: Magical Magic
It's a perennial topic on the Forge's First Thoughts forum, and elsewhere. Somebody's like "this one game I played, the magic seemed really magical, you know? And I want that again," or else "in the games I've played, the magic's never really seemed magical, you know? And I want it to." They're certain that magical magic is within the purview of the roleplaying form, but how did they get it that one time (if they did), and how can they make sure it happens in the future?
(a) There's a person responsible for judging cause and effect in the game. Let's call her Gina Marie because that's usually how it works, but of course it's not necessary that she be the GM. Her judgment calls maybe include assigning mechanical bonuses, or may limit themselves to setting ranges of possibility for what happens next.
(b) The player in question, let's call him Abe, trusts G.M. to fulfill her responsibility rightly, and she in fact makes good. When she makes a surprising call - which she does, that's part of what makes her good at this - even when it's against Abe personally, he can always see its rightness.
So far, this is straight out of "a Moment of Judgment," common as anything in roleplaying.
(c) Moreover, though, G.M. has (innately, or cultivated) a poetic, maybe ironic, maybe symbolically dense aesthetic she's bringing to bear on her judgments. If you skipped it, please go read that Forge post of mine about Poison'd. It's short and SO to the point.
So put 'em together and what you've got is (pardon the crudity, this is an approximately real example of J's of a time when magic felt magical to him): with plain rockets your character's rocket launcher obviously won't hurt Tiamat, but if your rocket launcher fires dildos instead, maybe then it can.
A person is bringing her aesthetic sense of magic into her judgments about cause and effect. Since her job is to make judgments about cause and effect, and since her aesthetics aren't identical to the players', aren't predictable, but also are right to the players, the effect upon the game's system is that magic works in a startling, delightful, symbolically rich, magical way.
...But, well, back to that perennial Forge thread. The person just wrote "other than 'find a GM with a sense of magic and turn cause and effect over to her,' how do I make magic seem magical?" - but then he inevitably spends the second half of the post proposing rules whose arrows point the wrong way. The helpful people at the Forge respond by proposing more rules whose arrows also point the wrong way, and so of course nothing comes of it. Nobody I know of has STILL designed that game.
I don't know yet - it's surely not a triviality - but I think that the right set of cloud-outward rules could do it. You could bring the designer's magical aesthetic into the game's judgment of cause and effect, that'd be one way. Another way would be to set the group (or a player) up to judge cause and effect, and provoke them (or her) to develop magical aesthetics to bring to bear. Both seem possible to me, but both seem kind of hard.
1. On 2009-04-30, Paul T. wrote:
Is there some reason that this sort of thing is more effective when centralized in a Gina Marie? I'm not sure if you're implying it is, or not.
For example, the supernatural dial in Dogs, as you describe it, is more a case of a whole group throwing in bits of easthetically-judged fiction, and finding some kind of common ground as they adjust their own "bits" to match "bits" introduced by other players.
The aesthetic judgement of the group kind of... emerges from certain processes.
Well... I think its attempted plenty. But it's so terribly subjective. The traditional method has been to fill the game text with lots of dense, allusive, complex fiction woven in with the number-crunchy procedures. But the more definitive you are with that sort of thing, the less "magical" judgment-calls play into it; and the more nebulous and open to interpretation, the more difficulty in getting a coherent enough aesthetic for it to "feel right."
Mortal Coil is about as close as I can think of to purely group-constructed aesthetics that nonetheless inform mechanical resolution in a meaningful way.
Hmmm... on the other hand, actual-play-ishly, I think some of the most "magical magic" I've seen in play in recent years was Nobilis, and I largely gave up on it because it was just so darn much WORK trying to live up to that aesthetic standard. Poetic, mythic magic is great, but it's also TOUGH.
I do think that someone else's aesthetic judgment of your character's actions is essential to magical-feeling magic. That's why Dogs isn't such a game, I think; you have too much personal control over what your character's actions mean.
It's whether it's best when that other person is the GM that I don't know.
The game Factions at War, has a variety of aesthetitics, to make the magiuc seem magical. It also has rules for desginging your own. Not exactly thre since Gina Marie still has to sign off on it, but close.
