Magic in the Mimesis RPG

Contemporary Fantasy and RPG Escapism

Medievalist fantasy-based roleplaying games are the staple of the industry. The "800 lb. gorilla" of the industry, Dungeons & Dragons, is firmly based on "swords and sorcery" as Gary Gygax famously put it. The big alternatives in the 1970s and 1980s were also fantasy games, such as RuneQuest, Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP), and Tunnels & Trolls. It was only in the 1990s that a serious challenger in modern fantasy-horror arose with the various White Wolf games, especially Vampire : The Masquerade. True, there were other challengers in the past, such as Call of Cthulhu, or Traveller (on that note SFRPGs have been described as "a graveyard"), or superhero games like Champions. But whilst it there are exceptions surely it must be quickly acknowledged that for the overwhelming majority [1] of the hobby experience fits into what has been more called a "quasi-medieval Tolkien-feudal-Conan soup".

There are, of course, good reasons for this. There is a deep familiarity with such fantasy settings in contemporary popular culture, mostly due through the enormous success of well-known fantasy fiction such as the novels in J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth setting, and even partially (and recursively, no less) through games like Dungeons & Dragons, or a more recent expression, World of Warcraft [2]. Simply put, a very large people in contemporary advanced post-industrial economies know what an orc is. The genre is clearly of the fantastic marvelous to use Todorov's distinction between the truly supernatural and illusionary fantastic uncanny [3]. The marvellous fantasy fits into the model proposed by Tolkien [4] and the difference between exotic traveller tales (Gulliver's Travels), science fiction (The Time Machine), dreams (Alice In Wonderland), allegorical animal stories (Aesop's Fables), and fantasy (or fairy stories), with the latter requiring a special credibility of its own:

"It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as 'true.' ...But since the fairy-story deals with 'marvels,' it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole framework in which they occur is a figment or illusion." (emphasis mine)

Certainly the marvellous is popular as escapism, itself a contested term. Popular psychology is abounds with conventional wisdoms concerning tendencies people using various activities to avoid the unpleasant issues of the real world. This leads to the historical criticism (Juvenal, the first Satire [5]) where escapism is considered negative - rather than dealing with the problems of the real world, it seeks avoidance. In contrast some social theorists (e.g., Bloch, Marcuse), influenced by psychoanalysis, have noted the utopian in fantastic speculation as being an impetus to provide real-world counterfactuals [6].

The Importance of Magical Verstehen

The issue that I have with such advocacy of fantasy literature and RPGs is that the utopian and emancipatory elements of escapism are weakened where their connection with real world history, people, and mythologies are absent, and conversely the avoidance element is strengthened. In other words it is a problem of Verstehen [7] or the method of hermeneutics by which we come to understand the Other and interpret their context, especially those who are culturally and historically distant. Whatever contributions to narrative, game play etc that most fantasy RPG world offer, there is more to be gained intellectually by those game systems which delve deeply into historical contexts (e.g., Ars Magica, many GURPS supplements) or with modes of consciousness (e.g., RuneQuest's Glorantha). The difficulty and importance of uniting marvellous fantasy with history can be stated as a pathway to understand premodern and magic-believing cultures [8]. It is not historically true of course, but it is anthropologically accurate to present stories (and RPGs are emergent collaborative story systems) as if magic existed.

Of course, this is not always an easy task. It has been half-joked that to play Ars Magica properly you only need a d10 and a history degree. However, the tie between game mechanics and marvellous fantasy (or "magic") can sometimes be a problem. Ars Magica yet again being a case in point developing an interesting magical system of first-person present tense indicative Latin verb combined with singular accusative noun with which diverged strongly from "real world" magical practices of the time. Some of the features of the magic system from the early editions of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons also showed attention to both mechanical features (e.g., somatic, verbal, material components) even if these could be a bit fiddly in actual play, and with historical and literary examples in both spells and magic items, with an great example in the D20 Testament supplement for Biblical roleplay. Two notables examples which tried to provide and accurate game-based representation of medieval magical practise is the Spanish-language game Aquelarre and the SPI boardgame Demons (which was partially reprinted in DragonQuest). In this sense the concentration of powers as game effects first (e.g., Hero System, Mutants & Masterminds) which are then given particular culturally appropriate expressions is the most useful path.

The Practice and Historical Decline of Magic

Combining the (a) escapism desire for marvellous fantasy and (b) anthropological accuracy in terms of the use of such magical thinking in story generation and (c) an attachment to realism initially suggests a conflict between (a) and (b) with (c). However, this is not necessarily the case. The key narrative feature of modernity is, as Max Weber described it is an "disenchantment" of the world [9]. Also drawing from Weber is the notion of increased rationalisation and differentiation between modes of thinking, which also concurs with anthropological thinking. Much of the following comes from a discussion several years ago on the Mimesis design mailing list [10]

Initially magic is represented as a cohesive whole. Anything and everything in the game world has a Spirit trait and everything was magical. As the world lost its animist lustre, magical processes initially became more specialised and esoteric and over time, as people became increasingly disenchanted for magical explanations of natural phenomena, even this was lost. As people lost their faith in magical explanations, so too magical effects disappeared. Magic changes over time. In primitive cultures (savages and barbarians, to use Morgan's charming classifications) magic is primarily animist. In traditional cultures (slavery and feudalism), magic becomes split into - to use the Rolemaster terms - Channelling (supernatural, priests), Essence (paranormal, wizards), and Mentalism (psychic, mystics). In modern times magic "disappears" from the normal world and magical professions transform into mundane professions, c.f.,

World Medium* Content Primitive Traditional Modern
Objective Essence Elements Shaman Wizard Sciences
Intersubjective Chanelling Actions Shaman Priest Laws
Subjective Mentalism Thoughts Shaman Mystic Arts

* The medium for shaman is animism.

