Friday, August 5, 2011

Terra Incognita - Worldbuilding Part 2 (Magic)

Magic is a thorny issue. Everyone has their own preferences on how it should work: Vancian or mana points, freeform or structured, low power or high. And people put a lot of thought and stock into the rules of their magic systems, to the point where certain systems, otherwise OGL (Legends of Anglerre comes to mind), still protect their magic under copyright. so where does Terra Incognita fall on these axes, and what is the best way to represent those abilities rules-wise?

Well, the first point of difficulty is the dichotomy of the setting. There are fundamentally two settingsin TI: the civilized, mundane world we learned about in history class, and the savage, lost world of high magic from mythology. In Europe, there should presumably be no functional magic whatsoever, thus restricting starting characters from throwing spells around. According to this model, PCs will not be ble to take any levels in spellcasting classes or gain magical stunts (d20 and FATE, respectively) until after the story begins and thy are able to find a supernatural teacher with the help of Polyphemus's Eye.

On the other hand, people of the time still did believe in at least a small, limited form of magic -- the kind of visions Nostradamus and John Dee had, witches' curses, and demon possession. So perhaps those things were real, and while nobody is going to be casting Fireball or Magic Missile in the middle of London, perhaps the subtler magics were real and simply hidden. In this model, PCs would be able to start out as magic-users, but perhaps with certain restrictions -- no flashy spells, PCs restricted to one or two spellcasting levels/powers before encountering Polyphemus, and absolutely no magic items.

In fact, it was this latter system I used in the first TI campaign -- the d20 Modern characters were all 4th level, which is the level they can start taking Advanced classes (including spellcasters), and we had one 'Mage' (gypsy hedge wizard), who hid his spells as natural occurences while still in civilization, and an Occultist, who had been studying the supernatural for years and was just now finding and deciphering ancient magical scrolls. Additionally, later on they discovered a European character (a player we invited in late) who was rules-wise an 'Acolyte' (Cleric, basically), but pitched the idea as a person who had mysterious abilities he ascribed to God, who kept them quiet in case the Church cast a disapproving eye.

So I did it that way before, but one reason I recast the occultist character as a pure scientist and replaced the gypsy witch with Fae in the TV pilot was to create a greater dichotomy between Europe and the magical world. So I question which way to go...

And then there's the question of magic in the mythical realm. How powerful is it, and how does it work? D&D-style wizards are rare (though not unknown -- see Solomon and Merlin) in mythology -- most non-gods have very specific powers (Cassandra's ability to tell the future, Siegfried's ability to talk to birds) or monstrous features (Medusa's stone gaze, a kitsune's shapeshifting), or relied on magical items, as discussed last post. Other forms of magic common in mythology involve complicated recipes, long rituals, or complex writing/rune structures, all interesting but ill-suited for most PC use (combat being the most obvious example). I think that for the most part, characters and monsters gaining "powers" makes more sense -- both from a mythological and playability standpoint -- than "spell lists." This means that I'm leaning much more towards True20 over d20 Modern, as True20 gives characters broad powers like "supernatural speed" and "wind shaping" over more specific and limited spells like "fireball" and "feather fall" (which d20 Modern, like D&D 3e, uses). On the opposite side, this model is more focused than the magic system in The Dresden Files RPG, and more like the stunt/gadget system of Spirit of the Century or the magic system of Legends of Anglerre. Since I really don't want to design a brand-new full magic system for what is supposed to be a side project (remember City of Lives? I am getting back to that at some point!), I suppose I'll adapt my City of Lives adaptation of Legends of Anglerre's system.

So. Some thoughts, some conclusions, and some... not. Next time, we'll look at cultures and backgrounds. See you then!