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

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


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Fanaelialae

Legend
There is definitely a middle ground.

For instance, in the game I’m writing, types of magic are skills, or require complex rituals (basically skill challenge), in a system where you cannot ever get guaranteed success (only statistically very probable success).

In this system, each skill describes the sorts of things it can do, and what general principles underpin it. Then, you use skills like the physics engine in Gary’s Mod. The limits are scale and frequency of use, with spendable tied to attributes to overcome either limit or just juice a check into greater levels of success.
Absolutely. Hard and soft magic is a sliding scale, rather than discrete qualities. A dynamic magic system that has rules dictating its use would be softer than a rote magic system, but would still be on the hard side of the scale (since it is still defined by rules, even if those rules leave some wiggle room).
 

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beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
I don't like the idea of mixing magic with science. If you can explain magic with science, it's no longer magic.

Magic implies a mysterious unknown force that can't be explained at a fundamental level.
 

Oofta

Legend
I view magic as tapping into power that exists everywhere in my campaign world. Call it the weave, aether, dark (magical) energy, what have you. Even things like anti magic zones only cut people off from easily accessing magic, it doesn't rid the area of inherent magic.

Some creatures such as dragons have evolved to use magic internally, it's part of their very essence with is why they aren't affected by anti magic zones. Even humans have some inherent magical abilities, they just don't realize it. It's why people can heal so quickly but to them it's just normal.

So there's multiple ways of focusing that energy into something perceptible. Wizards and artificers treat it similar to science, paladins by force of will, clerics by having power channeled through deities which in turn are just channeling energy gained by the prayers and belief of their followers. Some, like sorcerers, may not know how they tap into that energy so for them it's mystical.

But there is no one answer for every campaign and setting, and I don't think there needs or should be. Vive la difference.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Magic hardness is a spectrum. At the far ends you have magic with precise, reliable, empirically testable rules, and magic that is completely unknowable and acts seemingly at random. In between those extremes, there is a wide array of possibilities.
I have no issues with this, I just recon that a gamble system has a lower bound on the softness of the magic system.

I should note that magic could be presented "in world" as mysterious uncertain and rare, while the characters use it with little real downsides because of "plot protection", though D&D is really not that system.
Though low magic D&D (where the players and their opponents) are the only powerful magic users, comes close.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
I never got the opportunity to play Ars Magica but even so the player using the spontaneous magic rules will have some expectation of success? will they not? This to me is still a hard magic system. Fantasy Literature that employ soft magic, the magic remains unknown and mysterious to the reader and most of the characters. One never knows what may or may not be done with it. Which is why as a literary trope it is very easy to mess up.
It also makes it hard for gaming if you have spellcasters in your game. The magicians need to have some understanding of the scope of what they can do for a game to work. (If you don't have actual PC spellcasters but do have magic that's another story - the modern campaign where the players are investigating weird occult phenomenon that has no rational explanation without access to the occult themselves - or with access that they can use but not understand - is a trope that works in a horror game quite well IME).
 


If the player character wizards can use magic, the players need to know the rules - which means there need to be rules to follow. Otherwise the whole game losses coherency. Th idea that a wizard doesn't know how spellcasting works just breaks my brain.

In a game very unlike DnD, where being a wizard simply isn't an option, you could possibly go another route.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I have no issues with this, I just recon that a gamble system has a lower bound on the softness of the magic system.
A gamble system? Like where you decide what you want the magic to do but there’s a chance something might go wrong, which increases proportionally to the power of the effect you chose? To me that seems like a pretty good balance point of magic hardness for an RPG. It allows the degree of predictably and controllability necessary for an RPG where the PCs’ actions are generally under the players’ control, while emulating a bit of the wildness and unpredictability of a softer magic system.
I should note that magic could be presented "in world" as mysterious uncertain and rare, while the characters use it with little real downsides because of "plot protection", though D&D is really not that system.
Yeah, although you have to be careful with this, lest you end up with ludonarrative dissonance. Using a very hard mechanical system to represent magic that is supposed to be soft in the narrative can end up making things feel disjointed. This is why the gambling system idea is a decent compromise. Randomization is a really good way of making highly constructed systems feel naturalistic.
Though low magic D&D (where the players and their opponents) are the only powerful magic users, comes close.
Yeah, this is kind of the best I, as a person who prefers more historical, esoteric magic, can do with D&D. The kind of world that D&D’s magic actually suggests is… Well, it’s Eberron, full stop. Eberron is, in my opinion, pretty much the perfect expression of a setting that accepts D&D’s magic at face value and explores the implications of such magic and the effects it would have on a world. Unfortunately for me, it isn’t the sort of magic I really want from my fantasy, so I have to go the route of mostly ignoring magic and assuming spellcasting PCs are the incredibly rare exceptions.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
A gamble system? Like where you decide what you want the magic to do but there’s a chance something might go wrong, which increases proportionally to the power of the effect you chose? To me that seems like a pretty good balance point of magic hardness for an RPG. It allows the degree of predictably and controllability necessary for an RPG where the PCs’ actions are generally under the players’ control, while emulating a bit of the wildness and unpredictability of a softer magic system.
I have generally found that any gamble mechanic strong enough to make magic seeming mysterious and uncontrolled tends to put players off from playing magic using characters unless the game is like Call of Cthulhu where the scenario only lasts a couple of sessions.
Where losing your remaining SAN, becoming a minion of Hastur and sacrificing the party is part of the fun.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
I never got the opportunity to play Ars Magica but even so the player using the spontaneous magic rules will have some expectation of success? will they not?

They will have, but not only of success, but also on actual power delivered and possible side effects, but these might be vague. The spell might succeed only partially for example, and when looking at faerie magic, it's even more vague.

This to me is still a hard magic system. Fantasy Literature that employ soft magic, the magic remains unknown and mysterious to the reader and most of the characters. One never knows what may or may not be done with it. Which is why as a literary trope it is very easy to mess up.

I did not say that it would be perfectly soft, but it's a way to make it way softer than D&D.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I have generally found that any gamble mechanic strong enough to make magic seeming mysterious and uncontrolled tends to put players off from playing magic using characters unless the game is like Call of Cthulhu where the scenario only lasts a couple of sessions.
Where losing your remaining SAN, becoming a minion of Hastur and sacrificing the party is part of the fun.
I really like how Mage the Awakening 2e does it. That’s one of my favorite magic systems in an RPG, and certainly my favorite version of a gamble mechanic. Basically, you have your various Arcana (essentially schools of magic) which determine the base effects you can produce, which default to single target, touch range, instantaneous duration, etc. and then you have a resource called “Reach” that you can expend to scale those factors up - kind of like Metamagic in D&D. As your mastery of an Arcanum increases, you get more base effects, and extra Reach to spend on spells using the lower-level effects within that Arcanum. The kicker is, you can actually spend more Reach than you technically “have”, but if you do, the GM gets to roll some “Paradox dice”, and successes allow them to cancel out some of your Reach effects or add additional ones of their choosing. I’m simplifying a bit, but that’s the basic premise. The important part for this conversation is that it creates a feeling that magic is extremely flexible, but risky to attempt to perform feats that are beyond your level of mastery. If you stick to simple stuff you’ve done a million times and know you can do safely, it’s quite reliable. But if you push yourself to do more, the magic can escape your control. (Sort of; in the lore there’s more going on there than the magic itself being chaotic).

Steering the topic back to esoterica, the other cool thing about Awakening 2e’s magic system is that you can give yourself bonus dice (which can help you contain the effects of paradox - you only need one success to achieve your intended effect, and you can spend additional successes to cancel out the effects of the GM’s successes on their Paradox dice) by using symbolic and ritual elements in the casting. Theoretically a mage can do magic naked, blindfolded, and gagged with their hands behind their back. But using magic words, gestures, tools, and other accoutrements makes it easier to reliably achieve your desired effects, and reduces the risk associated with over-reaching.
 

MGibster

Legend
Gonna add that I absolutely love magic as technology because there is a lot of creativity that can be had with both how magic would effect the form of conventional tech as well as what tech ends up advancing with magic in place of our conventional means.
I can see the attraction. For me, it gives me Flintstones vibes. We just replace modern technology with magic and move on with the story. I can just picture the camera panning to an Otyugh in the sewer eating crap, staring into the camera, shrugging its tentacles, and saying, "Eh, it's a living."
 

MGibster

Legend
I will say that I think most of us are coming at this from a fairly modern perspective where we separate science and magic. If you read early modern manuscripts like Demonology in the Form of a Dialogue (1597) by James I, the speakers don't separate necromancy, sorcery, or witchcraft from the real world. It's part of the real world.
 

