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Sunday 17 August 2014

“Real Magick” in RPGs, Continued

Before I go on with things real magicians do (or would-be real magicians routinely fail to do), I thought I should address a mechanical issue.  In “modern occult” themed games, usually there is some kind of special mechanic or set of mechanics that are meant to reflect the state of both a magic-user’s power, and the state of his “mental health” in whatever form as he works magick.

Obviously, none of these have been really well done as accurate reflections of what goes on in a magician’s career. To give some examples of what I’m talking about here, in CoC you have “sanity” and “Cthulhu Mythos” stats, in Unknown Armies you have the madness meters, in oMage you had “paradox” (if I recall correctly), etc.

So what kind of stats would you really have to have to reflect the state of a magician’s attainment, and his deterioration in turn, if you were trying to reflect how “real” magick is done in our modern world?
I’ve thought about this for a bit, and I think you’d have to do something like the following:
First, you’d need a stat to reflect the Magician’s ongoing state of enhanced perception, the flowering of intuitive knowledge, the capacity to see into the supernatural world, or the general sense of transcending the mundane; let’s call this Gnosis.  Gnosis would start at basically zero, but your goal would be to gain in it as time went by.  Gnosis can only be gained by what Gurdjieff called “Shock points”, moments of spiritual crisis where something sufficiently outside your mundane understanding of reality happens that it leads to a potential growth in awareness.  Basically, “mind-blowing experiences” and general weird shit happening.

Most people have some of this weird shit happen in their life at some point or another, yet usually they end up repressing it (this means that a Shock moment only has the potential to lead to gain in Gnosis, more on that later).  But for magicians, there is almost always some initial event that takes place, something that knocks them out of their consensus of reality sufficiently that they can’t ignore it, and this leads them into the study of magick in the first place, however half-assed or seriously they may go about it from there. 

Gnosis is increasingly  hard to develop as you go along; this is because any previous experience is no longer a Shock.  For example, dropping acid, the first time that you do it, completely blows out your frame-of-reference, your ego has nothing to compare it to; by the second time you do it,  you already do have something to compare it to; the first time.

So a Shock has to be something different each time, and has to lead to a progression in one’s understanding for it to even have a chance to increase Gnosis.  I would probably run this as some kind of 0-100 ranged stat, where each time you experience a shock you would roll a percentile die, and if you got HIGHER than your current level of Gnosis, you would gain a certain number of Gnosis points. Any experience that was too mundane, or that was a retread of what you had experienced previously, would not grant you new Gnosis points, though it may be useful in other ways. This would be a tricky thing to govern, because your state of mind can affect whether something is a Shock or not; if you repeat the exact same action (for example, performing a certain ritual) but your state of mind has changed sufficiently, it might count as an entirely new Shock, as it provides you with some new revelation. 
Gnosis wouldn’t be the only important statistic to keep track of, however.  There’s the flipside of Gnosis, which is Ego.  “Ego” in this case refers to the “illusion of the world”, to the construct of ideas and concepts, memories and outside influences on your being that you’ve patched together and decides is “you”, as well as your ideas about reality and how reality works.  Everyone would start with a certain level of Ego, a measure of how strong their personality is. Any Shock which successfully generates Gnosis should also reduce Ego. But on the other hand, any Shock which FAILS to generate Gnosis could potentially increase Ego.  That is, you perform a ritual or have an experience that presents you with the chance to redefine your whole concept of yourself or reality; it creates a Shock (a spiritual crisis), and the next question becomes how you deal with that Shock.  You can be receptive to it and allow it to change you, that means Gnosis is generated.  On the other hand, you can simply fail to take advantage of the change.  But you can also react strongly against the change, trying to hold onto the Ego. Then you create new kinds of justifications for yourself, to avoid having to change, you rationalize the experience, and use it instead of as a vehicle for alchemical transformation, as a way to reinforce your existing prejudices about reality.  Thus, your Ego gets stronger.  So I would say that any Shock experience that fails to raise your Gnosis would require a test against Ego, to see if Ego increases.  Basically, any Shock event that raises your ego is an experience so terrifying (maybe LITERALLY terrifying, or not, but definitely terrifying to your sense of self-definition) that you just refuse to accept it as it really is and build up a fantasy to help strengthen your existing ideas instead.

