So. Mana.

By | August 2, 2014

Hello again!

So this was the week we were hoping to have the magic chapter done.  Unfortunately, July was not a good month for writing.  Sarah’s mom got sick, Sarah got sick, we’re going through major reorganizations in all three of our day jobs, and what little inspiration I had this month went into Guidance instead of Magic.  (Well, that’s good news – Guidance won’t take so long now).  But!  I’m still going to talk about magic today.

I never liked Vancian magic.  I always thought it was weird.  I was exposed to video games years before I was exposed to pen-and-paper roleplaying games, and as a magical system I was used to using mana points to power attack magic or healing magic.  I liked it better.  So of course the earliest iterations of our magic system were developed with mana points in mind.  This had some benefits: it untied us from a magic system we hated, and it gave us an inroad that a lot of gamers would understand.

In playtesting, though, it proved difficult to find the right balance for mana-based systems.  Our original intent was to provide multiple Arcana (“magic words”) that you could string various effects together for and then pay the overall mana cost for each effect.  So, for instance, if you wanted a small burst of fire that dealt base magical damage, you would say “Fire Burst” and pay the mana cost.  If you wanted the same effect but wanted to deal twice as much damage, you would say “Fire Fire Burst” or “Fire Harm Burst” and this would of course cost more.  If you wanted to set the environment on fire, you would say “Fire Collateral Burst,” and so on.  The bigger the effect you created, the more mana you would consume.  The more mana you consumed, the fewer spells you would be able to cast.

But of course there was a problem that Sarah identified very quickly.  That meant a spellcaster could cast “Fire Fire Fire Fire Fire Fire Fire Fire Fire Fire” and deal effectively x10 damage.  That spellcaster wouldn’t be able to cast again that fight. . .but he wouldn’t need to, because he just murdered the hell out of whatever he was attacking.  And just like that, we were back to a problem that’s long been tricky with spellcasters, namely that they don’t need anybody else.

The purpose of the party in many cases with spellcasters (whether this problem is imagined or real, a lot of folks feel this) is to serve as meat for the enemies to chew through until the spellcaster has the opportunity to end a fight.  Vancian magic controls this by controlling access to spells: your spells under such systems are carefully calibrated to deal an amount of damage that’s acceptable, until you get to high enough levels where you can just wish the bad guys dead.

The controls for such power were and are a complex web of costs, such as needing diamonds worth 5,000 gold or other such structures, making spellcasters complex and potentially confusing to play.  This was Player-Skill intruding on the design of the game: you weren’t really supposed to play the wizard if you couldn’t keep all of the spells straight, with their different casting times and different amounts of damage and different controls and leveling rates, etc.  And that’s fine if you like it.

But then there’s this new wave of players who don’t necessarily want all that crunch.  They just want to wave their magic wand and have something happen, because they read Harry Potter and that’s the way Harry and his pals did it.  And really, isn’t that what magic is all about?  Isn’t the heart and soul of magic that you can edit reality without needing to be concerned about scientific theory and consequences and the like?

To us that certainly seems the case.

And as we tried various methods to constrain the power of mana-wielding roles (so that the other players would have something to do), our magic started feeling less and less magical.  It instead became a rote set of rules that you as a player of a spellcaster (or you as the guide of a spellcasting player character) would need to memorize so that spellcasters couldn’t be too powerful.

You can’t chain more than one Burst in a spell.  You can’t increase the damage of your spell past X amount.  The maximum amount of Mana you can consume in a single round is Y.

We also started taking mana away from spellcasters to help fight this issue, but that left them feeling anemic.  And in one spectacularly fail playtest session, playtester Justin Jarus tried to cast spells of different forms and what proceeded was five minutes of me telling him, through each iteration of him trying to cast what should have been a very simple spell, “nope, can’t do that.  Nope, not that either.  Nope.  Nope.  No.  Uh-uh.  Nada.  Of course not.  I can see where you’d want to, but no.”

Mana was untenable.  Magic was no longer magical.  It had to change.

When we really looked at mana as a power source, we saw that it was a relic of resource-attrition.  Forthright doesn’t do resource attrition; a hallmark of the system is that all your consumable “points” such as Resolve (and Mana, when it was around) reset back to full once a fight ended.  Resolve makes sense to keep around – you have to know when you must stop.  But Mana was a pool that said “you can go,” but we’d needed to give access to that pool via a straw, which meant that you didn’t really have access to the pool.

And then it hit us.  Physical combatants such as dervishes, guardians and warriors didn’t have pools of actions they can use.  They just do their thing, round after round, until the fight’s done.  Why weren’t we letting spellcasters do that exact same thing?

Next week I’ll talk about how that question broke our inertia, and how once we had an answer for it the structure of the Forthright magic subsystem fell very quickly and neatly into place.  In the meanwhile, if you have any comments or questions, please feel free to share!

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