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Designing alchemy in a puzzle game

A question about Hadean Lands from the tweet gallery: "Have you written anything about how you approached designing the alchemical system?"

Excellent question! The answer is "No, but I should, shouldn't I," yes okay. (Thanks @logodaedalus.)

My twitter-sized reply was "Sound cool while supporting the puzzles," but I can say more than that.

(Note: I will start this post by talking about HL in generalities. Later on I'll get into more spoilery detail about the game structure. It won't come down to specific puzzle solutions, but I'll put in a spoiler warning anyway.)

The keynote for HL's system was the alchemy puzzle in The Dreamhold. The Dreamhold lab had just two ingredients and three actions to take, but it felt like a dense explorable territory.

Dreamhold's principle was that any action you try on a given substance will produce a new and interesting result. And then you can try new actions on that! Obviously this exponential expansion has to be tied off pretty soon. Many of the combinations converge to common outcomes. The tree is only a few steps deep, really. (I think there are twelve possible substances to find.) But it's enough to give a sense of experimentation and discovery.

For HL, I wanted that sense, but bigger. Did I succeed? Heck no! It was an impossible goal. HL has forty-odd starting ingredients and thirty-odd magic words (not to mention other ritual actions, and the environmental influences, and...). Just providing the first step of a dense exploration tree would be... well, somebody might do it, but I wasn't going to.

So I developed HL with a less ambitious principle: you get recipes. When following a recipe, you should always be able to tell a right action from a wrong one. That is, a particular magic word will produce a unique response if you use it at the right time -- different from the response you get if you use it at the wrong time. The differences may be slight, but they're perceptible.

I didn't want to entirely crush the spirit of experimentation. So the second principle was: recipes aren't everything. The opening puzzle demonstrates this, and various later puzzles require you to substitute or invert ritual elements. I set up parallel structures and oppositional structures to make that make sense.

I think everyone agrees that I didn't hit the perfect balance. The game starts you with an off-recipe puzzle, but there's too long an interval before the next one. In between are lots of recipes that you have to follow perfectly; you lose track of the initial lesson. But most players were able to get onto the right track (or jump off the wrong one, if you like).

A followup question was "Did you have alchemical dynamics in mind when making the puzzles?" The answer is... mixed.

(Spoiler warning for the overall game structure, starting here!)

The core arc of HL is the limited supply of four key elements. You need all four for the endgame, and there are intermediate goals which require two or three. So initially you can only accomplish one intermediate goal at a time; then you have to reset.

That was my initial puzzle framework. I wrote that down, and then started complicating it. What ritual needs elements X and Y? Is it the ritual itself which needs those elements, or do I invent a sub-ritual which consumes X and provides a related X2? And so on.

At this point, I was inventing puzzles and alchemical mechanics in parallel. Or rather, I was going back and forth -- every decision on one side firmed up the possibilities on the other side. I needed puzzles whose solutions would seem reasonable; I needed mechanics which would feel like parts of a plausible magical science.

You'll note that I didn't start by creating a complete magical system and then deriving puzzles from it. Nor did I invent a bunch of puzzles and then invent alchemy that could solve them. Neither approach has ever worked for me. So if you're hoping for a complete, consistent model of HL alchemy -- I'm sorry. No such thing exists.

I knew that it couldn't exist, of course. That's one reason that the alchemy is described as being eclectic and syncretic. It fits nicely with the social background, too. The real-life British Empire did steal artifacts from all over the world. I evolved the idea that a magical British Empire would lift occult knowledge from every place they conquered, and jam it all together without regard for consistency or context!

(We assume this made them better at conquering. The game doesn't touch on much history, but references to the "East Empire" imply that they've got a firm grasp on Central Europe, and no doubt the New World as well. If I were a better writer, I'd have built a story about the Navy running into aliens and trying to treat them colonially... oh, well, room for a sequel.)

(There will be no sequel. That was a joke.)

The point is, I could make up whatever alchemical rules I wanted. I tried for a balance -- consistency in some places, chaos in others. I could draw on mythical, mathematical, or religious sources without having to be accurate about any of it. Convenient!

Back to the puzzle construction. As I said, there were a few key resources whose scarcity determined the game arc. Then I invented more resources -- both ingredients and formulae -- which either resulted from or combined with the key ones.

This could itself have created an ever-expanding tree of dependencies. But I constrained it, or at least bent it back on itself, with a third principle: everything in the game should be used at least twice. Ideally, in slightly different ways.

A naive adventure game uses each item exactly once. Indeed, many graphical adventures remove things from your inventory once you've used them successfully. This cuts against your sense of immersion -- not because of the anti-realism, but because you wind up watching the game mechanics rather than the game. An object disappearing (or being checked off) is a better signal of progress than the response of the game world. Text adventures don't have this disappearance convention; nonethless, the player learns to keep track of what's been used and ignore it thereafter.

I would rather teach the player that there's always more to learn. You may think you understand an item, but you still have to keep it in mind for future use. You have to keep everything in the game in mind at all times. This is the underlying challenge.

So I went over and over the list of rituals, looking for singletons. Magic word used only once? Work it into a new ritual. Alchemical potion only solves one puzzle? Invent a new place to use it. This added a richness to the mechanics. Two uses of a reagent imply there must be more; you have the sense that there must be underlying laws to explain it all. This is, as I said, an illusion; but it's a well-supported illusion.

Of course, it added up to a gob-smacking number of puzzles. Fortunately (or perhaps not), I was blessed with a very large list of formulae, resources, and recipes to scatter around the Retort. I could "use up" these extra puzzles as obstacles to various resources. (Thus all the locked cabinets.)

Also, since these puzzles weren't involved in the key resource plotline, it was okay if they had multiple solutions. (Some of the cabinets can be opened two or three ways.)

The final principle of Hadean Lands: involve all the senses. Let me go back to a line that I quoted in 2010, explaining the HL Kickstarter:

"If a witch could teleport (a thing that seems impossible, but I could be wrong), it would involve hours of preparation, rituals, chanting, and filling all the senses with the desired result until the spell would work in a blinding explosion of emotional fulfillment." (Steven Brust, Taltos)

Magic should be a transcendent experience. I tried to describe the effects of your rituals in colors, textures, sounds, scents... even the words that you speak are given synesthetic weight. Not to mention the ineffable air of things going wrong or right (so useful for cueing mistakes).

Of course, an adventure game involves lots of repetition, and nothing wears out faster than a repeated sense of transcendence. (Except maybe humor.) I dodged this problem with HL's PERFORM mechanic. When you PERFORM a known ritual, it doesn't repeat all of the descriptive text; I kept the output bare and mechanical. You're not reading it anyway! You just want to know whether the ritual succeeded. This preserves your sense of involvement with new rituals.

(Admittedly this falls apart when you're failing at a new ritual. That's a somewhat repetitive experience -- inevitably, I think.)

So there are my principles of magic design. I don't suppose I sound like a Hermetic occultist. I hope I do sound like a writer or designer describing his craft, because that's what this is. A lot of fussy details and a clear plan, is all.

