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Magic and Religion in World Building, Part 1
by Deborah Teramis Christian on 04/29/14 01:15:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


World builders from a western cultural heritage tend to think of magic and religion in a particular way. What they have in common is that religion fundamentally deals with things of the mind and spirit, or the heart and soul[1], and magic also deals with “unseen” things, especially with supernatural forces.

But where they depart, they are radically different. Whereas religion is, at its heart, spiritual in nature, the main concern of magic is to effect change in the world around us. If a curse is cast, even if it works through supernatural agency, the result is a person becoming physically ill or dying. If there is a drought, a weather spell will make it rain, and so on. Regardless of how the metaphysics of these things work, the end point is almost always some change or effect in the material world.[2]

From this perspective, then, westerners frame religion and magic from a dualistic, Cartesian point of view. Religion addresses one set of needs and works in one particular sphere; magic addresses a different set of needs and functions in a different sphere.

The Hybrid Combination of Religion and Magic

World builders often mingle these two, or try to create a bridge between them. A work of fiction might feature a priest-king who is both religious leader and mighty caster of spells bestowed by his powerful deity. Role-playing game designers are no strangers to tracking magic powers given to mortals by various gods, developing a body of “clerical magic” that stands apart from “regular” magic use both in scope of powers and their religious origin.

However, this blending of religion plus magic often results in a hybridized form of religious magic which merely spackles over the basic dualism lurking in the background. This is especially evident in rpg design work, where the function of clerical magic is typically a mirror of regular (wizardly) magic, simply pasted on to a religious structure as justification for the cleric knowing spells.

Clergy gained magical powers in gaming not only because this fit in well with fantasy tropes, but because it enabled clerics to aid their adventuring parties (for instance, with healing spells), and to have some special powers granted by their gods. The basic structure of spellcasting developed for magic-users was simply extended to the clerical class and justified with the rubric “divinely bestowed powers.” Even in fiction, religious magic is often envisioned as a set of specific spells and spell-like powers, thus taking the traditional magical framework of spell-casting and grafting it onto the tree of religion.

Consequences of This Paradigm

And here is where we get into trickle-down consequences for today’s generation of fantasy world builders and fiction writers, so many of whom have had their creative imaginations shaped by rpgs in the last many decades.

1. God-granted Powers.  One consequence is that many writers think of clerics or priest-type characters as necessarily having some kind of specific powers or abilities granted by their gods—something magical or supernatural in nature, beyond the ordinary trappings of a priestly class.

This is not the best starting point for designing either religion or magic or a priestly profession, because it is founded on too many borrowed assumptions about the nature of these things. Even the phrase “clerical magic” is bundled up tight with unquestioned cultural bias.

2. How Magic Functions.  Another consequence is that clerical magical abilities typically function in a way that is very similar to that of wizardly magic, in terms of the nuts and bolts of the process. To take the classic D&D example, there will be a casting time required, a duration of spell effect, a range, certain ingredients or somatic or verbal actions required, and so on.

In part this is a result of the gamification of the process, distilling “spell use” into a game mechanic that can be played at the tabletop. But by the same token, this particular game mechanic has so steeped into collective imaginations that many writers have an unquestioned, underlying assumption that their spell-casters must go through these or similar steps, and that clerical magic will have at least that much in common with wizardly magic.

Taking that as a starting point for designing magical systems, the world builder ends up asking things like “what kind of divine spells does this priest have?” instead of better framing questions like, “how does divine magic work in this priest’s culture?”

These consequences incline world builders to create derivative and copy-cat-ish styles of magic for their fictional worlds. This goes beyond the needs of designing for rpg game mechanics, and trickles into works of pure story fiction and even what bunny trails the world builder chooses to follow (or not follow) when trying to invent new magic systems or create a new religion plus associated spells.

In short, this way of thinking about magic and religion has become both entrenched (in some portion of the design community, anyway), and it continues to echo the underlying dualistic view of magic and religion that is a western cultural perspective. This has resulted in a hybridized magic style in our fantasy works that somewhat awkwardly grafts spell-casting onto the religious function.

3. The Need to Integrate Magic and Religion.  A third consequence is that even if a fiction writer approaches religious magic without any rpg influences to color the picture, our dualistic western thinking still subconsciously frames the issue. We think about how to develop magical abilities in a religious context so the end result makes sense. While that is at root a sensible design concern, it also tacitly treats “magic” and “religion” as separate constructs that must be integrated in some manner.

