August 17, 2012

Mythic Wizards in My Game

A chat with Alex Osias from Armchair Gamer got me thinking again about how I want magic users to play in my games.  I highly favor a more mythic take on the spellcaster, with magic being more than just another weapon for the players.  Alex then asked me, 'What makes a spell seem more mythical?'

I said, 'involvement of supernatural entities, need for ritual preparation, use of symbolism, use of the principles of sympathetic magic, and ... you can't substitute a grenade launcher and still have the same effect in game.'  I'm not that satisfied with that answer, though.  One of the lessons I learned in the Hari Ragat  playtests was to balance the role of the spellcaster vis a vis the the other character types, which in Hari Ragat are primarily heroic warriors.  How to have the flavor of magic I like, while keeping the player happy with a good sense of purpose and role within the game?

Magic is a way of life
I want magic to not just be a power that can be used when it's wanted, it's something that should shape the character's life, in terms of her actions and thinking.  The Way of Magic is a constant search for knowledge and power, for things that give you advantage when you need to cast spells. 

For example, I'm now thinking that perhaps babaylan in Hari Ragat begin with the ability to talk to only a few Ancestors, perhaps only those in their direct family line. She must earn the ability to contact more, especially the more ancient and heroic, and therefore more powerful, Ancestors.

I also like very much the way Chris Bunch and Allan Cole handle the wizard characters of Janos and Janela Greycloak in the Antero series. Both characters' lives are a quest for a great magical discovery.  Both characters are constantly gathering things that can help in their spellcasting; for example in one scene Janela puts away tufts of musk ox fur found on some brambles, and later summons that musk ox herd to trample down a pack of dire wolves. (See my notes on Spellbinding for more on this manner of doing magic.)

Perhaps another thing we can introduce is the idea of personal sacrifices.  A wizard may not be able to live a normal life, because the requirements of practicing magic impose certain taboos.  In the Thieves' World series, the sorcerer Lythande's magic is based on her hiding her true gender. Elric lives under vows and pacts with the supernatural made by his ancestors, which often limit his choices of action.  Odin sacrificed his left eye to gain the runes.  In Chinese fantasies, the eunuch sorcerer is a figure of dread. What did your character give up to be a wizard?

Magic is a means for achieving what the physical cannot
We're looking at some niche protection here, and also to make the wizard (or sorcerer or shaman or whatever) have a much more supernatural feel.  Right now I'm looking at three aspects, I may add more if I can think of them: 

Preternatural Knowledge
A wizard should have the ability to know, or investigate, things he cannot know  by natural means.  The far past, without aid of books.  The future, or possible futures.  The presence of the invisible, or the otherworldly.  The existence of magical talent or potential in someone or something.  This knowledge could be gained by means of divination spells, contacting otherworldly entities, or assuming that wizards have some kind of sixth sense.

Using this in the game means relying on the player of the wizard character to help drive the plot.  I am eager to give the wizard clues no other character can learn, but as player, your part is to get the rest of the party to do something about those clues.  To prevent other players from jumping the gun, I usually try to pass the wizard's player these clues privately.  

Environmental Manipulation
As a GM, I really don't like what I call point-n-zap magic. You know them - they're always the spells with the clearest descriptions in the rulebooks, because they exist only to be used in the most heavily-ruled aspect of the game, combat.    

I also don't like magic being too common, or used too frequently.  However, I do like occasional, epic manifestations of magic.  A sorceress lashed to the mast of a ship, chanting all through the night to so the ship can ride a storm wind and cover a year's voyage in one night.  A villain causing an entire cliff to crumble and wipe out an army (from REH's Scarlet Citadel).  Blizzards pummeling the Nine Walkers on Caradhras (LOTR). 

Yes, I think environmental manipulation on this grand scale is one of the most epic things that magic can do.  And I'm willing to let player characters achieve them - but there'll be a price.  Items and lore that they may have to quest for.  Allies that they need to recruit. Perhaps even seeking an audience with a god - I mean, bringing down a  mountain on your foes isn't likely to gain the favor of that mountain's deity, is it?  But the best and most interesting kind of sacrifice is self-sacrifice -- a character taking on extreme risks or even death to achieve some epic magical feat.  That storm-singing sorceress I mentioned? That was my wife's character in a Sea Rovers of Syrene game. 

Ability to deal with the Supernatural/Incorporeal
One of the coolest aspects I liked in David Gemmell's Drenai series was the ability of some heroes and villains to fight in astral form.  Only the well-trained or superbly talented could do it; there were rare cases of shamans or wizards aiding the non-magical heroes to do it as well, but the key here is that those heroes could do so only with that aid.  

A wizard should have the ability to see and engage the Unseen.  As a corollary, there should exist in the game forces and creatures that no other character type can deal with effectively without a wizard's help. 

As a corollary to this: wizards tend to attract their own kinds of threats.  An all-swordsmen party will run into less supernatural threats because the supernatural's less interested in them, but add a wizard and suddenly you'll have the attention of unquiet spirits, demons, and rival wizards ... 

With this in mind, I'd equip my players' wizards with banishment spells, warding and containment spells, maybe even astral projection and astral-form combat.  I'm also thinking that I need rules for astral combat.  Maybe specifying that only those who have the talent or training, or the guidance of an adept, can manifest their weapons and armor on the astral plane; otherwise, you enter astral combat 'naked.'  

Magic is self-limiting
I'm not that fond of the Vancian spell-casting paradigm used in D&D, but I understand the need for it.  Making magic an unlimited power not only unbalances the game, it'll take away its sense of the fantastic.  I'm also not that fond of spell points, not in large numbers, because it's one more thing for players to track. 

That said, the solution I've come up with is still very similar to using spell points, simply because it's so easy to understand. In Vivid, you can cast easy, minor spells without much risk even without bonus dice.  But the major spells do require quite a few bonus dice, so you end up hoarding the resources needed to generate those bonus dice.

Wizards are capable of more than spell-slinging
If wizards will now cast less minor spells, in favor of casting occasional but bigger spells, they should be capable of more in the game.  In combat, a wizard should at least be able to defend herself; maybe not deal the most damage, but at least keep a foe engaged long enough for a fighter to come in and help.  

Thus I don't restrict the weapons or armor a wizard can use in my games; what protects the fighter's niche is the simple fact that a wizard's player has strong reasons to allocate more skill dice to wizardry than to swordsmanship.  This means if your character inspiration is Elric or Gandalf, you won't be left moaning that all you have is a thin robe and a toothpick.

Digging deeper, though, I see a change in role for the wizard for that mythic feel I want in my games.  I'm taking away the D&D wizard's role as artillery; what am I giving in return? In my game I think wizards will end up as active plot drivers.  A wizard's supernatural concerns and need to gather the resources required to cast The Big Spell should drive quests and sub-plots, and help give the party purpose.  

I want the players of wizards to assert themselves, to lead, plead, bargain, or connive at getting what they need for their art. Think Gandalf chivvying the hobbits along and making speeches at the council of Elrond, or Kane scheming to get to Arellarti and activate the Bloodstone ...

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