Like the man said: writing is the art of causing change in a consenting reader, in accordance with the writer's will. You gotta be pragmatic about that stuff or you'll get nowhere.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 8: Conclusion

First, I'd like to say thanks to Jason McIntosh, Kevin Jackson-Mead, and Andrew Plotkin for the opportunity to write this series; it's been extremely useful to have a forum for clarifying my own ideas on magic systems. I'd also like to thank everyone who read and commented on each blog entry. Your feedback has been very helpful, often bringing new games to my attention as well as offering helpful insights into existing games and concepts. When Jason and Kevin first mentioned the idea of guest-blogging on the Gameshelf, we agreed that a limited duration of a couple months made the most sense, in part so that other guest bloggers can carry forward the mission of the Gameshelf in many exciting ways.


And, while in one sense I'm wrapping up this particular series, I feel more like radiating outward in many directions, because the opportunity to write here has inspired so many ideas for further exploration. Magic is an explosive nexus that doesn't react well to being contained or bottled up. It's best to answer the question: where next? And the inevitable answer is: many directions. This installment is written under the aspect of the sign of chaos (as invented by fantasy writer Michael Moorcock and adopted equally in games like Warhammer 40k and Peter Carroll's occultist movement Chaos Magick). In its positive sense, chaos is a signpost pointing toward a multitude of possible paths, liberating creative energy rather than confining it.

As far as my own creative work goes, I'll be posting a new video of my Arcana Manor interface on Youtube soon, since I now have working code in the form of drag and drop elements of spell grammar feed into array, as well as a function for matching the changing contents of this array with a database of spells. Using GlovePie, I now have keyboard input controlled by voice, as well as drawing input via the Grafitti bitmap drawing library in Actionscript 3.0. I'm currently working with mouse gesture recognition libraries in order to allow drawing gestures to be fed to the array, thereby making drawing a fully integrated aspect of the interface. 

My work at this point focuses primarily on gui development and control schemes because a magic system is an interface--a symbolic construct laid over the world in order to make something happen. Magic is applied symbology, directed outward as well as inward. It is for this reason that occult practice is more useful to me as a designer than the psychotherapy or comparative mythology of Jung, Eliade, and Campbell. Magic is a practice as well as a theory, a system of symbols whose purpose is the alteration of rule-based reality rather than self-analysis or anthropological speculation. 

One of the places that I'm applying my ideas about magic systems is in teaching within the game development and design major at Dakota State University. In Fall 2010, I'm teaching a class called Game 492: Magic and Combat Systems, in which these blog entries will be part of the suggested reading. Students will design systems of spell-casting and fighting in a variety of different game genres and using an array of tools, with the aim of breaking out of the "tray of icons with cooldown period" approach as well as the "depthless button-mashing" paradigm. In addition, I'm teaching a class on Classical Myth and Media (with emphasis on magic-related topics such as Orpheus, Dionysus, and the mystery religions), as well as a course on level design. Finally, I'm team-teaching the junior-level projects course, in which one team is developing a puzzle adventure game about alchemy. 

In addition to my own creative production and teaching, I'm continuing my research into magic systems, with an extension into magic across media, while keeping my center firmly in games. Some of this research involves looking forward to new magic systems on the horizon, such as the Sorcery game, with its elaborate gestural casting system designed for the PS3 Move, as well as the MMO The Secret World, with its designers' promise of new schools of magic and methods for acquiring magical abilities. I'm interested in any platform with alternate control systems: Kinect, 3DS, Playstation Move, Ipad, Iphone, and Android.

I'm also fascinated by the often-neglected realms of non-digital gaming and gaming history--including CCG's, board games, and miniatures--where games can be stripped down to the bones of their mechanics (and possibly also their metaphysics). My investigation of magic systems is as much an exercise in game archeology as game prognosis, since I'm looking back to the early and middle eras of game design for lost gems that occurred before magic became homogenized and standardized into a single template. 

Just as simulations of magic in non-digital games can help to expose the skeletal structure of digital magic systems, so magic in other media--such as graphic novels, music, and film--can inspire and illuminate magic systems in games. A case in point would be magic in music, especially the genres of black metal and death metal. The occult-themed song "The Grand Conjuration" by Opeth has a down-tuned, double guitar and eerily keyboard-driven melody that almost cries out for a game adaptation: a cry partially answered by an "8-bit Opeth" tune posted on Youtube, to a chorus of comments asking for the accompanying retro NES game. (Part of me wonders if the SNES game Demon's Crest might have been the appropriate game, but 15 years too early.) 

Particular metal songs aside, there could have easily been a blog entry on magic and audio, with emphasis on songs as magical spells in games like Loom and Ocarina of Time. Audio magic extends naturally into cinematic magic systems, such as Mother of Tears, the third installment in Dario Argento's Three Mothers trilogy, which finally grants its protagonist supernatural powers to fight off her witch adversaries. All of these media offer an alternative to the crass popularization of magic in Hogwarts and its ilk, in which the metaphysical imagination degenerates into juvenile fantasy. 

As I've been thinking about how to wrap up this blog series, I've had in my head the motto that Irish poet W.B. Yeats took in the Order of the Golden Dawn: "daemon est deus inversus" (a demon is a god inverted). The possibility of the demonic implies intimations of the sacred, the demonic in the original Greek sense of "daimon" as a guardian spirit. Even the darkest of games gains power not from evil but the spiritual, the awe-inspiring, the energy-charged. The Dark Heresy of Warhammer 40k, the rebellion of Raziel against Kain, or the battle against demons in Demon's Souls are all manifestations of a struggle against the prosaic, the dull, the authority of this world. At their deepest levels, all aspects of magic systems--their grammars, words, gestures, graphics, audio, and metaphysics--speak to the ritual purpose of reaching inward and outward into the furthest planes of our imaginations.  And that's a banner that I'll gladly wave, with the happy assistance of kindred souls like the readers of the Gameshelf.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 7: Arcana Manor


Since this blog series is called "Magick Systems in Theory and Practice," I feel that I should talk about my own practice in terms of concrete design of magic systems. For the past year and a half or so, I've been working on a project tentatively (and perhaps temporarily) titled Arcana Manor

For the sake of consistency, I'll reproduce some of the most recent design document, starting with the game's elevator pitch.

"In Arcana Manor, the player wields a uniquely immersive and symbolic magic system to defeat the demons of a surreal Gothic mansion and unlock its secrets. Arcana Manor is a ceremonial magick simulator with an elaborate system of gestural sigils, incantations, colors, and sounds that makes players feel like true adepts, not mere button-pushers. 

The magic system has these overall goals:

• to let players feel like they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching a character cast them

• to allow players to express and re-configure symbolic ideas differently in order to warp and alter reality, i.e. the system changes and adapts to different players' behaviors and personalities
• to be learnable, in part, through experimentation and trial-and-error so that there will be mystery surrounding the system; while the system is rigorously rule-based, a part of magic should remain magical in the sense of unpredictable, hidden, and knowable only through direct experience.

The conceptual framework of the magic system is based on ideas derived from authentic mystical and occult lore, in which magic is a metaphor for the power of the creative imagination.

• Players cast spells through their mastery of arcane knowledge and the symbolic correspondences of ritual
Aleister Crowley, Liber 777: 'There is a certain natural connexion between certain letters, words, numbers, gestures, shapes, perfumes and so on, so that any idea or (as we might call it) "spirit", may be composed or called forth by the use of those things which are harmonious with it, and express particular parts of its nature.'"

When I first started thinking, working on, and blogging about Arcana Manor, Kevin graciously posted on the Gameshelf a quick synopsis from my home blog,  Early in the process of development and team formation, I also set up a wiki with the game's design documents and concept art.  Much of this information is now outdated as the game's concept has shifted, but some of it still applies.

