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Thursday, 13 September 2018

JRPG Musing and Rambles: White Mages and Black Mages

When it come to imagining JRPG-style magic, it's fairly clear which image to me in my head: the iconic Black Mage and White Mage of the Final Fantasy series. As such (and given their root in D&D, as we'll see) they form the basis of all magic for my yet-unnamed project/maybe setting.

The White Mage and Black Mage from FF Tactics. Or, as they
were called in English initially: Priest and Wizard. On the nose, huh?

These two are very heavily rooted in the D&D origins of the first game, with the Black Mage having a wizard's hat and throwing around fire and lightning and the White Mage being more clerical in appearance and being able to heal and raise the dead. These two are stand in for the Magic-User and Cleric or at least began life as such. That said I've wanted to explore these two a bit more and see if there isn't more to them than simply a 1:1 use of these iconic classes.

This is the result and I admit it's a bit less rooted in D&D and more in some loose mixture of various Asian philosophies and myths crossed with various other ideas. That said, first, a retrospective of these two classes.

Origin and Evolution

These two classes were introduced as early as the first game of the entire series, Final Fantasy: As it's been stated, these two are the FF1 equivalent of the Magic-User and Cleric, with a small distinction: the White Mage is rather 'squishy' compared to the heavily-armored D&D Cleric, who is less of a holy man or monk and more of a battle-hardened crusader. That said the ancestry of the Cleric into the White Mage is made quite obvious not only from the spell list but also the fact that it primarily use blunt weapons. Otherwise these two are clear and direct stand-in from their D&D counterparts, with the exception of a simplified spell list which mostly revolves around combat usage. However this most likely can be charted to the limitations of the NES. The only noteworthy offensive spell of the White Mage is the endgame spell Holy which further cement them as stand-in for Clerics.

Final Fantasy II does not feature the faceless characters the player name to assemble their party and, rather, has individuals who are assigned the classes. While there is no major Black Mage in term of being a direct representative of the class, the White Mage class is represent by Minwu. While his overall stats and spell-list is rather typical of the White Mages, his middle eastern-mixed-with-oriental imagery make him a stark contrast to the previous White Mage with it's clerical robes which seem far more 'western' in design and imagery.

And then Final Fantasy III happened...

Spell list Changes

If one was to make a complete description of the history of both classes in Final Fantasy the post would be far too long and boring: that said, you can read here and here if one is interested in the fully detailed history of these two classes in the never-ending Final Fantasy series.

Final Fantasy III started minute but noticeable changes for the two classes, which in no small part was due to it being the game which returned the job system and began it's long evolution which would lead to games like Final Fantasy Tactics and Bravely Default. However the spell list is where it start to get interesting from here on out. Here's a few samples from how these two magic types change over the years:
  • Final Fantasy III: White Mages gain the spell Haste (previously held by Black Mages), which continue their trend of being support-oriented but now they not only cast defensive buff they also cast buff which are offensive-by-proxy. They also gain Aero as an offensive elemental spell, previously something only the purview of Black Magic and Teleport as a party support. They can also turn people into Toad, which later will generally be seen more as a Black Magic thing (reference to Polymorph, perhaps?) On the other hand, Black Magic just keep expanding it's repertoire primarily composed of either direct offensive spells or status effect-inflicting spells.
  • Meanwhile, FF3 incorporate the now famous Summon magic. Which is neither White Magic nor Black Magic.
  • Final Fantasy V: Of particular note is the new category called Time Magic' which is its own category. The spell Haste find a new home as it become the iconic spell of the Time Mage. While it primarily control the passage of time, Time Magic has a few offensive spells in the form of Meteor and Banish as well as Demi which cut HP in half. These spells are sometimes later known as 'Gravity' spells. Hm, I wonder why....
As Final Fantasy went on to enter a different era (where classes mattered less and less), the distinction between White, Black and Time magic become muddled and frankly utterly meaningless without a class with a specific combat role to assign it to. Still, a few interesting details from the latter eras:
  • Elements: Earth, Water and Wind would be on-and-off being a 'main' element in the games. Generally speaking, the only three elements which ever have a consistent role (as offensive spells for the Black Mage) are Fire, Lightning and Ice. Personally I find it interesting three of the classical elements are relegated to a near second-fiddle role.
  • Magic spells and skills would often be reshuffled on game basis, with variations of the same damage-causing elemental spells and some one off but ultimately they aren't really worth the analysis.

My Take on It

White Magic and Black Magic are two sides of the same coin: the mystical power to control reality. While one is generally associated by common folks with being the healer's path and the other the-path-of-crazy-people-throwing-fireballs the reality is a bit more complex, especially once one remove the cultural associations of each magic type. It's not about good and evil, light and darkness but rather stasis/preservation and chaos/change.

'White Magic' has a hard time creating because it's ability is to reinforce what already exist. It does have some capacity to change the world around it but it's changes are invariably incremental or slight alterations to nature. It will speed up healing and, at higher levels, allow one to regrow a lost arm. However it cannot turn one's arms into wings, for example. It is the magic of healing and 'buff', with its only 'debuff' being the undoing of a change created by magic itself. Those who turn to the darker side of White Magic are necromancers: able to sustain existence even when life has left the body. This is the corrupting side of White Magic as it's power can allow one to keep going even when they should have died.

'Black Magic' is wilder and more chaotic and focus on change, which it is able to create quickly and in a more flashy manner: its elemental damage spells, for example, are more often than not done via brute-forcing natural laws and causing a blast of inflamed air or sudden electrical discharge. Black Magic can alter others (just like White Magic can reinforce) but these sudden and violent changes make it ill-suited for healing which is why the repertoire include poisoning spells, petrification and changing someone into a toad. It is much more external and is weaker at casting spells which affect internal/personal change unless the change is violent, chaotic, detrimental or just plain weird. Black Magic's darker side is more obvious and well known but also the least drastic as it's more of a change in application than unlocking twisted forms of magic.

Culturally there would be a logical reasoning as to why the White Magic is more associated with the divine while in reality neither is more divine or unnatural: there would be much historical precedent, as history goes on, that Black Magic (being inherently tied to chaotic changes) is seen as the other: alternating between a state of being a secondary but equally important part of religious beliefs to being almost wiped out due to the threat it represent to becoming something with a more scholarly bent as ancient secrets and once-forgotten lores are rediscovered and studied by sages and scholars. Of course, this would be primarily for the human or humans stand-in.