Magic in RPG’s can be approached in one of two primary fashions by the game system itself. These two ways are essentially defined as Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic. The latter, Technology as Magic, starts in the known, the audience already has a fair idea of how it works, and works to create mystery by obscuring the knowledge of the audience of said technology with the ignorance of its characters often substituting mystical names for technological terms. Magic as Technology on the other hand, begins with the unknown and has to strain to quantify magic as technology using its own mystical terms. Basically one simply obscures known machinery and the other tries to construct said machinery from a fuzzy set of its own rules. It is from these core ideas that each builds its atmosphere and all other aspects of its magic.

In the context of TRPGs (Tabletop Role-Playing Games) this means that the way the rules that govern the magic system and the flavor of that system will be dependent on which core idea it’s using. Fantasy TRPGs need a rule-system whether this system integrates certain aspects of the game such as magic into the core system or uses a separate more modular approach the system will have to deal with magic using rules. Essentially in fantasy-gaming the ill-logic of magic is logically structured. “Fantasy was accompanied by strict rationality: players followed complex rules laid out in dauntingly thick rulebooks. […] This combination of logic fancy was pursued in the name of modern enchantment, as players imagined themselves as heroic warriors, clever thieves, or subtle mages exploring a mysterious world teeming with adventure and danger.” [Saler, Michael. 2012. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. Oxford University Press.101]

Rules are a necessary logical component, the ‘hard’ bits of a rule system as opposed to the soft, which places RPG fantasies and thus RPG magic into an awkward place where it is required to maintain a careful balancing act between mystery and being ‘workable’ (in game terms). This of course affects play in a fundamental way as well as how the Game-Master (GM) and players may portray magic in character within the confines of the game world. When using magic that works from principles already well-known to the participants out-of-game, or at least has that feeling of mundanity to it, magical abilities and spells are less a subject of wonder and taken more for granted with certain types of players using their meta-knowledge to quantify every bit of magic they come across sometimes to the detriment of the game. These types will attempt to pierce the veil and remove any unknowns they stumble upon especially when confronting opposing magic-users ferreting out potential weaknesses and gaps in their mystical abilities which they or their companions can take unfair advantage of. If done from within the game with characters that are supposed to be knowledgeable in such situations this is in fact a good thing though a clever GM may be able to counter such meta-gaming if they know their players well enough.

I am of the opinion that using the Magic as Technology approach is the better choice regarding TRPG magic systems. Science as magic drains magic of all of its, well, MAGIC. As science provides technological explanations built right in, it does provide a suspension of disbelief but it reduces, greatly, the air of mystery that magic should have hovering all about it. What I mean by that is when working a game from the Technology as Magic angle you start at a well-defined and completely known place with little or no pall of mystery hanging over magic lacking an element of the unknown to it. When you start in the reverse position, Magic as Technology, you start in the void and have to work on ways to quantify it or give it shape allowing for a system designer to leave it ‘workable’ but also allowing them to leave gaps in non-game areas creating sometimes as a side effect (and with little added effort) the ‘fluffy’ bits.

When referring to ‘magic’, I am referring to the supernatural ability to make things happen whether they are seemingly scientifically impossible or not with ‘technology’ being the machinery developed from the practical application of science/knowledge; both in the context of tabletop role-playing games. Both technology and magic seem to want to arrive at the same basic end, make something that would’ve otherwise been without them impossible to happen. However, each starts at a very different place. As I stated before technology starts within the known with results that will be repeatable with little variation and its effects with a definite cause distinguishing it from magic. Magic will have results that will be mostly repeatable (to make it useable within a gaming context) but with unpredictable variation and the cause of its effects might be no more definable than “it’s magic”. Magic as Technology and Technology as Magic are very different in concept and in execution.

Technology as Magic is the mistaking of highly advanced technology as magic basically best described by the famous quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It being the third of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws. Clarke’s Three Laws have everything to do with the ability to have vision beyond the limits of contemporaneous science and not using those current limits as the measure to gauge what is impossible. Proceeding from Clarke’s 3 laws magic, though it may be able to perform the impossible may still only be misunderstood technology. The only thing left to distinguish it from technology, after disengaging it from sci-fi tropes, is the mystery of it, the apprehension of its dangers, and to wrap it in plenty of atmosphere. However, when dealing with technology even misidentified tech it is easy to predict that those studying it using scientific principles will eventually figure it out especially if those investigators are following the spirit of Clarke’s Three Laws, unless the investigators are prevented from probing its mysteries by certain social aspects such as superstition and religion especially when it comes to things forbidden or sacred. The discovering of the mysterious tech’s principles and mechanisms will push the boundaries of the current scientific knowledge throwing a big wrench into any ongoing campaign. Technology has pre-defined boundaries which must be pushed outward by investigation and experimentation. “However, the unexpressed converse of Clarke’s “Law” has proved even more attractive: if technology looks like magic, could magic not have been misunderstood as technology?” [Clute & Nicholls. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York, St. Martin’s Press. 765]

A perfect example of Technology as Magic can be drawn from the fiction of Henry Kuttner and his 1965 novel The Dark World: “And such minds, with their new powers, would develop tools for those powers. The wands. Though no technician, I could understand their principle. Science tends toward simpler mechanisms; the klystron and the magnetron are little more than metal bars. Yet, under the right conditions, given energy and direction, they are powerful machines. […] Well, the wands tapped the tremendous electromagnetic energy of the planet, which is, afterall, simply a gargantuan magnet. As for the directive impulse, trained minds could easily supply that.” [Kuttner, Henry. 2008 ed. The Dark World. Paizo Publishing. Bellevue, WA.  84-85]

Functionally within TRPGs this idea is very ‘easy’, the rules governing this false magic are the same as those dealing with technology only the terminology would need be altered to transform technological functions into pseudo-mystical terms which may carry some shallow sense of mystery with them. Within the game the characters may regard the tech as magic and may treat it with reverence and fear but eventually through simple in-game experience eventually they will begin to move from ignorance towards knowledge at least in the use of it and maybe even gaining basic repair skills when dealing with it. Probably, sooner than the character the players will begin to recognize, if they hadn’t already, that the game’s ‘magic’ is just technology wrapped up in pseudo-mysticism. The game will inevitably move towards discovery as the players and thus their characters figure out what works, what doesn’t, and the how and why of it all. Technology as Magic will always move towards just technology throwing off the thin veil of fantasy revealing the game to be within the realm of sci-fi. Granted, this could come off as pretty cool the first time but inevitably players will feel the lack of mystery in that aspect of the game unless they are primarily interested in that genre.

The immediate advantages to this approach especially within the context of RPG’s are that the terms are easy to communicate, the game rules which deal with in-game tech will be doing double-duty needing only a quick reworking of terminology when dealing with tech-magic, and the idea has a potential ‘twist’ to it. As stated before this type of ‘magic’ is starting at a common and well-known place and so it follows that its terms are typically explicit right off the bat making it easy to communicate its ideas. This allows the ease of expressing descriptions and leaving a lot not said as it doesn’t need description. This also leads to the ease of imagination; those involved can more easily picture techno-magic with less descriptive text. The game rules will be trim as there does not need to be a whole subsystem for magic only the system of rules meant for technology with some modification when it comes to the names for things and their functions translated into mystical sounding terms. It helps also to grant magic itself a little more believability up until the magic is revealed to be technology (the twist). Of course, this reveals the potential ‘twist’ of this approach to be somewhat hollow.

The ‘twist’ is a one-shot, after it’s been utilized that’s it, it’s done, the players (more likely just their characters) have discovered the mind-blowing secret to the game world and that’s it. So this strength is somewhat lacking and exists more as a bonus than a solid advantage of the tech-magic concept. Another major weakness, probably the most obvious in starting with technology and moving into mysticism is that any air of mystery is essentially shallow and the nature of any inherent dangers will already be known.

