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The Method in the Magic

By Steve Darlington

In which the author suggest that, when it comes to magic, it really helps to know exactly what you are doing.

"Though this be madness, yet there is method in't" HAMLET, II, ii

Let's face it, magic is a problem. Whether you are a player or a ref, role-playing with magic never quite works, it never quite lives up to the magic that appears in novels, or films. This is because, unlike films and novels, all the action in role-playing games takes place in our heads. And sometimes we just don't have quite the vivid imagination of Tolkien, or Lucas. Hence, magic ends up falling flat.

One of the best ways to make magic more interesting is to use it very, very sparingly. Imagine how your game might change if the party's mage was the only one the players ever met who could do magic...

What is needed, then, is some way of making "crossing the spell off your list, and rolling for the effects" form in your mind a picture, an image, a concept of what is happening. A way of making people connect the magic rules with something stupendous and awesome. If you want your games to be filled with the inspirational power that only magic can provide, you've got to find a way to bring that magic out of the rule-book, and into reality. Of course, good role-playing and GMing can help a lot, but they can only go so far.

One particularly good way to do this is to begin by defining magic. Be quite clear on what it is and how it works. Once you have this, then you have a basis to work from, and a structure to build upon. More importantly, if you sit down and work out a concrete idea of what, how and why of magic in your campaign world, before a campaign, everyone will have a much heightened association with it, a physical connection, rather than a vague idea. It is this connection that allows magic to really take on a life of its own.

Everyone connects with the idea of a sword fight - the ins and outs, the strategies, the risks, the danger - we've seen them many a time, and have a fair idea how they work. This "link" allows players' imaginations to be fired at the thought of even a minor skirmish - they can see each parry and thrust in their mind's eye, and thus can connect each roll of the dice to the fantasy world. Likewise, a conception of magic as a concrete idea can turn magic into the epic stuff it was meant to be. If you can get a mental picture of what each magic rule means, in the fantasy world, you will be able to feel similarly connected to each and every magic dice roll. Once you can relate to it, then the roll has effect, drama and emotional connection - and bring out as much pathos as rolls to jump over 100-foot chasms, or to defuse a bomb with only two seconds left.

A great example of this is in the Star Wars RPG (West End Games). The rules for manipulating The Force are nicely done, but the reason they work so well in practice is because everyone knows what The Force is and how it works. We've seen it in action, we've heard Yoda explain to us how it works and we've seen the dangers associated with using it. So when a player makes a roll on one of his Force attributes, there is an intimate knowledge of the game world interpretation of this roll, and consequently, the scene is vivid and dramatic in everyone's minds.

Notable mention should be given to the little-known game of Maelstrom, which presented a brilliant little system based on harnessing probability - the more unlikely the effect would happen on its own, the more difficult the spell.

Two other great examples are Ars Magica (Atlas Games) and MAGE: The Ascension (White Wolf). Both treat magic as a force with a defined physical interpretation. Both discuss how and why this force can be controlled, and the problems associated with trying to do so. They also give a clear "magical paradigm" which explains how to THINK about magic in their world. Ars Magica's system is particularly good as the magical paradigm blends perfectly with the mediaeval paradigm they present. For example, in the medieval world, hell was seen as part of earth. Therefore, since magic is an earthly force, it can affect hell and demons, but not angels, or the sun or the moon. However, since comets were still thought of as atmospheric things, they can be effected magic!

Ars Magica's revolutionary idea of a paradigm to describe magic is quite brilliant, and helps produce what is still, in my opinion, the best magic system ever written. It preserves magic as a mystical, powerful and enigmatic thing, yet regulates its actions. It allows there to be a million variations, yet all structured around the same theme. It's worth checking it out if you ever get a chance.

Of course, people will say that specifying the internal paradigm of magic just brings us to a similar problem: by defining magic, you take the mystery out of it. They are going to argue that magic is about fantasy, and imagination, and to impart rules on it is to rob it of its soul. But all you are doing is injecting a consistent set of principles as a basis. Working within those, you should be able to fill in the details to build a suitably arcane art. You can fancify and embellish, you can add legend and fable, superstition and mystery, and, above all, fantasy and fiction, cobbling something together that is anything but clear-cut, and anything but mundane. But thanks to your internal consistency, it all makes sense to you, the GM, and best of all, you know exactly how to handle anything the players try to do with it.

D&D borrowed its magical paradigm from Jack Vance's fantasy works. The only problem was that they wrote the game for their friends, who had all read the books. Hence it doesn't translate well to those who haven't..

A magical paradigm, then, is a great way to get people to visualize and think about magic, giving it body and structure such that it not only has more dramatic power, but is also easier to play. But, as I said above, we don't all have the imaginations of George Lucas, Tolkien, or even Mark Rein-Hagen. We can't all just sit down and design a complete, consistent and intelligent model for magic right off the tops of our heads. Leaving aside the ideas of Ars Magica or Star Wars, how do you come up with a quick and easy magical paradigm?

Well, as any good GM knows, if you can't create, steal. If you find a novel that gives a good explanation, use that. Ursula Le Guin's "Gift" is a good one, based on the "true names" of things. David Eddings, in the Belgariad, gives us at least three different types of magic, each based on a very different idea. Religions, too, are a good source. The Holy Spirit, karma, Shinto blessings, shaman mysticism, Zoroastrianism, Aboriginal dreamtime and many more make good models for a magical paradigm. The more removed from your own culture, the better. Or just change the names so it sounds exotic: the Bajoran religion calls the soul, the "pa", the priests "vadeks" and the gods "prophets", but it is basically just a rehash of Judeo-Christianity. Yet it works so well.

Another source is science. This is where people start screaming that science is the antithesis of magic, and never the twain shall meet. These people, naturally, have never done very much science. At higher levels, science is often arbitrary, chaotic and entirely non-linear. More importantly, some sciences are steeped so far in their own arcane paradigms that, to outsiders, they might as well be foreign languages. Which, in a way, they are. Learning a foreign language, too, is another great way to see a completely alien set of rules at work.

Arthur C. Clarke once said "Any technology sufficiently more advanced...will appear to be magic". Perhaps mages are just using modern scientific principles ahead of their time?

In fact, anything you can find which requires those who are associated with it to think in a way that is different to their normal method of thought should give you some ideas on designing a paradigm for magic in your world. And it doesn't just work for magic: alien technology, exotic cults, new super powers, unknown supernatural creatures, whatever. If you want it to seem bizarre and esoteric, base it on something that is bizarre and esoteric to most people.

Clearly, for magic to really work, it needs to be in some way discernible and definable in the minds of the players. And a very good way to bring this about is to have a very clear idea of the what, why and how of magic, and the way it needs to be conceptualized by those who use it. And a very good way to invent one of these is to borrow from similar situations in the real world. This specification of magic does not stop it from being complex, mystifying, or incomprehensible, nor does it stop it from being incredible, fantastical awe-inspiring stuff that your players will be blown away by. Rather, it helps create such feelings, adding that extra KAZAM! to magic, and a real KAPOW! to any campaign that uses magic. So next time you're about to cast that fireball spell, maybe you should think about how - and why - it actually works.


What did you think of this article? How useful was it? How interesting? Let us know!

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