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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 4: Horror and Magic

The relationship between magic systems and horror is hidden and unexplored territory, as secret as the black arts that lurk within the games themselves. Horror as used here refers not strictly to the genre of survival horror, which is a marketing construct invented in association with the first Resident Evil. Rather, horror-themed games include any game whose purpose is to evoke a sense of fear, dread, and the sublimity of unknown dark forces. Horror-themed games can be first person shooters, action-adventure games, and side-scrolling beat 'em ups. Magic is rarely the core mechanic of horror-themed games, often because players are put in the position of fighting magic through firearms and melee, or using magic only indirectly through artifacts. Magic and horror are intimately wedded in terms of themes but not in terms of direct player interaction.

realmsofthehaunting.pngYet, horror games often have the most original and memorable simulations of magic in terms of atmosphere and mood. What horror games have to teach us is their atmospheric simulation of magic, the Gothic mood that they associate with magic through a combination of art style, audio, and (sometimes) haptics. If more closely melded with the core mechanics of games, magic systems in horror games can be superb examples of design and provide inspiration for other hybrid genres.

Magic appears prominently in horror games because of an endemic thematic preoccupation with the supernatural, with emphasis on its dark side as the infernal and the demonic. With this supernatural element in mind, the definition of magic systems can be further refined and extended from last week's blog entry. A magic system is a set of rules and symbols for rigorously simulating the alteration of reality through the will by the agency of a supernatural force, whether conceived of as a genuine metaphysical presence, a symbolic construct, or an energizing psychological reality. In keeping with Crowley's axiom from Magick and Theory and Practice that "any intentional act is a magical act," any act of gameplay requires the operation of the will to achieve a desired result in altering a symbolic reality; therefore, any game mechanic can potentially be looked at as magic. This definition could theoretically be extended to include snowboarding and guitar playing if the experience of these activities approached the transcendent (which according to some Rock Band devotees, it certainly does). However, those genres that most embrace the representation and simulation of the supernatural will tend to exhibit interrelated mechanics that can most rigorously be defined as magic systems.

 Next to fantasy, horror is the narrative genre that most readily takes the supernatural as a fictional premise, rather than rationalizing or dismissing it. Hence, horror games will often but not always include some supernatural element but will also sometimes struggle to integrate it with the game's core mechanics, perhaps in part because magic in horror is frequently represented in Lovecraftian terms as eldritch and unknowable. The need to obscure the workings of the supernatural within a cloak of mystery can conflict with the goal of making mechanics rational and accessible to players. Approached clumsily, this fictional premise leads to the conclusion that the enemy has magic and the player does not, so she must shoot the enemy or hit him with a stick. Approached with subtlety, a horror-themed magic system can be as consummately rational as the black arts themselves, with their dread economy of souls bartered for power, and at the same time dense with mystery that emerges from unexpected combinations and effects.

From Doom to Demon's Souls, games abound in demonic manifestations and exorcisms, and while the first response of players and designers may be to fire a shotgun in the direction of the approaching devil, sooner or later it makes more sense to fight fire with fire. Hence, the protagonists of horror-themed first-person shooters and action-adventure games become scholars of the occult, wielding not just a gun but the arcane knowledge needed to defeat their enemies.

Magic haunts the fringes of Doom in the form of burning pentagrams and demonic enemies, highlighting an element of gameplay that may have deep archetypal resonance. Indeed, the highest function of gameplay in horror games may be to allow players to face their demons, both literally and figuratively: a trope as old as the first mythic attempts to grapple with the problem of evil. Despite the presence of demonic elements in Doom, the players' abilities remain primarily physical. As the prototypical first-person shooter (though not the first one, which was Wolfenstein 3D), Doom keeps its gameplay grounded in the obliteration of demons with ballistic firepower. Nonetheless, the player's use of teleporters etched with occult symbols (both pentagrams and sigils), allows him access to infernal realms, forcing him "knee deep in hell" in the game's own words. Doom is a game about accidentally opening a rift from Hell onto Mars, and the demons that spill out of this schism mirror the spillage of the supernatural into the otherwise physical activity of shooting.

