Strange Sunday – how to make magic special again

“Mage battle” by sandara

Most fantasy and sci-fi settings have magic in some way. No matter if you call it sorcery, psionic powers or miracles, every supernatural effect that is based on some bizarre, at most semi-scientific power is magic to me. I’m normally not a big fan of magic in games, unless it’s done in a cool and fresh way. Sadly, most settings miss out on the chance of making their magic something unique, and that saddens me.

You see, I have the feeling that most authors and game designers are under the impression that magic in itself is fairly unique already. It gives characters the capability to do something out of the ordinary, and thus it might not need any fancy background explanation. However, audiences have become jaded by the sheer amount of magic these days. The reason why I never bothered to play a biotic in Mass Effect was because it was just another kind of psychic magic to me, and I left those cool tricks to the rest of my crew. Fortunately, there are settings where something interesting is done with magic, making it cool, exotic and…well, strange. I want to highlight a few of those in this week’s Strange Sunday, to give you some inspiration!

Magic with balls
Final Fantasy VII was probably the FF game that made the series super mainstream. And yeah, I can understand that, because the game was just damn good. One of the coolest features was, in my opinion, the magic system. No character in the game was an old-school wizard who had learned his tricks from dusty tomes. Instead, spells and summons came in the shape of so-called “Materia”, which was condensed magic in the shape of little balls. These Materia had to be slotted into your weapons and other items, so you could access the magic inside. Item slots that were linked to each other would open up another layer of complexity, as “support” Materia could enhance Materia in the linked slot next to it. So, say you had the “Fire” Materia in one of the linked slots, and you would put the “All” Materia in the other, your character would be able to cast his Fire spell on all enemies. Neato!

I’m surprised that almost no other game copied this pretty cool system. Recently, Path of Exile made use of it, but I can’t think of any other title that saw the coolness of this system. Spells can be passed around, and you always have to think which set of Materia would be the most useful. It combined tactical aspects with a really cool representation of magic. Please, game designers, steal this idea!

My f(r)iend the spirit
Okay, the idea of spirits, ghosts or demons possessing humans while giving them supernatural powers is not new, but I still consider it a cool source of magic. In the anime / manga Shaman King, spirits grant magical powers to the teenagers they possess. If we go back even further (like, a few hundred years), Goethe’s Faust already describes the exchange of power for one’s own soul. It gives magic an interesting problem, as you have to allow an otherworldly being to live in your body to get your powers. You can even extend this concept by having the creature demand something of you (like, well, your eternal soul). It gives magic a consequence, and consequences provide drama. And drama, dear folks, is good!

Magic? What magic?
Okay, why even bother with full-blown sorcery in your setting? Do you really need it? Why not make magic extremely rare and obscure, so obscure that almost no one believes in it anymore? A Song of Ice and Fire uses this as a premise, as magic seems to have left Westeros for good. Any actual use of magic becomes unique and spectacular again, and it makes it an extremely rare yet powerful tool.

A lack of magic also gives you a chance to leave the details of magic vague. If hardly any character uses it, why bother explaining it all that much? Drop some hints, phrase some theories, but keep it mysterious. This will make magic even more interesting, as people always fear what they don’t know, but are also always curious to find out more!

Well, that’s it for this Sunday. I hope you’ll have a magical Sunday yourself, and if you have anything sorcerous to say, feel free to leave a comment! 🙂

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3 comments

  1. I always liked how Mercedes Lackey handled magic in her “Arrows of the Queen” (and surrounding books) series. See, the elite could do various forms of telepathic mind magics, but any mention or reference or – god forbid – spell of true-channeling-the-magic-from-force-lines style magic was instantly forgotten or unable to be understood by the kingdom. You found out eventually that the entire kingdom was under an ancient spell to protect it from intrusive magic…but the spell itself had grown a bit sentient and grumpy over the ages. I loved seeing how the characters on either side – the magic users and the magic ignorant – interacted.

    Great final point about Game of Thrones. So many fantasy settings these days are inundated with magic that it makes us rather jaded to it. It’s refreshing to read books where the magic is truly unique and rare.

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