Meaningful Choices, part two: Magic

As I continue this investigation (can I call it that?) of meaningful choices, I think it’s important to note that these are only my perceptions of meaningful choices in RPGs… Don’t get me wrong, I hope to persuade what “does it” for me could be completely different from what makes the game fun for you.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I want to write today about Magic Systems – specifically, I want to talk about magical failures, mishaps, and the consequences for same. When I say, Magic Systems, I realize that it’s probably a trigger word that brings to mind flinging fireballs and such – and that’s probably the most important group of systems to discuss – but I’m also including other types of Powers here, such as Star Wars games and handling the Force… stuff like that.

I think magical consequences are a great little corner of the game to examine for the implications of player choice, dice, diceless, etc. Specifically, how player choice is more powerful than character mechanics – but more importantly, how consequences should be tied directly to player choice and not the whims of the dice. This also can relate to the excellent point brought up in a comment yesterday about how a diceless system deals with creating tension.

So what is the point? I’m going to use four games as examples here as a sort of “Case study” to get at the point of what I’m trying to convey, then I’ll close with a little more commentary on how this kind of thinking can impact other aspects of a system.

The four games I want to discuss are Star Wars (D6), Mage: the Ascension, Warhammer Fantasy RPG 2nd Edition, and Dragon Age. I chose these four because they cover a good range of the history of gaming eras, all use different systems, and all have consequences for “magic” to some extent.

On the Dragon Age/Warhammer side of things, you roll dice to cast spells – in one case (WHFRPG), that means rolling pool of d10s equal to the magic attribute (or the amout of power you wish to put into the spell) and in the other (DA) it means rolling against a target number to cast a spell on 3d6 (two regular, one dragon die). Now, in Warhammer Fantasy, two things can happen when rolling to cast a spell and it goes wrong (actually, there can be even more or different consequences in some of the supplements, but this is sticking to the core experience).

The first is the threat of automatic failure, if a player rolls their pool and all the dice come up 1s then the spell fails and unless the player succeeds at a Willpower roll for their character then the character gains an Insanity Point. The second thing that can happen is that when rolling multiple spellcasting dice, if some come up the same number (so, doubles or triples or even quadruples) then a magical mishap (which the game calls “Tzeentch’s Curse”) happens. Ultimately, some of these consequences can be awful – and rightfully so – magic in WHF is supposed to be dangerous. And while I’m not going into massive system detail here, the system even has a really interesting internal awesomeness to it that the first consequence is more likely to happen to weaker casters and the second to more powerful ones. It’s a good system, one I’m fond of and have run a lot. And at times I appreciate the capriciousness of the failures – however, the problem I have is twofold. One, the player – while making the decision to use magic in the first place – isn’t really involved in the decision to have it go wrong. That sounds stupid, I know, but the point is, the player has no involvement in the consequences of magic use – it is something that just happens to them because of the vagaries of a roll of the dice. (I should also point out that in three years of non-stop running the game with mages in every game I ran I only saw an all ones roll once and a doubles or triples maybe twice, even from the “villain” mages.) So the amount of serious failure is set low enough that it doesn’t really enter into most caster’s decision-making process when casting spells.

Dragon Age Set Two introduced new, more powerful spells – and these spells can carry consequences for a failed casting. In the world of Dragon Age magic is seen as dangerous to its practitioners in much the same way it is in WHF – it opens the caster up to inhuman influences. Magic is seen as Other. And the game models this, but unlike WHF the bar is set even lower. In WHF a mage may succeed in casting but still have a consequence (rolling doubles, etc) but in DA a mishap only occurs on certain types of spells and only if you fail the casting roll to begin with and only if during that failure the Dragon Die comes up a 1 and if you then also fail a Willpower Test. So, again, not often enough that it is likely to enter into the thinking of most players when using the power.

The problem for me here is really two problems. Especially in the case of the Dragon Age example, it is exceedingly easy to “game” the game and put your mage in a position where there will never be chance for failures of this magnitude (especially considering the cascading chain of fail that must occur to create a mishap). The other problem is that even when mishaps occur they are not a product of intentionality but rather caprice. A mage’s actions have consequences because of a roll of the dice – so a mage can be just as likely to go insane lighting a candle as they can blowing away an enemy… that sucks (in my opinion).

But now look at it from a Star Wars/Mage angle.

In Star Wars D6 edition players are given access to the might of the Force. And the Force is a powerful… well, you get the idea. But the consequences built in to the use of the Force are based on intentionality – not caprice. If you fail a roll to activate a Force power the Dark Side doesn’t get to jab you in the ribs for it (actually, they might, give me a second to get back to that though). The failed roll means you failed to use the power. You get “Dark Side points” when you take a course of action in character that you know is going to get you a Dark Side point and yet you do it anyway. There is no rolling involved, no capriciousness, no whims of fate – this is pure and simple a decision, and often a decision laced with emotional content and tension. The rules of the game are explicit – a GM should warn a player when they are about to earn a DS point and give them a chance to reconsider – so the consequences are fully decision-based on the part of the player acting in-game through the character.

