Thursday, September 1, 2011


Inspired by a post over at Monsters and Manuals I have been thinking about the subject of magic in a RPG game world. Magic is not only common it is viewed (at least by players) as banal.

"Oh, cure light wounds? Yawn." "Floating Disc? Yeah, did that yesterday." These spells, events, whatever you want to call them would be amazing in any world where magic was at all rare. In a world like our own, a magic spell would get someone canonized or burned at the stake. Maybe both.

We live in a far more miraculous world than most times in the past, television, computers, air travel, etc make the most outlandish claims of witchcraft or miracles look bland and boring. Speaking with 'the devil'? Let's see I can pick up a phone or log on to my computer and I can talk to any real person I want, and I'll find some jackwagon willing to pretend to be anyone or anything I want on 'Second Life'.

Some games address this problem. In some worlds magic is simply not rare, anyone with the talent and skill can cast spells. Systems range from Vancian magic in D&D to a talent and ability based system in some Aftermath! campaigns, to "combat monster" magics you find in most MMORPGs. Other games simply do not address the problem especially those that have been based on a book.

The Lord of the Rings - Online, is a fun MMORPG based (very, very loosely) on Tolkien's books of the same name. In the books magic is rare, miraculous and not entirely trusted by everyone. In the MMORPG, magic is as common as breathing and as obvious and intrusive as a AK-47.

Which brings me around to the point of this post, magic in games. Some players and GMs want to see a game that has a carefully delineated system of magic that is as miraculous and common as a sack of turnips. Even the clerical spells while described as coming from prayer are little more than an EMT kit. Other players and characters want a world that has a more flexible magic system. A system where magicians cast spells they can think of on the fly that can cover a broad range of subjects. Magic and magic users can be common, uncommon, or anything in between.

I have used D&D Vancian magic (from the Jack Vance short stories collected into the novel The Dying Earth), I have used more flexible systems, like Fantasy Hero, GURPS, and a homebrewed Aftermath! game and I have played games where the players avoided magic like the plague (Call of Cthulu, Chill etc). All of these games had successful sessions and players ranged from dedicated magic users to eschewing magic entirely, even within the same game.

How do we as GMs incorporate a magic system where 'magic' doesn't mean 'technology'? Cure light wounds should not have the same emotional connotation as boiling water and bandages (unless you have a pre-hygenic world system in which case the old 'technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic' applies). When I want to play a game where 'magic' is a part of the system and game world I want magic to be well 'magical'. I want magic to be something that comes from the supernatural (or not fully understood, natural) understanding of the world's cosmology. In some campaigns I have run magic is natural, it is simply not well understood and interacts with elements that the world considers 'supernatural'. That is not to say that the magic is technology, simply that,

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

The world is a wide and wondrous place in that gaming universe where magic is real and even glimpses of deities and demigods or even the old 'Prime Mover' himself sometimes are seen.

For the GMs out there what do you see as the best system for truly 'magical' magic? How do you keep the players from saying, 'Ho, hum, another unseen servant' or 'Alaistan! Can you please get over here and 'cure light wounds on me? My horse stepped on my foot for 1pt of damage. Oh, never mind, Lady Vallea 'laid hands' on me, heh, heh, and healed the damage'?

If you are playing a 'dungeon crawl', that is not such a big problem. Most games are 'location' rather than 'story' driven and if you could create mechanical golems to follow around the magic users nobody would bat an eyelash. In my 'OSRIC' campaign the players are in a late 'Roman Empire' early 'Dark Ages' inspired world where there are competing branches of the Christian church a few pagans and out and out devil worshipers. All non-Christian use of magic and magic users are suspect. But the magic is still the old 'Vancian' system of the D&D world. In Nova Venetia, the main city for the game, the non-Christian and sometimes demihuman magic users are circumspect in public. The priests, clerics, and rangers (I had the Christian rangers switch to clerical spells) of the Christian church are given wide leeway by all even the common man may be leery. In the 'dungeon' aspect of the game, players gleefully display their familiars and cast spells right and left regardless of whether they would do so in public.

I want a more flexible system with the right amount of respect and fear for the use and potential of magic. I want a system that still respects the roles of the cleric and magic user in Old School D&D and one that acknowledges sometimes it is impossible to see the difference with the naked eye.

Any thoughts?

BTW, no copyright infringement is intended or implied with using the little girl from the mouse empire.


  1. I thought I saw where this was going, until the last sentence. If there's going to be respect/fear, etc associated with magic, then I think there should be some difference, even if it's not a mechanical one, between divine and arcane magic. Most of these things can be governed by the GM.

    The player of the divine calls up on a god for a spell, in front of the public. How is that god regarded here? Have the reaction of the public reflect that attitude.

    The arcane's player casts a spell, in front of the public. How do they react. Do they start gathering the wood for the burning? Or do they flee in fear? Do they shrug it off.

    How hard is it to find magical gear? If magic is rare, the equipment should reflect that.

  2. For my own game, magic is rare in public but is used more often in private. God (Yahweh, Jehovah) supported by all the angels and saints but especially by his son (Jesus) is the primary deity in this area. Other gods include a Shintoish system of animism, some more classical 'pagan' types and some devil worshipers.

    How the public reacts to magic depends on who did the magic, who is watching, and what the locals think will happen if they do start gathering torches. Most locals except for some demihumans and a few more 'sophisticated' types really are fearful of magic, even divine magic. Mostly because magic has not been working out all that well for anyone lately.