Magic, in most role playing games, is stupid. I don’t really know how else to put it. Magic is a very complex subject and as it tends to be a power that allows its wielders to exert control over reality; it creates significant hurdles to achieve a balance between fun and fairness, play-ability and wonder. As any GM or game designer can probably tell you – “magic” is often the part where stuff starts to fall apart.
When I think about the magic systems of games that I enjoy, I realize that they are often written in one of two ways: Practical Magic or Wondrous Magic. Both have their strengths and weaknesses from a play and design standpoint.
Practical Magic brings to mind games like Shadowrun. This is a world that posits a technological future full of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and lots of guns that exists right alongside the re-emergence of magic with spells, spirits, and the trappings of a fantasy game. The magic in Shadowrun though is actually quite mundane. Magic is just another tool, highly limited in its applications and following all the other rules of the game. In many ways, magic is limited to a very personal scope. You can throw a lightning bolt but it just does damage and adds a shock effect. You can make people confused, or create illusions, but these are – again – very similar to effects you can create with drugs or with hacking.
Practical magic tends to be utilitarian, to follow the game rules, and to be interesting more for the fluff than because it does anything unique or outside the other rules of the game. This is great for a designer or a GM, trying to preserve game balance or make their rules coherent, but it’s hardly thrilling.
The way that the Force is presented in various Star Wars games and the psionic powers of most sci-fi settings also tend to fall more on the Practical Magic side.
The so-called, Vancian magic (or semi-Vancian) magic of D&D and its relatives in gaming leans toward this practical magic end of the spectrum, with discrete spells, organized into discrete tiers, and each with a very particular effect and with various methods to achieve game balance by tending toward limits like spell slots per day, etc.
Wondrous Magic, the other side of my stupid balance, tends to be a bit more open-ended. Games with free form magic systems, like Mage: the Ascension are exemplars of this kind of play. The player describes an effect they want to create and the game provides a framework for whether or not they can make it happen. This is great, and creative, and opens up vistas of magic that the player can explore to their hearts content. It’s great for GMs and game designers because there are no exhaustive spell lists and you can justify anything in your game world with “it’s that free form magic, baby!”
Of course, this has its own pitfalls. Not least among them is that there are likely lots of loopholes and – players being players – these loopholes will get exploited. Depending on how the system is built (like Mage, for example) there will be natural choke points of power that become mechanical issues vs. story issues (such that certain powers open up at certain sphere ratings, so those become the “value levels” and other things are ignored). These problems can lead to arguments at the table, but even charitably, they will likely lead to a lot more on-the-fly adjudication by the GM.
Wondrous Magic also tends to create issues where the game becomes dangerously unpredictable. I’m not talking about the players circumventing the GM’s carefully designed plot. I’m thinking more about the “swing” of free form magic. When you allow the option to use magic to do just about anything… well, absolute freedom corrupts absolutely (or something like that). If a fire mage can call down a rain of meteors on enemy cities, well, someone’s going to do it. Sure, they might get corruption or paradox, or whatever penalty the game lashes to the action of wanton magic-use but these penalties are often not so severe as to have no way back for the PC (or NPC). In fact, many magical settings often have just this sort of conflagration in their histories but not in their present.
Let’s also be clear about Mutually Assured Destruction. Taking a Cold War ideal and applying it to Big Magic isn’t really as useful as you think. In the modern world, we’re likely to know who launched a nuke. But in a fantasy setting where thousands die every day under the yoke of despots, wars, and lack of hygiene… Who is keeping track that a bunch of peasants up and disappeared and got used in a blood magic ritual to power an evil spell?
Because that’s the other part of the Wondrous Magic side of things. It’s not just free form systems. You also want Wondrous Magic to feel big. Wondrous Magic should allow for stuff like blessing or cursing whole kingdoms, summoning dragons, opening portals to faerie realms, etc. But as soon as you put that kind of power in the game, you have to deal with that kind of power. And if only a few characters can do that, you end up with the game balance issue that stems not from breaking the game but rather, making characters all feel important and not like sidekicks (ye ol’ Quadratic Wizards problem).
Which, of course, is also where Vancian magic in D&D shows up again. Because even though there are limiting factors as described above, who wants to be a 23rd level Thief when the 23rd level Wizard can have their own pocket dimension, cast Wish, and has access to damage spells capable of taking out a platoon? Sure, they might only be able to do so 3 or 4 times a day but, do you want to gamble on that? Do you? Because D&D involves spells that increase in level along with your character, you eventually end up able to do crazy shit. 4th and 5th edition D&D address this problem largely by shifting the magic system to a more Practical Magic idea while attempting (at least 5e) to preserve the wonder of higher level magic. I will leave it to the reader to opine as to the success or failure of that attempt.
At the end of the day though, it’s tough to find a balance between those two extremes that creates a free-wheeling, exciting Wondrous Magic while maintaining a Practical Magic ability to keep the game working well. Making magic systems feel Wondrous while playing Practical is a holy grail I’ve yet to see recovered.
Thoughts, feelings, emotions? As always, thanks for reading.