[sort of D&D Next] The Laws of Magic

edited January 2012 in Story Games
My brainstorming for what 5E D&D could look like made me think that it would be interesting for the game to have clear but strict rules of magic. For example, sorting spells by variety - power words, chants, trances, rituals, summonings, etc. Each variety of spell would have a predictable physics that people in the world can act on: for example, stuffing cotton in their ears to resist a power word.

I think this kind of system has a lot of things going for it. Durations (as long as your focus continues) and ranges (as far as your voice carries) can be unspoken and unwritten. Non-magicians can meaningfully interact with magicians ('He's just summoned a demon!' 'Quick, grab his hands and make them punch his own face!'). Puzzles and mysteries can be meaningfully solved, because even magic obeys certain understood rules. You can cut off a magician's hands and he still has some options; you can throw a sorceress gagged into a prison cell and she knows exactly what spells she has available to get her out of that mess.

What I've written down doesn't have any game mechanics or actual spells attached. But I think it's a proof of concept for how magic could work in D&D or really any other fantasy RPG, and I'd like to have your thoughts and contributions.

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What I have so far:

Components

Focus: Concentration. You can only focus on one thing, at most. You cannot focus on anything if someone has just wedged a bucket onto your head. A keen observer might be able to notice that you are focusing on something; that does not guarantee that they can figure out what you are focusing on.
Voice: Speech, song and other noises made with the mouth open.
Sacrifice: Material components, your own son, goats, hopes and dreams, etc.
Gesture: Unimpeded motion of at least one and ideally two hands and arms.

Maybe you can hum a sub-standard chant. Maybe you can summon a demon with just the gesture of wiggling your fingers. But it won't be easy.

The varieties of spell I've come up with so far are:

Power Words
Require a single whispered, spoken or shouted magical word that the single target creature can hear. A power word never changes; someone who has heard it several times will recognise it.

Power words do not have a duration. If a power word starts a fire, it burns until it is put out or burns itself out.

Chants
Requires focus; requires a continually repeated whispered, spoken or shouted magical word or phrase that every target creature can hear. A chant never changes; someone who has heard it several times will recognise it.

Chants last while the voice and focus are maintained.

Trance
Requires focus.

Ritual
Requires continued voice, continued gestures and a sacrifice. It also requires time. It does not require focus.

Summoning
A three-part process with different requirements.

The Call
Requires a gesture and a sacrifice. This summons an entity, which acts according to its own will unless Locked.

The Lock
Requires focus. This stops an entity from acting according to its own will.

The Puppetry
Requires continued gestures and focus. This causes an entity to act according to your will.

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Can you come up with more varieties of spell, more components for spells, etc? I'd be interested in seeing what sorts of ways of working magic you can come up with.

Comments

  • edited January 2012
    Personally I am against rigouressly defining magic in a scholarly, scientific or engineering style.

    My preference is for each spell to be a special snowflake in terms of what it does and the consequences of using it.

    Rather than a scholarly approach to learning magic, I favour making some sort of sacrifice to obtain more magical abilities. Sacrifice in the general sense rather than only specifically killing something. Personal sacrifice. Oaths and obligations. Deeds. Not only is that darker and more consequential, but it opens up avenue for play rather than 'learning spells in the downtime'.

    I dont like the use of mana as a limitation on magic use as it makes the choice of whether to use magic basically a resource management question. I prefer each special snowflake spell to come with its own 'hard choice'. Like Frodos ring.
  • The breakdown above looks very handy for arbitrating casting in non-optimal circumstances. Being gagged, getting interrupted, etc.

    I bet it'd work nicely with a set of "laws" governing what happens during a non-optimal casting. For example, a range from "nothing happens" to "your party instantly dies" could be mapped to the degree of interference.

    More generally, when I think "laws of magic", I think "logic underlying what effects are possible and what it takes to produce them". I see some nifty "what it takes" in your post, but no "what's possible", and nothing correlating possibility X with requirement Y. So that's where I'd focus next.
  • Posted By: stefoidRather than a scholarly approach to learning magic, I favour making some sort of sacrifice to obtain more magical abilities. Sacrifice in the general sense rather than only specifically killing something. Personal sacrifice. Oaths and obligations. Deeds. Not only is that darker and more consequential, but it opens up avenue for play rather than 'learning spells in the downtime'.

    I dont like the use of mana as a limitation on magic use as it makes the choice of whether to use magic basically a resource management question. I prefer each special snowflake spell to come with its own 'hard choice'. Like Frodos ring.
    I like your thinking! I think it could work very well in a lot of fantasy games. D&D and its imitators, however, have been about resource management from the start. I definitely see room for unique or powerful spells requiring a sacrifice to obtain, but I'm not sure it would work for the several to dozens of spells a wizard is expected to learn.

    It could be very cool, though. I remember hearing about one death spell that required the caster to cut off one of his own fingers. Not only is that a meaningful sacrifice, it also spills over into the game world: if you see a sorcerer with nine or fewer fingers, you get worried. Charlatans might cut off a finger just to feign magical might. And this has the advantages I was talking of in the OP, that it allows people to meaningfully engage with the spellcaster - if you see him steady a finger on the table, you want to get out of there, or tackle him, or ready a counterspell!
    Posted By: David BergThe breakdown above looks very handy for arbitrating casting in non-optimal circumstances. Being gagged, getting interrupted, etc.

    I bet it'd work nicely with a set of "laws" governing what happens during a non-optimal casting. For example, a range from "nothing happens" to "your party instantly dies" could be mapped to the degree of interference.

