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General Putting The Awe Back In Magic

The burgher himself unlocked her shackles, making a grand show of producing the right key from the thick ring at his belt. The oldest, most ornate, and most worn of the bunch.

He gave it to two of the younger men and waved at them to free the prisoner, taking himself well back and away to watch them struggle with the old locks.

And as the heavy metal cuffs fell from her wrists to the stones underfoot with a clang and a rattle, he sneered and announced, “I’ll believe in this mighty magic when I see it, and not a moment before.”

His words were meant for the watching men of the town, not the freed captive, but he turned when they were done to see how she took them.

The young woman of few words met his bristle-browed gaze with a slight smile. Then she shrugged, turned away from him and the men of the town in a swirl of dark tattered robes, and murmured something swift and liquid under her breath, words they couldn’t quite catch—or that were in a tongue unknown.

And the air around her swiftly-weaving fingertips was suddenly alive with sparks, racing motes of light that spiraled down to the floor in front of her worn-toed boots like fireflies caught in a whirlpool.

And then burst with the roar of a dozen lions into a raging pillar of white flames taller than the loftiest towers of the Castle, a pillar that cracked and melted—melted, by All The Gods!—flagstones it spun across as it marched away from her to strike the towering black gates.

And with shrieks as ear-piercing as they were brief, those thick armour plates and the man-thick timbers that wore them were gone, locks and hinges and stout door-bars and all—simply…gone.

Leaving only an empty doorframe, its arch scorched by the vanished whorl of flames.

As the men of the town all stared at it in disbelief, a few shards of blackened stone, cracked away from the massive blocks of the arch by the heat of that brief magic, plummeted from the arch to shatter on the blackened flagstones. Clack, clack…klak.

“Well, now,” the burgher stammered, his voice seeming far away. And shorn of all bluster. Everyone turned to hear his verdict.

And blinked at what they beheld. Despite his paunch and wrinkled old age, the leader of the town had somehow taken himself half across the chamber in a trice, to the grudging shelter of the lee of an old stone pillar. “Well, now.”


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Magic.

The ‘not real’ part of our fantasy roleplaying games, and fiction.

Yet also an essential part; we feel vaguely cheated when it’s not there, even if it’s scarce or long-fallen from old days of greatness. The element that makes so many monsters dangerous and feared, and that keeps many imaginary worlds from being ruled by the brute who commands the biggest, nastiest gang of brutes (er, king with the biggest army).

Yet the very same precise codification of magic, its workings, and the details of its clashings that make it understood and somhow more “fair” around the gaming table has, by the nature of exhaustive explanation, robbed magic of its chief glory: awe.

That’s a shame, because awe is one of the emotions (or moods, if you prefer) that we get to feel least in our lives, especially in this age of information, when most people can swiftly learn a lot about anything and so strip away its mystery, the lure of the unknown, in short order.

Obviously magic, like everything else, will have more awe clinging to it when it’s mysterious rather than known to nigh-everyone in full detail. When the game master’s descriptions of what a spell looks like when it manifests, and what it does, are attentively listened to by everyone around the gaming table—because everyone’s eager (nay, desperate) to learn all they can.

Rather than just flipping to the right page of a rulebook to read all about it. Which points at this: one road to this sort of mystery that’s available only to game masters running their own rules systems or substantially modifying published rules systems is to keep the practical details of magic (how spells are cast, the gestures and ingredients and incantations—verbal, somatic, and material components in D&D) secret. Things to be observed when others cast magic, and noted down in one’s own magical workbooks, or said by NPCs who are paid much in coin and service to do so, or paid even more to train a PC in how to cast and wield a lone spell.

This precious secrecy will tend to make those who can cast spells do so in private, or in public only in emergencies or for a lot of compensation.

It also, at a single stroke, makes magic, and its lore, the most prized treasure in a game.

Another way of making magic more awe-inspiring is to have it vary in effects from place to place, or by who or what is involved.

If a stranger wizard casts a recognizable spell and it shakes the valley rather than snapping in midair like a firecracker, there’ll be instant awe. Or at least respect, if not fear.

If a spell that’s supposed to force open a door is cast with the aid of a grimy old bone carving that looks small in the caster’s palm, and destroys the door and the wall around it rather than just cracking the door open, again there’ll be a reaction that could soon be awe.

