The Great Mystery

Or why my dream magic system will never be made in a roleplaying game.

I’ve read a lot of roleplaying games in my life. Really, a lot. And one of the criteria I use to judge the system is how they implement magic.

Let me define my terms here. I’m going to be talking specifically about magic as a mystical force. The same systems are often used by RPGs to model other types of special powers, whether they call them psychic abilities, cybernetic enhancements, super powers, or whatever. For the purposes of this little rant, I’m just talking about magic that is done through mystical means – you know, the kinds of things wizards and sorcerers do. It could be in a pseudo-medieval setting, like D&D, or it could be in a modern setting, like Dresden Files, or even a futuristic one, like Shadowrun. It’s the use of supernatural abilities to elicit a change in the environment.

How’s that for a definition? Good. Moving on.

There is a strong tendency in fantasy RPGs to make magic a technological substitute, and to approach it in a very scientific, mechanistic kind of way. Some do this behind the scenes, like D&D, while others get the player or character involved, like in Savage Worlds. Either way, you wind up with recipes for magical effects that are repeatable and predictable.

Fantasy novels have embraced this idea, as well, especially those that have mystical characters as main characters. You get exposition on how magic works, what laws it adheres to, how the various factors intermix, etc. There is a decided effort to make magic understandable, to minimize the necessary suspension of disbelief to integrate magic into the story.

And I like those books. Well, not all of them obviously, but in general.

And I like those games, too. Again, some more than others.

But in both cases, the magic doesn’t really feel, well, magical.

It’s reasonable that authors and game designers take this path for their magical systems, and I don’t argue it. You need a predictable structure to magic in a game, so that the players know what their characters are capable of. So that the GM can properly assess challenges for the characters. So that there is a shared understanding of what magic is and what it can and cannot do. In books, it helps the author avoid contrivance in plot and present believable limitations and challenges for the characters. It helps them play fair with their audience, not relying on deus ex machina in the form of magic to save the day.

It’s a perfectly viable approach. Understandable. And, done well, enjoyable.

But there are other ways of understanding magic that I like better.

Like not understanding it.

Charles de Lint wrote a book called Greenmantle which is all about Mystery in the deep green places of the world, a power that predates modern understanding, and can never be completely understood. It touches everything around it with a transformative power that cannot be denied.

Guy Gavriel Kay wrote a book called The Summer Tree, in which a young man sacrifices himself to a god on an old oak tree, and is sent back into the world with a power of knowledge. He knows things, whispered to him by the god’s ravens, and, though he has no real mystical ability himself, he is accorded equal status by the lesser gods and goddesses in the world.

Sean Stewart wrote a book called Resurrection Man, where magic awoke in the concentration camps of the second world war, and runs through the world to this day. Minotaurs form in the twisting slums of the violent inner cities, and some few people have an angel inside them that shows them the truths of the world in dark and disturbing ways, and leads some of them away from humanity into a new existence.

(By the way, you should read everything that those three gentlemen have written. They are each of them magnificent authors. And the two that I have met are very gracious with their fans.)

I cite those examples to show a different approach to magic. Joseph Campbell, in his book Primitive Mythology, talks about magical thinking as a process different from the logical thinking that typifies modern life. The RPG Nephilim tried to produce that sort of experience for the players, and came pretty close when they moved from the standard list of magical spells to the more free-form type of magic in the supplement Liber Ka.

This is the kind of magic system I want. One that works on The Logic of Elfland, as G.K. Chesterton called it, instead of on the mundane, predictable logic of the real world.

I want to be able to act on a symbolic, mystical understanding of a situation, and have it work both narratively and mechanically. I want to be able to weave the lies told by a villain into cords that will bind his happiness, never letting it free. I want ants to come to my rescue because I prevented my brothers from destroying their hill. I want to win the fair maiden’s hand because I’m the third son and my name is Jack. I want to trick Death into a sack where I can keep him confined forever. I want to stand between life and death, able to look into each realm, and negotiate between the inhabitants of both.

It’s not going to happen, though.

Maybe I’ll be able to play someone like that in an RPG some day, but it’ll be a very rules-light, GM-intensive game. Because of the problem Joseph Campbell noted.

Magical thinking isn’t like our modern logic.

So, how can we develop mechanics that properly reflect it? We can’t, in my opinion. Every rule we create to structure magic strips away some of the mystical, leaving it a little more predictable and a little less magical. By the time we get something playable, the sweet mystery of magic has been tied down and tamed. The wildness is gone.

