Magick in Gaming Systems


1996 Rodney Cox






You play roleplaying games, and most of them have rules for magic use. You cast fireballs, or heal people, or fly, and think, hey, this is great. Did you ever stop to consider how the gaming system reflects magic in the real world? Yes, that's right, magic in the real world. It exists and is every bit as valid as what you find in any roleplaying game. Magic just takes a bit different form that's all.

I should state here that I'm a roleplayer and have played systems from Dungeons and Dragons, to GURPS, to the White Wolf games and many between. I am also a Pagan and practice actual magic. Also, I realize that most gamers don't believe in magic outside of the game. For me, my beliefs have been a source of some frustration in gaming. One thing that has always bothered me about all the magical game systems is how lacking they are in authenticity. I can't shoot lightning from my fingers and there is not much about the games out there that have any basis in fact.

I have gone over many game systems looking for any genuine information on magic. To be honest, I have found very little. Other then identifying tools used, all gaming systems are totally unreal. The White Wolf system, Mage: the Ascension comes the closest, but even then, it's a long way from being authentic. Let's examine typical magic in roleplaying and true magic. You will agree that they are quite different. There are two main areas that need to be addressed. The first is how the magic works, and the second is the issue of alternate planes of existence. Each is usually an important element of gaming, and is equally important in the real world as well.

In games, magic is flashy. People teleporting, levitating, shooting fire, turning people into newts, etc. It is obvious that magic is happening, and usually it is seen as unnatural. The mage is forcing changes upon the world due to his/her power and will. In fact, magic is entirely natural. A true mage is merely using Universal Laws to make changes in his/her life. The most accepted definition of magic is "the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will." This comes from the famous occultist, Aleister Crowley. But if you think about it, any action we take is causing change according to will. Another occultist Dion Fortune saw the change to be change in consciousness. So, we can use Donald Kraig's expanded definition, as found in his book, "Modern Magick," to clarify things a bit. His definition is, "Magick is the science and art of causing change (in consciousness) to occur in conformity with will, using means not currently understood by traditional Western science." This is much different from a magic user ripping reality apart by virtue of spells and ancient incantations

Let us get some terminology out of the way. All game systems, to my knowledge, use the term spells. There are spells in the real world as well. Although if you talked to a ceremonial magician, they would use the term rituals.

Early magic systems, such a Dungeons and Dragons, had spells you memorized, to use later. This idea is okay, but has absolutely no basis in fact. The only example I can think of is talismans. These are physical objects charged with magical energy to cause a desired effect for the owner of the talisman. And this example is quite far from what is presented in that particular game system.

Later magic systems introduced a power level of the mage that was spent as a spell was cast. Good examples of this are the GURPS system and the Shadowrun system. This power is usually called mana, which is a Polynesian word. The more mana a mage has, the bigger the spell that can be cast. This is also analogous to the idea of ki from the martial arts. This is the internal energy that all things possess. If your ki is strong, you will be healthy and strong, and if it is weak, you will be sickly. Ki can be utilized for more then just maintaining health. One can use it to endure intense pain, to keep from being cut, etc. Of course there are also examples of the small housewife lifting a car to rescue her child. There is even a martial art based on ki. With mastery one can knock opponents down without touching them. There are also ki healing methods as well.

I think this is much more valid then the previous example. It allowed the mage to be more versatile in his/her use of magic. No longer were you limited to how many spells you could memorize at once. You could cast any number of spells, providing you had the juice to do it with. This idea of mages possessing a set amount of power is a bit more accurate in the material world. Some people have more ability and power then others. This does make a difference in genuine magic to a large degree, but still it is not wholly representative of what magic is all about. One still does not find much in way of stupendous effects in actual magic, which would be fun in my opinion.

The latest system I've seen has a more open-ended magic system. I refer to Mage: the Ascension by White Wolf. The player character has knowledge of an area of magic and can perform effects up to the power level they know. For example, say there are five levels of knowledge of "Energy." I could do more with level five knowledge than with level one. There are spells with this system, but they are not set in stone. One does what one desires, providing they have the knowledge to do it. Characters have unprecedented freedom in working magic, which is not found in other games.

This system is very good, and more concretely reflects magic as it works in the real world, but only to a degree. Magic is more about using knowledge of Universal Laws then about merely repeating meaningless phrases. In the physical world there are no areas of knowledge like the ones presented in this system, and so realism is lacking here as well. It seems then, that no system accurately depicts magic as it truly is. But one is playing a game and a workable system must be made or the players would have no fun.

Generally I would say that real magic is about raising and controlling energy. This is why no systems is magically accurate. Sure one's own power level has something to do with magic, but it is a matter of talent as much as raw power. Power can be raised by contacting higher powers. Invoking of Gods and Goddesses and also tapping into the power of the elements is typically done. Of course, it takes the human mage to work this energy into a form that will manifest. Energy is not enough. Conversely, knowledge of how to use the energy without the energy to work it is equally useless. It takes both. There is another element to be thrown in as well, that is just as important as the other two

This brings us to the subject of alternate planes off existence. All game systems that use magic have rules for other dimensions, except perhaps for GURPS. All others from Dungeons and Dragons to Shadowrun have an astral plane at least. Unfortunately, what one find in games has nothing at all to do with what is really out there. Some have come quite close, namely Shadowrun, but restrictions imposed by the rules have outweighed the accuracy

In games, the astral plane and others are seen as wholly separate and distinct from the physical plane. Changes made in these planes do not affect the physical. In reality, this is not seen as the case at all.

