Designing holistic versus gamist magic systems?

So I was discussing the article "breaking out of scientific magic systems" in another thread. The title of the article is misleading, as it isn't about the scientific method or the philosophy of science as it would apply to fictional magic systems. The article describes the contrasts between modern tabletop game magic systems versus magic as described in mythology/folklore/religion and provides suggestions for more closely emulating the folkloric styles of magic. Another article, "Magic systems aren't magic", addresses a similar contrast between magic systems as depicted in mass market fantasy fiction and real world belief systems.

Since the terminology is extremely misleading, I'm going to describe the difference as one of "holistic" versus "gamist" magic systems. What qualifies as "magic" is an out-of-universe distinction made by us the audience: anything that would be impossible in reality is defined as "magic." In a holistic magic system, the fictional universe is built from first principles with magic integrated into it; although people in that setting may be capable of things impossible in reality, in their world such is allowed by their laws of physics and is no more "magic" than technology is in reality. In a gamist magic system, the writers first writes the rules for the mundane world and then tacks on a magic system to let mages cheat the mundane rules as desired. (So whenever magic systems are introduced, they typically compose the bulk of rules.) This is a product of the people writing magic systems growing up in an environment where they are taught about science in school, and then retroactively applying their modern worldview to their readings about magic described in myths and fairytales. But the pre-modern cultures that told these myths and fairytales didn't have a distinction between magic and science!

During the discussion, I encountered this carefully crafted critique of the first article:

Well, at the risk of offending the original author, what I'm suggesting is that the article neither proposes a useful idea nor is actually coherent. Or to put it another way, I do understand exactly what the author is going for, but he doesn't do a great job of explaining or exploring the problem.

Consider if we start systematically replacing the word "magic" in the article with "science". If these two things are really radically different concepts as he suggests, and if his description of magic is coherent then the mangled article where we replace a concept with a supposedly incompatible concept should be nonsense.

Section #1: "Science is a known system and thus non-mysterious" In the first section the author tries to explain that magic shouldn't be a known system and thus non-mysterious, because this makes it too scientific. But the problem is that the assertion that science is a known system and thus non-mysterious as an assertion about the nature of the real known universe and how it works is also false. There are a great many things we do with "science" based on manipulation of the universe where the more you know about how the thing works, the less confident you are in explaining why it works - quantum tunneling for example is something that is definitely science, definitely manipulated, and wholly mysterious. And that turns out to be true of a lot of things.

And, I've already gone into the problem that the sort of suggestions that the article writer goes into aren't particularly workable, nor is it clear even if implemented that it would create the feel that the author is going for, which if I would put a word on it is not merely mysterious but Numinous. The author is frustrated that magic in the game fails to be numinous.

Part #2: "Science is a force separate from Nature" - The author wants to assert that magic ought not be a force separate from the natural world. There are several problems with this assertion, the first of which is that it is not at all clear that his assumption - magic is never involved for things which science can explain - is true or enforced by D&D magic. While there is a very common presumption that if you can explain it, it isn't magic, this would lead us into a lengthy (though perhaps productive) discussion of what magic is or what the word means to the speaker, something Tolkien explicitly asked in his stories. But is asserting that magic is a force separate from nature really asserting anything different than science is a force separate from nature. Both utilize the natural world to act on the natural world, and even if people perceive science as artificial it's still grounded in natural law. So if you assert magic ought to be grounded in the natural law of the magical world, what are you asserting really but that it is an extension of the natural science of that world? I mean, I could see this argument going in exactly the opposite direction, that magic is too much a part of the magical world and doesn't therefore feel unearthly and numinous on that account.

And as with the prior section, there is actually a paucity of ideas in this one and it's not really clear what they would be or how they would work or if even if they could somehow be implemented they'd actually solve the problem. Consider the assertion, "In pre-scientific views, though, crafting of steel is itself a magical process. The hardness of the metal is part of the magical-ness of the sword...In general, RPG magic systems view magic as something ephemeral. Effects are rarely permanent or even long-lasting." But nothing really prevents the crafting of steel from being a magical process, and what would it really mean if it was? As a sort of nod toward this, in my campaign world the phrase "cold forged iron" sometimes used to refer to some magical crafting process simply refers to the 'ordinary' creation of 'ordinary' steel, a material which has magical properties in the world (such as being able to cleave fairies and a variety of other inherently magical beings). But what would it mean if the crafting of steel was a magical process, and if it was a magical process would that make the crafting of steel or steel swords more mysterious and numinous? And consider, he's at the same time he's referring to magic swords, making a claim about magic being something ephemeral. Yet magical swords are not particularly ephemeral in D&D.

