RPG Design – Freeform Magic

   A lot of players, and somewhat fewer game masters, like a freeform magic system. After all, it seems a lot more appropriate – and “magical” – than a long list of specific spells and effects. Even the best rules systems tend to lose a lot of their allure when the charts and tables start coming out.

   Just as importantly, a freeform system makes it a lot easier for the game master to make the magic system of a particular setting work the way he or she thinks that it should.

   On the other hand, a genuinely freeform system is very difficult for the game master to run and tends to make all the mages look a lot alike – which is boring. It’s also very hard for the players to work with – and if it doesn’t have some principles and rules for them to look at, it will soon begin to look like the arbitrary hand of the game master forcing the game to follow his plot whether the game master actually is using it that way or not. Worse, without an underlying system, it’s very easy for the game master to actually start using a freeform system that way quite unintentionally. Like it or not, an off-the-wall proposal, or any solution that the game master didn’t think of, is never going to look as sensible and reasonable to the game master as whatever-it-was he or she had in mind as a solution.

   There are a few things you can do to make a freeform (or at least semi-freeform) magical system work though.

   The very first thing you’ll need to come up with is some notion of just how the magic in your system is going to work in he game reality – the physics of it and how the characters are going to approach it. This doesn’t need to be too detailed, but it will say a lot about your universe. “It draws on the power of primal chaos through intricate gestures and precise mental focus” isn’t going to resemble “shamans invoke spirits through wild dance and taking drugs” very much in the game even if the actual mechanics representing those activities are pretty much identical.

   To start off the mechanical side, the most important thing you’ll need to actually run such a system is a list of benchmarks – something to establish the upper and lower limits of magical effects and to rate the difficulty of accomplishing various feats within that range. That’s easy enough. You can squeeze a pretty good list into a page or two with no real difficulty – and keeping it short is vital. The game master will be having to judge a lot of stuff on the fly in a freeform system, so you don’t want a dozen pages of charts and tables. Ideally, the benchmark list should be simple and short enough to let the game master rate proposed effects at a glance. Less ideally, but almost as practically, a long list will work as long as everyone is throughly familiar with it – one reason why using something like the d20 SRD spells is so handy.

   Still, there’s no reason not to come up with your own list and lots of reasons to do it. Which magical feats are difficult and which ones are easy will shape an awful lot of adventures. Just remember to keep the list compact.

   For example, the Baba Yaga system has a two-page benchmark list – and under normal circumstances, only the first page comes into play. Here we have a few of it’s benchmarks for “Minor”, or perhaps better described as “Second Circle”, acts of magic:

  • Minor shapeshifting, such as sprouting claws, fangs, and fur, altering your facial features, squeezing through a space that’s just a little too tight
  • Moving an object weighing up to fifty pounds.
  • Summoning a breeze, a strong gust of wind, or a local fog
  • Curing minor diseases, bruises and strains.
  • Disguising a person with an illusion or covering up a door or small trunk.
  • Enhancing a sense so someone can see in the dark, track like a bloodhound, or listen in on a whispered conversation.

   There are plenty of games to lift a list of benchmarks from if you don’t have something in mind. That’s one of the major advantages of the d20 system and the other systems that have followed suit and released OGL system reference documents. They have a LOT of lists you can reference.

   Next up, you’ll want to limit the kinds of spells that each mage can use. After all, if you’re going to have freeform magic and not have all mages look a lot alike, you’ve got to subdivide magic into fields and – preferably – give each mage their own style. Most of the players will cooperate with that. Everyone wants their character to be unique. Are you going to go with what’s affected, what the result is, elemental magic, types of creatures, or schools of magic?

   Finally, if you don’t want magic to simply take over the entire game, there are a few ways to go.

  • You can make magic very weak, so that the characters can’t rely on it to solve their problems unless they’re very clever about applying it.
    • This will amuse some players, but it will simply frustrate a lot more. It can work if learning a “magical power” is no more difficult that learning to do things another way though. Of course, it means that there won’t be a lot of practical difference between someone with a spell that dampens sound and who can cloak themselves in silence and a character who’s just good at sneaking. You can see this approach at work in fourth edition D&D.
  • You can make major magic a lengthy, time-consuming, ritual process or have it require complex props and bits of apparatus which are more-or-less specific to each spell. You can see this kind of magic in White Wolf’s Sorcerer or Chaosium’s old Nephelium game.
    • Again, a few players will enjoy the planning, but if magic requires more than a minor investment of a character’s resources, a mage who guesses wrong will be useless – which makes for a lousy game.
  • You can have it require exact bits of knowledge, such as true names and precise formulas.
    • That’s easy enough to handle in fiction, where the characters cooperate with the writer, but it doesn’t work well in a game. Who wants to play a mage who spends all his time doing research so that he won’t be useless yet again?
  • You can restrict it so that it only operates under very limited circumstances or on a limited set of targets.
    • Once again, this works fine in fiction, but in a game it says “most of the time my abilities are useless” – so you can’t expect a character or player to actually commit much resources to powers they can’t rely on.
  • You can require special skills, or “levels”, or some other developmental hindrance to keep characters from wielding massive power too quickly.
    • This works to some extent – but eventually either the players will realize that the game system makes it impossible to develop the ability to work major magic (and any playing mages will become frustrated) or they will develop that ability, and the game will start to fall apart unless there are other limitations already in place.

