Laws Of Magic Part III – Karma

So why worry about classical “laws of magic” anyway? Why not just make up your own laws of magic?

That’s partly because – as many authors have shown – making up a coherent system of alternative physics is quite a lot of trouble. After all, human beings have been fiddling around with this set of rules for thousands of years and – as shown so far – the result still isn’t very coherent. That gets even worse in a game setting, where the players are going to be picking your efforts apart looking for any possible advantage that they can squeeze out of them.

Really, it’s mostly to give your game worlds some depth and make them seem fantastic. While it’s difficult to get away from having some mechanics in your game, it’s a lot more interesting if you can keep a sense of wonder and mystery in it as well. Like a movie, your scenes need a background – even if it’s the linguistic equivalent of a matte painting. And, like it or not, the “laws of magic” are a part of almost everyone’s mental library, are rich with associations, and somehow just seem reasonable. Some part of the human mind just seems to interpret things that way.

Thus slapping a superficial gloss of Correspondences (mostly in item descriptions), Sympathy and Contagion (mostly in spell components), the Doctrine Of Signatures (in the ingredients for potions and scrolls), Magical Circles (in summoning and a few spell names), Naming (mostly in Item Creation), Runes and Occult Symbols (in Glyphs of Warding and Symbol spells), over the fairly basic Vancian Spellcasting of first edition AD&D lent the magic system an underlying feeling of having laws and rules. It hinted that a system which was basically a list of handy game effects for wargames actually had deep mysteries and an occult basis that only the arcane spellcasters truly understood.

It didn’t of course, but that feeling helped make the setting fantastic and full of wonder. It helped make it feel “genuinely magical”.

Sadly, that same gloss of occultism was quite enough to convince quite a few people that AD&D – and many other games – involved actual magic, taught the players genuine occult lore, and led directly to the practice of black magic and Satanism. Those accusations were bad for sales since they upset young gamers parents – and so the natural reaction was denial. You can still see the disclaimers in the front of many older RPG’s – but denial of such “obvious” evil intent was, of course, taken as confirmation of it. The next step was, naturally enough, to strip that gloss away with the next edition. Of course, that also did no good – it was simply taken as confirmation that the authors were trying to hide their “Satanic” intent – but the nonsense gradually died away anyway, just as it usually does (see: Rock and Roll, Harry Potter, etc).

Unfortunately, by that time, the damage was done. Most RPG’s had pretty well purged all of their classical occult flavoring. The College Of Greater Summonings had vanished from Dragonquest, magical references had vanished from AD&D in favor of dry rules descriptions, and Champions included no setting material at all, filling the book with pure game mechanics. Some games held out – but an awful lot gave in.

That left us with playable games that – as a bonus – could be readily used as a basis for computer games. Unfortunately, along the way, they’d lost a lot of the classical fantasy “feel”.

Now I happen to LIKE that feeling of wonder, and having underlying, and somewhat mysterious, rules to how magic “actually” works – which is why the Baba Yaga RPG includes a somewhat snarky “Disclaimer” of it’s own:

Disclaimer: In the classic tradition of RPG’s, Distant Horizons Games notes that magic doesn’t actually work. If you think you can get somewhere with the “occult methods” given in this book – announcing what you want and rolling 3D6 twice – we reserve the right to laugh at you hysterically.

So that’s why these articles are taking a look at some classical “laws of magic”. It’s to help put some of that feeling back into games for those who miss it.

And to get back to that…

The Law Of Karma can be expressed several ways. The Threefold Rule says that what you send out returns to you threefold. Other formulations speak of “backlash”. Still others say that you must laboriously build up magical power before you can accomplish anything. Still others that you must burn your life force, or lifespan, to wield magic. Yet others claim that you are paying with portions of your very soul.

Perhaps the simplest expression is everything has a price.

Most games both embrace and utterly reject this.

