Series Info...#13: I'm Not Superstitious

by Travis S. Casey
July 27, 2001

An element of many – I'd even say most – online worlds is magic. Magic, in some form or other, is integral to the fantasy genre, and it also shows up in related genres. What would horror be without vile necromancers, mad cultists plotting to summon Things From Beyond, curses, and the like? And even in genres where you wouldn't think of it, magic shows up in disguise – psionic powers in many science fiction stories and old Indian wise men in westerns are just two examples of magic "sneaking in" to other genres.

Why do people like magic so much? The cynic in me says that everyone loves the idea of something for nothing, and of having special powers. With the idea of magic, there's the possibility that you could learn how to do these things – and you don't even have to get bitten by a radioactive spider, or struck by lightning while being doused with mysterious chemicals!

The romantic in me, on the other hand, says that magic is Wonder, capital intended. In a world with magic, anything could happen – you could find that a closet leads to another world, or wake up one morning and find your pet cat talking to you, or get hit on the head and find yourself in another world.

Magic is what truly makes a fantasy world different from the real world – and as such, it should be an important part of any fantasy world, carefully considered in the course of designing that world. But all too often, it's not. In my article on system design, I said that the unexamined system is not worth playing; that advice applies to setting elements as well – don't just throw it in because it's what everyone else has done.

All too often, magic in fantasy RPGs becomes a substitute for technology. Instead of machine guns, we have magic missiles; instead of bazookas, fireballs. If you need to talk to someone who's in another city, you go down to the local mage's shop and get the mystical equivalent of a telegram or a phone call. To treat magic in this way robs it of its... magicalness. It's no longer a source of wonder – it's like a light switch, something you just use without even thinking about it. Mages aren't feared just for being mages; they might be feared for the destruction they can cause, but no more than you'd fear someone who carries around a bazooka.

Part of this comes from the abundance of magic in many fantasy settings. You'll find a magician on every streetcorner in many of them, and all you need to get whatever magical goods or services you want is a big enough bag of gold. This is a far cry from older fantasy sources and the myths and legends they were based on – in them, magic and magicians were both rare. That rarity by itself made them more mysterious and wonderful – in the sense of "full of wonder", that is, since many of them were not nice to be around at all.

And too, "classical" magic is difficult and often unreliable. Rare and mysterious ingredients are often needed for major spells, and they can take a good deal of time. Spells don't always work, and even when they do, they can have unpredictable side effects. A magical item can be a wonderful thing, but all too often, there's a hidden price to pay for wielding it. These sort of effects make magic less like a substitute for modern technology – you can no longer use it like it's a light switch, and if magic takes significant time, it's no longer a substitute for a machine gun.

Another source to draw on for a different view of magic is medieval and Renaissance beliefs about magic. Some medieval scholars held that all magic involved demons. Those demons might not manifest themselves visibly, but even something like a spell to turn lead into gold "really" summoned a demon who did the transformation. A spell to make someone fly summoned demons who would bear the person up into the air. And so on.

As a consequence, magicians could not work their magic in the presence of holy objects. A less obvious consequence was that anything that was apparently created by magic was actually brought from somewhere else by demons – demons were not believed to have the power to actually create things from nothing, but could magically transport things from one place to another. Imagine the kind of stir it could cause if every time a magician conjured up a cup of coffee, that cup disappeared from someone else's plate!

Now, I'm not necessarily recommending using the idea that magic comes from demons in a game world, but such an idea could easily be adapted – many paper RPGs have shamanic magic which is essentially following this idea, but with nature spirits instead of demons. Or perhaps all or many magical effects are accomplished by summoning elementals.

Another interesting medieval/Renaissance idea about magic is the idea of astral magic. This doesn't involve an "astral plane", but rather, is the active side of astrology. Where astrology attempts to predict influences on events from the positions of the planets among the signs, astral magic is the process of attempting to attract desired planetary influences to an item or person. The underlying belief was that each of the planets and signs radiated a certain influence, and that items and materials could serve as a sort of "conductor" or "resonator" (to use modern terminology) for those influences.

Thus, if someone desired to become more courageous, they could surround themselves with items and materials associated with the sign of Leo, since courage was associated with Leo. As well, things associated with Mars would help. An extensive "system of correspondences" was worked out, with each sign being paired with a planet, having a corresponding color, metal, gem, time of day, and so on. These beliefs also worked themselves into magic of the more usual varieties, so that it was believed that, for example, certain demons were best summoned under certain signs, and at the times, etc. associated with that sign. If you wished to cast a spell to make an amulet of invisibility, you'd be more likely to succeed if you did it under a sign that was favorable for deception, and you made it out of a metal associated with that sign. And so on.

Whatever kind of magic system you come up with for a game, though, it's a good idea to think through what sort of impact it should have on the game world. If, for example, it's easy to cure diseases through magic, the people probably won't fear plagues. If permanent magical lights can be made reasonably easily, cities might use them for light at night. Such consequences need to be thought about, because you can be sure that your players will think of them – and, if possible, exploit them.

In closing, here's a list of books that I recommend for getting ideas about magic. Some of them are hard to find, but I think you'll find them worth the effort.

Abbey, Lynn – The Wooden Sword and Beneath the Web.
Brust, Steven – the Vlad Taltos series: Jhereg.
Cook, Rick – the Wizardry Series: Wizard's Bane and The Wizardry Compiled. (Collected together as The Wiz Biz.)
Garrett, Randall – the Lord Darcy Series: Murder and Magic, Too Many Magicians, and Lord Darcy Investigates.
Niven, Larry – The Magic Goes Away.
Roberson, Jennifer – the Sword-Dancer series: Sword-dancer and Sword-singer.
(Note – I haven't mentioned all the books in every series – only the ones that I think are interesting with regards to the topic. And, of course, there are lots of other fantasy books that could be listed. If you've got suggestions, post them in the forums!)


Bonewits, Isaac – Real Magic.
Kieckhefer, Richard – Forbidden Rites and Magic in the Middle Ages.

Roleplaying Games

Ars Magica
Fantasy Wargaming
A Magical Medley (supplement for the FUDGE roleplaying game)
GURPS Spirits (supplement for the GURPS roleplaying game)
Hero Wars
Aysle (supplement for the Torg roleplaying game)
Orrorsh (supplement for the Torg roleplaying game)

Again, there's probably lots more that could be listed in both categories – feel free to recommend others in the forums!

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