Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Monitors: making magic 4

How do you get magic?

Last time I started thinking broadly about magic systems in general, and discussed three approaches to how magic intersects and interacts with other stuff. This time I want to look at distribution of magical talent. To ward off possible disappointment, note this isn't going to be about how magic is acquired in-universe in Monitors, but about mechanical distribution of abilities.

Once again I've thought of three main approaches to this; there are probably others.

Career magic

In this approach, magic is a class feature, or some equivalent. Basically, it is a special capability of certain people, which contrasts with other abilities available to other classes. Wizards get magic missile, rogues get backstab; librarians get smite, devastators get a range of shooting-related skills and perks. While there isn't necessarily an absolute division of abilities, there are some characters who are and will remain Wizards, and others who aren't. The choice is basically going to be a one-off decision.

Gandalf Aragorn

Class systems have their strengths and weaknesses that other people will have discussed more knowledgeably than I could, so I won't. On a fairly specific note, this system doesn't sound appropriate for a game about "cyborg sorcerer special agent reptiles in space", on account of how it sets aside one of those keywords as belonging to a particular subset of characters. My plan was always for this to be a skills-based game rather than a classed one.

In terms of the Magic How from last time, I think this approach would work best with either method magic or weird magic; wizard can be a distinct class, but wizards can still deal with the same problems as the rest of the party, whether in an equivalent sense (method magic) or by taking completely different approaches (weird magic). The first is, in fact, how 4E D&D works, and you could see Pathfinder as largely the second. In contrast, I think combining career wizards with anti-magic magic is a thorny business, because you risk creating a class that can only usefully interact with its own dedicated set of problems, while also creating a requirement for wizards: the circular thief again.

Talent magic

In this approach, magical power is one of a range of options that characters choose from, and they can vary this balance fairly flexibly. The ability slope between characters is more gentle than in a class-based system, with characters having different degrees of magical ability rather than a sharp division.

The difficulty with this kind of system is trying to balance magical and non-magical abilities, and the possible combinations. Some spells intended to bolster a flimsy wizard may turn hardy warriors into invulnerable killing machines (mirror images and righteous might are reasonable examples), or patch over intentional weaknesses so they outshine other characters. Other combinations may be extremely weak. At the other end of the spectrum, the problems of balancing magic-heavy and non-magical characters are well-established. Talent approaches should have fewer general party-balance problems than class systems, because they blur class boundaries and allow adaptation over time as weaknesses are discovered, but they're more likely to have synergy problems.

The great advantage of this system, though, is the flexibility it allows to players. Everyone has some magical talent, but some can specialise in it, or in particular aspects of magic. To quote Dan again: "Even in a classless system, someone tends to want to be the wizard."

Equal magic

In this third approach, there isn't any significant variation in magical ability - at least not for characters of the same level. Every player character gets a set amount of power; this might take the form of knowing X spells, having X mana points, and so on. The differences would play out mostly in how characters choose to use that power, though statistics might also influence the potency of their spells, in the same way that they affect damage dealt or effectiveness of skills.

Balance justice

This approach limits players' ability to take on different roles, since they can't choose to be a highly magic-focused character vs. a highly physical one. In effect, there is no option to be The Wizard. However, the system may allow them to vary where their magical talents lie, in the same way that characters often choose between physical aptitudes of strength, speed or resilience. This may take the form of pools of abilities, specific spells or some other model of magic.

From a design point of view, this has some appealing advantages. While exact abilities will vary, it's easy to predict the rough capabilities of a party at any stage. There's no dependency on one Wizard character for magical affairs or particular abilities - particularly appealing as I'm expecting Monitors to be a party-splitting kind of game - and similarly it avoids having a Wizard who's short on non-magical competence. Plus, everyone gets to play with spells.

Designing appropriate challenges for a party becomes less of an issue if there isn't a wide variation in how much supernatural ability they have. Things like the resilience and number of enemies, or the difficulty of a climb, are relatively simply to adjust based on physical capabilities; however, if parties may or may not have the ability to fly, turn invisible, hypnotise guards and walk through walls, it's trickier to create situations that will always present some level of interesting challenge, without being a cakewalk or insurmountable.

A second advantage is that party balance becomes less of an issue, as nobody has a qualitatively different set of abilities. This is mechanically easier to balance, and it should also be easier to avoid some characters being more interesting than others.

So yes, as you can probably tell, I'm inclined to go with the third option (that's partly deliberate). A solution that minimises balance issues seems good, because frankly I'm not going to be in a position to do a load of playtesting - my friends should be up for a game or two, but this is to entertain them (and me, of course), not to test out on them before unleashing on the world.

I was already intending to go classless, and by restricting ability selection to filling discrete slots (rather than a more fluid selection of abilities) I should be able to greatly simplify both design issues and character generation itself. Both of those sound good. I hadn't really thought about this yet, but actually designing and balancing actual classes sounds like a huge pain. On the other hand, something more like the Deathwatch/Necromunda kits could be more workable... I'll have to think about that one when I have more idea how the game's going to work.

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