    More generally, when I think "laws of magic", I think "logic underlying what effects are possible and what it takes to produce them". I see some nifty "what it takes" in your post, but no "what's possible", and nothing correlating possibility X with requirement Y. So that's where I'd focus next.
    Hmm, laws for miscasting could be very interesting. I was thinking of something basic, like a wild magic or spell mishap table that you roll on for every impediment.

    As for what's possible, I had been thinking that the powers/spells themselves would determine that. But are you thinking stuff like: 'Summoning spells can summon any entity that the caster has previously met' or 'A caster can summon any entity that he or she knows the truename of', and 'Enchantments can cause the target to attack its allies, but not to put itself in immediate danger' and 'Enchantments can wipe a creature's memory, except it will never forget any encounter with a god'?

    I had been thinking about a 'Laws of Enchantment' list that would apply whether the enchantment was a power word, or a ritual, or any other type of spell. I might type something up this afternoon.

    Thanks for the contributions, guys.
  • Dont fuck with Johny two-fingers!
  • Or get your two friends to fuck with him first!
  • You dont want to know what he can do with his toes
  • Posted By: stefoidPersonally I am against rigouressly defining magic in a scholarly, scientific or engineering style.
    I once heard a quote by a fantasy author (who's name I can't remember) that said something to the effect of "Magic that follows a series of rigorously definable laws isn't MAGIC. It's just science that doesn't work."
  • edited January 2012
    I'm assuming for purposes of this discussion that "magic" equals "neato technology that violates physics". Which is what most player character RPG magic is.
    Posted By: SanglorianBut are you thinking stuff like: 'Summoning spells can summon any entity that the caster has previously met' or 'A caster can summon any entity that he or she knows the truename of', and 'Enchantments can cause the target to attack its allies, but not to put itself in immediate danger' and 'Enchantments can wipe a creature's memory, except it will never forget any encounter with a god'?
    Sure, those are all laws of a sort. The truename and god examples are interesting for how they'd plug into the game's larger metaphysics, the enchantment self-endangerment limit is a power balance parameter, and the "previously met" restriction has plot and roleplay implications. Personally, when I think "laws", I think broad strokes, metaphysics, universal truths, constraining and characterizing all options. I like to start with that stuff -- it helps the laws feel like Laws of Magic that define a fictional reality, rather than cobbled-together rules patches. (So "true names exist and confer power over their subjects" and "gods exist and leave indelible imprints in the minds of those who encounter them" is the kind of stuff I had in mind.) Though, of course, if your metaphysical laws are a bad match for your gameplay, then you wind up with patches anyway...
  • Thanks for the clarification David, I had misunderstood you! That's much broader than I'd been thinking, but I will take it onboard.

    A few people have described 'scientific' magic as not magic at all/not very satisfying. That's really interesting for me, because I've been reading The Golden Bough. Its central argument (in the few chapters I've read) is that real-world magic was seen as repeatable and rules-based, and it slowly lost ground to religion because each spell was eventually 'disproven'. Of course, the idea of sympathetic magic is very different to modern fantasy magic, but I still find it remarkable that the main feature Frazer attributed to real-world magic is anathema to fantasy magic.
  • playing with and around rules-based magic was probably the main tactical fun point of d&d for us.
  • I'd sweat the scientific thing a lot more if I was writing a novel. In fantasy roleplay, it's all scientific. It's just a matter of coloring it to look right. The only thing that's anathema is presenting it badly.

    I'm pretty confident that players looking for completely unrepeatable (i.e., non-scientific) spells are few and far between.
  • One element I found interesting for roleplaying magicians in a medieval fantasy setting was credibility; I mean, magicians fueled their spells using raw willpower to bend reality but if they got other people to believe in their power, it became easier to bend the reality or even go further and utterly rewrite it. So the wizard could get a bit more powerful if she got the party (or her enemies!) to actually believe in her power. She could also create a reputation as a powerful magician to gain more strenght. Magical items only worked for people who believed in them... and try to imagine how powerful the town cleric can be if he keeps the townspeople coming to his church.

    Thus it made sense that the older the wizard, and the more deeds she does, the greater her power. And doing cantrips and tricks in front of the right people in a new town could actually be a lot useful for creating a reputation.

    I succesfully tried one law for elemental magic that added a lot of strategical thinking and roleplaying: caster needed to be in touch with an small amount of the element he wanted to control. Like a burning torch for fire spells, a bottle of water, a rock, your own breath for wind spells, a sprout for plant control, etc. Either you carry one of each or use what you have around if you are more confident.
  • I can see a few nice emergent properties from that elemental magic law.

    The first is that you can observe a wizard to get some sense of what schools of elemental magic they use. The other is that wizards of the air - an element associated with invisibility and sneakiness - can never be detected.

    Great stuff!

    I've written up some laws of enchantment. There are no empowering ones (they're all restrictive), but they do communicate an unspoken setting behind the magic - one where gods and titans leave indelible impressions, love conquers all and the enchanted won't put themselves into bodily harm.

    The Laws of Enchantment

    A creature cannot be enchanted by ordinary magic to:

    Put itself in immediate, certain danger,
    Injure or kill itself,
    Injure or kill anyone or anything that it loves,
    Fall in or out of love,
    Forget that it is, was or ever has been enchanted (but it can be enchanted to not notice that it is enchanted),
    Forget an encounter, or any aspect of an encounter, with a god, titan, angel or demon,
    Make use of any sort of wishing magic.
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