I’ve been thinking about how magic is portrayed in works in various media and how there might be some tidbits that could enliven rpg magic. I’ve delved in the broad strokes of different portrayals of magic before, but now I think I’ll look at some specific cases. First up, Dreadstar.
Dreadstar is Jim Starlin’s comic book space opera about a group of super-powered rebels fighting the galactic theocracy, the Instrumentality. It’s got aliens, robots, psionic powers--and magic. Like in Empire of the Petal Throne (and the real world for much of history), magic in Dreadstar seems the province of people in special clerical orders which study and communicate with the gods of the Instrumentality and related supernatural forces. One of these groups (or perhaps the sole group) is named as the Order of Vieltoor. There are renegade or “infidel” sorcerers, but the only two we see in the series are unsual (one is the offspring of a human woman and a demon).
In the origin of Dreadstar’s sorcerous protagonist, Syzygy Darklock, we see him summoning a demon in usual ritual magic fashion. In the process, we are told that planes of reality exist, which are less adventuring places than metaphysical ones, and are depicted in a vaguely Ditko-ish manner. We are told the gods store their power on “the eleventh level of reality.”
At the end of that story, Syzygy is said to have gained power perhaps equal to one of the Instrumentaility’s gods, which (if not hyperbole) is interesting given that he appears superhuman but can be knocked out by things that would kill a normal human.
While spells are spoken of (and named) in Dreadstar, they mostly seem to fall into the “magic as energy manipulation” territory. Spells appear to be patterns of energy that adepts can recognize, not formula. Perhaps there are mental algorithms associated with spells. We only see hand gestures, never incantations (except with rituals).
The most commonly utilized spell is the mystic bolt. This seems to come in degrees of strength from just injuring/damaging to disintegration. Flight and levitation appear nearly effortless--at least to the super-powerful Syzygy. Circular magical shields (which can shatter when hit with sufficient force) are frequently used--at one point a guy projects small versions of these from his eye! Cubic or spherical area shields seem to require more effort. Sufficiently powerful adepts are able to feel magical power in others like jedi sensing the force. Syzgy at least is able to quick open portals to places where tentacled things dwell.
There are limits to magical power. Expending too much can strain the sorcerer physically and cause him to lose consciousness. Things that significantly disrupt concentration (“hypersonic” beam directed into the skull) prevent the use of spells.
Overall, magic in Dreadstar shows its comic book origins. It bears a greater resemblance to sorcery in Doctor Strange than in literary fantasy. It's probably most easily modeled in a rpg system that accommodates superhero powers.