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Author Topic: A New Kind of Magic System  (Read 15112 times)
Justin Nichol - BFG
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Posts: 95


« on: June 28, 2007, 12:29:22 AM »

Perhaps I'm wrong. It might not be new at all. Maybe some of the fogies like Ron (I say this only after having read his Fantasy Heartbreakers series, can you say Encyclopedic knowledge?) will know of a system that was like what I am proposing. Basically, I'm creating an Urban Fantasy setting for my open-source system CORE. Initially, it was the first setting I had come up with as an idea and it was what we used to first playtest my system, but the game we played was amazingly fun. I'd like to let my system take some of the credit, the gamemaster was also on that night, but another part of it that I really liked was actually a total fluke. The basic idea of the setting was to make something similar to the works of Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, stuff like Night Watch, Hellblazer, etc. The setting is called The World Behind, and having done some more study it actually has some similarities to Unknown Armies in that it's very much based on a sort of Urban Paranoia that something isn't right, there's something going on behind the scenes, under the streets, behind the cardboard sets we call cities.

Anyway, while I was quickly statting up a crummy but workable CharGen, etc. so we could playtest I wrote really quickly a special ability called Magic. With Magic you could see this world behind, travel "behind the wainscotting" i.e. enter the extra-spatial places that were only visible to those who knew of the world behind the world, and could also cast charms and wards which were basic magic effects and protections against those magic effects. I initially meant it to just be something temporary, but I really liked it. The only caveat made on the whole thing initially was that it was difficult to do spells that were not dramatic, well-described or clever, and easier to do those things that drew on symbolism, irony, turns of phrase etc. I liked it so much I decided to keep it and have continued thinking about it ever since.

Just for a little variance, so not everyone had to be a mage, I broke the Magic skill up into Sights, Doors, Charms and Wards. And I realized as I kpet thinking about it and reading more Contemporary Fantasy material that we have been sort of stuck with magic that is either based on D&D or at best a well thought out response to D&D. Even the better systems, imo, like Mage and Ars Magica were always based on broadening the ability to do a thing with Magic, decompartmentalizing it. What I have come to notice is that games always address the what in regards to magic, but never the how in any meaningful way. And I think this is a grave mistake. I say this because in stories, I think it is least interesting what the character does with magic. Magic is a sort of plot device in stories. Characters wield it like a tool to solve problems, sometimes at a cost to themselves. Solving the problem is not what makes it interesting, a story which fiats a hero succeeding at everything using their skill is rarely terribly entertaining by itself. What is interesting in a story is how they go about doing it, what they must do to use magic and the consequences of using it.

I'll give an example, take the first few issues of Hellblazer written by Jamie Delano (spoiler warning). John Constantine has to bind a demon. Now lets think of this situation first in terms of how most RPG's would handle it, and next how the story actually handles it. In an RPG, if a demon were on the loose, you might at most have to do a little research, investigation, maybe if you have a pretty progressive game master find some sympathetic device or component. Then the rolls for summoning or the spell, then rolls for binding or exorcism. Most games and settings are so vanilla, you'd likely just banish the demon to the otherworld, and there might be a short combat because the ritual takes time if the gamemaster feels like making you work. Or worse, you might just play until you stumble across the demon and fight it outright using special weapons that hurt spirits.

In the story, the ritual itself is more important than the final effect of a demon being bound. The demon is one of hunger and starvation, it's loose in New York city causing uptown fat cats to suddenly gorge themselves on meat, but still wasting them away into a dessicated corpse, jewelers being eating gemstones, collectors begin devouring their comic collections, priests die gnawing at the cross. The person who initially alerted Constantine to the threat was an old friend of his, a junkie who accidentally released the demon. Constantine has to go to great trobule to learn the ritual of a Sudanese Shaman while on a psychedelics trip, and eventually has to summon the demon by stringing out his friend, leaving him unable to score dope. Papa Midnite, a Houngan begins a ritual of calling, and the craving of the junkie lures the demon into a possession of the hapless addict. Constantine then tattoos the wards of binding on his friend and traps the demon inside of him. He gives him one last shot of junk for mercy, and sticks the guy in a cell. The demon is left to gnaw on the soul of a prison it can't escape and like ourborous, it devours itself. Now obviously, not all RPG's have to be so dark. But in this story, the questions of how Constantine does what he does are far more important than the fact that he binds the demon. The binding is solving the problem, the how determines the consequences and the story.

