This evening I attended a wonderful GAMBIT Friday talk with Jeff Howard, a professor of game development and design at Dakota State University, talking ideas about bringing a little wonder back into the design of magic systems in games.
Jeff noted that most games had pretty set "wins" in terms of magic. Mash the hotkey for Fireball. Do a little low mana pew-pew. Rinse and repeat. Same for platforms.
Does it have to be like that?
Some games manage to create multi-modal feedback around their magic systems. Jeff's best examples seemed to be mostly single player games that were *about* magic. <and here, I'm going to have to wait for his slides, so I can rattle them off>
Jeff teaches classes on myth and storytelling in games and a whole roster of classes I wish I could take. My impression from him was that he believes that story can create mechanics, and mechanics can add to story, as a feedback loop in game design.
He used the metaphor of opera. When the Italians coined the term "opera" (meaning a "work") they didn't specify what category of art it fell into. Was it symphonic? Choral? Stagecraft? Acting? Pageantry? How about all of the above, into an immersive whole.
Similarly, the best magic systems are vested with meaning from other aspects of the game design, and help the story and design emerge and become evocative, immersive. Visual effects beyond particle bursts -- runes, colors associated with "schools" of magic, spirits that carry out your will, elements of lore from the background of the game that are incorporated in the visual vocabulary, a whole new system by which spells can be composed and discovered from elements found or learned. Audio effects -- sounds, magical incantation languages, special languages used only for magic, music that coordinates, foley. The entire environment can react -- heat shimmer, physics of some sort, screen shake, haptics.
I find that the basic difference in many games between a particular sort of magic user and the other classes is solely based on game balance factors and a few afterthought cosmetics. Magic is rarely really special in any way at all.
Jeff recommended leaning on known historical lore as cues for the creation of magical systems. Planetary/astrological symbolism, color association, musical tones, runes, diagrams and glyphs, elemental associations (beyond simple spell lines -- mix it up, give it personality), tarot cards, and so on. Bring a magic system into being that has hooks into the game from the underpinnings of European esoterica (and hope they don't burn your game on a pyre -- less of a risk now, one hopes, that to TSR in the 80's!).
I take more of what I think of as the Ursula K. LeGuin tack on this. When I write a game with more story than the social game I'm working on now, I'll go back to the anthropologists and folklorists and create a new IP that doesn't lean on western ritual so much, but creates a symbolic vocabulary that is new and compelling, not specifically drawn on any earthly culture.
Are you interested in drawing atmospheric inspiration for your stories -- or mechanics -- from cross cultural studies of religion and ritual? Here are two seminal authors to start out:
Often cited for his inspiration through The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the foundation for the plot of Star Wars and many games, Campbell actually wrote a great deal more about the foundation of story and meaning in myth systems.
The man who brought the word "shaman" into English (by way of French, from a Siberian indiginous language) has written more (and more rationally) about religion, magic, myth and meaning than anyone I know. Bogglingly enough, his book The Sacred and the Profane made the best seller lists when it came out. His book Shamanism deals with the cross-cultural commonalities of many hunter/gatherer cultures, and his magnum opus A History of Religious Ideas provides a deep and broad framework for any culture crafter to internalize and riff off of.
Interested in more modern magical/esoteric systems? Some interesting scholars you might look up for settings that resemble the European renaissance or a century or so either side might be Ioan Culianu or Frances A. Yates, who wrote about ages when the division between science and magic was fuzzy -- in a way that makes steampunk look blunt and obvious.
The modern technoshaman games have a lot to draw on from SF traditions that include steampunk and singularity fiction, but also edgy authors like Robert Anton Wilson who wove magic by confusing boundaries between mundane, esoteric, and drug-altered veils of reality.
The best games are those that immerse us with meaning through every sense, working story, art, sound, and symbol -- and mechanics -- into a coherence that doesn't command our attention so much as simply and subtly channel and cue it.
When the game mechanics of magic don't create immersion (which they can) they should at least get out of the way.
What systems of magic in games do you love? Do the mechanics match, fall short, or fail the lore and story? Where doesn't it matter? And where are the differences?
Shava Nerad is CEO of Oddfellow Studios, Inc., a Boston game startup just filing IP and building an exec team this month.