"Organic Magic" - brainstorming toward a system

Tod's picture

I'm working on a magic system, and I'm focusing on concept rather than mechanics right now, so it leaves me free to look in various directions for mechanics. I want to do something with a lot of narrative/descriptive play in it, where the effects of spells aren't prescribed but rather "interpreted" or quasi-improvised within the context of the fiction.

What are some of your favorite approaches to magic in games? Why?

ETA: This thread was previously called "Let's talk about magic."

Tod's picture

The current title of my work in progress is "Organic Magic." Here are my reasons for taking on this project, the things I wish this system to address, things that I don't really see in other magic systems...

- The Study of Magic is Transformative
Magic is a practice that changes the practitioner from the inside out. This can be seen in the youthful ignorance and graduated enlightenment of Ged in "A Wizard of EarthSea," in the rigorous psychological trials and transformation of Carlos Casteneda over the course of his training by Don Juan, even in the names used by Aleister Crowley throughout his career - each representing a new level of understanding and a new magical goal. The path to attainment, the struggle to master both inner and outer worlds, is a deep and dangerous journey in and of itself. This aspect of the Mage's story is rarely if ever touched on in roleplaying games. But in the real world and throughout history, the training and development of the Mage comprises a "narrative of the soul" that deserves to be treated with emotional richness and depth.

- Spellcrafting is Creative
Spells aren't simply portable Effects. That's what Talismans and Enchanted Objects are for. Spells are like *Recipes*, and they need to be used properly or they can lead to disastrous results. But only hedge mages use the recipes as written. Professionals take those recipes, break them down, learn to understand their constituent Components - their "active ingredients" as it were - and craft new Spells to suit their own needs and purposes. In real life and in historical fiction, crafting a Spell takes a considerable amount of time, intelligence, care and imagination. It is a fully-integrational creative human activity, just as complex and meaningful as creating an RPG character or writing a poem.

- Magic Effects are Contextual
Unlike software programs, tools or machines, Spells don't create the exact same effect every time you cast them. That's because they're complex, contextual, and psychologically aware. No matter how similar two rituals may be, every magical act is different, as its effects depend not only on the actions, state and character of the caster and the quality of the Components used, but also on the nature of the target, their defenses both conscious and unconscious, mental and material, their actions, accoutrements, locations and company, the nature and strength of the magical links between all these parties, and additional influences including celestial bodies, ancillary magic, karma, emotion, and spiritual entities with an interest in the outcome.

- Magic Differs from Culture to Culture
The treatment of magic in most roleplaying games - as a unified set of rules applying equally to all cultures and gameworld races - is based on the understandable need to simplify a vast amount of information, streamlining it into a single system that GMs and Players can easily learn. This is of course, an important goal. But even a small amount of research into the history of magic yields such tremendous variety of experience from culture to culture and throughout history, it seems like a tremendous waste of beautiful imagery - not to mention a postmodern faux pax - not to pay attention to such details. Every Magical School is tied to a worldview, and makes absolute sense only when understood within the context of that worldview. Which is as it should be. A magic system should have universal applicability and flexibility, sure, but it should also support the GM's need to validate and individuate cultures within the gameworld - in more ways than merely renaming things.

DiceQueenDi's picture

This is what I want. Magic is not given its due in any role-playing games. To live the life of dedication is to change as you grow and you gain understanding. This is a serios topic and can make a very interesting game! "Magic is not a practice. It is a living, breathing web of energy that, with our permission, can encase our every action." - Dorothy Morrison

Tod's picture

My research has led me to divide magic into five "classes," and orthogonal to those classes are twelve "types." By choosing a Class and a Type you effectively create a "School" (a term I use loosely; ie, whether or not there is a physical location in which these things are taught is another question).

The five Classes correspond to the classical elements (including the fifth element of "Spirit"), as shown in the diagram below.