The third stat of importance in all this would be Obsession.  As Shocks occur, whether they increase Gnosis or affect Ego, they can end up generating a certain amount of Obession in the magician; this is the closest to “madness” that you would see.  Someone under the effects of Obsession would be caught up in the distraction of the events that caused the Shock; they would end up getting lost in the minutiae of the vehicles used to obtain the Shock (be they drugs, magical ritual, ecstatic frenzy, kabbalistic numerology, alchemical gobbledygook, metaphysical ruminations, etc etc.), and this would complicate both their ability to function in the everyday world, and their ability to continue developing magically.  Someone who is being affected badly by obsession would be that guy who gets caught up in the visible appearances of “being a powerful magician”; the guy who can’t keep his mouth shut about the subject, tries to talk about the kabbalah or pagan gods, or whatever he’s into, to anyone at all who’ll listen; the guy who starts ignoring his regular life and work and relationships to instead spend all his time trying to study or talk about or summon up demons or read tarot cards or find the numerical significance of every little thing that comes along.  Like Gnosis or Ego, you’d have to mechanically create a chance of generating Obsessions whenever you had a Shock Experience, and you could require someone to make a roll against their obsession value at different times to see if the Obsessions don’t end up interfering with either their magical study (obsession tends to create “blinders” where you ignore certain avenues in favor of your pet obsessions) or their social lives (obsession turns you into a nutter); failing an Obsession check might lead to a small increase in your Obsession level, while doing certain other things (meditation, intentionally trying to build up social connections, psychological self-analysis, etc) might have a chance of slightly reducing your level of Obsession.  Later Shock experiences would affect Obsession in such a way that a given Shock might either increase or reduce obsession; so that I’d probably have any Shock point cause a direct percentage “check” in obsession, where if you rolled equal to or under your current level, you’d gain more Obsession, and if you rolled higher than your current level you’d reduce your Obsession. Note that unlike Ego, which would only increase in the case of failing a Gnosis check, obsession would be checked in every Shock event, so you could theoretically gain both Gnosis and Obsession at the same time.  That’s pretty common, actually.

Should someone get to 100 Gnosis points, they would become an “Adept”, someone who has obtained a permanent state of awareness that there are dimensions beyond the material and the ability to connect to that altered state of consciousness beyond the rational mind. Someone in this state would be able to permanently access their “higher self” (in magick sometimes called the “True Will” or more poetically, the “Holy Guardian Angel”).  They would not necessarily always be willing to follow the direction and guidance of that True Will,  however.  Further Shock experiences would not need to be tested against Gnosis, but could still work against Ego, either to reduce or increase it, as the Adept struggled between the construced-psyche he continues to identify with, and the higher state of consciousness he is now constantly (and sometimes painfully) aware of.  Note that “True Will” rarely has much to do with what your ego thinks it wants at any given time, it is rather a kind of cosmic consciousness that has to do with your higher purpose; from the perspective of the human being at the level of the ego, it can seem like an entirely different entity, hence this notion of an “Angel” trying to guide you, and often demanding things of you that are very difficult.

Its possible for your Ego to reach 0, in which case you will have become a “Magister Templi”, a buddha, completely transformed into a new level of consciousness (where the physical body, the mind, the Higher Self, and what you previously believed to be the Divine are all experientially understood to be one single thing); but only if you can cross the “trial of the abyss”, the dark night of the soul that is the final challenge of the ego’s will to dominate versus your true will to transcend.  A person confronting the Abyss would have to face all of their resistance, fears, attachments and obsessions, and be willing to let them all go.  Failing the trial of the Abyss, resisting the annihilation of the ego to the point of shutting one’s self in, would result in the creation of a new Ego-construct instead of transcendence; what Crowley called a “Black Brother”, trapped in delusions of power and grandeur, and unable to let go of those accomplishments they cling to.  It would be theoretically possible, but very difficult, to overcome this and again face the abyss a second time.  Mechanically, this initial failure of overcoming the Abyss could be done by having your Ego raised back up to the level of your Obsession (which would be that which the magician would cling to, after all), and for a subsequent attempt to overcome the Abyss requiring some kind of very strong Shock event, and a check with greater difficulty than the former (with another failure causing an increase in Ego to some multiplier of your obsession; ie. obsession x 2, x3, x4 etc. for each failure).

Having an Ego score get up to 100 would simply mean that you have an extremely rigid sense of self and reality, you would be almost completely unwilling to accept anything that was not your own illusions about what you are and what reality is like. It would make it very difficult to be able to reduce your Ego level, as you’d basically be in deep denial about everything. Having an Obsession level of 0 would just mean you’re a very well-functioning human being, whereas an Obsession level of 100 would make you utterly batshit certifiably insane.

There’s probably one more thing that would need to be mentioned here; and that’s what I’ll call “Masks”.  The Ego is seen as a problem for the magician’s ultimate goal of “transcendence”, unity with the universe, cosmic consciousness, whatever you want to call it; but the Ego is also the personality, it is what we normally define ourselves as, and the basis for our interactions with everyone else, who also define themselves as their egos (in fact, the difference between magicians, and a few other spiritual practitioners, on the one hand and everyday people on the other is that most regular people don’t normally question that they are their personalities, and don’t even imagine that there is something else much greater beyond that which is also them).  So the “successful” magician can quickly run into a problem, which is that if you reduce your Ego without developing any skill to compensate for it, you will end up seeming basically “broken” from the perspective of everyday society; you won’t have a real personality, or a sufficiently stable one.  You’ll seem weird, disconnected (or obsessed, if your Obsession level has grown while your Ego has decreased), and generally uncomfortable to be around.  But the fact is that the Ego is just a kind of mask that people have glued onto their true nature, their inner vastness.  That vastness is uncomfortable and people can’t connect to it (in fact, one of the most common early “Shock” experiences of a new magician is when they run into some kind of teacher in whom they catch some glimpse of that vastness).  But if the Ego is just a mask, it is possible for a magician to  learn how to put on other masks at will; to basically create a personality (or as many personalities as he likes) and put them on as needed to deal with different people.  This would be a magical skill, which could be called “Masks”. 

