Friday, June 15, 2012

Breaking with Tradition (Part 2)

All right, a little more time on my hands…let’s continue.

In order to figure out what a magic system looks like, one has to consider how magic works in one’s particular game world…the WHYS of magic, if you will. For most players (including DMs/GMs), I realize, the whys don’t matter a whole hell of a lot: the important thing is the mechanics of an RPG. How many spells does my magic-user get to cast during the game session? What are the ramifications of using spells? This has a direct impact on how the game is played.

For example, in D&D my 1st level magic-user is able to cast ONE spell. After that spell is gone I am left with an unarmored, dagger-wielding adventure possessed of D4 hit points. What does that say to me as a player? Make that one spell count. And so the spell players tend to choose is the one that can have the most lasting impact (i.e. Charm Person or Sleep)…even though a different spell might end up being the exact perfect the party requires to overcome a particular challenge or encounter.

If I’m playing a street shaman in Shadowrun, I know my spells cause me fatigue (and serious injury if I reduce my magic attribute with cybernetic enhancement) depending on the power and type of spell used. The number and variety of spells available to me differs depending on which edition one plays, which can make your character more prone to relying on guns then your Power Ball spell.

As said, PLAYERS don’t usually care WHY magic works in a game, just HOW it does. And many games don’t really give a good reason as to why magic works anyway (see recent discussions on disassociated mechanics, especially regarding 4th Edition)…at least from an “in-game” perspective.

But for traditional RPG designers, the “whys” ARE important. The designer needs to know the “logic” of the game world, so they can create game mechanics that are connected to that game logic. Knowing and working with one’s “fantasy physics” helps create a rich imaginary environment into which participants can better lose themselves, the desired end of non-narrative agenda role-playing.

[if you don’t buy that last statement I’m not sure why you’re still playing table top role-playing games]

“Applied game logic” isn’t anything new to designers with a specific setting attached to their RPG, it’s something considered (at least, haphazardly) with regard to monster cosmologies (what monsters/opponents make sense and are available) and chargen (what classes/skills should be available for player characters). Lesser designers (i.e. “poor” or “inadequate” for my tastes) will think less about these things and simply take a “kitchen sink” approach to what goes into a game (leading to all sorts on inanity like bestiaries with conflicting cultural mythologies and skill lists containing unused skills like “cooking” and “small power boat” just for the sake of “completeness”). Greater designers will hone every aspect of a game to razor sharp pertinence, right down to setting specific ability scores (instead of generic “Strength, Intelligence, Personality,” etc.).

But applied game logic doesn’t always make the cut with more generic RPGs. Now, of course, there’s generic and then there’s GENERIC…some games are simply engines to which one attaches a setting splat book that provides those extra game tweaks and adjustments based on “applied logic.” But then you also have pseudo-generic RPGs, whose ranks include both Dungeons & Dragons and a myriad of other fantasy imitators (knock-offs, heartbreakers, whatever you want to call them). Although D&D purports to be a “generic” fantasy RPG, much can be inferred about its setting simply based on what’s included (and not included) in its hallowed pages.

I’ve discussed this before over many posts (some illustrative examples: plate armor with no firearms, existence of paladins, multi-planar cosmology, Drow and other “civilizations,” named artifacts, etc.) but for this post the only thing I want to spend time on is the cosmology of spell-casting, i.e. magic use.

D&D offers the following cosmology of magic:

- Spells are learned, with more spells being learned by those with more experience (true even of clerics, whose broad spell lists are opened by increasing in level).
- To be a spell-caster one must have “what it takes” to comprehend the power (INT for magi, WIS for clerics).
- Each spell is a bit of finite power (ammunition) to be expended.
- Spells must be memorized by an individual or else stored in a magical device to use.
- More experienced casters can mentally store more spells (ammo) and (conversely) LESS experienced casters are limited in what can be stored.
- Spell-casting requires concentration, often words and gestures, sometimes materials.
- Spells are formulae that need to be performed exactly, and as such they can be interrupted.
- Spells are not always effective depending on the personal strength of a target to resist (saving throws).
- Non-casters have the ability to resist magical spells.
- And finally: Casters must be well-rested to implant spells in their brain, but implanted spells are held indefinitely until used regardless of the caster’s physical or mental state (!!!).

