Posts Tagged ‘magic’

One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years.  I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment.  I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.

Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it.  If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.

This time, I want to write about Geistflies.


These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:


(Photos by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up.  As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations.  We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow.  Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy.  Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.

And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway.  Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War.  Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark.  Weird, crazy stuff.  That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one.  And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?

Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice).  I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts.  The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals.  The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then.  It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.

One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables.  There’s a lyrical quality to the term.  This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting.  Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term.  Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.

Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English.  What sort of culture would use such a mix?  Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”?  What effect would that have?

Three, what if there are two species involved?  Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies?  What would differentiate the species?  Color?  Behavior?  Location?  Mechanics?

…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies.  They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science.  This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly.  No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.

That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:

Can they be used as detectors?  Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic?  Where do they live?  Can they be domesticated?  What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults?  Do they feed on magic?  How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?

Where does their energy come from to light up?  

That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.

Or maybe this one:  Why are they called geistflies?  Have they been linked to ghosts?  Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards?  They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?

I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications.  To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding.  I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.

This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.

I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow.  Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.

P.S. I just ran into this today:


There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.


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I’ve written about this before, notably in these two articles…

Merely Magical

Thinking Magic

…and Professor Beej’s article last time reinforced some of my thoughts on rules and their function.  I think rules are important to creativity.  You can’t think outside the box until you know where the box is.  If nothing else, thinking about how things work leads to story hooks, like trying to figure out what happens when death breaks, as I did in my Death Unhinged article.  I’m firmly in the camp of “magic should have rules”.

Still, I wanted to add a couple more links to articles that I’ve seen lately on magic and the rules behind its use in fiction.

First, there’s this ranty gem from N. K. Jemison, titled “But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?“.  I boil it down to “magic isn’t science, so why play by science’s logic and rules?”  This is one school of thought, appealing to some, but not really all that interesting to me.  I consider it to have a fatal flaw:  it’s way too easy for authors to metamagic themselves out of writing errors by just handwaving away their solutions by saying “but, but, but, it’s MAGIC“.  In this style of magic fiction, magic is a tool the author uses to write the story.

In the sort of fiction I prefer, magic is a tool that the characters use to solve their problems within the story.  Brandon Sanderson has a great article up thisaway on this, ultimately boiling things down to his “first law” thusly:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic.

This is a critical difference, I think, albeit perhaps a subtle one.  Magic can and should let weird things happen in stories.  That’s sort of the point of fiction, exploring “what if” questions that come with powers that we as readers don’t naturally have or situations we’d not normally encounter.  Magic fuels a lot of those crazy circumstances.  Still, for me, magic should feel like it’s part of the world it inhabits, even if it’s a weird part.  The effects that magic has on a world need to flow from how magic works, or else the world risks being completely arbitrary, with no sense of consequence for actions.  When cause and effect are decoupled, there is little learning that characters can do, and little that they can do to enact their agency and make choices.

If magic doesn’t lend itself to comprehension, it serves little purpose in the story but to impose the capricious will of a mad deity, whether that’s the author or something in-universe.  There’s certainly a place for that in the body of fiction on the whole, but I find it makes for unsatisfying storytelling, since it’s often all too easy to see the author’s hand in events, the chicanery behind the curtain, as it were.  That, or the story is so random that it doesn’t satisfy my desire to see characters grow instead of just live through a story, marking time by hitting the plot points.

One of the examples I often point to is, of all things, a comic book.  I imagine myself as an author on Marvel’s X-Men comics, specifically, looking for things for Iceman or Magneto to do.  Iceman is apparently an “Omega level” mutant, with incredible, nearly god-like powers.  Magneto isn’t quite at that point, but his power to magnetically manipulate metals can have a lot of curious uses.  I’ve seen authors have him slow the flow of blood to a character’s brain by controlling the metal in red blood cells, thereby making that character pass out.  It’s a remarkably subtle use of magnetism, and a reminder that as ubiquitous as metals are, Magneto can and should be able to do a great many different things, all from one simple, core power.  Iceman, on the other hand, far from his humble beginnings as a goofy guy who wore a self-made suit of snow and threw snowballs, has wide ranging powers that let him affect material at the subatomic level, which has an even wider range of applications.  Authors exploring what he can do keep coming up with new tricks for his mutant powers, like being able to use a body of water as an extension of himself to travel far distances nearly instantaneously, or his “organic ice” form that can be broken and reformed at will, effectively making him immortal since his consciousness and control aren’t linked to any particular given assembly of material.