The Heretic and Hexen series, a line of fantasy-themed Doom clones published by Ravensoft within Id's hexen2.jpgDoom engine, moved the mechanic of magic from periphery to the center of the first-person shooter, albeit in the form of re-skinned shooting mechanics. Because the series is heavily influenced by Doom, it also carries over some of Doom's dark aesthetic, resulting in magic that is both darkly themed and wielded against demonic enemies. Hexen is German for "witches" (and, more literally, "casting a spell"), and its gameplay delivers on the experience of spell-casting from a first-person perspective through the use of magical staffs and other items that fling spells when swung. First-person games with magic tend to represent spells as projectiles that release their magical effects on impact with either a character or an environmental object. Spells are often also accompanied by an animation file that represents either the swinging of a melee object or spell gestures such as hand-waving.

The appearance of magic within first-person shooters is an outgrowth of the action-RPG, a hybrid of real-time combat, first-person perspective, and role-playing elements like stat-based character advancement. Ultima Underworld helps solidify this sub-genre, but it comes most strongly into its own in the Elder Scrolls series, particularly the celebrated late installments Morrowind and Oblivion. Action-RPG's are exercises in immersion, eschewing turn-based combat and mouse-driven auto-targeting in favor of aiming melee attacks and spells in real time. Third-person perspective and turn-based combat have tended to dominate RPG's of the last five years, especially MMO's, in part because these games place emphasis on the display of avatars for performance-oriented identity and socialization. Yet, this distancing of player from avatar, in which players peer down over the shoulder of a character rather than seeing through her eyes and gesturing with her hands, puts a gap between spellcaster and spellcasting that can be detrimental to the immersive experience of magic.

In the first-person perspective, players can feel as if they are the ones casting the spells rather than watching someone else cast them. The Elder Scrolls, in addition to its diverse range of spell effects, lets players run, swing swords, and fling fireballs simultaneously. Because this process requires quick thinking and quicker reflexes, it increases the degree of immersion associated with magic, rather than permitting players to simply select a target and then click a row of icons. The Elder Scrolls universe is not predominantly horror-themed, though it does incorporate Lovecraftian elements (such as the mythos-named Daedra Mehrunes Dagon and the R'lyeh-influenced architecture of the Daedric shrines) within a somewhat Gothic world. However, first-person action-RPG's lay the groundwork for full integration of magic systems within a horror-themed FPS, which occurs in the cult classic Realms of the Haunting and Clive Barker's Undying.

Undying is a classic example of a player character whose gameplay abilities entail using the powers of the dark against itself. In Undying, the player takes the role of Patrick Galloway, a scholar of the occult who wields both spells and guns. In terms of gameplay, this story premise allows the player to shoot weapons with one hand and cast spells with the other. Many of the spells in Undying are traditional first-person shooter projectiles with magical particle effects attached, yet even these spells have a Gothic flair. In casting a Skullstorm spell, the player as Galloway pulls shrieking skulls out of graveyard soil and flings them at enemies, with the restriction that the spell can only be cast while standing on soil. Another spell summons and strengthens demons but can be used to cause a human enemy to turn his gun on himself. The Scry spell reveals hidden apparitions and messages. Because Undying's spells actually function as casting effects rather than being dependent on items like magical staffs, they feel less like disguised shooter mechanics and more like a hybrid genre, such as the awkwardly hyphenated horror-themed action-adventure-shooter.

undyingspells.jpgWhile Undying successfully adapts magic to the first-person action-shooter, two other third-person action-adventure examples feature a less graceful integration: Nightmare Creatures and Shadow Man, both of which games are distinctly within the vein of the Soul Reaver series. In Nightmare Creatures, the player can take the role of a priest and scholar of the occult fighting off a cult led by a mad scientist with the suspicious name of Adam Crowley. Magic in this game appears as a metaphor for combat (much as in the later Bayonetta), specifically in the form of staff techniques unleashed through button-based combos, as well as magical effects created by power-ups. In Shadow Man, magic takes the form of voodoo abilities powered through dark souls and artifacts called cadeaux, reinforcing a French and Caribbean-influenced take on the horror-themed action-adventure game. One review wryly refers to Shadow Man as "Resident Mario" in reference to the importance of collecting the gameplay equivalent of coins and stars in order to unlock new areas and powers. As with Hexen, magic in these games plays a heavy part in world, art, and narrative design but is kept at a distance from the game's core mechanics--with a greater distance between world and mechanics in Nightmare Creatures than in Shadow Man.

