The Magic Tree


The best of the web – magical, mythical and majestical! Fantasy and Mythic websites and materials/downloads. Roleplaying, Tabletop and Esoteric Games.


Communication is such an integral part of our lives that we often forget its importance. The impact of telephone, radio and television upon society cannot be overestimated, yet we ignore and accept them without thinking.

Since most fantasy worlds are set in 'medieval' milieu, they might appear rather limited in the field of communication. Technology in the Middle Ages was responsible mostly for war engines and weaponry, since Man has always preferred to resolve arguments with violence rather than words. Very few people could read or write, so information was conveyed by word of mouth for the most part. Interaction between towns and cities consisted of news and tales told by passing merchants and travellers. This news was often inaccurate (the teller would have heard it from someone who heard it from someone else who.. .) and sometimes completely untrue. Villages were built on the roads between towns, and took advantage of them by having inns, stables and blacksmiths; a weary traveller could rest at the inn while his horse was reshod. The villagers, eager for news of the outside world, would press the traveller for information - the offer of a drink could loosen the most exhausted tongue. I expect that a good storyteller would be greatly welcomed by the inn's regulars, whether the tales were true or not; he might, in return, learn something of his destination (the origin of the infamous Rumour Table). Travellers were not great in number, however. The average man was likely to grow up, marry, and die within ten miles of his birthplace. It is not hard to understand why any news was appreciated.

Written communication was common among the educated classes. Since the educated were rich, they could afford servants to carry messages. Envoys and emissaries were often used by the rulers to make sure that the laws were upheld in every part of the land. Proof of their authority consisted of a signed charter bearing the ruler's seal. The messages that they brought were handwritten; the first form of printing appeared in the middle of the fifteenth century, however, so you might like to include printing devices in your game. If you do so, however, beware: the printed word carries an aura of authority and power that has caused revolution and reform.

So much for history - what about fantasy? When you consider the factors which actually make it fantasy - the abundance of adventurers, the reality of magic, the existence of monsters - it becomes obvious that a rational fantasy world could be far removed from its historical foundations. This depends, of course, on the extent of the fantastic elements in your roleplaying game: the existence of unicorns wouldn't drastically alter a medieval society, since they were believed to exist anyway; religious magic, on the other hand, would reinforce the people's faith and consequently priests would become the most important people in the land.

Let us re-examine communication in the light of this. Our fantasy world contains many wealthy people, rich from their days of adventure, who would undoubtedly benefit from being able to communicate with distant towns and castles. One way to fill this gap would be to have a Guild of Messengers and Carriers. The Guild would consist of trained riders, who would carry letters and small items to their destination for a fee. If set routes and strict delivery times were used the fee could be reduced to a reasonable price, since one rider may carry many letters. Awkward or dangerous destinations could be handled by armed riders, although the Guild would not undertake a mission whose risk was too great.

The riders themselves would probably use horses for mundane deliveries; since this is fantasy, however, there is no reason why stranger, unnatural beasts should not be used. Flying creatures such as the gryphon makes excellent steeds if tamed.

Bonfires have long been used as a means of signalling. In the sixteenth century, a chain' of pyres was built along the southern coastline of England to warn of the Spanish Armada. Each pyre was within sight of the next, and a watch was maintained at each. If the Spanish ships were sighted, the beacon was to be lit. The flames would be seen by the next watchman, who would light his beacon, and so the signal would pass along the chain to Plymouth, alerting the Navy and preparing the coast for invasion.

The system could be improved: more than one beacon at each point would mean more than one possible message, for example. The fires are still prone to bad weather, however, and a false alarm would disable the system for hours. A better idea would be to use heliographs - signalling mirrors - to convey messages in a sort of morse code of flashes. Using the sun during the day, and lamps or magical illuminations during the night, an effective relay network could be devised which would only be stopped by overclouding or fog. The information would travel much faster than a messenger, but could be more expensive remembering the number of trained codesmen involved. Such a system is best suited to a dry, sunny environment, where weather conditions are unlikely to cause problems. A two-mirrored heliograph, using one large concave mirror focusing the sunlight onto a smaller transmitter mirror, would allow signalling even when the sun was behind the signalman.

Alternative technology can provide many strange and diverse methods of communication, some based on existing devices. A large kite, for example, could be flown as a sign; it might even lift a lamp, allowing night signals. A gas or hot-air balloon would also work, without the difficulties of launch and support. Such aerial objects could easily fly strings of flags or pennants in the same manner as ships. Historically, flag messages were the only ship-to-ship communications before the introduction of radio (unless you include shouting!), and were so widely used that an International Flag Code was agreed upon. 'England expects... ' was flown on Nelson's flagship Victory using the IFC, and is still flying today.