That is not a bad thing as far as it goes, but I believe it does not go far enough, because the starting point of that thought process is the dualism mentioned earlier. Instead, there is another way to think of magic and religion which avoids the innate separateness of Cartesian duality, and also skips merrily past the default design assumptions of the rpg tradition. This alternative viewpoint enables one to create a magical religion that is far less likely to feel derivative, and which is much easier to grow into a unique take on magic and faith in a setting.

And what, exactly, is this different conceptual framework? I am speaking here of a “magico-religious system” of belief melded very closely with magic. Anthropologists have written about this concept and the role it plays in real-world cultures. In part 2 of this post, I’ll talk about that alternative magic/religion model and some implications it has for world building.

I’ll update this with a link to the post when it is published. (If you are on the World Building Academy mailin list, you’ll get an announcement when the post is up.)


1. Even though one can point to religious strictures that affect life in the material and social world, those mandates stem from religion’s concern for the spiritual life.

2. There is also an “informational” class of magic—divination, clairvoyance, and so on—that I would argue still takes as its meat and drink images or information drawn from the material world, either in present time or some other time frame future or past. Hence, this class of magic also works via interaction with physical reality, although the effect is not as obvious as in, say, the casting of a fireball spell.

This post originally appeared at the World Building Academy blog, Join the mailing list for free weekly world building tips. Subscription form's in the sidebar.

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Bart Stewart
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Nice to see this subject explored. The best example of this fusion of magic and religion that comes to my mind is Katherine Kurtz's "Deryni" novel series.

Despite the use of ritual in performing magic, which makes it a good fit for the somewhat-Roman Catholic religion of the novels, Kurtz never makes puzzling out how Deryni magic works a centerpiece of her stories. She does acknowledge a genetic component, and she makes it very clear that it doesn't require a religious channel. But for the most part, Deryni magic when performed by religious practitioners is a spiritual experience that just happens to be expressed through ritual artifacts and actions.

This makes magic in the Deryni books closer to the poetic "it just works that way" presentation in Ursula Le Guin's "Earthsea" novels than to the "fun through exploring systems" presentation of multiple styles of magic in Lyndon Hardy's _Master of the Five Magics_ (and its sequels).

It also makes Deryni-style magic harder to encode in an architectural-mechanical game form. But that's another comment. :)

Deborah Teramis Christian
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Kurtz's work in the Deryni novels is certainly a great example of religious magic done well. She handles it so deftly neither element feels pasted onto the other. Agree with you about the challenges of modeling that mechanically in game form. I haven't eyeballed it myself, but the Deryni world was licensed as a FUDGE game system and has been out in print as a tabletop rpg for, geez, maybe a decade now. It might be interesting to take a look at how the magic system is translated into those game mechanics.

Samuel Garcia
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Why do westerners separate religion from magic? It's simple really. When we think of religion, we think of Christianity and organized worship of the benevolent God who grants blessings. When we think of magic, we think of demons and the occult, an aberration and forbidden religion, focus on secret knowledge.

Michael Uzdavines
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You've got some semantic issues dealing with the terms religion and magic. Notwithstanding the dictionary definition, to some, religion means their faith in a god, to others (within Christianity) it carries the negative connotation of legalistic doctrine. From a Christian perspective, a problem arises when God is looked at as the benevolent candy machine, there to dole out blessings when we pray for them. Many Christians have that view, and it is quite misguided. But from that definition of the term religion, you are right on the money - there's no difference between that and magic.

We're currently navigating these waters with our game, Heroes of Issachar (we're on Steam Greenlight if you care to check us out). The game is an RPG, and the backdrop has elements of Christianity in it. You don't play (necessarily) as a believer, so the question we are wrestling with is how to handle magic. Christians will cry foul if we do it traditionally, but without some supernatural element I think the game feels flat. So, I appreciate Deborah (and the community) sharing these thoughts because it is incredibly relevant to the discussions we're having.

Maurício Gomes
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I think it is even more important to remember, that the bible does acknowledge that magic exists, but at the same time bans all form of magic, with specific mentions for two (divination, and necromancy)

New Testament states that divination without God permission is stuff of demons (but we need to remember that several believer characters were also very powerful in that field, Joseph of Egypt for example).

