William Gladstone was a British prime Minister, who did the various sorts of things leaders of Empires do, but for the purposes of gaming his most interesting feature is that he popularised the idea that the classical peoples were colourblind. Now, we know this wasn’t true, but he thought their colour-blindness was the only explanation for what he found in their literature. If only one person had said the sea was the colour of wine, you might put it down to a poetic whim, but strange misattributions keep happening in classical texts. Hector has blue hair, honey is green, the rainbow has three colours. Gladstone thought this meant there was something wrong with the eyes of the people writing.

I’m also drawn to think about the colours in the Egyptian tombs in The Lands of the Nile. I wonder, did their deco-inspiring use of bright primaries occur, in our fantasy world, because they literally could not see tones?

Now the question for game designers is not why he was wrong, but how we can take advantage of him being right. Where did the new colours come from, why, and what stories can we tell about it?

In Ars Magica, the world has been through various epochs. They aren’t listed as discretely as in Middle-Earth, where the ages are numbered, but there are clear points where the cosmology changes. The first is the Titanomachy, which is where the great creative forces of magic are cast down by the pagan gods. The name comes from the overthrown of the titans by the Olympians, but various other myths can be tied in to this. The gods of Ireland overthrow the fir bolgs. Isis steals much of the power of Ra and gives it to her husband or son. The elemental races are pushed aside by the races people can worship.

The next is the Silencing of the Oracles, which is where the pagan gods go into hiding for some reason. Later Christian writers claimed it was because Jesus was coming, but pick your own motivation here.

In the Ars Magica setting, the ancestors of the player characters, the Founders of the current magical tradition, also did things which might define an epoch. One lost his powers in a secret ritual to make his new tradition the dominant one. Another moved the axis around which the tides of magic in the world wash. A side effect of this was that ghosts changed colour: the Romans described their ghosts as being black, in medieval Europe they are white. One of these changes may have bled new colours into the world.

Perhaps moving the Axis Magica had another effect though. Maybe it made the world more magical. The game mechanics in Ars Magica have a casting bonus of zero in natural environments, with bonuses ranging up to ten points for being near the lair of a magical beast, in a place where magic has been practised, and so on. When a character goes into a place with a higher score, colours are brighter, sounds are clearer and flavours are more pleasant. This effect becomes more intense as the magical nature of the place increases, such that the only magi who regularly go into the Magical Realm, which has a score of ten, train themselves to not be interested in the ephemeral, worldly sensations, to avoid being overwhelmed.

We think that the score of zero, no bonus, as the natural background of the world, but what if, in ancient times, the background score was a negative number? That would make the world less vivid. There would be fewer colours, and they would blend together more, so a rainbow of three shades might be possible. Similarly, the tiny, accidental magics which allow potential apprentices to be detected would occur less often, and so they would be detected less. This explains why the current age of magic goes from a handful of powerful wizards to the many dozens required to wage a continent-wide war within the space of a couple of generations. New magi are easier to find, and easier to train.

In the basic Ars setting we tend to think of the changes of the epochs in terms of the dominant realm. Magic was dominant, then Faerie, now Divine, and in the future either infernal or divine depending on how you see the apocalypse as playing out. In older editions, Reason was to be the next dominant realm, and some of us have played with all kinds of odd, new dominants. In one of my settings, the next age is a sort of steam-powered Renaissance.

What if there are smaller subdivisions which don’t change the dominant realm, but just change the background number for magic from zero? This makes the Norse guys trying to wake the primordial giants a bit less of a world-destroying problem.

It also gives player characters something to do which doesn’t break the world: they could change the underlying ease of magic. So, if the characters fulfil their saga arc, maybe the background number for magic might move up to, say +1. The magic realm is still aura 10, but because it is closer, Twilight incidents, where magi have accidents and slip into a sort of magical coma, are easier to recover from. New colours become obvious: perhaps some that didn’t have English names until after the period (orange or pink, for example). Minor magic becomes simpler. Potential apprentices become a little more obvious, magic is slightly simpler to study. The biggest change, of course, is that people become aware that this sort of change is plausible. Future generations of magi work to follow in the characters’ footsteps, bootstrapping the world ever closer to the Magic Realm.

It might also explain why so many dragons seem to train cults of magicians.  In Ars Magica we know of at least three, in the Hesperides, Soqotra, and the Order itself. A more magical environment allows dragons to stray further from their lairs, and use their powers with less fatigue. This line of thinking reminds me of Pope Sylvester II, who was said, in 1000 AD, to have put back to sleep the great dragon which lies beheanth the Alps, thereby preventing the end of the World. That’s a great story, but I sometimes wonder if what he did, really, was to stop the epoch changing. After all, the Pope has a strong interest in keeping the Divine as the cardinal realm.

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3 replies on “A theory of colour for roleplaying games

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