Pagan Studies

Focusing on the Arte Magical as a practice and profession, we study various facets of magic through the lens of both classical and modern perspective. From ancient myth to urban legend to fiction and philosophy, all viewed through the eyes of a very practical magician.

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Turning the Tabletop

So I'm curious- how many of you are tabletop gamers?  You know, pen-and-paper RPGs, dice, maybe some figurines or what-have-you?

Because I'm a HUGE gamer.  As in four times a week, in some cases.  If you haven't realized that from my blog, then I'm telling you now.

Around here at Grimoire of Geek, we talk a lot about various kinds of fandoms and how they can become part of your magical practice.  We also like to talk about other geeky subjects, controversial subjects to do with our gods and how we relate to them, and where your magic comes from.  We're geeks- we dissect and analyze things, and then we geek out over the details.  It's a thing.

However, one of the things geeks and nerds and analytical types love to do is reverse-engineer.  And that's what today's mental experiment is about.

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I first encountered Dungeons & Dragons books, and found them boring.  Now, primarily this was because I didn't like the suggested content- wizards and clerics and paladins were cool and all, but I thought I could do better than that, and so I started to create character classes with more interesting flavors to them- the alchemist, the treedancer, the djinn-summoner...

Yes, at 8 years old.  So they probably weren't all THAT great.  But I did have a lot of fun with them, and I still remember doing that fondly.

Later, around 11, I actually started playing with some friends.  It didn't last long, but it did create one of my more memorable characters, a former kender-thief-gone-wild-mage who also unfortunately wore the form of a 4'6" pink rabbit humanoid with glowing gold eyes and a blue mage robe.  The less said about Fury Funnbunn, the better.

Now the thing was, my grandparents were raising me at this time, and they were heavily Mormon.  They thought of D&D as devil-worship in disguise.  They didn't even believe me when I told them that one of the Dragonlance authors was also LDS.  It made things awkward and unhappy for me, to say the least.

But when I reached the age of 18, I discovered White Wolf RPGs.  Vampire: the Masquerade, where you could pretend to be an immortal and tragic creature of the night with superhuman powers and deadly enemies.  Werewolf: the Apocalypse, where you were one of Gaia's protectors and a friend to all goodly spirits, with the unfortunate side effect of a monthly furry transformation.

And finally, and most important to me... Mage: the Ascension.

What possibly could be cooler than playing a character whose very nature allowed him to bend reality to his will?  In a world centered around magic?

Discovering that game was like Christmas and my birthday all at once- I had always lived and breathed magic as a kid, and wanted nothing more than to become a powerful witch or wizard or shaman.  I had scrupulously written down spells from every novel and television show I ever encountered, trying them out in my own time.  I had, of course, very sparse results, and was often discouraged.

But here!  Here was a book full of magic, that even let you work with science as a magical paradigm!  And they had mages who used the Internet!  And spirit-talkers!  I was thrilled!

Until I read the Disclaimer.


And suddenly the magic is sucked out of the experience...

At first, I ignored the disclaimer, because I was a stubborn teen- "no magic in it, huh?  Well I'll show you!  I'll MAKE it be real!"

That actually worked in some ways, as I have described in previous posts on magical gaming.  Gaming is a ritual, and magicians use rituals for magic.  Naturally, there were results.

Later, the disclaimer just annoyed me- having met some of the authors of those books and had actual occult discussions with them, I'm aware that they weren't entirely being truthful.  They were putting magic in the game, just not for the purpose of teaching people to cast spells.  Essentially, they were playing "the wizard's game," as mentioned in Cast the Circle.  

But soon enough, I began to have an interesting problem...

See, a lot of the problems these books have is that they actually do include magical elements which are authentic.  D&D books have polytheism and instructions on potion and object enchantment which aren't terribly inaccurate- they even make sigils and rune inscriptions which are pretty true-to-form.

White Wolf books teach what are essentially very small tidbits of occult traditions- tarot, astrology, blood magic, demonology... they teach just enough to get people interested.

Mind you, I don't believe Vampire: the Requiem or Changeling: the Dreaming is going to teach a person how to summon spirits or sell their soul to Satan.  Quite the opposite- if you're playing the game, you're likely to learn all the important lessons we teach each other through faery tales and myths.  Chief among them- be careful what you wish for, and don't make bargains with untrustworthy spirits.  So, I can't really object to that at all, especially not in this day and age, where such knowledge has become commonplace due to pop culture references like Once Upon a Time and Charmed.

But the books and movies and such do expose us to the gnosis.  And the gnosis is what inspires real magic.

And I am a magician.  A witch, a sorcerer, and a handful of other things not really worth mentioning at the moment.  But chiefly, I am a magician, and I improve the use of magic where I find it.  Competency is my primary concern.

And these books aren't doing it right.  *chuckles*

Specifically, it's because they're supposed to be a "game."  Not a method of real magical instruction, just an entertaining pastime.  Unfortunately, I don't have pastimes- I have gnosis fonts and experiments and semi-religious experiences.

So... I started tweaking the systems.  A little change of definition here, a few new rules there, maybe an entire overhaul of these rules over here... and voila!  A Mage: the Awakening system which actually works as a spellcasting system!  Or perhaps an Amber Diceless variant which works perfectly for awakening new magical abilities in players.  Or maybe a d20 variation that relies upon tarot rather than a d20, with interesting results.

For me, now those disclaimers are not only untrue in subtle ways, they're completely fallacious.  I have to warn kids not to play with my gaming books in the same way as I keep my grimoires out of their hands.

This has also given me an interesting and unique new trick-

I tend to create characters with real-world occult abilities, or real-life-based powers.  Consequently, these characters seem to be able to cheat the system I'm playing them in, and not in the "godmode" or "munchkin" way either.

They just... seem to roll better on certain things.  Or, because I gave them a skill at intuition, I seem to be able to figure out plot twists faster than normal.  Or my character's powers with Fate actually seem to have an impact on the DM's dice.

It's curious.  It's also often very entertaining- I love watching magic in action.

How about any of you?  Any of you out there who like to actually put real magic into your games, not for the purpose of making real life magic happen, but more for the purpose of making the game itself more interesting and strange?

Leave a comment below!  :)

Oh, and don't worry: for those of you interested in the second part of my Wands article, it's coming.

Last modified on
S. Rune Emerson has been practicing witchcraft and sorcery since the early 90's, and has been teaching since 2004. He is the founder of the Risting Tradition of American Witchcraft, which is a large title for a small local tradition based in Northern Nevada. He also heads a coven tradition called the Cabal of Nocturne, and works as a diviner at Pathways Spirit, a metaphysical shop in Reno. He likes to describe his life as "extraordinarily simple." He is fond of observing that magic as a profession is the somewhat honest alternative to those of the same mindset as criminals- smart, lazy, and prone towards thinking outside the box, often in areas of questionable morality. He believes in a strong standard of accountability in magical practice, and has very strict ethics. He's also very opinionated about nearly everything.


  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch Sunday, 25 August 2013

    I've been a tabletop gamer since I was 8 years old. Started with the old Avalon Hill and SPI hex-and-counter wargames, then hit D&D, miniatures wargaming, and still do to this day. As a matter of fact, I own a game company, BRW Games, and publish my own set of RPG rules, Adventures Dark and Deep ("What if Gary Gygax had designed second edition according to his original plans?") I did use the Norse pantheon as an example of how to create a pantheon in one of the rulebooks, and tried to make it a lot closer to the historical reality than what you might see in Deities and Demigods. I also run a gaming blog myself at .

    I've never had a problem with the way magic and Paganism is presented in RPGs, even when it gets close to the reality. Like the presentation of such things in movies, I can see they designers are using it more for window dressing than to present any sort of serious discussion of the subject.

    You might also be interested in another gaming blog, . He has been running a series of articles on how to make the presentation of magic in RPGs closer to reality, talking about things like Crowley, Kabbalah, etc. Neat stuff.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Sunday, 25 August 2013

    Ooh, excellent! Thanks for the tip!

  • Brand Lokason
    Brand Lokason Sunday, 25 August 2013

    I discovered role-playing games when I was about 12. I haven't played in a long time (largely due to having chronic-fatigue syndrome), but I've never stopped thinking of myself as a gamer. I'm pretty sure I still have my first D&D character's character sheet, and it's been 20 years since I made her.

    Every single character I ever made, unless it was impossible to do it in the system or I was playing prefab characters at a convention, was some form of magic user, or had powers that were similar in some sort of look and feel way to magic.

