones.

*Unlike in DnD, in order to do a reversal on a magical spell you not only have to do the ritual backwards, but also upside down. This is how real magic differs from your role-playing game. If that doesn’t turn your friend’s stone back to flesh, also remember that you can only cast that spell once per day, and before casting it again you need to re-memorize it and then sleep first.

5 Responses to The D and Ds of Magic

  1. Michelle says:

    Spot on as usual Rob. In your own style, communicating your subjective experience, you’ve successfully conveyed that universal (at least ours) truth. Magic, and other forms of focused Spiritual Energy require inward experience that cannot always be relayed to others through the five senses nor taught as a tidy, organized or comprehensive set of instructions.

  2. manannanschild says:

    Great article! It makes a number of excellent points that most people are simply not prepared to accept.

  3. Pabb says:

    (Preparing to get my face astrally kicked tonight)

    … not even the old WoD Mage ?

  4. It seems to me that somebody might very well read my blog and notice that I post about stuff like Bigfoot more than most magick bloggers and conclude that I must be the silly one. But I suppose to each his own. What I like about your blogging is that even though I post a lot more, when you tackle a subject you do so seriously and in depth one the whole, silly asides notwithstanding.

    @Pabb, I imagine that one of the reasons people talk about WOD being more realistic than D&D at all is because of Mage, not Vampire or Werewolf or any of the later White Wolf stuff. I went to college with Mark Rein-Hagen, and at the time he and Jonathan Tweet were working on their first RPG, Ars Magica. The entire point behind that game was to create a “more realistic” magical system than D&D, and the core of it was moved over into Mage. I do give Mark some credit for looking at real-world systems and trying to model them in a game, but Rob is still totally right, it’s nothing like real magical practice.

    The fact is that owning all the books isn’t what gets you there, it’s doing the work. I hope that someday we’ll have a sort of established knowledge base for the magical arts just like we do for the physical sciences, but we’re not there yet. And that means the only way to become a better magician is to do the work, experiment, and see what happens. We’re still at the point where the data you generate from your own work is going to be far more accurate for you than anything you’ll find in a book.

  5. John says:

    I really love the way you go in deep on whatever it is you’re writing about, but there’s two things here that I think ring hollow…

    – It’s not that there’s such a huge amount of spiritual information out there, but that spirituality is deeply personal and unique to each individual. Everyone’s spirituality is going to be profoundly affected by their own experiences, beliefs, and values. To say that there exists a finite list of gods out there that one can work with, no matter how large, I believe is inaccurate. (in the spirit of asides, this reminds me of countably infinite vs uncountably infinite sets in mathematics) I think there’s a habit among pagan writers to say “Ahah, now that I have amassed all this experience I can finally write *the* authoritative book!” while only making a token note that their experience isn’t going to exactly line up with someone else’s.

    – Even though one can have every D&D book that doesn’t mean you know everything about D&D. The most valuable aspect of D&D is not an encyclical knowledge of made-up spells, places, and rules, but the creative exercise of running a campaign, or playing a character, and the sharing of that experience among friends.

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