When the magic system of a horror game does manage to mesh the atmosphere of audio and visuals with an equally rich core mechanic, the results tend to be superb. In Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, magic (or magick, as the in-game text calls it) constitutes one of the core mechanics of this tremendous cult game, explored through a combinatorial language of runes whose multimodal richness and mythological depth far outstrip most magic systems. Eternal Darkness demonstrates that horror games can teach as much about the atmosphere of magic systems as their mechanics. The runic language of Eternal Darkness owes a debt to Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld, but the audio of demonic chanting and visual explosions of symbolically-charged color of Eternal Darkness takes the game's magic system to an entirely new level.

Another superb example of magic in a game with horror elements is the masterful Vagrant Story, an RPG with strong survival horror elements, in which magic is the manifestation of a mysterious force called "the dark." Vagrant Story resonates with occult authenticity, since the player acquires spells from grimoires and doors are locked by sigils, both of which terms derive from ceremonial magic. Eschewing the Vancian system of Dungeons and Dragons, each grimoire is a spellbook with one spell which the player acquires permanently as his memories of abilities from a former life return. In a display of shockingly extensive research into kabbalistic and occult thought, several doors in the keep of Lea Monde are labeled with Hebrew letters glowing in symbolic colors.

vagrantstorysymbol.jpgWhile Vagrant Story and Eternal Darkness may eschew the Vancian systems of Dungeons and Dragons, another classic horror writer casts his sublime shadow over both games and horror gaming in general: H.P. Lovecraft. The energizing influence of horror games on magic systems is analogous to the influence exerted by H.P. Lovecraft on Robert E. Howard, resulting in an infusion of Conan's low fantasy with a black dose of the Cthulhu mythos.

To contextualize this analogous influence, it is important to see that the predominant literary source of high fantasy in games is J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien's Catholicism led him to downplay the use of magic by his protagonists, resulting in a predominately weak and diluted use of enchantments to harmoniously influence nature. (Gandalf's defiance of the Balrog is an exception, and Sauron's power is an exception that proves the rule by condemning magic as powerful but devastatingly wicked and destructive to self and other). The undeniable influence of Tolkien on fantasy RPG's has perhaps marred the seriousness and atmosphere of these games' magic systems, such that Gary Gygax classified magic in Tolkien's fiction as "generally weak and ineffectual." True to form, the magic system in Lord of the Rings Online can sometimes be a little less than thrilling, since the main casting class of Loremasters are a relatively lukewarm druid/mage hybrid with elemental magic powers and beast pets. (The addition of Runekeepers with electrical shock magic is slightly more intriguing but of dubious relationship to Tolkien's fiction).

In contrast, Robert E. Howard's vision of magic is sufficiently influenced by the Cthulhu mythos to become both darker and more rich than standard high fantasy, suggesting an analogous inspirational power for horror to influence magic systems in games. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard corresponded extensively because of their mutual tendency to publish in Weird Tales. Magic in Howard's stories has a distinctly Lovecraftian eldritch quality, merged with a fascination with Egyptology to produce a vision of sorcery as evil and founded upon dangerous ties with demons. It is this vision of magic that works its way into the black decks of Magic: The Gathering, with their Demonic Tutors who convey knowledge at a price and the Overeager Apprentices whose presumption ends with splatters of their own blood on the walls.

overeagerapprentice.jpgThe magic system in Age of Conan literalizes the analogy between game genre and game fiction through a magic system that is dark and deep in both mechanics and atmosphere. As explained in an interview and confirmed on the Age of Conan site, magic in this MMO is:

1) Dark

2) Dangerous

3) Difficult

As Gaute Godager, the director of the game, explains:

we try to make the visual look and feel of magic in Conan different from what you have seen in other games and the more traditional fantasy settings. The clownlike, fireball-tossing magic users in pointy hats, with puffs and multicolored robes, are not part of the Hyborian universe. In Conan's age, magic is dangerous, hidden, and dark. Men who meddle with magic inevitably fall to its temptation and powers. Magic uses you as much as you use it.

