Thursday, July 5, 2012

Making Magic Magical

Roleplaying is a challenge.  It's always difficult to balance the rules with player choice, to keep the story flowing, to give each player sufficient 'screen time'.  Sometimes it seems that just following the rules takes up so much time that there isn't room for, well, the roleplaying part of a tabletop RPG. 

There are lots of areas of roleplaying that I could go on about, but in this post I'm talking about roleplaying magic.  Magic has a lot of rules controlling it, as I mentioned in my previous posts.  Consequently it often gets short shrift in the roleplaying department.  Years ago, when I took my first stab at playing a spellcaster in a D&D game, I thought I'd try to make it more interesting by coming up with a 'trigger' word for each spell, that could act as a code word between myself and the other players so they would know which spell I meant to cast without my having to state openly, "I cast magic missile". 

Most magic spells in D&D require a verbal component, the equivalent of characters in Harry Potter shouting out "Petrificus totalus!" when they paralyze someone.  But the descriptions of the spells in the manuals don't tell the player what the verbal component of each spell is, they just indicate whether or not a verbal component is required.  I thought it would be fun to come up with my own verbal components, personal to me.  But it quickly became too much trouble to maintain.  Whenever I added new spells to my character's spell list, I had to invent new verbal components.  It didn't do the GM or the other players any good, either, because they couldn't remember what my invented command words were; they were too preoccupied with managing their own characters.  And it interrupted the flow of play because in addition to looking up how the spell worked I also had to find out what my command word was. I was disappointed that I couldn't use that idea to enhance my roleplaying.

How spells look when cast is another item that I wish could receive more attention during actual play, yet it seldom does.  Spells typically include a description of the spell's appearance or effect, but in my experience no one ever uses them to enhance the verisimilitude of roleplaying.  We just say "I cast fireball" and leave it at that, going on to roll the dice for damage and move on as quickly as possible to the next player's combat action.  There's no cinematic description of what happens to the victims of the fireball from the GM, either, because that would take too much time, and the GM's already juggling too many other tasks. 

I understand the reasons behind this lack of description, but I can't help feeling just a bit sad that our roleplaying sessions often tend to be just a lot of in-game terminology instead of something more flavorful.  We don't stab enemies viciously in the gut, we do a power attack for 26 points of damage.  The fireball doesn't send the orcs screaming into the distance with their hair on fire; it does 16 points of fire damage.  One could argue that good players and a good GM could add lots of descriptive color to the game, but when the game already has so many detailed rules to keep track of and the players only have a limited amount of time to play each week, adding 'flavor text' requires extra time and energy that no one can spare.

The origins of magic and its workings within the setting of the game often don't get much attention, either.  Nearly every setting for D&D includes the concept of wizards guilds or colleges, and supplementary books may contain the names of a few, but it never makes any difference in actual game play.  I've seldom seen a player get a discount on magic items by purchasing from an old schoolmate, or be required to pay annual dues to her guild, or wear a particular insignia to represent where she was trained.  Magic items also tend to become commonplace in most high-magic settings.  Ordinary non-player character citizens are very seldom impressed by magic.  It seems old hat, like something you see every day.  Someday I'd like to take my wizard character into a small rural village and cast a light spell, and have the locals respond with awe, or even fear, rather than looking at my character as if she's just yawned. I'd like to be required to present my magical credentials to the local authorities when I enter a city, or get into rivalries with other schools, or be very secretive and refuse to tell anyone about my magical training if they ask.  Actually I could do that last one, but usually no one asks. 

I suppose I may be asking too much to add all this cinematic description to a roleplaying game.  If I want cinematic, perhaps I should just watch a movie, or play a console RPG like Skyrim that has exciting cut scenes, or read a book.  But I can't help it; the writer and movie watcher in me wants my roleplaying experience to be a little more like a book or movie, and a little less like playing Monopoly.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Magic Without Limits, part 2

As I write I'm sitting here watching my Significant Other play Skyrim.  There are a lot of things to like about the magic system in Skyrim: All spells can grow more powerful with the character's level; there are no forbidden schools so you can be good at every kind of spell if you desire; magic is fueled by magicka that regenerates automatically or can be replenished with potions; you can summon magical creatures to your aid freely as long as you have enough magicka; you don't have to spend any time preparing spells or sleep a certain amount before you prep them; and you can wield magic and weapons at the same time.  That's not to say that magic is unlimited in the game; you still need magicka, you have to learn spells, and you have to learn special abilities to create magic items.  Naturally since Skyrim is a single-player game and your in-game companions can only do so much, character abilities don't have to be as balanced as they would be in a multiplayer game such as a tabletop RPG.  In Skyrim your character is the star of the show and doesn't have to share the limelight with anyone.  But I still wouldn't mind if tabletop RPG designers would take a page or two from the Skyrim book of magic.

