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.