Review of A Magical Society: Ecology & Culture

Review Summary
Capsule Review
Written Review

September 29, 2010

by: Walter Holland

Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 3 (Average)

A useful 40-page compendium of eco-fantastic samples bolted to 100 pages of unnecessary hyper-rational 'worldbuilding' - too many earth science lectures, not enough inspiration or (ironically) magic.

Walter Holland has written 5 reviews, with average style of 3.40 and average substance of 3.80. The reviewer's previous review was of Suppressed Transmission.

This review has been read 3060 times.

Product Summary
Name: A Magical Society: Ecology & Culture
Publisher: Expeditious Retreat Press
Line: d20
Author: Joseph Browning, Suzi Yee
Category: Book/Nonfiction

Year: 2004

SKU: 1003
ISBN: 0-9729376-1-7

Review of A Magical Society: Ecology & Culture

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In sum. A useful 40-page compendium of eco-fantastic samples bolted to 100 pages of unnecessary hyper-rational 'worldbuilding' - too many earth science lectures, not enough inspiration or (ironically) magic.

I happily picked up a copy of this 2004 book on eBay a few weeks ago, excited by its family resemblance to the strong 2003 sister supplement A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. The goal of MS:EC is to provide a rational basis for magical world-design, just as MMS:WE served as a kind of social studies textbook and encyclopedia for generic D&D-style fantasy settings. Unfortunately, the worldbuilding book really is a pseudoscholarly worldbuilding book - which is to say you get more or less what you're paying for, and it's just not worth the time or money.

Indeed, of the four books in XRP's Magical Society series, the entries written primarily by Suzi Yee (Ecology and Culture and 2006's Silk Road) share a key flaw - the near-absence of magic from their treatment of the titular 'magical society' - which the two volumes by Joseph Browning (Western Europe and the 2005 Beast Builder) handily avoid. Maybe that's as much a function of the books' specific subjects as of their respective authors.

There's also a deeper conceptual problem with these worldbuilding books, which should be kept separate from the other criticisms, as it resides not in their execution but with the very idea of 'rational' FRPG worldbuilding. That discussion is for elsewhere, though I hint at it below.

Presentation first. MS:EC is undistinguished (the sidebars, in particular, are poorly laid out), but that's par for the course in RPG books. I have no eye for visual design in any case.

The editing and proofreading, however, are atrocious. While it doesn't share the embarrassing cut'n'pasted duplicate passages of Silk Road, the world-design book is full of typos, homophone errors, and (most surprising) consistent misspellings - e.g. 'artic' for 'arctic' in a geology book! Seeing 'Antarctica' spelled both correctly and incorrectly on a single page is always a bad sign. The textual imprecision and sloppiness are extra frustrating given the book's 'scientific' approach to its material - you can't credibly write a pseudoscholarly introduction to 'microscopic magiotrophs' ('organisms that can produce organic material from magical energy alone') in a volume that's put together like a high school yearbook.

Rational, scientific worldbuilding? MS:EC aims to introduce basic concepts in earth science, geography, ecology, and anthropology for use in designing magical worlds, specifically more-or-less standard D&D 3e campaign settings. The book steps the reader through basic 'worldbuilding' processes: laying out continents and landforms, mapping weather patterns and climate zones, apportioning plant life, outlining food webs, and dispersing the various standard intelligent races (dwarves, orcs, humans, et al.) throughout the world. Between these brief demonstrations are dozens of pages of stuff like this:

These two chains are easily represented thusly. The grazing chain is light/magic > autrotrophs/magiotrophs > herbivores > carnivores > top carnivores. The detrital chain is detritus/magic > microsaprophages/magiotrophs > microbial grazers > microbial predators> top detrital predators. There are many other relationships occurring at the same time that cannot be explained simply, but better seen pictorially.

But most relationships in nature are not simple, straight-line food chains. Numerous food chains interlink into complex food webs, with all links leading from producers through an array of primary and secondary consumers. Interestingly enough, food webs (once unraveled) rarely exceed four links because every new layer adds another level of energy transfer inefficiency. Highly productive ecosystems rarely support more links, termed trophic levels. They usually support more species and have more complex webs instead of longer ones. The few land-based ecosystems that exceed four links usually stress magic as a primary energy source. Food webs are usually shorter in fluctuating environments (temperature, moisture, salinity) and longer in environments that have more stable conditions. Highly stratified environments, like forests or pelagic water columns, have longer food webs than poorly stratified environments, like grassland, tundra, and stream bottoms. The widest food webs (those with the greatest number of herbivores) tend to be the shortest while narrow food webs have the greatest fraction of top carnivores. More complex food webs are actually less stable than shorter ones and are easiest to disrupt. Generalist species most easily invade simple food webs while specialists, capable of exploiting a restricted source of energy, are best able to invade a complex food web.

