A commentary on magic in games


May 1, 2006
Commentary for discussion by players - and perhaps useful for designers.

What does it mean to have magic in a game?

It's one thing to have 'simulation' (e.g., Flight Simulator) or to go to more than that (e.g., Sim City); to have 'wargames' whether strategic or tactical.

But it's less defined to add 'magic'.

To discuss this raises some underlying issues. Let's start with magic in gaming - D&D.

My understanding is that D&D was developed by people who enjoyed paper wargaming - I'm not sure if they were directly inspired by Tolkien but it seems likely - where they injected fantasy and magic and medieval combat into the wargaming model. Where you might have had a soldier tank firing a bullet or shell, you could have a wizard shooting a fireball.

Because of a human GM, you could add spells that were less direct translations of war, for the GM to interpret.

But whatever spells were added had to fit into a 'balance' with the rest of the game. Not much use in a wizard casting 'summon all the gold in the world and nuclear missiles'.

What guidelines were there for what magic could do? Not many.

The main source would be historical novels - from King Arthur to Tolkien and mythology.

But what magic could be done by Merlin? By Gandalf? Turns out those books were pretty quiet about that. Merlin didn't conquer the world with fire from the sky. Gandalf set off some fireworks as he entered the shire to amuse the children, which may or may not have had magic, but he didn't simply send lava to cover Saruman's fortress.

This raises a question - magic isn't that fun if it's merely an alternate version of battle, 'bullets ' replaced by 'magic missiles'.

But that's an issue with role-playing games - they tend to be about one group of characters with x hit points trying to lower another group of character's hit points first. But the art of the game is hiding that basic mechanic, to turn rolling a dice into a great use of spells to buff, slow, disarm, and all kinds of other things enriching the game.

So, if a wizard can cast a fireball, why not one thousands of times bigger? If he can teleport, why not teleport the enemy leader to your jail? People look for some logic.

There's no obvious way to answer why a spell can or can't be cast - but practical design has led to the convention of 'mana' for limiting magic.

Limited mana is why the fireball can only be so big, and as the wizard gains skill he can get more mana, as the fighter gains weapon skills.

It's workable for game mechanics, but not really clear about what magic is about.

I don't have an answer for that - but I have an analogy I think is useful for magic.

When thinking of magic, think of electricity.

Electricity can be used for an incredible variety of things - requiring 'power' - but it has limits what it can do. It has dangers and is very complicated - like magic.

Arthur Clarke once said, something that is technologically advanced past a point can't be distinguished from magic. Electricity, invisible, fits that.

So in the same way that electricity can be used for a calculator, a stun gun, light, music, opening doors - all things with 'spell' equivalents - use that idea for magic.

Electricity can power a light bulb; more can power a stadium; in theory but not what we can do currently, it could make 'a big city seem like daylight'.

Similarly magic can easily have a 'light' spell for a torch or room; seeing through walls (x-rays?) is harder.

Wizards such as Gandalf were famous while using little 'magic'. I think game design can benefit from noting that.

It's not that RPG's should give characters a wizard class that doesn't use spells - but don't just make it a 'magic' version of a warrior. Consider what he'd do with electricity.

This might be a reason why 'steampunk' is appealing, looking at this same comparison between electricity and magic.

Just as electricity needs more 'amps and volt' for bigger things, 'mana' can similarly do that; stories are famous for wizards 'being exhausted' by a big spell, like a battery overused.

This is meant to make people be creative about magic, using the analogy of electricity, which happens to power, say, two people talking and seeing each other thousands of miles apart - which sounds a lot like the stones in Lord of the Rings. Magic is more fun when used for surprising powers.

This doesn't answer more questions about magic - but what game or book has?

It's not always logical - the ring that would doom Middle Earth in Sauron's hands (literally) was easily lost by Sauron to one man's swing of a sword. Not very consistent.

Electricity can power powerful electrical magnets - how could that be used in a game as a wizard's power?

The Wizard as a frail but powerful figure, playing with something that might hurt him - fits with the 'electricity' analogy. Many stories are about wizards powerless without their wand - which could easily be a sort of electrical controller and connector. Hopefully this might spark - sorry - some ideas for uses for magic.


Elite Member
Aug 12, 2001
> This raises a question - magic isn't that fun if it's merely an alternate version of battle, 'bullets ' replaced by 'magic missiles'.

That's one thing bad about Star Wars Online - in order to make all of the other character types playable, they had to make Jedi much more ordinary.

There's only a few points in the class story where there are scripted events where you use your space magic in a unique way instead of just as (same attacks - different animations).

> This doesn't answer more questions about magic - but what game or book has?

L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s Recluce series has an interesting take on this. It's in an alternate universe where physical laws are slightly different, and there is a balance between chaos magic and order magic. Both can accomplish some similar ends but using different approaches -- order magic would bend light for invisibility, chaos magic would force people's minds not to see you. Over the series, set in different periods centuries apart, you see some very different kinds of order and chaos magic.

It's a common idea in fantasy novels that mages have the equivalent of muscles, that grow tired from use. Modesitt has some interesting other consequences -- Order mages who use magic to kill are damaged themselves in return because that's a form of chaos. Chaos mages gain an aura of chaos that sours wine and causes objects to age prematurely as their order bonds are weakened.