I’m going to keep looking for it, though. If nothing else, it lets me find a whole bunch of interesting games that do it the other way.

And that’s not bad.

It’s just not my dream system.

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12 Responses to The Great Mystery

  1. Jonathan says:

    I’ve thought about stealing from the Bunk system from Changeling first. You drew a card from a stack you created to decide which bunk you were required to do to get your cantrip off. Each player assembled a pool of what they would do. Stupid thing the bunks were collectible and I seem to recall that you HAD to do what the card specified. I’d rather just use it as a modifier and have a large global table/pile, if you do X from the random pool you spell is cheaper/free/aspected positively. Some would be if you don’t do X or pay extra your spell is more expensive/aspected negatively. Some things just shouldn’t be in a magic system though. Magic systems should leave room for the weird and unexplained. If I can’t have a crazed sorcerer plotting to take over/destroy the earth using a bizarre ritual or a grove where weird things happen for unexplained reasons, I won’t be happy.

  2. Fred Hicks says:

    Yeah, you’re right about it needing to be rules light — but the game Mortal Coil does support something like what you’re talking about, with the rules emerging *in play*, and everyone at the table getting to contribute a bit of magical thinkery to the process. I’m not saying it’ll nail what you’re looking for straight on, but it might point your brain in some interesting directions.

  3. Rick Neal says:

    Mortal Coil, Dogs in the Vineyard, FATE, Everway, The Window, Deliria… all of these games bring in elements of what I’m looking for, but they all maintain the mystery level by offloading decisions to the GM or to a collaboration between the GM and the players. Not that this is a bad thing; it’s very cool. It does, however, mean that you need a group that really trusts each other to run properly. And I mean REALLY trusts each other.

    Rules-light games tend to put more of a burden on the GM, and it can really get old. When I ran an Amber campaign, I found the looseness of the system very frustrating for one simple reason: players always wanted to know WHY they hadn’t succeeded. If I told them that they didn’t know, they would spend literally hours trying different configurations of their attempt to figure out what was causing them to fail. While this may be an effective method of figuring things out in the real world (hell, we call that “science,” don’t we?), it made for very tedious gaming, especially if what they were pursuing wasn’t actually all that important to the game.

    This is why I don’t think I’ll ever get what I want. I want all the mystery, wonder, and strangeness, but I also want a sturdy system that the players will accept and trust. And I think the two are quite probably mutually exclusive.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Amber requires careful sense management. When a friend and I ran, we had the same issues. After a couple of iterations, we learned to cut them off with “So you’re trying to figure out why it’s not working? It’ll take some time I’ll get back to you.”, and switch to another player. We learned that some players will eat up scene time like candy, especially when you have 2 GMs.

  5. Fred Hicks says:

    Hm. You may be right there, Rick, at least on the level you’re talking about. Though I can’t help but feel a bit of a design gauntlet has been thrown. I’ll have to noodle over it.

    How did Unknown Armies’ magic stuff sit with you? I always thought that system did a nice job of laying out magic that was seriously strange but still had some player-manageable rules for operation.

  6. Rick Neal says:

    No challenge was intended. It’s a conceptual problem that I pull out and puzzle over from time to time, and I never come up with THE SOLUTION. Now that I’ve got this little soapbox, I just wanted to voice some of my thoughts on the matter.

    As for Unknown Armies, I loved that game. Considering that I wrote for Atlas back then (, it’s a good thing, too. It had a nice strangeness to the magic, and played with one of my favourite tropes – the price you pay for the power you get. However, each of the schools of magic was fairly tightly defined for the most part; where it really allowed the mystery and wonder, it basically tossed the ball back to the GM and said, “Do what works.”

    It is one of my favourite magic systems. I like it a lot.

    But it still ain’t the dream system. 😉

  7. Jonathan Davis says:

    Yeah, Unknown Armies is great. I’ve been tossing around the idea of a completely mechanic-less magic system myself. It consists entirely of contracts between you and something else. Magic gives you the ability to speak to all sorts of things, and to make binding contracts with them. The effects may end up being mechanical, though, so I don’t think this is quite what you have in mind, but you could bargain with the wind, make deals with the king of rats, and end up on the wrong end of a demon’s handshake… All of which would be negotiated in character with the GM and other players…

    Anyway, that’s the kind of magic that calls to me, and like you, I think mechanics might get in that way of the magic.

