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The latest RPG-focused column for Rock, Paper, Shotgun from Richard Cobbett investigates how magic is portrayed and mechanically implemented in fantasy RPGs. For the most part, Cobbett is disappointed by how magic is portrayed in recent RPGs, though he acknowledges a few outliers that have managed to make magic feel interesting to read about and play with. Read between the lines, though, and it's clear that the move towards codified mechanics and tropes in recent RPGs hampered the potential for a freer exploration of this recurrent element in fantasy stories.
Here's an excerpt:
Really though, it's little different when we use it in games awesome power, reduced to simply powering a treadmill in a slightly more flashy way than just hitting things with a sword. Usually it's not even a particularly great one, with magic routinely underpowered compared to just clonking things with a sword in order to avoid combat becoming just hanging back and nuking enemies from the other side of the room. That's especially the case now, with combat primarily designed around efficiency either unlimited or fast-refilling mana pools designed to keep a wizard relevant throughout the fight instead of just getting in their one good nuke shot at the start or being reduced to flailing around with a staff, with enemies shrugging off status effects like being set on fire as nothing more than an inconvenience. Which, really, they are.
The reasons why magic works like this aren't exactly hard to wrap your head around balance, flow, the nature and frequency of most RPG encounters. In MMOs especially, everyone is expected to pull together at all times, and trying to make magic more interesting usually just ends up making it more fiddly. World of Warcraft for instance originally made Mages stockpile various runes for teleportation and special powder to create the tables of food that party members would rudely bark at us to create for them at the start of dungeons, just as Warlocks originally had to mess around with Soul Stones. But it got in the way of the flow, so that whole element got unceremoniously dropped. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I do still miss that ritual element.
In single-player games though, there's much more scope to do interesting things with magic and its general use in the world. The Cowled Wizards of Baldur's Gate 2 for instance are one of my favourites, appearing to lay down the law if you cast magic in their territory. They made it more difficult to play as a magic-heavy party, but gave adventuring in Amn a very different flavour from other places as well as being a well-executed block. If you want to play nice, you can gather the money and buy a magic license and then do what you like. Alternatively, if you think you're tough enough not to have to care what they think, it's possible to beat them into submission until they accept that you're too much mage for them to handle. Going further back, Ultima was set in a world where magic was no big deal in and of itself, but you had to prepare it if you wanted to use it by gathering and stockpiling reagants from around the world. That made for a huge difference between a character who could cast a few sparkling lights in the sky and an Avatar capable of unleashing the likes of Death Vortex at will.