Monday, September 5, 2011

Toward a Taxonomy of Magic


Discussion last week got me to thinking (tangentially) about different magic systems in media and how they might be categorizes. Maybe taking a closer look at these sorts of models might suggest variations for gaming systems? This analysis is in the formative stages, so bear with me here.

It seems to me that on one side we have ritual-based systems. Spells in these systems tend to be specific, discrete entities with distinct effects. Some sort of ritual (of varying levels of complexity) is involved in their production. Effects may be flashy and visual, but just as often there is no visible connection between caster and effect, other than the caster's ritual performance. Magical duels are games of "oneupmanship" with canny spell choice winning the day.  Various ritual magic systems in the real world are examples of this, as are many popular rpg systems. Card-based systems of various manga and anime (and the card games they support) would probably be a variant. Interestingly, this sort of system is otherwise not particularly common in media.


On the other end of the spectrum are energy-based systems. These portray magic as some force to be manipulated and wielded. Effects tend be very visible. There may be talk of spells or “cants” or “weaves,” but these tend to be portrayed more like maneuvers or techniques rather than strict formula. Magical duels are marked by a concern with the comparative "power levels" of the participant, not in the advantageousness or disadvantageousness of the spells they choose to employ.  Most comic book mages (outside of John Constantine) wield this kind of magic--and so does Green Lantern, for that matter. Many literary mages are off this type: The Aes Sedai in the Wheel of Time series, the Schoolmen in R. Scott Bakker’s Three Seas novels, and the Warren-tapping mages of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series are all examples.

Of course, it’s a spectrum with many systems showing some elements of both. Also, what characters say about there system is often not completely congruent with how they appear to work; Doctor Strange mentions a lot of spells and rituals, but the appearance of this magic tends to be energy manipulation. Still, I haven’t been been able to think of one so far that does seem to fit. Obviously, there are other parameters to consider--external versus internal power source, for instances--but I think this divide is the most generalizable.

10 comments:

Needles said...

This going to sound weird but I always thought that with Strange it was energy based but there was the odd powerful ritual as well. With AD&D's you act as channel for planar forces bit its been a bit hazy. Conservation Of Energy doesn't seem to come into play here.
With systems like WW's Mage things got interestingly complex. Personally with the media its always been special effects & flash. I simply added those to the rpg systems & let the role playing take the rest. There are some interesting ideas as well. You could look at a comic book like Warlord as well & see the DC take on things.

richard said...

there is often some machismo associated with whether the magic is flashy or quiet, with adherents of both sides keen to point out that they are not the other.

Energy magic seems to be more about the agency of the wizard, ritual magic seems more about the agency of the magic itself, or some other magic-granting entity - and gets into tricksy territory about whether you're trying to work your will in the right place at the right time and all that.

Pokemon seems to straddle this divide in odd ways: the magic entities are out and proud, so there's differential power to be observed among them, but they're also credited with world-shaking ritual powers that don't necessarily map onto their ability to duel. Their human handlers are either vailglorious demonologists who have the tiger by the tail or nurturing friends-of-pokemon who basically let the magical entities do what they want to do, rather than trying to achive their own goals. I'll think more about this...

Trey said...

@Needles - I think comics in general want to have it both ways. They talk about rituals because--well, that's how magic is talked about--but in practice they most often analogize it with superhero powers and have it be energy. Looking at the Dr. Strange corpus, we see rituals (and even more talk of rituals) but we also see direct "magic power" contests. Warlord magic seems somewhat similar, but its just not as visual baroque as Strange's.

@Richard - Good thoughts. I agree those seem to be fairly common tropes. As I say there are always exceptions: The One Power in the WoT has a "female" half connected with by "surrender" and a "male" to be taken hold of and controlled. The effects of either are not terribly different. Also, the recent urban fantasy Sandman Slim seems to have ritual magic that's potency is explicitly tied to innate facility--of course, there are other indications that the magic here may be kind of a hybrid of the two.

I like your analysis of Pokemon. The interaction there is actually quite complicated.

NetherWerks said...

Energy is the ability, skill and raw power necessary to make the rituals work. Rituals focus and direct and 'program' the power of the caster, and anything that they can tap into, such as other planes, entities, or artifacts. Thus you have both your cake and a full tummy in one fell swoop.

Trey said...

Sounds like a good approach to me. :)

postgygaxian said...

An important factor is the degree to which inherent talent is supposed to be required for magic.

Energy systems are frequently wielded by the "one true hero" types. Anime is full of this trope.

Ritual systems suggest that intellect is required, not inherent talent.

Conversely, fortune-teller types usually claim that inherent Gypsy blood or some such thing is necessary to see the future.

Trey said...

Good point; that is a tendency that seems to exist, though the relationship to the energy/ritual dichtomy. Harry Potter, for instance, is more on the ritual side but has a definite inherited component both in doing magic and in strength, perhaps.

richard said...

Are you familiar with Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality?

First just because it's really good (honestly I find it a lot more interesting than the original HP), second because there's already been an interesting discussion of Rowling's hints about magical heritability and rituals.

It's a common trope (at least since Ars Magica, doubtless long before) that rituals should be more powerful than impromptu or will-based magic. I'd like to mix that up: maybe rituals are the magic everyone can do (and not particularly powerful), but if you have real magical talent you can blow them away with impromptu effects?
(caveats: if you know what you're being subjected to/if you know what the enemy is doing and where they are/if you know what the consequences of your magical will are going to be - I'm sure there's a way to run this that doesn't just end up with powerful sorcerors being superheroes, which is kinda what happens in HPMoR and to a lesser extent HP canon)

richard said...

d'oh: HPMoR link here.

Trey said...

@Richard - That sounds interesting--thanks for the link! So "real world" magic systems (more accurately, perhaps real world "unified field theories" of magic or games based there on) just something similar to what you're talking about. Isaac Bonewits Real Magic (and the gaming supplement) authentic thaumaturgy suggest that some people are better at magic than others and so can do it kind of "psychically" but the less talented really have to use rituals for focus or to build up energy.

As you point out, that sort of approach can be very attractive from a game standpoint.