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Author Topic: [Troll Slayer] The role of spell caster characters  (Read 4022 times)
ffilz
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« on: February 07, 2006, 01:21:57 PM »

Troll Slayer is about killing things in tactical miniatures style combats. Magic is part of the concept. I'm trying to settle on just what the role of spell casting characters should be. A separate discussion is the role of magic items, but I want to deal with that in a separate discussion.

Looking over a variety of combat oriented games that have spell casters in the past, we can see a variety of roles that spells play:

- helping characters recover after the fight (healing or otherwise)
- blasting scores of enemies
- taking one (or a few) enemies completely out of the battle
- "buffing" the other characters (or self)
- creating tactical advantage
- getting the PCs into or out of a fight
- dealing with obstacles outside of combat

A big issue I see in many existing games is that magic, by operating differently than swinging a sword, is hard to balance. Blasting enemies is cool, but if the caster can deal damage faster than the sword slinger, then there is a risk all the glory goes to the casters. Taking enemies out of the combat completely usually doesn't mesh well with the sword slinger. If the caster takes an enemy out that was injured, the sword slinger's contribution has been wasted. Another problem with take them out spells (and blasting spells also) is that they make for big swings depending on whether the spell succeeds or not.

Buffing and healing maintain the concentration on the sword slinger's contribution, but if that is all the caster does, then the caster doesn't get very much glory (unless the players can easily perceive how the odds have changed). Spells that create tactical advantage fall into this same trap, though they may be more apparent (of course some may also act as take them out spells - for example, trapping an opponent behind a wall of fire).

Another trouble is that often spell caster characters are set up to not be as good at sword slinging, and thus become a liability in some tactical situations, or when they have run out of spell power and have not had a chance to refresh.

But making spells just an alternate to sword slinging doesn't seem appealing.

Rune Quest provided one sort of solution to this. Spell casters (at least among non-rune level characters) were not so specialized, and almost everyone cast spells. This is an interesting solution, but I have encountered numerous players who just don't want to deal with playing a spell caster (though they are generally happy to use magic items).

In the past, I've felt Cold Iron did a good job here, but in my recent Cold Iron play, I've observed that the spell casters have been whiffing a lot, and if the tactical situation leaves them vulnerable, they go down fast and hard. In part, I think back in college, we had more players, so it was easier to protect the casters. Also, I think the chargen left them with far better combat stats than my current point buy system does (basically, the college era spell casters probably had way better stats than the non-casters).

Of course one option would be to make magic something slow and not suitable for adventuring casters. All player use of magic would come from magic items. That would reduce the number of character types, but maybe that isn't a problem. In my current Cold Iron campaign, we don't even have examples of all the reasonable warrior builds.

I would be interested in pointers to other game systems that have dealt with this issue if they have done so in a unique way. In this light, in addition to Rune Quest and Cold Iron mentioned above, of course I'm familiar with the D&D model.

Thanks

Frank
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Frank Filz
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« Reply #1 on: February 07, 2006, 02:38:44 PM »

Hi!
  Well, I think my system manages it pretty well. The DMG is scaled to be similar to the swashbuckler. and characters can cast spells as many times a day as they would like to. They have to make a skill roll, so it balances out to about the same as swashbuckling.
  As far as finger wiggling goes, balance it against archers instead of swashbucklers, it's more of an accurate model.
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Dave M
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TonyLB
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« Reply #2 on: February 07, 2006, 02:52:01 PM »

Frank, all of the things you say that spell-casters contribute to the system are actually things that they contribute to the tactical goals of their side.  Now it's important that they do make contributions to their side, but they can make many other kinds of contribution to the system as a whole.

For instance, I've played a spell-caster in a combat LARP where you had to actually flip to the right page in a spell-book to cast a spell.  The right spell at the right time was absolutely devastating ... but a spellcaster who was under attack (or even close to combat, IME) was quite simply unable to concentrate.  You couldn't get the right time, much less the right spell.

So fighters suddenly had another role on the battlefield.  They had to protect their mage's personal space (give him room to breathe and cast) while at the same time pushing the attack close to enemy spellcasters.  The spell-casters acted almost as flags:  they really couldn't defend themselves worth a damn, but it was essential (to the team) that they be defended.  The massive powers of the mages made the fighters more important.  The fighters were not merely swinging a sword, they were doing their part to facilitate spell-casting.

In this system, the mages contributed "spells" to their side, but they contributed "combat structure" to the game as a whole.

There are lots of other ways that mages can contribute.  If you want your game to involve small, roughly equal clusters of fighting units rather than (say) one massive monolithic band of warriors beating on everything in their path, spell-casters with area-effect spells (like, oh say, fireball) will contribute that to your game.  The presence of such spells in the game guarantee that people won't want to cluster all their units together for mutual support.

If you want your game to involve heroic last stands against impossible odds, adding spells that let people live for a certain short period of time (even when, by the damage rules, they should be dead as a doornail) will help to encourage that.  It will let you sacrifice a unit in a lone stand (or a crazed charge) and actually get combat advantage out of it.

Anyway ... that sorta thing.  Does that distinction (what they contribute to their team vs. what they contribute to the structure of the game) make sense as I've described it?
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ffilz
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« Reply #3 on: February 07, 2006, 03:29:00 PM »

Tony - good point about the structure of the combat and the various ways the spell casters can affect the tactics.

What I observed in D&D was that the spell casters power, and their limited resources caused the game to overly revolve around the spell casters, and in fact, the fighters had far less opportunity to "be cool".

How important was combat in the LARP? What percentage of game time was spent on it?

I expect 80-90% of the playtime in Troll Slayer to be spent in combat, so the ability of players to contribute "equally" to combat will be important (of course realizing that it is impossible to perfectly balance contribution, and in fact, even agreeing what "balance" means is a whole debate).

I am now pretty steadfastly against area effect damage spells because they really seem to ampliphy the effect of the caster, and also eliminate the viability of opponents that need to concentrate forces to be effective in combat.

Another observation I have made is that when different character types contribute in very different ways to the same kinds of scenes, that invariably one way is more effective than the other, and comes to dominate those types of scenes. This might be fine if there are a variety of types of scenes, and each type of character dominates a different one, but when 90% of the scenes are of the same type, the domination makes the game unenjoyable (for me).

I like your thought about the heroic last stand. That type of combat would not be a regular thing in my view of Troll Slayer, but might happen occaisionally. Magic that made that more likely to succeed would be cool. Of course that requires the mage not be incapacitated before the need for the magic arises... Many buffing spells of course serve to extend the amount of combat a fighter can sustain which comes at this type of result from a slightly different angle.

Also, one thought I have long had is that it's ok to have the spell caster slightly less effective if they have more options, and can do things non-spell casters just can't do, since that gives them something cool to do. But there's a delicate balance.

Frank
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Frank Filz
ffilz
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« Reply #4 on: February 07, 2006, 03:39:43 PM »

Dave - that's an option I've considered. What I wonder is does it really feel like you're playing a spell caster, or is the effect just different narration for the same effect? And then if so, does the swashbuckler or archer have just as interesting narration capabilities? I.e. do they seem as "cool" to play?

Another thought - the casterr being able to do his thing as often as he wants (or otherwise under the same constraints as the fighter), doesn't mesh well with one of the things I like best about Cold Iron - there is a very good balancing effect in that almost all magic items are limited by the mana available to power them, and further, that potions, the items that are hardest to use, are the only items that store mana. This combined with most magic items being of a non-permanent nature is one of the core features I like about Cold Iron, and I intend it to be a core feature of Troll Slayer.

But that doesn't absolutely mean that casters couldn't have some ability for combat magic that is not limited by mana. On the other hand, I think it would be simpler to just let the spell casters be decent at fighting, so that when they run out of mana, or something else prevents them from casting spells, they just become fighters (perhaps not quite as good as the specialist, but still competent).

Frank
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Frank Filz
Josh Roby
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« Reply #5 on: February 07, 2006, 04:45:26 PM »

Frank, try turning the question ninety degrees and looking at it the other way.

