General Thoughts on RPG Magic
Magic is such a cornerstone of fantasy gaming, yet I often find it the most unsatisfying section of a rule book. On the one hand we have systems like d20 and Rolemaster, which provide a vast list of spells, nicely delineated, and usually containing within them a kind of thaumatological theory. I loved ICE’s Spell Law for many years– mostly because it had so many spells.
However in play, these kinds of systems become rigid, with little way to modify or improvise. There’s also the problem of overkill inherent to them– new spells, new rule look ups and a slowing down of play. On the other end of the spectrum with have systems which have complete flexibility, like True20 or even Mage: The Ascension.
However, unless outside schemas apply (as in MTA) you can end up with a kind of flavorless set of mechanics. I worry about that sometimes with my versions of magic for Action Cards sometimes, but I try to make sure I add to the narrative to make the magic feel in keeping with the campaign. Libri Vidicos borrows from Harry Potter obviously, so magic is present, potent and can be wondrous. In the Third Continent Campaign, magic in both the arcane and divine form, ought to have a little more everyday, gritty and practical feel to it– but the echoes of older, more powerful magics exist. I think I’m happier with a flexible system– especially if I’m creating something from scratch. It simply represents less work– less effort for time I can spend elsewhere on the design.
The other consideration I’ve mentioned before is balancing the power and utility of magic against the point investment of non-magic players. I want magic to be effective, in combat and outside. As an example, let’s look at a potentially great system that ends up crippling mages, Gurps. Over the years Gurps has become more and more crunchier and granular. If people think 3e+ Dungeons and Dragons is a tactical and detail contest, they really ought to look at Gurps, which has become more and more that as well. I’d hoped the new edition would go in the other direction but it didn’t.
I at least had hope that the new Magic book for the system would fix the problems of the old version, but they essentially imported it in wholesale with only a couple of minor changes to match new mechanics. If we look at it from a point investment standpoint, the straight warrior has the advantage. They have to buy some physical stats and really one combat skill. The mages has to buy the physical stats to survive, plus IQ for their spell-casting, plus the spells. And that usually means multiple spells to have some variety and effectiveness, since they have to buy prerequisites (setting aside One School and other options). But that’s a classic investment problem in games.
But when we get to combat, a fighter can swing every round, doing let us say 2X damage, without any additional cost. A mage will not be doing that every round– they have to prepare the spell for usually at least a round, but more if they want it to do damage even comparable with that of a warrior, which of course reduces that measured over several rounds. Then they have to make a spell-casting roll, and a spell-throwing attack roll.
So the relative advantages:
*Less point investment
*No real resource expenditure to activate attacks (unless you use advanced fatigue rules which don’t come into effect until many rounds later)
*Key stats are combat effective ones
*Better damage over time
*Higher point investment
*Resource expenditure for casting
*More point investment required
*Additional skill roll often required
*Prep time required for nearly all effective spells
Gurps clearly is trying to keep mages in line– to remove the possibility of people goobing the system. It makes sense in the context, since Gurps comes out of a tactical wargame (Melee and Wizard) but it does create problems and frustrations. I’m sure a careful GM could manage that balance, but it does take jerry-rigging the system and more work than I’d like, even leaving aside how static the spell lists feel. Of course, on the opposite end, you have old Rolemaster where eventually you hit a level point and the mages becomes seriously overpowered and dangerous, especially compared to pure melee classes.
Anyway, those are always considerations going on in my head when I think about magic systems. I have a certain admiration for things like WoW where they’ve been able to achieve balance or at least a kind of parity over time with the classes. But of course, that’s part of the trick, they’re imposing changes from above, they have a large test group to shake out problems, and they have time to make and remake those changes– and forum complaints aren’t the same as unhappy players at the same table as you.
Wushu Campign Magic
That’s the long way around to talk about what I’m working on for the magic system for my Wushu campaign. In working on this, I’ve referenced a couple of the existing Chinese Magic systems from other rpgs. Feng Shui didn’t have much– a very generic set up eight different elements. It has some flavor to it, but definitely more of the HK Action flik variety than Chinese or Wushu magic. Qin the Warring States has some interesting stuff, but it falls into the classic DnD discrete spells with overlap between different forms, high complexity, and many rolls. Still there’s flavor there I plan to borrow. Weapons of the Gods…well, once again, I find this to be the greatest RPG I can’t understand…well, next to Nobilis. There’s flavor there and a complex set of ideas but as a whole it is hard to follow.
So instead, I’m just going to borrow themes and ideas. I want a flexible system which has limits– those limits being to keep the magic looking and feeling like the classic or at least cinematic version of Chinese/Wushu wizardry– I’ll avoid my favorite term sorcery here, since that has some darker connotations. At the same time I want mages to have parity with warriors.
So magic is divided into Five Schools, for want of a better term. Each School has three classes of effects.