These characters function according to known scientific rules, yet wind up doing things that are more or less “magical” simply by being something that most mortals can’t do.  The storytelling potential is still huge, but because of the built in limits, the characters are grounded in plausibility.  That goes a long way to selling the “what if” in my mind, simply because I can actually place myself in the character’s position and try to see how they might solve problems.  That empathy is a big part of why I like fictional characters, and is important for keeping me engaged in the story.

If, on the other hand, characters just function like pawns in an author’s storycrafting, going where they need to and doing what the story plot demands, I’m far less satisfied in the story.  To be fair, magic isn’t the only way this is a problem.  Stories that only function if the characters are complete idiots are also pretty annoying.  Still, if magic is the glue that keeps characters working like good little cogs in a story, they come across less as characters, and more like, well… tools.  This isn’t always going to be the case when magic is capricious and/or arbitrary, but it’s far easier for an author with rule-free magic to just pull what they need from their bag of tricks, plausible or no.  This “Deux ex Machina” solution to narrative problems is generally unsatisfying, denying characters the chance to carry the day because of their choices, determination or other assorted heroic stuff.

Case study:  the backlash against the ending of Mass Effect 3, where Stuff Just Happened (that link is a really great video review, by the way) in the narrative at the last minute to make the prebaked Dramatic endings work.  Yeah, it’s not just magic that has this problem.

This all underlines the core problem I have with rule-free magic.  It’s a useful tool for authors to wiggle out of awkward writing, a cheap solution to a situation that doesn’t make sense.  The narrative becomes less about the characters and the world, more about how things work out to where the author wants them to be.  That sort of story can work, sure, it’s just not the sort of story that I like all that much.  Naturally, this means I have to be careful to keep my fiction writing from slipping into territory where I’m using characters as tools, not letting characters use the tools within their world.  This shouldn’t be too hard, as seeing how characters work in a world is fun both when writing and reading… but still, though I’m ultimately in control of my own fictional worlds, I want to let characters exercise their agency as much as possible, and for consequences to flow logically from their choices.  I know, anthropomorphising them that way is kind of silly, but, well, that’s what I do when I get creative.  I suspect other authors do as well.

Speaking of other authors, though, this fellow thinks that rules are useful, too:  Erik Robert Nelson’s Does Magic Need Rules? (spoiler:  he answers in the affirmative)

Thusly and thenceforthly, for those characters to have agency, there need to be clear choices to be made and consequences for those choices.  This requires rules for comprehension for how the choices and the consequences correlate.  Meaningful choices cannot be made in completely capricious settings with no comprehensional cohesion.  As we see with language itself, rules facilitate understanding.  That doesn’t mean rules can’t be broken, but if there are no rules and Stuff Just Happens, figgledy barglesnipe verbiage into# abnarwt bthppp!

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I’ve written about magic and its function before, most notably in my Merely Magical and Mix and Match Magic articles.  I’m a scientific fellow by nature, but magic is so useful for fiction that I’d be remiss in ignoring it.  Beside that, it’s fun to think of the intersection between magic and science.  Cue Arthur C. Clarke’s quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So lately, I’ve been wondering… how do magic spells with conditions work?

I work with computers all day long, as an artist, true, but I understand a little bit of programming.  There are programs that are constantly looking for input that is then acted on.  The computer has to constantly run routines that ask “is anything happening now?” and “how about now?” or “maybe now?”… it’s always paying attention, ready to spring into action.  This takes processing power.

How about magic?

I’ve been watching the Pirates of the Caribbean movies again lately, so I’ll use those as an example (here there be spoilers!).  In the first one, the Aztec curse is lifted when the gold is returned and the blood debt repaid.  Is there an ancient Aztec spirit checking DNA?  Maybe it’s just checking with its fellow spirits in a vast Aztec post-mortal spy network.  They are always watching, dun dun dun…  The gold would be a bit easier to explain as it’s a simple count… but how to know if they are the right coins?  Again… Aztec ghost spy network, or maybe just a ghostly assayer working with the DNA specialist.

What about the whole Davy Jones myth (in the movies)?  He was cursed because he wasn’t faithful to his ladyfriend… but how did she know?  Maybe that one is easy to explain with a bit of mindreading and/or scuttlebutt, but what of the apocryphal Will Turner variant?  According to what I’ve read online (yes, I was curious, hush), Will isn’t stuck on the Flying Dutchman at the end of the third movie because Elizabeth was faithful to him, and he to her.  Who checks on these things?  Who or what is watching, and how does one get privacy in such a world?

