How Magic Works.

In many fantasy worlds the power of magic is not to be denied, and AD&D worlds are no exception. But from whence does this vast power come?

It seems incredible such power may be generated from a single person, particularly to those who have more than an inkling of the laws of physics in regards to the conservation of energy, the laws of thermodynamics, or even a slight understanding of the fantastically tiny amounts of electrochemical energies that actually run the human body. After all, the transformations of matter, the raw energies flung about apparently without much effort, and the movement of large masses over vast distances in a blink of an eye, should take staggering amounts of energy - far more than could ever be justified by the energy from the food intake of a normal individual. So from whence does all that energy come?

Of course, by now, more than a few readers are scoffing at the very idea anyone should be so "concerned" about the whys and whatfors of the behind-the-scene details of a fantasy game. "It doesn't have to make sense - it's just a game, after all," they frequently lament.

Yet, well, let's face it, it really ought to make sense on some level - if at all possible - and even if it's not your cup of tea to ponder such matters, and one is forever glossing over such details - for one's ignorance is bliss, don't you know - it still never hurts for some few to look into these details. After all, even if YOU don't care, you don't have to worry about it or read such articles, so their very existence won't hurt you at all, but if you do care, it's always nice to have some place to go read about these things. For the former, I think you've read enough of this article already, and I apologize for wasting your time, but for the latter individuals, you might find a few thoughts herein that interest you.

Besides, truth be told, the devil is in the details for most any good work of fiction. Bad fiction is full of holes - "inconsistencies," you understand - and good writers will often ponder the details of some behind-the-scene part of their story to ensure these holes are absent, even if they know only the barest portion of such reasoning will ever see the light of day or ever be revealed to the "audience." The very fact it "makes sense" or there are reasons "why" things happen, or happened, will make their work of fiction that much more believable, and thus more engrossing and more enjoyable. So it's not at all uncommon for a writer to write things like entire "histories" for minor characters, even if such characters only briefly appear in the narrative, or to write any other kind of "whys" or "whatfors," since these will ultimately weed out holes or inconsistencies, not to mention they might even suggest deeper motives, reasons, or far more interesting coincidences than one might otherwise hit upon, and by doing so open new possible avenues for the story line. Be that as it may, it's good to have background, reasons, and a firm foundation upon which to write.

NOTE: Realistic details are also important for roleplaying games so the players, via their characters, may intelligently navigate the fictional terrain. That is, if things don't have to make a lick of sense, how can anyone hope to figure things out? They can't, so the more realism included, the more likely clever players may ascertain the truth, which will help them determine the course their characters will take. Otherwise it's just a series of meaningless or random actions as the GM toys with the characters and the players have little choice but to endure it, or seek a better run game or more deftly written setting.

I don't know about you, but it's hard for me to enjoy anything - like a book or a movie - if they do some things so contrary to known facts or common sense, that it's like finding a turd in the punch bowl. One can't help but be distracted and annoyed by such mistakes, and lose the ability to remain immersed in "the moment" of the story, even if only for a little while. And as such I find it impossible to get "caught up" in the story since I'm constantly being reminded it's obviously ill conceived and badly written, or they simply don't know what the hell they are talking about. I realize not everybody is like that, but many are, and I think it's safe to say even if somebody enjoys such a badly written story, it'll probably never win much acclaim as a "great" piece of fiction if such mistakes run rampant throughout its entirety, particularly if such mistakes are the very foundation upon which the entire story is built.

Magic is no different. It ought to make sense on some level. This is not to say it must be 100% correct - so correct, in fact, one wonders why magic isn't "real," or doesn't "really" work in the "real" world - but it should make sense, under certain given and stated premises. Therefore, anything contrary to known laws of physics - in science fiction, or in fantasy, as well - should be explained, at least in passing, even if one is a bit vague on sufficient details to actually make it real. Failure to do this, and the whole of the story might crumble. Such is the folly of building upon sand.

