Owning Your World #2: Making Magic Work


Magic is a fundamental force in many campaign settings. Most players have come to expect it, and a lot of the things you are thinking about adding to your world will rely upon it, so unless the world you are designing is barren of magic it is important to consider some things about how it works. When you are using ideas from pre-published sources, it becomes even more important to take the time to figure out how it's all going to fit together.

Magic...one of the things that separates fantasy roleplaying from period simulation is this mysterious force. Every setting handles magic in a slightly different way, with different rules governing spell effects, how powerful magic is, and who can use it. Indeed, in your setting magic may not be mysterious at all. In a good setting, there is always some underlying theory that holds magic together.

One familiar default is the division of...divine and arcane

One familiar default is the division of magic into two separate groups...divine and arcane. In this model, divine magic is granted by the gods or some higher power. Some exist who can draw on this power without a divine medium, such as druids, paladins, and clerics who adhere to an ideal rather than a specific god's teachings; thus, the source of divine magic generally involves the realm of belief. Arcane magic on the other hand is more of a hermetic pursuit; the intellect, will, or force of personality acts as the medium through which the caster controls unseen forces to bend reality to his will.

This division is a good place to start, but it only covers the ways in which those who will populate your world use magic. It doesn't focus on the nature of magic itself, nor does it add any flavor to the setting you are developing. In fact, you need not even make the distinction between divine and arcane magic in your world, though depending on the rules system you are using it may make your life easier later on if you do. I recently began developing a setting where the only distinction is on paper, and for all intents and purposes divine and arcane magic are one and the same. The key to this is the answer to the first question you should ask yourself when deciding how magic works in your world.

1) What is the Source of Magic?

Though it may remain a mystery to the players for the rest of the campaigns you run in your world, as the GM you still must know where magic comes from. There are many possible answers to this question, and none are better than any others. However, to maintain consistency and continuity it is important to decide the source of magic from the outset. It could be resonant energy left over from the death of an ancient god, a weave of unseen force that can be manipulated to achieve certain effects, or anything in between.

Just keep in mind that whatever you choose is going to lead to more questions that you must answer as you go along. Keep a few pages in your setting notebook where you list those questions as you build your world, and try to answer as many of them as possible before even running your first session in the setting. All that work will flesh out the ideas you had as you went along, and make your world a more believable place.

2) Place Limits

...it is still wise to place limits on exactly how powerful magic is.

While it is true that magic can accomplish things beyond the capabilities of average people, it is still wise to place limits on exactly how powerful magic is. Those limits can be set as low or high as you want...it is your world after all...but you must know where those limits are in order to determine where the power available to mortal men ends and that of higher beings begins. Unless you are building a very high-magic, high-fantasy setting, it would likely be wise to set a limit on what the gods themselves can accomplish with the power available from the source of magic you determined in the first step.

This is especially true when harvesting ideas from other sources to help put your setting together. Take the Forgotten Realms as an example. As prevalent as magic is, there are still limits as to what it can accomplish. Those limits are set quite high however, so you may want to think twice before allowing the Archmage prestige class from that setting into your world if a low magic feel is what you are after. Likewise if the Realms' ceiling on magic is too low for your tastes, you may want to make that same prestige class ten levels instead of five in order to suit what you had in mind for a very powerful wizard at the top of his game.

Whatever you do, try not to budge on where you set your limit as your campaigns in this setting progress. In the long run, you'll be glad you took the consistent approach. Just remember the carpenters' rule...measure twice, and cut once.

3) Decide How Common Magic Is

While this seems as though it should be loosely related to the previous point, it is important to note that whether or not magic is capable of incredible feats doesn't necessarily make it common. You could opt for a model where magic is only capable of relatively mundane effects but is as common as freckles, and likewise you could have a great deal of power in the hands of relatively few people. Deciding right at the start how common magic is will help you with the next step in making magic work in your new world.

4) Think About Society

Magic, more than many other things, will have an effect on the society of your world. Depending on how common magic is it will shape the rise and fall of empires, change the way armies do battle, add new angles to criminal intent, alter courting rituals, and even affect how fast or slow technology develops.

