The Rampant Coyote touched on an interesting subject a while back:
When Magic Becomes Mundane in RPGs
It’s a great look at a storytelling aspect of game design that lies near to my heart.
I’ve spent a lot of time writing stories, both in short fiction and in outline form (for novels or game implementation). I’ve done a ton of research on world building, including science, history, sociology, psychology, politics, math, and whatever else comes my way. I firmly believe that game design needs to embrace a gestalt philosophy. (I feel the same way about education, actually; learn to see the big picture and how everything connects, and you’ll have greater capacity for intellect and wisdom.)
Tangent: Go check out Mike Darga’s article How A Designer Thinks for a bit more on gestalt design. Not only is it highly relevant here, but it’s a seed for another article I intend to do once I can take the time to scrounge up the visuals.
RC suggests that magic needs to make sense. On the surface of it, that’s silly, right? Magic is fictional, and doesn’t have to bend to known laws of logic or sensibility. That’s sort of the whole point of being magical.
Well, yes and no.
Again, RC’s article digs into it nicely, so I’m just echoing sentiment here. Magic needs to make sense in a given game world since it’s part of that world. It need not necessarily make sense compared to our Internet era sensibilities, but if magic within a story or game doesn’t make sense in its own framework, you’re going to run into problems. Magic’s function may become completely arbitrary and fall prey to inevitable contradictions. It may “break immersion” purely for game design reasons (thereby killing the setting). It may become so completely mundane as to be boring.
The “boring magic” endgame is where a lot of games wind up. In D&D parlance, no longer is that Fiery Sword of Oober +1 an amazing artifact gleaned from desperate adventures, it’s just a placeholder for the eventual BIS (Best In Slot) loot drop. The inherent magic and wonder have been trivialized by a combination of redundancy, treadmill expectations and the Syndrome effect (among other things).
Magic can come in different strengths and different commonalities, and those can and should deeply affect the game world. Neal Hallford wrote about it in his Swords and Circuits book, describing another of those game design Punnet squares:
Worlds where magic is common and weak might be those where everyone knows of magic and thinks nothing special of it. It’s used almost everywhere, and is just as natural as we think of technology in our modern day. This is where most game design winds up. Everyone likes the shinies, after all. There is something lost in the bargain, though. The sense of wonder that magic can evoke is one of the greatest things that fiction can offer, precisely because it’s not how our real world works. A common/weak magic world can still be interesting as a whole, but magic itself will likely be somewhat bland.
Worlds where magic is common and strong might be more interesting places. When nearly anyone can get a hold of significantly powerful magic, it would change social structures. It would change politics. When anyone can pop off and do tons of damage, people would probably wind up more polite, if only as a survival tactic. After all, when Barb in Accounting can literally blow her top if you give her the wrong data, you’re more likely to keep her happy. It’s the Cold War all over again, but on a very personal level.
Worlds where magic is common and has a wide range of strengths may well wind up a fractured society based on a hierarchy of magical power. Politics would bend there, too, warping around those individuals who literally have power, rather than those who merely have money and influence. (Heaven help the world if a tyrant has all three.) When the prime personalities of your world can literally single-handedly take down entire armies, the world won’t look like anything we’re familiar with. Sure, the teeming masses of underlings might have some power of their own, which could also cause a lot of trouble and intrigue, but as in games with a wide power band, PvP would stink.
Worlds where magic is rare and weak will likely be a rather bland place. Sure, the archaelogists and explorers will get the occasional rush when they find a Pottery Shard of Mana here and there, but since it doesn’t have a significant function that changes the way people live, it’s not going to be a big world shaper. Perhaps political dynasties could be built out of some interesting heirlooms with minor effects granting luck or dexterity, or a family line could be excellent blacksmiths because of the power in the land where they make their home. (The magic need not be observed and measured, either; tradition and legend already have significant effect on people. Even if that’s backed with real power, it may just appear as part of the legend.) Shamans and hucksters could take advantage of superstitious people with a bit of sleight of hand and some real magic to back it up. Even though rarity enhances perceived value (and strength), magic isn’t likely to be a key to gameplay in such a world. At least, it’s not likely to be something that players wield carelessly. It can certainly provide some interesting stories when it’s used as the key to or muscle behind otherwise nefarious plots.
Worlds where magic is rare and strong are potentially crazy places. Not only do you have the trouble that comes with individuals with real power, but they don’t have the threat of masses of low level magic users to counterbalance them. The social and political imbalances would be even stronger than in a world with common magic. As noted in the Swords and Circuitry book, players coming across a magical artifact that could literally explode with power in their hands would be a heady thing. They wouldn’t normally have solid experience with such things, and may just as likely make their hometown a crater as establish themselves a hero of the nation.
It’s this sort of world that many ancient storytellers embraced. Magic was wild, rare, unpredictable stuff, more often a problem than a tool. People feared the Faerie Folk and their magics, and Merlin wielded terrible power (that he thankfully tended to use responsibly). Magic was creative, unusual and dangerous, something best left alone by the average man. Perhaps those were darker, more ignorant times, but at the same time, magic meant something. It was mystical, unknown, fascinating like the flame to the moth.
And it shaped people and worlds.
Excalibur wasn’t just a wet Longsword +1, it was an agent of change, altering the destiny of a nation.
Magic can still mean something, if you let it. To be sure, great stories can be told in any of those worlds, as in worlds without magic. Still, there are ways to make magic more magical than picking talents from a spec tree and maximizing DPS output. If magic has more consequences than just shiny ways to kill stuff, your game world can be much more interesting.
Put another way, why have magic at all? What purpose does it serve, and how does it shape your world? How does magic work, and what does that do to the world? Even if you don’t lay all that down explicitly to the players, if it all makes sense to you as you’re building the world, the consequences of magical actions, abilities and artifacts will naturally flow in your storytelling. That’s worth pursuing.
There are other obvious things that this can extend to as well. If your world really has Undead, that changes a lot of things. What sort of Undeadness is it, anyway, and how will that change things? Can people hold on to their dearly departed even as they hold on to sentience and sanity? At least for a while? What does Death mean in a world where it can be reversed by the local workman necromancer? (Who moonlights as the undertaker.) What if necromancy is an honorable profession, respected by all, feared only by the fringe elements of society?
Does magic come in different flavors? What if your world’s magic is only usable by animals? What if magic only works when its user is asleep? What if magic is only usable via totems? (What sort of economy would that make? Precious metals are already kind of crazy in our world, what if they were also magic batteries? Would the industrial complex win out over the mages? How would that shape the Industrial Revolution in that world?)
All of these things will change the fictional universe in significant ways, and your creativity will be enriched if you take these thoughts to heart. Some of these questions will lead to nonsense (and some are nonsense), but that’s OK, because you can change it or jettison it. The more cognitive dissonance there is in a world, the less enjoyable it is. (OK, at least to a Western audience.)
It’s not unlike the Chaos Effect of a butterfly’s wings. A well designed world will really need to function, or it can all fly apart. As such, nearly everything will affect everything else. (Cue plea for player actions to mean something in this meticulous, fascinating world that you make…) Consequences born of logic are a natural part of the arrow of time, an unavoidable part of living in a world where there is no QuickSave slot. Instilling even a bit of that in a game can be powerful spice.
Search out the consequences of your setting. Think about how individual people would react, how history would be shaped over the years, how society would evolve. You need not go all Tolkienish and invent new languages and histories… but if you do, or at least put a little thought into thinking things through to their logical ends, your world will make more sense and be more interesting.
Even if it’s merely magical.
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