The RPG Scrollbars: The Lost Magic Of Magic

Given a choice, I almost always play as a mage. Swords? Pah. Divine magic? Save it for Sunday School. Give me control over the elements, the power to reshape the very building blocks of the universe according to my every whim, and if at all possible, a cool hat. It’s an easy fantasy to indulge in almost any RPG out there.

I just wish it was a more satisfying one.

Magic is one of the hardest parts of fantasy – any fantasy – to get Right. Make it too powerful and everything else becomes irrelevant. It’s authorial desire manifesting directly within the story, and limited only by the creator’s own restraint. Go too far the other way though and it ceases to become a big deal – mundane instead of magical. Avatar: The Last Airbender’s sequel series The Legend of Korra offered several great examples of that as part of its general move from a fantasy world into a more technologically driven one – that while originally, those who could command lightning were seen as elite and able to dominate in just about every battle, a few decades later the best use for it is just standing around all day zapping the stuff into a power-plant in exchange for shit wages. It’s commoditised power, and as such, pretty boring.

Really though, it’s little different when we use it in games – awesome power, reduced to simply powering a treadmill in a slightly more flashy way than just hitting things with a sword. Usually it’s not even a particularly great one, with magic routinely underpowered compared to just clonking things with a sword in order to avoid combat becoming just hanging back and nuking enemies from the other side of the room. That’s especially the case now, with combat primarily designed around efficiency – either unlimited or fast-refilling mana pools designed to keep a wizard relevant throughout the fight instead of just getting in their one good nuke shot at the start or being reduced to flailing around with a staff, with enemies shrugging off status effects like being set on fire as nothing more than an inconvenience. Which, really, they are.

The reasons why magic works like this aren’t exactly hard to wrap your head around – balance, flow, the nature and frequency of most RPG encounters. In MMOs especially, everyone is expected to pull together at all times, and trying to make magic more interesting usually just ends up making it more fiddly. World of Warcraft for instance originally made Mages stockpile various runes for teleportation and special powder to create the tables of food that party members would rudely bark at us to create for them at the start of dungeons, just as Warlocks originally had to mess around with Soul Stones. But it got in the way of the flow, so that whole element got unceremoniously dropped. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I do still miss that ritual element.

In single-player games though, there’s much more scope to do interesting things with magic and its general use in the world. The Cowled Wizards of Baldur’s Gate 2 for instance are one of my favourites, appearing to lay down the law if you cast magic in their territory. They made it more difficult to play as a magic-heavy party, but gave adventuring in Amn a very different flavour from other places – as well as being a well-executed block. If you want to play nice, you can gather the money and buy a magic license and then do what you like. Alternatively, if you think you’re tough enough not to have to care what they think, it’s possible to beat them into submission until they accept that you’re too much mage for them to handle. Going further back, Ultima was set in a world where magic was no big deal in and of itself, but you had to prepare it if you wanted to use it by gathering and stockpiling reagants from around the world. That made for a huge difference between a character who could cast a few sparkling lights in the sky and an Avatar capable of unleashing the likes of Death Vortex at will.

Generally though, what happens is a nasty case of game and story segregation, where supposedly magic is special, but in practice it isn’t. Few have suffered worse from this in recent years than Dragon Age. Originally, the idea was that most people would never even have seen a mage in person, never mind whole parties of them – they’re locked away in their Circles for everyone’s protection. By the time the actual game landed though, that was all just handwaving. The whole game had super-rare Blood Mages especially coming out of the wazoo, nobody blinked at the sight of people exploding into blood clouds and fireballs, and forget about your character actually being at risk of losing themselves to a demon from the Fade. This became even more of a problem in Dragon Age 2, where the whole point of the bloody story was that you were in a city cracking down hard on mages to the point that a guy just using healing magic in the slums would be marked for trouble. But the refugee running around with a great big mage staff slinging fireballs at everyone? Guards never even comment!

(Later in the game, yes, it can maybe be argued that the hero, Hawke, is a special case due to their status in town… but only to a point, and that’s ignoring the first part of the game when they’re at the absolute bottom of the pecking order…)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the games best suited for making magic feel special are the ones where you’re not really a wizard at all – instead, magic in all of its forms plays a limited but dramatic effect on your life that turns the tables without actually setting them. The Witcher 3 for instance does it superbly. As much as Geralt’s knowledge of Signs makes him a magic user, to whatever level you want, you’re repeatedly reminded that these are just party tricks compared to what the Sorceresses can do, making the moments when they cut loose with incredible destructive power or protection spells all the more dramatic. The same goes for Ciri, whose flash-stepping ability instantly sets her apart from Geralt, and, on the other side of the power curve, the regular citizens who lack the necessary mutations to handle the potions that Geralt constantly drinks down to do his job. This mix really nailed everything that magic needs to be, from its reaches remaining mysterious to its deployment feeling like a big deal, while still allowing for lots of fireball and Force Push type fun.

The next game likely to try something similar looks to be Divinity: Original Sin 2. It’s a world full of magic, but one kind in particular is banned – Source magic, as practiced by Sourcerers. Larian’s demo prior to the launch of the Kickstarter focused heavily on this, with one character in the party returning home after being convicted of using it, and the others all getting the opportunity to play along. The system is that on top of your regular spells, each character has a super-limited number of Source Points (one at the start of the game) which have to be charged by less than ethical means like absorbing the energy from corpses or one character sacrificing their health. The benefit is that when you’ve got one, you’re able to call down incredibly powerful magic like a meteor strike during battle, making Sourcery a way of turning the tables. The downside is that using it is threatened to have implications down the line, especially if abused along with other options like consuming someone’s soul.

How effectively it all works… well, as ever with pre-release games, that remains to be seen. I do like the idea, though the abilities it controlled in the version I saw did trend a little too much towards standard elemental attacks rather than anything that felt particularly dark, which could be an issue. (Update: Just stub skills, apparently. Hurrah!) It’s not easy to just declare a magic type as Special, as seen with most of Skyrim’s Shouts. Fun as Fus Ro Dah was, it’s hard to understand why anyone would bother cloistering themselves away in the hope of learning just fractions of dragon magic when the regular kind is so much easier, and easier learned without freezing both buttocks off on top of a snowy mountain. There’s devotion to history, and then there’s just silliness.

It’s an interesting concept though, in a sequel to a game that genuinely did manage to make magic feel like a force to be reckoned with, especially when moving beyond direct damage and into what I think of as Swiss Army Knife skills – abilities with lots of different uses. A big part of that was its general philosophy that if something should work, then it should work, whether that thing involved teleporting a boss out of their little arena or avoiding the weapon damage designed to stop you from just bashing through every door by burning it down instead. My only real problem with the implementation was that as much as I loved the way magic users were constantly reshaping the battlefield by setting things on fire or freezing it or calling down rain to extinguish bombs, after a while everyone was doing it with grenades and arrows and all manner of other stuff. I’m hoping that the sequel makes it more of a magic user prerogative, with other classes occasionally being treated to a taste of the power they could have had, if they’d been smart enough to roll a mage. The mundane wusses.

So, how can magic be made more interesting? It’s not simply a question of pushing up the power, and returning to the old Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards problem that soon sees magic users becoming living gods and leaving everything behind, but treating magic as something that needs to be feared and respected in and of itself. It should take some effort to acquire and to master, and ideally feature at least some degree of consequence. That can mean elements like corruption. It can mean things like wild magic, where every spell is a bit of a gamble. It can mean friendly fire, so the mage’s incredible power has to be used precisely to avoid taking out the team.

But really, to work properly it needs to be embedded into the world on a deeper level than simply combat systems – for its place to be thought through and its implications explored on a long-term basis rather than simply in individual encounters. The games that do that always benefit from it, whether it’s Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines with the need to maintain both secrecy and humanity, or something like The Secret World, where the factions keep that stuff away from civilians until the point where things have slouched too far towards Bethlehem for it to matter any more. It also makes it clear within the fiction that while you may think you’re Mister/Miss Badass because you’ve learned a few tricks, you’re still on your first day of school as far as everyone around you is concerned. To the Templar faction especially, you’re just cannon fodder. To the Illuminati, convenient spare body parts. If you’re lucky.

There’s no shortage of ways to make it work; for magic to live up to both its potential and its hype. Many of them have problems to overcome, especially given how much fighting RPG characters tend to do compared to their equivalents in other works of fiction and the industry’s current dislike of the player ever ending up in a particularly negative state due to poor decisions made hours earlier, but they’re problems well worth overcoming. Magic should be more interesting. It should be exciting. It should be a little bit dangerous, even in the right hands. What it shouldn’t ever be is boring, which at the moment, it pretty much is. Flashy and boring, yes, often, but still boring – a complete waste of potential, begging to be restored to its rightful awesomeness.

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95 Comments

  1. Kefren says:

    It’s difficult for believable magic to be programmed, especially when you come from a pen-and-paper RPG background where rules are guidelines rather than set in stone. I’m not talking about the type of magic where you learn a spell with fixed rules from your spell book (easily represented in a computer RPG), but the kind where GM and player work together to explore and use the magic, to expand its boundaries. For example a player who wants to be able to manipulate fire – from small beginnings they could move up to mastery of duration, volume, effects, and into areas related to heat, with the application only limited by their imagination combined with the GM’s balancing act and the character’s experience. When done like that, magic can be a blast. (Groan).

    • Replikant says:

      I completely agree. Magic doesn’t always have to be earth-shattering to be awesome, the PC doesn’t have to be Merlin or Raistlin or Gandalf (actually, I’ll come back to Gandalf in later).
      For me, magic is primarily about the creative element it provides. Even Pen and paper RPGs mostly get in wrong, in my opinion, because they bind magic to specific spells with specific costs. in D&D you have to learn the spells in advance, which usually means that every mage loads up on combat spells and noone can summon water when the group is parched.
      Other systems give you spell-points but still limit the mages to a pre-defined set of spells.
      Ideally, a mage would start to learn a certain school, summoning, enchanting, illusion, an elemental school, whatever. With growing experience the mage would be able to affect a larger area or more people or create more complex patterns and designs, but would be free within these limits to do whatever came to his mind, thus providing creative solutions to help the group in situations a warrior with a pointed stick simply cannot cope with. An occasional fireball does not hurt, but leaving the fighting mostly to the fighers solves the linear fighers, quadratic wizards equation.

      Also, magic doesn’t have to be flashy. Gandalf and Sauron wield incredible power, yet the only obvious things Gandalf ever does is to create a flash, which kills some goblins (Hobbit), throw burning pine-cones, summon fireworks, set some sticks on fire, and break another stick (actually, Sarumans staff). Sauron admittedly fought a magic duel with Finrod long ago, but doesn’t do squat in the LOTR. Still, both are awe-inspiring powerful.

      • Kefren says:

        Yep, that’s exactly it. And I like the point that a mage’s power can come from their restraint. It’s there, along with intelligence and understanding and force of mind, and needn’t be a showy thing. The subtlety makes it all the more interesting.

      • Hroppa says:

        I hope you’ve played Ars Magica. It’s setting and nonmagic systems make it quite hard to get into, but its magic system is just what you describe.

        • Sian says:

          A different system I’d advise any fan of magic to try out is the Mage line in the World of Darkness setting. I’ve only ever played old WoD, but in that version of Mage, magic is limited by two things: The mage’s knowledge of the so-called spheres and his magical power/understanding of the world (called Arete). The former opened up options (having two ranks in matter allowed manipulating any form of matter in almost any way possible, combining that with other spheres allowed turning, say, fire into solid gold) the latter mandated how many dice you were allowed to roll. However, if every spell could be an extended action with multiple rolls. You could accomplish practically anything even with low Arete, if your mage had the time for an extended ritual that could take days.

          There were also direct consequences that depended on the mundane populace’s belief. If they believed what you were doing was possible, the spell would be easier to cast and wouldn’t be as prone to reality taking revenge for bending it too much. Flashy fireballs in the modern world were still possible, though. Using a can of hairspray and a lighter to invoke a flame that might be larger than would usually be possible could work, though, due to people being used to Hollywood special effects.

          I like the system because it allows the players almost unlimited freedom in their application of magic as long as they could convince the DM, and the DM could get really creative with the effects of paradox too. It also forces both players and the DM to cooperate more as to not make things trivially easy.

          • Dunbine says:

            Funny you should mention that, as the old WoD Mage system is a simplified version of the Ars Magica system, which was at the time also owned by White Wolf. And the Mage setting vaguely grows out of Ars Magica (more inspired by, really). Even the Tremere vampire clan in Vampire was originally a magical faction (House) in Ars Magica.

            I am a huge Ars Magica fan. It is a shame it has never caught on so much, as it is such a brilliant setting and game / storytelling system.

      • El Mariachi says:

        Gandalf killed that Balrog. That wasn’t with fisticuffs.

        • Replikant says:

          True enough, although as far as I recall, there is very little direct mention of magic. Gandalf breaks the bridge, they fall down, there’s a chase up a stair and a long fight. In the end, the Balrog is thrown down from the peak.

          It seems clear, that some inner strength and protection as well as projection of power is necessary to kill a flame spirit but throughout the books it remains mostly implicit. The first confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman is hardly mentioned at all.

    • pantognost says:

      You actually are right here….kind of. Magic is very hard to program since, it is presented, in the form that the author of the article envisions it as a way to actually hack the reality of the world (kudos to Virtual Adepts from the Old WOD here…but this is another story)
      To have realy reality bending magic and not just artillery with a different name you have to be able to have a “Physics” system and be able to break it with magic. This is really difficult because all game programming so far in RPGs at the high level (spells, character interaction etc) is declarative. I mean it has been specifically programmed what to expect when everything happens.
      In my opinion, a system of magic like the one that the author is yearning for will be able to be created in a little while. First you got procedural content creation that can provide the ruleset for non scripted interactions. No Man’s Sky has got to have robust interaction systems that cannot be tested in any eventuality. The same with an cRPG 2.0 system
      Second and more important, there has to become mainstream a way to describe interactions computationally and the interrelation of things that exist in the world. In the fire example above, you have area, duration but you also got heat. You need every bit of your world to have heat range tolerances, and what happens when they are exceeded has to be coded in the “Physics”. Only that way “cold Fire” can be well…cool (cheap, I know :) ) because it will behave differently from the norm. For all these descriptions and relational interplay you need to make mainstream in game design semantics. I suppose that they are emerging now (Again I do not believe that No Man’s Sky could be one bit stable without a robust set of ontologies) but to have such high level interactions with magic that is transcendant without becoming gimmicky (one/game, story vehicle only etc.) you really have to establish a system with something far more complex than the old look up tables that are still inherited in modern cRPGs.
      …Now hoping for a team of semantic junkies and procedural acolytes to create this utopia…
      Cheers.

