Sunday, June 14, 2015

How to Ruin your Indie RPG: Part 1 - Magic

Look at me! Posting on a Sunday. What a rebel.

So this will be a bit of a series here. A sort of "Thomas Edison's attempt at the light bulb" kind of journal.

So here we go: magic.

Magic is the answer to all of your problems. Or rather, all of your character's/players' problems. Need a door unlocked? Magic. Need to immolate thirty goblins? Magic. Fly over a chasm? Magic. Make something magical? Magic. Stop something from being magical? Magic. Magic. Magic. Magic.

In our brains, magic has no limits. You can't put out a house fire with a sword, but you can put out a house fire with magic. You can't survive in the desert with only a sword, but you can survive in the desert with only magic. So, when you try to make an RPG (a fantasy-style RPG, that is), you have to put in rules, or fluff, or both, that limit how the player characters can use magic.

If you don't, locked doors are no longer locked doors, they are magic taxes. Goblins are no longer enemies, they are experience point checks that you cash in using magic. The BBEG is no longer a threat to humanity, he/she is just an antagonist that hasn't had enough magic thrown at him/her yet.

What are we meager game designers to do in the face of such limitless power?

Limit it! Of course. But how? The way I see it, there are three options:

  1. Decide that magic can only do a few things. A la The Last Airbender. Four elements, room for interpretation within the elements, but ultimately, no one is going to auto-unlock a door or mind-control an important NPC.
  2. Limit the amount of magic players can do. If you are interested in ways that systems can/do do this, check out this thread.
  3. Make magic dangerous, to the point where the wizard will want the rogue to fiddle until their lock pick breaks before they cast that knock spell.
5e D&D does #2, and it adds a lot of flexibility over past editions with things like short rest spell slot recoveries, at-will cantrips, unrestricted number of casts per prepared spells, etc. This is a middle-ground, please-all system, and it works, so if your opinion is "if it ain't broke don't fix it," then power to ya.

But there are an unlucky few of us out there that just can't leave well enough alone.

I want a magic system that doesn't require me to front load all the work of designing spells. I want a magic system that limits casters using in-game realities instead of abstract memory limits. I want a magic system that isn't spelled out like a biology textbook, no schools, no types, no domains, no skill sub-systems. I want a magic system that lets players experiment during play. And lastly, I want a magic system that can represent a wide variety of spellcasters, eschewing the idea of magical colleges or universally readable scrolls for unique backgrounds and power sources.

I have begun believing that the only way to get a system that meets all those needs is to step back and start thinking about magic differently. No more spells. No more neat little effects wrapped up in a convenient package. We need to ask some boilerplate questions like:

What does it mean when you say "My character can do magic?"

Maybe magic is a state of mind. Maybe you focus really hard, and you find a place where there is magic, deep inside of you. It hurts a little to stay in that place, but while you are there only your imagination is the limit.

Maybe magic comes from a thing in the world, like gold or meat or spirits, and you have to eat it, or break it, or wear it, or burn it to release the magic into your body and store it for later use.

I kinda like both of those things. Other magic systems outta left field that you've thought up or seen? Leave them in the comments.

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