Mage: the Ascension has a similar dynamic with Paradox. A mage character may try their best to work within the constraints of consensual reality and create coincidental effects or they can throw caution to the wind and invoke their powers fully – but suffer in the form of earning Paradox. To be fair, rolling does play some part in earning paradox, I don’t want to ignore that entirely, but the core idea is there and works – if you choose to act a certain way there is a price – such that the price stems primarily from decision making, not the dice.

This is getting long so I’ll work on wrapping up for now and save some of my thoughts for how to expand this type of thinking beyond magic for another post – for now I’ll simply say that the second way, the Mage way, the Star Wars way – that’s the way I want my games to work. When I play a game I don’t want to suddenly sprout a mutant third arm because I rolled doubles to cast a routine spell in the middle of a dungeon – I want to sprout a mutant third arm because I knew full well that I was doing something stupid and pushing my magic too hard and I chose to do it anyway! That’s the kind of thinking that informs my decision-making as a player, a GM, and as I work on my current game project – and it’s one of the many reasons I prefer a diceless style of play.

Next time I’ll keep expanding on where this type of thought takes me – and I’ll try to keep it shorter!

Thanks for reading and let me know what you think!

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9 responses

  1. Cool. I find myself in 100% agreement. Consequences should be causal and foreseeable (if not entirely predictable).

  2. Thanks Dominic.

    I agree (obviously) that consequences should be causal, as you say, but for me it goes beyond that too. I want consequences to follow directly from decision making as opposed to “maybe” happening once-in-a-blue-moon when a bad die roll comes along.

    When I’m going to get a dark side point (for example) I want to look the GM in the eye and show him or her that I understand, I’m ready, and I’m making this decision because dammit, I have to!

  3. Indeed, I got that.

    I was not personally familiar with any of the systems you mentioned, but I have looked into the magic system of Pendragon, which (true to the literary convention) has magic users sleep – or hibernate for several weeks before or after casting spells of any consequence. This is nothing to do with any inherent evil in the sources of the power, or the use of it – but rather the spiritual exhaustion of extracting any kind of power from the land of faerie. One can avoid this by bargaining with dark powers – but this has other, more dire consequences. I think this would also be in keeping with what you describe. BTW – I have never come across a player who would prefer to play a magician in Pendragon, having had the magic system described to them. However, I myself would give it a shot if I could ever find a DM willing to run such a game.

  4. I’ve never tried Pendragon (though I have always wanted to play this RPG) but for me, my immediate reaction to the “sleeping” thing would be that it seems odd to be taken out of play for any length of time — but I could be misunderstanding — not knowing enough about the game.

    That said, I completely understand the point you’re making about players being gunshy about systems with consequences — but I know everyone I’ve ever played Mage or SW with have no problem gaining a Dark Side point or a little Paradox (or a lot) if the in-game reasons are worth it.

    And that is exactly what I want to encourage.

  5. It is not so much of a problem in Pendragon, because the action is episodic, with characters usually taken one major action per season, with perhaps a few minor activities between, and significant social activities during the “winter phase”. The nature of the injury and healing system make it most likely that knights will need at least a month between tournaments anyway.

  6. You know, the more I learn about Pendragon the more I really think it is a game that I need to play and would really appreciate — but I’ve never had a group that was into that — at all. So I never went down that road. It’s a shame.

  7. Perhaps our paths will intersect at a con somewhere, and I can DM a session for you. I am in Ontario, and attend various cons intermittently within the North East, American East Coast to the American Mid-West..

  8. cauldronofevil | Reply

    “Specifically, how player choice is more powerful than character mechanics – but more importantly, how consequences should be tied directly to player choice and not the whims of the dice.”

    I can’t help but think that this is NOT a dice problem. This is a D&D problem. Rather, this the way that a lot of people were ‘trained’ or ‘learned’ to play D&D. It’s not really something I’ve seen come up in any other game – even in rules heavy games like Hero or GURPs.

  9. cauldronofevil | Reply

    I am familary with Star Wars (d6) and I’ve always found the Dark Side Points rules way too ‘gamey’. The fact is you know when you’re going to ‘turn to the dark side’ and the GM will rip up your character sheet (probably).

    So ultimately, the player always has absolute control over whether they turn or not.

    Since they already do – the bean counting of keeping track of Dark Side points is useless busy work.

    You just gain under your limit in Dark Side points, go say a few hail mary’s and they go away.

    Or if you want to go to the Dark Side, you just plain do and it doesn’t matter how many Dark Side points you have.

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