The twelve Types refer to general categories of magical force. The types also correspond to the earthly zodiacal signs, but it's not mechanically necessary to call attention to this; it's more of a mnemonic device for those familiar with earthly astrology. The twelve types are:

ALTERATION - mutable earth (virgo)
The magic of changing things

ANIMATION - fixed earth (taurus)
The magic of making things move

CHANNELING - mutable air (gemini)
The magic of directing or molding magical energy

CONJURATION - cardinal earth (capricorn)
The magic of creating/destroying matter

DIVINATION - cardinal air (libra)
The magic of knowing the unknown

EVOCATION - cardinal fire (aries)
The magic of calling forth creatures and entities

FASCINATION - cardinal water (cancer)
The magic of attention and affect

ILLUSION - mutable water (pisces)
The magic of deceiving the senses

INVOCATION - mutable fire (sagittarius)
The magic of acting as a conduit for a force or entity

MEDICINA - fixed water (scorpio)
The magic of life and death

MENTATION - fixed air (aquarius)
The magic of communing with other minds

PROJECTION - fixed fire (leo)
The magic of leaving the body

Nathan H.'s picture

I'd like magic to be more like sausage-making and politics.
I could care less about pseudoscientific schools, unless that's important to the story? If it's something that you couldn't follow or explain while in a dream, maybe it shouldn't be a part of a shared kind of story thing?
I like magic to be scary, regrettable, and have repercussions(either as a setup or a callback).

Tod's picture

In general (ie, when it comes to most RPG contexts in which magic spells are cast), I totally agree with you, Nathan.
But see my comment above entitled "Why does the world need another magic system?" You say "unless that's important to the story" - and YES! That's precisely the type of story I'm writing this system to support. Stories like "A Wizard of Earthsea" or "The Teachings of Don Juan," in which the lifepath of the magician from aspirant to master is not only important to the story, but forms the very core of character development as the story progresses.

Nathan H.'s picture

Tod, can I quote on this site? <- Oh, now I see. Hmm.

I think if it's a part of the story, it should be created by the players. Like, how new dictionary entries are created in Dictionary of Mu. I think too much detail, from one source... it can be... halting. Also, if it's just detail without a connection to what happened before it... I just don't see the point. I mean, I guess if that helps you imagine things? It's a bit like coming to a role-playing game with a complete backstory. Or role-playing in an already established fictional world.

webtech's picture

Oh, you mean like the automatic quote pull on S-G, right?
No, at least not for now. Right now I just copy and paste, then surround it with the quote tag like this...

Tod, can I quote on this site?

Nathan H.'s picture

I would just make the game about how magic, became structured. It'd be like founding a society or building a language.
Don't you want investment?
I guess it's always a balance of needing a bit of investment, but it not feeling like work.
I like to think of this kind of thing as "plork", playful work. Like building a sofa or snow fort, when you were a kid. Breezy, fun work.

There's a desire for lonely fun(system-making), but I'm not sure it's that great in play. I mean, sure sometimes it is, and if you're into the whole Moses type of role-playing. One guy, passing down the rule of law. It can work. But like all situations that grant, gift of authority to another, comes with inevitable friction.

Nathan H.'s picture

To get back to your question, I'm not sure magic has felt magical in any role-playing game that I've played. I haven't played them all, so maybe someone's done it better?

I mean, how do you systematize wonder, surprise? How do you create a mood, that opens up your perspective?
I would first create something to narrow it. Limit it. Show by contrast.
Tighten everything, somehow. It's that release of tension, that feels magical.

Nathan H.'s picture

Magic is the breaking of boundaries, it seems weird to create systems for it. Systems are boundaries.
I would create boundaries, contraints, rewards, then remove them.
Voila - magic.

Tod's picture

What I'm building here may cleave closer to "trad" sensibilities than what you're picturing - you know, the other side of the toolbox, commonly favored by people who want more structure beneath their inspiration. But you do raise some points I'm itching to address, and I think it's possible to produce a system in such a way as to support playstyle from both sides of the toolbox. That's what I'm doing with the "UbiquiCity" sourcebook, for instance, and the biggest reason why it's taking so long :-) So let me see where I can break apart my structuralism in order to support that. First thought:

By choosing a Class and a Type you effectively create a "School"

The creation of a "School" - which I was thinking would be created by the GM in a trad game - could totally be a collaborative thing in a more freeform game. One of my guidelines is "Magic Differs from Culture to Culture." Well, if we're playing a game in which I'm the GM and you are a Player - or even if there's no GM - the creation of your "School" could be handled in chargen, while we make up your culture, even if no prior blorby world existed. You pick a Class and one or more Types that the School specializes in, and alone or together we work out what that looks like, what their rituals are, what kinds of components they use, etc, effectively creating a whole magical system on the spot. BUT: Our creativity is guided by the general logic of real-world magical schools (the backbone of my research), and this gives us a general skeleton to work from.