Perhaps magic itself has a level of sentience?  At least enough to run simple “pass/fail” monitoring checks at a low level all the time?  If so, how much does magic think?  How smart is it?  Can it be fooled?  How much power does it take to run these checks?  Are there limits to its perception, whether temporal, spatial or something else?  Can it be blinded or deafened?

And what if the rules change?  Is magic capricious?  In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, why could Balthazar and Dave drive through their own reflection to escape a magical mirror trap, but Horvath needed external help to escape the same sort of trap?  Does one need a certain velocity to just blow out of the trap (shades of Back to the Future, where the tech may as well be magic), or some other quirky condition?

The Looking for Group webcomic is one I’ve wondered about lately in that regard as well.  The first minor arc in that comic has our central hero incinerated (into ashes!) and then revived by a local priestess, whole and healthy.  Later, that same priestess can’t revive her adopted father, merely because he had suffered some sword slashes to vital arteries.  Similarly, she couldn’t fix her uncle’s lost arm (though an artificer managed to make a perfectly functional magical metal one).  Did she lose power?  Are ashes easier to revive than a whole corpse (albeit minus some blood)?  Did magic’s function change?  Is this just the Power of Plot changing the rules in the name of Pointless Drama?

I know, this is overthinking things, but I believe there’s merit in having consistent rules that magic function by.  That sort of logical underpinning can make a world more interesting.  It need not be boiled down to a quantifiable science (though that might be interesting), but a bit of logic and consistency can go a long way in selling something as fantastic as magic, something that inherently goes against our intuition.  Even if the end player/reader/viewer doesn’t get these rules explained explicitly, just the fact that they are there and that the creators use them is a boon to the presentation.

On the other hand, capricious, chaotic, unpredictable magic has its place, too.  I just think that authors, game designers and worldbuilders should put a bit of thought into how and why magic does what it does instead of just making random stuff up and changing the rules as they go.  Maybe that’s a level of Batman-crazy preparation that we typically only see in someone like Tolkien and his linguistic and historic backgrounds of Middle Earth… but I think it’s worth it.  It seems to me that having that sort of underlying superstructure makes a magical world cleaner and more interesting, if only because it’s easier to be immersed (you’re not always asking “wait, what?” as you play along) and easier to expand (known rulesets are easier to follow, or break as occasion demands).

If nothing else, looking at how things work can provide story hooks and opportunities to delve into a fictional world and issue exposition in new and interesting ways.  It’s a good thing to have readers/players/viewers wondering “how” and “why” if the answers exist and help build up the world… and it’s a bad thing if those questions just lead to plot holes and lazy craftsmanship.

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This is a mix of several ideas… and something that I was prompted to put into writing by Brian “Psychochild” Green’s recent design article:

Design: Elemental Advancement

I’m following Brian’s lead here, in that this is a collection of ideas that you can build on or use outright, if you feel so inclined, not so much a proper design document.  Since I currently lack programming skills and the independent wealth to hire someone with said skills, well, I probably won’t be making a game with this anytime soon.  So, have at it, and if you can make it better, well, so much the better, aye?

The core notion here is to make magic in a game creative and explorative, trying to evoke the flavor of a magical researcher with a degree in MacGyvering their way through game world problems.  Most games that use magic are very, very constrained, effectively giving magical equivalents of tech trees rather than letting magic be wild and variable.  Players always know what their magical school can do, since the spells are always the same.  Individual magic spells tend to have one use and one use only, with far too many of them slotting into Damage Per Second (or per fight) min/maxing.

I’m looking to push the boundaries a bit.  I want players to be able to weave magic into new shapes, not unlike how Dumbledore crafted wholly new magical spells here and there, or how Voldemort was able to do things wildly beyond that universe’s “standard” spell set taught to the students.  In my mind, magic is wildly creative (even when dangerously destructive), a practice of curious individuals who seek ways to warp reality and go beyond what merely is into the realm of what may be.  Pushing and pulling at threads of magic in the tapestry of a magical reality can and should produce new and interesting effects.  I’d like to invite players (more Psychochild and Rampant Coyote!) to indulge in a bit of creativity within the game world’s magic system.  I’d like to let them play and have fun.

I’ll admit to being significantly influenced by the description of magic in books like Sabriel (a great book on necromantic magic and how it might work for good) and the Dragon Knight series (whose lead character, a timelost modern scholar in a medieval Englandish land, is stuck with learning magic and devising unique solutions to problems).  Those iterations of Magic are creative, hardly a list of spells that a stereotypical Mage memorizes and then casts while adventuring.