And in old testament necromancy was forbidden by law, necromantic-related minor practices were forbidden too (it is what the "tattoo" prohibition was referring to, there was a ancient practice of using ashes of the dead as tattoo ink to allow common people perform simple spells, it was custom to make at least a spell to help the recently deceased have a better afterlife somehow according to their culture, so funerals often resulted into lots of tattoos for the recent dead). And a king (if I remember correctly Saul) pulls a necromantic stunt (he hires a necromancer to summon a prophet so he would ask questions to the prophet of how to proceed, the necromancer summons "something" and that "something" instead berates him for daring to summon).

Michael Uzdavines
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You're absolutely right - without a doubt, the Bible acknowledges the existence of magic. The question for Christians as gamers and developers is how magic in video games fits with our faith. Personally, I love magic in video games and don't see it as an affront to God, but others do. In terms of the X's and O's of coding the game, a fireball is just a fireball - you throw it, hit a bad guy, and he burns. The question we keep wrestling with, which is why I really enjoyed this article, is, how do we explain where the power comes from? We haven't settled on it yet, and I love this discussion.

Jakub Majewski
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A lot depends on the context. The Bible relates to our reality, where "magic" can be one of two things - God-given miracles, or the work of Satan (in whatever disguise). In our world, there is no magic in the sense of fantasy novels, where you perform an act, and the act has intrinsic consequences ("say these words, and x will happen"). Our magic, if you can call it that, stems from our relationship with God or with Satan - when a miracle happens, it happens because somebody genuinely believed God and in God, prayed to God, and God decided to make this particular thing possible. The other side of the coin, so-called dark magic, is simply a cheap imitation of miracles with Satan in God's place - usually in disguise of some pagan god.

All of this relates to *our* reality. It does not relate to fantasy novels, except for ones that make our reality their point of departure. So yes, as ridiculous as it might sound, Harry Potter does ultimately build on the notion of Satanic ritual, because it claims to take place in our reality, meaning that its magic must either come from God or Satan, and clearly does not come from God. Which is not to say that Harry Potter induces kids to worship Satan or anything like that - kids do comprehend the difference between fiction and reality, after all.

On the other hand, consider Tolkien. He wasn't merely "spiritual" as so many lukewarm Christians are today, he was an ardent Catholic who understood his faith and the logic behind it. Why did he have no problem creating a story filled with magic? And why do Christians have no problem with his works? Because, firstly, it is the Middle Earth, and not Earth. It's a completely fictional setting, which can work in accordance with the author's logic. The author is free to create laws of magic that are as explicable and as inevitable as the laws of physics - and many authors do in fact spell out their magic this way, for example when combining reagents while uttering particular words triggers a spell in Ultima, or when AD&D turns magic into a force that can be harnessed with sufficient training - and again, depending on specific actions to make things happen, just as physics requires certain actions to make a ball fall from our hand down to the ground, and with specific training physics allows us to throw that ball successfully into a basketball hoop. In Tolkien's case, he doesn't ever really do more than hint at how magic works, but it's initially enough for us that it's a different world with different laws, where magic need not be derived from Satan.

Secondly, though - and this is kind of a reversal of the first point above - where Tolkien does hint at the inner workings of magic, his vision is perfecty Catholic. There is God (Eru), then there are the angels (Ainur), and a renegade angel (Melkor) who turns against God. Magic, as far as we can tell, comes from the relationship with Eru, either directly or through the powers of the good Ainur (like Gandalf) - or alternatively, through the renegade Ainur such as Morgoth, Sauron, and Saruman (hope I can say that fifty years after the books' publication without including a spoiler warning :) ).

So ultimately, whether or not magic in games is acceptable for Christians depends on the context, and how the magic is explained. If the game is set in our reality, then any magic/miracles not explicitly traceable back to God, must come from the alternative source - and there's only one alternative source, whom we must absolutely reject. But if a game is set in a fantasy universe, you're free to set up your own rules any way you please, and you can either carry that same good/bad magic dichotomy across, or you can make magic a part of nature, just another law of the universe.

As an aside, implementing God-given miracles as a game mechanic would in itself be a fascinating and challenging task. God, after all, is not a vending machine to obey our every whim. More than that, God is all-knowing, and therefore knows what's best - when someone prays fervently and with faith, only to find that this didn't help, it may well be that God actually saved him from something worse, but at face value it seemed like God ignored him. What an incredible thing to try to express in rigorous programming terms!

