Horizon: making magic

This year, I plan to release Horizon, a new tabletop role-playing game where players create a community, its members, and play any combination of them as they go on adventures, changing themselves and the community in the process. This is the first of an ongoing series of blogposts about its development and the ideas behind it.

I’ve always known that magic would feature in Horizon in some way – I have far too much fun with its possibilities as a player and Game Master to not create space for it here. But what’s felt different with Horizon is how, as I’ve explored what magic looks like in this game, the focus has been less what magic does and more what magic means.

By this, I mean that I’ve really enjoyed exploring the weight and ceremony behind magic in Horizon. A definite reference is the graphic novel Saga, which I adore. In Saga, magic requires components like secrets – so if you want to cast a spell, you have to reveal a secret. It’s pretty appealing, as someone who loves emotional and character-driven role-play, and the idea of balance between forces has always been present in Horizon, so just as important as what a spell might do is what it requires. There’s also something in trying not to become normalised to how cool a thing magic is – with the effect of magic such a focus in some systems, rather than the act of casting, it can end up being a little too easy to forget or skirt over the incredible idea and moment of a character wielding magical forces.

There’s a few things I’ve decided about magic in Horizon, that shape how it feels and manifests:

  • Magic is about exchange and transformation: you cannot create something from nothing, but instead but give something to get something else back
  • Magic is not innately known, it is learned: magic is passed down from generation to generation, and the magic someone casts is a combination of knowledge, traditions and habits taken from people they know
  • Magic is significant: it is not something done casually; whilst it could be done on a daily basis, this would incur immense changes and effects to a person and their surroundings, and magic is taken too seriously to do so

It’s not a surprise that my starting point with magic is a more storytelling/worldbuilding based one than a mechanical one – the storytelling opportunities are what typically grab me about games, rather than clever manipulation of mechanics. (Maybe it is a surprise though that I feel so un-stressed about this – having played a lot more games recently that take elements that could be bound by mechanics and freely hand them over to open storytelling, I’m not as worried by the notion of ‘needing’ all-encompassing mechanics for certain elements.)

So, right now, the focus is on what will create interesting storytelling around magic – prompts for symbolism that players can create and run with, questions around what they’re prepared to sacrifice in order to cast it, cues to invent histories and traditions they’re honouring in how they perform magic. And, like so much of Horizon, I can’t wait to see what players might do with it.

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