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Friday 17 January 2014

"Real Magick" in RPGs: Spellbooks

I've posted previously in this series (on the old blog, but archived here), about some of the misconceptions about how 'occultism' is handled in a lot of allegedly-occult RPGs, and how GMs can modify things to more closely model the reality of the occult scene (a reality that is filled with posers, fakers, and lunatics, but also some truly fascinating stuff).  One of the big ones in modern games is about how occult knowledge is somehow rare or very difficult to access (the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario where magical knowledge is only available in the most obscure places), when the fact is that the problem is not access to that knowledge at all, but the ability to differentiate between the useful and the useless.  I also made a post about how and what a magician's diary looks like, and how these will often be the  most important "grimoires" available in a setting.

Now on the whole I've been focusing on modern settings, but I heard something interesting today on theRPGsite in reference to the "unrealistic" nature of D&D magick.  Someone pointed out that the idea of a magician going around with a spellbook and memorizing spells made no sense.  Magicians should study their books at home, and their spellbooks would be kept safe within lock and key in their towers.

But the truth of the matter is a bit trickier than that.

A magician may very well carry around his magical diaries with him (remember: a grimoire is really nothing more than a heavily-edited magical diary); for two reasons.

First, not to memorize spells but to potentially remember correspondences. There are big tables of correspondences (which are important "components" for magical practice, divination, etc) that someone might be able to memorize, but there's so much to be memorized that a lot of students won't. A good magick student will know the symbols and order of the zodiac, the planets, elements, PROBABLY the Hebrew letters and their number values, and things like the names of gods, elemental signs, the pentagram rituals and hexagram rituals. If he does all that by heart, he's a pretty advanced student (even among serious practitioners; remember, 99% of supposed 'magicians' have barely studied anything at all and don't actually practice any magick).
But even that kind of expert student may not memorize what type of plant corresponds to the moon, or the name of the Angel of the 20th degree of Leo.

Second, you never know when there's going to be new things to write in the diaries!

A magical diary is practically a part of a magician's body; its been repeatedly described by almost all of the great occult authors as the single most important tool of the magician.  You can almost always use it as a litmus test to tell the difference between a serious occultist and a dabbler, dilettante, or fraud: not everyone who keeps a diary will necessarily be doing serious occult work, but anyone who doesn't keep a magical diary is almost guaranteed NOT to be doing serious occult work of any kind.

Thus, the diary is far from an neat and tidy book of instruction (though sometimes material from said diaries are heavily edited to become actual commercial books); they are the frantic scribbles of a madman, and a seriously-obsessed occultist won't be trusting his own recollection to write down some insight or discovery long after the fact, if he can at all help it. He'll want the diary close, so he can record his studies, discoveries, findings or experiences as quickly as possible.


Currently Smoking: Dunhill Amber Root Bulldog + C&D's Crowley's Best


  1. I think that it's important to point out here that you are specifically talking about one particular stream of magical practice. There are dozens of legitimate magicians around the world who do not keep diaries. Of course, those magicians are not operating within the bounds of the magical system you are mainly discussing here. Rootworkers, onmyōji, and so on don't worry about angels of the zodiac or the like. They have their own methods.

  2. Yes; since we were talking about medieval-fantasy D&D, I was also specifically talking about western magick.

    There are legitimate magicians of all sorts of other cultures that don't use books, particularly from those cultures where books were not as much of a thing or didn't exist at all. But even in those, the "legitimate" magicians would still have been trained in a crazy-complicated list of symbols and correspondences. The symbols used might be different, but the underlying formula is stunningly similar.

  3. Very handy, I shall have to remember this. In settings where magic is often used in combat I imagine that much of it would be stream-of-conciousness written in the heat of the moment after a supernatural encounter or a casting. An occultist might then have a second book (or Google Document) that they access at home and transcribe the information into an easier to reference format (possibly a spreadsheet?)

  4. One of the things I enjoy about Unknown Armies is that the occult knowledge problem is totally signal-to-noise ratio rather than rarity. Sure, Agrippa's recipe for turning lead to gold from the Three Books of Occult Philosophy might work, or you might just poison yourself with mercury. How badly do you want to find out?

  5. S.P: yeah, that's closer to accuracy than most treatments of the occult. UA is probably the most authentic treatment of magick from any major RPG. It also emphasizes the point that most people self-styled as being involved in the occult are just consciously or unconsciously playing out a big LARP.

  6. That description of UA makes me regret passing it over when a copy showed up at the local used book store.
    I've often thought about using more real-world occult trappings in my games.

  7. A terrific article. Thanks for sharing this. I also had a similar issue when creating the world seeing for a Sci - Fi horror game. I wanted base the horror on authentic Christian theology, which meant no giant daemons and devils running around. In fact, the word daemon is likely a mistranslation of Greek, more closely approximating "devine". Likewise, much ambiguity on things like Nephelym. Indeed, Satan is far more cunning, using 'unclean spirits' to temp or ride mankind. So the horror comes from corruption as much a 'occult magic'. Anyway, the whole project have me a great chance to research my theological roots, which was fascinating.

  8. More specifically, in Greek "Daimonos" means a spirit, generally a positive spirit. In hermetic thought each person has a particular "daemon" which could be understood as "the angel of their better nature"; what is also called the Augoeides or Holy Guardian Angel.
    The word for "evil demon" in Greek is "Cacodaimonos".