  2. aere1985 says:

    It’s one of the great strengths of Baldur’s Gate 2 imo. There are so many hidden easter eggs in the game that are found by casting the right spell in the right place or on the right person for example casting Freedom in the right place in the Underdark to release a mage who then requests your help in closing the elemental portals or casting Domination or Charm Person on the “traitor” in Nalia’s Keep that brings up a dialog that shows he was already dominated.

    I think magic needs to extend outside of combat for it to feel magic. Think of magic in most films. In Harry Potter they fly, unlock doors, make a tent into a tardis and more. Willow in buffy had more than a few creative uses for magic too. The combat magic is the boring part to me.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Yeah, much of what I like about mages in WoW is their Swiss Army Knife magic – the teleports, the invisibility, the ability to cast stuff like Slow Fall and Mirror Image and Blink. It tends to be less important in group play, but wandering around solo I’ve always enjoyed the feel of having this bag of tricks to handle pretty much any situation.

      • Koozer says:

        I miss the runes and the reagents, it made it feel more like real magic requiring real investment when summoning a portal to cross a continent.

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        Carra says:

        Playing a warlock in vanilla wow meant that you had to farm soulstones before you could raid. That part wasn’t fun. You also lost an entire bag as you needed one to put in soulstones.

    • Zekiel says:

      I too loved BG2’s magic system. More than any other game I’ve played, wizards could be really interesting. They could turn you invisible, they could set traps, they could summon creatures with interesting abilities of their own. They could also stop time, set up interesting spell triggers and summon demons. I never felt they made other classes pointless (because of the resting system) but at high levels they felt like nothing else.

  3. EhexT says:

    Dragons Dogma (soon on PC hell yes) had incredible magic. It was both super hard to use, since the magic user had to stand either completely still or slowly walk at best while charging spells, but if the party somehow managed to protect him (basically any hit would knock you out of the cast instantly) the resulting spells were literally earth shattering.

    It was those ludicrously powerful and difficult to pull off spells plus the classic Gandalf-like spells (Light, heals, cures and weapon enchants) that made magic in Dragons Dogma seem really fitting to the world. Only few people can cast spells, and even those that do need an entire posse to help them do it safely – but they’re such a huge asset to everyone that it’s a hassle people bother with regardless.

    • LexW1 says:

      DD is remarkable in that it makes magic feel magical, despite sticking to some fairly standard tropes. I guess it shows how much is in the implementation, rather than the concept.

    • DeadlyDad says:

      Nice to hear about a system that uses concentration as a vital component of spell casting. It reminds me of a magic system I created back in the 80’s and 90’s where, depending on how much concentration you lost while casting a spell, things could end up anywhere from slightly altered to releasing all of the spell’s energy directly into your brain. (e.g. Google “scanners gif” to see the result. :evilgrin: ) Too bad I lost interest before folding it into a game. Ah, well. Maybe sometime down the road.

  4. felipepepe says:

    Great article, it’s true that most of the time magic is just a fancy way of dealing ranged damage. Pillars of Eternity was a major disappointment in this sense, wizards couldn’t even do simple things like unlocking a chest anymore – just deal damage.

    As bizarre as it may seems, IMHO one of the games that best use magic is Magical Diary. It’s a visual novel/RPG hybrid, but you can use magic to dig through walls, teleport enemies or yourself, speak to spirits, shape objects, etc…

    It really drives the point of how magic is so much more than just fancy ranged DPS.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I really dug Magical Diary (and the Quest for Glory games that inspired it, natch!) Was sorry that she didn’t continue with it and get a little deeper into that stuff, but really enjoyed how the game would typically let you try your spells if they seemed appropriate, even if they were a really bad idea. And that the writing acknowledged that the teachers aren’t idiots, and fully expect half of the stuff you try because SOMEONE bloody does it every time.

      • felipepepe says:

        Yeah, it’s really a great system that Hanako games created, allowing you to target where to cast, offering various schools, etc… it definitely deserves a game just for itself, but I doubt we’ll ever get that. :/

        • Richard Cobbett says:

          In general, I like magic having use in the ‘social’ bits of the game as well as the combat stuff. Usually much more than the fireball winging stuff because it can have the responses that being able to do something like set someone’s hair on fire properly demand.

    • bleeters says:

      So I take it was just me that skipped class and went to the gym every day in that game?

      I failed every exam and was eventually expelled, sure, but the legend that is the ripped witch never dies.

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I always preferred “the old Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards problem”, as fighters were supposed to get cool gear, while wizards get cool spells. Perhaps that’s just because I generally prefer to play as a magic user.

    Perhaps it would be best for the hero to always be a magic user, something to set him apart from the rest and the choice instead should be the type of magic you employ. Fighters and other classes could be hired as needed, and treated as friends or meat-shields depending on your character.

    One of my favourite examples of magic in games isn’t from an RPG though, it’s from Magic Carpet. You could do some fantastic stuff in that game, and other than the sequel I never quite saw it’s like again.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      That’s kinda what a lot of RPGs have done, yeah – you’re the Dovahkiin, you’ve got Signs, you’re the Herald of Andraste, you’ve got the touch, you’ve got the poooooweeeeeeeer.

      • Fomorian1988 says:

        But does anyone got the love I need to see me through? Cause sometimes I feel like saying, Lord I just don’t care.

      • Cheradanine Zakalwe says:

        I like the idea that magic is ridiculously overpowered. The best book series I’ve read featuring magic is Malazan Book of the Fallen. Magic is heavily militarised due to its power. There are mages of varying power, but the best of them, called high mages, can literally incinerate an army.

        How do you possibly integrate this into a game mechanically? I have no idea. I’m in favour of disallowing the player character to be a mage altogether, or make magic more about illusions and tricks than fireballs. But it certainly gives magic the shock and awe it deserves. Magic in video games has become awfully mundane because of its strive towards balance.

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          Bluerps says:

          The funny thing is that the Malazan setting has its origins in a pen&paper RPG campaign of the author. I don’t know whether he used any characters from that campaign, or just the setting, but many characters at least feel like they were player characters or antagonists once.

          But yes, it does have great magic.

          • kud13 says:

            Both authors (Erikson and Esslemont) used chars from the campaign in the books. I can’t recall who right now, but the Malaz wiki should have the interviews that mention this.

            Thing with Malaz is, the way magic works is never clear, and akin to a Games Workshop setting, there’s always a neat chance of it all backfiring, since magic users often deal with powers beyond comprehension. There’s the more “structured” magic (warrens, or the more crazy version, Holds), which are somewhat rule-bound in that there’s gods and aspects and a semmblance of order. And then you got spirit-magic and wild tribal stuff that happens whenever the author/GM needs a device to move the plot forward.

