The History of RPG Magic

Magic, in one way or another, is a staple of most RPGs and as a result it can be all too easy to forget that magic is not just an alternative to bows when it comes to dealing ranged damage, but also this arcane mystical art that's deeply rooted in our myths, legends, and historical beliefs. And if you're in a mood to learn a bit about the origins of such things like grimoires, potions, artefacts, and all kinds of -mancies, you should check out this Rock, Paper, Shotgun article. It's quite a nice read. A few snippets:

Imagine you’re on a quest for a powerful artefact in Divinity: Original Sin 2. Perhaps you conversed with a ghost who pointed you in the right direction. Now you see demons close by. You cast Chameleon Cloak to try to sneak by, but alas! you are spotted. The fight begins. You draw your weapons, inscribed with runes. You weave protective spells. You summon your cat familiar to enter the fray and confound your enemies. A fireball scroll sets a puddle of oil ablaze, but you misjudged and now you’re on fire as well! But a potion you concocted earlier heals your wounds just in time.

It’s a typical scenario for D:OS2 and similar fantasy RPGs. Magic is everywhere, and you could barely swing your cat familiar by the tail without hitting a fellow Sorcerer (don’t do that though, it’s cruel). But where do these spells, demons and artefacts come from? Games have so inundated us with magic that it’s easy to forget that even the most outlandish, videogamey spectacles have their Source-drenched roots in historical beliefs and practices.

Let’s take the elemental magic which has become a staple in most RPGs: geo-, hydro-, aero- and pyromancy. Ever since the ancient Greeks, the four elements of earth, water, air and fire were believed to possess mystical qualities. In classical cosmology, they comprised the innermost four spheres of the cosmos. All four elements were also used for divination (manteia in Greek, hence -mancy). This meant shapes in the soil, clouds, flames or ripples in the water were observed to gain occult insights or to see the future; perhaps a subtler form of magic than tossing fireballs or ice shards at your enemies.

Still, control over the elements wasn’t beyond the skill of “real” magicians. In the Early Modern period, witches were believed to cause hailstorms and lightning. Several centuries earlier, peasants were terrified of so-called tempestarii, who extorted money in exchange for not blasting their fields with supernatural storms.


Speaking of crafting and DIY magicks, grimoires sometimes instructed readers how to create their own magical artefact. The most notorious of these was certainly the Hand of Glory (described, for example, in the 18th century grimoire Petit Albert). The Hand was created thusly: First, take the severed hand of a hanged felon, dry and pickle it. Then make a candle from the fat of a hanged felon and place it into the hand. It was said that a thief carrying the Hand of Glory would never get caught, as it rendered everyone they encountered completely motionless.

Other morbid artefacts include objects possessed by spirits or demons. It’s a popular trope, and D:OS2 features, among other things: a demon sword, a genie’s lantern, so-called Soul Jars, and a cursed ring that houses some part of Braccus Rex. Belief in such objects was very real in the Middle Ages. In a posthumous trial in the early 14th century, for example, none other than Pope Boniface VIII was accused of conjuring demons by means of a magic circle and animal sacrifice, and of possessing a ring that contained an evil spirit that acted as his advisor. Boniface would be mentioned several times in Dante’s Inferno, as a Pope destined for hell.