So in essence, what I'm saying is that I want to create a magic system where the what is less important. Where the Charms and Wards abilities allow you to do essentially anything, aside from some bans or limits I might come up with a la Ars Magica or the Dresden Files, Magic can do anything conceivable. What governs the power of a magus, and fuels the story is how they go about doing it, the sacrifices they have to make, and finding clever ways to use metaphysical concepts to acheive a goal.

The way I in particular want to do this is build a simple but in-depth library of mix and match ritual components. Symbology, attunements, magic circles, components, foci etc. etc. all of which can be built upon more and more, which must be learned, and then mixed and matched in appropriate or novel ways to achieve an effect. Primarily and hopefully in ways that are dramatic or clever. Many times the attunements of a spell, acting as story elements, should play a big role. Things like making a hunger spirit eat itself. So magic is based around finding ways through story to accomplish something rather than just a tool to be thrown around in the course of solving the problem.

Sorry this is so long btw. Hope someone has something to say about it. Maybe people who like the idea could help me come up with ideas on how to implement it, and what sorts of Magic elements should be included.
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lumpley
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« Reply #1 on: June 28, 2007, 12:31:43 PM »

Damn! I came into this thread hoping you were going to tell us, not ask us.

Oh well. I like this idea so much I can barely blink.

Is it possible that Sights, Charms, Doors and Wards is all you need?

Like, um, like, Constantine's stringing out his friend is an important part of the magic, but is not itself a magical act. If you make the magical acts receptive in interesting ways to non-magical acts, that could help create the cool cascading effect you're after.

(Also, if you're asking which existing games you should check out, Sorcerer tops the list.)

-Vincent
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greyorm
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« Reply #2 on: June 28, 2007, 02:40:50 PM »

I'm with Vincent: you got me all excited because that's the kind of coolness for magic I've always wanted as well and you're looking for advice. Damn.

Ok, you've got Sights, Doors, Charms and Wards. And you want symbology, attunements, magic circles, components, foci, etc. that can be learned, combined and used. Here's my question: are you looking for a set list of elements of magical acts that is expandable by a group, a set list that is truly set (that's all there is), or a clear-and-open list made up in play by the players? And it also occurs to me that this list can either be rigorously cross-referenced (combining X with Y produces effect Z), or open to interpretation and use.
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Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio
Justin Nichol - BFG
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Posts: 95


« Reply #3 on: June 28, 2007, 03:50:00 PM »

haha yea sorry, I mean I do have plenty of ideas but thta post was already long, and I don't have enough ideas that I can actually write it yet. Basically my ideas center around trying to create metaphysical rules for certain actions, and the requirements for those metaphysics would help to drive story because they would force the characters to do more than just roll.

For instnace, I want to have attunements, which might be rated, so if you had particular attunements you were good at doing certain types of things, but more importantly things like Demons and Spirits also had attunements to which you could play, or use against them. I remember when I came up with the idea of having everything be done by a few skill with no further compartmentalization, I loved it, but I also thought it might get boring fast if everyone who spent the same points to buy charms was essentially the same wizard. And the idea for how instead of what came when I was watching an episode of the Dresden Files and they began talking about ways they might achieve an effect and different reasons why they wouldn't work, and I thought to myself in a half asleep stupor, Man, it's so much cooler and more interesting what they're talking about in trying to cast the spell then them actually casting the spell. And I realized that while the object was to cast the spell, the story was them figuring out how to do it.

I figure sympathetics should also play heavily into it, having something attuned to a person, or a focus whose attunement corresponds with your intent. I think I'm going to have it so magic is extreeeeemely difficult to do as you progress unless you utilize these metaphysical components I want to create. So a person could do small tricks and helpful spells, but anything serious and they have to start figuring out components, sympathetics, and if all else fails seriously consider sacrifice which will of course be a slippery slope into darker magicks.