Arcana Manor started out as a prototype in the Unreal 2 engine, which consisted solely of a small labyrinth of rooms meant to convey a Gothic funhouse of strange winding staircases, treacherous platforms, and walls textured with backwards Tarot cards. The idea was to convey the experience of moving through an architecturally instantiated tarot deck in an action-adventure game with a unique magic system.

As I worked, it soon became apparent that creating a magic system from scratch within the Unreal editor would be extremely difficult. (The designers of Clive Barker's Undying actually did so, but only through a large team of artists, as well as programmers with expensive source code access--which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per seat on the project).

So I decided to move to a less expensive and more flexible indie engine: the Torque Game Engine Advanced, a relatively cheap non-commercial license of which gives access to source code. The Torque Game Engine Advanced allowed me to create more customized levels with my own textures and 3d models, culminating in a 3d version of the kabbalistic tree of life, with the branches or sephiroth marked by appropriate Hebrew letters and Golden Dawn attributions of hovering major arcana tarot cards. 

Arcana Manor didn't fully hit its development swing until I started using the gui editor to create my own custom interface for spellcasting. The interface that I developed reflected all of the theories that I've described in earlier blog posts about spell grammars and symbolic correspondences, and creating the interface actually refined these theories considerably. The player dials in a spell through a complex set of revolving tarot wheels derived from an Iphone interface, as well as a radial set of buttons distributed along a hexagram.

I like the look and feel of this interface because it conveys the feeling of the magic system that I'm going for, but there is little backend code to make the system work consistently as a method of spellcasting. Furthermore, the Torque gui editor is not very flexible, so writing such code was a maze of C++ modification and scripting, the cost of which far outweighed its benefits. (I also began an academic year of teaching four classes a semester, which brought my own game development to a temporary halt.)

Halfway through the following summer (i.e. this one), I switched to Flash because of its flexibility of interface development, and I starting learning GlovePie (a program for alternative input methods, such as WiiMotes, P5 Virtual Reality gloves, the Novint Falcon force feedback controller, and the Emotiv EEG reader). Flash development entailed study of Actionscript 3.0 using Gary Rosenzweig's excellent book Actionscript 3.0 Game Programming University. Anybody interested in a blow-by-blow account of my slow migration to Flash and GlovePie, as well as the current progress of Arcana Manor, can check out my twitter feed: @arcanamanor. I ended up separating the interface of the magic system from the background game, enabling me to focus on two-dimensional art assets and a gui with a working back end.

The current interface consists of a drag-and-drop set of tarot cards, gems, and Enochian letters that can be placed on three targets in order to form three-element combinations that constitute various spells. Most of my Actionscript 3.0 programming has focused on enabling the drag-and-drop functionality and developing a set of arrays that track spell input, store it in an array, and then matching each element of the array as well as the completed array against a database of spells. To make this work, I had to write a function to match individual elements as well as a function to compare arrays against a multidimensional array. My colleague in the DSU game design program, Steven Graham, generously helped me tweak and edit this code to make it fully functional tonight.

There is still a lot of work to be done to match up with the vision of multimodal input and corresponding multimodal feedback at the heart of this project. I've summed that vision up in a long series of design documents, which I will post in a subsequent blog entry, along with more videos, links, images, and descriptions. But I hope that this entry gives a taste of what I'm up to and how I'm putting the theory of magic systems into practice, one step at a time.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 6: Metaphysics and Mechanics

A magic system is the sum total of its mechanics, interface, visual art, audio, narrative, and mythology, because a game is defined by its experience and experience consists in all of these components. Since a magic system simulates the alteration of reality by the will through the agency of metaphysical forces, all of the components of a magic system (such as visuals and audio) should ideally be pervaded by the metaphysics that the system is designed to simulate. Yet, a magic system that pushes its metaphysics to the peripheries of its art style and narrative is taking the easy way out, with the result that hardcore players will tend to ignore what they regard as mere flavor and fluff in favor of the mechanics through which they can gain concrete strategic advantage. A designer who aims to enrich her magic system through the introduction of metaphysical profundity will want to unify metaphysics and mechanics so that the understanding of esoteric concepts will improve a given player's ability to succeed in the game. Then, the hardcore gamers will tend to have the greatest, deepest grasp of the game's metaphysics because they stand to benefit most from such a comprehension.


How, then, could mechanics and metaphysics be intertwined? The conjunction between the rules and affordance of a game with its philosophical implications can sometimes best be observed in non-digital games, in which the skeleton of mechanics tend to be unobscured by moving graphics and sound. One example of intertwined metaphysics and mechanics is *Nephilim*, the French game of "occult roleplaying" alluded to in last week's blog entry.

Among *Nephilim*'s many interesting mechanics is a modifier that changes the effect of a given spell according to the astrological signs associated with hours and days of the week as they interact with various elemental correspondences. The system is sufficiently complex that a Game Master's Veil (i.e. screen) includes a pentagram-shaped dial with windows that can be placed over a complex astrological table in order to calculate the modifier every time that a spell is cast. The astrological modifier and its expression through a concrete tool of turn-by-turn gameplay is one example of a metaphysical system of celestial influence and its conjunction with a game mechanic.

The word "conjunction" is not coincidental, since one of the most concrete ways to express a cosmology as a game mechanic is through the simulation of heavenly bodies and their mystical influences. Ever since the moongates of the Ultima series, in which the phase of the moon determined the destination of a teleport spell, the magic systems of some games have incorporated a calculation of celestial influence. One notable example are the games in the Dragonlance *campaign setting, which features three moons (white, black, and red) associated with three gods (Nuitari, Solinari, and Lunitari) and three alignments (good, evil, neutral). 


Mages of a given alignment have access to a specific set of schools of magic (black mages, for example, are the only magic users able to cast necromancy spells) and receive positive and negative modifiers depending on the phase of the three moons. The moon-based system of phases and modifiers is implemented in both the tabletop rules for the Dragonlance setting as well as some of the CRPG's based on this setting, such as Champions of Krynn.  The cosmology has been deemed of sufficient interest to at least one writer, Darren Bellisle, that he took it upon himself to calculate the exact trajectories of the moons using scientifically accurate astronomical formulas.  The moons of Krynn and their associated magic systems take place within a larger astronomical and cosmological context in which the constellations represent a genealogy of gods, visualized as a family tree that closely resembles the Greek and Roman theogonies. By now, the association of gods with colors and schools of magic resonates with accumulated examples of the deities, runes, and colors of Eternal Darkness and Warhammer. The specific use of moons to provide magical modifiers also appears in the richly complex and mythologically-infused Shin Megamei Tensei meta-franchise.

A further example of the relationship between mechanics and metaphysics is Enochian chess, an esoterically-charged, four-handed chess variant practiced in the upper levels of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a ritual magic group in Victorian England. Enochian chess takes its name from Elizabethan astrologer and mathematician John Dee's system of magic based on communication with angels through an angelic alphabet and associated language. The gameplay of Enochian chess is patterned off Chatturanga, a four-player Indian precursor to chess, but the four sets of pieces in Enochian chess are four groups of Egyptian gods associated with each of the classical elements. Enochian chess is designed to be a summation and synthesis of the entire Golden Dawn esoteric teachings, which involved the adept's balancing of the four elements in her own personality and the outside world. Consequently, capturing a piece in Enochian chess requires a player to maneuver all four elemental incarnations of a given piece, such as a bishop, into a single square--after which all four versions of the piece disappear.

