Views on the use of "magic"

how does everyone feel about the use of “casual magic” in IF games?

The sort of games where magic is not really the point of the game, or not a large part of it’s background world, but crops up anyway?

Personally I’m working on a game, the sketched point of which is a fairly simple "get the player from A to B via other interesting places, maybe moving or fetching a macguffin ". But in thinking of things for the player to do, or have done to them, or fall into, or utilise to get them into and out of tight spots, the idea of “magic” sometimes occurs.

Does it add wonder, enchantment and a sense of otherworldliness or is it lazy thinking and use of deus-ex-machina to get the author out of doing real work and proper planning?

I think the only real, serious objection to a magic system is when every spell has exactly one and only one use, so that instead of “find the key and the locked door” puzzles you have, instead, “find the spell and the thing you need to cast that spell on” puzzles. I think that most everyone pans that as “what was the point of having a magic system in the first place”.

This is just design stuff, though. To answer your question more directly and, sorry to say, more vaguely, the old adage stands true - if you do it well, it’ll be great. :slight_smile: If you yourself feel that magic would be an easy way out, then you probably shouldn’t use it. Otherwise, you should definitely a least try it.

Even if every spell has only one use to solve a puzzle, that can be seriously obfuscated/obviated if it still can interact with a lot of different things, ie if there’s a lot of play to it even if you only have to use it once. Similarly to how the sponge in Savoir-Faire has only one use (that I remember, anyway) but you can link anything to the sponge, and all of those links work as expected.

If magic is a large part of the game, but it’s not a large part of the background world, that raises a question for the player. You should know what the answer is.

(You don’t have to put that answer in the game. But if you’ve never even thought about it, the player can generally tell.)

Uh, I’m Harry Potter? Is that the answer? That’s what I’ve got.


Don’t knock devices that get the player out of real work and proper planning. You’re always going to need some of those.

Magic can imply things about your world, but if Tolkienian (detailed, consistent, exhaustive) worldbuilding isn’t really a focus, that may not matter very much. There are plenty of genres - magical realism, children’s fantasy, low fantasy, allegory - where magic can exist without it having strong implications for the rest of the world.

But the Harry Potter series does, in fact, have a lot of thought about the wizarding world and the muggle world and how they relate!

I’d say that’s true of magical realism and allegory, but not children’s fantasy or low/urban fantasy as genres. The latter always have a consideration that magic is secret, or else commonplace and worked into the fabric of society.

If magic is secret or obscure, then the world at large may look like our world. But then the appearance of magic in the story is discovering a secret! Which is exciting.

We may be coming at this at slightly different angles, I think. The tack I was taking was ‘does this element of fantasy imply anything about how the rest of the world works?’

So, OK, if Saki introduces a talking cat into an Edwardian drawing-room, we’re not meant to infer a wainscot society of cats or ask questions about whether all cats are sentient language-users or whether other animals can do this; the cat has a limited narrative purpose (to be an obnoxious fly-on-the-wall exposing petty hypocrisy) and you can’t go far beyond that without engaging in fan-fiction. (I may be using ‘low-fantasy’ too broadly here. It is a slippery term.)

In children’s fantasy, the example I was thinking of was Where the Wild Things Are (the book; maybe the movie differs here.) The land of the wild things is a portal fantasy, right enough, but it doesn’t imply anything - nor should we try to make it do so - about how magic in general works. (Can any child access this place, or just Max? Does every strong emotion have a corresponding escapist world? These are questions that miss the point, which says something about how the fantasy works.)

Wait, Where the Wild Things Are isn’t magical realism?

…I guess I think of “magical realism” as being the convention that everyone accepts an influx of magic into the world, because it is serving double-duty as a fantastic element and a metaphor for the conditions of life that the story is about.

You’re right that there’s a strain of children’s lit that goes this way. (Peter Pan, Alice.) I was rather thinking of Susan Cooper and C.S.Lewis, who are pretty well on the track of modern genre fantasy – they want the story to make sense, in some sense. (If there’s a secret, someone is concerned with keeping it secret, or erasing memories, or there is an annoying lack of physical evidence, or what have you.)

I’d say that within the narrative of a particular piece of magical realism, magic – that is the existence of capability that defies rational and/or scientific and/or common sense explanation – doesn’t exist. The citizens of Macondo or Hernandez’s Palomar or Azaro’s unnamed city or Peter Lake’s New York don’t perceive their world as strange; we do. And I’d say that potentially has profound consequences for the created world, though magical realism, being drawn from and blended with folklore, most often confines its narrative to a particular geographical location and cultural milieu.