Tod's picture

I've changed the title of the thread to pull the focus in. This thread went from discursive to practical really quick. :-)

Nathan H.'s picture

Have ya thought about number of schools = number of players? Maybe create a history of schools and why other schools exist? What brought these other schools of thought into being. That sort of thing.
I'd position the schools in relation to one another, like some rock-paper-scissors shit.
I mean, what good are different schools of magic, if there's no representation?
Maybe do the old Dread thing, creating magic schools as leading questions?
What kind of not-quite-stories do you want to make?

Nathan H.'s picture

Oh, and collaborative need not feel freeform. To me, it often feels just the opposite. Like more traditional games/play, often feels more freeing than collaborative play. Like the whole "yes, and" thing requires you to be fairly obedient to what happened before.
Improvisation doesn't often feel freeing. Maybe breezy? I just wouldn't use the word freeform. But, that's just me.
You have a responsibility to find something honest, in that moment.

Maybe, with this magic school game, everyone creates the Latin School of Magic, the dead language of magic schools, the oldest school, then players create their own offshoots of that school? Stories start by asking questions.

Nathan H.'s picture

I was thinking about this first school of magic last night, and it'd be cool if you asked the players "what did this school do that we no longer do, or that we won't talk about?" I like the idea of tying all magic back to this more brutal methodology.

I guess, I like schools of magic to be a bit Lifepaths in BW? Instead of just different aisles in a grocery store. I'm more into answering "how did this thing evolve" and "what did it evolve from"?

Paul T.'s picture

What if creating any magical effect demanded that you change who you are, at a fundamental level?

That’s an appealing concept, to me.

And, perhaps, the magic changes you, too, in return.

Alternately (or in addition), working magic changes magic itself, each time. (And so, one of the risks of working magic is that you no longer understand what you thought you did.)

A magician too power hungry is likely to lose his or her self in the process, becoming a person with no identity at all, and risks his or her own understanding and control of magic at the same time.

Paul T.'s picture

For some reason, your use of the word “professional” caught my eye. Did you mean it loosely (“skilled, experienced, serious”), or do you see magicians who make their living by working magic as a part of this concept, setting, or premise?

Neurotrash's picture

I really like the classes/types thing you've got going in post #4. That's a cool basis for a system, but I'm not seeing exactly how it conforms to the goals set down in post #2. I'm gonna explore an idea that I think might be able to accomplish those...

So something I've always wanted to do is create a system based on language. Spells would literally be sentences...or poems. In the fiction, perhaps there is some kind of "Enochian" type language that actually has magic to it, or maybe there are multiple languages. Or maybe magic is cast in the common tongue, but it takes special training/inspiration to know how to make those words "sing".

So just being able to perform magic in the first place would require an understanding of the basic "grammar" of magic. Everybody (players, not the general fictional population) would have access to definite and indefinite articles, conjunctions...maybe all the prepositions...maybe all the pronouns. Maybe the verbs "Is" and "Has" and their conjugations.

All the other nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs...these must be learned. Learning them changes you. Learning the word for "Dark" makes you darker. Learning the word "Animal" makes you animalistic. Learning the word "Door" has an effect having to do with transitions or something. These effects are different for different people, but they all "make sense". (This would be determined by some system - maybe player/GM negotiation, maybe rolling on charts - when a character learns a word.)

When one performs magic, one uses the words they know to make a sentence - "The goblin is a mouse." The GM interprets that with the exact same attitude 1980's DMs interpret Wish spells and evil movie genies grant wishes. Or maybe there's a systematic way that determines whether it's interpreted in the most friendly manner possible versus the most adversarial manner possible...I dunno.

