01 December, 2011

Messing With Magic Again

Little gnomes stay in their homes.
I’ve gone over this ground before, but today I’m riding it on a different horse. In getting ready to run a hangout game on G+, I needed to make a decision about two main things. Magic and hobbits.

It isn’t that I don’t like hobbits. I think hobbits are great. I love their anachronistic lifestyle, with waistcoats and sideboards and grandfather clocks plopped in the middle of a medieval milieu. However, I also think hobbits only really belong in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Sure, there are little tiny people in lots of legends and myths and tales, but they’re not really hobbits. Leprechauns and brownies and hobgoblins are not hobbits. Hobbits are setting-specific.

Now back when I ran my old old game, I said it took place on Middle Earth.. just not a part of Middle Earth anywhere remotely near the events of the books. This let me put in hobbits and other things with a clear conscience. I think I’d like to distance myself from that idea though, and have events take place in their own world. Thus, for now at least, no hobbits. Instead, folk-myth gnomes. Smaller than hobbits, remotely similar anachronistic lifestyle, living in and under trees instead of in and under hills. A big difference is that these little gnomes aren’t skittish about adventures or magic.

That’s sorted! Now for magic.

The problem with magic is the same. The system used by DnD throughout most of the game’s history, and used also by the overwhelming majority of similar games, is setting-specific. The idea of only being able to hold, like bees in a jar, a certain number of spells within one’s mind, and then having them disappear to blankness upon casting, is very interesting. It makes spellcasters engage in some strategic decisions, which is a good and interesting thing. However, I also think it only really belongs in Vance’s Dying Earth. The majority of magic in old legends and tales just isn’t done that way.

The problem with all the ideas I was having about how to deal with magic boil down to pretty much one issue. How do I keep magic from being overused without adding more mechanics to the game? Spellcasters in stories clearly have something against blasting a zillion spells around all the time. Something to do with the balance of nature and not wanting to incur the wrath of chaos or dark outer gods or something, I’m sure. Spell points are too fiddly, I’ve decided. Besides, what are those points measuring? Fatigue of some kind? Fabled spellcasters only seem fatigued after certain specific things, not just everything. On the other hand, I hate it when perfectly interesting spells go unused for ages and ages because the likelihood of needing them is so low.

Here’s what I came up with!

Casters use the memorisation tables in the rules they’re currently using. For an OD&D magic-user, for example, this means 1 first level spell at 1st level, 2 first level spells at 2nd level, etc. They also say which specific spells they have prepared, just like usual.
Their prepared spells are just the ones they have at the front of their mind, ready at a moment. They can, instead, cast any other spell they know of the same level, but at twice the casting time. Have Sleep prepared and want to cast Charm Person instead? No problem, but it will take you 2 rounds to cast that Charm Person instead of just 1. A big difference when death is on the line!

What if your 2nd level magic-user has already cast two 1st level spells and needs to cast another? Same thing - it will take double the casting time to get it off. That’s not all though. For exceeding that spells-per-level number on the memorisation chart, you need to roll a good old fashioned save vs. spells when you cast it. If you make the save, no worries. Fail the save, and you have to roll on a spell failure table. Instead of creating extra work, rolling on a table if you fail should just create some anxiety and suspense, which are great things for a game.

Ooh, a table!
No, I didn’t make one of my own yet. I’ve seen several out there that looked pretty neat. If you’ve made a spell failure table for some reason, stick a link to it in the comments down there. :)

This also works if you want to let spellcasters attempt spells which are beyond their current ability, something which happens in the stories now and then. Apply penalties to the save vs. spells depending on how far beyond their abilities they’re trying go. I wouldn’t allow a 20 to always succeed in this case, either.

One more thing I’ve decided. A character can only benefit from one casting of any specific healing spell once per day. Once Dilbod has been healed by a Cure Light Wounds, the magic needs some time to sink in before another Cure Light Wounds will have any effect on him, regardless of who casts it. A different spell, like Cure Serious, could help him some more before tomorrow though. This may be fairly harsh, but I think it’s necessary if I’m giving casters a way to exceed their limits. I’ll allow people to bind open (only) wounds to stop bleeding and get back 1hp, once for each combat in which they get themselves hurt.


John Johnson said...

Barbarians of Lemuria handles this aspect of magic better than anything else I've seen. The magic user tells the GM what she wants to do. The GM says "OK, the difficulty level of that is XYZ."

That's it. No memorization of spells. It's all intuitive and mysterious. It's designed for sword & sorcery more than high fantasy, but if you want magic to remain mysterious that might be an option to consider

Anonymous said...

Little gnomes stay in their homes.

Is that a quote from Neil's Heavy Concept Album, from the song "The Gnome" (here at the 2:32 mark)?

And where is the gnome illustration from Michael?

migellito said...

@David - Same song, but I'd never heard Nigel Planer's version. I have one of his Neil books :) Here is the original version I was thinking of.. http://youtu.be/-mAFNwRsqOA

The picture is by Jon Hodgson from his deviantArt page. http://jonhodgson.deviantart.com/

Anonymous said...

Thanks Michael. If I knew about the Pink Floyd original I must've data-dumped it.

I should've known the gnome painting was by an artist I liked. I'm getting The One Ring RPG for Christmas and am looking forward to seeing his illustrations in print. Without a doubt Hodgson's painting was inspired by the best gnome book of them all.

Stuart said...

I like these ideas a lot!

Roger Burgess said...

The Net Libram of Random Magical Effects: http://www.freewebs.com/orrex/NLRMEv2.pdf

Roll a d10,000. It's AWESOME.

Michael Moscrip said...

After using this in play for a while, I've changed it a bit for my games. For casting a different spell when you still have the slot unused, it's a save vs. spell instead of doubling the casting time.

Tim Shorts said...

I'm always wanting to tweak and make something more...more...and there is the problem. I want to make it more of something. But always go back to using the old stuff.

Good luck with you system and I never thought about the hobbits that way.