Thursday, 23 May 2013

Monitors: making magic

Magic v. Technology

So things have stagnated a bit with Monitors. I'm not really sure what needs doing, and some of the obvious things (like concrete numbers and mechanics) you can't really settle by waffling. However, there are a couple of significant gaps I notice: shiny shiny technology, and ancient arcane magic. As these are supposedly cornerstones of the game, I can't really even look at alpha-testing the system without something in place.

Something Old, Something New

Magic and technology are two key ways of interacting with the world. The conceit behind these two elements in Monitors is basically their contrast. Technology is modern, exciting, comprehensible, relatively shiny, mostly safe and mostly reliable: a product of the genius and hard work of countless experts. Magic is antediluvian, arcane and potentially sinister: scraps of secret knowledge that occasionally drift to the surface.

So in a game, I'd like these two to feel substantially different. I want technology (barring experiments and so on) to feel sleek, reliable, and generally cool. I want magic to feel exotic, mysterious, significant, and maybe a little subversive.

Time for some research, methinks.

Something Borrowed

A good starting point for this exercise is to see what other games have done with magic. My traditional calling points here are Dungeons and Dragons and Call of Cthulhu. When I say "magic", I'm going to be looking at yer'actual spells here, not artefacts and that.

Lovecraftian Magic

A typical spell in Call of Cthulhu... doesn't really exist. There are a few very broad classes you can sketch out, such as Summonings, Enchantments, Horrible Attacks, or Horrible Transmutations, but many spells don't even fall into these. However, a spell looks a bit like this:

Summon/Bind Fire Vampire

causes one fire vampire to swoop down from the sky like a skittering star. The magic point cost varies; for each magic point sacrificed, increase the chance for a successful cast by 10 percentiles; a result of 96-100 is always a failure. Each cast of this spell also costs 1d3 Sanity points. A bonfire or other source of flame is required. The spell may be cast only at night when the star Fomalhaut is above the horizon (September through November are the best times in moderately northern latitudes).

Raise Night Fog:

draws up a dense ground fog from a body of water. Casting it costs 3 magic points and 1D2 Sanity points. The ritual takes about twenty game rounds to complete and involves a bowl or cup for water, filled from the body of water where the fog is to form, then blowing softly across the surface of the container. The fog forms suddenly; if there is wind, it drifts with the wind. The spell can be cast only at night. The fog dissipates with the rising sun.

Unspeakable Promise:

establishes a binding oath made to He Who Is Not To Be Named, and costs the caster 2D8 Sanity points. In return, Hastur grants the caster some benefit — a plausible gift would be an important ancient tome such as the R'lyeh Text or the yearly award of 3 POW for the rest of the recipient's life. Additionally, however, there is a non-cumulative chance of 2% per year that the caster transforms into a gruesome humanoid monster totally under Hastur's sway, one which the keeper may create afresh or draw statistics from the Unspeakable Possessor, in the Creature Companion.

This selection of spells showcases a few of the common aspects of magic in Call of Cthulhu.

  • Magic is alien and corrosive to the human mind, and causes sanity loss.
  • Most magic involves a cost or risk that isn't just resource-management, such as being devoured (or driven mad) by an unbound summoned creature, obliterated from reality by misfiring time-travel, horribly killed if someone negates your organ-stealing spell, or transformed into a thrall of Hastur.
  • Spells have quite specific requirements, often apparently arbitrary. It seems like a lot of gamers handwave these - nobody ever seems to check the star-charts before allowing a character to summon byakhees - but they're in the rulebook. You don't just need water, but some water from the specific pond. You need sacrifices, or a magical dagger of pure metal, or to cast the spell on a spot where the patron god was worshipped.
  • There is no suggestion that spells can be varied, or even controlled well. Raise Night Fog isn't just making some fog, it's making fog at night from a specific body of water. Most spells have very specific effects.
  • In fact, many spells are only useful in specific scenarios, because they relate to particular entities or places, or very specific sets of circumstances - or will leave a PC caster in no shape to continue their career.
  • In general, spells are designed to be used against the PCs, not by them. NPCs can ignore the crippling effects of the spells and shrug off their vile requirements; PCs will quickly be destroyed if they turn to magic. The main counterexamples are bindings and banishments.
  • As a levelless game, there is very little scaling in spells - even less than might be expected. Opposed spells typically make high POW scores more likely to succeed, but abilities rarely make a substantial difference to how powerful a spell is, and skills never do. Most spells' effectiveness depends on magic point investment, effectively a mana system, which means characters can typically cast a spell once successfully if they're determined, or gamble on casting more than once with a lower chance of success. However, the power of spells, and their relative rarity, means casting more than one isn't very common.

A trait that doesn't come up here is that learning spells is very much down to the GM. Characters don't simply gain spells; they come either from ancient tomes of forbidden knowledge (for which see: tomes) or imbued by mysterious entities. This gives the GM a great deal of control over what spells characters are able to learn - though it doesn't necessarily mean they will. Another facet of this is that learning spells deliberately is difficult, often requiring long periods of study (typically between scenarios/chapters) as well as successful rolls. This limits the total number of spells characters are likely to know, and potentially makes players think carefully about where they want to invest their effort, since they can only read one tome at a time.

As you might reasonably expect from a horror/weird game, Call of Cthulhu takes a strong stance on the supernatural, mostly against it. It makes magic strange, horrible, and destructive. The first one matches what I'm looking for, but the other two take things too far for Monitors. So I can borrow a couple of ideas here, but not simply import the overall structure (besides, that's stealing).

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons

The first thing I notice about all versions of D&D is that wow, that is a lot of spells. There's spells for a vast variety of miscellaneous purposes, plus a huge number of (arguably redundant) spells for Killing Stuff and Not Getting Killed By Stuff.

This is not the tack I want to take in Monitors. Monitors magic is esoteric, rare, and significant. There are no spells for bathing children, or weeding. Magic should not be taking on completely mundane roles. I already have technology to handle the ubiquitous-solution role. Hey, I learned something already.

Pebble Shower

(complex mechanical stuff)
The Pebble Shower (aka Stoneskin Remover or Spell Casting Disruptor or Tyre's Annoyance) propels a stream of small stones (or similar objects) at a single target by their own volition from the caster's hand, 1 stone per segment, to a maximum of 10. One stone can be propelled per leve of the caster, and a normal to-hit roll must be performed for each missile (no range or non-proficiency penalties apply). Each stone causes 1 hp of damage, and falls to the ground if it misses its target. The caster must maintain continuous concentration on the spell until its completion, or the remaining attacks are lost.

Since the items hurled are non-magical object, magic resistance does not apply.

The material component is a number of small stones, marbles, or similar items. The items are not consumed by the spell, but must be regathered after use. The sole somatic component is opening the hand with the stones, so this can (in theory) be performed while webbed or netted if the hand can be directed towards the target.

Tenser's Floating Disc:

Description: With this spell, the caster creates the slightly concave, circular plane of force known as Tenser's floating disc (after the famed wizard whose greed and ability to locate treasure are well known). The disc is 3 feet in diameter and holds 100 pounds of weight per level of the wizard casting the spell. The disc floats approximately 3 feet above the ground at all times and remains level. It floats along horizontally within its range of 20 yards at the command of the caster, and will accompany him at a movement rate of no more than 6. If unguided, it maintains a constant interval of 6 feet between itself and the wizard. If the spellcaster moves beyond range (by moving faster, by such means as a teleport spell, or by trying to take the disc more than 3 feet from the surface beneath it), or if the spell duration expires, the floating disc winks out of existence, and whatever it was supporting crashes to the surface beneath it.

The material component of the spell is a drop of mercury.


When this spell is cast, each affected creature functions at double its normal movement and attack rates. A hasted creature gains a -2 initiative bonus. Thus, a creature moving at 6 and attacking once per round would move at 12 and attack twice per round. Spellcasting and spell effects are not sped up. The number of creatures that can be affected is equal to the caster's experience level; those creatures closest to the center of effect are affected first. All affected by haste must be in the designated area of effect. Note that this spell negates the effects of a slow spell. Additionally, this spell ages the recipient by one year, because of sped-up metabolic processes. This spell is not cumulative with itself or with other similar magic. Its material component is a shaving of licorice root.

One of the things I notice is that AD&D magic is complicated. There are detailed numerical specifics and descriptions for many spells, with disclaimers and explanations of how they interact with other spells or specific situations. Most have specific material components, though only inconvenient or costly components are usually tracked. Spells may also have vocal or somatic components, which determines whether they make a noise, if they can be cast while wrestling, and so on. It's assumed that many spells will be cast in combat, so their casting time and interaction with friends and foes is carefully documented.

A handful of spells have significant costs, but Haste is rare in that regard. Moreover, the cost is largely a narrative rather than a mechanical one; whether or not groups actually tend to follow it I've no idea. My guess would be not, though in a system where many spells had costs this would be more likely. In AD&D, though, magic is supposed to be used, so penalties like that would be counterproductive.

It's hard to demonstrate this with a handful of examples, but AD&D (and its successors) do have huge numbers of niche spells. There are spells to walk at full speed when carrying too much, spells to repel birds, spells to show you what a broken object looked like when whole, spells to control gases, spells to make undead glow, spells to kill bookworm (complete with combat mechanics!), spells to enlarge desert creatures, spells to protect from summon horses... many of which are of course extremely rare. This is very handy if you're keen to avoid your PCs learning NPCs' spells and becoming too powerful, but also for giving unique twists to particular characters or cultures. Having a magic system based mainly around niche spells like this would give a very esoteric feel to magic, which becomes something only useful in very specific situations - or calls for you to find unexpected ways to use it.

I think what I'm looking for is something that's relatively common in-game, but thematically unusual; Monitors encounter more than most because it's their job, and use it because it's a powerful tool. So Monitors are likely to be using spells or artifacts regularly, but not trivially; and NPCs with magical training are unusual and noteworthy.

D&D traditionally uses Vancian magic, so spellcasting per day is limited by forgetting spells. I've always found it fairly hard to justify that sort of thing, but having some kind of limit on spellcasting makes sense if it's supposed to be an exotic and exciting element of the game. On the plus side, because Monitors is basically an all-caster game, I shouldn't need to worry about warrior/wizard scaling issues.

In contrast to the Cthulhian take, learning magic in D&D isn't difficult: it's either a) easy and under the player's control; or b) completely impossible. Only certain classes have access to spells, and characters can only learn class-appropriate spells even if they find a spellbook lying around. Similarly, you can only learn spells appropriate to your level. On the flipside, wizards can generally learn whatever spells they want when they gain a level, though there's some variation between editions, and optional rules where you have to first find a copy of the spell you want to learn. Clerics, of course, just know all the spells.

This flexibility, plus the ability to learn a relatively large number of spells, means spellcasters in D&D can have an array of niche spells for specific occasions, rather than just learning a few blunt-instrument spells that they know will come in useful. On the downside, especially with multiple casters in a party plus a pile of magic items and scrolls, it can produce a situation where no matter what happens, the party has a spell to deal with it. This means very few things present a serious challenge, and more importantly it overshadows non-casters.

One (probably) final thought; there is a well-known issue with a particular set of D&D spells, which allow characters to polymorph into other creatures. The problem is fundamentally down to ever-expanding sets of creatures from expansions, plus feats and powers and other spells that allowed characters to gain more benefits from the polymorph, so that a spellcaster could turn into just about any creature and gain not only its shape, but also most or all of its special abilities. Now this is partly down to poor spell design, but also demonstrates how spells and other rule-breaking abilities can cause problems by interacting in unexpected ways.


In Deathwatch, unsurprisingly, powers tend to be definitely military in nature. A few grant communications or transport ability, but most are all about shielding, terrifying, suppressing, or preferably obliterating.