For example, a world with very common magic drawn from a known source that is capable of incredible effects will not likely develop technology as fast as a world with the opposite: uncommon, weak magic, drawn from a mysterious or unknown source. Just look at our own world and the amazingly fast technological advancement we have achieved compared to that of some of your favorite fantasy settings. That's not to say however that a high-magic world wouldn't seem as advanced as a high-technology world. For another example, there was a city in the setting that inspired this series of articles which had almost a sci-fi like feel to it simply due to the amount of time they had been experimenting with magic in open, regimented ways.

The main thing to keep in mind is that magic will shape society -- not just after your campaign starts, but before that as well. Work it into your timeline, and make sure that it has an impact on the culture and society of your world in the same way that technology would.

5) Never Ever Ever Forget About Scrying

So many campaigns have been ruined by the powers of divination and foresight. If scrying, prophecy, and remote viewing are magical effects you want in your world determine from the outset how they work and the limitations on those abilities. Some settings will have their flavor reinforced by the simple gift of vague foresight, but others need grand bold prophecies in order to fulfill the Gamemaster's vision.

Are visions and portents hard to decipher, or are they clear cut? If you have made a distinction between arcane and divine magic, you will also need to consider that distinction when it comes to this point as well. Can only the gods grant visions, or can a wily sorcerer glean some truth from a few well cast stones?

Essentially, you need to know what access your players will have to information about the world, and what information the world can find about your players through the use of magic. Drawing the lines before you run into any issue will save a lot of problems later on down the road, and give the setting you are building one more layer of "believability" when the players see that though magic can help them learn about the world around them, it can help their allies as well.

6) Magic Items

Magic items can make a fantasy story truly memorable.

Magic items can make a fantasy story truly memorable. Elric had Stormbringer, Arthur had Excalibur, Aladdin had the lamp, and Frodo had that bloody ring. Since the goal of most fantasy campaigns is to tell a compelling story as a group through the actions of the heroes, it feels natural to include things such as these into our worlds. It is therefore crucial to the world design process to determine how things come to be in your world, and how prevalent they are. Apply all the same steps as you would for magic itself to the items that those who wield it can create. If you want a low fantasy campaign with grit and scars, it's not a good idea to place an apothecary in each village to dispense healing potions to all the adventurers that pass through town.

The same goes for magical weapons. In some settings, it suits the feel of the campaign to have the players constantly trading up for better and stronger weapons. I personally do not like the disposable feel that this can lend to magic, and so opt for a different approach. I design magical weapons that grow in power with the user so as to reinforce how special magic is, rather than cheapen it.

7) Allow for Growth

As with all aspects of world design, make sure you leave room in your world for the growth and evolution of magic, if that is something you so desire. If you would rather magic be a static, unchanging force then this is not as important; but sometimes going against your vision can create interesting events in your world. Things like this should be rare occurrences however so that when, for example, a new kind of magic is discovered during the campaign it really feels special, rather than coming across as cheap.

The most important thing to remember when laying out how magic works in your world is that it is just that...magic. Not every question needs an answer right away, but a strong framework of how you want your setting to feel when it comes to the topic of magic will help you decide what is a good fit for your world, and what is not. Make rules, but don't be afraid to break them for dramatic effect.

Very nice article, SF.

Two quick notes:
First, magic in your campaign, perhaps more than anything else, is dependent on the rule system you use. Keep this in mind and choose a ruleset that fits your vision of magic (or design magic so that it fits with the rules you use).

Second, you might want to have a glimpse at the new Tome of Magic from WotC. While it has little relation to the old one(s), it presents three new types of magic (pact magic, truename magic and shadow magic) to use with 3.5e (and might give you some interesting ideas even if you don't use D&D).

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I don't think that there is a case for "1 rule of magic". I've been in severall games where different characters had different magical styles that were not related or compatible. Using Gurps as an example, I've seen the MAGIC system in a game with the CABAL system, and a homebrewed version of STORMBRINGER. It adds somw wonder even between the mages with the "holy crap, how did you do that" effect.

