Thursday, August 29, 2013

Your Path to Real Ultimate Magic

...Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,  
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full  
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;  
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,  
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between  
The effect and it!
--MacBeth

The spell system in Dungeons & Dragons works fairly well for the game.  The game is mostly about exploration, puzzle solving, and combat, and the spell system is loaded with utility effects to give players tools to solve game problems.  It's great for the game, it's just not very literary.

Example, the Light spell:  The torch of tomorrow, today!  Why carry a burning stick of wood, when you can have light that's safe, heatless, and brighter than a torch, all for the low cost of a 1st level spell?  If you act now, we'll upgrade you to a permanent heatless lamp at 3rd level, Continual Light!

You see the same thing with the Levitate, Fly, Dimension Door, and Teleport sequence of movement spells.  It's magic as technology.  Narrator:  Why physically walk up stairs with your own muscles when you can fly?  In the future, wizards everywhere will dazzle with feats that defy gravity and both time and space.  Grocery shopping will never be the same when you can teleport to the market!

(Apparently, magic as technology makes me view standard D&D magic effects as a 1950's expo for the world of tomorrow, since that's the voice in my head...)

Literary magic, on the other hand, usually features horrible choices and sacrifice.  There is a price to be paid for power.  Odin sacrifices an eye to learn wisdom at the well of wisdom (Mimir's spring) and in other stories is hung for nine days on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, in order to gain wisdom.  Alberich the Dwarf forswears love for his magic powers.  Faust sells his soul to the devil, one of many such literary dealers.  Even characters embedded in a setting where they have superhuman powers often make dark choices for more power - Saruman, Voldemort, Darth Vader.

Then there's the approach we see in writers like HP Lovecraft, where magic frequently has terrible (unforeseen) consequences.  Lovecraft's fiction is full of instances where a would-be sorcerer contacts beings from beyond or summons liminal entities, then gets blind-sided by the repercussions.  That's the twist.  Sure, the Deep Ones will give you gold and valuables dredged up from the ocean muck… just don't read the fine print.  And remember, a deal's a deal.

Earlier this year, one of the cooler OSR type game books that came out was the LOTFP Better Than Any Man for free RPG day.  While folks gritted their teeth about the salacious cover or the full page picture of the cannibal cultists, one piece that flew under the radar was the approach to low level spells in the book.

Consider such "overpowered" first level spells as A Spell to Grant One’s Heart’s DesireJourney to the Past , De-Age, or Deflect Damage.  A Spell to Grant One’s Heart’s Desire is essentially a first level Wish spell, but the caster dies as part of casting the spell; it's the nearby folks that get their wishes granted!  Journey to the Past is a severely limited version of time travel; De-Age is a longevity effect that can force loss of levels and other unfortunate side effects; Deflect Damage provides a powerful combat effect, but the deflected damage lands on random nearby people - ideal for a power mad loner, not so great for an adventuring party looking for utility spells.

The bit that's so interesting about these overpowered first level spells is that it highlights an implied axis in the default D&D spell system: high level D&D spells are high level because they combine usefulness, a powerful effect, and a notorious lack of negative side effects.  Sure - you can have a powerful Wish effect at 1st level, but the short cut is going to cost you more than you can imagine.  If you want to do powerful magic the "safe way", it's going to take a lot of hard work and a ton of experience points.  See you again at level 18.

The benefit to DM's is clear.  If there is a powerful, whimsical, literary effect you want to achieve, there's very little harm making it a first level spell, as long as it's accompanied by terrible costs or awful side effects.  Think of it like a skill test.  Your player character magic users aren't going to be interested in effects that maim their characters; leave that to the NPC's who "fail their wisdom checks" to make short-sighted power grabs.  For instance, I love the idea of a first level Raise Dead spell to bring back a dead loved one, but then the caster has to deal with the Pet Sematary style consequences when the loved one isn't quite the same person on the return side.

This is all part of an underlying philosophy that eschews game balance and treats the campaign world with reckless disregard for the status quo.  My name is Beedo, and I approve this message.

7 comments:

  1. ...Aaaand have you *seen* magic in the DCC RPG...?

    Every spell contains risk and danger, as well as super-charged (by D&D standards) effects. Magic Missile could cripple the caster, ~OR~ shoot up to 14 missiles that deal 1d10+ damage at a known target 100 miles away! Those are the extreme ends, and not the most likely results, but they are there, in the spell, waiting to defy your hopes and expectations...

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  2. Most of those utility spells are very common in literature.

    Light is used by Gandalf in Moria, just as one example. They represent the common sorts of wizardly things that we expect of a magic user.

    Sure there is the study of magic for knowledge and power, but most practitioneers will also study the simpler and everyday usefull applications as well.

    I also prefer magic that is named and particular. like all the very specific spells in The Dying Earth, rather than generic stuff like the magic missle.

    A wizard creates and sculpts a spell to suit his needs, whther that is summoning Migos or lighting their pipe.

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  3. And the Elric saga had lots of levitation and dimension doors.

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  4. Yeah, it's true - we've seen the evolution of utility magic in 20th century fantasy fiction... it starts with Gandalf making a little bit of light, and reaches an ultimate expression in the Harry Potter universe with magical dry cleaners, taxis, and candy shops. Better Living Through Magic.

    For our dungeon-based table top RPG's, the utility magic is an important component of challenging the players with puzzle solving and resource management. I don't love it from a world-building perspective.

    Thus I'm enthused about the LOTFP approach marrying traditional "ritual magic" into the 1st level spell system. Powerful, idiosyncratic magic effects, previously relegated to "plot devices", can be made available to the players - if they can find a use.

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