Making Magic… magic.

A long email exchange on magic in rpgs — not a lot that resonated with me, but I did want to refer back to this passage, which touches on a possible problem I’m having in Nobilis (and possibly other stories).
Emphasis mine:

… [I am] against taking magic for granted, relying on the system, instead of trying to elicit that which the system is designed to facilitate. Relying on the system has the paradoxical effect of making the magic both more and less real: on the one hand, it removes everything from the realm of concrete action and physical description, distancing everyone from what?s really going on; on the other hand, by invoking rules, one lends an air of authority if not verisimilitude to the proceedings. ?I?m using Waters of Vision to try and see what?s going on? implies that the magic is real*; ?I?m peering into the water in the bowl on my dresser to see what I can see in the ripples? leaves crucial room for doubt and ambiguity**.
(The paradoxical epistemology of rpgs: precisely because they are so subjective?based almost wholly on the subjective cause-and-effect dialogue between players and referee?they end up being much more objective than the real world.)

* — “Real”, read “measurable and solid”, which is so antithetical to the idea of what magic is in most settings that it makes Magic into Not-Magic (Technology). Magic in DnD (and in virtually every other RPG out there), for instance, is actually Technology — very reliable technology, come to that.
** — But lends a solidity to the act itself. Compare “I do a Divination of his location.” to the actual concrete actions described in the example above: which one immerses you in the world of the character more? Which allows (or forces) a certain emotional separation from the scene?
This all goes back to a problem I choose to perceive in the Nobilis games I’m running, in that most of the sessions fail to have anything resembling a mythic tone to them. I know that most of this lies with me — to have a mythic feel, a lot has to come from me, and frankly I think most people of my generation are going to have problem with mythic thinking — it’s not what we were raised on, after all — sesame street is a far cry from being raised on oral tradition stories and fairy tales at bedtime. My myths are those of Tolkien — a magical world with very very VERY little that is overtly magic in it: a world with histories but not myths… myth doesn?t enter into it, and the closest thing to fairy tales are Bilbo’s encounter with the Trolls and the regrettable Tom Bombadil (who really should have been in a short book of his own… preferably in a different world entirely).
And to top it off, I taught myself systems at a young age whereby everything that happens in Tolkien can be quantified (RPGs) — just to milk that last bit of wonder myth out of it.
(Note to self: buy many books of fairy tales — read them to children as they grow up.)
So, back on track, I don’t necessarily know the imagery of myths, and thus my Nobilis games tend to feel more like (best case) an Unknown Armies game where everyone’s playing an Avatar or (worst case) a Supers game.
Supers… the myths of our time, and more’s the pity; though you can have mythic supers tales (cf. Hitherby Dragons), that’s the exception, not the rule.
So, Question the First: how to think mythically? How to encourage the players to think/act mythically?
The other thing that is leeching the magical out of the Nobilis game is that I’m very focused on the rules right now, because I’m trying to teach them to my players — so that even when they simply describe “this is my concrete and emotionally immersive action”, I break it down from the subjective-but-immersive to the objective-but-non-immersive — I’m very much into showing everyone what gears are turning behind the curtain right now, because I want them to see how the machine works.
My motives are good: I want people to know the rules well enough to be able to ignore them, but I’m beginning to think that that’s not going to happen, at least not quickly.
So I think “We’ll, we’ll let everyone be subjective-concrete-immersive and I’ll be the only one making sure the game system is being observed and everyone can just trust me that it’s fair.”
Which is fine, if everyone trusts me, and maybe they do. I’m nervous about that because I-the-player got really burned on that about a year or two ago and I’m still compensating for that in most of my games, trying to make sure that everyone knows I’m working with a fair and balanced rules set even if they never asked.
So, Question the Second: How to move from my current mode of “objective-non-immersive” to “subjective-immersive” to let people be engaged in the action, not the rules. Ideally, the goal should be that the players are always utterly confident that they did what they say they did, but unsure as to whether the ‘magic’ will behave as expected. This is easier, provided trust-in-the-GM by both the players and the GM.
What frustrates me about this is that I was DOING this (creating more mythic imagery and veiling the hard rules) at the beginning of the game before I really learned the rules, and I’m doing it less now because I’m thinking of them too much.


