Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Elements of Magic Systems That Do Feel Mystical

There are some games that do have a certain level of mysticism which can be both evoked and encouraged in certain ways to keep it from ever becoming mundane. After all, the trouble of anything highly magical is that it could turn magic - something that can feel special - into something as routine and mundane as turning on a light bulb. Since I talked about weaknesses last week, I thought it was about that time that I point out some strengths in existing systems.

Mage: the Awakening

Mage does magic well in that you have powers based on core elements of magic rather than individual spells which allows a person to be quite innovative in how they use their magic. A person with the Forces Arcanum can do anything using Forces up to a certain amount of versatility dependent on how many ranks in Forces you actually have. Individual spells, called rots, are magic uses that are more specialised and which you have practised enough to get down to a fine art form. Rotes can therefore be given as rewards for exploring locations, studying grimoires and helping out fellow mages without interrupting the levelling process. You could make them free, in order to really motivate the players, or allow experience point purchases of things that you would otherwise guard access to. One of the great things about Mage magic, too, is that the downside for magic involves the magic going haywire - which can inspire stories in and of itself.

Vampire: the Reckoning, Werewolf: the Forsaken and Geist

These genres all have a form of magical ceremony on top of their innate powers. Since their innate powers (some of which need to be purchased separately like Disciplines) are both specific and powerful they give a real sense of being mythic. A Gangrel who unsheathes their claws and a Daeva who captures attention with Awe are both really emphasising the themes and mood of their respective clans which can give a scene involving them an added potency. The actual ceremonies they each have (Cruac, Rites, Ceremonies) are also richly drawn and generally require some sort of ceremonial action to utilise that reinforces the type of magic invoked. Cruac requires the sacrifice of one's own blood. Ceremonies which require the use of a scrying mirror that has once reflected the target of which involves giving a cigarette (or flask of liquor) to someone in order to get them to really open up about the deceased provides power to certain archetypal tropes which really gives a sense of a more urban and modern form of magic.

Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons

The main thing I like about these systems is the use of verbal, somatic and material components. I once created a sorcerer where I listed out all of her spells and came up with a fitting Latin phrase as a verbal component for each spell. Pathfinder goes one better by listing out the material components for each and every spell which helps those trying to describe their spell casting. The main problem here is that most players aren't going to make that kind of effort nor will most Dungeon Masters, which is a shame, since it's a brilliant way to evoke casting in these systems.

Call of Cthulhu

The spells in this game all come with a heavy cost. As the mundane laws of our world are what helps keep us sane and awareness that such laws are false, fragile and easily broken can damage our puny little minds, so can bending those laws ourselves injure our sanity. In some cases the spells even have a cost in POW. Some of the spells describe ceremonial activities or relics that are required and that just adds to the sense of occultism. Due to the spells' power and cost, they are unlikely to be used by players with any degree of regularity and so each spell use feels important and memorable.

What about you guys? Dealt with magic systems that seemed to capture that occulty feeling more than others? If so, what made them feel so good?


  1. "magic systems that seemed to capture that occulty feeling"

    Reading through my old game books and looking at reviews of systems and supplements online i think systems which allow for the historical-traditional and low fantasy type of magic user who are mostly about spirits and summoning and indirect effects would be best for that (including good and bad paths where the good path leads to power slowly while the bad path is a tempting but dangerous short-cut).

    My old Chivalry & Sorcery books have a lot of magic users like that but the overall system is more complex than i want to deal with. GURPS: Voodoo looks like it covers that kind of territory and might have a lot of ideas which could be imported into a fantasy setting

    The other thing i liked about C&S was the emphasis on a focus. I quite like the idea of the path to creating a focus and then upgrading a focus being an epic chain for a magic user class.

    I still like the standard fantasy genre spellbook wizards as well because they have become as iconic over time as the spirit summoning ones - partly due to RPGs themselves - but as a fairly rare minority of magic users (maybe needing very high minimum intelligence) and somehow i want the pursuit of knowledge to be their driving motive.

    I think the only way to do that would be to take whatever spells were in the game system and change them myself so the effects of the spell were proportional to the level of the character's knowledge stat - which would increase from reading old books, talking to dragons, exploring ancient ruins etc. So seeking out knowledge would directly effect their game power because it made their spells more powerful.

  2. Shannon,

    Ars Magica was an interesting game. Have you seen or tried it? It really "sang" to me, but I never used it in a game.

    Check out the "system" section.

    Do you feel that game mechanics, and knowledge of how they work (dice, range, etc) are a hindrance to feelings of immersion in rpgs? I kind of do...and for some reason I don't get it from knowing what common things stats are (swords, fighting, gun range etc.) I want my magic to be mysterious and a little unknowable!

    David S.

    1. For me it's more how they're used and what it takes to cast them that affects me and that's something which the mechanics can help or hinder. Everyone is different, of course.

  3. The Dale wardens
    "Do you feel that game mechanics, and knowledge of how they work (dice, range, etc) are a hindrance to feelings of immersion in rpgs?"

