Mundane Magics

Ever since my long-ago teenage years, when I wasn’t allowed to play D&D – just look at the books, I’ve played a kind of mental game with the spell lists from the various editions of D&D – What spells would I want to be able to cast if I could do so in real life?

mundanespellbook

As a mental exercise, it is a fun way to look at the fantastic and try to envision what the everyday lives of the characters we play would look like. Much like modern superhero movies envision more realistic implementations of superheroes and their powers, considering these spells and abilities we use to down dragons and tarrasques and how they would be used in the down times between fantastic adventures can make us rethink innate bits of our characters. A scene in the first X-men movie had Bobby “Iceman” Drake chilling a beer for Wolverine. In D20, there is no easy low-level way to do something like that. I tell you though, if I were a 7th level sorcerer who just grabbed a skunky beer at the tavern, I’d be whipping out a low level version of Ice Storm to make that a better evening.

The Mundane is Often Where Roleplaying Lives

While games generally focus on distinct areas of play, and D&D style games are generally about combat, the moments we roleplay out are generally the most mundane ones that mimic our real lives. Fiasco playsets are by and large set around real world examples or very graspable tropes in tv and movies. Rare are the playsets that focus on the deep action elements. While it is fun to set up the narrative of the car careening through traffic, rarely in our roleplaying do we accurately play out the spinning of the wheel back and forth in detail. It’s an element, but it only enhances the situation at large.

In A World Where The Fantastic Is Common, Mundane Magics Proliferate

Any world where magic exists would have “kill the red dragon” level spells, and many would learn them. But, more common would be the spells that let you do so much more with your everyday lives. Take something like Unseen Servant. If I had that in real life, I would never fold clothes again. I’d command “Fold my clothes neatly and put them away. When you’re done, do the dishes and scoop the cat litter!” and go off to read another comic book. Another gem of a spell I’d want in a real, non-adventuring life, would be Scholar’s Touch (link), a brilliant mundane spell that would let me prep for games so much more quickly. While there has been much discussion about how to get great advantage with a mundane spell like this on various forums and pages, in a real life situation I’d be happy to spend a few hours at the library reading through all the pleasure reading I never get a chance to do.

The Closer A Game Is To Reality, The More We Look At the Fantastic Being Useful To The Mundane

I grew up with D&D in my gaming DNA, and so I generally default to the massive D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, D20 spell lists when I play this mental game. Some games mimic the real world more closely. [pullquoteright] A house rule I almost always use is to let people use powers for free when it doesn’t affect the game aspect of the session.  [social_warfare] [/pullquoteright]Things like World of Darkness, Anything Cthulhu, Superhero Games, or Part Time Gods of Fate talk explicitly about the fantastic elements overlapping real world scenarios. In these instances, we often have more mundane powers that players can  make use of within the framework of the games. I highly doubt any wielder of a Green Lantern ring is sitting alone in their home and stands up to walk to the kitchen to get a drink. No, a green ribbon of telekinetic energy opens the fridge and brings it to them, because that is just part of their life.

Newer games are often more open to the role-playing aspects and mundane uses of incredible abilities, but often Game Masters have to make it known that they are open to interesting uses and interpretations of powers to enhance role-playing. A house rule I almost always use is to let people use powers for free when it doesn’t affect the game aspect of the session. Why is your mage always impeccably dressed and shaven? Oh, you cast unseen servant every morning to clean up and shave. Cool. You use Fabricate to carve sculptures and sell those to pay the bills most days… Yeah, alright. I wasn’t really tracking daily living expenses anyways.

MentalFocus

 

When I’ve been on the player side of things and whipped out some ridiculous, but fun to me mundane use of a power, I’ve sometimes encountered the Game Master’s confused stare about why my character would use their magical charm to get past the lines at the BMV. “Ok, but you have to cast it at full level and it uses a spell slot for the day.” When this happens, the GM has usually missed the point of what I’m trying to do as a player. I’m at once both playing out how much cooler my character is in the game than the other people in the world (as well as how much cooler they are than me), and I’m trying to move past a point in the game that I feel is dull by using something fantastic to quickly overcome it. While this might screw up some of the plans of the Game Master, it’s important to recognize that the mundane elements of the game are as rife for roleplaying and fun as the action-packed elements. If there were some secret at the BMV that I might have discovered by making an incredible roll, why not have the charmed desk worker just gush it out to me instead. The same effect is reached, with the added benefit that the player gets to be incredibly awesome in a situation that is much like, but way cooler than, real life.

Thinking About The Mundane Made Fantastic Enriches Gaming, And It’s Kind  Of Fun

When we play role-playing games, we’re playing a game, but we’re also putting ourselves in the lives of another person in a different, fictional world. If we never stop to think about the lives outside of the game, we have very one dimensional  characters. Being open to the mundane lives of the characters and how they use their fantastic powers to make them easier/more enjoyable is one way to flip the camera on what our games normally focus on. It turns the spotlight directly on the areas where the players go when they build up the character. Some players may just pick a class, a set of abilities, and want to get right into the orc murdering or cyber running, but most think about who and what their characters are. They are avatars whose skin we step into, and the moment we mentally do we imagine ourselves having a slew of cool abilities we would use in the real world. It’s the play side of role-playing. Don’t discount the mundane elements in your games, and encourage the players when they focus on them even with a fantastic lens.

What spell, power, or ability from an RPG would you use in real life, mundane situations if it were available? What intersections of the mundane and the fantastic have you had in your game sessions? What stories do you have of a player using a big power on a little thing and how did you play it out?

18 replies
    • John Arcadian says:

      Yeah. Eberron was always good about that. A key setting contstraint of Eberron was that magic was the technology of that society. So there were a lot more mundane uses of it, and that is just one of the reasons that Eberron is one of my favorite D&D settings to play.