I haven't played it but I've heard others say that Mortal Coil's magic did have that feel. At least in part because of the way it is constructed. You say what happens, then someone else tells you about the cost or what the drawbacks are? Something like that, and then you do have the interplay between yourself and someone else's ideas. There is magic in that moment when your ideas and someone else's take fire together.
In Trollbabe the GM narrate all your magical successes, and you narrate all your magical failures: did you ever noticed a worse quality of narration from one or the other, not caused by the specific person in the role? (I mean, the GM is always better, even if the two player exchange the role? Because he is not trying to "win"?)
Another question, rather independent from the previous one: what kind of "old style" gaming did you experienced at the time, and for how much time, and with how many GMs? Because, really, what you say about the GM's role make a lot of sense on paper, but it goes against what I experienced every single time playing D&D at the time... the SIS was almost not-existent and expendable, and no GM could stand the grinding factor of narrating everything for longer that a few minutes before starting to talk in board-game talk.
I'm reminded of the game Great Ork Gods from several years back (that maybe never got beyond a playtest doc?). Everybody gets an assigned god to portray which gives them authority over one aspect of (essentially) the rightward pointing arrows.
I never got a chance to try it, but it had the interesting notion that, even though you might be the god of (let's say magic) if you made bad calls you would suffer the wrath of the other players when your character was in a bind in another area (say, combat).
Moreno: Interesting question about Trollbabe. I haven't played Trollbabe but I've seen what might be a similar thing in Psi*Run. Let me think about it.
I didn't play any old school games until Ben ran D&D for me at GenCon '07. Since then I ran some D&D and some Storming the Wizard's Tower. I understand that lots and lots of people have had different - worse - experiences with D&D than I have. At the risk of, I dunno, I think that it's significant that I played D&D for the first time as an adult, with adult friends. Sometimes when I hear about people's experiences with D&D, I can't tell what's D&D and what's teenage interpersonal jockeying and bullying wearing D&D's clothing.
My experience also matches what Emily says about Mortal Coil:
I haven't played that game, but have seen very "magical" and fun stuff result from a similar process in my game "Land of Nodd". I haven't played Mortal Coil or Otherkind, but the mechanics are a mix of the two, as far as I can tell (at a conceptual level). It's basically, "narrate magic however you like as the player, when it doesn't count too much" and "you say what you want, and other players throw in twists and complications" when it DOES count.
The result has always had that cool mysterious magic-y vibe, quite successfully. In the last game we had strange side effects including two people's souls switching bodies and how it interacted with their fates being mystically intertwined. The result was very satisfactory, both "magic"-wise and aesthetically--unpredictable to everyone at the table but also totally believable.
I'm actually curious about this point, Vincent:
You know how you keep talking about the right- and left- facing arrows and how they affect the "feel" of the game?
Well, I have no idea how rules like "decide on some dangers" in your "Otherkind dice" mechanic look in your clouds and arrows diagram. I mean, it's left-pointing, in one sense, but it's very much rooted in the fiction, too.
This kind of mechanic has been my favourite lately, and I'm not sure how it fits into the whole left-pointing/right-pointing dilemma. Is it an unrelated issue, like HOW the players decide what those dangers are (e.g. when Bob does so, he takes details from the fiction, but when Sue does it, she makes up new stuff just because the rules demand it), or something else?
Something in these posts reminds me of the feeling I had in our Psi*Run game where I didn't want to define my own psi powers, how they felt much more "magical" to me when other people were defining them. I enjoyed taking it from there, having my facial piercings ignite the black shit from my vomit.
One think i was thinking of doing, along these lines, was to use Tarot in game - when you "use magic", you draw a card, look up the keywords, and - the important part - create an interpretation of the card/keywords to inform the results of the "spell" (which have to conform with the fiction as it stands, naturally).
Sort of a "random but open to interpretation within a pattern" deal. Of course, this is pretty much a straight use of the Tarot, just applied in-game (and creating reality, rather than reflecting it.)