I think those four skills will be all, but I would still like to have some other things you can utilize or buy that will help out aside from those skills. For instance a Hermetic sort of Wizard type might be good at composing sigils and magic circles which aid in warding, while another is more of a shaman and well versed in spirit lore, knowing the proper ways to play to a spirits vanity through music and dance etc. Again, all while trying to keep the focus on the how.

So for instance, just using the very small preliminary ideas I have now, what happened in Hellblazer would have been something akin to Constantine realizing the demon was too powerful to be bound into an object and knowing that the only way to defeat it was to use the sacrifical ritual of the Sudanese Shaman, and playing on the attunement of the Demon to hunger and craving to lure it in by doing a summoning ritual with a tied up junkie fiending. A lot more to think about and play through than simply casting Summon Spirit and then Banish or what have you. Again, sorry this isn't more developed but I wanted to workshop it here. Thanks for the positive feedback.
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Justin Nichol - BFG
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Posts: 95


« Reply #4 on: June 28, 2007, 03:56:26 PM »

p.s. yea, I'll definitely be studying Sorcerer

And as far as the list of stuff you can mix and match. What I want is a simple, but sufficiently broad and complex set of components, circles, foci, attunements etc. All of which can be interpreted. I think it would be boring rigamarole if everything was just a chart and all the X+Y's were provided in a chart, I want to provide ingredients that can interlock with one another to lessen the difficulty or allow the casting of a spell or ritual. Once that foundation is set, I'd like to continue to provide supplemental material, (for free of course, because it'll be Open Content) that builds on that foundation, and of course, so much will be up to interpretation, hopefully players and storytellers will come up with new and novel ways of using the components, and hopefully come up with their own to submit for inlcusion (community development).
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J. Scott Timmerman
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Posts: 164


« Reply #5 on: June 28, 2007, 04:10:07 PM »

I as well very much like the idea that magic is a setting element, not a PC element.  Perhaps we should try breaking this particular situation down into how it might work mechanically, under a strictly defined set of what magic can and cannot do.  From there we could broaden the rules to apply to a larger set of magical forces, and see if our guidelines work on that level as well.  The following is my take on how this might work:

First of all, in a rigid system, the rules of how the demon exists would have to be set out.  This may mean statting the demon as a non-player character.  But more importantly, we need to quantify the issue of it being a hunger demon, and exactly what that means.  The demon devours, and seems to have a preference for objects of obsession.  However, these are not the only objects it can consume.  Also, we should state first that there are no ways around an interesting solution.  So we have to limit the power of banishment rituals and such.

For our purposes, we define the demon as a singular being that must possess individuals to survive, and can only possess a single individual at a time.  In order to survive in a host, it must devour something.  It needs to feed not only upon the gluttony of the individual, but also upon metabolic energy produced by the individual (explaining why those gorging on meat end up dessicated).  Let's say that the demon's intentions or programming are to do so until the host dies.  Let's also say that the obsession works in a line, such that the demon first attempts to consume the primary object of association of the individual.  Failing the immediate availability of that, the demon attempts to consume the secondary, and so on.  Failing objects of association, the demon must still consume something.  Explicitly or implicitly, a valid object of consumption is itself.

There might be rules dedicated to how it selects its next host.  Doing so might create an interesting investigatory storyline in order to hunt down the demon based on how it moves from host to host.  So let's say it selects the most obsessed individual in the immediate vicinity.  To determine this, characters might have an attachment rating to certain objects or ideas.

Especially if the rules for rituals is written into rules freely available to the players, the calling and the tattoos have to have some twist to them in order to make their use interesting.  Otherwise, there is the risk of the answer having been obvious from the beginning that they should summon the demon into a sacrifice, and lock it in with tattoos.  I think that there should be a requirement that the user of these rituals must have specific knowledge about the demon.  Perhaps this knowledge is required to know that such rituals even exist, or perhaps the rituals of calling and binding are more universal, and require that the demon's name or more details be known.

