So, this article is written primarily for people who understand the primary rules of magic. In a conversation about magic, it's sometimes difficult to write without revealing methods. I'll do my best, though – and if you're not into magic, this might be the little spark you need!
A few years ago, I created a magic routine called Verna's Belongings that was heavily themed for one purpose – to be presented as part of a tabletop gaming session. Very recently, I think I've found a really particular niche. I've started a new project with an old project's name, Forging Fields, where I'll be offering entertainment via magic and tabletop gaming as a one-shot endeavour. I've been in contact with a few places to get it going and, after bringing this idea to fruition for a few corporate team-building events, I think I've got a real special idea going, but I digress.
I brought about the above routine as part of a Dungeons & Dragons session and, both because my players didn't expect it and further, didn't know I was even capable of performing magic, it knocked them dead. It was themed appropriately and balanced on a well-worked character in the game itself. With a little bit of dramatic flair, the character comes to life and the presentation of magic is emboldened by that – it becomes a little bit more 'real' because the character I embody should actually be capable of reading minds and such.
That's probably what is drawing me so strongly to this idea – magic and tabletop role playing combined – and the basis for another topic altogether; the construction of your 'character' when performing magic, but we'll save that for another write-up.
The only thing I didn't like about Verna's kit when I was finished presenting with it was that it felt 'constructed'. I couldn't ever really put my finger on it past that description. Perhaps it had more to do with the OOTW tarot effect than the rest of it – I couldn't ever really find a way to describe why Verna would have 'life' and 'death' cards duplicated so many times over. It would have been just as easy to blame a descent into the occult after her husband's death but felt really gimmicky to say it out loud.
So, I decided to rebuild.
This time around, I've got a number of items held separately and distinctly from one another. Instead of presenting them as a configured routine, I've been playing with the use of these items as props for decor. I believe this does something magical in and of itself – placed on the table as the type of oddity you would regularly regard in a brewman's shop or adorning the altar of a coven, they're fun to look at and imagine being used but, brought to life by the storytelling magician, they unlock another part of the mind.
In this way, any of the items can be worked into a moment for theatrical effect.
Take my new spin on OOTW, for example. I've become partial to a handling that takes place mostly in the spectator's hand. Further, the effect is accompanied by the idea of 'seeing what cannot be seen'. There's no way to see what the face of the card is and yet, the player will manage to accurately predict each one. With a kicker in the box, too, by way of a sealed prediction, the magi is also 'seeing the unseen'. Taking from Derren Brown's Absolute Magic (which is an absolute must for any dungeon master to read), I am keen on presenting this in a moment when the feelings of sorrow, fear or tension are present – you can't see them, but you know they're there.
Luckily, I managed to find a pack of reproduction playing cards that fit the bill perfectly. They're distressed and feature a design with no pips and square corners. They're just 'odd' enough to be sold as a 'gamblers deck' on the tabletop.
I've spliced an effect by Max Maven (Kurotsuke) and Derren Brown (The Liar's Test) to create a sort of bizarre-based gypsy presentation with the white and black stones. At the table, I tell the players that certain people are drawn to action and that others are simply not. There's no real way to tell why but we know that in times of duress, some are spurred into the fray.
Allowing each player to select a stone from the bag after showing the selections (white stones with one black stone), I tell them that one will be presented the opportunity to act at a point in the future – that they'll know when this moment has come and that they're being called. I've considered combining this with a pendulum effect to 'know' the holder of the black stone but haven't had the opportunity to play with this yet.
Finally, I've been playing with E'VOQUE. I've got a really ornate looking wooden box with brass fittings. Inside, it has a selection of props with some patina. I picked up the lot at a local flea market for a few bucks. This is usually presented as a demonstration of the 'link' shared in a relationship between two special people – a couple, siblings or good friends. It's written into the story as part of a 'tough decision' that will be brought to the pair. The idea is that, even if it isn't said out loud or otherwise indicated, they share a special bond that transcends the physical plane, so they'll be just fine to follow their hearts.
I'm playing with one more as-of-yet unprepared effect, as well. A multiple-out mentalism routine that should be an absolute killer if a little overdone by mentalists at large. I'm just looking for a way to blend that into the story in a manner that makes sense.
Through bringing these magical experiences to the tabletop, I believe it does a few things brilliantly. Above all else, it suspends the Godly archetype weilded by magicians when a snap of the finger can magically make a card appear at the top of the deck without any context or real felt impact. Because we're all supposed to be in character to begin with, the magician can simply imbue the character he portrays with these powers and, now presented for the player for his own eyes, can take on the type of 'real' magic quality that Brown so eloquently asks of the modern day magician in Absolute Magic.
Another aspect of this kind of rediscovery that happens when trying to thematically group magic effects into a routine is the feeling of satisfaction you get from the creative exercise that underpins the project. I love the collecting of old and mysterious objects that seem to tell a story all unto themselves and the type of magical thinking that goes into writing their story.
The longer I'm involved in tabletop gaming, the more bridges I build to traditional theatre. Between voice acting, writing and magic, the hobby is enough to fill almost all of my free time with creative thinking. If you've never tried learning some magic, I'd emplore you to visit the /r/magic subreddit. It's a much more open, accepting forum than some of the other gatekeeping communities on the internet. Of course, the hobby and art of magic is one of secrecy to begin with, but some of the blatant tribalism that comes with any such exclusive hobby is flexed a little harder in other places.
Start with self-working magic. Learn basic card sleights. Learn a little coin magic.
If you're really looking to take on another perspective when it comes to your tabletop gameplay, I'd highly recommend burying your nose in Absolute Magic by Derren Brown.