That's more or less the terminological/conceptual level of the whole book. To be sure, there's interesting material in there - you could build a whole semester of college on the ramifications of 'food webs (once unraveled) rarely exceed four links because every new layer adds another level of energy transfer inefficiency.' The information itself is certainly accessible, and for a geek who preferred to read his Dungeon Masters Guide during high school Biology class, I suppose it's a decent refresher.

But the quoted passage, which can reasonably stand in for 90% of the book, has two problems: soul-deadening prose and (more importantly) total irrelevance to the project of fantasy 'worldbuilding.'

The alt-textbook approach poorly serves this material. To the extent that fantasy 'worldbuilding' is important or useful (see below), it's about inspiration rather than exhaustive description, and this style just takes all the fun out of the project. Yee provides a few narratorial flourishes to break up the ongoing lecture - MS:EC is nominally a first-person account by a young worldbuilding 'godling,' though you'd be forgiven for forgetting that frame - but the book gives a strong whiff of 'cribbed from my old textbooks.' It didn't have to go that way; anyone who cites Jared Diamond in the bibliography must understand the importance of zesty popular presentation...

Still, in a field dominated by a legion of Gygax-imitators, awkward prose is nothing new. The bigger problem is that these ~300 words about food webs aren't going to help anyone design a fantasy world! Gameworlds are for gaming in, but MS:EC treats worldbuilding as an end in itself, with the goal of producing a map that's essentially earth with kobolds. Indeed, Yee's sole sample world is just that; there's little to distinguish her creation from a relabeled map of our planet.

Which raises the question of why you'd go through all this trouble with 'pelagic water columns' and climatic zones and the per-pound cost of caraway seeds to 'create your fantasy world,' when you could just file the serial numbers off of earth (or Mars, or...), spread around a few generic fantasy names, and skip right to the actual gaming part.

So there's our problem: MS:EC provides too much unnecessary detail and too little magic for a task that's supposed to be evocative and story-generative. Speaking of which...

Where's the magic in my magical society? If you accept the premise of the book - that the core of 'worldbuilding' really is exhaustive geo-level description of a nonexistent physical location - then this title is probably exciting. A rigorous treatment of magical ecology? Sounds swell. But my biggest disappointment with MS:EC is with the thinness of its magical coverage.

MS:EC proposes a multiverse 'parasitic upon the body magic,' which is a kind of sentient magical fluid-flow that exists in parallel with the flows of physical energy. This is a cool, evocative idea, pitched at just the right level of hand-wavey story-science. The book then lightly skims the surface of that idea for a tiny percentage of its 160 pages. Instead of throwing off exciting notions about how your homebrew magical world might work, MS:EC is content to treat magic as just another energy resource - think of real-time strategy video games with their totally abstract energy tokens. The initial treatment of the subject, 'The Inner Workings of Magic,' covers just five pages. Then it's back to biomes and botany and a little bit of human culture.

Yee fails to provide a fully integrated magical ecology. Instead you get passages like this:

The typical storm giant is either a hunter/gatherer or an agriculturalist. The staple of their diet is magic-heavy vegetation farmed from any number of wild highly magical fungi. With hunting, they supplement their diet with top-level predators, who have the most concentrated magic in their tissue. The magic they consume from these two sources supports their physically impossible size and frame while powering their supernatural abilities and spell-like abilities. Storm giants can live on low-magic foods like bread and cheese, but given enough time they develop physical problems from magic deficiency. Without ingesting magic through their food, they perish from magic starvation, just like humans do when they don’t get their required nutrition from their food. Many creatures survive in a state of magical starvation for a long time, but other creatures may not hold out for long. Each organism has a different metabolism which influences how long they can go without eating food containing enough magic to stave off physical difficulties.

Or this:

Magic-rich ley lines also feed into null termini. These magic flows are hard to understand, but the gods of magic explain that most null termini aren’t really devoid of magic, per se. Over 90% of null termini are actually magic-rich termini with an overabundance of microscopic magiotrophs, happily eating a vast percentage of the magic in the terminus. One would think that this would lead to a great population crash, but it appears most microscopic magiotrophs self-regulate their population to such a degree that the population is almost completely stable. In other words, just the right amount of magic comes out to feed all the magiotrophs, and there’s nothing left to manipulate.

That's as deep as the treatment of magic goes: mana = carbs++. The book has the dubious distinction of making the imaginative game of fantastic invention seem like a homework assignment. I don't think this approach offers any advantage to the budding Game Master beyond, say, the half-baked fantastic 'naturalism' of early D&D, or the snazzy worldmaking algorithm of GURPS Space, or the austere elegance and rigorous story-centrism of Mouse Guard's mythical woodlands. Bad enough that millions of geek kids grew up thinking Toril and Greyhawk were swell worldbuilding models; MS:EC wants you to go a step further and recalculate those worlds from first principles. Which would be OK if it offered a compelling reason to do so.