  1. (Well, I just blew away the long comment I’d started. Let’s see if I can avoid doing so again …)
    I natter on about this at length over on my page. A couple of thoughts.
    Part of the problem specific to this Nobilis campaign (by no means all of it, since a lot of it is us players) is that the setting is fairly prosaic, not mythic. Miami. The chancels. The real world.
    Look at the battle with the Excrucians. Very concrete, literally as well as figuratively. There was nothing presented as mythic (and the only really mind-altering thing was that cloak of eyes — ick), and we spent most of our time trying to figure out out to pool MPs together for generic MP attacks on the bad guys (you at least required us to describe what we were doing).
    So. Send us out the World Tree. Instill some Mythic aspects to the Chancels. Throw us in a fight that requires us to be using our Mythic vision.
    (The WT quest that Sian went on was great. And made her think, which she’s not had a chance to follow up on since.)
    Have people treat us as mythic, expect mythic stuff from us. Even in Lord Entropy’s Chancel, I was treated in very human terms. When have circumstances ever forced (or encouraged) Sian to Take Up Her Aspect and Raise Up Her Attribute (however that goes)?
    Sian’s a special case, of course, because she’s internally struggling with the whole mythic/prosaic/human thang. But I think it applies.
    I know you can do the level of weirdness, of inexplicability, of legendary, that’s necesary to get into the mythic. And I know you can pull out the lyrical, too, to get us over the struggle with mechanics. I don’t know if I have easy answers to those questions, but I know you’ve done it before, so I know you can do it again.
    If that makes any sense. Probably not, which is a good argument for my going to lunch.

  2. Ironically, I am finding the whole “mythic” tenor to be not my cup of tea. Perhaps I’m too grounded in the “prosaic” to fully enjoy the other. Dunno.. but I sort of feel like I might be part of the problem in the game and am contemplating dropping out to make room for someone more suited to Nobilis. Note that I think it is the genre that is not appealing to me, not the GM or players. You guys are great. It’s just that I am finding Nobilis to be lacking the hook that I need to immerse myself and really contribute to the game.

  3. I need to ponder that, since I think it’s possible to have Mythic elements and, at the same time, have the sort of immersive interaction that you’re looking for.
    It might help to talk about what you’re really looking for and see if that’s possible, though.

  4. Tying into some of the other thoughts floating around here, Crime, too, is difficult to deal with mythically — both because the character is very new to the Noble world, and because, as implemented (and naturally, to boot), his orientation is very sordid and worldly.
    Now, should he contemplate or get involved in a crime of mythic proportions or nature — the Great Arson of the World Tree, or the Theft of the Spear of Destiny, or something like that — that could make things interesting.
    Which is not to say that Crime is not interesting or fun so far, or that I don’t think you’ve been doing well with him, John. It’s just that I very well understand myself the prosaic nature of the character, and the difficulty in getting that mythic hook going.

  5. Mythic crime: the examples are, I think, a bit much and suicidal to boot. More like, spilling milk on a grandmother or flipping someone off with the wrong hand and not following up with the mandatory mooning. Both of them death penalty offenses… some places.

  6. The trick to it (all of it, in this case) is playing with Metaphor.
    Some of the best stuff I’ve done mythical (in the mythic, or on the tree or what have you) has been in the use of Metaphor.
    “The planet’s danced along, discussing who to invite to their next party.”
    Sian’s weaver ladies.
    In fact, one of my favorites: Crime and Punishment interrogating the Spirit of a Contract.
    Consider a couple other ideas I’ve been playing with this afternoon:
    -The Past Is A Place Of Confinement
    — I can’t escape from that memory
    -The Past Is A Pursuer
    — My past caught up with me
    -Words Are Weapons
    — 1 She used sharp words.
    — 2 That was cutting language.
    — 3 A barrage of invective.
    — 4 He hurled insults at her.
    These are things I can use — I have, in fact, used a nifty little site on metaphor to come up with some good stuff for everyone… not necessarily directly pertaining to their estate in every case, but always tied to their current stories.
    Might be fun – all I can say is that, driving home, I wanted to play tonight. 🙂

  7. I probably throw the curve: I have no problem with using magic magically. Of course, I try not to use the same trick twice, so it’s hard to get in a “this works automatically” rut.

  8. Deep immersion in Mythic/Metaphorical/Hitherby Dragonish thought processes is not something I can maintain for long. It also seems to be — for me — directly opposite from problem solving and at right angles to thinking in character. Unless I was playing Delirium.
    The solution, obviously, is alcohol.

  9. To which I can only reply “we’ll see” — as I said, I have a nifty idea in mind for people… some of them will require more time to work out the specifics than others, but the general idea is there.

  10. Magic, though, real “magic” of many kinds, like Hellenic goetia is a technology, a way of manipulating occult physics. Do the ritual correctly and God/a god/the universe must respond in a set way. Say the right Words in the right Language and it must come to pass. The main difference from rpg magic is that it’s slow and generally requires more props.
    ‘Magical’ taking on the meaning of ‘incomprehensible’ is something that comes from not believing in it. And probably from conflating it with ‘miraculous’ and the ineffability of God.

  11. That said, there’s a wonder to magic that is utterly lacking in most RPGs… the kind of wonder that you see in a scene where Willow looks sort of surprised and inordinately pleased when a locator spell works.
    Granted, eventually locator spells become normal and non-wondrous, but there’s always some kind of magic that has that element of chance to the whole thing… when Willow gets to the point where none of it is really wondrous or ‘iffy’, that’s pretty much the definition of when she goes evil.

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