More Magic

Although these are actually earlier thoughts about how a magic system should work.

Combat systems in RPG are normally well honed, based on actual experience, and allow a number of rounds of sparring and gradual degredation of the enemy. In systems like RuneQuest, you have the opportunity to parry, and you can decide how much armour to wear in a trade-off between skill levels (modified by encumbrance) and protection.

Magic systems on the other hand tend to be much simpler (caveat here – I haven’t bought a new RPG in 20 years so they have probably moved on). What I am looking for is the tussle of power between two opponents as they strive overcome each other’s power. The touchstone is the scene in the Lord of the Rings (the book stupid, not the film) where Gandalf is trying to seal the door from the chamber of Marzabul (sp). To misquote – ‘…the counter spell was terrible and in the end the door was destroyed, along with part of the chamber…’.

This is what I want – the ability to start casting a spell, for the target to realise it and start casting a counter-spell, the for the original caster to increase the power and so on. As part of this there needs to be a separation between the amount of raw power that a caster has access to and their ability to control it, so there is the temptation to use more power and suffer the backlash. The use of magic should be instrinsically dangerous, especially with powerful spells.

It should also have some sort of moral hazard, because it normally does in fantasy literature. And this I think should be tied into how you obtain power. Magical power should be ubiquitous, but low density. An individual caster should have enough power to light a match. To cast powerful spells you need to concentrate power, and half of the magic system should be ways of doing this. At the moment, a number of schemes spring to mind:

1. Cast for a very long time – ritual magic, hours or days of chanting, requiring endurance rolls, as the power builds and builds.

2. Have many people casting – the metaconcerts of the Many Coloured Land or the ur-vile wedges of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The interesting question here is whether the ultimate caster can handle it all.

3. Divine power – all the catsre does is open the gate and lets the power from the other side stream thorugh. If the source is not beneficent though who knows what else may come through.

4. Black magic – tap into the power of a thousand human sacrifices. This is the fast route to power, and therefore gives the players an essential moral dilemma and the chance for the NPC baddie to circumvent all the irritating PC restrictions.

Social Magic in RPG

I have had a long running issue with the power of magic in D&Desque role-playing games. They allow too much power without any corresponding responsibility – no society could possibly survive in such a situation. It would only take one disaffected 20th level magician to destroy 1000 years of progress.

Runequest had a more realistic system, where powerful magic was utterly embedded in the system, so you had to be part of the social structure in order to gain access to it. The problem was that it lacked the pzzazz of the D&D system.

What I am looking for is something in the middle, and today’s idea is this. Many systems have the idea that metal or encumbrance interfere with magic, to reinforce the standard trope of the unarmoured mage.

What would happen if people interfered with magic as well. The more intelligence there is in the area, the more difficult it is to cast spells. You need to open yourself up to the flow of power to cast spells and people make that more difficult.

The advantage of this is that you can still cast the powerful fireball down a dungeon where no one is around, but you can’t cast it so easily in a village and it is very, very difficult in a great metropolis. A self-levelling system? I think I need to think through the ramifications of it, but it could be a nice little idea.

Theory of RPG – DM-Player interactions

Its interesting (and has only just occured to me) that in the same way that there are different playing styles that people prefer and feel most comfortable in, there are styles of DM’ing as well. Or rather, its obvious there are styles of GM’ing, there are styles of player-GM interaction. I guess there are probably a few dominant DM’s out there who like to pull all the strings and micro-manage the players, but I am very much a ‘world-builder’ DM – I like to create a coherent and consistent world and for the players to create their characters and define their own goals within that world. I am then there to help them acheive their goals and make them worth acheiving by having struggled on the way. Its no fun if you don’t acheive your goal and its no fun if you acheive it easily.

I also tend to be very protective of the ‘feel’ of my world – I like the players to create bits themselves but I demand a veto over their creativity. Its all part of my obsession with internal consistency – anything that doesn’t fit right breaks the suspension of belief. The biggest problem that I have is when the real world is plonked into a fantasy world. Classic example is Dun County – I can never see the Old Sun Dome temple as anything other than Fountains Abbey, because it is.

Interestingly David is a completely different sort of DM, he likes detail and characters and plot. He is very good at designing a scenario and great characters for it, but doesn’t mind if they are no part of a world. He is quite happy playing one-off scenarios, whereas I find them pointless because there is no scope for character development – he like the problem solving. Its my biggest frustration with Call Of Cthulhu (which I otherwise enjoy) – the inevitable degradation rather than ascension of the characters.

I’m not sure how many styles of DM-player interaction there are. I can think of:

  • God – where the DM wants to control every aspect.
  • World Builder – me – create a great world and want the players to define their role and motivations in the world. I tend to be very protective of my creations as well.
  • Crossword Setter – creates problems for the players to solve. Consistency from scenario to scenario is not necessary, nor is playing the character – its a problem solving game. Most CoC has to be played like this I think.
  • Story Teller – very popular nowadays – the players and the DM are there to create a joint narrative. Characterisation is everything. Doesn’t work with problem solving because it is as much about character growth through failing as it is about winning (or surviving). Different from World-Builder in terms of approach and focus – Story Teller is normally bottom up rather than top down.