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The Nature of Magic

by Shawn R Johnson

[Please Note: This post is somewhat large, so the Intro. is intended to give the reader a good idea of what kind of material follows (so the reader can more easily decide if she/he wants to read the longer post or not).]


The discussion of 3E Sorcerer magic last week has prompted me to post something I concocted a while ago because I felt magic in D&D and AD&D had little or no continuity. I felt the theory behind magic (more or less as explained in the 2E PHB, chapter 7) was sound, but it seemed to lack continuity between various types of magic (wizard, priest, psionics, and the various innate powers of monsters and races). I wanted all magic to be simply a part of a greater whole. I have always gotten the impression that magic in AD&D is a pervasive force, all-encompassing and universal.
To this end, I decided that in my Mystara setting, ALL types of magic-using beings would draw their power from one ultimate, fundamental source of magic. In addition, I wanted to create a rules guideline which would allow lots of variety in the various cultures' magical arts, but I did not want to end up creating new magic rules for each new culture I might introduce. The following premise on magical continuity for D&D/AD&D games will address both of the above needs. The first section describes the core concept; the sections which follow describe its cultural implications and its manifestations on Mystara, respectively.


Behind reality as the player-characters know it, there is a sort of internal "skeleton", over which reality exists like skin atop muscle and bone. This "skeleton" can best be envisioned as an unseen essence that pervades all parts of the universe, DIRECTLY linking everything to every other thing in a strange, non-Euclidean way.
All the physical laws of the universe are simply reflections of the true, background laws that govern this universal essence. The average Mystaran can only perceive normal reality, but on occasion, someone is born with the ability to sense the universal essence.
Along with sensing the essence, many are also born with a natural affinity to manipulate it as well. A person with a higher-degree of innate attunement will be able to create more powerful magic and will learn magic more quickly than those with less attunement. ALL magic-using beings share the innate abilities to sense and manipulate the essence. Likewise, almost all those "gifted" with these abilities must receive training in arcane (wizardly) or divine (clerical) magic in order to learn how to manipulate the essence with finesse.
This is because inborn ability can alter the essence only enough to create minor effects. Although spellcasters often learn a great deal of theory and technique on how to create magic, the ONLY thing they learn that has any real effect on the essence, is how to focus their minds. Certain exercises serve to hone the spellcaster's concentration, and to help develop a greater awareness and finer control of their natural talents. These improvements then translate into progressively more complex and powerful magical effects (i.e. spells).


Magica, or all that has to do with magic, is extremely diverse on most D&D/AD&D game worlds and Mystara is no exception.
The reason for this is that Mystarans, just like the inhabitants on other worlds, have yet to truly realise from where this power comes. Since the ability to perceive the essence is not visual (per se-a minor magical effect can easily make it visual), but rather, is more like the senses of touch and hearing, it is not hard to fathom how Mystarans would mistakenly credit all manner of things for the gift of magic. From evil spirits and forces of nature, to the Immortals, almost every possible idea has found acceptance somewhere. What a given society will choose as the giver or source of their magic is largely determined by the culture. But most societies have erroneously drawn the conclusion that certain gestures and sounds that occurred when a magic effect was first achieved, are required to reproduce the same effect. Little do they know that it is only a coincidence that those gestures and sounds occurred at the same time that the "caster" successfully tapped the essence using ONLY his/ her natural talents. However, in most magic-using societies, a great body of superstition and arcane dogma has arisen around the topic of creating magic "properly", which merely serves to obscure the truth further still.


As is the case on most worlds, Mystara's magic tends to divide mostly into two factions around divine (clerical) and arcane (wizardly) magic. All those whom believe magic is a gift from the Immortals, use many of the 2nd Edit. priest spells as their core magical powers. Arcane practitioners likewise have 2nd Edit. wizard spells as a core "spell book" from which to choose their "spells".

Divine Magic
For the sake of "realism" and to lend flavour and diversity to the various cultures, I allow very few "generic" priests (clerics). All Mystaran priests are 'of a specific mythoi' as per pgs.34-35 of the 2nd Edit. handbook. Priests of a particular faith will only be taught spells known by that faith or an affiliated faith of the same or similar mythos. New spells are not "researched" as with wizards, but rather someone in the faith must have a series of "visions" (where meditation takes the place of research-since refined mental focus can enhance one's natural gift) and it is this "prophet" who teaches others the new "spell". Priests also do not tend to learn spells outside their initial faith or mythos, unless they convert to a new faith (in part or whole). This leads to some faiths were there are no healing spells (due usually to the mythos being contrary to it). Strangely, there are even some faiths that use "spells" normally only used by practitioners of arcane magic forms. Not overly odd to priests though, as they, and much of the general populace, tend to believe that even arcane magic is divinely bestowed but that wizards unknowingly serve deities that embody the various elemental forces of nature.

