Thursday, August 9, 2012

Making Magic: RPG Modeling (Part Two)

I read a post recently where someone suggested just giving players the names of spells- I assume crazy goofy and Vancian names. At the table, players would define the spell’s effects and the GM would adjudicate. I’ve been thinking about what this would require. Defining a spell once would set precedent for further uses. It wouldn’t lock the player in, but it would require some interesting argumentation to show what the spell can now cause this new effect. I’d do it with some kind of check against difficulty (based on the power of the effect) with the margin of success determining what actually happens. I assume in a game like this, each caster would have a fairly small number of spells (ala Exalted or Legend of the Five Rings).

How well this would work depends in part on the level of detail within the system, and the kinds of details which can be defined. For example, True20 has a fairly good selection of details: attack bonus, defense bonus, toughness save, other save, dodge bonus, grappling bonus, non-standard effect- I’m sure you could establish more. FATE, on the other hand, has a narrower set of effects: bonus, reroll, damage bonus, armor bonus, stress boxes, and non-standard effect. There’s more in both cases, but one can see the relative difference. Consider that against a relatively higher crunch system like GURPS, Rolemaster, or Pathfinder. The point is that defining the actually mechanical effect of a spell- reducing the exponents, trimming the cover away- can reduce to a smaller pool of effects. They appear different through flavor and color, but when push comes to shove, they’re actually fairly close.

Consider the spells of your typical JRPG, say Final Fantasy or Shin Megami Tensai. You’ll have attack spells, broken into several elements. At base they do the same thing, cause damage. The descriptor- fire, ice, shock- will also be linked to weaknesses or strengths on the part of the targets. Some attack types may have an additional secondary effect- like freeze, stun, bind, or so on. There will often be graduated steps within the spells: base, base group, more powerful single, more powerful group, and so on. Then you’ll have the status causing spells- debuffs and buffs and perhaps some wild-card effect spells (like poison, non-elemental magical attack, and so on). Some of these systems have a multiple levels of effect- with the lower level learned spells dropping out of use as higher ones are learned. Some have their effect based on a stat or level- so Fira gets stronger as the character advances or puts points into a specialization.

I think about these things when I’m working on the various homebrews we use and when I’m examining a new system. What variables are available for powers, for magic, for special abilities? More abstract systems, often Story-oriented games, usually have fewer variables to play with. So how can the system make magic and similar sub-systems interesting and fun?
When I think about these kinds of mechanics, I have to reflect on my own experience- and part of that is that I don’t play casters very often, where I have I’ve usually worked with Clerics. But many people in my play group really like magic and I want to make that as satisfying as possible. I’ll come back in a minute to how I define my “wish list” for a magic system.

I grew up on D&D, with its particular flavor of magic. It has often been described as Vancian, and clearly it has some other literary sources. However, my own vision of magic and what it looks like in a fantasy setting comes from a difference set of authors. I can reduce that to five authors:
  • The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs: a classic tradition with scholarly mages.
  • Master of the Five Magics by Lyndon Hardy: the idea of different traditions, with vastly different approaches that involve a core set of rules.
  • Tales of the Flat Earth by Tanith Lee: magic as dangerous, filled with high rituals, handled through study and mystery. An arabesque sense to the sorcerous world.
  • Duel of Sorcery/Drinker of Souls trilogies by Jo Clayton: Worlds with wonder and strangeness. Magic coming from sacrifices, study, but with wide ranging powers. Often tied to worship and spirits.
  • The Elric original series: Again, magic as powerful and dangerous. Often based on esoteric lore or invocations. Not unlike the kinds of magic found in Lovecraft.

That suggests a particular kind of high magic- wild and dangerous- not filled with lists or cantrips. There's a logic and mastery of those principles can lead to more power. 

On the other hand, in terms of playing games, I’ve spent the better part of my gaming life with three systems that all bear a close resemblance: discrete spells with tight definitions, mechanics limiting casting as a resource (mana, times per day), and lists with prerequisites or levels. As I said, originally I played D&D/AD&D- as the primary game until the mid ‘80’s and then as a secondary game up through the late 1980’s. In the late 80’s the group shifted over to two other systems to handle fantasy: Rolemaster and GURPS. I played and ran RM pretty seriously from that point up through about 2000. At that point I gave up on that system. I ran GURPS up through about 2006; I’d become frustrated with the 3e system and 4e didn’t do anything to fix that. I understand many people love 4e, but it went in a different direction than I wanted to go.

In short, there's a disconnect between the kind of magic I've seen in literature and the kind of magic I've seen in play. 

So what do I want from a magic system?

Flexibility: Even if the player learns a “spell”, they have the means to change or manipulate its effects and parameters
Parity: Magic should not necessarily be stronger than parallel experience combat/warrior abilities. If it is stronger for a moment, that’s because the caster has made some trade off (time, energy, difficulty) that they can’t maintain over time. If we consider DPS, casters don’t have to dish it out like a warrior- they have an advantage of range and flexibility. But at the same time, they shouldn’t feel like they would be much better off just swinging a sword.
Individuality: Players should be able to create casters who feel distinct from one another.
Simple: Players should be able to figure out and come up with spell effects on the fly, without spending more time than checking their character sheet and perhaps a reference handout.
Evolution: Mages should start out interesting, but low-powered. They have a variety of tricks. By the end of the campaign, they’ve reached a significant power- but not necessarily the top (unless that’s the point of the game).
Balance over Logic: This is a strange one. Obviously some variables in spells or actions are more powerful than others. For example, the ability to hit multiple targets cab be more potent than a simple extension of range. Area of Effects, Harder to Resist, Indirect, Armor-Piercing, etc- in terms of gameplay some do more than others. The system should take that into consideration.
Flavor: There’s some flavor structure- chantries, professions, rules, which make the play interesting.
Arcane vs. Divine: Clerical magic doesn’t function the same way as standard magic.
Rituals: The system ought to allow for bigger, mass spells or rituals.
Limited Rolls: Any casting attempt should be resolvable in one or two rolls.
Resources: Casting wears a caster out- requiring them to spend focus, take fatigue, use up mana or whatever.
Casting Time: A mage should have to spend no more than two turns to cast a spell- prep on one round and cast on another. They should be able to get that down to one round by taking a penalty.
Limited Spells Means Bets are Off: If the system offers player only a small number of spells, then some of this goes out the window. That’s an entirely different beast from the usual “List-Based” magic systems.

When I say it that way, it sounds very mechanical, doesn’t it? I’m not sure what to make of that. It means I probably need to really look at those needs and why I’m defining them that way. Does it come from GM worries about player power? About parity vs. resentment? Am I building the kind of magic system I’d want to play in?

I can name several magic systems that I’ve read and been stuck by but haven’t actually run straight or as is: Mage the Ascension, Legend of the Five Rings, and Unknown Armies. In each case I’ve run variants on those games- homebrews for them or tangential games which borrow those concepts. I think two game systems have shaped the magic systems I’ve put together for my homebrew campaigns. Ars Magica is the first and a game we played for about a year. It has a lot of structural restrictions that make it less portable elsewhere. I think Greg Christopher’s Novarium represents one of the best reworkings of those concepts I’ve seen. The second is the system offered in The Black Company rpg. That system ended up being the basis of the Ture20 magic, although significantly watered down. I like the way the powers work in that and the ability to craft effects within areas.

Next Installment: Continuing with Magic Modeling- How I built the Magic/Powers systems for eight different homebrew games. And what I learned (or didn’t learn) from that.