“The White Council’s Wardens are the main law enforcement body of the supernatural world—at least as far as mortals go. For the Wardens, theLaws of Magic are sacrosanct. The Laws of Magic are clear, concise, and offer little in the way of “wiggle room”—at least in the views of some Wardens—but are very much written to communicate the spirit of the law, which is the mode in which they are enforced.”Yeah, that’s why Harry’s got away with so much by citing technicalities. Technicalities are also absolute and not up for interpretations. It’s especially funny considering the book spends quite a lot of space talking about gray areas of Laws which may or may not be covered by enforcement. And soon enough we’ll see sections explaining that interpretation of Laws and how they apply to a given situation is up to specific Wardens and the Council, so, yeah.
First, though, there is a description of what breaking the Laws entails:
“Whenever you choose to break one of the Laws of Magic, you’re crossing a very real line. By taking such an action, you’ve altered yourself-image and your beliefs—the very basis of you—to be the sort of person who breaks that Law. Often, once you do that, there’s no turning back.
In this way, the Laws aren’t a legal entity at all; they’re a set of magical principles that, when broken, lead to a fundamental change inthe nature of the person who broke them. The White Council also enforces them as laws, but that’s in addition to this fundamental change. You could say that the Laws exist as two separate concepts with 99% overlap—the Wardens of the White Council enforce one concept (law), while reality metaphysically enforces the other (nature).”
In the comments to my previous DF RPG post a possibility of Laws being purely legal entity was raised. It’s certainly plausible and erases, like, all of my problems with them: it doesn’t matter if we should really count time travel and necromancy as dark magic or not. The Council does, and they’re the ones with the swords.
This idea is directly contradicted by the books, though, since at one point we clearly see warlocks being driven mad by breaking the Laws, but it feels more like Butcher not really knowing what he’s going for than a deliberate world-building choice. Certainly, we don’t really see Harry struggling much with consequences of breaking the Laws himself.
Whatever the case with the books may be, the game establishes clearly that Laws are primary a metaphysical phenomenon rather than legal one. And so we should criticize it as such.
I would actually say that tying breaking the Laws to beliefs is a good idea. The book pushes hard for magic to be about who you are and what you believe in: aspects reflecting your personality can be invoked to help you or compelled against you to make you botch a spell or not being able to cast it at all. And the Laws do feel like stuff that would change you even without the magical component (which simply helps to accelerate the process), simply because you’ll become a person willing to commit murder, violate someone’s mind, surround yourself with death or get a headache trying to keep track of all your doomed time clones. It’s probably not a comprehensive list (torture feels like it should be there somewhere), but it’s a good place to start.
Such an approach would require more freedom in choosing aspects than the book indicates: not all necromancers would go I Am Become God route, some would instead opt for Death Is the Final Enemy. And I’m not sure beliefs alone can justify a power bonus from it, since all magic is powered by them.
The book seems to take these issues into consideration, so it leans towards Laws being about natural order more than the order of practitioners’ psyche. I think it’s a more boring options, though viable.
The book actually addresses the “only humans matter” and states that while it’s the general policy of the Council to only enforce Laws when it comes to mortals, it’s up to the group to determine how Laws work metaphysically. And some Wardens may be more strict in their interpretation as well:
“When Harry captured Toot-toot, a faerie, during the Storm Front case, he had to defend his actions to Warden Morgan. This suggests thatthe even-more-than-usually-hardassed Morgan was inclined to look at Toot as a person, insofar as violating the Fourth Law goes.”
I take offense of this “even Morgan.” As was discussed previously, he was pretty reasonable in that scene. Other than that, this paragraph is a good indication that the Laws aren’t necessary as clear-cut as may seem. I would also note that binding demons is against the Law as well, according to Morgan, and demons are as monstrous as things get, so shouldn’t the same apply to other Laws as well?
The book discusses for a bit which criteria should apply to separate monsters it’s OK to kill and mindfuck from people, but in the end it basically shrugs and advises to go with whatever works for you.
It’s a good advice, but rather unsatisfying from world-building perspective. I mean, I know I can always change stuff to suit my needs, but I would like to see devs’ take on the issue.
