Based off of this question.

Magic in many games is considered well-understood, but ill explained (hence 'magic'). Assuming that I control the environment and have a mild will to bend mechanics, how do I make Magic that seems like it could be explained with indefinite granularity (e.g.: it's just a bunch of atoms and energy arranged in a certain way)?

For example, in a world, players may decide to cast the spell Identify, and it's just another spell, to them it's just magic. Very mundane! What they didn't know was that casting this spell injects them with a potent, quickly metabolised neurostimulant. Who knew!? This is difficult on the fly, so simple methods of doing this are appreciated.

How do I make it so the players feel like the magic in the game is scientific and explainable?

For all intents and purposes by scientific, I mean that there are a set of rigid systems that produce reproducible results. The rigid systems themselves can be magical (as they are today).

I am only wanting to convey the feel of science being behind magic. I'm not asking how to develop an actual scientific magic system that the players can systematically interact with.

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    \$\begingroup\$ So you want magic that can actually sort of, if you turn your head and squint, be explained by contemporary, real-world science? Like hard fantasy? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19 '17 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ To clarify, do you want magic that feels like science, or do you want magic that's explained with science? While these points sound identical, they have very different answers. Magic that feels like science would respond to further scientific inquiry beyond what the players currently know, while magic that's explained with science would still have quite opaque and rigid rules. An example of explained magic would be Girl Genius, where the setting's "magic" always has rules, but trying to dig into it deeply leads to frustration. An example of magic that more FEELS like science is Erfworld. \$\endgroup\$
    – godskook
    Jul 19 '17 at 23:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @godskook the former. Think Frankenstein or lovecraft \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Jul 19 '17 at 23:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ Based on these comments I've removed the material about creating a science-based magic system and refocused the question on conveying the feel of science being behind magic (like the question this is based on). How does that look? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 20 '17 at 15:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this question is a better fit for the Worldbuilding Stackexchange \$\endgroup\$
    – edgerunner
    Jul 21 '17 at 0:04


I think there a couple of preliminary points that need to be addressed. This is marked as system agnostic, and that is probably a good call in the sense that neither the question nor this answer are tied to any particular setting, but it does not apply to all settings. Some settings make it very easy to make magic feel "science-y" and others makes it nigh impossible either deliberately or just by not having things well defined.

Second, what makes something feel like science, especially in the way this question seems to be asking is being well defined, and susceptible to something akin to the scientific process, not using scientific sounding words. In fact, scientific sounding words might make things worse in terms of realism or making something feel like science. They can lead to someone with real science knowledge leaping up and saying "That's not how that works at all" (my wife gets really mad when I do that with Star Trek) or "That might work, but what about the side effects?"

Something which is predictable and can be studied experimentally feels like science.

Which brings me to the core of my answer: To make magic feel like science you let it be consistent. Shadowrun's Hermetic magic (my knowledge comes from 2e, I don't know if this has changed) felt that way to me. There was a whole background theory of mana and astral space and their interactions that felt like something a scientist could study. The results were predictable, a magic theory skill existed, and some of the fiction around it suggested that magic theorists worked a lot like scientists and used a lot of math. It felt a lot like science, though it used magi-babble instead of science babble.

In fiction, the Iron Druid Chronicles come to mind, at least in terms of druidic magic. The basics of how druidic magic are laid out in the first book of the series and never deviated from. After the first book, the druids occasionally pull out new tricks, but they always flow form the principles laid out in the first book and always feel consistent. The main character also spends a lot of time talking about how his studies of science have helped him use his magic better. Druidic magic is predictable, and can be informed by knowledge of other fields of science. This makes it feel a lot like a science.

What makes magic feel un-scientific?

It might help to look at the opposite end of it. To make magic not feel like science, you deliberately leave it vague, unpredictable, and poorly understood even by its users. It then becomes hard to study (in any conventional sense of the word study) and mysterious. It might even be a living thing with something of a mind of its own. Magic in The Last Unicorn felt magical and was certainly not scientific because of that.

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    \$\begingroup\$ In other word, (consistent) magic is just a bunch of special physics rules not present in our world, yes ? \$\endgroup\$
    – Gael L
    Jul 19 '17 at 21:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would use the broader word "scientific" rather than physics which is a prescribed field, but essentially yes. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19 '17 at 21:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sad thing is, I often hear other players say "don't try to use logic with D&D magic". But, just like you, I believe logic can very well be used with magic (which simply alters some scientific laws, but not all). \$\endgroup\$
    – Gael L
    Jul 19 '17 at 21:19
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    \$\begingroup\$ The problem with DnD is, that its worlds are so broad with gods, planes and maybe in between magic as a tool so many people can use without understanding it. If a spell does that, dont discuss if it does something else, like a lighting hitting water would hurt people in water, but what about lightning lure? So many examples! \$\endgroup\$
    – PSquall
    Jul 19 '17 at 22:29

In my experience, creating the feel that magic is scientific is pretty simple: show people talking about it as if it is. Depending on your setting, there may be wizards' guilds, academies, alchemical societies, etc. where people gather to discuss the finer points of spell creation, maintenance, modification, etc. Walking past a magical research laboratory really drives home the message in a way that out-of-character setting descriptions don't.