To obtain it, the magician would have to perform practices and techniques of invocation, learning about archetypes and how to embody those archetypes, or how to create new archetypes.  Mechanically, he’d probably have to develop a level of Masks skill that was in some way greater than his level of Obsession, because Obsession acts as a total barrier to the effective use of a mask.  Someone who is successful in the use of a Mask skill would be able to essentially “construct” a temporary personality out of archetypal concepts; and would go from being socially inept due to low-Ego or high-obsession to being extremely socially capable, as he could create a different mask for different occasions as they were necessary (becoming a “regular guy” when he’s around regular guys, an intellectual around intellectuals, a hobbyist around hobbyists, a hobo around hobos, a hipster around hipsters, whatever).  This is not just “acting” or “bluff”, part of what wearing the mask does is temporarily incarnate the qualities of that mask-persona completely (its only comparable to acting in the sense of those very intense method-actors who go so totally into a role that they “become” the character).  Someone who became a “master of the temple” would have to continually rely on the wearing of Masks to be able to function in regular society at all.

The easiest masks would be those closest to your existing persona (or for those beyond the Abyss, the imitation of their prior persona); after all, that too is a mask, it just happens to be the one you’ve been wearing your whole life.

Anyways, that’s all I’ve got for now, and I’m not really planning on developing anything further in this direction; after all I’m not making an RPG here, just trying to create guidelines for others to try to use and develop stuff for their own “modern occult” campaigns.


Currently Smoking: Castello 4k Collection Canadian + Image Latakia

(originally reposted May 21, 2013, on the old blog)


  1. Been enjoying this series of posts, and looking forward to more. It seems like you have done a lot of research into this. If you will afford me a personal question born of curiosity, do you think there is any actual truth to this in the real world?

  2. Yes, I do. But the above is certainly a way of making a mechanic out of something that in the real version is not mechanizable.
    It would no more be a 'realistic' interpretation of gnosis than an RPG mechanic to emulate musical performance would be a 'realistic' interpretation of that.

  3. Thanks for sharing. My beliefs fall into the category of "I do not know", but I have heard a lot of very interesting first hand stories. To borrow from your game mechanics above, I think my Ego stat is too high to see things myself so I am skeptical, but remain open to the idea that there is something more to this existence than what we see before us.

  4. You should make a rpg book that can challenge world of darkness mage books. Seriously I hate the mage orders in Mage: The Awakening because they always end up a collection of ass hats that try to focus on who has the biggest magic penis.

  5. It's possible that sometime in the future I'll do just that.

  6. Some post-Crowley magicians have debated the need for the "crossing the Abyss" in the development of the Magus. Benjamin Rowe, notably, wrote in his paper, "Enochian Temples: Generating the 'Abyss' Experience with the Temple", that "The same goals can be accomplished by more gradual means…", though he allowed that it may be a shortcut of sorts, as it were.

  7. Thing is, the 'abyss' experience isn't just unique to magick. Its very much present, with different wording, in a variety of other secret teachings all over the world; most visibly notable in buddhism, of course.

  8. "Real magic" is an oxymoron. Neat work you did, though.

  9. Any judgment calls aside, the title of the series as "Real Magick in RPGs" is not meant to mean "magick that really works, in RPGs" but rather "magick as real-world occultists practice it in RPGs, as opposed to stuff that lacks verisimilitude to real life ideas and practices". It's not saying "magick is real" (not saying it isn't, either), it's saying "this is how people in the real world try to do magick and what the real-world occults scene is like".

  10. I really enjoyed reading this. Your analysis is profound. I am curious though, why have two separate traits for Ego and Gnosis? It seems like they are opposite ends of the same Axis of Awareness. No?

  11. Yup, that would be another way you could handle it; only in my experience, I don't think it's quite a zero-sum game. It is in theory possible for people to have a relatively high level of gnosis while also still having a more-or-less high level of Ego. That's why I think making these two different stats makes some sense.

  12. My thoughts on your post became a bit too lengthy for a comment, so I posted it to my blog with a link back to your article here, and recommendations for people to read your post first....

  13. oWoD Mage has analogues the concepts you mention, although they are mechanically different.
    Gnosis -> Arete
    Shock -> Seeking (the only way to increase arete)
    Ego -> Paradox (the imposition of the world of illusion on a mage's abilities, albeit driven as much by other egos as by the mage's)
    Obsession -> Foci & Quiet (crutch paraphernalia required to perform magic and full-on disconnection from the ordinary world)

    One notable difference in mage is that it is failure and hubris in magical activities that drives the generation of paradox and quiet, rather than failed seekings (shocks).