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 World of Warcraft for instance originally made Mages stockpile various runes for teleportation and special powder to create the tables of food that party members would rudely bark at us to create for them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.