Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Nitpicking of Typical Fantasy Games - Magic, Accessibility & Pets

One of the things that really bugs me about fantasy games, and I mean really bugs me, is that it's so hard to bring in the bits I really love. Superstition. Occultism. That sense of the strange. Sure, Pathfinder and Dungeons & Dragons both have some room for superstition with material components to spells and certain materials bypassing damage reduction, but that's generally about as far as it goes rules-wise. The spells don't really feel magical. They feel mathematical. Because they are.

It's a problem that a lot of roleplaying systems have for me, really. And it's a problem that's increased by my position as Storyteller since I have to know the maths behind each character and creature. While I could slow down the action by requiring my players to gather their material components in-game in a realistic low-magic fantasy setting, I will still know that I'm expanding the focus on one element of gameplay that isn't really meant to have that much attention put upon it. Sure there is the occasional session that might revolve around players having to think fast because their spell component pouches are gone and they have to make do with what material components can be found in the ship. But how often can you do that in one campaign?

I have the same problem with the World of Darkness. Well, more of a problem with it in the World of Darkness. While the system is meant to be a toolkit and you are theoretically encouraged to have any old McGuffin be vital for a monster take-down, the system is still very lock-and-key. The fact that the monsters are designed to be player characters and that certain realms and antagonists can only be affected by certain creatures with certain powers or certain objects really bugs me. There's a little bit of canonical material surrounding what happens when a human enters the hedge, deals with spirits or runs into the Hisil but not very much and it generally ends one way -- with a splat.

While I know that the World of Darkness is meant to be horror first and urban fantasy second - something all the more firmly displayed with New World of Darkness 2.0 - it's still annoying that splat or *use specified power here* is the only answer. Since the system is so modular it's easier to disregard canonical words then house rule mechanics, it's a bit easier to work around but maybe I don't want to find a work around.

Maybe I want to find something that really captures the spirit behind all those superstitions and strange occult practices that proliferate in the world.

The other thing that bugs me in typical fantasy games is something quite small and easily fixed by any Storyteller worth their salt and that's the rather uninteresting array of quirky mounts, animal companions and familiars. Sure there are different species to choose from, but not much variety within species. It'd be nice to have a few alternative feats to really reinforce their different personalities and abilities. Especially with horses. I really think horses are under-utilised in fantasy games. Unless I'm going with a western theme my players generally don't bother with them and instead go about on foot. For shame! Horses are both speedy and interesting. I'd definitely prefer a game that reinforced that.

While I'm sure there are other systems that do deal with these problems satisfactorily, the fact is that both my players and I really do like these systems and their versatility. As far as the players are concerned, the systems are just fine. Sure some of the elements of a World of Darkness game are kept under lock and key but, hey, not only does each monster type have it's own realms to explore but I create enough workarounds to ensure that I (and therefore they) get to play in other creatures' sandpits. And with the Pathfinder monsters the magic is in the presentation. Oh, and they like their quick cast spells and easy access magic, thank you very much. They don't need overcomplications to get in the way of their monster mashing which is fair.

I guess my main annoyances (and why these are nitpicks) is that while these are truly fantastic systems, I just have a few issues with them that get in the way of my sense of adventure.


  1. I've been running into this issue with Monitors - trying make magic feel different from non-magic is tricky. I think a big part of that, in most fantasy settings, is that so much of the world is influenced or pervaded by magic that it doesn't necessarily make sense to split them, if you see what I mean? So if people are using magic streetlamps, magic swords are standard issue for guard captains, the average innkeeper is a spellcasting bard and you can buy love potions in any town, making magic feel strange doesn't entirely make sense - they've been adopted into everyday life, so they should be familiar. Everyone knows about wizards and what they can do.

