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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

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I personally think it's a weakness in a RPG to rely on free description/narration to generate the action, momentum and drama of action resolution.

That's what the mechanics are for, in my view. To drive the action.
I was suggesting that free narration is necessary, or perhaps useful, for dramatic reasons in D&D because the mechanics as written fail to drive a lot of action. Obviously this would differ from table to table and also potentially between combat and non-combat. Non-combat seems to be the place where at least some tables use a fail forward or complications approach to skill rolls. Not so much in combat IME.
 

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Imaculata

Adventurer
I personally think it's a weakness in a RPG to rely on free description/narration to generate the action, momentum and drama of action resolution.

That's what the mechanics are for, in my view. To drive the action.
One of the strengths of D&D in my opinion, is the fact that you create a story together, as a group. The magic that player characters wield is an extension of their character in my view. This is why I allow my players to narrate how their magic looks, just as I would allow them to narrate their character's actions.
 


Urriak Uruk

Debate fuels my Fire
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.
Damn that sounds pretty wild!
 

nevin

Villager
This applies to a lot of things we get lazy about. Years ago I started a new game and when the 3rd level party encountered a patrol of orcs I described them as per the monster manual instead of telling them they were facing 6 orcs. When I finished the description they ran. Thinking they were half ogres. All the way back to town looking for help. I had to leave the room and get a drink so I wouldn't laugh. It is a wonderful thing when players have to use thier imagination to picture your description. that just doesn't happen with " you are attacked by 6 orcs" or "4 magic missiles hit you"
 

nevin

Villager
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.
Really depends on the campaign setting. If magic is forbidden or rare enough people might kill you just for doing it. Even the great Archmage can be killed with poisoned ale or by a pretty woman. Also religions might not like mages competing with the gods. Imagine a real life mage in say the Middle East Real world. Anyone that killed him would go to heaven for the practice of magic is forbidden by god. Only god gets to have magic.

Or you could be in a game where mages are ok and no one cares.

As far as awe I disagree. most myths and legends were because people didn't understand what the sun and stars, storms, seas or even disease really were. distant tales of rhino's probably created the stories of Unicorns, Maybe dinosaur bones started Dragon myths. But people definitely were more in awe of unicorns and dinosaurs than animals. And there aren't many people in the world that bow down and pray for forgiveness when they kill the animal so it's soul won't haunt them. But it used to be the norm.
 

Really depends on the campaign setting. If magic is forbidden or rare enough people might kill you just for doing it. Even the great Archmage can be killed with poisoned ale or by a pretty woman. Also religions might not like mages competing with the gods. Imagine a real life mage in say the Middle East Real world. Anyone that killed him would go to heaven for the practice of magic is forbidden by god. Only god gets to have magic.

Or you could be in a game where mages are ok and no one cares.
Yeah, setting dependent in the extreme. After all, most pantheons in DnD include a God of Magic. It would be pretty weird if Pelor's followers started burning wizards at the stake for practice magic, when the temple of Boccob is just down the street.

There is only one old-school setting where magic is bad, and that is Dark Sun. Everywhere else, including Ed Greenwood's FR, it makes no sense for wizards to hide their casting.

As far as awe I disagree. most myths and legends were because people didn't understand what the sun and stars, storms, seas or even disease really were. distant tales of rhino's probably created the stories of Unicorns, Maybe dinosaur bones started Dragon myths. But people definitely were more in awe of unicorns and dinosaurs than animals. And there aren't many people in the world that bow down and pray for forgiveness when they kill the animal so it's soul won't haunt them. But it used to be the norm.
I think you are confusing magical thinking and faith with Awe. I don't generally want to be that guy, but definition time "a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder "

Let's take stars. People used to pray to the stars because they thought the stars could act upon the world.

Nowadays, people don't pray to the stars. We know that they are not human like spirits in the sky, instead they are giant balls of exploding nuclear fusion, boiling cauldrons or energy millions of times more massive than our entire planet, whose warmth and energy allow all life to exist, and death will end in our extinction.

I don't pray to the sun, but saying I don't feel a sense of wonder and fear towards it, is an entirely different matter. In fact, knowing that it cannot be reasoned with makes it more awesome (in the old sense of the word meaning to increase awe) because I know that praying won't make a difference.

