D&D General Should magic be "mystical," unknowable, etc.? [Pick 2, no takebacks!]

Should magic be "mystical," unknowable, etc.?


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As stated in the question: Should there be something mystical, beyond the true understanding of mortals? I have seen a great many statements over the past decade (...which makes me feel old) that intimate something like this, and I'd like to hear what ENWorld has to say.

You may, of course, use your own definitions of "mystical," "unknowable," etc. But if you would like a guideline for the kind of thing I'm thinking of, it seems that most people who want this feel magic should be at least a little bit beyond human(oid) control, something with mysteries that can never be truly resolved or questions that cannot even in principle get objective answers. That "magic" might sometimes be studied with an empirical (aka "scientific") mindset, but ultimately empirical study will fail to truly capture what it is, how it works, and what it can do. That the rules of magic, if they even exist, are partially or wholly unknowable to mortal-kind.
 

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doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
To me, very physical magica like a fireball should be scientific. Down to wizards needing to understand thermodynamics to even cast Firebolt.

Spirit magic, what the occultists call invocation and evocation, should be mystical, but have ritual forms that are understandable. But no one knows why spirits of air are happy to answer summons that call them by the west wind, but not if called by the east wind.
 

doctorbadwolf

Heretic of The Seventh Circle
I think the thing for me is that I want my magic use to be ritualistic, to involve sympathetic associations, and to lead to things like the attached image, to magicians having to order thier lives and homes in idiosyncratic ways to facilitate thier work, like balancing the salt and sugar they eat because some spirit won’t talk to someone who has too much sugar in thier diet, and wearing clothes that are easy to remove so they can bathe with running water before and after a working.

I want the battle mage to have to inscribe runes or other magical symbols onto themselves and their tools and perform spells ahead of time to gather power.

I want magic to be part scientific and part awesomely strange.

The Dresden Files books do this fairly well, as an example. Harry can throw fire because he is quite powerful, but he is truly terrifying when he has time and knowledge.
 

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I ran a modern fantasy game with the premise that magic only worked if you didn't try to understand it. You had to be a bit willfully in awe of it, to let it mystify you, to bathe in the wonder. If you insisted on digging for answers, the magic would slip away.

I also have in my homebrew setting a very robust rationale for why magic works, based on the world having a sort of physics where thoughts and ideas can cause things that are thematically adjacent to operate as if they're physically adjacent. A lot of magic is just different ways of using your own thoughts or mass social movements to let energy flow from one thing to something else without going through the space between. But since nobody's got brain imaging devices, it's still very ephemeral, and -- again -- having wonder and awe at the mystical can actually help you be better at magic.
 

Kurotowa

Legend
I put down a couple of the "Maybe" choices as my closest picks. As with many things, the format of a TTRPG shapes many choices. Just like there are a lot of character archetypes that work in novels or comics but not for a PC, vague mystical magic is something that sounds cool but is kind of dreadful in practice. PC abilities need to be known, quantified, and reliable. Otherwise you're just playing a game of "DM may I?"

Now is there room to make magic a bit less sciencey? Sure, and the books have already given plenty of examples of those. Magic item creation that depends on rare symbolic components and esoteric conditions. Zones of high magic or planar alignment with special localized effects. Big plot device rituals and artifacts that have all sorts of mystical requirements. If your DM isn't using any of those it's not because they're unprecedented, but because the DM is defaulting to simplistic adventure design. And that's a different issue entirely.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
I'm a big fan of Brandon Sanderson style magic systems with clear rules that the people of the world have studied and refined over their time in the world. I especially like it that magic is actually part of the world and people have interacted with it like people rather than just a veneer painted over the world that people apparently never think to observe like we've done with literally all of existence.

I'm not fan of completely esoteric, non-reproducible 'chaos' style magic like you see in comics like where Dr. Strange will pull a new spell out of his butt or Piper will find a new thing in the book of shadows every episode and neither will ever come back again. And I say that as someone who has to write that kind of magic as part of the style.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
I prefer magic to be mysterious and chaotic. Like in WFRP and DCC. You might be able to control channeling pure extra-dimensional chaos and bring some desired effect into the world, or you might mutate yourself and/or create a portal to hell. Magic as technology is predictable, repetitive, and boring.
 

I'm a big fan of Brandon Sanderson style magic systems with clear rules that the people of the world have studied and refined over their time in the world. I especially like it that magic is actually part of the world and people have interacted with it like people rather than just a veneer painted over the world that people apparently never think to observe like we've done with literally all of existence.

I'm not fan of completely esoteric, non-reproducible 'chaos' style magic like you see in comics like where Dr. Strange will pull a new spell out of his butt or Piper will find a new thing in the book of shadows every episode and neither will ever come back again. And I say that as someone who has to write that kind of magic as part of the style.
personally, I like it when you have both living in the same setting for the evitable problems that makes and is funny to me.
 

Leatherhead

Possibly a Idiot.
Always seems to me that the questions in these kinds of threads are backwards.

What does "magic like a science" mean?

For a working model of magic in a game you have three options:
  1. Magic is a pseudo-science, where people can test things in order to figure out a reliable way of doing things.
  2. Magic is a pseudo-religion, where people are told the rules. These rules can seem arbitrary and non-sequitur (Put a green left shoe on your head and spin three times to summon lightning!), or they can be sympathetic (if you burn this lock of hair from person X in the magical brazier , you will make them burn) But either way, if you obey the rules, you get a reliable way of doing things.
  3. Magic is random chaos that no sane person would ever attempt to use, unless they were already going to die. But you can reliably do something by performing this ritual that is likely banned.​

It's always cause and effect: You do the thing, then the magic happens. Even when your head has a 5% chance to explode into a demon when you try it.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Voted for "Maybe, contextual to each table" and "Other", as the poll seems to be asking about what the overarching setup should be rather than what I do at my table; and this sort of thing is very much in the DM's court to tinker with as desired.

Had I been voting based just on what I do it would have been a lot harder, in that I have magic as being mystical in some forms (divine, mostly), scientific in other forms (arcane, mostly), and a bit of both in other forms (psionics and bardic sound, mostly) but in all cases following the same universal set of underlying rules-of-setting-physics that characters in-game may or may not be able to learn about if they so desire (IME no-one really ever cares).

Magic is also dangerous, and releasing it in ways unintended (interrupted spell, breaking a magic item, etc.) can cause wild surges with results ranging from near-nothing (common) to great benefit to lots of pain and death (both rare).
 

AcererakTriple6

Autistic DM (he/him)
What does "magic like a science" mean?
Two words: Brandon Sanderson. He popularized the terms "Hard" and "Soft" magic system with Mistborn and the rest of the Cosmere. When people think of "Magic as science", they mean settings like the Cosmere where magic is basically a part of the laws of physics, and everything magical that happens in the setting can be explained by a particular application of magic.

This thread should probably be named "Should D&D's magic system be Hard Magic or Soft Magic". There is a spectrum, with some hard magic systems having soft elements (like the Knights Radiant from the Stormlight Archive) and some soft magic systems having hard elements (Bending from Avatar: the Last Airbender, for example), and there are even settings with both Hard and Soft Magic systems, but magic systems do generally fall into being "soft" and being "hard".
 


Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
I picked "always mystical" and "clear rules," both.

My favorite magic system in a TTRPG is in Dungeon Crawl Classics. Magic has rules, which can be learned and studied. And those who learn and study magic can use it effectively and pretty reliably.

But using magic is risky, no matter how well you study it. There's always a chance you make a mistake. And those mistakes can be very costly.
 
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Fanaelialae

Legend
Two words: Brandon Sanderson. He popularized the terms "Hard" and "Soft" magic system with Mistborn and the rest of the Cosmere. When people think of "Magic as science", they mean settings like the Cosmere where magic is basically a part of the laws of physics, and everything magical that happens in the setting can be explained by a particular application of magic.

This thread should probably be named "Should D&D's magic system be Hard Magic or Soft Magic". There is a spectrum, with some hard magic systems having soft elements (like the Knights Radiant from the Stormlight Archive) and some soft magic systems having hard elements (Bending from Avatar: the Last Airbender, for example), and there are even settings with both Hard and Soft Magic systems, but magic systems do generally fall into being "soft" and being "hard".
Yeah, but in this respect, pretty much all TTRPGs fall into hard magic systems with respect to the rules facing elements. The only way to use a soft magic system is to go free form.

This calls to one of Sanderson's Laws, which (to paraphrase) is that your ability to solve problems in a satisfying manner is proportional to how well understood (by the reader, not the characters) the magic system is. If you have a completely free form system, there's absolutely nothing to prevent a caster from casting deus ex machina at any time, and therefore it can be very unsatisfying for problems to be solved by magic.

Which is why the vast majority of RPGs have well defined (hard) magic systems. The game would be grossly unsatisfying if, anytime the GM presents an obstacle, the mages simply respond by casting Solve Problem.

Of course, just because magic is well defined from a player perspective, doesn't necessitate that it is understood equally well by the characters (this is even true of Sanderson's novels). They could even be obfuscated from the players (managed by the GM) and still count for hard magic.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
In my opinion magic = sci/tech. No society that has a foundation of economics would allow for magic to remain in the shadows once it was discovered what it could do. Someone would ALWAYS pay good money to see it flourish for economic gain. Especially once it became known that the power of what 9th level spells could do-- as soon as any of this magic became known, people with money would rush to get as many of their employees up to speed on how to tap into it.

The idea that magic was only known by a select few individuals and was a complete mystery to everyone else is a bunch of hooey. It makes absolutely no sense. :)
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
In my opinion magic = sci/tech. No society that has a foundation of economics would allow for magic to remain in the shadows once it was discovered what it could do. Someone would ALWAYS pay good money to see it flourish for economic gain. Especially once it became known that the power of what 9th level spells could do-- as soon as any of this magic became known, people with money would rush to get as many of their employees up to speed on how to tap into it.

The idea that magic was only known by a select few individuals and was a complete mystery to everyone else is a bunch of hooey. It makes absolutely no sense. :)
Power (ie, money) has never been hoarded by the powerful to the detriment of those with less power? I think it absolutely does make sense. Certainly not in every setting (such as those with egalitarian themes), but definitely for others.

