Monday, March 28, 2016

Magic as Science vs. Magic as Sin

Science is something we teach in school, though most science learned in school is science that was first done over a hundred year ago. Science is a profession, and states across the world fund sciences to maintain high qualities of life and military superiority. Science is something that happens in broad daylight, and you can point to it in the natural world.

The most exciting and (very rarely) dangerous science is done by geniuses in university laboratories or government locations. They act with the acknowledgement and approval of some governing body of officials or intellectuals, even if these experiments may be morally questionable to the public.

These governing bodies also regulate how much of the scientific knowledge and know-how is accessible to the public at large, though often how dangerous an average joe can be with science is less about knowledge and more about acquiring expensive materials. Occasionally, unregulated rogue agents gain materials and make fatal uses of science, and the states and universities immediately move to prevent this kind of action in the future.

If your RPG magic is like science, then you can expect to find potions at your typical merchant's venue, and one or more of your PCs will probably have classical magic training in the form of a wizard college or monastic order. Practicing magic is not surprising, but practitioners of magic that are not part of the normal social structure are surprising and even cause for alarm. They may be hunted in the same way as those who intentionally use magic to cause destruction.

Your RPG with a scientific magic system may also feature a subject within magic that is forbidden. Blood magic, necromancy, demonic pacts, etc. This kind of study is punishable in the strictest sense. Much of the information on these topics is either folklore, or contained in lost magical tomes that somehow escaped destruction. These arts are studied in dark dungeons and hidden temples that pose as organizations.

The taboo inherent with these forms of magic is always related to the sin involved with practicing them. Blood magic involves manipulating the human body as a resource. Necromancy does the same for dead bodies. Demon pacts are deals with evil entities, which will surely help the monster cause pain and suffering, at least to others.

Now, remove the professional magic. That's an RPG with magic as sin.

All magic is done in secret, or in the open with impunity in the confidence that almost no one can stop the sorcerer unless they too plunge their hands in the muck. A mortal person using magic has the same effect as a villain in a movie that kills an innocent person, up close, without batting an eye.

Magic-use proves that the practitioner is willing to make morally abject choices to gain power and get ahead. It is sin in so far as it sells itself. No one has to be convinced as to the usefulness of magic. It draws practitioners in on its own undeniable results. Its pull is especially potent at the highest and lowest rungs of the social ladder, because those people are much more likely to be egomaniacal or desperate, respectively.

And the sin is really in the details, too. It isn't just pouring the blood of the innocent on the pentagram before chanting your 'duras' and 'diras.' It's having your eyes and your teeth pop out of your head while becoming a werewolf, and then eating them once the transformation is complete. Excuse me, I have to go be violently ill because I've just witnessed something I definitely wasn't meant to see.

But the power...oooooh the power.

In a magic as sin game, the players must choose whether they are good, or powerful. Any path that rides the line has to be invented on the spot. The magic itself asks you to compromise your morals or deal with entities that you know are dangerous and deceitful. But your players will gladly risk their characters just to see how far the rabbit hole goes.

In a game with magic as sin, the details can't be written out, they have to be discovered. It's the foot-in-the-door technique. You already broke into this library's restricted section to sneak away with a black magic tome, why not try one of the spells out and drink the blood of a rabbit, just to see if you can really become the fastest man alive? And when that works, why not give the book to the crazy necromancer for the promised 1,000gp? He isn't gonna destroy your village, after all. And hey, why not sacrifice a whole city of people so you can be immortal, like it says on that page you accidentally ripped out of the book before you sold it? You've gone this far already, and besides, the necromancer is gonna turn them all into zombies in a month anyway...

For my money, magic as sin is more provocative than magic as science. When accumulating power is absent of moral impetus (magic as science) then an artificial conflict has to be constructed: other people also gaining power, but these people don't like you for whatever reason.

But when power is inherently corrupting, then the conflict is natural: to preserve existence, the powerless must try to keep power in check, but the means by which to do that are pitiful compared to what the power can do.

And so for the players to be a force for good, they must truly be bright and steadfast, or they must flirt with evil without giving in completely.

Or if they are just muscle for hire looking to make a buck, the temptation of magic is the choice between a modest existence, and potentially infinite wealth (perhaps) at the cost of one's soul.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Bounded Numbers Fix Boring Players

Nearly every person I've ever played D&D with is my close friend, and I love each of them very, very much. Having said that, I absolve myself of the hard feelings that might come with saying this: some of them are bad players.

By bad, I don't mean "they roll low all the time," a la Wil Wheaton, nor do I mean "they don't have an expert grasp of the rules," and in fact, those of my friends who understand the rules the least, and roll the lowest (on average) are often the best players. Rather, I mean they make uninteresting choices at nearly every opportunity, and count on the scaling within the game to make their character more effective, rather than counting on their own problem solving instincts.

There are several things that exacerbate this problem, such as lists, overly complex combat rules, and cookie-cutter encounters. Another mechanic that pours salt in the wound is unbounded numbers.