Maybe when using pronouns, you have to point at what you're talking about with a wand. Or use a part of their body. Or draw a picture. Or whatever. Maybe using the proper noun gets you a better affect than pointing to them and saying "him". Maybe this is why True Names are so powerful?

How does this accomplish the goals set forth in #2?

- The Study of Magic is Transformative
Learning a new word changes you (as described above). Maybe knowing only a few words makes you very much those things and having a more wide-spread vocabulary means you seem more "normal"...or maybe it doesn't? Maybe you're just a mess if you know the words for "wind" and "mind" and "leopard" and "river" and "purple".

- Spellcrafting is Creative
I don't think I need to explain this? It would require a lot of creative thinking from the caster and the adjudicator...

- Magic Effects are Contextual
Yup. You never know exactly what you're gonna get, but the more words you know (the more experienced you are) you can at least be more specific.

- Magic Differs from Culture to Culture
I mean, in the real world, a group playing this game in Finnish are going to get different results than a group playing in English. In the fiction, perhaps different cultures look at different things in different ways, and that affects what words mean. A person who comes from a culture where goblins are considered people can petrify them with "THE PERSON IS STONE" whereas a person from a culture who considers goblins animals would have to cast "THE BEAST IS STONE". Also, one culture might use wands to point at things, others draw pictures, others act out the behavior of their targets. Hell, maybe the somatic components are a type of sign language?

A mage from one culture/tradition might be unable to affect things they don't have words for without their wand. Another is fine as long as they can act it out. Still another need not even be able to speak, just use their hands.

This doesn't even get into HOW one learns these words. It could just be part of the rules system, but hell, maybe every word (or group of words) is a quest. Maybe in the fiction so many words have been lost, and you're trying to find them.

This could even feed into the "creating different traditions" thing that Nathan H. was talking about. Different players are hoarding different words.

I feel like if we explored this, we could end up using Scrabble tiles as part of the system...

Anyway...a bunch of ideas there. (I've been banging this around in my head for a while).

Tod's picture

"All of the tricks of the magician can be reduced to seven basic effects. These include a disappearance, an appearance, a transposition of objects, a physical change in an object, an apparent defiance of natural law, an invisible source of motion, and mental phenomena."
- Anonymous

Tod's picture

Paul -- I guess I mean both. I'd define my usage of the word as "those who profess to the serious study and practice of a magical art, whether for pay, barter, community, affinity, duty, or personal inclination."

In trad terms, this might be equated with what we usually call a "character class." In skill-based games it would simply represent a person who possesses and engages in the ongoing study/practice of one or more magical skills.

Two orcs's picture

If you want the player rather than the character to be creative and to make magic poetic I'd write spell effects as normal sentences and have any skill checks determine whether the spell could be applied to an ambigious (not any) situation.
"Make a sword return to its scabbard" could be a mind afflicting spell making someone stay their hand in a violent situation, or a telekinetic effect making the sword literally return or have a man rush to his lover. This effect could be used to find a path by purposefully separating a sword and it's scabbard and later casting a spell on the sword. Axe wielding warriors and eunuchs would be immune to this spell. The reverse of this spell would be powerful too.

Tod's picture

I'm liking a lot of what you guys are putting out here.
@Neurotrash - those are some great ideas. I'm definitely down with "You never know exactly what you're gonna get."
@Two orcs - Yeah that's the sort of flexibility I'm thinking of. If it wasn't so damn crunchy I'd resolve an equation using the "laws of metaphysics" for whatever spell/effect type. Given a set of equations you could run spells in either direction: (a) Tell me the effect you want and I tell you what it requires of you, or (b) tell me what you're putting into it and I'll tell you how strong the effect is.

I actually started writing those laws a long long time ago, but those were the days of high-crunch, one-minute-of-gametime-per-hour-of-realtime play. I'm too old for that shit now. :-)

Emmett's picture

I'm not really the person to talk about magic systems but I do have this idea for one that isn't based on effect but rather on restrictions. You can do anything you want because magic is less of a system and more of a bending or breaking of the rules. You just know how to do it. That said, I have some ideas that would make a magic user more like the traditional Gandalf type wizard.