Thus far, metaphysics and mechanics are closely aligned: the capturing mechanic simulates the balancing and sublimation of the elemental forces. When the four Enochian chess boards are examined, however, an unsatisfying rift opens between mechanic and metaphysics. The Enochian chess boards are masterpieces of compressed symbolic correspondences, in which each square displays corresponding tarot, alchemical, geomantic, astrological, and Enochian attributions.


These boards are patterned on the four Enochian Watchtowers: matrices of Enochian symbols, English letters, and elemental attributions arranged through intricate configurations of pyramids. But whereas the Enochian tablets constitute a generative matrix designed to produce sacred names of power, the Enochian chess boards have no direct affect on play. (Arguably, the boards serve a secondary and tertiary function as cosmological teaching tools and divinatory aids--functions which might be considered as levels of gameplay. The attributions on the boards matter because the spaces over which the pieces move indicate an answer to a question about the future posed prior to the game. I'm also currently unable to test to what extent strategy in Enochian chess correlates with metaphysical propositions about strategically useful esoteric conjunctions, i.e. whether capturing pieces becomes more feasible from a gameplay perspective in particularly charged nexi. The relevant documents about the rules of Enochian chess can be read in a late chapter of Israel Regardie's Golden Dawn as well as Chris Zalewski's book, Enochian Chess of the Golden Dawn).

Nephilim, the moons of Krynn, and Enochian chess all represent varying levels of integration between the metaphysics and the mechanics of magic systems. The movement from esoteric system to game rules is a two-way street, in which the inherently systemic structure of occultist practice organically evolves into gameplay even while games aspire to the characteristics of spiritual practice. However, each of these games is still only an approximation, a stab in the dark at the Platonic ideal of metaphysically resonant games, which might be represented by Herman Hesse's imaginary Glass Bead Game in his novel of the same title. Though the book is rife with complexities and ironies about the nature of Hesse's metaphor for intellectual inquiry, the narrator rhapsodizes about the metaphysical ramifications of this encyclopedic game, which weaves together all fields of knowledge according to principles of musical counterpoint. As Hesse's narrator explains, 

 I suddenly realized that in the language, or at any rate in the spirit of the Glass Bead Game, everything actually was all-meaningful, that every symbol and combination of symbols led not hither and yon, not to single examples, experiments, and proofs, but into the center, the mystery and innermost heart of the world, into primal knowledge. Every transition from major to minor in a sonata, every transformation of a myth or a religious cult, every classical or artistic formulation was, I realized in that flashing moment, if seen with truly a meditative mind, nothing but a direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery, where in the alternation between inhaling and exhaling, between heaven and earth, between Yin and Yang, holiness is forever being created.

As designers of magic systems, we may not be able to create the Glass Bead Game (though some designers have tried), but we can reach toward some approximation of its sublime richness if we strive toward the "chemical marriage" of metaphysics and mechanics.  In next week's entry, I'll demonstrate one small step that I'm making toward these goals in my own design work.  

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 5: Magic Systems and Metaphysics

This week's blog entry is about magic systems and metaphysics--a topic which is to some extent a natural extension of last week's discussion of magic and horror, which introduced the representation of the supernatural as a defining trait of magic systems. This week's entry actually proceeds out of two coincidental occurrences: one is that I've been playing Magic: The Gathering [1993], Richard Garfield's famed collectible card game about dueling magicians, at lunch. This week I also happened to check out the web site for the game, where I was surprised to find text with a certain amount of metaphysical profundity and beauty.

The current expansion of Magic: The Gathering continues to develop the theme of Planeswalkers. In the mythos of Magic, each player is a Planeswalker, a dimension-hopping magician who duels with other mages by casting spells and summoning creatures. Planeswalkers are also a card type that functions somewhat similarly to an extra player or ally, with the ability to cast spells and summon creatures in addition to those cast or summoned by the player. 

The website's description of a Planeswalker is quite striking and poetic, as in this excerpt:

a planeswalker's life is consumed with the exploration of the Multiverse, the discovery of strange secrets and experiences, and the plumbing of the depths of one's own mystic soul.  The life of a planeswalker is a life of choice and self-determination, unrestricted by the boundaries of world or fate. With the freedom to travel and the power of magic, each planeswalker has the power to carve his or her name on the face of history

This description compellingly evokes the life of an adept and an initiate, guided by a triad of mastery, enlightenment, and imaginative travel. The devotion to an exploration of the multiverse echoes long-standing esoteric drive toward astral travel, fueled by an ethos of imaginative exploration that would render the Planeswalker a "mental traveler," in the words of William Blake. Moreover, this flavor text conjoins metaphysical ideas about astral travel with a metaphor for the lifestyle of a hardcore gamer, conceived of as existentially free and engaged with a number of different worlds rather than the single consensual reality of real life (or "RL"). Moreover, the trope of the Planeswalker takes its place within a larger cosmology involving the possession of an inner spiritual "spark" and its awakening through epiphanic enlightenment, often triggered by trauma. This imagery is based on certain strands of Gnostic belief, as described in Hans Jonas' classic Gnostic Religion and scattered throughout popular culture, including the novels of Philip K. Dick and the comic books of Alan Moore.

The strongest magic systems are those that can accommodate a simulation of metaphysics overlaps with and reinforces similar fictions. Continuing with my definitional iterations and revisions, a magic system can now be defined as a set of rules and symbols designed to simulate the alteration of reality by the exertion of the will operating through the agency of a metaphysical force. So what is metaphysics? By definition, that which is beyond the physical. This word is more accurate and inclusive than the similarly-charged term supernatural; metaphysical acknowledges nature-oriented magic (druidism, Wicca, the green side of the color pie) without being restricted to it (since playing with only green mana or druids would result in monotony and a lack of balance).

Is metaphysics just the story surrounding magic in a given game world, its lore? No. Metaphysics is the experience of magic, expressed through its mechanics, visual art, audio, interface, and control scheme. Those magic systems are strongest which can accommodate the richest, most mysterious, interactive experience of metaphysics.  

Such an experience does not have to be digital.  In addition to Magic: The GatheringMage: The Ascension [first edition 1993] and Mage: The Awakening [2005] are quintessentially concerned with the metaphysical implications of magic.  Both of these table-top RPG's, set within the same World of Darkness as Vampire: The Masquerade, attempt to render through game mechanics the theme of altering reality through one's perception of it. Consequently, both games feature highly flexible, free-form magic systems that are difficult to express in strict quantitative terms.


Magic within the World of Darkness succeeds to the extent that it can counter the benighted complacency of the Sleepers, ordinary human beings in the grip of consensus reality. Taking a cue from Thomas Kuhn's Theory of Scientific RevolutionsMage relies on the magician's ability to shift the prevailing paradigm, or belief system that structures reality, into his own paradigm. An excessively overt display of vulgar magic violating the prevailing paradigm will result in a backlash called paradox. While Mage does include general categories of magic called spheres as well as levels of power and their relative cost, it eschews strict spell tables and purely dice-based mechanics. The success of a spell (or even the allowability of a given invented spell made up by a particular player) depends upon the acceptance of the Storyteller (Game Master) and the other players. This reliance on the subjective opinion literalizes the notion of consensus reality and paradigm, implying that the most successful players are those most able to convince others to bend rules and accept the existence of new ones. 

