No more gods providing buffs and blessings for their favored chosen without a downside. No more demons making sweet deals to collect souls down the line. No, magic should be an amoral, here’s a sword, your fingertips, and oh, that sorceress is trying to drain your soul, better get her first, style system. I want wild, chaotic, oh, shit, I should have checked my corruption stat before absorbing that undead’s soul kind of force.
Everyone (humans, gods, demons, that annoying Porg from TLJ) should all draw upon the same source of power: mana and different expressions of it. Enough of this white, black, and Star Wars/DND colored mechanics to magic. A healing spell doesn’t give a damn if it comes from the hands of a battlefield medic or a serial-killer evading the Templars. Magic empowered/provided by the gods or the local Archdemon is often a means of shitty deus ex machina and “Wait, I pull out my god phone to undo my party wipe” deflate the stakes and consequences of character actions. If every protagonist and antagonist has their respective good and evil Fablesque hotline, well, then who cares about magic? The systems are designed to make characters get out of hard consequences. This is not good storytelling. This is what’s led to asspulls galore over the years in the genre, and created the fury of frothing fans who notice the contradiction in your invented magic system three years ago.
If magic makes no distinction in its users, it creates tension. Everyone has to be careful. Yes, even Dementor the Lord of the Abyss has to make sure he doesn’t screw up his mana supply lest his own power backfires on him. Especially in Grimdark, the lack of amoral magic that’s like fuel or a serial numbers filed off round robin pistol is strange. If anything, this kind of amoral approach to magic would enhance the already terrible and bleak conditions of your setting. Why not throw the final match on it and let everyone get in on the corruption check?
“But that’s not what the genre’s about, Allan. It’s about gods and demon lords ripped out of DND 3rd edition empowering their favored, you heretic.” Yeah, yeah, and how many times am I going to read about the Light God(tm) giving a sword to some wide-eyed yokel and providing him with plot armor out the ass? I read that book series: It was called Dragonlance, which I enjoyed but have since moved on from.
Dragon Age did this almost ten years ago: the majority of magic is potentially corruptive. Its source is all the same: lyrium. Blood magic is dark not because it’s evil but because it’s like steroids for magic: it’s easy, cheap, and gives a boost. It also has a serious downside and can lead you to losing your marbles. But people’s opinions on it (Chantry, Tevinter, Qunari, Elven, mages all have different takes on it, despite its baseline power source being the same. And I love Dragon Age all the more for it!
I love DND and tabletop but I wish there were more naturalistic systems inspired by religions like Shintoism or Gnosticism. Corruption exists: it’s rooted in the hearts of people. But it can be purged, contained, even used in small moderation to empower one’s talents. There is a creative power in having an unspoken “balance” in a setting. No one is safe, not even the most powerful can escape magic’s potential downside. And that makes magic all the more stronger, dangerous, and enticing. It’s a feedback system that pushes mages, despite the obvious danger to themselves. And that is something I look forward to seeing more of it in the coming years.
I want those hard fantasy systems all the more.