Michael Uzdavines
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Jakub, well put. You just very articulately summed up the last 6 months of discussion for our game. I concur that in a fantasy setting, we make up the rules, and therefore the source of magic. That is how we started out. The problem came when we start asking questions like (since actual scripture will be part of the game), if this is a fantasy world, who is Paul writing to in 1 and 2 Corinthians? If the game is a metaphor for Christian principles, then there's no issue, but when we drop it back into the real world, well, you summed it up better than I could.

I would submit that, despite the general acceptance of Tolkien and Lewis, there are still plenty of Christians who consider any inclusion of magic as evil, so at some point we will just have to accept that we must honor our own convictions because we aren't going to please everyone.

Matthew Calderaz
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Great article. I agree that there's plenty of opportunity for more creative spell casting mechanics, and better integration of magic systems and religion in world building, then what is typically implemented in 90% of (mostly RPG) games.

Personally, I like the idea of a priestly magic system that eschews spell points, mana, etc to allocate the number of times a character can cast a spell and simply uses: 'priest prays to diety A for (x)' with no guarantee that the prayer will be answered.

Deborah Teramis Christian
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That would certainly be a (refreshingly) different game mechanic for clerical magic.
I think the real starting point needs to be a clear understanding of the metaphysics involved (or whatever accounts for "magic works this way" -- i.e., being clear on what that amounts to), and only then tackling the gamification of that. Mechanics are merely a simulation model; we need to know first exactly what we're simulating. Then we can tweak the mechanics until we get the right look and feel for what we're striving for.

Alessandro Ituarte
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This is exactly how religion is addressed in Dragon Age, which I thought was incredibly interesting!

You can even pay for an NPC to pray for you but there are no evident systemic benefits from it. There are also characters who don't believe in the power of gods even if there are clearly wizards, magic and enchantments all around. I thought it introduced a nice bit of narrative flavour to the game's universe.

Maurício Gomes
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This remembers me of NetHack prayer system :)

NetHack rules in very short form: All characters can pray, characters can workship only one god, prayer might, or might not work, if it work the effect might help you, or not (suppose you pray while in the middle of a pool of lava, maybe the god will take you out... or maybe it will give you a item, that is completely useless to save you).

If you pray on altars, the effects are better.

If you pray too much, the deity might become annoyed, or even upset, and punish you.

If you do things your deity don't like it will also punish you.

Praying while the deity is still upset, will get more punishment than you already had (a classic one is that every time you pray while having a ball and chain tied to you, the ball gets heavier... until it cannot get big anymore, then the deity throws lightining at you, that usually kills in one hit)

Joshua Darlington
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Awesome subject!

Classic role playing games like AD&D are cool. I found more inspiration from magic systems like Call of Cthulu where exposure to the supernatural could cause insanity and DragonQuest where a spell could backfire.

The fantasy genre is so self referential, I wonder how many world builders have taken the obvious step of reading the Golden Bough for ideas. There are so many good ideas hiding in literature and history. Conquest of New Spain about Cortes is one of the greatest adventure books ever written and includes violent and duplicitous battles between Catholic and Aztec clerics. The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan is an amazing collection of adventures about converting pagan desert nomads to Islam. Acallam na Senórach is a similar tale from Ireland telling of the adventures of Saint Patrick. etc etc etc

One important foundation that seems obviously missing from your article is philosophy, which is coextensive with both religion and magic. For an excellent reference on this relationship I highly recommend this free Berkeley class available on iTunes. An existentialist professor explores being in polytheistic and monotheistic society.

Man, God, and Society in Western Literature - iTunes Audio – Hubert Dreyfus, UC Berkeley


Deborah Teramis Christian
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This article is a critique of how I see a lot of design work done right now. The role of philosophy as an alternative is something I'll get into in part 2.
Thanks for the link to the online course. A lot of world builders would benefit by expanding their horizons in subject areas like this.

Jordan Carr
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I've been tackling the issue of magic and religion in my tabletop games for years, with not a lot of success. It's hard to find some middle-ground between retreading old ground and doing zany things for the sake of "newness" or "originality."

Great article, though! I'm a huge fan of world building (I probably spend more time building my TRPG worlds than running/playing them...)

Julian Cram
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You should probably see if you can post this to io9 ... it would spark some very interesting conversation.