I will say that I think most of us are coming at this from a fairly modern perspective where we separate science and magic. If you read early modern manuscripts like Demonology in the Form of a Dialogue (1597) by James I, the speakers don't separate necromancy, sorcery, or witchcraft from the real world. It's part of the real world.
Part of the foundation of the empirical project (what is often casually called "science") was building an observational baseline of the world. The difficulty of preserving and communicating information hampered this for a very long time. As such barriers were lifted, particularly with the invention of the printing press, magic found itself driven to the edges. On the one hand, because the observations of luminaries became a lot easier to draw on; on the other, because the more outlandish observations became easier to see as...well, outlandish.

You saw a similar process start to happen in the Roman Empire before its collapse. They had inherited the notion of Ultima Thule from the Greeks, who had had extremely limited accounts of a location that is most likely Great Britain or one of its islands. Ultima Thule was supposed to be quite fantastical, and the Romans expected to see such things when they conquered what we now call England. But since they found none of that, they assumed that this was just a mistaken attribution, and that the real Ultima Thule must be further north--ever further, since no matter how far north they sailed they didn't find it. But now we've sailed the whole world; we've removed any "edges" from the map. There is nowhere left for Ultima Thule to be.

Magic and "science" were ultimately the same thing, an attempt to leash the powers of existence to the human will. "Science"--empirical study--flourished because, y'know, it actually works, more or less.* Magic only fell by the wayside because it ended up being actually ineffective when put to proof...and as all the snake-oil salesmen and "breatharians" and the like demonstrate, it never truly died, it just went underground. The siren song of "if you find out The Secret, you can have control" is too tempting for most folks to ignore, though the vast majority of it lies in very mundane things (like "jinxing" something by speaking about a bad possible event before it might occur).

*Not calling into question the overall success of modern science, but rather that individual studies are a lot less reliable than I'd like. The replication crisis in psychology, for example, or known issues with p-hacking and other dubious activities. I did a report on the issues with peer review and the status of scientific claims in the public eye, and predicted that things were about to get really really bad if scientists didn't start owning the narrative and addressing the mistaken image they and others had built. Naturally, what I recommended didn't happen...and most of what I feared did, in ways worse than I could have imagined.
 
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Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
I will say that I think most of us are coming at this from a fairly modern perspective where we separate science and magic. If you read early modern manuscripts like Demonology in the Form of a Dialogue (1597) by James I, the speakers don't separate necromancy, sorcery, or witchcraft from the real world. It's part of the real world.
That’s what I’m saying! Magic, historically, was very much a sort of proto-science. Someone gets sick, you give them some herbs and say some prayers, and they get better. So, the next time someone gets sick, you give them those same herbs and say those same prayers. Over time, the effective techniques get passed on and the ineffective ones die out. It’s not that magic and science are opposed, it’s that we’ve gotten so good at magic, we’ve managed to almost completely demystify it. Though, some science involves such specialized knowledge, it kind of has been re-mystified for much of the population. I look at high-level physics equations and they might as well be arcane sigils to me.
 

I think if magic is intended to be used by PCs and not primarily arbitrary (i.e. existing almost entirely by fictional logic) it needs at least some rules. Neither of those qualifications is, of course, strictly necessary.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
skill based magic systems are good because while they let a wizard know generally what the ingredients and procedures to achieve a result are, theres still the element of luck at play to see if it actually works or not, even better in systems that allow “success with a consequence”/wild magic backfires, so that the player never knows quite what theyre going to get.

ie magic should be mysterious but the process should be comprehensible to those who attempt to ‘unravel its secrets’
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
I will say that I think most of us are coming at this from a fairly modern perspective where we separate science and magic. If you read early modern manuscripts like Demonology in the Form of a Dialogue (1597) by James I, the speakers don't separate necromancy, sorcery, or witchcraft from the real world. It's part of the real world.
John Maynard Keynes in a 1946 lecture on Sir Isaac Newton organised by The Royal Society of London notes: “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago. Isaac Newton, a posthumous child born with no father on Christmas Day, 1642, was the last wonderchild to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.
 

beancounter

(I/Me/Mine)
Arthur C Clarke would like a word with you.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

But that presumes there is sufficiently advanced technology in the D&D universe. I know that the D&D universe encompasses many worlds, but I'd say most of them exist somewhere between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. ** - D&D is a fantasy game after all. Not a SciFi game.

I suppose the aliens from the "Expedition to the barrier peaks" could be involved, but they were never fleshed out beyond that one module.

** Personally, I don't view D&D as a version of "Land of the Lost" where different ages get tossed together.
 

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