Magic users do all sorts of cool stuff -- "fireball!" "summon elemental!" "wave of fear!" -- but a warrior only does the same thing over and over -- "hit enemy with sword," "hit enemy with sword," "hit enemy with sword."  What can you do to make being the warrior as diverse as being the magic user?  Can the warrior do "feint!," "breach armor!," and "lethal strike!" instead, and does that make them the available-options equal of the mage?
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dindenver
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« Reply #6 on: February 07, 2006, 06:30:27 PM »

Quote
Dave - that's an option I've considered. What I wonder is does it really feel like you're playing a spell caster, or is the effect just different narration for the same effect?
And then if so, does the swashbuckler or archer have just as interesting narration capabilities? I.e. do they seem as "cool" to play
  Well, the mechanics are only a little different. But yeah, it "feels" different.
  As to the second question, Mages have an array of abilities to choose from, Warriors have aim points and attack maneuvers to choose from as well as their Telent to draw on.
  The only real weakness that the system has, is that it is not possible to do a "Meteor of Doom" or other Mega spell with my system, but players have shown satisfaction with the system.
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Dave M
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Ramidel
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« Reply #7 on: February 08, 2006, 10:08:41 AM »

I can see several ways you can fit mages and fighters into a combat situation, each of them with pros and cons.

1. No difference...everyone's both fighter and mage to a greater or lesser extent (RuneQuest, for instance). I think, personally, that this is slightly less tactically interesting because it reduces the ability/need of characters to work together...but I haven't played RuneQuest so I may be entirely wrong.
2. Mage as traditional D&D glass cannon: Here, the fighter is usually the less-glorious-but-vital support character while the mage is the center-stage glorious nuclear missile. The fighter's job is, to use the most derogatory but accurate term possible, to be a meat-shield for the wiz. Spells here aren't an alternative to sword-swinging, they're a replacement for it, and in "traditional" AD&D games, it's inefficient to attempt to kill major monsters by getting bloody with the sword...you kill major monsters by burning them -and- their minions to ashes with a 20d6 fireball or similar.
3. Mage as support character: Clerics have occasionally been nicknamed "walking band-aids" in D&D, and if mages don't have a damage-dealing capacity that equals or exceeds that of fighters, then their usefulness will come from their support magic, such as healing, buffing or debilitating. Here, the fighters get all the glory and all the girls, but that mage over there is the stagehand that makes sure he can do his job. Lot5R is usually a good example of this.
4. Mage as fighter variant: If a mage can sling spells as long as a fighter can swing, and does about as much damage as a fighter...I fail to see the difference between a mage with magic missile and a simple archer.

From what you said in the beginning, Frank, I think that #3 may be the best option for the type of game you're looking for (tactical combat). That way, the fighter's role (get in, kick ass, take names) and the mage's role (make sure the fighter can get in, kick ass, and take names) are clearly separated and defined. Yes, the fighter will get center stage...but who's more important to a Hollywood production? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who get to be seen blowing things up and having steamy kissing scenes, or the special effects team who make the explosions happen and dream of themselves being in the steamy kissing scenes?
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ffilz
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« Reply #8 on: February 08, 2006, 10:37:28 AM »

I will be exploring Joshua's angle of make the sword slinging more interesting. One problem there is that I'm not sure how to do that and make it workable in a grid based miniatures style game system. I think scripted combat and such can do so, but I'm not sure how to tie that scripted maneuvering into a map board representation. The options I've seen in grid based systems (GURPS and D20) either result in mostly useless or ignored options (D20) or complicate the game to the point where the GM can't keep up (GURPS - where feinting and called shots and such were absolutely the way to go - which doesn't work when the GM is trying to control a horde of NPCs).

Cold Iron has some tactical options, that don't overwhelm the GM (the hand to hand/grappling system, which is very different from straight melee, is not always the best choice, but is pretty easy for the GM to decide when to use it and when not to use it - though it turns out it's mostly a choice for monsters, not weapon using types).

Last night in my Cold Iron game, I aksed the players to experiment with something. We replaced the cleric with a paladin and dropped the mage (who had become an NPC when the player withdrew). There was another PC paladin, a PC warrior (thief), an NPC warrior (scout), and an NPC paladin. Due to effective ambushes on the part of the monsters, the PCs never got a chance to cast spells, but since the paladins are all effective fighters, they did well (in fact, the former cleric, now paladin, kicked ass, even having time to whip out the wand of stasis to save downed fellows).

