RPG Design – Making Magic Mysterious

   Many game masters feel that the magic systems of their games aren’t very magical. They have all kinds of rules and carefully-described effects with costs and limitations laid out for the players to look at, and not much sense of enchantment.

   They’re quite right. That’s not very mysterious, it’s not very wonderful, it’s quite predictable, and it doesn’t much resemble the awesome magic you find in fairy-tales, myths, and legends. Even if a games magic system is unreliable, the odds are fairly easy for the players to sort out and the characters are likely to have a good understanding of their abilities and limitations.

   That’s because magic in stories is completely under the control of the author, and it only follows one simple rule; it does whatever’s convenient for the plot. Even if the author lays out some sort of “laws of magic”, those laws only exist to shape the magic to fit the story. Quite often, they’re not even mentioned; hardly anyone asks why Gandalf can’t teleport, or exactly why Sauron hasn’t forged the Ring of Power Mark II, because those are author-characters and most of the major magical activities go on offstage anyway.

   In a role-playing game, characters are often professional users of magic – which changes the entire viewpoint. Aladdin may have found the powers of the Genie wonderful and mysterious, but the Genie seemed to understand his abilities pretty well. Just as bothersomely, in a role-playing game, the major characters aren’t under an individual authors control – and everything they do is on-stage. If they have access to some way to alter the games reality, no matter what they call it their method of doing so, there are going to have to be rules to keep them from simply declaring all their problems solved. Those rules may be in the game masters head, on a computer, or in a book. They may be very loosely defined (and fall back on the game masters head again), or they may come in the form of a thousand pages of tables and detailed spell listings – but they’ll still be rules.

   The only way to keep things mysterious is to not let the players know what those rules are.

   The game-reality problem with this approach is that the primary defining feature of a sapient species or a civilization is passing on information. Even worse, you can’t exactly play through the thousand hours of talk and study and practice and listening to tales that’s likely to go into a single year of a course of study or magical apprenticeship, much less the many years such things are typically supposed to last – so that information will have to come in a summarized form.

   The format’s a little different and it probably won’t be quite so detailed as the game mechanics, but that still takes us right back to showing the players a list of rules and known effects again. These may resemble classical medieval rules-of-thumb more than modern equations, but they’re still rules – and you’re going to have to come up with them in ADDITION to the underlying mechanics.

   You can get around this. All you need to do is to make sure that the information either isn’t available or won’t be passed on to the characters. Perhaps:

  • Magic is a very new thing, and the information just isn’t available yet.
  • Magic has been around for a while, and information on it was available, but said information has recently been destroyed.
  • Magic is purely intuitive (if possibly limited to particular talents), or won’t develop if you actively try to study it, or only develops in isolated individuals who don’t care about it.
  • Magic users are inherently unable or unwilling to pass on information about magic – perhaps it depends on personal relationships with a set of spirits unique to each spellcaster or unique innate talents – and non-magical witnesses are incapable of passing on any information of value.
  • Magic is so subtle that it’s almost impossible to distinguish from luck, or perhaps so useless that no one bothers with it. In this case magic may be widely rumored, but most such rumors will be pure superstition.
  • Magic is suppressed in a global basis, perhaps because it’s incredibly dangerous or the gods are against its use.
  • The ability to use magic is so rare and individualized that actually collecting information about it has been almost impossible.
  • Magic relies on complex, personally-designed, symbolic rituals or otherwise serves as a plot device, rather than as a character’s major focus of activity.

   All of those, and hundreds of minor variants, are possible solutions. The trouble with all of them is that they have massive implications.