Magic as Technology is trying to treat something that cannot be decidedly defined within mundane scientific terms but can still be accessed and used with at least a fair amount of reliability to achieve desired ends. It only requires that parts of its system be known in order to be of use. It allows the impossible to be made possible and which works fairly reliably but it is not entirely clear how it works and any explanations will ultimately refer back to some ambiguous ‘source’ or power. It may provide obvious violations of scientific laws though it may also go along somewhat with them on occasion wherever it may lend credence to the magic in doing so that is. Of course, a sharp Game-Master will know that if you introduce too many predictable scientific laws into the magic system then players will be quick to take advantage as those principles may be very familiar to them providing open and clear avenues for them to essentially ‘break’ the current incarnation of the game.

A perfect example of Magic as Technology in fiction can be drawn from The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud: “Adelbrand’s Pentacle … its extra lines and incantations double locked the door and forced you to remain for further orders. It was a complex magical formula that required adult stamina and concentration [.]” [Stroud, Jonathan. 2003. The Bartimaeus Trilogy Book One: The Amulet of Samarkand. Miramax Books, New York. Pg.80] In the Bartimaeus trilogy magic is treated as a science but there is always more to know and there is a long history and legacy of magic penetrating society. Magic is definitely defined as supernatural (i.e. summoning demons to do your bidding much as in the Sorcerer Rpg by Ron Edwards) but magicians are specially trained through tomes and incantations to summon the demons who are the root of their power and a source of unpredictability and great danger (mostly due to their potential in being characters themselves and not just a mindless ‘source’; essentially NPC potential). The magic is given its own internal logic not logic based on science essentially being a technology of pure magic.

Functionally within TRPGs Magic as Technology is quantifying the functional parts of magic in terms that allow it to be manipulated in-game by the participants without revealing it in toto. It provides a mystery to be explored by the players’ characters in-game, it brings with it a sense of the mysterious which can be exploited by the GM, and requires only portions at any one-time to be known to be used. This approach can have a certain risk-factor attached to its use that technology often does not have and even if it does that risk is still within known parameters whereas magic can have very random results when it gets loose. Just as well the GM can characterize the vagaries of magic as well as perhaps the universal force of magic itself sometimes almost as a character in and of itself though fairly vague on most, and hopefully the most strategic, points of its existence leading to more of a ‘sense’ and feel rather than anything that can be easily pinned down (i.e. the fluffy bits). Its boundaries unlike those of techno-magic are not well defined and most certainly lack the comfort of the familiar. It will defeat the meta-knowledge that players can bring with them unless they’re already familiar with that specific system of magic though if it is well-designed there will still be blind-spots and risks that they may have still only a vague idea of. It not only allows but demands exploration not just in-game by the characters but also within the meta-game by the players and the GM. They will need to experiment, probe, quest, and explore discovering its advantages and sometimes suffering its strange consequences.

All of these are great advantages in the realms of game and the fun found therein. The malleability of Magic as Technology prevents those characters in command of its power of having too much power in that their knowledge can’t be all-encompassing, they simply can’t know all there is to know about magic. It allows more flexibility for the GM to work their ‘magic’ on the game. This great fluidity is also a part of this idea’s inherent weaknesses.

The weaknesses found with starting in the unknown is that one has to struggle to quantify the ‘workable’ bits without revealing/defining too much and that an entire mystical system may have to be constructed in order to lend more functionality and believability to the magic which may move towards Technology as Magic if it is over-defined. Examples of this can be found in the various strains of Vancian Magic systems with some lacking in arcane flavor others taking care to sprinkle in the proper measure of spice and mystery. Another potential weakness is the built-in mystery of this approach which is also the primary strength. The mystery can be a disadvantage as it makes it more difficult to quantify it logically as a rule-set. In kind, in-game effects and other aspects may be hard to describe or the GM has to give more thought as to how to communicate it as there may be a lot of possible nuance putting more of a strain on the GM especially when firing off of the cuff. Also rules cannot do double-duty as magic requires its own separate rule system adding a whole other branch to the game system rule set. In fact, the magic system itself may branch out into different subsets of itself. This is also a part of its strength in that a branching magic system provides open terrain for the participants to explore possibly serving as its own adventure within an adventure in the hands of a good RPG writer and a skilled Game-Master.

