03 June, 2010

Vector Theory #23: A comparison of some magic systems.

I've thought about vector theory in relation to simple skill tests, and methods of story resolution (whether conflict-based or task-based). I've posted on some of these musings as well. At the simplest level, resolving a task either has effects on the character's mechanical ability through the remainder of the story (for the positive or negative), while resolving a conflict tends to twist the story in a new direction. These two aren't mutually exclusive.

But, at the moment, I'm thinking about the more obscure systems in a game. The framework that drives a game and makes if different to the others on the market, framework that's often hidden in plain sight.

The sanity system described in the last post of the series, gives a good indication of the kind of thing I'm looking at. It's a core element of the game, and its presence drives a certain style of play. It may not allow for the simulation of certain character types, but it evokes a distinct atmosphere through the mechanisms.

What about systems where sanity isn't so important?...systems that don't care about degrees of humanity?

Hence, my thoughts lead to magic systems, and mechanisms that allow for the manifestation of supernatural powers. I'll analyse the supernatural powers in a later post and focus on the magic for now.

One of the deepest questions in most fantasy settings is "What is magic?"; this is true whether the setting is pseudo-mediaeval high fantasy, modern urban fantasy, or transhumanist sci-fi fantasy.

There are hundreds of magic systems out scattered through the games on the market, but I think I can boil them down to a few types with some simple designations.

A. Rigid - In which specific effects are learned. When they are manifest in the world they always have the same result.
B. Formulaic - In which specific effects are learned. They may be used on their own for certain results or may be combined with other effects to create new results.
C. Fluid - In which fields of effect types are learned. A magic user is expected to use their initiative to combine these effects in to create results appropriate to the situation.
D. Freeform - In which a general mastery of magic is developed. A magic user gradually expands their ability to perform small effects through to virtually anything.

1. Predictable - In which the outward manifestation of a spell always looks the same, and it's mechanical effects are also reliable.
2. Mechanical - In which the outward manifestation of a spell always looks the same, but some kind of game mechanism varies the outcomes effects on the story/situation.
3. Contextual - In which the outward manifestation of a spell varies according the the current story situation, but it's mechanical effects are consistent.
4. Unpredictable - In which a spells appearance and effect cannot be accurately predicted, due to changes in circumstances or game mechanisms.

a. Allocated - In which a wielder of mystic powers may only call on specific spells a specific number of times per fixed time period.
b. Fixed Expenditure - In which a wielder of mystic powers has a reserve of points from which they drawn energy to shape into their magical effects.
c. Variable Expenditure - In which a wielder of mystic powers has a reserve of points that might be tapped depending on the effectiveness of the spell, or other random factors.
d. Free - In which a wielder of mystic powers has open access to the energies of the supernatural world, and my use them freely to shape the mundane world around them.

(4x4x4 = 64 potential categories for systems of magic within roleplaying games...If you can think of other options I may not have considered, please let me know).

Option 1: Old school D&D. (TSR c1974 and onward) (A/1-2/a)
A magic user is old school D&D has access to a number of spells that they have specifically learned. There is no combining of spells to create new and interesting effects, either you have a spell or you don't...and if it's not in the book, you don't. Most of the spells have specific effects (eg. a magic missile always hits for X amount of damage, levitate can lift a certain amount of weight a specific distance, etc.). Some spells have random tables to roll on, so you can be fairly certain of the types of results, and they stay reasonable predictable within their own mechanical limitations (not changing based on situations). Spells are allocated, and under strict rules must be memorised at the start of each day.

You can tell that this system was based on a wargame. If has specific effects that can't be argued; you just look in the rulebook and read out the description. From a vector theory perspective, the magic user begins each day boosting up their wavelength with specific fragments of energy representing each spell, over the course of the day, they may choose to give up one of these energy fragments to release into the story a specific mechanical effect. They lose the ability to use this fragment again (until it is reabsorbed into their wavelength the next day). The energy released may augment someone else's spectrum in some way (giving someone a positive or negative modifier to a statistic, a combat score or health, etc.), or it may shift the narrative in some way (a clue is found, an obstacle is overcome, etc.).Each spell functions slightly differently, but each spell is fixed in its output. Scrolls and magic items are other specific energy fragments that may be released on command for a known outcome.

Variants presented in AD&D 2nd Edition, change the system into an A/1-2/b system. If you used the spell points option, a magic user begins with an open pool of magic points that may be channelled into any known spell.

