🔮 Game Lore

Updated at 2015-05-14 18:56

This note focuses on magic and spell casting lore in fantasy worlds. Related to game design.

Magical systems are about consistency. Magical system are not about rationality. You do not have to state how magic works or behaves under the hood, but it should manifest in followable consistent patterns.

Magic should come with a sacrifice. Limitations of magic are more interesting than the magical powers themselves.

Magic lore should shape the world it manifests in. Otherwise it is boring and soulless, much like regular piece of equipment like sword or armor. It is not exiting to go to magic shop, buy a tome for a new spell and use it for little bit more damage.

Make your spells creative. Call of Cthulhu has Breath of the Deep that fills target's lungs with water. Dungeons & Dragons has reverse gravity.

Don't use spells as deus-ex-machina. Spells and magic that have an impact on the plot must be introduced way before they are used.

Magic can be a known or unknown system. Even if it involves randomness or context aware conditions. The variables may be hidden from the players but spell casting relies on a fixed set of rules. Unreliable magic is hard to utilize, but might be right for some systems.

Magic can be part of nature. You cannot "Detect Magic" if "Magic" is just a law of nature. Magical Sword +1 makes no sense, it's just a better sword.

Magic can be cast or inherent to the context. Household idols give protection to the house even if no casting is done.

Magic doesn't need to have resource. Fireball has a mana cost only for game balance reasons. You can make the fireball his as much as the same level warrior and be a free cast.

Magic might require a context. In D&D, some spells can be cast only be certain moral alignment. Casting on a target might depend how much information you have about the target.

Fantastic Stereotype

Creating fantasy lore on top of the real world. Setting starts in a normal world but something strange happens. Are you hallucinating? Are you insane?

When a person encounters supernatural event in natural world:

  1. He must consider if his senses are deceiving him.
  2. He accept the event as a natural law that can occur.

There are 3 conditions:

  1. We believe the world we are is the world we know. Harder in settings than other media because of normal human mindset.
  2. The characters in narrative don't know why the thing is happening. Characters rarely know why magic works etc.
  3. We accept that the thing is part of the narrative, not a poetic meaning. There are stories where the supernatural has poetic meta-narrative meaning, which is ok.

Magic Lore

The Forgotten Realms: Magic is everywhere and it can do anything. Divine magic originates from spell-granting deity. All magic that does not originate from a deity is called arcane magic. Selûne, goddess of light, and Shar, goddess of darkness, mixed and created goddess of magic, Mystryl and The Weave. The Weave is a like a fabric, consisting of many threads, all woven together to create an intricate design. Spell casting and the use of magic items pulls individual threads and reweaves them, creating a new design. Now both mortals and deities could use magic through this fabric that was both the embodiment of Mystryl and a conduit to raw magic. Casting a spell is equivalent to telling the Weave to rearrange itself to create an effect.

Wheel of Time: Magic is channelled from a cosmic pool that turns time. Men and women channel powers from different pools and are different kind of mages. Channelling is detecting flows of basic elements and weaving them again. Elements are fire, earth, water, air and spirit. Men are better at fire and earth, and are stronger individual channelers. Women are better at air and water, and are stronger collaborative channelers. Some are more powerful channelers than others. Magic is mildly addictive to channelers. People that use magic too much may die or go insane.

Dark Sun: Magic is fueled by life. Good mages consider their influence on others and the environment but rogue mages use magic recklessly. Use of magic leeches life from the surroundings, even minerals from the soil, and this has turned the world a wasteland.

World of Darkness, Vampire: Magic is fueled by blood. Normal use of magic involves first sucking blood but it is also affected by blood in the mage's veins e.g. what is his lineage. The closer the mage is to the original vampire, Caine, the stronger magical potential he has; although different bloodlines have varying degree of magic.

World of Darkness, Mage: Magic is fueled by belief. Mages are Awakened individuals whose belief can shape the reality. Mage fight the beliefs of other people, mages or not, to successfully use magic. Mages can control elements in five levels that are perception, minor manipulation, creation, major manipulation and total mastery.

World of Darkness, Changeling: Magic is fueled by dreams. Mages can perform bunks to cast more complex spells. Bunks are displays of imagination that is used to attract dreams to the world. Bunks need to be related to the spell being cast. For example, charm spell Fancy can be cast by using bunk "give target a rose". Higher level bunks are e.g. "narrate your every action before doing it", "strip naked and run" or "spin around three times and leap into the air".

Dragon Age: Magic is from heritage and dreams. Circle of Magi take young children that show signs of magic. Circle of Magi is controlled by Chantry, religious organization of the world. When mages cast magic, they drawn power from the land of dreams, but this also opens their mind to be possessed by demons.

Call of Cthulhu: Magic is from the ancient beings. Learning and using magic drives the mage deeper and deeper to madness. Magic is a secret that human were not meant to know.

