Of grimoires and glyphs: the history behind RPG magic

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Imagine you’re on a quest for a powerful artefact in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Perhaps you conversed with a ghost who pointed you in the right direction. Now you see demons close by. You cast Chameleon Cloak to try to sneak by, but alas! you are spotted. The fight begins. You draw your weapons, inscribed with runes. You weave protective spells. You summon your cat familiar to enter the fray and confound your enemies. A fireball scroll sets a puddle of oil ablaze, but you misjudged and now you’re on fire as well! But a potion you concocted earlier heals your wounds just in time.

It’s a typical scenario for D:OS2 and similar fantasy RPGs. Magic is everywhere, and you could barely swing your cat familiar by the tail without hitting a fellow Sorcerer (don’t do that though, it’s cruel). But where do these spells, demons and artefacts come from? Games have so inundated us with magic that it’s easy to forget that even the most outlandish, videogamey spectacles have their Source-drenched roots in historical beliefs and practices.

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Let’s take the elemental magic which has become a staple in most RPGs: geo-, hydro-, aero- and pyromancy. Ever since the ancient Greeks, the four elements of earth, water, air and fire were believed to possess mystical qualities. In classical cosmology, they comprised the innermost four spheres of the cosmos. All four elements were also used for divination (manteia in Greek, hence -mancy). This meant shapes in the soil, clouds, flames or ripples in the water were observed to gain occult insights or to see the future; perhaps a subtler form of magic than tossing fireballs or ice shards at your enemies.

Still, control over the elements wasn’t beyond the skill of “real” magicians. In the Early Modern period, witches were believed to cause hailstorms and lightning. Several centuries earlier, peasants were terrified of so-called tempestarii, who extorted money in exchange for not blasting their fields with supernatural storms.

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Characters of evil spirits (left) and geomancy instruction (right) in Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy (1555)

All kinds of divination were often eyed with suspicion or even open hostility, but none more so than necromancy. Originally, necromancy referred to the summoning of the spirits of the deceased to interrogate them. In the later Middle Ages, necromancy was conflated with nigromancy, meaning black magic. Its very real practitioners, notoriously often educated priests and monks, attempted to summon and subjugate demons to use their supernatural powers for their own ends. In England, witches were believed to be accompanied by familiar spirits or demons in the form of black cats, toads or even flies. All these shades of black magic can be seen in Divinity: Original Sin 2. You not only get to summon your very own demons and familiars, but can even use your Spirit Vision skill to speak to the dead and find out about their deepest secrets.

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Characters of spirits, Book of magic, with instructions for invoking spirits (ca. 1577)

But what would a ritual magician be without their grimoire? Such collections of spells, recipes and conjurations have been known since ancient times. Since their creation, use or possession was generally frowned upon (see ‘burning at the stake’), and they were often attributed to long deceased or mythical figures like King Solomon, Moses or Hermes Trismegistus, who were in no position to deny their involvement. Also, bygone ages and “mystical” places like Egypt were always thought to have been more magical than the here and now. Interestingly, Divinity does have its own wizard from antiquity in the infamous Braccus Rex, whose arcane knowledge in turn came from even more ancient wizards.

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It’s a shame that D:OS2 doesn’t feature grimoires more prominently, but it does present a plethora of magic scrolls, occult manuscripts and skill books. The crafting section for creating scrolls is called “Grimoire”, and there’s some justification for this, as individual spells and glyphs from grimoires were frequently copied on pieces of paper or parchment to be carried around and used as charms. Some healing spells had to be ingested on a piece of paper to take effect. Those glyphs and spells were thought to be effective even if their meaning couldn’t be understood by the user.

Some scripts, like Malachim or the Alphabet of the Magi, both derived from Hebrew, had a magical aura independent of their content. In Scandinavia, runes played a similar role, and this idea reached games like D:OS2 in the form of collectable rune stones that infuse your items with special powers (some older RPGs like Ultima Underworld or Arx Fatalis made rune-like glyphs a central ingredient in their magic systems).

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Speaking of crafting and DIY magicks, grimoires sometimes instructed readers how to create their own magical artefact. The most notorious of these was certainly the Hand of Glory (described, for example, in the 18th century grimoire Petit Albert). The Hand was created thusly: First, take the severed hand of a hanged felon, dry and pickle it. Then make a candle from the fat of a hanged felon and place it into the hand. It was said that a thief carrying the Hand of Glory would never get caught, as it rendered everyone they encountered completely motionless.

