Lessons from the Classics: Rethinking Magic

Most RPGs use “fire-ice-lightning” or “fire-ice-wind-earth” elemental systems of magic, where fire is strong against ice and vice versa, ice spells freeze/slow enemies, etc. Offhand can you think of any RPG where the first offensive spell you learn is NOT “Fireball” or something similar? It’s disturbingly difficult.

In terms of using magic strategically in these systems, it is usually either a simple matter of “use fire magic against ice monster,” or else guess and check (a boss is weak against lightning for no apparent reason and with no indication, etc.).

Of course fire and ice are easy to understand as powerful forces of magic, but when the same system is used so often it starts to lose the sense of excitement and wonder that magic should have. As a powerful supernatural force, magic should also tie in with the foundations of the game’s world. Why is magic divided into fire and ice instead of star and crystal, plastic and metal, or bone and dirt?

There must be more ways to make magic fresh, original, and strategically interesting… Once again, let’s see how games have accomplished this in the past.

I know I mentioned Chrono Cross in the last post, but CC does interesting things here, too. Characters and enemies have clearly indicated innate colors, which at first glance seem to be the typical elements of fire (red), ice (blue), air (green) and earth (yellow).

However, green is actually not only wind but everything green including plants and poison, while yellow includes earth, lightning, and the sun. Black mainly involves gravity for some reason, while white involves meteors and outer space.

Beeba’s are yellow innate

Enemies are also clearly labeled so that you don’t have to guess what their elemental weakness is (or waste time casting a spell to find out- who has time for that?).

The catch is that, as in many other games with binary magic systems, it’s not necessarily helpful to bring a blue character to fight red enemies. Rather than strategically benefiting you, it just raises the stakes by letting you and the enemy do more damage to each other. In Chrono Cross your characters often just get killed really fast in this situation, so oddly enough it is strategic to avoid bringing characters of the opposite color to boss battles.

Speaking of which…

Instead of Fire and Ice (or Earth and Wind, or Dark and Light) being strong against each other, Saiyuki (PSX) uses five elements- Metal, Fire, Water, Earth, and Tree- which work like an expanded version of rock-paper-scissors. Arranged in a circle, each is strong against the element on one side of it, and weak against the element on the other.

As a water innate character, Sa Gojo is strong against fire magic and weak against earth magic. His tree magic, on the other hand, would be effective against earth innate enemies and less effective against metal enemies.

These relationships allow you to make decisions that actually give you the upper hand in battle. The challenge of course is that enemies always include an assortment of elements, so its not as simple as pitting your fire characters against a horde of metal enemies.

Categories like metal and tree also allow for some unique spells that diverge from the typical “fireball” and “ice blast.”


It’s easy to grasp that fire is powerful and destructive, but I like it when a game sets its world apart with a distinct flavor like the monster summons in “Summoner: Goddess Reborn.” Although magic is basically divided into typical categories like Fire, Ice, and Energy, things get really fun with the types of monsters that can be summoned: Blood, Eye, Sand, and Tree.

The main character Maia transforms into the Blood Summon

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and they allow for some original monster designs. Plus, they fit the game’s mythology about trees and sand, with recurring images of eyes and masks. In other words, the unique conceptualization of magic is based upon and develops the game’s worldview.

Every now and then an RPG throws in a weather mage or geomancer. In Final Fantasy, most Geomancer spells (including Mog’s dances in FF3) are random and only useful in a handful of situations. Daikaijuu Monogatari II for the SNES, however, has a super effective weather mage who was the star of my party.

Daikaijuu Monogatari 2’s amazing bow-using weather mage is on the far right.

Weather magic spells usually end up falling into typical categories like lightning and wind, and exist alongside the traditional fire-ice system, but at least they allow for some neat new spells involving nature and animals.

Skyrim strips away the fanciful fiction and categorizes magic by what it does (Alteration, Restoration, Destruction, etc.). It’s a blunt, no-nonsense approach, and ended up a bit dry for me. In that sense, you could say it fits Skyrim’s worldview of “extremely complex but ultimately lifeless, mechanical world”- though I did think the Dragon Shouts were a nice touch that nicely tied into the gameworld.

Skyrim’s Dragon Shout abilities become available later in the game and involve learning “Words of Power.”

Summoner 2’s Summons and Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts tie together mythology and gameplay in original and exciting ways, but both are essentially extra elements on top of a more standard magic system. What if this originality and vision was applied to a game’s entire conceptualization of magic from the ground up?

