In my last post on the topic, I started to lay out a catalog of what magic was to the people who practiced it. It sort of got out of hand there, which isn't surprising since I foolishly embarked on this series without a real plan. Flying by the seat of my pants is sure fun, but let's see if we can get this thing back on track. Note that this is a very speculative post. There is only a little consensus on what spirits "really are". These are some of my thoughts on the subject, and they are necessarily incomplete.
One thing you might have noted is that I left a large part of magic to "spirits". You might also have noted that I left a really wide open space for what a "spirit" actually is, mentioning both entities of the sort that we can communicate and interact with, and also "energies" of astral powers. As I re-read what I've written there and the library with which I began this series, I noticed that I left out an important strand of thought, that of "mythorealism", the idea that myth can and does incarnate in the waking world. I do want to emphasize that this is only one model among several, though, and I am not making any particular endorsement by discussing it in this post.
In the mythorealist view, as I imperfectly understand it, "spirits" are the relationships between things. When we develop a pattern through art and tradition, we can see that pattern existing as actual instances of orally-told stories, written texts, works of art, natural occurrences, and the like. So, we find a person that we call "Thor", who is manifest as stories, statues, rolling thunder, and so on. But these things aren't Thor, are they? They are stories, statues, physical phenomena. On the other hand, the relationship we have with these things is an entity in itself. In point of fact, we can develop a relationship with that relationship, which is another level of the matter.
So, more generally, what is a spirit? We can think of a spirit as a non-physical entity. Nearly every metaphysical outlook includes room for non-physical entities. Even the most strict materialist includes "organizing principles" or "emergent properties" or an "implicate order" such as the "rules" that make gravity manifest as one thing while making gamma rays manifest as another thing. Scientists codify these rules as mathematical operations, but those are descriptions of the non-physical entities, not the things themselves. There are also relational systems, which are sometimes called "software", which are not the same as the physical systems which manifest a particular set of software.
Other outlooks describe spirits as other things, from the naïvely prosaic idea that spirits are just like material entities only made out of some unknown and immaterial substance—which is the way that most games treat them, perhaps because it allows spirits to be modeled with only slight modifications to the normal game rules; I am particularly interested in the few exceptions, even when the games that do so are not necessarily very good otherwise, and I will get to the gaming precedents as this series goes on—to the sophisticated concept of relationships mentioned above, to concepts of psychological fragments existing as processes within our material brains, and so on.
Probably the most common approach to understanding spirits is a psychological one, in no small part because our experience of spirits, for those of us who do experience them in a way that we express in that manner, is one that occurs largely within our minds. That is, not having a material existence, people can't usually observe spirits with material senses like sight and hearing. Or, if they do, many will attribute the experience of a spirit to a sort of gestalt of perceptions, such as when a lonely, windswept moor manifests a different spirit than a hot, humid jungle.
Some magicians posit a relative impermeability between the level of existence on which spirits exist and the material world we experience with our physical senses. So, in this model, a spirit has an existence on the "astral plane"—or whatever the particular magician calls it—which can't affect the "physical plane" directly, but instead causes changes in the physical world by indirect means such as influencing beings that exist on both "planes" such as humans. On the other hand, some thinkers have pointed out that spirit-like phenomena can and do sometimes leave physical traces, which has been termed the "daimonic". Items like the Simonton pancakes—a set of four apparently-normal pancakes that Joe Simonton claims were given to him by the occupant of a strange flying object that landed in his yard—or the tiny shoe found in Ireland that exhibits wear patterns exactly as if it had been worn for some time by a tiny person, not to mention the instances where radiation has been detected at alleged "UFO" landing sites, or where UFOs themselves produce radar reflections. The daimonic is sometimes absurd.
