Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Design Decision Tuesday: "Magic"

I've been devoting my past few Tuesday posts to the design decisions I made when crafting my on-going World of Samoth campaign. I started work on a proto-Samoth campaign back in my high-school days, and then began developing it in earnest during my Winter Break as a college Freshman at UC Riverside.

I began using it as an actual active game setting starting in May 2001 using D&D 3rd Edition rules, and we're still playing to this day in the same campaign, using a sort of modified Pathfinder/3.5/Trailblazer rules set.

Today's post is about how I've chosen to handle magic in the World of Samoth.

As I've mentioned before, most of my primary influences that impacted how I crafted the world included pulp fantasy like the tales of Conan and Tarzan, as well as Arthurian legends, a bit of Lord of the Rings, and the main resource, real-world history.

One of the things that all of the sources have in common is a relative lack of magic, or (with the exception of real-world history, of course) perhaps a better definition is the preservation of the mystery and rarity of magic.

In Conan's world, nearly every sorcerer type is evil. Their magic consists of summoning demonic creatures or stealing peoples' souls. Magic in Arthurian England, with the notable exception of Merlin (who in many stories is treated more like a Druid anyway), is handled in much the same manner - it's used to gain power at the expense of other people.

Magic in the Lord of the Rings saga is actually pretty minimal, in terms of the D&D definition of "casting spells" and looking at the effects. Gandalf and Saruman cast a few spells, sure, but they're somewhat vaguely defined. Then you've got your magic swords and rings, but their power, based on a D&D scale, is again somewhat low.

In real Earth history, I was always intrigued by ancient societies and some of their ceremonies that were "magical" in nature, and how a certain small group people could wield political power by claiming to practice sorcery. I liked the idea of potentially having a society's belief that magic would work actually being the catalyst for causing it to work in the first place. It's similar to the way D&D used to deal with deities - a deity who loses followers starts to lose power. With no one to believe in it, a god eventually loses all of its divine power. I thought treating magic the same way would be an interesting twist to my world.

Using these ideas, both historical and fictional, as my background, and also influenced by a recent copy of Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play (a low-magic setting) that I'd picked up, I began designing how magic would work in my world, and I definitely wanted it to be low-magic. I wanted magic, even priestly magic, to be treated with fear and respect by the commoners. They don't know how it works, and chances are only a small percentage have actually even seen the effects of a spell before, and they actually like it that way. The thought of someone casting a spell near them would be enough to frighten the average peasant for a long, long time.

Some of my original notes on Magic for the
World of Samoth in my green Steno notebook.
© Martin R. Thomas, ca. 1986.
My first drafts included breaking magic up into certain "sources" - how a practitioner accessed the magic. The sources included things like the Elements, Fey Magic, "Nature Spirits," Demons and Devils, and the "Life Cycle" of birth-life-death.

I also created two systems of how mages (I called them mages instead of magic-users, even though this all dates back to late 1st Edition rules) learned magic. There was the Classical/Traditional method, whereby a mage had to study to learn the intricacies of magic. I also had what I called the "Degenerate/Fallout"  method, which was in actuality a form of "inherent" magic - the practioner just had the innate ability to cast spells by virtue of being born in the fallout zone of a magical war that had taken place millennia before. It was sort of a riff on the X-Men and their "mutant gene" along with my own independently created version of what became the Sorcerer class in 3rd Edition D&D - someone who could cast magic without having to memorize spells from a book.

Practitioners of either Classical or Inherent magic could then "augment" their spells by dabbling into stuff like Elemental, Fey, or Demonic magic. Demons were particular adept at manipulating people into augmenting their spells with a demonic overlay, because it was the "path of least resistance" toward true power, but it also helped the demon in question to gain a foothold in the world - the practioner ended up acting as a "gateway" of sorts where the demon could leave its demonic plane and enter the real world. Repeated use of demonic augmentation would eventually taint the user and turn them evil. It's so funny - I read through these old notes now and see so many things that have been used in other games or supplements, such as the concept of Taint which showed up in the 3rd Edition Unearthed Arcana book. I don't know if that makes me exceptionally clever and ahead of my time, or if it (more likely) just points to the fact that there are only so many ideas that are going to be recycled over and over.

During these formative stages of my campaign world, I didn't separate between arcane and divine magic, and had decided that it was really just a function of how the practitioner saw him-or-herself. If the person thought of himself as a priest/cleric, then his magic would manifest that way and affect the types of spells he had access to. If he thought of himself as a standard mage/sorcerer, then he would end up casting different spells, because he believed those were the only types of spells he could cast. Much of magic was just based on the beliefs of the caster as well as the beliefs of those around him when he cast his spell. What a person thought would be the result of a spell would actually end up affecting the actual result. In terms of mechanics, this had no change, but it was just how I saw magic working in my world.

By the time my campaign got started in earnest, we were 18 months or so into D&D 3rd Edition, and that had a huge impact on how magic actually came to be worked in my world - that is to say, nothing like what I had imagined. I was a relatively inexperienced DM (having mostly played up until that point), and I'd worked on my campaign world for far too long without actually using it as a backdrop for game play that it had veered a bit too far away from practical applications in-game. D&D 3E and its descendants place a major difference on divine versus arcane magic, and also the game itself is built upon as assumption that players will have access to certain spells and magic items at each level of play in order to make the "Challenge Rating" and "Encounter Level" system work out. The designers of the game assume that, for example, a 5th level party will be able to fly because they will have a 5th level wizard in the party who will have taken the Fly spell.

I tried to take out some stuff like flying and its related spells, as I didn't envision my world having mages flying all over the place. I also curtailed divination spells because, as a "story-element" in my campaign, I didn't want my characters able to spy on other people or use spells that could quickly reveal the answers to "mundane" questions like "who was the murderer?" I wanted them to figure that stuff out through game-play, not from spells. I also wanted to greatly reduce the amount of resurrections and raise dead spells. In short... I wanted a low-magic world but I was trying to build that using a system that's intended for a high-magic world. Things didn't quite work out.

Eventually, my players have somewhat agreed to just kind of follow my lead when it comes to magic, but I still think there are too many magic items in the game for my taste and also way too many spells that kind of shatter the illusion of them living in a dark fantasy, low-magic setting. Much of that is due to my lack of confidence when I started DM'ing the game while trying to grasp the new rules and figure out how everything worked, but much of it is also due to the way that D&D 3E, et al, is designed. That's not a fault of the game, per se - but looking back, I think that perhaps it was the wrong system to emulate the type of setting I was trying to  create.

How have you used magic in your campaigns - "by the book", or have you made any major changes like I tried to make? How did it turn out?

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