It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 1 – Definitions and Application

One of the thorniest areas of Pathfinder – and indeed, all role-playing games – is the level of abstraction that it presents in various aspects of the game. Much of the time, this involves sacrificing “realism,” so that the game remains playable, such as eschewing wound tracking and hit locations in favor of hit points.

Another level of abstraction, however, relies on the simple assumptions we make about the in-game nature of how things work. Sean K. Reynolds – now a developer at Paizo Publishing – once wrote (in one of his immortal rants) “it should be clear that if there is no listed answer to a question, the answer almost certainly is the same as asking the question about a human.”

Now, to be fair, he was writing this in regards to creatures. But the broader point – that unless told otherwise, we should assume things work in the game world as they do in the real world – is still clear. The major problem with this assumption is that there are some things to which we have no real-world analogue on which to draw.

Magic is one of those.

Ever notice how there's no spell that will let you draw a rabbit out of a hat?

For all its importance and prevalence within the Pathfinder Role-Playing Game, and D&D before it, the question of exactly how magic works has been startlingly ignored. This isn’t to say that explanations haven’t been given; just that they’ve been inadequate to the more fundamental question of how it is that people and creatures are able to use magic at all. We’re usually just told about the differences between divine and arcane magic, and perhaps given a brief statement that the exact nature of it is less important than the fact that it works at all, and that’s it.

Like all flimsy explanations, these break down if you start to seriously examine them. So what we need is a stable, working definition that will tell us what exactly magic is, how it’s used, and how creatures interact with it. Hopefully, this will help you create a campaign world with greater verisimilitude regarding one of its most important aspects.

The Basics

The first thing we need to do to define magic is properly restate what it is. So let’s lay down some terms and definitions.

Magic – Magic is energy that can be shaped and used to bring about various effects.

Spell – A spell is a specific quantity of energy, external to the one manipulating it, that has been utilized for a specific effect.

Spellcasting – Spellcasting is the act of gathering energies that are external to the spellcaster and shaping them into a desired result. This includes the use of supernatural and spell-like abilities.

Now that we’ve established that, let’s look at the classical division of magic in Pathfinder and D&D: arcane and divine magic.

The difference between arcane and divine magic is that the latter comes from the gods, while the former is not granted by any specific entity or power. That is, the energy that’s being manipulated when casting a spell has different sources for an arcane spellcaster than it does for a divine spellcaster.

A divine spellcaster is simply receiving energy directly from their god. A deity is so incredibly powerful, is such a font of energy, that they can grant that energy to those who ask for it. Of course, divine spellcasters not only have to work to be able to handle manipulating greater and greater quantities of energy (see below), but they also need to have their god’s trust so that they’ll have it granted to them to begin with.

Arcane spellcasters, on the other hand, are simply manipulating ambient energy. This raises the question of where exactly that ambient energy comes from to begin with. While this is determined by the GM, the most likely answers are the most obvious ones: planar apertures, solar radiation, leftover energy from the moment of Creation, and others all kickout a supply of energy that is, for all intents and purposes, infinite, leaving arcane spellcasters with a power source for their spells.

Methods of Use

Of course, this doesn’t answer the question of exactly how it is that mortals can interact with these energies at all. For this, we need a better explanation. Luckily, there’s one – or at least the basics of one – to be found in Green Ronin’s Advanced Gamemaster’s Guide.

One of the ideas laid out in the book is that the system of magic items on the body works because all characters have magic item “chakras,” or specific points on the body that magic items interact with. This is an idea we’ll return to in more detail next time. Instead, we’re going to take the basics of this idea and reinterpret them to suit our needs.

People are able to interact with the energies that are used in magic because they have a sort of metaphysical circulatory system within them. The same way that blood flows through veins and capillaries, and ki flows through chakra points, the external energies of magic can be absorbed and internalized by living (and unliving) creatures.

To avoid the cumbersome phrase “magic circulatory system” throughout the rest of this series of articles, let’s replace that with something simpler: mana. To reiterate, a person’s mana is their inner ability to absorb magical energies.

The key to this idea is that while all people have mana within them, it is fairly weak when they’re growing up, but can be exercised like a muscle. In other words, most people don’t start off as being able to absorb enough energy to be able to produce any magical effects…but some people strengthen their mana to the point where they’re able to do so.

What are you if you lose your spellbook? A spell-schnook!

Given that, the basic system of magic in Pathfinder is as follows. All people have the ability to manipulate external energies, but only some actualize that potential (in other words, only some take levels in spellcasting classes). This potential is realized by exercising their mana to the point where it lets them absorb enough energy – either from ambient sources or from gods – to be able to manipulate it to produce tangible results.

This is the reason why characters learn their spells in a step-progression. They slowly become better able to absorb larger quantities of energy, which can then be used to cast more, and more powerful, spells.

