Saturday, 1 June 2013

Monitors: making magic 2

So as I mentioned last time, I'm currently thinking about how to handle magic in the world of Monitors. Turns out it's not that easy. As so often before, I'm going to pull back a mo and think about magic in general, rather than just spells.

What is magic anyway?

One of the ideas I've been turning over in my head is the question of what magic actually means in a game.

The traditional (that is, Dungeons and Dragons) version of magic tends to be all-inclusive. Wizards (or clerics, or druids) are knowledgeable about magic, learn spells and increase in arcane power as they gain experience, and acquire and wield powerful magical artefacts. However, my new theory is that you can sort of break magic down into a few different facets that don't necessarily have to be correlated. Later D&D did this to some extent and some other RPGs do; dunno if it's deliberate or not.

Broadly speaking, I think you can identify mystical knowledge, spells, arcane might, crafting ability and using artefacts as distinct elements within "magic". If you squint a bit you can pretend they correspond roughly to, say... theoretical physics, rote mechanic training, physical strength, blacksmithing skill and weapons training. Yeah, spells are pretty tricky... It's like how someone can have expert knowledge of both geology and physics, but not know how to knap flint or skim stones. Or have a fabulous talent for mathematics and computing theory, but not actually know any programming. On the other hand, someone else might know some code that does something, but not understand how or why. Or know an array of martial arts techniques without understanding the biology or physics that explains their effects.

Yes, I know it's not an exact equivalent. On account of how magic isn't real and anyway works differently in every game. Work with me here.

Mystical Knowledge

This facet of magic is a largely theoretical one (albeit often with practical applications). The character understands the rules that govern magic and magical entities, can identify magical beings and famous wizards, read mystical sigils, interpret cult rituals, and possibly reverse-engineer existing spells.

In theory you could break this down again into knowledge of magic itself, versus knowledge of magical beings, famous magicians, magical alphabets and codes, and other fluffier disciplines. I won't, though.


Knowledge of spells determines what types of things the character can actually do using magic. Obviously, it'll depend on the magic system in play; some have very distinct spells, others use broad talent groups. Characters with a broader range of spells have more flexibility. Some spells may be inherently more powerful than others.

Arcane Might

Often, there's variation between characters' ability to wield magical power. This may be largely innate, like raw muscle, though exercise may help. It could also be a matter of training, which improves ability to focus or to control magical energy.

There's often a correlation between knowledge of spells and arcane might, but it doesn't have to be so. I believe Deathwatch makes a distinction, and forces characters to choose whether to become broader or stronger in their magical capabilities. A character might well know a single spell, but have enormous reserves of power or great finesse in using the spell. Another character might know a large range of spells, but not use any of them very effectively; in the same way that someone might know many combat manoeuvres, but not be strong or fast enough to use them well in a fight.

Crafting ability

Almost all magical settings feature items with magical properties, as well as spells - and in myth and fantasy I suspect they're actually more common. So someone's got to make them, right? Depending how magic works in your universe, a character's ability to create magical items may depend on their knowledge of spells or of arcane theory. On the other hand, some characters might simply have supernatural creative skills that allow them to create uncanny paintings, clothing, weapons or other items. For very complex artefacts, this is less likely. Crafting ability might also come into play when repairing or perhaps disabling magical artefacts.

As it happens I don't plan to feature crafting in Monitors, but hey.

Using Artefacts

Artefacts are often complex and temperamental things, and it's a bad idea for the ignorant to tamper with them. Your best bet, of course, is to have been specifically trained to use this kind of artefact. While there are some artefacts out there that will require considerable arcane power, or knowledge of a specific spell, for the most part practice is likely to be key. This is, in fact, a lot like technological artefacts: using an outboard motor, or a rifle, can be made easier by physical attributes and some idea of the science involved, but training has overriding weight. Similarly, if I find the computer running the spaceship's life support, having memorised the code for twenty unrelated programs is of no help in keeping the crew alive.

Broadly speaking I think you can split artefacts into rare and common types. Rare artefacts are one-offs or highly unusual, and PCs aren't likely to have seen them before, so they'll need to use theoretical knowledge and research to understand and use the artefact. Common types are well-known, so it's a case of having experience of them: this would cover things like wands, Seven League Boots, magic carpets, crystal balls and so on.

In most cases this is going to be a case of how you mechanically handle competence, not a separate lot of abilities just for artefact use. But of course, you could do that in a very magic-heavy setting.

The main conclusion of all that is, knowledge and spells and magical power don't have to be the same, or even correlated. A system can allow for vary ability along any of those three axes, and levelling could affect any of them independently.

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