And if a spell cast in a sinister ruin deep in a gloomy forest either sputters feebly or splits the heavens with a deafening roar, rather than conjuring its usual merry lantern-flame, awe won’t be far off.

Theatrics help with awe. Tomes rising out of chests with menacing slowness, all by themselves, and opening as eerie glows kindle about their pages, said pages turning by themselves as deep, booming voices speak from those same books, demanding to know who disturbs them.

Voices that speak suddenly out of empty air to herald the awakening of magic. For example: “Ah, more intruders. Let the deaths begin.”

Another way of making magic feel special and more precious is to keep it scarce. Or needing as a focus or consumed component in its castings something rare (the grave-dust or a bone from the grave of a truly good person, or a dead mage) or valuable (a gem of a certain type, size, and flawlessness). Or draining the life-force of the caster or a slave or pet or willing third party. Or leaving the caster vulnerable, by rendering them unconscious or physically weak, or revealing one of their most precious memories, for every spell cast, as vivid holographic moving images in midair, brightly glowing, for everyone on the scene to see.

Magic should have a cost. Perhaps not a price in coins, but it must be paid for. My players will not soon forget the wrinkled old near-skeleton who sat on her throne shrouded in cobwebs—until they approached, and she cast a spell that flung open many doors that her courtiers were hurled through unwillingly, into her presence. Courtiers who began to shrivel into lifeless husks with every spell she cast—‘hung,’ waiting spells unleashed by a lone word each—as she grew younger and more alive and vigorous with each casting, the adventurers suffered under the clawing damages of her magics, and her court died around her to pay for it all. The thief of the party had hopes that she could be outlasted; the party could run her out of courtiers to drain. Hopes that were dashed when the floor beneath the heroes’ boots opened up to dump them into caverns below where dragons were magically chained—dragons that withered even as they attacked the PCs, their life-force stolen by the queen on her throne above.

The throne, of course, was itself magical, and in the end soared into the skies to enable her escape from the adventurers, to scheme and ready herself for their next meeting.

The awe came back then, when the queen’s magic whisked dead dragon after dragon aloft to follow her. The thief wanted to grab and ride the last one, to go along, but the rest of the PCs were a trifle saner, and grabbed him and held him back.

So I could dole out more awe, on a game night to come.
 
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Ed Greenwood

Comments


doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
Nah, I think that having spellcasting available to the PCs means that the wizard who quests for new magic experiences that last scene Ed described differently than the rogue to the fighter does.

It's just a matter of actually running and playing the game you want to run and play.
 

Doug McCrae

Legend
In early editions of Pendragon, magic existed but it wasn't available to the PCs, who were all knights. Call of Cthulhu is somewhat similar in that all the PCs start without magic or knowledge of the Mythos.

I played in a game set in the present day that was concerned with real world esoterica such as the Rosicrucians and demonic possession. We only discovered that magic existed thru play. We never learned how to use it, and were scared that doing so might make us vulnerable to possession, though I still don't know if that was the case. It was very much a game of hidden information.
 

Voadam

Adventurer
The awe described here seems to come more from sheer power and theatrics, than mystery. If the unshackled prisoner's magical demonstration was simply creating a palm sized flame it would not have the same impact as a pillar of fire so hot it cracked stones.
 

DM: "The wizard sweeps a hand before him, as if his gnarled fingers are slicing apart the air itself. Some unnatural paralysis grips your body and terror floods your mind as he chants for what feels like minutes, his voice droning over every sound in the world, drawing the light from the sky, pulling the heat from your veins until you feel your skin burn with the cold inside you. His eyes flare wide, but there is nothing within them but infinite darkness, drawing your soul into an abyss where reality is just the plaything of demons. Your spirit clutches the edges of his eye sockets, desperately holding onto what little sanity you have left, screaming against the void that you will not give in to this madness.

"Then . . . with a exhalation like the guttering of a candle in its last moments of light . . . he finishes that single sweep of his hand, those brief syllables of incantation. Only an instant has passed, but in that instant you glimpsed and perhaps could understand a fraction of the horrific truth of the universe, of the chaotic power he tapped in order to shape reality to his will.