Later there’s a related discussion about how to judge whether someone has broken a Law or not, especially in regards to gray areas. The book again says to go with whatever works for the group, though there is a strong advice to look at the intent: at one point Harry burned down a building which might or might not hosted people at the time. He didn’t know about them, so did he break the Law or not? The book ultimately leaves the answer for players to figure out, though it seems to lean towards intent being magic as far as the Laws are concerned.
Oh, and the book also notes that some Wardens keep track of wizards who kill “safe” targets like monsters because…
“The attitude here is based on the same thinking that recognizes that serial killers often start their careers by torturing animals (which isn’t, say, as illegal as doing the same to a person) before eventually moving up to humans.”
So, yeah, killing Bianca is like killing a squirrel. Honestly, the whole thing feels like it’s here mostly to allow players to kill “monsters” with clear conscience. Which is fine, killing monsters is fun, but, you know, maybe you shouldn’t integrate “no killing” law in the fabric of reality if you find yourself spending your time creating loopholes in said rule.
At least go by sapience here: it’s much more intuitive to say that it’s fine to kill a mindless rampaging monster but not OK to kill that amoral vampire mobster or that other amoral human mobster than trying to create a distinction between the latter two.
Now, what else? There is a more detailed description of Lawbreaker power. It does have limit on how many aspects it can change: once all of them changed by breaking any Laws, the corruption is over (so you may have two changed aspects from mindfuck, three from murder and two from necromancy, and that’s where the change caused by dark magic would stop).
Doom of Damocles section contains interesting tidbit: you need a sponsor to avoid death sentence for breaking the Laws, and if you break them again, your sponsor is going to be executed along with you. That’s a really weird design, I must say. I mean, sponsors are typically established members of the Council. You know, people who make these laws. Are they suicidal or what? There needs to be some dark history to justify something like that. Apprentices routinely corrupting their mentors and such. Otherwise it’s just nonsense.
Now, to specific Laws.
The First Law is “never take a life.”
“Whenever magic is used to kill, some of the positive force of life that mankindis able to bring into the universe is truly destroyed—removed from the universal equation. Kill with magic, and the darker things inside and outside of creation grow just a bit stronger.”
To illustrate what I mean by the book leaning closer to the natural order explanation rather than beliefs.
“This is one of the easiest laws to break by accident”
Not in FATE! As long as you are the one taking out your enemies, you can always say they’re just knocked out by all that fire and totally not dead. The only way for you to “accidentally” kill someone is for your enemies to concede the conflict and declare themselves dead from your attacks. (Well, I guess the GM can also veto the fire scenario described above and say they’re dead or at least going to die without immediate help, but normally it’s relatively easy to avoid creating scenarios where death is the only natural outcome. Unless you specialize in fire, like Harry does.)
That’s part of the reason why I think the First Law should be more strictly enforced and apply to all sapient beings. For the most part, it’s going to be your choice whether to kill someone or not, and whether you do it with magic. As such, it’s only natural for you to rip the consequences, whatever they may be.
You did it.
On that note, let’s talk about murder without magic.
“It’s also important to remember the “with magic” part of the Law. This may seem like splitting hairs—and some people believe that it is—but the First Law doesn’t apply if you, say, pull out a gun and shoot someone in the back of the head.”
Yeah, I would go with splitting hairs here. The problem with making the Law about the method rather than the result is that it loses its teeth. It ceases to be this big moral question the book attempts to present it as (“Is it worth killing them if that would stain my soul and potentially turn me into a monster like them?”) and becomes an obstacle for players to work around (“OK, I can’t kill them with magic, but I totally can knock them out and then shoot them in the face.”). Especially in FATE, as I said. Now, universal imperatives as obstacles rather than moral guidelines can work (see: Pact, for Karmic system that’s in no way just, but still guides characters’ actions because they don’t want to be fucked by the universe), but then you would probably want to divorce it from corruption of characters’ personalities. Once you divorce the act from morality of the act, it’s no longer about inner transformation of a character, no longer Man vs Self conflict, it’s Man vs… Nature, I guess? It’s the difference between classic and romantic tragedies we’ve talked about: character brought down by fatal flaw of said character vs character going against impossible odds and losing. So, consequences of going against unjust forces of nature should be external to the character rather than internal.
