The High Cost of Magic

Talk about any rules that don't directly fall under personal combat
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Agamemnon
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The High Cost of Magic

Post by Agamemnon » 04 Sep 2014, 17:53

I've always been a fan of magic, but I tend to hate it in mainstream fantasy and RPGs. Higgins tends to shy away from magic in general, and I eventually figured out why.

For me, magic is inherently dark and mysterious. I originally came to love magic by way of Lovecraft and Howard - of horror and "weird" fiction, splashing through Cthulhu mythos, and eventually arriving at "fantasy" only by way of tromping through Grimm's fairytales along the way. There is an element of danger, an element of the otherworldly.

Higgins experience has been far more typical. He comes to it by way of Tolkien and traditional fantasy literature. By and large, it seems kind of run of the mill. Magic in most fantasy games and literature is borderline technology. In every "traditional" fantasy game I've played, the wizards have all been scientists, in one form or another, rather than awe-inspiring sages and mystics.

It was because of this that we actually shied away from having a magic system at all when we began developing Song of Steel. When we made the switch to Band of Bastards though, I knew it was something I wanted to integrate. After all, even if we chose not to make one, it would be the very first thing someone developed on the boards as a supplement. Let's face it: we love fantasy. But if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it my way. The dark, mysterious, dangerous, oozing-with-atmosphere folklore way.

Thus far, we've tried to stick to that. We want magic to be powerful, and with as little restriction as possible. On the other hand, because we have intentionally gone out of our way to avoid telling someone "no you can't do this," or adding some kind of limiting "power points" or "casting per day" system to it, we have to emphasize the danger as a limiting factor.

This is where I want to pick your collective brains. What should be the "cost" of magic? What should keep your novice occultist's ambitions in check - at least for a little while?

TROS had a novel concept with its aging idea. While atmospheric, it ultimately failed. Sure, as a real-world human, the idea of losing years of your life is horrifying, but as an in-character consequence it seemed remote and unimportant (how often do you play characters to the point where old age will matter?). In the world portrayed by Games Workshop's properties, the limiting factor is a combination of spiritual possession, physical danger, mutation, and possibly ripping holes in the space time continuum. While this is certainly visually stimulating, it doesn't quite fit the more serious and occult themes we are aiming for. In the Cthulhu Mythos settings, the concequence for searching too deeply for occult knowledge is losing one's grip on sanity - but short of creating some kind of "sanity meter" resource, that would be mechanically difficult to implement.

So I'm opening the forum to you guys. What should be the cost of magic? What should that mean in-character, and what should it mean mechanically?

Give me your feedback.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by hector » 04 Sep 2014, 18:34

Hmm... Honestly, it depends how you want magic to work and what you want it to be able to do. It depends on whether magic ought to be an in born ability or something a person can learn - or even a mix of the two, where a person with the in born ability will just always have higher potential. One game I've played that I quite liked one of the magic systems from was Crimson Exodus. The Witchcraft style of magic in that system requires blood - ideally straight from the heart - in order to get much done. It's mostly subtle, but can do horrifying things - for instance, it was used to create that settings analogue of the zombie virus. For some effects, it's enough to kill a rabbit; for others, you need a sentient being, and for the most powerful, you require powerful magical creatures.

Ars Magicka, meanwhile, makes it so that magic users are almost universally disliked, even by those who don't know that they're magic users, because they have an aura of wrongness about them. Animals hate them, people are suspicious of them regardless of whether they've done any wrongdoing - in essence, only the few non-mages that have stuck around and got to know them actually like them, and even they feel uneasy around them.

Finally, in a series of books I quite like called The Wheel of Time, the main organisation of magic users have three binding oaths: they may not lie (though they can make the truth dance a very fine jig), they may not use their power as a weapon unless in the last extreme to save their own lives or the lives of fellow members, and they may not use their abilities to create weapons for one man to kill another. Theoretically, mages could be required to join an organisation with magically binding oaths such as those in that series, and the penalty for being a practising mage without membership would likely be having your power stripped from you. In this model, the player would choose whether they prefer being a member of this organisation, and thus legally permitted to use their magic but have certain restrictions on their behaviour (perhaps give SA points when this causes them trouble), or being outlaws and needing to hide the fact that they have those abilities at all.