Just because you don't believe in falsehoods that cause you to pray to something, does not mean you suddenly lose the ability to see wonder, beauty and fear within it.
 

Stormonu

Hero
The structure of D&D has not been kind to the mystery of magic, because it is so mechanical. So reproducible. There is no mystery to it, no uncertainty beyond "will the target make the save?". Even the Wild Magic table is not sufficient to invoke the mystical aspects that make it strange and wondrous. To invoke the might and mystery of magic would require a complete reworking of how magic is performed in the game, and I don't think many people would be happy with the results.

To truly make D&D magic, well magical, you would have to back away from automatic casting, slots per day and fixed effects. Sure, you could have a few sample spells and "well-known" results. But to make it awe-inducing, the brunt of a spellcaster's actions in the game would be in "crafting" or cobbling together the magics to actually induce a spell successfully. Something even as mundane as a Firebolt would have to become risky for the spellcaster to invoke. Weird and strange effects - many beyond the spellcaster's control would surround even mundane magic. Imagine, for example a simple casting of Dancing Lights causing leaping embers to drift from the phantasmal flames to run scampering about; perhaps the embers one time might be harmless, another time they might sting allies like mad hornets and yet another time they madly run amok, setting fire to everything they touch. But most essentially, these side effects aren't under the control of the caster - they are unpredictable. Because once the effects become repeatable, controllable - gameable, they stop becoming fantastic and become mundane, abusable and controllable.

When I think of the magic fantastic, it's not just in the homebrewed description of a PC's or NPC's description of their spell effects but in that mysterious, dangerous and slightly uncontrollable aspect - along the lines of older, 60's and 70's style magic that you find in systems like the old Warhammer Fantasy RPG (I'm talking like the 80's version).
 

MGibster

Hero
There are some significant obstacles to making magic more magical in D&D and the biggest one is that everything is codified. A magic-user (I'm going old school here) can cast Fireball and target it in such a way as to guarantee his enemy is engulfed while a bystander a mere 5 foot step away is completely unscathed. Think about how difficult it must be to be exhibit such precision in the midst of combat and how predictable magic must really be. And even within the setting itself there's very little to be awestruck by when it comes to creatures and other intelligent races. When you have scores of PC races to choose from other races just stop being magical.

The best solutions I've heard in this thread is to just be descriptive instead of using game terms. I can see how it'd be difficult to do, and tedious in many cases as combat can take quite a while, but it's more fun than knowing that six orcs are attacking.
 

Being descriptive and imaginative with how you cast your spells is definitely a solid help in making magic feel less boring or impactful.

A large problem though is that if you want magic to have a fantastical feel like in many older stories, you frankly need to completely remove Vancian casting (spells per day) and concrete spells all together. To do so is possible, but would basically require a complete reworking of basically all the classes and rules of the game itself, to the point where you are arguably no longer even playing D&D 5e, but an entirely new game using it's framework. What I'd envision in such a scenario is coming up with some vague sort of limits on the magic, likely wanting magic spells rare and powerful, effectively damn near fight-enders for any average scenario.

Basically I'd have the player when casting a spell tell the DM "Here is what I want to do, what I don't want to have happen, and how powerful I'd like it to be", and then the DM would present them with the "cost" of said spell, and the player and DM would "haggle" and remove or add stuff until both sides agree and then the spell would be cast. I've pondered about the logistics of coming up with such a system, but it's a fine line of needing hard enough rules that uncreative players and DMs could use as guides/examples for making spells, without stiffling the more creative ones.
 

pemerton

Legend
D&D is a game. On the player-side, the key experience - in my view - is not enjoying the GM's narration but declaring actions for ones PC and finding out what happens as a result.

The GM changing his/her descriptions of magical effects does not change theat experience. It doesn't actually make anything different in the play of the game.

I think that fireball is, in the D&D context, a particularly poor candidate for increasing the "awe" of magic because fireball operates primarily through the hit point ablation rules, and those are quite disconnected from the fiction until the target reaches zero hp. (At which point, depending on details and edition, we know that the creature is unconscious or dead.) Adding an overlay of GM narration of heat and flames and sweat won't change the basic play of the roll-for-damge-then-roll-for-save-then-change-hp-tallies loop.