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Left: Hand of Glory in the Petit Albert (18th century). Right: Demon with glyphs, in Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae (ca. 1775)

Other morbid artefacts include objects possessed by spirits or demons. It’s a popular trope, and D:OS2 features, among other things: a demon sword, a genie’s lantern, so-called Soul Jars, and a cursed ring that houses some part of Braccus Rex. Belief in such objects was very real in the Middle Ages. In a posthumous trial in the early 14th century, for example, none other than Pope Boniface VIII was accused of conjuring demons by means of a magic circle and animal sacrifice, and of possessing a ring that contained an evil spirit that acted as his advisor. Boniface would be mentioned several times in Dante’s Inferno, as a Pope destined for hell.

But what about that healing potion you just used to swiftly heal your third-degree burns? Brewing potions is another staple of RPGs, and most, like The Witcher 3, conflate the idea with alchemy. However, this connection is tenuous. Alchemy was mainly concerned with the transmutation of metals and the creation of the philosopher’s stone – a mystical and complicated undertaking that is more concerned with the purification of the alchemist’s fallen soul than with the base creation of wealth or immortality.

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Left: Crafting the philosopher’s stone in a few easy steps. Mutus Liber (1677). Right: Demonic treasure hunt, in Compendium rarissimum totius Artis Magicae (ca. 1775)

Magic in RPGs is usually far more pedestrian than the lofty goals of alchemy. Divinity: Original Sin 2 may contain gods, a holy quest and a war on magic clearly inspired by real religious persecutions, but in the end, magic is mainly a tool to overcome challenges. And in this, RPG magic is surprisingly faithful to the ways magic has been perceived by most historical practitioners. Spells were supposed to bring health, wealth and worldly power.

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One common purpose of magic was treasure hunting, for example, in the ruins of castles and monasteries (which were abundant in post-Reformation England). Spells were used not only to discover the treasure’s location, but also to drive away any demons that might protect the ancient hoard. In some ways, magic and adventure have been linked for hundreds of years and now they’ve come together in the form of your intrepid, insatiable band of adventurers, finally standing triumphant over the remains of your demonic foes, wresting the coveted artefact from their evil grasp. Keep this in mind the next time you poke your nose into ancient ruins in a quest for wealth and magical doodahs.

If you enjoy this type of thing, here are some of Andreas’ reading recommendations:

Grimoires. A History of Magic Books, by Owen Davies
Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas
Europe’s Inner Demons, by Norman Cohn
Alchemy and Mysticism, by Alexander Roob

53 Comments

  1. foszae says:

    I really wish spells in games would get away from the magic bullet style. Wizarding could be a lot more interesting than just the ‘other ranged class’, but not enough developers are willing to explore the possibilities.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      I want cool rituals, personally. Both the small witch-y types and the big epic fantasy quest where you roam the world tracking down information and ingredients to finally cast this spell for some unique effect.

      • aircool says:

        Can you imagine something like DoS2 having something like Call of Cthulhu ritual magic…

        …the fight kicks off, so your four ordinary guys lock themselves in a room for three days of chanting and manage to summon a demon that kills them as soon as it appears.

        • Rorschach617 says:

          OK, that would be rough.

          But a better implementation might be:

          Your party wants to sneak into a castle to steal such-and-such. You hire a magical practitioner to undertake a four day ritual that causes the mother of all storms to break over the castle just as you begin, making a lot of noise that allows you to sneak in more easily.
          Here, the magic is bigger, has a larger world-changing effect than the usual 10’x10′ circle of flaming death and the player has both the advantage and disadvantage that he/she does not have to spend 4 days doing nothing fun, but they are not magicians and therefore cannot have complete control of it.

          • Chaoslord AJ says:

            I liked how the Witcher series does it. Main can only do cantrips and “weak” magic effects. NPC sorcerers can turn battles and devastate areas. In bad cases and rare phenomena magic is an even greater threat.

    • Lord_Santa says:

      in Realms of Arkania 2 – Star Trail (the original), I’ve had a few interesting uses of magic; one where I tried to summon a demon on the battlefield, who did actually turn against my party, due to my spellcasters level not being sufficient to control said demon

      and another time, I was entering the Dwarven city, but since I had two Elves in my party, they were not allowed inside; thus I had to leave them outside, while my party entered (as I had been requested to do) and then I had to use an invisibility-spell on my Elves in order for them to be able of entering

      of course the Realms of Arkania games have more to offer in terms of in-game mechanics than most cRPGs out there, so it’s not really a fair comparison, but good examples of more interesting uses of magic, rather than just “fireball away”

    • Someoldguy says:

      Many pen and paper RPGs have more elaborate magic systems that involve extended rituals, inscribing runes and the rest. Perhaps the most infamous is Chivalry & Sorcery where attempts to master a new spell technique could take months of preparation and fail. The difficulty is in converting any of that into a format that works with computer games where 30 seconds is a long time to stand around waiting for your magic to produce a result.

