I like magic when its weird. That sounds like it should be a fairly basic statement, but actually that’s something a little difficult in RPGs when so much can get laid out like feats or special abilities with slightly different parameters or special effects.
I guess my main issues fall mainly in the field of traditional games, although indies can also have this happen. The main example, of course, is Dungeons & Dragons. I’ve run every edition but I must have run Third Edition the most. At that point, spells were their own thing, but they were still a list of useable resources. You could cast a certain amount a day and added it to your shopping list of things you could use like with feats and magic items. People started to get more used to the idea of purchasing magic items, things like +1 swords. I used an old Dragon Magazine article which had tables for the decorations on the magic items to help differentiate them, but it still became quite transactional.
The game culture was also a bit like that, where players would expect retailers to have magic items, but also for a wizard to be a specific thing. There would be schools, there’d be purchasable scrolls and they’d all act the same way. You know, the D&D wizard way. Sure there were sorcerers and clerics, but their magic was relatively similar.
I enjoyed playing clerics and druids the few times I wasn’t GMing, so I had a bit of a bigger spell list and often tried to experiment with some of the weirder spells from sourcebooks for flavour. It wasn’t seen as all that optimal, which meant frowns from players, but there we were.
World of Darkness also broke powers down into different systems, but there were ways of playing with them so they felt different. Playing Mage: The Awakening and encountering a Vampire using the rules from Requiem were fantastic for telling the players they were dealing with a whole other creature. Even before the mix and match toolbox of the New World of Darkness I ham-fistedly slotted together the Old WoD creature types in Hunter: The Reckoning as the monster abilities in that game didn’t feel as flavourful and distinct as using each monsters’ own mechanics.
Dungeon World had listed spells for any magic classes, but there was a point where the Druid asked if he could ‘Defy Danger’ by turning into a moth just in time. It was a great moment where as the GM I realised that yeah, that totally works in the fiction given his powers. The same was able to be done with magic users quickly summoning up light or fire or something. Because all a Powered by the Apocalypse move needs is fictional positioning, being a magic user gives you ammunition to handle the magic as oddly as you want.
Quest has some fun ways of handling these sorts of things. First of all there are the narrative aspects of the character sheet. We had a person with a mechanical arm and a doctor cursed into the form of a grasshopper. We’re these choosable from a list? Nope. The players decided these would be in the fiction and now they are. I asked Arthur, the player of the grasshopper, whether there were grasshopper people and he explained that it was a curse placed on him. Now there are curses. We didn’t know how it happened or whether it could be cured, but it was a strange piece of magic which made him and the story unique. The same with the mechanical-armed character, as that moved the tech level of the fantasy world up a bit. The character’s community were a kind of techno-Amish, separate from everywhere else and fixated on making machines for agricultural means.
The next fun thing was the ability tree. The majority of the classes were magic in different ways and had some interesting, flavourful ways of being cast. They also are broad enough that you could make them seem however you wanted. The grasshopper was a Doctor class, which could be medics, clerics or necromancers. Being more of a man/grasshopper of reason, our hero ‘cast’ the ability to discern a creature’s death without casting any spell. They were simply able to discern through medical prowess. You could change up that ability to get a psychic flash of their death, you could speak with the dead or change it up in any number of ways to make yourself unique and the magic you use unique.
Exodus is a magical city made out of other cities, filled with immigrants from other dimensions who sought sanctuary. It’s a big old mess, and also one which has no set version of magic. It was originally used with Dungeon World and specifically the Class Warfare expansion which made character classes out of pieces of smaller classes mashed up. This meant we had an elemental mage-slash-martial artist, a magical lawyer and a knight who could psychically manifest weapons. These all worked and interacted, but they felt different. There weren’t really many schools, or at least the ones there were kept quite specific disciplines. The town of Littlewall had an academy of Brick Wizards, found throughout Exodus and trained here in order to help construct roads and buildings. Booze Wizards gravitated towards Solace, its vineyards and the harvest god who lived there. Magic could be a tiny effect a farmer had or a horrific ability to channel dead gods from other dimensions. This is my kind of default preference of magic. It’s anywhere from small to massive, it’s usable by players, its different in all its forms and sometimes it’ll demand a great cost.
I mentioned about flavouring things in D&D earlier this month, but I’d extend that and say that even in these trad games, it’s worth playing with a special effect or two, even if it’s not something which provides a quantifiable bonus. Maybe the sorcerer’s eyes occasionally give off glowing, swirling patterns. Maybe grass grows behind the druid when they’re happy, or there’s an ambient music in the air when a bard leaves town as people are inspired to take up instruments. It’s not difficult to do, but it’s often forgotten for the sake of simple function and numbers.