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June 24, 2008 / jadettman

Magic is mysterious

In fiction, magic is mysterious. Regular folks just don’t understand how or why it works and that creates tension of various sorts that you can’t get in a roleplaying game that is concerned with mechanical balance.

You see, if the system is concerned with keep the power balance between the characters as even as possible, then the mechanical nature of magic (the magic system) has to be spelled out in concrete terms which makes the magic the opposite of mysterious. Frequently, this leads to magic being boring.

Do we fear boring things? Are we curious about boring things? Do boring things make us gasp in wonder?


Magic is about the unknown. As soon as magic becomes commonplace, as soon as anyone can do it with a little instruction, it’s ceases to be magic and becomes science.

Science is about pushing back the boundaries of the unknown, pushing back the boundaries of what is magical and making it known. Science is reproducible, understandable, explainable. The power of science is to transform mysteries into knowledge.

Magic is about attributing phenomena to powerful external entities/agencies, believing that someone or something has an influence over the universe that can’t be understood. Magic is fickle, mysterious, inexplicable. The power of magic is to transform mysteries into myth.
How you do that in a roleplaying game is something I’m trying to work out.



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  1. Judd / Jun 24 2008 9:12 am

    Mortal Coil has a neat way of creating magic at the table, through play.

  2. Dan / Jun 24 2008 4:15 pm

    This is the fundamental problem of magic in games. I have a very hard time really liking magic being used by PCs for this reason; it ends up just being too standard and pedestrian, because it’s all well understood and clear-cut.
    There’s nothing mysterious about wizards in DnD. They just use a different kind of skills than rogues or warriors. But magic is so ingrained in most games that it’s nothing special or interesting at all.

    In a game like Web of Lies, one of the things that made it interesting and captivating was that we didn’t understand the mystical aspects of it at all. They were mysterious, dangerous, beyond our comprehension and thus scary. (Granted they would have been even scarier if we hadn’t had Jevon as a PC, but that’s a different matter)

    In A Song of Ice and Fire, magic is similarly mysterious, dangerous, and poorly understood. It can do terrible things against which no man can stand. That’s terrifying. If someone was even rumored to be a sorcerer, it gave them tremendous influence, because who knows what fell powers they might call upon.

    But once you codify things, as you must if the players are going to be involved, all the mystique goes away. There’s nothing fell and mysterious about a “Speak with Dead” spell, or “Invisibility” spell. Because its parameters are precisely known. And there’s nothing cool about a Longsword +1.

    I guess I’m sort of repeating what you’re saying, and I think you and I have had this conversation many times, but my answer to the problem would be to not let PCs have access to magic unless it’s absolutely necessary. I think that magic is important, and keeping it mysterious is vital. And I really don’t want a campaign turning into a situation wherein everyone has their stock of magical tools because magic is just part of life. Or if it is, then that is going to make for a wildly different set of stories that I want to tell, and things are going to be radically different.

  3. J.A. Dettman / Jun 30 2008 6:46 am

    Judd, I’ve heard of Mortal Coil but never had a chance to play it. It’s a diceless resource-management system, right?

    Does the magic in Mortal Coil feel magical in play?

  4. J.A. Dettman / Jun 30 2008 6:53 am

    Yep, we’ve had this conversation before, Dan. This is just one of those topics that I keep coming back to, and I also agree that we’re on the same page as far as our views.

    Essentially, for players to be able to use a magic system in a game the magic has to be codified into a science and, thus, ceases to be magic. The mechanical nature of the game and the urge for game-balance requires it.

    I think that random effects charts could be effective in creating a little bit of oddness and unpredictability but wouldn’t really make the system any more magical.

  5. Dan / Jul 3 2008 11:22 am

    Ultimately, this is why I tend to prefer games in which players don’t have much access to magic. That way it can stay mysterious and strange.
    I suppose it’s possible to have some sort of middle ground in which there are certain mystical powers which are accessible to the players and which are reasonably well understood. And then there are the ‘deeper mysteries’ which are, well, deeper. And much more weird and wonderful, and inaccessible to players.
    This works just fine in a low-powered game like Web of Lies, but it’s very hard to maintain in an Amber game, I suppose. Which is one reason why I feel that the setting of Amber has some limitations inherent to it.

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