Both approaches, Technology as Magic and Magic as Technology, strive to achieve desired results using means that are potentially ‘workable’ in-game. Also, both attempt to add believability to magic either grounding it in a realistic setting and/or defining it using mundane terminology (both being methods of Rationalized Fantasy). Both approaches hinge on certain questions of coherence and believability. Coherence in terms of RPG’s is definitely crucial in terms of codifying the logic into rules that can be utilized by the participants to help build their fantasy game world and being able to frame it within a certain rhetoric. “Coherency is crucial to creating the ironic mimesis of the immersive fantasy. It is possible to create a world in which anything can and does happen. But if one does this, then it is impossible to make the characters questioning and extrapolating beings. In a fully immersive fantasy, the actors must be able to engage with their world; they must be able to scrape its surface and discover something deeper than a stage set. An ongoing example that can arise is in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Because there is no system of magic, no sense of what each kind of magic can achieve, the choice of potions versus wand spells versus magic objects is frequently arbitrary and prevents planning- Hermione’s use of a transformation potion requiring the risky business of securing genetic material is one such occasion. One cannot but wonder why there is no safer, wand-based spell. There may be a reason, but as there are no rules, Hermione cannot make choices or argue her choice.” [Mendlesohn, Farah. 2008. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT. 63-64] Believability is required by both works of fiction and RPG’s in order to assist reader/participant immersion. If something strikes the players as completely absurd or unbelievable it can throw them straight out of the game and anyone who’s ever played a TRPG can understand how hard it may be to submerge yourself within the fantasy in the first place when you’re surrounded by interesting people. Basically, suspension of disbelief is as important to roleplaying as to fiction.

However, Technology as Magic has limited but ‘push-able’ borders, the other, Magic as Technology, seems boundless. Technology as Magic has to have the veneer of mystery applied to it, the other must be pulled out from the shadows and with some effort but which reveals only that there is more to discover. One works from well-defined and known principles and the other comes from the swirling ether of the unknown.

Magic as Technology has the advantage when referring to player exploration and mutability, and makes it easy to establish mystery even dread for the consequences (either known or completely unforeseen) which outweighs the disadvantage of the difficulty when converting it into a codified magic rules system. TRPG magic systems should have a set system which can be converted to rules and have the ‘workable’ hard-bits for the benefit of the participants but there should be enough grey areas or ‘mess’ allowing the GM some nuance and leave a sufficient level of discovery to the players. The riules themselves shouldn’t be too-complex nor be overly-defined trying to sharply define every aspect of magic though well-defined rules for magic do not necessarily stand to demystify magic either. “It doesn’t stop being magic just because you know how it works.” [Pratchett, Terry. 2004. The Wee Free Men. Harper Trophy]

On Vancian Magic

When it comes to magic in tabletop role-playing games my opinion is a bit conventional in the sense that I dislike Vancian Magic, a system of RPG magic inspired by the Dying Earth series of books and stories authored by Jack Vance. I do acknowledge its importance in not that it was essentially the first codified system but that it is vital to the formation of the tools and ideas in turning magic towards tabletop gaming from whence most current RPG magic systems spring, the magic system I authored included. I don’t particularly care for it because it tends to be trite in my opinion and restrictive as well as losing the mystery or ‘fluffy’ aspects of magic. It treats spells as pre-packaged single purpose weapons which the wizard “fires & forgets”. The ‘spells as ammunition’ mindset probably owes its inception in the roots of tabletop RPG’s, namely War-Gaming. Aside from justifications for the in-game impact of a Vancian magic system such as the Surgeon Metaphor and the Alzheimer’s comparison, I think it’s also generally not great for mystery or atmosphere and definitely more afforded to war and video-gaming. Though to be fair the descriptions of magic used in the Dying Earth, from whence it is inspired, are definitely apart from the gaming adaptations of Gygax & Arneson. It is more conducive to the fiction of Jack Vance (of course) than role-playing a mage character and more-so in a setting much less like Vance’s Dying Earth.