'You can convince yourself that the D&D 3e world-model sort of makes sense' is not a good reason to buy or read a book. Nor to take up roleplaying, by the way.

But then there's the good part. Now, having said all this, the last 40 pages of the book are absolutely splendid. It's presented as a grab bag of geological, botanical, and animal features for your fantasy world, drawn from earth and fantasy. Finally the book hits just the right balance of forebrain-tickling detail and Gameable Coolness:

Spy Grass: A small flowering plant, not much different than a dandelion, spy grass is the bane of secrecy. Spy Grass has developed an unusual survival method; it telepathically scans a passing creature’s mind to learn of the “best location” for its growth and reproduction. The spy grass then slowly moves to that location at a speed of six inches a day. For those who can communicate with plants, spy grass provides additional information. If the communicator can sway the plant from its normal unfriendly attitude to friendly or better, the person gains a window into the minds of those who have passed by within 10ft. of the plant. This provides the person with knowledge of who (or what) has passed in the past week and, if the spy grasses [sic] attitude is helpful, the person gains access to a single train of thought of every scanned creature. This memory could be important or trivial. Identifying spy grass requires a DC 20 knowledge (nature) check or a spot check of DC 25 to notice the plant has moved and then a DC 15 knowledge (nature) check. Spy grass is a magically dependent plant that needs magic, sunlight, water, air, and soil to survive. Spy grass is found in temperate and tropical environments where grass or flowers are found.

And this:

These speckled deer ('Bountiful Deer' or 'deer of plenty') radiate a constant plant growth effect where they roam and tend to have a territory of several hundred square miles. During their migrations, most of the land in the area is under a plant growth enrichment effect for only a few days, but mating grounds benefit the most (almost a full month). Deer of plenty use the overgrowth aspect of plant growth to avoid predators...

It doesn't leap off the page or anything, but that's just the kind of stuff that inspires a reader/player to go off and imagine the hell out of her own fantasy world. Deer that invert the food web, enriching their environment/food source so as to perpetuate their species? Grass that migrates a few inches a day toward better purchase in the ground? Yes, that's exactly what this book could've been offering from the very beginning. Best of all, you don't even need all the semi-scientific background rationale to use those two organisms in your own campaign world - they need only be consistent with themselves. If you're playing RPGs to satisfy your compulsive need to order your thoughts, you're probably bringing somebody down; the patchwork approach of the MS:EC Appendix is just the antidote.

The right response to a book like this should be 'Huh, that's cool...but what if we tried...?' MS:EC suppresses that response by working hard to provide justification for the clichés of D&D-style fantasy without illuminating narrative/ludic possibilities beyond. Maddeningly, the 'using this book' section explains why:

The two ecology sections explain what’s on your map. They add depth to your creation. The explanation of predator-prey relationships gives you knowledge to create some truly unusual monstrous challenges for your PCs while providing information on how food webs and energy flows. These ideas will be fully expanded upon in our forthcoming book, A Magical Society: Aggressive Ecologies (2005), but you can start working on your strange and dangerous environments right now...


However, to get the most out of this book we recommend you do a little additional work. Although we’ve tried to synthesize large amounts of complex information into a quick and useful gaming resource, we realize that one of the most powerful ways to reach your players and to get them deeply into your game is through visual aids. Unfortunately, we simply can’t provide visuals for the hundreds of unique things in this book, but there is one place where images of all these things are accessible: the Internet. Jump online and look up any of the entries in our appendix, and you’ll find breathtaking imagery that’s only a print button away from entering your world.

'Aggressive Ecologies' became the Beast Builder, which is a much more immediately useful book than this one - indeed, it's the book Ecology and Culture should have been. That last paragraph is the best advice in the whole book: if you're going to draw inspiration from earth, instead of reverse-engineering Gaia, just go look at stuff. The art of sorcerous evocation known as 'storytelling' - or 'DMing,' or even 'subcreation' - reasonably starts not with the Arduous Biologic Calculus but with wonder, with big open questions and a What If...? impulse, which are the first casualties of the too-familiar traditional 'rationalist' approach to fantasy worldbuilding. This book is way, way too preoccupied with the mundane. It's not a geology textbook (despite appearances) and it's mostly not a work of fantasy (despite appearances).

As such, I can't recommend it. (Better idea: read S. John Ross's Uresia and reread Dune, which is an actual ecological fantasy.) But the last 40 pages are worth a look, as are the other books in the series.

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