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

Keeping Magic Magical

OK, I’ll admit that keeping magic mysterious and magical when running a RPG campaign is a very tricky thing to do. In many campaigns, the players and GMs are happy with the normal amount of spell-slinging–and that is fine. However in some settings and scenarios the effort required to maintain the mysteriousness of magic may very well be worth the payoff in mood, flavor, and role-playing opportunities your game gains. I believe this is especially true for capturing the feel of the stories for a Lankhmar campaign.

So how can this be achieved? At its simplest it all comes down to limiting what the players know and experience.

  • Eliminate or limit spellcasters as characters. OK, this would be pretty radical for your normal RPG, but for a sword & sorcery settings it makes sense. In your typical S&S story the heroes are swordsmen and rogues and magic is wielded by their adversaries.
  • Do not let players have access to spell lists. There is no mystery if players can see a list of spells, know the names, and read the descriptions of how they work. Instead, they should encounter spells for the first time in game.
  • Make it a rarity for a PC to acquire a magic item, then take it away when it is no longer necessary for the plot. This is very much in keeping with the Lankhmar stories. In the Bazaar of the Bizarre, Ningauble and Sheelba give Fafhrd a gauzy mask of true seeing and a cloak of invisibility for a mission, then when the mission is done the items were taken away.
  • When the PCs do encounter active magic, make it a unique experience and use the spell only once. If the plot requires multiple encounters with the magic, let those encounters be brief or peripheral, then build up the encounters to a final climatic conflict. For example, in Ill Met in Lankhmar, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser only come across the aftermath of Hristomilo’s great death spell before they storm Thieves’ House and tangle with it and him directly.
  • Try to keep most plot-necessary magic off stage. Only have the PCs come face to face with magic at the climax of the story or when you wish to use magic for some effect during the story such as building dread or foreshadowing.
  • Spells do not have to be full of visual fireworks and fanfare calling attention to itself. Let’s say the PCs witness a wizard tying a rope into a knot. As the knot is being tied, a failed underling starts choking. As the wizard pulls the knot tighter, the underling chokes harder, clasps his neck with his hands, and falls to his knees. Finally the evil wizard yanks the rope tight with both hands, and the knot disappears like some stage magician’s magic trick. The henchman collapses to the floor dead. There were no streams of light, just cause and effect. Very effective and sinister.

I’m sure I’ve missed plenty of good techniques, but hopefully this is a good start.

Original comments from the blog post:

7 comments to Keeping Magic Magical, part 3 of 3

  thom bower September 5th, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Appreciate your three-part essay on Keeping Magic Magical. It sparked some additional thoughts from me that I hope are useful to you:

Magic is a specialized skill requiring specialized training. Within fantasy literature there are a number of theories why certain people can perform magic: an innate ability (Gandalf, Harry Potter, Wizard of Earthsea), being chosen for a specific magical task (Eregon), a willing sacrifice of “normal” life to learn the craft (Sheelba, Ningauble), or training in mystical cosmologies (Lovercraft). While these things make for interesting character development, they are tedious in a gaming setting. Requiring the player to endure that tedium – even at the cost of sitting out of other player’s game sessions – may dissuade them from pursuing magic in game play. By extension, the intricacies of a magical device would prevent just anyone from picking up the artifact and using it without first undergoing special training – training that negatively affects the fast-paced game that most players desire.

Magic is rare because the components to make magic work are rare. Not only should magical be difficult to learn, the materials needed to perform magic should not be commonplace. And magicians are going to be more interested in doing magic than traversing the realm after each spell component – especially if those components are difficult to acquire. A sorcerer is going to be reluctant to cast a spell if it uses up the little of a rare item that they had great difficulty in acquiring.

Make magical consequences costly. The powerful effects of using magic are not limited to the focus of the spell: magic also demands some sacrifice from the user. The desired effects of the magic may be less desired than the additional side effects of using magic: unnatural aging, fatiguing and diseasing the body, affecting the mind’s rationality, making the user vulnerable to different threats, changes in gender or identity, or … With effects like these people are going to be reluctant to use magic.

Pass along the cost. Think of sorcerers like venture capitalists: they are willing to learn specific skills, gather costly ingredients and take the risk of potentially harmful consequences because what they get back is of higher value. The costs for the combination of skill, material, and consequence is going to be passed along one way or another to those who seek their services.

  C.L. Fewlass September 6th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Thank you thom bower for dropping by and for your comments.

You talk about four ways to limit the use of magic in the hands of players, but point out how they do not make for good game play for players. I think your broader point is that we need to be careful in our application of techniques to keep magic rare and mysterious so that we do not make the game tedious and frustrating for magic-wielding PCs. Am I reading you correctly?

If so, how do you feel about not having spell-casting characters in a Lankhmar game? This would be a campaign where all the magic is one-way–players versus magic or in other words, swords versus sorcery. If I ran such a game, I might occasionally dole out some item or a scroll that the PCs could use in a one-off way–kinda like the Gray Mouser would occasionally have access to a scroll and be able to use it.

That is not to say that I do not believe that one could run a campaign with PC spell-casters and still keep magic mysterious. It would just be trickier. For instance, I think simply preventing access to the spell list, and only allowing PCs access to the spells they know would go a long way towards achieving this and still allow for fast game play.

  thom bower September 12th, 2009 at 9:27 pm

I like the suggestions you initially posted: they seem plausible parameters to magic in a Lankhmar setting because they are consistent with the Lankhmar stories. And I think in any fantasy setting, the limits of magic — be it from wizard or priest class — are important parameters to consider, because they shape the fantastic elements of the storyfield in which the game exists.

Whatever limitations are used, they should help focus the creativity and increase the enjoyment of the players. Too often I have seen games (or fiction, for that matter) which has given no thought to the parameters of magic — and so untethered dominates all game possibilities — because frequently magic is the short-cut to and/or assured victorious conclusion.

To me, that also hinders gameplay.

So, yes, one way would be to disallow wizarding characters and limiting the presence of magical items in the game, both in quantity and frequency. Perhaps a way to appease those who favor wizards would be to have them be “guest characters” that are in the game for very specific scenes. Even then, it seems the issue of creative game play regarding magical use has been avoided rather than creatively engaged.

I think what I need to re-examine are the parameters set for magic in Nehwon. Because magic is far more peripheral to the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories than other fantasy literature (Tolkien, Lewis, Frank Baum, Aspirin .. even force-users in the Star Wars universe) it would require more careful reading to discern the nuances — a task that seemingly would improve game play because it brings continuity and possibility to magic use. It might even supply definition for playing magical characters.

  Viriatha October 2nd, 2009 at 3:11 am

My favorite is your 2nd idea and i’d love to know how you go about that.

  thom bower October 3rd, 2009 at 12:40 pm

@ Viriatha: which idea?

  C.L. Fewlass October 3rd, 2009 at 6:38 pm

@ Viriatha – Admittedly not letting players have access to spell lists would be very difficult or even impossible with a game like D&D where they more than likely own the books. You would need to use a system that they were unfamiliar with or create your own spells. After that, you could simply hand the player an index card with the spell that they just learned in game.

@ thom bower – You make an excellent point in suggesting that we should re-examine the parameters of Nehwonian magic and use that to define magic-using characters. I have some ideas in that regard. What characteristics come to mind for you?

  Viriatha October 4th, 2009 at 9:27 pm

I see what you mean. I think it would apply well in any rules lite system where spells are created as you go, which is what we’re playing.

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