I've already dealt with the speaking with animals bit, but we could equally deal with the claims about 'mundane skill'. For every single skill in D&D, there are a number of ranks in that skill where what the character possessing of that skill can do is superhuman and cannot be explained by our ordinary understanding. If you have enough ranks of healing in D&D, you are capable of superhuman feats of healing. If you have enough ranks of climb or jump, you are capable of superhuman physics defying feats of athleticism. What is this if not mundane skill shading off into the magical and nonmundane.

If you could summarize my take on the article, it would be to ask the question, "What does the author really want?" And my answer is, "He doesn't really know, and can't put his finger on it."

Part #3: Science happens as spells from deliberate users - No more true of science in the sense of "what is happening in the physical world" than it is true of magic. While it is true that magic in D&D most often takes the forms of PC or NPC initiated events, the broader category whose absence he bemoans "magical events such as omens, visions, destinies, lucky objects, and miracles. There are also magical places and magical times. Lastly, there is magic of circumstance. For example, if someone dies in certain circumstances he may return as a ghost to haunt his killer. This isn't because the character had the "ghost" magical ability, it just happened because of the circumstances of his death." is very much a part of a D&D fiction and D&D settings. Pick up any number of D&D novels, stories, and adventures and you'll find omens, visions, destinies, miracles, magical places, magical times, and undead arising purely as a result of the circumstances of their death as part of both the backstory of the adventure and the components of the module. All of that magic as plot device stuff hasn't gone away just because characters can cast spells, it's just part of the DM's tool kit of moving stories along.

So again, what does the author want? Does he want a systematic explanation for omens, visions, destinies, miracle, magical places, magical times and so on and so forth? I rather get the impression that that is exactly what he doesn't want and that he thinks systematic explanations are part of the problem.

Further, he makes assertions like: "Many RPGs tend to assume that magic is a professional skill, which is learned in a mage's guild or other organization. However, in myths, the wizard is often a solitary figure whose magic is an inborn talent -- which can be a curse as well as a blessing. The archetype of the wizard is often a mysterious hermit, who shuns and is shunned by society at large." But not only are these two things he contrasts are not incompatible, as it could be true that both only people of inborn talent can become wizards and that magic is a professional skill which can be taught in institutions, but specifically D&D have has never tried to enforce a view of how many people can be wizards. D&D has never really asserted whether only people born with magic can learn magic or whether anyone with sufficient intelligence can be taught it. And as far as that goes, it certainly implies only people born with it can ever be sorcerers. The access that PC's are given to magic in no way determines details of the setting like are complained about.

And I could keep going and going, but the point is if you read the article critically as an attempt to fix a perhaps real problem, my take is that while there may be a real problem the author hasn't really gotten very far in exploring it and doesn't have a real plan to solve it. In fact, often the direction the author seems to be pushing in - such as weaker but more ubiquitous magic in the section on 'mana' is cited by people who switch to such systems as one of the reasons magic no longer feels special and mysterious to them.
I also encountered other critiques, like this reddit thread.

I agreed with the premise of the original article. I wanted to follow the suggestions, but I wanted to see if examples already existed. Yet I can't seem to find magic systems that implement these. The various critiques suggest that this isn't possible and the article is nonsensical.

Is the article's premise a sensible one? How would you go about implementing the magic system it describes? Are there detailed examples published anywhere?
 

Celebrim

Legend
Well, you already know my opinion but I'll give it again in brief.

The premise is a sensible one if you define the premise as, "D&D magic isn't numinous and as such doesn't feel very magical. It might be nice for magic to be numinous." What is less sensible is the discussion of why D&D magic doesn't feel numinous and the complete almost lack of an implementation that might steer a DM toward effective and useable house rules for making magic feel numinous.

I have some ideas about how to go about it, though I admit that the ones I've play tested have been hit and miss. They work for making magic numinous, but they tend to increase the preparation and in game book keeping costs beyond the ability of a GM to keep track of thing, so I suspect only a small subset of my ideas are practical. Then again, at least I realize that some of the ideas I could give you aren't practical.

For now though, I'm going to keep my ideas to myself (who knows in another 13 years I might put out a pdf). I will point you however to a reading list of some of the things I've purchased that are most influential in my thinking:

'The Shaman's Handbook' - Green Ronin (The best class introduced to D&D since the early 80s.)
'The Book of the Righteous' - Green Ronin (The best RPG supplement ever written.)
'Mythos: The Animae' - Bards & Sages (This is a little tiny semi-pro publisher and hardly more than someone's house rule document, but wow do I really love how this guy thinks. Worth the dollar you spend just for how it prompts creativity.)
'Book of Eldritch Might III' - Monte Cook (A book that manages to be both terrible and incredible at the same time.)
'Classic Play: The Book of the Planes' - Mongoose

Now, honestly the actual rules in all of these books are IMO pretty unpolished and my house rules have evolved pretty heavily from where things are in these books, but if you are looking for ideas that show some direction toward actual implementations (in the D20/D&D system granted) that would be a place to start. D&D is what I specialize in, but I've dabbled in a lot of systems and I don't think you'll get there from mechanical changes.

