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Sunday 7 October 2018

Classic Rant: Real Magic In RPGs, The Magical Diary

I realized after I'd covered Yoga that there was something even more basic, that could be quite important in a modern-day occult RPG, that I had skipped over: the "Magical Diary".

The "magical diary" is a record of your magical workings; its something that's been used by magicians for centuries (John Dee, the 16th century magician, was an obsessive record-keeper and his diaries are preserved), and it has ended up being passed down even to more popular movements than that of ceremonial magicians; one manifestation, for example, is the "book of shadows" of your typical Wiccan. Even though the "book of shadows" was originally meant to be some alleged kind of "ancient grimoire" containing all the "old rituals" of "ancient wicca" that Gerald Gardner (inventor of wicca) claimed to have been "handed down" to him (it wasn't, he wrote it himself); since modern wiccans are very rarely actually practitioners of the rituals Gardner created, the word has generally evolved to mean a big blank book where you write down spells, herb recipes, ideas about wicca, prayers to the goddess, its like a big new-age scrapbook. Almost all wiccans start compiling a "book of shadows" at some point in their career, mostly listing or copying stuff they found elsewhere; though relatively fewer actually complete one or make an ongoing process of writing it.

Ceremonial magicians are made of sterner stuff, and like most things in the modern "serious" occult scene, this is thanks to Aleister Crowley. Uncle Al was an obsessive diary-keeper himself, and the majority of his diaries survive and have been published; thus, he's created an example by which others can slavishly copy him. Many try to make their diaries look as absolutely similar to Crowley's as possible, right down to using obscure latin or listing dates by astrological positions, saying "Sun in 19ยบ Leo" rather than just saying "August 11th". Crowley's own diaries were at times remarkably extensive, brutally honest with himself at certain moments, highlighted his own flaws and failings at others, and sometimes slip into the banal, with records of things like the menu of an excellent restaurant meal he ate, or records of chess games he played.

Generally speaking, however, a well-kept magical diary is an unbelievably important resource to a magician. This of course means that the average magician that you might run into will fail to have a well-kept diary. Most people who get into magick start one, stop again, forget to write in it for weeks, fail to make notes of important details like their states of health while trying some ritual or practice, etc etc.
But, if someone is practicing western ceremonial magic in a meaningful way at all, you're likely to find them at the very least keeping some kind of a diary. And hardcore practitioners, the ones who are really serious, will have a detailed diary they update nearly if not every day.

Why is the diary important to the magician? The same reason note-keeping might be important to a scientist; you want to keep a meticulous record of the work you've been doing, the conditions surrounding that work, and its results. You cannot trust your memory to these things. The diary serves for the newer student as a more accurate way than memory to chart progress. For the advanced student, as a vital way to compile information about detailed operations of invocation, pathworking, research, meditation, contemplation, etc.; when you're doing some magical work that will take the course of weeks to work out, you need to be able to keep a good track of things.

Why is it important in an occult RPG? Well, just fucking think about it: its the best macguffin you can get! Games like Call of Cthulhu talk about ancient grimoires, which is bullshit, since all of those can be got by anyone at almost any time these days. But the magickal diary of a real, working magician, who's got some real power, will be filled with his own personal discoveries that are known to no one but him! It will tell the reader what he was working on, just what he was summoning, or what went horribly wrong (or horribly right!). A magician will put his most private and personal victories or failures in the diary, often with details about how to perform a ritual and what it did; though also often missing vital information that the magician himself knows by heart, sometimes intentionally to keep the profane from being able to read and wreak havoc with things. That whole "it takes 1d6 weeks to read and understand the corpus hermeticum" thing from CoC? Bullshit. But I can see it requiring weeks and weeks of research to try to find the true names of a modern adept's four magical servitor demons in a pile of his diaries.

It can be something left behind to introduce a new character to the grimy world of the occult; or it can be the best clue to discover the fate of a missing or murdered occultist, or it might be a needle-in-a-haystack kind of thing, to find some detail about some event that happened on a certain day, out of a pile of volumes and volumes of a life's work of diaries.

And most of all, it is the smoking-gun of proof of how magick fucks you up; don't do it seriously enough and you're just a poseur, a fake, or a powerless wannabe. Do it seriously enough for real shit to start happening, and you've already had to go through a long slow slide into obsession and batshit looniness. A typical magical diary will reflect that; it will usually be written in a fevered, barely-legible scrawl of someone who's just pulled out his precious notebook in a flash and is writing down his thought with the desperate urge of that moment of insight, or the excitement of divine revelation; it will be filled with sigils, seals, diagrams, astrological charts, magical squares, I ching hexagrams and all kinds of weird shorthand that could require a master codebreaker to decipher; it will skip back and forth from the utterly mundane (talking about going out to dinner, or having a mild cold, or an argument with one's romantic partner), to writing with a completely straight face about friendly conversations with demons, angels and gods, travel to other dimensions, or visions of the future.

What's more you can see from the record that this is more than just lunacy; that whatever the magician is doing is invariably having an effect on him, his magick "works", in one sense or another, to make changes in his world and make him either a better or more effective or more conscious or more successful human being; or to make his life a total disaster (usually because he ends up resisting the very consequences of the magick he himself started doing).

Anyways, "magical diaries" of wizards modern or old are probably the best prop an occult/horror RPG GM could possibly want.


(Originally Posted August 12, 2011)

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting ideas. Though one thing comes to mind as I read this. In Frazer's "The Golden Bough" he gives the view that magic and science have a certain kind of relationship ... perhaps magic being the precursor of science. This idea that you can unravel the secrets of nature through experimentation is what these "magical diaries" seem to me to reflect, although one could make the obvious distinction... science is focused on the laws of the material world, whereas the grimoires are focused on the laws of the spiritual world. Hence one might interact with demons or angels, but according to specific rules, which are reflected in the ceremonies. Breaking the laws would have the same effect in either case ... bad things may happen.

    Another thing that this brings to mind is the tenor of magic in RPGs is often reduced to these very overt modes of play ... Cast a Magic Missile for 1d6 damage. Cast a Fire Ball for 4d6 damage. Cast an Invisibility Spell so you can sneak into the king's chamber and steal the Pearl of Whatever. And so on. They're very formulaic to the point of becoming entirely mechanical. Adding that MUs need such things as Magical Diaries, which themselves can become a distinct point of vulnerability for the MU should they be lost or stolen, is very interesting as well. It also could help considerably to give the impression during the game that magic is not simply a set of commands like a DOS prompt that lets you spit out magical effects, but rather something extremely mysterious, and dangerous, that you need to learn over the course of experience, and experiment with to get right. So instead of just saying "you fumble the spell", the GM might say instead, "the glyph in your grimoire appears to have had a mistake, and this caused your mana to lilt uncomfortably towards the sign of Saturn... and as a consequence instead of turning the lad into a toad as you intended, your left pinkie has been blighted and now looks like an ugly gray-green fungus protruding from your hand." ... or some such. In other words, an interesting way to make magic still function mechanically the same way, perhaps, but with considerably more flavor.

    Anyway, a very interesting read. Thanks.