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This article was originally posted on the now defunct Scrolls of Lankhmar blog:

Explicit vs. Implicit Spell Effects

The way magical effects are presented in a game can have a profound effect on the overall feel of magic in that game.

Magic can be explicit — eyes full of light and wonder, flame and fury, and electric fireworks showering down on all around. Magical effects are seen and obvious.

Magic can also be implicit with no visible connection between the caster and target. All that is seen is an initial cause then the following effect. Perhaps there is a gesture from the caster then some sort of ill effect is noticed upon the target.

In the two movies, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, we have two pairs of wizard rivals and two climactic magical combat scenes.

The fight between Dumbledore and Voldamort uses explicit magical effects. You can see the streams of light connecting the two casters. It is a magical spectacle full of awe and raw energy.

The fight between Gandalf and Saruman uses implicit effects. There is nothing visible connecting the two. When one caster pushes forth with his hands and staff, the other goes flying. An invisible force is implied to exist between them. Instead of a spectacle, the combat has more of the feel of a boxing match–simple violence, but with the contact being magical instead of physical.

One way of presenting magic is not better than the other. It is more of a matter of the feel you wish to create for either your game overall, or for a particular scene. Explicit spell effects can be used to create excitement or wonder, implicit spell effects used to create a sense of menace, dread, or foreboding.

Personally, for the Lankhmar setting, I believe that implicit magic is more in keeping with the feel the stories overall.

Original comments from the blog post:

3 comments to Explicit vs. Implicit Spell Effects

  thom bower November 20th, 2009 at 7:15 pm

Sorry to have been away for a while — first a CPU crash then H1N1.

I hadn’t thought of this as “explicit / implicit,” so I need to chew on those words some more.

I have used the words “spectacular” and “subtle.” Laying in bed, I did view again Disney’s “Sword in the Stone” — definitely your “explicit” and what I identify as “spectacular.” It had me thinking of the film Excalibur, and while I haven’t watched it in some time, it seems to be more of your “implicit” and my “subtle.”

Similarly (if my memory is accurate) Conan the Barbarian seems to be implicit / subtle, but Conan the Destroyer is explicit / dramatic.

Jumping genres, are the Jedi/Sith explicit or implicit / dramatic or subtle? I can think of examples of both: Yoda is subtle / implicit (think of raising the X-wing) but Palpatine is explicit / dramatic (force lightning).

The relationship with magic and its expression certainly affects the storytelling of game play. The implicit/ subtle seems to be more mysterious but then also less defined (the direct results could be attributed to other causes); the explicit/dramatic seems to be more defined and more mechanical (these components, these words, these amulets / wands/ jewelry, and these specified times or places).

But it also may be specific to the spell and/or particular to the caster: when Yoda absorbs the force lightning it is far less explicit/spectacular than what had been thrown at him and yet we do not question his abilities or the power of counterattack.

There’s unquestionably some gaming decisions to be made here.

It also strikes me that these same schema & the game/story consequences apply to the presence of gods & the exercise of religion. And it’s not limited to fantasy/sci-fi, eg: the scriptural descriptions of the Ark of the Covenant fit both sides of the paradigm.

I guess it is about determining both the role of the mysterious (be it magical or religious) and also the way in which it is expressed.

  C.L. Fewlass November 22nd, 2009 at 12:16 am

It’s good to hear from you again. I’m sorry you’ve had such a rough time of it as of late.

Perhaps I was a being too technical in my choice of words with “implicit” and “explicit”, “spectacular” and “subtle” work just as well.

All those films you mention made choices, whether conscious or not, in how they presented magic or the ‘force’ in the case of Star Wars. And as you pointed out sometimes they mixed things up within the same story. Either way, the choices they made affected how the audience reacted to the scenes in question. Again, as you pointed out, we can use that as GMs in our own storytelling.

  C.L. Fewlass November 22nd, 2009 at 12:23 am

I’m reminded of something Peter Jackson said in the making of the Lord of the Rings movies. I forget exactly what he said and if it was in the commentary or in one of the special features on the DVD. Either way, he was talking about the scene that I have already mentioned where Gandalf and Saruman engage in wizard combat. Essentially, Peter Jackson said that he doesn’t like seeing magic in films, so that’s why they filmed that scene the way they did.