"You feel the bolt of invisible force as it flies from his gnarled fingers to strike your heart."

Player: "Oh crap. Um . . . do I need to make a Con save?"

DM: "No, he just cast magic missile. You take, . . ." {rolls} ". . . four damage."
 

Gammadoodler

Explorer
It seems to me the bigger aspect is setting context. What natural abilities do characters and creatures have and/or how advanced is the technology relative to magic's impact.

Magic missile looks a lot different for the guy holding a spear compared to for the guy holding an AK-47 (and for the guy holding the spear, the AK might inspire more awe).
 

Voadam

Adventurer
DM: "The wizard sweeps a hand before him, as if his gnarled fingers are slicing apart the air itself. Some unnatural paralysis grips your body and terror floods your mind as he chants for what feels like minutes, his voice droning over every sound in the world, drawing the light from the sky, pulling the heat from your veins until you feel your skin burn with the cold inside you. His eyes flare wide, but there is nothing within them but infinite darkness, drawing your soul into an abyss where reality is just the plaything of demons. Your spirit clutches the edges of his eye sockets, desperately holding onto what little sanity you have left, screaming against the void that you will not give in to this madness.

"Then . . . with a exhalation like the guttering of a candle in its last moments of light . . . he finishes that single sweep of his hand, those brief syllables of incantation. Only an instant has passed, but in that instant you glimpsed and perhaps could understand a fraction of the horrific truth of the universe, of the chaotic power he tapped in order to shape reality to his will.

"You feel the bolt of invisible force as it flies from his gnarled fingers to strike your heart."

Player: "Oh crap. Um . . . do I need to make a Con save?"

DM: "No, he just cast magic missile. You take, . . ." {rolls} ". . . four damage."
Like I said, theatrics.:)
 

Ace

Explorer
One of the things that was common in OSR days but seems lost know is wizards questing for magic. Limit the spells that can be learned to a list of common spells (gained one per level) and if you like use the old max spells per level chart for those and those alone.

Ah but spells you make and quest for? Those don't count against the limit.

You want more power, go look for it and maybe drag your friends with you for the "fun"

From experience customization with a tiny bit of the theatrics Mr. Greenwood mentions in the above article make for great game play. In one game I was in we were blasted with a mysterious blue ray which kept the entire party on edge scared of the spell. When i asked the DM about it, he laughed .Turned it was a simple variation on a common blast spell , same mechanics, different fluff.

It was amazing

I will add this, adding on more mechanics and more spell using classes dilutes this style of play. It mainly came about when most parties were low in the number of spell users and the number of types was limited. Its not as effective when everyone has magic or options for same like in 5E.

My opinion is you need to limit casting classes somewhat to make it work.
 
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Scrivener of Doom

Adventurer
The clear and concise power descriptions of 4E lend themselves to this. Because you're spending less time processing the so-called natural language and precise measurements, I find you have more time to think about what the effect actually looks/sounds/feels like.

I encourage my players to think of appropriate descriptions for all of their powers, particularly spells. Verisimilitude helps a lot with immersion, IME.
 

Tonguez

Hero
In a system were spell effects are prescribed trying to get awe isnt really going to happen. Having the DM needing to describe an evocative spellcasting scene like either Mr Greenwoods or Rangerwickets is a burden on the DM and takes focus off the PCs - a system where the PC narrates the scene could help but theres still a predictable ‘declare spell - describe effect’ process.
Awesomeness needs suprise, unpredictability, the chance to generate special effects and to get results that are unexpectedly cool as well as fizzling to disappointment.
 
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DM: "The wizard sweeps a hand before him, as if his gnarled fingers are slicing apart the air itself. Some unnatural paralysis grips your body and terror floods your mind as he chants for what feels like minutes, his voice droning over every sound in the world, drawing the light from the sky, pulling the heat from your veins until you feel your skin burn with the cold inside you. His eyes flare wide, but there is nothing within them but infinite darkness, drawing your soul into an abyss where reality is just the plaything of demons. Your spirit clutches the edges of his eye sockets, desperately holding onto what little sanity you have left, screaming against the void that you will not give in to this madness.

