Friday, February 17, 2012

How do you spell?

Magic is a ludicrously tricky topic in RPGs. I've talked about it here before. (Actually, due to some strangeness, I've actually talked about it twice.) I also presented a couple options for my Seven Kingdoms setting, version one and version two, which attempted to mitigate some of the issues I'd brought up previously.

I'm looking at the magic system for my Charovnye d20 game, and I want to make the system evocative but still simple. But, wow, is that difficult.

 One of the big things that I want to reflect is that casting magic is difficult and, above all, time-consuming. You need to do certain things to cleanse yourself, focus your energies, and align the space with your intent. Most spells are going to take at least 15 minutes to cast, and some are an affair lasting days (for major workings). I really like the thaumaturgy rules from the Dresden Files RPG for this, as they capture the right flavor.

I've run into a problem, though. When everything that your mage does is long and involved, how does she contribute in the flow of the moment? More pointedly, what does the wizard do in combat? Simply saying, "Oh, there's no such thing as battle magic" is all well and good, but it makes for terribly unsatisfying play.

I have a few possible solutions. So far, none of them are grabbing me. I thought I'd ask the wide internet for their opinions. (Cue chirping crickets.)


(If you don't recognize that title, Google it. It's a really good book.)

One option is to have certain rituals that imbue the spellcaster with the ability to perform certain actions at will. There would be a "magic missile" ritual, that would take 15 minutes to cast. Once it is successfully cast, the wizard can then throw magical missiles from his hands as a standard action for the next several hours.

This solution works really well from a system standpoint. It is simple, clean, and easy. There are multiple points of contact to adjust the results of the ritual (damage, type, frequency, accuracy, etc.). The power granted is easy to adjudicate. And, of course, it grants the caster actions that are magical, effective, and timely.

It really does not feel right from a story standpoint, though. One of my problems with D&D magic has always been that memorization feels like gearing up. All the wizard is doing is trying to optimize his load-out. This solution would have the same problem. I also can't think of much in the way of fiction that has wizards powering themselves up in this way. (Though, admittedly, I have this niggling thought that it does appear in Chinese stories.)

Another option, similar to that above, is to allow wizards to imbue items with spells. In D&D terms, this basically covers all of your potions, scrolls, wands, and similar charged items. This is not the same as enchanting an item, because the magic is simply held in place rather than being worked into the material. Also, these items would typically be destroyed upon use.

This has a few very strong advantages. It is full of flavor, especially if you do not limit the form of the item (e.g., "potions" could also be small wooden dolls that must be broken to release the spell). The use of such items has a lot of resonance with various magical traditions, from inscribing runes to alchemy to blessing holy water. It can give the mage a range of options to pull out at a moment's notice.

It has one significant disadvantage, though. Given that these items can be loaned to other people to use, it becomes a nightmare to control their creation and distribution. Can a mage only have a certain number of items in existence? Does each item that is out there diminish his ability to perform rituals in some way? Do potions have a short shelf life, requiring the constant investment of time and materials? Can a mage use a potion that you created to attack you magically (as your magic that is in it contains a tiny grain of your soul)? Should I simply allow mages to create as many items as they can manage, but restrict how many can be carried with the gear system? Each of these questions has significant ramifications, and I can't see a clear, clean solution.

One final option, and the one taken in DFRPG, is to have two separate types of magic. Certain uses of magic require lengthy and complex rituals, but are capable of much greater and more sophisticated results.  Other uses are just a matter of pushing energy around by sheer will, trading finesse and power for speed.

I'm actually strongly leaning towards this option. I think that I can make it reasonably clean, though it will add to the learning curve of playing wizards. It feels good, in that fictional wizards tend to have a blend of simple "at will" tricks and complex rituals for the bigger, story-changing events. I could easily borrow on the 4e hierarchy of at-will, encounter, and daily powers (though probably dropping daily) and rituals. Your at-will and encounter powers are simply chosen as class options.

The primary downside is definitely that it adds to the complexity of the wizard. It would be like having one set of combat rules for melee, and a completely different set for ranged weapons. It might not be that bad, but I'm already fighting the reams of intricate rules that come with a d20 system.

If I do go this route, I'm definitely thinking that this evocation magic will be significantly less powerful than rituals. I'm also looking to solve another niggling problem, which is that illusions that take 15 minutes to create are rarely useful. Most of the evocations would be illusory in nature, plus a handful of cantrip effects (such as lighting a pipe, closing a door, or summoning a book from across the room).

Another solution, of course, is the eternal "a little from column A, a little from column B" approach. Use all three of the above solutions, but with moderation. Start with at-will and encounter powers, as in option 3. Add in some rituals that allow you to swap out your at-wills for more powerful effects, as in option 1. Also work out some option to embed spells into consumable items (my key fictional inspiration here is always the acorns of petrification from Willow), but make them both less common and less useful than the default of option 2.

1 comment:

  1. The approach of "do the legwork of the spell ahead of time and use it instantly later" is attested in the Chronicles of Amber. AFAICR it's only mentioned in the latter five books (Merlin) since Corwin mostly just solves his problems by hitting things (a man after my own heart). I have some notes on using this in a game context here: