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Hocus Shmocus

May 19, 1998


Well, friends, this will probably be the column that'll make you realize the foam around my mouth is not whipped cream, nor is it because I haven't finished brushing my teeth, as you may have previously thought. Why is that? Because today, my good readers, I wish to discuss something that is a very touchy subject with gamers, fantasy gamers in particular - magic systems in gaming. I have some strong opinions on how magic should be handled; most of which is based off of "classic" fantasy and Arthurian novels and religions of old.

Recently, I wanted to roll up a mage in Steve Jackson's GURPS, for an upcoming fantasy game. I got out the GURPS Magic and GURPS Grimoire from my gaming bookshelf, and sat down to ready his spell book. A few hours later I put the books back on the shelf and decided to create a woodsman instead. I was quite annoyed, I wished the [non-tweaked, base] magic system in GURPS was more like, like... I realized I couldn't think of a magic system in any game system I had played that was desirable. Granted, I haven't played every single game out there, but I have played most of the more popular fantasy game systems, and in all of them the magic systems leave little to be desired. Now I could spend the entire column listing every little detail in each gaming system that I disagreed with, but all the problems can be placed into one or more of the following.

The largest problems with most magic systems is that they are placed in the middle ground of fantasy - with the exception of novels that are written for the game universe themselves. In just about every non-game system related (or "classic" fantasy) novel I've ever read magic has been cast one of two ways. Either magic becomes a ritual; a tedious, strenuous, and time-consuming task requiring various components to power the spells or magic is cast with a simple gesture or power-word in a matter of seconds. Even religions that deal with magic treat it one of those ways. Game systems seem to stick in the middle, normally with a mage that carries a cart full of components behind him for spells that only cast a matter of seconds to cast. I realize this was done to include both ideas of how magic should be cast, but I do disagree with it.

I do have a secondary problem with magic in fantasy games, but one I realize that would be difficult to stray away from. That problem is spell lists. I don't like spell lists, they force magic into almost a scientific realm, they give specific ways for a spell to be cast, and rigid rules for the outcome of the spell. Perhaps it's not the list of spells that I disagree with; I mainly disagree with the rigid specifications of each spell within the list. Personally, I'd like to see more open magic systems, where more creativity comes into play, either through something like rune magic where the runes drawn and a player has to think of the ways to use the drawn runes to define their spell, or where the players think of what they want cast, and the GM decides how costly, time consuming, or draining it is. Another possibility would be to use spirit magic, the mage must appease the spirit or convince it to do something, thus giving the GM an opportunity to easily nay-say anything to powerful - although that does give the GM an easy out to be unnecessarily cruel to a player.

While I can picture a mage getting wrapped up in an adventure, I cannot picture a full-fledged magic user exiting his studies to go traipsing about the country-side slaying monsters for the sheer joy of it. It's much more profiting for a mage to become the counsel of some high diplomatic power or to join a guild that allows the mage to study and grow in their abilities. In worlds that magic is outlawed or frowned upon, mages will either spend most of their time hiding or very little time casting magic. Thus relegating most mages to the position of NPC, outside of political games, or games where the majority of the group is against the norm. This relegates most games to either center around the mage, or most of the party being mages. Of course, if the world has "high-mana" then it leaves magic open to more than just the actual magical scholar, allowing any player who desires so to use magic.

What's a GM [that agrees with me] to do? Well, the obvious solution would be to throw out the magic system and write your own, but that can be a time-consuming project. Another possibility would be to keep the designated spell lists, and either increase the time it takes to cast the spell or discard the time and components, perhaps changing the way the spell works through something like spirit magic. Or, for an interesting change of pace, allow multiple forms of magic, so that a mage might be a rune-caster, spirit user, mind-mage (fast acting magic), component mage (the slow, tedious magic), or maybe even a student of multiple forms of magic.

The base effects of magic will always remain the same, the changing of the physical through aphysical means, but the way the spell is cast needs to be changed. For ideas there are plenty of magic books in the library be it anything from druidic magic, voodoo, Crowley's theories, etc. that a GM can utilize.

Phil Masters' article "The Mechanics of Magic" in Arcane issue 19 (May 1997) lists most of the magical theories as Packets of Power, the general way of utilizing magic in most games, and the one I most disagree with; The Skill of Shaping, which is similar to the Packet idea but allowing improvisation as well; Mastery of Spirits, simply put - spirit magic; Divine Power, magic coming from a much more otherworldly source, i.e. gods; and Reality Shaping, the ability to tweak and control reality itself - much like what is described in WhiteWolf's Mage: The Ascension. If you can pick it up I highly recommend reading the article.

Please don't reply to this article asking if I've tried a particular game. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the article overall and any magic ideas I may not have mentioned. Now if you'll excuse me I've got to figure out how I want to cast a shield from fire, as I'm sure some of you will want to flame me. :)

Happy Gaming!
Shadow Sprite

Feedback encouraged to sprite@rpg.net!

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What do you think?

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All Foaming at the Mouth columns by Erich S. Arendall

(plus earlier items from the Sprite archive)
  • Hanging up the Dice Bag February 7, 2001
  • It's All In The Details August 8, 2000
  • Regarding Reviews July 5, 2000
  • Rest, Relaxation, and Role-Playing May 23, 2000
  • Gaming, Yes! Gamers, Argh! April 18, 2000
  • Kudos, Komplaints or Kriticism, I don't Kare! March 28, 2000
  • Three Little Words February 1, 2000
  • Stories, Characters, Supplements, and Modules December 7, 1999
  • Real Roleplayers? Real Snobs. October 12, 1999
  • Socialism and Systems September 14, 1999
  • Same Earth, Different - You Know the Rest... August 17, 1999
  • It's Evolution, Baby! July 20, 1999
  • Buried in Dice June 8, 1999
  • Look Ma! No Dice! No Rules! May 18, 1999
  • Oh, Servant! April 27, 1999
  • Motivational Evil March 30, 1999
  • Love and Sex... In Gaming! February 9, 1999
  • You're Doing What On-Line? January 19, 1999
  • I do it for the Toys December 9, 1998
  • Everybody Else is Doing it... November 24, 1998
  • All the Game's a Stage October 20, 1998
  • Nobody Wants to GM! September 15, 1998
  • Ugly, but not Frightening August 20, 1998
  • ...And I'll Be a Baker! July 21, 1998
  • Cultish Followings and Golden Ages June 16, 1998
  • Hocus Shmocus May 19, 1998
  • Crossbows over Characters? (or, Gaming Mentalities) April 21, 1998
  • Hey! You're Not Smart Enough to Play that Character! (Part 2) March 17, 1998
  • Hey! You're Not Smart Enough to Play that Character! (Part 1) February 17, 1998
  • Computer RPGs and How Most Aren't January 20, 1998
  • Sprite's first guest column, on The Economics of Gaming December 23, 1997 (or, "How to Dissuade Those Pesky Non-Gamers")

    Other columns at RPGnet

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