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Author Topic: "Recipe"-based Magic System - how to resolve/refine?  (Read 1133 times)
Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« on: August 05, 2009, 10:18:32 AM »

I am working on a magic system loosely inspired by the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. For those unfamiliar, essentially it is not combat-centric. It is more general folklore-y type magic, and players are encouraged to be inventive in how they cast magic. In this system, every player would be a magician.

The basic idea is that you have a pool of mana and a series of basic spells which are then modified to affect certain "elements." As a note, all of the names here are placeholders. I'll try to be consistent, though bear with me if I call something by two names.

Examples of some basic spells:

Command (cause something to move according to your will)
Summon (conjure something up)
Imbue (imbue an object/being with the powers of something)
Sense (detect the presence of something)
Speak (speak with something)

Examples of some elements:

Life
Death
Classical Elements (fire, air, water)
Nature (living non-animal things)

(None of these are necessarily going to be in the final game in these forms, but they work fine as examples I think.)

So, to use some basic examples, to cast a fireball, you can summon + command + fire. To speak to a dead person, you can speak + death. To heal a wound, you can imbue + life. To make a flying carpet, you can imbue + air.

Even though I want to allow players a great deal of freedom in how they create and cast spells, I do want a robust mechanical framework so that players know what they can accomplish. In other words, I don't want players to throw together a vague combination of elements and then have the GM interpret what it does. Players should know what they are doing and what the effects will be.

My general idea is that players have a generic mana called "will." This is used to cast your basic spells. Beyond that, you can add the specific element to affect it. So let's say that Sense costs 2 Will and has an "attach" score of 1 (so you need to spend 1 element to sense it). So to detect the presence of death, you spend 2 Will and 1 Death. (These numbers are obviously just for sake of example.)

I figure players can weave spells together in this way to achieve specific effects. For instance, if a player wants to speak with an invisible spirit, he can combine Sense + Death and Speak + Death. Let's say Speak costs 2 Will and has an attach score of 2. The player then spends 4 Will and 3 Death to sense and speak to a spirit.

Here, however, is where I hit a wall.

How do I resolve this system? Mechanically, that is. Sure, for a lot of spells there is nothing to "resolve" per se. If you speak to a spirit, then you're just speaking to him. However, let's say I want that spirit to have a chance to resist a spell? Or let's say a player tries to injure somone with a fireball? Or what happens if a player just wants to punch someone?

I am trying to keep things simple and I don't want to keep piling on mechanics to incorporate punching, damage, etc. I want to keep the idea that players have pools of elemental mana, and that they spend that and resolve their spells/actions in a straightforward way, and any other actions shouldn't feel like they are utilizing an entirely separate set of rules that might as well be pulled from another system. I don't think this system needs D&D-esque "STR DEX CON" values or anything, though I guess I am not opposed to the idea of having very basic attributes. (I've considered the idea of having a Body "element" that you can spend just like any other element.)

Mostly I am just looking for some ideas for game mechanics to help me brainstorm. I'm sure I'm not the first person to try and develop something like this.
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Mike Sugarbaker
Member

Posts: 108

|>


« Reply #1 on: August 06, 2009, 09:00:22 AM »

How do you want "resolving" a spell to feel in story terms? That is, you know how a mage putting a spell together should feel; what comes after putting it together?
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Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« Reply #2 on: August 06, 2009, 09:34:00 AM »

How do you want "resolving" a spell to feel in story terms? That is, you know how a mage putting a spell together should feel; what comes after putting it together?
Once a spell is put together, I want it to happen. I want the players to feel like they're utilizing their powers to produce a real effect that isn't going to "fizzle out" or anything like that. I want the players to feel like they have an actual command over these elements. I want to avoid anything that results in a non-effect. Characters have a deep and real connection to these elements. They're not fumbling around trying to make magic happen. It does happen.

I want to minimize random chance (i.e. dice rolls). I don't want players to cast a spell and then have it do nothing. However, I do want a mechanical framework in place so that characters can resist spells, so that players have a solid understanding of how powerful a spell is, etc.

