Origins of Magic in a Fantasy Roleplaying World

In my recent article about fantasy magic I complained about the lack of any explanation for the phenomenon of magic in D&D. Now to be fair to Wizards of The Coast, the more recent editions of the game have a greater emphasis on the system itself and progressively less on ideas and content if you get my meaning. I personally dislike this approach but that’s for another day. One poster asked about my thoughts on the subject so here they are.

I like the idea of magic being an energy that binds the multiverse together. Everybody harnesses it (subconsiously) to a point in that they exist in the multiverse. Some individuals can attract, harness, manipulate and release it. This approach rationalises divine magic as that associated to any given god (and therefore bestowed to divine casters in a form that is codified to their deity). Wizards are individuals who have a bit more talent than the norm and can also harness it.

I like the idea that wizards harness “raw” magic that is “unrefined” by gods or other manipulators through their spells and rites. Spell preparation, is the process of drawing magic in the appropriate form to the caster to be unleashed later. Components, casting rites and a focus are the tools to shape and release the magic to the task intended (the spell outcome). I like this whole notion because it creates threads to play with. What happens if something (like a demon) interferes with preparation and “changes” the state of the magic? What happens to the magic if a spell is not cast correctly? As you can probably tell, I never understood why magic is safer in D&D than any other aspect of the game. Looks like I’ll be posting my thoughts on spell failure soon so watch this space.

4 comments

  1. This is one area that editions of Rolemaster had it good. They offered a certain view about how magic operates and had Spell failure, which being Rolemaster could be extremely bad. That said, I’m not going to be trying to play Rolemaster again anytime soon.

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  2. My knee-jerk reaction is, “why does magic have to be dangerous?” Everything a potential character does is dangerous. I’m not sure why magic should be any more dangerous than swinging a sword, carefully stepping in the path or your deity, or learning to get around poison needle traps with deft fingers. For those with the correct training (Wizards), magic is simply a tool. A tool just like the sword, the symbol, and the lockpick.

    Since D&D is a fantasy game, I think the whys of magic are far less important than the hows. I think the more recent versions of the game do great with how, and relegate the why to DM’s milieu — where it should be. Hows are for game mechanics and Whys are for role-playing. That way, you can tailor the physics of the magic in your own campaign to fit the end result you see played out on the game table.

    Dead Orcs´s last blog post..What the Hell We Supposed ta Do, Ya’ Mo-dron!?

  3. I cannot argue with you on the point made although I do think the 3.5 rules about the “hows” lost shape over time. This however is true of many aspects of 3.5 and the additional material provided in the supplements. Also, I agree that everybody should consider the mechanics of magic in the context of their own campaigns but I rather suspect many do not. I do not like the Rolemaster lethality of magic failure and could not get on with the hoops you had to leap through in C & S. However, I like magic to be a bit well “magical”. The mechanics of 3.5 magic are a bit soulless but then again, a lot of the system comes over that way because of the balance. What kind of magic physics do you favour in your campaigns?

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  4. Magic in my campaign is powered by planar energy. That energy is funneled directly from the outer planes through a deity (for divine power); or siphoned directly from the astral plane (for arcane power).

    For my 4E campaign, powers utilize a very “brute force” way of using this energy. Thus the effects are typically short lived (attacks, movement, etc.). The ability to use such powers is all involved in the training. Everyone has a certain level of sensitivity to it, but you have to be trained how to use it. However, for more subtle uses of this energy, one still has to resort to rituals.

    Magic doesn’t “blow up” in my campaign very often because it’s more like a physics reaction than a chemical reaction. Rarely is there a “run away” effect. If all the components do not come together correctly, the effect simply fizzles (you miss the attack, your effect is diminished, etc.). It’s the same reason I don’t have critical fumbles in my campaign. You’re trained to avoid the most noobish of mistakes. If you slip, you might miss, but you’re not going to stab yourself in the eye. In my campaign, magic works the same way.

    And I could go on, but I think I’m gonna make this into a blog post of my own, lol. Thank you for the very engaging discussion!

    Dead Orcs´s last blog post..What the Hell We Supposed ta Do, Ya’ Mo-dron!?

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