Magic is tricky to implement in any roleplaying game. Implementing it in a modern game is problematic, to say the least.
First of all, let's address the main issue that very few game designers have actually come from a profession which practiced magic, either of the stage variety or of the occult variety. Not many workplaces send out advertisements saying that they are hiring wizards and witches. There aren't many people on LinkedIn who pursue occult interests - or if they do, they keep it off their feeds.
The issue of magic in roleplaying games is that they are presented as some form of superpowers - wizards flying, summoning fireballs, creating rays of intense cold, conjuring walls of fire or entities of pure shadow and darkness. None of this really presents magic as something magical -what we would recognise as displays of supernatural prowess, the marshalling of occult forces, and the unleashing of arcane powers. Magic should not look like displays of CGI superpowers in some summer tentpole movie.
Let's take a look at what is called The Subtle Art.
The Subtle Art
Let's start with a definition of magic.
Magic is the Art of making things happen.
Magic makes things happen which would otherwise not be likely to happen. Your chance of being shot by a dog is low, but not zero, for instance. Magic makes the odds of something weird happening so much greater as to be almost certain.
The force which defines magic is the Will of the magician. All workings are an act of Will, to bend reality to favour the magician's desired outcome - whatever that outcome may be.
The greater the Will, the more likely that the magic will trigger the necessary changes. But here is where roleplaying games get things wrong.
Small Hinges Open Big Doors
Magic is not about big, flashy effects. The best example of this heinous sin is the Mythras Core Sorcery spell Wrack, which casts a spectacular spray of harmful energies towards the target to overwhelm them. The image accompanying this spell shows a wizened old man casting a spray of darkness from his hands. Only, what is the sorcerer's goal - to expend all that energy in a big flashy spray, or to inflict damage on the target?
Consider a subtler-looking spell which has a similar effect - the sorcerer dangling a poppet of the target over an open brazier, lowering it slowly towards the fire as the victim screams in agony from flames which they alone can feel. Or perhaps, the sorcerer jabs a pin into the poppet's face, causing the target to feel a lancing pain between their eyes.
The sorcerer could simply tie a red thread about the target's right arm, temporarily paralysing it, or begin dropping alcohol onto the poppet's mouth to induce a state of drunkenness in the staggering target.
The power of the magician comes from the application of their accumulated body of arcane knowledge to accomplish major effects through the expenditure of as little force as possible. You can make a pendulum swing wildly from one almighty push, or through a series of small, well-timed pushes. Magic is the small push, applied many times to achieve a great effect. Magic turns on small hinges, but those tiny hinges open huge doors.
Magic operates on a number of levels, called invocations. The lowest levels of invocation begin with a much-overlooked level of magic: the most subtle of all. Note that where specific spells from Mythras Core are mentioned, it is only to show mechanically what a specific level of magic is capable of.
This invocation is at the level of information - just observing, without applying meaning to what is being perceived. This information can be seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted - and it does not have to be physical - the magician could be picking up on activities on the spirit planes, or gathering information on the microexpressions and body language of people nearby to read their emotions and reactions. This is the level of cold reading and perception of the astral realm of the local area and local spirits.
This invocation is one level up from the level of Perceiving. At this level, knowledge is drawn from the generalised information field surrounding the planet. Every living thing generates an information field, containing the sum of their actions and decisions. This level of magic taps into that information field to obtain the knowledge the magician needs.
This level of perception incorporates divination, sortilege, Tarot cards, runecasting and oracles such as the I Ching, as well as astral travel and communing with spirits. Whatever has to be plucked out of the air, rather than observed happening in one's surroundings, comes into this category, which is at the level of data. This is the level of empathic and telepathic mindreading.
The next level of invocation is Revealing, which opens up levels of understanding concealed from the magician. This is the lowest level of knowledge; and at this level, the magician is discovering phenomena not known to them, not deductible from existing clues. This is deep level knowledge, the equivalent of "X Ray vision," or a deep telepathic probe.
The highest level of perception magic, this invocation brings together what the magician has obtained from the lower three levels, to produce a model which allows the magician to understand the why, as much as the what and who. This is the level of wisdom, sometimes called illumination.
The lowest invocation of influence, this level merely accentuates something which is already going on. Examples: A running person finds their speed being increased or decreased, or if they are turning left they find themselves almost being pulled more strongly in that direction - or conversely, to the right, if the magician wishes for the runner to change their direction.
Whether this operates on a physical level (such as increasing a fire's intensity) or an emotional level (such as making a hungry person even hungrier) depends on the target; but in general, nudging spells work more efficiently on minds than they do physical phenomena. Spells such as Haste and Hinder from Mythras Core would come into this category. Spells from Mythras Core such as Attract Harm, Draw and Repulse also come into this category of invocation.
This invocation of control is about applying the Will of the magician to reinforce the target's existing reality against something which could cause it to be changed. Example: a spell to allow a fast runner to continue to run quickly, by deflecting a magical spell from a second magician intended to slow her down; or a working to protect somebody's mind from being read, or to prevent a spirit from possessing the person so protected. Damage Protection, Spell Protection, and Spirit Protection from Mythras Core would come under this category.
The invocation of overt control, this is about completely overriding the target's existing condition. Whereas a nudging spell causes an object in motion to go a little faster, or a hungry person to feel more hungry or for someone who felt hunger for a piece of meat to feel hunger for bread instead, this spell compels a stationary target to move, for instance, or compels a mind to think a thought that it had not been thinking at all (such as imposing a desire to eat in the mind of someone who had not been hungry).
At this level, workings can also stop a running process entirely. Example spells include Animate, Fly, Dominate and Enslave, as well as Imprison, Banish, Evoke and Summon. It can be argued that Tap (Characteristic) fits in here. Most of all, the Abjure family of spells sits firmly here, as does Transfer Wounds.
Concentrating / Attenuating.
This is the invocation of Enhance and Diminish Characteristic, Grow and Shrink, Palsy and Smother. This enhances and augments a particular aspect of the target, making it physically larger or smaller, stronger or weaker, and in particular with living beings raising or lowering their characteristics. Spells of healing which boost the target's healing rate come into this category. Spells which weaken the damaging effects of elemental forces, such as making fire less intense, also come into this category.
The previous invocations more or less kept the target intact. This level alters the target's fundamental nature, changing features of the target or even remaking the target into something else. This is the level of Sculpt, Transmogrify and Shapechange. Invocations of this type leave the target changed. Some forms of healing magic work at this level, too - their effects are permanent, in that the injury is permanently removed, but such spells cannot prevent the target from acquiring new injuries later on down the line.
This is also the level of deaging / youth / aging suspension magic, such as the rare Tap (Youth) and Abjure (Aging) spells.
Creating / Destroying.
The ultimate invocations, these weave something into existence out of nothing, or conversely rip apart its pattern, causing it to disappear from the world. These invocations work best against inanimate substances, conjuring fire or ice from the air for instance. Workings at this level are rarely cast: lesser spell effects can be used with greater effect. Do you really need to conjure up a wall of ice, for example, when you could transform the water vapour in the air into a wall of ice, or - better yet - create a strong sense of aversion in the mind of a pursuing enemy, simply letting their own minds stop them from crossing into the room you are in?
Remember: small hinges open big doors. If the goal is to create an avalanche, it might be less effective to unweave a large section of an overhanging snowbank to destabilise it, than to magnify the sound of a gunshot.
The second key to your workings is how you wish the working to manifest. Here is where your spells get to look and feel occulty, supernatural, arcane, and scary. Manifestations are how your magician establishes an arcane connection with the target. Some of these manifestations only work at sensory range; others have no range restriction.
These manifestations always look, sound and feel scary and occult, such as items covered in mystic symbols or daubed in blood. They are meant to be scary. In a modern Mythras game, if your spells are not scary, they aren't magic.
The process of creating a manifestation is not quick. Even a quick chant could take up a number of combat rounds; and while some workings can be prepared on the fly such as sigils or charms, others can take hours or days to prepare in advance.
This can be represented by an appropriate skill check, which is listed with each type of manifestation. See "Skills" following.
This is most commonly encountered out in the field. Your character chants something unintelligible, the skies darken, a wind picks up, and weird flames engulf their enemies. Your character must know some chants to intone or sing, which means the magician must be free to speak and to gesture. This manifestation includes use of gestures. (Acting, Dance, Musicianship, Sing, Seduction)
Your magician takes time to draw a veve, or paint an inscription or diagram on a wall, or to slip a piece of paper inscribed with runes under the target's door. The written word is the medium through which your Will is imposed on the world. (Art, Craft)
More elaborate than a sigil, a full circle takes several minutes at least to draw on the ground, for example in chalk or salt. More permanent circles can be painted onto the ground, taking hours or days to prepare. (Art, Craft)
Something which is consumed, which can be anything from a pinch of something soluble to put in a drink, to a batch of soul cakes, or a well-brewed hearty beer, or a shampoo to rinse into your hair. This can extend to cosmetics, soaps, waxes, powders or candles. The more militarily-inclined might experiment with using Semtex as the consumable medium for somewhat explosive spells. The chalk your magician uses to draw a Circle, for instance, could be infused with a spell in its own right. Brews have a limited lifespan; they must be used fresh. (Craft (Brewery, Cookery, Cosmetics))
A poppet is an effigy of the target. It can be any size from a small, crude voodoo doll, to a life sized effigy stuffed with straw, with a photo of the target's face stuck to the effigy's "head." Poppets can be used at unlimited range against the target. (Art, Craft)
Another classic occult tactic, tag spells use tissue samples from the target, or pieces of clothing worn by the target. Nail clippings, hair, even blood and teeth, can be used. Tags can be combined with poppets for a greater connection. Tags have a limited lifespan, but can be used at unlimited range against the target. (Craft)
Declaring Your Working
When your magician character wants to create a magical working, you need to declare the following to the Games Master.