None of that translates well into CRPG combat though. My guess is support for more creative magic in games will need to be a scripted part of quests, which limits you to what the game developers came up with in advance.
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Diamond Member
Jan 24, 2002
Most games with magic are based on D and D created by Dave Arenson and Steve Gygax back in the late 70's. Gygax was a strong fan of magic use in the games and created a complex system of character development, character leveling and use of magic in the game. Wikki has a very good explanation as to how the game was played. I played D and D back in the day, and in a way I miss the interaction between people sitting around a table with their hand painted characters eager to continue a quest often dreamed up by the Dungeon Master in reference to the DM Manual.

This may be a bit off topic, but in order to understand the use of magic in today's PC games, one only has to look back 30 years or so to the original Grandaddy of them all, AD and D. (and still being played today).

Wife of Runz


Elite Member
Aug 12, 2001
The original D&D used the magic system from Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories (fixed number of memorized spells, forgotten once cast) - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dying_Earth

... which was different from most other magic systems in heroic fantasy, aside from those that included one time use spell scrolls. Eventually D&D added Sorcerers that were more like mages in other works.

Some CRPGs copied D&D, but others used the fatigue or mana ideas from other books.


Oct 10, 2006
I'd say the nature of "magic" is more dependent on the setting and the game writer's imagination than anything else. A very recent example is the new Kickstarter Project Eternity, where the intro video states that "magic will be related to a person's soul", which discounts any analogy with electricity.

From a literary standpoint (and many games are in effect works of literature) magic can represent any number of things. Usually it's a vehicle to provide power to significant figures enabling the author to make his/her point. The teachings of many religious figures would lose a lot of their punch if magic was removed.

Likewise it can be used to add complexity to a story and therefore the story's message. Gandalf's ability, and the abilities of Wizards in general, add a whole new dimension to LOTR in and of themselves.

Or, in the case of game design, you have some lighthearted games like Magicka where the role of magic is simply to add strategy and more entertaining gameplay.

Bottom line is magic is what an author/game designer makes of it.


Senior member
Aug 11, 2010
Magic in most computer games is just another way of dealing damage. Its very hard to translate what a magic user could do in a pen and paper game to a computer game. As there were quite alot of instances in DnD where magic played a large role outside of combat to overcome certain obstacles. Computer games have to try to predict in advance what a player could/can do, so that it can actually be coded into the game. While if you've ever GMed a DnD game, you'll quickly learn that players rarely do what you expect them to.

Your analogy of magic to electricity is decent, but it doesn't encompass whats possible with magic. With magic, you have the potential to do pretty much anything. Its just magic is a power that is not easily controlled or fully understood, and the knowledge to do what you want to do may not even exist, or was lost ages ago during a great war. Then even if you had this knowledge (in a book), are you even capable of using it? Its like having a book on building a bridge, even if I have the book, I'm still not capable of building the bridge.

You can think of mastering the magical arts as like going to school/college. A person just learning to cast magic missile (lets say algebra), would be completely lost trying to start off casting a fireball (calculus). Even when you do have the knowledge of these things, it still takes time to "solve" the problems (cast the spells). As you gain skills, the more things you are able to do in a certain amount of time before your brain gives up on you. Seriously try solving 10+ hard calculus problems without using a calc/comp, the ones that take a few pages of paper, and see how long it takes for your brain to explode. Now equate that to how a wizard feels after he casts a few fireballs.


Golden Member
Aug 31, 2006
"Magic" has been around for centuries, long before Tolkien. it exists in mythology where the Gods grant favors to their subjects to Voodoo to black magic performed by witches and warlocks. it's inclusion in fantasy realms is by and large due to the later influences of Tolkien and the Merlin myth.

BTW, Dungeon's and Dragons was created by Gary Gygax, not Steve Gygax. And the magic system, as already stated, it was based on the Jack Vance books.

Oh, and Gandalf did a bit more magic than simply fireworks upon entering the Shire. He cast a lightning bolt into the goblin cave when they were attacked. And he 'Magiced' pine cones when they were up in the trees. There are a lot more references to other characters performing magic such as Tom Bombadill and Radagast and Sauruman (not to mention Sauron).

As for it's inclusion in fantasy games today, yes. These were largely influenced by Tolkien's work, but not exclusively. There have been a large number of fantasy worlds created in fiction and literature in the last 40 or so years that have also inspired it. From Steven Brust to Raymond E Feist to Stephen R Donaldson to Robert Jordan, just to name a few. So it only makes sense that it be included in 'Fantasy' gaming as well.

The application is where it all breaks down. Computer (and console) gaming is perceived to require balance and developers haven't figured out a way to effectively make 'Balance' mean anything other than an alternate way of doing exactly the same thing. This isn't 'Really' a failing of the developers, but more a function of sales and marketing. They want everyone to have a comparable gaming experience and so they similarize everything. More's the shame.

But it is nice to imagine that before guns there were 'Magical' ways to achieve the same effect. And it allows for present day gamers to relate to ways of life before the advent of certain levels of technology.

Being a huge fan of Wizardry in games myself, I feel that quite a lot can be done to improve it's inclusion in gaming today, but I am happy to at least have it there.