This salient point explains why, in-game, a wizard can make a bunch of gestures while babbling something and waving around a glass rod and some fur and conjure a lightning bolt…while a rogue who can perfectly replicate the words, gestures, and has his own fur and glass rod won’t accomplish anything. One has mana enough to gather and focus the necessary energies to actually create something, channeling it with the various components; the other is just (quite literally) going through the motions.

It should be noted that increasing one’s mana – while there are many different methods for doing so – can be used to two different ends. That is, the energies from the gods is different enough from the ambient energies of the multiverse that training your mana to use one doesn’t help you with using the other. Hence why a high priest can absorb a great deal of divine energy bestowed upon him by his god, but cannot take enough from the surrounding environment to cast even a single cantrip.

Mana Exercises

There are different methods whereby a character actively increases their mana; this is one of the main in-game differences between spellcasting classes. Note that the different methods are all metaphysical in nature; none require any sort of physical exercises.

Devotion – Used by clerics, druids, paladins, rangers, inquisitors, and adepts.

Devotion involves rigorous prayers, strengthening faith, and other exercises that bring you closer to the metaphysical nature of a deity. In this way, you increase your mana to accept the energies of your god, and can thus cast greater spells.

Study – Used by wizards, alchemists, magi, and summoners.

The use of study involves examining the “science” of how magic works, which also includes formulas by which the user better attunes himself to the methods necessary to draw in the surrounding energy. In understanding these forces, they also attune themselves to them more closely, though they may not necessarily realize that this is what they’re doing.

Imbuement – Used by oracles and witches.

This is one of the rarest forms of learning to manipulate magic. In this case, your mana is augmented by an external force acting upon you over time. For oracles, this comes from the gods (and thus is only suitable for divine spellcasting), while for the witch it comes from their mysterious patron, acting through their familiar.

Biology – Used by sorcerers and monsters.

For some creatures, the development of mana happens completely naturally as part of the maturation process. This is why many creatures have supernatural and spell-like abilities; because their mana naturally grows great enough to use them. Sorcerers are similar, in that something about their heritage gives them the genes to naturally grow in magical power over time. Note that this doesn’t need to be the result of their family having interbred with some creature; for “bloodlines” like Arcane or Destined, the sorcerer is – for whatever reason – possessed of a mana that grows of its own accord.

Accidentally – Used by bards and others.

Finally, it’s possible to strengthen your mana without realizing you’re doing it. The same way a person who enjoys playing sports gets good exercise as a by-product of what they do, some people just exercise their mana completely unintentionally. Bards are the best example of this, as they grow in magical power simply by traveling around, learning new songs and dances, and being swayed by art. This opens them to the arcane energies of the universe, and though they likely have little formal schooling in the ways of magic, they find themselves able to manipulate it.

This is also the case, albeit much less so, for other classes that have some degree of spell-like or supernatural abilities. The rogue who takes the minor magic rogue talent, for example, has unintentionally figured out how to absorb and utilize a tiny bit of energy in a specific manner.

Casting a Spell

One thing to note is that this energy, whether ambient or god-given, is gathered ahead of time, before a spell is cast. This is encapsulated in the one hour that spellcasters must prepare after they get eight hours of rest. During this hour, they’re absorbing the necessary energies.

I'm totally telling my GM that this is what it looks like when my character is preparing his spells for the day.

Preparatory casters, such as wizards, allocate their energies completely ahead of time towards specific ends. Spontaneous casters, by contrast, can pick and choose how to use those energies when they utilize them, but only know how to do so in a set amount of ways.

Finally, the act of casting a spell is the act of actually shaping the energy you’ve gathered. The components involved – whether somatic, verbal, material, or foci – are part of the esoteric process of shaping these metaphysical energies into physical results.


It’s worthwhile to ask why – if their energy sources are different, and they require different ways of shaping one’s mana to use – do arcane and divine spells interact with each other so completely?

To answer this, let’s look at the different classes of fires. Some fires are caused because organic materials are ignited, others are certain metals that autoignite in the air. However, both produce flames that operate according to the same rules of combustion.

That’s how it is with different types of magic, also. The sources are different, the methods of gathering are different, but when the metaphysical energy is shaped into physical results, they’re subject to the same laws of reality. Hence why spells of one type can affect those of another.

And Lastly…

While it should go without saying, it’s worth mentioning again that all of the above is simply one possible explanation for the how’s and why’s of magic in your Pathfinder game. If you’ve already come up with a series of answers that work better, then definitely stick with that. This series of articles is simply meant to offer an in-game explanation for the meta-game mechanics of magic for people who haven’t generated one for their campaign.

Next Time: How magic items work, the nature of saving throws, and more!

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3 Responses to “It’s A Kind of Magic, Part 1 – Definitions and Application”

  1. VagrantPoet Says:

    Great article!

    Looking forward to more.

  2. Awertum Says:

    Really, really great!

  3. Tim Says:

    This subject had no right to be as interesting as it was. Well done! (For one thing, this helps explain things like spell slots and memorized/forgotten spells REALLY well.)

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