      Even in D&D, which has made it into numerous CRPGs, the game designers usually chuck out or radically simplify the possible uses of all the non-damaging spells in the book as too complex to implement. Yet those spells are often the ones that can achieve best results.

    • Alberto says:

      I cannot but point to the (upcoming) magic systems in Dwarf Fortress. If I understood it right, the magic powers that bend the physical world and their effects on the caster / environment are procedurally generated with your game world.

      The example givena was something like “Imagine you can teleport a long distance… At the cost of half of your blood”. The devlogs are fascinating.

  2. TimePointFive says:

    This shit right here, though? This that shit that I like.

  3. TillEulenspiegel says:

    I’d add basically everything by Richard Kieckhefer and Michael D. Bailey to that reading list.

    However, this connection is tenuous. Alchemy was mainly concerned with the transmutation of metals and the creation of the philosopher’s stone

    Right! This is one of my favorite examples of how game terms create a new meaning; “alchemy” as defined by fantasy RPGs is its own invented thing that bears no resemblance to alchemy (mixing herbs into magic potions is much more of a folk magic / witchcraft thing historically). See also “dungeons” as invented by Dungeons & Dragons.

    I’m actually not sure where alchemy started drifting in that direction. For once I don’t think it was D&D, which is the progenitor of nearly every fantasy RPG trope and quite a lot else besides. I could be wrong but I don’t think it featured at all in early editions of D&D, so it’s possible that computer games are to blame.

    • batraz says:

      I guess the success of modern chemistry as a science blurred the understanding of what alchemy was about, and so it became some kind of black chemistry or medecine (the figure of Hermes must have helped making people believe so).

    • khamul says:

      …and now I need to set up and run a DnD campaign where the party take on an evil lich… only to find that what they’re actually doing is gathering the ingredients needed to create the Philosopher’s Stone, and heal the lich’s own shattered soul.

      • indigochill says:

        The Adventurer Conqueror King System has awesome rules for playing wizards. As a wizard player, you can build dungeons to develop a monstrous ecosystem to harvest for magical reagents. The player’s companion has rules for magical experimentation ranging from “conventional” to “radical”, including turning yourself into a lich. Since the game system is fairly deadly for characters, there is some pragmatic appeal to embracing undeath, but it’s not cheap or without risks.

    • Josh W says:

      If anything, the practice of brewing magical potions is more closely associated with the Taoist sages of China, who were basically alchemists, tracking transmutations, categorising and mixing elements, inventing gunpowder etc. in ways we would expect as predecessors for chemistry, they just happened to be much happier giving people dangerous and possibly toxic compounds to eat in order to assist with their health, such as the Chinese emperors driven mad by their physicians offering them mercury pills, in line with the thinking at the time.

  4. Dogahn says:

    On a side note, anyone else miss the booklet manuals we used to get in game boxes? Having just binned a ton of them I was toting around for decades… I miss the attention to a game’s fictional details.

    • Stillquest says:

      On that note, I just recalled an obscure early 90 game called “Spellcraft: Aspects of Valor”. You played as a wizard in training, and the game came with a thick booklet full of partial spell recipes you had to complete using in-game hints. Obviously doubled as copy-protection, but I remember having great fun with it.

      • Darloth says:

        It also let you mix up all manner of outlandish spells, in a manner rarely seen since.

        Legend was also good for that, I felt, though it did get a bit silly when you had roomclearing chain-reaction fireballs.

    • N'Al says:

      You miss booklet manuals, but binned the ones you had? Eh?

  5. BathroomCitizen says:

    This article was very cool.

    And yes, as someone already said, I wish that magic was a bit more ritual-like and witchy-like rather than the standard “shoot a fireball in the eye of an orc” fare.

  6. napoleonic says:

    Sounds like there is scope for a game about “real” alchemy – transmutation and the search for the philosopher’s stone.

    • lordcooper says:

      Hadean Lands has just about the best representation of alchemy present in any game, I’d urge you to check it out.

