Monday, August 12, 2013
Magic Systems in Role-Playing Games, or, Why I Rarely Play My Favorite Character
Eric Treasure over at The Dragon's Flagon recently had a post titled, "How old school D&D gets magic (mostly) right." (on a quick side note, I don't know how I got into reading so many "old school" blogs when I myself am really a "newer school" player) In addition to his post, I've been combing over a lot of blogs for role-playing opinions and ideas and suddenly I felt the need to weigh in on magic (as if enough people haven't).
I'm going to start however, being me, in a very round-about fashion and tell you about my favorite character, in fact, one of my favorite characters ever, and then later I'll explain why I hate playing him.
Thorvin Wolfensson is the bright, gifted only son of minor nobles in the trade city of Riverwatch. As a child he would often travel with his father, head of the Metalsmith's Guild, and being both very outgoing and un-restrainably curious would ask the smiths many questions. On day he met a smith wearing a strange pendant, a tree with a smithing hammer growing downwards from the trunk. The smith told Thorvin it was the holy symbol of Hesphaesus, the Great Maker. Hesphaesus was also commonly called the Silent God for he had few worshippers, and yet he was integral to all the Gods. He created the world, at the behest of the other Gods, as well as all life on it. He also created all sorts of weapons, armor, and items for the Gods themselves and special gifts for those mortals favored by the Gods (the first magic items). Fascinated, Thorvin would begin attending the small meetings of the worshippers of Hesphaesus (which his parents were neutral about) and he also began learning crafting (which his parents were thrilled about), at first metalsmithing and then driven by his endless desire to learn, every other craft he could get someone to show him.
In his teens, Thorvin's latent magical gift developed. After a terrible sickness he began moving objects and producing lights uncontrollably. The head of the Wizard's Guild, out of respect to Thorvin's father, personally tested the young man and said that his gift was very strong despite having developed late. Thorvin thus entered the Novice training at the Tower of Wizardry. It was here, while meditating one day, that Thorvin's life truly changed. While seeking in his mind for the flows of his power, an exercise to begin learning how to shape spells, Thorvin saw his magic as coming from his life-force itself - and suddenly he remembered the teachings of Hesphaesus. In a flash he saw the Great Maker as not only making physical things, but as shaping the very fabric of reality itself, and Thorvin saw his magic as a gift from Hesphaesus, a way to also create, as the God did. This revelation opened a door in Thorvin's mind, and he felt himself drawn outside his body, beyond the Material Plane to the very forge of Hesphaesus himself. Thorvin would never speak of what exactly happened in his vision, but he felt himself chosen to be a priest of the Silent God, to build and make and shape, and to use his gifts, magical and mundane, to help all living things.
Upon discovering his dual abilities of arcane and divine magic, Thorvin was moved out of regular classes and into a special dual-apprenticeship with the Tower and the Radiant Church, who worshiped seven primary Gods but welcomed all peaceful faiths. Growing quickly in power, Thorvin made a name for himself with his unusual (though not unheard-of) abilities. And, as a son of the nobility, he spent all his free time at parties, dances, banquets and generally socializing. Being very intelligent Thorvin easily remembered every detail of the people he met, his curiosity meant he would happily talk the ears off anyone, asking them questions about themselves and their profession, and he had an easy-going charm that naturally drew people to him. His faith in the Great Maker led him back to crafting, as a way to bridge his public life from his family and station with his private life of the arcane and divine. Thorvin learned quickly to blend his magics with his crafting to produce stunning pieces quickly, and would give them as gifts or make them for a specific person. This sent him back often to the blacksmith who first introduced Thorvin to Hesphaesus.
After a longer-than-usual apprenticeship, given all the directions he was being pulled in, he graduated from the Tower, was Invested as a priest of Hesphaesus, and then called for a special meeting with the Mayor of Riverwatch. Thorvin was told that a previously unknown army of Drow had been mobilizing and that there were signs they were using or associated with some type of extra-planar entities. Given his unique perspective as both arcane and divine spellcaster, the Mayor asked him to join a small, elite group of adventurers who had discovered the Drow and were investigating further. Eager to be of service, Thorvin readily agreed and began using his varied spellcasting ability to support his new comrades, who would quickly become his new friends.