3rd edition D&D with it's introduction of metamagic feats expanded the possibilities further (A-B/1-2/a). Through choosing whether to enhance an effect with a metamagic feat, the potential outcome of a spell gets some input from the player (Do I extend the duration? Enhance the damage? The area of effect? etc.) If so, I expend a bit more energy.

In the earliest versions of the game, there is some vague background information about magic being learned in rigid universities, where specific effects are researched for decades, then taught by rote to young students. So, in this light, the magic system reflects the game worlds interpretation of supernatural energies.

Option 2: Mage: the Ascension 2nd Edition (White Wolf 1994) (C/3-4/c-d)
My favourite magic system. It's not perfect but it reflects a certain paradigm of magic as well.

A mage has a general rating to describe their inherent mystic might..."Arete", They also have knowledge in a variety of fields..."spheres". They must filter their Arete through these Spheres to create magical effects. There are no specific spells (well actually there are hundreds of ideas scattered throughout the books), a mage must simple apply their knowledge of the mystic world to the situation around them. They must also explain what they are doing within the constraints of their world-view (because belief is a big part of this game). The effects are usually fairly predictable, with specific bonuses possible depending on the level of knowledge in different spheres, but their manifestation in the game world is often cloaked in "coincidences" specific to the situation at hand, or "blatant" outright displays of raw magical power. Mages may use their powers as often as they like, but there is always a chance of a backlash. Depending on the GM, this backlash may be severe (giving a rating of -/-/c) or it could be negligible (and therefore the system would get a -/-/d).

From a vector theory perspective, the magical wavelength doesn't quite begin as raw unbridled energy, it has an intensity equal to the Mage's Arete score, and it's wavelength is coloured by the degree of mastery in the assorted spheres. It can even be temporarily boosted by raw magical energy called Tass. When magic is used, the magical wavelength isn't diminished (but Tass boosts are expended), the capabilities of the magic's target will vary and the storyline will always shift in direction. The difference between coincidental and blatant magic in such a system is governed by the polarisation. If it fits the setting and situation, it easier to get a magical effect through (which means less chance of the story being deflected in a bad direction). If it's just outright obvious as a magical effect, or doesn't seem right for the situation, then the polarity of the magic doesn't mesh with the current circumstance, so there's a good chance it will be absorbed by the polarisation or deflect off to a world of hurt...

Players actually have some control over the narrative and the game world through their magic and I think this makes Mage: the Ascenesion the closest game to a true storytelling game out of the entire line. Due to it's incredibly varied nature, there are a lot of story elements added into Mage: the Ascension to sculpt the system to fit a specific user of supernatural energies (rather than sculpting the Mage to fit the magic). It is perhaps overly powerful in its versatility. and this has led a lot of inexperienced GMs to be incredibly fearful of the game.

Option 3: Chill (Mayfair Games 1991) (B/2-3/b-c)
Before Mage was released, I loved the magic system in Chill. It seemed so diverse and brilliant. A magic user would learn specific spells, they would research them carefully in the manner of D&D, but the actual spells weren't simply limited to the rule book. Instead the rule book gave you a bunch of input options for building up the magic energy necessary (including things like "ritual duration", "skill check difficulty", "damage done to yourself when casting" and "rare ingredients"), and a bunch of output options for determining the effects once the spell was cast (including fields like duration, range, and damage, but also things like "change shape", "prevent aging" and "summon"). Like Lego blocks, you'd plug together one or more input options, then one or more output options.

Magic works in a predetermined way in this setting, but it's modular. You learn the relevant components, you learn how those components fit together then you cast spells in the way that suits you best. Depending on your specific component choices, spells might be very rigid in their mechanical output effects, or they might be varied. The same applies to the fuel sources...a spell might have a rigid and specific component cost, or it might have a variable impact on a character's wounds or fatigue. It all depends on the risks you wanted to take when constructing the spell.

From a Vector Theory perspective, a character build up their wavelength as a part of the spellcasting process, then discharges it as the effects manifest in the world. Certain components specifically alter the direction of a storyline, while other components specifically manipulate a target's wavelength. The actual manifestation of the spell will be polarised by the type of story being told, this isn't really choosable by the player, but is a part of the GM's setting.

There are plenty of other magic systems out there, and I could probably incorporate other game systems for manifesting supernatural powers, but that's enough for now.
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