So, we’re contemplating magic again. Just something in the air, I guess. Admittedly, this begins as pure semantics, but as we all know: Semantics is the beginning of a conversation, not the end. Around the shop the opinion is split. Do you rate magic as “low” or “high” based on how prevalent it is in the world or by how powerful and uncanny it is? It seems the popular distinction holds that a world of “low” magic is a world that has less magic. Of course, the question then becomes “What do you mean less?” Do we judge the pervasiveness of magic by how many people have it, how much of the landscape has it, how many people feel it somehow, or how many believe in it?

Middle Earth becomes a sticking point. The setting as a whole, for example, has only a few magical beings left, but magic is at the same time everywhere. One could argue that magic oozes from trees in the Shire no less than towers in Mordor. Then again, folks in Rohan have little experience with magic at all. Or do they? The “main characters” it seems are steeped in magic all the time, while the folks living between the pages of Tolkein’s narrative are already living in a post-elf world. It’s complicated, as any good story is, but that only makes the conversation more interesting. Or, maybe not.

We might agree to throw out the “low” vs. “high” entirely when analyzing fiction. Deal. But what about when designing games?

Gamers have particular likes and dislikes when it comes to how magic plays out in the worlds their characters inhabit. That much is true. But while every game takes a stance on magic, only part of that is based on the narrative world. The mechanics of a game, those “meta” issues, also influence how the players feel the magic of a game. Are magic attacks separate from mundane attacks? Do they have special rules? Is there a distinction between “mana” and “health” that puts magic in its own world? For a player, this distinction might be even more important than the–no doubt carefully written–way magic plays out in a game’s setting or history qualitatively.

What is the difference between “low” magic and “high” magic in mechanics? Ideas?


Magic: Low and High

One thought on “Magic: Low and High

  • July 30, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    Hey guys!

    Just saw this post and it reminded me of some essays I saw on John H. Kim’s RPG site that you might be interested in. The general links on magic can be found here:

    But, specifically I found “Breaking out of scientific magic systems” to be quite helpful when thinking about the distinction between “high” magic full of special effects, and “low” magic, which may be more narrative in form:

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