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Breaking Out of Scientific Magic Systems in RPGs (darkshire.net)
73 points by networked on May 30, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments

This entry doesn't feel like a complete thought to me, basically some observations on notional "magic" and the rules for developing and implementing the same. Conceptually there has been a lot of work done on Magical systems, both from a technical point of view and story point of view, very little of which seems referenced :-).

Typical RPG systems use magic either entirely, or mostly entirely, for combat. Meaning attacking and defending against attacks (physical and magical) which result in damage to the player or the opponent. And unlike Magic in books like the Harry Potter series where it has more of a 'tool' nature (travel, lighting, retrieving things, fixing things, cleaning, Etc.)

That said, having dabbled in game design I have found that "real world" things like economics and physics express self contained and dynamically stable systems. That can be useful in the fantasy world given that one ever burning fire spell could burn everything in the game universe if there wasn't something which prevented that from happening. So thinks like the inverse square law and conservation of (magical) energy really help out in keeping the game from becoming radically unbalanced.

When I read "The Magic Goes Away" by Niven I felt it was an interesting take on 'magic as alternate scientific thing' and Zelazny's unfinished "Changling" trilogy about magic in an alternate world an interesting 'magic is where you find it' sort of system.

+1 to Zelazny's take on magic. Didn't realize Changeling was meant to be a trilogy (although that makes a ton more sense in retrospect, too bad it never had a threequel).

I also find his Chronicles of Amber to be an interesting take on Universe building, although the magic system is less formulated (but damn is the whole Pattern/Chaos thing cool).

All of which to say: if you haven't read Zelazny you should, he's a wonderful writer.

+N to any Zelazny praise, for N a rather large integer.

An attempt was actually made to codify Amber into a "diceless" RPG. Had some great times playing it.

There's at least a couple of AmberCons (like AmberConNW: http://www.amberconnw.org/), entire weekends where a bunch of people get together to run games in this system.

I still remember playing Shadows Over Riva where you had magic to see through walls or teleport to a distance thus completely avoiding combat with though enemies. Sure, if none of the mages in your party had those it made the game much harder, but that's the whole fun IMHO.

If you are only playing the game yourself, I don't see a need to balance out the skills, spells, races, etc. I understand that balance is needed in MMOs and such, but I love single-player games that give you freedom and ability to "rule".

Another example (non RPG though) of great non-combat magic is Heroes of Might and Magic where you have spells to summon boats, walk over the oceans, teleport across the map, see the treasure/resources obscured with fog of war, disguise your army as more powerful creatures, etc.

I always liked the magic system in Maelstrom:


Essentially, the DM judges the difficulty of a particular spell based on how unlikely it is.

So a lightning bolt in the middle of a cloudless day would be more difficult than accidentally finding a weapon on the street in the middle of a fight, which would be more difficult than your opponent stumbling and dropping their weapon.

I guess it takes some considerable imagination to create possibility ratings for impossible or unprecedented events.

If something like a hypothetical transparent force field invoked by thought, words or gestures, that can stop bullets, blades and fire in mid-air isn't actually known to be possible and might warp reality, would it warp reality more than time travel, which might be possible on paper, in certain ways, although not readily understood?

Well, fwiw, the game's mileu is historical fiction, so the system isn't intended to deal with high fantasy magical effects - just a little nudge of reality, here and there.

That seems silly to me. If the rules are just "do whatever you feel like, I guess, with the GM deciding what works", why even have rules?

Compare to, for example, Nobilis, which allows assorted flexible impossibilities but is crafted to encourage certain effects on both theme and the actual flow of gameplay.

>If the rules are just "do whatever you feel like, I guess, with the GM deciding what works", why even have rules?

If the DM can't make an entertaining story without 'rules', then why even have a DM?

I've hosted RPGs with nothing but a pencil, paper and some dice.

The point I'm trying to make is that the rules should, in some way, actively encourage results in line with the game's thematics.

For example, Dogs in the Vineyard encourages/threatens players with the risks and rewards of escalating conflict, Nobilis tries to get you to reenact a game version of the Sandman comic, and Vampire: the Masquerade rewards you for treating normal humans like pawns and playthings.

Fwiw, the Maelstrom system did exactly that. It's essentially a historical fiction role playing game, so high fantasy tropes and the like are meant to be discouraged. Magic-as-luck-manipulation allows just enough freedom to be entertaining, while maintaining the milieu of the game.

It also makes for very creative magic, since you are essentially handing the magician player an opportunity to effect the plot directly, in however they so imagine (and the DM and the dice permit), rather than giving them a gun with so many bullets in it, ala D&D.