  • Any notion that practicing harmful magic will ultimately lead the practitioner to ruin has almost completely fallen by the wayside, eliminating the Threefold Rule. That was inevitable from the beginning given that combat – and thus harmful combat magic – is a major component of most RPG’s. On the other hand, many fantasy RPG’s also want to have some clearly defined “dark magic” for the equally clearly-defined bad guys to use. This leads to ideas like “necromantic spells are inherently evil” – which is why d20 took healing and various other spells out of the field. But even then… if you want to be evil, and use “evil magic”, then there really isn’t any special price for it. Being evil just grants you access to some especially unpleasant powers. (A few games include special abilities that are restricted to the “good guys” too, but that’s a lot rarer).
  • Backlash – or “Drain”, or “Fatigue” or many other names – is a reasonably popular mechanic in games, but it’s mostly just a way to keep magic-users from utterly dominating the action. It’s only a cost in the way that burning some calories and a bit of fatigue is the “cost” of rearranging your furniture or digging a hole to plant a tree. RPG’s like Shadowrun, Ysgarth, Tales From The Floating Vagabond, and many more, all embraced various “fatigue” mechanics.
  • AD&D embraced the “you must laboriously gather up motes of magical energy and build them into prepared spells!” idea. That served to give magic a notable price and greatly limited its power as well; an adventuring wizard might have a fair number of spells prepared – but refilling that reserve could take days or, at very high levels, a week or more of doing nothing but prepare spells. While actually on an adventure, a wizard would be lucky to find the time to prepare – say – three first level spells, one second level spell, and one third level spell (two hours of study worth) per day. Casting anything beyond that was burning very limited reserves that you might not be able to refill for a long time. That was why every wizard wanted a wand or two, just as desperately as the fighter wanted a magic sword and magic armor. It was much easier to use a wand in combat than it was to cast a spell, they held enough charges to be used right through most adventures, and they could be recharged at home. Secondarily, AD&D embraced the idea that being a wizard required vast amounts of study and time – which might not be a cost to the player, but certainly was to the character. It even limited your chance to learn particular spells and the total number of spells a mage could ever know.

This make the AD&D magic system fantastic, and put a convincing price on being a mage – but enough of the players found playing a mage as the system was written so difficult that game masters started treating the “maximum number of prepared spells” table as spells-per-day, greatly softened the difficulties of getting them cast successfully, and often entirely ignored the limitations on learning spells – all of which became standard rules in third edition. It was a good effort, but ultimately did not work – even if “can’t wear armor” and “low hit points” are still in play.

  • A very few games – Necromancer, some very early versions of D&D, Call of Cthulhu, and a few more – embraced the “cast from lifespan” idea in one way or another. Casting major spells had direct and terrible prices. Casting too many would kill you or drive you mad – and there were few or no ways to reset the total, which meant that major spells could be grand, and terrible, and very powerful indeed, and still be very rarely used. This works – but it means that you really can’t play a mage, or you will often have nothing to do until a spell MUST be used – and you come a little bit closer to retiring your character. Magic was for insane NPC’s and the occasional player-character dabbler.
  • In quite a lot of current games the only “cost” is an opportunity cost. If you want to be good at magic (or psionics, or your reality-tweaking option of choice), then you’re going to have to put a lot of your character-development resources (money, levels, time, whatever) into it – and thus won’t be able to put those resources into being good at other things. Now that’s a perfectly functional and realistic game mechanic. In fact it’s so functional that it’s near-universal; I’ve only seen a few games – such as Nobilis, Ars Magica, and Mage – where mystics simply get handed an additional resource pool to allot to magical benefits, and all of those games are firmly centered on supernatural characters (often to the point where nothing else is actually playable). Unfortunately, outside of those few games (where there is little or no reason NOT to be a “Noble” or a Mage) that approach puts “Magic!” on the exact same level as “Swordsmanship!” and only a little above “Blacksmith!”. You become a really good mage in exactly the same way that you become a really good maker of wine.