Of course, typical magic categories can work if they make sense in the game. Take Borderlands, for example. Fire, electricity, and poison are pretty standard categories, but they make perfect sense in this post-apocalyptic world of destruction, technology and mutation.

But, just for fun, let’s imagine what magic might look like without fire and ice…

What if Chrono Cross’ color magic was taken further? What if Red Magic controlled all red objects, from tomatoes to rubies, while Blue Magic controlled the sky, the sea, and blueberries? A red enemy wearing a yellow shirt might be strong against red with minor defense against yellow. And colors’ effectiveness could be determined by a color wheel in a non-binary system like Saiyuki’s.

Really, any categories could be used as types of magic. Take the flavors, for example. There could be spicy, salty, sweet, and bitter magic, in a world where magical power comes from food.

What about the four seasons? This would probably boil down to cold (winter) versus hot (summer), but it could at least lead to some cool new spells. What would an autumn mage look like, and what spells would she use?

Or, what if magic power was derived from the signs of the Zodiac? A character whose astrological sign is Sagitarius could use magic arrow attacks and summon centaur stampedes, while a Cancer would have snappy claw attacks.

Mages could also control different laws of the physical world- one works with gravity, one with time, another with states of matter, etc… (Of course Time Mages exist in Final Fantasy and other games, but they are usually just there to cast support magic alongside typical fire and ice.)

But what if the states of matter themselves were the source of magic- Solid, Liquid, and Gas magic! I guess Solid Magic would be weak in areas with high temperatures, while liquids would freeze and become ineffective in the cold. There could even be a rare and legendary Plasma Mage!

As always, I’d love to hear about the magic system in your games, tips for games with unique implementations, and the random idea that you’ve just been toying with in your head.

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18 Responses to Lessons from the Classics: Rethinking Magic

  1. BadMinotaur says:

    First off, I want to say I found this blog yesterday and I’m a big fan! I remember your article on sekaikan on Gamasutra and I’m glad you’re continuing to write.
    I follow the blog of Mark Rosewater, Magic: the Gathering’s head designer. He has a lot of nuggets of wisdom for his fellow designers, and one thing he espouses is that it helps if your audience has something comfortable to latch on to. If it’s all foreign to them, they’ll have a hard time relating. I think that might be the reason why so many game systems rely on Fire/Water/Wind/Air tropes, because it makes their magic systems easier to understand and grasp for new players.
    It’s interesting then that Magic actually *doesn’t* do that at all. Looking at it from the lens of an RPG dev, sure you have Fire/Water, Light/Dark and uh… Tree. But they do something different with their “color wheel” — each element has allies and enemies. For instance, Blue’s allies are White and Black, while its enemies are Green and Red. Each color also has its own distinct set of mechanics and personality, which helps define the elements even more. I think more games could benefit from mechanically-separated elements.
    Digressing a bit, I think another reason devs toss in the Fire/Ice/etc. elemental system is because there are players who almost demand it. I have a friend who looooves the Ice element — he bases his in-game identities around being an Ice mage. If your game doesn’t have Ice magic, that’s an automatic disconnect for him. And there are many people who are self-proclaimed pyromaniacs who want to be able to light things on fire at all times. I can’t help but wonder if the devs are catering to these sorts of players or if the devs are those kinds of players themselves.
    Whew, sorry for the wall of text! Hopefully something worthwhile can be extracted from there =)

    • Gorogorosama says:

      This is spot on about finding comfort for the player. When you say “this is a fire-mage”, it’s important for the player to understand what that means, to have a mental box to organize things. That of course doesn’t mean Fire and Ice are the only boxes.

      Even in Final Fantasy, they traditionally have a Black-Mage, who casts destructive magic (usually based on Fire, Ice, Bolt), a White-Mage who does healing magic, and sometimes a Red Mage (like a bard) and a Blue-Mage who learns whatever magic is cast on him by enemies. Conceptually, the blue mage is the most diverse but is still easy to explain, which is what’s important.

      Probably we base so much on the traditional elements (whether Platonic or Oriental) because they’re so ingrained in our culture and were how we tried to understand the universe. It’s easy to come up with a lot of associations for a Fire-Mage. Less so for a Capricorn-Mage.

