This week saw the premier of the final Harry Potter movie and the launch party for Magic the Gatherings 12th edition. It’s almost like magic is everywhere, and really, it is at the very core of the fantasy genre. Magic is an integral part of fantasy and fantasy gaming, from magical creatures to spells and worlds formed by raw magical energy. In this article I’ll look at magic in terms of world mechanics and as a story device.
I could look specifically at magic in this article, but then write a similar article on mutation and super powers that wouldn’t add anything new. Rather, let’s group magic, super powers, psionics, amazing technology and everything else that is “abnormal” and call them “world mechanics”. I’m using broad strokes here, but let me explain. Mouse Guard is a game (and comic) with little magic. Mice can talk, but they possess no powers as such or magical artefacts. Mouse Guard’s “world mechanics” are interesting because we can play as mice in a world terrifying to mice. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, lets us use magic to fight magical creatures, and we can become powerful beings that can take on terrifying dragons through the levelling up mechanic. If you think about it, levelling is a type of magic, you would never gain such abilities in real life even with dedicated training. Thus the world mechanics for D&D represent a world that is full of magic. So, I’m going to use “world mechanics” and “magic” interchangeably in this article.
Magic has Boundaries
Magic needs to have boundaries, without these boundaries players will feel cheated and confused. Can my wizard become invisible if he casts an invisibility spell? Boundaries (rules) set this out for you. The boundaries then, like I said above, define the world at the same time. Frodo’s ring had power to corrupt, so we understand that in The Lord of the Rings magical items may have a risk involved when they are used.
Magic breaks Boundaries
Firstly, as a story element, magic breaks boundaries. Magic lets your characters and NPC’s do things that they would not normally be able to do in the real world. Flight, as an obvious example, is only possible through magic. Because of this, you need to think outside of reality and be creative when designing your sessions and include encounters and NPC’s that bring the reality of the game world into focus and let the players experience that world. It’s no good running a fantasy game where everything is normal by everyday terms, and I’d argue that a normal day even in terms of your fantasy world would be too boring for your players, but there needs to be an obvious difference between the two worlds. A note of caution though, sometimes subtlety really pays of with regards to the differences in your fantasy world and our own, you do want it to all be believable in some way.
Furthermore, magic gives you a reason to break the mould with you game, within reason. In a recent game I introduced a series of earth-nodes that needed to be used in sequence, and did not let players move as they wished between the nodes. I explained this difference as a consequence of the spell plague, which the players were happy with and I could then stagger encounters out between the different nodes. Because magic and the mechanics of your game world represent the weird and wonderful, take inspiration from the setting and let your creativity flow.
Magic is often Limited
Magic has its limits, which is important to remember. If any world mechanic is limitless, it becomes worthless in a way. If everyone can fly, you will need ways to cut that ability at some point and you need to work out the repercussions of giving everyone such an ability. In my opinion, magic becomes more interesting if there is less of it. In the Lord of the Rings, there are only a handful of magical users, which makes characters like Gandalf and Saruman stand out amongst the rest, magic is thus strange and valuable.
At the end of the day magic represents a great device for telling the stories we love, that’s why so many people fell in love with the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings and so many other fantasy stories. Use magic well and your games will be that much more interesting and captivating.
If you watched the last Harry Potter, or played MtG during the release party or have any other thoughts about magic, leave a comment. Let’s talk geek 🙂