[Design] Magic: An Initial Sketch

Lev Lafayette lev_lafayette at yahoo.com.au
Sat Dec 3 10:42:05 EST 2005

An initial sketch ideas for a magic system 

Theoretical speculation first then some game
proposals. Gamers will notice influence from
Rolemaster, RuneQuest, the Hero System Ars Magica and
Hero Wars - and even a touch of Swordbearer for those
who remember that game.

Metaphysical issue 

The basis of the Mimesis game is historical fantasy
with a "solidly simulationist agenda" (Dave Cake is
going on the back cover blurb for that one). Based of
this simulation means that there must be a way or
simulating magic and magical effects in a manner that
is historically and culturally accurate and which
doesn't require too much of a suspension of disbelief
for non-believers (which I presume is most of us,

Through various anthropological studies, it seems fair
to claim that magical beliefs have existed in every
indigenous culture, specifically contact with the
spirit world. All cultures also seem to use a medium
to express spiritual ability; in Polynesian cultures
it is mana, in Australian Aboriginal cultures maban,
in East Asian chi or ki, the Egyptian ka, the Hellenic
ichor, Hindu prana etc.

So for the purposes of this game magic and magical
creatures etc do exist. Whilst this may not be *true*,
it is *accurate* for nearly all people of primitive
and traditional cultures and even for most of modern
times the majority at least believe in some degree of
supernatural, psychic or paranormal power; metaphors
are "real" (a rose *is* blood red), and coincidences
have a cause.

Initially magic is represented as a cohesive whole.
Anything and everything in the game world had 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.

"So where are the dragon bones?", asks the
well-meaning atheist. We'll get to that.

Definition and Manifestation

Magic is the use of supernatural, psychic or
paranormal means to predict, achieve or explain an
effect. It breaches basic rules of space and time,
matter and energy. It is intrinsically chaotic.

Magic has changed historically. In primitive cultures
(savages and barbarians, to use Morgan's charming
classifications) magic is primarily Animist and magic
users are Shamen. 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	
Subjective	Mentalism	Thoughts	Shaman*		Mystic		Arts

* The medium for Shamen 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 practises
(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.
The most important being animist magic is the Great
Spirit, the primeval state of chaos itself from which
all things come, followed by Mother Nature and Father
Time and so forth. The practise of animist magic
involves contacting sprits embodies in people,
animals, plants and objects and directing their power
to the will of the Shaman.

Essence Magic. Essence magic is concerned with the
dispassionate study in traditional society of
elements, the humours 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 phsycial world (like the capacity to walk on
burning coals, to slow one's heatbeat 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. Occassionally, 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..."

Game Rules and Play

Every character is raised in a magic tradition, even
if that tradition (for Modern characters) is "None"
(or Mundane) as Lay Membership. Foreigners may also be
granted this level of membership. By the time a
character reaches adolescence they become a Apprentice
(Essence), Acolyte (Channelling) or Initiate
(Mentalism) of a particular tradition. Learning the
basic Social Norms skills of a culture will also
provide this opportunity. 

Going up the skills ladder a character usually becomes
an Adept (Essence), Brother or Sister (Channelling) or
Disciple (Mentalism) at the advanced skill level
(usually around adulthood), a Wizard, Priest or Mystic
at the expert skill level (middle-aged) and with
Magus, High Priest and Guru being reserved for master
level of tradition. These terms are, of course, merely
indicitive and vary according to culture.

Some names for non-magical traditions? High Agnostic?
;-) And Shamanism?

It is not unusual for character to have multiple
memberships to different magical traditions, although
some (particularly the monotheistic religions) have
severe restrictions on the practise.

Animist magic consists of making contact with Spirits
and binding that Spirit to the Shamen in question.
This requires Spirit combat with results that vary
significantldy. Shamen often require foci or tatoos to
ensure spirit is bound, and most retain a significant
degree of independence. Shamen are often seen arguing
out loud to no-one in particular as they try to
convince a bound spirit on a course of action. A
Shaman's spirits act as quasi-indepedent characters in

Essence magic is based on a combination of arcane
knowledge and foci which hold elemental quintessence.
The arcane knowledges provide understanding of the
relationships between natural forces and their latent
spiritual power whereas quintessence provides
empowering examples of natural forms (e.g., a
quintessence of light may be found as a beam of light
at dawn at a particular grove). Wizards have their
magical powers determined by foci and manipulated by
their arcane skills (and especially aided by the rare

Channelling magic is based on commerce between beings
of spirit, typically powerful spirits (deities) and
lesser spirits (worshippers) mediated by priests. Foci
can provide minimal aids (e.g., holy symbols) but the
real power in Channelling is the use of spells -
verbal and symbolic expressions which induce actions
in others. In order to gain spells, a Priest must
sacrifice some of the Spirit to the deity in question
and keep favour through prosletyising and keeping
liturgical services.

Mentalist magic is based on internal self-control and
mental projection. Foci, expressions and spirit
connections are disdained in favour of using a
particular combination of skills (or "ways") for
particular maneuvers.

The Mundane tradition resists magic?


In one sense the game system is very simple.
Practitioners of a magical tradition follow the fairly
simple actions above (e.g., An wizard has an "alchemy"
skill and an piece of agate has the ability to be
protected from poison and disease). However modifiers
to both the skill and trait need to be applied. This
is where a Hero System/Ars Magica-like effect should

Like language itself (and like Ars Magica) the
practise of magic can be summised a noun/verb
combination. The nouns are limited according to the
elements; Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Aether (or, to
use the Japanese, Chi, Fu, Ka, Sui and Ku, or the
Hindu Bhoomi, Vayu, Agni, Jala and Akasa) and the
humours; Sanguine, Choleric, Phlegmatic, Melancholic.
Actions on these nouns Perceive, Transform, Create,
Destroy and Control (it would be really good if I
could find correlations with the Chinese ways, but
it's not there :/).

Describing an action (Control Sanguine Aether) would
obviously be easier for one set of magical
practitioners over others. 

The Evolution and Decline of Magic

"Am I," said Apollonius, "to regard the universe as a
living creature?"

"Yes," said the other, "if you have a sound knowledge
of it, for it engenders all living things."

- The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Philostratus,

The origin of magic is the chaotic void with
pre-existence to space and time itself. Powerful
spirits harness this undetectable force and
manipulated according to their will. This will became
expressed as concepts and objects in the mundane
world, space, time, earth, air, love etc The relative
support that a spiritual concept has determines not
only its strength and capacity to act independently
but even its existence.

The human species have been most adept at manipulating
the spirit world. Whilst primitive cultures accepted
the independence of nature spirits, traditional
cultures, initially through polytheism, harnessed them
to their will and eventually integrated them into a
supra-deity in the monotheistic examples. Monotheism
has the particular ability to suppress competing
spirits and actually destroy evidence of their
existence. For example, whilst once several dragons
may have inhabited Europe, the denial of their genuine
existence by monotheistic churches over hundreds of
years meant that not only did their dragons themselves
fade away, but so did any physical evidence of their

The problem with monotheism denying the validity of
other magical traditions it was simply par for the
course that people began raising the question of the
validity of *any* magical tradition whatsoever. From
the 18th century onwards, the magical hold on the
universe gradually dissipitated leaving few creatures
and examples of Spirit left.

Neat, eh?

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