The art of making potions and ointments. Scholars who focus on this will be able to prepare some ahead of time, but will also be able to call out some effects on the fly. For this mechanic, a character will be able to claim a number of prepared potions per session equal to their rank in Alchemy. The GM reserves the right to say a particularly powerful potion would count as two towards that. Generally Alchemical arts require a lab and resources. Since such alchemy is more ritual– with necessary alignments and feng shui– than science, an Alchemist can only work on one potion at a time.
*Effect Potions: Mostly non-instant and non-damaging effects. Healing potions for both wounds and Chi can be created. Healing potions heal a number of wounds equal to twice the Scholar’s Alchemy rank. Potions can also be made to cure disease and other ill-effects. The Alchemist may also make potions which boost a stat or a group of stats. However these require a Resistance test if more than one is consumed. At skill three or better, the Alchemist can create a vaporization potion, allowing him to make Effect and Combat potions in a gaseous form.
*Combat Potions: Potions with an antagonistic effect. They can be delivered outside of combat, in drinks or the like. Common Effects include– noxious substances for blinding, burning liquids for damage, acids for destroying armor, painful concoctions to cause damage or irritation over time, smoke bombs and the like. Thrown potions must be dodged– they can only be successfully parried by adding style elements to evade the splatter. At higher skill levels, the Alchemist can make unstable explosives.
*Ointments (Buffs): These can’t be retroprepared. Ointments take time to apply, at least fifteen minutes, so can’t be activated in combat. Ointments also tend to attract dust and so can make the user dirty. Common Ointments include ones to ward off animals, increase defense against one kind of attack– like blades– or at advanced levels more kinds of injuries, to resist elemental effects or just the elements, to resist disease, increase attractiveness (which isn’t noticeable), and the like.
The manipulation of the flow of Chi within oneself and also of others. The classic meditative form of magic.
*Healing and Protection: While most of these techniques are self-only a few can be used on others. Characters can perform battlefield healing, but it lacks the potency of a well-prepared potion or medicine. Healing touch can be done once per target and heals a number of wounds equal to the Scholar’s Chi Flows Rank. Other kinds of healing, such as Chi restoration, disease curing, and condition clearing, has a higher difficulty than for Alchemical Arts. However, the character can balance a condition, putting it into stasis until more efficacious techniques can be used. These arts can be used on the self to resist disease, harden the skin, turn away certain substances and so on. Continuing effects must be prepared in advance, but the player may spend a point of Willpower to retroactively claim preparation. Only one continuing effect from this group may be active at one time.
*Boosts: These are self-only effects, but can be quite potent. The character can boost one stat, or with more difficulty, a set of stats. He can also modify his own abilities, making himself more limber to escape bonds, silent to evade detection, able to avoid the need to sleep or eat, and so on. Purely defensive abilities which grant soak or resistance fall under the Healing and Protection class. Continuing effects must be prepared in advance, but the player may spend a point of Willpower to retroactively claim preparation. Only one continuing effect from this group may be active at one time. The player is encouraged to come up with new options. Narrow effects will be more potent than broad ones.
*Tricks and Sealing: These effects revolve around manipulating the Chi of others. Offensively, they can be used to drain chi, seal powers, reduce stats, and the like. These are mostly instant combat effects, so don’t require the meditative preparation of the other arts. The character can also manipulate and even cloak his own power if he wishes. Daoists have a number of other classic techniques within this– the sending of thoughts at a distance, creating small illusions to trick the unwary, focused gestures to distract and confuse an enemy, or even engaging in direct Chi to Chi combat with other Scholars.
Not only the ability to see the future, but to also read the present situation and calculate actions for best results. Predictionism requires time and ritual, but minor effects can read read on the fly.
*Divinations: This covers the basics of sense– being able to read the past, see at a distance, divine the nature of omens, tell something of the future. Common effects include things like danger detection, dowsing, tracking sense, intuition, object reading and the like. It also covers the ability to do formal readings of the future, a common professional skill.
*Curses: Since the PC’s are good, they don’t actually inflict curses, instead they detect which interrelations currently exist and explicate them. Which curses the target based on their preexisting conditions. This can be used to cause minor problems– like detecting that a person should avoid fighting in a particular place or against a certain kind of foe. For example, Scott could say that a warrior is governed more by the cool influence of water and fighting under a hot summer sky will tire him out more quickly. It could also be used in the inverse, to uncover that a target might be weak to a particular substance or person. Essentially players are encouraged to narratively define bonuses or penalties. A target should be limited to one of these kinds of effects at a time. Characters with higher Legends may be more resistant to these kinds of effects. Characters may also apply more active curses with more preparation– usually based around the element most strongly present in the person. For example Water curses are about the separation of two things. So a Scholar might be able to cause a rift between two people with such a curse or even prevent a particular person from finding another (useful if someone’s annoying or pursuing you).
