Musing on RPG Magic

We’ve heard the call up; my brother is hosting a D&D game at his place this weekend. The family is exhilarated and our living room is filled with discussions about race and class, as are the living rooms of both my brothers (I checked in with them last night). Gnome is a popular choice, Brother Roll wants to be a gnome bard and Son Aug wants to be gnome illusionist, as is elf, both Girlfriend KC and Nephew Evan want to be elf rogues, and I’ll play an elf something or other. Funny thing: no one wants to play a wizard.

Why not? Because in D&D, beginning wizard characters only get one spell, maybe two, and are then nigh useless. In the old days, when we played Advanced D&D, after casting his sole Magic Missile spell the wizard would map the dungeon and throw darts. I always thought this funny. How does he practice his adventuring craft? Spends his days studying dusty tomes of arcane lore and his nights at the pub throwing darts with his mates. I wonder if the pints are tax deductible. This became such a common event that I’d elect to have my character throw rocks instead of darts, defaulting to the time-honored missile of choice of protesters, rabble, and malcontents. I carried this augmented trope with me, and in the few Ars Magica games I played in which I had a character, my wizard would cast a few spells and then throw rocks at opponents. I still remember Mario busting a gut the first time I said, “My wizard throws a rock.” I think we were fighting a troll or something.

Boy, can I get off the subject. No one wants to play a wizard because in D&D they can’t do much. D&D has always had this idea that characters start out wimpy and grow stronger as they gain experience, “level up” we say. A wizard starts with few, weak spells. In Ars Magica, the rpg game I have the most experience playing, wizards start with more powerful spells and can cast them as much as they want. They get many, powerful spells. In my opinion, this quickly breaks the game. The concept of leveling up still exists, so as the Ars Magica wizard gets more experience he casts many, even more powerful spells, and eventually he’s capable of world-changing enchantments. Many players like this high-fantasy approach. Ars Magica is set in the medieval period of Europe, with history running as it did in the real past up to the point of the players beginning the game, which is 1220 if you use the current rule set. But that proposes a problem. If wizards can do these fantastic, world-changing spells, why haven’t they? The wizards of Ars Magica started practicing in the late ninth century, according to the game fiction, so why has 300-some years of history happened in which these powerful wizards did nothing? The game concocts an explanation – the wizards took an oath not to meddle with the neighbors – but it too stresses the fiction of the setting to be believable, I think. High fantasy works, of course, but it’s difficult to put high fantasy in a low technology, historical setting.

So, D&D wizards (few, weak spells) aren’t appealing, nor are Ars Magica wizards (many, powerful spells). Is there a compromise? Every game has a sweet spot. In D&D, I think the sweet spot for wizards is 7th to 9th level, a point where the character has a choice of spells, can cast ten or so during an encounter (scene), with the spells being powerful enough to affect the situation if not change the constructs of the world. Is there a game that just starts at this point? I thought back to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, the novel (collection of short stories, really) that originated (arguably) the idea of a wizard casting a limited number of spells in a story (collection of scenes). My memory is often faulty, but I recall that the few spells that Turjan of Miir could cast were fairly powerful. A teleport spell. An invisibility spell. He had few, powerful spells. Does the Dying Earth Role-Playing Game follow suit?

Well, maybe. Reading The Dying Earth Revivification Folio  while frying cheeseburgers for dinner, author Robin Laws offers an overly simple free form magic style that is meant for on-the-spot gaming, when a few friends form for an evenings entertainment an no one is vested in a long-running campaign using the same characters. Players get a few spell cards – oh, here we go – one or two that they can cast during the game. Are the few spells powerful? Many are. The “Charm of Forlorn Encystment” permanently traps a human target 45 miles below ground, and “Edan’s Thaumaturgic Poultice” cures a character from all his wounds. Sounds good. Should I be playing Dying Earth RPG? Two problems, the first tonal the second mechanical.

