Working with magic systems

My current noodling involves a setting and mechanical underpinning that lean heavily on the idea of magic. In particular, I’m mulling over what it is and what it means to take an action in the presence of magic. It’s a thread that pops up in lots of my games, as I reflect on it – the Bearers in House of Cards are magically empowered to automatically succeed at most ordinary actions, and modeling magic in Spectrum allows for dice from magic and non-magical actions to simply be combined together. I see magic as the ability to enhance what’s already happening.

This is, of course, at odds with some epistemologies of magic that require you to do one or the other: taking an action to use magic in quite a few games precludes the possibility of doing something else. I recognize that this is at least partly a game-balance issue, because implementing magic in such a milieu often comes with the assumption that it’s big and powerful. The trope of the fireball spell illustrates this nicely: when you can take your turn to immolate a significant area in flame, destroying terrain and scorching enemies, it might be broken to also be able to then pull off a combat charge in the same turn as well.

Which leads me to consider deep setting questions such as how societies that possess magic would approach them. If you have such flamboyant battle magic, then it stands to reason that it will shape how people think about it. A sort of pragmatism emerges. Structures begin to be built to account for the sorts of things a wandering wizard might do to it, either architecturally or materially. If fireballs are A Thing That Can Happen, you’re going to invest in making sure it doesn’t Happen to your house. For the nascent project I’m starting, I envision a society that has lived every moment steeped in magic for thousands of years. Every single citizen possesses some magical aptitude; it is as ubiquitous a tool as levers or wheels. Their mindset, then, is steeped in the assumption that magic is just there to be used: incanting a blade-sharpening charm over a knife each time you pick it up becomes reflexive and commonplace, not exotic. There are consequences for the larger scale sorceries that player characters will have access to in their roles as movers and shakers, but that is also a known quantity.

The other thing magic does, in many cases, is making the story more dramatic, which seems at first to be at odds with the prior point. If magic is just another technology, then its implementation should be more pedestrian than epic, right? But that’s also boring and doesn’t make for good stories. The issue becomes, for me as a designer, how to reconcile the two. Having ready access to magic should remind players of the epic in which they are participating, not numb them to it. I have an idea on how to perhaps accomplish that, but it’s still taking shape.

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