Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Low-Magic Wizards

One of the toughest things for me in any game is getting the right feel for magic. In my mind, in that generic setting expectation we all formulate in our heads, cantrips and the like (lighting candles, casting shadows, creating a phantom breeze, fireworks) should be common. The higher-level stuff (turning people into stone, creating seams in the universe, causing lightning strikes), should be rare, and not just due to component cost.

I’ve often thought of just giving mages several basic, cantrip powers, along with the power to use ancient places of power, activate ritual circles, and decipher arcane runes. Mages would seek out those instances or places of power to be able to cast those spells—they’d be the only ones with the hope of doing so, or deciphering the runes on ancient weapons, or knowing the seven reagents needed to form the Elixir of Undeath. It’s definitely a great adventuring hook, if nothing else.

For example: The mage in your party is not the all-powerful wizard of old. He seems to possess a minor healing touch, due as much to his encyclopedic knowledge or herbs and salves as anything. A few minor potions and odd passes in the air results in a thunderclap or minor pyrotechnics. It is said he can talk to the birds, and understand their language. He somehow knew the old king died a week before news came from the capital.

When the goodly warrior in your party was mortally wounded, the wizard knew he could not resurrect him with his powers. Oh, perhaps he had a few herbs to slow death and prolong his weak pulse, but the secrets of resurrection were not know to this age. However, he knew that in the Mountains of Eshem, there lay an altar with a strange incantation. On Midsummer’s Eve, he said, one could stand there—and if the required ritual was performed, one person could be brought back, no matter how close to Death’s Door they lay. So that, said the aged wizard, is where they must journey…

Castles & Crusades follows the path of Vancian Magic; I’m glad it does, because Vancian Magic is a great meeting ground and reference point at the center of the hobby. But every now and then, I get the feeling I’d like to try a lower-magic game again. I believe the niche is still there for the low-magic wizard class; it just relies on a player using more smoke and mirrors and research, rather than the raw offensive capability that has come to represent the majority of wizard play. Of a scale with Gandalf the Gray on one end and Tim the Enchanter and Elminster on the other, I think I'd like to scoot my chair a little bit closer away from Greenwood's wish-fulfillment fantasy.


Chris Tregenza said...

Low power wizards need a suitable campaign to play in. Trying to do it in a standard hack&slash adventure is likely to end with a dead character or a bored player.

It also requires a lot of prep by the GM. If the wizard asks about any healing places in the area, the GM needs an answer.

The idea behind low powered wizards is great and it leads to a much richer campaign world and story focused game. It can be done if the GM and the other players are keen for that style of campaign but it is not easy.

Zachary The First said...

Well, I think the opposite may hold true of high-powered wizards in a more investigative/dramatic campaign. The standard mage's progression can overwhelm a story-focused game if it is not handled right.

I think low-power wizards can exist, even thrive in hack n' slash, but the character would need to be played with more martial aptitude (again, Gandalf), as well as a sense of trickery, utility, and misdirection.

Mike said...

I like it thematically, but I guess the reason why d&d has moved in the opposite direction is that it's tough to stop in the middle of combat while the wizard goes off to find the lost tome of power and come back.

It works really well in novels (I like the magic system of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell) because there is no player interaction to deal with.

In a game, the uber powerful wizard or the Well of Stars should be a sage NPC (or location) that PCs seek out as part of quest fulfillment and pushing the story forwards and not a day to day activity.

In 4th Edition D&D, the wizard has some powers that he can use all the time (magic missile, fireball, etc) in combat and separate rituals that take a lot of time and money. It'd be fun to have one-time rituals like "restore balance to the world's climate" that the PCs have to research and cast.

Phillip said...

Hi Zachary,

I absolutely agree that a low magic campaign can be wonderfuly fun but as always, the devil is in the details. What I ended up doing was stepping outside the box and homebrewing my own magic system that was both free-form and scalable to allow for just the right amount of power to be brought into play. Below is a pre-amble to the system,Which I based off of an old Chinese table of the elements, as well as the classic four humors of old. So...here is the direction I went in:

On the many planes of existence, throughout all the realms, sages and philosophers have come to agree that the world is composed of seven basic elements. These are fire, metal, crystals, water, wood, wind and light (darkness is the opposite of light and considered part of that element).

Scholars have demonstrated that all other natural “elements” are actually composed of these essences in combination. Any material object can be explained as a mixture of these basic elements, although in many cases the exact mixture has yet to be discovered.

Each of these seven basic elements has magic properties. Sorcerers who learn to identify those pure elements, when they occur, can use their magic properties.

Actually, many other types of magic exist, but the basic form rooted in the nature of the world itself is this elemental magic.

In practical terms, to use elemental magic a character must possess the pure essence of that element and harness its magic power for use in spells. This pure essence is called a “node”. Some nodes are more powerful than others and are called double nodes, triple nodes, ect. The more powerful nodes cannot be split apart into separate smaller nodes, but the power can be used in increments, for various spells at various times. All characters will come across a naturally visible elemental node from time to time. The flames in a fireplace might seem to acquire a life of their own, or rays of sunlight may seem to dance in the air, or ice might shine with unearthly light, ect.

These are simply nodes that have become especially obvious.

Originally, the first sorcerers were simply people who noticed these nodes, guessed their importance, and learned to use them by trial and error. While some nodes may be stumbled upon and tapped into, the vast majority can only be exploited by a character equipped with the arcane ability to use them.

DeadGod said...

One could apply this same logic to a cleric's prayers. They might have to seek out holy places, like a shrine to the goddess of life to cast resurrection. They might also have to do a specific deed to be granted a single casting of a prayer. For instance, a cleric might have to help an innocent to gain a single casting of the bless spell.