The Dying Earth Role-Playing Game, either the original (also written my Mr. Laws) or the revamped version are written in a very playful tone, reminiscent of the picaresque fix-ups of Vance’s later Dying Earth novels, The Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga, rather than the grimmer tone of the more deadly first book, The Dying Earth. The rules place a greater emphasis on ne’er-do-well rogues or petty arch-magicians than adventuring wizards. The rule book’s prose is slightly sarcastic, baroque, and highfalutin, which acknowledges Vance’s work and pleasantly challenges the author’s pen (he succeeds, for the most part), but lends itself to reading rather than playing. A good rule book should be enjoyable, yes, but it should more importantly be clear and concise, and DERPG isn’t. The mechanical system to determine success lends itself to these types of stories, and it works well for a bunch of competitive rogues trying to one-up each other. I don’t know if it works for combat because the few DERPG games I’ve played have all defaulted to silliness. I’ve heard DERPG called “the unplayable rpg”, and scanning Internet gaming forums I see many comments from posters who own the game and like it, but have never played it. Perhaps that is indicative of gamers; we like to buy and read games that we never play. DERPG seems to have, unfortunately, a high rate of “like it but don’t play comments”.

So what do I want? Well, ultimately, I want a game with an easy, lethal combat system, set in a fantasy setting (although I’d actually prefer a historical setting because I enjoy historic fiction over fantasy, with historical fantasy being the winning choice) that includes wizards, and I’d like these wizards to be powerful enough to affect their lives without changing the rules of society. I want wizards who can cast a few, powerful spells right at character generation. (Insert thinking noise.)

Any ideas?

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11 Responses to Musing on RPG Magic

  1. Dungeon World might be your bag. The wizards are a bit better than first level in D&D.

  2. mikemonaco says:

    DW is great for the right group. My group has mostly grown a little tired of the abstract combat rules, and the forced “story telling” that got in the way of actually letting a story unfold thru our actions. One thing we thought of (too late) was a tweak of the bonds so that the you don’t get to decide when a bond is “resolved” or whatever, the other PC does. Also: keep a list of your resolved bonds as a character history.
    But I was going to suggest GURPS — lethal combat, able spell casters, very compatible with anything “historical”. The trick is ignore/drop the overly fiddly bits. 2nd or 3rd edition were better IMO for that, or GURPS Lite.

  3. I’ve often had the same problems with the Wizard and magic in Dungeons and Dragons in general. I think the newer iterations have done a better job of allowing a wizard to rely on spellcraft even at early levels, but even in these versions of the game (4e, Pathfinder, Next, and similar) you get to a certain level and wonder why the landscape hasn’t been ravaged and turned into Dark Sun.

    • Matt Ryan says:

      One version, I can’t remember which, gave the wizard some sort of arcane attack that he could perform every round, doing dx (can’t remember) worth of damage. Mechanically, it melted the wizard with the fighter, in that each round the player rolled a d20 and if he hit he did some damage. That’s not what I’m looking for. I wizard should make people nervous, just his presence should make you think, “oh no, what’s he capable of?” D&D fails at this, I think.

  4. Make your own game…your smart enough!

  5. zhai2nan2 says:

    If you like D&D 3.5, the warlock is a magicky sort who can cast a magical attack every round. This may be the “gave the wizard some sort of arcane attack that he could perform every round” that Matt Ryan was talking about. Similarly, Iron Heroes has the Arcanist, which is slightly different but essentially fixes the same problem as the D&D Warlock.

    D&D 3.0 and 3.5 had a few other interesting things, like the Binder, but in the end, D&D will never sacrifice its core assumptions, and that includes the wizard as glass cannon with limited ammo.

    If you want the perfect rule system, you can build it yourself with GURPS, but it will require a lot of play-testing with competent play-testers. GURPS isn’t a game, it’s a toolkit for making your own game.

    I guess I should think seriously about your problem and post a thoughtful response, but I’ll sign off for now.

  6. zhai2nan2 says:

    I have meditated on RPG magic for a few hours.