The one caution I want to give you is that magic is always going to be the longest topic with the most rules in pretty much any fantasy game. This isn't because magic is 'tacked on' at the end after the "mundane" world is described, but mostly because in most RPGs mundane things never are described or are given rules. Google is the best rules supplement ever published for an RPG, because it lets you cover the mundane stuff. Need to know how much a bushel of corn weighs before and after shucking? Google. Need to know how many bushels of corn a field hand can harvest in a day? Google. Need to know how many bushels of corn can be harvested from an acre? Google. Need to know how many tons burthen a 120' long wood sailing ship tends to be and the approximate max cargo that it can hold in terms of cubic yards and tonnage? Google. And yes, all this mathy stuff did actually come up in the last play session we were in, but the rules for the mundane world are no where to be found in most RPGs.

The problem any fantasy RPG needs to deal with is that you can't answer how magic works in an imaginary setting by using Google unless you are a very well known intellectual property indeed, and even then probably not because few very well known intellectual properties have anything like game-able well described magic systems numinous or not. As such the more magical your world the more time you are going to have to spend describing it whether the magic is conceived in a "holistic" or "gamist" manner. Indeed, I'd suggest that contrary to what you are expecting, the more "holistic" approach (as you deem it) requires much more wordage than the gamist approach, as you can do magic with something like HERO - and then all you have is an explanation of what happens in a very mechanistic way and literally no coherent discussion of why without building a whole new system and setting out of the HERO toolkit that's probably going to be longer than the base rules.

Are to be really sharp and perhaps a bit too pointed, the fundamental mistake the author of the original essay makes (and the one you are I think unconsciously making) is to assume that the designers he is critical of are in some fashion "not getting it" and that it's enough to state that they don't get it in some vague fashion without showing any kind of contrary example that shows you do get it.
 

Jer

Adventurer
Is the article's premise a sensible one? How would you go about implementing the magic system it describes? Are there detailed examples published anywhere?
Okay, right from the start I see some problems with the article (beyond the ones that Celebrim gets into), so maybe some clarification would help me. The author says this:

While scientific magic systems have their place, I think there should be more games with non-scientific magic systems... magic evocative of myth and folklore, as well as fantasy fiction which draws on myth and folklore, like J.R.R. Tolkien or Charles De Lint.

Various RPG systems try different mechanics in an effort to make their magic feel more "magical". However, I feel that most of these simply alter the mechanics almost at random. The problem is in how magic is conceived of in the first place, not in the stats and die rolls used to implement it.
So here's the problem - in myth and folklore and Tolkien and everywhere else that has magic like this, there is no "system". The folks who came up with these stories didn't work out underlying rules of magic - magical stuff just happens because of "reasons". The reasons will vary from story to story but because it is a story you don't have to have an underlying mechanical system - things just happen because, well, "the gods" or "demons" or "fairies" or "witches" or even just "magic". As soon as you define a system that can be used in a game, you end up with rules - rules that either the player knows or that the GM knows. But if there are rules, then there are people who study the rules and will figure them out.

And that seems to be what the author wants (correct me if I'm off here) because they say later that there should be a pattern that is "hidden" from the players. But that isn't how magic works in folklore - I mean it is in the sense that stories from folklore follow predictable narrative beats that lit critics and ethnologists can talk your ears off for days on end about, and the magic involved in folklore is often to underscore a lesson to be taught or a warning to be given, but that's not quite the same thing as having a "hidden system of magic". Magicians in folklore know their magic is going to work because they're magicians and they know the rules about how their magic works - the rules are often hidden from the protagonists of the stories (and the listeners) and actual magicians are almost never the protagonists of the story (I'm sure someone will come up with folkloric examples where this is false, but I can't think of any). It isn't like Merlin or Baba Yaga are depicted as not understanding what they're doing - far from it, the folklore has them understanding exactly what they're doing and what makes them scary and magical is that nobody else knows how they do it. As soon as you have magic using player characters who need to have their actions codified into game rules, you have lost that aspect of folkloric magic and have turned magic into something explicable to the players (if not reliable or consistent - as the author says you can have systems that introduce randomness into the mix if you want, it just doesn't give you the feel of mythic or folkloric magic).

If this is what you're going for, one way to get this kind of feel for magic in your gameworld is to remove spellcasters from it as PCs and have all of your spellcasters be mysterious NPCs whose magic works in ways that are inexplicable to the players. Only allow PCs to access magic through magical items that have effects that don't impact the numbers on their game sheet - like a mortar and pestle that grows to a large size and lets them fly across the sky by climbing inside, or dragon teeth that sprout skeletons from the ground when tossed, climbing ropes that untie themselves when the owner wants them to, etc.
 

