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Old 09-17-2015, 02:27 PM   #1
dfinlay
 
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Default Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

I have found that it is near-impossible to have magic feel mysterious and eldritch while allowing PCs to get their hands on it.

There are a few issues: if you give magic to players, you sort of have to explain it to them and that decreases some of it's mystique. Another issue is that players tend to (reasonably and realistically) start to view it as another tool in their toolbox. Even putting harsh consequences on its use doesn't seem to fix that. I ran a game with a homebrew system that was vaguely like Threshold, but with Threshold 0 (magic is volatile and dangerous and every spell can go out of control, but the more magic you've recently used, the more likely it is to go out of control). That led to two types of mage PCs that I noticed. There were those who embraced the risk and still overused magic, revelling in every backlash and there were those who internally preformed a cost-benefit analysis for each spell. While this was cool, neither was what I'm talking about. It's hard to think of magic as a primal cosmic force when performing a CBA of it vs a shovel for making a hole.

I've largely given up on simultaneously letting PCs have access to magic and making magic feel like a cosmic, vast and mysterious force. However, I was talking about this with one of my players and he said I should ask you guys for your thoughts. So, apologies for not being able to clearly articulate what I want/mean, but I'm curious if you have had similar or different thoughts on this, or if you have a solution that you think works.
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Old 09-17-2015, 02:36 PM   #2
Anthony
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

Well, you can always give PCs restricted access rather than no access. The key thing for being mysterious is lack of information, though, and it's hard for players to make use of something if they don't know what it does.
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Old 09-17-2015, 02:45 PM   #3
RyanW
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

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Originally Posted by Anthony View Post
The key thing for being mysterious is lack of information, though, and it's hard for players to make use of something if they don't know what it does.
That actually goes with anything, not just magic. If sci-fi technology runs on handwavium, it won't be easy to play an engineer/technician character.
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Old 09-17-2015, 02:50 PM   #4
Terwin
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

If the players understand the rules that control magic, then it is not a mysterious and cosmic force.

If magic is reliable and consistent, then it is not a mysterious force.

If you want magic to be mysterious, then you need to have some motive behind it that influences the results of just about every spell, but the goals and intent of this force must not be known or easily identified.

One approach might be to think of spells as opening a portal that allow some cosmic being to reach through and affect the world according to it's own whim, but also puts a post-it note on the door-frame saying 'please do X'

Now this cosmic being may have specific goals it is pursuing(preferably ones beyond the understanding of the PCs and only the oldest and wisest of sages can even get a glimmering of which way it is trying to move), or it may just be bored and capricious(imagine Q from ST:TNG but everyone with magery can tap him on the shoulder and make a request)

This is the sort of approach that makes magic a force with a will of it's own.
You can make a request, bu regardless of how well you cast the spell, the odds of getting what you want are fifty-fifty at best.

If you want magic to be a little more controllable, you could assume that magic is drawing power from some cosmic entity, you might even make up a hit-location chart for that entity, and each location has an impact on the spell effect.
But the stronger the spell, the more likely the entity is to notice and decide to intervene(perhaps it likes the caster or the caster's cause, or perhaps it dislikes having it's power stolen and will exact vengeance, perhaps there is more than one entity and they cover a whole spectrum)

The problem is, to make magic mysterious you must remove much of the control from the hands of the spell caster. And you can't even explain the details of what and why, you can only inform them that magic is very fickle and any time a spell caster gets exactly what they asked for, they were very lucky.

Of course none of these options are conducive to flinging fireballs at orcs on a regular basis...
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Old 09-17-2015, 03:01 PM   #5
Polydamas
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

Quote:
Originally Posted by dfinlay View Post
I have found that it is near-impossible to have magic feel mysterious and eldritch while allowing PCs to get their hands on it.

There are a few issues: if you give magic to players, you sort of have to explain it to them and that decreases some of it's mystique. Another issue is that players tend to (reasonably and realistically) start to view it as another tool in their toolbox. Even putting harsh consequences on its use doesn't seem to fix that. I ran a game with a homebrew system that was vaguely like Threshold, but with Threshold 0 (magic is volatile and dangerous and every spell can go out of control, but the more magic you've recently used, the more likely it is to go out of control). That led to two types of mage PCs that I noticed. There were those who embraced the risk and still overused magic, revelling in every backlash and there were those who internally preformed a cost-benefit analysis for each spell. While this was cool, neither was what I'm talking about. It's hard to think of magic as a primal cosmic force when performing a CBA of it vs a shovel for making a hole.
Sanderson's Laws of Magic are some important keywords here. Cost-Benefit Analyses are just part of life, especially for humans in Anglo culture, so I don't think you can get away from them.