I have yet to play a DM-less RPG, but so far I have heard good thinks about the implementation in NightWiches :) On the other hand it seems to be quite scripted.

In the end, what the GM decides is what happens anyway - so it's more of a matter of how restrictive you want your rules - suggestions - to be.

Magic as probability manipulation is about the best system I've seen.

See also David Drake's Northworld Trilogy. Though that's more science fiction than fantasy. And Keepers Chronicles by Tanya Huff.

That moment you read something and realize that someone is talking generically about a broad field (fantasy RPGs) and only has any experience with one or two examples (probably D&D).

A few other games to look into, for the curious: HeroQuest, Mage: the Ascension, Nobilis, and Sorcerer.

Yep. Mage 2nd Edition was particularly good with regards to that while still supporting a dice-and-mechanics-heavy game around it. I've never played Nobilis seriously due to lack of friends to do it with, a major problem in an RPG, but it has some beautiful game design decisions. (Highly recommended for CS geeks, which I understand the author is. My single favorite thing is a table listing comparables for answering the question "The player wants to do something which is flatly impossible. How flatly impossible is it?" It's a game where if the action is only as impossible grabbing the moon between your thumb and finger and putting it in a velvet bag then you can certainly try to go for it.)

That is pretty clearly not the case here since the author published a lot of game system reviews, maintained a giant list of free RPGs, an encyclopedia of role playing games, and so on (if you look at the entire site, for example, the reviews here: http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/reviews/)

John Kim has very broad experience with roleplaying games, fantasy and otherwise. He certainly does not have a worldview comprised entirely or mostly of one or two RPGs, and definitely not just D&D.

Source: I'm a personal friend; we play roleplaying games together fairly often; I go to one of the several cons that he goes to regularly; I have been discussing roleplaying games with him online on-and-off going back to rec.games.frp.advocacy in the mid-late 90's.

> John Kim has very broad experience with roleplaying games, fantasy and otherwise.

The completely lack of concrete ties to specific systems makes it hard to tell, but the generalizations he makes seem to be, at best, only valid of games designed to operate in a simulation-oriented manner like D&D, rather ones designed to operate in a more narrative-oriented manner (FATE, among others.)

> He certainly does not have a worldview comprised entirely or mostly of one or two RPGs

If not, he certainly seems to have a narrowness of understanding on the particular subject similar to what you might have of issues in programming languages when you had an experience of more than one or two languages -- but they were all statically-typed OO languages with Algol-style syntax.

Nope, sorry dude. You're just wrong in your inferences concerning the author's experiences. To my certain knowledge, John has played many games from the indie/narrativist/storygame branch of the rpg family tree.

Now that that essay is dated 2006, so Fate and Apocalypse World had not risen to their current prominence. But the branch of roleplaying games precipitated by the Forge existed.

Maybe you'd like to make your point without explaining what the author must have experienced?

> You're just wrong in your inferences concerning the author's experiences.

I didn't make any inferences about his experiences, I made a statement about the scope in which the generalizations he made were defensible.

> Now that that essay is dated 2006, so Fate and Apocalypse World had not risen to their current prominence.

Sure, I used FATE as an example that was likely to be familiar to current readers of what I was referring to, not as a specific system which the author should have addressed.

Now, its possible that the author's intent was to make an argument specific to simulationist-style rules.

"But the branch of roleplaying games precipitated by the Forge existed."

And others. Every game I listed, for example.

Given the author's apparent broader experience, I can't account for such a limited essay.

Also, no mention in the article of the literary inspiration for AD&D's "gamey" magic: Jack Vance. I'm reading his Dying Earth's stories, and even though I'm no fan of AD&D, I find his magic system charming. Spells are something you collect and "equip" by reading and memorizing them, and a great wizard can memorize more spells than a regular person.

Here is a paragraph from a short story ("Turjan of Miir"), with the protagonist choosing some amusingly named general purpose spells:

"Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel's Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour."

The first of which, incidentally, made its way into D&D (and thence into many other RPGs):


Ars Magica, Shadowrun, and Call of Cthulhu would be my picks to look at for magic different than D&D and its cohorts.

One of the biggest reasons why we have scientific magic in RPGs is that it gives agency to the player. When magic is a relatively mundane tool, it becomes an option that a player can rely on, and that is really important. If magic is unknowable, then it forces the GM to use the magic rather than the players. This takes agency away from the players and makes it more of a movie (zero-player game) than a game.

