Magic is supposed to be…. wondrous. Mystical. Otherwordly. Right?
And yet, in some high fantasy worlds, magic suffers from the problem of ubiquity. After all, it’s everywhere. It’s easy to explain. It makes most aspects of the world function, and knowledge of how to operate it is no harder to come by than passing a driving test or an A Level.
“More Gandalf, less Potter.”
In the world of the aforementioned boy wizard, Harry Potter passes from the mundane into the magical world, only to find that much of the magical world is mundane to those that are used to it. Most wizards in Harry Potter’s world experience magic as the ‘everyday’. This can make for engaging reading. J.K. Rowling guides the reader through a world unlike their own. But what happens when magical ubiquity is experienced in game play? Well… it can get mundane.
What’s the problem with high magic?
When there is too much magic, too many items and when every location features a ‘town wizard’ … You know, the guy who’s relied upon to deal with everything from failed harvests to the werewolves that come down from the mountains in the winter? Well, then the opportunities for engaging narrative or gameplay start to diminish. Why? Because unwittingly, the DM and players begin to recreate the conditions of the world they already inhabit. The modernity we enjoy gives us convenience, the expectation of ever-greater levels of technology. It requires us to do relatively little striving (we never have to slay anything to get an iPhone, for example). The reason we escape from this day to day convenience is that it fails to present us with the experience of the hero’s journey (something that, in one way or another, we all crave).
And the answer?
So what is the answer? Being parsimonious with magic and starving players of spells and items? Possibly. But this is unlikely to create anything more than resentment. After all, players are hardcoded to play for magic and the acquisition of power. Instead of creating a low magic game where players are put on a magic diet, there’s a third option. And that’s to harness the creativity of the players. All people are naturally creative, after all. Humans are innate tinkerers, fiddlers, makers and inventors. And people are often at their most engaged, stimulated and fulfilled when they participate in co-creation. The entire reason for role-play games in the first place – instead of half a dozen people simply listening to a storyteller – is the spirit of co-creating a narrative.
Some of the stunning artwork from the Arclands Kickstarter
Our solution – Arclands: Spellforging for Beginners
Four and a half years ago, when the founding members of the Arclands universe sat in Waterstones Cafe in Cardiff and broke ground on the world that would consume our waking moments (though we had no idea at the time), one of the first questions we asked ourselves was about how magic would operate.
“More Gandalf, less Potter,” was the answer and it’s one that has guided every decision we’ve made.
This, I believe, is one approach to creating wonder in the magical world that the players inhabit. In Arclands, it’s done through the medium of Spellforges. Since magic has only recently entered the world, there are no spells, no magic schools or arcane scrolls. Instead, there are sites where magic has accumulated. And there are individuals who have a spark of magic within them (known as Fate). A magic imbued individual stands out from the rest of humanity (like a super hero of sorts) and is drawn to spell forges, where they can create spells that are totally unique to them. The Spellforger can also adapt and alter their spells on the go, adding new elements as the situation demands. Through this process, the player never needs to look through the same old spell lists, a process we have described as ‘retail magic’. Magic is living, and breathing. It is unique to the caster. It is wondrous and feels alive.
Players are challenged to be creative and to dream up their characters anew. And the reward is something that is completely unique, preventing magical ubiquity because every spell and magic item was forged through their ingenuity and power, and the journey of their character.
Guest post by Nick Shepley
You can explore the world of Arclands on World Anvil RIGHT HERE:
If you like the idea of Spellforging, please help Nick and his team bring Arclands 5th Edition to life on Kickstarter! Check out their video below!
How I handle this in traditional D&D 5e high magic is I have magic take on special visual effects and leave impressions on the world when cast that are unique to the individual caster, like a fingerprint. With magic mid-to-high the world adapts to the increase in every-day power and convenience just like the real world does: with regulation and laws. A magical forensic unit as part of the city guard, a law against destructive magics or mind-controlling effects, registration with local governments, a black market for spell books of death and destruction and the subsequent strife between those who feel the laws are out of place.
We live in a World where nuclear bombs are quite common, so common that I doubt any human being alive is still able to say how many exit or where they are. There is no big secret about the general facts, just details are secret, the main reason why most of us know little about those bombs is the fact that is a information hard to digest, for being too technical. Rules of Nuclear Physics are clear, but there is far too many of them for most of us, and we can pretty much live without bother to study the subject.
Even dynamite is not part of quotidian life for most of us, and it does not falls in the arbitrary realms of theo ex machina in the imagination of most of us. On the other hand I am one who will tremble full of reverential respect if I find out that there is a small brick of it bellow my chair in the movie theater.
Because I am that superstitious.
So I think you can have a lot Harry Potterish elements in your world without make magic banal. Is all a mater of where you position your cameras, which eyes you choose to describe the world. Make your main character someone as superstitious towards magic as I am regarding dynamite and magic will feel rare and scary to the reader/player. Tell the events of Lord of the Rings from a Maiar's perspective, or the World of Potter from the eyes of a senior professor of Hogwarts, and magical phenomenons will feel about as predictable and logic as car driving for most modern inhabitants of our world (which means not entirely free of excitement and deadly dangers, let's not forget).