What can magic do? Anything? What, then, can any given magic-user do? Everything?
Any fantasy RPG that puts magic in has to answer that question. The above, by the way, are wrong answers.
It’s a thing that I notice occasionally, in fantasy fiction, and in cough certain RPGs, that magic quickly becomes the only thing that matters. Clever magic systems, clever magic uses, powerful magic users, and so on become the event horizon that devours everything else. The things that contribute to this, I think, include the denigration of skill and what it can accomplish, no limits on the scope of magic’s accomplishments, and an acceleration of the rate at which it achieves them. Certain problems with 3.X notwithstanding, this also ends up producing something that I don’t prefer aesthetically.
What do I see as the major mistakes to avoid?
- Magic has no effect or outcome outside of its scope – any possible effect you want can be achieved.
- Magic has free and immediate effect, meaning there won’t be circumstances where the magic solution isn’t an option.
- Magic has nothing mystical about it – it’s a technology of perfectly repeatable mechanistic effects (frequently with no cost), becoming a kind of pseudo-physics (or as often, pseudo-high-energy-physics) complete with jargon (c.f. Exalted’s motonic physics).
- Skill-based actions have limits based on a less permissive view of what can be accomplished, or a resolution system that ends up behaving punitively when engaged with.
Here’s how I try to avoid them:
Magic has a limited set of areas of effect (the pre-defined Arts). There’s room for expansion of the list, but any given Art has a well-defined area of effect (which combines with the fact that any given character has a maximum number of Arts they can know, and must eventually balance learning further Arts and advancing in power with those they currently know). Each art has a list of specific instant techniques, and that’s all you get. Unless you’re a magician… then you get ritual magic, an ability to create variations upon your chosen themes. In balance, they have a heavy cost in time – the lowest-power ritual takes ten minutes, which is the length of a dungeon delve/exploration turn.
The re-mysticization of magic is an item that I haven’t tried to make mechanical (the irony would be a bit much). With design, I resist making magic into a physics – for example, Conveyance is about motion through space, and so should handle haste-like and teleportation effects (note to self: put enhanced movement stuff in), but it is not general space-bending magic. In play I prefer to handle this via narration – having the player describe the trappings of magic-workings, having nearby factors influence the results, and so on. The player’s intent is respected, but the fiction is not mechanistic.