In his novel Pavane, Keith Roberts created a world in which communication is controlled by the Guild of Signallers. The actual method of communication involves large wooden towers like windmills; instead of sails, the towers have two large semaphore arms. The towers are spread across the country in a network, each within telescope range of the next, and messages were relayed from tower to tower until they reach their destination. Torches or lamps are attached to the arms at night or in light fog, and the system is only defeated by heavy fog or driving snow. The semaphore code is meaningless to everyone but the Signallers, who are respected by the common people. An apprentice signalman has to undergo intensive training and pass rigorous tests before he becomes a Guildsman.

It is easy to see that a power that controls all communication will quickly become aware of everything that is going on in the country. Such a power will come to be relied upon for information; imagine what might happen if the power found it beneficial to 'alter' certain messages before they arrived... Consider also what might happen if the power threatened to strike unless demands were met (imagine the effect on our own country if telephone, television, radio and even the Post Office suddenly ceased to function!). The power of communication should not be underestimated.

Magic in roleplaylng games is almost entirely offensive, or at least geared to combat, proving again the preference of killing to communication. Using such magi: for signalling is possible although it is seldom advantageous when compared with normal means. A fireball could' be fired into the air as a signal, but a normal arrow dipped in pitch and set alight would be just as noticeable if fired into the air, and could be used by anybody. Indeed, the Japanese invented an arrow fitted with reeds that whistled as it flew - try finding a spell to improve upon that!

Admittedly, there are some spells that involve seeing into far-away places, or linking minds in a son of telepathy: these tend to be restricted and hard to obtain, however, in relation to battle-spells. Truly useful spells, such as Animate Broom and Shield from Rain, are not even mentioned. We can consider two types of society in which magic exists: the first accepts magic as true power, and looks upon magic-users as wise men and women; the second treats magic as a subversive influence undermining the law and questioning the rule of normal people, and therefore magic is banned. In both cases, those who use magic would benefit from being able to communicate with others. In the first society, law and order could be upheld through magical means. The ruler of the land, whether advised by wizards or wizard himself, would know all that went on and would have a fairly easy time governing and controlling. The people would be able to consult local wizards for news and advice, as well as matters such as healing. These local wizards would be informed by their colleagues of approaching danger - a renegade wizard, or pillaging mercenaries, for example - and would be able to prepare for the event; 'forewarned is forearmed'.

It is unlikely that a law will deter magicians from pursing arcane knowledge; the second type of society will probably contain a secret association of wizards, performing their rituals discreetly. Efficient, independent communication would be essential for the survival of such an organisation, not only for the furtherance of research and development but also to warn local branches and individuals of 'Wytchfinder' types. If magical methods of spying and subterfuge were available, the organisation could actually become quite powerful and influential, perhaps even convincing the common people that magic doesn't really exist! High-ranking officials would never press charges against suspected sorcerers - the organisation might have 'information' on the officials, and could threaten to reveal it publicly (blackmail is such a nasty word - let us call it 'coercion'. . .).

It is interesting to note that anyone able to communicate magically with distant places could become renowned for 'predicting' major events, simply because they could see what was happening before the messenger arrived with the news!

The method of magical communication would vary greatly. The most common would probably be some type of telepathic conversation, with the possibility of 'broadcasts' to all wizards within a certain radius. The problem would always be one of range, but good organisation ought to overcome this by appointing Relayers. Crystal balls would be excellent for telecommunication, allowing sight as well as sound, and most are able to probe areas normally unreachable. Tolkien created the Palantiri, magic stones that showed far-away lands: each Palantir allowed its user to converse in thought with other stone-keepers, but required great willpower to control. When one of them came into the possession of Sauron, the Dark Lord, he was able to see all of Middle-earth, and the other stones corrupted their users or forced them to do Sauron's bidding.

Druids and other Nature-minded spell casters would probably have the most comprehensive communication system; being able to understand the rustling whispers of the trees, to converse with the beasts of the land, and to know the meaning of the song of the birds, must surely make them almost omniscient. What could go on in such times that isn't seen by at least a sparrow? The lowly creatures will at least be aware of what is happening, even if they don't understand it. The sorcerer could even persuade birds to fetch and carry messages. Blackbirds, for example, are often portrayed as spies in myth and fable - perhaps because they are common in many countries. Pigeons have always been good at carrying actual written messages to a known location, and could be used for communication with non-Druids. Again, this is fantasy, and fantastic beasts could easily be used as messengers or spies. The greatest advantage of a natural network is that animals have no reason to lie.