Just a few thoughts inspired by other sources.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Agamemnon » 04 Sep 2014, 19:24

I dug on the flavor in ars magica, it reminded me a bit of the sorcerous "tells" in Ron Edward's Sorcerer.

The idea I've been tinkering with presently most closely echoes the cthulhu mythos or real world occultism - the idea that there are laws and forces in operation behind the scenes that run contrary to our normal or rational thought. In theory, anyone can tap into these forces if they know how, but one's actual "skill" at magic is a combination of knowing what to do and having the willpower, focus, manual skill, etc to actually put that knowledge into action. It is not tied directly to blood or anything of the sort. Forbidden knowledge has always felt like a more compelling thing to me than biological inheritance.

Ideally, the mechanism mechanically would be that you could try anything with your power, but you had to decide how much you were willing to risk on it. Something akin to strain within Burning Wheel, or the aging backlash from TROS. From the beginning, I want to hand the player the keys to do whatever they can conceive of. I want the ability to be there, and the temptation to be there.. and I want the cost of attempting that ridiculously powerful thing to be enough to make you pause and ask if it's really worth the risk.

After all, every time you step into combat, you know it could be your death. One shouldn't be able to treat magic as any less deadly.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by higgins » 05 Sep 2014, 01:00

I want point out further, that one aspect we decided upon was that the "skill of magic" isn't something one is born with and can be "acquired" later in life.

So, the social issue would be "You deal with dark, dangerous things", rather than "You have darkness in your blood". I guess what I want to say is that much like most morally questionable actions in 'Bastards, dealing with supernatural entities is a conscious and deliberate choice, not something a character is forced to deal with because of their inherent or ingrained (meta)physical nature.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Marras » 05 Sep 2014, 03:05

My answer depends a bit based on what actually is the source of magical power in this case. Is it some kind of energy that is inherently neutral or evil. Does the power originate from some beings a bit like in Elric?

Another thing to decide is what kind of magic will be in use. Is it usable in combat like in most of the RPGs or is it ritual only that you might or might not be able to store for later use?

Anyway I would use strain. Using powers leave you exhausted or even drain some of your life force (like donating blood). I would apply fatigue (or something similar) for cases where the caster is successful in controlling the power but if he manages to channel the power but not control it completely his life force is drained to some extent. If control is failed utterly character opens the gate and can really get consumed by the power or even unleash something to his world.

The key in all of this (above) is ability to channel power that takes knowledge and control that takes knowledge and force of will. Low channeling skill can only open up small amount of power thus enabling only small spells (or however the magic is handled) but it will be pretty safe to control. The more power you summon the easier it will get out of hand.

If you want the 'sorcerer tell' maybe each use of magic corrupt the caster to some extent, even minor spells. Perhaps this taint can be "healed" if it is a minor one by doing some purifying deeds. If the caster handles more heavy magic it might leave a lasting effect (like a wound) that doesn't get erased at least without major work. In this way that taint will slowly (or quickly) grow based on how much magic is used and if the caster wants to get rid of it or not. Maybe caster can lessen the taint by making harder channeling checks to "filter" the power before it goes through him?

In some way I would like to add use of narcotics to the training of sorcerers. This should help them to understand the very irrational world of magic. Perhaps narcotics is even necessary for some rituals, too? Anyway the sad fact is that most of the sorcerers are also addicts :)
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by EinBein » 05 Sep 2014, 03:56

The most easy way - but definitely not as occult as blood, strain or losing years - is the drain damage system of Shadowrun where the sorcerer has to withstand mental damage depending on spell and amount of successes rolled (the more successes, the harder to avoid damage).

I would personally prefer a more diverse system that is able to surprise game master and player with creepy effects like immediate bloodloss, deafness, dazzling,...
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by hector » 05 Sep 2014, 09:07

In that case, I reckon that magic should definitely be legally restricted to guild members, and the guild should have very strict rules about magic usage, with the penalty for using a magic without their approval being death. Again, this leads to a choice of "do I accept the guild's rules, or do I go rogue?". Also, requiring blood to fuel powerful magic could certainly work - especially if the most powerful effects basically require you to tie someone down and kill them (the guild would presumably use people who are already under sentence of death, and then only very, very rarely).