            I love the series, but much more for its epic scope (often feels like I’m reading history fiction, so thorough it all is-as you’d expect, being written by PhD in archeology) than its magic-related “fantasy” elements.

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            Bluerps says:

            I love it for both.

  6. Eight Rooks says:

    A good article, though I think one problem – for me, anyway – is that for magic to be really the world-shaping force it ought to be, it… well, it couldn’t be represented in a videogame, period. It always makes me weep inwardly when any kind of creative media tries to quantify magic, to boil it down to a set of rules and tables and whatnot – Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London books, for example, where one of the first things the hero does is try and explain magic away with scientific rigour, to figure out exactly how it obeys the laws of physics – it’s magic, for Chrissakes! It’s supposed to represent unlimited potential and a refusal to be bound by mundane concerns, and if you can lay it out in a textbook then how the hell is it “magic” any more? This is going back a while so I may be misremembering it but one of my favourite roleplaying conceits was the way the old pen-and-paper Maelstrom system handled it, where magic users could literally do absolutely anything they wanted – in theory – but the more obviously “impossible” something was, the harder it was to accomplish it with a spell. No need to worry about the laws of thermodynamics or whatever, just set your mind to it and poof, job done. But you could never do that in a videogame, barring the creation of perfect, reactive, limitless virtual worlds. The Witcher’s system – with a class of magic users of whom you’re never going to be a part – is an interesting compromise, but it’s not the same thing.

    It should take some effort to acquire and to master, and ideally feature at least some degree of consequence.

    I also don’t like that idea, and feel it’s a purely mechanical consideration/borne of the hoary old monkey-brain side of the human psyche, tedious theories that man was not meant to have that kind of power, etc. But that’s a whole other argument.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I don’t mean consequence in the way of ‘magic will damn your soul’, necessarily, just consequence in the way that there’s a fairly fundamental difference between having a duel with a guy with a sword and calling down meteor strikes on an entire village just because some guy spilled your pint at the tavern.

  7. MordreadRN says:

    I really liked the way old EverQuest did magic. You could be really powerful, specially in a good group but if a mob attacked you things could get hairy fast. Interrupts meant you couldn’t cast, cloth armor meant that every hit REALLY hurt. Many offencive spells but also a good sprinkle of support spells that did wonders outside of combat.
    Also, the different spell casters were pretty different, a magician was different from a wizard or a necromancer or especially an enchanter. Today most casters feel more or less the same so why bother playing a different class.

  8. Frank says:

    Eh, I thought deliberately making it boring in Korra was a cool idea.

    I think you’re being too prescriptive about how magic is handled. As long as it fits with the story, it doesn’t need to follow your “hard to master” & “has consequences” dictum.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      I didn’t complain about Korra’s use, I thought it was clever. And that’s not a diktat on anything, it’s an opinion on what’s usually missing from games that use magic. It’s easy enough to say ‘press X to throw fireball’ and have the lore back that up. Deeming that Good Enough though leads to the current waste of potential we currently have.

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    gritz says:

    The problem, of course, is that RPG’s (in the most traditional sense, at least) are games about systems. And when you systematize the fantastic, it ceases to be fantastic.

    The only RPG magic system that has ever really captured the essence what I think magic should “feel” like is the old Mage pnp rpg by White Wolf. The improvisational nature of pen and paper play lends itself to the wild unpredictability of magic in ways a pre-programmed videogame will never hope to achieve.

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      gritz says:

      Wow that sounded douchey. I haven’t had my coffee this morning.

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    Qazinsky says:

    The first thing I thought of while reading this article was playing Diablo 1 as a warrior and teaming with a chainlighting/fireball casting sorceror.

    For those that don’t know, Diablo 1 had friendly fire so any attempt as a warrior to join in the fray with a spell casting mage behind his back ended with lots of owies.

  11. Lachlan1 says:

    Great article. I always love reading Richards work. I noticed one typo, however. Near the start, it should read “I just wish it were a more satisfying one.” Don’t forget the conditional subjunctive :)

    • Lachlan1 says:

      Richard’s*. My phone’s auto correct is horrible, sorry.

    • Abndn says:

      One of the more important things in life, that. It took me nearly ten minutes to decipher your post by the way. It was made near unreadable by the lack of punctuation after ‘subjunctive’.

  12. Kaeoschassis says:

    Yeah, this is a topic I’ve thought about a lot. I have some half-assed design documents for magic-focused games somewhere around here…

    I’m rarely satisfied with the way a game handles magic. There’s a few that get a pass. Dark Messiah’s magic may ultimately just be firebolts and lightning, but it fits decently into the setting and it looks and feels awesome as hell. So there’s that. Some old RPGs like Dungeon Master or Ultima Underworld had interesting magic systems wherein it could be pretty powerful, but hard to use in a pinch, but I feel like they didn’t necessarily do enough WITH that. I’d have been inclined to make it more difficult still, in exchange for giving it some serious dungeon-shaking (or shaping) power.

    A good one to look at if you’ve got the time, Richard, is Mage Guild. (Which I was sure I had installed on here but apparently don’t. Need to correct that) It’s a fairly classic roguelike with a huge focus on magic. The gameplay’s almost puzzle-y at points, where you’re faced with a difficult situation and you’ve got to figure out how your potions, items, spells and surroundings can be used together to solve it. Stuff like using a potion of inversion on a healing potion to turn it into poison, for example. Basically every item and spell in the game has multiple uses and interacts with almost everything else. I wouldn’t say it’s the only way to make magic interesting, or even the best way, but it IS interesting.

    link to lukossoftware.com <– that be the link

  13. Philopoemen says:

    I wish Arx Fatalis’ magic system had been more successful – forcing the player to concentrate to use magic made it seem a lot more like roleplaying an actual spellslinger, and a lot more satisfying when you pulled it off.

    The PC version – the Xbox versions controls were too simplified

    • Mr_Blastman says:

      Arx had a wonderful magic system.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      Arx Fatalis could have used a bit of balancing (while I always play a non-magic sneaky character, apparently the easiest playstyle is “fireball everything to death”) but the magic system, even playing as a non-mage, is pretty amazing.

  14. DompR says:

    I think a central problem is that when there is a magic system in place, developers are tempted to use it for common mooks, e.g. Skyrim, where there’s 1.3 skulky necromancer for every honest citizen. That really takes away from the feeling of “exclusive, worldbending power” of magic and moves it to meh territory.

  15. khamul says:

    Two different philosophies of magic system: ones where Magic runs according to fixed rules and is predictable in effect – if ineffable in how it works; and ones where it is fundamentally mystical and unclear. Both can work well, done right: Brandon Sanderson’s books are great examples of the former, Lord of the Rings the latter.

    The fixed and rule-bound version of magic is obviously more applicable to a computer game, but other ones could be made to work as well. How about a sword forged from a thousand shards taken from the hearts of dead men found on battlefields. When the sword is drawn, *all* wounds in a 5-mile radius become fatal. There’s something that can be both modelled in a game – both in terms of the effort needed to obtain it, and the effects of using it – and carries some of the power, and awe, and horror that magic should have. It would need carefully constructed game mechanics to support it, though.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      If we’re talking about that sort of magic, hells, look at the Dominions series of strategy games. Most of the high level magic in Dominions is horrifyingly powerful in one way or another – allowing entire armies to march under the ocean or even reach a distant region by travelling through the underworld, bringing alive the spirits of everyone that a particular unit has ever killed to attack him in his dreams, cursing a target with terrible luck for the rest of their life, the list goes on. And yes, you can forge a hilarious variety of magic items, from swords that age their victims, to flying boats, to replacement eyes that can see through illusions at the cost of, y’know, having to rip out the old eye first. Contracts with demons? Check.