Final Fantasy VI: Magic is fueled by magical beasts, Espers. When an Esper dies, they leave behind Magicite which people can use to learn spells. There is also a race of humans that could cast magic but they were almost totally hunted down by other humans.

Plasmic Spellcasting: Magic comes from mental beings. A spell is a minor plasmic creature you can, with proper training and sufficient preparation, hold within your mind. Casting the spell means prodding the plasmid out of the comfort and security of your mind, to vent its irritation upon the physical world. If the other wizard casts a spell and does not resettle it in her mind, you may steal it with no roll or significant effort, provided that your mind is flexible enough to accommodate it, and not already stuffed with spells of your own. You can draw a spell into your mind is when you entice a spell away from its home in its natural plasmic world, which takes days.

Shamans: Magic comes from spirit beings. Shamans negotiate with spirits who give them power.

Darker than Black: Magic is born from a special area called Hell's Gate. Mages are called Contractors and usually have only one power. After casting magic, they are compelled to fulfill their Contract Payment e.g. smoking, drinking blood, sleeping, drawing or kissing.

Ars Magica: Magic is knowledge. Settings is 1200 AD Europe (with magic) called Mythic Europe. Mages can control 10 elements with five techniques: perceive, change, control, create and destroy.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: Magic is a language. The forgotten language that is extremely difficult to learn. Various symbols have direct influence on the world. Mathematics is the language that nature speaks, but does not understand. This forgotten language the nature understands.

A Wizard of Earthsea: Magic is commanding. When you know the true name of something, you can command it. Things may have many names, for example wind may have regional names.

When you know the true name of hawk, you may summon one.

The Name of the Wind: Magic is commanding and sympathy. Partially same as in A Wizard of Earthsea, when you know the true name of something, you can command it. Sympathy is another form of magic. If you believe two things are linked, they become linked. Linking can cause things to move at the same time, transfer heat, change heat from one object into kinetic energy into the other. Link strength depends on the similarity of the linked things. Sympathy is hard because creating unshakable belief of a known falsehood is a challenging mental exercise.

Lighting a candle using own body heat.

Smoke And Mirrors: Magic spells are cheap tricks. Fireballs are just chemical ingredients and a spark of flame.

Mistborn: Magic is telekinesis and burning of metals. Target of telekinesis must be metal and mages can only move object away or towards them. If target of telekinesis is heavy, the mage is pushed away instead. Humans gain magical powers by eating metals or can store energies in these special metals.

Discworld: Magic is chaotic. Magical energies are too chaotic to control so people prefer not using them. Mages are feared, not because they are evil or powerful, but because they barely control their own magic.

Old Kingdom (Abhorsen): Magic is free energy or symbols. Free magic can do almost anything, it is rare and it is corrosive for life. Free magic manifests in objects and creatures. Charter magic allows symbols to take physical form. Necromancers use bells and their sounds are symbols.

Bell that causes drowsiness in the auditor. Bell that transfers life force from ringer to the auditor. Bell that revives the auditor. Bell that raises dead as zombies. Bell that commands the dead. Bell that removes memories. Bell that causes death to ringer and to the auditor.

Stand Still. Stay Silent: Icelandic mages use runes, can see visions of the future and are trained. Finnish mages use poems to plea to gods, can see spirits of the world and have no official training institute, only mentorships.

Magic Casting

Verbal Component: Spell requires mage to speak certain words. Bards are required to create music. Muting the mage makes it impossible to cast spells with a verbal component. Deafened mages may misspeak and fail to cast the spell. Skyrim does this well without being annoying, dragon shouts really have power.

Somatic Component: Spell requires mage to make certain motion. While mage is unable to make the motion, casting the spell is impossible. Wearing a lot of armor mages is harder to make fluid motions so it increases possibility of failure. Consider adding different hand gestures to different spells so you amplify the meaning of somatic component.

Material Component: Spell requires mage to make material sacrifice. While mage is unable to access or use required material component, casting the spell is impossible.

Magical Focus: Spell requires a special object or symbol to focus on. A priest might require a holy symbol of his deity to focus his prayers. An alchemist requires transformation circle in ground or a tattoo.

Magic Usage

Spell Memorization - Vancian System: Originally from 'The Dying Earth' short stories by Jack Vance from 1950's, most notably 'Mazirian the Magician'. Spells are very complex and must be memorized. The problem is that they are difficult to memorize and disappear from memory once used.

Mana: Originally from computer RPGs to combat problem that warriors can fight restlessly while mages must memorize new spells between fights. You have mana pool that is partially drained when you cast a spell. The mana pool can regenerate slowly, you can use mana potion to increase mana regeneration or you can use mana potions to fill part of the mana pool.

