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[Mechanical Discussion] Developing a Magic System for a Quest

Discussion in 'Q&R Index' started by Smuthunter, Jun 19, 2015.

  1. Smuthunter

    Smuthunter Begone Thot!

    Apr 15, 2013
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    I don't know if this is the right place to put discussion about quests as opposed to just the quests themselves, so if a mod could please move this to the correct location, if it isn't there already?


    The hardest part of every quest for me has always been coming up with a list of spells for the players to use, whether balancing them or just putting the legwork in to think of every spell the players could possibly want. It's a pain in the ass and I'm tired of doing it, so for one of my quests I hit on the idea of using a more free-form magic system, like Mage or Ars Magica. I'm curious as to what peoples' experiences with those systems has been and what are some pitfalls I should be aware of.
    Ddmkm122 likes this.
  2. Jon Irenicus

    Jon Irenicus Making the rounds.

    Mar 28, 2015
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    There are a couple of big issues and more small ones then you can swing a stick at. I'll start with a few of the Big issues:

    1) How can magic be used? What are its limits?
    First issue, with more free-flowing magic systems, there are more options magic can deal with. To use the classic example of Naruto Fuinjutsu, where the only limit is imagination, you can summon a death god to insta-kill anyone, summon an army of undead slaves, create on the go personal barriers, and worse. In Dungeons and Dragons (pre-munchkinry) There is a list of strictly defined spells, some of which are more flexible then others, and force players to think creatively, and use none-magic skills, instead of, the traditional "Create time/space/ethereality control magic or device magic, win forever."
    Basically if the system is more open then you have to do less work, but the quest goes off the rails quickly. If the system is stricter, then you are controlling the setting and limiting the scope of magic's ability to do everything.
    2) What comes along with magic? How is magic developed?
    If there is magic in your world, are you the only one? In this case you are god.
    If other people have magic, and its a lot of people, is the magic powerful? In this case someone has already taken over the world.
    If creatures of magic exist, how are they dealt with? In this case there is anarchy and apocalypse events. Dragons look cool, but will kill everyone before anyone gets close.
    Under any of these circumstances you need to define how magic evolves over time. Do people develop new spells, or does magic evolve to fit the ages? Can the player character develop new spells? In this case, see point 1.
    3) What can muggles do?
    If we are talking technology, then can it integrate with magic, techno-magic? If so, do I improve magic if I build a better machine gun?
    More importantly is magic a match for technology? Is science still researched as a discipline?
    4) How applicable is magic in daily life?
    Is it combat based? Can I grow food with it? Is developing a magic based economy a viable idea? How many people have access to magic?
    5) What are the downsides of magic? Do you lose/sacrifice something?

    These are just a few things. Take what you will, unless you want more detailed mechanics, in which case clarify.
    Ddmkm122 likes this.
  3. Darkened

    Darkened Experienced.

    Mar 1, 2014
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    Sanderson's rules are always a solid go to for this kind of thing.


    In particular, the second is probably most useful for a system, but the first is realtively good and the third is more general writing advice.

    With this, there are some general differences. If it's a magic that the players won't get to use, it doesn't need to be clearly understood. It should have vague limits probably and scope, but if it's fundamentally outside player abilities, then it can be obscure and free-form and somwahta applicable, provided it's not really that focused.

    You can't go as free formy if you're sticking with stuff that's meant as a tool for conflict resolution. From there I'd say to start by getting your general concept in line, then working from the negatives. What does magic cost, what can't it do, what weaknesses does it have.
    Ddmkm122 likes this.
  4. Robotninja

    Robotninja Connoisseur.

    Mar 30, 2013
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    Hmmm. Having a theme for magic is fairly important in my mind.

    I prefer to have several differing types of magical schools. Like for a Dark General quest, there would be Dark Magic, Light Magic, and neutral style magic. Each school would then have sub schools. Like Dark magic would have an energy based sub school used to drain energy, transfer it to people, and such things. Light magic would have a school based on purifying corruption and such.

