Fantasy Magic

All the recent articles I have posted about wizards and magic have got me around to thinking about the mechanics of fantasy magic and its attributes. All campaign worlds need some kind of magic, some way of harnessing power to allow for the characters and NPC’s to rise above the mundane lives of the rest of the population. Whilst physical prowess and capabilities develop as a character navigates the challenges set for him/her, it is usually the harnessing of magic spells and weapons, or the destruction of others misusing their talent that show them as heroes.

Origins of Magic in a Fantasy World

This morning I went back through the core books for 3.5 D&D to try and find out a little about the physics of spells only to be disappointed. None seem to try to rationalise it, they just describe harnessing it. Whilst this leaves a lot to the GM and I suppose allows for a lot of interesting angles to hang a campaign off, fleshing out the physics would better explain the requirements of casting as well as offering some more ideas to shape the campaign. Clearly divine fantasy magic comes from Gods or Nature but how non-priests and non-druids harness manna is never really addressed. Chris plays around with the rules of magic rather effectively in his Rome campaign that we play on a Thursday night and I believe it is pivotal to have some rationale to explain the magic rules you apply or choose to ignore in your game.

Who Needs What To Perform Fantastic Magic

Avoiding the thorny issue of the basis of magic makes it hard to justify all the hurdles of controlling it. I never really understood why D&D 3.5 goes into such depth concerning material components, vocalisation and somatics without explaining the harnessing of arcane fantasy magic. The preparation done at the start of the casting day implies that these are completed and the manna is just humming away, ready to be discharged. This makes releasing the power when required routine but clearly demands some gestures or words because it takes an action in most cases to perform.

Disrupted and Failed Magic in the Fantasy Worlds of D&D

Let’s face it, there is really very little risk to harnessing magic in 3.5. The completion of casting is on occasion spoiled by combat, but that is about the worst that ever happens. I like the idea that releasing extraordinary magical powers should also carry serious penalties for failure like it does in all the best films (Hell Boy springs to mind as a recent example). Counter-spelling seems to be a limited strategy and one not exploited to any depth in the games I can remember. Defensive fantasy spells are there of course but true counter spells have to be the spell cast in opposition or the spell dispel magic. I just feel I would like to see more of a focus on manipulating, changing or negating other magics as a discipline. I would be interested to hear from anybody who took an Abjurer as a player character and enjoyed it.

Should Great Magic Require Varied and Fanciful Components?

The Players Handbook never really made up its mind on this one and I wonder whether the writers were confident about the concept. Ignoring material component requirements is actually encouraged (we are told to assume to have them in your bag unless the cost is mentioned in the spell descriptor). I like the idea that mighty or permanent spells need some kind of special preparation or sacrifice but having an ad hoc or inconsistently applied approach seems somehow unfinished. If mighty mages are fairly rare in your world it seems reasonable that the fantasy magic should require some special component just to make it notable and mighty! I feel it would be better if low level or temporary magics needed no components whatever, allowing them to be readily available and used with little risk. When you look at the cost of meta magics, it looks like later writers agree with me.

The Magical Focus of Future Fantasy Games Systems

D&D 3.5 magic is a huge subject and brimming with cool ideas. The problem is that there is so much to play with that it is hard to make it balanced in relation to other aspects and character types. This is a little strange when the writers went to so much trouble to standardise and balance the effects of spells. This predictable pattern seems to take a little of the character out of the magic system but I think this is only because the mechanics are so easily recognised. I have not explored 4.0 yet but am intrigued to read how well fantasy magic works; whether it looks at the physics of magic in depth, and bases the use and exploitation on founding principles.

3 comments

  1. I think you bring up an interesting point. What is that Wizards do, that Sorcerers don’t do? I think the lack of critical failure is just an attempt to not to penalize a character too much. Having played many Rolemaster games, I know that critical failures can go to an extreme. It would be nice if there was some option for critical failures.

    I think in earlier editions of DnD, the expense or rareness of a material component was seen as a way to restrict the use of the spell.

    I would be very interested in a hypothetical writeup of how magic might work in a game setting.

    Bonemaster´s last blog post..Miniatures in 3-D space

  2. Thanks for your comments Bonemaster. Like you, I think D&D would gain something from a spell failure system. Perhaps a formality role for casting is in order with a risk of failure being present on a roll of 1. This might need to be reinforced by failing a concentration check (not sure of an appropriate DC but 10+spell level-Int bonus might do) to qualify for a critical. The 1 could denote the spell being used but with no effect. The spell failure may need a table. Rolemaster was as I understand it, a bit brutal which was never my objective so I would stay away from lifting anything directly for a D&D type game.

    As for my opinion on how magic might work, watch this space, I may post a follow up once I have my thoughts in place. Feel free to post your own opinions though.

    rob´s last blog post..Nuke Moscow, London or your Ex-Girlfiend’s House

  3. I’ve played as an abjurer before and there is a certain satisfaction to optimizing for countering/dispelling. My favorite tactic was to use Greater Arcane Eyes to see the amount of current spells affecting a target followed by a reaving dispel to take/dispel each in turn. However, if my experience is an indication of the general trend of the game, than abjurers are overpowered at high levels…. just in case, I eschewed Necromancy and Illusion and I hardly ever noticed. Also, The Initiate of the Sevenfold Veil is a noteworthy prestige class for this purpose.

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