Magic in games

Magic. It is one of the things I most like to see in games stories. And I mean all games stories; computer games, board games, card games, pen and paper games, movies vocal stories, written stories, daydreams… our world?

One of the important parts of magic is the suspension of disbelief. I just read Andrew’s latest post over at Ascii Dreams – but that wasn’t what triggered this post. I have had something about magic in stories swirling about in my head for years.

Like Andrew says; you need to take magic into account. If you just patch in a few spells for a select group of people, well – that doesn’t fit in at all. The why, how, what of things pop up all the time. The fanciful stuff that fits nicely in stories, faerie magic wielded by another race of beings are the easiest to use. Faerie magic. Okay, that’s fair. That will be illusions, old magic of the lands. Getting someone to fall in love with you by dancing three circles around that big oak under a full moon. Preferably naked. That magic fits into stories without any explanation, but you cannot put that kind of magic too much to the front of the story. The protagonist cannot use it, because then you have to explain the limits, the rituals and the effects. It will fall apart.

Well, you can do it, sort of. Put magic; specific formulas – or spells – into the world. Say they are remnants of earlier ages. The theories are unknown, some select people with a Gift of magic can be taught from old documents and teachers who once were taught by their masters. You just put in fragments of history and it is set. You can even extend it later by having older works discovered, or scholars finding discrete pieces of magic that binds similar spells together.

My personal favorite magical system is the one from Ars Magica. Five Techniques and ten Forms (verbs and nouns). Each magical formula consist of at least one verb and one noun. A basic spell moving a human body vertically (levitation) is a Rego (Movement) and Corpus (Human body) formula. A basic spell moving a human body from A to B without passing the space in between is also a Rego Corpus formula. Separating these is an intention, and a power guideline. In addition you need to specify some meta information such as target (individual, part or a group), a range (self,touch or something you can see), and a duration (instantly, for two minutes, a day or as long as you concentrate). These affect the power requirements.

You have a whole theory of magic, with established guidelines and existing formulas. You have the possibility of specifying the actual effect by textual description (an intention). Casting spells tire the wizard, unless he is pretty good at what he does. This is a world where magic is a powerful force, bringing its own troubles. You need to have a world that is touched by this magic – a reason for it to work in the presence of powerful beings. In Ars Magica this is fixed by adding powerful mythical forces of good and evil (Heaven and Hell) and faeries into the picture. The wizards govern themselves in order to exist and grow without attracting (too much) negative attention from the other forces. And with only a few hundred wizards… the world is dangerous even if you are powerful.

Still, what misses from this picture (as I see it) – you cannot really enchant your tower to only be seen through the wrong end of a spyglass: the magic doesn’t know of objects as such.

Well, this is all well and good. But these systems rely on human interpretation. The system from Ars isn’t that easy to accomplish in the strict world of computer (or board) games. What does this best (imho) is the component based systems in games like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis. The Elder Scrolls games (in Daggerfall, at least) have had a system where you could create spells yourself, but this proved to be a bit unbalanced. A simple, inexpensive spell could see you from novice to master in a school of magic in no time.

I’d like to see a well flavored magic system, one that looks believable within the limits of a system. But who will do this? I don’t know – but Will Wright is my best guess – perhaps he could do a (high) fantasy themed game when he is done with Spore?