Author Topic: "Freeform" Magic/Powers systems  (Read 1530 times)

sparkletwist

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"Freeform" Magic/Powers systems
« on: June 16, 2011, 02:32:42 PM »
It seems like most magic/power systems are just a list of abilities. The fluff can paint them different ways: spells, superpowers, or what have you. I'll just call it "magic" in this thread for simplicity. No matter what it is, the basic idea is that you have this rote, predefined ability that can do one thing, or possibly a couple things, and that's all it can do. It's fairly simple to run, and makes the crunch more sane, so I'm not inherently bashing the idea, but I would like to discuss some different options.

For example, Ars Magica. There, you have a bunch of Latin words you can combine, in order to get spell effects. Or, something like Mage: the (Ascension/Awakening) where you have your mastery of different "spheres" in order to get spell effects by manipulating them. I think this kind of system can take more player and GM creativity and flexibility... but that can also be part of the fun, I'd think!

GURPS 4th edition has a pretty comprehensive system for defining powers from the ground up, but I think it's more designed for OOCly designing a power that is then used like a rote spell in-game, rather than actually dynamically shaping the power in-game. It seems like it'd be a little complex for that.

So, what do you all think? Are there any interesting things you've done in your own games to use varying magical systems like this?
« Last Edit: December 31, 1969, 07:00:00 PM by sparkletwist »

SDragon

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« Reply #1 on: June 16, 2011, 02:48:41 PM »
You should try playing a caster in Guildschool. There's several different sources of magical power, similar to how you make Mage sound, and each spell takes a sort of mana from... I think it's at least three different sources, one of which is always the caster themselves, and the rest are based on the effect of the spell.

An example GS spell:

Quote from: Air Buckler

Spell Name Air Buckler
Major Sphere Air
Spell Source
Initiative 10
Range target
Duration 2 hours plev
Save none
Save effect none
Spell Success 15
Area of effect target
Counter
Spirit cost 10
Earth cost 0
Water cost 0
Fire cost 0
Air cost 4
Life cost 0
Death cost 0
Law cost 1
Chaos cost 0
Restorative cost 0
Necromantic cost 0
Mentalist cost 0
Artificer cost 0
Animist cost 0
Total cost 15
Description
This spell gives a target an invisible, temporary shield versus air damage. When any
damage-oriented spell powered by air magic hits the target, the buckler will flare all
around the target, and absorb up to the caster's level of air damage points. After that,
the spell is over.
Only one spell of this type (buckler, shield, or mantle variation) can be on a target at any given time.


Personally, I think that this is a really well thought out magic system. Mechanically, it's a good representation of what I was trying to do with magic in Xiluh, too.
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« Reply #2 on: June 16, 2011, 02:50:15 PM »
One thing that came up on the GURPS forum for how to mechanically hand a Green Lantern's power involved having a pool of character points that you could reassign. It wouldn't be quick and you would probably want to have planned out the most common things in advance but I think it would work nicely.

Hibou

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« Reply #3 on: June 16, 2011, 02:53:42 PM »
I think part of the reason for why some settings and systems spend so little time describing in detail the origins of magic and "why" it works the way it does is because it's already been done to some degree in so many other settings, and as a result people just assume that others assume it's a standard "mysterious force" that people have exploited as necessary. This is not to say that sometimes that isn't fine; especially in the case of superpowers it's better for the Rule of Cool if one says little more than "superhero/villain A got their powers because of event X" and leave it at that.

In Haveneast I've described magic as fundamentally the stuff of dreaming and nightmares, which I don't think will surprise anyone who's familiar with the origins of the setting. There was only so much of it I could explain without turning it into the really boring explanation. Haveneast is also very fundamentally based around an angelic host and the idea of a fall from grace, in this case resulting in/being caused by a disconnection from the capability to dream and the means to harness the potential of dreams.