In terms of mechanics, magic in Age of Conan includes a high-level skill called spellweaving, demonologistspellweaving.jpgin which players can combine spells rhythmically in order to produce a meta-spell of devastating proportions. In an E3 demo of this feature, spellweaving was explained as representing the risky aspect of magic "where the magician summons a demon, does something wrong in the spell, and is pulled down into hell." This approach to magic is an attempt to represent within gameplay and audiovisual feedback the skill required to cast spells and the risk in misusing one's skills. Age of Conan drove many players away through a buggy launch and an initial lack of endgame content, but the vision behind this magic system and its larger place with a coherent and stirringly brutal world are unique. They entail a horror-influenced rejection of the cute and superficial approach to magic adopted by many mainstream RPG's and popular fantasy fiction, in favor of a vision of the arcane that is darker and deeper. As Godager explains: we have tried to make magic more "real," in a sense. Manipulation of the natural forces of the world, the summoning of "real" demons from a dark, untold hell, and touch-based shamanistic powers are major parts of our magic system. Yes, there will be magic in many forms, but you should feel the difference when playing this game. You should feel the age of darkness, the weight of history, and the fear of being corrupted when you walk the path of arcane magic. Funcom's upcoming release of The Secret World, a paranormal-conspiracy themed MMO with Lovecraftian elements and a mysterious magic system suggests that they could be on the verge of carrying forward the vision behind Age of Conan with the benefits of a first attempt and a refined Age of Conan engine.

Game genres are convenient categories for talking about features of mechanics and worlds that certain games share. Up to a point, these categories can be useful in refining mechanics, because they allow designers to contrast the varying virtues of the targeting functions in Doom, Call of Duty 4, and Gears of War. When a mechanic becomes wedded in the public consciousness to a particular genre, there is a potential problem of homogeneity, of cookie-cutter conformity. It is then that we as designers need to break up the mold a little bit, to invoke the forces of darkness not out of any ultimate love of evil but a desire to shake our systems out of their complacency. To create an atmosphere of the infernal is to court controversy, to step close to the boundary between occultism and gaming which created such bitter controversy in the 1980's. But this boundary is precisely the fertile ground from which new ideas can emerge. To take one of Godager's statements out of its original gameplay context in Age of Conan and into the realm of design: "the ultimate power comes when you are able to walk the fine line--the one between destruction and creation."

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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 One

I am pleased to introduce Jeff Howard, The Gameshelf’s first guest blogger.

Jeff is Assistant Professor of Game Development and Design at Dakota State University in Madison, South Dakota. He is the author of
Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. He received his B.A. from the University of Tulsa and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is currently working on a game-in-progress, Arcana Manor, and related research about magic systems.

He plans on writing about games and magic over the next couple of months here, starting with this post. Enjoy! —jmac


A magic system is any set of symbols and rules designed to rigorously simulate supernatural powers and abilities. Magic is pervasive as a game mechanic and fictional construct within games, spanning across genres (RPG, MMORPG, adventure game, action-adventure, fighter, survival horror) and decades (from the 1974 first edition of Dungeons and Dragons to World of Warcraft and beyond).

Magic is part of the very nature of why people play games: to simulate abilities that they do not possess in real life; to escape from the prison of the mundane to the realm of enchanted; to weave the chaotic forces of life into a rule-bound system that can be understood and, at least partially, controlled.

The problem is that many magic systems aren’t very magical. RPG’s, both multiplayer and single player, have the same shortcoming: players press a button on a tray of icons, then watch an animation fire, followed by a cooldown period, after which players press the same button again. This process of spamming a hotkey button or two, cued to one’s most powerful spells, doesn’t feel like magic.

