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How Magical is Your Magic?

Roleplaying games are activities that require a good imagination, but by necessity also need to be structured by rules. It are these rules that help us to determine specific outcomes to the actions undertaken by the players as well as everything else that happens around them. These rules also extend themselves to magic systems, or for non-fantasy settings, their equivalents: psionics or super powers for example. But does a thorough understanding of how magic is supposed to work lead it to become less magical as a result?

In this article, we'll examine different concepts of understanding how magic can work and how this can affect the flavor and flow of your games. While the term 'magic' is used throughout, this article can also apply to other metaphysical abilities such as psionics, super powers, supernatural abilities and so on.

Magic is Impossible
In a setting where magic is impossible, it may be completely unknown or considered to be a ruse by the local population. Perhaps magic had once been wielded by a lost civilization before its secrets were lost to time, or it had never existed at all. Whatever the case, it is widely known that there is no such thing as magic.

Impossible magic settings are generally ones where magic is not available at all. You can also introduce a spin on this idea by using a minor spellcaster as a plot point. In these settings, even a low-level spellcaster that knows a small handful of tricks is worthy of awe. A villain may seek the secret of how to cast magic, or the spellcaster may be an early sign of some greater future event. Whatever the case, in these kinds of settings, the players should generally not have access to magic, and only in extremely rare situations should they be given minor magical items as treasure.

One notable example of this kind of setting is the video game Final Fantasy VI. In the game, magic can only be used by spirit-creatures known as Espers. It's only through mechanical means (and later through joining with these spirits) that mankind can learn these awesome powers.

Magic is Mysterious
In a setting where magic is mysterious, it is a secret art that is only known by a select few. Very likely they are not keen on showing off their abilities either, except for when faced with dire circumstances. While the average person may eventually concede that magic could exist, what exactly it can do and what form it takes is hazy at best. People are more likely than not to never witness an act of magic, but for those that do, they may not even comprehend what has occurred in front of them.

In mysterious magic settings magic is available, but players generally are not the ones using it. Instead, powerful and mysterious spellcasters act as patrons, villains or neutral obstacles by using their abilities to help or hinder the player characters. These spellcasters are always fantastic, shrouded in secret and their powers are ill-defined. Any magic that the heroes will use will most likely come in the form of a magic item or artifact that they chance upon or has been gifted to them by a benefactor.

Probably the most famous example of a mysterious magic setting can be found in The Lord of the Rings. None of the main characters can cast spells on their own, but they possess a small number of magic items (such as Sting or the One Ring) that provide them with abilities. Two of the villains: Saruman and Sauron are spellcasters as is the party's benefactor Gandalf. In all cases, the true extent of their powers is unknown and they generally hold off on casting spells unless absolutely necessary.

Magic is Fantastic
In a setting where magic is fantastic, it remains out of reach of the general population and may still be considered to be a scam by those that aren't versed in its ways. Magical practitioners are able to use their abilities because they are 'something more' than human (or any other applicable race). They may possess raw talent, but still must train to refine their abilities into what could be considered magic.

Fantastic magical settings are where player characters first get a real chance to play as spellcasters. In general, they will not be ordinary members of their race. Instead, they may have an ancestor that was a powerful creature, such as a fey or a dragon. Alternatively, they may descend from a 'race' of magicians (much like how the DC Comics superheroine Zatanna is able to cast magic because she is descended from the Homo magi). Magic items can fall easily into the hands of non-spellcasters, providing them with an extra edge. In general, magic is defined loosely in theory, but the actual mechanics are unknown to the players themselves. It is also worth noting that these kinds of settings generally carry an air of secrecy around them. There is often a clear line drawn between those that can use magic and those that cannot and spellcasters will do everything in their power to make sure the truth of their existence remains a secret.

These kinds of settings have proven themselves to be very popular in recent years. The Harry Potter books & films are easily the best known example. They use a clear distinction between spellcasters & non-spellcasters (muggles) and spells are not always clearly defined. Another example are The Dresden Files novels and television series. Here the line is even more clearly defined with a force of Wardens and a series of laws helping to prevent ordinary folk from discovering the truth.

Dungeons & Dragons players will notice that there are a lot of similarities between the spellcasters in fantastic magic settings and sorcerers. In these kinds of settings, sorcerers or similar classes (such as favored souls) are the primary, or most likely only ones capable of casting spells.

Magic is a Science
In a setting where magic is a science, everything becomes well-defined and easy to classify, removing much of the mystery around it. Spellcasters can and do come from every walk of life, and the existence of magic is accepted by the general populace. In these settings, the heroes, villains and possibly other characters can easily be spellcasters, although this does not imply that magic is commonplace, just that it is better understood. Each and every spell is well-defined and have their own set of necessary components and rituals required for casting.

Scientific magic settings are ones where player characters should be free to become spellcasters. Each spell and magic item can be well understood and practical evaluations of a spellcaster's abilities can be made.

The first true example of a scientific magic setting are the Dying Earth stories by Jack Vance. In them, magic is described as being a series of precise formulas, which when combined with somatic, verbal and material components allows the spells to be cast. This is the same system of magic that Dungeons & Dragons was based around (along with several other roleplaying games).

Because both players and game masters need to know how spells work in order to make use of them in roleplaying games, the scientific magic setting becomes the default for most games. Reducing accessibility to magic can allow for an extreme shift in tone and playing styles, forcing players to acknowledge a force beyond their ken and allowing game masters a lot more leeway in how magic works.

Try adapting one or more of these ideas in your next game and see if you can make magic a lot more magical for your players.

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