When I work with settings that contain magic, whether traditional fantasy or others, I always perceive something of a tension when trying to portray the magic between the following factors:

  1. Magic that feels magical/mystical rather than just another strand of science/technology
  2. Coherency and internal consistency
  3. Availability to PCs

Are there any systems/settings out there that balance these particular factors, and is there any advice you can give on putting together a system of magic that balances the three factors for a setting?

Edit: Just some extra notes on #2. based on some of the answers and comments: I'm not averse to uncertainty or random elements (chance of failure, unexpected results etc) but I'm keen to avoid elements creeping in that have the players cease to believe that there is any reliable, common thread to magic. It's about thematic believability and internal consistency rather than predictabilty.


8 Answers 8


From my experience, your number 3 is key: Availability to PCs. If something is supposed to be mythical, it gets scientific automatically. Once players know the mechanics behind it, their brain will do calculations in their head. Thats not even a conscious process. People cannot "un-know" things.

Example: D&D, the party encounters some random guy, he mutters some words and a fiery explosion rocks the group. 31 damage, save for half damage. At this point you can see your players brains in action... fireball, level 3 spell, level 5 wizard to cast, that means 5d6 minimum damage, 31 damage probably is at least 7d6, so he's a seventh level wizard. He might come up with a fourth level spell along the encounter, probably XXX, that's the most effective at level 7.

The mythical magic just turned into number crunching, statistics and normalization. The player can now roleplay that they do not know all this... but that's hard. And even then, it has lost all of it's magic feeling.

If you want something to be mythical, do not let your players know the rules behind it. Some maybe have to know them. For example the mage. But it's only realistic, that the mage can estimate other peoples magic. For him, maybe the prayers of the cleric are "mythical".

Your other factors vanish with the (un-)availability of knowlege to players. Who cares about consistency if nobody knows about the inconsistency. And who cares if for the mage, magic is science. He should treat it that way.

The most mythical magic moment probably was the DSA campaign I took part in. Because my character could not use any magic, I never bothered to look up how it worked. Any time our mage did his thing it was like "wow, cool". Any time an enemy used magic, it was frightening. Because as a player, I never knew what to expect. Just like my character with the magic.

This is not a system thing. It's purely a player and gm thing. It can work with any system and it can fail with any system. Especially systems that are played a long time, tend to deteriorate into number crunshing as all players have played all available classes many times. I don't think it's something you can effectively balance. To make the most out of #3, make sure the book seperates player knowledge into chapters one can just skip. That goes for all genres. For example I'm more than happy to skip the chapter on hacking in cyberpunk games as a player. The hacker can do his magic and surprise me.

  • \$\begingroup\$ The main problemi I see with this approach is that in games like D&D 3.x where characters can be really strong or really weak every player needs to know how every mechanic works in order to make his character creation choices. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zachiel
    Apr 19, 2013 at 17:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Zachiel: only if you are playing a min/max number crunshing game. That's the point of my answer: you cannot have a number crunshing game and mystery at the same time. Both is fine, you only need to decide which you want in a particular group and game. \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Apr 20, 2013 at 8:56

There's a few things that help to make magic... feel magical.

Relative Rarity

If you treat magic like a commodity, it will feel like a commodity. If you treat magic like a strange rarity, perhaps even a scary break from reality... it will be treated like that, too.

While the players or the magic type characters may know the basic limitations of magic ("You can only cast X number of spells a day", "You have to make an endurance check or you might pass out"), the average, uninformed person sees someone do an act of magic and has no idea what could happen next - "How do I know they can't just KEEP doing that? How do I know they can't do EVEN MORE worse things? How do I know they're not reading my mind, right now?!?"

Descriptive Unease

Give magic descriptions that leaves the players wondering if it's... doing more than what it appears to be doing.

"Yes, the light emanates from the object, just as you had intended, giving you some thing to see by in the darkness... but the light makes the back of your eyes hurt, just a bit. Probably best to get into some normal light as soon as you can, yeah?"

"You flip over the divination cards, one by one. Somehow time seems to stretch out a bit, and you swear you've flipped over the last card 3 times, and you are forced to do it again. That's probably just your imagination. You hope."

"The words you read feel... wrong somehow. You hear what you swear is the cries of a child. No, hundreds of children but then it morphs into the cry of a hawk as the bird swoops down to your outstretched arm. The summon has worked... but you try not to think about where or what this thing you pretend is a bird, actually came from."

Unforeseen Costs

The last thing which adds weight to the idea of magic is the idea that magic has costs or consequences far beyond what you intend. The idea that you're playing with fire, and things might just go wrong.

It's not like magic has to be unreliable, it just has to be that if things do go wrong, they tend to go wrong in wide reaching ways. Think of all the folk tales or legends about curses and how they end up just spreading and spreading. Or the wish-granting item/being but the wishes turn out to give you what you want at the cost of something you never wanted to happen...

Imagine if those kinds of things might happen ANY time you play with magic...You'd probably not be so casual with magic, right?

And the costs of magic shouldn't be easily reversible, either. It's one thing if a spell costs you a few hitpoints and you heal up in hours or days for the cost of the effect. It's another thing if one of your fingers looks permanently scarred with burn marks from the spell you cast, and if you keep doing it it will eventually be your whole arm, then your whole body...

Games that do stuff like this

Burning Wheel has a nice randomized spell error mechanic where a relatively mild spell might have cataclysmic effects if you roll lucky/unlucky enough.

Sorcerer requires you to command a demon anytime you want magic to work... on the other hand, the demons are pumping you to fulfill their magical needs too, and sometimes they get ideas of their own...

Unknown Armies makes magic rare and difficult. You have to work to build up charges and spending them is not a light thing either.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This answer deserves more attention. +1 from me. \$\endgroup\$
    – Joe
    Dec 30, 2013 at 10:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ I love this answer. I love it roughly 30 times more than I love most answer I upvote. So, have 300 points. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Feb 27, 2014 at 16:59

Magical thinking is a kind of causal reasoning that looks for meaningful relationships between thoughts, actions, and events. It takes a few common forms.

  • Contagion: Things in physical contact remain magically connected when separated. Example: You can put a hex on somebody using stolen hair and nail clippings.
  • Sympathy: Similar things have a magical connection. Example: Gourds can cure infertility, and phallic roots can cure impotence.
  • Homeopathy: Like cures like. Example: Mandrake root causes mania, so tiny doses can cure mania, much like a vaccine.
  • Magic words: Certain words and sounds have power over the world. Example: Speak of the devil, and he'll appear.
  • Taboo: Misbehavior brings about misfortune. Example: You will have bad luck if you reveal your birthday wishes to anyone else.
  • Apotropaic magic: Certain gestures or charms can deflect misfortune. Example: When you spill salt, toss some over your shoulder to avoid bad luck.
  • Post hoc and cum hoc: Two things that happen in succession or at the same time must be causally related. Example: A baseball player hits a home run when he taps his bat on home plate exactly four times.

As others have noted, magical thinking applies to technology too. Magic can be perfectly reliable and predictable, so long as it's based on meaningful and irrational causes. To keep a sense of wonder and magic in your game system, emphasize those elements. Create spells that only affect yellow things, magic words that summon demons, and magic gestures that ward off bad luck. Old-school D&D had the right idea with its magic components, but they were a hassle to use, so people mostly ignored them, taking the magical thinking out of the game.

Mage is good for this kind of play out of the box. Toolkit games like the Hero System are good for building this sort of thing from scratch; simply require every spell and power to have a modifier based on magical thinking.

Some aspects of magical thinking are difficult to work into a game system fairly. Unintended consequences feature prominently in stories about magic, especially as punishment for carelessness or hubris. They're excellent for flavor in small amounts, but beware of making magic too unreliable for playability. This is another place where Mage excels, with the paradox and botch systems.


Points 1 and 2 are opposed


  1. Magic that feels magical/mystical rather than just another strand of science/technology
  2. Coherency and internal consistency

Axiomatically, if magic works by "Do A, then B, then C, and D happens," magic has become a science or technology.

You cannot have a consistent set of magic without it becoming a science, unless it's unpredictable.

Consistent and Playable

Players can play unpredictable magic systems. Several published games have them.

Others simply don't define the mechanics of magic.

Others still mire magic with "Ask, roll, and maybe..."

If magic is to be consistent and/or playable, it needs coherent rules. Coherent rules are at odds with not feeling like a science, but can be overcome by adding a random factor that cannot be overcome with skill, points, bennies, etc.