I’m also influenced by the SquareSoft classic Secret of Evermore, which had a magic system built on “alchemy”, with reagents to mix for various effects.  It was somewhere in between, with alchemical spell recipes and little room for experimentation, but a conceptual foundation of using real materials for magical effects, and elemental combinations that produced different effects.  (This also forced players to choose between spells that shared ingredients, a curious tactical layer.)

It’s fair to note that many game players don’t necessarily want to be creative, they just want tools to blow up the bad guys, and an overly complex research and exploration system just bogs that sort of player down.  Still, the mindset of a creative scientist/mage isn’t something that players often get to play with, and, well… it interests me.  Perhaps there’s something viable in here, perhaps not, but since a large part of what I do here is explore, I may as well do so.  I love to create game systems that let players explore and dig into possibilities.  Less Team Ninja, more Sid Meier, as it were.

So, a few core thoughts I’m building on, though certainly not the only way to run this:

  • Magic is comprised of different ingredients, not unlike how matter is comprised of elements found in the periodic table.  As such, magical ingredients mixed in different proportions and in different ways will produce a wide variety of effects.
  • Magic can be used for combat, utility, creation and destruction.  Whether a high or low magic world, magic is pervasive, and used in everyday life. A blacksmith uses magic as readily as an archmage, albeit in different ways and to different ends.  The spectrum of creativity, power and efficacy is probably wide, but magic itself is neither unusual nor inscrutable.  It is almost a science, approachable by anyone with the will and intellect to master it.  That said, mystics and religionists do cloak it in pomp and secrecy…
  • Magic uses both reagents and mental components (willpower, incantations, emotion, whatever), sometimes together.  Totemic magic tends to be a mix of the two, for example.  Pure material magic is mostly scientific, just with an expanded periodic table compared to what we’re used to.  (Not unlike how dilithium in Star Trek’s magic, er, science fiction system is a variant of quartz with a subspace component… at least, according to some books that try to explain Trek.)
  • Magic underlies everything in reality, and as such, nearly everything can be manipulated by a sufficiently talented mage.  Interconnections abound, and effects may be far-reaching, spatially or chronologically.  The “fabric of reality” is literally envisioned by some, and manipulated as one might manipulate cloth, whether in gross maneuvers of grand sweeping curtains or subtle tweaks of single strings that touch others.
  • Magic is a form of energy, and is subject to magical laws of thermodynamics.
  • Magic can be seen, tasted, felt, heard and even smelled.  A magical “sense” also exists, functioning as a gauge and locator.

Example Game Idea:  Music Mage

You play as a Muse, a Music Mage trained in the ways of summoning, channeling and conducting.  You use music to control your minions. Changing the music changes their behavior. Perhaps dissonant music is destructive, and harmonious music is healing.  Tempo and volume control other aspects of behavior, and conducting different sections of your personal orchestra have different effects.

Say, in one combat, if the orchestra is harmonious and the woodwinds are strongest, a healing wind helps you and your neighbors in an Area of Effect heal spell… but as the woodwinds tire out, you let their volume drop and make the brass section suddenly dissonant.  Nearby foes are consequently blasted with summoned shrapnel.  Most fall to the assault, but a few runners threaten to call down reinforcements.  You quickly get the percussion ramped up to give yourself a speed boost, and shift the dissonance to the strings section for some shrill ranged attacks to take down the runners.  Alternating between minor and major keys shifts your defense/offense balance, not unlike balancing speed, weapons and shields in an X-Wing from a central power pool.

Maybe altering the composition of your orchestra sections shifts elemental properties (more cellos, fewer violins means a slight Water edge to string attacks).  Altering the balance of your orchestra (more woodwinds, less percussion) effectively shifts your combat focus.  Enemy status attacks can alter this on the fly by targeting sections of your orchestra; you can be hamstrung by losing a few percussionists to a targeted sleep spell, for example.

To be sure, much of this particular design is just the Same Old stuff in a new cloak, what with elemental properties, ranged vs. melee combat and so on, just wielding a conductor’s baton, but it could prove interesting and even educational.  It doesn’t all need to be about combat either, since environmental puzzles can be built around using music the right way.  It’s almost like Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, where the titular Ocarina had magical effects… but in this case, you’re riffing on the magic musical spells as you go, weaving in new effects by changing the music.  These changes can be subtle or gross, and need not even affect other effects.  The strings can keep up a ranged barrage even as you use the brass and woodwinds to do different things.

Further, you can use music in different ways to deal with environmental or social puzzles.  A soothing melody might make diplomacy easier (or a looming dissonant theme might make an ally more threatening to bluff through a situation), and a turbulent woodwind blast might clear a path through the brush.

