Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Magic is Hella Dangerous

I was never quite down with the Vancian magic system of traditional RPGs. Eventually I read Vance and it made a lot more sense, but the game mechanics never quite matched the feeling. Conan had crazy sorcerers, but classic fantasy RPG magic-users just had a list of things they could do. And the term "magic-user" was just awful. Clever wizard players would end up doing weird logical arguments about what a spell meant, which is boring at the table. I always wanted magic to be weird and personal and unexpected and crazy and, more than anything else DANGEROUS.

If we step back for a moment and think about what a world with "classic" wizards look like they are basically academics. If anyone could potentially learn wizardry then the world would be very different. Eventually magic just becomes/replaces technology. Uhg. Boring. Robots and trains and communicators and just fucking shoot me. Magic missile was kind of cool until everyone had it. In 5e low-level wizards (et. al.) are walking guns.

Sure, you can wrap role playing and setting and everything around it, but it still never comes across as dangerous. Wild magic came into the fold. Interesting. The Deck of Many Things and the Wand of Wonder? Cool - but a smart player would just burn that shit and walk away.

I really dug on Ars Magica's idea of crafting spells that suit your needs. But again - danger. If there is just a chance of shit going wrong that is also just purely random chance. DCC did a pretty good job of making things much more interesting, but it is still Vancian magic and wizards pretty much dominate the game.

If you like those things, cool. Not me. Ages ago I added in "free casting" with the chance of things going wrong. It was a massively clunky add-on to D&D/Hackmaster. Eventually I wrote the system we are using in Sorrow in Haven.  Check it.

  1. The basics: an opposed roll (like everyhting else): 2d6+arcane vs 2d6+difficulty.
  2. The spell is built by the player taking looking at a chart and figuring out range, target, duration, and effect.  Effects outside of direct numbers (like 3d of damage) are a bit subjective and must be related to the wizard's focus (more on that below)
  3. Total everything up from the chart and that is the difficulty.
  4. Chances are, a character's arcane attribute will be in the 3-6 range. Difficulty for "average" spells float around 10, but have no ceiling if the player keeps piling on effects

The character has a few "foci". These are effectively words or phrases they must base the spells they cast. For example, in a recent set of games, a wizard with "Barrier of Steel" used it to cast up a steel wall and is working on casting a spell to make their skin steel. Both are super valid.

Now the danger/risk part comes in when you look at the possible results

Action Roll (that 2d6 opposed biz mentioned above) is a Success, the spell goes off. There are benefits for rolling up a Critical or Legendary Success, but those aren't interesting for this. If the spell Fails, there is a chance some Magical Chaos shows up. On a Critical Fail Magical Chaos definitely happens. on a Legendary Failure ALL THE MAGICAL CHAOS happens. At once.

Magical Chaos is represented by a number of cards. One card is presented per focus the wizard has (and some rules for multiple wizards and the like). The players can see the names of the magical chaos, but not what they do. If Magical Chaos happens, they choose a card and deal with the consequences.

The player can spend some of their character's Endurance (stamina)to improve their chances (as with all Action Rolls). They can also spend their Vitality (causing themselves actual wounds) to improve chances of success. This is where the choice and risk come into play.

If they spend too much END and VIT to make sure the spell definitely absolutely goes off, they have weakened themselves for future encounters (think of it as spending you Hit Points). If they don't spend enough there is not just a chance of failure, but a chance of failure with something going WRONG.

So what the hell is Magical Chaos? The players have encountered this twice so far.

One time the wizards tongue swelled up into a huge worm while their mouth disappeared. They had to choose to bite off their own tongue or suffocate. In the end some clever dagger-work did the trick and neither resulted.  Role playing to the rescue!

Another time Tiger Mott (a famous wizard of GDD Chapter 938 - the Extravagant Philosophers) cast a spell and all his skin sloughed off. All of it. Beneath the skin he had transformed into a porcelain mannequin. He ended up being even stranger than before - knowing that a single critical attack will shatter his fragile body. Role playing to the ... that was MY character. That sucked, but Tiger sure is interesting now :)

Magic is dangerous. People fear it because if it messes up, monsters can come through and destroy the world.

Magic is powerful. A wizard can attempt to cast anything they can think of, but if they over-reach things go wrong (see Magic is dangerous).

Magic is magical. It is unpredictable and creative instead of a list of things. It has strange effects and often unknown consequences and, at least for non-wizards, it is mysterious and weird.

How does this work in play?  Really well!  It takes a new wizard player a session or two to wrap their heads around it, but it works and encourages creativity.