    Here is a fundamental problem: magic, as found in human culture from Enuma Elish to the Kalevala to the modern Chaos Magicians and occultists such as Alan Moore, never resembles a metaphysical flamethrower.

    Arneson took a druid miniature from normal Roman historical wargaming and wondered what it would be like with a Star Trek phaser. At that point, RPG magic diverged from all other depictions of magic in human culture.

    There has been about one documented claim of actual pyrokinesis (I say this after years of research in Forteana) and it was uncontrolled, utterly useless as a weapon. In RPGs, weaponized pyrokinesis in various forms is standard. There have been various voodoo legends of curses so potent that they can kill, but that tends to work like an invisible telepathic suggestion, not like a visible animated dagger thrown by Vincent Price in _The Raven_.

    Typically, a wizard was scary because even he had little idea of how the spirits would grant his wishes. A wizard would give orders to various spirits – sometimes in a seance-like environment – and weird things would happen – sometimes immediately, usually weeks later. When a medieval peasant angered a wizard, this did not result in an unexplained fire – but the next day, when that peasant’s cow got sick and refused to eat, no one could say for sure whether it was the wizard or just bad luck.

    Also, ancient and medieval people often believed that ordinary people could see spirits sometimes, but spirits were usually invisible. Anyone who didn’t fear spirits was pretty close to learning wizardry simply by being unafraid to talk to spirits. This kind of thing doesn’t translate easily to high fantasy.

    Wizards were often highly charismatic persuaders, who effectively never ran out of “mana” for their persuasion effects. Wizards often did faith healing and alleged clairvoyance all day long, with no need to rest or run out of spells. (Of course, you can reasonably doubt whether the healing accomplished anything, and whether the clairvoyance produced any verifiable information.)

    It’s very easy to model some aspect of parapsychology or mythology in RPG terms, but the resulting systems often require hundreds of non-intuitive rules and totally impractical in play. Even if you could get them out of play-test, most gaming groups would not be interested in them.

  7. zhai2nan2 says:

    >I’d actually prefer a historical setting because I enjoy historic fiction over fantasy, with historical fantasy being the winning choice) that includes wizards, and I’d like these wizards to be powerful enough to affect their lives without changing the rules of society. I want wizards who can cast a few, powerful spells right at character generation.

    Suggestion One: If it’s a historical setting, allow historical proto-science to function reliably. If it’s an ancient setting, people believe in spirits and see them frequently. People get possessed by demons and need to be exorcised. Folk magic (herbs, wax dolls with pins in them, mantras) methods are a technology, not a self-delusion.

    If it’s a Renaissance setting, perhaps most people don’t see spirits any more, but astrology is more reliable than microscopes, and so on.

    Suggestion Two: Wizards are primarily mentalists. Telepathy, clairvoyance, premonitions, hypnosis (both in-battle and out-of-battle) are practical and don’t run out of mana points. Paralyzing a warrior with hypnosis would be a devastating attack spell.

    Suggestion Three: Wizards can summon spirits to undertake non-physical tasks. This means a wizard can call up the spirit of a murder victim so that everyone can find out who the murderer was, but the wizard can’t re-animate dead bodies into zombies. Similarly, a wizard can send a tricky pixie and some will-o-the-wisps to confuse travellers in a forest at night, but those spirits can primarily mislead, enchant, trick, etc. They are not like Final Fantasy “summoning” monsters who pop out of nowhere and can fight against armored men.

  8. Camo Coffey says:

    I recommend Runequest 6. Several magic systems, most of which are pretty powerful but fairly expensive in daily Magic Points so you don’t get very many, and a very lethal, cinematic combat system. It’s a generic ruleset so you can play in any setting, not just the bespoke Glorantha (which is one of the most well-designed fantasy worlds available however). My group is currently playing in a Warhammer Old World campaign, using the RQ6 rules; we could as easily be playing in Dark Ages Europe, Middle Earth, Barsoom, or wherever..

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