Because of this prominent subjective element, the magic system of Mage is extremely hard to implement digitally without reducing or oversimplifying it, though attempts have been made in WodMod, a mod of the Vampire: The Masquerade--Redemption engine to allow for other characters and settings from the World of Darkness, including Mage. Nonetheless, Mage offers one potential answer to a question often raised about how to implement my ideas about magic systems within a multiplayer setting. Latency issues and differing levels of skill among players in an MMO might make changes in interface and alternate controllers risky within such a context, which is part of the reason that my entries tend to focus on single-player console and PC games in which online features are supplementary. However, the most unique feature of a multiplayer game that could be turned to the advantage of magic systems would be the ability of players to improvise socially by judging a particular spell to be acceptable or unacceptable. To be implemented digitally as a mechanic, this feature might be a hybrid of the spheres and power levels from Mage with a conversation-based voting system. 

Ultimately, however, the genius of Mage stems less from its multi-player element and more from the exhaustive research with which its designers have enriched it, making the Mage sourcebooks (much like the flavor text of Magic: The Gathering) a joy to read. The Mage designers have read deeply in the Golden Dawn, Thelemic magick, alchemy, freemasonry, Jungian thought, tarot, and Chaos Magick.  For example, Chaos Magick, as espoused in the writings of Peter Carroll such as Liber Null and Psychonaut, involves the deliberate shifting of the magician's belief systems in order to alter reality. 

The intersection of actual esoteric systems with games raises the spectre of the condemnation of Dungeons and Dragons for supposedly teaching occult beliefs. In order to dodge these accusations, the writers of a game like Mage feel compelled to include caveats that distance their game systems from occult practice, often in the same breath as acknowledging the inspiration provided by occult thought.  Nowhere are these paradoxes so pronounced as in Nephilim [1992], a French system now published by Chaosium, which advertises itself in its subtitle as "occult roleplaying." 

465px-Nephilim_RPG_Front_Cover.jpgNephilim acknowledges a Wiccan high priest named Donald H. Frew as its lead consultant, who contributes the following endorsement, "In over 20 years of studying the western Mystery Tradition and playing roleplaying games, I have never before encountered a game system that so skillfully blends real-world occult knowledge with an exciting and compelling roleplaying game." Despite the endorsements (or because of them), Nephilim features a caveat spread over two pages, which read "This game is not real" (on the first page) and "You are" (on the second page). 

Such a warning begs the question of why the designers would go to such exhaustive research if the game is not real? Surely part of the drive toward research involved creating a sense of authenticity and mood. The second part of the warning ("you are") also becomes a tacit acknowledgement of real-world lessons for the player, perhaps originating from the conviction that experience is experience, whether simulated or real. Indeed, the insistence on an uncrossable rift between reality and make-believe must surely be ironic, taken with a grain of salt, in games whose primary theme is the irreality of the apparently real, the blurring of the line between reality and fantasy.

At the heart of the most compelling magic systems is a cosmology in which another world or worlds lurks just beyond the veil of the visible. In Mage, the power of spells ultimately comes from a shadow-plane called the Umbra, much as in some versions of D & D cosmology spells are powered by energy from the negative and positive material planes. Andrew Plotkin recently and drolly mentioned the frequent environmental spell type of "transform world into creepy and distorted version of itself," as seen in the Soul Reaver games. Yet, the presence of such spells suggests a powerful relationship between magic and transcendence in games, in which magic is an energy drawn from elsewhere, the beyond, the netherworld. 

Digital games, with their compelling representation of virtual space, can allow access to a simulation of transcendence Dragon Age [2009] does an excellent job of dramatizing the magician's astral voyage into the surreal dream world of the Fade, from which all magic arises. Demon's Souls [2009] creates a profound metaphysical mystery around the Nexus, the hub between all worlds within which all soul power converges. The metaphysical mysteries of these games are at the heart of their mechanics; to fail the riddles of the Fade is to die, and to understand the currency of souls that flows through the Nexus is the only chance of survival in the world of Boletaria. 

Other game mechanics (shooting, throwing a basketball, running, jumping) require only a physics system to implement, which can be imitated more or less directly from the Newtonian physics of our 21st century consensual reality, with allowances made for superhuman powers and the Relativistic or Quantum warping of Portal and Alan Wake. Magic, however, is a mechanic that requires not a physics system but a coherent and engaging metaphysics to succeed as simulation.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 3: Schools of Magic

The definition of a magic system introduced in installment one could be sharpened from "any set of rules designed to simulate supernatural powers and abilities" to "any set of rules and symbols designed to simulate the alteration of reality through the will." This definition echoes Crowley's first axiom from Magick in Theory and Practice ("magic is the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will"), though it can apply to games without requiring designers to buy into any particular philosophical scheme.  Rather, an appreciation of magic requires only a little reflection on the profound mystery of the will: by deciding to do something, we can make it happen. For example, we focus our will to pick up a glass of water at lunch, and we do pick it up. Magic is an extension of similar taken-for-granted acts of will into a more profound longing: to control not just our immediate surroundings through the direct use of our body, but to shape nature, technology, other human beings, and the spirit world through the force of the will.

hereirule.jpgPerhaps most specifically, the fascination with magic stems from a desire to guide and shape the forces that govern the course of our individual human lives. The exercise of will to create change in life is murky and difficult, thwarted as it often is by forces both internal and external beyond our control. But in games, there is the potential of mastery, of understanding rules and then manipulating them through strategy in order to achieve a desired outcome. "Here I rule" is the marketing slogan of Magic: The Gathering, a declaration often accompanied by depictions of a skinny adolescent smirking confidently while surrounded by the fearsome monsters. As gamers, many of us identify with that sentiment.

As magic systems in games evolve, various forms of alteration of reality become formalized into types or "schools" of magic to categorize the ways in which players can alter a simulated reality. 


As early as 1976, Gary Gygax reflected on the varied possible effects of spells in his article "The D & D Magic System":

Spells do various things, and just what they do is an important consideration, for some order of effect in regard to the game would have to be determined. Magic purports to have these sorts of effects: 1) the alteration of existing substance (including its transposition or dissolution); 2) the creation of new substance; 3) the changing of normal functions of mind and/or body; 4) the addition of new functions to mind and/or body; 5) summon and/or command existing entities; and 6) create new entities. In considering these functions, comparatively weak and strong spells could be devised from any one of the six. Knowing the parameters within which the work was to be done then enabled the creation of the system.

Schools of magic evolve through the history of first-generation CRPG's such as The Bard's Tale and Wizardry until they solidify into a fairly uniform set of spell effects, with variations in individual spell possibilities from game to game. For example, the classic Bard's Tale (1985) divides magic into four schools: conjuring (damage and production of magical items), sorcery (illusion), magic (lingering spell effects), and wizardry (summoning creatures). As a relatively recent culmination of basic RPG magic schools (and of the single-player Western RPG generally), The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) offers a strong contemporary baseline for the possibilties of spell effects. Like Oblivion as a whole, the magic system is smoothly implemented and richly complex, if firmly grounded in the history of RPG's and not particularly original.