Make a few hard decisions on the above information based on the theme of the encounter, and we have some rules on how the demon might work.  Broadening these rules to work with cleptomaniac demons, lust demons, etc. might be easier with a tested precedent, but we have to be careful not to fall into the rut of being transparent to the players.

I understand the hurdle of creating rules that pose some interesting issue which takes time for the players to resolve.  It's certainly easier to just throw a bunch of spells with definite effects at a system.  I as a GM like to base the rules for encounters off of puzzles and logic games, throwing an in-game shroud on top, and requiring the player to look deeper to discover the rules to the puzzle itself.  It doesn't work very well in groups that like to spellsling and hack through monsters.  But it works well with players who like to think.  Adapting this to ideas of the paranormal might require player to open their minds in order to understand the situation at hand.

-Jason Timmerman
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Justin Nichol - BFG
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Posts: 95


« Reply #6 on: June 28, 2007, 11:10:39 PM »

Well in the story, the ritual used with the tattoos was a tailor made ritual specifically for binding that Demon. It was a prearranged mix of components meant to bind that demon in particular. I don't want to necessarily go too in-depth about each demon. I definitely want to come up with ways to "stat up" demons, but more as a general guideline for what the demon is about and not a specific roadmap of how it does everything it does.

For instance, I would never want rules that said demons of consumption can consume themselves, but if a Storyteller reveals that or comes up with something similar in the course of the story, or the players come up with that idea to solve the problem after having discovered the demon is attuned to consumption and craving, then that would be great. I want demons to have attunements, and for it to be stated with examples that Magi can play to those attunements or attempt to use those attunements against the spirits. I don't want a tremendous list of attunements all with ways of countering them. Basically, I would have several ways of describing the demon and how it interacts with the metaphysical, and if a Storyteller got a cool idea of making a consumption, possessor demon who ate it's horses alive, then great, but I don't think I'd make that a specific power.

In the actual story, aside from the tailor made binding ritual of the Sudanese Shaman, the only Magick the characters would have access to in the game I'm considering would be the summoning Ritual Papa Midnite performs. Constantine even mentions in the text that they could never have bound or overpowered the demon if it had not willingly possessed the junkie. So at most there might be a rule about possession, and it making binding easier because the spirit has already done half the work. Like I said before the way I basically want to make it is so that magic difficulties are incredibly high (doing them spontaneously), but certain advantages or modifiers can be gained through A. using metaphysical components in appropriate/novel ways, and being clever or stylish in your approach.
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BigElvis
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« Reply #7 on: June 29, 2007, 01:25:06 AM »

For a system like what you are describing I would let all of the mechanics revolve these metaphysical components.
A very simple way(that I am not actually recommending) to do this would be to have the player pay with "Resource A" for each metaphysical component he thinks is appropriate for binding/banishing a demon with an effect he has defined for himself.
The most important part of the rules would be that the one of the metaphysical components is the sacrifice(maybe just endangering if one could find a way of making what follows a component of the story) of something important to the character. Maybe character creation could just be to write ten things you care about and maybe rated as well(Example: My control freak mom +3, Going to Heaven +2, Keeping my homosexuality hidden +1, My job as a cop +2).
When "Resource A" is paid in connection with sacrificing this thing you get the rating as an extra bonus when actually trying to bind/banish the demon.

Of course the narration would revolve around what constitutes the different components paid for and how the come together to deal with the demon.

What I would never do is to let a GM determine if what the players are doing is valid in taking care of a particular demon and adding bonuses on that background. To me that is GM fiating cemented in rules.
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Lars
Justin Nichol - BFG
Member

Posts: 95


« Reply #8 on: June 29, 2007, 02:02:11 AM »

I'm not sure what you mean specifically by let the mechanics resolve the metaphysical components. But if you mean that the metaphysical components should be flavor or second to the game mechanic of magic, that's the opposite of what I want to do. Again, I'm not sure if that's what you mean. I mean there are metaphysical components in other games, spell components, material, somatic etc. in D&D, Foci in Mage and many other games. While they do sometimes affect the game difficulties, they are largely unncessary and only serve as an extra boost to a die roll. And all too often they get fiated because th storyteller gets tired of asking the player if he has the components and everyone just assumes the Mage always has components. Or it becomes a constant bonus almost like a magic item, a Focus that always reduces magic rolls by 1, and just becomes another modifier.