    In a lot of stories, magic is allowed to be much stranger. Diana Wynne Jones has lots of magic, but spellcasters are still rare, just about every spellcaster has different abilities that work in radically different ways, and magic is very much less explicit and visible than fireballs even when it's extremely powerful. Le Guin's magic is weird, and so is Vance's. Legendary magic is often about things that are out of place or don't obey the normal rules, like inextinguishble fires, castles out of thin air, armour that can't be pierced, or "simple" charms and geases that determine what can happen.

    I suppose another thing is that so much superstition gets turned into mechanical setting, there often isn't much left to use for set dressing - and while PCs might go with common knowledge superstition for a while, the second they think something's mechanically ineffective they're like to drop it forever.

    1. That's a really good point, in which case, the sense of wonder and magic needs to be conveyed to the players rather than to the characters. The trouble with this is that typically in fiction that wonder is presented through an audience surrogate who is someone from this world entering into that world whereas the players play locals.

      The whole mechanically ineffective point is so very true and it's unfair as a GM to actually twist their arm to do something they know is stupid. Maybe it's okay the first time, but the second and the third?

  2. I completely understand where you're coming from with this. I hate how mathematical and un-fantastic magic is presented in most games. In Sword & Sorcery style gaming, I've managed to alleviate this problem a little bit by simply limiting what spells the characters know. In most editions of D&D, Wizards don't automatically learn spells; they have to find them, and Clerics have to pray for specifics, and gods can say no. I tend to play a little heavy handedly and give out new spells like I give out new magic items (i.e. rarely). In low magic settings,there isn't likely to be a spellbook lying around with a plethora of 3rd-5th level spells ripe for the picking, and a wizard of that level is not going to want to share their secrets...

    On a side note, the AD&D 2E Dungeon Masters' Guide has a cool little table for rolling random traits for horses such as "biter", "charger", and "will not gallop." I do appreciate making pets a bit more special beyond just the base mechanics of species and some pat stats.

    1. That's the other bit I didn't get time to discuss before work. You could try adapting some of those many NPC tables to use with familiars and companions. Familiars in particular offer some possibilities, because while they're not going to (I would think) actually work against their owners, they might have quite different opinions, methods and moralities to their owners. As well as general personality stuff, potentially there might be distrust of a secretive familiar, or the familiar might be disdainful of a fallible master, or decide to just take the item they want from an NPC when nobody's looking. "For your own good" is a handy term :) Animal companions are often more powerful than low-level PCs, and might have a quite Princess Mononoke view of these frail creatures - a bear might be avuncular, contemptuous, big-brotherly or just puzzled by the puny wizard. What does a flying companion think of all these slow-moving earthbound creatures, and how does it feel when they eventually gain flying magic?

  3. The more fantastical a world is, the more mundane that fantasy becomes.

    For spells, you as the GM can keep a tighter rein over what's out there. Magic Users can't just learn new spells out of the blue, even when they level. They've got to have access to the books and scrolls. This gives you the ability to have some control over what sorts of magic exists in your setting. Additionally, you can introduce original spells specific to your game in the forms of spell books or scrolls, introducing spells of a more mysterious quality to suit your tastes.

    One idea for horses is to make travel time enough of a story issue that having or not having horses might make a difference in what the characters find when they get wherever it is they're going. Also, what would be cuter than a halfling riding an alpaca? NOTHING!

    1. hehe, I like that idea for horses. "You want to get to where in how much time? Well, on foot you can just about quadruple that!" It won't be an issue in my Pathfinder game since they can teleport now and it'll be hard keeping their ships relevant but it's a grand idea for those earlier levels.

  4. I was going to comment on this, but I wound up having so much to say that I had to write an entire post about it.


  5. "I will still know that I'm expanding the focus on one element of gameplay that isn't really meant to have that much attention put upon it."

    I think you can do that if you have just one wizard player who really wants the game to feel wizardy - or player(s) who don't mind simply being a wizard's companion - then you can build the whole campaign around wizardly things i.e. each quest is to gain some new spell or magical power for the wizard and you then try and make each quest fit this:

    "is that it's so hard to bring in the bits I really love. Superstition. Occultism."