Animist Magic. The foundation of all other mediums, Animist Magic is highly adaptable and versatile. It can use foci and materials (like Essence magic), group rituals (like Channelling) and meditative practices (like Mentalism); often it will use all three. The danger of animist magic is the chaotic feedback and disasters that befall with failed use of magic. Animist magic attempts to reduce the possibility of feedback by ensuring the tribe follows the the mythic narratives in their everyday life and by assigning themselves to totem clans and by ancestor veneration.

Essence Magic. Essence magic is concerned with the dispassionate study in traditional society of elements, the humours (both from Swordbearer) and so forth. With careful investigation of nature and the constant quest to find instances of noumenal or essential examples of an element or humour, wizards derive their power. Essence magic includes divination through astrology, alchemy etc. Essence magic is highly dependent on
book-learning and use of foci.

Channelling Magic. Channelling magic is concerned with harnessing or invoking the will of others in dedication to a single cause. This can be achieved by appeals to a greater being (e.g., a deity) or by orchestrating rituals of worshippers. Channelling magic includes divine interventions, summoning, and necromancy. Channelling magic is highly dependent on knowledge of religious laws and the use of verbal and dramatic expressions and symbols.

Mentalism Magic. Mentalist magic is concerned with self-control over one's mind and body. Through the use of systematic contemplation and exercise a mystic can draw upon extraordinary inner resources when engaging in the physical world (like the capacity to walk on burning coals, to slow one's heartbeat to a neglible rate etc) and to project their mind in the psychic world (telepathy, psychokinesis etc). Mentalist magic is highly dependent on concentration and often freedom of movement.

Modern Skills. Occasionally, the application of modern skills (the sciences, the laws, the arts) cause experiences which must give the impression of magical such is their extraordinary nature. Of course, once established within a scientific, legal or artistic discourse the activity loses its unique and chaotic expression and thus ceases to be magic. Modernity is about the destruction of premodern magic into an ordered and rational world.

"... in 1941, physicists Sherr, Bainbridge and Anderson transmuted a radioactive isotope of Mercury into pure Gold..."

Anthropologically and historically the human story of cosmology has changed, and this can be incorporated into interpretations of the magical system. A cosmology of the world as a pure spirit can be discerned from some of the RuneQuest/HeroQuest Gloranthan cultures, along with competeting interpretation. In Mage:The Ascension the idea of competing ideas within a mundane reality is also present. Adding these approaches to the essentially modern allegory in Larry Niven's novel "The Magic Goes Away" provides both an explanation of the disappearance of magic and magical effects and its remaining strength in areas far from civilisation, where it has "burned out". In early settings, the world is full of magic, it is thoroughly "enchanted" from the perspective of the participants - it is a period of "heroic fantasy", and followed by a classic magical period that correlated with the traditional period.

By the modern age, where it does it exist it is represented as being perhaps uncanny with the ambiguity of magical realism, where realism and the fantastic co-exist in an environment which is both natural and surreal. It is usually not explicitly and obviously fantastic, but rather such features constantly gnaw at the edges. To quote Jameson in his classic essay on magic realism in film: "... not a realism to be transfigured by the 'supplement' of a magical perspective but a reality which is already in and of itself magical and fantastic" [12]. Over The Edge is a classic example of such a game and possibly Nephilim and Unknown Armies as well, although they can be a little too obviously magical. In this way the Mimesis RPG provides a consistent system for magic whilst satisfying historical realism and anthropological modes of consciousness.


[1] In a 1999 US survey, 6% of 12- to 35-year-olds have played role-playing games (an estimated 20 million players), of which 2/3rds of regular players play D&D. (Dancey; Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary). In 2005 Dungeons & Dragons products made up over fifty percent of the RPG products sold in 2005. (Hite; State of the Industry 2005).
[2] Williams, Mike (7 May 2014). "WoW Finds its New Normal at 7.6 Million Total Subscribers". USgamer. Gamer Network. Retrieved 7 May 2014.
[3] Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (1970), translated by Richard Howard as The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre (1973)
[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" in "Essays Presented to Charles Williams", Oxford University Press, 1947
[5] Peter Green's introduction to Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, Penguin, 1967 [FP c100CE]
[6] Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, FP 1954 and Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, 1955
[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, FP 1960
[8] See my presentation on "Magical Thinking : An Anthropological Excursus" to the Melbourne Philosophy Forum, March 2014 as an example
[9] Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion
[11] Frederic Jameson, On Magical Realism in Film, Critical Inquiry Vol. 12, No. 2 (Winter, 1986), pp. 301-325