OK, so that’s one game idea.  How about another?

Example Game Idea 2:  Master of the Magical Gathering

Will it blend?  Master of Magic and Magic the Gathering?  More specifically, what would MoM look like if your wizard were more Mark Rosewater (MTG’s lead designer, a guy with a LOT of great articles to share on game design and design in general, including this one that touches on the role of an artist), less Civ disembodied mayor?

Mr. Rosewater has made mention before of the various “knobs” that they have to tune their card designs.  Mana cost and color are perhaps the biggest ones, but there are a whole host of mechanics and effects that get used on cards.  Even the notion of card speed is a key knob to turn when considering combat resolution and priority on effect resolution.  If those knobs were put in the hands of the player in a magical 4X game, where magic spells can be crafted and tuned based on a logical underpinning of constraints and components, you might see something a bit more creative than MOM, though with similar ends.

For example, a 2 mana spell using 1 Life mana, 1 Ether mana might create a Fate Runner if it’s a creature spell, but if it becomes a construction spell, it might be something like a Divine Presence enchantment, making local churches more effective.  Same ingredients, different ends, all in the application.

That’s more of a prebaked recipe than creativity, though.  Imagine then, if Life mana always served to make construction quicker, healing stronger, and creatures better defended.  Tossing a spare Life mana into a particular spell you’re casting might not unlock a wholly new preconceived recipe, but it will have an effect on whatever it is you’re doing.  It might enhance your efforts, or subtly shift them.  Say, a Life mana rider on a Water/Fire creature summon; the creature doesn’t change its core form, but will be different from other creatures of the same species, say with a bolstered Faith attribute or better inherent leadership.  A summoned creature with a Death mana rider might be more menacing, since it inherits a mild Fear aura.

Maybe location matters, too, and spells cast near a mana node are inherently more powerful, or perhaps they are more unstable (or both) due to some resonating interference in the magical leylines or some such.  Perhaps sympathetic mana is enhanced by local leylines, and conflicting mana is diminished.

Further, if you can use that magic in various ways, say by molding the landscape and even interpersonal charm spells and such for the diplomacy segment, you step a little bit out of the “magic is for combat” mindset.  If there are alternate win conditions, even constructive ones, magic might be used to bolster the methods to reach those ends.  Imagine a mage who spent his time and research on new ways to build efficiently, and keep his people happy, earning a civil victory or some such, all the while befuddling or charming the socks off his neighbors (something MoM allowed, but the tools for that path were pretty limited).  Magic could be bent to serve many different ends if it were sufficiently flexible.

Of course, devs might have to provide a set of “baseline” spells for players to use if they aren’t inclined to be creative.  They would function like the various Mech chassis designs in BattleTech, letting players jump into the action… but rewarding those intrepid game explorers who min/max the living daylights out of complex systems.  It does seem that 4X games tend to attract some of that sort of player, and complexity is more of a feature, less of a roadblock.

Interestingly, magic that is built from ingredients rather than recipes need not always behave predictably.  Cooking in the real world sometimes produces unintended effects as ingredients intermingle in weird ways.  Timing can also be an issue.  Throw that Fire magic in early and the artifact sword infilcts a damage over time “slow burn”, but throw it in late in the forging and the sword carries a flame aura that chars (debuff) or flat out disintegrates targets.

It’s also worth noting that at some point, sure, you’re dealing with database management and the finite world of game development.  Also, sufficiently dedicated players will datamine everything and post it in a FAQ.  That said, in the meantime, players who want to experiment on their own will have tools to do so, and I want to encourage and reward that sort of experimentation.

At any rate, that’s just a pair off the top of my head, more brainstorming than polishing off a real proposal.  There are certainly other directions to run with this.

One key might be to balance complexity with playability.  It’s also important to avoid feature creep, with too much going on to be fun.  Still, BattleTech, MoM, MtG and other games show that complexity isn’t antithetical to good design.  Certainly, it has to make sense and serve the goals of the game, and the game should be playable without being a rocket scientist, but it really is nice to reward those players who want to dig a bit more into game systems.

Where would you take this and run with it?  Is it possible to let players be chefs, playing in a magical kitchen to make crazy Rube Goldberg fun?  Is it worth trying to develop that flexibilty when the mass market just wants WoW and God of War clones?  I’m very curious to see what Elemental winds up doing, as a spiritual successor to MoM.

Magic really could be more… magical, and I think that a deeper, more flexible, more creative magic system might be an avenue worth exploring.

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Merely Magical

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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