*Influences: These are the inverse of Curses, providing beneficial situations and circumstances. It can also be used to detect and balance the feng shui of an area– making it more harmonious or auspicious for a certain kind of activity. A more active use is to push persons towards events or meeting people, as the fates decree two things coming together.
Covers abilities designed to fight against the supernatural and the corrupt: hopping vampires, animated corpses, ghosts, fox spirits, demons, evil wizards and the like. The Exorcist Scholar pits his strength against that of the forces of darkness. This means lots of resistance checks. The Exorcist may also create Talismans to grant these effects to others– though at a reduced strength.
*Detections: The ability to detect malign magic. Sensing if a person is under an active curse, seeing if something is the work of a demon, crafting a mirror which will reveal a true form, striking to shed disguises, seeing the invisible, and so on.
*Wardings: Both the creating of defensive measures (shields to parry, additional soak) and also being able to set up barriers which dark forces cannot cross or touch. Useful for keeping a house clearly of baleful influences. Can also be used to trap demons and the like.
*Banishings: Spells which directly attack these supernatural foes. As with other directed combat spells, Scholars may apply style keywords they know to an attack. Or they may generally apply modifiers, like more damaging or split or the like, by these increase the difficulty of the spell-casting. Attack Spells have a rate of two– but a Scholar may spend two actions on casting a spell, giving them +3 dice damage.
The Chinese system has five elements: Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, and Wood. Each of these has certain non-literal associations in Wushu magical theory. You can find some discussion of that here–http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Xing. For the purpose of Elementalism, we’re talking about the literal forms of the elements: firebolts, grappling vines, ice shards and so on. Scholars who take ranks in Elementalism can create effects in all five elements. However they should choose one they’re really good in– in which they’re considered to have one higher rank (for power) and a +1 to all casting effects. They should choose another one they gain just a +1 to spell-casting with. Then they pick the two they’ll will be weak in– gaining a -1 rank and -1 casting to one, and a -1 to casting in the other. The fifth element remains neutral for them, with no modifiers. Characters may want to look at the elemental associations to see how those imbalances or weaknesses might affect their personality (or vice versa). It is possible to shift those modifiers over the course of the campaign, as events shift the balance of one’s internal chi types.
* Offensive: Your classic attack spells– anything that emulates an attack. It can be done as a directed attack or else as a supplement (like calling flame to your blade). Directed attack spells do damage equal to Elementalism Rank + Wits (just as swords have a base damage + Str). Mages may apply style keywords they know to an attack. Or they may generally apply modifiers, like more damaging or split or the like, by these increase the difficulty of the spell-casting. Attack Spells have a rate of two– but a mage may spend two actions on casting a spell, giving them +3 dice damage.
*Defensive: Used to counter offensive spells or to set up walls or shields. Continuing effects against physical attacks are modest– adding +2 Soak or +1 DR. Continuing defensive effects against unusual or magical effects will be stronger. Scholars may use their Defensive skill as a Parry, based on [Elementalism: Defensive + Wits]. This has a rate of 3 and costs no Chi to activate. Alternately, the Scholar may spend a point of Willpower in combat to allow him to use this to Parry Unusual (typically ranged) for the duration of the combat.
*Shaping: The ability to shape or manipulate the elements in question in a non-attack way. So for fire, it might be about putting out or manipulating flames. For metal is might involve warping or shattering. For earth it could be used to bury oneself or raise a dust-storm. For water the character would breathe underwater, create a fog or freeze a pond. For wood the character to increase growth, bend branches to him, or cover tracks.
How does this all work?
The Scholar has to buy two things to cast magic–
1.Rank in a School which determines the Power of his spell-casting. This is used to calculate damage, strength, and what number things need to resist against.
2.Skill in one or more of the classes under a school. This is used for all spell-casting rolls for that school.
Each School uses a Primary Stat:
Perception for Predictionism
Wits for Chi Flow and Elementalism
Intelligence for Exorcism and Alchemy
Casting a spell takes an action. It costs one Chi to cast a spell. If the spell is an Attack or Offensive spell, it has a Rate of Two. If it is a Defensive or other Spell it has a Rate of Three.
The Scholar must roll a number of successes equal to the difficulty of the spell. The spell-casting roll is the Attack roll if the character is attacking– the caster needs at least two successes then, one for the spell difficulty and one for hitting the target. Mages may apply their combat style keywords to their spells freely. They may also apply the classic modifiers to spells (many, selective, etc) each one increasing the difficulty by one. If a Scholar fails a spell-casting roll, they may not cast again that round.
Base damage for an Attack Spell which takes armor into account is (School Rank) + (Primary Stat). Mages may spend an extra action on Spell Prep to grant +3 damage.
That’s the basics of the Wushu system. More to come if people are interested.