Obviously I need mechanics, but I want the metaphysics to be what the characters actually deal with in a substantive manner rather than just being flavor or additions to a die roll. Basically the metaphysical components become story elements that allow a character the ability to attempt a spell rather than just a set of modifiers.

As for the sacrifice idea, I don't want it to be that to do magic, the character must always sacrifice, and that if they do perform a sacrifice that it's always personal, but I do actually like the idea of a sacrificial component being more potent if it is the sacrifice of something important to the Magus.

As for your last statement, I'm a little perplexed. If I don't let the GM determine what is a valid and clever method of achieving a goal, how does it get resolved save to have a book of charts for every coneviable permutation.  Most things are a GM fiat in RPG's practically. Determining difficulties is something the GM makes up. The storyteller is there to be an arbiter and to tell a story. Again, it's perplexing, maybe I'm misunderstanding you.
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J. Scott Timmerman
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« Reply #9 on: June 29, 2007, 04:16:36 AM »

I'd have to agree with Justin on this one.  Even in games like D&D, it's the GM's job to make the choices on things like creatures of an appropriate Challenge Rating.  If it's not the GM's job to arbitrate issues outside the control of the PCs, and therefore arbitrate the difficulty, then it may as well be a GMless game.

But Elvis, if you're worried about the GM making arbitrary decisions on the spot on whether something will work or not, that's another story.  The interpretation of the level of creativity may be the most subjective issue there. 

For most issues, I think a good outline for how to use straightforward logic used to interpret the way those concepts combine would suffice.  It would be nice if the logic structure were complex enough to allow for different definitions of, say, "gluttony," and different ways to implement that concept into the different definitions of "demon."  The logic process itself would be the mechanic here.

As far as subjectively interpreting creative solutions, perhaps the best guideline would be to err on the side of the players.  No massive breaches of in-game logic would be allowed, but in furthering the plot in an interesting way, the logic algorithm would have some elasticity and looseness that it wouldn't otherwise have.  Again, the fun of the players is most important.  And I think that even the players can agree that winning on the basis that they bypassed all the rules is an unfun way to win.

-Jason T.
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BigElvis
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Posts: 48


« Reply #10 on: June 29, 2007, 04:37:09 AM »

Quote
For a system like what you are describing I would let all of the mechanics revolve these metaphysical components.
Was supposed to be: ....let all of the mechanics revolve around these metaphysical components.

Do we agree that the metaphysical components are the story elements? Or maybe I misunderstood you, but it seems to be me that in your post you answer me as if I by metaphysical components meant physical components.

I am thinking as an example that a character with 'my job as a cop +2' would do something that makes him lose his job as a cop. This something is the metaphysical component, while also being an important element of the story being told.

The reason i focused on the sacrifice is because that's what I think makes the story about the consumption demon interesting to me. The fact that he has to use his old friend to bind the demon.

As for the GM, you say:
Quote
If I don't let the GM determine what is a valid and clever method of achieving a goal, how does it get resolved save to have a book of charts for every coneviable permutation.
Quote
The storyteller is there to be an arbiter and to tell a story.

I say:
Let the players determine what is a valid and clever method. Of course the mechanics are there to assist them in determining this. In my example of a very simple mechanic a story element is a valid metaphysical component simply because the player pays 'Resource A' and says it is so.

The players are there to tell a story. A GMing task in my mind is not to tell a story, it may be to set the stage for a story to be told by the players, but even this is close to The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast(see the glossary in the article section).
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Lars
BigElvis
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« Reply #11 on: June 29, 2007, 05:44:24 AM »

correction to my own text.
Quote
...but this is close to The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast(see the glossary in the article section).

