Restoring The Veil: Magic In Your Fantasy Setting

I recently stumbled across a blog post where the author wrote about his expectations of what makes a good magic system in fiction. Roleplaying games have their own systems and expectations; but what applies to fiction here really ought to apply to tabletop roleplaying games, with some modification.

As an avid reader of fantasy, one of the aspects that can draw me into a world, is the magic system.

There have been some fantastic ones over the years, from great authors like J.R.R Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Patrick Rothfuss and Brandon Sanderson.

Tolkien gave Gandalf mysterious powers, and never really explained how they worked. George R.R. Martin has several, again, fairly mysterious ...

I added several comments to this post on G+.

I prefer a system that is mysterious, unknowable, weird, cool and transformative. People who study magic for too long stop being people, and start being /something else./ Magic turns some people's stomachs - they can sense it in play, and they get migraines, vertigo, nausea ...

What gets me is that fantasy magic is often so clean, it's a joke.

Real world and historical magical practices often involve activities that most civilised people would balk at - cutting oneself to smear blood on a rune, sex magic (including practices such as anal sex), painful self-mutilation, deprivation to the point of near-death to gain visions, use of heavy, dangerous poisons or hallucinogens and self-inflicted agony are typical (albeit often horrific) ways of raising energies to cast magic.

There's a huge gap between a shaman consuming a plant containing a deadly toxin so he can commune with the ancestors, and a Harry Potter wizard waving a pointy bit of wood and just yelling "Expelliarmus!" ...

the separation of the spiritual and the visceral underlies a fundamental flaw in all fantasy magic systems.

The flaw is this. The assumption that shamanic magic is not magic, somehow, and that the only magic that qualifies for the term has to be some sort of clean-cut swish, all silk robes and astrolabes and wands and staves and no mage ever gets his hands dirty, does a great disservice to the real magicians.

And by that, I mean the Natural Philosophers who probably spent their lives trudging through muddy fields looking for Amanita muscaria or henbane for their "flying potions," or who risked their lives and sanity working with foul, fuming chemicals in their laboratories like mercury and phosphorus.

The sorcerers of the world have probably done many things you couldn't imagine seeing in a fantasy - engaged in "barbaric" sexual practices of the "Left Hand Path;" shed blood - their own or that of animals; undergone Vision Quests, with or without the aid of shrooms or narcotic herbs; taken laudanum or similar strong compounds; and voluntarily done things considered taboo by their societies, such as handling corpses for necromancy, used animal body parts to construct talismans and so on.

The lines between shamanism and what you'd consider "magic" are not as clear-cut as you might imagine. And the only way to have a fantasy magic system that works is to read up on those stories and be prepared for your gorge to rise as you read of warlocks' grisly experiments with the saponified body fat of an unbaptised child, for instance ...

I got this reply:-

to be fair, some of the aspects of shamanism you talk about, will fall under 'black magic' or forbidden magic or magic the bad evil mofo uses. Also If the hero had to resort to corpse fat or baby feet or something equally nasty to access their magical powers, I don't think the readers won't think them hero for too long. My reply here:- Don't kid yourself!

The problem with magic systems in all fantasy settings, not to mention roleplaying game settings, is that their haste to present a system ready for the CGI boys to turn into son et lumiere box office extravaganzas, they rip the veil away from magic and leave the reader or gamer with nothing but wand-pointing and "Expelliarmus" and hand-waving woo.

A lot of this veil-ripping takes the form of exposition and info-bombing. Authors can't help it: magicians have to accept arbitrary limits to their magical workings, because non-magicians have to have their chance to shine and so the magician has to accept a secondary role in any fantasy narrative in order to avoid overwhelming the story or game by being able to solve any problem with magic.

In roleplaying game magical systems, the problem of game balance is solved in a number of ways - Magic Points, where the mage carries a finite, rechargeable supply of some form of mana which allows him to cast magic; or spells which need to be re-memorised once cast, as in Dungeons and Dragons. Mage: the Ascension presented a system known as Paradox, where an antithetical anti-magic energy built up in the maqe's Pattern every time he cast magic which went against the grain of The Consensus, or "Laws of Physics." In contrast Paradox, in the reboot Mage: the Awakening, was an incursion of anti-reality from a state of non-being between the gaps, known as The Abyss.

In the Harry Potter movies, wands replaced Star Wars blasters. Wizards and witches needed to use wands to cast magic, but with their wands they could cast and recast spells like Stupefy pretty much at will, like cowboy six-guns which never ran out of ammo. In the TV show Charmed, the Halliwell sisters - the Charmed Ones - could not solve their relationship problems by conjuring up boyfriends and magicking up jobs becauae they were not allowed to cast spells for personal gain, and usually suffered from bad karma for doing so - always with so-called "hilarious" consequences.

Yet all of these things really fail to address the one thing that their magic systems lack: The Veil.

The Veil is Mystery.

None of the magic systems in fantasy fiction or in tabletop roleplaying games address The Four Pillars of Magic, which traditionally are:-





Emphasis on the last Pillar.

Magic without Mystery is nothing. Smoke and mirrors, CGI and nonsense.

Magic, either in fiction or in roleplaying games, needs to be mysterious again. The mage, whether as a NPC or PC, a supporting character or protagonist, must learn to keep his or her actions mysterious.

Air of Mystery

The workings of magic must be kept in the darkness. What does the magician want with five ounces of powdered chalk and sulphur?

Air of Distance

The magician need not be spending his days poring over old magic texts, isolated in the tower, to appear mysterious. Meditation at apparently random moments makes the magician's actions appear inscrutable.


The mage must always remain aloof. The mage can say things that seem bizarre at times; inexplicable, yet his words may end up being stunningly accurate, descriptive and even profound. But just as stage magicians are not obliged to reveal their secrets, so too must a mage always remain beyond explanation.

The Golden Rule

The chief Golden Rule about magic is this.

Magic must always be cool.

The Veil is the only thing that keeps a mage busy, and keeps the customers coming to their door. Stripping the Veil from a mage removes the cool and the mysterious from them. When everybody knows the limits of what a mage can and cannot do, it eliminates the awe one feels when the magician is actually doing his job.

The most important secret of magic, then, in both fantasy fiction and in roleplaying games, has to be the care and maintenance of The Veil. Behind the Veil - concealed beneath the comforting, obscuring layers of secrecy, inscrutability and inexplicability, the mage appears to be what he truly is: a problem solver, shrouded by his preferred elements - darkness, silence and mist.

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