First, let me address the matter of the question. When talking about a designing a role-playing game and the role that magic in the role-playing game will take, we must first decide on what questions we are asking ourselves. Several questions come to my mind. First, what is magic? What is it, not only in fantasy and reality, but also in the role-playing sub-culture? What will it be in my game world or system? The second question is “Why do I want it in the game system?” Why do I need or want magic in the game I’m designing? Third, how does it work in my game system? How do I want it to work in my game?
The most basic definition of magic, according to Webster’s New College Dictionary (1981 edition), is “a display of power from a source unknown to the observer.” By this simple definition, we can see many things that are “magic” in history. Any miracle of God seen by a non-believer could be called magic. Any supernatural activity performed by demonic forces can be called magic. Slight of hand or tricks of illusion by a performer can be called magic. Finally, any force of nature not known to the observer could be called magic. So, magic in reality and fantasy is any force or power unknown to the observer.
Modern day Christians have the luxury of knowing, for the most part, what the powers and forces that we observe are. Subsequently, by virtue of our knowledge and insight, we don’t experience much magic in this world. If we observe demonic and occult powers, we should call them demonic and not mislabel them as magic. If we witness a miracle of God, do we call it magic? No, for we as educated Christians know what it is, and give the glory for it to God. Magic is a good word with a great definition, but over time in the Church it has taken on a very bad meaning of demonic power, because of misuse by intellectually lazy pastors and teachers. A synonym for magic that I like is “Wonders.” Now that’s a cool King James word. Derived from the question; “I wonder how that happened?” And yes, there is one point of Magic in Christianity that no theologian will ever figure out: Calvary. I Wonder how God the Son got separated, by taking on all the sins of the world of all time, from God the Father? I Wonder how God died for God? The Magic of the Cross is a point of Wonder that many a theologian will debate and talk about and still come to the same conclusion: “I don’t know. Isn’t it amazing and Wonderful what Jesus did?”
To answer what magic is to role players, let me start by answering the second question. Why do I have it in my game? I would say because it’s fantasy, fun, and expected. Fantasy, because I’m stepping away from reality and into my game world, where my characters are heroic and the confines of reality are replaced with the confines of my imagination. In the fantasy genre especially, magic is a necessary tool to create the illusion of a different reality so that the imagination is freer than in the confines of our fallen world. Yet it is simply one of many tools used to create this illusion of a different reality. A very creative game designer or referee could create the illusion of an alternate reality without the use of magic, but it would be very difficult in light of our definition above. Secondly, it is fun to play in a world where the supernatural or unknown powers can influence a character’s life and can be used by the character, or vice versa. This is purely a matter of opinion, but for me it is fun to have an element of supernatural unknown in the game. And lastly, it is expected in the fantasy gaming culture. Players, for the most part, unless they started role-playing in a non-magical sci-fi or historical game system, have come to expect magic to be present at least as an optional part of any good fantasy game system. If you want to create a fantasy game system or world that role players will want to play, magic is a necessary part of its development.
But that leaves us to the question of how. How do we implement magic in a game system as Christians? Aren’t there Biblical commands against magic? No. Let’s look at what the text actually says.
Here is the main passage that is pointed to by the people who claim it commands against magic, but I actually bother to include the CONTEXT of the passage:
DEU 18:9 “When you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations. DEU 18:10 “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, DEU 18:11 “or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. DEU 18:12 “For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. DEU 18:13 “You shall be blameless before the Lord your God. DEU 18:14 “For those nations, which you shall dispossess, listen to those who practice witchcraft and to diviners, but as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do so. DEU 18:15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the passage is talking about rituals and ritualists associated with the Canaanite religion. And God is commanding them not to follow the Canaanite religion or fall into these practices. They are to instead lean on God and His prophets (now His Word, the Bible) for their guidance. Let’s look at the main terms used here that are usually associated with magic.
a primary, primitive root
“to practice divination, observe signs”
a primary, primitive root
“to practice soothsaying”
denominative verb from 3785
“to practice sorcery”
One who casts a “spell” —NASB “wizard” —KJV
“company, association, spell”
from an unused word
“a bottle (made from animal skin), a necromancer”
In a nutshell, what all of these phrases are talking about is divination and calling upon powers (read demons, pagan gods (demons again), or supposedly the dead (demons again)) from a Pagan perspective. This is in contrast to prophecy (and now Scripture), which is the correct method for calling upon the Lord and listening to His instruction.
