Sunday, November 08, 2009

Magic Systems

One of the reasons I like science fiction better than fantasy is because science fiction obeys its own rules and fantasy doesn't. With that bias in mind, lets talk about magic systems in games.

Most magic systems in games are "prepackaged". You have spells, and they are basically treated the same as guns, grenades, medkits, etc. You have a spell, you point it, you fire it. It's not really very... "magical". It's more... "I-just-bought-a-new-gunical".

Because magic is indistinguishable from guns and medkits, you can treat it in the same way as you would treat guns and medkits. For example, if your game is narrative-heavy, you can simply make anyone not actively an enemy immune to all magic. This is especially obvious in Dragon Age, where you can fill a room with fire but the enemies within won't feel a thing because you haven't talked to them and determined that they are enemies, yet.

Dragon Age doesn't want to have a more complicated or diverse magic system. It doesn't have a simulationist world, why would it have a simulationist magic system?

But for those of us that like some level of immersion, there are three other ways of handling magic.

One is programmatic magic. Programmatic magic is magic which the player builds out of components (such as runes). The upside of programmatic magic is that it's relatively easy to put into your game, so long as all the physical objects and living entities follow the same rules. The downsides are that the clever player will be absurdly overpowered, and that the programming is probably either too simplistic to really get cool magic out of it, or so absurdly complex they might as well be programming the game.

Another is psychic magic. Psychic magic allows the player to direct the spell to do anything within its realm of possibility with great grace. In a tabletop game such as Mage or Nobilis, the player might simply say, "Oh, I summon a soot-covered raven to deliver a message to the high wizard." That's not so easy in a computer game, but you can still get away with allowing the player to direct the spell personally, such as telekinesis spells which allow you to move objects specifically how you like.

The third kind of magic is narrative magic, which basically takes the magic out of the control of the player and makes it... mystical. Semi-predictable. For example, if the player can make wishes of a genie, or summon the spirit of luck, the player might be able to give simple directives, but the effect is controlled by the needs of the story. Since narrative magic doesn't easily fit into a statistical world (even more poorly than psychic magic), it's not very popular. Also, it makes the GM have to do a lot more work, coming up with the exact results of everything.

There's a fourth kind of magic, sort of: passive magic. This is a magic effect that is not controlled by the player to affect the world. An example of passive magic would be an immunity to fire, or the ability to see treasure chests. However, passive magic gets along well with any given other kind of magic, so I won't treat it separately right now.

While narrative magic is the least popular at the moment, I can see it gaining some popularity as we create algorithms for making it work. Plus, it's really the best alternative to psychic magic in a world where the player has to interface using a mouse and keyboard instead of his brain.

As an example, I'll pop back to Star Wars. Play any Star Wars game, and your Jedi is encouraged to buy guns and medkits magic spells. Even though it makes no sense for the setting. Instead, the game would be much better served by a combination of psychic magic and narrative magic.

Now, I'm obviously glossing over some tiny, insignificant little details like how to implement narrative magic. I'll post on that matter soonish, but I'd love to hear your opinions.


TickledBlue said...

Mage is one of my all time favourite RPG's and its magic system was one of the key reasons for that. As a player it empowered me more than any exhaustive list of spells ever had.

The problem was that it 'confused' a large proportion of the player base so the current incarnation is filled to the gills with 'rotes', what is effectively a spell list.

So while I agree with you and your sentiments almost exactly, my concern would be with how to take a narrative or psychic based magic system and ensure that the player felt like they understood it and that it empowered them and that it added to their experience of the game.

With narrative you'd also need to be careful that it didn't feel like 'railroading' to the player.

Duncan said...

I kind of come at this from the other direction. I tend to read fantasy novels and pull apart their magic systems.

Many novels use a narrative type of magic and wind up wielding it like a Dues Ex Machina at the final moments completely breaking the storyworld for me.

I find the best systems are those that are internally consistent, even if I (as a reader) don't know all the rules. As long as there are rules, and they are obeyed (or disobeyed with appropriate consequence) then the storyworld feels real.

Games can do the rules thing very easily but, as you said, it tends to put too much power in the hands of the player or works against the narrative elements placed into the game.

Of course, it also tends to boil magic down to very flashy science: instead of engineering and technology you have enchantments and mage-ery. In both cases, the entire thing has to be systemically based to work within the both the storyworld context and the limited video game interface.

Craig Perko said...

Tickled: If you liked Mage, try Nobilis or Amber.

The limits of a player are important to consider, but it seems like the wrong approach to cripple your game because some of your players are going to be dim bulbs. There are other options, like letting them be warriors or some brand of prepackaged magician.

Narrative magic isn't well suited to a tabletop game, IMO, but it might be very well suited to a computer game with the proper algorithms. However, that's a different topic.

Duncan: I also like pulling apart magic systems, but we've lost the "magical" aspect of magic in favor of a mechanical kind of "science lite". Most fantasy settings these days are actually speculative fiction rather than fantasy.

There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I do want to play a fantasy game that's a little more fantastical. Familiarity breeds contempt, and nothing is more familiar than prepackaged, mechanical spells that are treated just like guns and medkits.

I think there's a groundwork for magic that is A) more fantastical and B) compatible with modern game designs. This uncreative wargame-derived magic is boring and pathetic.