Some such "daimonic" traces are clearly hoaxes. The Patrick Harpur book I mention in the library post, Daimonic Reality, includes some discussion of the photos of "Doc" Shiels, which have been pretty thoroughly examined by the periodical Fortean Times, with the conclusion that they are probably fabrications, and of course the examination in that book of "crop circles" has been undercut by a couple of groups who have come forward to claim that they have been manufacturing those unusual artworks—it's probably worth noting, though, that none of the groups making the "hoaxing" claim have been able to replicate more than a simple circle while under observation nor any of the various epiphenomena that are related to the circles, and at least one person involved has openly wondered what it is that drives him to make the circles in the first place. For that last, keep in mind the above idea that spirits operate through influencing human behaviors.
The "all in the mind" theory still leaves ample room for some strangeness. One magician wrote a book with the subtitle It's All In Your Head … You Just Have No Idea How Big Your Head Is, which lays out some of the issues in a pithy way. One formulation of this argument is that the brain is less like a computer and more like a radio receiver. Now, keep in mind that any metaphor for how the brain works is one fraught with parochialism. That is, every era has a model of the brain that draws on whatever the currently-fashionable technology might be. In the 19th century the brain was an engine, in earlier times a pneumatic vessel, and so on. So, even if the metaphor of the computer is more attractive, still a brain is not a computer. In any case, in the "radio receiver" metaphor, the brain receives something from elsewhere that contains or manifests consciousness. The brain might store things, perhaps in the sense of a "warehouse" of sensory impressions, or perhaps a holographic "hard drive" of sense data, but the experience is still one of consciousness. Certainly, we know that each instance of remembering is a remanufacturing of the original experience, one that alters to some extent whatever it is that the brain stores. If the brain is a receiver, though, we are left with the question of where it is receiving from. A magician might answer that there is another "level" of existence, another "plane", from which consciousness emanates, though some magicians would argue that consciousness is also from the "spirit plane".
And this doesn't exhaust the models available to us, though it runs through most of the major ideas. Which of them is correct, if any? I have no idea. I tend to favor the "emanated consciousness" model to some degree, but I am also attracted to both the "relationship" and "psychological" models—with the proviso that spirits are probably not local to any particular brain or psychology, even where they might manifest in such a "place".
So, let's talk about some of the gaming models for spirits. At the moment, I am mainly interested in the models provided by RuneQuest, HeroQuest (the Gloranthan RPG, not the Milton Bradley board game), GURPS, the HERO System—particularly the 4th edition supplement titled Horror HERO—Dogs in the Vineyard, Fantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm, the board game from Avalon Hill. RuneQuest, GURPS, HERO System, Fantasy Wargaming, and Magic Realm all offer a similar model of spirits as something basically like a material being, only composed of some immaterial substance. That is a fine model for gaming, as it is easily incorporated into the rules and allows for a wide variety of interaction with the setting of the game. HERO System does present a somewhat different method for spirits to move and interact with their environments that is worth examining. The particularly interesting outliers here are Pendragon and, though as games they are not nearly as interesting, HeroQuest and Dogs in the Vineyard.
Pendragon and HeroQuest offer a similar approach to spirits, though in a sense it is hidden in the rules of the former. A character is able to develop "Passions" in Pendragon, which are relationships such as Love, Loyalty, or the like. However, a character can develop a relationship with an abstraction that does not otherwise appear directly in the game, such as "God" or "The Red Company"—while the latter may exist as a group of ruffians or adventurers, the members of the group are what interact with the setting directly. While HeroQuest doesn't call them "Passions" (as I recall at the moment, without looking up the details), there is a similar mechanism to describe a character's relationships.
Dogs in the Vineyard is, in my opinion, a nearly-unplayable game—one significant obstacle I found was that you are supposed to describe what is happening in a challenge, but you can't actually know what happens in the challenge until the challenge is over since that is when you determine "consequences" incurred during the challenge. However, its concept that an area is affected by a particular spirit, which can influence the course of challenges indirectly by favoring one side or the other in a broad sense, is one that I want to find ways to adapt.
Now, these last few paragraphs describe models intended for gaming purposes. I think that they are useful in helping to illuminate how we think about spirits, though, since they are required to be relatively comprehensive in ways that thinking about the topic abstractly doesn't require.