Arcane Magic
Adherents to arcane magic, however, believe that they can control "the elements" through the use of special materials, gestures, and sounds.
There is also a sizeable segment of "arcanists" that believe they are only indirectly controlling these forces by "binding spirits" to their will (shamans' magic often takes this form), but this is just one of many theories used to explain magic. Over time, the sundry areas of arcane knowledge have been greatly expanded. These various schools of thought each centre on a different type of magic and almost all arcanists follow one school to the exclusion of the others. Known as the arcane disciplines, they roughly match the function of the schools of magic in the 2nd Edit. PHB, but they also include five universal forces whose domains overlap the areas of magic the schools represent.
These five forces directly correspond to the five Immortal spheres of Matter, Thought, Energy, Time, and Entropy. Although most arcanists dabble outside of the discipline in which they have expertise, few can actually master more than one discipline. Most arcanists believe this is because a certain methodology or technique favours one type of magic or disfavours another type, but the real reason is that the theories, methods, and techniques of each arcane discipline are SO diverse that it becomes extremely difficult for an arcanist to successfully learn more than one. Still, Mystara has an unusually strong "concordance" with the essence, so a great many Mystarans are born with the ability to create magic and more than a few of them will achieve incredible heights of power. But even among those made powerful by magic, there is one people that stands above all others -the Alphatians.

Concordance with the Essence
The multitudes of Alphatia have an obvious aptitude for magic as well as genuine flair when it comes to its application. These magi have developed myriad forms of magic; more than a few of them are known nowhere else on (or inside) Mystara.
Powerful Alphatian mages may have even tapped so directly into the essence that they unleashed the terrible forces that destroyed Alphatia! "True dweomers", which are the same magical effects that enspell artifacts, WERE known to their elite. Being the result of a nearly pure interaction with the essence, these "spells" can create extraordinarily powerful magic.
The floating ships and isles for which Alphatian magi are famous are some lesser examples of such magic. But despite their accomplishments, they have yet to grasp the full truth of magic's actual source. Magic theory in Alphatia does hold that a mage taps into some sort of "pool" of magic power that exists outside normal reality, but it incorrectly clings to the notion that special materials, gestures, and sounds are necessary to access that energy. And although they are aware that the force of their minds is instrumental in using this magic power, they do not yet understand it is the ONLY thing accessing and shaping the source of the magic! Nevertheless, there are those to whom such an interaction with the essence is as simple and ordinary as breathing.

Shapers of the Essence
There are some who have discerned magic's true nature. Of these, 3 major examples are described below. First will be the inward searching mystics, Sorcerers-the self-taught magi, are second, and lastly will be the sage elves, the greatest of Mystara's essence shapers.
A great many mystics share a similar philosophy; that of achieving inner serenity, through what they call a "oneness" with the universe. They teach that if one "listens" closely enough, they can hear the universe "speaking" to them. Superior insights can then be gained from taking note of what the universe is "saying". Mystics use this knowledge to perform extraordinary and fantastic feats with their bodies. One specific example of mystics are those of Sind, who practice similar meditative techniques and have learned many of the powers that 2nd Edit. AD&D describes as psionics.
A rare few people have been know to develop magical abilities on their own. Though known by many names throughout Mystara, their powers are identical to the Sorcerer (a new mage-like class in Third Edition D&D). These "Sorcerers" are Mystarans born with an unusually high attunement with and instinctive comprehension of the essence. With such a high capacity for magic, it is effortless for those so gifted to experiment on their own and thus refine their inherent magical skills. These "wild talents" can still receive training but often dislike it as it is so different from the usual approach they use to create magic, that they either quit (and just continue to learn on their own) or are forced to totally relearn everything they know about magic.
There is one difference that sets Mystaran Sorcerers far apart from those of other worlds-they can create magical effects identical to any arcane, divine, or psionic spell [players may choose spells from all three lists]. To reflect the nature of learning through experimentation, Sorcerers suffer a penalty when learning "spells" that have no commonalities (are of same school/discipline, sphere, etc.) with spells they already know. Sorcerers are second only to one other group when it comes to truly understanding and being in "concordance" with the universal essence.
When it comes to being in harmony with the essence, the Elves are the unsurpassed masters on Mystara. Elves, from their very first moments of existence, have an intimate relationship with the natural environment. Their philosophy, their customs, their magic-all revolves around the knowledge that they are only one small part of a great tapestry of life. The elves pay homage to the essence as a surging lifeforce that flows through everything like the "life's blood" of the universe.
Every living thing helps generate this lifeforce, so they also believe it is weakened when death and decay overshadow life and growth. It is by drawing upon this vast lifeforce that they are able to create magical effects of enormous strength, duration and scale. Their union with nature is such that every single elf is born sensing the universal essence. Those with a greater intrinsic aptitude become Keepers, druid-like protectors of the sacred life groves (which "anchor" and focus huge amounts of essence for use in very large scale magic).
As someone suggested on the mailing list, elves would be best represented as Sorcerer -class characters, but keep in mind their mythos when choosing spells for them. They would use a wide variety of "spells", but all would reflect their closeness with nature and the forest. Elven mentors teach students (of the essence) to refine their powers through deep meditation and have centuries-old techniques that assist in this process. The elves' harmony and understanding of the lifeforce also makes them peerless healers.
An elven healer in proximity to the life groves is one of a select few Mystarans capable of resurrecting the dead.

All those whom use magic have uncovered some small part of its true source. Those who have ascribed credit to both divinity and the forces of nature are both right and both wrong. Deities do represent and are empowered by the background components of the universe (Matter, Thought, Energy, etc.) which subsequently comprise the essence. Similarly, the forces of nature are, in fact, surface manifestations of the essence. So in a sense, divinity and natural forces do power magic, if only as conduits from its true source.

I hope the premise above has been of some use.
If anyone is interested in more info about the magic "disciplines" I use IMC (or anything else I mentioned), please feel free to email me directly.