Hopefully, i'll get to see the idea in action next week. Then i'll know whether it makes sense or not. ;)
What Stefan said just reminded me of Everway. I've owned it forever and never gotten the chance to play it, but my recollection of the rules--narration based on interpreting an image on a card drawn from a deck--puts it very much in the "magical magic" realm.
I really wish I'd ever gotten to try it out in play. Anyone out there ever play Everway, and is my recollection on the money?
I wouldn't say that Mortal Coil does it every time but I've played in several games where is has worked very well. Flaming Taft was possibly the least magical game of Mortal Coil I've played although we had a wonderful game.
MC magic works in several movements. There's the set up of the theme document which creates the initial aesthetic and then when anyone creates a magical effect there's a discussion of what the price will be.
The magic works best if you front load on the the theme document because if you do that, the price discussion is usally quick, and more to the point, spot on.
For Flaming Taft, the realisation that the magic was stolen from the Man at the crossroads was the "Yeah" moment, and the game was more about keeping the magic going than using it.
In Twisted 50s, it was about magic always turning out bad in the long run, so the prices were inventive and damaging and really drove the game. Some of the individual uses really had their "Woah" moments from the doctor whose syringe never missed to the prostitute whose baby girl act pulled heavily on men but meant she needed more drugs. And she did it because she wanted to need the drugs, not the other way round.
We did the Tarot thing in a game of Over the Edge and it worked very well, although at the time I didn't tell them it was creating reality, that was part of the mystery.
AD&D almost had the right idea about the cost of magic, with its choice of components, but Cthulhu does it better, Malefices perhaps even more so. Spells aren't just like using the internet, they're an event that affects the participants as much as the target.
And look at Unknown Armies or Kult, magic implies a denial of reality and that is madness. It's a strong choice, and possibly easier to implement than other denials of reality like surrealism. Faith works well though. Clerics are often stronger characters than Mages in AD&D.
We've had magic in Dogs, but only when it was established beforehand. And when it happened just once in a game it was surprising and horrific. Fort Lemon, at the very end of the game, demon possessed woman gets a Dog on his own, pulls down his trousers and lifts him off the floor, strangling him with one hand. He shoots her. Then the dogs split over what had happened, attempted rape and murder or self-defense. The ensuing conflict was extremely intense and pretty much destroyed the unity of the Dogs.
So, yeah, magic works when it taps into the underlying aesthetic and when the person creating it nails it. It doesn't have to be the GM, but it often is, partly because players are used to following a lead, and are good at it.
Yeah, I felt the magic in a game of Land of Nodd that I played was more "magical" than most. Perhaps because it was ill-defined, and moment to moment we didn't know where we were going with it. (Magic in the game came through music, so we had composers working for/against Napoleon. The possibilities were huge, and the effects were almost always suprising even when subtle and small. A spellbook was as simple as a clutch of pencilled outlines for a symphony.)
'Cause our Hero Wars game was nothing but the magic being magic. People even did that playing old-school RuneQuest, a system which managed somehow to get magic to be magical despite every reason not to.
I also have a soft spot for the Fighting Fantasy solo books, especially the brilliant Crown of Kings four-book set. The magic mechanic was decidedly un-modern, in that you the player had to cast spells based on memory alone, and if you mis-remembered (a system based on the honor code while following the numbers in the book), then funky stuff happened. Plus the spell effects themselves were 100% standard and have been duplicated in every imaginable CRPG. But somehow, given both the amazing take on fantasy itself (very underground comix) and the artwork, the magic felt rich and ever-present in play itself.
Boy I'd like to understand how that feel could be so strong when the literal content of the actions was so basic. I hope the Old School Renaissance takes note.
Regarding the back-and-forth thing, I recommend another look at It Was a Mutual Decision regarding the were-rat content which may or may not come into full expression during a given game. And also, now that I think of it, Elfs, based on the Dumb Luck rules and the Haywire option people often choose when using them. Neither of these is the trading-talk method found in Trollbabe (itself derived from Dust Devils and The Pool), but there are "mix-and-match" input methods among the real people in each one.