Moreover, if magic is dangerous and unpredictable, harnessing it as technology can be nonsensical. "Well, the magitech generators will generally turn into a demonic horror or go off like a nuke, on average within a 30 day window. But prior to all the death and decimation that usually ensues such a transformation, you can power 100,000 homes on a single generator. Score!"
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
Power (ie, money) has never been hoarded by the powerful to the detriment of those with less power? I think it absolutely does make sense. Certainly not in every setting (such as those with egalitarian themes), but definitely for others.

Moreover, if magic is dangerous and unpredictable, harnessing it as technology can be nonsensical. "Well, the magitech generators will generally turn into a demonic horror or go off like a nuke, on average within a 30 day window. But prior to all the death and decimation that usually ensues such a transformation, you can power 100,000 homes on a single generator. Score!"
You can to hoard the power all you want... but as soon as other people know what you can accomplish there is immediately an arms race on it. I mean, once electricity was discovered, did it remain locked away for centuries with no one except the inner circle of Thomas Edison able to use it? Of course not. As soon as it became known as a thing, everyone started working on it and with it and advancing their knowledge on it. And magic isn't unpredictable, because we have entire rulebooks explaining exactly how and why it gets harnessed, and rules for allowing people to gain the experience to cast 9th level spells in a matter of years if not months.

And yet in some of these campaign settings we're supposed to believe that there has been the knowledge and capability of making Wishes for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and yet no one has have bothered to mass produce the ability or the people to tap into it. To me, that's just silly. It's no different than all the talk in the past about how there are all these druids and nature clerics in these settings who know how to cast Plant Growth and yet the settings are still stuck in these medieval agrarian farming times. It's dumb, in my opinion.

As a result, I just handwave all these logical inconsistencies when I play and consider it a cost of doing business in the fantasy genre. And I don't blame anyone for it, nor feel the need to delve into the rule system to try and come up with some sort of explanation for why everything happens (as I've seen others here on the boards get all bent out of shape about it.)
 

vincegetorix

Jewel of the North
I'm in the camp where magic, much like the divinity of High Powers, is based on faith and belief. If you are convinced that your magic is real, and the target has the slightest doubt that it may be possible that someone calls down lightning, the magic works. Its a matter of will and cunning surpassing the disbelieve of another person.

To us, magic is an Art, much like music or painting; there's naturally a part of science in it, but in the end it is the science of layering your own conception of reality over another creature's. A Grand Illusion, if you will, a Prestige trick so convincing and mysterious that the fabric of reality glitch for a moment and the Prestige actually happens and becomes real.

And like everything, practice makes perfect.
 

It mainly depends on the setting, the DM and players interpretation.
I like to imagine that there are « others » spells and rituals not listed in the phb.
Many fantasy and games tie magic with personality, alignment, belief. Just a step aside Magic the gathering, has a totally different look at magic usage.

One sure thing, Dnd has no mechanics to handle magic other from what is listed in spells and classes description.
 

Fanaelialae

Legend
You can to hoard the power all you want... but as soon as other people know what you can accomplish there is immediately an arms race on it. I mean, once electricity was discovered, did it remain locked away for centuries with no one except the inner circle of Thomas Edison able to use it? Of course not. As soon as it became known as a thing, everyone started working on it and with it and advancing their knowledge on it. And magic isn't unpredictable, because we have entire rulebooks explaining exactly how and why it gets harnessed, and rules for allowing people to gain the experience to cast 9th level spells in a matter of years if not months.

And yet in some of these campaign settings we're supposed to believe that there has been the knowledge and capability of making Wishes for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and yet no one has have bothered to mass produce the ability or the people to tap into it. To me, that's just silly. It's no different than all the talk in the past about how there are all these druids and nature clerics in these settings who know how to cast Plant Growth and yet the settings are still stuck in these medieval agrarian farming times. It's dumb, in my opinion.

As a result, I just handwave all these logical inconsistencies when I play and consider it a cost of doing business in the fantasy genre. And I don't blame anyone for it, nor feel the need to delve into the rule system to try and come up with some sort of explanation for why everything happens (as I've seen others here on the boards get all bent out of shape about it.)
I wasn't just referring to D&D magic. Even limiting it to D&D, wild magic exists, and we can certainly imagine a setting where all magic is wild. Or a setting like Dark Sun where magic literally destroyed the world, and the few remaining super-powerful mages hoard their power.

To use a real world example, literacy was a means of betterment in ye days of olde, so why didn't every peasant learn to read and write?

There's a matter of capacity and opportunity. Sorcery requires natural talent, divine magic requires strong faith, and wizardry requires intelligence and study. Not everyone necessarily has both capacity and opportunity. If only 1 in a million people have the gift for harnessing magic, then mages are extremely rare. Maybe someone even tries a breeding program (or such) but all they discover is that the gift is truly random. What then?

Like I said before, what you say makes sense for certain settings (particularly those with egalitarian themes). I strongly disagree that it is applicable to all settings (even if we are to limit ourselves to just D&D).
 

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