02 August 2009

Magic Systems

I often find myself thinking about magic systems in games. I've seen many. Just a couple:
  • D&D: Spells are divided into levels, with certain spells available at each level depending on your class. You can cast a number of spells of each level per day of game time, again based on your character's level.
  • GURPS: Spells are divided into colleges, which are really only important as organisational tools. You learn each spell individually in the same way as skills, using weaker spells as prerequisites for more powerful spells. Casting spells costs Fatigue Points, which are based on your character's Strength.
  • Shadowrun: There is a spell list. You can learn any spell you like. When you cast a spell, you have to roll (the exact roll depends on which spell you're casting) to determine the effects of "drain."
  • Ars Magica: There are five "verbs" and ten "nouns," with varying ratings in each. To cast a spell, you roll a number of dice equal to the verb + noun.
  • Mage: There are nine spheres that govern all possible magical effects. The higher your rating in a sphere, the more control you have over that realm. Spheres can be combined for more powerful effects. Roll your Arete (magical awareness) to cast spells.
  • Talislanta: there are twelve "modes," which cover different potential actions (such as Attack, Defend, Heal, Move, Illusion, &c.). Roll your rating in the appropriate mode to cast a spell.
There's a lot of variation there. I've even seen a book (Authentic Thaumaturgy) written by a man with a degree in Magic describing how to use "real world" magic systems as a basis for gaming magic.
In game terms, there's something to be said for each. The GURPS and D&D systems leave no question as to what you character can and can't do, but require memorising lengthy lists of spells. Talislanta and Mage are more free-form, which can be intimidating to less creative players, but frees you from the limitations and burdens of spell lists.

In "reality," I am of the belief that humans have the power to affect the universe through their perceptions. To put it in crude terms, when everyone believed the world was flat, the world was flat, and it was only when they "realised" that it was round did it become round. In that sense, the Mage system best models my hypothesis.

I've devised an even more freeform system based on this belief: you have one rating (something like "Essence"), and you roll it to cast a spell. You don't need to learn a specific spell or study a particular realm of magic; if you can imagine it, you can do it. The downside is that the human mind isn't meant to handle this sort of fluid reality, so each time you cast a spell, you accrue a number of Insanity Points (the more powerful the effect, the more IPs you gain). Every ten points, you gain a new derangement. Once you have 100 IPs, you're totally insane and no longer useable as a PC.

I've also wondered about technology as magic. Maybe that magic pain-relief potion just happens to be made from willow bark, a known source of aspirin? Or the lightning-bolt-casting magic wand is a primitive taser made from "medieval" materials? Wizard's guilds don't teach "spell lists," they teach an advanced technology that is only viewed as magic because nobody outside the wizard's guilds knows what's really going on?

Anyway, interesting ideas. Maybe you can use some in a game that you run. But for now, I will bid you adieu, and of course, don't forget to

Game on!

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