And that is Thorvin, my Cleric 3/Wizard 3/Mystic Theurge 6 character for Pathfinder, and one of my favorite characters ever. He is the kind of magic character I like best, the Archmage, a true master of magic. I'll grant you that the fighter/mage hybrid is fun, made lots of them, and the hard to play fighter/magic-user/thief is also fun for the pure jack of all trades type character. But if you're going to do magic why not go all the way?
The funny thing is, Thorvin almost didn't get made in the first place. To help explain that, you need to know a little about the DnD/Pathfinder magic system, which I will briefly describe in case you don't know. Spells are given levels, from the weakest at 0 to the reality-bending, world-shaking strongest at 9. Every magic using character has a certain number of slots for each level, each slot holds one spell. So, say you have a typical 5th level Wizard with no bonuses. You would have 3 slots for 1st level spells, 2 slots for 2nd level spells and 1 slot for a 3rd level spell (I'm skipping the 0th level because they are wonky) - in total you would be able to cast (3+2+1) 6 spells in a single day. In the morning you memorize your spells, and have to pick a spell for each slot. Those are the only spells you have access to for the entire day (which is why Thorvin almost didn't get made, splitting between two spellcasting types meant he would have very few spells and they would all be low level - until I found that you could make an item to hold spells, and sunk every gold piece into it; Thorvin currently has over 50 spells per day, and even lower-level spells work fine if you cast enough of them). When you cast a spell, you 'forget' it, it is gone and you cannot re-fill that slot until the next morning when you read it out of your spellbook. This is the system called Vancian magic, named after the author Jack Vance who used something very much like it in his series of Dying Earth stories.
Vancian magic has been a part of Dungeons and Dragons since the very beginning. A humble level 1 Wizard (or Magic-user) knew a single, humble level 1 spell. So the party would go out, find trouble, the Wizard would cast his spell (holding it until absolutely needed), and then putter around in the background. He'd hold the torches, bind the wounds of anybody who went down in combat (this was before the Heal skill), draw the map, and generally do those things that are helpful to the other characters but boring as hell to play. Which character would you rather play, Batman or Alfred? As the Wizard leveled up he would find scrolls (one-shot spells) and wands (one spell with 50 shots) and thus would be more useful. He would get a few more spell slots, though having to choose them before you knew what spell you needed limited their effectiveness. It was better to rely on items to do the casting more than one's own, innate ability.
Which, well, is exactly how Jack Vance set up the system, at least that's what I gathered from reading his stories. The Dying Earth stories are actually techno-fantasy. In Vance's world there are computers (well, brains in jars) and flying machines and such alongside the spells that can be cast then forgotten. Both share the same underpinning, they are forgotten. No one remembers how to use the technology (an entire city lives in thrall to its machines in one story) just like wizards forget their spells. Most of the books of spells are gone, only one great wizard has a huge library of spells - and he lives on another planet/dimension. It is, well, a dying world, slipping into barbarism and forgetting its once-great glories. That was the world he wanted to create, both incredibly powerful and kind of pathetic. More dystopian than high fantasy. So how on earth did this system end up in the high fantasy role-playing game of D&D?
Honestly, I have no idea. I am not a scholar of D&D, I started playing with the Red Box (so called because it was a red box, it had a red dragon and barbarian or fighter on the cover) and continued through 3.5 (I skipped 4th edition and went to Pathfinder). My only guess is based on something Mr. Treasure mentioned in his post that I referenced at the beginning of my own now overly-long (and still growing) post. I want to quote a few parts of his post to comment on:
I think it's fairly self-evident that in a game, magic must be limited and restrained somehow. It's all well and good in a novel or a movie to have a magic-wielder manifest powers as the plot demands, but a game requires clearly comprehensible limitations. Unlimited use of automatically successful abilities makes for overpowered characters and boring games. The tension and excitement of the game comes from uncertainty, which is accomplished in several different ways. The most obvious one is randomness, a recourse to the dice to decide the success or failure of an action. Another source of uncertainty is the asymmetry of knowledge between DM and players. The players don't know what's behind the next door or inside that locked chest until they interact with it in-game, and the DM can never be completely sure what the players will do. Asymmetry of knowledge also generates uncertainty in the management of finite resources. The utility of using a resource now must always be weighed against possible future need. A flask of oil might be just the thing against that owlbear, but will you live to regret it when your lantern gutters out three dungeon levels below the surface? Different methods of introducing uncertainty to an adventure encourage different strategies of coping with the uncertainty, which ultimately is one of the most important factors distinguishing one character class from another.