My favorite literary example of this is The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, where one scholarly character is always pestering the other mages with questions about how they do magic, since the setting includes several different mechanisms. Technobabble about shift linkages and interrupt vectors doesn't hurt. Contrast LOTR, where even powerful magic isn't shown as being explainable, repeatable, or even necessarily dependable, which adds to the "mystique" of such magic as there is.

Now, if you want to actually make magic scientific, you'll have to do all sorts of things like inventing a fifth fundamental force that certain people have instinctive control over and picturing how the technology and techniques would improve over time, etc. BanjoFox's answer gets into some of that. But consider that you may not need to go into that level of detail if the setting overall doesn't have advanced scientific knowledge; many historical alchemists were attempting to categorize properties we might now consider effectively magical.

Either way, I recommend GURPS Thaumatology as a book that discusses these topics in some detail. Though obviously GURPS-centric for the crunchy bits, it also includes different models and explanations of magic that should be fairly system-agnostic. (Pay particular attention to "Magic as Engineering.")


First of all, remember what scientific means:

Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

(Wikipedia: Science)

Now, scientific magic would need to fulfill this or at least a similar definition, that everyone can agree on (in your group at least). That means casting a spell would need some sort of in-game procedure and be reproducible. Most games do that by gestures, vocal spell components and others. A mage would know why a spell works the way it does, and could maybe manipulate some components to archive another, maybe close effect.

i think for a consistent scimagic system, you need some sort of origin for magic, that can or maybe can't be explained, like magic is like invisible strings of potential that can be woven to achieve an effect, or raw magic power from another plane that can be called upon.

I hope I'm recalling it correctly, but The Dark Eye explained it as the strings of power that we can manipulate. To stick to your example, identify would weave an arcane field on or over your eyes, so you could see the strings and recognize the structure the identified object has. Magic items would then be a ball of those strings, that can be opened by some sort of trigger. And with the identify spell you would see that in action, like a microscope to some bacteria.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Not part of the answer, but i discussed this with a friend some time and he disliked the idea of scientific magic, as it "takes away the mysticism and beauty in the setting". Like a magical rainbow stands for hope, a lightning for doom and so on. \$\endgroup\$
    – PSquall
    Jul 19 '17 at 22:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ To your comment, how well "explained magic" works depends on personal taste and on what the story is trying to achieve. In RPGs, I prefer magic be well explained and consistent because I need to be able to predict it as someone interacting with the system. In some stories (The Last Unicorn,) the fact it is unexplained and unpredictable helps with the story. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 19 '17 at 22:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ To be honest, i cant remember The last Unicorn very well, but i agree with you. Actually, in my opinion every system should be a part explainable, to make sense to the GM and what happens if some magical effects meet each other. \$\endgroup\$
    – PSquall
    Jul 19 '17 at 23:19

The short answer: those with magical abilities are able to use their finite sense of the environment to manipulate pre-existing materials according to their will. Failure to achieve this is simply due to a) lack of necessary materials or b) a competing force.

The long answer would be to do some reading on chaos theory and quantum mechanics. In my view, it is the closest real-world analog to science actually explaining how magic works/might work depending on your personal philosophies.

Interesting books pertaining to the long answer

These are two books in my collection that I've enjoyed

The Essence of Chaos - by Edward Lorenz

Chaos: The making of a new science - by James Gleick

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    \$\begingroup\$ The short answer is longer than the long answer. What? :) \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Jul 19 '17 at 19:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ In terms of word/character count yes. However, in this instance long was meant to include the books/articles required for getting a full understanding of the subject :) \$\endgroup\$
    – BanjoFox
    Jul 19 '17 at 19:29

Something that will go a long way towards making magic feel scientific is providing some kind of logical structure for the magic that PCs and NPCs can do.

Examples would be the basic system the various editions of WoD's Mage, the verb-noun systems of GURPS Thaumatology, or even Chivalry and Sorcery's Basic Magic. D&D magic is not a good example: many of the spells were just made up in the distant past for game effects, rather than with any kind of structure.

Something else that a scientific ethos for magic implies is that if the players find a way to do something horrible with it, you have to cope. Arbitrary "you can't do that" is not the stuff of science. Pointing out to the players that something will not be fun in the long run and asking them not to do it is reasonable, but the rules of the universe need to be consistent.


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