You wrote: "I didn't play any old school games until Ben ran D&D for me at GenCon '07. Since then I ran some D&D and some Storming the Wizard's Tower. I understand that lots and lots of people have had different - worse - experiences with D&D than I have. At the risk of, I dunno, I think that it's significant that I played D&D for the first time as an adult, with adult friends. Sometimes when I hear about people's experiences with D&D, I can't tell what's D&D and what's teenage interpersonal jockeying and bullying wearing D&D's clothing."
I heard a lot of horror stories about playing D&D with teenagers, too, but I started plating D&D when I was 22 years old, and with people of my age or older (the GM was over 30). And I observed that exact same behavior every time a new GM started (me included): at first, they would try to inject magic, mystery, detailed descriptions in the scenes... then, after a while (depending from the person, from a few minutes to a few months) the grinding of having to add all that stuff by yourself, with very little effect on the game, turned the gameplay into this: "you enter a 3x3 room. There are 2 gnolls. Roll for initiative"
I think you are missing a vital factor: the group role in reinforcing, caring for and rewarding the work the GM do in being a "traditional" GM. You probably did it when you played without even thinking about it, but there is nothing in "old-style" gaming that address this. Without that, EVERYONE burn out.
People don't miss the "magic" of OTHER previous group: they usually miss the magic they felt in the SAME group, with the same GM, with the same game, in the same game world, at first, before all the GMs burned out.
I found Mentzer's D&D magical when I played it at school. The same with the Sorcery game books Ron mentions (I preferred them to the mainstream FF books) and Dragon Warriors, which was the game I mostly played in my youth after Basic D&D. By contrast the AD&D that was happening at the other table at our school game club (with the older kids) was unmagical and had all that bullying etc. going on. So I didn't play AD&D at all.
Beautiful post. I think this is the same effect that makes games seem real as well: the sense that there is a deeper reality than you can see (or know of), one that feels real/magical, and one that is objective (in a sense).
This is a great benefit to having a GM and is one of the things, I think, that makes the "magical GM" well, magical.
As I recall in that fighting fantasy magic system, the key word you had to remember to cast a spell, gave a hint as to what the spell did. So when the book presented you with two or more magic words to choose from, you sort of looked at the key words half trying to figure the hint the key word gave you and half just flat out trying to remember what spell it was tied to by pure memory.
Oh, and then that itself was layered onto the imaginary situation and exactly which spell would work? There's two layers of imagination there, almost three even, sort of pressing and mingling against each other. That's quite complex, really.
Right on, Vincent. This is the way it works in Hex Rangers (formerly Witch Trails).
Every hex begins with a "matrix" made by the player. This is the pattern that shapes the magic into the desired effect. The matrix is made of things, actions, words, gestures, circumstances. The GM then judges the matrix for aesthetic, poetic, symbolic qualities.
The hex always works. What varies is the strength of the hex -- how hard it is to break, undo, or reverse by other magic. The strength is directly proportional to the beauty of the matrix, and inversely proportional to the scope and intensity of the effect. So, you can kill a guy with a word, but it can be undone just as easily.
And this is just a local aesthetic constraint but fun, but the appearance of magic is always normal, low-key phenomena that can be written off as natural -- albeit often creepy -- goings-on. Thunder may roll, the wind may kick up dust devils, the crickets may fall suddenly silent, but no one's to say that it's magic at work, except those as know better.
Oh, and right, the underlying reason why this works:
1. Me and the players have a shared commitment to how cool the fiction is.
2. I know what my criteria for judgment are.
3. The players know what my criteria for judgment are.
4. The players trust me.
5. I trust the players.
Ron, Callan, I haven't played those, I want to hear more about them.
Here's what I'm imagining:
- - -
The skeletons are scrambling toward you out of the alleyway. The weird red un-moonlight looks like gore dripping off their bones. You prepare to cast a spell!
If you begin your spell with "beyem," turn to 92.
If you begin your spell with "kog," turn to 58.
The magic rushes into your brain like fiery liquor. The skeletons are almost upon you, chattering their vengeful laughter.
If you conclude your spell with "irrath," turn to 199.
If you conclude your spell with "rahanta," turn to 152.
