I’ve started futzing around with how I want magic to work in my Fate Core fantasy setting, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that magic will play, and what it can be used for. What problem or challenge is it intended to solve within the setting?
To this end I’m running down a couple of paths. The first thing is that the magic “system” isn’t going to be something that fully explains how magic works, or all of what it can do. The second is that the players still need to still be able to meaningfully engage with the magic.
In the end, it will mean that magic is knowledge. Like all knowledge, some of it will be widely known. Some of it will be a well-kept secret. Some of it will be unknown, for now – or completely unknowable. That’s going to take a lot of consideration and doodling around to get the mix right because I also want to eschew spell levels, spell points, conservation of magical energy (which will mean reevaluating another setting element that I wanted) and a whole host of fantasy magic tropes. It means that for all intents and purposes, binding and packing a wound and using some “magical” method are along the same axis of knowledge and effectiveness and not considered (in the setting) to be separate – a chiurgeon will know how to do both and won’t think of one method as “magical” over the other, but rather in terms of which one is the most effective for the situation. This leads me strongly toward the embryonic magic system being (in Fate Core terms) indistinguishable from Lore. You either know how to do it, or you don’t. There’s no special thing that makes someone a “mage” aside from a lot of the right kind of knowledge.
Even then, magic being knowledge doesn’t keep it from being a mystery. Characters may use it, they might know what they need to do in order to achieve some effect, but they can’t ever really understand it. In addition, it’s visceral. Exposing yourself to it changes you. It’s not necessarily that it damages you or hurts your sanity (although it may), but at some fundamental level some part of you is different afterward. It leaves a pit in your stomach, the taste of iron in your mouth, and you just know that now something feels wrong. Think of The Heart from Dishonored. Without spoiling too much about who it belongs to, that realization puts an entirely new spin on The Heart. It’s a little more than some McGuffin that you can use to find things – it’s actually in a way both wondrous and horrifying. And, you don’t have any idea how it works or need to know how to use it. Similarly, in Thief Garrett has no idea how magic works at all – it’s just something that he needs to avoid pretty much at all costs (despite that most of it seems fairly mundane with waving of arms and casting of spells). When it does impact him, it’s a potentially life-changing event.
My next step is going to be fleshing out exactly how this all fits together in the context of rules, what the limitations are, and how to make it something that is both playable and atmospheric.