One of the elements of actual spellcasting in Haveneast that I've implemented in generous amounts is the use of foci; no spellcasting (with the exception of ritual spells which are mostly just divinations and lesser protection powers) can be done without a means to channel them (necromancy uses masks for example; paradigmancy uses a sundial; druidism uses a staff). I took this one step further in playing with the idea that magic doesn't create, only modify - the frequently used example being that if a sorcerer wants to hurl fire at their enemies, they'd need to wrap a cloth around the end of their staff or other tool, soak it in flammable liquid, and set it alight before shaping and wielding said fire.

sparkletwist

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« Reply #4 on: June 16, 2011, 03:08:39 PM »
Yes, I agree with not overexplaining magic. I am asking the question about magical systems as much more of a crunch question than a fluff one: i.e., not so much "how does your setting explain this" as "how does your game handle this?" Things like not being able to create and only modify are interesting to me... my question is, does that fire-hurling come in the form of some rote spell called "fireball" or is it more of a skill that expresses one's, say, mastery of the "concept of fire," and throwing a fireball is part of that, but may also require mastery of the "concept of air" or "concept of throwing things" or whatever else... and yes, that can get a bit complex, so I have acknowledged and will continue to acknowledge it probably takes more GM and player thought and work.

SD, that's not quite what I had in mind, as such, because it's a discrete spell. That said, it seems like it's rooted in a more freeform magic system, but with a lot of rotes already defined in order to keep life sane for the players. This is not a bad approach. My question is if you're forced to only use the spells you know as rotes, or, say, if one could slightly modify this spell (probably drawing on different spheres of power) to modify its effects, or if you'd have to master/memorize/whatever a completely different rote spell for that, like in D&D.

Anyway, I do like the thing about moving character points around, too, so thanks for that. :)

Lmns Crn

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« Reply #5 on: June 16, 2011, 03:35:08 PM »
Celtricia is not the best example for this thread: we're looking for systems that aren't long catalogues of specific spells.

=====

Dresden Files RPG has a pretty good example of this sort of thing. There are a ton of supernatural powers you have access to at character creation, and while a lot of them are very specific, the big mainstay powers for playing an actual wizard are enormously flexible.

You get a couple of elements that you can work with very quickly for combat magic, and you also get an incredibly flexible ritual magic power that, essentially, lets you do any damned thing you can imagine, as long as you can spend the time, muster the power, call in the supernatural favors, and stomach the risks. There are some basic rules for designing these spells, calling up the energy, aiming them, and what to do with the backlash if you screw up, but it's basically just that sweet, beautiful FATE system running the show.

So, you might have a wizard who does earth magic and water magic, right? You've got some separate stats for each (you might have more power with water but more control with earth, or whatever), but in combat it is up to you how you want to whip up some earth shields, tidal wave attacks, freezing people's feet to the ground with ice, ripping guns out of gangsters' hands with magnetism, whatever. You've got four actions with the system (attacks, maneuvers, shields, and blocks), and the art of sorcery is choosing which of the four you want, with what element, at what power level-- higher powered spells pack more punch but are more difficult to control, and if you lose control of one of your spells, you've got to deal with consequences proportional to the amount by which your control roll fell short.

=====

Scion does this in a weird way that doesn't come into effect until late in the game (unfortunately, cause it's cool). Most of the powers in the game are specific, pick-from-the-list stuff, but the highest-shelf stuff, the stuff available only once the characters are gods on a par with Odin and Zeus, actually works by transferring narrative control to the player for the rest of the scene.

So if you're a water god, once you've spent the whole game climbing the ranks and kicking ass with all the pick-from-the-list watergod powers, you learn to become The Flood. When you use this power, for the rest of the scene, you're The Flood. What does that mean? Whatever The Flood wants it to mean. What can you do with this power? Whatever you want to do, because you're The Goddamned Flood, who's gonna stop you? You just describe what you want to happen, and as long as it's the least bit related to your unfathomable power as a primal manifestation of the oceans, it just happens. The only way it doesn't happen is if someone else busts out a comparable power to thwart you, and you have to either redirect what you're doing or fight to a standstill.
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Hibou

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« Reply #6 on: June 16, 2011, 03:49:54 PM »
Quote from: sparkletwist

Yes, I agree with not overexplaining magic. I am asking the question about magical systems as much more of a crunch question than a fluff one: i.e., not so much "how does your setting explain this" as "how does your game handle this?" Things like not being able to create and only modify are interesting to me... my question is, does that fire-hurling come in the form of some rote spell called "fireball" or is it more of a skill that expresses one's, say, mastery of the "concept of fire," and throwing a fireball is part of that, but may also require mastery of the "concept of air" or "concept of throwing things" or whatever else... and yes, that can get a bit complex, so I have acknowledged and will continue to acknowledge it probably takes more GM and player thought and work.