    I think this is true but there's another side to it. If you have two players and one is into the immersion and one is into min/maxing then the min/maxer will often *prevent* the immersion. In that situation - which was the general case when i GMed a lot - then making the mechanics fit the roleplay *might* alleviate that particular problem. Although it might create a new one.

    For example you have two players playing druids off to beat up some goblins in a cave and the roleplayer one wants to go and do a ritual in a nearby druid grove before hand and the min/maxer says "huh why, what's the point?" (in game terms)(or in reality the roleplayer doesn't say that because they know what the reaction will be in advance).

    If druids performing a ritual in a grove got them three luck tokens they could play at any time to give a big boost to any die roll then the min/maxer would say "hey let's go do a ritual in the druid grove before we go in the cave."

    I don't know, the idea of tailoring the mechanics to fit a certain conception of play (for a particular class) might make it worse but i had the above problem all the time with my two bros so i think it's worth experimenting with.

    1. A lot of storytelling involves running little experiments and then tailoring the tactics used to reflect what was learned by the experiences at the table.

      Sometimes I feel like a scientist!

  4. I think a lot of the time the magicalness of magic is less to do with the way the magic is handled in the system and more (as I rambled vaguely about in my post on the subject) about what players are expected to *do* with that magic.

    Magic in WW games tends to feel unmagical to me because the game seems to presuppose that I will intend to exploit it for game mechanical benefit. I've not played nMage, but I played a bit of oMage, and unlocking Spheres always felt more like leveling up powers than exploring supernal mysteries.

    I think a big part of the issue is when magic is treated like a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. I don't want Forces 5 so that I can more fully comprehend the nature of Forces, I want it because I want to be able to throw bigger fireballs.

    I wonder, incidentally, if the key to magical-feeling magic is for magic to be something your character *does* rather than something your character *can do*. That is, rather than gating a character's magical abilities behind game mechanical powers, make *doing magic* the core of gameplay. Rather than "how do you use your magic to solve problem X", "How do you solve the problem of your magic".

    1. It would be neat if you could unlock game world secrets as you gained in Arcanum.

    2. I think you could probably run a decent Ascension game where play was very tightly focused on unlocking arcane secrets, rather than on doing arbitrary missions. You could also tie Arcanum progress to IC experiences rather than arbitrary XP.

  5. I don't know about "occulty" but I've always liked the Shadowrun magic system -- from around the second edition -- as it was well integrated into the setting and made a lot of sense. By which I mean not that it was scientific and predictable but that you could look at it and think "of course magic works like that!"

    I'm also fond of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay second edition because it captures that sense of meddling in matters that are beyond human understanding.

    1. I've heard a lot about the Shadowrun system but I've never played or read it. I really should fix that.

      As for Warhammer, I have player a Psyker in Warhammer 40k. I'm tempted to go back to my old books and see how they dealt with magic (beyond the Oh-Dear-God-The-Warp! aspect) as I'm a little rusty on the particulars.

      I believe magic was more firmly in the psychic paradigm in both fact and style, which always feels a little different. Less otherworldly and more I-am-powerful-but-at-what-cost?

  6. In Warhammer most magic comes from Chaos, which is both a force and a dimension beyond the material world. Elven wizards channel and control that magic, while dark magicians use it in an unrefined and, er, chaotic form. Human wizards are not powerful enough to control the whole thing so work with more manageable chunks of it. The whole system is organised according to a colour wheel analogy, so elven magic is a synthesis of the whole spectrum (white), dark magic is a muddy mixture of the whole (black), and human magic is split into red, green, blue, and so on.

    Since it all comes from Chaos it is unstable and unpredictable so there's always a chance of something going wrong and creating a link between the spellcaster and the realm of Chaos. This could be something as minor as milk going sour nearby or as bad as a greater daemon using the wizard as a door into the material world.

    Warhammer 40,000 works along the same lines although they swap the colour wheel analogy for psychic terminology; it's still more or less magic in practice though, and the same hazards apply.

    Oddly enough, in both settings orcs are portrayed as being low-level psychics and the more of them that gather the greater a psychic "buzz" is generated. Orc shamans — or weirdboyz — can then channel that gathered energy into something resembling magic spells.

    1. Nice summary. Is Warhammer 40k canonically meant to be in the future of Warhammer Fantasy? I'm supposing not.

    2. Basically not.

      Although there's a kind of awesome fan theory that the Warhammer Fantasy world is a planet in the 40K universe that got trapped behind some kind of Warp Storm and cut off from the rest of the galaxy.

      Non-canon and makes no sense, but kind of awesome.

    3. Sort of. The Warhammer world was part of the 40K universe in the Rogue Trader/Warhammer Fantasy Battle 3 days but successive revisions of the setting have eliminated that part.

      I tend to allow that they are still connected, so that I can surprise my WFRP players by throwing a Chaos Champion with a bolt pistol at them.