The nature of religious magic, by its own definition, is not easy to extrapolate from a rational foundation. The fact that priests in roleplaying games are gifted with the power to perform nothing less than miracles introduces some interesting problems: religion is based upon faith, and yet the miracles can be considered proof of the god's existence. Proof destroys such things as faith and belief in the unknown; the acquisition of magical powers makes priesthood seem a material, rather than spiritual, gain. It is probable that the god requires the priest to carry out some task of faith which would not be possible without hypernatural ability.

If the priest is able to obtain magical knowledge from that which is worshipped, it might also be possible to obtain knowledge of more recent matters. The god itself might become a pool of the knowledge of its followers; a priest could acquire knowledge as widespread as the religion itself.

In a more earthly vein, religious magic could draw together all the worshippers for a common goal. This would require communication between different places, with the god joining the minds of various individuals. On a less dramatic scale, communicative devices might occur as part of a temple - a vision in the flames or the waters of a font would work in much the same way as a crystal ball, although the exact nature of the vision might be ambiguous. Some religions might actually value telecommunication between worshippers, so that each temple would be a place of meeting and conversing with followers in all places.

Many SF writers have considered 'practical psi: using psionic powers for tasks other than combat. Telepathy, for example, could be used as an alternative to radio. Since it has never been proved to exist, it is easy to say that telepathic messages can travel instantaneously, or faster than light at least. The problem with radio is that the transmissions travel at the speed of light, approximately 3 x 10" metres/second, which is actually rather slow. A spaceship on the other side of our galaxy would have to wait a very long time for help if it broke down, .as the distress signal would take 100,000 years to reach Earth...
The extent of pisonic ability and its profusion will greatly affect the society in which psionic powers exist. A small percentage with such powers will probably find themselves rejected by society, branded 'espers’ because the people will not really understand them. Such espers will quickly become aware of others like themselves, and may form an organisation of some sort. Greater numbers of psionically-gifted people will probably result in a social recognition of their powers, and they will hold a definite position in society (such as the Psi-Judges in the Mega-Cities of Judge Dreed.

Things start to get awkward when almost everybody is gifted - how would a race of psionics function? In a world where everyone is sensitive to the thoughts of others, a world where there could be no misunderstanding, only peace and compassion could possibly reign. Unless there is a small percentage who aren't psionic...

Using psionics for communication would probably require a Psi Guild of some sort, with branches all over the land. It would certainly be the easiest to use - walk into a local Guild branch, hand over the message to be sent and indicate the destination, and pay the correct money for such a message. The 'psi-gram' is then telepathically sent to the Guild branch nearest the destination, where another Guildsman receives and writes down the message. The message is then delivered by the equivalent of a postman. If there is a limiting range to the telepathy, the message can be relayed from branch to branch. The plausibility of such a Guild will depend upon the rarity of psionic ability: there should be enough telepaths for the talent to be recognised and appreciated, but not so many that the Guild service would be superficial.

It might be possible to psionically teleport letters and parcels to far-away places, but this would be a specialist Guild service for emergency situations as a great deal of risk and concentration is involved. It might be worth the risk, however, if the destination was normally unreachable by messenger (a lighthouse, for example, or a mountain-top observatory) and the client was prepared to pay. Such precarious deliveries are usually welcomed by adventurer-types in any case, especially if you tell them that their task is 'vitally important'. . .

Before you round up all the psionics you can find and put them to work, consider the pressures on a psionic with total telepathic and telempathic ability constantly active. Every day, he or she will read the hates, fears and worries of those around them; experience the problems and anxieties of anyone who walks past; know the emotions and feelings towards them felt by friend and stranger alike, even those secret feelings in the depths of their psyche. Think of the stresses and tensions that would build up in the psionic's mind.

Now think of that energy being released psionically...

The advantages of communication are obvious - information becomes available at all levels, knowledge becomes common fact, warnings and advice are efficient and in time, problems are put in perspective - but there are also some disadvantages that aren't clear at first. By opening up the rest of the world, you show people how insignificant they actually are; certain individuals will react to this dangerously, while others won't be able to take it at all. Telecommunications also breeds a species of culture-shock, thrusting together different races and forcing them to co-exist. They may be able to communicate with each other, but will they truly understand the other's radically different beliefs? Think about it - it will affect your game. The slightest misunderstanding can lead to violent war, as the history books confirm, so be careful - this is supposed to be a game!


Post a Comment