Friday, October 30, 2009

Putting Some "Real Magic" in Your Gaming?

And no, I don't mean "real magic" like the Viagra commercials claim they'll put "real magic" back in your marriage. I'm talking John Dee, Aleister Crowley, The True Art, Witchcraft, yadda yadda yadda. And I'm not talking about trying to actually practice magic while gaming, either. I'm talking about taking the proposed tenants and practices of "real magic" and applying them to your campaign setting's take on magic and the supernatural.

Magic in RPGs has mostly been about pzazz. Fireballs, invisibility, walking through walls, illusions, mind-control, fun stuff like that. Even in games that try to treat it a little more seriously, magic is something that can, in certain situations, create the 'big boom". It's Hollywood's version of magic, pulp fiction's version of magic; sorcerers casting spells and making Big Things Happen Right Now with relatively little preparation.

I've got a modest but decent collection of reference books on the subject of the occult and "modern magic". Some of them are pretty benign; back-country farmer's magic, magical herbs, that sort of thing. But some of them have really creepy stuff in there - rituals for conjuring demons and spirits and all the stereotypical trappings of "black magic". While I'm not a "believer" or a practitioner in any way with regards to this stuff, it does make for fascinating reading and being able to draw from some of it for the purposes of descriptions within games can be really helpful.

However, I know that RPGs, and especially D&D, have fought long and hard against the perception that they are somehow tied in to "devil worship" or the occult, and I can see the backlash any RPG might get if it actually tried to draw on "real" magical ritual and the like to build its rules and guidelines for magic. Also, as much as we don't want to admit it, many of us are still just a leeeeeetle bit superstitious, and the thought of "messing around" with "real" occult practices gives a lot of people the creeps.

Of course, taking the idea out of the realm of published RPGs and into the back room of real players gaming and creating on their own, I can completely see someone either writing their own home-brew or retro-fitting into another RPG rules that involve PCs practicing what would essentially be "real world" black magic or a more benign form of historical magic. It would actually put magic firmly in the hands of most any PC with some occult knowledge, because a lot of these little spells and charms and rituals would be something that anyone could do (since they originate from a lot of peasant beliefs and the wardings used to drive off witches and spirits and the like).

Furthermore, to put a much darker, edgier cast to it all, when we're talking about "scaring the PC by scaring the player", incorporating into your campaign setting rituals and practices that actually "creep out" the player, as long as they are ultimately comfortable with being creeped out, may add that element of edginess some players and GMs look for. I'm not advocating you bring occult practices to your gaming table and try to re-enact them live, but if you can work enough of "the real thing" into what happens in-game to make the hairs on the backs of your player's necks stand up a little bit...

So my day-before-Halloween question for all of you is, would this idea appeal to you as a player, or you as a GM, or does this concept totally weird you out? Even if you have no belief in the powers of the occult or real-world "magic", would it bother you if your in-game PCs were practicing what would in the real world be considered Crowley-an occult magic? What about more benign things like peasant spells and practices, real-world magical herbalism, alchemy, divination, and the like? During my aborted experience playing Harnmaster, my Dwarf PC did have some skill at divination and rune-reading (on paper) and to represent this, I actually went out and bought a set of runic stones and a guide to interpreting them, and I would actually "read the runes" during our sessions when my character made a roll. I thought it was fun and everyone liked the idea, but that's a far step from cracking open some real-world book on the occult and having my PC sorcerer go through the rituals within.

Comments, questions, protestations?

And happy early Halloween salutations, everybody! Some time tomorrow morning I'll announce the winner of the Halloween One-Shot Adventure Contest. If you haven't submitted yet and still wish to, get it to me before midnight tonight and you can still enter the contest.


Joseph said...

I actually touched on this a couple of months ago myself. Basically, when contemplating "real" magic, you have to break it down into its different types. The European grimoire tradition you mention is only one of several that could be drawn upon for such a thing.

Part of the problem with the grimoire tradition is that that the rituals take a long time to do. Like weeks or months. One has to do certain things at certain hours based on astrological determinants, and then wait until the planets align and the moon is in the proper phase to do the next step. And that's just to create the "tools of art" that lead to an hours-long ritual at the end. Certainly unusable as-is in a typical adventuring environment (although I could see it working in something like C&S or Pendragon).

The folkloric charms you refer to are a bit easier to work in (as are the Scandinavian "black books" or "galdraboks"), because they are usually much shorter and to the point. Unfortunately, they usually deal with finding thieves (an obsession with that particular tradition for some reason) and success in hunting or to bring about healing. At least the material that has been translated into English (which, while sparse, is, I am told, pretty representative) doesn't really apply in an adventuring environment, except for the healing aspect.

More folkloric charms, as we see in England, seem to concentrate on the fertility of the fields and, once more, healing (dealing with "elf-shot" and so forth). Once again, the healing could apply, but role-playing the rye output of a given farmer's field hardly makes for gripping role-playing.

The Greco-Roman tradition is richer when it comes to curses and such. There are literally thousands of curse scrolls and tiny lead tablets that were put into graves to ask the dead for their supernatural assistance in screwing with one's enemies. But it's a passive sort of thing; you put the curse tablet into the grave (some of them actually were built with tubes to accommodate the practice) and went away.

The runes present an interesting problem. Although the runic divination you mention is prevalent in modern practice, there's really little historical attestation for it. Rune-spells, on the other hand, have a decided background, and possibly present the best bet when it comes to "real" magic in gaming. Spells to remove fetters, blind one's enemy, attack witches flying through the air, etc. are attested to in the literature.

Unfortunately, my group is almost completely made up of practicing pagans and witches, so I've no way of infusing them with the "creepiness factor" short of requiring in-game blood sacrifices (Carcosa wouldn't be a hit in my group).

Sorry to go on so long. Great topic.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Ars Magica does a good job at capturing medieval alchemist/hermetic feel.

Magical Medley for FUDGE from Grey Ghosts games details historical (or at least pseudo-historical) and different magic traditions. Celtic, African, Chinese, Occult, and The Gramayre which is like Ars Magica.

Wikipedia is a great source for inspiration. Also see my collection of magical links and this post a first in series of magic systems many inspired by realworld / wikipedia.

James said...

The "Key of Solomon" (often referred to as the Greater Key) might be doable, in this regard. After the MU went through all the prep work,summoning, etc., the charged planetary talismans would be ready for use, and could be utilized in an adventuring environment. In general, the grimoires often include commands to the spirits that are designed to make summonings quicker on subsequent occasions, so you might have some room to work there.