Modern day examples of these evil practices are: Astrology; tarot; I Ching; runes; Ouija boards; Radionics / psychometry; palmistry; crystal-gazing; metoscopy / physiognomy / phrenology; geomancy; and water-dowsing.
None of this has to do with Webster’s definition of magic. We as Christian role-players do not want to be involved in any of the above forms of “magic”, and should avoid designing a roleplaying game that endorses such things. It is not necessarily a sin to play a character involved in such things, however, as it’s the character and not the player who is involved. But if we are actually designing a game, these things should be evil and off limits to our heroic player characters.
How does one use magic in a role-playing game that is not a part of the “evil” magic? Simple; since it is our world we are creating, then let an unknown power, magic, become part of the Creation. This avoids all the controversy. Magic is another unknown power in creation, just like gravity and magnetism. There is no calling on entities or powers. Every player character, or certain player characters that have the ability, knows how to tap into Magic, and use it, just like some scientists know how to tap into nuclear fission and use it. Magic is morally neutral and can be used for evil or for good, just like gravity, fire, water, air, animals, plants, rocks, etc. etc. Man uses Creation for both evil and good. This model of Magic allows for character and game referees to make liberal use of it.
It is interesting to find out that the 1st Edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons uses this model for their magic system.
“The triggering action draws power from some plane of the multiverse. Whether the spell is an abjuration, conjuration, alteration, enchantment, or whatever, there is a flow of energy—first from the spell caster, then from some plane to the area magicked or enspelled by the caster. The energy flow is not from the caster per se, it is from the utterance of sounds, each of which is charged with energy which is loosed when the proper formula and/or ritual is completed with their utterance. This power then taps the desired plane (whether or not the spell user has any idea of what or where it is) to cause the spell to function. It is much like plugging in a heater; the electrical outlet does not hold all the electrical energy to cause the heater to function, but the wires leading from it, ultimately to the power station, bring the electricity to the desired location.”
—Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Masters Guide, p.40.
In a Christian game of AD&D, the “power station” would be the force of magic in God’s creation.
What is a Christian worldview? How does this model of magic fit a Christian worldview? A worldview is how you perceive the world and interact with it. Christians perceive and interact with the world around them differently than do non-Christians. First, Christians have a set moral code laid out in Scripture. All moral and ethical decisions are based upon the standard of Scripture. Second, Christians see the world as a product of God’s design. Some may differ on how God designed it, but they do see it as a product of divine direction and creativity. Most non-Christians see the world as the product of random chance and time. Christians view the world through an odd set of spectacles. One lens sees Existential Reality, the physical world around us. The other lens sees the Essential Reality, the Kingdom of God, though through a very dim glass. With our special spectacles, we view the world around us differently than non-Christians do. We see value in things that the world views as worthless, and devalue things the world holds in high esteem. But what does this have to do with magic in roleplaying games? Only that it is the worldview of the game that determines the ethical, moral, and creative thinking of its participants. And it is the GM who is the force that controls what worldview the game takes on.
In apologetics, the term “magical world view” has been coined recently. This view says that supernatural powers or forces can be manipulated through rituals. Please do not confuse my use of the word magic with the idea of a magical worldview. The concept of the magical world view sees unknown powers or the mystical power of God as being manipulated by us humans through the use of key words (“In Jesus’ Name” used as a “magic” phrase to manipulate God) and through the use of rituals (“fasting” in order that prayers while fasting will be more effective). In my opinion, this is counter to the Christian worldview. But still, there is some sense in which we do have an effect (not manipulation) on what God does in response to us (JAM 5:16 “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” —KJV).
The Christian worldview, however, sees prayer and works not as an attempt to manipulate God, but as an appeal to Him for His help. He may give an answer different than our expectations. The Christian worldview sees all power and all authority in Christ, which makes it impossible for anyone to manipulate Him. He not only created reality, but also sustains it. ROM 11:36 “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” —NASB. Here the term magic takes on a different meaning, one where magic is no longer used to describe an unknown power to the observer, but used to describe the key words or rituals used to invoke a response from a power. Magic, in this sense of the word, is something that the first person is doing. Magic in the Webster sense is something that the third person is observing.
Looking back to our excerpt from AD&D’s DM’s Guide, we see spells described in terms of key words and rituals. Yet they are clear to point out that this is the prescribed method of drawing the power from the “power station” to supplement the caster’s own power, and not a method used to manipulate supernatural powers (God). It is not the method that defines a magical worldview, but the intentions. So, AD&D magic would not fall into the category of a magical worldview.
The GM must decide how he wishes magic to operate in his campaign, and the way it operates should reflect our Christian World View. The only truly acceptable option is that magic is a force of nature that God has put into operation, like gravity.
Games systems that use magic, such as GURPS, (A)D&D, Earthdawn, Warhammer Fantasy, Alternity (using the FX: Beyond Science sourcebook), In Nomine (referring to songs), Toon (using “Dungeons and Toons” from the Tooniversal Tour Guide), etc., can all be easily brought in line with a Christian world view by simply defining your terms used in the games so that magic is a natural energy source. “Point based” and “cast and forget” spell systems are easy to link to magic as a natural force of creation. And in fact, it also allows for more flexibility on the part of the GM for having Low Magic areas in the game. Characters that start relying on spells too often can find themselves in a Low Magic area where their spells are not as effective.
Now some will argue that magic in an RPG could be high technology that the users do not understand, and not a force of nature. However, I would argue that the Webster’s definition of magic does not cover technology. Although we may not understand exactly how a piece of technology does what it does, we still recognize it as a man-made device. Magic as a natural force is more mysterious and throws in the element of the wonder that one would hope to see in a fantasy RPG. In this way, magic is still unknown, holds its mysterious elements, and still meets up to the standard of a Christian wold view.
What about clerical magic and psionics? They are beyond the scope of this article, but, in a nutshell, they can easily be converted to a Christian worldview. Psionics are simply another natural force in God’s creation. Clerical “magic” is simply a method that God ordains for His followers to use to call upon angels to do certain tasks for the glory of God. The ‘gods’ of good in a polytheistic game system are simply angels of the Lord with specific areas of responsibility, like the river god in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles. A clerical “spell” that is not godly in nature will simply fail or will be carried out be something other than an angel with dire consequences.
So, you need not throw out the baby with the bath water, but simply define the terms to make the system conform to a Christian worldview.
This article was originally published in The Way, the Truth & the Dice issue 3 in Fall 2002, as a part of the Magic Symposium, “…in which four authors give their varying viewpoints on the appropriateness of Christians incorporating magic into their gaming. We hope for this symposium to promote true unity by showing that Christians are comfortable with holding a diversity of views on an issue of this sort. Divergent views are never a cause of, but only an excuse for, lack of unity. We also hope that it will help people to think about their pastime and to be responsible to themselves, those close to them, and to God with their gaming. It should not be interpreted as a definitive statement on what should be permissible or not for Christians in an RPG, or worse yet, a tool to use to hold other Christians to your own idea of what should be permissible. Remember Romans 14:4: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Let us game responsibly while celebrating our unity in God.”
—Ernest Mueller, WT&D issue 3 Editor