Searching for My Neo-Fantasy: Magic is Serious Business

Posted: August 10, 2011 by pointyman2000 in Articles, Campaign Design, Roleplaying Games

Magic is considered to be one of the defining traits of a fantasy setting.  In fact, certain forms of fantasy literature are defined by the absence of magic.  Magic is powerful, it is a means of altering reality in strange and wondrous ways.  It is wish-fulfillment and empowerment, a force to be reckoned with when brought to bear against those who oppose the spellcaster.

As such, I’d like magic to feel every bit as awe-inspiring as it must be in real life.  Maybe this is a lesson that I’ve had drilled into my head back in the days when I ran Mage: the Ascension.  Magic should have flavor.  It isn’t just sparkly lights and idle wishes made manifest, it is, in many ways, a supreme act of will.  As such, it should always feel like that you’re mangling reality and bending it to do what you want it to out of sheer ego and willpower.

The words, the ingredients, the gestures, these are all part of the formulae, but ultimately they’re all a form of honing that prepares your will to force reality to do something just the way you want it to.  I want magic to feel alive, roiling and rebellious, it doesn’t want to do things that it obviously isn’t supposed to be doing, and it will fight you every step of the way.

Take note that I’ve not once said that this is what I want to mechanics to be like.  Magic is an awesome force, and I just want to make sure that when I’m running fantasy, it has the same kind of impact that magic ought to have to those with no exposure to true magic.  It should be formidable, and scary.  If a mage can casually flick off a spell, then you’ll be certain that that mage has had a lot of practice and is extremely powerful.

Take note that I don’t want all my spellcasters to look like they’re having the greatest battle against constipation of all time when they cast spells, but I do want players who utilize magic to understand that their characters are doing something incredible.  No spell, even the humble magic missile or light spell is a party trick.  Magic is the domain of the gods, and the fact that mankind has achieved that sort of power is nothing less than epic.


  1. Joshua Macy says:

    I understand the impulse, but I’m not sure that it fits well with PC magic users and magic users as adventurers. If magic use is epic and fraught with implications, even if they aren’t defined mechanically, then most of the spotlight time magic user characters get is going to be spent with them not doing magic. It’s all very well for Terry Pratchett to write books where the most important thing for a wizard to learn is when not to do magic, but it’s pretty tough to translate to play. I think most viable settings have magic as a continuum ranging from party tricks up to vast workings that shake the cosmos, just as physical feats range from those barely worth describing to those that if successful will go down in legend.

    • dbro36 says:

      There is the danger that magic users will take the spotlight.
      But perhaps we are too fixated on the “standard” fantasy that it is hard to deviate from it. Perhaps magic use should be implemented in a completely different way.

      I don’t know if you’ve ever played Final Fantasy 6, but I remember it fondly, and it is very different to standard fantasy. In this world, magic is all but gone, lost in myth. There are those that have the innate ability to cast, but they keep this a secret. Then one day the Imperium finds a frozen magical being that grants the “bearer” of this beast magical powers. More and more are discovered and fall into the hands of “the heroes”. Through them, every character can become a magic user, though some will be more succesful than others.

      If introduced in a similar fashion, magic could become the awe-inspiring thing you want it to be. Perhaps some food for thought. If my points of view annoy you, by the way, let me know. I tend to ramble and rant a lot.

      • Hey dbro36!

        Before I reply, let me say that I don’t find your points of view annoying or invalid. However, I have noticed that you do approach things from a game designer perspective.

        In any case, magic users are often physically impaired compared to the rest of their companions, often lacking in skill and in physical ability to compete in any other arena of play. As such they tend to be regarded as soft targets, and back in 3.0 were considered to be relatively weak until the higher levels of play where their spells finally make up for their other shortcomings.

        I believe that there is (and should be) room for everything to be in the spotlight. Magic users have that spotlight when they’re casting. Which is perfectly fine in my book, because that’s what they’re meant to do. I can go ahead and describe the beefy barbarian cleaving a target from shoulder to hip, and the look of surprise one the victim as the top half of himself folds back inexplicably before the lights go out of his eyes. I can spend time describing how the bard seduces the bodyguard of the nobleman that the party was sent to capture, luring the bodyguard into a dark corner and plucking away secrets and information as the bodyguard tries to up his “game” and win her, before she turns him away with a dramatic fit, seemingly insulted, leaving him flabbergasted and not knowing any better.