Magical power - and how it works in AD&D - is the main topic of this piece, so let's get to it. Only one more aside, though, before we do. It should be noted nothing I say here is "official," and certainly it shouldn't be considered the "only" possible way one might explain such details. These thoughts are just one man's take on the subject - albeit they have the virtue of having been tossed around and play tested for decades by many individuals, and to date they have proven adequate for most of our purposes, so perhaps they will work for you, as well.

To start, we ponder the brain; it's a weak, 3-pound lump of wet matter with a multitude of convoluted interconnections within which minute electrochemical signals run about. Though these signals and impulses number in the millions upon millions, their total energy is quite tiny in comparison to something like a 25-watt light bulb. In short, it's not really a lot of potential energy for doing actual "work," in the scientific sense of the word. Thus, any justification for the brain being the actual source of a spell's power - for magic, or even psionics - is faulty on its face. The human brain simply doesn't contain that kind of energy.

However, like a tiny pebble falling upon other rocks and starting a cascading effect that grows into an avalanche, we see it's possible that from tiny things, huge consequences may follow. Still, simply tossing a pebble on a pile of rocks will, more often than not, hardly cause an avalanche. That is, unless, of course, one "knows" exactly where to toss it. This doesn't take more energy, you understand - just more knowledge and precision.

The arcane spell caster studies the multiverse - this universe (the PMP, or Prime Material Plane) and all other known planes of existence. The very existence of these planes is axiomatic to AD&D - that is, a given, basic premise of our fantasy universe - and as such, we may use this and build upon it.

For our purposes, then, we may define technology and science as things confined to the prime material plane - the PMP being what we are aware of in the real world - i.e. the planets, stars and solar systems, and galaxies. The useful flow of energy while confined to the PMP is a good way to define such "mundane" things. Even better, bridging over to other planes of existence is an excellent way to define what we will call "magic." Most anything that exhibits a "multiplanar" nature will be defined as magic.

NOTE: It's of particular interest to note that, once one escapes the confines of the prime material plane, the "normal" laws of physics do not necessarily have to hold. For example, while confined to the PMP, it's a given nothing may travel faster than the speed of light, but on other planes of existence - particularly the astral and ethereal planes - this is not true. The limiting speed there may be much higher, or perhaps there is no limiting speed at all. Also, most of physics deals with "closed" systems in time and/or space, and if allowed to bridge over to other planes of existence, these systems no longer remain closed, and it's not uncommon to see things like a mass gain or loss, an energy gain or loss, and the like. The very nature of the multidimensional AD&D universe allows us this freedom. And, of course, naturally enough, when things seem to break the laws of the normal world, this is almost the very definition of magic. But I digress.

Now this next part isn't particularly necessary to explain magic, but I enjoy using it since it has the advantage of explaining why some worlds are very magical, while Earth, for example, is not - and we assume Earth is not by virtue of the fact we don't see real wizards casting real spells with real demonstrable effects under scientifically reproducible conditions - i.e. there is no actual evidence for real magic.

NOTE: If you're one of those sorts who actually believe magic is real - in the same sense an AD&D character would think that magic is real and demonstrable - then, IMHO, you have issues you should address, but for our purposes here, since I've never been witness to any real magic, myself, my assumption is that magic is not real in much the same way Monopoly money is not legal U.S. tender, and anyone who thinks it is, is probably delusional. Most so-called magic that people do believe in is probably nothing more than slight-of-hand, or drugged induced effects, or the simple power of suggestion, though the lattermost, in and of itself, may be quite powerful - but it's not really magic in the AD&D sense of the word. Anyway . . .

One explanation as to why the Earth is not so magical, while many fantasy worlds are magical, is that the fabric of space is thinner, or weaker, on those worlds than it is here on Earth. I liken this to a cracked mirror or window, but only in three dimensions, the spidery filaments, or cracks, or tendrils, radiating outward from the center of each galaxy. These cracks cannot be seen by the naked eye, but they may be discerned in other ways.

As a rough rule of thumb, we assume 99% of all solar systems lie outside these cracks and in normal space, but perhaps a full 1% of all solar systems reside inside these cracks, or "tendril space," where the fabric of space is much thinner - that is, the barrier between planes of existence is easier to bridge. It's kind of like the difference between going through a concrete wall or a paper wall.