    All of my favourite fantasy novels were largely about mages of some stripe or another. It's funny you mention Dragonlance -- I loved that series to death when I was 13-14, and it was entirely because of Raistlin, whom I idolised terribly. I was a bit startled when I found out that Hickman was LDS, but when I did a reread when they brought out the annotated novels, I noticed that it's pretty obvious one of them is, if you know much about the LDS faith (I'd had Mormon friends in the interim and studied their religion so that I would understand the things important to them better).

    After I discovered gaming, I found the books on magic and witchcraft in my mother's Pyramid magazine and was trying desperately to come up with some way that I could buy them without her knowing about it. I ended up moving out when I was 16, and bought Scott Cunningham's books from a local bookstore. Wicca didn't work especially well for me, but it was a start, and I gave it an honest try.

    I don't know when I would have realised that people actually did magic in the 'real world,' and that I could, too, if gaming hadn't made it quite so intensely important to me. Considering the internet, it would have happened sooner or later, but I'm glad I have seventeen years of fumbling and trying to figure out what would work for me already under my belt, and the majority of the time now when I move in some direction or another, it's the right one.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Sunday, 25 August 2013

    Being ex-Mormon made it very hard for me to read the annotated Legends. I LOVED Raistlin, and having to read about how horrible a person he was, and how he was actually an analogue of Lucifer, was really painful.

    Of course, I don't care now. Raistlin is the best ever. :)

  • Brand Lokason
    Brand Lokason Sunday, 25 August 2013

    I didn't have the cash to pick up the annotated Legends when it was released, and kept forgetting to get around to it, which might actually have been for the best.

    I was very angry at them for the whole "damned to hell" aspect of his death, and how hard they seemed to be working to make him seem completely irredeemable and irretrievable, but knowing he was supposed to be a Lucifer analogue makes that make quite a bit more sense.

    I can't really think ill of a character who helped me get through being in an abusive environment (and when Soulforge came out and I read about his childhood, which mirrored mine in a lot of ways, it helped with other things, too, because I realised even more that I was not the only one who had endured so much severe hatred and bullying from schoolmates/neighbourhood kids, and much of what he always did for me on the whole was make me feel less alone), whether he was intended to be the embodiment of evil or not. I took the worst of what went on as a kind of cautionary tale: when your ambition takes over your life, you can end up destroying or severely damaging the things you otherwise care about, or even compromising your own morals.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Thursday, 29 August 2013

    Raistlin has always been an archetypal character for me, for similar reasons in terms of childhood experiences. It's fair to say that my initial lure into magic was for similar reasons as well. I haven't read the annotated legends, and I don't know if I will. I do know that in my own pop culture magic work I've felt a genuine connection to Raistlin as an entity and have occasionally worked with him as an adviser of sorts for my own magical work.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Thursday, 29 August 2013

    A Book you might find interesting is What video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy by Paul Gee. I know you aren't talking about video games here, but a lot of what he writes about also extends to table top games, imo, and there are some magical principles you can extract from the book to experiment with. I wrote about some of my experimentation with those principles in Multi-Media Magic.

    I can also recommend a couple of sources on culture stories that explore pop culture and how people interact with it if you're interested.

    In regards to your actual post...

    Have you read Isaac Bonewitz's Authentic Thaumaturgy? He actually discusses table top rules of magic vs actual magic in some depth. I've the table top descriptions of magic to be fascinating and sometimes have done some of my own tweaking with characters based on my interpretation of those rules as a magician and then taken that understanding and applied it to my own work. I feel that table top games can be a useful simulation of sorts to test ideas out.

  • S. Rune Emerson
    S. Rune Emerson Thursday, 29 August 2013

    Ooh, I haven't! I liked Real Magic, but I didn't get into Authentic Thaumaturgy- where can I find it?

    And I completely agree about RPGs being excellent methods of magical simulation. They seem to work very well for me too.

    I'm with you on working with Raist- he's a magical guide and advisor for me too. Oddly enough, I never found his "black robes" aspect to be daunting in the slightest. But then, I've never enjoyed the false dichotomy of "good gods vs. evil gods" in D&D settings. The alignment system seems... kind of cheap, to me.

  • Taylor Ellwood
    Taylor Ellwood Thursday, 29 August 2013

    That's on amazon and it's actually a decent price for it.

    I' never found their alignment system to be relevant to me either. I think it's more a reflection of their religious background than anything else. If anything Raistlin seemed like the most real character. I could relate to his problems and even how he went about solving them.

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