Monday, November 21, 2011

Real Magic in the Dungeon

Magic in D&D (and most rpgs, for that matter) doesn’t bear much resemblance to magic as people practiced (and practice) it in the real world. There’s probably a couple of reasons for this: 1) in the early days of the hobby, there really doesn’t seem to have been much interest in real world models (or at least not as much as fictional ones); 2) real world magic may not seem particular “gameable.”

There have been a few attempts to inject more real world elements over the years: Isaac Bonewits’s Authentic Thaumaturgy, Chaosium’s Liber Ka for Nephilim, and the ritual magic system originally presented in GURPS Voodoo. The internet tells me that 4e has added a ritual magic system to D&D, though I don’t know anything about it. Most of these are icing, additions, or alternatives for more “standard” rpg magic systems.

I wonder if traditional dungeon fantasy sort of games would work with only ritual magic? This would mean most spells would be difficult to cast in the dungeon, much less in combat. Of course, just like in the real world, there would be charms and magical materials (and presumably other magic items) that could be employed. The computer rpg Darklands did this by replacing magic use with alchemy created potions that could be used in combat.

This might be a big change in the game role of the magic-user. I don’t think if this were the way magic worked in the setting that it would mean magic-user’s wouldn’t adventure. The chance to wrest magical secrets and items from dungeons would still get them down there. But of course, game “balance,” etc., etc. Still, if magic were rarer and more “realistic” would having a little magic be as much of an advantage as having a lot is in a standard game world where it’s much more common?


Tim Shorts said...

To answer your question, yes, I think a little magic in a campaign where it is rare would be just as if not more effective than one where magic is common. In Pendragon, if memory serves me which this time in the morning it rarely does, no plays a magic-user. Magic is slow and subtle, but can change the world over time. It is was more powerful, but wouldn't serve a party of adventurers well exploring say the giant ruin tower of Themoculese. When it takes a month to cast a spell and it takes a month to recover from casting it, there is little in the way of adventuring that could be done. And in some ways this magic type campaign is my favorite.

richard said...

Of all the games I've played, D&D has been the least suited to planning ahead, much less changing the world by patience and strategy and subtle ritual interventions. I've seen that done in Mage and Ars Magica and Nephilim, but IME planning ahead in D&D tends to devolve to listening at the door, finding cover and setting up crossfires. Of course, there's nothing in the rules to prevent different approaches and/but I've often been frustrated by the basic dungeoneering setup, which favours combat and whiz-bang spellcasting and forecloses a bunch of other options that would need some preparation.

A heist campaign, OTOH... that would encourage a whole other attitude.

The Angry Lurker said...

I agree with less magic being better but more powerful in the long run, those Charmed bitches would have been in trouble though.

Garrisonjames said...

Nice timing--we've been working on some stuff along these lines. Ritual can be used as an adjunct and a supplement to the existing system, making it a handy tool/skill/approach for nefarious NPCs who do have the luxury of planning ahead and approaching things with a bit more subtlety or finesse than the usual band of murderhobos. The whole 'hero disrupts evil ritual' trope from most of Sword & Sorcery stems from just this sort of approach.

Alchemy is a fascinating thing to introduce into the game, but again, like most forms of induced versimilitude, it is based upon a lot of other stuff that is missing...and a lot of work to integrate. the biggest challenge isn't really the 'magic' per se--it's the underlying symbolism and the overall context involved. How many players want to read a dozen dry, boring old texts in order to get the 'feel' for how some of this crapulous nonsense or ancient wisdom might play out in their game?

Chivalry & Sorcery remains one of the best examples of an Old School game that went down this particular rabbit-hole...there's a lot that could be done along these lines without getting too 'simulationist.' It should be possible to boil a lot of the old high weirdness of the never-quite-legitimate occult all down a bit more to make it 'abstract' like combat has been handled in OD&D.

But once you start bringing in new skills, new items, new secret societies, and all that comes with this stuff...the game can shift a great deal away from rooting around in the dirt for loose change...

James said...

Haven't read it yet, but I believe Dragons at Dawn has a system similar to the alchemical potions thingie.

You could do a dungeon crawl with European style ritual magic. The Charge to the Spirit in the classical rituals of Evocation, usually contained orders that the demon be prepared to come at the magician's call, without all the rigmarole, next time.

The Pantacles from the Key of Solomon, all prepared beforehand and ready for use, would also be a doable idea.

If you're willing to stretch things a bit and are mainly looking for a similar flavor, FO! #6 has an article with some fruitful ideas.

Garrisonjames said...

