Friday, June 12, 2009

The Fantasy Internet of Magic

Magic is such a great topic to blog a bit about. I think everyone thinks about it a little differently. I was skimming through the Paizo message board and one post popped out at me, so I will write some of my thoughts on magic in general.

One of the things I actually liked about Forgotten Realms was the way they approached magic. Basically the premise was that there is a weave that flows through everything, and magic users tap into it to perform magic. There is probably more to it than that, but that is my take away on it. This is a simple, yet elegant way of describing how one can access magic. What I really like this is that it becomes really easy to show how dead magic areas can come about. The weave goes through almost everything, but there are some areas that the weave does not go through, and in these areas, magic is not accessible. In modern terms, it’s like not having good reception on your mobile phone. In some areas, the reception is just terrible. As an aside, I am sitting in my concrete office and the mobile phone reception is horrible. However, my internet connect is great as my wireless router about 2 feet from my notebook. This is basically how I think about magic. You are tapping into a magical wireless internet.

In the real world, sometimes the internet connect gets a bit flaky. I see magic the same way. Sometimes things do not quite work the way you expect them to. It’s not really explainable, it just is. I really like the idea that there is always a small chance that magic just does not work right. In 20 sided die terms, I am thinking a 1 or a 2. If the player or GM (for monsters/NPCs) rolls a 1 or a 2, nothing happens. With a roll of a 2, nothing happens, but the character does not lose the spell. With a roll of a 1, it’s a total dud, and you lose the spell. Same with monsters. Now as I take away, I have to give back. With a die roll of a 20, the effect or range or duration is doubled. I like that randomness of this. It’s a bit like critical hits and fumbles, only with spells.

On the Paizo board, there are folks that like this type of mechanic for magic, and there are some that just hate it. I like it as it adds a bit of flavor to magic. There is an unpredictable element to it. It is powerful, but at the same time sometimes it is a bit flaky. Now I totally understand some folk’s opinion that this punishes the magic user. So I have to agree with this, however that is why I like the idea that a natural 20 is like a critical hit.

In my games, a 20 is a critical hit in terms of using weapons, and a roll of a 1 or a 2 is an automatic miss. The concept here is that no matter how good you get, there is still a 10% chance that you miss regardless of how many pluses you have. Nothing is a sure thing. Now, the probabilities maybe very good, but they will never exceed 90%. I personally think this is a good thing. Hits should not be automatic. There should always be a chance of failure. If there is no chance of failure, then the game loses something. That feels too safe. When I play D&D, I want to know that I have accomplished something in game, and to have that feeling, there has to be a risk, otherwise the reward does not mean that much. It always feels better to earn something, rather than just be handed something.

I feel the same way about magic. I do not like the concept that it always works. I think that’s because in real life, there are no guarantees. There are no sure things. You have to weigh the probabilities and take some chances. I think this adds a dimension to D&D, and does not detract from the game.

However, with that said, I do understand the other side of the argument which says that this penalizes magic users and hurts the group. So this argument has merit. That is also why I like the idea that a roll of a 20 results in something very favorable. It becomes a bit like gambling. The payoff is huge, but there is a chance that something could go wrong. I also believe that it is the players that make up the game not characters. As the players start to run low on resources, they have decision to make. It does not mean that they have to pack it up. I am a believer that if there are any specialty item required, it should be found in the dungeon. A dungeon should not be just a hack and slash fest, but rather should have interesting and challenging rooms that require something more than just a strong sword.

Anyway, I will be adding this as a house rule and we shall see how it plays out.


Chris said...

Doug at Savage Swords of Athanor did some work on an interesting pulp magic mechanic derived from Chainmail a while back.

It seems to add a little randomness and danger back into magic...

Joe said...

So if you have to roll a 20 to cast a spell, and you succeed (say on a 10), and the spell requires a roll to hit (i.e. ray of whatever), do you have to roll twice?

Also, I could see this playing out well in dead zones... but everywhere?

Finally, I understand the idea that randomness should be encouraged. However, there is something to be said for the argument that if you spend your life studying something, your chance of failing should not be as high as someone who is trying it for the first time. This is one reason I don't use critical fails or successes on skill checks in my games. If you put 30-some points into a skill, you shouldn't run the risk of failing it. Then again, if you never spend any skill points on something, you will NEVER be able to get the 25 you need to pass.

Mr Baron said...

Chris - thanks for the link...I like the concept that Doug outlined in his blog.

Joe - I am thinking just once. For spells that require a to hit roll, that would be sufficient. My basic house rule is that a 1 or 2 is an auto miss/failure. No need to role twice. Again the idea is that nothing is an automatic success. There is always a small chance of failure. I think it is because of the chance of failure that a true sense of accomplishment occurs. If everything results in success, I think the game would lose some of its appeal. Now I do agree that unnecessary penalities are annoying and no fun. I clearly do not want that. I also agree that as a character gains levels, his profiency should go up, and I think the basic mechanics cover this. One should be able to try anything, but the probabilites of success depends on a number of factors. I like the idea of a Wizard trying to cast a spell off a scroll that is at much higher level than is allowed. Most of the time, it should fail, but occasionally it should work.

I do need to blog a bit on skill checks. In general, I like to see folks role play skill checks whenever possible. Without a doubt, some skill checks are just easier to roll for, but there are a number of checks that should be role played.