    The other thing i like the idea of doing is not having reams of spells but a few generic ones, damage, shielding, summoning, fire etc whose effects and power are determined by things that feel wizardy.

    The player could have a lore stat like a combination of mythos and occult stat in Cthulhu gained from reading old books (possibly requiring learning various languages) talking to summoned or searched for creatures, studying the carvings at a ruined temple, getting nailed to a magic tree in the far north and sacrificing an eye in the process etc.

    Summoning an imp safely might take a lore of 10+ (and possibly a bunch of materials), summoning a demon might take 300+. Similarly to damage them. Along the same lines the player could have a long list of available skin slots for tattoos or ritual scars and item slots for lots of rings, bracelets, torques, belts all of which had some small effect or other e.g. +10 lore against dryads.

    Lastly many of the steps in these quests would require components so a summoning might require writing the command words on a scroll made from blah blah written in ink made from blah blah so that's another two quests.

    All of the meat and potatos is still mechanical when it comes to a fight but the atmos of the game in terms of what the wizard actually spends all his time doing is all witchy and spooky. He doesn't go kill some kobolds for exp to level and gain a spell. He learns a language to read an old book which tells of a ruined temple where if he has x, y, z component he can summon and speak to - if can control it - a demon who can tell him the location of the book of blah blah which contains the secrets of fire magic.

    With a full group they'd get antsy at the whole campaign revolving around one character but it could be great fun to do as a one-player campaign maybe with a bodyguard fighter NPC.

    Similarly if you re-jig all the magic rules so there's only a few spells "Summo

    1. I can imagine doing this quite well in Mage: the Awakening with rotes. If you control access to rotes all the way around - including giving NPCs very few rotes - then you could quite easily do that. Improvisational casting is far more problematic than rote-casting.

    2. I haven't heard of Mage: the Awakening so i'll have to check it out. (I used to play these games a lot but dropped out for a long time and am thinking of starting again with my brother so they'e likely to be one player campaigns at the start hence why this is an interesting idea to me.)

      In theory you could do it even with a D&D type game if you simply started an apprentice wizard without any spells and they had to go and quest for them in some way i.e. quest for their sleep spell or their magic missile spell, or go fight enemy NPC wizards simply to get their spell books (as wizard NPCs would have a random collection of spells like Cthulhu books)(similarly potentially quest-giving neutral NPCs with a random collection of spells who'll teach one the player wants in exchange for some service)( or demons to summon and do a task for etc) - make the whole thing revolve around the quest for magic.

      It would be hard to keep a solo wizard alive in D&D though :)

      Plus i think a more involved magical system would suit the idea better anyway.

      Also a third option (other than a single player campaign or a two player where one of them didn't mind being the sidekick/bodyguard) would be if you did have a group and you did the same thing with each class and then rotated i.e. they all quested for their class' special skills/abilities/spells and you took it in turns, example

      Adventure 1: to get a new spell for the wizard player
      Adventure 2: a pilgrimage to a shrine somewhere dangerous to get gifted a new spell for the priest from their god
      Adventure 3: a quest for a +1 sword for the fighter player(prob have to be gear for fighters although maybe for things like feats also depending on the system)
      Adventure 4: etc

      In particular i like the idea of exp/reward coming from completing a task rather than killing critters as then cleverly avoiding critters becomes a viable tactic.

      Lots of food for thought. Any there any other systems out there apart from the one you mentioned that might suit this idea well - something where the magic part (my bro is into the same kinds of things you mentioned in your opening post) is complex and intricate?

      (Although currently i'm thinking i'll probably make it complex and intricate to *learn* new spells and leave casting them fairly mechanical - maybe - will see.

      Anyway - sorry to keep going on :)

    3. You could certainly do it in Pathfinder (D&Dish) though your players would need to be as committed to the drip-feed idea as you are. While doable, most players are after a more rapid progression than that.

