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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.

Magetheascension.JPG

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. 

magiccolorpie.jpg

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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