Critical Intel

Critical Intel
I Hate Magic

Robert Rath | 25 Apr 2013 12:00
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Calling the Gods

As I described above, "simple sorcery" involves causing an effect by symbolic action, while "complex sorcery" necessitates the invocation of a divine or spiritual entity. Games provide many examples of simple sorcery, but they're missing out on the dramatic opportunities divine magic provides. God of War based an entire series on this concept, with Kratos using brute strength to compel gods and spirits to his bidding - though he is as much their plaything as their master.

What's great about using divine magic is twofold: First, it always comes with interesting conditions, and second, it presents an ongoing question of who is using who. Skyrim did this a good deal, with Daedric Princes adopting your character as a champion to win them objects or clear their temples. I'll always remember battling the Necromancer Malkoran in the Temple of Meridia, but it was my reward, the weapon Dawnbreaker and my anointment as Meridia's champion, that stuck with me. I carried that sword all the way to Sovngarde, smiting the unrighteous dead with the bright blade - but I never would've received that reward without pledging myself to the Lady of Infinite Energies. That's how you do frigging magic!

Imagine if that blessing came with conditions that were a code of conduct instead of a task. Maybe my patron is a blood god, and I need to kill three men hand-to-hand before unleashing each spell. Or consider the potential of a god, spirit or demon offering me immense power so long as I didn't kill the unarmed, or as long as I brought them a sacrifice on each full moon, or promised them my firstborn? What might happen if I broke that covenant, either by accident or in rebellion? I might lose my powers. The god might pursue me with his new champion or send wild beasts to devour me. An angry spirit could possess my spouse or close friends and turn them against me. They might offer me redemption in return for completing an immense task, something that would cost me dearly or run counter to my code of ethics.

This is where we get into the most interesting question: exactly who has the power in this relationship. Gods may send lightning on my foes or swamp the ships of enemy fleets on my command, but in the end they're always holding the strings.

Thousands of Things, Sinister and Dark

Games tend to present magic as a neutral force, only as good or bad as the person wielding it. There's a sense that we shouldn't consider magic and magic-users as inherently evil, but I think that's a mistake. The sorcerer as a servant of darkness is so embedded in our cultural memory that it's foolish not to use it every once in awhile, and the narrative of non-magical characters facing down otherworldly powers is, and will always be, a compelling one. This is the story of Van Helsing versus Dracula, of Perseus slaying Medusa and of Lovecraft's mortal academics facing horrors from beyond space and time. Medieval and Renaissance villagers feared (imaginary) witches because of their purported ability to blight crops, kill livestock, turn into vicious animals, kill children and cause sickness - in other words, the things villagers feared most. Historically and in literature, magical forces have symbolized humanity's worries about nature, the ravages of time or our own desires. That's a rich symbolic narrative we shouldn't throw away.

Along these lines, some narratives cast magic as a corrupting influence. In H.P. Lovecraft's short stories and the Call of Cthulhu RPG, investigating and learning spells means starting on an irreversible spiral into madness. Likewise, the Outsider's supernatural gifts make Corvo nigh unstoppable, but every time he uses them to kill, more plague rats wriggle up from the sewer. Rapture falls not because of revolution or disaster, but the selfish overuse of plasmids. The message, old as time, is that power can harm the person wielding it if he or she doesn't use it judiciously - and even possessing such power may be harmful.

What we're really getting at here is the idea of sacrifice. As a prerequisite for attaining vast power, sorcerers should have to give up something equally powerful. Most fantasy games preclude mages from using armor, but that's a fairly anemic sacrifice considering the supernatural abilities they inherit, and often a perk reverses this anyway. I'd like to see something more meaningful. Depending on the situation it could be years of their life devoted to study rather than love and family, their physical assets degraded. Alternately, it could mean becoming an outcast from society, hated and feared by their fellows and unable to trade at fair prices. In a mechanical sense, perhaps casters have to injure themselves in order to use their powers, much like the Martyr in Hunter: The Reckoning. Or they can open their body to spirit possession in combat, allowing them to fight like demons for a short period of time but wrecking their magic regen as the hungry spirits feast on their life essence.

So after all that, do I really hate magic? Well, no. I love magic when it's well-implemented and actually has roots in the cosmology of the world. But I want more than that. I want to feel like I'm part of something greater, an awesome and terrifying force that requires me to make sacrifices and modify my behavior. I want to feel like I'm casting unique curses that vary more than fire, ice or shock.

Basically, I want magic to mean something to me in the same way it meant something to my ancestors. Magic is a ward against danger, a weapon against evil and a river of energy - one that runs deep and dark enough to drown an unwary dabbler.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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