Where the Wild Things Are strikes me as more of a dream narrative: it’s surreal, not real.

My Harry Potter answer was semi-facetious :wink:

You were saying, ‘This raises a question for the player, and you probably know the answer.’

I didn’t know what the question was and I had no idea what the answer was!

However, my answer was straight in terms of my initial experience of Harry Potter, which was via the first film. I saw it with my dad. And we both came out saying, ‘What’s the point of all this learning magic if they can’t use it anywhere except in this school?’

In that sense, if the background was The Real World, and the game was Hogwarts, magic was writ large in the game and not in the background, which raised the question my dad and I asked each other.


It’s true, the first book (and movie) passes lightly over this. The point of being a wizard was just to be a wizard. It’s a subject that Rowling delved into more and more as the series went on. Eventually you get those scenes of the Minister of Magic talking to the Prime Minister of the UK, with no Harry-age characters in attendance.

Hmm. I’d add: because they are people for whom magic is already part of their worldview - their basic picture of the world already incorporates curses or reincarnation or witches, so when things of that ilk show up they take it in stride.

So I suppose I see the specific logic of children’s fantasy as magical realism that only operates for children? Hm.

This makes me think of MATILDA by Roald Dahl where the protagonist has telekinetic powers which are used for only one purpose in act 3 and then summarily dismissed.

Great story though!

Thank you all, you’ve given me lots more to think about. :sunglasses:

Some of the things I was considering when I wrote were books like Mary Gentle’s “Ash”, because it has the medieval setting, everyone runs around with swords and siege engines, but are happy to accept “miracles”, visions from God etc…

The problem is bringing stuff like that into a game without writing massive backstory, and with modern players, running into the Arthur C Clarke effect; that it isn’t magic, it’s technology. Everyone today has access to so much tech. that is frankly amazing and we treat it so casually, we’re so blase about really cool stuff like smart phones and the internet. If you’re playing a game and something happens a character from another era would find magical, do you not think “meh, hologram/nanotech/magnets”?

Is sometimes a game in a foreign land in olden times just that? Does it need magic, or is the setting enough? I guess I need to work on the setting to bring it more alive, add more detail - IF is all about the imagination of the player right?

A quick bit for Severedhand - if you could do magic, why not walk down the street magicing? I imagine the reason in the Harry Potter universe is similar to the one in the Harry Dresden universe. He’s a powerful wizard living in modern Chicago, but tries* not to do magic where non-magical people can see. The reason is that mundanes/muggles/mortals, don’t believe in magic, are happy not believing in it, and if forced to believe in it would get very, very angry. Wizards etc. might be powerful, and able to turn others into frogs, but they have to sleep sometime, and an angry mob doesn’t. These days mortals are organised with police forces and armies, and have access to powerful weapons that can take out the best wizard eventually.

Having a group of people around that could accidentally or deliberately summon dread creatures into the world is not comfortable, so the mortal people have let magic users know that we don’t like it, and they’re not to do it where we can see, or we’ll make our displeasure felt with a few witch burnings, wizard beheadings etc., until it all has to be done in secret.

*Dresden is not very good at the “not doing it in public” thing, riding a tyrannosaurus rex through Chicago is about the coolest/most obvious one :smiley:

Depends on your story, really. :sunglasses:

Well, no. If the world’s technology level is way below holograms and nanotech, and there’s no explanation given why the wizard would have access to such technology when the rest of the world is still making fire by hitting two rocks together, it’s easier to accept a supernatural explanation than a technological one.

On the other hand if the setting is hi-tech then it does bother me when someone is casting fire spells when you could just as well give them a plasma rifle. (Unless there’s a good reason for magic to co-exist alongside sufficiently advanced technology. Dividing people into magic vs. tech factions is the common trope.)

An example which is wonderfully ambiguous about its world-building. (On the one hand, miracles and visions really were part of the everyday worldview of that era. On the other hand, there’s an entire country where the sun never rises, and everybody in the book accepts that too.)

It’s possible to pull that stuff off. What I will say, though, is that it becomes central to the experience of the story.

Yeah, there I don’t think I wanna go at this point.

It has prompted another part of the game though - they are to be different “threads” to each chapter, depending on what the player does at various point, and one of these could be for the PC to “see” or experience something magical. if they go another way, this wouldn’t be triggered, they wouldn’t know it was possible - a bit like life :slight_smile: