Nonvisual Magic Step By Step

One of my players recently asked me how I did nonvisual magic in my games. I covered the topic before, about a year ago, but since then I’ve had time to refine my technique a bit and think about the process, rather than just the descriptors, of my effect/sense descriptions.

I start with the outline, well before I have to describe individual magic effects. Most magic systems tend to divide their magic into some sort of categories—by what element it associates with, by who’s powering it, by what general classification of things-to-do-with-magic it falls into, you name it. So my first step is to figure out what the major set of classifications is.

Then I look at magic-sensing, and figure out what sense or senses I’m going to need to use. Many game mechanics call for sight, so I usually have some sort of back-plan for that, but if I can find an excuse to use any other sort of sensory imagery, I do so. (Hearing and touch are my favorites right now; hearing because there’s a lot I can do with music, and touch because hardly anyone uses it, and once I have my thematics I can draw analogies pretty much endlessly.)

Lining up these two qualities, I figure out what the basic breakdown of magic types to sensory impressions is going to be. If, for instance, the division is by who has the powers, and the sense is hearing and mostly limited to music, I might choose different instruments that sort of fit with the thematics of the power-users—did you know that you can fit a five-element system just by using different types of woodwinds and still have plenty of room to fit the rest of the orchestra everywhere else? If, on the other hand, if I’m trying to render the D&D 3.x magic divisions in scents, I might render necromancy as something rotting, divination as incense smoke, enchantment as perfume….

Now I look at what exactly the magic I’m describing is supposed to do, and see what that tells me. Intensity is usually the first of these to go: the more drastic the magic’s effects, the more uncomfortable or intense an impression it’s going to give. If it’s working something that’s practically a miracle, and the observer is listening to it, she’s going to need to cover her ears; if it’s a subtle piece of work and detectable through scent, it might just be a slight impression of whatever it smells like. Then there’s purpose; what exactly is this magic doing? Something that’s meant to be on the attack is likely to be more potentially painful, or at least have a more jagged, sharp feel to it, than a healing technique. On occasion I even get more specific results; I once described how an auditory listening-to-magic technique felt to someone with tactile magic sense by giving her the feeling of fingers not-quite-tapping a rhythm on her back.

Last, I compose the descriptions, flavoring them based on what I expect the individual with the magic sense to have experience with. For a trained musician, for instance, I can do music analogies using technical terms, but for someone else I might talk about it in terms of the kinds of images I get of the notes as the instrument plays. (No, this isn’t synaesthesia, just a lot of pre-existing associations.) If I’ve given someone from the city the ability to taste falsehoods, I might like little white lies taste airy and sweet, like meringues or spun sugar, while vicious untruths might taste corrosively bitter and the subtle things one wants to hear like sugar syrup; if they’re from a pseudo-medieval setting and/or the middle of nowhere, though, my comparisons might be more along the lines of overripe, fall-apart-on-your-tongue blackberries, ashes and honey, respectively.

The best part, I find, is that I don’t just have to use it for magic; with a little modification, I can apply it to any supernatural sense (as with the lie detection above).

1 comment

  1. Shinali says:

    Just a little comment: I’ve noticed that in systems where you can share/borrow the senses of your familiar or an animal, you can work in a lot of these things, especially the flavoring it to match their experience. Take taste/smell lie-detection. A hamster may tell you the truth is nutty and lies are rancid, a mantis may liken truth to flies and lies to ants, and a cat may liken truths to birds and lies to bugs. Similar with other senses (most animals do not see the way we do, many are “deaf” but have auditory sensing hairs or antennae or an eardrum on their midsection that senses ultrasound. All of them will flavor physical or magical senses differently.

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