‘Vancian’ magic is too artificial and strict for my taste but provides a stepping stone when it comes to game design. It does, as is one of the popular arguments against this strain of gaming magic, turns spell-casters into field pieces to be pointed at the enemy as mystic artillery. Don’t get me wrong sometimes I like this aspect of the good ‘ole fire-ball slinging type wizard. My preference for magic includes a healthy dose of mystery and risk involved as when I play a mage I like to experiment with my abilities even if I might get burned in the end, or blown up which has happened. Game magic does need its well-defined or ‘hard’ aspects to be playable. If magic is too ‘fluffy’ or ill-defined it makes the in-game use of it too esoteric though if it is weighed down by too many rules and calculations then the learning curve for players becomes a bit too steep. A Game-Master should keep the player characters questioning exactly what an enemy mage may be doing or what they may be pursuing due to the softer aspects of magic and know that it can’t be good or have at least a rough idea motivating them to take action against their enemy as the ‘hard’ aspects will be known to them at least in a ‘meta’ sense and these if overly defined may give the game away in the knowing.

The ‘hard’ aspects of an RPG are the bits of the game defined either in broad terms or in very quantified ‘Hard’ terms creating elements that can be manipulated in game terms allowing players and thus their characters to work with that game aspect, in this case magic, easily due to its consisting primarily of either clear cut rules and/or numeric values. They are also a necessary and operative part of the system and cannot be removed without breaking the system. Another frequently used name for these ‘hard’ bits is ‘crunch’ but that is also applied to refer to additional more optional bits as well so I will be using the former term throughout this article. In contrast a ‘fluffy’ aspect refers to a soft/fuzzy aspect or something not solidly defined in game terms but may be covered by a broad rule requiring the GM and/or players to interpret it in respect to game-play if it becomes necessary but which still has some sort of impact on game play. Basically anything not solidly or explicitly defined by the game system but still operative in-game which is not outside of the game system. The workability of magic or what makes something ‘workable’ for a game are the ‘hard’ aspects defined within the game system allowing the participants (Players and Game-Master) not only to understand the general overall concept behind them but also how to use them while still being able to play with the ‘soft’ parts lending some demi-officiated “wriggle room”.

The ‘hard’ gaming aspects of magic allow the participants to grab a hold of the concept like handles and manipulate it as if it were a system of dials, switches, and levers. Now this is exactly how Vancian systems operate but the condemnation, I believe, belongs to the sorry fact that it’s also how most Vancian-based magic systems feel especially if they’re not steeped in the proper atmosphere. They feel very mechanical. “[M]agic, when present, can do anything, but obeys certain rules according to its nature. Generally ideas as to its nature are left undefined. Attempts to write a system or define the rules […] can produce shallow and simplistic fantasies.” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Magic] This core problem with Vancian magic can be traced back to Vance himself and his possible attitude towards the idea of magic if this can be extrapolated from his highly influential work. “Magic is a practical science, or, more properly, a craft, since emphasis is placed primarily upon utility, rather than basic understanding.” [Vance, Jack. 1998. The Compleat Dying Earth. SFBC edition. pg. 582]

The Vancian Magic system originally appeared in Dungeons & Dragons and packages magic into strictly defined “spells” with mostly inflexible game applicable stats along with a description of effects. It is a rules-based magic system which is reliant on and mainly composed of functional rules. The spell-caster using Vancian magic must “memorize” their spells which allows them to cast a certain number of spells per day, this number being based on their caster experience level and the spell list from which they are allowed to memorize spells. The casting often involves certain “components” such as hand gestures and chants etc. and after the casting the memorized spell is essentially forgotten. “When subsequently cast – by speaking or some other means – the words or gestures, or whatever triggered the magical force of the spell, leaving a blank place in the brain where the previously memorized spell had been held.” [Gygax, Gary. 2001. Jack Vance & the D&D Game. The Excellent Prismatic Spray Vol.1, No.1. Pelgrane Press Ltd.] Which leads us to a major complaint about this system of magic is that of the memorization of spells and the ability to memorize multiple instances of the same spell which after casting are then forgotten which is often compared, unjustifiably, to a form of Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s complaint being that spell-casters after casting a spell completely forget it as if it were never in their heads similar in effect to an Alzheimer’s patient but only in a very selective (and superficial) manner which is not quite equivalent to the real-life disease. This manner expending of spell magic can be explained within the game system in several different ways but the cognitive dissonance that it can inspire takes some out of the game, me included. It is readily evident even during play that it is completely artificial, designed to work within a game. “To my way of thinking, the concept of a spell itself being magical, that its written form carried energy, seemed a perfect way to balance the mage against other types of characters in the game.”[Gygax. 2001. Emphasis mine.] Not to say that deliberately designing a magic system to function as a part of a game is inherently a bad thing; it just shouldn’t be too evident.

