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.

11 Responses

  1. Thoth, I applaud you for bringing up so much food for thought in one place. I’m currently wrestling with these topics in a new supplement for my own game. Previously I’ve used the standard TSR spell levels to manage the strengths and capabilities of various magical abilities, but I’m wondering how to get away from that old-school format and provide a more freeform magic system.

    So far I have defined the raw rules for the first of 12 schools of wizardry, each with a different philosophy and purpose. The first of these is Lesser Wizardry, which amounts to a series of small cantrip-like spells to a) let beginning wizards find their feet and b) provide spells to help with little tasks or life’s little annoyances. (You can read about the philosophy here: http://blog2.moebiusadventures.com/2009/10/05/the-art-of-lesser-wizardry-or-how-to-dabble-in-magic-without-singing-your-eyebrows/)

    What I’m trying to reconcile is how, with the rules I have, to make free-form spell creation and casting actually work. To me, a spell is a ritual, which means it has to be repeated to gain potency. For a wizard to create his own spell, his own ritual, it would take more core competency I think than most beginning wizards would have. So I’m unsure how to balance that aspect.

    Any thoughts? It’s obvious you’ve done a great deal of thinking on this topic!


    • Well, there are three basic ways to do a freeform magic system; 1) use a list of benchmarks and interpolate as needed (Mage, Baba Yaga), 2) use a list of specific sub-effects that are combined to make up the desired effects you want (Champions, the Runesmith build elsewhere on this site), and 3) split the difference and use a list of moderately specific effects each with it’s own small list of benchmarks or sub-effects (Bureau 13, Legends of High Fantasy).

      Like it or not, any magic system is going to have to provide some indication as to what can be done and what limitations there are – which comes down to a choice between listing them and giving rules for building them.

      In practice, (2) tends to hold up the game a lot unless magic is limited to ceremonial effects or the magic-wielders stick to prebuilt effects – which kind of defeats the purpose of a freeform magic system. (1) and (3) tend to be fast enough for actual play however.

      Now, if you want spells as rituals (if presumably relatively quick ones), and want rituals to be difficult to create, the simplest way that comes to mind is to:

      1) Let each starting mage define a relatively small number of personal spells/rituals – presumably personal developments from the kind of things they can do with Lesser Wizardry.

      2) Let them gain a few more during their careers, and possibly let them gain more through some major sacrifice – such as giving up permanent attribute points to represent a massive investment of their own energies, investing a great deal of time and effort (that could be going into other abilities) in developing them, or accepting geasa to acquire them from supernatural forces. (The basic system from Legends of High Fantasy).

      3) Since rituals must be repeated to gain power, the longer a given Wizard has known and practiced a given ritual, the more powerful it will become – and, most likely, the number of ways in which he or she will be able to use it will also increase.

      If I was building that in Eclipse, it would simply be Rune Magic (the relevant Casting and Mastery skills) with Professional, both Specialized / only to produce a limited range of effects (6 CP per spell, further skill points can be invested to produce a range of specific effects).

      Now, this does presume that starting rituals can, in fact, be relatively simple and will be further developed later, which doesn’t quite match your assumption on a beginning wizards lack of “Core Competency” – but I would note that the first Wizards would have had no formal training of any kind, and yet presumably managed to work out the first rituals. Perhaps part of being a Wizard is having a few small intuitive talents to start with?

  2. You and I are once again in accord. I’m working on a magic system that I’m trying to make both freeform and mysterious. My solution has been to write the book from the perspective of the humans using the powers rather than any definitive source. Therefore the concepts and origins of magic are colored by human preconceptions and preferences and there’s no perfect reality.

    • Well, that does sound like the “medieval-style rules-of-thumb” approach. It does work pretty well, although the game master will still usually need more material.

      One thing, I’ve usually found it best to have magic actually developing like any other branch of human knowledge rather than relegating secrets to a lost age of some sort.

  3. @Fitz – Some good sources for freeform magic are Mage the Ascension 2nd Edition, or Ars Magica. I know Ars Magic has been available online for free with a bit of google searching you should be able to find a PDF available from a legitimate source. Both have solid rules for how casting on the fly works and how an actual Arcane Formula changes things, Ars Magica makes more of a deal of this difference as I recall.

  4. @Helmsman – That’s true, I’d totally forgotten about Ars Magica. Thanks for the reminder. Not sure I want to go THAT crazy, but it will probably give me some ideas. :)

  5. I go with the solution of making magic itself not something that is widely shared for mechanical reasons:

    This still allows an understandable basic magic system, the wonder and mystery comes from allowing player control to add to them with spell components:


    • Having looked, your “mechanical reason” is that when another wizard knows the spell you are using, it is easy to counter – although you also imply that there are variants without defining how that works. You also note that “You can’t write new spells (at least not in a reasonable time frame, often taking lifetimes for even minor magic), so there is only one way to get new spells…from others.”

      *So; the first group of wizards to start co-operating and sharing their spell knowledge will have a massive advantage over all other wizards. Yet this has never happened. Perhaps part of being a mage is being unable to comprehend the advantages of cooperation! That’s why you never find them working with a group of other player-characters!
      *The first project any kingdom that wants to defend itself against magic is going to undertake will have to be building a spell collection. But that’s all right, despite being issued to every wizard in the kingdom’s employ, copies of some of those spells NEVER leak.
      *Most spells are for adventurers! The practical, widespread, no-reason-to-counter-them spells that would have been in use all over the world were – of course – the first ones to be lost! Only the rare and hard-to-find spells were passed down!
      *Of course no wizard would risk sharing his mending, summon horse, or carry-my-stuff spell! Why everyone knows that other wizards will immediately start leaping out and wasting their power dispelling your utility magic!
      *Spells are pretty much impossible to develop and the only way to get them is by stealing them! Since no one could have created them in the first place (why would anyone spend lifetimes coming up with the first spell?), thus we have proved that spells do not exist and all wizards are frauds! (At least that would explain why they won’t actually sell any spells).
      *All wizards are violent maniacs, who would rather invite attack than make an excellent profit selling some spells that cannot be used to attack them!

      What you actually have there is a reason why some (albeit not all) wizards would prefer to keep their primary offensive and defensive spells a secret. You’re assuming the result you want, rather than actually coming up with a system that would rationally lead to it.

      As for “wonder and mystery” – getting bonuses for coming up with esoteric ingredients, taking advantage of environmental preconditions, or providing better descriptions, once again goes back to Fantasy Wargaming.

      As an example, here we have a spell from the files from 1994. The enchantress Losselyn intended to conceal exactly what had happened to a Drow outpost the group had attacked and destroyed. Since she wasn’t all that powerful at the time, and yet wanted the spell to purge their traces and block divinations, she came up with an invocation, an improvised ritual using some of the components she carried with her, and invoked a powerful being of an appropriate nature:

      “By Set who cloaks all things with night
      Erase all traces dim from sight
      Let no one know what happened here
      As we from knowledge disappear”

      The components for this spell included a bit “random” magical energy from her personal reserves fed into Eogm, the rune of blindness (which she had drawn on the floor with an cold-wrought iron blade with an ashwood handle), a sprinkling of vodka and unholy water, a pinch of blinding dust, and a holy symbol of set.

      In fact, her pouch of components is still in use in games; you can find a version of it in the Li Kao writeup linked on the d20 tab.

      Now, Congratulations! You’ve discovered spell points, mages who only know a few spells with varying levels of mastery, spells with modifiable elements, and splitting your development between multiple areas of expertise – all items to be found in Ysgarth (1982 pamphlet edition) or the Dragon Tree Spell Book (1981). The “select your own magical components to get casting bonuses” routine goes back at least to Fantasy Wargaming (1981), although Chivalry and Sorcery (1977) had spellcasters going to great lengths to construct their magical foci from their choice of strange and esoteric ingredients to get bonuses.

  6. Pseudo-Academic rules for everything… are you sure you know, what mystical, enticing or fascinating means? It is really not memorizing crap from university for most people.

    People, living humanoids you should have kept more in contact with, maybe?

    • Lets see; the title is “RPG Design – Making Magic Mysterious”.

      RPG Design is about writing the rules of a game so that other people can run and play it.

      I am well aware of what “mystical, enticing, or fascinating means”. It was, in fact, covered in the article – for most people it falls under “using the rules in my head without explaining them”. That doesn’t work in RPG design, where the people who use the RPG will not have access to your head.

      Given that you seem to have missed the point entirely, and have resorted to rather feeble insults instead of actually making a point, you might want to work a bit on reading comprehension.

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