Ubi dubium… | Skeptical Inquiry in a Fantasy Setting

There’s a thing that seems to me to result from sloppy storytelling and a deep failure of the imagination in many genres of fiction: the so-called “skeptic in a mystical world” trope I’ll call it. I’m side-eyeing here the first MCU Doctor Strange movie, many episodes of Supernatural, and Stargate Atlantis in particular.

Such poorly written, poorly imagined fare is an ill fit for the magical, superhero, and monster-ridden worlds it’s often portrayed in.

I’d like to discuss an alternative I’ll call Arcane Inquiry, a fantasy-based version of the thinking and methods of real world skeptical inquiry that offers a much better fit story-wise to a fantasy milieu. Why arcane? Because of the implied meaning the word carries of things not generally known, even secretive knowledge. Unless the world-builder involved has a good rationale for it, critical thinking and a firm literacy in the known workings of reality will likely not be widely known, much less universally taught, in a typical fantasy milieu.

In these worlds, often based on earlier fantasy literature or popular RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, magic and monsters are a demonstrable, repeatable, and actionable reality, and plausible Inquirers would be straying from their own methods and ethical values to deny these things, or even to deliberately hide or refuse to look at the evidence for them.

It’s my understanding that even when monsters and magic abound, modern skeptical inquiry, properly translated as the intersection of critical thinking, literacy in (the milieu’s) science, and consumer/buyer/customer protection would flourish among knowledge-experts like clergy or wizards.

Who hasn’t played a fantasy RPG and occasionally failed a perception check, fumbled a saving roll against mind-befuddling spells, or thought they were fighting one monster but really another masked by a disguise or spell of some sort? Clearly, skeptical thinking should and would convey some advantage when planning strategy or tactical choices.

Then, there are also those beings of various kinds who pose as gods and similar entities through their powers or guile; powerful wizards, witches, or sorcerers, undead like liches or vampires, and nether-worldly beings like demons, daemons, or devils.

Even in a world where everyone can conjure demons or djinn to do their bidding, opportunities for skullduggery and shenanigans abound. Sometimes the conjured djinn seek to subvert their master’s intent, or a summoned devil seeks to pervert the spirit of a bargain by brilliant lawyering of the contract; always look at the fine print before signing!

Every fantasy RPG I’ve ever played has rules, a system for its magic, to define the procedure, power limits, and the sometimes draining costs of casting magic. These rules translate well to the implied laws governing the setting, and at least in part amount to that setting’s science along with whatever real science the GM includes specifically or is otherwise implied in that game’s rule mechanics.

From my own previous experience in refereeing Call of Cthulhu in the late 1990s, magic is the physics of the true (CoC) universe, that true but thankfully hidden reality concealed from everyday scrutiny by a veil of sanity, obvious and comprehensible only to the mad and the horrors from beyond space-time with which they traffick.

Far more extraordinary to me than a world whose laws allow magic and monsters would be one in which there are no attempts by anyone to deceive anyone else, in which no one ever fools themselves, misperceive, misremember, nor misinterpret and misreport what they think they perceive and remember, and in which there are no attempts by anyone to cheat, con, or defraud another for spite, fun, or personal gain.

Such a world would be an incredibly unchallenging, boring, and implausible one. Most fantasy worlds in literature are rife with deception of some sort. In those worlds, there are scads of beings that make it their business to fool others. Outstanding examples include demons, devils, human and nonhuman thieves and assassins, fairies, tricky sellers of rare “magic items,” mischievous elementals, actual gods, and quite a few of the smarter dragon species…

…but most of all, those all-seeing Dungeon Masters, or GMs if GURPS is your thing. 

Even in a fantasy world, clear, clever thinking and thorough investigation can be your strongest weapon against the most powerful magicks or extra-planar beings, and any engaging, well designed setting will account for this.

Even in fantasy, superhero fiction, or the realms of horror where monsters bring vast and frightening powers to bear, using your brain instead of thinking with whatever supernormal powers the setting permits will often be your greatest asset. 

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