For fireball to be awe-inducing the most obvioous thing to do would be to introduce a check as part of the resolution. Depending on how that check goes, the GM would then be licensed (or not, if the player succeeds well) to introduce new complications into the fiction. And because the (fictional) cause is (i) magical and (ii) and attempt to conjure up a great ball of fire, those complications are entitled to be surprising and dramatic.

The difference here between compications and mere narration is that the former actually change the fiction, and hence change the parameters for subsequent action declarations.
 


Imaculata

Adventurer
Being descriptive and imaginative with how you cast your spells is definitely a solid help in making magic feel less boring or impactful.

A large problem though is that if you want magic to have a fantastical feel like in many older stories, you frankly need to completely remove Vancian casting (spells per day) and concrete spells all together.
I disagree. D&D is in many ways an interactive narrative experience, so that sense of awe is determined largely in the narration. Of course you could also add mechanical effects to make the magic more awe inspiring, but I disagree that a large mechanical overhaul of the game system is required to accomplish this goal.

When the druid summons an Elemental Monolith from the sea, I can describe it as a colossal creature so tall, that seagulls circle it like tiny flies; perhaps mistaking the lumbering elemental for an island (narration). I can also have nearby enemies make a morale check or flee in terror (mechanical).

Either method or a combination of both, can help enhance that sense of awe when magic is used. No radical change in the rules is needed to get there. What also helps is to be lenient in the rules, in regards to what a spell is allowed to do. My players often run into edge cases, where it would seem a spell should be able to do something very specific, but by the rules as written, this would not be the case. I tend to allow such edge cases, especially if it makes for a better story.

Such was the case when one of my players wanted to use the spell Arcane Lock recently. As per the rules of 3.5 (which my group plays), Arcane Lock only allows the caster to freely pass. However, it made sense to me as a DM that a wizard should be able to designate others to pass as well (and this is the case for the 5e version of the spell). So I applied houserules, to facilitate something that seemed logical for the spell to be able to do.

In regards to the Elemental Monolith, the spell description doesn't say that it has a frightful presence, or that enemies must make a morale check when they see it. But narratively speaking, when a colossal elemental the size of a small island rises from the sea, wouldn't most sensible people flee in terror? So I apply the rules that already exist for such cases, despite it not literally being in the spell description.

I think especially when players cast higher level spells (Elemental Monolith is a 9th level spell), the DM should treat those spells as something awe inspiring, and narrate them as such. These are spells that very few people on the planet should be able to cast. It is not something people see every day. By having non-player characters react accordingly, the players will feel more powerful (and rightly so).
 
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pemerton

Legend
I disagree. D&D is in many ways an interactive narrative experience, so that sense of awe is determined largely in the narration

<snip>

When the druid summons an Elemental Monolith from the sea, I can describe it as a collosal creature so tall, that seagulls circle it like tiny flies; perhaps mistaking the lumbering elemental for an island (narration). I can also have nearby enemies make a morale check or flee in terror (mechanical).

Either method or a combination of both, can help enhance that sense of awe when magic is used.
If the circling seagulls make no difference to anything - are mere narration - I personally don't think that is very awesome. It's the GM establishing flavour, but that's not distinctive to the use of magic. In the seagull case, it's the meaningful change to the fiction - ie a giant thing has been conjured out of the sae - that is doing the bulk of the work.

What will make magic awesome in this case - I assert - is that the summoning of a giant elemental from the sea actually plays out in the fiction in the sort of ways one might expect. That might involve causing a morale check, but there are many other ways a giant elemental might affect people and things.
 

Haffrung

Explorer
If the circling seagulls make no difference to anything - are mere narration - I personally don't think that is very awesome. It's the GM establishing flavour, but that's not distinctive to the use of magic. In the seagull case, it's the meaningful change to the fiction - ie a giant thing has been conjured out of the sae - that is doing the bulk of the work.
Do you feel the same about fiction itself? Is the narrative drive of action-outcome the only thing that matters?