Like the rest of tabletop roleplaying the Vancian Magic System has its primordial origins in the world of war-gaming and was directly inspired by Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth, being adapted by Gary Gygax to Dungeons & Dragons. “Just what portions of these works, the subsequent AD&D game, stemmed from inspiration related to the writing of Jack Vance? Several elements, the unquestioned foremost being the magic system used in these games.” [Gygax. 2001] Essentially the current idea of the magic-user began with Dave Arneson’s seminal Blackmoor campaign which evolved from his miniature war-gaming sessions. Magic as a feature of war-gaming entered into the scene as a means to reenact fantasy battles found in fiction in particular those found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and the desire to add in new features, most likely out of boredom, to war-games and move beyond just reenacting historical battles but it was not until the fantasy supplement added to the back of the first edition of the Chainmail miniature rules in 1971 by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren that the course of RPG Magic was set. “Magic spells are the purview of the “Wizard” type in Chainmail. Although unexceptional as melee fighters, Wizards have two ranged attacks they can employ: a “fire ball” and a “lightning bolt”. The former explodes like a thrown bomb, creating a circle of carnage,…, while the latter extends in a straight line from the Wizard, annihilating those in its path.” [Peterson, John. 2012. Playing at the World. Unreason Press LLC. pg.42] A second edition quickly followed in 1972 due to the first edition being a hit. “Chainmail in its second edition thus set a precedent, a foundational one for the future Magic-user class, that Wizards may have inferior or superior levels of power relative to other Wizards, and that some powerful spells may not be cast by Wizards of lesser ability.” [Peterson. 163] Around the same time Dave Arneson began to apply the fantasy rules to his war-gaming sessions which soon mutated into the Blackmoor campaign setting. “By the time he brought his Blackmoor campaign to Gygax’s attention, Arneson had introduced a number of innovations in the Chainmail magic system, not all of which would ultimately become a part of Dungeons & Dragons.  Notably, Blackmoor wizards were ranked by numerical level rather than by hierarchical titles [.] … In addition to levels of Wizards, spells themselves were sorted into ranks representing difficulty or power [.]” [Peterson. 165] The first edition of Dungeons & Dragons later followed this in 1974 with its own integrated magic system. Ultimately though, it was gamers that gave it the name which persists today. “Because I explained this often, attributing its inspiration to Jack Vance, the D&D magic system of memorized then forgotten spells was dubbed by gamers “the Vancian magic system”.”[Gygax. 2001]

Vancian magic has a few readily evident strengths. Packaging spells into easily digestible bites rendering them infinitely useable in-game making that aspect of magic supremely ‘workable’ though limited in its mutability is absolutely one. Predictability is another easy to discern strong point in that it makes the GM’s job easier allowing them to have some fore knowledge of what’s at the players’ disposable at any given time. Its primary contribution to RPG magic is something that I myself have a penchant for, modularity though in a limited sense. It excels at the ‘hard’ bits of a roleplaying system due mainly to its creation in the war-gaming arena where wizards (and druids) were field pieces. Another bonus of a purely Vancian system is the forcing of players to think strategically when playing mages memorizing only the spells they think may need later. “Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.” [Vance. 1998. 5] Bad choices however, can lead to a Vancian wizard to become near useless left with nothing to do but either get killed or try to hide in an encounter especially in an unforeseen/unaccounted for one.