      Prestidigitation is a good spell for that, but I’ve always encountered GMs who were fairly dismissive of it. That comes down more to style of gaming than intent of the spell. I loved doing fun things with it in game though.

      • Kristian Serrano says:

        That’s weird that GMs would restrict that use. I mean it explicitly states, “It can chill, warm, or flavor 1 pound of nonliving material.” Point being, D20 did have a specific spell built in to cover that very specific case and need, and Eberron took it to its logical place. A server in a tavern sponsored by House Ghallanda might come by your table to cool your drink and/or give it a twist of flavor really quickly because it was a 0-level spell that was ubiquitous.

        • John Arcadian says:

          Not that exact use, but more an inability to parse that the players just wanted to do something cool that was more tied to role-playing than to the kill monsters aspect of D&D and games of the sort.
          I once had a DM decide that I couldn’t tan leather while we were at camp, just cause. The leather got eaten by animals while we were away for a few hours. It was done with a gleeful kind of maliciousness, so instead of making my own cool armor from a creature we killed, just a bitterness at that game.

  1. Philmagpie says:

    Hi John,

    As a Father to two young boys, I would make copious use of Sleep and Silence spells. I would also need Unseen Servant to tidy up behind them, bring endless drinks and fetch that toy which was left with Nanny.

    Those spells would make parenting so much easier.

    Great article
    Phil

    • John Arcadian says:

      Lol. I once had a parent in a group I ran say they wanted the polymorph spell, so they could polymorph their children into cats “quiet quiet cats”. They’d switch them back when they were 12 or so and easier to be around, even if they still pooped in a box.

  2. Scott Martin says:

    I loved the sphere in Mage the Ascension for many reasons, but seamlessly integrating magic into everyday life was a great element. In many ways, magick was an expression of your character, so it was a lot like doing things in front of a spotlight, or while holding a megaphone.

    These days, time dilation would be king… though D&D style “mend” would be useful in so many situations.

    • Shelby Dawg says:

      Our game was an extension of a much larger Vampire/Werewolf+ game. I played a local eccentric stage magician who was well known as a marginally competent amateur in both local communities. The real Mages knew I could ruin your week, but most of the V/W characters and players did not. Had a Halloween night fight at the local haunted house and used my rep to avoid much of the Paradox and maintain the Masquerade. The last made the local Princess very happy with me on one hand and the mayor asking me to do a show the next year! The chief of police (Noz) knew better and was torn between the risk to both the mundane and ‘special’ communities. He eventually offed both my Vampiric foes himself. I only had problems from that when a were rumored that I had charmed the chief of police.

      All that from a poorly thought out assassination attempt.

  3. Roxysteve says:

    a green ribbon of telekinetic energy opens the fridge and brings it to them

    But then, if you don’t have clairvoyance you just end up knocking the milk over and spilling it onto the floor.

  4. Roxysteve says:

    , but fun to me mundane use of a power,

    The very first session of the first “proper” RPG I ever played in (EPT if you are interested in 1975) had one such event.

    The GM had a drunken patron being difficult when it came to giving us guidance. Max, our cleric, without breaking stride announces “Cure light wounds!”

    Magic moment. Magic Magic moment, in fact. The only thing I clearly remember about that session too.

    I like to use that experience to inform my own GMing at times.

  5. Lee Hanna says:

    My favorite mundane spell was a cleaning spell my wife invented in one of her games. Tiny invisible servants would manifest once per day to clean all the classrooms of the magic school. As they raced from room to room, they would roll in whatever dust/dirt was on the floor, so that it would stick to them. As they collected more trash, you could see that the invisible creatures had the shape of rabbits.

    Dust Bunnies!

  6. oliver@ojogames says:

    John,

    I really enjoyed this article, thank you for staying focused and writing it! I especially liked your comment:

    “Some players may just pick a class, a set of abilities, and want to get right into the orc murdering or cyber running, but most think about who and what their characters are.”

    The thing is that murdering orcs is meaningless without a salient narrative that explains how and why the orcs are being murdered and by whom. Thrown in an ethical gray area and bang! You now have meaning. I agree that spending some time on mundane details is a great way to set this sort of thing up.

    But let me ask you a question: what is the best way of integrating this sort of thinking into the mechanics of a game? Or is it better to just leave it out of the mechanics?

    The reason I ask is that I am currently struggling with writing up spells for an RPG I am developing. I want to end up with something personal & versatile that scales (much like what you described in your article), but I keep ending up with a D&D style list of overly-specific nonsense.

    It’s almost like I need someone to pat my shoulder and tell me it’s OK to let the players make up some of it on their own!

    • John Arcadian says:

      My personal preference is to have some mechanical backing to something like this, even if it just ends up being thematic. If you write up spells with the intent of being mundanely useful, having narrative effects written up and making sure they are cheap for players to acquire and use puts them in a sweet spot, IMHO.

      Depending on the game’s mechanics, mundane magics could grant a max bonus of some sort that is minimal, making them possible to be used in less mundane/more action situations but without a huge power creep due to devious player minds – google “creative uses of unseen servant” for fun examples.

      In my own games though, I generally allow people to do interesting things with their abilities even if it breaks “game balance”, it makes the game being played a heck of a lot more fun.

      • oliver@ojogames says:

        Thanks John,

        This is a useful point – about defining narrative effects and making them cheap. I am envisioning a “cantrip” level effect for each spell that is minimally taxing, but flavorful and somewhat useful.

        To your point about “game balance”, I think this sort of equilibrium is much more critical when you are trying to impose order on a simulation style game. In a narrative focused game, this becomes a lot less important that creating a fun or interesting situation.

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