"Then . . . with a exhalation like the guttering of a candle in its last moments of light . . . he finishes that single sweep of his hand, those brief syllables of incantation. Only an instant has passed, but in that instant you glimpsed and perhaps could understand a fraction of the horrific truth of the universe, of the chaotic power he tapped in order to shape reality to his will.

"You feel the bolt of invisible force as it flies from his gnarled fingers to strike your heart."

Player: "Oh crap. Um . . . do I need to make a Con save?"

DM: "No, he just cast magic missile. You take, . . ." {rolls} ". . . four damage."

Yeah, descriptions do so much for making magic feel special, I recently read a story where a character was casting a spell, and magic burned in them like silver flame, to the point where the person walking saw them as bone and fire, barely contained by flesh. Epic stuff.

But, I also tend to agree with Tonguez as well, you can't do that every time, sometimes you are looking for speed over theatrics.


And, I want to disagree with Mr. Greenwood on a point here. Hiding magic doesn't make a lot of sense in every case. For Clerics and Druids, magic comes from their faith and connection. They want more people to see it and want to follow the same beliefs to gain the same power. Bards are about spreading knowledge not hoarding it. And wizards, well, if it took you a month of study to figure out a spell from texts and formulas, do you really expect someone is going to figure it out from watching you cast it from 60 ft away? It doesn't follow for me.

I don't see wizard's hiding out of fear someone might see them do magic, they went to study magic, and they are going to use it in the open.

I also do not believe that learning more about something neccesarily makes you less in awe of it. Learning more about biology has never made animals less fascinating or awe inspiring. Learning about engineering doesn't make the construnction of projects like the Hoover Dam less fascinating. If anything, knowing more tends to make them more interesting and fascinating.
 


Gammadoodler

Explorer
And, I want to disagree with Mr. Greenwood on a point here. Hiding magic doesn't make a lot of sense in every case. For Clerics and Druids, magic comes from their faith and connection. They want more people to see it and want to follow the same beliefs to gain the same power. Bards are about spreading knowledge not hoarding it. And wizards, well, if it took you a month of study to figure out a spell from texts and formulas, do you really expect someone is going to figure it out from watching you cast it from 60 ft away? It doesn't follow for me.

I don't see wizard's hiding out of fear someone might see them do magic, they went to study magic, and they are going to use it in the open.

I also do not believe that learning more about something neccesarily makes you less in awe of it. Learning more about biology has never made animals less fascinating or awe inspiring. Learning about engineering doesn't make the construnction of projects like the Hoover Dam less fascinating. If anything, knowing more tends to make them more interesting and fascinating.
I disagree that practitioners of magic from other sources (e.g. faith) would feel obliged to demonstrate their power. Ultimately magic of any kind is going to represent power. And the degree to which people would share it would depend mostly on how powerful they are and how vulnerable sharing these practices would make them (plenty of secretive religious organizations through history)

In regards to knowledge vs. awe, I think it depends on what the what that knowledge reveals about the relationship between the observer and observed. For example knowing whether a creature can be killed may inspire increased our decreased awe depending on the answer.
 

dbm

Explorer
I think D&D is particularly prone to this phenomenon, with its magic that is highly codified and where spell casting has little variability apart from the ‘intensity’ of the effect (damage rolled, whether or not the subject makes their save).

Other systems have a higher level of mystery in their magic. Systems where you either roll every time and can get a slightly different result every time based on that. Spell systems where you ‘gather’ magical energies over time and can end up with a slightly different mix of magical energy that varies the outcome. Systems where magic is more spontaneous (e.g. effects can be made ‘on the fly’) in nature.

Ars Magica is a classic example, and several of the GURPS magic systems have this built in, too.

Monte Cook’s Invisible Sun is perhaps the Uber example at the moment. As well as all the above there are also cards in play which cause magic of different kinds to wax and wane during play and so create different outcomes for even spells that would otherwise be functionally identical.

13th Age also has an interesting take on this. ‘Battle magic’, i.e. the spells you would typically use in a fight, are highly standardised. Ritual magic takes longer and there are no defined lists of spells (though you are supposed to base a ritual of a traditional spell that your character knows) but there is a rule that no ritualist can cast the same ritual twice, enforcing variety and so ‘wonder’ at what a magic-wielder might do at any given time.