SD, that's not quite what I had in mind, as such, because it's a discrete spell. That said, it seems like it's rooted in a more freeform magic system, but with a lot of rotes already defined in order to keep life sane for the players. This is not a bad approach. My question is if you're forced to only use the spells you know as rotes, or, say, if one could slightly modify this spell (probably drawing on different spheres of power) to modify its effects, or if you'd have to master/memorize/whatever a completely different rote spell for that, like in D&D.

Anyway, I do like the thing about moving character points around, too, so thanks for that. :)


I think by doing this with my setting I may have made it much more difficult to actually stat. Spells are only sort of set in stone; there are baseline functions that can be modified and added to based on the strength and experience of the caster, and the diversity of one's repertoire. A caster in terms of game limitations isn't linked so much to an element of magic as to a method of shaping magic (on a side note, this changes the "definitions" of certain schools of magic). If you had two spellcasters in a group together, say a paradigmancer and a druid, they'd be able to work together, with the druid intensifying the aforementioned fireball's intensity while the paradigmancer could increase its velocity through the air above what the druid might "throw" it at, and then "slow" its burning so it lasts longer regardless of the flammability of the material it hits. I'd actually say the best system I'm familiar with to represent this is D&D 3.0/3.5's ELH "epic" casting system where you get a base spell and can tack on extra potency and qualities for an increased DC. Guildschool actually looks like it could be a good choice as well.

I hope this is more the kind of response you're expecting.

Superfluous Crow

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« Reply #7 on: June 16, 2011, 03:54:09 PM »
I myself have been meddling a bit with a system where the player is more involved with the magic his character is throwing around.
I posted a thread about it a few weeks backs (basecaster), but it wasn't very popular.
The idea was that your character had an arsenal of what were essentially very limited spells, but that instead of being limited to them alone he could string together combinations to produce a plethora of effects. Magical building blocks. The caster had a choice as to whether he wanted to keep all his power free to string building blocks together on the run or whether he wanted to lock it up in pre-built combinations which could be unleashed faster and cheaper. It's not for my setting so didn't get very far with it, so it only had some kinetic effects, but it could easily be expanded to do loads of stuff.
Sounds like it might be a little like what Ars Magica does?

I think it's important to leave some leeway for open interpretation with all systems, but magic systems in particular. If the spell rules are too rigid, they'll restrict more than enhance the game experience. The player needs to be able to feel like he actually wields some kind of unearthly power and that can really happen if he has creative control.
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sparkletwist

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« Reply #8 on: June 16, 2011, 04:05:50 PM »
Thank you all for your thoughts!

LC, that seems really cool about Scion. It sort of goes back to the oldschool "the story is the main thing, let's get these dice rolls over with quickly" mentality. I like this mentality a lot, and it always seemed like a thing that early oWoD had going for it... as opposed to the heap of broken mechanics that later oWoD, Exalted, and Scion usually piled on top of that. On that note, something like the huge list of Vampire Disciplines is pretty much the thing I'm trying to avoid. Though, like I said, either M:tA did it more like what I'm looking for. I haven't actually played a nWoD game so I don't know if it's any less broken, but I sure hope so. From reading the rulebook, it seems like it is, but I don't know yet.

Omega, yes, that's much more the kind of answer I was looking for, thanks. And yes, a more "openended" system is often more difficult to stat, but there can be greater rewards, too, particularly if you're like me and you like a certain flexibility in your magic system.

Crow, I'm hunting down that stuff you wrote and I'll read it now. Somehow I missed it the first time around. Maybe I was otherwise occupied, wasn't thinking about this topic then and didn't pay as much attention, or maybe I just didn't see it the first time around. It seems quite interesting at first glance.