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Environment of Adventure

Adventure Biz
After much dicking around in the Lost Catacombs of St. Brigit, including
  • finding her sundered-yet-alive-yet-dead body being tortured by weird energy
  • meeting 2 of the 4 "deacons", killing 1 of them
  • discovering that deacon Wentworth has left the dungeon (uh oh)
  • free the four sister-queens of Elesia (imprisoned by Wentworth)
  • and defeating a summoned monster that was way too tough for them
the party has returned to Haven in the middle of the Jubilation celebration, during which, on midsummer, the Dome shall be re-cast.  It has been fun and they've got a lot left to do back down in the Underworld, but what I want to talk about is that last bullet and how they did it and why it is important (at least to me, and possibly other GMs)

Killing the Demon
The crew was trapped in the underworld by a demon summoned in the entrance by some bad guys (details irrelevant for this discussion but worth another post some time later because it is all about conspiracies in the urban adventures!). This particular entry way was trapped with mondo-destructo lasers, the trap triggered in a specific and repeatable manner.

The players decided to use this trap to their advantage. That is the important part. The dungeon environment needs to have things to interact with. Not just traps that stab a few points of END/HP away from the characters or inconvenience them (stupid pit traps); more than drink from this fountain and gain/lose a stat; things to fiddle with. Things that are memorable. Things to play with!

This particular trap was one of those things. They knew it was a trap. They knew there was a way around it. A character died trying to get by it, but everyone knew what was happening. They didn't bypass it with a die roll, they figured it out through play. Some will argue that this is boring - and for some stuff it is. The "i search the door" thing gets old, and if the GM dings you with a poison needle because you "didn't search the hinges where the poison needle was" is extra lame. By interacting with this trap and figuring it out the players not only remembered it, but later on decided to use it.

Through some clever spell use - Edward the Wizard carved his mandala of Barrier of Steel into one of the gravehounds that he had charmed and sent it running into the room. It exploded into s a huge steel wall. While the demon bashed at the wall (after his sweet TPK-level breath weapon was deflected) another character ran into the room and triggered the trap. 10d6 of laser damage. Not enough?  they did it again! The players used not just their character's bits and bobs, but clever planning and role playing (the guy who is without fear was the one who ran in) to bypass a challenge, but use the dungeon itself. I was so happy.

This demon should have FUCKED UP the party. If they would have faced it directly I expect at least 3/5 characters would have died. This was brilliant. Another awesome GM monster defeated because the players are treating big-ass monsters like this as challenges, not as fights. It was great!

  • Give the players things to play with in the dungeon environment
  • Monsters are challenges, not all of which need to be fought to defeat

Class Groups
When a character chooses a class, they also roll 1d6 to determine which group/organization within that class they belong to. These have no mechanical effect, but give the player some jazz to role play with.

 Tusk's Historians 
 Golden Vanguard 
 Alabaster and Wine 
of St. Bjern
Bringers of Storm
Tomb Raiders
Knights of Valor
Murder Hobos, Inc.
of St. Blün
Blade and Board
Eagle and Shark
 Knights of Scions 
Night Carolers
of St. Brigit
Children of Krom
League of Toth
Silver Legion
Secret Mouse
of St. Lith
Munkhousun Society
 Skyward Watchers 
Devil's Horns
Black Sentinels
Red Ghosts
 of St. Osgüd 
 Brotherhood of Blood 
Unseen Servants
Your Betters
Iron Brigade
The Viscounts
of St. Raster
Sisters of Battle
 Patchwork Knights 

A few selections ...

Devils’ Horns
Thrill seekers of the highest order. The Devil’s horns have an extravagant clubhouse where they regularly throw wild parties. New discoveries are always an excuse for a party, but so is simple survival. More than one Devil’s party has been broken up by the Hammers when some of their more esoteric guests have gotten out of control. They have a reputation for ignoring the conventions of society and walking the edge of heresy.

Black Sentinels
The Black Sentinels hide their faces from society under black hoods to avoid the complications of their sworn duty - to root out witches and sorcerers. They are the oldest of the creeds and can trace their origins to the founding of the Chancery. Each member of this creed must be blooded in a witch hunt, suffering hexes and curses to protect their fellows. Their true identities are rarely known outside of the Chancery.

Murder Hobos, Incorporated
Their name causes most to look on them disdainfully, but as the Murder Hobos take nothing seriously they find the sour looks quite amusing. This ring helps perpetuate the stereotype that adventurers, particularly members of the GDD, are awful morally bankrupt folks. They think this is hilarious.

Unseen Servants
Where most wizards are ostentatious in their dress and manner, the Unseen Servants prefer subtlety, quiet reflection, and deep contemplation.  Many have taken a vow of silence except when casting spells. Unseen Servants are preferred advisors to the noble houses because of their nature.