Thursday, June 21, 2012

Magic is Magical. And Magical Things Are Dangerous.


I just read this blog post by fantasy author N.K. Jemisin: But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense? In it, she makes several excellent points about how RPGs have impacted fantasy fiction because they have trained us to think of magic in terms of systems, and that systems of magic take away the one thing that makes magic special: it's unpredictability. While she is specifically dealing with fiction where magic just "is", this criticism got me thinking how we can mirror unpredictability in a game by dismantling some of the systems around it. But because this is a game, we still need a system of some sort--just one that results in wide unpredictability.

Traditional D&D games and their retroclones approach magic as a knowable science in actual play--and even though the 1e DMG clearly laid out that their is great personal & material cost to a PC in gaining spell levels and doing magical research, most folks throw those out the window and concentrate just on how which and how many spells their character knows. This, quite frankly, seems to be roots of all the min/maxing we saw in later editions of the game. Great care needs to be taken to select the right spells for the right time, and then all a player has to do is cast the spell, rest up a night to "recharge" and then they are all hunky-dory to go out and cast again. But that really isn't Vancian magic.

Vancian magic as presented by Vance in his Dying Earth stories is HARD. It takes effort, it takes time, and the results might never be what the caster intends. In fact, this is a trait shared by many of the fantasy writers presented in Appendix N. The only true "Vancian" part of Vancian magic is the "use it and lose it" portion--which I suspect Gygax inserted into the game to limit the ability of spell-casters to be walking human Howitzers.

Various attempts have been made to get away from the memory-based Vancian magic system because as players, we want to be the powerful wizard because fantasy wizards are cool. They cast fireballs and wield lightning and can summon beings from the beyond the planes--how fracking awesome is that?!?

But we forget that wizards are not all about the casting of magic to show they can wield power--the harnessing of the mystical power that is magic comes at great price physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. A caster never knows if he or she has gotten a spell or ritual right, and thus the outcome is never certain. Success is hoped for, but often times things go awry. This is a common trope among most fantasy stories that fall into the Sword & Sorcery genre.

And clerics? Sometimes they doubt. Sometimes their faith fails them. Sometimes they become afraid. They lack conviction. They just go through the motions. They haven't been faithful to their vows. In the face of great evil, they may lose control of bodily functions. Or perhaps their god isn't paying attention to them right now.

So how can we mimic the unpredictability of magic?

Jack over at Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque proposes this:


To cast a spell, the character must make a successful Saving Throw vs. Spells to see if they have properly marshaled and controlled the forces of magical power. This Saving Throw gains a bonus or penalty based on the level of the spell-caster and the level of the spell being cast; simple subtract the level of the spell being attempted from the spell-caster's level to find the applicable bonus. This Saving Throw is further modified by the character's ability score bonus or penalty for whichever ability score governs their spell-casting ability. For example, a 5th level magic-user with an Intelligence of 16 attempting to cast a 3rd level spell would get a +4 bonus to their Saving Throw (+2 for level, +2 for Int bonus).

If the spell-caster fails their Saving Throw, the eldritch energy required to fuel the spell fails to materialize (and thus the spell does nothing), but the caster retains the spell's formula and may attempt to cast it again on a subsequent round. However, if the player rolls a 1 for this Saving Throw their character has lost control of the magic they were attempting to harness and must then roll on the Magical Mishap table found below.

Using this alternate system a character may also attempt to cast a spell from a scroll or grimoire that is higher than the level of spells they are able to memorize. For example, a 3rd level magic-user attempting to cast a 5th level spell from a scroll would take a -2 penalty to their Saving Throw. Any failed Saving Throw during an attempt to cast a spell of a higher level than the character can normally use results in a roll on the Magical Mishap table.


Jack then provides his own Magical Mishap Table, which is pretty awesome. Go read it and see for yourself.

I like this system because it's tight and the mechanic fits into the concepts of checks & saves that are already built into the game. But I want to drop the whole idea of retaining spells. As I mentioned, Vancian magic is too pat a system. Too easy. Too . . . predictable.

Instead of a Vancian system or a spell points system or a manna points system, let's boil it down to two things: magic (natural or divine) depends on 1) the caster's latent magical ability and 2) the magic being attempted. So how do you account for these things in the game?

Jack's Saving Throw method accounts for the the role of the caster. But his proposal only solves part of the unpredictability problem. Shouldn't there be side-effects for successful casting, too? Hell yes there should. Because magic is dangerous. You gotta be a bit off your rocker to attempt to harness the unseen powers that control the universe. You need to pay the price for having the hubris to think you can play at being a god.

I suggest that magic users & clerics may only cast from scrolls or spellbooks--no memorizing except cantrips & orisons, which are really just showy tricks and minor useful effects. Per the SRD, a spellbook has 100 pages of parchment, and each spell takes up one page per spell level. 0-level spells (cantrips & orisons) take up one page per spell. DMs should put a reasonable limit on known cantrips & orisons--I suggest no more than 2 per level until 4th level, at which point they just know all of them. Especially because we're gonna make their lives hell with what I propose below.

Let's then keep Jack's idea that a magic user (or cleric) can attempt any spell for his or her class regardless of his or her level or the level of the spell as long as the spell is in the character's spellbook or read from a scroll. Let me repeat that: any spell. They may attempt as many spells as they wish per day. As long as they are crazy enough to do so and don't mind the dangers inherent in mucking with the electrical goo that holds the universe together.

Because all spellcasting comes with risk. Always. Regardless of success or failure.

So, here's my edit of Jack's proposal:


To cast a spell, the character must make a successful Saving Throw vs. Spells to see if they have properly marshaled and controlled the forces of magical power. This Saving Throw gains a bonus or penalty based on the level of the spell-caster and the level of the spell being cast; simply subtract the level of the spell being attempted from the spell-caster's level to find the applicable bonus. This Saving Throw is further modified by the character's ability score bonus or penalty for whichever ability score governs their spell-casting ability. For example, a 5th level magic-user with an Intelligence of 16 attempting to cast a 3rd level spell would get a +4 bonus to their Saving Throw (+2 for level, +2 for Int bonus).

If the spell-caster fails their Saving Throw, the eldritch energy required to fuel the spell fails to materialize (and thus the spell itself does nothing to its intended target). The caster may attempt to cast the same spell or a different spell on a subsequent round.

Using this alternate system a character may also attempt to cast a spell from a scroll or grimoire that is higher than the level of spells they are able to memorize. For example, a 3rd level magic-user attempting to cast a 5th level spell from a scroll would take a -2 penalty to their Saving Throw.

If the spell casting was successful the spell works as intended, BUT the player must also roll on one of these side-effects tables created by Orrix: Random Magical Effects v1.2.pdf & Random Magical Effects v2.pdf

alt link for Random Magical Effects v1.2.pdf
alt link for Random Magical Effects v2.pdf

If the spell casting was unsuccessful, then the player must roll on this multi-tabled behemoth to figure out what the fuck happened (this table was originally found here and I simply printed it to PDF from my browser). Or roll on Jack's table. GM's choice.


Now we've made magic magical again! Cast a spell and see what happens! Unicorns & sprinkles for everyone!