[RPG] Making magic “magical”


When I work with settings that contain magic, whether traditional fantasy or others, I always perceive something of a tension when trying to portray the magic between the following factors:

  1. Magic that feels magical/mystical rather than just another strand of science/technology
  2. Coherency and internal consistency
  3. Availability to PCs

Are there any systems/settings out there that balance these particular factors, and is there any advice you can give on putting together a system of magic that balances the three factors for a setting?

Edit: Just some extra notes on #2. based on some of the answers and comments: I'm not averse to uncertainty or random elements (chance of failure, unexpected results etc) but I'm keen to avoid elements creeping in that have the players cease to believe that there is any reliable, common thread to magic. It's about thematic believability and internal consistency rather than predictabilty.

Best Answer

From my experience, your number 3 is key: Availability to PCs. If something is supposed to be mythical, it gets scientific automatically. Once players know the mechanics behind it, their brain will do calculations in their head. Thats not even a conscious process. People cannot "un-know" things.

Example: D&D, the party encounters some random guy, he mutters some words and a fiery explosion rocks the group. 31 damage, save for half damage. At this point you can see your players brains in action... fireball, level 3 spell, level 5 wizard to cast, that means 5d6 minimum damage, 31 damage probably is at least 7d6, so he's a seventh level wizard. He might come up with a fourth level spell along the encounter, probably XXX, that's the most effective at level 7.

The mythical magic just turned into number crunching, statistics and normalization. The player can now roleplay that they do not know all this... but that's hard. And even then, it has lost all of it's magic feeling.

If you want something to be mythical, do not let your players know the rules behind it. Some maybe have to know them. For example the mage. But it's only realistic, that the mage can estimate other peoples magic. For him, maybe the prayers of the cleric are "mythical".

Your other factors vanish with the (un-)availability of knowlege to players. Who cares about consistency if nobody knows about the inconsistency. And who cares if for the mage, magic is science. He should treat it that way.

The most mythical magic moment probably was the DSA campaign I took part in. Because my character could not use any magic, I never bothered to look up how it worked. Any time our mage did his thing it was like "wow, cool". Any time an enemy used magic, it was frightening. Because as a player, I never knew what to expect. Just like my character with the magic.

This is not a system thing. It's purely a player and gm thing. It can work with any system and it can fail with any system. Especially systems that are played a long time, tend to deteriorate into number crunshing as all players have played all available classes many times. I don't think it's something you can effectively balance. To make the most out of #3, make sure the book seperates player knowledge into chapters one can just skip. That goes for all genres. For example I'm more than happy to skip the chapter on hacking in cyberpunk games as a player. The hacker can do his magic and surprise me.