Friday, June 22, 2012

Magic Without Limits

Since my last post about roleplaying, I sadly haven't done a lot of it.  One of my GMs has been busy with other hobbies and hasn't been available.  But recently another friend decided to run a few one-shots for us, and that, combined with this blog, got me thinking about how magic is handled in roleplaying games.  

Roleplaying games are all about trying to apply fairly rigid rules to things that don't necessarily fit within those rigid confines.  Player-characters can usually only move a certain distance each turn, for example, disregarding that people don't all move at the same rate of speed.  Game systems that use character classes, like D&D, usually define those classes within a certain limited set of abilities that don't really approximate how real live people function or behave.  Why can't a wizard use a sword?  Why doesn't a fighter have the ability to play a musical instrument?

Magic is one of the areas that has many, many rules applied to it in every RPG I've played.  There's good reason for this; without some limits, the magic-user characters have the potential to overshadow the abilities of all the other player-characters.  But sometimes, as the author of the blog I mentioned above contends, the rules are just too restrictive.  

One of the irritants of playing D&D is the limitation on how many times per day a magic-user can cast a certain type of spell.  If the GM should happen to put the party in danger more than once during a session, the mage character's arsenal of spells may run dry.  A magic-user can carry around magical implements to supplement the arsenal of memorized spells, but those are expensive to buy, difficult to make, and they too can eventually run out of magic.  

Recently the game designers have tried to lift some of this restriction by allowing magic-users to cast certain spells at will, without any per-day limit.  But that allowance is only applied to low-level spells, spells that typically are either "utility" spells or that don't do much in the firepower department.  And let's face it, a lot of D&D is about fighting.  A player of a magic-user has to do a lot of prep work or risk being unprepared for the situations she may encounter.  In my experience, that often means that when I'm playing a magic-user I haven't chosen to prepare the right spells for the situation, unless I know in advance what we'll be facing.  And the limitation that prevents my mage from using a sword with any facility means that in some combats my character is just a bystander.  My only option becomes the decision to prepare the same set of offensive spells every session. I never have an opportunity to use any of the other interesting spells the game designers have created because the situations where those spells would be effective are too rare and too unexpected.  Casting the same spells every time gets a bit boring.

I've mentioned before that I tend to be indecisive, and this adds to the challenge of playing a mage.  That's another reason I tend to stick with the same spells every game session.  I wish for a system where I could have more flexibility in what I do with my mage's abilities, and do it on the fly.  Why can't I swap one prepared spell for another if I discover that what I've prepped isn't the best for the situation I'm facing?  I also with I could swap energy types - if we're fighting a creature that isn't vulnerable to fire, and I prepped a fire spell, I'd like to be able to switch the fire for ice or electricity.  Current rules demand that I take a special character option in order to do that, one that means I have to forgo some other character option in order to do the energy-swapping.  I realize the game designer are trying to maintain balance between the different character classes, but it sometimes feels to me that they're overdoing it. 

The game designers have tried to give magic-users lots of spell choices, which is both appealing and frustrating to me.  I can only have so many prepared each day, which means that there are dozens of interesting spells that never get used.  There's also a tendency to produce more and more new supplemental books with more spells, and eventually some of those spells become just different flavors of the same old thing.  I wonder why you need three different versions of an invisibility spells to get from "invisible until I attack something" to "invisible all the time"?  Why not just make the spell's power increase with the character's class level?  Some spells do that, but why aren't they all written that way?  Why should an 18th-level wizard's ray of frost spell do exactly the same damage as a 1st-level wizard's ray of frost?

D&D also includes a mechanic called Difficulty Class (DC), which helps to determine how effective a spell is.  This is a figure based on a combination of several other character statistics.  But DC increases on the basis of spell level, not character class level.  As a result the DC of a 1st-level spell stays the same, no matter what the character's class level is.  The 18th-level wizard's 1st-level spells are no more difficult for an opponent to resist than the 1st-level wizard's 1st-level spells.  Doesn't it seem reasonable that a very powerful mage could put a whole group of ordinary people to sleep with a snap of his fingers?  Yet by the rules of D&D, it isn't any easier for that powerful mage to put a group of people to sleep than it is for a mage fresh out of mage school to do it.  There are a few ways that can be changed, but those methods are very limited. The most common one is by increasing the character's base ability score that controls spellcasting, usually intelligence.  But what if I want my mage to be stronger or faster instead of smarter?  Do I sacrifice improving the DC of her spells so she can be a little better at other things?  Or do I risk that as she encounters more powerful foes her ability to overcome them with magic won't be sufficient?  The practical result of the DC dilemma is that as magic-user characters increase in level, they rarely use their lower-level spells.  What use is ray of frost that does only a tiny amount of damage against a huge dragon with hundreds of hit points, even if you can cast ray of frost as often as you want?

Of course, "as often as you want" is a bit of a lie.  Magic-users in D&D are limited to one spell per combat round.  It's true that in the current version of D&D a combat round lasts only 6 seconds, so you can in practical terms cast 10 spells a minute.  But when your fellow players can have their characters stab something with a sword two or more times per combat round as they increase in level, it becomes frustrating that your mage can still only cast one spell per round.  You can't use a magic wand and cast a spell, either.  In the D&D universe, casting spells take up a lot of time and hand-waving.  The designers offer some options to allow you to expand beyond those limitations, but as with other methods of stretching the rules, you have to sacrifice something else, sometimes several somethings, to gain that ability.  I know I'm not the only player who daydreams about being able to, say, zap an enemy and immediately turn invisible.  But without a lot of tinkering with character options, that's just not possible.   

All this whingeing about D&D rules takes me back to the complaint of the the author of the blog I mentioned in the first paragraph.  You can use plot elements to keep the magic from getting out of control when you're a writer, because you're in control of everything.  I realize that in a game you need some limits, something to give the players some direction and keep things balanced and equal.  But I really do think the designers of some games have gone a bit overboard with setting limits on magic.  It would be interesting to see what would happen if someone took away some of the restrictions.  Would magic-users really become the spotlight-hogging unstoppable powerhouses the game designers fear?  In the hands of some players, the answer is probably yes.  But I think most players would set their own limits in the interest of keeping it fun for their friends. 

I like playing magic-users, but I don't think anyone needs to fear me becoming too powerful.  I'm not interested in being the most important player in the game.  I just want to have more fun.  So here's a call to the game designers:  Come up with a magic system that doesn't have so many limits!