Each of the senses that your magic engages makes casting harder. Unless you use a physical object to mask it's effect like using a firecracker for a fireball like effect. Thus spell components aren't required but make casting easier.
The more people that observe you casting, the harder it is to cast. This is why wizards have towers, to keep their efforts hidden.
The longer you take casting the easier it is. This is why it takes the evil wizard a month to cast the spell that summons a monster. The monster will eventually effect four senses (maybe not taste?) and so is hard to create.
The presence of magnets (magnetic fields) makes magic easier but cold iron makes it harder. A wizard can't wear iron (or steel) armor or use an iron sword.

Going through this list, subtle utility and knowledge spells become the caster's most useful abilities and they're less artillery. They're more of a swiss army knife. Going through this list on the fly is hard and would take too long in a game. I think that's why a "prepared spell" is one that the caster has tested that they can sometimes get to work. These would be shared bought or stolen. Scrolls might be written instructions on how to fool people around you into looking away at the moment of casting or proper components that fool their senses.

Then the players could go off the grid so to speak if they needed an effect they don't know. That's when the bad stuff can happen. If it isn't tested, a failed casting can be nasty.

I don't have much past that but if that's appealing to anyone that's cool.

DeReel's picture

I feel the question comes with too much assumptions. i think you don't need to constrain or categorize (there's a Fate chapter about magic systems). Magic(s) are any systematic enough symbolic system. Correspondance with reality (provability) is somehow removed. So to make a magic system in a RPG you really need to look at achievement. If two adversary wizards can wield thunder and lightning, or create monsters, you only need to know how one is defeated, maybe by mere logical impossibility (Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad is funny that way) or another sort of smarts (transformation contest in Disney's Sword in the stone) If you want traditional material constraints, like in Mage the Ascension, you're down a resources minigame (with a load of inherent problems). If you want character change, grab tools for just that. If you want tactics around character change : Svart av Kval, Vit av Lust shows the way. Only then, make a synthesis to speed and improve fluidity. Then you can use the lexical repertoire of existing traditions to "dress" your mechanics. Of course, the taskk remains.

Gorinich's picture

Specifically I have been musing on a magic system that's similar to what Neurotrash has described with some different specifics. First and formost, is that rather than sentences being said in a normal language, they have to be said in Toki Pona. Which is a constructed language that was created sometime in 2006. While it may be a bit much in most cases to learn a entirely new language just for the sake of a roleplaying game, Toki Pona is designed to be so minimilist that it can be learned in 2 days if you really try, but can generally be grasped in a a few weeks. There are only 120 words, and each of them have fairly broad meanings to them, for example "moku" is the word for food, eating, drinking and otherwise consuming. Saying "mi moku" literally translates to "I eat", and "I'm food" equally as much. Your supposed to use context to tell what is actually meant, in most cases "mi moku" means I'm eating because it's not often that people describe themselves as edible. If context alone isn't enought in a situation than you add adjectives/adverbs to modify existing words in a sentence. For example "tomo" which means house/structure/room/building can be combined with "tawa" which means movement/towards to get "tomo tawa" which means vehicle. There are few standardized compound words because that would defeat the purpose of having such a limited vocabulary. This is helpful for a magic system because the ambiguity allows the GM to interpret a cast spell in a variety of interesting ways, and the fact that words have multiple means gives them the kind of depth the meaning of a tarot card can have.
Differences in culture and magic schools come about from most magic users not knowing the entire language. Different traditions know different words, some know of some grammatical structures while others don't, some don't know anything about how the language words at all and just memorize spells by rote from dusty tomes. All knowledge of the language is kept a guarded secret, and because saying the wrong words can have dire consequences experimentation is discouraged in the established schools (at least for initiates). So different wizards, sorcerers, shamans and so forth can have their own unique cultural magics that are distinct despite falling into the same system. A neat thing about this is that since words here have broad meanings, you have a neat way to contrast them by how they interpret each word. For example, the Wind-Riders of the Southern Isles know "kon" to mean wind, while the necromancers of the north "kon" to mean spirit, they are both right but in different ways.
The magic system I'm written has a law where all spells have a way to undo them but I'm not going get into that unless other people deem it's relevant. The rules that I've written for it are here if your interested. It's a subsystem that's intended for OSR play and specifically Into The Odd, also sorry that it's very messy. I also don't think everyone will latch onto the idea of learning a language for the sake of some elf games. I think my system would work better if players are given premade spells and the information that there is an underlying system that they can figure out if they are so inclined. Which is a bit different than a game where being a magic user is a required.

