The Ecology of Magic

Copyright © 1999, Tim Dugger

 

One thing that every fantasy role playing game has in common is magic. Every game system in this genre contains rules and guidelines for how a character learns and casts spells.

One thing that almost every fantasy role playing game neglects is how magic works from the viewpoint of the character in the game. This article is dedicated to providing one such viewpoint for the Rolemaster system. Please note that the views and philosophy expressed in this article belong to me, and how I see magic in the campaign settings that I run, and not to the people who originally developed the game.

Where does magic come from? To understand a character's viewpoint on magic, you must know what it is and where it comes from in the first place. After discussing what magic is, and where it comes from, we go on to discuss how a spell is actually cast, and how the various realms gather mana for use in spells.

What is Magic?

To put it in the most simplistic terms, magic is a unique form of psychoactive energy radiating from one or more points in the campaign setting. These points are often called earthnodes, and the psychoactive energy that flows from these points is often called mana, but could quite easily have other names by different cultures.

It has been found that certain individuals have the innate ability to manipulate this energy to one degree or another, and that almost anybody can be taught how to manipulate this energy.

The results of the manipulation of this energy are called spells, and the manipulation of this energy is termed as casting a spell.

Where Does It Come From?

Earthnodes are the most common sources of mana in most campaign settings. The questions still remain, how? And why is this so? To understand this, I must first explain my views on how a fantasy campaign setting is comprised.

As I view things, you have the mortal plane, this is where the majority, if not all of your player's characters will do their adventuring. Alongside this mortal plane, you also have the Spirit World. The Spirit World is an enigmatic place at best. In the Channeling Companion, it is described as a single plane that touches upon multiple other planes. Usually the final resting places for souls and spirits that have died.

What was not explained, was that this single plane, was just the lowest level in a much more complex series of planes, the actual number of which is shifting and never quite always the same. I'll save a detailed explanation of my version of the Spirit World for another article, just suffice it to say that while the Spirit World is considered as a single plane, it is also a composition of multiple planes at the same time.

Outside the Spirit World, you have the Void, and beyond that you have planes that are very unique, and strange. Most of which are quite far beyond the comprehension of mortal beings.

One of these planes from Beyond the Void is a plane of total energy. This energy plane is the source form which mana originates. Now how did mana from this energy realm find its way into the mortal realms?

When designing a campaign setting, I use either a straight natural cataclysm or a cataclysm in conjunction with an ancient civilization. I prefer the latter as it gives the setting more flavor than the former by itself.

In a campaign setting that I am currently designing, I have a very ancient civilization that advanced to great heights of technological sophistication. This elder race discovered the existence of other dimensions, and finally discovered this realm of psychoactive energy. They soon learned how to tap into this energy in small amounts and developed arcane magic.

In an effort to make this rare energy available to their entire race, they created stations across their globe, to draw this energy to their dimension in great amounts rather than the trickle to which they had previously been limited. Unfortunately, something went wrong with their devices, and the power was too great. It destroyed the stations, and almost destroyed the world as well. The elder civilization was completely wiped out. It also destroyed the slave races that the elder race had forcibly evolved from animals as well, except for those kept in underground pens and complexes.

On the other hand, the devices worked much better than their creators had thought. They had opened tears in reality from the mortal plane to the energy realm in multiple locations across the world. These locations were in spots where the barriers between dimensions were not as strong as the rest of the world. These tears eventually healed over, but by then the elders had been destroyed, and mana was now loose upon the world.

One important fact about these tears is that they stretched across dimensions, and opened in many planes, having the most profound effect upon the Spirit World. This was the event that saw the formation of the first gods who actually interacted with the mortal realm in my campaign setting.

The development of the gods took many thousands of years during which the races that survived the cataclysm developed as well. During this time, an extremely complex symbiosis developed between certain spirits, who became deities, and the mortal races. This will also be detailed in the same future article about the Spirit World, just as I mentioned earlier.

The earthnodes and other points about the mortal plane have become known as crossover points. This is because the fabric of reality between the various planes is much thinner in these points. Creatures and entities form other planes have been known to appear in these locations with greater regularity than anywhere else. A major feature of almost all these crossover points is that the ambient level of mana is much higher than what is normal for the rest of the mortal realm.

Casting Spells

Casting a spell can be broken down into three main steps, gathering the mana, forming the matrix, and empowering the spell. How the various realms of magic gather the mana and which type of mana they gather is detailed in the next section. This section deals with the latter two steps of spell casting. The first step in this is to describe what a spell actually is.

