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Magic in so many games is something mechanical and fully understood. Assuming I control the setting (and have a group of players willing to try new rules), how do I make magic something mysterious?

In a typical game the characters open up a chest and find a thin rod lying inside it. Someone says "it's a wand", then it's time to cast Detect Magic and Identify, and now the party knows exactly what it is -- just another Wand of Healing from the Frobozz Magic Wand Company. There's no mystery, no curiosity, and very little interest. Magic items and magic spells are all rote and common.

How do I make it so the players feel like the magic in the game is mysterious?

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How mysterious is mysterious? Do you want it mysterious for the players? The characters? The setting? Is it's mysteriousness a changeable trait? I think a lot of your work will be done once you define what mysterious, in this context, means for you. –  sebsmith Oct 13 '11 at 7:33
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You could get some inspiration from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay's Second Edition. There, magic has just enough unpredictable and dangerous effects that spellcasters will not meddle with the arcane for trivial reasons, but not so many that it becomes un-usable as a class' main gameplay mechanic. –  drxzcl Oct 13 '11 at 14:24
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For a question I was worried would be too fuzzy and subjective to answer, it's getting some great answers. +1! –  SevenSidedDie Oct 13 '11 at 16:28
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8 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Your 'world' will dictate for the most part how magic is viewed.

NPCs - how other characters react to mages,spells, magic items etc. are a good way to add a sense of how magic is regarded in your game world. A glowing item or demonstration of magic frightens or amazes passersby.. when word reaches a towns ruler of adventurers with a unusual item or abilities she requests an audience to see for herself.

Abundance vs Scarcity - The less there is the more novel magic becomes. If every goblin enountered is wandering around with enchanted daggers and there's a magical supplies merchant in every town its very difficult to maintain a sense of wonder. On the other hand if magic items can only be found after herculean efforts (slaying the dragon etc..) or in exotic locations (in a secret chamber beneath the ancient ruins of a legendary castle ).

Mysterious behavior - Sure that longsword gives you a +1 when fighting orcs. It also cries out the name 'Larissa' under a full moon, Or simply dissapears from time to time... Your mages 'Magic Missile' spell, instead of appearing as glowing arrows every now and then manifests itself differently (a flaming spear, or icy daggers) perhaps modifying its game affect slightly (and unexpectedly!)

Description - be vague in the descriptions/naming of spells/items, the Call of Cthulhu spell list is deliberately obtuse in places (and encourages the Keeper to do the same), an Identify spell for a wand of fireball gives the mage a vision of enemies perishing in flames or suchlike.

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Of course, the scarcity thing really requires a whole-system approach. D&D doesn't say that to be able to face level-appropriate challenges as a fighter you need a certain number of plusses in weapons/armor by a certain level.... but that doesn't make it any less true. (It's implied, of course, by the treasure tables and wealth-by-level and the fact that magic items are the only thing that is worth that much) –  Random832 Oct 13 '11 at 19:02
    
@Random832 Agreed, D&D does by default imply a relatively common level of magic items etc. Although IIRC the DMG does have some tips for running a 'Rare magic' setting. –  TygerKrash Oct 13 '11 at 19:57
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To be pedantic, this is only true of D&D 3+, not of earlier editions. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 13 '11 at 20:03
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You will have to make magic non-quantifiable. That implies that the mechanics of your magic system can't fully describe how magic works and what it can do.

Designing such a system isn't impossible. The trick is that you must leave substantial parts of the how magic works in the realm of the fiction, untouched by the mechanics. For an example of a game that accomplishes this without being utterly freeform, take a look at the Dresden Files RPG.

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Along the same lines as others who speak of scarcity, we play a campaign where magic is pretty much out of reach of the player characters. We originally started with the idea that nobody plays a wizard (and wizards are incredibly scarce in the world of NPCs.) The player characters didn't lay hands on their very first magic item until about 10 sessions into the campaign. There also are no rules for how magic works in our campaign.