In this way a cleric is granted power through obedience and deeds, and not just through good will and being in the "god club."

Jason Richards said...

I've never been a fan of physical components as a basis for casting magic, instead preferring rituals and words of power as the catalyst for manipulating the ether. I understand the purpose for the mechanic requiring "stuff" to facilitate the use of magic, and of preparing a certain number of spells each day, and that sort of thing, but I think those things play into problems with scale as you have discussed.

By making the key to casting magic based in ritual, I think the scaling is easier. Simple spells require just a few simple words, while more complex spells require complex incantations. The most complex spells might include drawing circles or diagrams, not as physical components of the spell, but as aides to properly performing a long and complicated ceremony.

I think this all lends itself to the archetype of the "scholarly wizard," who must seek out sources of knowledge to learn new spells, and practice them to achieve mastery. It also creates a built-in reason for wizards to protect their secrets and closely guard those painstakingly-assembled spellbooks.

Zzarchov said...

I found the solution to be in the availability of spells.

The problem in normal D&D is big libraries where wizards share. This creates a problem in terms of magic being rare.

I solve that by making spells like 'counterspell', 'dispel magic' and 'erase rune' pretty useless. Unless you know the same spell as your opponent, in which case its automatic. Even a level 1 mage can thwart the unholy lovechild of Elminster and Raistlin, provided they know the exact same spells as him (usually by reading his grimoire).

Note this means that "Reinhart's ball of fire" and "The flaming explosion of Amenhotep" are different spells even if both are mechanically fireball.

This means mages don't share spells (not good ones), it means that while Miracle Max may know the secret to raising the (mostly) dead, he isn't going to share. What if you (or some hero-turned-villain who you teach) uses it to counter his Miracle when its needed to save the king?

This means that wizards are proactive to adventure. The warrior and theif may break into the pharoahs tomb to find a fortune in gold, but the wizard is looking for the spells inscribed on the Pharoah's Sarcophagus.

This also means that wizard's live alone in towers with maybe a trusted apprentice rather than in big colleges. If there is a big college it means the higher level mages have a secret library they don't share with the lowly initiates.

It seems to solve all the problems.

The bottom half of this post has more:

Zachary The First said...

Excellent thoughts, all. Very good discussion.

I really do think this is one of those things that is easier said than done in many current popular RPGs, be it Pathfinder, HARP, or D&D 4e. Still, if one had a mind, definitely worth at least thinking about. I think it would definitely be easier either in a point-build system or in a class that lent itself not only to magic, but also to being a skill monkey and at least minor martial combatant.

@Phillip: Very interesting! Has it worked out well in play?

@DeadGod: Yes, you definitely could. In fact, so as not to completely throw a game off the mark, if you do so to mages, you’d definitely have to consider doing so to clerics.

@JasonRichards: I do think the “scholarly wizard”, rather than a “blaster wizard”, would be more the archetype I’m looking at there.

In Rifts terms, a True Atlantean Rogue Scholar. ;)

@Zzarchov: Spell rarity is something I’ve tried to push in my current campaign. I think players are often expecting spells to be sold on every street corner. I’ve made them relatively inaccessible, which has in turn driven one of my would-be casters to choose some different adventure paths.

Zzarchov said...

If the players expect spells to be sold on every corner, perhaps they should be. But also put in some very low level counter spells or a skill like counterspell (spellcraft or some such) that allows countering spells.

Sure you could BUY fireball, but everyone knows THAT fireball. When you need it some low level punk could automatically dispell it.

Zachary The First said...

Yeah, they *could*. But I usually don’t dig playing in that high-magic of a world, though your description would certainly be a credible way of handling it.

Joseph said...

I think you're going to like the Mountebank class in my game, Zack.

Zachary The First said...

If it's following what I'm recalling of Gary's designs on that class, I think it's likely.

Tyson J. Hayes said...

While I have not played 4th edition it does look like it has the ideas in mind that you are referring to built into it.

Personally I like Zzarchov's ideas. While I'm not sure I would want to run the game myself it definitely has an appeal to that style of game play.

A change in systems may be in order to really get the feel of what your looking for. Savage Worlds may work for this if you provide all the cantrip spells as one magic edge. Everything else would be earned through work and not everyone would have the same spells. I haven't thought to hard on how that'd work out but may be worth some exploration.

Phillip said...

"@Phillip: Very interesting! Has it worked out well in play?"

Once I playtested it and polished it, The group found the experience of weaving elemental or spiritual nodes together to create varied effects to be fun and very evocative.

Most nodes discovered will be minor ones that can be contacted and then contained.The actual method of containment is simple.

Once ritual contact is made, an appropriate physical container is maneuvered to the location of the node and placed next to it. The node, being magical, can pass through the material provided the mental contact is holding it. Contact is then released and the element is now within the reflection.

Example: : To contain a Veraqua (water) node found in the eddy of a waterfall, a character could pass a diamond ring into the eddy, and move the diamond to the node, then drop contact. The node is now within the diamond, and upon lifting the ring from the water the glimmering of Veraqua can be seen within the diamond.

Powerful fixed nodes can be created and placed to represent special places of power, holy shrines, ect,.

The subtle examples you sited in your original post would be performed in my system using Spiritual magic derived from the four humors of the body. As GM you certainly have plenty of buttons and levers with this kind of system since you control the amount of nodes, their location, and their power level.

There are no spell books or codified spells as each sorcerer is unique, and following a simple formula, crafts needed spells on the spot.

I gave up a long time ago trying to find a system that pleased me and finally scratched the itch when I just got thoughtful about it and rolled my own. I am curious to see what you end up going with.