Otherwise, the description of the Law is fine in the context. Grey areas are few (pushing someone from a cliff with magic wind still violates the Law) and mostly concern who is and isn’t a monster and whether the Laws apply to Knights of Faerie Courts and such.
The Second Law is “never transform another.”
It’s pretty straightforward in practice, but the theory behind it is iffy. The book brings up problems with trying to cram human mind into an animal or otherwise different brain, especially that of different size, and more potential difficulties with practitioners not knowing the details of biology necessary to create a proper body and problems with controlling a body different from your own. Valid problems, though it’s kinda weird to see them in a world where dead can walk by clinging to the memories of time when they still had flesh. Seems like it belongs to a story with more defined and “scientific-ish” magic system than this one.
The book notes that the Law is unlikely to appear much in the game from PC side. It’s just not something people do often. There is also a brief discussion on how to use violation of this Law by a bad guy.
“GMs should be careful about actually targeting such a spell at the PCs. The threat can certainly hang overtheir heads, but this is a lot like mind control. It rips away character ownership in a way that can feel pretty un-fun to a player. It’s much better to go after someone the PCs care about to make a palpable Second Law threat.”
Ah, the old good “your every connection is my leverage” policy of GMs. It’s not a bad advice, just not the one you want to use often as it leads to all characters being orphaned loners (just look at the FSN cast).
The loopholes for this Law include fake flesh (as long as you build on top of unmodified body, all is good) and shapeshifters. The book wavers over why they don’t suffer the degradation of the mind and other issues with transformation, and basically says “they have talent.” That’s helpful.
The Third Law is “never invade the thoughts of another.”
That’s a proper temptation. You can go around, ask questions, gather information, get beaten up, stalk suspects, look for clues and generally investigate problems… Or you can compose a list of people involved and just read their minds to get to the bottom of whatever mystery you’re dealing with.
The book acknowledges that it can be detrimental for many games and suggests shifting the focus on consequences of violating the Law should any PC do it: the victim would bear mental scarring and react appropriately, information revealed in such a way may do more harm than good, Wardens would get interested in the matter, etc. Basically, once the mystery is destroyed it should no longer be the cornerstone of the game, and it makes sense to instead explore the characters involved in the context of such violation.
The Law comes with a few grey areas. Soulgazing is not a violation of the privacy of the mind, apparently:
“On the surface of it, a soulgaze might look a lot like a violation of the Third Law. You’ve locked eyes with someone, and suddenly you’re seeing all of their darkest, deepest thoughts—right?
Well, no. A soulgaze doesn’t work that way. Remember first that the eyes are the windows to the soul, not to the mind. There’s a very distinct difference—someone’s soul is more about who they are and who they could be and less about what they’re thinking. Even beyond this, you can’t really control what you find out when you soulgaze someone, and what you do get is distorted by metaphor and strange imagery. Furthermore, all of it comes at a price—they get to see you, however dark or uncomfortably revealing that may be. When it comes down to it, reading someone’s mind and looking at his soul are vastly different experiences, each with its own perils and risks—but only one of them brings the weight of the Laws down on your head.”
So, to summarize, soulgaze is different from mindfuck because:
a) It’s about soul, not the mind. You know, soul, that mysterious thingy that is not what we think it is, and that’s the end of its definition. I mean, OK, so apparently it’s different from the mind, even though it seems souls can survive after death of their hosts and maintain personalities and thoughts just fine. Whatever. So, why violating someone’s soul is better than violating someone’s mind? Intuitively, it seems like a bigger deal. I’m not saying it’s impossible to construct a concept of soul in such a way that looking inside wouldn’t be wrong, but a definition would really be helpful here.
b) You don’t control what you find, and what you do find is distorted. I’m entirely unsure why it’s even an argument. The Law is about “crossing one of the most fundamental borders in all of creation: the line that divides one person from another.” Which seems to fit the bill just fine with soul. What lies behind the border is besides the point.
c) They see your soul, too. And that causes them to faint and potentially leaves mental scarring due to the mental conflict rules applied. It doesn’t make it better, much like murder-suicide is not really better than simply murder.
And that’s what happens when you introduce setting elements without paying attention to how they connect.
