Making Magic Mysterious
I finally began reading the Black Company novels recently. I’m still early in them, so – while I’ll say that I’m enjoying them so far – this isn’t a review.
One minor thing I noticed is that the wizards of middling power who are part of the Black Company often use magic to produce horrors. These might be swarms of beasties that surge from underneath a table in a tavern… or tentacles looming from dark mists… or whatever. As far as I can tell, these are all illusions.
The operative phrase there is, “as far as I can tell.” The narrator, so far, hasn’t identified these as illusions or tested their reality. He just reports on what he sees. He certainly doesn’t say, “…and then One-Eye cast Silent Image generating an illusion of a great, hairy arm reaching in through the window to grab at the barkeep, narrowly missing.” Instead, he’d say something like, “One-Eye cackled at the barkeep and a great, hairy arm reached in through the window. The barkeep goggled and stumbled out of the arms way.”
The difference here is important. The other characters (and the reader) aren’t sure of the reality of the arm – or the wizard’s power. To me, the application to RPGs is obvious: if you’re playing a wizard-type character, you can get a similar effect by not telling the other players what spells you are casting. Instead, pass the GM a note and describe the spells effects.
“I begin casting a spell, then glance at the doorway, eyes wide as an ogre grunts and crams his way through it,” or “I cast Minor Image and an ogre appears to walk in through the doorway.”
This isn’t limited to just illusions, either. When you name a spell, it can lose some of its mystique (particularly if it is known to all the players). Instead of casting Burning Hands, which people might see as, ‘that wimpy first level spell,’ describe the effect of a sheet of flame bursting forth. People will tend to be more impressed.
I like this idea a lot! Afterall why should some Fighter be able to understand the arcane chantings of a Wizard? Their only clue for what spell they’re casting should come from the perceivable result unless the Wizard feels like shouting “MAGIC MISSILE”.
The concept of describing a PC’s action instead of labeling a PC’s action should really be a truism to gamers, but it’s something that is so easily and often forgotten or overlooked.
What would be really great would be if every spell had a 15-to-25-word description that players and DM’s could use when casting it to make it easier to keep things descriptive and more difficult to forget this simple concept.