...Making magic a limited resource allows it to function very differently from mundane skills. Spells often allow automatic success, but you only have a limited number of them per day, so you must be judicious in deciding when to use them and when to rely on less certain but unlimited means. Using magic to solve problems becomes more than a question of flavor; it's instead a choice between the uncertainty of the dice and the uncertainty of finite resources against an unknown future.
I think he hit the nail on the head here. D&D started from wargames, and making tactical choices about when to use a resource is kind of a staple of wargaming. Thus, the Vancian system works on a mechanical level. It is a powerful yet finite resource, and it is capable of doing things that nothing else can (have to cast a spell to fly or teleport) which works the 'dissimilar assets' and 'resource management' paradigms of tactics. You also have to 'maneuver' by keeping your wizard in the back, safe from harm, to have him when you need him to unleash his abilities - and then keep him safe in the back again until tomorrow. From a mechanics standpoint, consciously or not, I think the designers and players of D&D realized that Vancian magic worked for the wargame/role-playing hybrid that this, then brand-new, game was blazing a trail creating.
Except, well, this isn't a wargame, D&D is a role-playing game, and that means thinking beyond mechanics. Let's try a little role-playing. You are Derf, the mighty man-at-arms. Your powerful thews, sharp sword and strong armor are good against almost anything. You can take a licking and keep on ticking. As you are at the inn having your last drink before setting out on your grand adventure, someone walks up to you. He is scrawny, pale white from not getting enough sun, squinty-eyed from always reading by candle-light and wearing pajamas. He introduces himself as a wizard who is also looking for adventure. He offers to go with you, helping you in exchange for some of the loot. He can cast spells, well, a spell, a sleep spell, so he can put something to sleep, well, something not too strong; a goblin, sure, orc maybe, dragon forget it - and not any undead or animated statues or plants, things that don't sleep in the first place. Oh yeah, no elves either, they don't sleep they just 'rest their eyes.' He has a dagger, about the size of the one you eat with. He can read and write and stuff, carry your cloak (but not much else, scrawny remember). He wants to grow in power so that someday he can fly over walls, teleport into bedrooms, wish himself immortal, disintegrate everything that stands in his way and create his own plane of reality.
And you think to yourself, this isn't a companion, this is a baby megalomaniac who might someday destroy the world.
So you take him out back, beat the hell out of him, and tell him that for his own good you're locking up his spellbook and will let him read it if he behaves. You're bigger than he is, so you can get away with it. But, well, this spellbook thing is basically a weapon of mass destruction with illustrations and coffee stains, so you get a few of your buddies. You overpower the wizards (just go after the young/weak ones first, mob the medium ones, and put "do not disturb" signs around the old ones) and take all their books, locking them up in safekeeping. Still, they might be useful so you let them go with you as long as they also behave. Speaking of books, this whole 'writing' thing looks dangerous, better do something about that. Maybe if you get the clerics on your side you can outlaw writing, let the clerics handle it (and they can edit things as needed even) and just tell people what to do. Anyone who disobeys you, you sick your pet wizards on (who will be glad to actually be able to cast their spell). Now you can set up a utopian society where everybody does what they're told and no new, scary things could be invented that might destroy reality (and suddenly you're playing Dragon Age :).
At least, that would be a hell of a lot smarter thing to do than actually take this guy out and help him get the keys to ultimate power.
Mr. Treasure, in his post quoted above, makes a great point about magic being able to do whatever the plot demands. Which makes me wonder, what do we use magic for anyways? Why do so many stories, and even the fantasy genera, have magic? What is magic exactly?