Magic, as depicted in fantasy literature and occult tradition alike, is a complex and arcane art comprised of gestures and words, as well as ingredients carefully combined with ritualistic artifacts in order to draw away the veil between the natural and supernatural worlds. So, the question emerges: how could designers put the magic back into magic systems?


The solution is a two-pronged approach of game archeology, locating and analyzing the most innovative magic systems in games, and investigating the actual occult systems that can provide inspiration for game designers.

An analysis of magic systems from a game historical perspective is useful in order to locate games which have featured spell-casting methods that are more immersive and richly meaningful than the average RPG. Game interfaces and mechanics tend to become homogenous over time due to familiarity and a desire to create low learning curves for designers and players alike. However, there are many hidden gems from throughout the history of magic systems which occur either before the standard row of spell icons becomes well established or which work in deliberate opposition to this way of casting spells.

While careful examination of game history can help re-energize magic systems from a formal and aesthetic perspective, depth of gameplay may require reaching outside of videogames and into the human ritual practices and metaphysical symbolism often referred to as the occult. In this context, occultism includes many mythological and ritualistic traditions, including Western ceremonial magic as well as tarot and voodoo, characterized by an attempt to conjure and control metaphysical forces. Game designers have tended to shy away from talking about the metaphysical aspect of magic systems because of the attack on Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980’s by fundamentalist Christian groups due to its perceived occult content or ritualistic nature. Yet, because rituals are intended to be practiced rather than merely observed or read about, ceremonial tradition is often systematically organized in a way that lends itself to being implemented digitally and interactively.

As both historical examples and cases of confluence between gaming and metaphysical magic systems, there have been many innovative games featuring magical grammars, usually in the form of runes or symbols that can be combined to create spells. The word grimoire comes from the Middle English grammarye, which means grammar, as in a set of syntactical rules for combining words into well-formed sentences. A grammar can also refer to a book containing these linguistic rules. The etymological connection between grimoire and grammar comes from a medieval distrust of learning whereby any schoolmaster carrying a grammatical handbook was perceived by the illiterate as a potential warlock. At the same time, grimoires resemble grammars because grimoires contain the meaning of elaborate symbols and sigils as well as rules for combining these symbols in order to produce magical effects through ritual.


Rituals are complex multi-sensory productions involving the rule-based combination of gestures (tracing sigils), objects (wands and chalices), spatial configurations (temples and magic circles), auditory elements (chanting and music), and scents (incense). Such symbols are combined according to the principle of correspondences, by which elements stand by association for other elements. The literature of ceremonial magic is rife with tables of corresponding Tarot cards, Hebrew letters, astrological signs, musical notes, precious gems, and innumerable other elements. Such books include Aleister Crowley’s Liber 777 and its more recent expansion as Stephen Skinner’s Complete Magician’s Tables. The correspondences tabulated within these books are regarded by practitioners as deeply meaningful and intended to encode insights about the metaphysical structure of the universe (often by way of the kabbalistic tree of life, whose branches or sephiroth have lent their name to one famous RPG villain).

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Magicians express meaning in ritual through performative and participatory action, requiring the active involvement of magical practitioners with an understanding of its rules and symbol systems. As such, ceremonial magic is a precursor and analogue to games as interactive multimedia. Because these multimedia performances are intended to accomplish pragmatic or spiritual work, ritual in ceremonial magic is often referred to as a working or, in more modern English, an operation. Both these words were frequently used by occultist Aleister Crowley and, later, by graphic novelist Alan Moore to refer to his spiritually-purposed multimedia performances. The words working and operation also hearken to the tradition of opera (Italian for work), so named because the synergy of music, poetry, theatrical sets, and costuming is a work of art that is greater than the sum of its parts. The most superb magic systems and the games of which they are a part aspire toward the condition of opera, as in the magnificent cohesion of Demon’s Souls. Indeed, scholars such as Marie-Laure Ryan regard Richard Wagner’s imagined synaesthetic and fourth-wall-shattering future opera, called gesamundwerkt (German for “total art work”), as a foreshadowing of interactive multimedia.

