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.
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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?
“Rare and feared” is more a part of the setting than it is a part of the system, in my opinion. You can build a low-magic world out of any game.
Rarity doesn’t necessarily preclude a PC from using magic — as mentioned in the article, PCs are /supposed/ to be special — it just means they’re going to have to be subtle about it and avoid frightening commoners. (This opens up the potential for some interesting interactions that one would not normally see.) It might also require some work on the front end during party generation. Who are these people travelling with the spellcaster that they aren’t afraid of him?
It also raises other setting questions. Why is magic feared? Is it just because of its rarity and power, or does it have an inherent corrupting effect? If the latter, then there will be implications for a PC using magic. Look at Call of Cthulhu…if a PC learns and uses magic, he goes further and further insane. If, on the other hand, magic is just uncommon and known to commoners mostly in legends, then awe and fear are a natural human reaction to any sort of display of arcane prowess, even if the magical power itself is not evil.
Other social contract things to work out…some games, like D&D, assume a certain power level of gear in determining the appropriate difficulty-level of monsters. In a rare-magic setting, magical gear will likely be rare as well…which means you’ll have to adjust the encounters appropriately. Magical healing will likewise be rarer, requiring more downtime. Just make sure they know what to expect from the outset.
While I agree that fantasy is dominated by the sword and sorcery archetype, I’ve seen some rather good zero magic fantasy. It’s difficult to do well, and it’s rare, but there is some out there. Thus, I can’t say I agree with the idea that fantasy = magic.
However, the rest of the article is pretty good.
I liked that tsuyo took a stance on magic in fantasy, and asserted that magic is fantasy.
I know there’s good zero-magic fantasy out there, but offhand I don’t think I’ve read any of it. Kestral, do you have any recommendations?
I can’t think of much offhand myself. I haven’t been reading much fantasy as of late, though what I’ve read of Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor series are very close to no-magic/no-tech in some cases, and yet make very good fantasy. (His landscape elements in his fantasy are absolutely excellent, and certainly make you feel that you are in a believable other world.)
I believe the biggest difference between magical fantasy and non-magical fantasy is the world orientation. To do non-magical well, you have to focus very heavily on character interaction and world-feel; good things to describe such works are ‘planetary romance’ or ‘urban fantasy’ as urban stories are usually a lot easier to do non-magically, due to their character focus.
Alternate history is also a good category; a story based in a world where the Allies didn’t win WWII certainly qualifies for the non-real element that fantasy has. It may not seem to be fantasy, but the overall genre in which alternate history stories are called ‘realistic fantasy’ for a very good reason.
The thing is, what most bookstores call ‘fantasy’ is simply the less realistic side of the overall genre, as the more realistic ones are often called ‘hard sci-fi’ or ‘alternate histories’ or other terms that obscure the fact that they are STILL fantasy stories. SF and Fantasy are heavily tied together as story genres for a reason. Good SF is about interactions with technology, and good fantasy stories are about interactions with worlds. They are not mutually exclusive.
I don’t know, I think for the vast majority of people, “fantasy” = medieval in some way — even though the actual definition is much broader.
In terms of non-magical fantasy, the closest thing I can think of that I’ve read are George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books. They’re not zero-magic, but what magic there is is tricky, rare and less important (so far) than the dirty politics, backstabbing and character drama that’s at the heart of the series.
I understand that most people assume fantasy requires a medieval world, but that’s due to the prevalence of the sword and sorcery genre.
D&D’s default world is a sword-and-sorcery one, with powerful monsters, mages, heroes that can shrug off things that would kill ordinary humans…
But the problem is that fantasy is suitable for any era or age, and any level of realism or magical/technical presence. D20 Modern’s Urban Arcana ‘setting’ is Modern Urban Fantasy, with a heavy reliance on cinematic action and nods to D&D. Likewise, a lot of stories sword-and-sorcery genre into new areas, and create new genres like ‘sword-and-planet’ (sci-fi sword-and-sorcery-like tales) or sword-and-sandal (sword-and-sorcery in Roman-like settings) which, stripped away from their setting, are exactly like the ordinary sword-and-sorcery tales with which most bookstores stock their fantasy shelves, and which D&D riffs off of. That is one reason settings like DragonStar (D&D in a far future setting) and systems like d20 Modern do well; they are suitable for the exact same sorts of things D&D is, but allow a new setting in terms of era and location.
That’s why fantasy is so hard to not associate with magic or high technology (after all, Clarke’s maxim does seem to hold) when we see it so commonly in the form of rubber science or wizardry in our tales. We LIKE imagining the fantastic; it’s hard to not give in to the appeal when writing. That’s why I say urban no-magic is usually easier to see, or specialized genres that take an element that didn’t happen and extrapolate; we can more fully imagine the world, as most of us live in cities that would astound most who lived in medieval eras.
I live in a reasonably large city of one million inhabitants, yet the city’s entire area could have been a small kingdom in the early portion of the 2nd millenium AD. (we’re in the 3rd) If I told the story of my life to an average medieval era person, they probably wouldn’t believe me; it would be entirely out of their capacity to imagine. Likewise, I would have a difficulty imagining their life. Thus, we use magic or technology to bridge the gap and make stories doable in eras which would be difficult for us otherwise.