Oblivion features six schools: Destruction (damage), Alteration (buffing), Illusion (sensory deceptions like invisibility and silence), Conjuration (summoning creatures, especially daedra), Restoration (healing), and Mysticism (harnessing unusual telekinetic effects and the ability to detect life by lighting up all living creatures on the map). The fascination of the school of mysticism in Oblivion suggests that magic systems can be most interesting from a gameplay perspective when they incorporate as many of the game's mechanics and systems as possible, rather than restricting themselves to combat or character statistics. This extension of magic beyond combat and healing (or its enmeshment with more sophisticated combat systems) requires clever programming to implement.

Based on a historical consideration of magic systems, common schools of magic, present in almost any RPG, include:

• Damage;

• Healing;

• Buffing (raising stats of character or item);

• Summoning;

Less common schools include:

 • Telekinesis;

 • Architecture (opening, closing, moving, building);

 • Sight (or insight);

 • Teleportation (especially interdimensional);

 • Mapping and navigation;

 • Illusion and dispelling illusion;

One problem with magic systems, especially those focused on damage and healing, is a tendency to rely on a simplistic cosmology based on the four classical elements of the ancient Greeks (earth, air, water, and fire). MMO's abound in fire and ice mages, as well as an endless parade of wizards, druids, and shamans who manipulate the powers of the four elements. Even obscure cult classics lauded by their devotees for innovative customizable spell systems (such as Magic and Mayhem: The Art of Magic [2001] and The Dawn of Magic [2005]) end up falling back on combinations of the four elements, sometimes with light and darkness or chaos and order thrown in for good measure. While this cosmology can result in many flashy damage spells with stunning particle effects and explosions, it is a reduction of human experience that soon seems routine rather than enchanted. The experience of fire and water are certainly primal and compelling, as anyone who has witnessed a forest blaze or an ocean tempest can attest. Yet, both in day to day life and the furthest flights of our imaginations, we do more than admire campfires and swim; consequently, in simulated magic we should do more than throw fireballs and iceblasts.

In contrast to this simplification of reality down to four physical elements, schools of magic eventually evolve into or intersect with a larger cosmological ambition of mapping out reality. Pragmatic considerations of how to simulate alterations of reality leads to philosophical reflection on what aspects of reality can be altered, resulting in a kind of metaphysical taxonomy.

To display these abstract concepts in ways that are easily graspable for use in gameplay, designers often assign symbolic colors to schools of magic.
Examples include:

• The color pie in Magic: The Gathering (1993);



magiccolorpie.jpg• The eight winds of magic in Warhammer (both tabletop[1987] and online[2008]);


warhammerwindsofmagic.jpg • In Eternal Darkness (2002), the colors associated with the runic magick of the three Ancients (as well as a hidden purple rune, and an implied yellow school of magick discussed by Denis Dyack in The Escapist)


 • The colors of magic corresponding to the spheres of magic in Mage: The Ascension (1993) 1. Correspondence: Purple 2. Life: Red 3. Prime: White 4. Entropy: Indigo 5. Matter: Brown 6. Spirit: Gold 7. Forces: Orange 8. Mind: Blue 9. Time: Green


• The nine colored pillars of Nosgoth in Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996) and their associated spheres of "Death, Conflict, States, Energy, Time, Dimension, Nature, Mind, and Balance"


pillarsofnosgoth3.jpgIn all of these examples, the cosmology simulated or implied by the schools of magic substantially richer and more complex than the four elements or the opposition of law and chaos. Symbolic color also resonates with a deep-seated human association between mood and color (which results in entire design classes on color theory), as well as occultist tendency to assign esoteric meaning to color (as in the King and Queen scales of the Golden Dawn and their display in tarot as well as the Rosicrucian-inspired Vault of the Adepti).

vaultoftheadepti.jpgThe metaphysical taxonomy of reality in magic systems occurs to varying degrees of depth, ranging from flavor text in small or large amounts [the backs of Magic: The Gathering cards exemplify short flavor text, while the codexes/codices in Dragon Age contain more elaborate philosophical ruminations] to deep integration with gameplay. As such, these metaphysical mappings of reality tend resemble both tarot and kabbalistic mappings of the universe in the tree of life, which in the Golden Dawn system has many associated attributions of colors, tarot cards, and other elements.

At this point, magic begins to intersect with planar lore: specifically, the idea of a multiverse with many different dimensions or planes, a notion derived from many realms of mysticism, including the Theosophic lore of Madam Blavatsky (in which the particular term "plane" gains popularity). (As for multiverse, the word shows up in the philosophical writings of Henry James and is later popularized in the Eternal Champion saga of Michael Moorcock). The first meeting of the planes and magic appear in Dungeons and Dragons supplements, such as The Manual of the Planes (1987) and the Planescape campaign. The principle of planar magic is that "belief and imagination rule the multiverse," so that one's philosophical outlook can directly shape physical reality if those beliefs are held with sufficient strength. The planar cosmology results in a radial diagram called the Great Wheel, whose dimensions do correlate with the various alignment possibilities of the D & D moral universe. While the permutations of "lawful," "chaotic," "good," "evil," and "neutral" are in their own way as limited as the four elements, the factions of Planescape are philosophically nuanced and sophisticated, representing the dense concepts of solipsism (the Sign of One) and anarchism (the Xaosects).

great-wheel.jpgSimilarly, in Magic: The Gathering, dueling magicians called Planeswalkers gain their different colors of mana from multiple planes of existence in the multiverse. Magic's colors bear a superficial relation to three out of the four elements (red = fire, green = earth, blue = water). Yet, the five colors of mana represent a more abstract and nuanced set of human experiences. According to the official released color pie and the official site of Magic, the following color correspondences apply:

 • Red = chaos and impulse

• Green = life and growth

• Blue = deception, calculation, and illusion

• Black = ambition and power

• White = order and justice

Magic: The Gathering is relatively unique in that its multi-colored schools of magic manifest primarily through gameplay and are only reinforced through flavor text and images.  For example, as the school of ambition and control, black magic entails seeking mastery of the game at any cost, resulting in a mechanic of sacrifice in which black strategically gives up any resource (creatures, mana, life points, graveyard cards) in order to gain an advantage. As the school of freedom and impulse, red magic involves a mechanic of quickly doing damage that either gains a decisive advantage early or loses within a few rounds.

Passing beyond the colored schools of magic is the dark, often forbidden school of blood kaedesmithbloodmagic.pngmagic, which appears in many games as one example of how to push outside the constraints of elemental damage and law versus chaos cosmology. Blood Magic often shows up in horror-themed games, sometimes vampiric and at other times simply Gothic. All of the magic in Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption (2000) involves ghoulish varieties of blood magic, as does the similarly-themed Gothic vampire game Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain (1996). Blood Magic also shows up as a hidden school in Dragon Age. In each case, blood magic involves especially gory and disturbing varieties of RPG gameplay, ranging from gory damage and restoration spells to mental manipulation powered by human sacrifice.

However, the two most striking implementations of blood magic appear in the cult Killer7 and the horror-themed squad-based shooter, Jericho (2007). In Killer7, Kaede Smith, a svelte and ferocious beauty with a Gothic pallor, slits her own arms to release a spray of blood, which is then channeled by a phantom bondage queen in order to dissolve barriers. Kaede Smith's blood magic opens barriers, both literal and metaphorical, by using her trauma to see beyond the apparently solid limitations of the physical world as experienced by the other six assassin personalities. The metaphorical element of breaking through barriers is more strongly highlighted in a game that foregrounds its own preoccupation with transcendent insight through imagery of a third eye, including a health meter on the HUD which is itself a gradually opening and closing eye.  (In Killer7, blood magic is part of a larger (and highly taboo) thematic preoccupation with disability and sadomasochism. Harman Smith, an assassin whose participation in a game of cosmic chess borders on godlike, is also a wheelchair-bound masochist who alternates dispensation of Zen-like wisdom with dominatrix sessions at the hands of young woman doubling as his maid.)