We now have one character who is a monk (cleric in D&D terms) and has, on two or three occasions when the story called for it and they've been particularly pious, caused a few miracles to occur. There are no spells for them to cast, only prayer to their god and the faith that at need their god will answer. The only permanent magic item worthy for the players is a holy sword belonging to this monk. Since he's a non-combatant, the monk has buried the sword beneath an altar - making it out of reach but giving the altar the miraculous ability of focusing a worshipper's mind on their devotion to their god. That's the sum total of magic at the player's command.

Its not that we play a "low magic" setting per se. The greatest wizard in the land is a friend and occasional accomplice for the players. An enigmatic witch shows up at court in almost every session. The inaccessibility and total lack of system behind the magic makes it very mysterious. This has made the "low magic" world, paradoxically, far more magical than most campaigns in which I've played.

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I'd give you a second +1 if I could, just for the concept of the most magical campaign in a low magic world. –  Joe Oct 13 '11 at 21:55
    
Nice answer. Its hard to make magic mysterious in a high-magic setting, but easier in a low magic one. –  TimothyAWiseman Dec 4 '12 at 18:15
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Humans are very very good at gaming systems. So, if you have rules of magic that it must obey, then you can accurately game it. Gamers are very good at it.

So, you can either make a system that has a random element for the effects or have no system at all and use ad-hoc decisions as to what happens. I favour the latter as I run systemless games. I leave it to the story, the players' wishes, and general feel of the world to dictate what is right for this particular occasion.

For example, the PCs found an elven sword (MERP). It was attuned to water, and thus the more flowing and water-like the player's description of attacks and defences were, the more the sword would "help". No fixed bonus, no super powers, just a better sword which could with the right attacks slice an orc in two hight-wise. It did have other neat features but none relevant here.

In system terms, you could have a random process shaped like a thine bell curve (low variance) so that most of the time, the effect of spells/items/whatnot are the same. Sometimes, you will get much more powerful spell/effects and sometimes they will be much weaker. While this adds randomness, you can have that randomness as part of your mystery. In your example, detect magic would be cast (say it was a good result): The character detects that the wand can heal wounds and that the creator made it because they lost their family to injuries. Now, every time they use the item, they can feel the pain and bitterness of the maker at his lost and his oh strong will to save others from his pains. Now, say you got a bad roll. The detect magic works but now the item's magic has been violated and so instead of a pleasant heal, it is painful and just plain nasty. Not something you want to be healed by.

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Agreed with SevenSidedDie about making magic non-quantifiable. If you can explain it with mechanics, then the players can get their heads around it and it solidifies into a system instead of a big ball of mystery.

One way I've found to keep the Wonder Factor high: keep all mechanics out of the players' hands. Banning books and rule discussions at the table is a good start. I've run games where the players rolled up their characters and then I gathered the character sheets. They played based on their character concept instead of constantly referring to the powers and abilities on their sheets. It needs an explicit social contract and implicit trust from your players, but running a game based on pure description instead of constant mechanical reinforcement can work quite well for retaining the mystery and wonder of magic.

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+1 This is almost a systemless game. –  Sardathrion Oct 13 '11 at 15:01
    
You can play it that way, or you can keep using the rules and eliminate the rules questions by putting the rules in a black box and hiding them from your players. I did go completely systemless once, loosely based on AD&D. I bought a single d20 and that was the only die I used for the entire campaign. It focused the players on the story instead of the mechanics and it worked well for me. –  T.W.Wombat Oct 14 '11 at 11:08
    
@TWWombat: I have been running and playing in systemless games for about 15/20 years now. It does work well. –  Sardathrion Oct 14 '11 at 11:11
    
@Sardathrion The flip side of that is systemless gaming ain't for everyone. But if you're looking for mystery, don't give the players a system. –  T.W.Wombat Oct 17 '11 at 12:01
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One way to increase the degree of magic-related mystery in your game is to, well, add mystery yourself. (Note that this assumes you aren't playing RAW.) If the problem is that object + spell + spell = complete list of abilities of the object and how to activate them, then place story-based obstacles on the left side of that equation.