      But nearly all the cool spells in Dominions have pretty heavy costs. Maybe they just take a lot out of the caster, maybe they’re so powerful you need a whole communion of wizards to cast them at all. Maybe that flaming sword doesn’t actually grant any kind of immunity to its wielder. Wandering the aether with your mind as an astral mage? Better be sure there aren’t any enemy astral mages around who might spot you and sever your connection to your body.

      All told, Dominions handles magic INCREDIBLY well and I can’t believe I didn’t mention it already.

  16. thelastpointer says:

    Games in which I really enjoyed magic:
    -Populous 3: creating land bridges and volcanoes that forever alter the lanscapes of that tiny planet.
    -HOMM3: capturing entire cities just to see what spells do they have. A hero with a lot of spells (and magic skills!) was a monster.
    -Scribblenauts: well… yeah. Arguably this whole game was about magic.
    Yours?

    • Bugamn says:

      Magic Carpet, as someone mentioned.
      Magicka. It was a relatively simple system, but I like mixing elements and creating things to throw.
      Master of Magic. By the end of the game the world could be really modified by the magics in the game.

  17. Mr_Blastman says:

    As a science fiction author I hate magic in general–at least, when it comes to hard science fiction. I wish there were more pure hard-sci fi games without any magic at all in futuristic space settings. But there aren’t. They are extraordinarily rare and some of the best ones, like Sentinel Worlds I… game out in the 1980s! And even /that/ game had… magic. (it was very rare)

    But I do have a guilty pleasure and alas, I must admit, when I play video games, I love magic. As the author of the article mentions, though, magic is often done poorly in PC games. It usually boils down to a way to kill something–and most games are rather direct about it. Fire, water, earth or air, they all send something towards the enemy to hurt it.

    I think this is where games fail at spellcasting. Spellcasting is about using magics to manipulate the world like a puzzle to accomplish something sometimes rather elaborately for the sake of show and grandeur while ultimately doing something useful. Games forget this. They don’t jump out on that proverbial limb and instead what we are left with is uninspired and dull.

    If a game were to do that, we might have something neat and memorable to play and enjoy.

  18. tormeh says:

    What makes magic so special in The Witcher isn’t just a linear spectrum. In the The Witcher games a witcher will almost always win against a sorceress. Witchers are faster, sneakier, have potions and a witcher’s magic is more suited to fast-paced close-combat.

    Sorceresses aren’t awesome because they win at ordinary combat. Sorceresses are awesome because they can cast curses, create artifacts, teleport, transform, etc. Sorceresses are more powerful than witchers, but they’re not so in every way.

    Basically, make mages special by making them lose in combat. Of course, for this to work for mage players would require more ways to solve problems than just frontal attack all the time.

  19. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Age of Wonders had a couple of nice magics ranging from water blast to large scale biome changing. I always used that death decaying spell although it was useless just to see the grass under elves and unicorns wither and feel powerful and badass.
    Magic: The Gathering which is well a card game.
    In first person RPGs with FX we’ll be confined to the weak utility and fireball kind of magic I’m afraid except in those cases where you play only as a mage. Old old standards like Magic Carpet or Sacrifice come to my mind with their terrain destruction and volcanoes.
    Else there will always be the divide between pushing Geralt and landscape cursing Sabrina Glevissig, between Squall’s Fira and Artemisia’s time compression and whatever plot writers can come up with. Same as in pen and paper we can learn mass death X or rebirth XIV but not “sink continent” XXV.
    Still esp. The Elder Scrolls is guilty of boring magic, hammers being much more powerful and need no spell points and they even removed levitate. All OP magics are abilities or shouts free for all.

  20. kud13 says:

    One setting that did magic incredibly well was, arguably, Shadowrun.

    Magic isn’t a be-all, end-all. It doesn’t always work. It’s making a comeback in a cyberpunk world that just had a dawn of AI and cybernetic implants. Magic and technology are both viable choices.

    And there’s multiple ways things can go wrong. Mage COULD be all-powerful- but his magic can also backfire.

    In a “traditional” RPG i’d virtually never pick a mage class- I find them to be generally too rigid, and my preference is usually for a sneaky rogue-type. But if given an option, I’d generally pick up some magic learning, enough to do basic healing, or an offensive attack.

    I fully agree with the article that games need more situations where particular skills (be it magic or another system) could offer novel interesting solutions. Variety is always better. One of the many reasons I love playing a Malkavian in bloodlines (beoynd arguing with stop-signs and hearing TV announcer tell jokes just for me) is that when I boost my Dementation discipline, I unlock new conversation options, allowing me to persuade people in interesting, hilarious ways (such as convincing an old friend that i’m her long-lost turtle). Games need more of this type of thing- to reflect why the choices player makes open some opportunities, but close others.

    • AyeBraine says:

      I agree in the lore sense (disclaimer: I’ve only seen Returns, didn’t play the tabletop). Magic is handled elegantly there: it’s a sudden gift/curse (in a cultural sense) that users have to cope with, using real, actual and modern psychological practices.

      It is completely synonymous to sudden influx of new powerful technology, with a poetic twist. Two sides of the same coin: now we can manipulate matter pretty well, AND we can wreak havoc on spiritual plane with newfangled “technologies”, all limited by our stereotypes and morality and lifestyles. Man harnessed chemical explosions to create propellants and high explosives. Now man harnesses magical energies to enact cultural fantasies (that incidentally also serve as propellants and explosives). It’s brilliant.

  21. AyeBraine says:

    I am absolutely sure that I’ve encountered fantasy worlds where magic was incredibly taxing, hazardous, and debilitating affait on the user’s body and sometimes soul. To my surprise, I encountered no mention of this concept neither in the article or its comments.

    I mean I can’t remember what it was, but I expected the hivemind to remember it. DAMN. And I fell that’s the best type of magic.

    This is the same feeling of ruinous dedication that Marie Sklodovsky-Curie was exhibiting when she harnessed radium with her bare hands (and breasts). The same feeling of irreversible responsibility that Manhattan project group felt when some of them cried and covered their faces. The same attitude that forbidden and ancient and powerful thingies are treated in Fallen London / Sunless Sea.

    Magic shouldn’t be an appliance. It is a sacrifice. It is synonymous, in a great humanistic context, to science – but concerns not only the conscious mind (and conscience), but the fabric of one’s personality – that last undiscovered entity whose laws we have yet to discern.

    Dammit, someone please remember a book or a videogame where magic ruined its users in creative and meaningful ways as a tradeoff! (Now I think I can remember that in DragonLance mages suffered body degradation, but this is still far off the mark.)

    • Raja Blast says:

      Off the top of my head-
      King of Thorns (book): Ferrakind, a fire mage, has so-long indulged his quest for knowledge that he has lost his humanity to the flames.

