Is the Best Magic System None At All?

Posted: 2019-09-11
Last Modified: 2024-06-20
Word Count: 737
Tags: i-have-opinions rpg runequest

UPDATED (2024-06-20): Extract this essay from another article.

On page 18 of The Pendragon Campaign, 1st ed. (link), Greg Stafford writes:

Pendragon has no magic system. All magic is within the hands of the gamemaster, and is used to imitate traditional effects rather than to make comic-book flash-bang nonsense spells.

At the time I read that I was in the first year of college. I thought to myself something like, Wait, I can do that?

In the same year, GURPS Man to Man and its adventure Orcslayer had just come out. As a player of The Fantasy Trip – and a longtime fan – I was excited about that. But MtM had no “magic system” at all. The adventure justified this lack by stating Orcslayer’s setting, the nation of Caithness on the fantasy world of Yrth, was a “Low Mana Zone” where working magic was harder. Thus, the region had few wizards. The desert next door, where the Orcs lived, was a “No Mana Zone” where no magic worked at all.

Doing without magic sounded intriguing. I read on:

Magic should never dominate the game. The gamemaster should feel free to make palaces glow from a warm internal light, to serve exotic wines imported from Cathay, and to mark trails through forests with ancient stones. A magical event or curse can form the basis for an adventure. Magic can be used to save villains or characters. But never should the plot rely upon a magician to do something – this is an example of the gamemaster working versus himself, which only occurs at the players’ expense.

More relevant to this discussion, RuneQuest 3rd edition had come out at about the same time. I’d never owned 2nd edition, about which I’d heard so much. Imagine my dismay when the older students around me complained bitterly and long about what a disaster Avalon Hill had made of their favorite system, in particular how Sorcery was just plain broken.

In subsequent years I soured on magic systems:

So maybe in some settings it’s better not to define a “magic system”. Maybe magic isn’t for the hands of mortal men. Maybe having a well-defined system kills awe and wonder. Just maybe defining and quantifying the unknown makes it less, well, “magical”.

Or, more to my point, maybe not letting player characters solve problems by magicking them away will put the fear of me into them.