The F-Word: The Problem of Magic 2


Magic. Ah, good old magic. What’s a Swords and Sorcery campaign without it? Whether it’s an enchanted sword, a mystical talisman, or a simple fireball spell, magic is the difference between an empire being destroyed by Sauron or the bubonic plague.

But what role should magic play in your world?

In fantasy literature, magic has been treated in a number of ways. And, since magic is essentially arational (as opposed to irrational), magic can be whatever the creator wants it to be. Some authors treat magic as a rare and fickle power, with wizards tapping into the unknown, often with unpredictable results. Others treat magic as a powerful tool that is well codified and structurally logical. However magic is treated, the one universal hallmark of magic is that it creates effects beyond what the average man or woman can create without its implementation.

When you set up a role-playing campaign, the rules are only going to cover so much. So, while you know how much damage your wizard’s magic missiles spell will cause, or know what creatures your vorpal sword can decapitate, or understand when your bardic inspiration is… inspiring… there are a lot of open ended questions. Do peasants want to burn you at the stake, for fear of “evil forces”, or are they going to draw up a contract for you to stop by every three days to create water for their irrigation system? Is magic itself a simple, codified system that is learned like any advanced college course, or is it madmen staring into the void, pulling unseen levers bent by the force of their will? Does magic enable young wizards to master any power at will, or do mature disciples of magic unlock a few, limited powers after decades of study? Answering these questions for your campaign world can make your campaign feel more realistic and engaging, and draw your group further into the story—but the wrong answers can break a game.

Three elements of magic that guide its treatment in a fantasy setting are how mythical, mysterious, and powerful it is. While there is a strong correlation between these three elements, they are independent aspects, and each is a continuum between two poles. Understanding how these factors impact your setting, and being conscious of how you weave them into a narrative, will give your world more flavor, a stronger identity, and a greater sense of internal consistency.

Myth vs Mundane

The question of “Myth vs Mundane” is a question of how common the use of magic is in a fantasy world. Is it harnessed to solve every day problems, a sort of alternative technology? Or is it so rare that common people whisper about warlocks and demons, although only the most privileged ever see them? Regardless of the mechanics of magic use in the system you use, a world where magic is a rare thing, only harnessed by the rich, powerful, or privileged, looks very different than a world where magic is ubiquitous, where peasants hire phantom steeds to get their wares to market and shopkeepers use magic brooms, minor illusions, and magical wards to make sure that they have the best shop in the district.

There are lots of great examples of the treatment of Myth in fantasy literature. In The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley creates an England impacted by magic but ruled by the familiar laws of the mundane, where beings like Merlin and Morgaine have little influence on the day-to-day lives of the peasantry. On the other hand, in Piers Anthony’s A Spell For Chameleon, the protagonist, Bink, is exiled from his homeland because he is the only person who doesn’t have some sort of magic power. And in the Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling, magic is at once mundane in the wizarding world and mythical in the world of muggles, giving the reader the chance to experience both dynamics.

By its very nature, magic is going to have a profound impact on a fantasy world. But the scope and scale of that impact is up to you. Consider keeping in mind how common magic is when looking at types of government, laws surrounding magic, commerce, trades, and every day life. Every day magic can easily break historical social models, which can be a lot of fun (a la, the world of Harry Potter). Making that feel real for your players, however, will take a lot of work on the front end—but can be immensely rewarding in the game.

Mystery vs Technology

The “Mystery vs Technology” scale is a question of what metaphysical role magic fulfills in your campaign setting. Every game is going to have rules that govern magic, as will any story. Those rules can be heavily codified or loosely defined, and the way you treat those rules can have a profound impact on the flavor of magic in your campaign. Mechanically speaking, there is very little difference between a fireball spell and an incendiary grenade; both blow up and burn things close to them, with predictable results. On the other hand, a magical sword imbued with a purpose and an ego might have a slew of unknown powers, and may decide on its own to just stop working if its demands aren’t met—something truly outside the realm of simple technology.

When creating your campaign world, there are many inspirations from which you can draw. In the Harry Potter books, magic was grouped into specific categories and discrete spells and potions had particular effects, all of which required precise practice and achieved predictable results. David Eddings, in The Belgariad, created a world where the Will and the Word allowed a magic user to shape the world with their imagination, not with a specific set of magical skills. Both were very rich in the “Myth” element, but crafting a setting that recreates their treatments of magic would be vey different.

When deciding on the question of “Mystery vs Technology,” consider how magic is structured in your system. In a heavily codified system like D&D, you can add mystery by eliminating access to spells and magical items, making non-human creatures seeem rare and other-worldly, and changing parameters to keep the players wondering. In an open ended system like Mage: The Ascension, you can add structure by limiting types of mages, imposing concrete spell effects, and making the consequences of unfettered magic use more common and profound. The sense of mystery that you create in your campaign, however, should ultimately be decided upon by you, not dictated by the rules of the system.

Power vs Enhancement

When it comes to “Power vs Enhancement”, the question that you, as the GM, have to ask is how much of an impact will magic have in the world. Let’s face it: magic is power. In any sufficiently powerful magical system, the use of magic will enable practitioners to defeat entire armies, replace kings with simulacrums, and bend nations to their will. The logical end of an unfettered expansion of magical power is a magocracy. On the other hand, a system of magic that enhances what can be done, rather than dominates the tableau, can provide richness and beauty to a world without destroying its balance.

In the Dragon Prince trilogy, Melanie Rawn creates a fantastic and compelling world in which magic is limited in both scope and scale, used not to solve problems but to influence outcomes. Micheal Moorcock treats magic very differently, as the anti-hero Elric singluarly lays waste to entire nations with the power of Stormbringer, his cursed sword. Although they had very different ways of treating the power of magic, they both wove a vivid, engaging tapestry for the reader to explore.

The direction you take in your campaign is up to you, but it’s valuable to weigh the impact of the power of magic. If it is too weak, a spellcaster will be insufficient to contribute to the party. Too strong and a wizard will be the only effective party member. For power, the question becomes what specific powers magic grants, as well as how much of a numerical effect those powers have. If high level fighters are getting a bonus to hit and damage, while high level wizards are reshaping reality, there will come a point where a good GM will have to search for some way to balance the scales or risk the world spiraling out of control.

The “F-word”

In the end, though, the final measure of how you treat magic in your fantasy campaign should come down to the F-word.

No, not that one—I’m talking about “Fun”.

Magic isn’t just a set of statistics and powers on a character sheet. It’s more than a list of spells in a player’s guide. In a fantasy setting, magic will be a living, breathing force, and your campaign should reflect that. But, most importantly, it should make the game fun to play. And that means making sure your game is balanced for all of your players.

However you choose to conceptualize magic, consider the impact that it will have your party as a whole. A wizard who can single handedly fight a balrog, while the rest of the party runs for cover, may be fun to play—but he won’t be fun to play with. Similarly, being unable to use any of your powers for fear of being burned at the stake may make a witch irrelevant in your campaign. And treating magic as an alternate technology may work for some campaigns and feel flat in others. Regardless of these choices, you should make sure that it works for all of you players, and allows everyone to feel like they are providing an equal yet unique contribution to the party as a whole.


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2 thoughts on “The F-Word: The Problem of Magic

  • Scott

    In the camlaign I’m currently running, the players started out in the Empire, a seriously heavy-magic realm, basically run on magic items and spellcasters, allowing them access to any and all items they can afford; currently, they’re in a pocket dimension with no access to the original realm until they find their way out. Soon, they’ll be in the rest of the world, which has limited magic items, and few spellcasters, as well as loose governmental structure… :-).
    Variety in a world is good, too.

    • Jason Scott Gleason

      Variety is great! I kind of went the opposite route. My fantasy world is very low magic, with spellcasters being almost unheard of. Most magic is in the form of relics from an earlier, more magical age. Non-humans are also rare. Outside of that realm, however, magic flourishes, elves and dwarves are more common, and society has a much more “other worldly” feel.

      I did it this to keep a sense of the familiar in my fantasy world. Readers and players identify with characters much more if they are familiar with those characters’ plights. When I do introduce something magical and mysterious, it’s easy to convince the audience to respond to it as though it’s mysterious.

      There are tons of ways to play it. But the more work I do on the front end to build the world, the more payoff I see on the back end in getting the audience to buy into the world. I suspect that others have had similar experiences. 😉