Tuesday, 22 July 2014
“Real” Magic in RPGs, Redux
So I’m trying this again, as the last time I attempted to write on the subject I met with the wrath of The Wench for being “too mean”. This time, the focus will be less on savage mockery of silly people and more on the “magick” itself and what it should look like if you’re trying to run a modern campaign where the occult rules are meant to effectively emulate real life.
Again, the first thing to note is that 99.9% of people in the “occult scene” are posers, from the point of view of practicing magic. That is to say, they don’t really do magic at all; they may talk about it or read about it, pretend they have great powers or like to collect crystals, but they’ve never had an actual experience of magic. Note that this includes, aside from the most absolute basic practices, 99% of “ceremonial magicians” who, for the purposes of this series, we’ll be focusing on (not that there aren’t other kinds of modern occultism that could have real “magical power” in your games, certainly tantrism and those rare shamanic practitioners that are actually doing it right, for just two examples, but we have to focus on something, at least to start). The people interested in hardcore magic, most of them, have read a couple of Crowley books, own a tarot deck or two, and may have tried some of the basic exercises (like the “lesser banishing ritual of the pentagram”), performed them badly, and then quit when nothing happened right away. Instead, they want to talk a lot about spirits and angels and demons and the Kabbalah and satan and how the man is putting them down, and how many books they own (whether or not they’ve read them), and how “dark” or “hardcore” they really are. You know, wankery.
A few of these guys even start their own magical orders.
But there is a smaller group of people who actually do the practices. Before I get into those, we should address how those people get to do it; are they secret initiates of a great magical order? Did they find lost tomes hidden away in some library?
No, fuckers! They just got what’s readily available everywhere, and actually did it.
That brings us to the first rule of modern “authentic thaumaturgy”:
RULE 1: it's not hard to find occult secrets, it's hard to understand them.
Remember that. Do not make it hard for someone to find real magic; it was all laid out 100 years ago, and even before the advent of the internet pretty much everything you needed to do “real” magic was readily available for purchase. And today, on the internet, where you can quickly and easily download pretty much every medieval grimoire, everything the Golden Dawn ever wrote, and absolutely everything Aleister Crowley ever did, including his personal diaries and ALL of the “secret rituals of the O.T.O.”, there is really no information that is kept away from you.
In a lot of “occult RPGs”, that’s one of the first things that strikes me as being utterly unrealistic; the authors make it that real occult knowledge is really difficult to obtain. It isn’t, at all.
What’s difficult is the ability to comprehend that knowledge; because you have study a lot of fundamentals, and you HAVE TO actually practice. So you have to read and read for years and years, and even if you do that you won’t have an ounce of magical power unless you’ve also been exercising and exercising for years and years.
Go find a copy of Aleister Crowley’s “The Book of Thoth”, that’s his book on the Tarot. Try to read it. Assuming no (significant) prior knowledge of the occult, you’ll understand maybe 10% of it. The rest will seem like gobbledygook.
So faced with that, most people either just quit in disgust assuming it is all gobbledygook, or they just pretend that they understood more of it than they did, beginning their long careers as occult frauds.
And the Book of Thoth really contains huge and powerful magical secrets. Within that book alone are secrets that contain significant magical gravitas. But to understand what its saying, after that first reading, you’d need to spend about six months working with the Tarot cards, reading the basics of astrology, reading the basics of kabbalah, reading the basics of alchemy. And then reading the Book of Thoth again. And after all that, you’ll understand maybe 20% of it, but what new insight you got spurs you on to do new kinds of work, that gives you new kinds of insights, which leads you to new areas of study, which leads you to new areas of work, which leads you to new insights…etc etc.
So there’s a huge cycle of learning involved. You could end up reading the just the Book of Thoth over and over again once every 6 months for 15 years, and IF you’ve actually been studying and practicing magick, then EACH time you read it, the book seems to be totally different than the last; like its been re-written. Because magick has been busy re-writing you.
After the first two or three re-readings, where you figure out that’s what’s happening, that’s where things start to get fucked up.