      I'm not sure about other more magic-intensive systems. If you want high risk magic, the Trail of Cthulhu and BRP Call of Cthulhu systems can work for it.

      Otherwise ... well, I'm not heaps aware of many different settings.

      Mage: the Awakening is one of the many World of Darkness games out there. There's improvisational casting though you don't require somatic components. You can always invent rituals and add them in which require certain Arcanum to be used in certain locations but that's still a hack.

      The World of Darkness Second Sight book has psychic and ritual merits but they're a little more complex than they need to be, or at least read as such.

      Hopefully one of my other readers can think of something.

    4. Not wanting to rain on anyone's parade, but it strikes me that a slight complication with the plan might be that questing for level-ups isn't necessarily satisfying for long. I don't mean the mechanism, I mean that a game structured around "go and quest for a new spell" or "go and quest for a new sword" might be difficult to sustain because it can get circular and feel quite mechanical - you only need them for questing, after all. It's the way Torchlight and things work - levelling for its own sake.

      While it's got its own issues, I think one of the advantages of traditional adventuring is that you're (supposedly) motivated by narrative things and get rewarded with mechanical things.

      This might work better in a system where magic was less rigid, because the thing with D&D-style magic is there's really no point learning fireball except for adventuring. If there was a way to be out questing for secrets of the universe with a broader application, it makes more narrative sense (to me, anyway) for a wizard to want them for their own sake. And again, that kind of thing is easier to turn into an arc, with the wizards gathering knowledge towards some long-term goal, compared to the patchwork nature of D&D spells. Of course, you might be able to reskin D&D magic somehow to fit that kind of idea better.

      That being said, wizards and clerics may be easier to handle than warriors, because at least they can argue they want their magic for other reasons, whereas warriors really do only need their stuff for adventuring.

      So it strikes me that what you need is a system/setting where gaining power for its own sake (or to impress others) is a goal that makes sense, and I'm wondering if some of the WoD settings would support this well. There's also the demigod sort of games, which a couple of friends have on their shelves but I've never played - again, these sorts of power games might make sense there.

    5. Well, in truth, if your players are okay with the very long and slow levelling process that such things would imply, then it would be easy enough to work it around the narrative. As you explore the mysterious caves on Shangri-La you come across spells carved into the walls, etc.

      With Mage you'd just reward rotes without an exp cost when you come across them during the plot. Since in Mage one of the main focuses of a Mage's life (though not necessarily the focus of the gameplay) is learning new rotes and developing spells. Therefore it would actually make a lot of sense to take the XP cost out of it.

      Oh, you tracked down that grimoire? Congratulations. Two new rotes for you! Oh, you did that job for that more powerful mage? They reward you by teaching you a rote!

      For wizards in D&D and Pathfinder, at least, other than their core spells they need to purchase, find or be taught new spells so it wouldn't necessarily interrupt the levelling process.

      It's not the answer to injecting mysticism into the game, but they are certainly possible ways to go about it without having to quest for level-ups, per se.

      Of course, in a highly narrative game where people are intended to remain at low levels for a long time (i.e. running horror in a Pathfinder game) then even questing for a level up isn't so much of a problem so long as you're only doing it once every three to six months.

      Most players I know would balk at such lengthy level up times, but I know a few who would actually prefer it.

    6. Wow, that write up was more garbled than intended. Hope it is still comprehensible even if the sentences don't string together well. I need more sleep!

  6. Valid points all round. What i want (at least if it was a fantasy setting) is a good reason (mechanically as well as narrative) for classes to behave like their class would behave if it was a story i.e. instead of mechanics vs story i want the mechanics to serve the story i.e. the mechanics ought to lead a min-maxer to play the class the same way a role-player would play it given the chance.

    In essence - at least for my conception of the fantasy genre "spellbook" wizard* - that means the most valuable commodity should be knowledge - somehow.

    (*as opposed to the more historical spirit/summoning centered magic)