Player access to magic is enhanced by mechanical systems of resolution; to maintain a mystical feel, some random, un-removable, and ever present chance of failure is requisite. That failure could be simple fizzle, miscast, side effects, mistargeted, or any of a dozen other ways to go awry.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ I agree, though adding a random element doesn't necessarily make it less scientific. Any science that works mostly with aggregates (thermodynamics) uses statistics and randomness, at least on the level of practical predictions, even if perfect information would theoretically allow us to remove that. And when you get into different parts of quantum theory the randomness becomes inherent in reality itself (or at least seems that way at our current level of understanding). \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2013 at 22:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Real magical thinking is rooted in exactly the belief that "A + B + C = D," and many practitioners even apply scientific principles to their magical thinking. Magic is about the reasoning behind your causality, not its reliability. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 19, 2013 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ On further thought, one kind of unpredictability is significant in magic, and that's unintended consequences. Of course, those are common in science and technology too, so it's not really a distinguishing factor. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 20, 2013 at 0:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ Modern physical science arises out of Alchemy. It was the search for A+B+C=D that lead to scientific rigor, and falsification of causation by alternate testing. It was the notion that "A+B+C=D and E+B+C=D, but A≠E, perhaps it's just B+C=D..." that became science as we know it. Magical traditions often included extraneous and/or counterproductive elements because they were grounded in pure observation, not rigorous experimental premises. \$\endgroup\$
    – aramis
    Apr 20, 2013 at 19:57

While I think that points 1 and 2 are almost antithetical, you could have a setting where summoning magical beings (djinn, demons, elementals, ghosts, whatever) was possible, with more or less predictable outcomes. Those magical beings could be bargained with to provide you with some magical effect: either one shot, or permanent, in return for some consideration. Of course, the price would be dependent on what the entity summoned was, the "cost" of the magical effect, and the wording of the contract.

For example, on an old battlefield, I want to know why the battle happened. So, instead of casting "Past Vision", I summon the spirit of one of the combatants. I could get an easily controlled grunt with limited information or I could get the impossible-to-control General McHard of the McLeathal clan with perfect information. In the latter case, I might have to perform some task for the information.

Another example; I summon an elemental to give me protection, rather than just 'cast protection spell X'. I might summon a stone elemental and ask him to shape into armour I can wear. Or I could summon an air elemental and ask her to shape into a shield to deflect blows. Depending on what I summon, the effects might be different. Where I am might influence what type of elemental I get: on a ship chances are that I'll get a water one, yadda yadda yadda.

The key here is that the general effects can be coherent and internally consistent but the details of how it is done are left to be different for each occasion.

On a side note, Unknown Armies has a very consistent way to do magic but the way it is done varies. For example, controlling entropy requires you to surrender to chaos. Illusions require you to abandon all concept of self. I would rather not say too much since the game relies on some things being secret.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I think, along with @nvoigt above you've drawn my attention to something that I should have realized about the link between a game system for magic that the players understand and inevitable link to them transferring that to magic being a manifestation of that game system (and thus maths/science rather than magic). Unknown armies seems to work well for this as there's an implicit assumption that the players probably don't know how the system works. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gaxx
    Apr 19, 2013 at 12:42


IMHO, the first of your requirements is pretty independent from the others and can be solved at a fluff level, without involving actual mechanics.
If magic is something that works by in-game consistent, measurable, explicable laws, it's more like another branch of technlogy. It works thanks to some physical law that's not working in the real world or is impossible for us to exploit or control, but in the game something made it possible.
Keep in mind it could still be magic, not technology, if the control exerted by wizards over this phenomena is not explicable with physics or made-up physics.

If magic works because it works it's still possible its effects get studied, but it's impossible to determine what causes them. They might be consistent, they might have fixed limits and boundaries but it's still impossible to know why it works.
Sometimes magic starts as described in the last paragraph and then becomes science when someone discovers some truth.

Have it clear that in your setting no such discoveries are possible. The sheer fact that the characters act with this assuption deeply rooted in their mind should be enough to convey the "magic is a mystery" feeling you're looking for.

I'll make some examples: In the manga air gear it might look like magic but it's technology and everything from people making solid clouds with teir rollerblades to that guy getting from Edmund Honda's shape to Goku's by burning energy in his body works because of some (wacky) physical explaination. In D&D 3e's Forgotten Realms setting magic is some kind of technology. Wizards influence a sort of invisible network of magical strands called the Weave to form spells. They don't get spells where the weave is damaged. It obviously still looks like magic to those who don't know how it works. It still resembles magic if you think that you don't usually change the disposition of the weave when you're not willfully doing it. Naruto's chakra system has an explaination of how pretty everything works, a physical explaination to magic again. Star wars used to have none, until midichlorians were introduced.

Since this first point is pretty independant from the other two, I think we can focus on the others.