This is leading me towards setting up the spell casters as not quite so focused so they can still be good fighters. And balancing their "coolness" with other "coolness" choices for those players who don't want to be able to sling spells. It's interesting to consider Rune Quest in this area because RQ definitely influenced Cold Iron, and the clerical magic in Cold Iron uses associations like RQ's runes (and D20's domains), except it takes it a step further - all spells derrive from the associations, there are no "standard" clerical spells. So each paladin (or cleric) can have a different set of spells (and that was true in RQ, each character usually followed a different cult, and while there were some common spells everyone had, each character usually had some spell unique to their character).

One thought would be to set up a PC option that would allow hand to hand combat to be a viable choice for PCs.

Ramidel - the mage as support character is not really a good choice. Players in general don't like to play the support character (in fact, I should note that the young wife, in changing from playing a cleric, who was mostly a support mage, to playing a paladin, who could fight, last night was definitely more engaged with the game).

Dave - I'll definitely have to look at your ideas.

Frank
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Frank Filz
Troy_Costisick
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« Reply #9 on: February 08, 2006, 11:18:32 AM »

Heya,

Quote
One problem there is that I'm not sure how to do that and make it workable in a grid based miniatures style game system. I think scripted combat and such can do so, but I'm not sure how to tie that scripted maneuvering into a map board representation.

-How important is it to you that the game use miniatures?  Would the various aspects of it be better without them?

Peace,

-Troy
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ffilz
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« Reply #10 on: February 08, 2006, 11:44:20 AM »

Quote
How important is it to you that the game use miniatures?  Would the various aspects of it be better without them?
I think it's one of my top priorities. I find myself lost in tactical games without a good visual (and tactile) representation, especially of relationships (I'm in a wait and see mode as to how well Dogs in the Vinyard will work for me, but that's not a tactical game). There also needs to be a degree of complexity and dynamicness to that visual representation.

Some examples of games (including board games) that have driven my likes and dislikes:

Dragon Dice - while this has some representation of relationship, it's too simple (basically there are 3 battle fields, and 2 reserve areas, movement between battlefields is via the reserve, missile fire can affect the adjacent battle field). This actually maps to some of the ideas I've seen in scripted combat systems, because each location had a range indicator (magic, missile, melee) that could be maneuvered up and down, but relative position had nothing to do with that maneuvering. That abstract maneuvering just drove me batty.

D&D 3e - when I wasn't being frustrated by the dominance of spell casters, or too much prep time, the tactical battlefield was definitely interesting, and reasonably dynamic.

Melee - too much positional and facing meaning, combined with turn by turn action, resulting in fast characters always attacking from behind because they could just run around their opponent. Yuck!

I can't think of a good example right now, but I've seen games which had a grid, which wasn't all that meaningfull. Hmm, perhaps GURPS fits in this role. I think Traveller did to an extent (when everyone is using ranged weapons, position is a lot less important). Systems which aren't sufficiently dynamic in positioning are also problematical in this sense (AD&D 1e definitely fell into this bucket).

Cold Iron strikes an interesting balance for me. It can seem very static sometimes, but a watchfull player can see opportunities to make a move, and cause a great change in the situation.

So one option would be to set up more spells that help make things more dynamic (or less dynamic when it's to the caster's side's benefit for things to stay the way they are).

Frank
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Frank Filz
Josh Roby
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« Reply #11 on: February 08, 2006, 12:38:06 PM »

I will be exploring Joshua's angle of make the sword slinging more interesting. One problem there is that I'm not sure how to do that and make it workable in a grid based miniatures style game system. I think scripted combat and such can do so, but I'm not sure how to tie that scripted maneuvering into a map board representation.

If you're really going for tactical minis, stop thinking about the imagined fictional fight and start thinking about the figures on the game map.  You can pretty easily come up with stuff like this:

Cleave - deal damage to the guy in front of you and the guy behind him.

Lunge - deal damage to the guy two spaces ahead of you.

Swipe - deal damage to the guy immediately in front of you as well as the guys on either side of him.

Challenge - reduce the morale factor of all combatants facing you.

Shield Bash - knock the guy in front of you down.

Shield Swipe - knock down the guy in front of you and the guys on either side of him.

Beat - force the target to step one space backwards.