Celebrim

Legend
So here's the problem - in myth and folklore and Tolkien and everywhere else that has magic like this, there is no "system". The folks who came up with these stories didn't work out underlying rules of magic - magical stuff just happens because of "reasons".
All correct but there is an additional problem. D&D (and all other RPGs) have a very long tradition of having in addition to a system a lot of magic that just happens because of "reasons". In fact most D&D plots could be boiled down to, "Weird magical stuff is going on because of "reasons", and it's up to the PC's to retrieve/destroy or use the foozles before the bad stuff happens and kill or thwart the NPC that set the weird stuff in motion." D&D always has had both PC magic (that works according to rules) and NPC magic (that works according to plot).

A more accurate complaint is that PC centered magic rarely gives rules for dipping into the weirdness of NPC magic.

And the reason for that is precisely that there is no system for NPC magic, because weird is hard to describe and probably takes more wordage than a system, because having a system is often seen as restricting GM creativity, and because there is a serious question of how you would ever balance giving a protagonist access to the sort of power of plot magic seen in fictional backgrounds.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I have some issues with Celebrim's analysis, in large part because I disagree with his positions about science - as a physicist, I gotta tell you, quantum tunneling isn't terribly mysterious. It is a basic, and calculable thing.

That being said, I have to note that there are actually two forms of magic that are getting conflated:

1) The magic of myth and folklore

2) The day-to-day beliefs of people of pre-scientific cultures.

These are not, when we dig into them, the same thing. Thor had a belt that made him super-strong, even for a god of Asgard. But pretty much nobody in the real Norse culture thought someone in their villages could produce such a thing. Circe turned men into pigs. Real practitioners of ancient Greek magical-philosophies? Not so much. People's myth and folklore is generally fantastic, even by the standards of their own beliefs of how the world works.

In neither case is the magic really "holistic" as described here. Nothing in folklore is so clean as "I had an idea of how this worked, and built my world around it." Real-world belief systems are made in organic feedback loops - observation feeds into bias feeds into theory, to which we then add someone's thought on what *should* happen just because they think it so, which feeds again into bias and observation - mix for a century and pass it along through oral tradition. And, if you look at them for any period of time, the supposedly "holistic" magical systems eventually contradict themselves. The real world is self-consistent, but magical theory isn't.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
It's not too hard to have a world operate by fantastic natural laws. Even D&D lets a "mundane" human wrestle a giant, and regularly survive the sort of fall that would kill real people. Exalted is probably a better example of that, even.

But you need "gamist" magic systems, too, or else it isn't really of the fantasy genre. You need the guy with the robe and staff, doing the sort of things that everyone else within the setting believes is unnatural. You can have that instead of the holistic magic, or in place of it, but it's a necessary part of the genre.
 

Erekose

Adventurer
Just an observation based on what’s been said so far. I can appreciate why people might want magic to be mysterious, unknown and unknowable because in many ways describing something and explaining an underlying system diminishes the wonder. However, for me it’s akin to what Umbran said:


I have some issues with Celebrim's analysis, in large part because I disagree with his positions about science - as a physicist, I gotta tell you, quantum tunneling isn't terribly mysterious. It is a basic, and calculable thing.
But I’d take it one step further ... speaking as a health economist I can tell you that non-specialists can see complex mathematical models as unknown and unknowable - the “black box” - but specialists see them for what they are “basic calculable thing(s)” to slightly modify Umbran’s quote.

If magic were real, why would we expect it to be any different? That is, mysterious and wondrous to the uninformed but following a predictable pattern by expert users.

The only time I’ve come across a d20 system that has attempted a free form magic system with limited guideline is Monte Cook’s World of Darkness and it is a nightmare to run unless you have players that overlay their own “system” by inventing commonly used spells ... which of course is just another way of assigning a system but not one that is as well thought through as a thoroughly play tested one in a more traditional RPG like D&D.
 

Celebrim

Legend
I have some issues with Celebrim's analysis, in large part because I disagree with his positions about science - as a physicist, I gotta tell you, quantum tunneling isn't terribly mysterious. It is a basic, and calculable thing.
Calculable and understood are far from the same thing. If you prefer, I will cite myself as proof. I passed Physics 155, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics and Relativity and the associated lab with an 'A'. So I've definitely calculated the things, but the double slit experiment still leaves me grasping, the fact that a laser lost resolution as focused was demonstrated to me by the math before I actually observed it, but it's still the most amazing and mysterious thing I've ever seen, and I have no idea why the wave function collapses as soon as you try to measure it, and couldn't clearly explain to you how or why at small scales things seem to jump without passing through the intervening space. So clearly, I can do at least some of the math, but that makes the universe I live in scarcely less mysterious to me. Perhaps your experience is different.

Can you explain what exactly a wave form collapse is and why and how it happens? I'll await your Noble prize speech eagerly. Unless there has been some major advances in Quantum Mechanics I'm unaware of, we can do the math but we still don't really understand exactly what is going on or at the least those most knowledge in the field don't agree as to what is going on which is much the same thing.

And regardless of whether in fact some great advances in understanding what all this suspiciously effective but probability based math means have occurred, I think the larger point that the scientist looks out on a vista of the mysterious and unknown stands, and the notion that we were somewhere close to understanding everything that could be understood died a good century ago at the latest.

And if that stands, then it further stands that even a magic system which had a scientific basis (in some imagined reality by some unimaginable rules), would be by counter example - mysterious to its inhabitants and perhaps even more mysterious to the most learned of its inhabitants.
 
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IDK, I read the article and the original thread and this one, and I feel like a very simple cogent point being made by said article is missed or ignored or bulldozed or something:


Magic in traditional TTRPGs like D&D fails to model or evoke magic in the sources of inspiration they nominally draw from.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
I have some issues with Celebrim's analysis, in large part because I disagree with his positions about science - as a physicist, I gotta tell you, quantum tunneling isn't terribly mysterious. It is a basic, and calculable thing.
So tell me exactly where and at what velocity this particular free proton will be ten seconds from now. Not a probability function. The exact position and exact velocity. Something that can't be known seems pretty mysterious to me.

That being said, I have to note that there are actually two forms of magic that are getting conflated:

1) The magic of myth and folklore

2) The day-to-day beliefs of people of pre-scientific cultures.

These are not, when we dig into them, the same thing. Thor had a belt that made him super-strong, even for a god of Asgard. But pretty much nobody in the real Norse culture thought someone in their villages could produce such a thing. Circe turned men into pigs. Real practitioners of ancient Greek magical-philosophies? Not so much. People's myth and folklore is generally fantastic, even by the standards of their own beliefs of how the world works.
The belt was made by dwarves who had a better grasp of magic than even the gods -- which is why Loki went to them to get the gifts in the first place. The belt and Sif's hair were effectively high-level engineering problems for the dwarves: tough but solvable.

In neither case is the magic really "holistic" as described here. Nothing in folklore is so clean as "I had an idea of how this worked, and built my world around it." Real-world belief systems are made in organic feedback loops - observation feeds into bias feeds into theory, to which we then add someone's thought on what *should* happen just because they think it so, which feeds again into bias and observation - mix for a century and pass it along through oral tradition. And, if you look at them for any period of time, the supposedly "holistic" magical systems eventually contradict themselves. The real world is self-consistent, but magical theory isn't.
The magical theories can be internally consistent. None of the model have proven to match reality to the point of demonstrating actual effect though. "Make the right offering and appropriate things will happen." is internally consistent, just observationally out of sync when people attempt to encourage physical manifestation by making an offering that should be 'right'. So people tack such pearls a 'The faerie are mischievous and wilful. You will get rewarded... eventually.' Which is still internally consistent and only fails when longitudinal studies of behaviour --> consequence show no link between offering and outcomes. Which is a different fault of the model.

There have been systems that tried to be more 'medieval' or 'numinous' as Celebrim put it. The tend to overcomplicate the mechanics of magic to account for large environmental effects and a wide range of outcome. Fantasy Wargaming is a particularly egregious example which included such things as primary and secondary ascendant astrological signs in the environment (including numerology, herbalism, animals present, theme of the environment...). D&D has tried such things in the past to a limited extent: cf. the moons of Krynn's effect on magic.

What tends to happens s just what you'd expect: players try to understand and take advantage of the levers present in the system.

There have been less mechanistic systems but they tend to be more free narrative Mage: the Ascension sort of tried to cross Ars Magica with a narrative system. FATE, using magics as aspects, tends this way strongly.
 

Nagol

Unimportant
IDK, I read the article and the original thread and this one, and I feel like a very simple cogent point being made by said article is missed or ignored or bulldozed or something:


Magic in traditional TTRPGs like D&D fails to model or evoke magic in the sources of inspiration they nominally draw from.
There is no model that encapsulates the magic shown in the sources of inspiration. It's hard for rules to model something that has no predictable pattern to start with. We've built rules in the past that model some subset of sources combined with out own biases/expectations though. A Lord Darcy style campaign gave particular attention to sympathy and contagion correspondences, for example, and required time and preparation to pull off anything but simple tricks.