Quote from: Superfluous Crow
The player needs to be able to feel like he actually wields some kind of unearthly power and that can really happen if he has creative control.
This is exactly the feeling I'm going for!

Lmns Crn

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« Reply #9 on: June 16, 2011, 04:14:17 PM »
Yeah, the real thing about Scion that makes it harder to get the freeform stuff throughout, is that so much of the game is about the progression: you started out a regular mortal, you end up (if you're lucky) as a god, so all the powers have to be on a scale from real small and subtle to massive and earthshaking. In a game where you don't focus on that journey, you can just give out "describe whatever you want to happen and it just happens" magic right from the word go, because you don't have to worry about how to build up from there.

To go back to FATE for a moment, it does similar stuff (handing out narrative control to players) as a matter of course-- it's not magic, it's just a part of the system that all players can do to a limited extent. (Having magic in a FATE game might increase the scope within which you could credibly do so, though.)
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« Reply #10 on: June 16, 2011, 04:19:48 PM »
Quote from: sparkletwist

Quote from: Superfluous Crow
The player needs to be able to feel like he actually wields some kind of unearthly power and that can really happen if he has creative control.

This. I've been looking to find a system that allow my players to actually feel like they're making or building spells when they cast them; not just cherry-picking them off a list.

Unfortunately, my players are also very rules-oriented, making more abstract systems are difficult to implement, so I'm trying to find something that nicely balances a solid level of mechanics and some creative wiggle room. I have yet to find it.

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« Reply #11 on: June 16, 2011, 05:37:26 PM »
I still love how madapehorse describes haveneast.  Never get bored of that.

Sparkle, you seem to be talking about (at least partially) 'effect-based' vs 'list based/spell based' systems.  (I could be wrong).

From a game design point, both are cool, and from a play point, Both have strong points.

From a setting design point, I like the 'list-based' system.  I've used both and designed some of both.  But as I have gotten into setting design so heavily, I've looked at things differently.  This kind of ties into what horse was saying.  What magic is and does and how people have codified it can be a huge part in the history and culture of a setting, much the same way that the History of science is in the real world. I look at this as an opportunity to create fluff that the players interact with.  
Yes, a player may create a 'fertility' spell in an 'effect-based sytem', but the fact that it exists as a spell for the players to find infers that people already thought about this, decided it was important, worked on it, maybe tried it a bunch of different ways...this is an important inference.

I do like it when systems really cross over this in different ways.  I like SuperCrow's basecaster, and there are other systems I remember where the ability to throw stuff into a spell completely changed how it worked.  

But I also think that the afor-mentioned 'rule-of-cool' works better with an 'effect-based' system.

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sparkletwist

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« Reply #12 on: June 17, 2011, 01:30:19 PM »
I agree with needing to make sure the powers fit into the setting. I want the fluff to support the crunch, definitely. One way this has broken down for me is when there are multiple powers with the same crunch but different fluff, essentially, the same power that manifests itself in different ways depending on who's using it. In an 'effect based' system, it starts to seem redundant to do it this way, but, on the other hand, leaving all that fluff out makes the system/setting design seem very dry and mechanical.

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« Reply #13 on: June 17, 2011, 01:47:44 PM »
Actually, using GURPS Bang! Skills, or whatever they called them, you could do this rather nicely.

sparkletwist

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« Reply #14 on: June 17, 2011, 07:01:44 PM »
Unless I'm misunderstanding what you mean, the bang skills in GURPS are for something different. Those are useful if you are running a more rules-light or cinematic campaign and want to generalize skills. Asura does that anyway.

What I'm talking about is more about the same skill with multiple ways it may be presented in narrative terms. Say there's a "fireball" spell. An Elemental Sorcerer would tap into the element of fire and conjure a blast of fire energy, whereas a Necromancer would draw upon some deceased fire elemental and cause an eerie black flame to appear. But they're both flames, and mechanically, they'd be the same thing. The only difference is the fluff. If this were a CRPG, I'd use the same code, just change the graphics.

I believe it adds color and depth to the magic system to retain the difference in fluff, but it seems like keeping the two of them as completely separate powers kind of overcomplicates the already greater complexity of the "effect based" system.