Recently my freind +James August Walls made a blog post titled Magic is Lazy. This drove a discussion on Google+ where I and others expressed that perhaps it is less a matter of magic and more a matter of magic without context. Of course it goes a little deeper than that; a fantasy world of elves and dwarfs and wizards and gods provides all the context that is needed for magic to not sit out of place. No, context as we were discussing it was also a matter of trappings, substance, and background. A magical +3 sword is pretty boring without the context to make it fit into your game. A sword etched with runes for power and death that drinks blood in contact with it (and oh hey mechanically provides a +3) has context that makes the item come "alive" within the setting and narrative.
So, basically I want to kick back to Jim that magic isn't lazy inherently, but lazily written magic is an anathema that we can all agree needs to go.
But what is context? Does everything in your game need context to not suck? Well, yes, and no.
What is context?
Context is "the parts of a piece of writing, speech, etc, that precede and follow a word or passage and contribute to its full meaning." Or so says dictionary.com, but I think there is more to it. Context isn't just the stuff that is written or said, but also all the stuff that isn't because of a mutual understanding of the thing being discussed. Consider how basic understanding of genre opens up a certain set of assumptions and allowances within fiction.
In a superhero comic there is not a second thought to men flying, women blasting objects with rays of power from their hands, and aliens from other worlds having lunch with earthlings. These fit the superhero genre, and that genre provides all the context they need. Magic is 100% in context for fantasy genres, while cybernetics, space ships, ray guns, and aliens all fit into science fiction (least least given how widely science fiction applies as a genre).
If I'm setting out to write a new RPG setting I'll probably start with some basic understanding of the genre(s) that apply. I may then add or remove things to fine tune the basic view of the setting to my liking. This is all context, and a lot of it can go without really being discussed by the author. The reader is left to come to an understanding of the setting on their own, and some of that will come from context that is never written explicitly.
The context of your setting will inform the reader/player what to expect on a high level. As they read the details of your setting more context will come to them from the details that you provide. Unlike the context of a genre this is explicit and has to be. If your setting is a typical Fantasy world on the surface that also includes steam-punk elements those elements will need to be explicitly detailed, at least in part, for the consumer to understand that this is more than a "stock" fantasy setting.
Dwarfs and goblins are racial enemies. This is a reasonably common fantasy trope, we've seen it often enough that if you said that in your detailing of your fantasy setting most people wouldn't think twice. That's a shame, because there's no context there. Oh sure, you can leverage the trope and the genre's implied setting context, but really you could also have left that detail unspoken and most would have assumed as much. By putting into your setting explicitly you are establishing a hard fact, one that will have repercussions and connections to other aspects of the setting in all manner of aspects.
A little historical context will go a long way to helping the audience grasp this racial enmity. Say that the goblins and dwarfs came to war with each other because the dwarfs pushed their mines deeper and further into the Greenstone Mountains where the dwarfs used their might to force goblin tribes from ancestral cave homes. This historical fact, only a single sentence in length, sets up great deal of historical context for the racial hatred between the two. It doesn't tell us everything (that'd be one amazing sentence otherwise), but it tells us that all of this started because of the actions of the dwarfs pushing into the goblins home territory.
This bit of context sets the dwarfs up as the bad guys (context here is HUGE because dwarfs are almost always a "good" race, relatively speaking), and it tells us that they not only invaded goblin lands, but drove them from their ancestral homes. It also might help to explain to the reader why dwarfs are not optional for characters, but goblins are.
Mechanical context explains the how and why things work, and what they are. This kind of context has layers that apply within the fictional setting and externally to the way the game plays. In the former case mechanical context tells us that mutants have super powers and that's why they can fly and shoot energy beams. In the latter case mechanical context is how an RPG damage system can track something as hard to pin down as damage with a handful (or a score) of points that the character can never refer to but that the player can speak of directly. Let's look at magic in this hypothetical setting of ours.
Magic in this setting is not your normal spell slinging sorcery/wizardry. Magic comes from specific sources and those sources impact how the magic works and what it can do. In our setting magic comes from natural spirits including the four elements and also animal and ancestor spirits. A practitioner will have a small handful of affinities for certain kinds of spirits, and through communion with those spirits they can work magics according to the demands of the spirits that actually provide the power. Fire is a common spirit because it has little in the way of demands, fire wants to consume and burn, so long as the practitioner has appropriate materials to burn they can draw power from fire spirits.
Storm spirits are immensely powerful, but difficult to work with; they demand that the practitioner be under open sky and that they adorn themselves with certain items. Animal spirits often require that the user wear or wield implements made of their animal, consume the foods that are traditional for that creature (raw flesh, or perhaps unpalatable grasses or berries), and often that the user not wear or use metal. Elemental earth spirits want lasting solidity, they can only be convinced to power through the used of graven runes and symbols.
All of this provides context to how magic works. A fireball now is seen as an agreement between the caster and the spirits of fire to destroy and burn something. Great for killing enemies, less great if they have a parchment you need to recover for your lord. A wolf spirit will give a practitioner abilities that go far beyond their normal senses and endurance, but that man or woman must take to eating raw meat and forsake the use of steel and iron. Meanwhile, earth spirits are pretty happy, so long as you take the time to carve etch, or otherwise create the permanent runes that their cooperation requires.
Suddenly that run covered sword makes more sense. That nearly feral shaman of the wolf and eagle is much more dedicated to their spirits. While the pyromaniac sorcerer of fire is as much a liability as an asset. Context is key to making these kinds of magic feel and look different, but also to making them feel like they are an integral part of the setting. It would make sense for dwarfs to use earth magic, carving runes and symbols of power into their every work. Meanwhile those goblins may get their magic from their own ancestor spirits. Being driven from the lands that those spirits live in makes them less able to meet the needs of their ancestor spirit patrons, and they are cut off little by little as the dwarfs advance and push the goblins back.
Outside of the setting all of these also provide context for the game's mechanics. An earth using rune-scribe may have to maintain their store of pre-graven runes, while the shaman of wolves and eagles will need to wear and use natural materials, hunt for fresh kill, and so forth. The fire mage's pyromania makes a different kind of sense when you understand that each act of arson that is not used to call magic, is in effect granting a later boon from the spirits of fire; effectively creating a "bank" of "arson points" that the mage can use to more easily cast their magic.
The latter there is an especially good example, because a supply of "arson points" (if I ever design my own game that is totally going to be a thing) is something that exists only at the player level, the character probably doesn't know that they have "14 arson points" accumulated, and they certainly are not thinking about the fact that a fireball costs 3 of those points to cast without having a sacrifice on hand (somatic component).
Take the context away and players may wonder why fire mages get a pool of points while wolf mages have equipment and diet restrictions, and earth mages have to spend hours preparing spells prior to use. Each of these only make sense once you have the full context. Likewise if you strip away both the context and the added mechanics magic becomes a lifeless and boring thing. This guy casts fire spells, this guy uses runes, this guy runs around half naked and wolfs out. Why? "Because magic."
I come back to what my buddy Jim said in his blog post, "Magic is Lazy." I couldn't disagree more with the title of his post, but the content reaches that same point as this blog: context is important. Context can breathe life into a setting, can make routine facets of a game setting make more sense and take on more meaning, and can even add to the mechanics of a game by providing both reason for mechanics, but also a reason for the mechanics to exist in the form that they do.
Next time you sit down to look at a setting or game consider what the context is telling you. Think about what each design choice that was made means for the way that the game plays, and for the way that the setting and the stories within will unfold.