Force Dome

Action: Full
Opposed: No
Range: 5m x Psy Rating radius
Sustained: Yes
Description: Summoning up a shimmering field of force, the Librarian fashions a shell around himself and nearby allies. The shell is a sphere extending up to the radius around, above, and below the Librarian and protecting him and any within it. The shell provides 2 AP x Psy Rating against all kinds of ranged attacks or hazardous environmental effects (this additional protection stacks with any worn Armour), even trapping air and water within it. However, it does not stop melee attacks or creatures (friend or foe) that may pass through it without restriction.


Action: Half
Opposed: No
Range: 10m x Psy Rating radius
Sustained: No
Description: The Librarian conjures up lethal bolts of lightning that leap from his hands to burn and blast his enemies into ash. Smite must be targeted at a single creature. However, it may affect others nearby depending on its power. The Librarian does not need to make a BS test to hit the target. However, his Focus Powers Test is modified as if he was making a ranged attack (using bonuses and penalties for range, lighting, enemy talents etc.). Smite deals 1d10 Energy Damage per PR with a Penetration equal to his PR. Any creatures within 1 metre x PR of the target will also be affected by Smite.

The sharp-eyed will notice there's fewer examples for Deathwatch because I can't find copy-pastable examples anywhere (seriously?) and typing them out by hand is a faff. But these two are a good start.

The other major feature of Deathwatch and the other 40K RPGs that makes it quite different is the existence of the Psychic Phenomena table. A skill roll is needed to cast a spell, and a failure leaves the caster rolling on this table to see what went wrong. The exact rules vary from RPG to RPG. In Deathwatch you can cast spells (sorry, "use psyker powers") at three different levels: fettered, unfettered and push. The first protects you from mishaps, the second has some risk, and the third is relatively dangerous. Results on the table can vary anywhere from "there's a funny smell", through "everyone within thirty feet floats up into the air, then falls hard", to "your soul is eaten by a greater demon". In reality, for Deathwatch at least, using psychic powers isn't enormously dangerous unless you manage to stack up some penalties; however, even the lesser phenomena can cause problems and certainly give a weird edge to the game that makes psykers a double-edged chainsword. The Damocletian threat of truly horrible consequences, however rare, tends to discourage people from being completely gung-ho about using magic unnecessarily. I have to imagine that in the less heroic RPGs, with more-human and lower-tech protagonists who are more vulnerable to psychic misfires, this is even more the case.

As the spell descriptions show, the caster's stats are significant here because Psy rating determines the effectiveness of powers. This rating can be bought up with XP, which provides some level-scaling. It's worth noting that in Deathwatch there will be little or no discrepancy between early characters, so magical power is a factor of experience rather than innate ability. This contrasts with both Call of Cthulhu (where any variation is all about POW) and D&D (where both statistics and level determine the power of spells).

Spells can't be acquired in play, but are bought with XP in the same way as stat boosts and other benefits. This system means that increasing the breadth of spells available is one option to be weighed up alongside others. Interestingly, spellcasters actually have to trade off learning new spells against becoming better at casting them. This is a definite contrast to D&D, despite both having class-based levelling systems and relatively similar types of spell.

Summary of observations

  • Mechanical costs to spellcasting limit use of magic
  • Permanent or near-permanent costs to spellcasting will discourage spellcasting
  • The threat of horrible consequences create a cost-benefit judgement
  • Systems with only resource-management costs encourage spellcasting
  • Point-spending costs to spellcasting allow limited scaling with character power
  • Statistic-based power scaling of spells can produce wide discrepancies in magical ability; this needs consideration in terms of levelling and initial character creation
  • Making it time-consuming and difficult to learn spells can subtly restrict characters' breadth of magical capability
  • Mechanical limits on magical capability can maintain balance and allow power-scaling
  • Esoteric requirements make magic stranger
  • Narrative costs to spellcasting can give spells a strong flavour
  • Specific uses restrict the influence of magic, and give it distinct tones
  • Spells for mundane purposes makes magic more mundane
  • Where spells break the normal rules, there are potentially exponential complexity problems
  • Flexible spells are unpredictable and can become ubiquitous
  • Spellcasting is inclined to overtake non-magical approaches if not carefully watched

That's a fairly sizeable post so I'll leave it for now. Next time I'll be pulling back to look at some general approaches to magic.

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