      The Verdant Passage (book): Not exactly what you asked for, but magic in this world (Dark Sun, a D&D setting) is fueled by the life-force of plants, animals, etc. The planet has become a sand-choked graveyard due to the excesses of the sorcerers who rule its city-states.

      There are certainly other instances, but those two (one and a half?) occurred to me. Also, life-tap (a warlock spell) in WoW that trades health for mana. Hope this helps set your mind somewhat at ease. :)

  22. ikanreed says:

    There’s nothing worse that magic that buffs a stat. Not even bullet by another name magic.

    Because it highlights on the underlying rules in a way that brings the mundaniety into focus.

    • Sin Vega says:

      Yeah, I’ve always found “cast your buffs/debuffs now” magic systems monstrously tedious. It’s just busywork you’re penalised for not doing but get no joy from doing.

  23. Urthman says:

    Silly as it is, I think Magicka does a better job of making you feel like a spellcaster than any other game I can think of. The mechanic of memorizing nonsense words (every glyph of which, however, is magically significant “QFASA!”) and having to actually type them to cast spells makes it feel much more like performing an arcane ritual than simply shooting a reskinned gun.

    And making it so easy for spells to go hilariously and catastrophically wrong in various ways is a much better way to balance the game than simply nerfing the power of magic or limiting how often you can cast spells.

    • Noumenon says:

      Your post makes it sound as though a typo might lead to you accidentally casting the wrong spell? That would be amusing. Of course if you were willing to put up with slower casting times you could purchase the “Spell Checker”.

      • Bugamn says:

        Yeah, a typo does lead to other spells. Usually it’s nothing drastic, but sometimes it can kill. The way it works is that each of eight letters correspond to an element. There are two other elements that can only be formed by combinations. Some of those elements are also opposite and they negate each other if you try to invoke them at the same time. For example, fire and ice, or water and electricity. Fire and water result in steam. That sometimes causes problem, because steam and electricity go really well, but you have to be careful about the invocation order or You can end up with less elements than planned. As a further example, shield is opposed to itself, so you have to be careful when trying to mix it with other elements. There’s a big difference between casting shield-earth on you and only earth.

  24. Sly-Lupin says:

    There are really two different problems being addressed here: lack of narrative integration (a problem that affects far more than magic systems); and RPG class design. The latter is, I think, the more interesting to discuss.

    There are two basic types of RPG class design: asymmetrical class design and symmetrical class design. The former is all about classes that complement each other, the latter is all about classes that mirror each other. D&D is the classic asymmetrical system–each class does something different, and a successful party needs to make have a variety of classes to function.

    So why have asymmetrical systems all but vanished in favor of bland, symmetrical class systems like those found in Dragon Age, Skyrim, and Pillars of Eternity?

    Because of the trend away from party-based games to solo-games. IE, with the focus on a single hero, there’s an inclination to avoid doing anything to make the player feel he or she “missed out” by picking one class over another. Want to have a party full of barbarians in Pillars of Eternity? No problem. Never want to take a rogue with you in Dragon Age? That’s fine, too. Never want to cast a spell in Skyrim? Don’t worry. The game will always cater to the player.

    Which means dumbing down magic systems to the point where they are no longer special. The last thing Bethesda wants in an Elder Scrolls game is for a player to say, “I feel bad because I didn’t learn magic.” So they make magic boring, easily obtainable by everyone, and ultimately mundane. The last thing Josh Sawyer wanted players to do in Pillars of Eternity, as he said many times, was feel that they created a sub-optimal character, or chose the wrong party composition (forgetting, of course, that party composition and character planning are and always have been key elements of the D&D style games PoE was supposed to emulate).

    And then, of course, there’s the element of multiplayer, in which symmetrical classes are much easier to balance. This is why in Dragon Age Inquisition, for example, each “class” has almost the exact same skill set (an AoE, a lunge attack, and draw attack, etc.).

    • pepperfez says:

      ‘Balance’ is the enemy of interesting game design. I understand the appeal of a system with no degenerate strategies or no-brainer decisions, but designing around those things makes it much harder to do anything truly weird.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      Yeah in Baldur’s Gate you’d wanted a mixed party, tanks, thief, cleric, mage(s). That would be optimal. Yet people who wanted a challenge still tried solo, all warrior, all mage, all thief or whatever, just for fun. That would be pointless in games where mages were just warriors in a red dress.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Also you misremember Skyrim – it’s clearly assymetric because melee/ranged attack is way more powerful than spells. The damage of spells doesn’t even scale with the skill in vanilla unlike all weapons + long casting and mana cost and resists…

    • Josh W says:

      Pillars of eternity shows a tension that was not there in Icewind Dale; these characters are resources, but they are also interesting companions. You can make it so that you need someone, and have particular situations where they come in handy, but this just allows the group dynamics to reinforce your relationship to the character, it doesn’t enhance the complexity of picking them or leveling up carefully.

      On the other hand, this also makes it possible for NPCs to basically disappear as soon as events demand, without leaving you with a permanent hole in your build. Only your heart.

  25. Cinnamon says:

    The main problems I see with magic are boring uncreative spells and the concept of magic being reliable damage over time.

    Creative bankruptcy is an easy problem to define. Oh you have a fireball and lightning bolt spell for me great. But if I get bored you also have an ice shard spell? Oh game designer how did you think this up you must be a genius. Easy to define but harder to fix maybe.

    The problem of magic being reliable but unremarkable is the problem of magic just being mundane. In many cases the “warrior magic spells” active abilities added to games are more exciting than the magic spells since they are not just things like good damage large area effect. The basic principle of magic should be that if magic was easy or reliable then then every idiot would be using it instead of a gun or a sword. The steps to take to use magic with 100% reliability should be almost unknowable and dynamically changing to the point where playing a mage feels almost like superstitious ritual in that you do all sorts of weird stuff but don’t know if it actually helps or not. But the rewards could be to be able do stuff that pretty much breaks the game.

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      Which reminds me of another game that does magic really well, in its own way – Unreal World. Since its setting is rooted in history with little bits of mythology and folklore threaded through it, its ‘magic’ consists of rituals for communing with spirits and small gods, either to ask for their favour, or just to thank them when something goes right. When you’re willing to immerse yourself in the game it works pretty darned well.

      I guess another similar example would be Darklands (which I only ever discovered thanks to Sin’s article on this here RPS, so thanks to both parties for that). It doesn’t have any magic in the conventional rpg sense. You have alchemists who can concoct all sorts of fun stuff at the cost of expensive reagents and the possibility of cataclysmic failure, and any character with sufficient religious knowledge and all-round ‘holiness’ can pray to a saint to receive a handful of often rather eclectic benefits, again rather unreliably. Again it’s a magic system that makes you work for it, that can do some pretty cool stuff, but that is nowhere near 100% reliable.

  26. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    Apropos of nothing in the actual article, I love that moment pictured in Serpent Isle, because it’s just so absurdly over the top and then never referenced again.

    When you meet Thoxa and Karnax later in the game, they’re totally chill and have no issues living together in the same island monastery with like six other people.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      In fairness, it’s referenced. Karnax goes “Look, I had to try. Now I guess we’ll see what happens.”

    • Premium User Badge

      syllopsium says:

      Oh, I don’t know. The moment when the Banes are freed is a lot of fun.. There’s an awful lot of death in Serpent Isle.

