Designing magic: Make learning the magic more engaging

(This is part 1 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. When I publish parts 2 and 3 I’ll link them here.)

Unfortunately, Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic. This is unfortunate for several reasons, but the one I’m focusing on today is that the way that they learn magic in Harry Potter is boring.

A lot of the time it comes down to rote practice.

Try doing the spell again.

Make sure you can swish and flick properly.

Pronounce the words properly.

A gif of Hermione saying It's leviOsa, not leviosAR
It’s a good meme, but boring to play out.

Sometimes the spells themselves are so interesting that they push the lessons to be very engaging. One of the more popular posts on this blog was about the 3 best spells in Harry Potter (and why they are the three best spells).

But if you’ve got a story (or in the case I am interested in, a roleplaying game) where magic needs to be learnt, the actual process of learning the magic should be engaging and interesting.

If your game is set in a magic school, then learning the magic should be engaging to play in and of itself.

Well it just so happens I have been writing a game about learning magic, set at summer school for kids from non-magical families who have suddenly found out they’ll be going to magic school at the end of the summer.

Title banner: Welcome to Camp merlin

I have an underlying theory of magic that I am using where spells are like magical spirits called into service of the magic user. It’s not brand new, I’ve seen it before in various games. What is new is how I connect that to learning the spell.

First the magic user must coax the spell into making an initial connection with the user. This allows the user to cast the spell once on that day. If the magic user wants to cast that spell again, they must wait until a new day and then coax it again.

However, if the magic user can link with the spell, then they will be able to cast the spell once per day without needing to coax it every single time.

The template works well as long as the acts of coaxing the spell and linking with the spell are engaging.

I’ll show you an example spell so we can discuss the linking and coaxing.

True Glue. 
Duration: 1 minute. 
Instructions: Touch the tips of your index fingers together and True Glue will drip from their meeting point until your fingers part. 
Effects: True Glue is a perfect adhesive, it is impossible to break its binding. True Glue does not dry out when applied to only one surface, and takes 1 second to bind when touching two surfaces.

I’ll talk another time another time about the actual magic and why I think this sort of diegetic spell is interesting, and also about the casting instructions. For now though I’ll focus on how to coax and link this spell.

To coax True Glue the character must player must choose an obviously false viewpoint (eg. the sky is green; water makes things dry; ice is hot etc.). Then they must refuse to abandon that viewpoint despite any and all evidence to the contrary. The other characters must actively refute and challenge the viewpoint with substantial arguments and evidence.

To link True Glue the character chooses two awkwardly sized, shaped or weighted items, They must then hold them, one in each hand, as though they were glued to their hands for the next six hours.

Both of these are tied to the nature of the spell. When coaxing the magic user must fix their point of view in place. When linking they must fix an object into their hand. This connects them to the spell, which is all about fixing two things together. The player is trying to entreat a magical being with their actions.

So what do I think is good about this design?

  • They’re thematically linked to the spell
  • The coaxing generates inter-character discussion by default
  • The linking causes clear problems that the players will have to solve – how will I eat? etc.
  • They are diegetic – you could use dice rolls to support this gameplay but it probably doesn’t need it
  • It shifts the core question of the game from whether or not the characters will succeed to how they will succeed. This is good for a game about kids learning magic which will be tonally lighter than most games.

I’m not claiming to have re-invented the wheel here. Followers of the Goblin Laws Of Gaming will have seen the Δ glog classes before, which focus their advancement on performing diegetic actions rather than accruing xp.

So I think this format makes learning magic more engaging than most tabletop roleplaying games I’ve seen, and certainly more engaging than most of the magic in the benchmark for magical learning, Harry Potter.

Poster style front cover of a game titled Welcome to Camp Merlin - A summer camp for non-magical children in need of magical education in preparation for schooling. The image shows a wizard who has cast a spell on a fox wearing boy's clothing. The wizard says 'Hocus Pocus!' whilst the fox says 'Yikes! If only I had attended Camp Merlin!'

How I’ve adapted this system for Welcome to Camp Merlin

Each morning at the camp, the kids get to choose which spell they want to learn. The camp counsellors show the children how to coax the spell as an activity. Then they have the afternoon to attempt to link the spell – doing so also allows them to stitch a badge onto their camp uniform.

There are also several magical creatures that the children are taught about, as well as an array of magical locations and encounters in the forest surrounding the camp.

Follow the development and release of Welcome to Camp Merlin by:

Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and itch.io

A rubbish drawing of a bird made in paint that looks very vaguely like the twitter icon. The bird has a speech bubble 'I say ttrpg and nerd things'
But you can still follow me on twitter @coppersandboars

And follow my itch.io KingBim – head over there now to download my previous game about playing jedi-esque characters, Laser Monks in Outer Space, for free!