Quick word of warning: the ability to move opponents is usually more powerful than the ability to actually deal damage, so be careful with those.  However, controlling the movements of the enemy is usually more the focus of any "real" combat, anyway, so it's not like this doesn't pass the reality check.

Quote
This is leading me towards setting up the spell casters as not quite so focused so they can still be good fighters. And balancing their "coolness" with other "coolness" choices for those players who don't want to be able to sling spells.

Whether the damage dealt comes from a weapon or a spell is pretty much irrelevant when you come down to the nitty-gritty of tactical game design.  Try doing this, instead.  Assign each class/role/whatever a descriptor of what game effect they actually do (damage dealing, shielding others, healing, incapacitating, free movement, etc).  Do this for all of your classes.  You'll quickly see which classes actually overlap except for superficial "color" differences (the martial artist versus the warrior, for instance) and can either differentiate (warriors soak incoming damage, martial artists avoid it) or group them together (martial artists are a subset of wariors).  See, here's the thing: I don't think your problem is your mages -- I think it's probably your class structure.
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Joe J Prince
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« Reply #12 on: February 08, 2006, 04:14:23 PM »

Hey Frank

Why not just build magical paths and combat trees, that way you can balance them all against each other and allow players to develop whatever talents they want. There's no reason you can't build a mechanical system that balances swordplay and magic nicely.

That's what I did for Call To Adventure. It works really well, it's damn near unbreakable!

As for Troll Slayer (careful GW might have copywritten that title) - Show me the mechanics!
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Ramidel
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« Reply #13 on: February 08, 2006, 05:56:04 PM »

Ramidel - the mage as support character is not really a good choice. Players in general don't like to play the support character (in fact, I should note that the young wife, in changing from playing a cleric, who was mostly a support mage, to playing a paladin, who could fight, last night was definitely more engaged with the game).

Well, this may be just our group, but there has never been a problem in our bunch getting someone to play the cleric/support crew and like it. Maybe we've come from two different experiences...

I think, however, that it'd be more tactically interesting to have mages run support as opposed to glass-cannoning. However, you're right, support characters should be able to do something on the frontline...

Like D&D 3e clerics. Usually, the cleric will be in full plate on the front line, armed with a spear, a very heavy mace and shield, or a bastard sword/dwarven waraxe and shield.
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joepub
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« Reply #14 on: February 08, 2006, 08:16:44 PM »

Quote
Quote from: ffilz on Today at 10:37:28 AM
Ramidel - the mage as support character is not really a good choice. Players in general don't like to play the support character (in fact, I should note that the young wife, in changing from playing a cleric, who was mostly a support mage, to playing a paladin, who could fight, last night was definitely more engaged with the game).

Well, this may be just our group, but there has never been a problem in our bunch getting someone to play the cleric/support crew and like it. Maybe we've come from two different experiences...

Maybe that's because "support character" means something different to both of you.

Ffilz, it sounds like when you picture a support character, you picture someone who is secondary, who can't do things for themselves. Ie, the walking battery.
The best example of what you seem to be picturing is the healer.

Ramidel, it sounds like you pictured someone who can probably hold their own... but who excels in strengthening those around them. This person boosts the whole team to success, and does so selflessly.
The best examples of what you seem to be picturing are the commanders, the leaders, and the "buff"ers.


That's just what I get from reading your comments, you guys...
Anyways, I think that if you had a mage that managed to fill more Ramidel's ideal of what a "support character" looked like, you would get something great from it.

I think this also addresses this point made, which really gave ME something to think about, personally:
Quote
The right spell at the right time was absolutely devastating ... but a spellcaster who was under attack (or even close to combat, IME) was quite simply unable to concentrate.  You couldn't get the right time, much less the right spell.

So fighters suddenly had another role on the battlefield.  They had to protect their mage's personal space (give him room to breathe and cast) while at the same time pushing the attack close to enemy spellcasters.  The spell-casters acted almost as flags:  they really couldn't defend themselves worth a damn, but it was essential (to the team) that they be defended.  The massive powers of the mages made the fighters more important.  The fighters were not merely swinging a sword, they were doing their part to facilitate spell-casting.

In this system, the mages contributed "spells" to their side, but they contributed "combat structure" to the game as a whole.
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