But spinning straw to gold, preaching so well even the birds listen, or casting curses only broken by the kiss from the right person, are difficult to model holistically in a way where the practitioners are in any way comparable to (and thus playable with) more normal folk.
 
There have been less mechanistic systems but they tend to be more free narrative Mage: the Ascension sort of tried to cross Ars Magica with a narrative system. FATE, using magics as aspects, tends this way strongly.
There is no model that encapsulates the magic shown in the sources of inspiration. It's hard for rules to model something that has no predictable pattern to start with.
Except magic in the source material /does/ follow patterns, they're just patterns in the unfolding drama of the narrative, not in the (non-existent) underlying reality of the implied 'magic system.'

But spinning straw to gold, preaching so well even the birds listen, or casting curses only broken by the kiss from the right person, are difficult to model holistically in a way where the practitioners are in any way comparable to (and thus playable with) more normal folk.
A gnome who can spin straw into gold - but not mind-control people, render himself invulnerable with shields of force, throw balls of fire, etc, etc, etc (so, y'know, not as powerful as a 5th level MU ...if you take the straw-into-gold thing as a trick, like Fool's Gold) - though, not so unplayable along side normal (or, heroic) folk. In fact, he's more likely a McGuffin, a plot device, than a character. Same with the cursor ...er… being inflicting the curse.
The middle one, could be a poetic flourish, or it could be literal, but still not necessarily problematic - indeed, more than the other two, might not even need to be 'magic' ..ahem.. in the traditional sense.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
Designing a magic system that feels magical may be impossible. Personally, I’ve NEVER seen an RPG magic system that felt numinous, largely because they all have to fit into the RPG system and be understood by the players.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Designing a magic system that feels magical may be impossible. Personally, I’ve NEVER seen an RPG magic system that felt numinous, largely because they all have to fit into the RPG system and be understood by the players.
Numinous magic is in a war with playability, and bookkeeping tends to win because if the system is fiddly then it won't "feel" numinous. It is after all a feeling we are going for here.

The system doesn't have to be understood by the players, but if the system isn't understood by the players then the amount of things the GM is keeping track of increases beyond the level they can handle.

Plus, if you are entirely relying on the players not understanding the system, then in the long run its going to fail if only because at some point players will read the GM's rules.
 

practicalm

Explorer
If you want a magic system that has the kinds of things that might be historically relevant you should find a copy of Bruce Galloway's Fantasy Wargaming. There were not spells per se but instead of you defined what you wanted to do, then the GM looked all all the related modifiers (materials, time of day, aspect of moon, and more) and then the player made a roll against it.

It seemed terribly complicated and I definitely would see players building spells any way much like if you use a cosmic power pool in HERO system you build common powers you want to normally use but then might build a special power if you needed to.
 

Dannyalcatraz

Moderator
Staff member
I include the GM as a player for these purposes. If even that person is sitting there looking at the game and not able to understand the magic, that person won’t run the game.

People have been throwing around quantum mechanics ideas in this thread, so let me join in. There is an observer effect going on. The act of making a system of magic that works in a game invariably makes the magic seem less magical. Why? Because we’re observing the way things actually work within that described game world, which demystifies what we’re observing.

If only the GM can look under the hood, the other players might feel the magic in the magic system, but they might perceive something else entirely.

If, for example Amy’s PC and Bob’s PC can both cast a “Fireball” spell, but they have different effects, one or both may think Carl the GM is playing favorites. Or that Carl doesn’t understand how “Fireball” works.
 
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Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
IDK, I read the article and the original thread and this one, and I feel like a very simple cogent point being made by said article is missed or ignored or bulldozed or something:


Magic in traditional TTRPGs like D&D fails to model or evoke magic in the sources of inspiration they nominally draw from.
That's only because games need rules to play, "magic" in folk lore is literally anything the people of the time didn't understand sufficiently to explain in more cogent and detailed terms. Arthur C. Clarke isn't wrong about sufficiently advanced technology in the view of a Weyland the Smith making "magic" swords that are just exceptionally well made and hardened. Take the idea that a really Weyland did have a way to make really awesome swords, not like Vorpal Swords or sharped using sunshine awesome, but exceptionally well crafted and a century or two later we get Weyland forged magical blades.

On the basis that knowning something will happen and using math to show that thing did happen, and understanding why that thing happened are very different beasts. For example there's a great deal of things in physics that we know happen, can use math to demonstrate will continue to happen, and then when observed happen like the math says. However, when questioned about why that thing happened physicists have to shrug and say, "Don't know, just does, working on it."

Additional replies on a fiction stand point versus game stand point. I'm going to borrow Brandon Sanderson's essays on magic. This applies as much to superpowers in comics to magic in D&D. Magic is effectively anything that is impossible by today's standards. Just to get that out of the way. I'm aware Sanderon is offering advice for prospective authors, but since a game designer is authoring rules I figure the advice is still pretty solid.