A similar character appears in Clive Barker's Jericho in the form of Billie Church, a Blood Mage. Jericho is an enjoyably horrific game whose squad-based AI is somewhat broken, but this one element of magic in its paranormal squad-based arsenal is powerfully successful. Billie is a lapsed Southern Baptist, abused by her father and institutionalized in an insane asylum, where demons carved biblical verses into her flesh. In gameplay, she uses her katana to carve glyphs in her arms, which then explode into tendrils and bulbs of blood, enwrapping and immobilizing enemies, who can then be sliced to ribbons or blown to bits. Like Kaede Smith, Billie makes a sacrifice of her most precious life fluid for insight, in a maneuver that Barker calls (in other contexts) "using the wound"--a deliberate exploitation of debilitation and trauma as paradoxical means of shamanic enlightenment.

billiechurchbloodmagic.jpgBarker's use of blood magic parallels his own attempts as a designer to expand and deepen the variety of spell effects, seen perhaps more effectively in the cult horror classic FPS Undying (2001). Undying features a scry spell that allows players to see beyond the veil into hidden sights, such as apparitions and messages scrawled in blood. As Barker memorably and humorously explains:

Undying is about being smarter, faster, cleverer, and a better magician than a gunslinger. It's about magic. The idea of scrying--seeing things you normally can't see--is very interesting. Much more interesting than a f_g big gun. We've seen that stuff before. I think that's had its day. I think as the new millennium has dawned, we are in a different kind of space. We think more spiritually, we think more about magic and transformation. We think more about the self rather than how many guns we can muster. I'm not saying that Undying is a metaphysical treatise, but its heart is not in the big gun territory.

The presence of innovative spells in games like Undying and Killer7 suggests that in order to expand the diversity of useful spell effects and schools of magic, we need to look outside of the RPG genre into other genres that sometimes simulate magic, like survival horror, first-person shooters, strategy games, and action-adventure games.

Game genre shapes game world, which dictates the affordances and limitations of spellcasting, i.e. what is possible in magic and what is useful. In next week's installment, I will examine some of these game genres, with particular attention to magic and horror, and what they have to teach us as designers of magic systems.

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Magick Systems in Theory and Practice, Installment 2: Word and Gesture as Input Methods in Gaming History

Gestural input is to some extent inherent in the language of magic, as seen in the phrases to "cast a spell" and to "weave an enchantment." The fantasy of weaving magic can be vividly seen on the cover of LucasArt's Loom (1990), in which two hands weave a glowing cat's cradle out of multi-colored light. (While Loom lacked any kind of gestural interface, its unique mode of musical spellcasting and melodic feedback will figure heavily into a later blog entry on multimodal feedback and audio magic.) Gesture is also an integral part of occultist approaches to magic, ranging from the pentagrams and hexagrams traced in the rituals of the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magick, the sigils drawn by Austin Osman Spare and Buddhist kuji-in mudras later adapted in the ninja-themed anime series Naruto.


Closely related to the idea of gestural magic is the verbal component of spell-casting, which appears in colloquial speech as a magic word. From David Copperfield to Harry Potter and the 2010 Sorcerer's Apprentice remake, the image of a wizard waving a wand and intoning a word in order to release a powerful magic spell pervades public consciousness of enchantment. Magic words are a direct extension of the arcane grammars that govern ritual and the combinatorial systems of runic languages discussed in the first installment of this blog series. Voice recognition software, now a standard part of Windows and readily available in more precise programs such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, could heighten the immersive possibilities of incantation as a spellcasting method.

abracadabra.gifGestural input, in which players use a variety of input devices to trace symbols or fashion other secret signs with hands and body, is also especially relevant from a technological perspective after the 2010 E3 unveiling of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly project Natal) and the Playstation Move. These devices offer new levels of motion sensing technology, in addition to existing alternative input methods in the Wiimote and Wiimotion Plus, the Playstation Eye, and the force-feedback controls offered by the Novint Falcon. Each technology could be leveraged for new methods of casting spells, provided that designers can break out of the prevailing tray-of-icons approach to magic represented in many popular RPG's.

Envisioning the most creative use of new gestural and verbal technologies requires, paradoxically, an enterprise of game archeology, looking back into the history of games with magic in a search for hidden gems of unusual interfaces and input methods. Retro gaming and scholarship of retro games can offer a perspective on magic systems before they hardened into a single mold and became homogenized by marketing and ease of use or implementation.

Magic systems in modern gaming begin with early tabletop role-playing. Gary Gygax, in the "The Dungeons and Dragons Magic System," explains that there are four components to spells in his system: somatic, verbal, material, and psychological (which he reduces to mnemonic). In this article and another entitled "Jack Vance and the D&D Game," Gygax also refers to this system as "Vancian" because of Jack Vance's "Dying Earth" fantasy book series, in which magicians memorize a limited number of spells and trigger them through a gesture and word, after which the spells are promptly forgotten and must be re-memorized. The verbal component takes predominance in D & D because tabletop role-playing games are played verbally, through conversational exchange between players and DM. Other elements seem to be thought of by Gygax as present for the purpose of game balance, as when he implies that the gestural system ensures that a magician couldn't cast a spell if he were wrapped in webs or that a magic mouth couldn't be used to cast spells by proxy.

dungeonmaster.jpgThe verbal component of magic is a powerful fantasy and a metaphor for the way that language can shape the human understanding of reality. When a stage magician speaks "abracadabra" and waves a wand in order to conjure a rabbit from a hat, the magician is tapping into a primal fantasy of ultimate power: we have only to speak, and our words will have an immediate physical effect. This belief in the mystical power of language is also the impulse behind the elaborate meditations on letter and word that constitute the esoteric system of the kabbalah.

The problem with the verbal component of magic as enacted within tabletop role-playing is that this component is not performative, or rather it is performative only one step removed from gameplay. The player says "I am casting a spell," and it is understood that the player-character is reciting a complex incantation that was memorized from a spellbook. However, the player never utters the incantation (or makes the gesture or handles the ingredients). He only declares that he is going to do so: a speech act that is accepted or rejected by the Dungeon Master and other players if it conforms to the game's rules. (A later tabletop role-playing game, Ars Magica (1987), actually does require players to master a Latinate grammar in order to cast spells, though this magical grammar appears in tabletop games only after similar systems appear in computer RPG's like Dungeon Master).

Missing from tabletop RPG's is the element of simulation provided by computers, the feeling of performing magic within a multimedia environment designed to reinforce that fantasy rather than merely announcing that one is casting a spell and relying on the shared imagination of one's comrades. Early attempts at simulating magic in computer games relied heavily on a verbal component, but of a different kind derived from player interaction with a text parser.