Your skin chills and your sight grows gray, and the magic bears on you like the weight of an ocean. You fall to your knees, as though begging the skeletons for your life.
If you conclude your spell with "rahanta," turn to 183.
If you conclude your spell with "shudm," turn to 147.
If you conclude your spell with "sisst," turn to 160.
The weight of the magic cracks over you, but no lashing thunders occur. A terrible pressure pummels you to the dirt. The skeletons fall on you, rending with their bone fingers and broken teeth...
Light pours from your eyes, the fiery magic made fire indeed. The skeletons fall back, blackening and sizzling in their marrow, their dessicated brains charring in their skulls...
The magic breaks through you like great waters through a cracked dam, and lightnings lash from your fingers. The skeletons dance and gibber, alternately blue from the lightning and red from the sky's uncanny ambient light...
- - -
And so on. You'd have clues from earlier in play about which magic word combos would work well, and which are risky to use, and which would dud. Something like that?
The books are the Sorcery! series: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sorcery!
I found this quote on the net that summarizes it nicely.
"There is a spell book that contains 48 spells that you need to learn in order to use them in the book. That's right, you have to study the spellbook! The way this works is that each spell is represented by a 3-letter code, like HOT or RAZ. This is what you have to memorize before you begin play. Then, at certain spots throughout the books, you will be given a chance to cast a spell. You are then given five of these three-letter codes to choose from. It is up to you to remember which code represents which spell. To make things more tricky, some of the codes you are offered don't relate to any spells at all ("duds"), and over half of all spells require specific items to work. If you don't have the item, you take damage. It costs ENDURANCE points to cast spells, so you need to limit your magic use. The magic system really adds something, and I admit to really liking it. It plays well, and forces you to think on your feet."
The paragraph you turn to then either describes the magic being exactly right and its effect, or being wrong and it having a detrimental effect, or the magic failing miserably as you cast a spell that doesn't exist.
Like your latter example, but I realise I forgot to describe a key aspect. You do get to look at your spell book, but only before play. Your not allowed to look at it during play.
This spell book tells you what the spells do, but it tells you only in descriptive terms, not like "It does a fireball eight squares across at a range of twelve squares" and more like "Fire roars from your hands!". So you can't really remember stone cold facts about a spell and more like the 'story' of a spell, if I'm making any sense.
And your not just trying to remember if "Kog" makes fire roar from your hands, but your thinking "Do I want fire to roar from my hands. Is that the way to handle the situation? What does fire roaring from my hands actually mean - will it even do what I'm thinking it'll do, at this point, in this situation?". So it's A: what the descriptor of the spell makes you imagine juxtaposed against B: the described situation and C: What you want to happen but are not certain will (ie, your not thinking as if you have full narative authority here). I think, maybe wrong, it's the laying of imagination onto each other that gives a certain feel here.
Even further I'm not sure all the tests were win/lose - sometimes using the different spells lead to different paths. Though often the wrong spell lead to a horrible death, I'll grant :) But sometimes it wasn't a matter of there being a right spell, but the spell you wanted to cast. If you could remember the damn thing!
On top of that, and you can see from the example you guessed, you never whiffed. Magic always happened - something would happen, somthing magical, even if it wasn't what you intended!
But yeah, being able to read the spell book first but not during play is important. And the spell book gave you descriptions only, which is important too. So you don't have to guess, you might remember. But most of the time you half guess, half remember. And each spell word gives a vague clue as well.
I'm writing too much, but that's because on reflection there was more to the mechanic than first met the eye!
I think I cross posted with Gregor, and that summery has alot more detail! Though I think that even with casting duds or not having the component, you never had a 'nothing happens' moment - something horrible would happen, atleast. Usually horrible death.
Very nice post that corners well the magic done by the players and described by another one (Gina Mary).
Magic done by the world, ie setting triggered (astrological conjunction, waking of a Great Ancient...) and described by the GM (may work with Gina Mary but I cannot confirm) seems magical via another mechanism. Of course a coherent aesthetic is needed. But you also need a lack of explicit description.
Tell your players that they see "a white lady in a halo of pure light" is not the same as "you see a women around forty, about Kate's size, with a very long white dress. Their is light 43cm around her." Why is it different ? You let the players imagine their own "White Lady".