There are some fundamental weaknesses. The first is also one of its strengths the nifty packaging of spells which makes them easy to use also makes them fairly inflexible without some special caveats being added into the game (the Feat mechanic being an example). Another inherent in such a mechanical system of magic is that it is unrealistic (so-to-speak) being based on strange logic used in and more appropriate to Jack Vance’s fiction where it is a narrative device as it naturally would-be and was meant to be in the first place; narrative in a work of fiction and that in an RPG being very different. It’s over-definition not just disallowing for in-game flexibility but it also restricts subtle variation. In fact, variation requires that brand new spells be authored. This ‘rules based’ form of magic also seems to lack in consequences even for the “over-use” of magic leading to a few in-game questions such as the question of technology and wide-spread utilitarian use of magic but those will not be addressed here.

Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fiction is peculiarly suitable for adaptation into the realm of gaming due to its belonging to a certain strain of fantasy fiction known as Rationalized Fantasy. In Rationalized Fantasy “stock fantasy elements are given a rationale that provides them with internal consistency and coherence. In such works the laws of MAGIC may be carefully codified, often through elaborate systems of mysticism[.]” [Clute. 801] Basically it’s where something fantastical is explicable in mundane terms. Jack Vance definitely quantified spell-casting and sorcery in this work. “Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells.” [Vance. 19] He even seemed to invent the idea of naming spells in effect packing them and their effects into solid armaments equivalent, but much more powerful than, a standard weapon such as a sword rendering libraries as potent as armories. “Mazirian made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal’s Gyrator, Felojun’s Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere.” [Vance. 23] This is not to say the wizards and magicians found in his fictions could not wield swords and daggers in fact, they routinely did; a decided difference between Vance’s fiction and the “Vancian” system of magic.

In effect with Rationalized Fantasy, the atmosphere of mysticism and mystery which I feel should surround magic in an RPG can be diminished by overly technical game terminology or mundane in-game explanations and too complex a construction of game-mechanics. RPG magic systems should try to maintain atmosphere as well as provide some easy to use and understand ‘hard’ aspects not to mention provide some flexibility. The main points which are important to an RPG magic system are a sense of ‘workability’, an element of risk to the caster in addition to those on the receiving end, flexibility in its in-game use, and details helping along the atmosphere which should hang over magic and spell-casters like a pall. RPG magic requires definition but that shouldn’t absolutely define its every edge – magic requires certain ‘hard’ meta-game aspects required to be made use of in-game these should be kept to only the necessities for ease of use and on top of that, a certain measure of risk to the caster and their companions. Hard aspects should be spare but allow ‘workability’ in a meta-sense more than in-game as that can be explained with mythology or a character-eye view of the game world adding even more color to the game. Risk is essential and provides a sort of ‘internal questing’ the mage character can do providing a thrill with just the casting of a spell as well as all the other potential arcane and enigmatic risks when on the search for or even just perusing certain esoterica. Magic should also have a sense of its own volition. The artifice shouldn’t be inside of the magic present in a game but should be a structure on top of it through which the magic-user conducts their craft mostly consisting, within the game, the belief system from which they pull their explanations for it. Magic itself should be a nearly autonomous, amorphous mass writhing just underneath the surface of in-game reality.

Is the Vancian system of magic a fair equivocation to magic as presented in Jack Vance’s work? A little, it is somewhat starkly defined in the Dying Earth books but is not as sharply defined as it is within the Vancian system adapted from his work. It is from his work that libraries and moldy old tomes have become synonymous with the RPG magic-user not to diminish the influence of Gandalf the Grey. “The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on a long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.” [Vance. 4] In most Vancian systems magic grimoires, the spell books of wizards, are nigh useless to non-mage characters, unless they know whom to sell them to that is, but in the Dying Earth non-mages could make use of the magic though  not to the extent as a dedicated spell-caster. The Vance character Cugel the Clever, from which certain aspects of the D&D thief class were taken aside from Fritz Leiber’s the Gray Mouser, and whose specialties are self-absorption and being picaresque rather than anything akin to Vance’s disciplined craft but in a pinch he too can cram a few spells in his skull. “Cugel opened and read; finding an appropriate spell, he held the fire-ball close the better to encompass the activating syllables. There were four lines of words, thirty-one syllables in all. Cugel forced them into his brain, where they lay like stones.” [Vance.271] In his fiction unlike in games that make use of a Vancian system books of spells are useful to anyone who can read, very similar to such items found in lore and more in line with the popular idea of the wizard. “In the popular imagination, magicians always had books, or libraries of books, containing all their magical secrets. These books were jealously guarded, for if the knowledge they contained fell into the hands of the unwise or the unworthy, anything might happen.” [Cohen, Daniel. 1985. The Encyclopedia of the Strange. New York. Dorset Press. pg.216] The Dying Earth stories do indeed keep to this idea better than the “Vancian” magic system model. This brings us to another complaint about Vancian systems which did not originate from Vance’s fiction, the ability of mages to memorize more than one instance of the same spell. In the Dying Earth, Mazirian the magician after casting a spell at a homunculus which he was extracting from his vats but to no effect and quickly found himself within its grip. “The mesmeric spell had been expended, and he had none other in his brain.” [Vance. 1998. 20] In fact, none of his mages “encompass” (memorize) more than a single copy of any individual spell in any of the stories. Of course as stated before, the narrative of fiction and that of an RPG game are very different animals.