The actual astral plane is one of several planes that overlap. Each plane is a step in materialization. From the highest spiritual planes, to the mental plane to the astral, to the etheric, to at last the physical plane, each brings us to physical manifestation. The astral and etheric planes in particular are blueprints of the physical world. All things in the physical world first start in the higher planes. To make changes in these higher planes would make definite changes in the physical. This is what practical magic is all about. By creating what you want in the astral plane, you will eventually get it in the physical. Of course there has to be enough energy for it to manifest, but generally, if it is in the astral it will eventually be in the physical. This principle can also be seen in Creative Visualization, and in such popular books as "Think and grow rich."

Thus for actual magic to work you cannot separate the other planes of existence from the subject of magic. They are too interrelated. Perhaps the astral plane is too big for most game systems. One has almost no limits there. It is a very subjective place as well. If it were to be accurately played, it would be too much for the game systems out there, except the Amber system. But then, the Amber system uses no dice and is as open ended as you can get.

It is impossible to take an in-depth look at magic and magic systems without considereing psionics. Psychic ability while having connections to magic, needs to be dealt with separately. Taken from one view-point, psionics is the expansion of the physical senses. On the other hand it is also magic without ritual. One could do a spell, or ritual to grant clairvoyance, or one can just use one's natural abilities. It would depend on the talent of the individual. Unlike magic, which is a deliberate, and conscious attempt to accomplish a goal, psionics often comes as unconscious flashes of insight.

As you can see from my poor attempt to define psionics in relationship to magic, it is no wonder that the two have been kept separate in all gaming systems. That is, in gaming systems that have bothered to have psionics at all. In the real world, I would have to conclude that a talented psychic would also make a talented magician. The reverse is also true. A powerful mage would make for a great psychic. A psychic doesn't have to go through elaborate rituals, but it seems that with magic you can work on a larger scale

Magic in the everyday world shows up as natural coincidence. You are working with natural principles, so things would come about naturally. No fireballs, no flying, no raising armies of skeleton warriors. If you did a ritual or spell to get a job, you might find all these great jobs listed in the paper and get called in for interviews that would go great, etc., not flash! you find yourself in an office building working. Psionics are a bit more responsive. For example, if see someone about to step into the street and get hit by a car and attempt to mentally tell him/her to stop. they suddenly stop and only notice the car after it goes by. They think, boy am I lucky. As you can see by these examples, psionics are better for immediate results and circumstances, while magic is more useful for long term or wider area effects. Both needs to be addressed in game systems if they are to accurately mirror the real world.

If I were to design a game that used actual magical principles, it would need to be an open-ended system. I would use the mana system where each character would have two power levels to use. The first would be mana or ki and the other would be magical potential. The ki stat would be used for purely psychic phenomena the character was attempting. It would be depleted or spent with each attempt. Harder effects would cost more ki than others. Magical potential would decide the size and effectiveness of magical workings. This stat would not be used up. It would be the base of determining how effective both the psionic and magical work would be. Magical work would involve rituals or spells the characters would perform. Since this would be based on the real world, things would not happen instantaneous, or at least not so flashy. If a character did a spell to get money for cab fare, it would not suddenly materialize out of thin air, but around the next corner there would be twenty dollars lying on the ground for them to find. Also if you spend ki during the working of the spell, you would get bonuses for it to work.

A variety of different skills would diversify how magical potential and ki stats were used. What skills the character chose would depend on what kind of character the player chose. There is a great deal of difference in the magical styles between a Wiccan, a Hermetic mage, a Santeria priest, a Shaman and an esoteric martial artist. Each can do some very interesting things, but each would go about it differently. This difference in style would have to be allowed for in the game. Of course each person would have overlapping skills eventually. The Shaman taking up martial arts and ki development and learning herb lore from a Wiccan, etc., would be an example.

The astral plane would be handled differently, as well. Getting to the astral plane, i.e., astral projection, would be a special skill. By using this skill the mage can travel into the astral world in his/her astral body, much like the Shadowrun system, but unlike that system it would not be an automatic success. But in the astral plane, the Game Master (GM) would get a large degree of control, since the astral plane is so subjective and quite changeable. If something is done in the astral, it would impact the physical world. How, exactly, would depend on what the character did and other vagaries the GM throws in to help maintain the flow of the campaign.

Since magic would be more subtle, the focus of the game would need to be shifted. You would not have two rival mages walk into a warehouse and engage in a magical duel, with a big light show. They might use some psionics to detect what the other might do, or make the other more clumsy or less observant, however. Or one might have done a protection ritual beforehand and enjoy several "lucky" coincidences. But if they really meant to hurt each other, they would most likely whip out guns and start shooting at each other.

Scenarios would be more mundane in nature as well, and might be more of a challenge to work out, unless one goes for the more espionage type of game. Magic would sort of accent the campaign rather then be the focus, although it would be a powerful accent in a world where there would be no other supernatural character abilities.

Thus, we have examined the many differences between game magic and real magic. While true magic isn't nearly as dramatic, as its rolegaming counterpart, it can be just as rewarding and life-changing. As a pagan I find working magic to be very fulfilling. This also allows me to appreciate, more deeply, the magic systems in roleplaying games. Both have their respective places, although, personally, I would like to see more realism in the games. The real magic, however, is in the ability of the game to give enjoyment to the players. In the end is this not the most important aspect?






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