Another possibility would be that nature requires balance, and for every life you save, another must die; anything conjured must come from somewhere nearby; anything destroyed must go somewhere and so on. I'm not sure how that would be implemented (that's why I don't design RPGs for a living ;) ), but it's just an idea.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Mozusuke » 05 Sep 2014, 17:22

A couple of things from me..

1. I instinctively react against words like 'guild' when discussing sorcery - for me it implies structure and codification. I refer a sense of discovery - a sense of loners dabbling in forces that should not be.
2. I think there must be risk - . Increasing risk the more power is exerted, Possibly that risk or threat can later be mitigated by things like blood sacrifices or other homage that materially influences actions the character must take.
3. Could the 'cost' or risk be linked to a mechanism like Flaws? Might there be a selection of Flaws supporting different flavours of sorcery? But it would be better if there was a gradation of flaws so the more you did sorcery the worse they got.
4. Or you become more and more in debt (in some way) to the source of the knowledge and power - I'm thinking other-worldly source here - demonic, alien, whatever. And that debt is in some way unavoidable. You a rein an unbreakable contract of increasing debt enforced by the nature of the sorcery or its source. Part payments in blood or malicious goals that need to be accomplished are possible. Default, and all sorcerous capability is lost, and possibly worse revenge is enacted. Like borrowing form the worst sort of vicious loan-shark.

Whoops - suddenly realised I've gone off on one here. Anyway, I'll submit it in case it sparks thoughts.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Agamemnon » 05 Sep 2014, 21:48

Mozusuke wrote:A couple of things from me..

1. I instinctively react against words like 'guild' when discussing sorcery - for me it implies structure and codification. I refer a sense of discovery - a sense of loners dabbling in forces that should not be.
2. I think there must be risk - . Increasing risk the more power is exerted, Possibly that risk or threat can later be mitigated by things like blood sacrifices or other homage that materially influences actions the character must take.
3. Could the 'cost' or risk be linked to a mechanism like Flaws? Might there be a selection of Flaws supporting different flavours of sorcery? But it would be better if there was a gradation of flaws so the more you did sorcery the worse they got.
4. Or you become more and more in debt (in some way) to the source of the knowledge and power - I'm thinking other-worldly source here - demonic, alien, whatever. And that debt is in some way unavoidable. You a rein an unbreakable contract of increasing debt enforced by the nature of the sorcery or its source. Part payments in blood or malicious goals that need to be accomplished are possible. Default, and all sorcerous capability is lost, and possibly worse revenge is enacted. Like borrowing form the worst sort of vicious loan-shark.

Whoops - suddenly realised I've gone off on one here. Anyway, I'll submit it in case it sparks thoughts.
I think you and I are on the same track, in a lot of ways. I'm definitely more fond of magic being taboo, if not illegal (either by secular or church law). I'm very much attracted to the idea that even learning it is a forbidden and dangerous act - making the search for that knowledge a conscious choice that goes back to the premise of the game itself: how far are you willing to go to get what you want?

Flaws as a disadvantage are definitely a way to go, but we may need something more dynamic. So far, I'm playing with these as possible outcomes:
☻Some kind of fatigue based mechanic - the idea that using that kind of power is physically/emotionally draining. Think tax/strain/whatever
☻A backlash style mechanic, wherein using the power is not only draining, but could cause physical injuries up to and including death
☻Psychic backlash as some kind of limiting mechanic - the abuse or misuse of one's abilities leading anywhere from migraines, to sanity loss, to brain death.
☻More narrative, occult style repercussions - using your power may draw attention to you from more dangerous forces, attract psychic predators, disturb local spirits, or simply create some kind of negative karma.
☻More cinematic garbled transmission style effects - the spell goes off, but because you are incompetent, it has an entirely different effect, plays monkey's paw with your intentions, or maybe simply has collateral damage.

Anyone think of anything good to add to the list? Does anyone have strong feelings about any of them over any others? I would like to avoid the Warhammer Fantasy version of "miscast spells cause fireworks and holes in spacetime," as it goes the more realistic vibe of the setting, but playing with some of the above could be fun.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Daeruin » 05 Sep 2014, 23:20

The thing about magic is that it has to be integrated into the setting of the game. If a magic system doesn't feel right for the setting, or the setting hasn't been taken into account in the system's design, it just doesn't work, no matter how ingenious or engaging the system might otherwise be. The presence of real magic changes the world. Magic becomes part of the cultures that use it. It shapes history the same way technology and religion do.