  • If magic is just now appearing, where did it come from? What social, political, and technical upheavals will result? How is it being investigated? How did the characters get involved? What will you do to keep the desired feeling of mystery a few years down the line when the players have gotten most of your system figured out? How fast will the knowledge of magic progress?
  • If the information was destroyed, what happened? Will it happen again? How did anyone find out enough about magic to get started again?
  • If it’s purely intuitive, or if magic-users are unable or unwilling to pass on information, there are fewer rules problems, but you’ll still have to give the players SOME idea of what’s practical – and you’ll also have to throw out any ideas about mystic tomes, ancient secrets, magical orders, and special training. Magic becomes something that the talented just do, and everyone else just has to deal with.
  • If it’s so subtle as to be pretty much undetectable, you might as well not bother with it in a game. Just assign everyone a “luck attribute” or pool of “karma points” or something, give them a few metagame uses – most often variants of “The character pulls off something the he or she had no right to”, “The character escaped something that he or she had no right to”, and (possibly) “this mystic ritual, curse, or blessing actually seems to have had some effect” – and have done. Of course, from the players point of view this won’t be particularly mysterious, but it can easily be pretty mysterious from the characters point of view.
  • If it’s just so weak as to be fairly useless, again you really don’t need much in the way of a system. If someone wants to invest a bit of his or her character-creation resources in the ability to chant, or gesture, or whatever, and invoke mysterious powers – and accomplish nothing much – will it really matter?
  • The “magic is incredibly dangerous” (or crippling, or costly, or whatever) approach can work quite well. Call of Cthulhu, among other games, takes this tack. Of course, this also means that you won’t find any sane professional wizards – it’s just too much trouble – or much in the way of benign magical entities (unless it’s not dangerous for them, in which case you now have to forbid the players from making such characters), useful magical devices, or player characters with magical backgrounds. The characters may be forced to deal with magic on occasion, but most of the rest of the world can be expected to shun the stuff.
  • If the ability to use magic is incredibly rare, using it had better be intuitive, or no one ever will. More importantly, you can either allow the players to make magical characters – and count on half of them going “Oh Cool!” and winding up with more mages appearing to join the party over the next few sessions than are supposed to exist on the entire continent – or you can tell most of the players that they can’t have such a character. That tends to frustrate and annoy them, and also tends to put magic back into the “NPC game master plot device” slot. There’s nothing wrong with that from the setting standpoint, but if you want magic to be an NPC-only plot device, with the player-characters only gaining access to specific potions, tricks, and artifacts when you hand them out (and losing them when you take them away again), you might as well say so up front. Don’t tease the players, it makes for a lousy game.
  • Keeping magic ceremonial – or otherwise extremely limited – works pretty well too, but it means that a character will have to be able to take magic as a minor character element and still be competent in other ways, or most of the time they won’t have anything to do. This can work quite well though; since the character’s won’t normally be relying on it, magic can be difficult, erratic, and mysterious and remain quite playable. That’s one reason why there’s a system up HERE for low-powered ceremonial magic, one in The Practical Enchanter (available as a shareware pdf HERE and in print HERE) for circle magic and inscriptions, and a ritual system for higher-order powers in Eclipse: The Codex Persona (also available in print HERE and in a shareware pdf version HERE). Those can be mysterious to the characters, while still being fairly clear to the players.

   The lack-of-information approach also has some problems from the game standpoint. That’s why it’s often best to have the players privy to the rules despite the fact that the character’s aren’t.

  • You can’t expect the players to expend much time on magic if it isn’t useful to them – and if it’s useful before they use it enough to start understanding how it can best be manipulated and applied, it’s likely to dominate the world once they learn more about how to take advantage of it properly. You can try to “balance” this by making it initially feeble, of average utility for the resource investment at the midpoint of the game, and going ahead and letting it dominate the endgame – but that means that many characters will feel severely overshadowed for large chunks of the game; magic-users in the beginning and everyone else towards the end. That’s the same power curve that First and Second Edition AD&D followed (for slightly different reasons). Some groups won’t mind, others will.
  • From a games theory viewpoint, mysterious magic greatly reduces the importance of player choice. If you don’t know what you’re choosing between, does your choice really mean anything? Magic will tend to become an option for when the player’s can’t think of anything and fall back on asking for something random and mysterious to happen.
  • From a player point of view it makes it very difficult to play a starting mage for the second time around – or after seeing another player play one. That can drastically reduce your games lifespan and replay value.

   Not too surprisingly, there are a few of the “limited information” options that bypass most of these difficulties.

