Devblog: Ramblings on the essence of magic

How to make magic feel alive in a game system? How to make gameplay decisions with magic interesting? What’s the great mystery in magic? What’s the essence of a myth, why do we tell these stories? Why are mythic stories so alike? Is it our “genetic memory”, Jungian archetypes, or are they actual historical stories of the past? Are they mundane explanations of what was once thought as supernatural? Or are myths deeply philosophical stories that try to to answer to the questions like “What is being human really about?”, “What’s valuable in life?”, “What’s the meaning of life?”. Or perhaps, are mythical stories like Kalevala or Gilgamesh just very old forms of entertainment?

These are some of the questions I’ve been thinking of while working on the magic system for Bliaron English edition. I believe that greatest thing about magic is really the mythical unknown aspect. The one that keeps you asking what’s hidden behind the next layer. Most games tend to handle magic as a measurable force, a gameplay tool of sorts, that allows doing things not mundanely possible. It can be balanced to the extent that it’s no more than one another way for doing damage in combat, or a peculiar way of lockpicking. Fundamental idea behind magic being based on spirits is to give magic some character. It’s a whole lot more to work on theft with telekinesis, when you are “asking a favor” from a spirit rather than pressing a button that simply does the trick. It’s also much more interesting to work on a force that reacts to environment, and perhaps sometimes, behaves unexpectedly.

In Finnish release, Bliaron – Kalthanien Perintö, we focused on bringing about a basic system that would have strong “magical theory” behind it. We encouraged people (and still do!) to use magic in creative ways, thinking more on how the magic behaves, rather than always looking for an answer in complex rules. Therefore, rules were left as light as possible, to enhance the message of “Play the game, not the rules!”. We left many explanations on the origins and inner workings of the magic open too, partly to leave that part up to the gaming groups to decide, but also because we simply didn’t have the resources and time to thoroughly analyze the different combinations and possibilities available.

In English edition though, this magical theory has been expanded, and our game design skills have got better, to the point where we can give concrete guidelines on how magical interactions should be gamemastered. The fundamental idea behind “Play the game, not the rules!” is still valid though, and magic will still remain as a living force that may still surprise at any time. On the other hand, magical meta theory will also explain some of that unexpectedness with the ability of spell and spirit merging (the ability of two or more spirits to merge into one). It turns out also that our revised system based on Effects and Modifiers also works on spell interaction. This means that all spells will affect each other, kinetic spells can toss other spirits around, destruction spirits will most of the time destroy and nullify other magic, and some spells might simply merge, and form an intelligent spirit that will not take orders so easily.

Some other gameplay-related additions are related to reaction spells, instinctive casting, noticing a spell, hiding magical activity and affecting ongoing spells directly. Compared to Finnish edition, many of these are more or less just clarified definitions, but some of them are new additions, and clear rules (although simple and light) should make them open new gameplay choices for players. For those magic-nerds who want to dig deep into essence of magic, there will also be options for more philosophical meta-level play, accessing and understanding symbolic connections in world composition as a whole, essentially diving deep into.. ahem.. DEEP questions.. but while fun to play for some, let’s face it, it’s not the main emphasis of the game. The important bit though, is to keep layers hidden and unexpected, to keep players active and facilitate creative use of magic.

Everything is possible. And.. remember to play the game (not the rules).

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