The mage had labored for hours for this moment: special chalk laced with the essence of bone devils, candles infused with the blood from an old crone, various totems and idols procured carefully across the past ten years. The stars were within alignment, the moon had already cast its light to illuminate the ritual chamber. In mere minutes, all of the necessary variables would be in absolute alignment to enhance the final outcome. An outcome that the mage had toiled for nearly two decades with diligent patience. 

Magic is an integral part of Dungeons & Dragons and many other fantasy-based roleplaying games. In the early days, magic was a phenomenon crafted by mages and clerics using their wills and divine patrons. Eventually, players in later generations would delve deeper in the inner workings of magic and their fantastical campaigns. Ed Greenwood’s Forgotten Realms introduced the Weave, an intricate array of magical threads managed by the Goddess of Magic, Mystra. The long history and lore in the Forgotten Realms holds the story of previous incarnations of the Goddess of Magic, a means to indicate the growth of both the game as a whole and with each death or cataclysm, the change within the game itself.

The Lady of Mysteries made her triumphant return to D&D 5th Edition as the Goddess of Magic during her apparent “death” at the twilight of D&D 3.5 Edition and the dawn of 4th Edition. Her absence from the Forgotten Realms mythology had left it’s scar on both the denizens of the world and to long time devoted fans of the campaign setting. It taught everyone that the Weave was delicate and fragile, and that any drastic shift could undermine the very foundations of magic itself.

This is the sort of detail and careful thought that creates an unique perspective on the inner workings of magic within a campaign world. In the world of Oerth, there are several deities of Magic, all of whom monitor an aspect of knowedge and arcane power. Magic in the world of Eberron is presented by two deities, Aureon for the tempered state of magic used as a tool for mortals, while the Shadow of the Dark Six represented the more primal and chaotic essence of magic.

Magecraft, Image: Wizards of the Coast
Magecraft, Image: Wizards of the Coast

To control and define how magic works in a world is crucial, most times, a DM or even a player will simply used the vanilla descriptions and workings of magic from the Player’s Handbook and call it a day. But this is for those who are sparked by creativity or feel that something different should come into play. This workshop will hopefully aid in just that.

A World of Magic (or No Magic)

The most basic question for any game world is whether or not magic exists or not.

If magic does not exist, the followup question is: was there magic before? If so, why is there no magic now?

If magic did not exist, does it exist now? If so, how?

I had the pleasure to play in no-magic games, where magic was either new or draining from the world. Sometimes you had no magic user in these games, in some of these games you had true magic users and felt all the reprecussions of being able to wield magic in those worlds. An ideal campaign setting that comes to mind would be the Dark Sun setting, a desolate world that vibes to the likes of John Carter of Mars & Conan the Barbarian mixed with post-apocalyptic subthemes. In Dark Sun, magic is seldom and in the wake of its absence, Psionics (or mind magic) took root. Both Eberron and Dark Sun use Psionics to great effect in their respective settings as a magic alternative. Which directs us to our next area of concern.

Magic Alternatives

Now let’s the matter of alternate manifestations of abilities be they magic or magical in appearance.

The most common magic alternative, Psionics, has a long history in D&D. It was powerful and rare, only the most terrible of creatures or ancient foes possessed the power to wield their minds as weapons. The idea of Psionics had its humble beginnings in the original (some would dub 1st Editon) D&D game, it became an optional rule during AD&D/2nd Editon but there were no classes, just abilities and techniques.

By 3rd Edition and later in 3.5, Psionics gained its long awaited identity. We introduced classes and full fledged lists of powers that mirrored spell effects and even did things that normal spells were not capable of doing, augmentation. Many players and even DMs considered the optional rules system too powerful on normal conventions, and some considered traditional spell systems were flawed and weak in comparison. The design model this iteration of Psionics showcased the evolution of the game and the direction it sought to go.

Psionics, Image: Wizards of the Coast
Psionics, Image: Wizards of the Coast

Around 4th Edition, psionics took a much more interesting turn, psi points were still around and there are creative abilities and powers around. The flavor was rich, the new psionic races were equally intriguing but it sadly felt under-appreciated due to the restrictive design structure of the system.

Presently for 5th Edition D&D, there is not official rules and options for psionics other than the various Unearthed Arcana articles posted by Wizards of the Coast. I won’t go into them in this article, as this is more of a brainstorming post.

The important lesson is that if you do plan to incorporate a magic alternative, that you know what sort of system you wish to implement. Perhaps not Psionics, perhaps magic is restricted to a certain spell level? Or the knowledge of spells are lost and hard to find? Or perhaps you need to pray for your spells like in the world of Kyrnn from the Dragonlance setting.

Another magical alternative is always Science, things like Alchemy and naturalism. The study of the natural world and turning the elements to the benefit of the crazed mad man willing to unearth the mysteries of the world.

How does Magic work?

If you had not had the opportunity to watch the anime: the Irregular at the Magic High School, it is a world where magic is simplified down to a pure science. In the manga, they establish the fundamental laws and rules for magic, its casting, and implementation.

In the Forgotten Realms, the Weave served as an intermediate between raw magical energies and the casters who sought to channel those energies with their wills. Mortals were not capable of wielding such awesome power naturally and thus the Weave was fabricated to facilitated the role of funneling the energy into a malleable substance for the casters. For divine casters, the deities and gods offered this service in exchange for their devotion to them.

In most interpretation of magic, magic is shaped from the caster from an abstract thought with an initial state and a desired state. The spell or effect is the means from point A to point B. In short, the idea of the spell is plucked from the mind, made manifest through the will of the caster through a sequence of mental processes to which point they release the spell effect in order to create the desired end result.

  1. Ether (Abstract) thought/realm
  2. Spell sequence (consists of formulas, gestures, words to aid in focusing)
  3. Will used to concentrate on sequence and extract energy from ether
  4. Target of effect
  5. Using fundamental processes (formal understanding of the world’s paradigms) to process the spell sequence
  6. Release

What does anything of this have to do with a roleplaying tabletop game?

Well now that we have the basic breakdown of how magic as a system works, you may be wondering how and why should you care? This might help building more roleplaying moments and get into the inner workings of an aspect of the game. Just like in some games where there are details for firearms and technologies, magic shouldn’t be just simply an abstract concept left as an afterthought.

Roleplay about hard-to-find spell components, the intricate nature of rituals and the necessity of leylines and cosmic forces. How does the arcane energies look while you cast your lightning bolt or fireball spell? What sort of thoughts run through your character’s mind while casting the spell? Does it jar a particular memory or significant imagery? Does the spell possess any thematic components? Does the Finger of Death turning to the visage of a grim reaper extending its skeletal finger towards its foe?


Those are the sort of flair that truly make the spells and the magic of a game like D&D come to life and truly become your own. Some food for thought: many of the spells based off of Bigby or Mordenkainen were all thematic spells crafted by the very early players (including Gygax’s son) and have made their historic marks in the game. So don’t be afraid to make magic your own in a homebrew setting or even in an established one. Magic is a wonderful paint with the brush of imagination.

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