    Each school should have several limits, drawbacks, and other such things. Like Dark magic is innately a selfish style of magic. The only way it can help people is by taking from someone or something else. So no healing without having drained someone else of energy/health. Stuff like that.

    I can do more help if you let me know what type of RP you want.
    Ddmkm122 likes this.
  5. MrThorSir

    MrThorSir Getting sticky.

    Nov 14, 2016
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    I've thrown together a few RPG systems over the years. Its worth checking out Ars Magica if you've got the time.

    Personally, I like nice, freeform 'yes you can do that but it comes with a cost' systems. If you have a 'challenge rating' system, a 'meta currency' that adds that challenge to the next that the party will face for any non-trivial magic makes players actually consider the consequences of 'fix it with magic', and save it for emergencies. Similarly, I like the option to solve a tactical problem at a strategic cost- things like 'it creates all the food for this village (by teleporting it from the surrounding villages winter stock)'.

    Keeping magic out of combat is an interesting tool, because it limits it to being a storytelling device, and can be useful for the party to solve problems, and help drive plot. All told, it depends on what aspects of the fantastic you wish to introduce to the setting as to what magic system you should embrace. This is more than just 'high magic' and 'low magic'- settings with conditional spells will see less ambushes, settings with infinite range and accuracy spells will see less flight, etc.
    Ddmkm122 likes this.
  6. SomaQM

    SomaQM Getting out there.

    Oct 30, 2017
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    I had some success using what's basically a Verb/Adjective system. Players could do research in-character to unlock new effects; things like paralysis, poison, leech, manipulate, et cetera. They could then combine these 'verbs' with a metamagic 'adjective'; something like ranged, blast, area of effect, something more generally that tells me how they'd like the spell to act rather than what the spell does. Then I also had a set of predefined techniques, which were either spells that they particularly favored, esoteric applications of magic that made sense fluff-wise but I couldn't really express mechanically, or ways to use magic in combination with martial techniques.

    I combined this with a much more free form system for elemental manipulation, which could incorporate elements of the stricter spell-based system or act completely independently. So for instance, an adept fire mage wouldn't need any metamagic or effects to spew flames from their fingertips. However, combining their aetheric manipulations with a metamagic like blast or area of effect could potentially yield more effective/powerful results.

    Then for more ritualistic magic I had an almost entirely narrative based system used for meditations and experiments, but a very regimented system for enchanting that was more akin to the Verb/Adjective system I used for spells. I was dabbling with a separate system for alchemy but never really got around to fleshing it out.

    All of this was governed by their reservoir of mana, which also acted as their 'health points'. They could increase through research or improving their magical skill. In retrospect, I gave the players too many opportunities to increase their mana pool. It grew to the point that they very rarely burned out all of their mana, and since I also let them 'spend' this mana to increase the results of dice rolls it really reduced the degree of difficulty. If I had to do it over again I'd more strictly regulate their resource pool.

    Some of the previous observations in this thread held true in my experience. My magic system was very open and magic itself was inherently powerful. The 'plot' I had in mind, loose though it was, got tossed out the window pretty early on and the quest itself turned into essentially an open-world romp filled with side quest, dungeon diving, and political intrigue. It was fun, but pacing was terrible. The players eventually (after hundreds of sessions) succeeded in elevating themselves to the status of a demi-god by manipulating the nature of their soul. They then proceeded to found a cult dedicated to their teachings. The enemies grew in power from bandits, to hellish abominations from a dimension outside of reality, to other borderline demi-gods roaming the setting. Most of the real conflict came from politics, puzzles, and secrets of a lost age. Things which generally can't be resolved through a liberal application of fire.

    Overall I'd suggest sticking to a more limited magic system, and not dabbling in multiple systems for multiple different aspects of magic. That was tedious in retrospect and difficult for the players to understand at the best of times.
    Ddmkm122 likes this.