07 January 2015

Magic in RPGs: Effects > mechanics

Five problems with magic in D&D

I’ve written about some of the things in this article before, but this is the bit I want to talk about today:

If your first answer was “a person who casts one spell, then has to sleep before re-memorizing it out of a book no matter how many times he's previously cast it”, then you're almost certainly someone that plays Dungeons & Dragons, and for one reason or another never bothered to question why magic works the way it does.

When I think about wizards, what pops into my head? Someone who is reluctant to use magic.

This is possibly the most common theme in stories about magic. Characters who use magic are either evil, reluctant to use magic, or both. Or the whole point of the story was that they should not have used magic when they did.

Too often magic in RPGs is criticized based on its mechanics rather than its effects. I don’t care that the mechanics of magic in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG didn’t match the mechanics of magic in Middle-earth as described by Tolkien in his letters. What matters to me is that they made the effects of the magic system fit what is described in the books.

Now, I’m up for arguments about mechanics that might do a better job of getting the results you want. But first we’ll need to agree that magic in an role-playing game likely serves a very different role than it does in stories.

4 comments:

David Guyll said...

When I think about wizards, what pops into my head? Someone who is reluctant to use magic.

My question is why? Is it physically debilitating? Is there a chance that they'll attract something that might hurt them? Does the spell have a chance of going awry and hurting them or something else?

What mechanics would you use to support that?

Now, I’m up for arguments about mechanics that might do a better job of getting the results you want. But first we’ll need to agree that magic in an role-playing game likely serves a very different role than it does in stories.

I agree that it CAN. It's not that I think spell slots by themselves don't work or make no sense (Vancian magic makes perfect sense), it's when you add levels to them that it falls apart.

That's totally fine, but if your magic is wild and enigmatic, and both mentally and physically draining, the rules should support that.

KenHR said...

If only D&D hadn't used the term "memorization" for the spell system, and instead explained how spells worked using Vance's original description from Dying Earth, this point wouldn't be rehashed again and again and again and again...

JDsivraj said...

I was happy with the 3e era explination that spells had to be "prepared" in advance. It does the job for me.

Robert Fisher said...

My question is why? Is it physically debilitating? Is there a chance that they'll attract something that might hurt them? Does the spell have a chance of going awry and hurting them or something else?

The thing that’s always weird about these conversations to me is that it seems like nobody read the same stories growing up that I did.

Most often there isn’t a reason given. Most stories aren’t about with the mechanics of magic. And whatever the reason, it isn’t something obvious.

In the stories that do address it, it is often much more subtle. e.g. The protagonist realizes that artificially causing the object of their affection to fall in love with them through magic makes it feel empty.

it's when you add levels to them that it falls apart.

Lots of us have found that it works just fine. I understand that you don’t like it, but it isn’t fundamentally flawed.