The following is only true if the GM is also determining what works and what doesn't. Elasticity and freedom serves to distance it from TITBB, but it is still easy to fall into this chasm anyway.

Bangs of course are important too and should be incorporated into the mechanics, be it a GM or GMless game.
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Lars
Agleos
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« Reply #12 on: June 29, 2007, 07:46:20 AM »


So in essence, what I'm saying is that I want to create a magic system where the what is less important. Where the Charms and Wards abilities allow you to do essentially anything, aside from some bans or limits I might come up with a la Ars Magica or the Dresden Files, Magic can do anything conceivable. What governs the power of a magus, and fuels the story is how they go about doing it, the sacrifices they have to make, and finding clever ways to use metaphysical concepts to acheive a goal.

The way I in particular want to do this is build a simple but in-depth library of mix and match ritual components. Symbology, attunements, magic circles, components, foci etc. etc.

The way I see it you fall in the same trap as everyone else. Don't forget this is a role playing game. So do it ROLE play. Sorry for the caps but you know what I mean. What would your system do better? Just add a lot of complex what. That is totally the exact opposite to what you want. What you need is a good game master.

Let's take what Constantine did in Hellblazer for example. He didn't just banish a demon. He faced something surpassing himself. That's why he needed that much to be done. The system isn't going to do that for you. The system handle phisics of a game, there is a difficulty and you have a 100 % of chances to succed or not. But what if that isn't enough? What if there is 0 % of chances that you succed? Then youre gonna need all that fancy stuff you talk about. That's where the creativity ofyour game master come in.

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Valamir
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« Reply #13 on: June 29, 2007, 09:13:52 AM »

Try this on for size.

Every action requires a balancing reaction...that's true of magic as well, except the balancing reaction can be metaphysical rather than physical.

So you want to use magic to open a door...well then fine...but if you do, than another door has to close.  This could be literally another door...or it could be the "door of opportunity"...or it could be any metaphorical imagery relating to passage.  So the act of magic then becomes searching for the analogous door to close.  I can open this door...and to do so I'm going to close the door on my child's future...his dreams of being a professional baseball player are over, that door is now closed to him.

If I want to use magic to bar a door...same thing...I have to search for another door to open..."door" here being used very metaphorically.  For instance, the investigation that the cops have been launching into my operations has been stalled for months with no clues...by "opening the door" on that investigation (suddenly the cops have a clue thats letting them go somewhere I'd rather they didn't) I can keep this door closed.

Going beyond doors you can apply the same principal to anything...protecting something means makeing something else I cherish vulnerable (the ward that keeps the magic widgit safe from the bad guy has just caused my father to be diagnosed with lung cancer).  Making an enemy vulnerable means protecting something I hate (the curse that will let me put the final death on the ancient evil has also resulted in the trial of a notorious serial rapist being dismissed).

The fun you noticed in the Dresden Files will then be the players trying to come up with a suitable "sacrifice" to balance their magic and wrestling with whether the price is worth it, and which price they're willing to pay and which they're not.
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David Artman
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« Reply #14 on: June 29, 2007, 10:12:08 AM »

Try this on for size.
...
The fun you noticed in the Dresden Files will then be the players trying to come up with a suitable "sacrifice" to balance their magic and wrestling with whether the price is worth it, and which price they're willing to pay and which they're not.

*amazed* Woah, Ralph... that's cool as Eskimo Hell!

One thing I'd like to see, though, is how to actually qualify what a "balanced" exchange would be. I mean, exactly how much must I "sacrifice" to, say, light a campfire? I have to extinguish the same size fire somewhere? If I just need a bit of warmth and a way to boil water, is that more or less than, say, some farmer's fireplace not lighting? Does that change if the farmer has no HVAC? Does the farmer have to catch a cold, due to his chilly hearth for me to have a warm dinner?

Maybe a page from Dogs could work: the net "value" of the effect is set by the player based on how important the effect is to the player, and then the GM has to apply the same "value" to the sacrifice? It's almost like setting stakes, except it's like BOTH stakes come about/succeed.

*head... spinning*

I would like to see some thought on that, if anyone has a way out....
David
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