Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Just Who Can Use Magic, Again?

I've always been an equal-opportunist when it comes to magic. Something that's stuck with me from 7th Sea is the notion that in a world where people are born with the ability to use magical powers the formation of a permanent aristocracy is not only borne out by the abilities of that aristocracy but actually justified. In a sense, magic users are truly better than other people.

Now of course, this doesn't hold if the skill is one that ignores the barriers of class or race. It would almost be a requirement for the ability to do magic to pass along hereditary lines for such a stratified nobility to form. For whatever reason I balked at the idea, and have strongly been in favor of a magic that was knowable by anyone who dedicated enough time and energy to studying it (and who possessed at least an average amount of human intelligence, of course). Still, there are races in the 10th Age that not only do not possesses a culture of magic but have no magical aptitude at all (dwarves and halflings come to mind).

But what about a world where magic is an ability that takes shape in a random, unidentifiable pattern amongst the population? This still singles out some people as "exceptional," which is something that I reject on a gut level. I'm not certain why—perhaps because of my ingrained belief that "exceptional" people are simply those with the drive to improve, that no matter the baseline of skill any given person starts with, it is dwarfed in importance by the effort put into developing that skill.

I can't think of anyone I know that's ever run a game where the option presented itself who has chosen to enforce magic as a special marker, something that makes you apart from the rest of the population. And yet, one of my favorite fantasy series (R. Scott Bakker's Second Apocalypse) features magi who are granted power in exactly this manner. They simply exhibit the skill when they are young and then are either snatched up by the powerful Schools.

I'd love to hear from you guys about your preferences. What kind of magics do you allow (if you run a game with magic, of course) and what kind do you prefer? Is there something inherently alluring about the prospect of being given (by random lot) the ability to control the very fabric of the universe? It seems to be a common trope in fantasy books that sorcery is an inborn power... so where do you stand?


  1. Been thinking a lot about 7th Sea at the moment as I'm in the middle of, and loving, the Three Musketeers, but I had totally forgotten about the magic user thing. I never played one to be honest, preferring axe/sword wielding chaps...

    In a game my friends are putting the finishing touches to, magic is often seen as more of a science, being available to anyone with the time and inclination to study, or the wealth to pay for a tutor and some fancy magic items. The only slight exception are the Whitelanders - norse warrior types - who only have female magic users. To outsiders they are seen as witches who control the menfolk, but to Whitelander men, they are people worthy of respect and admiration for what they can do, and often have the ear of the clan leaders...

    1. Interesting. I've always used magic as a sort of mind-bending Art that takes ridiculous levels of commitment and preparation to begin to understand—children are taken between 5-7 to become apprentices because it takes 10-15 years to even be able to cast your first scut-level spells. I'm always intrigued by the way other people handle magical systems, particularly who can use it.

      I suppose the one system I dislike the most is the sort of omnipresent agnostic magic that anyone (and everyone) can and does use without very much effort. Sort of makes it... no longer magical.

  2. Not that I run many games...or play in them either...but I always liked the 2E rules and possibilities of wild magic. The presence of such a thing in a system described above (what with the creation of a 'natural' aristocracy and all that) makes it all the more alluring, dangerous, and fun to play. (Of course, my memory could be failing me on these issues. If I have made this all up, excuse me.)

  3. I've always worked on the assumption that any human character COULD learn magic, if he's willing to devote himself to it sufficiently, i.e. take the magic-user class. Some will obviously be better at it than others, but that's true of any class or profession. Magic-users in my campaigns are rare because the level of dedication required is uncommon, not because of some recessive "magic gene" that expresses in a small minority of the population.

  4. I think Second Apocalypse's random mages work, because the potential to work magic is as much a curse as a blessing. You're born as one of the Few, who can see the Mark upon other Few. The Mark is never very accurately described, but it is essentially a disfiguring of your soul, inflicted by the blasphemy of daring to speak with the voice of God, which of course is magic. This means, naturally, that you're scheduled for eternal damnation in the afterlife.
    As a mage you can blast armies to shreds, but the mere presence of a Chorae ("a tear of god") will start turning your skin into salt. Physical contact is instantly lethal, leaving behind a petrified statue.

  5. In the novel I'm writing, magic is indeed within the power of those who have the dedication to learn how to read magical writings, and the peace of mind to meditate with the magical texts to subsume the words into their being, but in the city the first act of the book is set in, Charity, there is a wide social stigma against magic, due to certain magical incidents in the city's history.

  6. It's both kinds for me. A rare few are born with great magical potential and are often pushed by cults or religious sects to become short-term messiahs for particular causes. They did in some regions form the backbone of a noble magical ruling society long ago, that has for the most part killed off in terms of a ruling elite.

    Wizards are scholars of the arcane. Music, art, dreams, scholarly lecture and even by apprentice to an elder, they can learn insight about the words of power which ultimately become their spell listing. While not dying, magic is rare and there is mistrust of those who wield power openly, especially of wizards who chose to learn the arts of the wicked.