  • Modify the Identify spell/ability/whatever to return only generic info.
    A god has taken umbrage at the various races' attempt to know all that is, and has cast a shadow on the world, causing those who wish to learn through magic to learn through action instead. So now your Rod of Healing is "some kind of thing a cleric would probably use, minor magic, maybe." Heal? Bless? Only trial and error will tell you for sure. If the party's been using NPCs for this, then someone who knows someone is complaining about how all these precisely-identified magic items are driving down her identification business, and suddenly no shop will tell you anything more than "I guess it probably does something good. Some guy sold it to me. Haven't seen it since." Only significant amounts of gold/questing/whatever will get more information out of the reluctant sage.

  • Only award parts of magic items in a cache of treasure.
    So they find $CURRENCY and part of a rod with ornate carving on the sides; it's clearly been severed. Where could the other pieces be? (Or maybe you give them multiple pieces in one cache, but not all from the same item.) They use an Identify skill, but without the complete item, what's returned is an indistinct feeling of magic: you've got something potentially powerful, but who can say what it is until the entire item is complete?

  • Steal a page from video games and make the powers variable.
    Playing off the last suggestion, maybe even assembling the entire staff isn't enough (or maybe you find the staff completely assembled anyway). In this corner of the world, magic is contained in gems and drawn from the gems by wands into which the gems are set: the powers of the item are determined by the gems that are used. Maybe different combinations of gems produce different effects; maybe you can activate weaker effects (in some cases) if you don't have a full complement of gems; maybe the gems simply provide charges rather than abilities, like batteries for magic items. So hey! You just found a Rod of ... well, what gems do you have? No Healing gems? Let's see, put a couple of rubies and a sapphire here and here, cast that spell, hey, don't point that thing at me, we don't know what it does ...

These don't just have to apply to items, either. A sorcerer of $LEVEL_ABOVE_PARTY casts a spell over the lands, reducing the range of all spells cast by weaker sorcerers to 0. (Kind of a problem for attack spells, yes?) There are rumors of stones that can push back against the effects of $MEGA_SPELL just enough to restore some functionality, if only you could find them, but no one really knows how many you need or how they work.

Maybe a high-level mage passed through these lands not so long ago and left more than one problem behind, causing the local law enforcement folks to ban certain spells in this country. Nothing personal, but who knows why you need to identify these objects? So, good luck identifying that rod ... sure, you can cast that spell, but is it worth spending a month in jail?

If your party wants mystery, they should be amenable to changes that provide mystery. Does it take away from what they can do now? Sure, but then what they're able to do now is the problem, isn't it?

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Just thought I would add something. The books "A song of ice and fire" I think, do this in a good way, and it can be applied to game settings.

Basically, I think the way to give magic a mystery is to have there be a lot of 'common' magic. (I.e. sleight of hand, parlor tricks, hidden technologies.) In addition, all the people in the world treat magic as if it doesn't exist, and only the peasants believe it is even possible. Also be sure to fill the world with a few famous Houdinis, Blanes, and Copperfields.

An example of this in Song of Ice and Fire, is that this one warrior has a flaming sword. The reader first assumes that this is a magical sword based on the god he follows. But in reality, the reader later finds out, it is just a sword with some oil on it, and a cloth with a hidden flint stone to strike it. I think in a game world, this would cause the players to try to figure out if something is truly magical or a mechanism they can exploit/not fear.

When they open up the chest and find a wand, 9 times out of 10, the wand should be nothing but a piece of wood with maybe a secret compartment to hide flowers in. Full the world with non-mysterious magic, and most then real magic items will be a wonder to behold!

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Making magic also have variable results would be effective. i.e. that wand could perhaps have slight different affects sometimes, or treat different targets with strange affects; and of course - make a botch bizarre more than dangerous.

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Part 3 of Ron Edward's classic Fantasy heartbreakers article touches on a lot of ideas for this. –  Alticamelus Oct 26 '11 at 11:43
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