Worlds of Secret Magic

Literary Magic is fantastic and wonderful, it involves mysterious factors of destiny, it operates at it’s best when the results involve poetic justice, and it is never quite dependable. It works by rules that it’s users cannot see. In many ways it is outside the workings of their world. It is… a plot device.

Role-Playing Games work by rules that the players can see. Any mysteries involved are there to be figured out. Like it or not, players need to have a pretty good idea of what their characters are capable of and how their abilities are going to work. For them, Magic is a James Bond style gadget to pull out in a tight spot.

In other words, to make RPG Magic work like Literary Magic it should involve a bunch of factors that the players see in operation but which either don’t exist in the setting for the characters to evaluate or which are indeed mysterious forces of destiny that might as well not exist because they aren’t actually written up.

So here’s how magic works;

The more important something is – in terms of plot, world impact, and emotional investment by the protagonists – the harder it is to do with magic. Worse, if magic fails TOO badly it may cause some sort of horrible backlash.

So Mr Magical Archvillain wishes to create a terrible rain of fire over a village where he thinks that his enemy might be hiding.

The place is a sleepy little hamlet, of no importance to the plot whatsoever. Seventy or eighty families do live there though, so this will be a notable news item in the “mysterious fire” category for the country. Our Archvillain’s enemy isn’t there this week, but does have some attachment to granddads old cottage giving it a bit of emotional impact. Still, it really won’t be THAT big a loss.

So this is a modestly important act of magic. Easy enough for our Magical Archvillain.

Next up he wants to blast his enemies only child – the only one left to carry on the “family vengeance” and “prophecy” plotlines – before the very eyes of the kids loving mother.

Oh dear! Now we’ve got a major plot impact, spoiling a major prophecy that affects millions of people creates quite a world impact, we have a major emotional impact, AND we have crossing the moral event horizon (a major emotional impact on our Villain and audience) all wrapped up in one shiny package! Our villain may be immensely skilled, but he or she is going to have to be very VERY lucky and skillful indeed to avoid having this one blow up in his or her face.

He or she would have been far better off bringing a knife. Knives don’t care about plot impact, world impact, or emotional importance. They just kill people.

Fortunately for the baby, our magical archvillain learned early on that the curse which could destroy a thousand irritating bugs, instantly wither a mighty oak, or slay twenty inconvenient (but unimportant) anonymous witnesses, was a MUCH better weapon than a knife – and that lesson has stuck despite the fact that sometimes it isn’t true.

Many magical stories – especially those meant for children and young adults – are set in worlds that look a great deal like our own save for the wizards and magical creatures hiding in the corners. That implies a whole lot of VERY competent (if mundane) engineers, scientists, doctors, plumbers, farmers, and other specialists – and that magical creatures actually need to hide, rather than coming forth and ruling the world.

Those same stories often portray MAGICAL adults as… complete goobers. The villains are so incompetent that they can be beaten by a few kids, the authorities are utterly useless, and – for all the amazing power that magic displays – it remains rare and secret. The few competent magical adults out there tend to use very little of their supposedly awesome magic.

In a book, the real reason is simply because – if you want to use child-protagonists who will appeal to other kids – you can’t let them call in the adults and get sidelined, you don’t generally want any of them dying, and you can’t use any mysteries or plans which are too complicated for your audience.

Fortunately, you can skip over “why is that?” in a story – and especially in one meant for kids. They aren’t usually very critical about details like that.

Gamers… not so much so.

They aren’t usually very happy with “because it’s a convention of the setting!” either.

This particular style of magic is very good for that sort of world.

That’s because this particular type of magic is a trap. It does the marvelous, the useless, and the fantastic quickly and easily. It lets a youngster have all kinds of wonderful adventures. It teaches them that “Magic!” is the go-to solution for virtually any difficulty. It says that magic is quicker, easier, and more powerful than technology, or cunning, or pretty much anything else – and it lies.

It lies VILELY.

As a child, temporarily resurrecting the founders of your country to help you with your book report with magic… is easy.

It’s not important.

As an adult, keeping your grandson from bleeding to death after an accident with magic… is virtually impossible.

That’s because there’s nothing more important. A serious specialist might pull it off, but it would be unwise to count on it.

But with some bandages and a tourniquet it’s easy.

Actual competent adults have come to understand this. They may well use magic for all kinds of little things – but for the big stuff they rely on skill and technology.

Any serious “magical villain”, anyone who wastes their time being a magic-based “authority”, and anyone who spends a lot of time being an archmage, starts off with a big “INCOMPETENT” label branded right across his or her forehead. About the only worthwhile career for a talented adult mage is teaching talented youngsters how to use THEIR magic – and why they should not rely on it.

Fortunately, that’s an activity which is easily hidden from the rest of the world. That doesn’t really matter either.

Ok, so we’ve got three basic elements to rate on a spell – it’s plot impact, it’s emotional impact on the major characters, and the scale of it’s impact.

Now, what secondary factors might make it easier or harder?

  • Lets try Magical Skill, ranging from Unaware (a big minus) on through Apprentice (a small minus), Journeyman (No modifier), Master (small bonus), Grandmaster (a modest bonus) and Legendary (a substantial bonus).
  • If it involves stuff that the game master doesn’t want to deal with – say, Time Travel, when Time Travel stories give him or her a headache – it takes a big penalty.
  • If it’s terribly blatant, is operating at extremely long range, you have no equipment, or you want it to last a really long time (more than a scene or two), take a penalty.
  • If it’s good poetic justice, fits into the plot, is enacted though a complex ritual, or is a formal spell you’ve been taught, take a small bonus.

To keep these characters from looking too much alike, lets give them each… seven favorite formal spells, three fields that define their magic (perhaps they can’t use it outside those fields), and a Knack – some minor magical gift that doesn’t need to be rolled for.

Just remember; killing someone in an instant is always VERY Important to them, and so it’s a pretty major act of magic.

OK then. Just hook up your dice-rolling system of choice and you’re pretty much already to go.

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