High or Low – Magic in Writing and RPG’s
When I was writing about fantasy last, see the Not Your Normal Fantasy article, I touched on a concept that I really didn’t have time to flesh out. That what the difference between high and low magic fantasy settings are.
Let’s jump into the top right away because there’s not much need to explain what magic is, but in fantasy, there is generally magic. It isn’t in every case, but in a lot of cases there is some level of magic. That’s where the difference between high and low magic fantasy settings come in. High magic settings, magic is common place. In your most common examples with D&D, there is generally a fair amount of magic, probably more medium magic, but magic isn’t something that’s going to be shocking to most people. Low magic is on the opposite end of the spectrum, magic and magical items – in an RPG – are rare. People covet magic, fight over magic, and things like magical healing are not to be found.
And the article is done. Or I’ll talk about why you might want to pick one setting over another.
First off, consider the story you are trying to tell. How important is magic to it? If magic is important to the plot, and gaining a specific type of magic or a specific magical item, ask yourself then, is that because magic is rare or not. Is the item important because it’s a forgotten relic from long ago with a magic that was long lost, and now a group of wizards are going to be fighting over it? Or was it thought long lost, and now that it’s been found regular people are fighting for it because magic is so scarce. But then again, it’s possible that magic doesn’t matter in your story, is that because magic is common place so it doesn’t stand out as special or because it’s so rare that the two people off to the side of the story who can use it aren’t going to drive the story?
From there you can start fleshing out your world and determining how magic is used, is it swish and flick magic or dancing in a circle under the full moon magic? If you haven’t decided this can also help make your decision. Even if you have a lot of magic users, it can be a world that is harder to influence by magic if the magic only works during a full moon and requires extensive rituals. It could even be that everyone has some form of magic but if the ability to cast magic is too complicated most people won’t do that, creating a low magic world. Or for example, in Harry Potter, magic is simple, but the world as a whole is low magic, we’re just in the high magic part of it for the series, so even with swish and flick magic, it’s been hidden away. Hiding magic is always interesting and can make your world feel more low magic though it could eventually end up being higher magic magic as time goes on, such as if in the world of Harry Potter magic was to be revealed, it would make the whole world feel lower magic in some ways, but higher magic because it isn’t as isolated.
Finally, consider what level of magic you want s you consider where you want the focus of your story to lie. If you’re doing a story about a normal person who makes it big in a world where magic is common and overcomes that perceived deficit, than you’d want to go high magic. But if you don’t want your story to focus on magic, going with a lower magic setting would make sense. It’s possible in that last example that you could have a higher magic world, but magic is just common place, but you have to worry about the restrictions of magic.
In fact, that’s another reason why you want to consider your magic level of your world. In a world with a lot of magic, a lot of problems are going to be solved by magic. Especially in stories about the hero overcoming lack of magic or just overcoming without using magic, you have to set-up a world where magic wouldn’t make that much sense to be used. That means the Harry Potter swish and flick magic might be too simple for your world because it doesn’t expend energy or resources. But if you can only cast a spell from a faerie circle, during a full moon, while dancing around in a circle and doing a chant in the fresh dew, you could have a lot of magic, because that magic is just hard to do. At the same time, if you are using magic, you don’t want to fall the other direction of making it too weak that there would be no reason to do any sort of magic, because the technology of your story works more effectively.
Finally ask yourself where your magic comes from, that is going to make a huge difference. Is it that it’s divine magic and anyone can get access to it if they believe in the right deity whether that deity is good or evil? Or does the magic come from within and some people just inherently have it like in The Magicians or Harry Potter? If you just have to truly believe in a deity, people are going to have magic, and there’s going to be a lot of it because people will believe since they can see very tangible proof. But if it’s an inherent ability, than you can decide how few or many people get to have it based off of how much magic your story needs.
These are just a few things to consider. It is interesting to look at it for books, but as well for RPG’s where you can take something like Dungeons and Dragons and turn it into a low magic setting. What do you do when a player wants to play a Wizard? It can create interesting stories as your players might have a rare character or you might not let them start out as a magical character at all.
What are some examples you like of high or low magic worlds? Have you played in a game where it was very high magic or very low magic?
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