    • Thomas Foolery says:

      There’s an old adventure game called Shadow of Destiny that fits this description. It’s also a game in which the player character is murdered at the beginning of every chapter, and is then resurrected and has to go back and figure out how to prevent their own murder. It has a branching plot too. Cool game, though I’m sure there are parts of it that wouldn’t hold up very well now (it came out in 2001).

  7. Rorschach617 says:

    I would refer any people interested in similar ritual magics to read up on the Cargo Cults of New Guinea. Some fascinating stuff there.

    • onodera says:

      And now I want a game set in Oceania where cargo cultists are a playable wizard class casting spells of spam, bombs and BRRRRRRT.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        The interesting thing about ritual magics, specially when we fold in Arthur C. Clarke’s rule that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, is that practically anything can become a ritual.

        As an example, I have vague ideas about how the internet and computers exchange data. If I knew a little less, I would be doing the “Using the keyboard to communicate with other people ritual” right now, which is only completed when the holy “Opinion, away” button is pressed.
        (Some heretics insist that the ritual can only be completely successful after imbibing mind-blowing amounts of alcohol, yay, and the trolls shall decendeth on them like a plague!)

        Seriously now, a game that changes the natural rules that the player is used to and then hides the new rules behind rituals would be bloody amazing.

    • Someoldguy says:

      If you prefer to read it in story form, check out Dream Park by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes.

  8. MajesticXII says:

    One of the best rps articles I’ve read.

    Good job.

  9. cardigait says:

    The kind of article that i like and that keep dragging me on this site.
    Oh, i love also the multi-part game stories that in the last period i’ve not seen much, like you did on elite dangerous, or on fallout

  10. batraz says:

    There’s a strange book by Carl Jung named « Psychology and Alchemy » with a good number of texts and images, too.
    Great article though, what a nice subject matter !

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    Gassalasca says:

    More of this sort of thing!

  12. Aetylus says:

    For anyone from New Zealand, the most bizarre part of video game magic has to be mana points. Mana is a core concept of Maori culture, and its importance is such that it has been adopted by non-Maori New Zealander also.

    It’s roughly an amalgam of prestige and strength of character. Having it smattered around games as a standard UI tool is about as jarring as if every game simultaneously decided to assign Dignity Points as THE way of spellcasting… it would just be, well, highly undignified.

    But thanks to Magic the Gathering and Blizzard… now everyone ticks through mana points whenever they want to pop off a fireball.

    Good article on it here:
    link to theappendix.net

  13. Niko says:

    There was an item in Betrayal at Krondor called Glory Hand, described as a “shriveled hand cut from a thief who was hung at midnight”, and it was a consumable ingredient for the spell called Nightfingers, allowing you to steal an item during combat.

    • Ieolus says:

      Harry Potter also had a ‘hand of glory’ which allowed Malfoy to see through some ‘Peruvian darkness powder’ and evade Harry et al.

  14. LennyLeonardo says:

    It’s all too rare in RPGs for the protagonist to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms and spend an afternoon discussing philosophy with a manifestation of Thoth-Hermes that turns out to be a bookcase. Alan Moore RPG, please.

  15. Love Albatross says:

    I loved Arx Fatalis’ magic, it was a bit clunky to draw the glyphs with a mouse but it meant you generally couldn’t jump into a fight and start flinging fireballs all over the place. Some planning and thought was required. The glyph drawing would work really well in VR, if someone wants to do a remake/clone…

    Arcane’s Might & Magic was also great for magic. The actual mechanics weren’t anything special but the way it interacted with the world was awesome. It never got boring baiting an orc to run at you so you could fling ice on the ground and send them tumbling off a cliff. It’s a shame Arcane couldn’t bring some of that to Skyrim.

    • Czrly says:

      Oh yeah. TES games have to be the ideal example of the *worst* of PC Game magic — although I shudder to call it by that name. You can have red bullets, blue bullets, etc. etc. Until your “mana” runs out.

      I think the problem with magic in games is more of a symptom than a cause, however, and the real cause is the preponderance of mobs and random encounters and other such time-wasting combat that adds absolutely nothing to the experience.

      Quite simply, you have to use your magic constantly and, consequently, anything more interesting than a click-to-fireball mechanic is going to grow old within minutes.

      Similarly, there appears to be such an emphasis on “BALANCE at all costs, even in single-player” and I think that click-to-fireball is easy for any developer to balance.

