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23 July 2013 @ 08:40 pm
Dungeons & Design 10.66667 repeating: Magic, Part 3  
So, I found this article about the place of magic in a fantasy world, and I thought it would make a good cap on the stuff I've been writing about my personal take on magic systems.

Number Two and Three are probably the most obvious ones that leads to trouble, and a lot of what I've already written is about them. And he's right. Groups like the Freemasons are the most obvious example of how advanced crafts were essentially occult arts back in the day, but it runs into the same problem that a lot of non-magical situations do in RPGs--barrier to entry. "Real World Physics + Magic" takes seconds to explain. It can lead to some confusion (does a fireball light things on fire?), but not nearly as much as working out the effects of disease being caused by disease spirits or smithing being an innately magical profession. Does that mean contaminated water doesn't make people in this world sick? Or maybe contaminated water attracts disease spirits. What does being a master smith mean if their weapons are magical? It does lead to a nice Tolkienian vibe, where the ancient weapons you find lying around are great because they were made by smiths whose skill is so great that the craftsmanship lasts for millennia, though.

Alchemy is also often the problem in reverse. Quite often, and especially in D&D-esque games, making potions requires knowing magic--Brew Potion requires a caster level, for example--but that doesn't really fit the traditional idea that the magic is in the ingredients and combining them properly is a mundane process. I like alchemy to be available to anyone and just be hard and the knowledge well-guarded, though, and I've always loved the Elder Scrolls way of doing alchemy. The only problem is coming up with a way to make that work in a tabletop setting. I'll deal with that when I talk about Survival mechanics later on.

Number One is something that bothers me, and I've written obliquely about it before, but it's difficult to fully get over without deliberately concealing the mechanics from the players or adding random consequences to magic, WFRP- or Dungeon Crawl Classics-style. Random consequences aren't bad, and they're a great way of limiting the use of magic if you don't want spells-per-day or magic points or anything like that, but it's tricky to design well enough such that the player doesn't feel like it's more trouble to use magic than it's worth. No one wants to play the wizard and then not be able to use magic. If that's the kind of world you're going for, better to set it up at the beginning so no one goes in with the idea they'll be tossing off spells.

Another problem is that a lot of real world folkloric magic is a known system and thus non-mysterious. It's just that it's unknown to most people. I mean, ceremonial magic or alchemy are all about rigidly-adhered to formulaic procedures that are supposed to be "input effort, get result," so in that respect, it's a false choice. But feel is pretty important in RPGs, and having magic feel mysterious is important to some people. I don't necessarily need it to feel mysterious, but I like it to feel weighty. I'm not always a huge fan of people just tossing off spells at the drop of a hat.

Numbers Four and Five are more interesting, though. Five especially, because having to obey some moral or behavior code is huge in most historical systems of magic and barely comes up in fantasy, where it's usually based just on study and knowledge. There's some D&D nod to it in the paladin's and ranger's strictures, but I think the most common way of thinking of that is of dick GM's making paladins fall for any number of silly reasons. It can work well with smaller, more limited schools of magic like I mentioned, though. Maybe ice witches can never light a fire or their magic gets weaker? Maybe druids can't use metal weapons? 2-4 restrictions is probably enough to give some kind of ethical framework without unduly limiting characters' actions. Another possibility is make the strictures the price of power, so apprentices only have something minor but archmages are much more tightly bound. Apprentice druids must plant a tree four times a year on the equinoxes and solstices, but arch-druids must eschew all materials fashioned by human hands other than their own? Something like that.

On four, I don't have much to say. I don't like magic points all that much--I prefer a fatigue system--but WFRP's rituals also provide a good way of limiting power, since they need exotic components, sometimes need specific times of the day or year, and have consequences for failure. Those rituals have pretty ridiculous requirements (500g diamond, a dragon's tooth, and a gong blessed by a dying priest to cause a one-minute earthquake. Also, if you fail the casting, the earth opens and swallows you) but they're a good inspiration.
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