My dictionary has magic as, "Any art that invokes supernatural powers," which I think gets our salient point: the supernatural. Magic is not natural, it is super-natural. Well, what does that mean? Sure, magic users are powerful, but so is nature. A lightning bolt sets off a wildfire that destroys hundreds of thousands of acres of forest. A hurricane flattens anything in its path, so does a volcano erupting. Even the humble river slowly carves out the Grand Canyon. And magic users have access to a wide variety of spells, but so does nature. Animals fly, swim, burrow, live next-door to underwater volcanoes. They communicate over vast distances, have built-in compasses, see by hearing and in the dark. Some crazy animals even build cities and shopping marts. What really sets apart magic from nature?
Well, in my opinion, one thing: caring. See, nature doesn't care about you, or anything or anybody. Nature is. That wildfire wasn't personal, the hurricane didn't single you out for retribution, and the shark doesn't ever say to itself, "awww.... that baby seal is so darn cute I can't eat it." Nature doesn't care. On the other hand, if you find yourself on the receiving end of a fireball spell, you can bet there is a very unhappy wizard on the delivering end. Happy wizards heal you, neutral wizards disarm you, and angry wizards disintegrate you and the city you happen to be standing in. They care. The great power of magic is simply to impose one's inner state on external reality. One of my favorite literary wizards is Harry Dresden, from Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series of novels. There is a scene, and I don't have the book with me so I'm paraphrasing out of memory, when Harry doesn't cast a spell. See, he had just been in a fight with a magically-enchanted scorpion - said fight ending with him dropping an elevator on said scorpion; and oh yeah, he was in the elevator at the time. All while trying to protect the non-magical police officer Karrin Murphy, his friend, who was trying to arrest him (over a misunderstanding). It was not a good day. Harry is outside the building, Karrin is being taken to the hospital (scorpion), and he decides to go after the evil wizard who created the scorpion. But he forgot his staff, it is inside the building. He doesn't have time to run up the stairs and back down (no elevator, currently) so he thinks about casting a simple spell of Air to bring to staff to him. But he doesn't. He doesn't because he is so keyed-up and angry that he knows his simple spell will likely take out half the building with the power/force/rage of the winds he would summon. So he heads out to do battle without his staff. I love that passage because it, to me, is the heart of being a wizard. It's not about the fancy tricks, or even the power, it's about yourself. Magic is your own nature given life and form in the outside world.
This is why I love magic but hate playing it in a game. Game wizards are just mechanics, walking catapults with lists of creative ways to kill things. They have some flavor, a little color, but really they do not have the one key element: caring. Their power does not come from their character, because we play role-playing games and not character-playing games. Well, most at least. There are some games like Sorcerer or My Life With Master or similar that actually have mechanics for how a character's nature effects their abilities. But they are in the minority. If you like Pathfinder, as I do, you just accept that your magic is not really very magical. You role-play it the best you can, in-spite-of and not because-of the rules. In part that is unavoidable, nobody has come up with a good system to even describe how people feel/behave - just search Wikipedia for "categorization of emotions" and you'll find lots of different systems with anywhere from 6 to 48 emotions and complex inter-relationships. Without a decent understanding in the real world, how can we model it in a game? So I do not say this to put down any existing systems, but it is a sad lack in gaming for those of us who like magic-users.
Anyways, a few last comments and I'll wrap this up. Mechanically my favorite system is actually in Microlite20, that is 3.5-based and wizards spend hit points to cast spells. So a fighter risks getting hit, but his armor might protect him, in order to do damage. A wizard will guaranteed do damage (mostly) but also guaranteed take damage from casting. It makes a nice symmetry. I would love to try it with my own Pathfinder group if I could get all of us to experiment with it (and, well, get all of us in the same city - we live in the same state, different cities). For my own game, Travellers Beyond, I am trying to design a system of magic that is along the lines of 'caring'-based, but can attest that it is a very difficult thing to pull off. Meanwhile, I take out Thorvin from time to time and read lots of interesting posts on magic and magic-users.