        Every adventurer has a moment to shine, but when their activities are reduced to being treated as everyday, uninteresting events, then it’s a serious disservice to the fact that Adventurers in general are a cut above the rest.

    • Hey Joshua,

      I think my impulse comes from the idea that there’s a lot of high magic settings and the occasional urban fantasy right now that cheapens the fact that you’re grabbing realty by the short and curlies and forcing it to do what you want it to do. It’s not easy, and should definitely not be for the faint of heart.

      That said, D&D could be more interesting if a Wizard is described as “forging an arrow out of hate, shaping a missile born from wrath and sending it, unerringly towards the target of that spite,” as opposed to “You toss a magic missile, roll 1d4 for damage.” What I’m looking to do is to not punish magic users and force them to not do magic, but rather reward magic users by making them feel empowered by the fact that they do the impossible all the time. 😀

      Much in the same way that many people nowadays couldn’t appreciate hand-blown glass until they’ve actually tried doing it (or seen a master craftsman at work) I don’t want magic to be underestimated as anything less than punching reality in the face to make it do your bidding at any level of play.

  2. Hikkikomori says:

    First of all, I would like to say “Like!” and “+1”

    Secondly, I agree with Pointyman regarding the use of magic, hence my apprehension with settings that have Magic but no defining rules to police or regulate it. With regards to comparing magic with physical feats, everyone can perform physical feats, from walking down a road to climbing a sheer cliff. But with the addition of the ability to cast magic, those that are able to do so should have the capability of doing something more. Unless the setting states that everyone has the capability to learn magic when given the time and effort, just like bodybuilding, then I guess the respect given to wizards can be equated to that of fitness buffs. But this kind of set-up is far and few and between. In fantasy settings, Magic is usually a blessing, deity-granted or passed on through bloodlines, and as such, not everyone has access to it. People that are “unfortunate” enough to not be able to wield this kind of art has to do, and be, more in order for them to be in equal footing with those that can. Thus, the use of magic cannot be simply explained off as the ability to conjure something with just a wave of their hand. No matter how long and hard you pump iron or practice in a hidden monastery, you won’t be able to create something out of nothing.

    Because, that’s what Magic is – the ability to create something out of nothing.

    Boxers cannot solve world hunger. Mages can.

  3. dbro36 says:

    Hey Pointyman,
    Thanks for that. Replying on your posts is actually very inspirational for me, so don’t mind if I do! 🙂
    Perhaps my approach is not so much as a games developer, but more of one who is schooled in console RPGs as opposed to pen-and-paper. That also explains my sentiments with your other post, about character development. My friends and I actually don’t mind railroading. I can’t speak for them, but I think we all find it comfortable. I guess that also stems from all of our inexperience with pen-and-paper.

    But as such, your points of view are very refreshing to me, because you have a very different opinion, whilst you still think the same about many issues. It’s quite funny actually. But mostly I am inspired by the regularity of your posts here. This too has helped me with writing my own ruleset.

  4. Joshua Macy says:

    I really do get the impulse… that is more or less why powers work the way they do in Kapow! and Argh! But while that encourages (I hope) more interesting and relevant narration by the players of what their powers are doing, my fear is that it can end up feeling a little flat over time if the setting doesn’t back up the notion that this is bizarre and perhaps dangerous stuff. But doing that to the setting can have unfortunate consequences for the viability of characters whose shtick is magic… there may only be so often they can say “Stand back, for I am about to unleash forces beyond your ken, where the slightest mistake can spell doom for us all!” and take it seriously if everybody knows that in actual fact all spell failure means is that they lose a spell point. But if it really can doom them all, then over a campaign, you can count on magic users to doom them all…. it’s a kind of thorny problem.

    You can make sure that they have something else they can fall back on when they sensibly don’t want to risk magic…but that’s not necessarily quite what the player who wants to play a magician is looking for.

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