Tod's picture

@Gorinich, are you acquainted with Ars Magica? In that system, spells are created by combining words in a similar fashion. From the text:

Techniques and Forms have Latin names. A Technique is referred to by a verb conjugated in first person, and a Form by a noun. You combine one Technique and one Form to cast a spell, and together their names indicate the spell’s general function. For example, a “Creo Ignem” spell employs the Technique of “Creo” (“I create”) and the Form of “Ignem” (“fire”) and produces light, heat, or fire. A “Muto Ignem” spell (“Muto”=“I transform”) transforms light, heat, or fire in some way, such as by increasing its intensity, its size, or its shape.

DeReel's picture

Toki is simpler. Some video games have created such a magical language. Assymetric information makes these systems more proto-scientific (there are rules, we just don't know them) than pre-scientific (there are sort-of rules, but we can't know them).
For pre-scientific magic, that is, real magic, you've got to get a system of links and analogies (symbolism, magnetism), fetch a justified / anti-social meter, and distinguish ordinary magic from prodigies.
My hypothesis is that the main problem lies not in creating the system (every one can with a bit of imagination and a concern for coherence), or in the (often lacking) intention meter, but lies in the fact that RPG geeks always want lots of prodigies, killing the hen of golden eggs. That is, the sense of wonder.

Gorinich's picture

@Tod I am aware of it, I don't remember if I've read it, read a review of it or just heard of it in the conversation surrounding magic systems in rpgs. My thing is that I don't want a mechanical layer that describes how many cubic feet of fire your produce for example. If you want specific results, you have to grapple with the grammar and vocabulary of Toki Pona.

@DeReel, I'm getting a vague sense of what your talking about but could you define what you mean by a "fetch a justified / anti-social meter" and ordinary vs prodigy magic? Just so we're on the same page.

On the topic of proto and pre scientific systems, I think that magic and science are basically the same thing but with different cultural contexts. One thing that often gets forgotten is that science doesn't actually describe the rules of the universe, but the closest approximation to the rules of the universe. The more you understand a scientific field, the more holes you can see in them. The way I would structure an arc about scientific/magical discovery is that at first the student is doesn't know anything, than they learn elaborate systems and think that they've know everything, than something happens that contradicts their models and they learn humility at the wonders of the universe.

And as far as magical languages and video games, with a GM instead of a computer the magical language can be a lot more contextual. As I've mentioned earlier, Toki fails to convey meaning at all without context. As long as there isn't any quantitative consistency, such a system can avoid being to scientific.

DeReel's picture

Sorry I was very vague. Justified / antisocial refer to White / Black magic. Ordinary magic is deniable (rain making), prodigies are obvious (stick into snake).
Science is magic, but with much more feedback from reality.

Gorinich's picture

I understand you now.

How different do you want White and Black magic to be? I wouldn't make a meter, because I don't like morals formalized in mechanics. I would have magics where you can do unethical choices to make magic more effective thought, and have the distinction between White and Black mages lie in if they use those options or not. Even if in setting people draw a sharp divide between the two.

I agree with you on what your saying about ordinary vs prodigy magic. There should be a lot more of what's often called "hedge magic" and there shouldn't be a reliable institution that has prodigy level magics. If there is wizard university of some sort, it should something like discworld's Unseen University where the wizards mostly eat dinners and squabble over the theory of magic. Even then, religious groups and mystery cults would fit better.

Finally that's a succinct way of putting of describing magic as science. I would amend that to say that science is the magic where practitioners seek out the feedback of reality. To me science doesn't take away a sense of wonder in the world because the assumption that there is an underlying system that can be understood is not a proven fact, it's aspirational. We believe and hope that we can understand and describe everything, but we can't know for certain. Yes you can cut open the hen, but there's no guarantee that will give you an answer.

Tod's picture

Magic is Science, but performed in the Mythic Playstyle.