Monday, March 12, 2012

Making magic magical

Back in January, I came across this post on B/X Blackrazor, in which JB rants about the lack of magic in D&D.  He's pretty hard on this game we love, but he's absolutely right.  Magic in D&D is reduced to a predictable bundle of statistical abstractions, with all the mystique and wonder distilled out of them.  Damage, saving throws, bonuses, penalties.  Yawn.

To some extent, this is just the nature of the beast.  You have to have a framework of rules to work with, or you're left with magic being purely arbitrary, and I think that violates a lot of the fundamental assumptions about what D&D is and why people enjoy playing it.  But while statistics for spells, magic items, and magical abilities may be inescapable within the framework of the game, that doesn't mean that those things need to be front and center in the players' minds.  I have in mind a few ideas to try out in my own game to remove the rules-mongering from center stage, and thus hopefully restore a bit of the wonder, or at least prevent my newer players from becoming jaded.  I plan on elaborating these points with regards to spells, arms and armor, magic items, and magical monsters in a series of upcoming posts, but here they are in brief and generic form: 

Scarcity.  If you want magic to be special, it can't be readily available.  Campaigns in which magic is everywhere usually end up feeling like it's an analog for technology, and succeed in making it as mundane as cell phones and airplanes and CAT scans to players.  "We have to travel 500 miles to the Mountain of Shadows?  Let's rent a magic carpet!"  "Bob's dead?  No problem; I have 5,000 gold pieces to go get him raised."  "Another +1 sword?  I go pawn it." 

Description, not labels:  Nothing strips away the mystique of a magical item or effect quite like referring to it by a generic name.  Oh, look, a suit of plate mail +2!  And that enemy wizard just cast magic missile at us. 
From now on, I'm never going to refer to magic by its rulebook name if I can help it.  Instead, I'm going to provide descriptions only.  I hope this induces my players to react to and interact with the described effect of the magic, rather than its statistical effect.

Keep game mechanics away from the players:  Accordingly, I'm only going to refer to mechanical effects when absolutely necessary, such as telling players how much damage their characters take and when to roll a saving throw.  Bonuses and penalties to attacks and other actions will be applied behind the scenes, while giving them only a verbal, rather than mathematical description of the effect.  Instead of, "You're under a Blight spell, -1 penalty to hit!" it'll be something along the lines of, "You suddenly feel shaky and uncertain, your sword arm wavering as you draw it back to deliver a blow."  Let the players draw their own conclusions.

Variation:  Magic shouldn't appear in predictable forms with cookie-cutter effects.  Make every magic item unique in some way.  Devise a few non-standard spells for NPC casters to use.  Tweak the powers of monsters to foil player expectations.

Conditions:  Most basic D&D magic items and spells always work and have few or no costs to their use.  That makes them predictable.  Add some conditions to their use.  Does it only work for females, or during a new moon, or underground?  Add some costs or adverse effects to give would-be users pause.  Make the conditions and limitations logical.  Have in-world reasons why they work when and how they do.  Besides keeping the players guessing, it can add some excellent flavor to the campaign.

That's all for now.  Up next, Part Deux: Spells


  1. I've found one thing that helps keep magic feeling magical is to rely more on consumable magic items as treasure rather than things like swords +1. Players treasure it more (paradoxically), and it is less likely to unbalance a campaign. I think this is related to scarcity, but is not exactly the same thing.

  2. Good point. I hadn't thought about that, but I guess you could call it scarcity of uses or charges, finite vs. effectively infinite for permanent items.