So to me, starting to brainstorm about possible mechanisms or flavors in a cultureless vacuum doesn't make much sense unless you have the intention to start building a world based on the logical ramifications of what you decide—and vice versa. Once you have certain setting elements in place, that starts to suggest and constrain appropriate elements of a magic system.

And once you've decided on a magic system that integrates will with your chosen setting, it won't transplant very well into other settings. In my opinion, that's the single biggest problem with a magic system, and it's one of the biggest reasons the original TROS magic system didn't fly—nobody really cared about the setting.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Daeruin » 05 Sep 2014, 23:30

Having said that, I'll reply to some of the other comments. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the Cthulhu mythos or the sword and sorcery genre. I've only read one Conan short story. I'm not into occultism or witchcraft style magic. So to be frank, that style of magic system just wouldn't draw me. That's another difficulty of magic systems. Everyone has their favorite genres and their pet peeves. All the more reason to make sure magic is integrated appropriately into the setting, because they will work together to please the fans who are interested in that setting or magic style.

Anyway, I wasn't going to talk about that anymore.

About magic being evil. Historically, magic has been seen as both evil and good, never just one. Every culture has both sides. Take voodoo, for example. The stereotyped version of voodoo we know from popular culture is always bad. But in reality, voodoo is a huge spectrum of beliefs and powers, and it includes both white or good magic and black or evil magic. Naturally, the magic that YOU practice is generally good magic, and the magic that the neighboring tribe or rival ethnic group uses is almost always black magic. It's the same in Christianity. Prayers are basically spells, priests had spell books that contained good magic, they carried magical talismans (the cross, the bones of saints, holy water, etc.) and the main difference between all of that and black magic was whether or not it happened to be approved by the church or not. So if you're going for anything remotely historical in feel, you would want to keep that in mind.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Marras » 07 Sep 2014, 08:22

I like fatigue based mechanic even for successful castings. In addition to that backlask mechanism is also great, probably for failed castings.

Psychic mechanic is otherwise great but since insanity is one of the possible results this would need insanity rules that would be great to implement for other things, too. But if there are no insanity rules otherwise, I would not add that simply for magic.

I like that narrative option, too. That really makes the magic mysterious and otherworldly. Somehow narrative sounds to me awfully like freeform where a GM has to make up all those things and it can be a pain in the a** during a session and in prep. If my assumption is incorrect, I would add this to my list, too.

Daeruin: I am definitely not part of devs but I have understood that there will not be a full setting so the magic system has to be similarly "universal" like in D&D but one that conveys as vibe appropriate to other mechanics.

I have to disagree with you about Voodoo. Although I am by no means an expert the difference between black and white Voodoo is not about who wields it but for what purpose. If you use the Voodoo to heal someone, it's white but if you put a curse on someone it's black.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Agamemnon » 09 Sep 2014, 15:19

Daeruin wrote:Having said that, I'll reply to some of the other comments. Personally, I'm not a big fan of the Cthulhu mythos or the sword and sorcery genre. I've only read one Conan short story. I'm not into occultism or witchcraft style magic. So to be frank, that style of magic system just wouldn't draw me. That's another difficulty of magic systems. Everyone has their favorite genres and their pet peeves. All the more reason to make sure magic is integrated appropriately into the setting, because they will work together to please the fans who are interested in that setting or magic style.
Occultism here mostly means that it is more subtle, more folklore-based. Things happening seemingly as though by coincidence or behind the scenes, as opposed to fireballs, lightning bolts, and glowing energy shields. Indirect magic, as opposed to direct special effects.

I'm a huge REH fan, but I'm not sure the classic Sword & Sorcery magic fits what we're doing given its direct and often over the top nature. Sword & Sorcery is actually quite high magic, all things considered. Nearly every Conan story was about sorcery and ancient magic.

Honestly, my original take for how magic integrates into the setting is more or less how magic actually integrated into the real world. The practice of magic has always been a part of human culture, and was especially popular during the Renaissance, as their infatuation with "ancient wisdom" brought things like Hermeticism back into the fold. Most of our surviving magical texts come from roughly this period, give or take a hundred years. One could argue that magic isn't real, but that doesn't change the fact that people treated historical magicians as though it WAS real, for the most part. One doesn't have to do too much stretching to go ahead and say "sure, it was."