Personally, I find the "scientific for mundane things, but mythical for greater things" model to be the most desirable, because it's directly applicable to how we view magic in the real world - any sufficiently advanced technology is viewed as magic. If you show an 18th-century machinist a laser-etched piece, he'll be mystified. And as you gain wisdom, knowledge, and experience, the current mystery slowly unravels, to reveal still more mysteries beyond.

So, the mechanism to cast a small fireball should be mundane and understandable. In contrast, the fact that 500 years ago, a great sage burned an entire forest to ash should be mystical and unknowable... for now. Maybe it will always be a mystery. Maybe the method will become known but shown to be impossible with current abilities. Maybe the magician of the group will attain that power, but at some great cost. It's up to the GM.

This way, we get the best of both worlds - the delight and intrigue of mysterious things, and the agency of being able to manipulate known rules to solve problems.

Magic-as-a-technology has been popular in the sci-fi/fantasy genres for novels for the past ten, twenty years. I remember when it started getting popular, and I thought, "this is awesome."

It's not so awesome anymore, not for me at least.

Magic as a consequence of shifts in consciousness and awareness, as in, how you perceive and experience reality rather than any set of manipulable and repeatable forces -- that's something more interesting. I've been seeing one or two indie authors writing in this space, listing their works for the under $5 bin at Amazon.

Now how to portray that in a game? That's more difficult. One of the games I remember that have done something like this is Bastion. It wasn't necessarily part of the game mechanic, though. It was the way the narration unfolded as a reaction to your actions that started changing experiences. Another is Batman: Arkem Asylum. Another one that comes to mind is Ninja Pizza Girl, though it wasn't intended as a game on magic. It does have the shifts in consciousness though.

I expect to see a lot more of this when immersive VR/AR gets more popular. It's very easy to start messing with frames and breaking out of them in ways that will seem mildly trippy.

Still, I've got some ideas of my own, and they are implementable even with a 2-D, top-down game.

What indie books treat magic as a shift in awareness? That does sound interesting. It's similar to many actual shamanistic beliefs.

Now, here's the thing. There are a few big-name authors who does it well, but in weird places. This shows up a lot in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga -- it's sci fi.

Brent Weeks books all have this, and he does a great job with the martial arts in there too. These would be the Shadow Angel trilogy and the Lightbringer series.

The books Brandon Sanderson after he ghost-wrote the end of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series have some of these aspects. Robert Jordan is pretty good about this in some of the places.

It's not just shamanism. I've met psychonaut, meditator, or practitioners in ceremonial magic will tell you about such shifts.

Here are some of the recent ones I've found:

MageLife, P. Tempest. Warning: badly edited, though the run-on sentences has it's own rhythm and somehow works with consciousness shifts. This author nailed it. This is the one that stands out the most among the ones I have read.

MageBorn: the Blacksmith's Son. Five book series. First book is badly edited when I read it (the author didn't get a professional editor until the second book), and you don't really start seeing the consciousness shifts until at least the second book. It becomes more prominent as the series goes on. However, the first book starts out by treating enchantments as a lost technology.

Notable mentions:

"Path of Calm" is OK, but it could be done a lot better. I applaud the author's attempt because, frankly, people are stumbling their way through it. The book's "paths" are loosely based on Buddhist practices, with "Path of Calm" being samatha, and "Path of Fire" being tumo. However, the way the author talked about working with emotions tells me that, while the author might have meditative practice ... you can tell where his personal experience ends when when he starts making shit up.

"Dawn of Wonder" doesn't start with magic. It does deal deep with emotions. It's probably one of the better fictional books I've seen that depicts a genuine "born again" experience. That's towards the end though.

DK Holmberg's series, starting with Chased by Fire is OK. Again, by "OK", I mean it shows these shifts better than your run-of-the-mill magic-as-technology. The series is a bit slow, since the main character ignores a lot of himself quite a bit. I have to admit, I have not finished the series. Fell off of it at the end of the fourth book and have not gotten back into it.

There is one by a Russian author, but I don't remember the name. In this world, there are no prisoners. Criminals get sent into an MMO with the pain blockers settings removed. There are a lot of classical MMO elements -- but as you start getting deeper into the book, you start seeing those shifts come out. I'm looking forward to the next books in the series when they get translated to English.

I did think of a story I want to write.

People use magic a lot in combat settings, and I finally got tired of that. If say, magic comes from the shaping of consciousness, what if there are grave consequences to using magic to kill someone.

The story I'll write (eventually) starts with an intelligent kid whose been told never to do that. He's smarter than his teachers and parents. One day, he saw someone in trouble, wanted to be a hero -- and prove all those other adults wrong -- and steps in to kill someone.