Reading dead brains (which gives you a few distorted glimpses from their last experience) is another grey area that’s not really a violation of the Law. The idea is that you’re just reading data from a static object rather than invading a living system. No objection here, though we’ll touch it again in a section on necromancy.
However, I do take offense with the description:
“It’s pretty nasty stuff to live through—while you don’t (usually) die from shock or anything by doing it, it’s an experience that no one enters into lightly (even if they have a shot at living through the last few moments of a White Court vampire’s recent victim).”
By which the book means, you can experience being fucked to death.
Just… why is it here? Do we really need a reminder that death is kinda traumatic, no matter the circumstances? Ugh, moving on…
Reading inhuman minds is fine, as far as Laws are concerned, but useless since it’ll just get you gibberish or open you for mental attacks from monsters. Eh, it’s fine, but I would just allow mental conflict with both sides being able to attack and defend. You won’t get anything like “Harry was killed by Morgan, in his bedroom, with a sword,” no clear and concise information, but do well enough, and you’ll get some clues that may help you if you’re smart enough. Do badly, however, and you’ll just get more troubles.
Well, that concludes this Law. While I do have problems with soulgaze handwave, there is a clear narrative logic here, if not world-building one: reading minds is bad because it destroys the mystery. Soulgazing is fine because it just gives you a metaphor and one aspect. Reading dead brains is fine because it just gives you a few distorted images serving as clues, not answers. Reading inhuman minds is fine because it’s useless. With some streamlining, it’s workable (specifically, just do away with soulgaze, it rarely if ever amounts to much).
The Fourth Law is “never enthrall another.”
I now have to wonder if you can enthrall yourself.
So she cut away her love.
So she cut away her hatred.
So she cut away her fear of cutting.
I mean, there are bound to be wizards who want to change their own personalities. Can they do it? Feels like it should be possible, but what are the consequences of such magic?
Then again, I guess there’s no need for providing mechanics for it. Players can change their aspects on minor milestones, and you can simply say you used magic to mindfuck yourself into being someone else, one piece at a time. Could be an interesting plot hook here.
Otherwise, it’s a relatively straightforward Law, though it’s a bit unclear if Jedi mind tricks stuff would violate it. The way the Law is explained, with emphasis on denying people free will, it feels like any mental alteration resulting in different behavior should be forbidden, but the examples all deal with long-term stuff… It would be good to elaborate, though not critical.
The Law also includes a sorta funny inversion of “non-humans don’t count.” Non-human casters can violate the Law all day long with zero consequences. I think it’s mostly included for the sake of White Court vampire PCs, to allow them to do their thing freely. The book attempts to explain it by saying they aren’t going to become more monstrous than they already are, but I would note a distinct lack of “all your aspects eventually become corrupted” thingy.
The Fifth Law is “never reach beyond the borders of life.”
So, this is our anti-necromancy Law. Here’s how the book attempts to justify it:
“This is all about preserving the natural order of things. To everything there is a season, right? When magic is used to confound death, the cosmos sits up and takes notice. The things out in the world that want the natural order disrupted are sure to come knocking and bring all the baggage that comes along for that ride; after all, when nature is confounded, the reality mortals call home gets just a bit weaker, and what’s not to love about that?
While the first four Laws essentially address the rights of the victim, the Fifth Law and the
ones beyond it are basic “that’s just wrong” principles.
Undeniably, death itself contains an incredible amount of power thanks to the significance of the ending of a life (the bigger the life, the more power it offers—dead wizards make powerful ghosts). But ultimately it’s power that belongs to the dead. While it’s true that, in general, “you can’t take it with you,” the power of your own death is something you can take with you into the afterlife. And when some upstart necromancer like Kravos (or worse, an experienced one like Kemmler) comes along to snag some or all of that power for himself, what does that mean for you, the dead guy? No one really knows for sure, but clearly when the big nasties of the supernatural world get all excited and positive about mortal spellcasters trying such a thing, it’s probably a phenomenally bad idea. Call
it a hunch.”
Yeah, I’m not a big fan of “it’s just wrong” justification. It feels arbitrary to me that you can summon demons, transform yourself into a wolf, go to spirit realm and invite its denizens into the mortal world and generally do all kinds of crazy things, but death? Death is untouchable.
I’m with this guy, basically:
|The power of OH DESIRAH trumps the Laws of Magic!|
It doesn’t help that your basic necromancy – zombie creation – doesn’t even really breach the borders of death. It works by summoning a spirit into a dead body and giving it ectoplasmic flesh to cover any missing parts. It seems the body is basically used because it already has a pattern of behavior, so you can use lesser spirits who don’t know how to interact with material world for the task. If anything, it violates the Fourth Law, giving how necromancers bind spirits to their will.
The book notes again that reading dead brains is A-OK:
“But for most purposes of the application of the Fifth Law, this is not a violation. Death itself is not being undone; at the end of the day, the victim in question remains an inanimate, inert corpse.”
OK, a question: does galvanizing a corpse breaks the Fifth Law? I mean, summoning spirits is fine. Giving them a physical form to occupy is fine – I remember at one point Harry summoning a loa and stuffing her into a doll. So, it’s about the corpse specifically. I guess it falls under “only stuff done with magic counts. You can play God all you want with science.” Which is really, really silly when you think about it.
Interacting with ghost is apparently not necromancy at all since they’re just echoes of dead people, not dead people themselves. Again, zombies aren’t dead people either, the corpses are something dead people have left behind.
All in all, it’s very clear this Law was created based on visceral feelings and balance considerations rather than any clear underlying logic: zombies are creepy, so they’re bad. Resurrection would change the world massively, so it’s forbidden and not something good guys would do. Talking with ghosts doesn’t look so bad, so it’s fine. And reading dead brains is pleasantly “edgy,” so it’s allowed if frowned upon.
The Sixth Law is “never swim against the currents of time.”
My problems with this Law are essentially the same as with the previous one: it just feels arbitrary that time is somehow forbidden to touch while so many other things aren’t.
This Law comes with an added bonus of being incredibly vague as to what it entails and what the consequences are likely to be because time magic is not really explored in Dresden Files. So the book basically aimlessly wonder about time travels, how they work, whether they can even be detected, who enforces this Law and, the kicker, whether time travel is actually possible:
“Heck, it might not even be possible to do time travel via the magical arts. Maybe even the attempts to do so lead to really bad things.”
Yeah. Necromancy at least allows you to do some nasty things, so even if I have problems with the justification presented for it to be a metaphysically bad thing, I can see the logic behind forbidding it legally. With time travel it’s basically “we know next to nothing about it, but something bad would probably happen. We think.”
The book talks about how time travel can utterly derail the game and advises to avoid it unless you want to make it the centerpiece of your story. Good advice.
For those who want to play Kiritsugu, speeding up and slowing down time is not against the Law as it’s more about perception of time than outright control over it.
Traveling forward in time – “swimming with the currents of time” – may or may not be against the Law. Seems more like splitting hairs to me, but a good plot hook, so whatever.
What I’m curious about is the relation of this Law to divination. Do you violate the Law by looking into the future or the past? The book is silent on this front, which is a shame. It does bring up the Gatekeeper (a wizard watching over over the gates of reality and screaming at cthulhoids to get off our lawn) and his knowledge of the future:
Spoiler: Do these sorts of actions by the Gatekeeper break the Sixth Law, or merely skirt it?
Harry: Well, they’re probably just fine, since he’s not “swimming against” the flow of time so much as observing it and warning about what he sees ahead. Regardless, it’s clear he has the authority to do it, even if the rest of us might not.
OK, I don’t care much about that guy, let’s talk about me instead. Can I look into the future or the past and warn others about what I see there? Really would like an answer to this.
Well, there is a section on divination in the next chapter, maybe the issue would be elaborated there.
The Seventh Law is “never seek knowledge and power from beyond the Outer Gates.”
It’s basically “don’t summon Cthulhu, kids” law.
I would prefer more elaboration on “knowledge” part of the Law. It’s forbidden to even learn about the Outsiders, which may make some sense from a legal standpoint (the Council basically just really doesn’t like people anywhere near the issue), but does it hold up on metaphysical level? I mean, it’s fine if mere knowledge of eldritch abominations drive people crazy, I would just like it being confirmed rather than kinda implied.
