The Simplification of Magic

By | May 31, 2014

Hello once again!

The Personas and Vocations chapters have been rewritten, and the Fighting Styles chapter is currently in process.  It’s been slow going with these because Personas, Vocations, Fighting Styles, Skills, Social Interaction, Combat and Magic are all chapters which interact with each other, and we’re taking the opportunity to clean up and shore up some of the subsystems.  So far in the 1.01 to 1.02 transition, we’ve lost about 22 pages of material that was  confusing, unnecessarily restrictive, or no longer necessary.

All that’s got me thinking about simplicity and how to approach it as a design goal.  One of the things we wanted to make sure we did with Forthright Open Roleplay is make the rules simple and clear so that players and guides didn’t need to make up their own rules very often while also providing tremendous versatility.  This has proven relatively easy with physical combat, but then we enter the realm of magic.

One of the things I’ve not very often liked about magic systems in traditional games is long lists of spells.  I always enjoyed more the original Mage: The Ascension style of spellcasting, where it was “make stuff up and go!”  The problem is, one of these is pretty easy to adjudicate and one of these is pretty hard to adjudicate.  By way of clarification, I’ve met a lot more people who like to talk about original Mage than have actually played original Mage.  But the problem was, for me, long lists of spells don’t feel like magic.  They feel too rote, too pat, too structured.

So what we set out to do was create a magic system that was unstructured and freeflowing, avoided lists, was simple enough to create new spells on the fly without slowing down play, complex enough to be versatile and above all felt magical.  We have found this to be somewhat of a tall order.

The first version of the magic system involved spending Mana to invoke the abilities of Words of Power.  All spells were comprised of one or more Words of Power, and spellcasters could chain those words together to create effects.  For example, a caster could chain Fire and Burst and Persist together to create a persistent ball of flame that would remain on the battlefield.  This initial version stuck around the longest, with various tweaks and modifications, name changes, adjustments to the spell words and their powers, amounts of Mana involved, etc.

We learned a lot with this version:

  • Mana as a resource-depletion mechanic wasn’t terrifically interesting to the playtesters or to us as designers.
  • Mana caused the mathematics to be fiddly.  How much was a mana worth, when the player could use it suboptimally?  Do you value mana at the optimum value, the minimum value, or somewhere in-between?
  • Mana, even when it refreshed at the end of combat, was consistently too much mana or too little mana.  Again, in part because the instinct for magic-using playtesters was not to “optimize spellcasts,” but to do things that “felt magical.”
  • Chaining Magic Words together slows down play.  No matter how we approached it, any design requiring players to make complex decisions would slow down play dramatically, to the point where the melee combatants would take 30 seconds to resolve their turns and spellcasters would take a couple of minutes.
  • Tying effects to spent mana slows down play.  In fact any time you ask for a calculation slows down play (we knew that going in), but even simplifying and streamlining the numbers that are involved doesn’t help much.
  • Providing too much versatility in the midst of combat slows down play.  The “sweet spot” seems to be, interestingly enough, about 5 to 9 options depending on the player – approximately the number of different items typically containable within a person’s short-term memory.
  • Dividing Magic Words out too far so that they are exceedingly simple can become non-intuitive very quickly.  At one point we had 0-cost fire that could deal no damage, which we figured would essentially be an illusion of fire with just some light and mild heat.  But one, we had to explain that a lot. . .and two, this felt really baffling to playtesters.
  • Having players roll a success die felt too similar to melee with a different skin; playtesters didn’t really care for it.  It felt too much, to them, like spells were actual things and they were rolling to see if they threw the spell at the bad man correctly.
  • A lot of what makes the magic system work is about feel.  Does it feel like it works differently than physical combat, does it feel like it’s a versatile and enjoyable tool able to be manipulated by player cleverness?

We gave Mana one last huzzah at the RTR GM’s Fair 2014.  By that point we were largely no longer enamored of it and, as it turned out, our magic-using players at that event weren’t particularly enamored of it either.  We had to go back to the drawing board.

What we came up with to replace Mana was something we called Channel.  Channel was a very bad idea.  One of the things you’re frequently told to do in game design is “fail faster,” and this is the one area where Channel succeeded brilliantly.

Here’s the concept:  spellcasters have a number of points they can use in a round, called Channel.  This amount grows and shrinks with Proficiency in spellcasting.  You cast a spell, you can get up to your Channel in effects from the spell.  Each Magic Word gives you a specific special effect for free.  This had all the same problems as Mana and added one more besides: non-optimized spell paralysis.  Players couldn’t cast without spending all their Channel – it would be a waste!  Resources were no longer being depleted, but players felt like the resource they had needed to be completely consumed.  So play would stop while players sorted out how to modify the spell they wanted in order to get the most out of their Channel.  Channel died in a fire within about 2 hours.  It wasn’t mourned.

But out of all this trial-and-error came our current magic system.  Near as we can tell, this solves all the issues we had with previous attempts:  no resource depletion, no fiddly math, no chaining words, no math-on-the-fly, no option or optimization paralysis, and a pretty versatile feel nonetheless.

Here it is in a nutshell:  Spellcasters know Arcana.  Arcana are single-word spells.  Each Arcanum provides a single special effect for free.  Spellcasters can invoke an Arcanum in order to damage a target, perform a maneuver, or generate an effect within the gamescape about one square/hex/”small patch” in size.  Different types of spellcasters deal different amounts of damage with their spells; otherwise, the Arcana work identically across the different spellcasting roles.  Range is determined by spellcasting proficiency.  One Arcanum can be invoked on a character’s turn.

So, for example, Bob the Magical knows the Fire Arcanum.  He can do the following with it, all as a Martial Minor Action:

  • Light a torch
  • Create a wall of fire blocking a standard door
  • Damage a target and set that target ablaze
  • Knock a target down by creating a small explosion in front of the target’s face, startling the target and causing the target to fall backwards
  • Immobilize a target by surrounding the target with a thin sheet of flame that the target is afraid to step through
  • Start a campfire. . .or a forest fire, if he wants to be a jerk about it
  • Scorch a short message onto a wood panel

This puts the versatility of the spell into the player’s hands, without requiring the player to worry about resource management in any way.  This also helps keep spellcasters fairly balanced in comparison to melee combatants, because they’re still by default only affecting a single targeted space.  We’re enjoying using this so far, and so far it meets all our design goals save whether it feels “magical” enough.  We’ll need to put it in front of more playtesters to feel confident about that, but it certainly feels magical to us.

Thanks for reading, and if you have any comments or questions please feel free to share them in the comments section below.  See you next time!