Felling a tree – especially with primitive equipment – is a dangerous thing. It may splinter, it may fall in the wrong direction, it may snap, the head of the axe may come loose, ropes may break or be whipped about with lethal force, the would-be feller could fall, and even a comparatively minor wound could lead to a lethal infection or throw a blood clot into the heart or brain.
Today, when a man is injured, or killed, in such an endeavor, we would look for the cause of the failure – improper procedure, a rope poorly fastened, a loose axe head, or any of a hundred other things. We’re pretty confident that – if we do things correctly, and check our equipment carefully – we can do things safely enough.
That has never been the case before.
Until very recently, most failures were inexplicable, or at least the result of flaws and causes that could neither be seen nor easily anticipated. Life was wildly chancy and unpredictable. The world was full of things – many of them vital to human survival – which happened for no reason at all. A solid majority of children did not live to adulthood.
For our tree-feller, there was little that could be done to ensure success save to do the best that he or she could, use the best tools available – and propitiate the gods and spirits, use charms for luck and success, and make sure that there were no major ill-omens or evil influences about.
It’s never been easy to deal with there not being anything you could do about something. That’s a survival mechanism of course; often there IS something sensible you can do to improve your odds – but, like most survival mechanisms, there’s no good way to shut off that drive to keep looking for ways to improve the odds when you’ve already done everything you can. Thus, prayers, magic, and rituals – not that there was any clear distinction throughout most of history.
Modern players – no surprise – have a modern worldview. They look for causes and systems, they expect most events to be systematic, and they expect there to be laws.
Even the foundation games, such as First Edition AD&D, fell into that trap, both on the large scale (mechanistic and readily-repeatable magic), and on the small (disease rules relying on notions like dirt, contagion, and the modern understanding of germs).
Part of that’s inevitable; it’s hard to build a game system that doesn’t rely on some pretty predictable rules – but it’s easy enough to make your world a lot more magical.
Forget about germs. Diseases are caused by evil spirits, or foul miasmas, or offenses against the gods, or by curses. Washing a wound with alcohol is only likely to attract dark spirits – everyone knows that they like such offerings – but reciting the proper charm over a wound will greatly aid its healing.
If the proper rituals are not performed, the sun may not return after the winter solstice, but only continue to weaken until some heroes find some other method of restoring it’s strength.
The stars do drift and change, to carry messages from the gods to the wise.
Most priests and mages are crippled, blind, or otherwise damaged. Nothing magical comes without a price. The same goes for the greater magical devices. They are things of terror and awe, and never to be relied on.
In a genuinely magical world, there are no laws of nature, no cycles that can be assured without the active support of human ritual and supernatural entities, and no simple mechanical magics. Even the most mundane of tasks should not be undertaken without performing the appropriate rites first – and violations of tradition or disrespect to the supernatural may have horrific consequences.
The game rules are, necessarily, going to be at least somewhat mechanical. The players need to have a fair idea of what their characters actual capabilities are, or their decisions aren’t going to mean much – but the causes of the events in the world around them need not be so simple. If a thief steals the sacred seal of the earth lord from the high temple, there may be storms, volcanoes, and other natural disasters until it is recovered and returned to it’s place, not because it possesses any “enchantment”, but because the order of the world has been disturbed. Any spellcasters in the world had best show proper respect to the powers they invoke, instead of just treating them as tools.
Personally, I really don’t usually run truly “magical” worlds. I tend to have underlying laws of nature – and the players usually have a lot of fun figuring out what they are and how to best take advantage of them. Still, that’s just me. If you want to have a truly magical world, it can be a lot of fun – and the quests to restore the proper balance of the world, or to find a way to placate some upset spirit, can be a welcome change from the quests for treasure, power, or magic which so often drive the player characters.
Just don’t expect the players, or the characters, to actually try to figure out how things work. When most events don’t have rational causes, you really can’t expect much in the way of detective work, analysis, or attempts to build and change things. The characters will try symbolic approaches, go looking for the spirits who are actually behind their misery, bargain with gods, attempt to come up with rituals, and offer sacrifices to spirits. After all, in truly magical worlds, that’s the only sensible approach.