I would argue that in-setting, it's much the same as it was then. So-called magicians are distrusted and feared by most, except the handful of people who assume it's all smoke and parlor tricks by bad conmen. Clashes of religious ideologies are a big part of the renaissance landscape, and I suspect that in an era in which very similar religions are bickering about minutiae of doctrine, none of them are all too keen on sorcery. On the flip side, just like in the real world, the primary practitioners of magic are very likely going to be natural philosophers, renaissance men (in the true sense), scholars, and clergy - people who are both smart enough to read and decypher texts, understand the philosophical implications, and have enough leisure time to put such a thing to practice.

Daeruin wrote:About magic being evil. Historically, magic has been seen as both evil and good, never just one. Every culture has both sides. Take voodoo, for example. The stereotyped version of voodoo we know from popular culture is always bad. But in reality, voodoo is a huge spectrum of beliefs and powers, and it includes both white or good magic and black or evil magic. Naturally, the magic that YOU practice is generally good magic, and the magic that the neighboring tribe or rival ethnic group uses is almost always black magic. It's the same in Christianity. Prayers are basically spells, priests had spell books that contained good magic, they carried magical talismans (the cross, the bones of saints, holy water, etc.) and the main difference between all of that and black magic was whether or not it happened to be approved by the church or not. So if you're going for anything remotely historical in feel, you would want to keep that in mind.
I never actually advocated magic being evil. I advocating it being dangerous, which is an entirely different thing. Ideally, I would like to see it be entirely morally neutral (despite what the church might say), but with the mechanics as such that the path to power is easier through nefarious means than to stay on the more moral path. The question should always be "what are you willing to sacrifice? How far are you willing to go?"

That said, when this is done I imagine that someone is going to redo the magic system no matter what I come up with. The first mod someone makes will probably be adapting / rewriting the magic system to fit the metaphysical rules of whatever setting they plan on playing. You guys were kicking around Wheel of Time stuff before you had even heard anything about our rules =P

And you know what? That's totally fine. We're designing it to be as modular as possible. Have one you prefer? Cool. Ignore ours, insert yours. Plug and play.
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Mozusuke » 10 Sep 2014, 13:59

So I am thinking Dr John Dee here. I have read a couple of books in this area.. John Crowley, The House of Dr. Dee etc. Dee is an alchemist, and a meddler in forces he has no understanding of. He becomes obsessed etc etc. And he is a pre-eminent philosopher, scientist and mage of his era. But what he is doing is not really codified, has constant threat, is reviled by most and is inherently unpredictable yet awesome.
And by virtue of these things, he moves in very elevated circles
Personally, that is the vibe I would want. for the BoB milieu
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Re: The High Cost of Magic

Post by Agamemnon » 11 Sep 2014, 16:12

That's about the vibe I was thinking. In a setting where there's no mechanically confirmed divinity, and thus no "divine magic," your average sorcerer (if there can be such a thing) could be anyone from a natural philosopher making a name for himself, to priests dabbling in what they think may be gods work, cultists who are actively up to no good, bored nobles who think its an interesting parlor trick - until it works, to woodland mystics or the like.

Magic becomes a very versatile thing, when it's made subtle. One of the things I have generally hated about religion in fantasy games is that once the gods are mechanically evident - that its cannon they visit the earth or give their priests superpowers - then faith disappears. You can no longer have interesting conflicts about interpretation of dogma or clashes of religion and ideology. Once it becomes provable fact, you lose the drama in it.

I feel the same way about magic. When magic is subtle, rare, and unusual you can have opinions on it. You can debate what is and isn't. You can wonder if someone has cursed you, or if you've had a bad day. You can debate whether the guy claiming to be a wizard might actually be a charlatan. When magic is overt and accompanied by special effects - or worse, becomes so commonplace that magic users have organized a guild in the center of town - then you can no longer rationally wonder from an in character perspective. It loses much of the mystery, and I find that tragic.
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Arrakis teaches the attitude of the knife — chopping off what’s incomplete and saying: "Now it’s complete because it’s ended here."
Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib, the Princess Irulan
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