One simple option with Threshold Magic would be keeping the backlash table secret. Sanderson's Laws explain why there have to be clear rules governing player-accessible magic, but nothing says that the players have to know more than "overusing magic has risks ranging from X to (in legends) Y. Track the following information and warn the GM whenever you ... he may ask you to roll more dice." Another is making plenty of magical things not be systematic, such as magic items with an assortment of cool and unique effects, individualistic monsters and spirits, etc. Nothing says that every magic sword has to be +1 to skill and able to cast Flaming Weapon from a dedicate Powerstone, or that every walking corpse has to have standardized abilities chosen from a monster manual and available in game terms on an Occultism roll.
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Last edited by Polydamas; 09-17-2015 at 03:05 PM.
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Old 09-17-2015, 03:51 PM   #6
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

I played around with having Threshold costs include some randomness. I subtracted 4 from the fatigue cost and added 1d, minimum 0. I know that doesn't make magic feel so much mysterious as a little bit wild, but it might make the CBA become more of an intuitive calculation. I don't know, as the only player who used it was risk averse, and always assumed that the roll might go badly before using magic.
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Old 09-17-2015, 03:54 PM   #7
Joe
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

I have exactly this problem, and I'm glad you've raised it, dfinlay - I'll be reading the rest of this thread with interest. I'd love to find a way to make magic feel deep and mysterious.

But what is this "mysteriousness" that we're looking for?
  • Unpredictability is part of it - but only part. Poker machines are unpredictable, but don't feel magical and mysterious.
  • Inexplicability is part of it - but only part. there are plenty of inexplicable things that don't feel magical. Human behaviour, for instance. The "impossible crime" that begins a whodunnit is inexplicable, and thus mysterious, but not mysterious in a magical way.
  • What really makes magic feel deep and mysterious is when it seems to imply some deeper order to the universe - a deeper order that;s not just physical or scientific, but truly intentional or moral in character. Wizards need to be able to mutter things like "Deeper powers than mine forbid it", "No; I sense it is not yet time"; "Now is my hour!" and so on, without anyone but them being able to understand why.

One option I've considered for modelling this is to use a lot of "narrativist" mechanics for magic.

Example: restricting wizards to a certain number of effects per session, or per story arc, as per Serendipity or Wild Talent, etc. (plus adding some ways to push those limits if necessary, at grave risk).

Then PC magic use really would be governed by a deeper order than any of the characters can perceive: the narrative demands of the story.

Last edited by Joe; 09-17-2015 at 06:43 PM.
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Old 09-17-2015, 04:08 PM   #8
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

The only way to keep magic feeling Magical is to remove it from the hands of the Players.
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Old 09-17-2015, 08:26 PM   #9
Randyman
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

In pulp fantasy and horror, magic is Other. Few who encounter it are left unaffected; all those who traffic in it are severely affected. The effects in question are always dehumanizing, whether morally, physically, rationally or any combination thereof. Mere mortal death is the least eventuality of concern.

As soon as magic ceases to be Other, it becomes Tool and can no longer be "mysterious and eldritch". At that point, it is a science, albeit one based on supernaturalism rather than naturalism.

As for gaming, I concur with previous posters, because magic in the hands of PCs is inevitably magic as Tool.
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Old 09-17-2015, 09:18 PM   #10
Anaraxes
 
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Default Re: Making Magic Mysterious and Eldritch

Quote:
Originally Posted by Randyman View Post
magic in the hands of PCs is inevitably magic as Tool.
It doesn't have to be, but it will call for a lot of trust between players and GM. Magic tends toward being a systematic tool for the same reasons that RPGs have rules at all: it creates a shared and well-understood definition for what characters can do. If your group is willing to be more improvisational, then the rules aren't so necessary, and the magic will be more mysterious since no one knows exactly how it will work. That will not, of course, be to everyone's taste.

There's something of a contradiction in wanting magic to be "cosmic" and "vast" while also wanting PCs to be strictly limited in their power, especially with the zero-to-hero model. If the only magic the players ever see or have access to is highly constrained, it's not going to feel vast. So yet another angle is simply to let the mages have vast power. This will require different GMing techniques to make sure all the players have something to do and some spotlight time. And again, different power levels within the group is not to everyone's taste.

Also, a significant portion of "feel" comes down to how the group does its narration and description. You aren't going to get cool eldritch effects while people are just mumbling about numbers of game resources remaining and saying "I cast Fireball", any more than you're going to get cool combat choreography and kung-fu moves when people just say "I attack. I do 14 damage". Adding color to the bare mechanical bones is the responsibility of the players, but that means going out on a limb in a attempt to create interesting and entertaining descriptions of what's going on, and not everyone is necessarily skilled at that. So you'll have some failures, and have to have some tolerance while everyone learns that much Performance to go with their Hobby (RPGs).
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