I'm always tinkering with rules and underlying concepts for "magic." Anyone who spends (too) much time working on these kinds of things starts to ask fundamental questions about imaginary concepts, which is obviously a strange undertaking. And this leads us to the perennial question of fantasy literature and gaming: what is magic?
I'm not going to try to answer that here, for a couple reasons. First, it's a subtle and complex concept, and I don't know if I want to go into that much detail in this place and time. But more importantly, it's a very wanky thing to do. So we'll save it for another time.
Instead, I'm going to talk about some ideas I had for a magic system. This was initially conceived for a Delta Green-like modern horror-fantasy campaign, but I think it can be easily adapted to an old-school swords-and-sorcery setting just as well. All we'd need to do is change a little of the window dressing.
|I like my magic like I like my coffeeblack|
Let's start with the backstory to explain all this worldbuilding wankery. In this setting, the universe as we know it is a tiny bubble in a roiling sea of chaos. In that chaos is the sum total of all possibilities, and they are all occurring simultaneously and at the same point in space. There is, in fact, no space or time to separate all possible states--hence, chaos.
Time and space are the scaffolding of order, because they separate all these possibilities into distinct actualities. The corresponding spiritual quality is consciousness, which is the illusion of two different points of the same universe experiencing themselves as distinct entities. In this universe, time, space and consciousness prevent the universe from collapsing into chaos.
And that's where magic comes into play.
In this setting, magic is defined as practices that erode these distinctions between states of reality. This is conceivably a very broad field with all sorts of techniques and applications. Although these forces are bizarre and otherworldly, they are not "unnatural" in the broadest sense. They are merely a set of related technologies for exploiting a variety of phenomena related to "reality."
The most refined type of magic that we see in this setting shall be called high magick. This is performed by modeling of non-Euclidean geometric shapes (i.e. hypergeometry) within a mathematical simulation. In practice, this usually entails the drawing of complex and impossible diagrams, and meditating upon them.
|This sort of thing, but weirder|
There are two general applications of this sort of thing. On the one hand, this can create distortions in space and time with a variety of effects: artificial gravitational fields, teleportation, time travel, stable wormholes, etc. This is often referred to as warp magick.
The other set of effects that can be created with high magick are of a more psychic nature. Illusions, implanted memories, madness, astral projection, contagious memes--the possibilities are manifold. This is commonly termed weft magick.
In either case, works of high magick do not come without a price. For one thing, they require a great deal of study and patience, not to mention certain mental gifts for mathematics and visualizations. Creating the diagrams themselves can be very time-consuming, sometimes requiring months or more for particularly impressive works.
But there are darker prices than time and diligence. High magick stretches the human mind to conceive of things it was not built to comprehend, and this can cause all kinds of psychological damage and even, after enough practice, neurological effects. But the most powerful works of high magic demand an extremely high price: human sacrifice.
There are ways around this requirement. In a fantasy setting, there may be powerful magical artifacts from a lost civilization which can be used to power these sorts of works. These would be irreproducible and thus very valuable, and their acquisition is bound to be a perilous quest. But in a more horror-centric setting, there may be precious few replacements for bloodshed.
|Fueled by blood|
The reason for this is because these powerful diagrams require a greater deal of computational power to activate, and the demands of the work are too much for these minds to sustain. If they were to survive, participants would have their minds shattered by the strain of having their minds drowned in a sea of unthinkable thoughts.
In both of these settings, humanity did not invent high magick. Instead, we learned it from our prehistoric masters: the serpent folk. Their highly advanced and bloodthirsty civilization enslaved mankind--first for labor and food, and later for sacrifices in their magical works.
In fact, the serpent folk tampered with the human genome to make us more effective sacrifices. This had unforeseen side effects, leading to another kind of magical practice.
Witchcraft / Psionics
The modifications the serpent people made upon their human slaves caused a small minority of us to exhibit what we would commonly consider to be psychic powers. In a fantasy setting, these would be considered hedge magick or witchcraft. Only a small percentage of humans are born with these powers, and even in them, the power needs to be awakened by extreme psychological trauma or the tutelage of another psychic (or both).
|Time to take these ladies seriously...|
Psychics have two general categories of ability: telekinesis and clairvoyance. In addition, a psychic's talent can be measured in terms of two general aptitudes: power and control. Depending on a psychic's aptitude, they can learn to do different things with their talents. For instance, a talented telekinetic could use his or her powers to vibrate air molecules and create fire i.e. pyrokinesis. Likewise, a powerful clairvoyant might be able to psychically attack others, while one with a great deal of control may be able to implant memories.
Psychic talents draw upon physical stamina. Generally, effects take place immediately, although total concentration is required. Without lots of practice, this is hard to achieve outside of a serene environment.
Finally, there is another kind of magic which builds upon the achievements of high magick: sorcery. Using high magick to contact powerful entities lurking outside Euclidean space, sorcerers can form pacts that allow them to invoke these entities to alter reality in specific ways. These are called spells.
Learning a spell is a difficult thing. One must first locate the diagram designed to contact the desired entity. Having done so, a would-be sorcerer then contacts such an entity, and there are several possibilities for what may happen next.
First, they mortal and the outsider may form a voluntary pact. Many such beings may demand human sacrifices, either once or many times. Others may insist upon worship, or restriction against various kinds of taboos. A few may demand the soul of the sorcerer at some point in the future.
|Just sign on the dotted line|
But the sorcerer may not be willing or able to pay the spirit's price, and some devils will not be interested in making a deal. In such cases, the sorcerer could simply dismiss the spirit, without gain or loss, or they could try to coerce the being's service. This is a dangerous undertaking that can backfire, leading to possession or even manifestation of an angry otherworldly being. Even if it works, the sorcerer will undoubtedly have gained the enmity of a powerful immortal.
Once the bond is made, by contract or enslavement, the sorcerer may call upon the spirit at any point in the future to perform its service. This requires the utterance of a phrase established by the contract, and each casting of the spell causes psychological stress from contact with the ineffable.
Sorcery can be used by satanic warlocks and pious priests, as well as secular alchemists. The GM may allow any character can learn a spell if they locate the diagram and make the bargain. Only those accomplished in high magick could attempt to coerce the spirit.
Using these ideas
These are three different types of magic use that could coexist in a campaign. They all have a common metaphysical underpinning, and plenty of potential for flavor in a dark fantasy setting. It is expected that most of what PCs would learn would be sorcery and witchcraft. Works of high magic take lots of time and study, and are generally not suited for adventuring mages. However, they provide plenty of good story hooks, as well as setting flavor for your various evil wizard antagonists.
I haven't listed any sort of game mechanics for these, but it wouldn't be hard to come up with something. For the most part, I think of high magic as being a sort of mystical analog to engineering. These projects would take time and lots of materials. A single class-based skill could be used to govern these endeavors.
Spells are pretty simple. They have a set effect and a set cost, although the rules for coercing a spirit would have to be mechanically worked-out. A couple of skill checks should cover it.
Psychic powers are a little more complex. A psychic character would have four psychic aptitudes: telekinetic power, telekinetic control, clairvoyant power, clairvoyant control. Different kinds of feats would have different minimum levels for these aptitudes for a character to be able to learn them, but learning a given feat wouldn't be automatic. As stated, psychic powers would drain a character's physical stamina, so that would be based on the feat being used. Otherwise, feats would be very similar to spells, but perhaps with slightly more flexible applications.