  • Intuitive magic does it, and can even be kept quite magical by throwing in (to quote the old “Powershapers” list from Continuum II) modifiers for “Local Conditions, Place or Time of Power, Calling on a being of power, Ceremony and/or Props, Effect in secondary Area of Expertise, Effect on Fringe of Category, Situational Modifiers, and a penalty for No Gestures and/or Speech. In play, Powershapers often got quite creative about their spells – writing poetic invocations, coming up with rituals, and otherwise being quite “magical”. (You can find a longer discussion of Freeform Magic over HERE).
  • Incredibly dangerous magic can be, and in fact should be, very powerful – but it’s inherently balanced by the fact that no sensible character will want to use it if they can avoid it. You don’t need especially detailed systems for it either. Each spell can be quite unique in it’s costs, risks, and effects without it being too much of a bother to the game master. After all, no one is going to be using this sort of magic too often anyway.
  • Ceremonial magic can be mysterious without upsetting the game because it won’t rely a very big character investment to try, and it won’t be the only, or even the major, way that the characters are going to be trying to solve problems. If the divinatory ritual to determine which route the invasion is coming by fails to work for some unknown reason, well, that’s what spies, personal reconnaissance, and tactical skills are for. All you have to presume is that the underlying rules are so complex, personalized and idiosyncratic that no one has ever been able to figure out all the details – even if there are a lot of established rituals that usually work.

   If you want magic to be mysterious, awesome, and wonderful, design your game system to make that happen – and your setting with those factors taken in to account. Otherwise you’ll wind up with another poorly-written system or setting that makes no sense, and all your hard work and otherwise-brilliant ideas will probably wind up languishing in your notes until they’re relegated to a box in the basement or to the trash can.

It Came From the Late Late Late Show

   Welcome to IT CAME FROM THE LATE, LATE, LATE SHOW – the game of bad movies. In this game your characters are actors making a movie – and actors never die, they just get new roles in the next film. Impressive stunts, heroic last stands, and dramatic speeches will all increase your fame – which is your real goal. Go ahead! Overact, stereotype yourself, follow the genre conventions, and act appropriately stupid before you die heroically! As long as you stay in character, there’s nothing like a great death scene to help your career along.

   Today’s Epic Adventure is…

Attack of the Jade Dragon Ninja III;

Vengeance From Beyond The Grave

   Can the few surviving samurai of Lord Shingen and their motley collection of followers rescue the beautiful Precious Jewel Lotus from the evil Jade Dragon Ninja or will this movie have a crummy ending ? Not even the Director knows for sure ! Can you make the difference ?

   I’ve mentioned It Came From the Late Late Late Show a couple of times now – and, in looking around the net, I find that it’s long out of print and the publisher has vanished.

   That’s really too bad. It was a good game built around a simple idea: the characters were actors making B-grade movies. You played it a lot like any other game – but you could die dramatically and your character simply went on to another role in the next movie / game session. You could be coached the skills you’d need for a role, provided with props, and even be given special effects. The more famous you were, the harder you were to “kill” (why hire a big talent and not use them?). You could even demand concessions from the director when the situation was simply impossible. Four samurai against two hundred ninja? Stomp off the set and demand that the director rewrite the scene and get rid of most of them. No escape? Burn some Fame and pick up the action a little later with everyone safe thanks to some silly excuse. About to perish in battle? Call for your stunt double. Want to gain fame faster? Stick to the genre conventions for your film and act appropriately stupid.

   It let you keep the same basic character but switch roles, abilities, background, and motivation from session to session.

   Put all that time you spend on TvTropes to use. Go ahead. Trot out every bad cliche, stupid monster, and stereotyped supporting cast member that you can think of. Mercilessly mangle that great piece of literature. Have that showdown at high noon. You know you want to.

   From the depths of the old files, here are the two summary sheets I used to hand out when I was running the game at conventions (go ahead, right-click on them so you can read them at full size). The first is a character sheet and a brief summary of the conventions of the system. The second was the prop and role sheet for a movie. Honestly, given a good game master, that should be enough inspiration to run a Late Late Show game with pretty much any rules set that comes to hand. Remember; it’s only a movie.

   How did you distribute the roles? It was usually best to hand them out at random and let people trade around if they didn’t like what they got. It wasn’t like who got any given role was exactly critical; they’d be getting new ones next week.

Late Late Late Show Summary and Character Sheet

Late Late Show - Attack of the Jade Dragon Ninja III Props and Roles