Friday, September 13, 2013

Spell Works (Part 2)

Abstract magic systems can be a bit overwhelming for players used to more traditional (spell list type) magic systems. Plus it can just be tricky to provide the game information to know what is and isn’t possible…what fits within the scope of the game. To off-set this, you find many abstract systems will include a certain number or specific, named spells for players to choose. Ars Magica, for example, has each mage select a certain number of specific, named formula (spells)…though the presence of these spells does not prevent a character from  using spontaneous magic or developing new formula of their own.

On the other hand not all abstract systems do this. When playing Dresden recently, my pregen character simply had “air evocations” and “water evocations” and I was left to my own creativity in determining how this magic worked. For me, this provided a lot of freedom of expression and my character was damn effective…however, the other mage player ended up “sitting on the sidelines” most of the time, only using his magic in a reactive fashion (like offsetting the antagonist mage’s magic), despite having more raw power than my own character. Abstract systems don’t work for everyone.

But throwing a giant list of spells at players and saying “choose” can be at least as over-whelming as creative freedom.  The lists in D&D and other systems contain hundreds of spells…how would a new player be expected to choose their spell “inventory.” Usually, the offset to this is to limit access so that spells are digested in chunks: a 1st level magic-user in D&D only needs to worry about the magic-user spell list, and only needs to select from the 1st level spells. By the time the character reaches 3rd level (which might take weeks or months) it can be presumed that the player is fairly familiar with the level one spells and is ready to move onto to spells of the 2nd order of magnitude.

[my guess is that limited spell access in D&D has more to do with “game balance” and that particular game’s cosmology, but it DOES provide a mechanical way to introduce players – over time – to a gradually expanding content. Anyone who’s ever tried to start a “high level campaign” from scratch will know how painful it can be for a player to create a Start-at-10th-or-12th-level magic-user because of the time spent choosing spells]

On the other hand, some games with specific magic systems grant “full access” but simply limit the total number of options available to the player. A sorcerer in 1st Edition Stormbringer has the possibility of possessing every spell I the book (especially Melniboneans or the priests of Pan Tang)…however, the total number of spells is limited to summon elemental, summon demon, summon elemental ruler, summon beast lord, and summon demon lord. Yes, there are four different elementals and six different demons meaning the total number of spells is 13, but as the mechanics for summoning a fire elemental or water elemental is exactly the same (as is the summoning of an attack demon or a defense demon, etc.), it’s hardly a huge amount of information that needs to be digested by the new player’s brain.

For the “introductory” game I’m talking about, I find myself torn between the two possible types of system as each has a number of drawbacks.

Abstract System
- Requires a creativity that might be hard for a new player (aimed at kids, remember?)
- Has the tendency or propensity for making mage characters too effective, shifting focus and upstaging other characters
- Can be a bitch to design and explain/write (I’ve tried my hand at this before, more than once)

Specific System
- Can be a long process (with regard to time and page count) creating all inclusive “spell lists”
- Limits player creativity somewhat (I didn’t really want to include “spell research” rules)
- Not sure it works with the themes I originally discussed, unless I open access to the whole “spell book” (thus risking over-whelming the new player).

I will say that I find the idea of doing an Ars Magica Lite really distasteful. For one thing, Ars is already quite well done. For another thing, I’ve found Ars mostly unplayable as an adventure-oriented RPG (which is kind of the point of my game). Plus, this game ain’t going to be any kind of “historic fantasy” game…I already did that with Five Ancient Kingdoms.

But the system I was dreaming up before…a riff off B/X, natch…welp, now that I’ve been thinking and mulling it over, I can anticipate some possible problems. What I wanted to do was base spell knowledge (i.e. spells known) on a combination of INT, character level, and age…regardless of spell magnitude. However, that means providing access to the whole spell book – which might not be too bad if I limit the number of spells in the game, but I wasn’t thinking of something as small as Stormbringer. More like B/X with 60-70 spells spread between five and seven orders of magnitude.

I think…I think that what I need to do is consider a few things about the game before I actually start working on the magic system. I mean, I’ve got the basics in mind, and I should still be able to write it up…getting the geezers I want, at least in a house-ruled type B/X game. But I want to take a few moments to think about something someone brought up a little bit ago.

In fact, it might require another rambling blog post to address.
; )


  1. I already have players (3.5) who like to use all the combinations available to build a 1st level character than can easily kill most 5th level NPCs.

    I don't think I'd be interested in an "Abstract Magic System." From your description, I'd have 1st level Wizards designing Fireballs that do 10d8 worth of damage.

    A little hyperbole, sure, but you don't know my players.

  2. Obviously it doesn't exactly work that way MS, but more to the point, it does prevent everyone and their sister from beginning the game with the same (or largely similar) spell suites.

    Many abstract magic systems, like Ars Magica For example, have a series of parameters, checks and balances that prevent the "1st level - 10d8" sort of situation you suggest.

    Instead of abstract I tend to use the term 'open-ended' to describe these systems.

    1. Thanks for the clarification, BA. My players are a bit "nuts" that way. They sometimes find it hard to understand that even "20" 1st level characters have no business attacking an Adult Red Dragon, must less the six of them.

      Well, two of my players, anyway. LOL

  3. Another trade-off between abstract vs specific magic systems is time. You mentioned that it can take ages for players to choose spells in a specific magic system, but this is more like preparation time -- when it comes to actual in-game time it's pretty simple, "I cast magic missile", or whatever. The trouble (in my experience at least) with more free-form systems is that the time racks up at the table during the action, as players juggle the various parameters and options of what kind of spell they're allowed to construct. This, for me, is the main reason I dislike such systems.

    1. Ah ha! Something not previously mentioned, or I missed it.

      Thanks, GN. That could really slow a game down. My players can't be bothered to do background stories for their characters, they would never take the necessary time to generate such information on their spells before game time.

  4. - Requires a creativity that might be hard for a new player (aimed at kids, remember?)

    in my experience kids have no problem at all with the creativity needed for an abstract magic system.

    show a young, inexperienced player a spell list and he will be bored and/or confused. tell he him he can cast any spell he can think off involving fire (but you as dm will determine how powerful these spells will be, how much time he will need and so forth) and he will be thrilled.

  5. @ Shlomo:

    I won't argue the creativity of children: I've seen it first hand in B/X games. But there's a difference between mentoring a child (with you, acting as DM, and doing all the behind-the-scenes "work") and giving a child a rule book and saying, "figure it out." As a nine year old, I had no problem understanding Basic D&D; trying to figure out Dresden would have been a whole different story!

    1. i realise this and i am interested to see how you will get around that problem.

      just wanted to point out what kids prefer. it's up to you to present it in a way they can figure out. ;)

      making a book that kids of today will want to pick up and use (without a mentor) by themselves will be tough.

    2. I agree.

      I believe that "pros" and "cons" are being discussed and am, myself, interested to see how you work it out.

      I hope you'll keep us abreast of your game's progress in this regard.