Consequences ensues. He pretty much spends his whole life trying to run away from said consequences.

Not your usual fare. Most people want to hear a story about defeating impossible odds :-D

Thanks for all the references! I've downloaded some samples.

Your story idea reminds me of Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, one of my all-time favorite fantasy works.

Earthsea is pretty cool.

Ursula K Le Guin grew up in Asia. Her father had this copy of the Tao Te Ching, something Le Guin later rendered in English. She worked with it with the ear of a poet, spent decades working on it, throughout her writing career. Earthsea superficially resembles a Western, Tolkien-esque high fantasy, but its thematic core is rooted in the Tao Te Ching and similar streams.

That's really interesting, I didn't know that.

Oh yeah, I forgot to add this in. There is a connection between the tendency to treat magic as a system, and modernity. See Ken Wilber's writings about that.

It's really easy to say existing magic systems in games don't have the mystery that magic can in literature, like LotR. It's a lot harder to actually propose a way of designing a system that has mystery but yet is understandable to players and makes the game fun to play.

This post is all really obvious observation and no unique or innovative suggestions. Let alone a fully thought out new way of doing magic in games.

having played a great many fantasy games in my early years I was appreciative of the Hero systems take on fantasy. You created spells by choosing an effect then modifying it with advantages and disadvantages; a common disadvantage is a focus, think staff or similar.

When it comes to MMOs, Asheron's Call had the most unique system whereby as originally launched the uses of a particular spell by all players could reduce its effectiveness. Akin to a world mana pool. While it never went down severely it did suffer a reduction in effect. Combined with an early spell learning system that eventually was broken by players through group effort higher tier spells were initially rare. The best thing about their magic system was that projectile spells had the same rules as projectile weapons which means the target could dodge them!

Currently most MMOs have reduced magic spells to nearly auto attack format. As in, you never really run out of power, your health is your real resource.

I played Morrowind long ago, and am playing Elder Scrolls Online now. Morrowind had lots of non-combat magical ability, but it was still a "scientific" system in the terms of the article, with some balancing errors that I abused brutally. (Who needs cheat codes when you can achieve 100% prevention of ALL kinds of damage, as well as rapid flight?)

Elder Scrolls Online has a system that's "scientific" for the players and for generic NPC enemies, but there are much more mystical forms of magic in the world as well, which are encountered in a considerable number of quests.

One nitpick -- I'd say that in most games I've seen, evenn "non-magical" healing works very differently from that in our real world. I'd say that most healing, therefore, is magical in nature.

Games have rules, and rules are what science is made of. As such, you can't create non-science magic in a game without throwing out the rules, and therefore no longer have a game.

BTW, a whole lot of though on RPG design out there is so far up their own exhaust pipe that arguing creationism seems more sane.

The thing is, you can interact with a game world without knowing what those rules are. You can chase definite goals using means that you do not fully understand. We do that all the time in ordinary life.

I think that the mystification of game mechanics would do a great deal to improve immersion, and open up new kinds of gaming experiences. It's something I've been thinking seriously about as an indie game developer.

And then the kids sit down and document every mechanic by trial and error over at Gamefaqs and like.

Meh, i hold to Sir clarke's adage about technology and magic.

Meanwhile, MMOs are plagued by lag, especially in large-scale PvP combat, as they can't calculate what's happening in real-time. So introducing a little pseudo-randomness might be good, just to allow for more drastic approximations in the calculations. :)

One magic system I've always found would be interesting in an rpg would be Michael Moorcocks elric of melnibone. Specificaly having to depend on pacts with demons, gods and other supernatural creatures in order to obtain magic items or spells.

In Darker than Black there are Contractors. They have a "contract" which means they can cast one particular spell, after which they have to complete their "contract payment" before they can cast again. That's often a simple but annoying task like smoking a cigarette or writing a poem. The spell and payment are different for each one. Nobody got to choose.


That is such an interesting idea, especially because so many of those "obeisances" mimic OCD symptoms.

You might really like Ron Edward's RPG Sorcerer, and in particular, a later supplement book he wrote focusing (in the sense that a love letter focuses) on the sword-and-sorcery genre, Sorcerer and Sword. The game focuses laser-sharp on getting power from dangerous, mysterious entities.

Chaosium's RPG rules for the world of Elric are exactly that. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stormbringer_%28role-playing_ga...

Hadean Lands (recent IF game by Andrew Plotkin) is all about trying to figure out the rules of the magic (alchemy) system and it's relation to the world.

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