Encyclopaedia Arcana #48: Advanced Divination (Part One)

Divination is one of the more poorly understood types of magic; this article will look at some of the common misconceptions about seers and practitioners of probability magic.

What Are The Limits?

One uncommon (but regular) question asked by novices who understand the basics of divination magic is why diviners aren’t invincible.  After all, they can see the future – shouldn’t they be able to solve any problem, defeat any challenge, avoid any danger?  There are two answers to this question:  a short one and a long one.

Short Answer

The precognitive abilities of diviners are limited by available time and by intrinsically unpredictable events.

Long Answer

Say you’re playing chess on a computer against a chess program.  The program always plays at the same level of difficulty.  Whether you win or lose depends wholly on how well you play; the program simply reacts to your choices.  You’d expect to almost always win (if the program’s skill level is below your own) or almost always lose (if the program’s skill level is above your own).

Now let’s change the scenario.  Instead of playing unaided, you have a ‘cheat’ program, called Diviner.  Diviner lets you predict the chess program’s moves on an if-then basis.  So if you type in a king’s pawn move, Diviner might tell you that your opponent will respond with its queen’s knight.  You can then input another move in response to that, and Diviner will tell you the program’s move in response to that.  You can map out the entire game, and Diviner’s predictions are always 100% accurate.  Given enough time to run the predictions, you should win every game.

Now let’s add a chess clock that places a time limit on every move.  This limits the usefulness of the Diviner program – you can’t spend hours at a time analysing every possible move.  Instead of using Diviner as a sledgehammer, you have to use it more like a scalpel, picking the places where it could most effectively be used in the limited time available.  Diviner is still a major advantage, but it’s not as good as it was.

Now let’s change things up again.  Instead of playing against a nonintelligent program, you’re playing against a human being.  Now Diviner’s predictions aren’t 100% reliable anymore, because creatures with free will are – by definition – not entirely predictable.  Your opponent might make a bad move because he’s having an off day, or because he’s chosen a suboptimal strategy, or because he wants to make you feel like you’ve got a chance to win.  On the other hand, he might have a sudden flash of inspiration and choose a brilliant move that neither you nor he had noticed before.  Diviner will still accurately predict his moves most of the time, but not 100% of the time – and the further you try to predict the moves in advance, the less accurate the predictions get.

Finally, instead of taking it in turns to move, we’re going to make it so that the game is played in real time:  both you and your opponent can move whenever you like.  Now if you stop to use Diviner, your opponent might make another move while you’re trying to figure out what to do, and the predictions Diviner was making are going to be suddenly obsoleted by the changing conditions.  You’re going to have to run Diviner and the chess program side by side, and if you get too caught up in Diviner you won’t be paying attention to what’s actually happening in the game.  In this last situation, how useful the Diviner program is depends completely on how you use it.  If you use it badly it’ll actually make your play worse, because you’ll be wasting time on useless predictions while your opponent’s beating you.

All In The Technique

Almost all human-on-human interaction involving divination falls into the last category, which makes applying divination magic in complex situations very difficult.  A diviner not only has to be efficient and quick with their predictions, they have to know when not to use divination: in time-critical situations it’s often better to act first and use magic later.

This is the reason speed of prediction is so important for a diviner.  When time is in short supply, then how quickly you can sort through possible futures is much more important than how clearly and how far into the future you can see.

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