      My favourite bit is the beginning, where your party is quite reasonably equipped with everything they might need, then loses it in a magical storm.

      One day I’ll go and find the iceberg where the fully loaded spell book is teleported to..

  27. MisterFurious says:

    One of the things I didn’t like about “Dragon Age: Origins” was the fact that everyone went on and on about how evil Blood Magic is and you even have to hunt down a former friend because he did Blood Magic if you were a Mage and may even have him killed for it, but then when you become a Blood Mage and throw around blood storms and whatnot, no one bats an eye. I was very hesitant to put points into Blood Magic for fear that everyone would turn on me, but NOPE! No one cared.

  28. bouchacha says:

    I’ll posit the Myth series had an excellent implementation of magic. The lore behind the games already treats magic as this really fucked thing that nobody really quite understands (especially since the narrator is a common soldier). Even when you get to use it in the game, it’s wildly unstable and downright dangerous. Warlocks and Fetchs are really the only units that are said to be using magic, and the former’s fireballs are slow and just as liable to hit your own troops in the blast. Even magic weapons have a similar risk. When King Alric gets his sword enchanted, you want to keep your own units very far away from him as the lightning strikes tend to jump and chain through your own men.

    Balancing magic as this ridiculously powerful but unstable force is my favored approach, but it seems only feasible in a game where units can be disposable (strategy game versus an RPG).

  29. Koozer says:

    I highly recommend everyone looks at Lost Magic, on the Nintendo DS. It involves combining various magical glyphs to create differing spells, from your standard fireballs to healing rain to enemy-capturing curses, all done via drawing on the touch screen. The more accurate you are, the more powerful the spell, but while you focus on drawing the perfect Water rune you will be eaten by a pack fire elementals.

    • Noumenon says:

      Were there any games that used the Kinect this way for spell casting?

  30. Premium User Badge

    Wisq says:

    I’m sure I’m not the first, but I’ve pondered a system loosely inspired by the Thaumcraft magic system in the Minecraft mod by that name (at least, the old version, before they changed everything).

    Notably: Make magic incredibly powerful and versatile, but limit its use by way of its effects on the character and their surroundings.

    Effects on the character would be things like changing their appearance, altering their stats, affecting their equipment, etc. Or, it might affect their ability to control magic in the future — it might become easier and easier to wield large amounts of magic, but harder and harder to “shut it off”. But you can still use it — so if you’ve (ab)used magic too much and are trying to hold back for emergencies, you’ll still be able to use it when you need it, but a single major casting might have terrible consequences.

    The environmental changes would start with very subtle things — small oddities, akin to the cat walking past twice in the Matrix. Move up through less and less subtle changes, until you’ve got widespread corruption and it’s pretty much time to abandon the area. Similarly, as the area gets more and more filled with magic, magic users in the area will need to be more and more careful — it becomes easier to overdo spells, losing control and/or furthering the corruption until it’s impossible to do anything small and controlled with magic at all.

    Magic users with more innate magical attunement would be able to channel more energy; experienced users with more skill would be able to “do more with less”. So a highly magic-attuned novice would be able to accomplish the same things as a seasoned pro who was born without that degree of connection, but the novice would have a lesser degree of control and cause more harm in the process. Combining the two would be the ultimate in powerful — assuming the magic-attuned individual doesn’t kill themselves before they achieve that degree of mastery.

    But, I suspect it’ll be a long time before we have computer games that are both detailed and emergent enough to handle that sort of system, and also open-world enough that things like “area corrupt, abandon that place and resettle elsewhere” are possible (e.g. infinite-world games like Minecraft). Plus, as is, the system raises some existential questions about itself, like “how could a world survive when novices can destroy entire regions and everything is a positive feedback loop?”

    Also curious if any users are aware of existing systems (probably pen and paper?) that work this way. I’m sure I’m not being original here, just don’t know what the prior art would be.

  31. Sin Vega says:

    That latter part has long bothered me about magic in games. Very, very few games seem to think about what the existence of magic would do to their world and characters. How the hell is ElderScrollsland still stuck in medieval shit farming stasis when half the population can summon fire from their hands? It’s ridiculous.

    And a related, very annoying thing is pictured above: mate, that was a fireball. You are ON FIRE, you shouldn’t just be losing a few hit points and briefly surrounded by an animation, damn it.

    • Premium User Badge

      Wisq says:

      To be fair, that’s not really limited to fantasy. Sci-fi often has similar issues; it’s very rare that an author truly explores the logical conclusions of their own world’s inventions. Star Trek being one of the worst for that.

      (Of course, that may be because a lot of them would just immediately result in technological singularities or other incomprehensible, unrelatable results.)

      • Sin Vega says:

        That’s true, but at least in sci fi there’s often an effort to acknowledge it would have effects. Okay, Star Trek’s holodeck is infamous for the questions it raises, but the whole setting of the world starts with “what happens when resources are unlimited and we finally stop fighting over them?”.

        Granted, Star Trek is sort of unusually cerebral here, too, but still. In fantasy games it just seems like most magic is there because, well, it’s a fantasy game. Like many of the other problems with fantasy games, it’s another manifestation of “copy D&D and don’t think about it”.

  32. Sin Vega says:

    Oh, incidentally, shoutout to some of the most imaginative and fun (and often inefficient and impractical but WHO CARES goddd this is a game not a bloody spreadsheet) magic in a game ever: Dominions 3/4. In particular, some of the items you can craft are wonderful. A sword that unfailingly gouges out eyes. A sword that turns the entire battlefield into an inferno that will kill absolutely everyone if it goes on for too long. Spells that shatter bones. A pocket-sized knight who grows to full size when thrown. Replacing your eyes with items that let you see beyond the Veil, making your spells more powerful but occasionally summoning interdimensional horrors that feed off your fear.

  33. EhexT says:

    DnD Online is (or was, I haven’t played for a few patches) another perfect example of a great magic system. You’re a Mage, what makes you different from everyone else, including other magic users? The fact that you can adapt to any situation without having to chug potions or use limited-use items to achieve it. Need to find a Secret Passage but don’t have someone who’s good at that? Wizard has you covered. Need to open a locked door or chest? Wizard has you covered. Need to fall down a really deep pit safely? Wizard has you covered. Acid/Fire/Ice/Generic Elemental Trap you can’t disarm? Wizard has you covered.

    Wizard as the Ultimate Jack of all Trades fit perfectly in that game.

    • EhexT says:

      As long as you remember to bring your Reagents and thick Spellbook that is – and lots of potions/scrolls/wands to cover everything you can’t do at that particular moment.

  34. malkav11 says:

    I was really fond of the magic in the old isometric dungeon crawl The Summoning, by SSI. Magic in it was handled as a sequence of hand gestures (selected from a list) and that gave it a really tactile feel. Plus, although you would learn particular sequences from books or notes or whatever as you explored, you could experiment with different combinations and possibly arrive at spells long before the game taught them to you. It was real time, so I believe it let you bank a certain number of casts of spells by inputting them ahead of time, otherwise they’d have been horribly impractical in combat. And while there were things like fireball, I remember spells also coming in handy for various approaches to puzzles and traps, and there was a core spell called Liquefy that was how you made potions (you did find them occasionally, but Liquefy saw a lot more use). Cast alone with an empty flask, it liquefies…air? I guess?… to produce a healing potion, but targetted on any of the gemstones you could locate in the dungeon, it would turn them into potions with other effects.

