This is how I Role: Magical Thinking
Last week I introduced this column and the tabletop role playing game I’m building, and in this column I’ll talk about my opinions on magic in role playing games. The game system is going to be called VI, pronounced however you feel like (I prefer “hex” because I’m a maverick). The VI is the roman numeral six, because that’s the most important number in the system. I’ll get to my specifics and decision making in that area in a later post; now, it’s time to work some magic.
Magic is weird and difficult to deal with. To really make a persistently fun game out of magic, you have to have rules and limitations or else you’ll end up with no consequences or conflict. Some magic systems feature a main set of behaviors and a long list of spells to choose from, each with unique behaviors. Some others have a table of combinable effects allowing for some flexibility in place of variety. Sometimes games don’t even give players direct access to magic, instead having them access magic through special items like scrolls, wands, or medallions; making them bargain with powerful creatures; having them earn help from a deity through prayer or deeds; or sometimes not at all. A good implementation of magic, however, can make the world more colorful and make gameplay more unique and interesting.
If magic is accessed directly by players, you have to come up with a believable mechanic to limit their power. They can require practice to build up their magical skill and cast more potent spells, and simply be unable to cast more powerful spells. Strong spells might exhaust the player, sometimes to the point of death. They can have access to a source of magical energy, hard limited by some superior force. The first two allow the player to level up through practice and training, and they become more powerful semi-passively through normal gameplay. If the player is limited by a magical authority, though, they have to gain power by negotiating with or impressing that authority. A player can run through a situation with a fixed number of abilities throughout several sessions, and gain a higher clearance level once their mission is complete. This one is interesting to me because it explains rather well the parts of magic that the player interacts with directly: magic is a form of energy, and powerful entities regulate it. Many things about magic may be unknown, but from there all you need is a plausible interface to move the magical energy and manipulate it the way you want.
For VI’s campaign setting, I want magic to be definite and explained, though not necessarily fully understood by the denizens of the world. With a fully explained magic system I should end up with a more cohesive and definite feel, the system should be more predictable and make more sense, and it should be easier to sketch out magical effects without having to work out all the specifics beforehand. If I want to give the players in game material, like manuscripts from magic users or scrolls and such, there shouldn’t be any holes in the way magic functions if there’s a real explanation for how magic works.
VI‘s world is filled with spirits, wandering and aimless, that, by themselves and individually, weakly and semi-randomly interact with the world. They do remember things, and they interact with minds as much as they do the rest of the world. A cult worshiping a fire god might build temples to that god and hold regular religious ceremonies. Many spirits might collect around that area and develop an affinity for fire and the fire god, drawing on the memories of the cultists and their emotional association with fire. The fire god itself could be a happenstance collection of many, many fire spirits, or it could be a powerful magical being with its own characteristics.
Magic users actively influence these spirits in a way more involved than simple conviction. Minds can interact with spirits, and magic users can train themselves to perform these interactions with more detail and greater potency than the average person. Where the fire god cultists passively and perhaps unwittingly influenced the spirits around them, magic users will connect with spirits on a direct, individual level and command them. Because of this, too, sigils, scrolls, and objects can be given magical properties already.
I would like to use this explanation as more than just a lampshade hanging. It would be interesting to have specific rules for how spirits can interact with the world, which could lead to interesting and complex strategies involving the positioning of spirits, synchronized attacks, nuanced counterattacks… Magic circles would have a clear-cut use, and magicians might gather themselves into formation if there were spatial limits to how a magician can control spirits. An issue I can see with adding a complex level of gameplay for magic is that magicians have access to complexity that other players don’t, and this could seriously slow down gameplay during battles.
And that’s one of the things I’m going to address in the next column: gameplay, why I think people like games, and my ideas for what gameplay in VI should be like. There’s a discussion thread relevant to this post on our forums, and I’d like to hear your two-cents!