The book also notes that summoning demons is A-OK as far as this Law is concerned since they’re local to our universe. The Council still doesn’t like it since some Outsiders masquerade as normal demons and spirits, plus demons are just generally dangerous, so you may find yourself in trouble for it anyway.
That’s kinda iffy, given that demons in Dresden Files are always evil, so you’d think it would just be against the Laws unless you have the authority of a senior member or something. Otherwise, the Law is simple and fine.
The chapter ends with two sidebars: one on redemption from breaking the Laws and another on the Blackstaff:
The redemption sidebar simply states that redemption may or may not be possible, depending on preferred tone of the game, but if it is, it should be hard to do and require an arc on its own concerning changing character’s aspects back and removing a stunt. The book suggest tying the latter to major milestones, and the former to significant ones.
Redemption being possible is the default option, so at least here the book demonstrates a defined stance unlike with earlier advice on Law applications.
The Blackstaff is the wizard empowered to break any and all Laws of Magic in order to defeat Council’s enemies, which massively undermines the already shaky theme of “some things are just wrong.” Not when they’re done by a special good guy, I guess.
“But how the Blackstaff resists—or is protected from—becoming a Lawbreaker himself is a mystery.”
Yeah, I’ll go with him being rotten to the core and just being really good at hiding it, because it amuses me more.
Well, that’s it. Damn, was it a long chapter. I guess that’s what happens when I’m suddenly given a lot of world-building material to talk about.
Overall, I would say it’s a good adaptation. The book attempts to provide concise information about the source material, make sense of it as much as it can and provide rules to implement it in your game. Unfortunately, the source material is flawed, and these flaws are carefully preserved here.
So, I would say Dresden Files fans should be able to enjoy it. If you don’t have problems with the world-building in the source material, this chapter provides good tools to recreate various DF magic concepts in your game.
For the rest of you, let’s talk about salvaging stuff for use in other settings. Supernatural senses are fine and simple, thresholds can be used with some modifications, depending on how you want them to work in your setting (maybe any boundary between two distinct places has a threshold, maybe it’s a strictly magical effect that needs to be set up, maybe it’s about God protecting the faithful, so it mostly works in churches, etc.), soulgaze is pretty meh and can be safely discarded, same for wizards’ long lifespans and accelerated healing, the Sight is potentially interesting, but really need a consistent feel to it instead of random metaphors (that’s more a flavor thing that can be easily added, though) and hexing can be either discarded or expanded into general magical signature bleeding into surroundings.
The Laws of Magic can be roughly divided into two groups: stuff that’s bad because the book says so and stuff that’s bad because it can negatively affects the game. Specifically, I would classify mind reading, resurrection and time travel as the latter (mind control would be here, too, but it’s only bad when players can inflict long-lasting mind control casually, which is not the case here).
The first group can either be discarded entirely or changed in accordance with your setting. Maybe it’s always wrong to kill people. Maybe in your setting animating corpses involves stuffing their souls back into rotting carcasses, dooming them to eternal torture. In such cases you may want to use the rules for the Law. At least the part about warping aspects. The mechanical bonus should be given only if in your setting there is some reason for mages to grow stronger by using dark magic. For example, in the Mask of the Sorcerer, killing another sorcerer stuffs him or her into your head, giving you access to said sorcerer’s knowledge. That’s certainly worth a bonus and an aspect change, even though it’s limited to only killing sorcerers rather than any person.
As for the second group, you may either use the rules for breaking the Laws and provide your own justification for them (for example, it would make sense for reading minds to change you: you expand your horizons, you experience being the other person, so your aspects change, and your mind magic becomes stronger simply due to more practice – you are no longer lost and confused in foreign minds after traveling them for long enough), or you can simply state that such things are impossible for mortal practitioners. Time travel and resurrection specifically may be nearly impossible, requiring complex rituals you’re unlikely to perform more than once in a lifetime.
Basically, while the book does manage to locate problematic elements, I think its solution to them is sub-optimal at best. Still, it’s something to think about, and the book may inspire you to come up with something for your own game.
That’s it for now. Only half a chapter this time, but the next chapter is on spellcasting, so I suspect I’ll have more Things To Say, which would make this post way too long.
Tune in next time to learn what punching and invisibility have in common.