For me, one of the main pleasures of both reading fiction and playing RPGs is to transport myself to other worlds. To conjure images and sensations in my imagination. I try to do the same when I'm DMing. A couple of my players spend much of our sessions doodling and sketching, and when they draw the scenes that I'm describing I know I'm doing my job well.
 

Stormonu

Hero
Do you feel the same about fiction itself? Is the narrative drive of action-outcome the only thing that matters?
It depends. Sometimes, in a terse combat you just need the wizard to cast magic missile (and the fighter swing his sword) and move on.

There are other times when, as the player or DM, you want to be able to step back and narrate the weird world about you and give it that strange wonder. It works best though, when the two mesh and those details fantastic have consequences beside sight and sound.
 

Gammadoodler

Explorer
If the circling seagulls make no difference to anything - are mere narration - I personally don't think that is very awesome. It's the GM establishing flavour, but that's not distinctive to the use of magic. In the seagull case, it's the meaningful change to the fiction - ie a giant thing has been conjured out of the sae - that is doing the bulk of the work.

What will make magic awesome in this case - I assert - is that the summoning of a giant elemental from the sea actually plays out in the fiction in the sort of ways one might expect. That might involve causing a morale check, but there are many other ways a giant elemental might affect people and things.
I think narration and mechanical resolution are generally serving different though related purposes.

Action resolution is how you bring awe to the player character.

Narration is how you bring awe to the player.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Sadly, D&D doesn't put a lot of clubs in your bag when it comes to mechanical resolution of magic in the fiction. You have saves, hit points, and conditions. You can free-style pretty much anything you need, but that's a lot of cognitive load. Also, as mentioned above, there are no surprises or tension in the magic system itself outside of saves. Narration of window dressing is useful and good, but it only gets you so far as it's not actually changing anything about the result. That's not really a criticism of D&D though, the system is what it is. I do think an alternate magic system could be very cool though.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Sadly, D&D doesn't put a lot of clubs in your bag when it comes to mechanical resolution of magic in the fiction. You have saves, hit points, and conditions. You can free-style pretty much anything you need, but that's a lot of cognitive load. Also, as mentioned above, there are no surprises or tension in the magic system itself outside of saves. Narration of window dressing is useful and good, but it only gets you so far as it's not actually changing anything about the result. That's not really a criticism of D&D though, the system is what it is. I do think an alternate magic system could be very cool though.
I don't think an alternative magic system would make that much of a difference. Systems are systems - they'll all have mechanical characteristics, effects, and outcomes. Any system runs the risk of being fairly mundane if we think of it in those terms. That's why it makes sense to think in terms of the impact on the narrative in pemerton's posts and the description of the magic as in Imaculata's post. They're both an improvement over just thinking in mechanical terms of #dx damage with DC xx as a saving throw and checking off xx number of hit points from target A.
 

pemerton

Legend
I think narration and mechanical resolution are generally serving different though related purposes.

Action resolution is how you bring awe to the player character.

Narration is how you bring awe to the player.
To the extent that I follow this, I'm pretty sure I disagree.

Whether or not the PC is awed is a feature of the fiction. I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about how to produce certain experiences in the real world, ie among the participants in the game.

Action resolution is how players drive the game, and how they encounter, engage and establish the fiction. I don't play (as opposed to GM) all that often, but when I think about how my paladin fought his way through orcs to his horse; I how I then was able to find a retired member of my order and get advice from hime; what was exciting was the events. Not the GM's narration of the events. I can imagine what my paladin is doing fighting orcs without the GM needing to tell me. But action resolution is what makes that (shared) imagining permissible in the context of the game.

Do you feel the same about fiction itself? Is the narrative drive of action-outcome the only thing that matters?
It's the most important thing. A better thinker about RPGs than me called it story now!

one of the main pleasures of both reading fiction and playing RPGs is to transport myself to other worlds. To conjure images and sensations in my imagination. I try to do the same when I'm DMing. A couple of my players spend much of our sessions doodling and sketching, and when they draw the scenes that I'm describing I know I'm doing my job well.
My own view is that media that involve pre-authorship and editing - ie film and literature - are better for this.

The strength of RPGing as a medium lies elsewhere.
 
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