      • KingFunk says:

        As much as I Love Skyrim, I’m inclined to agree. To be honest, I’d say the root cause is the same as why guns are so popular in games – the very nature of exploring a 3D world (mostly in 2D) as an avatar with limited agency means that the most obvious interaction is ‘I perform action X and thing Y undergoes a state change’. The most obvious binary state change is Alive->Dead and the most obvious tool that can cause such a transformation at varied ranges is a gun.

        I would suggest that this is why even some non-violent games tend to use ‘guns’ of a sort – Portal, Antichamber, Splatoon etc.

        • Josh W says:

          Whereas in a text based game, not fundamentally based on tracing rays, spells are actually as natural as verbs like “get” and “open”, you could equally remove those verbs too and replace them with the harry potter equivalents.

    • Evan_ says:

      While we are at games with good, unusual magic..

      Dominions 5 was released not long ago. Rituals never really seen in other PC games before fill pages in it. One could dedicate a full, long lasting match to raise a civilization that can cast a specific, high level spell.

      Now I could imagine the graphics of Dominions would turn down some people. I’d point them to Sacrifice. It still looks pretty and interesting after all the years. And it has earth shaking spells, gargantuan summons and petty gods looking for your services… no other game made me feel more like an actual wizard.

  16. Lars Westergren says:

    Thanks for this article.

    Now that you mention in, a certain quest in Mask of the Betrayer reminds me of Icelandic Necropants. (Probably NSFW to Google).

  17. Captain Narol says:

    Great article, Andreas, keep them coming !

    New Blood joins the Hive those days, it seems.

  18. KingFunk says:

    Nice article – as another example, I rather enjoyed the preparation aspect of the magic system in Ultima VIII: Pagan. The fact that you had to gather reagents, set up candles around a pentagram and (if you had the right ingredients) chant the magic in order to produce a one-shot use was all quite involved. Didn’t really escape from the limited scope of effects discussed elsewhere in the thread, but it still made you feel a bit more wizardly…

    • Niko says:

      If I recall correctly, in Pagan different magic schools worked differently, the fire one being the most complicated where you had to arrange ingredients in the correct order? It was pretty amazing, yeah.

  19. Njosnavelin says:

    after patch, conjure incarnate + power infusion. not work. i cant see my companion new spells in his hotbar. sorry for bad english.

  20. Ben King says:

    Thanks for this article, it was a joy to read. Witcher 3 got me to reading up on the origins of some classic game monsters- Goblins in particular seem to have a weird and largely benevolent history loosely tied to something like household or kitchen deities prior to D&D’s use of them as hostile NPC monsters. I tried writing a little dungeon crawl to reconcile their dual nature as an old time german kobold hearth spirit, and a modern low-level D&D baddie. I feel like a lot of common fantasy monsters have neat histories stretching back centuries that are often a hell of a lot more interesting than being just monsters to slay or scary things in the woods.

    Thank you so much for the reading list, that’s generous and thoughtful of you to share your sources- I’m going to look for the Grimoire book by Owens in my local library to see what it’s like. Andreas, I’d love to know what you think about contemporary hostile fantasy NPC’s in relation to their corresponding ancient origins- I know that’s a huge topic, but so’s “Magic” as a whole:-)

  21. cpt_freakout says:

    Great article! I seriously think that one of the most interesting magic systems was Magicka’s. I know it’s all about the ‘magic missile’ model, but what made it interesting was the connection with letters. Like Andreas says, there’s a whole lot of this stuff that is related to the power of the word, at least when it comes to the religions of the book. Literally turning your words into power played very well with what that kind of mysticism was getting toward, which was of course heretical but that nonetheless affirmed the divinity of the word and things like the value of each letter. Add to that a funny mixture of languages in-game, and you have the perfect setting for ‘making magic’ in a world where words always have power, sometimes mean something, and always refer to nothing.

  22. TheAngriestHobo says:

    For a brief, golden second, I thought that Richard Cobbett had returned and resurrected the RPG Scrollbars.

    This is also pretty good, though.

  23. SuddenGenreShift says:

    My favourite use of Vancian magic (magic as distinct pre-packed spells) isn’t in an RPG at all, but in Zork: Grand Inquisitor. You’re given a bunch of weird spells that strike me as just the kind of random thing you might get if people are trying to figure out magic by trial and error, and which are also clearly altering reality on a fundamental level rather than just being a magic gun – for example, puffing anything written in purple out of existence. You use these spells creatively to clear obstacles in your path.

    I think puzzles, whether they’re social or more physical barriers, whether in RPGs or any other kind of game, suit this kind of magic better.

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