So yeah, if you want the availability of magical power to reflect real life, make it super-easy to get the information, but very difficult to be able to actually turn it into something useful. The difficulty to obtain the book is low, the study time it takes to master it is high; and brings risks of your giving up, lying to yourself that you get it, becoming obsessed, or starting to have weird reality-questioning shit happen.
Finally (for today) a note on “magical orders”: if they don’t contain the secrets, what the fuck are they good for?
The biting answer? Mostly nothing. For the most part, again, 90% of “magical orders”, “lodges”, “secret temples”, “working groups”, “covens”, “rosicrucians”, etc. are just places full of Occult Wankers where they can get together and show off their wankery to each other. The one conceivable benefit is that you might find one or two other frustrated newbies who want to get something real out of it, and just haven’t figured out yet that this is not the place to get it.
If you want your “magical order” to seem authentic, it needs to be full of seriously marginal people, who can’t hold good day jobs, claiming to be wizards of grand power. It needs to have endless internal power struggles over who gets to be the “master of the circle” and in bigger societies who gets to be the “outer head of the order ad vitam”. There’s HUGE levels of megalomania involved here, and desperate power-mongering over nothing. Unlike freemasonry, which these “serious” occult wankers tend to mock, most magical orders are not democratic; that’s because, in theory, the person who is most magically advanced should be the one in charge. But in practice, this works out to being an excuse for power-trips, because none of the guys involved are really all that advanced enough to warrant the pitfalls that come with having only one guy in charge forever.
In any case, most “orders” of this sort don’t teach magic at all, and those that do tend to do it poorly.
Seriously, I’ve found Freemasonry, which can only barely be called a “magical order”, to be a much more valuable tool to occult practice than any of these OTOs or Golden Dawns or Rosicrucian Orders or Temples of Set, or any of the other supposedly “hardcore” groups that make so much fun of freemasonry for “not getting it”. Not only do Freemasons tend to get it better than most pretentious occultists do, but they have actual stability, which is really one of the hardest things to keep and most important things to have, if you’re going to study the occult. Masons are people who can hold down regular jobs and have families and social lives, and work in lodges that in many cases have been around and meeting regularly for 150 years or more; neither of those are true for most members of the “serious” orders; where the people involved have allowed their obsession with the occult to destabilize their regular lives (or, in some cases, have failed to be able to use the occult to bring stability into their already fucked-up lives), and where powermongers and megalomaniacs and the lack of a large network of infrastructure means that the order itself is chronically unstable.
If you think I’m exaggerating about this, go and read about the history of the original Golden Dawn. Or read about Agape Lodge in California. Or take a look at the current problems and struggles of the various “OTO” groups of the past couple of decades.
There can be that 10% of orders that are of some good. Usually, these are very small groups, where the emphasis is on individual teachers and individual students working together. There will be little importance placed on fancy titles and ranks, and a lot placed on daily work; and the group will tend to be private but not exclusive (the opposite of the shit groups, which tend to be very public (trying to show off to everyone), but elitist (trying to make out that they have special powerful secrets no one else has, and that not just anyone can join)).
Even in the case of these good groups, except in those rare cases where they’re being led by someone who’s really attained some serious illumination, the most they are useful for is to have members keeping tabs on each other, keeping each other honest. They will focus on sincerity and experimentation, and on trying to have good discipline in the work. So mostly, you’d join a magical order for the same reason you’d join a Pilates class rather than just do Pilates by yourself out at home: in the hopes that it’ll help you to keep up the hard part of the work and give you some structure, plus the occasional tip. Only in this case, half the time, you end up having your class-mates either want to have sex with you or rob you blind, half of the members can’t hold a job because they can’t ever actually talk about anything other than Pilates, and the three guys who took some other class once before are beating the shit out of each other over who gets to be “Supreme Master of the Pilates Class For All Eternity”.
Welcome to the wonderful world of the occult.
Currently Smoking: Masonic Meerschaum + Image Perique
(originally reposted May 3, 2013; on the old blog)