Tuesday, September 13, 2011

[Greyhawk] The Unified Theory of Magic (Part 1)

So yeah, it's been a while (okay a long while) since there was a Spirit of Greyhawk (SoG) posting. In the meantime, I had been doing a lot of thinking about High Fantasy Magic and have managed to re-work things into a more coherent single system of Magic that still retained a lot of the things I liked from the previous iterations.

Magic Overview

How Magic Exists in Spirit of Greyhawk

Magic exists as a "force of nature", like magnetism or wind. But while people may understand the principles of Magic, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are able to generate magical effects. Conversely, someone may have the ability to generate magical effects but have no knowledge of the underlying principles that they are using.

Generating magical effects in SoG could be compared to being able to make a sailboat go where you want it go. You need a sailboat and you need wind. You also need a degree of knowledge to be able to use the sailboat to harness the wind to get where you want to do.

Depending upon where you’d want to go (or how big a sailboat you use), you need different degrees of knowledge: consider the difference in knowledge and type of ship needed to sail across the ocean versus sailing across a lake.

Why Care “How” Magic Works Within the Game World

Besides being an interesting thought exercise, I believe that you need to provide players an internally consistent framework for understanding something about what they are doing. Without that framework, I think you make Magic less “useable” or less fun especially with respect to harnessing Aspects. Similar to dealing with combat: a player who has actual knowledge of fighting can be much more effective in his use of Aspects (or have a more rewarding play experience) than someone using the same character who has no first-hand knowledge of combat.

SoG elaborates somewhat on the source materials’ implication that magical effects are not made “just” by casting the spells as listed in the source material. So the SoG implementation makes a clear distinction between actually casting spells and generating magical effects.

The distinction is this:

  • Casting spells is but one way of generating magical effects.
  • Magical effects can be generated by other means than just casting spells.

Requirements for Generating Magical Effects

Elaborating on the sailing metaphor above, this means that in order to generate magical effects (not necessarily casting spells), there must exist all of the following:

  • Magic must exist as a force within the game world that is harnessed in order to generate magical effects (the “Wind”)
  • Having the Magic stunt to harness the world’s Magical forces (the “sailboat”)
  • A Skill tied to the Magic stunt (the knowledge of how to use and steer the ship)

Required: Stunt “Magic”

Within a High Fantasy environment (or this one at least), anyone with the Magic stunt can create magical effects.

Like many other stunts, Magic is tied to a skill. The caster can determine what skill is used to generate magical effects. That connection is typically established when the stunt is acquired and the connection is generally permanent unless circumstances within the game call for a possible change. The particular skill that is tied to the Magic stunt would then play a big part in the “trappings” of the magic effects.

Here’s some examples:

  • Bards generating magic effects might have Magic tied to their Craft/Performance skill.
  • Rangers generating magical effects might have Magic tied to their Survival skill.
  • Monks generating magic effects might have Magic tied to their Discipline skill.

Aspects are tagged or compelled as normal in the course of generating magical effects.

Like other powerful stunts, every invocation of the Magic stunt requires the allocation of a Fate Point. I use the term “allocation” because SoG contains an important distinction between casting spells and generating a magical effect on the fly:

  • Generating an “on the fly” magical effect requires the expenditure of a Fate point. The point is expended and the caster doesn’t get this Fate point back.
  • Casting a predefined spell requires only the commitment of a Fate point. The distinction here is that the caster gets the Fate point back at the end of the scene (similar to stress). More on this distinction later.

Optional: Skill “Wizardry”

This skill represents the study, research and understanding of the underlying principles of Magic. Attaching the Magic stunt to the Wizardry Skill is what establishes someone as a Wizard and allows them to use (cast) predefined spells. Using any other skill with the Magic stunt constitutes Sorcery.

Think of Wizards as “ivory tower scientists” of magic, whereas Sorcerors are typically closer to garage tinkerers. This is not to say Sorcerors are not effective, but they can be just as dangerous to themselves and their allies as well as their enemies. Often the term “sorcery” can have a negative connotation, at least among Wizards.

Someone could elect to learn the Wizardry skill without having the stunt, but would not be able to actually cast spells or otherwise generate magical effects. This would be more like a Magic researcher, rather than a Wizard.

While this distinction between wizardry and sorcery was not laid out in the source material, I like it for a number of reasons:

  • Enables players who want to leverage the more flexible nature of Fate mechanic with respect to magic, but still leave the “predefined” nature of source material intact.
  • Distinguishes Wizards from other types of people that generate magic effects (more on this later).
  • The source material appears (to me at least) to contain assumptions that the use of actual spells within the world was a relatively rare currency but yet almost every class of character at varying levels of achievement could either cast spells or generate magical effects (to say nothing of the frequency of crafted magical items appearing within the game).
    This seemed a nice way to reconcile that assumption and leave intact a player’s assumptions for what their characters would be able to achieve.

It is possible that someone could elect to learn the Wizardry Skill without the stunt, but would not be able to cast spells or generate magical effects. This would be more like a Magic researcher instead of a Wizard.

NEXT: How to generate magical effects and the heartbreak of magical failure.

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