Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Magic & Metaphysics

I've been doing some thinking about what I want out of a magic system for the system I'm working on, and it's looking more and more like what I need to do is write a new set of spells. I'd been trying to avoid that option on account of the work, but I've also spent the past couple days working over the metaphysics underlying magic in the setting I'm building, and in doing that, I kept thinking to myself, "Okay, sorcerers are going to need to be able to manipulate X in this way, and that way . . . oh, and obviously it makes sense for them to do Y." A few minutes of that, and I realized I had the beginnings of a spell list.

Given the metaphysical framework, it hasn't been too hard to fill out those lists, either. Add in the basic D&D assumptions about what magic-users ought to be able to do, and what I get are a bunch of questions: "What part of their soul would sorcerers use to do damage? How would that work?" "Should I have a spell like light? What's the game function of that spell? Is there another way to get the same effect that makes more sense in the metaphysics?" And I've been giving some thought to what would be useful in a social game that's not already in D&D, and what's in D&D that would be too useful in a social game. I've broken charm, for instance, into several spells, depending on what parts of people's souls they manipulate, and exactly what kind of effect they produce.

All this means, though, that the magic system is going to be very setting specific. It's possible that you could use it with a different setting, but I'm not sure that you'll be able to use it without the very specific approach to souls and other such things that I have in the setting I'm using. I'm not sure yet just how hard it would be, but there are going to be at least a couple of spells that just won't make any sense unless you know, for instance, certain things about the way that the magic metaphysics interacts with gender.

Which I worried about, until I realized that, hey, this is D&D. People can just take out the spells they like and forget the ones they don't. Or ignore the magic system entirely, and just borrow the other subsystems. If I was doing something really new and interesting with the mechanics of the magic system, I'd be more concerned with making it setting-independent. As it is, I'm considering stealing Arcana Evolved's "readied spells" concept, and perhaps even combining it with a "roll to cast" option, but nothing truly revolutionary. And it doesn't need to be.


  1. We are poised on the edges of our seats...

    Keep up the good work and know lots of us are cheering you on. :D

  2. Very, very cool.

    And it's not like D&D magic is exactly setting-neutral, implying, as it does, a realm where wizards toss about devastating spells and the gods grant incredible powers to their followers. There's a reason you can now talk about "D&D fantasy" or "RPG fantasy" and people will know what you're talking about.

  3. Readied spells are one of the really great parts of Arcana Evolved,

    Along witht the Ladened, Diminished, and Heightened casting options.

    Steve Russell
    Rite Publishing

  4. Timeshadows: Thanks! :)

    Trollsmyth: True. Magic is really always going to be setting specific to some degree or another. Mine is mostly just "setting specific" in some odd ways.

    Steven D. Russell: Arcana Evolved's Magic system is fantastic. It handles elemental specialist mages! A lot of the options are a little on the complex side, but it adds very little overheard to low level casting, which the only place I really worry about overwhelming people who are playing casters. It's nothing that players don't get used to.

  5. The magic system of D&D was one of the few things that have always annoyed me very much.
    Being very unflexible and cumbersome, the need to guess which spells would be needed and the oh so narrowmindedness of the categorizationalised magic varieties. I started out with systems that utilized spells as kind of modifiable and easy-to-use-and-adapt "swiss army knives" that could be used on the fly without "preparation" like fire-and-forget magic.
    The magic system of DnD led to many erm... frustrating moments, when my group geared up on scrolls and wands instead of being able to use their spell repertoir in a flexible way without having to wait one or more days until they were able to come back...
    Which they never did, because they knew that the dungeon dwellers would react accordingly to this "misbehavior".
    So, i'm sorry, but i can't see what the benefits of D&D's magic rule system would be.

  6. Magic should not be expected to be setting-neutral. It is a direct expression of cultural attitudes and a very direct embodiment of specific paradigmatic components. To divorce magic from metaphysics is ignorant and unsatisfying. It robs your game of a great deal of the good stuff. Consider Prof. M. A. R. Barkers' rather ingenious approach to both spells and portions of the human soul in Tekumel--very setting-specific, but well worth looking into as a source of inspiration for an example of what has been done and done very well in the past. If you are looking into developing a chakra-esque approach, definitely get yourself a copy of Leadbeaters' book (preferably an older edition with the color insert). I have used chakras in the magic systems of several camapaigns for decades now and it can work, and lead to all sorts of plot-devices and more very quickly and easily...just follow the chain of connections and implications. Oh, and by all means do avoid the WotC supplement for 3.5 that offered a ridiculous and useless pseudo-chakra system, I think it was called 'Incarnium' or some such. Go right to the roots and start with Leadbeater, or even go one step deeper and go look over Anodea Judiths' book. The sheer amount of detail will give you tons to work with, play with and keep you busy for decades...

  7. I think I've pointed you to this guy before, but you might want to check out the Old School Heretic's work on ancient Egypt.