On worlds in tendril space, if you know how - i.e. you know where to toss the pebble, OR might happen upon it by accident - one can bridge the barrier between this plane (the PMP) and another. It takes far less energy on a magical world to do this than it would, for example, on Earth, which is one possible explanation for why some worlds are rich in magic, while others are not.

Of course, if one wanted to think of Earth as a magical world, one could assume it was within tendril space, but the knowledge of how to bridge the planes has been lost to antiquity. Even worlds in tendril space may not boast magically advanced civilizations. The mere potential for this discovery doesn't necessitate its discovery, after all. I dislike thinking of Earth as magical, however, since it's also possible to happen upon these bridges by accident - even frequently enough that animals may do it, and thus magical factors may become an evolutionary consideration for a species' development. That is, worlds inside tendril space would likely have lots of magical creatures on them, too, and not just mundane ones, like whales, bears, elephants, etc. that employ no discernible magic at all. If Earth were within tendril space and the arcane arts had just been forgotten or not yet discovered, we'd still likely see many magical creatures, like dragons, beholders, griffons, pegasi, etc. Yet we don't. Hence, Earth is most probably outside tendril space. Of course it may have only recently drifted outside of tendril space, which also might account for some legendary tales or mythical and magical folklore, which still resides within our collective memories as a race, though we no longer see these magical races since they have all left or died out since Earth has left tendril space. But I now seriously digress.

In any event, a brain well schooled in the arcane arts, through dint of clever manipulation and understanding, may use tiny amounts of energy it clearly does posses to set into motion certain effects - pretty much like knowing where to toss that pebble.

Over the centuries, the arcane arts have been refined to the point where, upon most magical worlds in tendril space, spell casters have many routines down to a fine art, and can conjure actual effects, however minor, with the power of their minds. But make no mistake, for the power it takes to bring a desired effect to fruition does not come entirely from the brain, but from elsewhere. Similarly, the power of an avalanche does not come from the brain, but from gravity and the gravitational potential energy locked up in those rocks or all that snow. You only tossed a tiny pebble or a small snowball in just the right spot to get things going, after all.

Still, it's not quite that simple, either. It often takes more than a single pebble to move mountains, normally, even if you know where to toss it. Luckily, through various discoveries, arcane spell casters have hit upon a few decent tricks. I'm not talking about actual spells, whole and complete, but what I call triggers, or routines, or even subroutines, or operators, or functions. They, by themselves, do not even rise to the level of what we'd call "cantrips." These triggers are not spells, but components of spells - not to be confused with a spell's material, verbal, or somatic components. It is through the use of several triggers, in the proper order, and at the proper time, and shaped by the use of the proper verbal, somatic, or material components, that the whole of the effort may be called a spell.

There are a variety of triggers, or means, to "get the ball rolling," and these different basic approaches often constitute entirely different approaches to magic (or even psionics) - so a wizard is not a sorcerer is not a bard is not a psionicist - despite them all being arcane spell casters, more or less. Similarly, an elven mage is not a human mage is not a dwarven mage is not a spellcasting dragon, and you might sometimes note there are slight differences between races in how they use magic, or what they may accomplish with it. Regardless of how similar a lot of their spells may appear, they are not always identical, nor interchangeable, and, if written upon scrolls, for example, can rarely be read by one of a different class than the class of the person who actually penned them. For example, a wizard cannot read the Cure Light Wounds spell a bard has written upon a scroll. The disciplines of bard and wizard, though both are primarily arcane in nature, are not always entirely arcane - there are a few divine aspects to the bardic approach, you see, such that their Cure Light Wounds spell is not truly an arcane one, but a divine one. In fact, this is just one of the best examples of differences between class spells, though in truth most bard spells are sufficiently different from most wizard spells and most sorcerer spells, and vice versa, that they cannot share each other scrolls, spellbooks (if they use them), or even spells or spell research - i.e. a bard can't teach a wizard a spell, even if both share that spell on their respective spell lists at the same level, since they have fundamentally different approaches to how it works.