To use a simplistic example, if I cast a fireball, how much damage does it do? The game would hardly even be about that, but I feel like if I could start to answer a basic question like that, I'd be able to work my way towards developing the mechanics for this.

I understand this is all sort of vague, but I want it to be a vague to a degree because I want characters to approach magic in their own way. For instance, one character might feel he has a more intuitive sense of how he casts, while another character might approach it more logically. A character might learn one of the basic spells by researching an ancient text, while another might "unlock" it intuitively through their own practice.

I do not want to discount the story angle, but to some degree I am just looking for some mechanical brainstorming. Feel free to suggest anything even if it might not fit the story.
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Mike Sugarbaker
Member

Posts: 108

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« Reply #3 on: August 06, 2009, 09:49:59 AM »

Quote
Once a spell is put together, I want it to happen. I want the players to feel like they're utilizing their powers to produce a real effect that isn't going to "fizzle out" or anything like that. I want the players to feel like they have an actual command over these elements. I want to avoid anything that results in a non-effect. Characters have a deep and real connection to these elements. They're not fumbling around trying to make magic happen. It does happen.

I want to minimize random chance (i.e. dice rolls). I don't want players to cast a spell and then have it do nothing. However, I do want a mechanical framework in place so that characters can resist spells, so that players have a solid understanding of how powerful a spell is, etc.

It doesn't sound like you need much in the way of resolution if spells just happen. It does sound like you need some management of expectations going in - something like a "free and clear" phase, in which the spell's intended effects are actually negotiated between all players involved?
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Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« Reply #4 on: August 06, 2009, 11:10:41 AM »



It doesn't sound like you need much in the way of resolution if spells just happen. It does sound like you need some management of expectations going in - something like a "free and clear" phase, in which the spell's intended effects are actually negotiated between all players involved?
I do not need to resolve a lot of spells, no. But some spells do need to be resolved, and I want mechanics in place to determine relative strength of spells.

For istance, I want there to be a difference between Summoning a little bit of, say, water versus Summoning a lot of water. Players should be able to cast a spell and know what they're going to get in fairly certain terms.

So, Summon + 2 Water is different than Summon + 4 Water. Command + 4 Fire results in a more dangerous fireball than Command + 2 Fire.

In addition, I want there to be mechanics where magic effects can be resisted or avoided. Maybe a player wants to capture a fairy, but the fairy is able to resist especially weak magic. It's not that the player failed to cast a spell, it's that the player failed to cast a powerful enuogh spell.

I do not want spell effects to be negotiated or otherwise arbitrarily determined by players or the DM. I want the system to be fairly objective as far as how spells manifest while allowing for player creativity. I understand I'm a long way away from having such a system, but that's why I'm trying to brainstorm mechanics now, so I can work my way towards the system I want. I figure brainstorming some preliminary resolution mechanics might help me out.
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Creatures of Destiny
Member

Posts: 66


« Reply #5 on: August 06, 2009, 03:19:17 PM »


For istance, I want there to be a difference between Summoning a little bit of, say, water versus Summoning a lot of water. Players should be able to cast a spell and know what they're going to get in fairly certain terms.

So, Summon + 2 Water is different than Summon + 4 Water. Command + 4 Fire results in a more dangerous fireball than Command + 2 Fire.

In addition, I want there to be mechanics where magic effects can be resisted or avoided. Maybe a player wants to capture a fairy, but the fairy is able to resist especially weak magic. It's not that the player failed to cast a spell, it's that the player failed to cast a powerful enuogh spell.

Perhaps both resistance and results should be related. For example REALITY itself resists being fiddled with, in some cases the intended target ALSO resists - so the two interact.