Any system that has rules for magic will give you some form of consistency. Systems where very magic user uses the same spellcasting method are better in this regard, while removing differtiation between classes (classless systems work better in this instance) or between cultures (if some people use magic by dancing under the moon and doing tribalistic rituals and someone else is a psionic or prays the gods for spells the consistency is going to be reduced). A system like Trollbabe's where half the world uses filters and potions and charms (the humans) and the other half uses shamanism (the trolls) can still be consistent. The important thing is to have a limited number of common approaches to magic.


Again, not too much of an issue. Yes, technology can be taught, but the mystical gestures needed to invoke the mysterious powers can too, even if you don't know how it actually works.

This does not mean you can get away with anything that comes into your mind. There obviously is something you need to do to get this equal opportunity.

First, don't punish the players for not investing in magic since the beginning. If a character wants to learn how to dabble in magic he might need a new level of a magic using class, get some special feat or things like that but don't have his experience weight twice or thrice on him like D&D 3e did (less spells, less powerful spell level, less powerful spells from that same level). Everybody can learn magic and it's not bad to do so after several levels.

There's a specific way (or several, depending on how you managed consistency) to get your hand on spells.

Systems where everyone can cast spells are the better to me because you don't even have the problem. Everyone can use magic.

You can use magic by holding magic stones is another good example of how things could work. Unfortunately mine is getting more a list of ideas because really, anything can work except the things that do not (which are whataver spoils the ability for a character to get his hands on magic).

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks. I think you've got some insight there in #2 where you indicate that it really helps to maintain consistency where there's either a single system of magic. \$\endgroup\$
    – Gaxx
    Apr 19, 2013 at 12:45

It is possible for magic to be something different than science that the players don't yet understand. In our world, physics is universal and reductionism works - big things are simply combinations of small things interacting. Also, experiments are reproducible (in principal always, in practice it can be done for a large class of things).

Magic doesn't have to follow these rules. A sword can do more damage because the wielder's heart is pure. Crops can grow because the village did a good job re-enacting the actions of an ancient hero that made a bargain with the corn goddess. A Shepperd can find a lost ancient spell book because he was fated to do so. These things can be fundamental ways the world works - not emergent properties of mathematically describable interactions between elementary pieces of reality.

Of course, when you play an RPG, it's nice to have a (more or less) simple set of rules to guide you in playing it. Once you do that, the difference between real world physics and magic sort of goes away - either one leads you to a process of: 1. figure out which rules apply, and therefore 2. what dice do you need to roll?

So, if your definition of consistency requires that any 2 GMs, given the same situation, would either come to the same decision about magic or else one is mistaken (more or less the way D&D 3.0+ looks at it), then there is likely little practical difference between a world with different physics and a world with magic.

You can have magic available to PCs and with a reasonable degree of consistency if you allow some subjectivity in. A system like Fate comes to mind - since what happens is determined by narrative more than by realism it is mechanically relatively easy to simulate the ways people usually imagine magic to work (fate, simulating the magic's of the past, emotional connection of character to desired effect, poetic similarity between the focus of a spell and the desired effect, etc., all fall reasonably into a system based on aspects).

If part of what you mean by magic is something wondrous, inexplicable, miraculous, rule-breaking, supernatural, unique - then you are going to have go beyond a rulebook sometimes. That doesn't really preclude consistency entirely, if you have a world that explicitly includes such things, nor does it rule out letting the PCs participate. It does preclude the PCs reliably expecting such things to happen. But I'm pretty sure it's impossible to have both.


I recommend you to put an eye on Mage: the Ascension and its dynamic magic.

Magic that feels magical/mystical rather than just another strand of science/technology

In mage there is not spell lists nor rigid rules. In fact, that can be its weakness.

In theory, magic system in this game can represent all currents of magic, since pure magic or religion, to technomagic or advanced technology. The real thing is that technology its poor represented by the system, and it's very difficult or impossible to make a plausible portrait of technology using the system.

But, as said, its very flexible and loose for representing magic based in a lot of traditions (hermetic, shamanic, religious, etc).

Coherency and internal consistency

The magic theory is consistent and you have a set of rules to solve almost any magic spell you can imagine.

The weakness is the balance. It is not a design objective. As an example, depending of her beliefs, the magic of a practitioner may need or need not elements, time, materials, etc, or even maybe it may work only in the Digital Web (some kind of Matrix).

Availability to PCs

All PCs are Mages. I don't need to say more :)

As you can see, the system has some important weaknesses, but the things you said made that game pop up in my mind. I recommend reading the rules, if you have the time and energy. If not, maybe you can find usage examples that can be almost as explanatory.

White Wolf has other games with dynamic magic that can be simpler, if you want to read less. I would recommend Dark Ages:Mage and Dark Ages: Fae.


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