No matter the approach, the actual mechanics are surprisingly similar, even if not interchangeable amongst classes. Thus, using such a trigger mechanism, the "pebble" is tossed - or perhaps two, or three, or more, and in the proper sequence, and at the proper time.

NOTE: Also, though the difference in triggers are great enough that different classes cannot share spells, subsequent steps are sufficiently identical that one might use their version of a spell to "counter-spell" a similar spell of a different class.

Now, once tossed, the pebbles do begin to cause a sort of chain reaction - like you tell two friends, they tell two friends each, they each tell two friends, and so on, and so on, until in very short order, theoretically, millions of people may know. This "energy" is not coming from one's brain or body or even the soul or spirit, but from the universe at large - it is potential planar energy that is unlocked by a trigger. But that's just the beginning. Another trigger may be used on top of the first, though the second one is not set in motion by the energy of the mind, but instead set in motion by the energy the mind has already harnessed from the first trigger. And then another step, and another - each, perhaps, bridging a gap between a different plane of existence, many of which have unique properties - like various elemental planes, quasi-elemental planes, or positive or negative material planes, for example. Through the use of a spell's verbal, material, and/or somatic components, these minor triggers of energy may be shaped and used to open bigger gaps, start more cascades, subsequently bridge harder to obtain states of energy in other planes or achieve greater threshold energies necessary to reach deeper and deeper planes, or just open the gaps wider and wider, thus allowing more energy to flow through, and finally, perhaps, open a door to the ultimate desired type or form of energy (like the elemental plane of fire for a Fireball, or ice for an Ice Storm, or water for a Create Water spell, or air for a Gust of Wind, for example).

So, to reiterate, a little brain power and knowledge starts a cascading effects, which releases potential planar energy, which in turn may be used to release more (dislodge even bigger rocks), which in turn may be used to release more (dislodge boulders), etc. until one has enough energy at their command that, if properly shaped and directed, can, hopefully, produce desirable effects.

Over the years, the arcane practitioner has learned the hard way that they must use some of this energy to shield their own brain - lest their mental manipulations of such quantities of raw energy fry their synapses. Even with such protections, however, they cannot escape the inevitable consequences of touching upon that kind of power with their mind, and like an epileptic's brain that misfires electrical impulses throughout the brain - often causing them to not remember the event even took place - the spell caster's brain is similarly tossed into electrical chaos - or, that is, it would be, if they had not taken the precaution of setting up partitions of their brain using some of the very energy they harnessed to partially protect themselves. Still, for the active portion of the brain where they prepared the particular spell in question, once used, the mind there is scrambled. Not necessarily harmed, but wiped clean, its memory of the event, a hazy recollection at best. This is why, after casting a spell, a wizard "forgets" the spell, and has to prepare it anew - but only after sufficient time for the brain to rest has passed. And though bards and sorcerers with spontaneous casting also suffer similar effects, their approach is different enough such that they may use that spell again, though from a different part of the brain. So you see, each "spell slot" gets scrambled upon its use, and only proper rest or meditation may calm that area of the brain before it can be used for spell casting again.

And so we see, gentle readers, that the amounts of sheer energy required to move mountains, freeze water, melt steel, or transport hundreds of pounds of matter, does not, in fact, come from the brain itself. That would be silly. No, it comes from a careful, knowledgeable, manipulation of the universe and the potential energies locked up therein.

NOTE: Real world "science" is a tool, a method, or an approach to discovery. Science is a way to learn about the nature of most anything and not delude oneself since it has safeguards built in, like testability, falsifiability, repeatability, etc. and other scientific criteria upon which science insist so it may separate fact from fiction or delusion. Yet, given the axiomatic nature of a AD&D universe, it would be wrong to think that upon such worlds science was somehow inconsistent with or different from magic. In fact, magic users would essentially be scientists - i.e. people who study the universe and its laws. My point is, though much more could be said about this distinction, it is sufficient to know that thinking of magic and science as somehow "inconsistent" would be a mistake. They are not incompatible.

Knowing all this won't, of course, help you a great deal, and you sure won't be able to capitalize on this information to make real spells work in the real world, but with it, you have, perhaps, a greater appreciation for what magic users are doing, and the kind of intelligence, knowledge, and training necessary to manipulate the universe at large, and the sorts of time and training it takes to ply this craft. Perhaps it will put arcane magic users in a new light and spark a few new ideas for your game. Perhaps not. If not, oh well, you aren't out much for having read this.

To be complete, now, I'll say a few words about divine magic (different from arcane) and then about magical creatures.

Divine magic is different from arcane magic inasmuch as clerics and other practitioners of divine magic do not come by their spells through an understanding of the universe at large, but from their covenant with their God. Their God understands the universe, to an extent, and His/Her/Its magic has a similar basis as arcane magic, though decidedly different triggers, a different approach, and access to, we assume, an entirely different form of energy - that borne of the life energy of living worshipers. The more worshipers on a particular planet, the more powerful that God is on that planet - or at least, the more powerful their presence or avatars.

The divine spell caster understands their God, Their philosophy and teachings, Their desires, wants, and needs, and through this communion with their God, the Deity grants spells unto those who have proven themselves worthy to wield such power in Their name - i.e. the higher the cleric's level, the more they have proven themselves, the more spells God entrusts to them. God does not make the spells work or fail on a case-by-case basis, but trusts the clerics to use them properly and gives them freely, upon request - assuming the mind is properly rested and prepared to accept the spells. The spells are like little packages, waiting to be opened by the cleric when and where the cleric sees fit. Of course, if it comes to light a cleric is using such spells in a manner inconsistent with that God's teachings, the cleric may incur the wrath of that God, and quickly find themselves denied further use of certain spells, or worse - unless or until proper atonement is achieved.

The point is, unlike an arcane spell caster, a divine spell caster doesn't really understand the inner workings of the spells they employ. They understand their effects, but not how they work, much the same way most people understand a T.V. set and know what will happen if you plug it in and turn it on, but have insufficient knowledge to repair one, let alone build one.

Unlike most PC spell casters, magical creatures and animals rarely understand the magic they employ (intelligent magical creatures are, naturally, often an exception). Most often, through some mutation in their physiognomy or racial make-up, they accidentally hit upon a means to tap into the energy of the planes, bridge that barrier, and produce some effect. If it's a survival trait, they may pass it along to their offspring, just like one might for more mundane, but advantageous mutations.

For example, the pegasus doesn't really fly by use of its undersized wings, so much as it magically levitates. Its wings, at best, don't produce enough lift to get that much mass airborne, let alone provide sufficient lift for a rider and their equipment, as well, but the wings are strong enough to allow it to "swim" though the sky, once the levitation ability has nullified the worst effects of gravity. Note, also, the pegasus must continue to flap its wings in order to sustain the levitation ability, which explains why they cannot simply hover in the air like a balloon without moving. Oddly enough, the abilities of many magical creatures are deceptive in this manner, and frequently not what they appear to be at first glance. Only a careful study of the creature might reveal such facts, however, so it's not too surprising that many people erroneously think they know how something works, when, in fact, they don't.

Similarly, many magical creatures have hit upon a means to produce other magical effects. A dragon's fire breath, an elf's infravision, a blink dog's blinking ability, etc. are just a few examples of multiplanar - or magical - effects, and these abilities have become second nature to them, and their use instinctual to such creatures.

It should be noted, however, that most often such magical abilities, while they may enhance a creature's abilities, are rarely necessary for a creature's actual survival. Why? It just so happens that magical connections are often naturally interrupted. Dispel Magic, or Anti Magic Shell, spells are examples of artificial interruptions, but such things also occur naturally from time to time. If a creature's very life depended upon continued functioning of such an effect, and it quit, even temporarily, they would die. So you see, if an elf temporarily loses their infravision for a few minutes, this is no big deal, but if a giant lost the ability to keep his giant heart pounding, he'd die, so most such magical abilities are what we call of secondary concern, and not of primary concern.

It might also, finally, be noted that certain areas on a planet may be richer in certain, magical, planar effects, and this might tend to effectively make invisible "fences" that would keep magical animals on their home grounds. They might die if they left those grounds and lost their magical abilities for too long. I only mention this as it helps explain why animals sometimes refuse to move or be chased away, even when confronted with deadly force, for they know that to leave would result in their death anyway. But this isn't actually all that common an occurrence amongst magical beasts - it's just a consideration.

NOTE: It may even be the case, if the game master so wishes, that some races may have an extra ability or advantage, but only as long as they reside within their native grounds, or upon their home fields. Just as a suggestion, it may be said the race of elves have "infravision", but only while on their native islands - or mountains, or woods, or whatever seems plausible - and if an individual of that race should venture from these lands, they would temporarily lose such an ability. Such ideas might help explain why, for example, the majority of such a race "prefers" to stay at home and not dwell in other areas, or it might help explain why a race is so powerful and many fear to tread uninvited upon their lands. After all, imagine the disadvantage normal humans would have to elves in the woods at night if the elves had infravision and could see virtually everything - not only as good as in daylight, but better - as "targets" stood out like beacons in the night.

One advantage to this notion is that a PC from such race might not always have such an advantage as they adventure around the world, and this sort of helps game balance since they only have that power while at home. Finally, this idea might also help explain why clerics or wizards could be more powerful - than normal - while at home, where it would be assumed they built their temple/keep upon an area wherein they have a magical boost. It makes taking people on while they reside on their home stomping grounds a much more difficult proposition, while not forcing the GM to hand out extra magic items (that might normally explain such power boosts). However you slice it, just keep it in mind that certain areas may have advantages (or even weaknesses) for certain individuals. Walking into such areas can have unusual and interesting effects, particularly if one isn't aware of the area and its effects before it's too late.

NOTE: As an aside to the notion of magical areas or geographical considerations to the relative strength of magical effects, stationary magic - i.e. magic items or magical effects that do not move - are often easier and cheaper to make than mobile magic, or magic that can be initiated anywhere one happens to be. Thus, through a careful and often necessarily lengthy study of a particular and unique area, magical effects could be managed for less money, or take a lesser spell caster to achieve them. In this way, fixed fortifications or magical or magically enhanced social infrastructures - that normally would require incredibly high-level magic users to initiate, or have prohibitive costs associated with them - might be accomplished more easily and more frequently, and thus many wonderfully interesting additions to the game world become more plausible and probable, and therefore more realistic, as long as they are stationary. For example, a spell to bring water from the elemental plane of water to the PMP would normally be quite limited, but if fixed at a particular location, it could bring in greater quantities of water than a spell caster could normally achieve for their level. Similarly, the long-held stronghold of a spell caster might seem to have greater power defending it than a spell caster of their level might warrant, but this is because they have taken the time to study the area at length, researched specialized spells for that area - which won't work in other areas, mind you - and set up a few extra, albeit stationary defenses. So, for example, one might wonder why a wizard's keep was defended with a few 10 dice Fireball spell traps, even though that wizard wasn't capable of casting 10 dice Fireballs. These, and many other similar effects, could be achieved by relatively lower-level spell casters - and used in numerous and clever ways by GMs - thus making a society more magical, yet still more plausible and realistic, than one heavily populated with incredibly high-level magical users almost seemingly on every other street corner. But I digress. Yet, if you like this particular digression, you may enjoy the following link.

Stationary Magic (Stationary Magic Adds Interesting Realism And Flavor To One's Game World.)

Divine spell casters and magical creatures aside, I think it's important to know a little bit more about what arcane magic is and why and how it works, so I hope you've gotten a few ideas from reading this article, and I hope you may find use for them in your game - even if they are nothing more than a "reason" why something happens on your world, and the characters never really understand why (though you might, after a time, enjoy telling your players why, if they're so inclined to listen).

Happy Gaming ;-)

© December of 2005
James L.R. Beach
Waterville, MN 56096