Magic can be a sliding scale from do anything we need as needed, no rules, it does what the author/game designer wants whenever we want as needed to achieve or our intended results. Howard and Tolkien are towards this end of the scale (Howard in particular). We'll call this 0% Rules. At the other end we have rules based magic where we know exactly what it can do, how much it can do it, under what circumstances, what the limits of the magic are, and what any drawbacks it might have include. In effect we know exactly the full scope of the magic and can use it to describe all possible effects with the magic. We'll call this 100% Rules. Newtonian Physics basically works like this, D&D magic is pretty darn close to this as well. In essence in a 100% Rules system the fun is playing with the buttons and seeing what happens, but you're limited to what the buttons do.

0% Rules magic systems aren't that common in fiction, even less so in games. Tolkien for example is not a full 0% Rules, although Howard is darn close. This type of magic tends to leave the reader/viewer/player in awe never knowing exactly what it can do. This is the place where Sam's astonishment at the elf rope comes in because it is magic (from our previous definition), but to an elf it's just well made rope. This also the place where Thulsa Doom turns into snake, or that evil sorcerer summons a demon, or whatever, and Conan stabs it in the face. The important part is the heroes never know what to expect, at least not fully. This is a great system where magic creates trouble for our erstwhile heroes, it is not a great system for our heroes to engage themselves with because 1) in a game the players need to know what they're doing, 2) the GM needs to be able to adjudicate the effects on the game and 3) the GM needs to either have rules they know and the players don't to be able to decide what happens, otherwise the GM just makes it up on the spot to facilitate the game's fiction at that moment.

The 100% rules more or less like real world physics. They describe every possible action/interaction, again I can't think of anything that is 100% Rules in either fiction or games. Asimov's Three Laws are the closest I can think of, he got a ton of leverage from three very simple rules. That's not the kind of magic we want though.

Most systems operate somewhere in the middle, some closer to one end of the spectrum or the other. D&D is closer to the 100% side, I'd say 70% to 80% solid rules. Its not higher because the game just lets the authors randomly add whatever they want, but once we do it works that way all of the time. FATE is close to the 0% Rule, maybe 20% to 30% rules depending on the setting and GM/player world choices, using FATE for a Sanderson setting is pushing you into the 80% to 90% range just because its Sanderson and that's what he likes. All you need to establish is Magic Can Do Things That Are Impossible as an Aspect for the game and bingo, that's your rules.

I'd also say some of the issues are functions of presentation for game play. For example the magic sword is in fiction such Cortana or Excalibur need a game function in the game to differentiate them from say that random guy's sword over there. So we have a rule in the game about what a regular old sword do, and then we have a rule about what a magic sword does. Clearly the magic sword is different (usually "better" in some way) than a regular sword, otherwise why bother having different rules? And lets be honest, folklore differentiates between Mjolnir and a regular hammer. The dwarves that forge it are supernaturally skilled smiths.

As another example from the article we seem to keep talking about: Antimagic zones in D&D. Most European folklore doesn't have a place where all magical things and doodads stop being magic temporarily for sure. But the idea is mostly a D&Dism anyways to make the game work a particular way. Its an intrinsic part of D&D.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Designing a magic system that feels magical may be impossible. Personally, I’ve NEVER seen an RPG magic system that felt numinous, largely because they all have to fit into the RPG system and be understood by the players.
I think that's the issue right there. "System" and "numinous" are at cross purposes.

I have had RPG moments that have felt numinous, but they have typically had little to do with "system", and more to do with atmosphere and immersion.
 

Celebrim

Legend
Magic can be a sliding scale from do anything we need as needed, no rules, it does what the author/game designer wants whenever we want as needed to achieve or our intended results. Howard and Tolkien are towards this end of the scale (Howard in particular). We'll call this 0% Rules. At the other end we have rules based magic where we know exactly what it can do, how much it can do it, under what circumstances, what the limits of the magic are, and what any drawbacks it might have include. In effect we know exactly the full scope of the magic and can use it to describe all possible effects with the magic. We'll call this 100% Rules. Newtonian Physics basically works like this, D&D magic is pretty darn close to this as well.
It is and it isn't. Let me return to that point about the fact that D&D has always looked at magic from two points of view. The first viewpoint is what can PC's do with magic, and it tends to toward 100% rules with magic as a sort of technology that is available to the PCs for them to use to solve problems in comparatively tightly defined ways. So a PC in D&D is used to being able to cast fireball, tightly define where the fireball is targeted, and then essentially know the stakes of the proposition before hand because they know precisely how fireball works.