Cooldowns: Originally from computer RPGs to combat problem that mages could just spam the most powerful spell they have to kill everything. When a spell is cast, it start a timer that shows that the spell cannot be cast again for that time. Once in 8 seconds, per encounter, per day or even per lifetime.

Magical Elements: You have a set of magical elements like fire, water, earth and air and you create spells by mixing them. Ultima Underworld had runes for negation, wind, harm, summon, fire etc. Arx Fatalis had also runes but with mouse gestures. Magicka Druid: Daemons of the Mind had 4 elements

Learning New Spells

Buy'em: Most RPGs just sell spells in stores.

Final Fantasy.

Find'em: You find spell books and learn spells from those. Optionally have multiple sources increase different aspect of a spell. Book, scrolls, diaries, notes.

Diablo Baldur's Gate (Intelligence)

Mix'em: You have all magical elements at the start of the game but you need to discover the right mixtures. You mind find hints how to construct some spells.

Rudora no Hihou

Dungeon Master: first rune is strength/duration/manacost, 2nd rune is element, 3nd rune was form and last rune class/alignment. Player does not have mana to cast powerful spells.

Find'em, Mix'em: You first need to find magical elements then mix them to create spells. Supports exploration and experimentation.

Legends of Grimrock

Arx Fatalis

Sliders: Player has full control over spells but that breaks immersion.

The Elder Scroll games have basic spells that you can change by adjusting sliders for more duration/damage/range which increases mana cost.

Metamagic: Metamagic changes how other magic works.

Dungeons & Dragons: Increase duration/damage/range of an existing spells with metamagic spell.

Stonekeep: Use runes to increase radius/duration/damage.

Skill Tree: You need to advance through previous spells to gain later ones. Usually with level and experience points.

Diablo 2 changed from books to skill trees.

Schools of Magic

Magical spells are usually grouped to separate schools.

Schools of Origin

Arcane Magic: Powers do not come from a deity.

Divine Magic: Powers come from a deity.

D&D Schools of Philosophy

Schools of Philosophy group spells according to what they do.

Abjuration: Spells for protection and breaking other spells.

Alteration: Spells that can transform the nature of the physical world or objects in it.

Conjuration: Spells that transport people, energies or objects. From the next room or from other plane of existence.

Divination: Spells that focus in acquiring information.

Enchantment: Spells that affect the minds of other creatures. Positively or negatively.

Evocation: Spells that create energy out of the raw power of magic.

Illusion: Spells to fool the senses.

Necromancy: Spells that deal with energies of life and death.

Universal: All spells that cannot be placed in any of the previous schools.

D&D Schools of Effect

Schools of Effect group spells according to what ingredient, element, result or component they have in common.

Air: Spells that work with or create air.

Earth: Spells that work with or create earth.

Fire: Spells that work with or create fire.

Water: Spells that work with or create water.

Frost: Spells that work with or create mixture of air and water, ice.

Magma: Spells that work with or create mixture of fire and earth, magma.

Dimensional: Spells that work with or create other dimensions.

Force: Spells that work with or create physical force.

Incantation: Spells that work with existing magical energies, reverting or countering them.

Shadow: Spells that work with or create darkness.

D&D Schools of Thaumaturgy

Schools of Effect group spells according to how they are cast.

Alchemy: Spells are cast using a combination of material components.

Artifice: Spells are cast using various magical items or devices to focus magic.

Genie Magic: Spells are cast with power gathered by minor elementals, genies.

Geometry: Spells are cast using diagrams, symbols and patterns.

Rune: Spells are cast using arcane symbols.

Geomancy: Spells are cast with powerful runes, geoglyphs.

Oneiromancy: Spells are cast in dreaming state. Involves consuming powerful herbs.

Rhabdomancy: Spells are cast using a special stick called a dowsing rod. Rare form of dwarf, halfling and uldra magic.

Song: Spells are cast using power of the voice.

Wild Magic: Spells are cast releasing raw energy and trying to shape it later, hoping for the best.

Witchcraft: Spells are cast with the assistance of supernatural beings.

D&D Spheres of Access

Spheres of Access group spells according to which deity provides the power.


Perverted mages, magic only affects themselves, personal pleasure.

If you cast magic, you get intoxicated. More complex the spell, the more intoxicated you get Higher you get, less likely your spells will succeed. If you are high on magic, you will start to lose control of your character.

Spells for a 1on1 physical mobile game:

Force Field: shake phone to dodge incoming damage. Fireball: shoot a missile to pointed direction. Frostbreath: shoot a cone of damage to pointed direction. Meteor: an explosion in pointed location in few seconds. Ice Wall: draw a new virtual wall. Time Warp: move to position 2 minutes ago on the screen and you run there. Confusion: others displays go crazy, blurred or wrong. Silence: others cannot cast. Blind: others screen goes dim or black.