"In fairly certain terms": I think this could be some kind of measure (hard to state when you don't have an actual base system) of how far you've moved the present state to the intended one. "Fireball" doesn't seem to fit with "folklore type magic" but various spells intended to harm might exist, in which case the present health/power state of the intended victim and mundane actions would be the important factor - for example casting a "death spell" while thrusting a dagger at your opponent might require less magic than one cast to kill someone at the other side of the world. For the mechanical effects the only importance is how far you've moved the present reality to the intended one via magic - this translates to the COST in Will and specific Elements.

This would encourage players to try to boost their magic with mundana -using healing herbs/medicine with LIfe as well as attempting Summonings from areas where they are more likely to succeed (closer to the summoned element/being's point of origin)
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Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« Reply #6 on: August 06, 2009, 04:08:17 PM »

Thanks for the post. I know "fireball" is a bad example, but I am trying to keep examples really simple so excuse their lameness Smiley

Those are some good ideas though and have definitely given me some ideas to work with.
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JoyWriter
Member

Posts: 469

also known as Josh W


« Reply #7 on: August 06, 2009, 06:12:46 PM »

Ok, so magic is just something that works, unless other magic is involved, something that people get better at (or more used to), but something that is based off of will more than knowledge. Am I right?

Here's one way to do this: Make all magic spells interact through conditions that are not special to magic, and then resolve as normal: Summon a bear? Well now there is a bear in the room, resolve all the bear's actions as normal. Drop a load of water on someone? Well just make them watch out for the water hitting and for drowning. Whereas if someone does magic vs magic, then just take the higher rating, and get rid of the lower if incompatible.

How would command work with this, or sense? Well you could attach them to the normal eyes and voice of the character who uses it. Now they can see __ better and they have more influence over ___. This would require a general influence mechanic, so you can just as easily have a fire out of control as a man who won't obey orders.

Secondly, command and summon interact very differently to imbue; if you summon death, presumably that is different to imbuing something with death, likewise controlling death. I would suggest that "speak to" and "imbue" were considered for objects with a property, but summon and command for an expression of the property in some alternate form, like fire that doesn't need anything to burn or death that doesn't need anything to by dead/dying. Or would you rather summon was "summon something alive" or "something on fire" etc? That obviously changes what you can do, not to mention the cosmology of the setting!

The mental imagine I'm getting from what you've said is something like those "magnificent machine" games, where the components are guaranteed, but you put them together in different ways to get the job done. Naturally behind the scenes the heavy lifting is done by a big physics model, and if you do something similar you can end up with a very simple magic system, because all of the complexity has gone into the normal world engine.

If they just want to punch someone, or they want to hit someone with a door or any of the other things, then yes you will need some basic system to run that stuff. This could be very basic, to the point of "you say it=you do it", but obviously, if you want it to matter whether people make a fire the size of a lighter flame or the size of a house blaze, then the basic reality rules that respond to that must be able to tell the difference between different types of fire. This could be a flat veto based on a stat or the severity of a situation; so a fire of level 1 cannot burn down a house streight away. Or a weak punch cannot knock someone out in one go. You might want a random element to normal events so it doesn't go "john fights james, john has body 5 to james' body 4, john always wins".

So if solving problems with the magic system is the big thing, then you need to insure that player choices when using the magic system filter through the rest of the mechanics, and it is at least complicated enough to tell the difference between different player tactics. What do you think of this version?
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Lance D. Allen
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Posts: 1962


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« Reply #8 on: August 06, 2009, 10:36:13 PM »

Hey Gee,

Do you have a system in mind for general resolution? Are players going to have hitpoints? What is "damage"? Is it possible to be out-and-out killed in this game?

A few ways to do it:

Damage = reduction of some stat. Reaching some particular level results in reduced capabilities or even death.

Bog standard way of handling damage. D&D is the most well known example.

Damage = reduced capability

The first to come to mind for me is the Riddle of Steel. You have a stat, Pain, that reduces your capability. Pain (I don't think) will never kill your character by itself. If you took a million tiny cuts, the Pain might completely disable you, but you won't die. There's also Blood Loss. Periodically you roll against blood loss, and on a fail, you reduce one of your attributes. If it reaches 0, you die. Otherwise, death is purely based on the scale of a wound, and its location. A level 5 wound to the head, or most parts of the torso will result in instant death.

