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Mundane is Interesting
In 'The Hobbit' (the book), little hairy people live in cozy houses and spend all day gossiping, eating, and being respectable. When a wizard arrives, a modern reader might expect fireballs to start flying all over the place, but instead Gandalf is really good at blowing smoke rings and telling stories.
When the group gets a magic sword later, the sword doesn't fly or talk or have a gun hidden inside it—it glows when certain monsters are nearby. This is unspeakably cooler than any vorpal +4 sword of lich-slaying with the ability to summon and command dragons.
Later in the story when Bilbo gets his ring, it is the most exciting, magical, and even scary thing in the world. Rings of invisibility are always fun, and in an rpg, lead instantly to mischief, but they’re a dime a dozen, and Bilbo’s ring didn't feel like that at all. This ring felt special.
"Magic" doesn't usually feel special. Fantasy settings are so full of magic and whimsy that its not exactly news-worthy when something 'arcane' happens. It's the daily weather—clear, with a chance of forked-lightning, but there is an orc front coming in that could put a damper on the festival if the heroes don't get back from that dragon riding competition in time.
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Tolkien's world is one of the most magical fantasy worlds out there, but its not because its overflowing with magic—there is actually very little outright magic in the world, and the strangeness is situated in space such that most characters would never encounter it. The world is magical because its sort of mundane. The humans don't live in a whimsical fairy land—most have never even met Dwarves or elves, and the things they worry about are political bickering and land disputes. Battles are things of legend, not the thing you might attend this Saturday if nothing better comes up.
We instinctively worry that a mundane world is a boring one, but the world of Tolkien isn't boring at all. The black arrow that takes down Smaug is not some magical dragon slaying artifact, its closer to a lucky coin—and that makes it more magical than any lightning storm that an archmage could conjure up to strike the dragon from the sky.
Not mundane enough? What about the pleasant but shy neighbour, that guy who sort of keeps to himself, how when he comes over for a little neighbourhood get together, starts talking about vegetable gardening, and he just keeps insisting there's no great skill to it, just time, and when pressed, he laughs and tells them about some of his tricks. He talks to you about how you can keep pests off your garden vegetables by making little homes for toads in your garden out of old coffee mugs, and then you won't need pesticides, and he's showing this nerdy humble-old-man joy at being able to talk about his hobby while laughing at himself that is just charming.
(the story above is describing a scene from a CoC actual play podcast called "Into the Darkness")
Imagine that some strange blue weeds start to take over his garden, killing one plant after the other, and this guy gets a little ill at the same time. That's something to investigate, that's weird. What is going on? Even a few weeds can become interesting and scary.
But if you imagine instead that the sky is raining swords, then a few weeds and a sick old guy doesn't really raise an eyebrow. Thank goodness he only has evil plants to deal with. We have The Solar Sword Slinger to contend with.
Magic can't exist without a backdrop of normalcy. The experience of magic, more than anything, is an experience of contrast. If everything is magical, nothing is.
That is, anyway, if you are going for that feeling of 'magical magic'—if you are going for a different experience, like action or surreal creativity, or magical realism, or want to use it as a literary device, or explore a what-if, then magic gives you a lot of freedom to create what you like, which is great.
Note: Its possible I've forgotten some parts of The Hobbit since I read it last. But I do recall their main super power is the ability to eat more meals than anything else in the land.
I wrote this two years ago, and I now only half agree with it. I have slowly acquired a taste for high-fantasy settings. I may not understand them, and they’re not my favourite in general, but I’ve encountered enough good ones now that I can see the appeal. It pays to be open minded, I’ve really enjoyed some of the things I’ve read since back then.
Although, in most of my stories, I do like a backdrop of normalcy… just personal preference at this point, maybe even just a habit.
What’s your preference? Why?
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