Circling back to D&D, the problem is exacerbated , in my opinion, by the expectation that magic-users can learn spells from fallen foes by taking their spell books. This greatly enforces standardisation between PCs and NPCs whereas systems that lack this assumption can have NPCs with very different capabilities to PCs without causing knock-on complications.
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
I'd also add that "awe" only becomes a factor when you deal with the unknown. This is true for both PCs and players, and it is really hard to impress veterans who have basically 'seen it all'. And I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing or takes something important away from the game.

I just want to leave two examples from my own life:

1. Sigil. My first campaign was an epic length Planescape campaign back when I was still a total D&D noob. And if you encounter this city for the first time, it is really awe-inspiring for both the player and the character. The city soon became our PC's home and we spent lots of time in this area, so of course it lost the awe-factor over a while. Seeing it and living in it became routine. Still our DM loved Sigil and the Planes, so he brought us back there for a short visit in one of our next campaigns. And in the next one as well. Thing is, I noticed a dissonance between my PC's supposed reaction and my own feelings as a player. Of course my PC would be awestruck by the city, but for me it was like "home". For the third time, I started to feel annoyed by the expectation that, of course, my new PC would have to go through this very same feeling once again. Because I simply had enough of it. Yep, that's Sigil. Got it. Can we please move on with the important stuff?

2. I love rainbows. When I first saw them as a kid, I was totally awestruck. And of course, kids have limmericks about the colors nature paints the sky with and old tales of pots of gold. Being curious, I wanted to understand them, and now, having a scientific background as an adult, I totally do. Also, that feeling of awe diminished when I saw more of them and understood how I could reproduce them (in my garden, with a prism, with a fishbowl etc.). But that hasn't made me love rainbows any bit less. And that's not only me, but also one of our professors of physics who cannot help but make a picture of every single rainbow he encounters.
 

teitan

Hero
I think as we plowed on with D&D and it’s ensuing editions and power boosts that magic lost its magic. We can blame Gygax making magic users a PC class but it’s always been a PC option so that’s a moot point to the discussion. Why was it so different in 1e and 2e? I don’t recall many, if any, players in my groups playing Magic Users for long. It was a very difficult class to play and survive even at mid levels that were considered the “sweet spot” and where campaigns generally capped out even within the system itself as HP essentially plateau by level 9. Max roll of HP was 36 and a max of 18 from CON rolls which it was not likely for you to get. So potentially 54 HP max which wasn’t all that many. With such low hit points magic was quite rare for PCs and in 1e and 2e it was a heck of a lot easier to run a game with no spellcasters than later editions.
 

dave2008

Legend
In early editions of Pendragon, magic existed but it wasn't available to the PCs, who were all knights. Call of Cthulhu is somewhat similar in that all the PCs start without magic or knowledge of the Mythos.

I played in a game set in the present day that was concerned with real world esoterica such as the Rosicrucians and demonic possession. We only discovered that magic existed thru play. We never learned how to use it, and were scared that doing so might make us vulnerable to possession, though I still don't know if that was the case. It was very much a game of hidden information.
Makes me think maybe magic should be moved completely to the DMG. That would be interesting.
 

dave2008

Legend
My opinion is you need to limit casting classes somewhat to make it work.
Probably true. I think if the Fighter, Barbarian, Rogue, Ranger, Monk, and Bard were all martial classes primarily (with magic sub-classes only, and maybe then not even in the PHB). It would make the Wizard, Cleric, Warlock, and Sorcerer more special, and you could tone them down a bit too.
 

I think I can understand his point of view. Do you remember the old comic strips of Superman? The Superman using his superpowers was awesome, but today superheroes too powerful aren't very insteresting for the new generations.

How to explain it with another example? When something is in the new crest of the fashion wave becomes too popular then it's become "old-fashion".

With a large amount or exposure, the emotion is lost. A little child is surprised when he sees a lot of collections in the bookshop, but when he grows up and he can buy lots of comics, then he becomes more demanding and perfectionist.

Or the old movies of Far-Western. In the past it was exotic, but today the public doesn't want new western movies about cowboys and gunslingers.
 

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