    It was such a cool game. I was positively obsessed with it in grade school. To the point where, since I didn’t have a computer of my own at the time, I would actually call up my friend who had it and not even watch him playing it but just listen to it and his commentary. Of course I searched it out not long after I finally got a PC…and then I never really properly played it for myself. So much else going on. :(

  35. Lionmaruu says:

    Elder scrolls magic is very bad when compared to combat skills and the same can be said on most rpgs, obviously there are the “big glass cannon nukes” like the classic black mage from the earlier final fantasy games as some big ass damage dealer, but that’s about it do a damage then run away or die.

    AT least on elder scrolls you can mix utility magic with melee, but going full DAMAGING Magic just doesnt work compared to going just full melee, shield or not, or full archery.

    The best magical character I ever had was on neverwinter online, the control wizard there was THE the best class for years and just recently it lost dps to the obvious big weapon warrior (great weapon fighter class)class.
    It was overpowered actually, lots of utility, control and huge aoe and single target dps.

    I never used to play magic users on rpgs, mostly because they usually just suck ass compared to warriors, they usually are glass cannons with no redeeming feature but some spike damage or healing, neverwinter online was the first rpg (mmo or not) that made me not only make a wizard but actually be my main for the whole time I played it.(sadly the game being now just a pay to win shit game that disrespects their playerbase and I no longer play).

  36. Henas says:

    I liked Trine’s Magic. The Wizard was derided for not actually being able to cast a fireball and had to made do with summoning crates and planks, and using telekinesis.

    It still felt powerful, but not just offensive. Though summoning a giant crate to crush some skellingtons never got old.

  37. Michael Fogg says:

    There is a paradox regarding magic in most fantasy settings. It just seems inplausible that a society that has found the way to harness magical energy in a predictable and usable manner would stick to a feudal social system. Who needs a rural population engaged in low-tech agriculture and manual labour? Think about the power output of a lowly mage who can in many cases shoot fireballs almost non-stop. Why not put that to productinve use? Inventions that do efficient work would spring up quickly and lead a way to an entire magic-based undustry. Unfortunately most fantasy just inherits the romance-based settings from Howard/Tolkien and these ideas are left unexplored.

    • Replikant says:

      I agree. In Tolkiens earth, active use magic is restricted more or less to the Istari, which are some kind of angelic beings, while humans are limited to the use of artifacts (Palantir, the rings), foresight (Denethor) and generally to some kind of “force of personality”, granting them power of leadership (Boromir, Aragorn) or persuasion (Wormtongue). This is consistent with a feudal, low-tech society.
      However, when magic involves direct control of the physical worldd and when the ability to wield that kind of magic is widespread in the populace, then “Niven’s Law” applies, stating that “Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.”. In that case a magic-fuelled industrialization would be expected.

    • Premium User Badge

      syllopsium says:

      In most fantasy settings magical ability is limited, usually to add a little challenge to the story. I can’t think of any where the mage can effortlessly and continuously cast.

      The nearest is probably David and Leigh Eddings’ works, where mages are almost unbound in their abilities and can continually cast low level abilities. However, it’s repeatedly made clear that there are limits on the amount of higher level spells that can be cast, and the effect it has on the caster.

  38. plugav says:

    What I’d love to see is a game centred entirely around magic, inspired by the likes of Mage: the Ascension/Awakening, Unknown Armies, Hellblazer, Phonogram, or even bits of Sandman. Magic would be complex and diverse, bound by rules and rituals, and rarely applied to combat. I think stuff like Shadowrun: Hong Kong (another example, by the way, of magic being awesome in the lore and crap in play) has already shown that a game can be mostly combat-free, centred around dialogues and puzzles (with multiple outcomes and solutions), and still work as an RPG. YMMV, of course.

  39. Josh W says:

    This hasn’t really been mentioned yet, but I love the magic of Dishonoured; games have so much potential for weird interactions, and magic allows you to justify that. And when you give some of that power to certain groups of other enemies, then suddenly you have weird model-breaking enemies.

    Of course, this still plays with the “chosen herald of dragonborn” dynamic, by making you the main person who can do these ridiculous things, but also mostly avoids emphasising that is what you are doing. Instead you are described as some kind of ominous ghost, and even the church of the everyman people, who should probably know what you’re doing, just sort of ward you off with those awesome musical instruments.

    I think the feeling of magic as a world-warping, incomprehensible thing is enhanced by putting it in games where you are encouraged to cheat, system exploit, and generally break the rules. It requires them to make the game more watertight in order to do it, or bizarrely bring the games code into the world of magic (CHIM), but it really makes you feel like your dealing with the underlying structure of the world, because you are.

    Possessing fish to avoid falling damage is what magic is all about.

  40. bill says:

    My problem is that I never choose mages when I create my character (because they aren’t cool).

    So it then makes it really annoying when games give magic users hundreds of spells that basically allow them to do everything that every other character can do.
    Warrior < Mage with magic attacks
    Thief < Mage with unlock spell and invisibility spell
    Archer < Mage with fireball
    etc..

    So their options are to make mages into uber-classes that can do everything better than all the supposedly specialist classes, or to limit their abilities so all the people playing the other classes aren't pissed off.

    Considering that in RPGs mages tend to get far more options than most other classes anyway, I don't really care much if they get their wings clipped a little to give other classes some slight reason to exist.

    The best option, for balance and player happiness, might well be the option to make every player a magic wielder. Warrior-mage, thief-mage, etc..

    In books and p&p rpgs, I always found the small creative magic was much more fun and interesting, but of course that's really hard to implement in a computer game as you don't have a GM to respond to the player's creative uses for minor spells.

    As such, I think a more serious version of the Magica system, where the player has to actually combine elements or do something to cast the spell would be a better balanced and more interesting implementation of magic than just click-to-cast.

  41. priest865 says:

    My favourite games for magic characters are Arcanum and Morrowind. While those games don’t balance magic well they offer additional options out of combat like teleporting, open locks, flying, temporary increase attributes or mind control. Morrowind even allows to create your own spells and it is possible to mix different effects. In Arcanum when you are a powerful mage techonology even won’t work due to your magical aura.

    Both games are singleplayer games so it shouldn’t bother most people when magic is unbalanced. There are still reasons to play other classes. My brother also played Arcanum and claims that a melee warrior is quite overpowered. I can’t really say if its true as I played only Inventor/Gunslinger, Magician and Spellsword (kind of a Paladin). So maybe it is better balanced than I think it is.

    When playing Skyrim I am always reminded how fun the magic system in Morrowind was and now I am stuck with that disaster. They probably thought that shouts are not special enough and to make them Special they nerfed the magic. While warriors now can create their own equipment at forges mages have to buy spells which most of the time are just an improved version of previous spells you already have. I tried all three ways Warrior, Assassin/Thief and Mage. While playing as mage wasn’t really difficult, it felt less fun/rewarding than playing other paths/classes. And don’t get me started with sneaking and the ninja dodge of NPCs in Skyrim.