Keeping Magic Magical
OK, I’ll admit that keeping magic mysterious and magical when running an 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 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 a 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 climactic 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 themselves. 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.