Another excellent article Scott. I've been looking forward to this one. Gamegrene seems to be making a revival!

Will the next one look at politics as you mentioned before?

I don't think that there is a case for "1 rule of magic".

Hmm... like many other opinions about games, it boils down to "it depends".

If you want a game world that feels real and acts consistently in all cases, you should probably think about the source of magical power and how different character types funnel this power to create their magical effects.

had different magical styles that were not related or compatible.

While that's acceptible in a game, it kind of breaks the consistency rule and makes the world a little less believable, IMO. Your mileage may vary, but I like a game world where even the fantastic has its own set of "physics" -- rules (even if unknown to the players) that define what is and isn't possible and how magic behaves. If one allows a game where "anything goes" as far as magic is concerned, it feels to me like the GM is just allowing anything to be thrown in chaotically whether it fits the genre or not, and hurts my suspension of disbelief.

Now, I'm not saying the GM needs to write down these rules like a quantum mechanics textbook, but s/he does need to give it some thought and have a mental framework about how magic works, its limits and affects on society.

As an aside, we all often share the conceit about high-magic society looking and feeling like Midieval or Renaissance Europe or perhaps the Roman Empire when really magic would change society greatly from what we had in history. Think of what gun powder did to the age of castles -- it made them irrelevant. Once cannons were introduced to the battle field, castle walls would not hold up a day. Same goes for lightning bolts, fireballs and all those other siege-like powers that D&D-style mages have. Castle would become useless. War became less about seiges and more about marching large battallions of men back and forth with such nastly weapons as machines guns, artillery and tanks. Magical warfare would have much more in common with modern day warfare...

In addition, agricultural/plant magic would change the fief system completely... but I digress.

Actually, the next article will focus on racial absolutes and paradigms...and how to use and bend those rules to make races your own, rather part of the implied setting that inspired them.

I want to do an article on politics as soon as I can...but I don't know if I qualify as an authority on the subject or not. Many of my attempts at including complex political scenarios in my campaigns have been catastrophic failures (from my point of view...my players seem to have enjoyed these failures; but that only makes me capable of writing about hiding your own screw ups from your players), so if I wrote an article on it it would consist mainly of things *not* to do. If someone else beats me to it, I know I wouldn't complain ;)

Thanks for the feedback so far folks...much appreciated as always.

In my own campaigns I've tried to make each type of magic seem as different from the others as possible, but only in a flavour text sort of way. On paper, I always try to have a consistent rules set that handles all the possibilities...not just for game world consistency, but for ease of planning as well. I find it far easier to see clearly in front of me who can do what to who, and how those powers compare to each other.

As an example, in my current campaign there are only two types of magic. There's the powers one can draw from the Source (which is a force like the Green in Monte Cook's Arcana Evolved); these powers are the ones that Bards, Rangers and Druids use, and are loosely tied to the Fey that live deep in the mists and shadows of the world. The other force is an ambiguous and ill-understood magical flow from ages ago...no one really knows how to use it, so it doesn't yet have a name. Currently there aren't even any NPCs that use this older power, as all that *is* understood about it is that it was the reason that the ancient civilization that once inhabited the valley disappeared...abuse of power.

As different as these two types of magical power seem from a flavor point of view they are identical on paper. One type is used by the Bards, Rangers, and Druids; the other by Wizards. These are the only spell casting classes in the setting. In fact, they aren't even called Bards, Druids or Rangers...and their are currently no Wizards (that the players know of ;). However, there are consistent rules to govern on paper what these classes are capable of. The differences between them exist solely in the realm of our imaginations.

I agree with anyone who agrees that even in fantasy the GM should have a set of laws (no matter how complex) on what mystical powers can and can not achieve. I assume those who bring this point to this forum agree with this idea for much of the same reasons I do.

