"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
(Clarke's Third Law)
(Ogmios' Fourth Law)
Magic is the oil that makes the wheels of fantasy run smoothly. Magic is the music of the spheres and the Mana for those who can hear it. Magic is a form of art in the hands of those who posses the gift. Or a least, that's what we would like to think. Fantasy literature usually places some emphasis on the descriptions of magic and its influence on the surrounding world. So why is it that it too many Role Playing Games magic doesn't seem like a form of art but more like a multi-functional assault rifle with variable ammunition? And how do we avoid this grim situation? How do we make magic seem special again?
One small comment before I go on - this article is system-independent. I use the word "wizard" to freely reference any spell-casting character. Feel free to replace it with Sorcerer, Mage, Druid, Magic-User or Jelly-Bean to fit your system and campaign.
Any player to sit at my table knows that the phrase "I cast magic missile" can have only two responses - being ignored ("see no evil, hear no evil"), and being bombarded with an assortment of snacks and dice. Remember that casting a spell usually isn't as simple as pressing a button - it is a difficult and complicated process both mentally and physically. Make sure your descriptions represent that. Casting a magic missile, for example, could sound something like this: "I take a deep breath as I concentrate my mana to a single burning point in the center of my essence. I close my spread arms and put my fingers together to make the Krous symbol. My eyes lock on the target, and with a single magical word - Katrash - I send a burst of pure energy at the poor Goblin that curses the day his path crossed mine."
Magic isn't and should appear to be a limited set of abilities taken from a previously defined pool. Magic is a form of art just like painting or music, and as such it should be flexible, open to improvisation and unpredictable, at least to some degree. Obviously, this depends on the system you play, but try to leave your Wizards an opening for some personal interpretation of the spell lists. In some system the entire magic system is one big personal interpretation (like Mage: the Ascension), others leave a lot of room for improvisation (like Ars Magica) and in some systems this personal interpretation sums up to the usage of meta-magic skills that allow the wizard to slightly alter the spell supplied in the rulebook. Don't settle for knowing these options exist - encourage (or even demand) your players to use them. With even a little effort you can achieve impressive results. Its enough for two wizards to describe their fireballs differently (for example - one of them describes how he opens a portal from the elemental plane of fire while the other describes who he appeals to Balroch, the Death Flame Demon), and their fireballs change slightly from time to time (once it's large enough to burn an entire tavern, once small enough to burn a man but leave the man next to him with no more than singed eye-brows, and once square instead of round) to make these fireballs seem like magic and not like special abilities in Mortal Kombat.
There are no two identical wizards, and therefore there should be no two identical magic styles. Every wizard should have his own unique and special style of magic. This style is evident in every aspect of magic, from his choice of spells, through the manner these spells are cast and last but not least the looks and effect these spells have. For instance, the same wizard from the previous example that appeals to Balroch for his powers may need a ceremonial bloodletting each time he casts a spell. In addition, all his spells are reminiscent of their fiery origin - from his burning Magic Missile to his Detect Magic spell that appears as a small flame hovering in his palm that points to the nearest source of magic. At this point, the GM should decide if these effect actually have any influence on game mechanics or not. For example, the GM could decide that each time the wizard casts a spell he would loose a small amount of Hit Points due to the bloodletting, but in return all his offensive spells will gain some small bonus due to the flames that engulf them. On the other hand, he could simply decide that the bloodletting is merely symbolic and that the damage from the flames is already calculated into the spell's description. A word of caution - in the hands of munchkin players and novice GMs, Personal Style of Magic could easily turn into a cheap way of gaining unfair bonuses. Don't allow it!
With all due respect to magic, it is important to remember the Role Playing Games are about characters. Magic, like any other major factor in the campaign world, affects the characters and the relations between them. Remember - a wizard is a person with the ability to do extraordinary deeds, far beyond the wildest dreams of most people. This deviance must come into play in the way other commoners treat the wizard. The reaction towards wizards could be anything from paralyzing fear, hatred, admiration to the simple respect a useful craftsman such as a skilled carpenter receives, depending on how rare and/or powerful magic is in your campaign world.
But the story doesn't end here. As I noted, wizards can diverse among themselves by having different Personal Styles. The differences between these styles comes, in part, from the differences between the different individual wizards using the same technique. When creating these different styles, it is also important to give thought to the relationships between them and the wizards the employ them. For instance, in one campaign world wizards could treat each other with mutual respect, while in another wizards who derive their powers from the natural forces may look down at the wizards who have to grovel to Balroch to get their powers.
Another point worth considering is the relationship between wizards and religious figures in your campaign world. Some campaign worlds have clerics who gain supernatural powers from the deities they worship, but this point applies even more strongly to the campaigns where this is not the case - a wizard is a person who displays supernatural abilities without any connection to that deity or its worship (and in more cases than not - while displaying the utmost contempt to gods, deities and the people that believe in them). How will the clerics treat such a person? Would he be hunted down as a heretic? Or would he simply be treated as a craftsman, albeit one having a unique craft? And what about the clerics flock? Will witnessing this heretic turn water to wine make them reconsider their beliefs? Everything's possible - think carefully before you decide either way.
As I've said too many time already, magic is a form of art. Don't allow yourself to be tied to the descriptions and mechanics of magic the rules dictate. Let your imagination fly free, and allow magic to truly be magical.
This article first appeared in issue #4 of The Orc.