256px-Enchanter_game_box_cover.jpgBy introducing the text parser with its underlying grammar, game designers begin to address another problem with the Vancian system, in which magic is rote: a litany, a pre-memorized recitation or a single word. If magicians study for years, and if their magic is an arcane art known only by a few, then where is the skill or art of memorizing a pre-defined speech? Those who have mastered an art or a science understand its underlying principles well enough to be able to apply them spontaneously. Fluency in a language entails a mastery of its vocabulary and underlying grammar such that the speaker can produce new utterances rather than merely copying those heard before. Indeed, the generative nature of grammar allows speakers to express ideas never envisioned by those who originally developed and codified the language. If magic is a grammar, then mastery of that grammar is displayed through the ability to adapt its structures to novel situations. The text parsers of interactive fiction were in some ways well adapted toward inviting such grammatical interactions; indeed, an interactive fiction is in part an object-oriented simulation explorable through exchanges governed by the rules of grammar. The text parser of Colossal Cave Adventure accepts the famed magic word XYZZY, thereby allowing players to experience the verbal component of magic as a simulation, albeit a simple one.

 Infocom's Spellbreaker trilogy, consisting of Enchanter, Sorcerer, and Spellbreaker, entails a magical grammar, in which spells are verbs that take direct objects, allowing players to type "frotz stone" to make a stone glow or "blorb chest" to open this locked container. Frotz and Blorb are names for, respectively, an interactive fiction interpreter and a wrapper for multimedia elements. While amusing, this application of the names of in-game spells to the programming and technology outside of and supporting the game also suggests a powerful relationship between programming and the verbal grammars of magic. Simply put, programmers and magicians both master a grammar in order to make things happen. Both hackers and wizards achieve this alteration of reality, whether simulated or real, through an arcane set of words and phrases known as programs or spells. When properly configured, a program causes amazing events to occur (calculates our taxes, launches an anti-missile defense system, summons a longed-for package from to our doorstep), just as magicians can throw fireballs and (when very powerful) grant wishes. However, when the programmer makes the slightest error in the placement of a semicolon or case sensitivity, the program won't compile, much as a spell fizzles.

In the case of the Spellbreaker trilogy, the games' designers consciously drew upon these parallels between magic and programming As Wikipedia explains "There are references scattered throughout Enchanter's documentation and gameplay comparing the use of spells by mages to the use of command line interfaces by programmers, and comparing mages to hackers in general. Many of the spell names, such as FROTZ and GNUSTO, are taken from MIT hacker slang of the time" (Wikipedia "Enchanter" ). There is a strong element of meta-magic and self-referentiality in this spell system, since the magic used to attain supernatural result within the game is patterned on the very methods used to create the game itself. Other text-based magic systems include the early Ultima games, such as Ultima IV , in which players type the names of spells into text parsers. Players also control a text-based inventory of spell elements, called reagents, which they mix in the correction proportion in order to alchemically prepare a spell.

Though these text-based magic systems are fascinating, they leave out a sense of visual interaction and movement.  When we imagine a magician casting a spell, we see him waving his hands in complex patterns while bolts of electricity arc from his hands. It is here that the intersection of grammar and gesture occurs. While Black and White (2001) may be the first gestural interface used for magic, the designers of The Summoning (1993) attempted to simulate gestural spellcasting through a set of hand gestures that could be combined to store spells. These hand gestures resemble the finger alphabet of American Sign Language, as well as the magical gestures made by Aleister Crowley or the kuji-in.

aleister-crowleygestures.jpg This form of spell-casting involves an implicit pun on the two meanings of "spell" as in "incantation with magical force" and "to form a word out of letters." If a grimoire is etymologically and conceptually linked to a magical grammar, then it makes sense that spells themselves consist of an alphabet, rendered gesturally to emphasize its performativity and multi-modality. Players of The Summoning arrange graphical representations of hand gestures onto a tray, much as players of Ultima Underworld concatenate runes. Indeed, The Summoning combines a system of hand gestures with a set of collectable rune stones, partially in acknowledgement that the possibility of actual physical hand-gestures on the part of the user was technologically out of reach in 1993 (in part due to the imprecision of alternative controllers like Nintendo's 1989 Powerglove).

summoninggestures2.jpg summoninggestures.jpgThe first true gestural interfaces for spell-casting are mouse-driven and operate around the metaphors of painting and drawing. Such elements are common to occultist practice, as in the rituals of the pentagram and hexagram in the Golden Dawn and Thelemic magic. In these rituals, magicians use ritual implements like wands and daggers to trace five and six-pointed stars whose points have elemental or planetary correspondences. The starting and ending points of the geometrical figures determine whether the sign banishes or invokes, as well as what elements are specifically called up or driven away.

pentagramritual.gifSimilarly, players trace such geometric forms, including pentagrams, using the hand that constitutes the HUD-less interface of Black and White (2001), in order to perform miracles. Black and White featured a patch allowing use of the P5 Virtual Reality glove, which can be used to control the computer's mouse as well many games through GlovePie, freeware created by Carl Kenner. The use of a hand to control a hand-shaped cursor in a game without a HUD added to the sense of immersion in spell-casting by removing any barrier between player and game.

blackandwhitepentagram.jpgDrawing as a spellcasting mechanic can also potentially be used in any game with sigils, although this element is often removed from gameplay and used as mere decoration. Sigils, illustrated in grimoires such as The Lesser Key of Solomon the King, are elaborate signs or seals, often inscribed with cryptic geometric designs and the names of angels and demons. Grimoires teach aspiring magicians to draw sigils on the ground in order to ward off or contain spirits. Conjurers could also inscribe sigils on amulets in order to create talismans consecrated to spirits and elemental forces.

solomonsigil.jpgSigils and the grimoires containing them have played a role in the story and art design of many magic systems, including Vagrant Story (2000) and World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. Common artistic practice involves arcane symbols that glow and spin beneath the caster during spell-casting, as seen in Neverwinter Nights and World of Warcraft. Voices chanting ominous symbols often appear during this casting phase, but players are rarely able to interact with them. Chanting and sigil-drawing are cosmetic features designed to reinforce an enchantment mood but divorced from player interaction; in all too many RPG's, voice and drawing are neither input methods affecting the spell that is cast nor feedback mechanisms to reinforce how it is cast. The removal of sigils from input or feedback squanders their potential as gameplay mechanicisms and runs directly contrary to their role in magical lore, in which magicians learn to draw sigils for direct practical ends.

For example, the process of "sigilization" formulated by visual artist and magician Austin Osman Spare entailed an "alphabet of desire" designed to encode and give magical force to the magician's deepest longings. Spare's dual identity as a painter and a magician highlights a potential relationship between magic and the visual arts that could be capitalized on with any PC or console that has drawing capabilities, including tablet PC's, the Nintendo DS or 3DS, and the Wii. For example, drawing and painting become a game mechanic and visual trope in the magnificent Okami, in which the player uses a magical calligraphy brush to alter reality within a world that constitutes a living Japanese painting. okamipen.jpgUsing one's magic pen to fill in the gaps in a bridge can mend the wood to allow passage, just as painting the barren branches of a tree can cause it to blossom with fruit. Dawn of Sorrow, an iteration of Castlevania for the Nintendo DS, also requires players to inscribe seals using the DS stylus in order to defeat bosses, which otherwise regain strength and resurrect themselves. dawnofsorrowseal.jpg

Magic as a hybrid of writing and painting opens many possibilities of multimodal input and feedback with cosmological significance, seen most vividly in the use of symbolic color to represent schools and varieties of magic. These subjects and others will be discussed in the third installment of this blog series next Wednesday.

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