This page is about paranormal magic. For stage magic, see Magic (Theatrical).
Broadly speaking, magic can be defined as any phenomenon which violates normal causation and is therefore an expression of the supernatural rather than the natural.
In gaming, Magic serves three purposes:
- Differentiation Between Characters: That is to say, every Player Character needs a niche. Many players find their enjoyment of a game is enhanced if there's something special their character can do that others can't. Magic (and especially different Magical Traditions or Varieties of Magical Effect) is one way to allow for this. Likewise, magic might help keep NPC villains from becoming stale or predictable.
- Causality and Justification: Magic can serve as a plot device, ala Mind Control or Enchantment. It can be a Deus Ex Machina used to tie up straggling plot threads. It can unleash the Monster of the Week. It can be the Hand Wave that explains why a MacGuffin is highly sought after, or why a Magic Weapon does so much damage. In this way, invoking magic (pun intended) can empower Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
- Excessive or heavy handed use of magic for this purpose - especially when it is essentially being used to cover up plot holes, poor character development or outright discontinuities tends to get troped as "a wizard did it". Where such use of magic furthermore runs counter to the way magic operates in the setting in general, this may be extended to "a wizard did it and then ran away". Neither is positive.
- Problem Solving: RPG scenarios present puzzles, dilemmas, conflicts and challenges to the players and their characters. Magic can be used as a tool or provide methods for overcoming obstacles. One particular aspect of the problem-solving power of magic shows up during combat, and deserves special attention. It's practically a fourth purpose:
- Charles Dexter Ward Principle
- Functional Magic
- Laws of Magic
- Magic Item
- Magic of Bollywood
- Magical Tradition
- Poppet Magic
- Ritual Tool
- Schools of Magic
- Varieties of Magical Effect
- Word of Power
and several other pages we haven't quite gotten around to making yet.
As of this writing, we've got over 1500 pages here on Arcana Wiki, but strangely, we're still just getting started on magic. So, if you're looking to design your own magic system, add more verisimilitude to an existing system, or just do some research for your character, I recommend:
- Wikipedia article on magic
- Wikipedia's list of magical terms and traditions
- Wikipedia's list of methods of divination
- Wikipedia article on magic in D&D
- RPG Sourcebook: Authentic Thaumaturgy by Isaac Bonewits, published by Steve Jackson Games
- RPG Sourcebook: A Magical Medley published by Grey Ghost Games (numerous authors)
- RPG Sourcebook: Occult Lore published by Atlas Games (numerous authors)
Game and Story Use
Besides the material in "In Gaming Magic Serves Three Purposes", above, it's worth considering how much part magic plays in your setting as well as what it is used for. A setting in which magic is a user friendly tool with which everyone is at least familiar (if not actually trained in its use) will differ greatly from one in which it is a dangerous secret. A setting designer needs to ask themselves the following questions when adding magic to their world:
- Where does magic come from? Can it be stored, blocked or re-directed?
- Who can use it - and how often?
- Who knows about it? How much of what is widely known about it is true? How much of what the experts known is true?
- How commonly does it appear? Is it an everyday part of life or something most people only see at work once or twice in a lifetime?
- How is it used? How much preparation and activation time is required?
- What does it cost (in all terms from physical exhaustion to required training)?
- How much control do users have over it?
- What can magic do - and what can it not do?
- What laws does it acknowledge? How far does ontological inertia apply? Are there side-effects and if so, how significant are they for the world in general?
- Are "magic" and "science" different things? If so, how do they interact?
- What are a non-user's options when confronted with magic?
- If there is such a thing as "magic resistance" is it something you do reflexively or something that takes decision? Can you suppress the reflex (if any)? What factors make you more (and less) resistant?
- How are most people likely to react? Accept it as "something that happens"? React with wonder? Suspect fraud or trickery or be horrified?
- Are there multiple forms of magic - and if so, how do they relate to one another? Are they different front-ends on the same thing or radically different phenomena? Are "secular" and "divine" magic the same thing or radically different (if either exists and/or if there is a distinction)?
- Can most people tell the difference between any multiple forms of magic? If so, how do their reactions to different forms vary?
Once these questions have been answered, the setting designer will have a good idea about where magic fits in their campaign. If that picture doesn't match the one they want, they will either need to adjust their baselines or fit some kind of adaptor (for example, magic is actually quite benign in absolute terms, but is not much used because it got really bad PR after the Great Wizard War).
People being what they are, there will also quite likely be some attempts to regulate and control the use of magic - if it cannot be regulated or controlled most governments are liable to ban it instead. Regulation and control can be in the hands of pretty much any congruent body, from a council of wizards, to a ministry of magic to a guild. A regulatory body may cross mundane jurisdictions or different cultures (or even nations) may have different rules - dissonance between an "international" and a "national" regulatory body is replete with plot ideas. Prohibition might well be in the hands of a religious body (such as an Inquisition) or a government agency (The Witchfinder General's office?), or could just rely on outlawing anyone who practises magic. Setting designers should be careful to decide how magic is regulated and what legal restrictions apply in each area of their setting … players should be informed at least as well as their characters are. Character knowledge may be dependant on spending points on the right skills and failure to do so may be dangerous. Unlike actual laws of magic, laws regulating magic have no pressing reason to be proportional, logically coherent, reasonable or at all related to the way magic actually works.