  8. Rechan says:

    I hate having nothing to contribute to the discussion, here.

    Even so, I feel compelled to ask: So Rick, what is your next step in the playtesting? Will your players be making Supernatural characters whom you will be posting soon?

  9. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been thinking about this more, and I think you are right that systematizing the weird breaks it. So I think the right answers is to do what the novels do, provide compelling examples of the weird in the setting. Then in the GM advice section, provide examples of how to run them, without presenting an exhaustive system. That or pull a Paranoia …. the mechanics are not allowed to the players.

  10. Lanval says:

    So I had some thoughts for some light mechanics. Not sure how good they are but what the heck.

    It starts with two concepts:
    The Doorway is your ability to interact with elements of the supernatural.
    For example you can open the Faery Door which allows seeing and interacting with faery, the Night Door (which allows you to interact with the denizens of night such as vampires), the Kabbalah Door (or Arcane if you don’t want to over-specialize wizardry), or however else you want to break things down. You open a door through research (book learning and lore), accident (you happen to look between your legs at a funeral procession), or forced interaction (you were attacked or your doorways is forced open by a supernatural creature who wants to interact with you at that level).

    This is a rating system of your inmate aptitude at interacting with the supernatural. Kind of like a supernatural charisma and power level wrapped up in one.
    It could be done as points or some kid of level system, whatever. You could call it what you like: connection, soul, spirit, etc. If you have no Doorways opened, your Grace affects you as some kind of luck mechanic and as a natural resistance to the Grace of others. You could have a high Grace that is always passive. You could even have Grace affected by things like virginity, being the seven son of a seven son, etc.

    How it comes together
    First the GM needs to come up with a scale for what can be accomplished with how much Grace. For example, one point of Grace and a broken dandelion stem can be used to compel small sprites to leave you be. Two points and a bowl of milk can convince brownies to clean you office. 25 points can be used to convince the Goblin King to give Toby back. The game just needs a rough so everyone is on the same page.
    In its simplest form, when you try to work any magic (spell, compelling, etc) it is always against someone else’s Grace or the Grace of a locale; you have to have more Grace than they/it does.
    For the stories where a weaker protagonist overcomes a more powerful character or locale, it can be modeled by using Cheats. For example, you know that if your Grace where higher than the Goblin King, you could just compel him to give back Toby, but it isn’t. Well, that sucks. So you Cheat. He tells you that if you make it through his labyrinth, he give back the babe. So, if you do so you add a Situational modifier to you Grace. But then you get there and you find out that the Grace bump it isn’t quite enough, Faery are after all fickle and are not always straight with the truth. But then you present him with a wooden baby rattle that your knowledge of Lore (or whatever other skill or player knowledge is appropriate) tells you is the one that was stolen from the Goblin king hundreds of years ago and he had made an oath to himself to one day gain it back, his Grace gets lowered as his oath affects him.
    Another example would be convincing the ogre bouncer to let you into the Lady of Spring’s revel, even though you have no invite. Your Grace is lower than that of the Ogre, and he gets a boost from his oath to let none pass without an invite. You have a decent Grace, but you get a boost from your name (Jack), your lineage (you are the seventh son of the seventh son), your reputation (you once tracked a troll in a word game till the sun came up) and the story has gotten around. So you are real close to breaking his Grace. Then as a sign of determination you pull out a splint from Odin’s javelin and ease the point into your palm till blood drips. Your resolve takes your Grace over the top.

    Now, I freely admit these may not be the greatest examples, but I hope they get the gist of it across. I think this would be a flexible system that would work with players and a GM that are used to working together. Or, quiet possibly I have no idea what I’m talking about. 🙂

  11. Matt says:

    Lanval, I have to say, as I started reading your post I wasn’t so sure but as I continued, more and more possibilities opened up. This bears more thinking… there are so many “classic” stories that you just can’t tell with most regular mechanics. For that matter, there are a bunch of new ones too (Terry Pratchett novels, anyone?). Though Pratchett would probably work well in a Fate-based system (trope-based).

  12. evileeyore says:

    ” It’s a conceptual problem that I pull out and puzzle over from time to time, and I never come up with THE SOLUTION.”

    Well duh, you’re trying to solve it by throwing logic at it. No, no, you are, it’s because you’re human and trying to create a system (no matter how ‘lite’) to contain/explain/describe what can only be mysterious.

    You are doomed to fail.

    I think you could succeed but it would require madness or mind altering drugs.

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