The GM is not imposing fully is own aesthetic, so it is much easier for the description to feel right in the player's own aesthetic referential.
Have you read the novel "The little prince" ? A young boy ask a grown up "Please, draw a sheep for me" and is never satisfied by the attempts of the adult. So finally the grown up draws a box and says "the sheep you want is inside". The boy is then fully happy because the drawn sheep matches his imagination.
I wonder if such a mechanism isn't also necessary in the case you are studying, the magic done by the payers.
By the way, doing the contrary, ie stuffing a lot of predictable details hard coded in the rules, can be a good design choice for humor-based game. Desanctifying something that should be "magical" creates a distance and distance is a root of humor.
Make a rule like "The contact with a galon of blessed water induce 1D6 of damage to a demon" and soon you'll have PC blessing the water flushing out of a pressure washer (an laughing players).
I cannot tell whether this topic is about "that was so magical" describing a particular game experience, regardless of content; or about *magic* as a specific fictional feature and its relationship to the rest of the fiction.
The latter, magic as a specific fictional feature. But particularly, magic as a specific fictional feature that reveals or illuminates cause-and-effect as a specific fictional feature, and especially where its cause and effect breaks from common sense - folk-physics and folk-psychology and whatever - and instead follows a magical-sense.
What's the standard for "magicalness"? I had a lot of play years ago bouncing between two impressions:
1) "Oh, neat, creep, weird, magical!"
2) "Okay, the GM just made that up."
with the only difference being color. And the main criteria for "magical" color being some combo of congruence and novelty. Cuz, y'know, nothing's very magical if it's completely out of nowhere, and nothing's very magical once you've seen it a bunch.
My best recent successes have been using magic as secret technology. There is in fact a "way magic works", and the GM knows this, and the players don't. Through play, the players witness magic in operation enough to figure out how it works, bit by bit. This way, I can re-use color, and the fading novelty is nicely countered by the broadened meaning, as players learn more and slot phenomena into a larger context.
Dunno if something learnable and repeatable counts as "magic-sense" or not... Emily, you've played Delve, I'd love to hear your take...
So what's happening in Vincent's proposal? I think it's a case where magic lies outside the "game text" area. It may appear to be purely in the "ad hoc" area, but that's an illusion created by unfamiliarity. It's really coming from the "principled" area (which is what part (c) of the proposal is all about) with the catch that the underlying principles are peculiar to the GM. This means that magic is still within the "rules" area.
Is it helpful to look at it in this light? I dunno, maybe.
Mark, my players have found that uncovering magical principles keeps them interested in magic, but I wouldn't say it makes magic feel "more magical". If anything, learning a rule has made magic feel more scientific.
Marshall's made the point elsewhere that this may be endemic to any "if, then" causal principles. But I dunno what non-causal principles would look like in play, nor how you'd ever get to "NOW I see! Let's try THIS!" from there.
Magic doesn't work in a, "NOW I see! Let's try THIS!"
It's more like, a guy catches his woman running around on him, so he gets really mean, spitting drunk, falls down by the river. His hand lands in some clay, so he picks it up and starts kneading it. He works his sweat into it, then he works his memories of her into it, then he works his semen into it.
Then she gets pregnant, has complications, and dies. But the child lives and is born with the Hex, unable to feel fear, and impervious to pain when angry.
Hmmmm... I wonder. Are we talking about two distinct kinds of magic, then? Because I would say that the kind I look for does follow comprehensible patterns that could be learned through experimentation - they're just not (necessarily, always) patterns of cause and effect. They're patterns of symbolic correspondence, meaning, emotion...
I think there's a very fine line, as David says above, between "magic" that's just "whoa, where'd THAT come from" and magic that is meaningful, yet mysterious.
While GMing traditionnal illusionnism-designed RPG, I am almost functionning in the same way as David Berg. But what makes the magic magical and not scientific is the use of analogy instead of logic. It breaks most of the predictible cause-effect bounds. And it may be closer to what Vincent called "aesthetic".
