Magic Systems: Fiction versus Gaming
Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of people with a clue.
The existence of magic is a crucial, basic tenant of fantasy. Practically all stories in the genera have an element of magic, no matter how subtle. It's varied in flavor and style, sometimes drawn from myth and legend, other times created from whole cloth in the imagineer's mind.
Magic must be bound by a framework which fits the world view of the author or the Gamemaster: "Water flows downhill, fire burns things, and magic can only be cast at dawn or dusk." The framework provide logic and lends color to casting, but also defines limitations. This is fine; limitations are necessary to make stories interesting. But these limitations are a large part of what this essay is about.
The types of limitations between fictional magic and gaming magic -- between Lord of the Rings and AD&D are, say -- are immense in my opinion. The magical paradigms of fiction are limited only by what the authors will. The author imposes what limitations serve to make the story work. If Gandalf could have teleported into Mt. Doom himself, the whole Ringquest would have been unnecessary. By the same token, with all the magical forces Sauron wielded, the hobbits by rights shouldn't have had a chance. But both options would have made for short stories. On the other hand, the author can use magic as an easy out of a sticky situation. If the character needs to move the plot along, but there are 100 foul-tempered Knights of Chaos in the way, the writer simply says, "ah. . . Glowen (the Dark) knows how to . . . ah . . .become invisible, yeah that's the ticket. And he can . . . um . . . entrance a knight to make him fight the others . . . and then he can slip through the gate." Magic rings, Melnebonean Flesh Nooses, Holocaust cloaks and Holy Hand Grenades of Antioch are examples of this little author fiat. The author can manipulate circumstances however he wishes, needing only an explanation the reader can find plausible given the circumstances (Tom Deitz, after reading a draft of this essay, emphasized that once a character uses magic in print, you're stuck with it and 50,000 people will know if you screw up the details next time).
Unlike an author's complete control of circumstance, game designers can only create the system and leave it to the GM to run the show. Designers assume a lack of self control on the part of players, and to some extent this is justified. Everyone is tempted at some point to push their powers to the limit, making use of whatever loopholes they can. Quite frankly, it is not in their best interest to falter. The author who has his protagonist botches a spell, that's a plot device; if a player botches a spell, it's time to roll up a new character. It's understandable to be so limiting, but frankly these games lack something.
What follows is a brief (but probably not brief enough) look at some of the magic systems I've played with, and what I do or don't like about them.
Of course, I cut my teeth on D&D, moving in short order to AD&D. After reading all the varied uses of magic, from Lythande and Jhereg to Myth Conceptions and Tom Deitz's books, it was a letdown to have a starting character get a single crummy spell. And then, when you cast your magic missile (or whatever), you had to spend a quarter of an hour rememorizing it.
Next, I visited the realm of Tunnels and Trolls (anyone remember that one? I'm taking a poll). The names of spells were niftier (Vorpal Blade, Knock Knock, Oh Go Away, Whammy, and so on), but were still pretty standard. Casting magic cost you physically (no complaint here; it makes sense), but the characteristic drained was Strength. As characters progressed in level, they gained Strength, so eventually a wizard who could raise the dead could also beat Hercules at arm wrestling. Your stereotypical wizard tends to be on the scrawny side. Gandalf never struck me as the muscleman type.
Another beef I had with these two systems is the weapons limitation. They both seem to assume that the magic user walks around in a robe, lightly armed and armored (though, in T&T, potentially strong as an ox). But what about Elric, in his dragon armor, with sword in hand and a summoning rune on his lips? What about Gandalf with his Glamdring, or Lythande's two swords, one for living opponents and one for supernatural foes? These were the guys I wanted to play, after all; dunce hats and robes never did it for me. Luckily, my GM tinkered with his systems to allow warriors who could act as their own fire support (Perhaps the product of that campaign, Amalric of Alstair, will show up in these pages one day).
