Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Cause and Effect

I’ve been continuing to work on Et in Arcadia Ego, my Regency-magicians game. The current issue is how the magic in the game should work. For magic to be weird and a bit wild, it has to strain the boundaries of something very important to a story-game: cause and effect.

Apocalypse World, to take an example, makes this very clear: the nature of a failure, qualified success, or success depends on the particular nature of the events that led to the roll. This encourages you to narrate the events both before and after the roll in good detail, and makes things feel fleshed out.

The essential nature of magic, though, violates this idea. In a normal situation, you do ABC and you get XYZ. When casting a spell, you do ♄♏☃ and you get XY❦.1 There’s an intentional disconnect between the cause and the effect, as far as a non-magical person can see, in any case. Many words for magic get at this very point: occult from Latin occultus, ‘secret’, arcane ultimately from Latin arcere, ‘hidden in a chest or box’, and mystical from Greek mystikos (μυστικος), ‘secret, mystical’. The very nature of magic is to be obscure and hidden in terms of how cause leads to effect.

And that’s our problem. If magic violates normal cause-and-effect, then it becomes easy to gloss over the ritual—after all, you have an Intent and you’ll get some Effect, but it’s not clear how Initiation and Execution connect them. So you can start to forget those steps. Put another way, “to do it, do it” is as good a principle as ever, but it’s not clear what actual actions you take to make a spell happen.

So the approach I’m taking is this: each part of a spell (in this game, that means each of the Major Arcana) has an effect, of course, like a spell in any game you’ve seen. But it also has a list of elements you must incorporate to cast the spell. It tells you part of what “doing the spell” looks like. In so doing, I hope it also evokes the setting, and hints at the ways magic works in the world. And most importantly, this should remind you of how cool a spell’s execution can be, so you describe it.

As a final note, a spell, therefore, has two components: a set of execution-elements and a set of effects. There is a difference between them, though, that is not (yet) explicit in the rules. The execution-elements are suggestive, while the effects are constraining. This is something I want to think about more in the future. Fiasco put the idea in my head originally, and it’s been growing. I think that any system has room for both.

  1. If those unicode characters don’t show up for you: you do Saturn-Scorpio-Snowman and get XY-fleuron. Forgive me, I have a weakness for weird characters. []

7 responses to “Cause and Effect”

  1. Would it be useful to somehow systemically reward player characters when they execute their magic in interesting ways with some sort of prestige or appreciation of their style among their peers?

    1. That’s something I’ve considered. Like a Primetime Adventures-style fanmail system just for magic. It might still be a good idea, but currently, there’s no clear bit of mechanics to hang that benefit off of.

      Thanks for reminding me of that possibility, though.

      1. If each spell has a set of execution elements then you could make some compulsory and some optional and give them grades of difficulty and flair. Then you reward the player based on which elements were included. You could also say that a layman is more impressed by a easy but showy element while a fellow magician is won over by the difficult though sedate elements.

        1. That last bit is an especially interesting tweak, giving magic a social dimension.

          One thing I want to be clear on, that it would be easy to fall into but that I want to avoid, is that magic is not, necessarily, a big World-of-Darkness-style secret. It may be, but that’s not the assumption. You remind me that this point should make its way into the text.

          1. Even if there’s no big secret or grand conspiracy there’ll still naturally be some people who know more and some who know less, right?

          2. Exactly. Your comment surprised me because it encoded the assumption that a non-magician might see or know of magic, which I realized was correct and in line with what I had told myself and then forgotten.

          3. It’s the term “magician” you see, makes me think of someone playing to an audience. Even if they’re not actually on stage, it’s more public and showy than mage, wizard, magi, sorecerer etc.