RPG Talk: My Problem with Magic

Granted, I haven't PLAYED a lot of fantasy role-playing games, but I HAVE GMed quite a bit. When I had the chance to play, I seemed to want to gravitate towards magic-users. It made sense. GameMasters, by trade, know the ins and outs of a system better than most players, and magic-using has an inherent complexity not always afforded other classes. And I'm an intellectual nerd who corresponds to the archetype. And yet. And yet...

I don't seem to CARE about magic.

And very few of the players I've games with over the years have cared about it either. When I, or they, play magic-users, the focus is decidely on something else. I'll play a con man who just happens to use magic. Or someone will be a wizard, with the soul of a fighter or thief.

Not that I'm adverse to playing the archetype - the "smartest man in the room" - when magic isn't involved. I'm well-suited to the detective, the superhero scientist, or the Time Lord. As are many of my players. But please, don't give us spells. Even in a fantasy game, we have to really really really care about "balancing the party" for anyone to take a mage.

So what IS it about magic that's such a turn off? Perhaps it depends on the system. Spell slot systems (like in D&D) don't offer as much versatility or power as you'd think, unless you're either very strategic or lucky in your choices. But mana-point systems aren't great either because they turn the wizard into a magic item with charges. The warrior doesn't have X number of sword strikes in her, does she? The thief doesn't suddenly fall off a wall because he spent the total number of feet he could safely climb. Superhero games have magic that's pretty free-flowing, where powers are always on hand, but even though it's Doctors Strange or Fate you're playing, their spells don't work THAT differently from, say, Green Lantern's ring. Maybe I just haven't played the magic system that really makes me fall in love with the "class".

But most systems treat magic like a science (I guess we'd call it Hermetic), not a mystery. There are definite rules. It's like math. Even if I throw in the Chaos magic from the Tome of Magic, the basic system is rule-driven. This + that = effect within certain bounds, almost every time. It doesn't feel "magical" in that sense. It's normal and expected. Role-playing games codify how things work in any given setting, including magic. Because the PLAYER knows the rules for something, the mystery is lost. Perhaps that's the way to go? Use a system the player isn't allowed to understand? Could work!

Could you convince me to play a mage? Of course. But I think it would have to be an unusual mage. When AD&D 2nd was releasing its class-specific Handbooks, I would make characters I'd like to play with each one, and my mage was a goodie Necromancer. I'd love to play Unknown Armies where the postmodern magic disciplines are Doom Patrol-weird. But then, I'm just as likely to choose something more simple to play, just so I can concentrate on the character's personality and potential for subplots and character building instead.

What about you? What do you think of magic in role-playing games? Are there OTHER character types you just can't warm to?

16 comments:

Timothy Brannan said...

I am kind of the opposite. Mages, witches, clerics are all my "go to" characters. I think I have only ever played one actual fighter (Paladins don't really count) and if I play thief he will be multiclassed with Bard, Illusionist or something else.

For me magic is part of the fun.

Siskoid said...

Of course, we don't play sword&sorcery games much at all anymore - much less D&D - which may be part of the same disinterest in magic.

Ro Annis said...

I always liked playing spell users. But it was a little like being punished. Did the warrior have to pick which weapons he(she) was allowed to use that day beforehand? Two swings and you forget how to swing? Get bumped and lose the spell? Wait, here is a spell that's actually good...oh it takes 3 segments to cast. WTH? I thought wizards were powerful. As a spell user there was too much sitting around waiting for scraps from the warriors, who were having a good time rolling their dice so much, you could hardly read the worn numbers. This is one of the many reasons I bailed on D&D. Just as I was about to have fun, the stupid rules got in the way.

Siskoid said...

I've yet to use or adapt GURPS' improvised spellcasting, nor have I read that chapter in GURPS Magic in a long time, but I'm wondering if that wouldn't be my all-access pass.

Anonymous said...

I never liked the spell slot thing from D20 games- but then again I cut my teeth on Shadowrun 1st edition where spellcasting was a skill and it was the gunbunnies that ran out of ammunition.

Siskoid said...

Interesting inversion!

Michael Ruch said...

I think it comes down to 2 elements. First, what is the role of the Spell caster? Are they just extra powerful archers, with excellent ranged attacks? Is the game heavy on combat/action? Because in those games at least 50% of the spells never get used, except in the hands of the most creative wild card players.

Second, what do you want Magic to do? Do you want Gandalf. who almost never actually used Magic? Or do you want an Elminster, who can just turn people to newts, or blast them to pieces. Fortunately in modern systems it is easier to survive at the lower levels until you finally get the ability to do massive damage.

American Hawkman said...

I've always been the guy who liked magic systems, to the point where I think a fantasy rpg lives or dies based on them. I care intensely and irrationally about the laws of magic, the lore behind it, and the like. That was the first two strikes against 4th Edition D&D for me.

Siskoid said...

I stopped at 2nd (#old), what's so wrong with 4th?

Delta said...

Personally, I like the D&D distinction between class systems: Fighters are mundane and can do the same thing turn after turn; Wizards are exotic and have powers which will be used rarely for larger effect (like the flavor difference between scoring in basketball vs. soccer, for example). I agree with Ro Annis that the fiddly limitations introduced in AD&D (casting segments, initiative limitation, etc.) were a misstep. I find that if you make it mysterious/unpredictable -- including even saving throws -- that players quickly start complaining that if Wizards have limited shots, then they should be more dependable than Fighter attacks, not less.

Speculation on American Hawkman's grief with 4th Ed. D&D: It specifically collapsed the class systems so there was little mechanical difference between them. Fighters got special once-a-combat and once-a-day powers (like an uber-attack, or moving an opponent across the battlefield). Wizards get also are given at-will every-round attacks (like a minor magic missile usable at any time). So there's no real mechanical difference, only the "skinning" is different. Some people like that, but I think it's a bad idea -- having mechanical distinction gives depth to the class identity, extending it into the real world as something that needs to be dealt with.

American Hawkman said...

Let me start off by saying that if you like 4th Edition, great! I'm happy for you. It just wasn't for me because of, not just what Delta said in execution, but because of the wholesale disregarding of what had gone before. The Vancian Magic system has real issues, but tossing it utterly is an issue for me. (5th Edition fixed the flaws entirely for me, thank goodness.) It doesn't feel like D&D without it, and if I just wanted a fantasy game, I have other options. Tossing out the Planescape mythos for a much less interesting combo was a killer for me too. It's like the New Coke debacle... even if you liked it better, the loss of the original stung. Fortunately, 5th Edition fixed ALL of my complaints.

Siskoid said...

Good to know, AmHawk. I keep riffling through the new books, though I don't think I need to invest in a new edition of D&D, not when my tastes run counter to classic sword & sorcery anyway.

Ro Annis said...

I cannot comment any of the post 80's versions of D&D. This discussion has made me rethink my own designs of spells. Typically, they (my spells and miracles) are designed to accomplish some crypt opening type task, flying through the air, healing and inflicting damage. The real question is, what is the purpose of magic? By just thinking about it as a way to do mundane things (such opening doors, finding swag and blasting your opponents) I have limited what magic is really good for....i.e.,doing things that are "magical". As far as game mechanics, I think every player should have the stuff to be an equal participant at all times, if they desire. Being a spell user/miracle worker should not be the limitation.

Siskoid said...

I think you've almost reached a Truth here, Ro. Rules are limitors, while magic is meant to destroy limits, so there's an innate paradox to the way it's often handled in RPGs.

Magic is perhaps better served as a matter of environment, where the players are exposed to magic, but can't use it as a tool... Hm... I'm going to think about that.

JDJarvis said...

"The warrior doesn't have X number of sword strikes in her, does she? The thief doesn't suddenly fall off a wall because he spent the total number of feet he could safely climb. " - only because having everyone at the table track fatigue levels or stamina points gets old fast even if such a mechanic could be easily tracked and has a fair degree of verisimilitude. Folks seem to be more comfortable using points (or slots) to track exceptional/supernatural activity; for some odd reason we don't tend to imagine thieves climbing walls or warriors beheading dragons to be all that exceptional...

Siskoid said...

A very good point! I hate tracking fatigue, or even attribute attrition caused by wounds. Just hate it.

Is spell attrition wrapped up in this feeling?

 

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