My next thaumeturgical experience was with GURPS Magic. GURPS is, in my opinion, a good system in its own right, and I like many of the aspects of the magic system, including the ability to tailor the system to the campaign world. However, the cost of magic was prohibitive, both in terms of character points and fatigue. To illustrate (briefly) the former problem using a real-game example: In order for my seer character to learn how to use the Tarot for divination (his only quasi-magical ability), he would have to learn 12 spells -- 3 from each of the four elements -- which would not only cost more points than I had to spend, but be completely out of character. Naturally, I ignored the prerequisites rule. I realize that game rules are made to be ignored if they don't fit, but more than a few GMs and players treat everything the rulebooks as gospel.
For my contemporary mage, John Devlin, my GM tossed the rules. I put points into my "magic" advantage. When I wanted to cast a spell, I performed the ritual and rolled against my IQ rating. The GM thought a moment and then told me what happened. To this day, I'm not sure exactly what factors went into her calculation of the efficacy of the spell, but the freedom to cast whatever I could visualize was wonderful -- as good as the stories the games tried to emulate. But it was GM fiat rather than the rulebook that made it so.
The game system that had the most potential for what I wanted was at once the most flexible and the most mechanistic: Hero System. Magic could be whatever you cared to define. A mage could turn an opponent to jelly with the merest thought, or spend hours of intensive ritual under the full moon to insure a good harvest. Brownies can sew spells into clothes; Leanan Sidhe can throw a glamour which inspires victims to compose beautiful poetry while their life essence drains slowly away. All it takes is the ability to define a power, and the almost lawyerly ability to bend the rules into just the shape you want them. Myself, I prefer cosmic power pools with a skill roll to use them -- can't get much more flexible than that.
The problem with Hero, however, is that it's so universal that it doesn't really have a system for anything. A mentalist's levitation, a wizard's invisible gargoyle, or superman's Kryptonian powers are all the Flight power with suitable advantages and limitations tacked on. A Staff of Lightning or Ring of the Elder Wyrm may both be "10d6 Energy Blasts" with charges and foci limitations, different only in special effects. How they work is up to the GM. This is dandy for those of us who like to design our worlds from scratch, but what I'm looking for here is a system that works "right out of the box" with a minimum of tweaking.
Next on the list is the cyberfantasy game Shadowrun, which is pretty cool, although I've had little experience playing magic types in the 2nd Edition. The Grimoire, Shadowrun's spellbook, lays out everything about spell development, and includes spells that aren't necessarily useful in combat (a fact that raises my estimation of a system). I've certainly seen worse magic systems. As an aside, fantasy aspects of the game attract me more than the cyberpunk part, but that's another discussion.
"Get on with it!" I heard someone say. Alright, alright.
Now we come to what appears to be a terribly popular system: World of Darkness. My opinion of the system and the concepts involved in WoD will wait for another time. For now, let's talk Mage: The Ascension. While I haven't played it, I'm favorably impressed with the concepts. There restrictions are few; with imagination, a character can create just about any effect desired. With a single dot of magical "sphere", you can cast dozens of spells. What an arch-mage of D&D or an immensely costly GURPS wizard could do after a lifetime of study could be accomplished by a fairly young M:TA character. On the other hand, it seems that some standard wizard tricks would be difficult to do in M:TA. For example, healing, and walls/circles/domes of force/protection (to keep out demons or evil spirits, to block magic, etc.) seem best accomplished by the higher ranks.
The flexibility of the magic causes problems for the designers, though; limits on the number of spells, a standard method of keeping the game balanced, doesn't work too well in Mage. White Wolf's answer is Paradox, which can seriously cramp an adept's style if his magic is too obvious. Unfortunately, Paradox cramps this writer's style as well; I've been having a heck of a time converting the aforementioned John Devlin into Mage (as an non-player character) because his concept doesn't fit the Mage paradigm. With all the things Devlin has done in games and stories, he would be incurring some serious Paradox flaws (ideas are welcome).
To sum it up: magic in fiction has the freedom to do whatever the author wishes. Until fairly recently, no gaming system (that I am aware of) granted such freedom; a GM had to modify a current system or create one from scratch. As a ready-made magical system, Mage: The Ascension seems to work pretty well in terms of flexibility, although several systems have merit in one aspect or another. For games with ready-made magic, however, gamemaster fiat is still the ultimate customizer.
Well, that's my ramble on the subject of gaming magic. Does any of this make sense? I'd appreciate any comments on magic, magic systems or theory, or whatever.