A spell is a change in reality through the manipulation of psychoactive energy known as mana.

Early spell casters discovered that reality had an underlying matrix-like structure, and that it was possible to change this underlying structure through the creation and empowerment of a mana matrix. A mana matrix is a lattice-like geometric construct of energy. When empowered it forces a change upon the underlying matrix structure of reality, thus generating the desired spell effect.

As a mage taps into the mana and draws it to himself, he uses a tiny portion of this energy to create the mana matrix for the spell he wants to cast. Once it is formed, additional mana is forced through the matrix. This, in turn, causes the changes upon reality and the spell effect is generated.

It has been noted that the various realms have many spells that are similar in appearance and function. It is important to note that while the matrices for these spells are also similar, they are not identical. Each realm has its own unique version of the matrices, which is also tied into the method used to gather the mana.

Instantaneous Spells - Since most spells use words or phrases of power to collect and form the mana matrix, it is not unrealistic to conjecture that certain syllables or phrases can have an immediate and instant effect upon reality. All instantaneous spells follow this unique deviation from the normal spell casting process.

 

Gathering Mana

Each realm gathers mana in its own way. Unlike the normal Rolemaster concept of preparation rounds and casting rounds, I envision it to all be part of the actual casting process. The preparation rounds are the time during which the caster is actually drawing the energy to cast the spell. I also view the preparation as unique for each spell, thus it is not possible to prepare a spell for a multiple number of rounds without first declaring what spell is being prepared.

Each type of mana is determined by its source, and is only usable by certain realms. It is important to point out that a mage from one realm that learns spells from another realm still uses his normal source of mana in casting the other realm spell.

Types of Mana

Mana comes in three basic forms, at least as far as those who use magic are concerned. You have Raw Mana, Filtered Mana, Rendered Mana and Personal Mana. Each type of mana is accessible from a different source.

Raw Mana - This mana is acquired directly from earthnodes, essence flows, ley lines, and other locations where a tear in reality has occured. Raw Mana flows from one earthnode to another, as well as flowing along magno-gravitic lines of force called ley lines.

It is important to note that it is from Raw Mana that all other forms of mana are eventually derived. As raw mana interacts with non-raw mana, it is tainted in the sense that it is no longer quite as potent or as dangerous to manipulate. This makes the other forms a little safer, yet a little less powerful as well.

Filtered Mana - This is the mana that escapes from the earthnodes, essence flows and ley lines. It then permeates every thing it comes in contact with, leaving a little bit as it goes. Each item it passes through has a mana tolerance level, and once it reaches this level it can absorb no more. When mana is drained form an area in a sudden massive burst, it can have serious detrimental effects on the local ecology.

Those who acquire this type of mana do so by pulling out of the area around them and then manipulating it accordingly. Please note that Filtered Mana does not pull mana from sentient beings or enchanted items, mainly because it would require a Resistance Roll on the part of the person or item from which the mana is being drawn, and this cannot be done when casting a spell. Please note that certain mana storing items are exceptions to this rule.

Rendered Mana - This is the mana that a mage or priest acquires from an external agency or entity. In most cases, this mana comes from a deity, demon or spirit of great power. This is usually done in return for some form of service or favor on the part of the person receiving the mana.

Personal Mana - This is the mana that is contained within the body of the caster. Those who are able to use this form of mana are able to do so only because of an atypical mindset. This mindset allows them to be less dependant on the world around them, and more dependant upon their own abilities. Those who utilize this form of mana also require a very good self image of themselves, as part of the ability to draw upon Personal Mana is derived from their self-esteem.

It is important to note that for those who use Personal Mana, their bodies are not storage items for mana, and that as they remove mana from within their body the natural replenishment of that mana continues.

How Mana is Gathered by Realm

Essence Magic

For those who practice Essence magic, their source of mana is all around them at all times. They pull mana from the ground they walk upon, the trees and bushes around them, from the very air that they breathe.

So it is Filtered Mana that those of the Essence draw upon for their spells.

Practitioners of the Essence use words and phrases of power from ancient magical languages in order to collect this mana for use in spells. The languages themselves are related to the type of spell being cast, and also help to form the matrix from which the spell is cast.

To actually cast the spell, the mage is required to draw/form the matrix upon the air in front of him. This matrix is invisible to those without the Magesight (power perception), and the gesticulating motions performed while creating the matrix are often viewed to be some sort of somatic component of the spell casting process by those who are unfamiliar with how spells work. The creation of this matrix follows the guidelines given above.