That last bit is the really weird one. To my mind there’s a real implication of spells being living entities, enslaved in a spell book and bound for service through the reading/memorization process (or slaved to deities and bound to service via prayers of supplication). Each spell is thus a mini-demon, being conjured with a specific purpose in mind. In Vance’s Dying Earth stories (the inspiration for D&D magic) this seems more than just an “implication” but it’s not a subject broached in the D&D books (unless, perhaps, the 2nd Edition adventure Return to White Plume Mountain).

Gygax himself simply stated he used Vance’s magic cosmology as it “well articulated” the power of mnemonic incantation (I recall reading somewhere else that he found it a bit different from other systems being floated at the time, and liked that). I would also guess that the main motivation in creating the D&D magic system was an attempt at game balance and playability. While the system IS playable with much more minimal fuss compared to other systems (I find Palladium’s PPE tracking to be a pain in the ass, for example), many folks have decried the game balance issues of D&D magic-users: too weak at low levels, too powerful at high levels. And while I’m not a huge advocate for “game balance,” this particular balance issue has a direct impact on playability.

Look, I know there are folks who are just thinking, dude, shut up, it works okay? Fine, yeah, it WORKS well enough you can play the game. But I for one get tired of it…and tired as well of players either A) complaining about it (especially at low levels), or B) simply ignoring it (i.e. not playing magic-users) because of it. The stupidest thing I’ve ever seen as a DM is players abandoning dungeons as soon as the wizard’s sleep spell is expended. “We’ll be back tomorrow!” Yeah, um, did Gandalf tell the Fellowship to retreat after he ran out of spells in Moria?

And that’s not to say the players are stupid/dumb…they’re playing smart based on the circumstance of the game, right? Tactically dealing with the hand that’s been dealt by the game designer. But I doubt that’s how the designer(s) originally envisioned the game being played (exiting the dungeon mid-session to “refresh?”)…unless they were reading a much different version of the literature in the appendix than what I’ve seen.

I just have to look at Gygax’s own house rules (thanks to Cyclopeatron and others): new player characters start at 3rd level, and magic-users with a high INT (not unusual based on Gary’s method of rolling abilities) gain a bonus spell. For a MU this gives a starting PC magical firepower equivalent to a 4th level magician (if one was using Rules As Written): right square at that “mid-level sweet spot” where wizards are neither too weak nor (yet) too powerful.

I’d be curious to see Arneson’s own house rules on the subject.

But for me, the plan is not how best to house rule playability. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, I’m more interested FIRST in the why of magic and spell-casting: the in-game justification for how it works and why it works for my particular game. This is no big thing to do (even though conspicuously absent from D&D): Siembieda defined it through his psychokinetic energy (PPE) in Rifts, and the Shadowrun guys have their “channeling mana from the astral plane” deal-i-o. Once I’ve got the definition down, THEN it’s a matter of modeling it in game terms AND (lastly) iron out the playability/balance issues.

However, in working on those whys, in defining what magic is and how it works, I can see already that this system is probably NOT going to resemble Vance…which means it ain’t going to look all that much like D&D. Oh, it’ll have some of the trappings: there will be spell lists and levels of power and probably spell books, for example. But that might be the extent of the resemblance.

Let’s talk a little bit about magic in literature (and no, I don’t mean Harry Potter): in books and stories, based on folklore or not, what does magic-use LOOK like? And here I’m only talking about stories and collections that include MULTIPLE magi, not individual plot points like Prospero in The Tempest. I’ll also only be including human magic-users, not angelic “Istari” like Gandalf and his ilk.

Here are my bullet points:
  • Magic requires study and training; it is generally taught, master to student.
  • Not all magicians are equal; some are more powerful (and feared/respected) than others.
  • “Power” is generally defined by one’s repertoire of spells (more is better) and the potency of those spells.
  • Becoming a magician requires a certain ambitious temperament; it’s generally described as hard work.
  • Becoming a magician requires a certain level of intelligence (“native talent”).
  • Magical knowledge is generally stored in writings: books and grimoires, scrolls and tablets. This holds true for priestly magic as well (priests and magicians are often interchangeable where magic is concerned).
So far none of that really disagrees with the “D&D version” of spell-casting. But let’s continue, shall we?
  • Being a spell-caster does not preclude one from wearing armor or wielding weapons.
Whoa! Right out of the gate, right? But there it is: what besides game mechanics (or a post-D&D book of fantasy fiction) ever said a wizard was prohibited from wearing armor or wielding a decent weapon? I prefer my wizards to have the option (like the sorcerers in the original Conan film). Okay, now to the nitty-gritty:
  • Spells effect supernatural change through the use of magical formula, generally spoken.
  • Spells require mental discipline in addition to their formula; only a person with the proper mental state can use a formula even by reading it.
  • Conversely, any magician (presuming the proper training) can use a formula by reading it.
  • Spell formula are spoken and recorded in ancient, obscure, and/or mystical languages, uncommon to those without training.
  • More potent spells are longer and more complex (harder to record, memorize, and/or recite).
  • A spell known (i.e. memorized) can be cast.
  • Knowledge of a spell formula is only lost through the usual method of losing knowledge: time and age, replacement (learning something new, forgetting something old, etc.) head injury.
  • Spell formula, especially those newly discovered/created, are jealously guarded secrets.
  • Magic is best performed sparingly and privately as a spell witnessed can be learned and duplicated.
  • Because of this, and the aforementioned temperament, magicians tend to be secretive, mysterious, and stand-offish; it is the rare wizard that is jovial or gregarious (antisocial tendencies), let alone reckless and flamboyant/demonstrative.
  • This behavior, coupled with general ignorance on magic, adds to their allure as well as their intimidation of non-magi.
  • As academics, magicians tend to be less robust (also more cultured and refined) than other adventurers.
There, see? Now I have some idea of what I want magicians in my game to look like. And having that, I can stat out how exactly magic works in my game…and I can see already that there’s little about it that’s “resource based.” Certainly, magic-users are limited by the spells they know or possess (and per the literature, creating a new spell appears to be the work of years or decades, not weeks as per normal D&D research time), but there aren’t any spell slots, or magic points, or fatigue boxes, or mana burn to worry about. No, it’s not going to look much like D&D at all, I guess.

Of course, I could never make D&D look like I wanted to when it came to favorite S&S characters like Lythande and Elric, etc. so I guess that’s a bit of payback.

; )


  1. Saying that spell research takes years or decades instead of weeks is fine provided you're okay with denying it as a viable option to the player.

  2. I think OD&D magic-users are actually pretty close to this ideal. The costs and low chances of success for spell research (along with surprisingly detailed rules given the length of the booklets) make it closer to your ideal for arduous spell creation (while not totally removing the option from the game). Also, magic-users can wear armor (though not magic armor) by my reading of the rules. It says that they can arm themselves only with daggers, but one could interpret that as an in-game world legal restriction, and in any case it doesn't matter all that much since all weapons do 1d6 damage (unless they are magical, and only fighting men can use the most powerful magic weapons).

    My own recent experimentation has been to give magic-users a saving throw to retain prepared spells after casting (with something bad happening on a fumble). I think that fits the "demon in your head" vancian ideal, which I love. But it also adds randomness. I like randomness here, but I think you mentioned that you wanted less randomness.

  3. If you're curious:

    It also touches on the idea of being able to improvise spells after witnessing them (incentivizing magic-users to be reclusive and secretive).

  4. @ Graham:

    How is that denying it as a viable option for player characters? We're not talking years/decades of REAL time.

    @ Brendan (#1):

    I have become a huge fan of OD&D myself, and this was the original base I was working off (making things super-easy, might I add!). But now I find myself tweaking EVERYthing in the book, and I'm not satisfied with "magic as a quiver of arrows." It just doesn't work for my vision of wizards.

    @ Brendan #2:

    Ha! I just made up some similar rules this morning (with regard to witnessing spells)...though mine's a little more simplistic.
    ; )

  5. I'm pretty interested to see where you are going with this. I've been tossing around a lot of ideas in my head lately. I've been focusing on a spell system based around the concept of repetitive spell casting increasing the risk of something bad happening, but I haven't quite worked it out completely yet.