This guest post by tsuyoshikentsu is the first in our new Genre Advice for GMs series. In this post, tsuyoshikentsu tackles an important (and sometimes controversial) topic for fantasy GMs: magic.
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Magic is the essential component of fantasy. Even if it doesn’t go by that name, no true fantasy setting is completely without it. It follows, then, that magic is the essential component of the fantasy genre — but how to deal with it?

Magic in a game world is a tricky beast, mostly because without restrictions, magic can do anything; that is magic at its essence. Fortunately, a little of the work has been done for you; the system you’re playing with most likely has some kind of definition of magic. (If you’re free-forming, or homebrewing a system, good luck. That’s all I can say.) But now you have to define it even more.

The first thing to look at: What is magic in your game world? Is it the power of the mind, the power of the land, the power of the gods, the power of the soul, something else, or all of them put together? Once you’ve established this, you’re on your way to defining magic in a general sense. For instance, let’s say that magic is divided into mystical energy and divine power. Well, now you know something about whom and what can be magical in your campaign setting, which is the next step.

Probably the third most debated topic (after powergaming and realism) on a forum I frequent is the “level” of magic in a campaign world. Should it be high, low, or somewhere in between? Fortunately, magical sources affect this greatly: If Fate chooses only one mortal every ten thousand years able to unlock the power of his soul, you’re not going to see Bob’s Magical Item Emporium™ on the corner in every city you visit.

If magic is tightly controlled by an organization, commoners won’t be lighting their streets with everburning torches (or your local setting equivalent). Conversely, in a world where magic is a matter of study and considered a noble art, a magic detection spell in the Aristocrat Quarter may cause a mage’s head to explode with overload.

A helpful side effect of magic availability is that in order to determine it, you must determine how the populace feels about magic — which can lead you to think about facets of your setting that you never would otherwise. Let’s say magic is distrusted by the common folk. Well…why? Perhaps a powerful mage tried to enslave the world but a few years ago, and the resentment hasn’t worn off.

Conversely, maybe no one thinks twice when a mage passes by, simply because everyone’s literate and informational pamphlets on magic are easy to be had. Obviously, certain magic levels relate better to certain society types — try to imagine a society where magic is practically unheard of but no one pays a caster any mind.

(A note: I am of the opinion that a low-magic setting should not limit a player’s character choices. In most of the systems out there, the characters are meant to be special; if only seven people in a thousand years can use magic, let a few of them be the PCs! In fact, it might be interesting to see what happens if instead of a seven this time around, there were eight…)

Another thing to consider is how multiple magic systems interact. One of the biggest decisions to me is regarding (to borrow a D&D term) transparency: Can the systems of magic affect each other, and if so, how? Maybe magic works in a rock paper scissors manner: soul trumps divine trumps land trumps soul. Maybe everything is affected exactly the same: a caster casting a dispel takes out everything in the area, be it personal energy or the land’s. Perhaps even certain types of magic can only affect certain other types — or maybe there’s one dominant school.

This decision is one of the most important in the game, because it affects the mechanics as well as the setting. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make clear to your players which systems are transparent with which and how. Nothing is less fun for a player than discovering his abilities don’t work like he thought they did — especially if they’ve been working fine up until that point!

Finally, one has to consider the power level of magic. Again, this is an important concern, and also a mechanical one. Maybe magic in your world never goes beyond the power to zap someone with lightning once in a while. (As opposed to, say, teleportation.) That’s fine, but make sure your players know ahead of time. It upsets players just as much when you tell them that they can’t have something they had assumed they could.

Also, in a ruleset where your magical power level is far from the norm, some mechanics may need tweaking or rebalancing. If 9th-level spells were allowed in d20 Modern, as opposed to only 6th, you might have to up the magical defenses of some of your NPCs — or even create new ones.

Figuring out how magic works in your game world isn’t an easy job, but you’re the only one who can do it. Just remember to make sure all of the essential considerations are there. When you’re done, tell your players what you’ve decided — don’t be afraid to talk with them about it. Everyone will be happier with the game’s magic system that way…and hopefully, they’ll appreciate all the long, hard work you put into making it.

Good gaming!
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Thanks, tsuyoshikentsu! When it comes to a topic like this — especially the low magic vs. high magic aspect — I couldn’t agree more with the idea of making magic a social contract issue.

Was this post useful to you? How do you handle magic in your fantasy game — by the book, or with help from your players?