Channeling Magic

This is one of the most unique realms of magic. It is the only one that uses Rendered Mana, which is mana sent from an external entity. In most cases this entity is a deity, but is could just as well be a demon or a powerful spirit. In return for this mana, the priest, as mages of this realm are called, is in the service of the deity, trying to carry out its purposes and its will.

In order for a person to be bound into the service of a deity or in rare cases, a whole pantheon of deities, he must undergo s dedication ceremony. This ceremony links the deity with the priest in such a way that the priest can draw mana at will. In almost all cases, this link is usable only so long as the priest is wearing or holding the symbol of the deity.

While the composition of this symbol is unimportant, the shape of the symbol is very important. Each deity has a symbol that is unique to him and part of the ceremony of dedication allows the drawing of this power only through the symbol. Many symbols are also placed in settings, or mounted to provide easier handling.

Example: A priest, whose holy symbol is an ankh, loses his symbol when captured by Orcs. The Orcs place him in a straw lined cage. This priest, having skill in basket weaving, is easily able to replace his missing ankh by weaving a new one from the straw. While not as pretty as his ornate ankh, it does the trick and allows him to gather mana for spell casting.

A priest gathers mana by holding his holy symbol and chanting or praying to his deity, essentially praying for mana. If for some reason, his deity is displeased with him, then it may not allow the priest any mana until he has atoned for whatever transgression he had performed.

Once a priest has gathered his mana, he uses his symbol once again, this time as part of the matrix he creates in the casting of the spell. Thus each spell he casts also has the imprint of his deity upon it as well.

Mentalism Magic

Personal Mana powers Mentalism magic. The body of a mage is the source of all his power. By relying solely upon himself rather than the world around him, the mages of this realm can more readily impose his will upon others through the use of mana.

Unlike the other realms though, he is limited in scope concerning the number of people who can be affected by his spells at any one given time.

Mages of this realm are taught how to focus their mind and how to create a mental image of the matrix for their spells. This mental image is then what the mages of Mentalism use when empowering their spells. This provides an advantage to the mentalist since it is very difficult to determine what spell they are casting. Most spells of this realm require some small amount of an external matrix, but this is primarily for the aiming and directing of their spells.

Why does it take mages of this realm just as long to cast spells if their source of mana is so much more accessible than that of Essence mages? The answer is due to the fragility of the human mind. Too much too soon can have a very detrimental effect upon the caster.

Arcane Magic

The most dangerous realm of magic is that of the Arcane. Practitioners of this realm use Raw Mana for their spells. Raw Mana is hard to control at its very best. This is reflected in the increased difficulty to learn and use.

Gathering raw mana is different from gathering other types of mana. Arcane mages gather raw mana by making their bodies into a conduit, or channel through which raw mana may flow. Using the power of their minds to control this flow as it is pulled in from all around them, an arcane mage shapes it into less refined, but more powerful matrixes which create their spells.

Arcane mages love earthnodes, ley lines, and mana flows, as they are natural, heavy concentrations of raw mana. When in such a location, they often find it easier to cast spells, although there is also a decreased amount of control.

Hybrid Magic

There is a small percentage of mages who are able to control and use more than a single source of mana. These mages are known as Hybrid mages. A Hybrid mage combines the two realms of magic that he is attuned to in order cast all spells, no matter which realm the spell originated from. The originating realm determines only how the mana is used to create the proper matrix, not from where he gathers this mana.

Catalyst Magic

There is a growing number of mages who have turned towards catalyst magic. They are able to use mana locked in certain herbs, body parts or crystals to power their spells. In consequence, it is much more difficult for them to cast the majority of their spell if they do not have a proper catalyst.

The actual form and substance of the catalyst are actually woven into the fabric of the spell as it is being cast. In almost all cases, the catalyst is destroyed.

Magical Items

Magical items deserve a notation here in order to explain how an item becomes magical. As already discussed earlier, everything in the mortal realm has an underlying structure (reality matrix) as well as being permeated with mana.

To make an item magical for a short or limited amount of time, the spell's matrix is loosely interwoven to the item. The spell's matrix lasts only a certain amount of time, and once this time is up, it dissipates rather quickly.

Permanent magical items have the matrix of the spell bonded to the item itself, a technique that requires much learning and practice before a mage may attempt it, and even then it requires a fantastic expenditure of time and energy.

Final Notes

Magic is a vital part of any fantasy setting and unfortunately many game systems provides little explanation of the philosophy behind their magical system. This document is an example of how you can bring your campaign setting and your magic system to life by adding story level details on how magic works and is controlled by mages in your world.

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