On Magick and Awakening

There’s a particular approach to magic in fantasy stories that has appealed to me ever since I first read David Eddings’ “Belgariad” and which was reinforced when I first encountered White Wolf Publishing’s “Mage: The Ascension“. It’s the idea of magic being about the application of the mage’s will to alter reality without all the tedious mucking about with spells.

While there are hints in the first book of the five-part Belgariad, the way in which “the Will and the Word” works in Eddings’ novels is revealed more clearly in “Queen of Sorcery”. In short, those with the capability to work magic simply picture in their minds the outcome they wish to create, gather their Will, and then speak the Word to bring about that change.

In gaming terms, this is a category of magic that is sometimes referred to as “improvisational magic”. The mage can work any change they can imagine and then enact that through their Will, speaking only a single Word. This is, of course, a potential nightmare for the GM at the table because what’s to stop the player deciding to magic away all the barriers to their goals?

In the Belgariad, which is fiction and therefore at the whim of the authors (because it was a thinly-veiled secret that these novels were co-written by David and Leigh Eddings), this question of power is addressed through at least two major limitations: firstly, it’s tiring to work your Will to wrought change upon reality; secondly, you need to be mindful of the knock-on effects of a change you make.

In other words, the laws of cause and effect mean that while you can do anything, you might not like the full consequences of your action. To use an example from somewhere in the series (I forget exactly where), Belgarath mentions that while he could summon a storm this would wreak havoc with the weather patterns across the whole world. He also seems to prefer subtlety to avoid drawing the attention of other hostile Willworkers.

When Mage: The Ascension arrived, sometime in 1993 or 1994, I felt immediately at home with the presentation of the World of Darkness and the Magick worked by the Magi. I was, however, dumb-founded by the Storyteller System which powered it – despite many attempts to bring this to the table, I have never succeeded in feeling comfortable with that game engine.

What resonated was a simple insight: reality is fundamentally malleable. That there is a Consensus – a perceived way to view the world of form around us – and that the Technocracy dominated that Consensus with their scientific worldview rang true. I also got the joke at the heart of Mage and felt that, if I could run any kind of modern fantasy game, this would be the way I would most love to do the magic.

Of course, the great fear for the past 30 years has been the spectre of “improvisational magic” in my roleplaying games. How do you control the players’ seemingly inevitable misuse of the power their characters can wield? The short answer is that you don’t. You don’t need to control anything. Rather, you are well-advised to simply trust your players, focusing on the world and characters.

For any truly great game to thrive I’ve come to believe that you need players you can trust and who can trust you as GM. As my friend Daniel Jones commented some years ago in interview, why would you want to play with people you don’t trust? Improvisational magic in gaming requires attuning the group – on both sides of the screen – to the tone and style of experience that we are trying to evoke.

The second insight came from Daniel’s further penchant for Otherworld-immersion. Realising that I want to play in fantastic worlds which are clearly grounded in a sense of real-world believability was the first big step. Playing games with the focus on the description of place and helping players maintain their unity of perception with their characters has helped me step away from mechanical thinking.

Mage is very high-powered cinematic gaming but you don’t need to play with all the power of the universe to experience a world bathed in this approach to magic. In fact, this is where cloaking the mechanisms of play behind the screen will pay dividends. The players only need to know what their characters know and only then in descriptive terms. They know they can bend reality with their powers but how far… well, that is the question.

Having picked up GURPS Mage: The Ascension again – I had forgotten that I owned it – there was a third insight that erupted into my consciousness: you could play an exciting game with characters who are regular people suddenly awakened to the realities of Magick in the world. The flavour of dark Gothic-Punk fantasy set in the modern world would be a delicious exploration ground, especially when married to the slow discovery of the limits and possibilities of improvisational magic.

Using GURPS helps me to feel comfortable with the basics: the game is calibrated to evoke the real-world consensus and to do so in a simple, straight-forward manner. The mechanisms of play are familiar and easy enough to access for any player. The focus can fall on the World and the characters as they grapple with their Awakening to the truth of Magick.

All I need to do now is find some players. Or start playing alone.

Game on!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.