Saturday 1 November 2014

Making magic magical

magical train thing
I was playtesting my chronological settlement generator and decided it needs a whole lot more variety of events and a bunch of other tweaks, hence no release yet. Instead, here is a something on the importance grounding fantasy in reality in order to heighten the fantastic elements, especially the magical.

I am firmly in the low magic school of rpgs. Sword and Sorcery is one of my favourite literary genres, I prefer the magic of Ghormengast over that of Waterdeep, the price Elric pays for his power over the gushing firehose of magic that most D&D mages are.

This is of course, a problem. Despite there being a plethora of low magic, sword and sorcery systems out there these days, my players much prefer D&D and to be honest, I can’t blame them. I have to do something though, to satisfy my low magic itch. I solve the problem partially by making the PCs the true heroes, their strength of arms, daring skulduggery and yes, even their magic, makes them the heroes. The rest of the setting has to tone down the magic to compensate because for magic to be strange and wonderful, it needs to stand out from its surroundings. This is an oft-argued position that I subscribe to. Magic as technology settings are a turn off for me. Although I don’t mind playing in them, running them gives me no joy. In order to achieve a low magic world, much must be sacrificed. The main player affecting items are things like magic item shops, mages guilds in every city and churches selling healing potions. I have no qualms about removing them. The Cleric class is restricted to adventurers in my campaigns, uniquely blessed creations that have special abilities over their church-bound brethren. Less impactful are things like magical means of transportation, flying carpets, portals, teleportation scrolls etc. but they need to go as well. Having even less game impact are things like permanent magical lighting in cities but these are just as important to remove. If the players are surrounded by no magical paraphernalia their own magic will stand out even more.
Should we then take this to the extreme? If fantasy elements portrayed as normal hurt this style of game, shouldn’t it all go? PC races such as elves, dwarves gnomes are all fantastical elements that can be removed.

Fantastical RacesWhy then, did I make the decision to fill The City in Darkness, already an obviously magical place with its rock suspended in space and its portals that lead to other worlds, with all manner of strange races? There are halflings, elves and dwarves alongside goblins, kobolds and orcs. If I really subscribe to this magical magic and fantastical fantasy schtick, the first thing that should go are all the wacky races (actually, the portals themselves are too magical already, but I will get to that).

The real reason, I must admit, is me selling out and trying to make the blog more interesting and appeal to a broader group of people. My home campaigns, are usually incredibly humanocentric. If I have a nonhuman PC, they are treated as exotic creatures and gawped at openly. I sometimes run campaigns with the fantasy races, but often as not they are just different human cultures. When you make the decision to include the fantasy races, grounding demihumans and humanoids in reality can help offset their weirdness. Little details make fantasy races more believable, especially if they have could be believable in our reality.

- Did you know halflings get foot dandruff?
- Orcs are prolific nose pickers due to the dryness of their nasal membrane.
- Elves hear at a noticeably higher range than humans. A dog whistle is audible but dwarven cavern calls are not.
- Gnomes cannot smell many scents including cinnamon, sulphur, pepper or even the smell of fresh bread.

More odd racesThe above examples are fairly tedious, apologies, but in a game situation they would work to add just a little reality to the situation. We already know about things like dandruff, hearing ranges and nose picking. Very occasionally these things come up in game and can add just enough to a character to make them a real person as opposed to a fantasy caricature.
All of this said, my games are not devoid of fantasy elements, I just try to make the individual fantasy elements all the more special by having them stand out. The portals of Nocte are not simply a means of transportation, when waiting in the queues to use the portals you can hear the strange wailing coming from them, see the boiling surface of the portal as someone enters or emerges, smell the ozone in the air and feel the crackle of static electricity as you get closer. Entering a portal can be an event that can fill the players with a small sense of the wonderful that is enhanced by the lack of fantasy around them.

Still too much
So, when running low magic games, pay attention to the small details. Remove what mundane fantasy elements, especially magic in order to make it all the more special and when you introduce the fantasy elements into your campaign, make the effort to make them truly special and interesting.

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