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What Magic System? Gaming & Writing, Part 1

This is Part 1 of my series on Gaming & Writing. I am hoping to make it a weekly thing, a Friday feature as such, but we shall see what kind of feedback we get. ~SMH

If you have not been occupied with more important social issues or living in your role-playing books or writing your next book, you likely have heard something about the OGL Fiasco. It got me thinking about all the writers I know who have been using D&D skins for the fantasy stories.

Games offer us great inspiration for our stories in much the same way visual and literary media does. It is tempting to port over the rules of our favorite rpg into our writing. For a time those potential OGL changes may have made that kind of thing more difficult from an IP standpoint. Although things seem safe now, I feel there is space to have a discussion about how something might be great as a game, but not great writing.

In addition, if you listen to fans of fantasy literature, one of the things they are always on about, it is the magic system. But what makes a good magic system for your fantasy book? Perhaps the question to ask, is why the framework of game rules do not make the best magic system for your story. There is no

doubt that the relationship between written fiction and collaborative fiction is a close one, but they work best when they are associated with their own media. An RPG is not a story (with exceptions, maybe), and a book is not a game. They have different goals. It is important to remember that when designing and writing your magic system. Below is my opinion of course, and hope they give you something to think of.

What is a Wizard, Sorcerer, Magician, Warlock, Witch, Shaman, Priest, or Druid Anyway?

For the most part I think we believe Gandolf from Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring is the Ur wizard of fantasy. But do you know upon which mythological figure ole Gandolf is based? Most would say Merlyn, but a significant amount of influence comes from Väinämöinen. And we need to remember that Gandolf is not an actual wizard in the rpg sense. Gandolf is a divine being. Same goes for the Wizard of Oz, except he is not a divine being but a huckster from Omaha. The point is that those who wield magic rarely fit into neat boxes like classes or professions. Indeed, most have some kind of connection to the other worlds that allows them to use magic.

It will not hurt to take a look at the origin of these terms, historically, in literature, and their use in games. I did a quick etymology of sorcerer. And for a modern look at sorcerers check out Ron Edwards', Sorcerer.

Speaking of Origins...

Did you know that the origin of the magic system used in several of the original versions of D&D and in a number of modern rpgs as well, comes from Jack Vance's Dying Earth? It even gives the name to the style of magic, Vancian. I suspect some people do not realize that magic in modern D&D is different than Vancian magic, though it is still related. The magic systems in other games is often a variation on this theme, though some are quite different and unique. If you are writing fiction that is inspired by a particular RPG, don't just research the magic, research the origin of that magic system. What inspired the designers to do magic in that particular war? The answers may provide with you even more depth to the magic in your work.

Demons, Swords, and Demon Swords

I think this subject will get its own part, but magic doodads are popular in most stories. From Excalibur to Stormbringer to My. Bilbo's magic ring, literature and the magic McGuffin have a long history together. But game fiction often dilutes these fantastic items with a shitload of magic swords, daggers, and wands. In this case, I am going to recommend that less is more and that you give your magical doodads some personality. And consider making them conversational.

And what is good for the sword is twice as good for the demons. Faceless demon hordes are fun, but giving the demons strong personality quirks makes for better characters, both in the antagonist and protagonist roles.

But for the Spells Themselves...

Being vague about a spell or ritual is always the way to go. Even if you were writing licensed game fiction, '...casts a ball of fire at the three vampires...' is better than '...casts Fireball at the three vampires...'. Yes the name of the spell gives it recognition and your reader, if they are aware, can squee. But books are not games and although a wizard might think to themselves 'have to cast fireball', it does not translate into action. Be vague. Make your reader wonder what spell the magician is casting. Give your own spin on the old basics and leave people guessing.

In Part 2, we will discuss the bard as a class and a historical figure and why the modern interpretation of the bard has a lot of issues to unpack.



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