Gamers, such as I, who are devoted to Dungeons and Dragons and similar tabletop experiences, are all about big, showy magic.
It’s all about fireballs and magical webs and dazzling color sprays.
And if the spells in the main player’s handbooks aren’t enough, there are usually equally thick supplements replete with even louder, more demonstrative magic.
But what about games where there is magic, but it’s rarely in the players’ control? What about magic that intrudes only occasionally, but with significant purpose?
I think if you game in that sphere, then I would look to the 14th century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for inspiration as to how magic could be incorporated in an otherwise mundane world.
A magical moment
The Green Knight’s first appearance and the challenge of the beheading game takes place at the dawn of the New Year — the solstice — as part of a Christmas celebration.
A holiday, a festival, a celestial convergence, the annual ritual rites at solstice and equinox are all great occasions to have magic pierce the veil, so to speak.
Magic won’t work on just any old Tuesday. But Friday the 13th? The start of a new moon? A planetary alignment?
Magic becomes plausible, then. Not just for the adversary, but if they are prepared, for the PCs as well. Will it break the otherwise continuity of your non-magical world if it seems to intrude on just this one, particular time?
A magical mixture
In the poem, Lady Bertilak’s kissing game and the reward of the impervious girdle highlights how to infuse competing paragon virtues with the attainment of a magical item.
The knight must live up to a vow of fidelity but also their reputation as a great lover so as to obtain the one thing that can protect them from sure death in the coming confrontation with the Green Knight.
The formula to follow for your game, then, is to have a PC weave a path through two competing virtues particular to them so as to obtain a magical item deemed essential to the final event. If you are able to throw in any social or cultural demands to confound or challenge them, so much the better.
A magical place
Magic is tied to a location. There is some of this in the first meeting between Gawain and the Green Knight, for Camelot is certainly a mystical location in its own right. But Camelot represents the new. Let the final confrontation occur elsewhere, somewhere unfamiliar. The Green Chapel represents something else — a connection to something old, mysterious and not entirely understood. Camelot is a place of vibrant occupation, a hub of activity. The chapel is a forgotten location, a ruin.
New and old magical locations are easily manufactured in the real world. The quest may begin at SoFi stadium, still under construction in Los Angeles, and end up at the temple of Zeus in Olympia.
As you contemplate magic in your nonmagical world, look for the extremes and things of a contrasting nature around you. That’s where magic — if it exists at all — lives and works.
Whether its effects are lasting are up to you.