So, Marshall, lets say this drunken quasi-mage's BROTHER has the same experience. Does the same thing happen to HIS cheating wife?
How do you determine the answer to that question?
You can't lose with rockin' color. But to really cultivate interactivity, rather than just passive appreciation, I find it hard to get away from cause & effect. I mean, that's what patterns of symbolic correspondence become once you poke at them. "Head" = "Top" = "North" is a mere curiosity until that knowledge allows you to try and do something, right?
As for "Wonder and Terror/Doom", has anyone read Kant's theory of the Sublime? The idea is basically that we get a rush from feeling our minds expand to encompass something that is initially overwhelming in scale or power. Like, y'know, "taking in" a mountain peak or a vast ocean or a hurricane. For me, this maps well to a quality experience of the magical.
So, Marshall, lets say this drunken quasi-mage's BROTHER has the same experience. Does the same thing happen to HIS cheating wife?
Nope. Nothing ever happens the same way twice. Fairy Tales 101. (Fairy tales being one of the most explicitly magical genres, starting with day-to-day material -- even though we often forget that, due to the time period of most fairy tales -- and injecting an element of the unknowable, unpredictable, and magical. No explanations. The creature in the cave tells the girl that the city is sick because there is a toad under the fountain; if she removes the toad, the plague will depart. Why does this work? How does this work? Nobody tells us this, because it's not knowable. It works in this circumstance, at this time, when this girl does it, after this magical creature tells her to.
Part of this is because the personal has a lot to do with it. With the guy in my example, it wasn't just the act of molding the clay with his sweat and memories and semen; it was what he was feeling at the time -- mostly drunken anger and anguish.
Also, circumstances. Where he fell at the river. What time it was. The fact that he was drunk. These mean things.
Magic's gotta be in the moment. It's a matter of knowing what you want, and then listening to your bones for instruction on how to do something about it. Your bones know more than your brain does. Of course, they can never tell you the whole picture. There is no clarity; only a gitchy feeling. Follow it if you dare, and the magic will come -- along with a ruthless wave of consequence that you must be prepared to ride out.
David and I had some discussion about magic on his development blog for Delve. It took me a minute to find it, but here it is. It's relevant, largely because it reveals some of the background of research into magical fiction and occult philosophy that I'm working from as I say stuff here on this thread. (Disclaimer: I am neither a devil worshipper, nor pagan, nor crazy person, nor guru. Not saying anyone's accusing me of any of that, but people usually look at me weird once I say "occult philosophy.")
Scroll down to "THING 1: RATIONAL, MAGICAL, COMMUNAL"; it starts there, with a large (but interesting, if may say so) braindump from me.
I'd be inclined to say at a game procedural level, to get a magical feeling the person describing the magic, even though they may indicate some reasoning or identifiable causality to it, does not know how it works - ie, they grope for something they do not fully grasp themselves, then use that in play.
It ceases to be 'magical' when the other person starts telling you anything about it as if they know for sure. It must always be kept in a 'I'm not really sure myself' state. Ie, even after the campaign ends, no one will really be able to say the 'get it' when it comes to magic.
And for that to work, I think, that person needs the group's trust. The other players have to go with that person's groping vision, even when it doesn't make sense to them. For it to work, they can't be rejecting that person's descriptions or arguing - or rolling dice - for their own more sensible ones.
Well, I suppose it requires trust. But atleast to me it doesn't seem to be the issue - it's not hard at all to trust someone when you know they are supposed to be doing this. To me it's about as hard as trusting them to add up their rolls correctly - not hard. What is a problem is when its ambiguous as to whether they are supposed to express something they don't fully understand, or are supposed to be expressing something they do understand. To me atleast, it's not about trust and more about clarity on what they are supposed to be doing - tis why I was anal in describing the procedure :) But again, I'm just being pedantic in saying this as well!
I think in general culture, people are skeptical about what is 'channeled' (so to speak), and for various good reasons. I think that players do need to know, so they can turn off the bulk of their skepticism for the activity.
Even for people who aren't normally skeptical, certain expressions by the GM/whoever, might trigger skepticism - and they wouldn't know to turn that off.