Unfortunately, games rarely take full advantage of this potential for multimedia input or feedback, instead restricting players to mouse or gamepad input accompanied by primarily auditory and visual feedback with a minor amount of haptics. However, the increasing prevalence of alternative input methods like the Wiimote and the upcoming Kinect affords multiple opportunities for multimodal input that more closely simulate magic as a subtle art of multimodal ritual. Moreover, the history of magic systems offers multiple examples of games that allow players to cast spells using combinatorial grammars, alternative input methods, and sometimes a combination of grammar and alternative control scheme. By studying and understanding magic systems with these traits, designers and students of game design can imitate and improve upon their best features within new technological contexts.

In terms of combinatorial grammars with metaphysically meaningful correspondences, the highest example may be Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem, a horror game in which players cast spells by placing runes along the points of geometric figures in order to express a given spell’s meaning. For example, the combination of “protect,” “self,” and “intensify” would create a buffing magical armor spell at a level of power influenced by the number of intensification runes (“pargon”) placed at the end of the spell. Moreover, players cast each spell under the aspect of three alignment runes that correspond to Lovecraftian Ancients, each of which is in turn associated with a color that stands for a principle of humanity (body, mind, and sanity). These three Ancients and their associated runes and colors trump each other in a rock-paper-scissors mechanic at the game’s heart, which players manipulate by imbuing weapons and protective spells with a particular color of magic designed to overcome monsters of the opposed (and weaker) color. Spells in Eternal Darkness are philosophical propositions with narrative context and magical force: for example, X’elatoth’s green rune trumps Chatturgah’s red rune because the dissolution of sanity erodes the body, an outcome that can be enacted mythologically in the winning ending of a play-through in which the enemy boss aligns himself with X’elatoth.


This particular lineage of games with combinatorial grammars, of which Eternal Darkness is a high point, starts with an early first-person dungeon crawling RPG Dungeon Master, in which players combined strings of runes in order to cast spells. These runes allow for the discovery of new spells through trial-and-error experimentation, enacted in real-time combat that adds both a cerebral and a dexterity-based challenge to the system. Despite these technical innovations, Dungeon Master lacked an overarching meaning to its systems beyond flavor text within the game’s manual.

dungeon_master_large.jpgUltima Underworld I and Ultima Underworld II extend the lineage of Dungeon Master, in which players collect rune stones in order to piece together, through trial and error, spells governed by a magical grammar. This magic system has precedents in the virtue system of Britannia, based on a set of correspondences between three principles of Truth, Love, and Courage and their combinations to form eight virtues, each of was attributed to a dungeon, a town, a character class, and a color based on permutations of three primary tints. The magic system of the early Ultima games was, to a limited extent, based on runes and syllables typed in a text parser, as well as the combination of alchemical reagents. However, Ultima Underworld added a grammatically based combinatorial system as well as a first-person interface hearkening back to Dungeon Master. The occurrence of first-person interfaces with grammatically-based magic systems suggests that both features serve the larger goal of immersion—allowing the player to actively take the role of spell-caster through the mechanic of combining magic words and the visual perspective from the eyes of the caster.


These twin features of magical grammar and first-person interface gain the third element of a gestural interface to form a triad of immersive magic-casting in Arx Fatalis, a dungeon crawl by Arkane studios originally pitched as the third Ultima Underworld, in which players cast spells by tracing combinations of runes in the air with colored light.


(This method of spell-casting resembles and may originate within certain occultist traditions, such as the Lesser Ritual of the Pentagram of the Order of the Golden Dawn, in which ceremonial magicians traced combinations of pentagrams in various configurations and with appropriate implements in order to banish or invoke spiritual presences.)


A more immersive but less combinatorial approach appears in Black and White, Peter Molyneux’s famed strategy game, which deliberately eliminates a heads-up display or HUD in order to allow players godlike control over a disembodied hand that traces symbols over its domain in order to cast miracles. Molyneux’s game is sometimes referred to as the first gestural interface, in part because a later patch enabled players to control gestures with a P5 Virtual Reality glove, adding another level of physical immersion.


Next week’s installment of this blog series will discuss gestural magic systems and other related forms of controlling spells through multimodal input, including some discussion of a game I am currently developing to put these ideas into practice.

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