Damage = a trait

Dogs in the Vineyard handles damage like this, mostly. There is a way to out-and-out die, but there is no tracking of hitpoints. You will never march toward death, as with either of the systems above. If you are damaged, you get traits. In DitV specifically, these traits are actually largely beneficial. In other systems, these traits can be detrimental, and must be bought off over time, to simulate healing. An example might be "bum leg" that gives you a penalty to running, etc.

Once you've got an idea what damage means, you'll be able to extrapolate from there into the effects of spells. Maybe an influence spell causes damage to someone's will, so they cannot resist you. Maybe it adds a trait to them that causes them to obey you, and penalizes attempts to disobey.
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~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls
Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« Reply #9 on: August 07, 2009, 08:38:33 AM »

JoyWriter:

The "magnificient machine" analogy is spot-on, and you've highlighted a lot of the difficulties and issues I'm running into. You've also given me some food for though, so thanks!

Lance:

I do not have a system in mind for general resolution, no. The game takes place in the "real world" so yes, you can die and pretty easily too. Magicians are just normal people who can cast magic.

Thanks for all the comments. You guys have helped give me some direction and hopefully I can start piecing together the system. I hope to be able to return with a more concrete set of rules Smiley
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Lance D. Allen
Member

Posts: 1962


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« Reply #10 on: August 07, 2009, 08:45:36 AM »

Gee,

No, your game takes place in the fictional world of your game. Making it so you can easily die just because it's theoretically easy to die in the real world isn't a good reason. Movie characters 'can' die easily as well, but they only do when it's interesting to do so.

I'm not advocating removing death from the table. I'm just pointing out that death and dismemberment are things you should include in your game only because you *want* them there.
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~Lance Allen
Wolves Den Publishing
Eternally Incipient Publisher of Mage Blade, ReCoil and Rats in the Walls
Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« Reply #11 on: August 07, 2009, 08:47:29 AM »

Yeah, that is what I meant. I want my game set in the "real world" and to adhere to a lot of real world logic (with the exception of, well, magic stuff).
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Jason Morningstar
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Posts: 1428


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« Reply #12 on: August 12, 2009, 04:15:53 AM »

How does having a rigid mechanical system support your premise, and make addressing it more fun and interesting? 

The thing about magic that struck me in Strange and Norrell was the footnote in which Susanna Clarke casually mentions magic accidentally relocating an entire village to North America temporarily.  To me this was a big flag saying "magic is mercurial and unbelievably powerful".  If this is the feel you want, A+B=C seems like the wrong way to go about it.

The RPG Mortal Coil is structured to let players establish the rules of magic in play, which neatly obviates this problem.  You mention that you don't want it to be all free-form-y, but Mortal Coil stakes the middle ground and it might be worth a look.



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Geethree
Member

Posts: 15


« Reply #13 on: August 12, 2009, 07:39:37 AM »

Quote
The thing about magic that struck me in Strange and Norrell was the footnote in which Susanna Clarke casually mentions magic accidentally relocating an entire village to North America temporarily.  To me this was a big flag saying "magic is mercurial and unbelievably powerful".  If this is the feel you want, A+B=C seems like the wrong way to go about it.
it will be a while before I get the system I want, but IMO this system does emulate the "lower level" magic in JS&MN (for the most part; I am not trying to directly copy it and will be writing my own setting). It's just a matter of getting the feel of the "elements" right and spending the time to hammer out the system.

I understand your concern though. I don't want magic to lose its, well, magical properties and seem too much like a math equation. Your point is well taken.

Thanks for the suggestion as well. I'll look into that.
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Jason Morningstar
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Posts: 1428


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« Reply #14 on: August 12, 2009, 09:22:16 AM »

I challenged you about how the verb-noun-number setup supports what you are trying to do.  Since it is only one of many approaches, why is it the best one for the tone you are after? 
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