In addition to just the general magic rules, another area where I'd like to see some change is the concept of familiars.  In D&D, a wizard can have a familiar that grants the PC some bonuses and advantages.  But familiars must be chosen from a limited list of creatures.  Most of those creatures are ordinary animals.  You have a cat, a rat, or if you're  Harry Potter fan, an owl.  Sure, familiars are handy, but they're also a bit of a liability.  In previous iterations of D&D, if your familiar died, you lost a character level and couldn't summon another familiar for a year.  To me that always seemed like rather a harsh punishment when a familiar just gave you a bonus to perception and a conduit through which to cast spells.  In general I found few players who were willing to use their familiars to deliver spells for them, since that risked possible injury or death of the familiar and harm to the spellcaster.  It just wasn't worth it.  The game designers also made odd rulings, such as that bonuses provided by the presence of a familiar were only available if the familiar was within a limited distance of the PC, meaning that if you sent your familiar off to do something you lost your bonus.  Having to recalculate bonuses just so my familiar could serve as a messenger never seemed worthwhile, either.  I found that when I did have a familiar, I never really made use of it.  I was too worried about losing it.

Not only was I frustrated by the liabilities of having a familiar, I was also frustrated by the sheer banality of the familiar choices.  I've always felt magic should be mysterious, and at least somewhat unique to the individual.  Yes, my mage learned the same spells as every other mage, but why couldn't her spells look different when they took effect, without having to take a special feat to achieve that?  And why couldn't her familiar be unique to her, a representation of her personality, not just another cat or rat or bird?  I'd like to see a system in which the mage crafts her own familiar, a kind of homonculus, as part of a sort of graduation ceremony.  Let the player choose from among a menu of options for the familiar's abilities.  And make the familiar a little tougher, so the mage won't have to expend so much energy being concerned about the familiar's safety.  Let protective spells cast on the familiar keep it safe even when it is far from the mage character.  Perhaps even let it learn to cast a few spells of its own.  It should never be as powerful as the PC, but let it do a little more than just add a couple of points to perception rolls.  Make familiars unique and interesting and useful. 

One can argue that the rules of D&D, at least the 3.5 edition (I know nothing about 4th edition) do allow for a number of the above alterations to familiars.  A player can select feats to strengthen and enhance a familiar, to select something other than the standard familiar types, and to allow the familiar and PC to get more benefits out of the relationship.  But all of those things are character options that have to be chosen instead of something else.  You have to sacrifice being able to do something cool with your own spells in order to do something cool with your familiar.  I honestly don't see how allowing familiars to be a little more exciting would seriously unbalance gameplay.  

Paizo's Pathfinder RPG has offered a substitution of a bonded magic item in place of a familiar, but that too has limits, and doesn't address the inherent dullness of familiars that I perceive.  I just don't want a cat; I want a weird creature that didn't exist until my mage created it.  I want something that is inherently mine, something special to me.  Pathfinder also offers an alternate character class that can summon a strange creature to serve, but I don't want to have to take a different class (and learn different rules) just to get a weird critter as companion for my character.  The closest I've ever come to satisfying my desire for such a creature was having a druid character create a bogun.  It wasn't a terribly useful creature, and I had to wait a ridiculously long time to be able to cast the spell, but it did so much toward satisfying my desire for a cool little buddy that was all my own.  I never understood why there wasn't an equivalent spells available to wizards.

As another observation, I don't think there should be multiple arcane spellcasting classes anyway.  There should just be mages, or wizards, or whatever you choose to call them, and all the different flavors of how spellcasting works should be variations on that base class.  If you want to play a wizard who draws magic inherently from within instead of learning spells by rote, you should be able to do that with a minimum of alterations to the core class.  I find that in practice the sorcerer class and the wizard class don't really differ that much, particularly since both draw from the same spell list.  I've always thought that if you're going to have a class that functions differently, it should do so right down to the basic spells list, no overlaps.  If players had more control over the look and feel of their spells, it would make these overlaps less obvious, and less irritating to players like me who want to be unique.

While I'm on a roll, why not let mages use weapons?  The argument has always been that wizards spend so much time studying magic they don't have time to learn any combat skills.  I don't contend that a wizard should be as good a fighter as, well, a fighter.  But at least let my wizard pick up a sword without incurring a penalty.  And let me have two attacks per round, like everyone else.  Let me attack and then turn invisible, or summon a light and detect magic.  Is that really going to ruin it for everyone else?  I doubt it.  I can concede the argument for not letting spellcasters have increasing iterative attacks like some other classes, but I don't really see the point for keeping them eternally at a single attack per round.  I've seen plenty of games where the fighter goes through the battlefield like a whirlwind at higher levels, when fighters can have many attacks per round, while the mage is still stuck in "cast then move" mode. Wizards do have some very powerful high-level spells available to them, but the assumption that the wizard is like a guy with a rocket launcher at a knife fight is exaggerated in my experience.  I find that I seldom have the right spell prepared at the right time, or if I have the ultimate spell ready I can't get a clear shot to use it without risking harm to the other player-characters.   And most well-prepared GMs will make sure that there's plenty of magical opposition to keep a high-level wizard busy in a boss fight. 

Well, that's enough harping about magic rules for now.  Perhaps my next entry will be on some issues around the roleplaying of spellcasters that have been on my mind.