Doing a dungeoncrawl such as James suggests could work really well. Especially if the magic user uses their abilities to craft talismans, sigils, and bestow a variety of buffs and bonuses onto the adventuring party. A patron NPC who is an accomplished adept in this sort of Evocation would be very interesting to work for--they would always be seeking after obscure artifacts and tomes and all sorts of stuff, and have vicious enemies amongst the Theurgists, karcists, and other practitioners.

ckutalik said...

Someone beat me to C&S, but Stormbringer also has a ritual-only magic system. All magic essentially revolves around third-party agents.

You typically summon (at the quickest 2-20 minutes) an elemental or demon that can do a range of magical functions and then you either use them then or bind them into an object for use later. Bound you can use them later for the short-term spell-like effects.

So it essentially works for dungeon exploring needs too.

Trey said...

Thanks for the replies, and discussion. I'll have to take a look at C&S's approach.

You make a good point @Richard about ritual magic as perhaps a facet of a larger issue about how much preparation/planning goes into adventuring exploits.

@Jim, I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with. You make a good point about the setting baggage that would come with any more complicated or "realistic" magic system--whether it be Western ritual magic or Taoist alchemy.

It strikes me that post-modern Western magic like Phil Hine's Chaos Magic with its simplified, idiosyncractic rituals and sigils might be "dungeon friendly"--though of course, it loses some of that Medieval flavor.

Jeremy Duncan said...

I've been trying to do something similar with my "Hellenistic FrankenQuest" BRP hack -- going back to the sources and trying to replicate what people at the time thought about magic, and what they tried to use it for. Lots of charms, amulets and talismans for attracting lovers, money, and general good fortune, and some genuinely creepy variations on necromancy.

1d30 said...

One interesting way of handling magic was in the "Book of Twelve Swords" series, where magic spells broke down and didn't work as well once steel was bared and people were fighting. But that might make magic-use seem useless.

Another way of doing it would be something like the Dying Earth where it seemed like most protagonists were either magicians or had some magical knack. This way if magic becomes less useful for whatever reason, it becomes less useful for everyone, which means no one player feels left out.

phf said...

Somewhere around here I have a copy of the old "Dungeoneer" fanzine (remember that one?) in which there was a system for creating spells based upon the "Laws of Magic". Players had to justify their spells using the laws. The problem with it , in the end, is it shifted a huge burden onto the referee to come up with NPC spells.

Also, you might go back and check out how Dariel was going to handle magic under his Hari Ragat/Vivid system. IIRC, spell components formed a huge part of it, acting I think as a sort of "pre-performed" ritual.


Trey said...

@Jeremy - Sounds like an interesting project! I look forward to seeing it. Have you checked out The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts? It reproduces mystery cult prayers. Might be good for some flavor.

@1d30 - I think that reflects kind of a "real world" sort of view. Magicians tend to have something else to fall back on besides just magic.

@phf - Thanks. I'll have to give Hari Ragat's magic a closer look.

Dariel Quiogue said...

Hi all! I agree with Tim, my personal preferences lean toward a more mythic feel in magic, and I loved Pendragon's magic system. The problem with it, and with some of the concepts I have for Hari Ragat, is that magic tends to happen 'off-camera.' So the question is how to make it more gameable for the players.

I'm still building the magic system and the roles of magic-using characters for Hari Ragat. As of now what's certain is that the magic will have a very shamanistic feel, with Babaylan player characters speaking to spirits, making wards vs. enchantments, healing, performing divinations, etc etc. Magic-users in Hari Ragat won't have the artillery role they have in most FRPGs, they'll be specialists.

I'm also planning to use my idea of Spellbinding in Hari Ragat, since it makes the players engage more with the world.

The idea is you don't carry a spellbook around, but instead improvise your effects based on what material components you can gather.

Risus Monkey said...

I've actually done it with Gurps Voodoo and it works. You just need buy-in from the players who will be playing casters. As a players, this is my favorite type of magic by far.

(Blogger had been barfing on this comment for a while now)

Trey said...

"Magic-users in Hari Ragat won't have the artillery role they have in most FRPGs, they'll be specialists."

Sounds like a good idea, Dariel.

@Risus - So you guys did a typical sort of dungeon fantasy but with Voodoo magic? I'd be interested in hearing more about that.

Yeah, blogger has been wonky about comments today.

Ray Rousell said...

I've not really played much role-play, but I would have thought too much magic may distort the game too much, I think your idea of a quest in the dungeon looking for magic, would probably work better, but what the heck do I know anyway????

Brendan said...

From what I've read, the Carcosa approach to ritual magic could work well. I missed the original release, but I'm greatly looking forward to the upcoming LotFP re-release. I particularly like the idea of embedding important spell components on the wilderness map.