When bounded accuracy was announced as a major feature of D&D 5, I was very excited. I thought that bounded to-hit numbers, combined with a simple advantage/disadvantage mechanic, would result in a huge increase in player creativity at the table, particularly in combat.

But, I was wrong.

Things stayed the same, because damage continued to scale with level like it always did, and even worse, magic item bonuses are not calculated into the monster challenge rating math anymore, so most creatures will likely have less Hit Points than they should for the level of characters you throw them at.

That means monsters aren't all that hard to kill for characters of the appropriate level...

Which means just attacking and standing still is likely to win you the fight, all the math considered.

That's not my kind of game.

In my kind of game, players will likely die if they simply choose to attack a creature head-on, after level 3 or so. Goblins and dire rats and other such level 1 and 2 fodder shouldn't be a serious problem unless a character makes a bad mistake or gets totally surrounded. That's what intro levels are for: establishing a feel for the world, the game, and the ground rules of life-and-death. But once you enter larger monster territory, even just burly things like bugbears, the fear of god should be in the PCs if they don't have a plan that involves something more effective than "I swing my axe."

This means using the environment, taking creatures by surprise, enlisting further help from some townsfolk or mercenaries, or counting on a specific magic item to save your ass (if you're desperate).

A system can help you create combat that requires more creativity from your players, it just needs to be built keeping one thing in mind: characters should likely die in a fair fight against higher level creatures.

That's how you advance in a tabletop RPG: the character improves only enough to justify making the low level and high level monsters mechanically different, AND the PLAYERS get better at thinking about and approaching combat, and further analyze (in-game) how to increase their chances of survival.

A fighter character's sword skills should only become marginally more deadly through his tenure as an adventurer. But his combat skills should become MUCH more deadly, and this is only truly manifest via player improvement, not better numbers on a character sheet.

What you may notice is that this approach to designing a system would make random encounters particularly dangerous. While the discussion about the merits of random encounters is a whole different conversation, I will put this forward: good players should be able to get some kind of upper hand no matter what you throw at them, nor when. This doesn't mean they will win, or even survive, but it means that they will find something to work with.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Drinking Rainwater from a Wolf's Paw Print

If you haven't skimmed it, I highly recommend the Wikipedia page on the Werewolf. In particular, the section on Becoming a werewolf is full of great stuff that our D&D frozen minds would never think of.

Like how some myths propose that simply drinking rainwater from the paw print of any animal was enough to turn you into that creature.

That isn't just good monster lore, that's good magic lore. How different would the magician be if their magical abilities weren't a series of arcane words and arm motions, but a kind of esoteric utilization of the opportunities that the natural world presented to them? It isn't so much about knowing a spell, though a book full of instructions on how to do magical things would still be very important, but rather it's about putting the right components together to make an effect.

I can't help but think about the wizards and sorcerers and such in the games that I've played, and how boring they are as magic-users go. There's almost no mystery to them, and even worse, whatever mystery there was is totally removed once you realize the character has pulled out all their spells in the first session or two.

I'm never surprised by a spellcaster anymore. I'm never shocked at a player's spell selection. Probably because the classes and spells they have to choose from are too utilitarian and not nearly eccentric enough.

Of all the countless hours I have searched the web for game design content (particularly OSR content), no topic has felt more time consuming and unsolvable that making magic less...blah.

And for good reason. Magic is at its best when the situation in-game is the most tense and unpredictable. However, making magic cooler often means making magic more complex, which means players need more time to figure out what their magic does each turn. More time spent on one person's turn slows the game down. Slow turns kill the vibe, which is what we were trying to augment in the first place. It's a Catch-22.

I'm always returning to Tolkien's world, because that is perhaps the single most magical feeling world I have ever had the pleasure of being in. I have gone over and over what makes Tolkien magic so appealing, and part of it is always the fact that it is a story, and not a game. In a story, the magic-user can easily go four chapters without using magic at all, but in-game, if a magician character goes four sessions without slinging a single spell, they will probably be pretty ornery.

Something that I can learn from Tolkien immediately is that magic happens far more in D&D combat than it should. More combat-focused magic is certainly the trend in new-school games, and I find that boring. In a Harry Potter setting, where the entire fantasy world is primarily concerned with the academic pursuit of magic, combat magic is cool and refreshing. But in D&D and Middle Earth, where war and battle and monsters and the like are the main course, making magic combat-centric is the equivalent of doubling down instead of covering your bases.

Swords and bows and armor and monsters and catapults and legendary foes all roaming the battlefield isn't enough for you? You need fiery explosions every six seconds to make combat feel exciting and worthwhile? Nah, man. No thank you. That's over-saturation. One blast of searing light or call of a lighting bolt per story arch is enough for me, I think.

The best way to communicate this kind of magical feel isn't by describing it, but by presenting a list of spells and such to give you an idea of what this means. Hopefully, I'll be posting that soon.