What is magic?

Hi all…

This is the beginning of a series of articles/discussions that will ultimately result in publishing a new Moebius Adventures book that includes rules for magic as well as magical races such as elves or dwarves.

Lightning strikes during the eruption of the G...Image via WikipediaAt a very high level, magic is simply an observable instance of the usage of forces existing in a particular world, belief system, universe, or plane of existence. Magic may be used by nature, gods, wizards, priests, spirits, or anything or anyone else naturally or skillfully adept at using a particular type of magic in a particular context.

For example, let’s take the ever popular “ball of fire” spell. This could manifest in a number of ways, but I’ll just list three here for discussion purposes.

  1. A person might be born with the innate ability to draw heat from the air around them to ignite a small fire and control it long enough to throw it short distances. Sort of a Pyro (X-Men) kind of approach to fire abilities.
  2. Perhaps an alchemist has managed to find a recipe for a small bag of combustible materials to be lit and tossed at a target.
  3. Or maybe it’s not a person at all. Maybe in a particular desert during a particular time of year, conditions are so hot as to ignite the very sand. Winds can then blow such a fire storm across the lands, leaving trails of glass in its wake.

What I want to avoid doing is assuming that all magic works the same. Initially in Moebius Adventures, we went the common route of creating 100s of spells in a variety of different schools of magic. This is great if you want a laundry list of possibilities, but not great for having a fluid, more adaptable and creative magic system.

The goal for the revised magic system is to provide methods for defining what the goal is to be (i.e. setting fire to something), a context (i.e. a wizard, alchemist, or magical naturally-occurring storm), and a method (i.e. willpower, knowledge and ingenuity, or the randomness of nature).

How we make these fit together into a coherent whole is a topic for another day.

That said, I’m interested in what YOU think. How should magic work? GMs and Players often have very different views on this topic. πŸ™‚

Leave me a comment and let’s get the discussion rolling!


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18 thoughts on “What is magic?”

  1. One thing that has always bugged me about magic in D&D is that it is all pretty much the same. All casters use their spells in the same manner with nearly identical effects.

    For example, every 5th level wizard in D&D has an identical fireball.
    A priest casting hold person is no different than a wizard casting hold person.

    While simple, it really detracts from giving any particular spell caster its own “feel”.

    I feel it is worth the extra effort for spells with the same effect to have different reasons for/methods of working if cast by people that have learned magic from two completely different sources.

    Also, I like the idea of a spell casting check. The greater the success of the check, the better the spell is (more damage, harder to resist, longer duration, etc).

    If time allows in the near future, I’ll put together some ideas after going through the core book again.

  2. Exactly my point. No two wizards, even if they’re approaching the same spell, should ever end up with exactly the same effect. Cadence, ingredients, mental state, all these things would change. However, from a priestly magic perspective, it’s the group worshipping the deities that may provide the ability — and each of the members will probably be pretty close in how they do a prayer or ritual. On the other side of the divine magic coin however, if there are rogue priests or individuals worshipping particular nature spirits that are independent, they might all have slightly different routines to get at a similar result.

    Yeah. The spell casting check should be there to define the quality of a success. The higher the success (perhaps in degrees (1-4 over gives you this, 5-8 gives you this, etc.) it would be closer to the desired effect.

    And cool. Look forward to more feedback. Just figure I can get more people to contribute this way and it can be a shared dialog. πŸ™‚


  3. Priests of different gods should have different spell list and types of spell casting. A priest of a god of healing should be able to out-heal any other priest with access to healing magic. A priest of the god of war should have access to several offensive and defensive spells with a smattering of healing. A priest of a love goddess shouldn’t have any combat magic at all.

    A wizard’s spell casting ability should be based upon where he learned it. A wizard that learns elven magic would be completely different from one that learns from a dragon or an elemental creature.

    Background has always played too small a part in RPGs in the past. The backgrounds chapter in the core book was a large breath of fresh air and similar to what I had been thinking about writing for my own RPG.

  4. Very true. I thought that was something early D&D versions did well but never followed through on. They have domains, but there’s no comparison. A war priest casting a heal does the same as a healing priest casting a heal. And that’s just not right. πŸ™‚

    And yeah… The backgrounds thing is very cool. Think of it as having a religion or a god with a background, as well as a wizard customizing not only what he can do, but how he does it so that he is a unique being, not just a cookie cutter wizard.

    It will require more work on the world builder/supplement or GM’s part as well as the player’s part to make all of this come together. It’s not just — pick 3 spells from this list and off you go.

  5. Another thing that came to mind. D&D (my only real fantasy RPG to draw upon) always divided magic into Arcane and Divine. I feel druids and rangers should have had their own: Nature.

    Also, Moebius being a skill-based system instead of level-based allows for characters to really excel in any particular area while neglecting other. Raistlin comes to mind when I think about that.

  6. Yeah. That’s very true. That’s one of the reasons I want to approach magic as a universal concept. It’s the caster or player who enforces the context – either of a divine, natural, or arcane type.

    And totally agree. You want to be a kick-butt wizard and have no physical skills, endurance, or strength? More power to you! Just be prepared to face the consequences!

  7. Yep, I’m liking what I’m reading.

    After almost 30 years of the various incarnations of D&D, I’m ready for something new and refreshing. I’ve been checking out various systems for a few years now. Moebius is one of the few that has gotten a real interest from me.

  8. If you’re going to do a spell check, make sure to allow for failure. Along the same line, I always thought spell interrupts were handled pretty lamely under D&D. A caster has just built up all this energy to cast a spell, and if he’s interrupted or the spell fails, that energy should do *something*, just not dissipate into thin air. Ever seen a battery blow up? πŸ˜‰

  9. First like #1 for the magic idea. That magic or different types of energy are all around us. Just a little off from that I think it probably could be learned, but there are people that may have better insight or feeling on how to use this energy.

    I also think that #1 and #2 can work together in the same system. However, I would use #2 more like a weapon based idea (grenade) than magic, depending on how complex it was to combine the ingredients.

    Everyone has a lot of great ideas & comments. Nice post.

  10. @bigwhiteguy –

    Very true. Spell failure is a requirement. In the Age of Phaedrus we had an interesting spell failure table that had the possibility of doing some very unique things… d10 table. 1) Spell fails; 2) Random spell cast other than the one meant to be cast. Note that the spell could be from outside the wizard’s knowledge; 3) Spell backfires; 4) Spell conjures a swarm of butterflies; 5) Spell blinds everyone in immediate (10’) radius; 6) Spell cast at half-effect; 7) Demon summoned; 8) Same spell, but any spell effects are illusory; 9) Spell creates 10’ radius area of darkness; 10) Wizard’s skin turns green

    That said, I don’t know that every type of wizardry (arcane, divine, natural) might have the same failure results. It might vary for each of those major areas or be customized based on the world/religion/universe/school of magic…

    But agreed, the energy has to go somewhere. Conservation of energy still applies. πŸ™‚

  11. @Andrew – Totally agree that #1 and #2 could coexist, and so could all of them for that matter. Magic may obey certain laws of physics, but it can also be totally unpredictable. The goal would be for a wizard to be able to totally customize not only how their magic works, but why it works, and perhaps define the very rules under which certain effects apply…

  12. Ah, yes, the AOP spell failure table. Forgot about that. πŸ™‚ I seem to remember someone (who shall remain nameless to protect his guilt) getting the “swarm of butterflies” result once.

    Glad you’re keeping the spell failures in mind. I agree with you that each type of wizardry shouldn’t fail in the same way.

    You didn’t comment on my comment on spell interrupts. Would you just treat that like a failure, or would you have a separate table for it?

  13. @BigWhiteGuy – Yeah, I’m not quite sure what to do with the interrupts. Though I agree with you that there ought to be some rules there, I’m concerned we might go a bit too D&D if we went with a “Combat Casting” kind of skill or ability. It all comes down to focus however, which would be more of a willpower kind of attribute. Would that be a simple Reality Check in that case (Intelligence & Conviction)? And then a roll on the failure table? So in that case, there’s a chance you could avert it? Or maybe redirect the energy into a counter-spell so it’s not an uncontrolled release of energy?

  14. I *hated* the rational behind “Combat Casting” in D&D. In my mind, any spellcaster should already have learned how to cast under pressure as part of their training. Having a separate skill for it was just lame.

    The Reality Check (still one of my favorite names for a skill check of all time, BTW) plus a roll on a table sounds good enough to me. I would agree that there might be a chance you could avert it, but that would be part of the table.

  15. IMO, a failed spell result should have something to do with what spell was being cast. If a spell caster was focusing the mystical energies to blast someone with a bolt of lightning, I don’t really see why a stream of butterflies would come pouring forth.
    Something more like the electrical energy not being able to be focused into the bolt runs through the casters body damaging him instead. A good GM can make a decision no a case-by-case basis instead of having a random table. That, also, opens up endless possibilities based on the GM’s imagination and creativity. Having some examples in the book could go a long way in showing a good way to do this.
    I’ve always felt magic should be more dangerous to use that what most RPGs have had in the past: “The magical energy dissipates into nothingness”. That’s pretty lae.

  16. @George – I totally see your point. And I think it was brought up earlier that it should be a customized table to fit the school of magic (i.e. “butterflies” might not be on the list). The trouble with all of this is that it’s difficult to codify such a decision tree for a GM. Or even provide guidelines on how to do so on their own.

    Let’s take your example. Lightning Bolt. I can see a number of possibilities (probably a topic for another post), but the list might include – grounding the lightning (no result), backfiring on the caster, perhaps affecting the target in a positive way rather than a negative one (granting energy, healing them or a new ability), and so on. If it’s the raw energy prior to its transition to lightning, that’s even more difficult to codify, and that’s why some of the random consequences of that table were interesting – butterflies, turning the caster a color, darkness, blindness, etc.

    Magic is dangerous and unpredictable. Definitely. But how do we get this across in rules that are flexible to handle it and yet can bend and not break when tested?

    Mage: The Ascension from White Wolf had very open rules that were contentious because it was impossible for two people to interpret them the same way — too open to multiple opinions. The Hero system also is flexible to the extent of being too difficult to implement.

    How do we allow openness with structure? The two are at odds. πŸ™‚

  17. @Fitz- I see your point. It’s not feasible at all to determine at what point during the casting the energies are transformed into the desired effect before its release.

    Not only is it openness vs structure, but playability vs believability.

  18. @George – Exactly. It’s a tricky balancing act and one we’ll have to figure out. The goal here is to make flexible, playable, balanced rules for players and GMs alike so they can maximize the potential for fun and great roleplaying. πŸ™‚

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