Saturday, June 29, 2019

Magical deniability

Magic should be hidden.  It should lurk around the door, beyond the trees, in that little mahogany box under the floorboards.  Magic should be so secret that you're not quite sure it's really there...

...and then the door is thrown open, the stars rain down, and for a moment, the world is a truly magical place.

It's a hard feeling to capture.  Magicalness, almost by definition, can't be understood.  If you look at it too closely, it isn't magical anymore.  To paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, "any sufficiently analyzed magic is indistinguishable from technology".

I've got a recipe for making magical moments.  It doesn't always work, and it probably won't work if you use it too much, but I thought I'd share it with you anyhow:
  1. Hide your magic in a mundane world.
  2. Show its effects, but explain them away.
  3. Reveal the magic.
  4. Take the magic away.

Sand in your shoes

First, you need a relatable, mundane world.  Magic is only special by comparison.  If you want to build to an amazing magical moment, you need to start with a mundane baseline.  This isn't a story about wizards flying around on dragons in space, this is a story about a guy who goes to the store and scrounges for change to buy some candy for his kid.

The details of your world don't have to be the same as ours, but they have to be relatable.  The players/readers/audience need to be able to imagine having their own everyday struggles in your world.  I'm not a fisherman or a turkey farmer, but I've had roughed-up hands from a hard day's work, and I know what a coop full of chickens smells like.

The more you focus on everyday struggles, the more wonderful magic will seem by comparison.  If your adventurers have struggled with mud and grime, and gotten scraped up sliding down a gravelly slope, and are tired and hungry, they'll be well-grounded in relatable details.

(This is part of why I'm so interested in outdoor survival in Signs in the Wilderness, and how it taps into your own experience in a visceral way.)

Deny everything

Next, you need plausible deniability.  If you reveal the magic too early, it won't feel magical; it'll jut feel like a dumb twist.  Imagine watching the first few minutes of a cop show, then having a wizard pop up out of nowhere.  It might be intriguing, but it won't actually feel magical.

You need to put signs of magic in your world, but explain them away.  This is laying the groundwork for the big reveal later, giving the players all the clues they need to realize the magic was there all along, but not enough clues to see the magic for what it is too early.

You need to call your magic something else.  And I don't mean you should just call it "sorcery" or "thaumaturgy" or "hexing" or whatever; the word "magic" isn't the problem.  You need to call it something that sounds non-magical.  Dress it up as a new scientific invention, or a weird drug.  Have psychologists explain how it's just a placebo effect.  Show that it's a hoax.

Throw open the door

Then there's the reveal.  For a moment, take the magic out of the box and let it shine.  Don't explain how it works, just show it.  Let the adventurers push the button and say the words and spin the dial.  Let the magic do something big that changes everything.

And give the protagonists a chance to triumph with the magic.

It's tempting as a GM to always throw obstacles in their way.  After all, that's most of your job, to explain why they haven't succeeded at their quest yet so they have something to do all day.

But for the big reveal, make it big, make it meaningful, and let the players have their chance at glory.  Combine the thrill of possible success with the wonder of seeing the veil torn asunder and magic revealed.

Get off the submarine

Then make them want the magic to go away.

Like a monster in a horror movie, magic loses its charm if you look at it too closely.  You can't tear it apart, see how it really works, and expect it to still feel magical.  If you really want the magic to feel like magic, you have to take it away.

But players don't like it when you take their fun, shiny toys away, and it's not fair anyhow, since you're the one with all the power.  So you have to make them want you to take it away.

There's a wonderful story to be told about how they all went into a magical world and had endless adventures, each more magical than the last, in an ever-increasing cascade of wonder.  I'm not the one to tell that story.  (I'm not sure if anyone is.)  I have no idea how to keep the magic coming, to keep escalating the wonders beyond imagination.

That world has to be hidden away again.  The door has to be closed.  The magic, once revealed, must be put away lest it lose its power.

Some reasons why they'll know the magic has to go away:
  • It's too dangerous for our world.  Keeping the door open will spill crazy, powerful beings into our world, so it has to be sealed up and locked away.
  • The magic needs our protection.  Magic is a beautiful realm or a tiny baby or a precious gem with a universe inside, and if we don't protect it, it will be destroyed.
  • It has to be consumed for a noble cause.  There's one great deed that must be done, and it will take all the magic we have.  The wizard will give his life, the children will be saved, and we'll all be big, damn heroes. 

Signs in the Wilderness 

In my own setting, there might be magic.  Lots of magic.  People certainly belive in magic, but most of what they believe to be magic isn't so.

Prophecies are widely believed in.  At the start of a Signs in the Wilderness campaign, you write up a prophecy that's circulating on the frontier.  (I'm partway done with a random prophecy generator, too, which has been loads of fun.)  Are prophecies real?  People certainly think so, but they're vague enough that it's hard to prove.  Then one prophecy comes perfectly true...

Newfangled inventions can do things people never dreamed of.  Guns, telescopes, steam engines, weather control devices, vaccines, hot air balloons — it all sounds a little magical.  But you keep telling everyone that it's just the wonder of modern science, and it's all easy to understand once you know where to look and how to do the math.  Then you open up the engine and see what's really inside...

Rumors of strange creatures abound.  It's a new world, both for the elves who came from the south, and for the locals who lived through a world-ending apocalypse.  There are all kinds of ordinary, understandable creatures that we just haven't seen yet.  You hear a rumor of mind-controlling bees, and they turn out to just be carriers for a disease that gives feverish dreams.  You hear about colossal alligators that can devour an ox in a single bite, but they turn out to just be a bit larger than regular alligators.  Then it turns out that jackalopes really can fly...

Most potential magic isn't actually magic in this setting.  I like to give each rumor one chance in five, so 80% of the rumors aren't true.  But that 20% is enough to keep you guessing, to keep you a bit superstitious.  You know that throwing salt over your shoulder to keep the devil away is just a silly backwards custom, but you do it anyway, because just maybe...

And that's where magic is, in the just maybes of the world.  It's a brief glimpse in the shadows and a rumor that might be true.  And if you keep looking at the just maybe long enough, magic might come to you.

1 comment:

  1. I have a bad habit of going 0 to 60 with this sort of reveal - impatience and wanting to jump right to sharing "the good stuff". This is a great reminded to stop and take a breather.