Some games make that work. As an example, TORG stresses the player-based cardplay so much that character abilities make little difference. Thus an elderly Shakespearean Actor found that his dramatic and oratorical skills were every bit as effective both in and out of battle as the talents of the werewolf-gunfighter, the mad-scientist robot and his built-in manufacturing systems, the ninja computer hacker, the archmage, or the psionic adept giant otter. In fact, they were better since he’d focused all his resources on them; it was his impossible oratory that got him hailed across a galaxy as the True Emperor and brought stability and prosperity to millions of worlds. The cyborg fox might have destroyed twelve futuristic grav-tanks with a pistol in a single action, but none of the rest of them ever did anything on a galactic scale – unless, perhaps, you count the Otter creating the unkillable Godzilla Virus Artificial Intelligence and unleashing it into the Cyberpapacy’s Matrix.

The thing is though, that most games make giving out pools of special bonuses to particular types of characters work by either giving out such pools to every kind of character or by – like TORG – making the character abilities mostly subordinate to the players skills.

There really isn’t an optimum solution to this one. You don’t really want to limit the players too much or tell them that their characters can’t start studying magic unless they take four years off to get the equivalent of an engineering degree in it. After all, in large part they’re playing to take a break from realities limitations. About all you can do is to complicate the character’s lives – and most of that sort of thing tends to be setting or system specific.

  • Perhaps mages need special foci to use their powers – something much more complex and difficult to replace than a “spell component pouch”. Chivalry and Sorcery did this. Such things are fairly readily replaceable given a little time, but you’ll need to keep track of them and make spares.
  • Perhaps magic is a limited resource, and you have to compete for it. Did you have to eliminate a few rival apprentices and take their sources of power to become an adventuring mage? Or do you have to maintain a cult-like array of followers who labor to build the pool of power you draw upon.
  • Perhaps powerful magic corrupts the environment, or allows monsters to enter the world, or drains the life from villagers.
  • Perhaps you need to give up your social life, practice monastic self-discipline, or renounce eating meat to maintain your powers.
  • Perhaps you need to perform strange rituals at specific times, offer your blood, know that your firstborn child will be a tool of some magical being, or be forever unable to sing or hear music or find true love.
  • Perhaps using magic leaves obvious and unnatural signs – horns, or strange eyes, or a “witches mark”, ruining your social life and making you a target of suspicion. Or perhaps it’s just extremely conspicuous in some fashion.
  • Perhaps using magic is alienating, drains your emotions, or demands the sacrifice of treasured memories, leaving the user increasingly distant from normal humanity – or perhaps it inherently drives people away from the user or even drives them to betray him or her.
  • Perhaps magic undermines the foundations of reality or is banned by the gods or simply attracts misfortune, or monsters, or hunters. NPC’s will only use it with great caution, player characters who use it will find themselves regularly attacked and obliged to go on various adventures because bizarre problems keep popping up around them.
  • Perhaps magic damages your health, leaving you with a cough, or a tendency to catch minor illnesses, or causes other inconvenient and annoying problems with little game effect. Are you deaf in one ear, farsighted or nearsighted, or prone to fits?
  • Perhaps using magic requires accepting various Taboos (things you must not do, however weird and pointless) or Oaths (things you must do) to maintain your powers.
  • Perhaps magic requires a careful balance of some sort. Perhaps each time you cast your mighty fireballs, you need to help out a village or some such.
  • Perhaps magical energy only builds up gradually; on the first round of combat you can only cast first level spells – and a battle must go on for nine rounds to allow the casting of a ninth level spell. Out of combat? Perhaps it takes a minute per spell level.
  • Perhaps accessing a new level of magic involves rituals or trials. Concluding a pact with some mighty entity – or perhaps a classic sequence of trials, such as recognizing the limits of your power, seeking out magical tutelage, going forth on a quest, exercising self-discipline, and sacrificing something precious to you.

The point, of course, is not to make things hard on the player. It’s to ensure that – in the setting – becoming a magic-user is not simply another choice like learning a martial art. It is something with deep and mysterious implications that will have a major impact on your characters life, not a decision to be made lightly.

3 Responses

  1. […] Part I  – The great systems of Correspondences […]

  2. […] Part I  – The great systems of Correspondences […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: