Sunday, September 5, 2010

Magic: The Rules of the Game, Part 1

Over the past week, we've gone through my thoughts creating a conceptual, in-world framework for a magic system. However, these philosophical ideas are useless without a rules system to support them in play. Since Spirit of the Century had no magic system, I was forced to range farther afield. I was uncomfortable and overwhelmed with the idea of creating a magic system from scratch, so I ran to the Internet to find a system to modify. At the time I first tackled this problem, there were two professional products based on the Fate system released after Spirit of the CenturyDiaspora and Starblazer Adventures. Both are space-faring sci-fi, so there was no magic to be found there. On the other hand, there is a chapter on mutations and alien abilities in Starblazer that could easily be transformed into magic rules -- but I hate them. The system proposes adding a host of new Skills to Fate, one for every potential special ability -- for my purposes, a "Blightshifting" Skill, a "Flameshaping" Skill, etc. I dislike both a) the addition of sixteen skills to an already-full Skill list, and b) Skills that are only useful for one thing rub me the wrong way. Additionally, Starblazer makes their aliens (and my Crafters) spend Fate points to use their abilities. Since my characters will have quite a bit fewer Fate points than in Starblazer (for reasons we will get into in a future post), this makes me uncomfortable and means the Crafters will be incredibly limited, unbalancing them vs. the other characters.

So, published materials set aside, I searched for unofficial material on fan-sites and message boards. I found a whole host of ideas, but few that seemed appropriate: one fellow posted a system to that proposes an extremely simple magic system allowing the mage to place Aspects on a scene -- simple and elegant, but much too limited for the spell-flinging Crafters I envision; another, in Fate of the Rings from the Fate Yahoo group, models spells in the same way as the "Universal Gadget" and "Weird/Mad Science" rules from Spirit of the Century -- simple and easy to convert, but complex to use in play and stylistically wrong for high fantasy. The most promising appeared in similar form in two places: Spirit of Steam & Sorcery from the Yahoo group (an adaptation of the old Castle Falkenstein RPG), and Mike Olson's blog Spirit of the [blank], where he proposed a very flexible and modular magic system (ironically enough, in an attempt to mimic the D&D system I was trying to avoid). These systems, particularly Mike Olson's take on it, had two ideas I loved: First, instead of adding Skills, characters would use their existing Skills for both mundane and mystical uses: "Artificing" govern both conventional engineering and crafting magical items, "Lore" would cover both mundane scholarship and rune work, etc. Second, Olson's magic is made up of little pieces that can be combined to make a spell more effective, but also more difficult: a spell can simply hurt someone, and it's easy -- or it can hurt them and set them on fire, and now it's quite a bit more difficult, but if the mage needs to cast an easy version of the spell, they can just drop the fire aspect without having to "re-memorize" it or any such bollocks. This system, however, ended up being unwieldy -- working out a half-dozen different variables on the fly can be both daunting and slow down the game.

I was stymied. What system to use? None seemed simple enough to fit the rules-light nature of Fate. Then, suddenly: salvation! Evil Hat Productions, the originators of the Fate system and publishers of Spirit of the Century, finally finished their monster project, the Dresden Files RPG. Based on Jim Butcher's popular urban fantasy Dresden Files series, centering on the only wizard listed in the Chicago Yellow Pages, the DFRPG had a complete, flexible, and simple magic system.

When casting a spell, a wizard in DFRPG chooses how much power to summon up, chooses one of a couple simple mechanical effects (Attack, Block, Counterspell, or Maneuver - which places a temporary Aspect on the target), the element it's associated with, and rolls their Discipline to see if they successfully control the amount of power they summon.

For more complex spell,s what DFRPG calls Thaumaturgy, the wizard has to take their time, invoking Aspects, adding ingredients, taking Consequences (a type of purely negative Aspect usually suffered in combat), or actually sitting out of play while they cast the incantation. A bit more complicated for the players, but still manageable.

Now that I found a system I liked, I needed to modify it to suit my purposes. The DFRPG system was good, but a few pieces were inappropriate for The City of Lives. First was the element system. In DFRPG, a wizard can gain command over all four elements with fairly little difficulty. In CoL, a Crafter is defined by their Craft -- gaining a second or third Craft should be difficult -- controlling all 16, impossible. To accommodate this, I made two changes: to Skills, and Stunts.


The DFRPG magic is based around two Skills: Conviction, representing force of will, which determines how much power a wizard can summon up as well as resisting mental stress; and Discipline, representing, well discipline, which determines how much power a wizard can control, as well as controlling emotion, resisting interrogation, etc. For CoL, I felt Discipline didn't fit every type of Craft: Flamecrafting should be ruled by Creativity; Bloodshifting is logically related to Vigor; Mindsharing

Chaos Order
Shaping Shaping
Creativity Discipline
Flameshaping Waveshaping
Skyshaping Worldshaping
Forceshaping Relicshaping
Sharing Sharing
Empathy Rapport
Soulsharing Mindsharing
Dreamsharing Farsharing
Shifting Shifting
Vigor Conviction
Bloodshifting Blightshifting
Wildshifting Realmshifting
Shadowshifting Lightshifting

You'll notice I assigned Conviction as a control Skill rather than for summoning energy. That's all right, we'll just let one Skill function for both summoning and control -- its unbalancing effect should be counterbalanced by its more limited nature in controlling only a single Craft instead of four elements.


The Dresden Files RPG is designed to be low fantasy: living in a hidden world beneath our own, wizards of major power are not only rare, but almost unique. This is reflected in its rule system: for each stunt a DFRPG character takes, their maximum Fate Point total goes down by one, with a maximum of 9 stunts, leaving only one Fate Point left to influence the world. A DFRPG wizard has to spend seven stunts on their magic, reflecting that it takes up most of their life, and that they will never be able to throw around magic like a D&D spellcaster. In the world of CoL, magic is mundane -- a large portion of the population has at least some skill at Crafting, and becoming a Crafter is no different from being an artist or engineer in our own world -- and the most powerful can shift the world like molding clay. Additionally, I didn't like the mechanics of stunts costing multiple slots, as the wizarding abilities in DFRPG do -- so, I radically reduced the cost of things. Instead of a 4-stunt power of Thaumaturgy and 3-stunt Sorcery, I simplified it down to one stunt per Craft, with the additional cost of an Aspect related to how that mystical energy changes how the Crafter sees the world.

As a starting point, this looks good. However, everything needs playtesting and editing -- meet me next time for Magic: The Rules of the Game, Part 2, as we take a look at what works and doesn't around the gaming table.