Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Might and Magic (Part 2)

[continued from here]

People may notice that the list of blogs listed in the sidebar include a random sampling of non-active blogs that probably need to be deleted...and perhaps someday they will, if I ever get around to getting active on Patreon (and want to make blog listing a "reward" for some level of support). However, I still hold out hope that these might "fire up" again, at some point in the future. And sometimes, I still reference them for their old posts.

Such is the case with long dead Grognardia. As I wrote in Part 1, I was up till the wee hours combing through old (digital) copies of The Dragon, and I was using some of James's old posts to add a bit of additional perspective. Just in random passing, I came across this old post of his and (especially in view of my recent thoughts, dissatisfaction with magic-users as is/was) it reminded me of something. I hate the lumping of spell-casters into one or (at most) two types "magic paradigm."

See my post on this back in 2010. At the time, I was working on The Complete B/X Adventurer (man, THAT has been selling like hotcakes the last two months, just by the way) and in an effort to add more content to a skinny book, decided to throw in some different types of spell-casting classes. I ended up with five total (gnomes, mystics, summoners, tattoo mages, and witches), each with their own variant form of magic...not just "magic-users with different spell lists," but completely different approaches to the form and function of magic. The bee in my bonnet (at the time) was this idea that isn't it Goddamn boring to have everything simply be arcane or divine?

Let me answer that: Yes. Yes it is.

This is the reason you don't find illusionists in D&D after 1st edition (at least, not as a core class). First, ya' fold all their spells under a heading called "arcane," then you say:

"Hey, if you want to specialize in illusion magic, pick illusion spells."

Much as I want a certain cosmology in my game world, I don't want a unified field theory of magic.

[hmm...I say this after already creating a brand-new variant magic system for the current project consisting of a single list of spells: the Forty Magnificent Marvels. Sigh...back to the drawing board...again]

I like the idea of different magical schools, each dedicated to a different brand of enchantment. Fire mages, necromancers, druids, etc. It's not a terribly original concept, I realize: I believe I first saw this kind of paradigm circa 1983 with DragonQuest (I created a stone giant who was a member of the Earth Magic college...sadly, we never had the chance to do more than chargen that day...). Ars Magica does a little of this, too, and I've used the concept a couple times in past FHBs I was developing ("LORE," which I briefly mentioned before, had some of this). The original WHFRP had demonologists, necromancers, battle mages, etc. each with their own separate spell list, skills, and (in some cases) horrifying drawbacks.

I dig this...it has a very old school (please, PLEASE forgive the use of that term!) pulp fantasy vibe. Like the rival wizard guilds in a Leiber story trying to show off why their magic is supreme (shades of 70's Hong Kong flicks with feuding martial art schools). Heck, it's the kind of thing that could work well with the concept of "wizard duels." Forget counter-spells: an illusionist doesn't know the first thing about countering a fire mage's spell. But create a mechanic to simulate dueling, and you can still have two mages of different backgrounds duking it out.

Now that I think of it, this is a big part of why I dug Magic Cards, waaaay back: the idea that you were a Red Mage or a Blue Mage or whatever, and the deck represented your spell book. I always liked working with a "theme;" but then, I've long been one of those people that prefer the fluff of a game over practical application (often to my detriment). Hmm...now that reminds me of the Rankin-Bass film Flight of Dragons with its different colored "wizard brothers."

Of course, that just reminds me of Tolkien (again) with its grey, white, brown, and blue wizards...and weren't Frank Baum's witches color-coded as well? Differing magic by color has a long and distinguished tradition, I suppose...


And to tie this back to the last post... One thing I was considering (just an idea, mind you), is providing more static spell lists for magicians. Limiting them (I suppose you'd say) rather than throwing this huge list of spells at players, only to have them (mostly) choose the same spells over and over. There would be some variation, of course (just as fighters get to choose what weapons they want to carry), and perhaps different lists depending on theme (a druid style list versus the illusionist, for example). Magicians would still acquire effectiveness with experience, though perhaps not so much a greater repertoire of spells. And the spells that would be gained (with increase in level) would be equally limited...something akin to Barker's EPT (1st edition) skill trees, building on knowledge already known.

No necromancers, though...otherwise everyone wants to be one.

The trade-off here...or, rather, what would be gained...would be an increased effectiveness from the get-go. Your magician (or pyromancer or whatever), would have a number of spells at his or her disposal right from 1st level...perhaps the equivalent (in D&D terms) of seven or eight spells ranging in magnitude of 1st through 3rd level. Something fairly equivalent to Gandalf, in other words. None of these would be over-powering, "game changing" sort (unless applied in creative fashion)...most would be of the "utility" type (said utility being determined by the school or "theme" of magic).

Anyway, just an idea I have...I'll see if I can work up some sample lists in the next couple days and post 'em to the blog. I have a strong suspicion that long-time players of the MU class in D&D might hate-hate-hate this concept for a number of reasons: it undermines the work they've put into mastering spell lists, it reduces the choices/options they have, it penalizes the creative strategies they've developed over years of play, it doesn't have the same feel as Vancian D&D, etc. And if folks DO raise these objections, I say: FINE. Go play D&D.

Take your 1st level sleep bomber or charm personer with your bandolier of throwing knives and go play D&D. Pick your edition...it's all the same (except that recent ones let you shoot lasers...um, "cantrips"...just like Harry Potter). Go skulk behind the fighters and clerics for umpteen game sessions until you've acquired enough points that you can be effective. Go do it...I'm not going to stop you! And when you've reached the lofty level where you outclass the non-spell-casters and there's the potential threat of grumbling, you can always incorporate feats and maneuvers and weapon specialization and be a merry band spending an entire game session on a single battle that will be a challenge for your immensely talented party.

That's one way to play (and a time honored one, to be sure). I'm just trying to work on a different way: one that appeals to me. I'm a guy who doesn't play magic-users...like never ever ever. And not because I don't like magic or something. I love stories of wizards and sorcerers and magicians and witches (well, most such stories...sorry, Ms. Rowling). Gandalf is a personal favorite...in fact, I lied! I did...once...play a wizard in 3rd Edition, and I modeled the character on Gandalf, right down to taking Martial Weapon Proficiency: Sword.

[I believe I related this story in the past? We couldn't get past the first obstacle in the adventure because I, as the party wizard, had not taken the "correct" spells. 'What do you mean you don't have fly? You're seventh level!' The DM, folded the adventure in disgust and our session ended. It was the last time I've ever played a straight wizard PC]

I don't like magic-users in D&D. I don't like the way they're conceptualized, I don't like their mechanics, I don't particularly like their steep power curve (and I'm a person that likes power!). So, I want to make a magician class that I'd like to play. That's all this is, folks.
: )


  1. While I do like Vancian magic within D&D, I also agree that it doesn't have to be the only way it's done.

    3.5E started heading in different directions towards the end, and 5E also has several different methods of having casters determine/use their spells, but the biggest problem is that they all pretty much still use the same spell lists, so even though the casting mechanics are different, you're probably still using mostly the same spells whether you play a Cleric/Druid/Bard or Wizard/Sorcerer/Warlock.

    In Flying Swordsmen, I did consider reworking the Shaman to be more like the class's fluff - if your spells come from bound spirits, the spirits you bind would determine your spells, and Charisma checks might be needed to convince your companion spirits to cast them. In the end, I chose fidelity to Dragon Fist and familiarity over flavor (and the potential headaches of trying to suss out a new system that works).

    In Chanbara, the spell system(s) has been the most modified through what play-testing I've done. In the current draft it's very Vancian, but that might not last for all of the spellcasting classes. 5E and some other games have given me a few ideas.

  2. I've long been fascinated by the idea that different types of wizards could have entirely different magic systems. For instance, one type of wizard might have spell points and learned spells, another type might be able to summon and bind spirits (or demons), a third might be able to take components and create single-use potions or whatever (an explosive concoction, a sleep gas, whatever), and so on. My very first inkling toward that, as I recall, was when I realized that the invention rules in Space 1889 were basically that game's magic system. Then along came Mage: The Ascension, which hinted at such a cosmology but wussed out and gave us simple variations of the material components for the same magic system. I still think that it can be done, and I'm taking a step toward it with my science fantasy game (which has psychic powers that use spell points and also mad scientists who use an adaptation of the Space 1889 invention rules).