Its too easy for a GM to willy-nilly-style throw in whatnots and whoodads, calling them "possible" at any one time and "impossible" at any other. Is this to say that a well rounded GM that knows his realm and has a good handle on it can not run a realistic or fun game without knowing the laws behind his magic? No...but it does give the players an impression that the GM hasnt thought about it deep enough, and it also cuases players and GM's alike to constantly puase and consider things during game play.

In my campaign the entire group know very well that the physics of my realm are solid for that realm. Do the physics hold up to the real world? HELL NO! But the people who play often in my game can run down a list of rules, regulations and limits to all mystical powers that be (that they know of). They know what a god can and cant do, what magic can and cant do.
When they see a wizard cast a healing spell-they will instantly wonder whats going on-cus in my realm, no force of non-clerical power can heal the living. Its a power reserved for the gods and those who follow them...

There has been much energy put into the detailing of our realm's physics through alot of thought and attempts to be balanced. Is it perfect? Doubt it. Does it work? Yup. And does it make everyone feel safer when dealing the all-mighty GM? Hell yes. Why? Cus they know they can use these rules to their advantage, they can plan and plot with the realm's physical laws as a guidline to if their attempts will work.

PS- Its funny...when I was young, over 15 years ago, there was a group of players searching a forest for a mark carved into it's side by a traveler over 50 years ago. The party searched n searched n searched but found nothing- all the while I was giggling with glee at my cunning trick...I sat there waiting for them to "look up" cus over the past 50 years the trees MUST have grown taller and the mark was not gunna be at eye level any more...I was so happy that these IDIOTS didnt even THINK about that simple law of plant growth.
Until I revealed the trick finally, pointing out that it was higher up now that it was 50 years in the future. I laugh with an evil grin at how wise and tricky I was as a great GM...

Untill the one guy (who at the time was a forest ranger's son) said.
"Hey dummy...trees don't grow up...they grow out from splits in its length. What is carved at eye level today will be eye level 100 years from now. so I said....Ummmmmmmmmmm...NOT IN MY REALM!!! They grow up!!!

And they still do till this very day...

"NOT IN MY REALM!!! They grow up!!!

And they still do till this very day..."

You bring up a really good point with this...we as GMs can try as hard as we can to use real world laws where applicable, and fantasy world laws where those apply. However, there will always be mistakes made, or things that we didn't consider when we planned the encounter/NPC/whatever, or that we add in on the fly without as much thought as we maybe should have put into it. As a result, if we have to do something like Sifolis did and say "well, in my realm that isn't the case...it works this way", then we have to stand by that for the rest of that campaign settings shelf life. If you change the laws of physics or nature for a reason like Sifolis faced, be consistent after the fact.

Good on ya Sif.

Thanks for the excellent article SF.

I'm not sure that all magic should be contained within a theory. It is probably a good idea that magic the players have access to be defined and limited by an underlying theory. I don't think I would quibble with that.
However, one of the defining principles of magic is that it is out of context. If it has a context it is science. If it doesn't it is magic.

This "growing up" business can prove interesting if you've got long-lived elves living in houses built on trees: They'd probably have the annual "adding another step to the staircase" ceremony...or they'd not be able to go home :)

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Zippy...thanks for the idea. I now see my woodland people building on smaller trees so when they grow the homes get higher n higher...I never thought about that untill now. So, ahead of time, I'd like to thank you for adding a lil discription value to next encounter with elvs who will for one reason or another talk about how they build houses on younger trees cus its easier then building on taller trees, then they just wait the time it takes to natrually rise into the air.

Your the man.

Happy to help.
Just think of palms when you need trees that grow up.
Let's see if we can take it up a notch: what other implication would that have?

If the trees grow ONLY upwards, maybe there's an alternate way of telling their age (as ring-counting wouldn't work). It might also mean that really wide trees are vey rare (and thus, valuable). Getting to fruit in older orchards will also be harder.

In addition, one would never, ever plant a tree under an building's balcony, overhang and so on, just to prevent unpleasant floor problems. Ancient trees can also be used as self-improving watchtowers, if they're thick enough (unlike palms).

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