RPG magic should have flexibility. Modularity in this respect is probably the best way to go from a design standpoint allowing the participants to make use of whatever parts of the system they require at that moment. Modularity also encourages mixing and matching. Game-magic should encourage PC-mages to explore in-game magic not just in its casting but in the formulating of new spells, altering old spells, and hunting down legends, mythical spells and items as well as hard to find components. Players and thus their mage characters should feel as if they’re penetrating the deep mysteries of the (game) universe encouraging exploration. Also, do not count out the consequences of magic as well not just to counter any perceived in-game over-reliance on it but the effects of magic accruing over-time within the setting as well, where spell-casters may be responsible for some of the supernatural woes found in the game setting shaping non-casters’ opinions about mages and magic. The side-effects of spells, the warping of the world and dimensions, magical residue and even magical contamination are other such approaches to the consequence angle.

Details add flavor and lend to the atmosphere tied to magic and can help make ‘fluffy’ bits of the system to be a little more coherent and help to steer players towards certain decisions when dealing with the softer aspects of a system. Atmosphere is built from not only the GM’s words at the table but also added to by certain details such as specified components and description of ceremony etc. and use of the ‘fluffy’ bits. Keep in mind strange and mostly non-functional details that can evince reactions from players and/or their characters are very important. Players may know how their mages work their magic in-game from a mechanics standpoint but certain details especially those that accumulate over time from an array of game components within the magic system not all or any of them need be functional in-play either. However, over-use of this tactic may diminish the impact of this strategy and so it should be used sparingly but not so sparingly that it can be ignored. These details can seem, in the minds of players and perhaps even GM’s, to amount to a puzzle to which no one has all of the pieces or a riddle with no answer hinting at something stranger just beyond understanding.

Though RPG magic essentially came from war gaming and evolved into quantified Vancian Magic then began to be adapted into various systems of game magic with varying ‘fluffy’ and ‘hard’ aspects/quantities it does not mean that RPG magic should always be strictly defined in its execution all the time. Vancian magic was necessary that it gave a baseline for what was necessary to make magic a ‘workable’ aspect in RPGs by quantifying it in game terms. The original purpose of the spell-slinger was to serve as mystic field artillery on the field of battle in war-games later becoming the “swiss army knife” characters of OD&D. I find Vancian magic too clear-cut and inflexible, I desire a magic system that allows for flexibility and variation; magic that can serve as its own quest maybe even its own self-contained world within the world of the game.

Spells should be more than ammunition, magic can be a quest unto itself all wrapped in an air of mystery providing yet another avenue of adventure besides Dungeon Crawls, MacGuffin Quests, Bug-Hunts, and Monster-Slaying. RPG magic should be ‘workable’, should carry risk in the practice if not by its mere presence, should have flexibility, and should carry a certain air or atmosphere. When I run a mage I want the arcane power and knowledge that they wield to be something extraordinary and supernatural invoking wonder and trepidation in those not so inclined (or talented). Magic however does need to be ‘workable’ in-game and not just by the GM but also by the players so it may be fully explored, its mysteries penetrated, and the unfathomable risks experienced.