Gathering Magic

Recently, I’ve been learning about Magic the Gathering.

I didn’t play Magic when it first came out because I was in a fearfully serious phase of my life – this was when I was putting all my energy into work, and when I was suppressing my urge to write. Whatever the reasons, the first time I really became aware of the game was from a passing reference in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon where one of Randy Waterhouse’s old roleplaying buddies says that he doesn’t do tabletop games any more and instead plays deck-building card games because there’s all of the combat and none of the tedious parts.

That didn’t sell the game to me, since combat is the part of tabletop RPGs that I enjoy least.

Anyway, I follow the Geek & Sundry web series Tabletop and saw this other show, Spellslingers, in the episode listings: it’s a bit like Tabletop, except that the game played is always Magic. I enjoyed watching it, however confusing it was at first.

Then my boys asked about the game, because they both have friends at school who play, and we went to get a couple of intro decks to play with at our FLGS*. It was fun, and well balanced – we’ve all won and we’ve all lost, but never so overwhelmingly that it was dispiriting.

There are also some players at the day job so I will probably go through a booster draft**. I have no intention of going much further than that with mass card acquisition because I have neither the time nor the funds, but it is a lightweight game with enough luck to give any player a fair chance but enough complexity to reward strategic thought.

Where’s the Storytelling?

I am always interested in the storytelling mechanics of a game, and one of the problems I have with Magic is that there really don’t seem to be any. It’s a combat game, pure and simple – there is a back story about planeswalkers coming into conflict and trying to stay ahead of some executioner-style figure who seeks out those who disrupt the walls between realities, but there’s really nothing in the game itself to reinforce that story. About the closest you get to in-game narrative is that some of the cards interact with each other to produce stronger effects, but basically you’re looking for tactical ways to remove your opponent’s life force in the game and the storytelling seems to be unrelated to the game mechanics themselves. There’s no requirement that decks be thematically consistent beyond using compatible forms of magic.

Having said that, the actual magic system which the game implements is quite interesting: land you control yields mana which you may harvest to cast spells. That’s a pretty strong mechanic, however isolated from the storytelling it may be (why do you control the land? how are the creatures summoned?).

Big System

Which brings me to the subject of magic systems in fantasy novels.

Most of my exposure to magic systems has been through roleplaying games. These give a structured framework for casting spells which usually have a cost in magic points or other components, and limitations like range, casting time, ritual elements, and so on. Then you roll some dice to determine whether and how successfully the spell was cast.

Magic in novels doesn’t need that level of detail (and frankly the explication of that level of detail is one reason why making fiction from the events in roleplaying campaigns tends to fall flat) but it does need some kind of systematic nature to limit the actions of spellcasters. If your protagonist can basically do anything at all with magic, then there is no constraint and no story. And the magic needs to be self-consistent also: if a character casts a shielding charm by smearing frog blood on their clothes in one scene but performs the same effect with a mere snap of their fingers later then there’s either a break in suspension of disbelief or the need for a very urgent explanation.

Magic in fantasy novels vary enormously.

  • in The Lord of the Rings it is difficult to think of a single spell that Gandalf casts, and Saruman’s great power seems to be in technology rather than sorcery. Even Sauron, arguably a being of pure magic, makes his greatest magic in artifacts rather than spells.
  • the Harry Potter books use wands and potions in equal measure, but the mechanics of magic itself are reduced to well-pronounced words and accurate hand motion***.
  • Chritsopher Paolini’s Inheritance series (Eragon and its sequels) use words of power, but they are words in a special language giving the true names of things.
  • Charles Stross’s Laundry novels use mathematics and computation as summoning spells, the mere act of executing certain algorithms weakening the walls of our reality.
  • in Michael Scott Rohan’s trilogy The Winter of the World, the MC’s magic is bound up in forging artifacts of great power, combining runes and the proper materials to make magical items.

This business of magic systems is a particular subject of interest for Brandon Sanderson as expressed repeatedly on Writing Excuses, so it’s worth trawling the archives for more.

As it happens, I effectively built a magic system for my science fiction novel last year, Shapes of Chance – the MC’s abilities were rooted in the concepts of quantum physics, but the effects needed to be proscribed so as to limit her capability. And now I am building a new magic system for this November’s story, since the one I used in its precursor is not really appropriate this time, so I need to think about what magic can do and where it comes from.

What magic systems do you enjoy in your fiction? How would you change them?

[*] Friendly Local Game Shop, in this case Other Worlds Games.

[**] getting lots of packs of cards and taking turns drawing from them, then playing with the decks that result.

[***} the question of where new spells come from is disposed of with throwaway remarks about “research wizards”, as if that is an answer.

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