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.



  1. The ruleset as a whole is no longer to my tastes but I still like Shadowrun's magic system. It's logical without stripping the mystery out of magic, and flexible without being so unfettered that it becomes easy to abuse.

    I'm thinking of the first and second editions here, as I have little experience of third and none of fourth, so the magic system may well have changed.

    1. That's kind of a blindspot in my gaming, as I never played Shadowrun. I don't think I ever looked closely at it. I will have to check that out. I think I have a copy of the first edition somewhere...

  2. Weird solution based on your thoughts here, and some ideas I've been playing with. You could accomplish everything you're talking about by handling magical ability through familiar spirits. Traditionally, the visible animal isn't really the familiar, it's just housing a spirit.

    Having recently played MnM, the familiar could be handled as a wee little superhero. It would be very alien in personality even under ideal conditions, and would require constant ritual, bribes and threats to keep under control. Control gained, it could almost be used like a weapon, or a very obedient NPC hireling with poor language and social skills.

    It could also have its own agenda, or be able to be bribed or threatened by others, of this world or from other worlds.

  3. I was thinking along MnM or True20s rules. Maybe even modeling it on Hero? As an afterthough, Ghosts of Albion has a page with different effects to spells those do well. IIRC it's more expansive than the Dragon Age rpg Steve ran for us. It's the Buffy magic system, but with more meat.

    There's a similar discussion over at right now. Here's a link, so you don't have to wade through the trolls:

  4. @Gene: that's an interesting framework. I think that's perhaps the easier part of crafting magic systems- coming up with interesting and logical systems and frames. Having set of mechanics which is fun and playable at the table constrains that. The question is how to make that 'familiar system' work at the table. Sacrifice systems rarely work in play, unless you dummy it down to a resource spend. Constant upkeep systems could be interesting if the figure represents a particular mass of magics and effects. OOH as you say, it could simply be the logic for a magic item (perhaps with more fallout for fumbles).

    @Derek- I will have to check that out. I think True20 has some good ideas- some really good ideas about adding effects easily.

  5. GURPS 3E Voodoo was based on the concept of controlling magical spirits. The text descriptions were brilliant. The mechanics were..... GURPS magic with longer casting times and ablative/charges. The curse and blessing spells were pretty brilliant, but the rest was boilerplate. Anyhow, I've been playing with its ideas ever since.

    A system like that could provide useful limits on magic with less rules. You have to be able to explain what you want to your familiar spirit(s). Certain concepts may be too complex or alien for the spirit ("Only attack people not wearing lion logos"). There are rules to what the spirit will do for you, based on the initial deal, its culture (Unitarian vs Catholic angels), and personality.

    This provides a simple difference between religion and magic. Religion is accepting the rule of a greater spirit, and being sent a spirit fellow worshipper to help you. Magic is hiring freelancers. In both cases, the spirit will have its own agenda.

  6. Oooh, I have an EVIL idea that fits with my above comment.

    What your magical spirit hears is equivalent to what Siri hears. The PC has to speak his order to a computer speech-to-text converter.... The GM then does his best to make the spirit carry out the transcribed orders, within NPC ethical and stat limits.