   ARE there any systems that will make a good game?

   Well yes; there are two that actually seem to work in most settings – and fit in with a lot of fiction too.

  • You can limit how many powerful spells a mage can cast – whether it’s in a particular location, in a particular time period, or by the expenditure of some difficult-to-replace special resource that he or she needs to conserve. It doesn’t matter if you limit the total number of spells, or their total power – the point is that there’s a limit.
    • This works pretty well. Spell Points, “Preparing” or “Memorizing” spells, “background mana”, “seven spells per day”, “Essence”, “Psychic Potential Energy”, “Power Points”, “Spellcasting requires Dragon’s Blood”, and a hundred other variants all accomplish the goal; players have to conserve their resources a bit and make decisions about what to use their magic for.
  • Alternatively, you can make major magic perilous and unreliable – whether it’s because it involves invoking dangerous spirits, because it backlashes, because it exhausts the caster, or because it brings bad karma. There are too many games using this approach to count.
    • Again, this works pretty well. You’ve got to be more careful about your rules with this system, since even a slight mathematical edge on a table may make magic far too powerful or useful or virtually useless, but games like Shadowrun and TORG have been using this notion with great success for years.

   That’s really all you need; at this point you’ve established how magic works in the setting, it’s functions and limits, what fields are available, and how characters can use it. Hook up some sort of basic task-resolution system – dice, cards, spinners, or what-have-you – and you’re ready to go, at least as far as magic is concerned.


2 Responses

  1. In Piecemeal RPG the spells are specific (though scalable) but its spell components that are completely free-form. This allows a lot of creativity (as spell components boost spells) without making it a game of pass the stick.

    • What I find in Piecemeal is a rather limited selection of spells, each with a few parameters which can be adjusted. This has very little to do with freeform magic.

      The “Components” rule from Piecemeal is – in summary – “you get magical bonuses for throwing in items or environmental factors which are relevant to the effect being produced”. This concept has been around in games since the publication of Fantasy Wargaming (1981) (the earliest version of the rule I happen to have handy), and was apparently a standard notion in classical “real” magical systems. Allowing the players to select components is indeed a freeform bit in an otherwise mechanistic magic system. It doesn’t make it a freeform system any more than the freedom to adjust the limited set of buttons on the microwave oven makes it a freeform system; it’s only got a limited set of parameters to adjust.

      As an illustration, for a few quick freeform spells, in this hour I might want my character to whip up:

      Selectively Adjust Refractive Index – a spell I intend to use to temporarily turn a simple piece of flat crystal into a powerful magnifying lens. This is, of course, going to require some very fine control.

      Power Bicycle- a spell which will quadruple the effective force being applied to the pedals of my bicycle. Given that this will place quite a strain on the structural integrity of the bicycle and my ability to control it, it’s likely that I’ll soon be wanting to come up with a control-boosting spell, a spell to keep holding the thing together, and/or a healing spell.

      Show Dark Future – an illusion spell which inflicts a vision of some (possible or likely) horrible fate that will arise if the target continues to pursue a specified pattern of behavior. In most freeform systems it will be harder to use this on an entire group of bandits than it will be to use it on one child who eats too many sweets.

      Depending on the system, these might require specific fields of study, high natural aptitudes or skill levels, special knowledge, more or less power, and more or less risk (whther of backlash or of simple failure) – but a genuine freeform system will let me try and produce those effects, or anything else I dream up.

      To provide a quick scale*:
      1) Each pre-specified spell has fairly precisely preset effects. Quite a lot of games fall into this category.
      2) Each pre-specified spell can be adjusted in a limited set of ways. Spells in the Black Company and World Tree usually fall into this category. “Force Powers” and similar abilities often land here as well.
      3) Spells provide a general effect – for example, the “Weave of the Spider King” creates silk, sticky or not as specified, and in a pattern or not as specified. You can use this to entangle people, create ropes, clothing, and rope bridges, to to cushion impacts with masses of fluffy silk, and in many other ways. Spells in Legends of High Fantasy or Powers and Perils tend to come here.
      4) Characters may create any effect within a broad theme – provided that their abilities suffice for it. Ars Magica, Mage, and Baba Yaga all fall into this category.
      5) Characters may create any effect within a very broad concept as long as it’s within their abilities. For example, in the Hero System, a character with a Power Pool would fit in here. It’s worth noting that none of the games on this list are “pass the stick” systems, all of them work quite well – and some of them provide a great deal of freedom indeed.

      *Complications here include how easy it is for a character to design their own spells, how many they get to have, how quickly magical effects can be manipulated, how spells can be enhanced, and the scale on which the characters are allowed to modify spells – but a system with five or six degrees of freedom is very difficult to present in a few paragraphs.

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