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.  

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