      That said, I would also be very happy to see some diversity. I’m sure there are a lot of great fantasy novels that could help here. Well, not a Song of Fire and Ice… but something else!

  2. wzackw says:

    I understand what you mean. A lot of people want or demand familiar things, and it does make things easier to quickly understand. I just want more variety, since there is currently very little.

    Sure, some people like familiar fire magic, but some love new and interesting things, too. I don’t know, maybe more people like fire and ice so it’s financially unsustainable to try something new… but I still think there’s a lot of wiggle room to try new things, especially in two areas: huge budget AAA games that know they will get players no matter what, and indie games where the whole appeal is that they are new and inventive.

    I’m so hell bent on imagining new things that it’s easy to forget that some people really only want familiar fire and ice… But all I can think about is all the other fun possibilities out there! It’s like some kind of curse, haha.

    And Magic sounds really interesting, I like the idea of elements’ having allies! But as a side note I don’t think magic systems need to be more complex necessarily, just fresh and original. I think most people could easily understand flavors in a food game or season’s in a seasonal game. Maybe these people just haven’t gotten into games yet… I always tend to believe that hardcore people (the kind who demand fire and ice) are a small minority, who of course deserve games they want, but there are plenty of other players out there too who can appreciate other things…. maybe!?

    And thanks for the kind words!

    • BadMinotaur says:

      I think there’s a balance one can strike between a different element/magic system and a familiar comfort for the player. The comfort doesn’t necessarily have to come from the magic system even — the rest of the game could feel somewhat cozy, which would let the magic system shine in its uniqueness.

      I agree though that we do need a little more variety. I actually really like your food elements! That’s a wicked-cool idea, and I think it can actually gel with making the player feel comfortable too — like say, maybe the “Spicy” element could have a damage-over-time spell as if the enemy was being burnt. Hey, there’s a fire analogue! But it’s also its own thing that doesn’t have to neatly fit into the constraints that people expect from fire spells too. So if you work on it, there’s a middle ground between comfort and surprise =)

      I actually also really like the seasonal mages idea. I think you could go beyond just cold/hot though, since seasons also bring in precipitation, wind currents and different wildlife (birds migrating, etc). You could extrapolate all sorts of stuff from the seasons alone, it’s kind of exciting to think about!

      • wzackw says:

        I know, isn’t it fun to imagine this stuff!? I feel the same way about striking a balance. Of course, people need some familiar things. Though I personally love unfamiliar things, which is why I love Paladin’s Quest/Lennus so much.

  3. Jules Defoy says:

    I have a couple of examples, though how relevant they are is up for debate.

    I played the pseudo-MMO “Kingdom of Loathing” for a long time, and it had a Chinese-style circle of five elements: Fire, Cold, Stench, Spooky, and Sleaze. Each was color-coded, and the situations that arose from their use were very funny. Especially the attacks, as this was a text-heavy game, and nothing had to be shown/make sense.

    There was also Eternal Darkness, which had a body-soul-mind split between its three Lovecraftian horrors. The spells you cast didn’t really reflect these elements (they all did their own thing with a corresponding color), but the enemies were did a good job of reflecting what their master embodied, like the red zombies being muscular and taking forever to kill, while sanity-draining bonethieves had no heads.

    I think you hinted at it, but the downloadable game OFF has smoke, metal, plastic, meat and sugar as elements. I haven’t played this myself, so I can’t say much, but just because of this I intend to play it one day.

    As for worlds where the elements make up the world, Okami is a strong contender, allowing you to manipulate a whole bunch of elements as time goes on.

    Finally, I have to ask: Would Pokémon and its 18 types count? I feel they’re used the same way as elements, but I don’t know if we can draw the line before or after that.

    Okay, I’m done now. 🙂

    • wzackw says:

      Ah yea I forgot how each Chinese element also represents a sensation like cold, wet, etc. I think ancient Romans had something similar about humors and what not.

      Meat, sugar etc. in OFF sound like great elements, but a bit disturbing!

      The 18 types of Pokemon count, I guess… But do they all have unique elemental attacks, or are the types just general Pokemon types? Like, do flying Pokemon have flying spells? I always loved Grass Pokemon, on a side note. They were cute.

