Like races, a fantasy setting doesn’t need magic, but if you do decide to include magic in your setting then it pays to consider how it works, why it works, and how this impacts on the wider community. High fantasy generally involves lots of strange magical effects that exist separately from the fundamental laws of scientific reality that we accept, low fantasy tend to involve more subtle effects that may occur less often, or at least involve more power to accomplish lesser feats of arcane wonder.
If you’re using a system like D&D to drive the magic, there used to be two simple classes of character capable of wielding supernatural powers…there was the magic user who memorised spells and released them one by one from memory slots in their mind, and there was the cleric who prayed to their gods and channelled the divine will of celestial beings into the mundane world. Each type of supernatural wielder had a different set of effects that they could bring into play. In more recent editions, the variants of magic use have become more dynamic. Now you get sorcerers who have innate abilities, wizards who research arcane spells, bards who channel their mystical effects through music, clerics who still pray to their gods, warlocks who make pacts with gods to gain a fragment of divine essence and use that to cast spells, different classifications of mage who focus on specific types of magic or specific end goals (artefacts, necromancy, alchemy, etc.). This is great for a menu, but when you sit down to a meal you can’t eat everything, and you just get overwhelmed when you try. If you want your game world to have character (rather than just being another “kitchen sink” setting) I recommend picking a few specific classes of magic user that fit with the ideas you have already integrated into the setting.
Let’s look at another game system that might be used to drive magic. This actually used to be my favourite magic system due to its versatility. It’s the system of magic used in Mayfair Games’ “Chill 2nd Edition”. All magic was based on cause and effect, anyone could create magical effects, if they had the right causes. Occult skills and instinctive knowledge helped certain characters learn how to uses causes to their advantage, and give them the tools to focus the released energy into specific manifestations of power. Causes might include a sanctuary attuned to the magic user, gems infused with power, injury to the caster, requirement of a particular celestial alignment, presence of assistants, requirement of some kind of skill check…each of these causes (among others) produced a variable number of power points. So the same amount of point could be generated by two different casters depending on their magical tastes and knowledge. Once the points had been accumulated, they could be channelled into a range of different effects, with additional power points used to increase range, duration, number of targets, minimise collateral damage, etc. I liked to house-rule the system so that a player could spontaneously cast anything on the fly (as long as they knew the core effect component), but doing so cost twice as many power points. A player could memorise by rote a few particular spells (or have them in a spell book), and cast them for the regular value. Incredibly open-ended but carefully monitored through the accumulation and expenditure of mystical power. When certain casters were limited to certain types of cause or effect, you ended up with very nuanced schools of magic all of which integrated nicely.
I could get into my all-time favourite magic system, Mage: the Ascension, but I’ve done that numerous times before, and I think it’s a bit too open ended for what I’m going for in this setting (especially if the main reason for this setting is to flavour a LARP). I love Mage in a carefully monitored tabletop environment, but have seen it go hideously wrong in LARPs (more often than I’ve seen it go wrong at the table).
In a home grown system I developed with a friend (Dave Chandraratnam) in the 90s, we came up with a system that used 3 metaphysical stats: Connection (which determined how many sources of power a caster could connect to), Conduit (which determined the maximum flow of energy that could be channelled from outside sources), and Capacity (which determined how much energy the caster could store within their essence, able to be released instantaneously). Capacity had to be lower than Conduit, which in turn had to be less than Connection. Latent psychics and empaths might only have a single point of connection showing their ability to psychically touch other people (or objects) and feel things from them, but not much else. Adepts would be defined as characters with 2 connection and 1 conduit, thus showing their ability to draw on the powers around them to bring minor effects into being. True casters would be defined as characters having a minimum of 3 connection, 2 conduit, and 1 capacity, these are the lowest mages capable of casting effects at a moments notice with the energy infusing their souls. Specific flavours of mage in this system came from the types of energy source they had learnt to connect to (and channel).
I’m looking at a minimum of 3 forms of magic (hermetic, celestial, and innate), and each of these three forms has at least 3 flavours. Hermetic magic is more regimented and ritualised, its practitioners are divided into the crafters (artificers and alchemists), the kabbalists (who use geomatria and calculations to find loopholes in reality), and the hedge magi (who draw on superstition and folklore). Divine magic draws on the power of supernatural entities focused through the caster, its practitioners are divided into the Theurgists (holy magi of the church and cult), Mystics (who focus the powers of the ancient elemental gods), Reavers (who rip the power from supernatural beings to use for their own ends). Innate magic is more instinctive, it doesn’t rely on arcane knowledge or otherworldly entities, it’s practitioners are divided into the Mediums (who open themselves to otherworldly forces), Sorcerors (who make pacts with spirits and totems), and Psychic (who cultivate a very specific power from within).
You might ask why I want different types of magic. It’s certainly feasible to tie all magic into a single coherent system that all casters understand, but there is something about a system where a caster can evoke a mystical effect, and another caster can look at them and say “How the hell did they do that?”…it adds to the mystery of the setting. A similar set of mechansmms will underlie all of the magic forms (to ensure they remain relatively balanced against each other), but they will have distinct flavours and specialise in different types of effect.
At the moment, character progression in the game is defined by small niches of occupation. As a character develops, they follow a career progression through a series of occupations, starting as low level apprentices, shop assistants, pages, and wanderers, gradually moving through intermediate occupations (learning various tricks along the way), and moving to the heroic roles of the setting such as Imperial Courtesans, Town Guard Captains, Ship Captains, Artificers, Totem Warriors, etc. This system of progression might lend itself to the Vacian magic of D&D, where certain occupations teach you new spells to memorise, while other occupations might increase the total number of spells available. I’ve already decided in the LARP development series that each crafting occupation and each magical occupation will offer a small booklet of things that may be accomplished by people in this role. I’ve been tempted to bring in the system the Dave and I developed back in the 90s, but how does this help the story?
More to think about.