- The invocation;
- The manifestation;
- The target;
- The goal;
- The time taken to prepare the working.
Magic is going to be a slow process. The necessary gathering of occult materials and forces, the settling into gnosis, all take time. If the ground has been prepared in advance, such as a poppet or tag or circle, then the magician needs only settle into a state of gnosis and, in that state of mind, link together the invocation and the manifestation.
The following can be used to establish how long it may take for a magician to enter the requisite state of gnosis.
Magic is a slow process, which seems to have very small effects - but those effects can lead to profound changes. Small hinges open big doors.
The primary skill here is Gnosis (INT + POW). The magician can use this skill to enter a state of gnosis, which enables them to cast their workings. The manifestations of the workings may be prepared ahead of time and carried on the magician's person, such as a sigil or packets of powder for brews, and the magician need only use their chosen method of gnosis (meditation, dance, ingestion of some sort of herb) and take the time to enter the gnostic state.
If the magician wants to speed up the process, for instance if their Gnosis skill is 56% and they want to enter gnosis within 1d6 combat rounds rather than 1d6 minutes) they can accept an increased grade of difficulty in the Gnosis check for each step down the table. In the above case, they need to accept two grades of difficulty to be able to enter gnosis in 1d6 combat rounds, rather than 1d6 minutes.
Once the magician has entered a state of gnosis, they remain in that state for the duration of the encounter, unless they are injured or they choose to leave the state of gnosis.
Once they have entered gnosis, the magician can use pre-prepared manifestations (such as a brew or a sigil) with a time of 1 combat round to cast.
The skill used to prepare the manifestation is important. Optionally, the magician may make an appropriate skill check to create the manifestation in advance. If the check is a fail or a fumble, the manifestation is of insufficient quality to create a link; the working automatically fails. If the check is a critical success, the manifestation actually makes the Gnosis skill check at the beginning of the encounter one grade easier.
This setting does not need Magic Points. Your magician characters don't need to spend, or recover, Magic Points from doing workings. The act of magical creation to make the manifestations attracts sufficient power from the universe to make the workings viable when cast.
Shrine, Temple, or Laboratory
Depending on your character's tradition, they may set up a sacred space to study and prepare the manifestations, and to meditate and practice their chants. Within their sacred space, whether it be a shrine, a Temple, a Lodge, or a Laboratory, all Gnosis checks are one grade easier. The environment is designed to make it easier to enter a gnostic state quickly and more deeply. It is in a state of gnosis that the inspirations come to create new invocations, and new manifestations.
Each new invocation developed by the magician can be written down in a Grimoire. Specific workings (specific invocation and specific manifestation) can be written down as Rotes; these can be prepared in advance, and always take 1 Combat Round to cast regardless of whether the magician is in a state of gnosis or not.
The magician can remember a number of Rotes up to their INT score. Anything beyond that will require that they gain access to the required Rote from their Grimoire (requiring 1d6 Combat Rounds to access, then 1 Combat Round to cast).
Rote descriptions must include the following - Invocation; Manifestation; Goal. If the Manifestation requires difficult-to-obtain materials, such as Semtex, heroin, gold, uranium, or some endangered wild flower, these should be written down as well as possible substitutes such as parsley for cannabis.
Creating Rotes requires one Experience Roll per new Rote created. Learning a new invocation requires 2 Experience Rolls. Learning a new manifestation requires 2 Experience Rolls. New invocations and manifestations each require 1 month of study. If there is a teacher, their Teach skill can reduce the time to learn by 10% times the critical range of the teacher's Teach skill.
A Peek Into The Grimoire
Next week, we'll look through the magician's Grimoire and list some workings, including their invocations and manifestations, as well as the kinds of goals and targets they are expected to have.
Edited by Alex Greene