      • BadMinotaur says:

        Yeah, each move in Pokémon is typed with a Pokémon element. So Flying pokes get Flying-type moves (as well as other types; they’re not totally restricted to their element), and Psychic pokes get Psychic-type moves. There’s a whole intricate type-chart that labels weaknesses to each type too, it gets pretty in-depth. Even physical attacks (like Tackle, Headbutt, etc) have their own, clearly-labeled element called “Normal” that can’t hit Ghost-types and is super-weak against certain other types.

  4. BadMinotaur says:

    It seems as if WordPress ate the “reply” button on our original thread, so I guess I’ll start a new thread haha.

    I actually find this conversation about making magic more interesting through various means very timely, as my girlfriend and I are about to start making another game; an adventure RPG where a young mage travels the world collecting spells for her spellbook. One huge challenge we’re facing is, “how do we make the spells themselves interesting enough to WANT to collect?” It’s not enough, I feel, to just introduce a collecting element and let that alone motivate the player. I want the player to actively get excited about finding the next spell — “what cool thing will I find next?!” We sort of want each spell to have its own personality, if that makes any sense, and maybe a different/unique element system is one way to go about it.

    • wzackw says:

      Exciting! Hm, you’ll need some kind of categorization that relies on massive variety. Each spell could be created by someone’s strong memory of something and tied into a story… Like someone who loves cheesecake can teacher her a cheesecake spell. I don’t know, something local and universal like that. Spirits of everyday items like Shintoism teaching her a spell would be another way, but then you’re just collecting spirits in a sense.

      Have fun!

  5. 2plus2isjoe says:

    Brilliant article – and something I’ve thought about a lot in my nerdier moments.

    I always found the Chaos magic approach in Warhammer and Warhammer 40k quite interesting, in that their spells seem to come from a place of personality – aggression, lust etc. Of course they’re more related to the physical make-up of the troops, but it’s a system I think you could expand on.

    I seem to remember an old Magic: The Gathering novelisation (yeah, I read some of those) that characterised the act of casting spells as a sort of mind-over-matter imagination process – you focus on the element you want to summon, and it materialises in your soul or some nonsense. I quite like the idea of appending emotion to that – reach into your well of greed, anger, or compassion and that forms the basis of an associated spell. Could make for some brilliant, unexpected effects too – Bayonetta actually does a little of this with demons being turned into magical weaponry.

  6. FFXI actually used the rock-paper-scissors approach to how magic worked. Ice was weak to fire, but strong against wind, etc, etc,. They also seperated the magic into two other catagories, Light/Dark, which they used for means of skill chains and magic bursts. Also, if there was an active element in the area (like water, if it was raining, wind if it was windy, etc), then that elements magic would be even stronger.

    FFXI has some pretty deep gameplay elements, that a lot of people didn’t notice. I wish more games would add this kind of depth, instead of becoming more casual than what they already are.

  7. xeonsx says:

    I remember a system that made when was a young (for a now forgotten story), imagined one with states of matter and even that mysterious plasma mage, also a abs zero mage and environmental pressure/gravity mage (who can create voids or crush things in a point of space).
    Later, figured all that could be resumed on different ways of manipulating fundamental forces and radiation, which could lead to an interesting specialization tree.

    Oh, and loved the flavour magic idea, one day may steal that.
    Also, a food based “you are what you eat” magic system sounds interesting too (I think that saw something like item used == magic affinity, but dont remember where)

    • wzackw says:

      Cool. I like the affinity of what you use/eat idea!

      In terms of literally eating, there are some games where what a character eats grows their stats different (the monster growing side game in Lufia 2, or the monster class in the Romancing SaGa game for Gameboy where you can eat enemy meat).

  8. Johnny C. says:

    I’d say a good idea is that instead of having elements set up in a rock-paper-scissors pattern, enemies have set values (1-5 stars, a number value, an integer, percentage) that represents their resistance/potency in a particular element. It helps to make enemies more unique, in that you have to figure out what their weaknesses are and how strong they are with each particular element. I’d also think a good idea would be to make abstract elemental categories (hot, cold, shock, force, construct, etc.) that isn’t necessarily explicit in a spell’s description/whatever. These markers can also be applied to more than just spells, and more than one can be applied to a single spell/skill. That way, spells can become more versitale and more likely to be used. Also, spell’s can be broader in what they can be as hot doesn’t just mean fire and cold doesn’t just mean ice.

    • wzackw says:

      Good points about hot and cold, etc. Things like that can allow for more interesting variety than just yet another Fireball spell. What do you mean by construct? Sounds fun. 🙂

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