But at the exact same time, D&D in the larger sense of the imagined game world that D&D takes place in and not just a rules set is largely a product of Gygaxian fiction, and Gygaxian fiction is heavily a product of pulp fantasy authors like Howard who have a fiction closer to 0% rules. And Gygaxian fiction has always assumed that for the purposes of creating fiction, magic as a system and as is available to the PC need not apply. So Gygaxian fiction, and by extension D&D fiction, has always validated having magic as this weird inexplicable force capable of doing whatever the narrative needs when it is outside of the control of the PCs. This is the world of D&D were you have gems growing on trees, magic fountains that bring strange blessings on the drinker, and magical "slot machines" that impose weird effects on those that dare play them. It's the world where a curse takes a sentient form and has fairy tale powers, where ghosts rise from the dead because of the gruesome circumstances of their death, and demiplanes were time and the laws of space are weird, and artifacts break the laws of the game with respect to magic. This is that part of Gygaxian dungeon design where he wants you to invent and put a "Special" in the dungeon.

All of that is going on at the same time as the "magic as science" system that the PC's have access to. What's never actually been done in D&D is any really extensive functional attempt to let PC's step over that line and get into the weirdness. In other words, very rarely and only in limited ways has D&D ever validated that the PC can grow to be more than a practitioner of magic, into a master of the esoteric and arcane arts. I think Gygax had some vague ideas in mind about this, and we can see it in the 1e AD&D DMG in what Gygax had in mind about PC magic users researching their own spells, making their own scrolls, brewing their own potions, and generally stepping off into the weird. But because Gygax always left this up to the imagination of the DM and put such hard restrictions on it, in practice nothing really came off it. There was never a supplement for generating the rules implied by Gygax's suggestions, and because it was so burdensome for everyone involved and so entirely the purview of the DM, little ever came of it.

When 3e tried to reconcile the PC world with the NPC world by giving PC's and NPC's a unified rules system, the problem was that it was far easier to stick to a simple mechanistic system to describe making a magic item than it was to get into the details that Gygax wanted to push the game towards. And without the fluff and esoteric ingredients lists and creation processes, instead of letting PC's step off into the weird it just broadened the scope of what was in the PC's engineering training. You mention presentation for game play, and I think that you are exactly right that this is a big part of it. Compare the feel of outlaying 12000 g.p. to the requirement to discover and assemble an esoteric ingredient list. The former not only doesn't feel like anything but a game move, but it implies the existence of some Magic Mart out there with off the shelf components for making a DIY Staff of Power. And again, without doing the heavy lifting for the DMs, your going to have games that just handwave all of the numinous weirdness away until you get to something that feels entirely game-y in nature.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I think that's the issue right there. "System" and "numinous" are at cross purposes
I think this really is the heart of it; as soon as there are rules by which something can be understood, it fails the sense-of-wonder check. In fact, this has been demonstrated in the thread; those of us who have physics training see nothing numinous in the slit experiment or collapse of probabilities. It's math, it's predictable and explicable and we don't feel a sense fo the divine behind it happening. The fact that we cannot exactly tell something's position and velocity is likewise just a consequence of the known rules which we understand and use naturally. For those who have passing's acquaintance with the rules of physics, or even no knowledge of them, it's much more magical.

Magic in D&D is likewise predictable and rule-driven. It's designed that way and it's fun to play the rules to best effect. Dave has fire-resistance up, so I can throw a fireball into the pool knowing that 6d6 will average 21 points and with his 20 points of fire resistance and 80 hits, he's unlikely to take more than 10-20% of his available damage and has a 50-50 chance of being unscathed. Mechanical, rules-based, fun to work out, no sense of wonder.

Contrast that to a magic system such as a loose FATE based system. I am going to summon fire into the room. Dave has the aspect "skin of ice". What's going to happen? It's much, much less clear. A reasonable possibility is that I "create a hazard" and roll for how dangerous it is (say on the scale of -1 to +6) and then Dave tried to overcome it with endurance, tagging his skin for a +2 bonus. That might be the usual effect, but today the GM offers a compel on my aspect of "elemental summoner" and it turns out we have summoned an actual fire elemental. Or the house collapses. Or the latrines explode. Magic is much less knowable.

I run a classic deadlands campaign, and there, when a magician draws a black joker, all kinds of badness might occur. There are a fair number of player-facing rules, so most of the time the player will see two pairs, reach for 3d6 and roll damage, but occasionally he'll roll a black joker and the GM will flick to unknown pages, roll a dice and say random things to him, such as "nothing seems to happen, right now" or "the spell targets you; roll damage" or "the manitou jumps out of you and attacks your friends".

For me, a "numinous" magical feel needs to allow the GM to essentially make up random :):):):) and have it happen. It requires trust, but if the player knows the rules by which the magic works fully, it just won;'t have a sense of wonder.
 

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