AWW: New Approach, Part II (Magic)

This is part two of the post giving an overview of my new approach to my RPG project, A Wilder World. This post will deal with magic.

I’m going to recap how magic was conceived in the previous version of the game, since not a lot has changed but a lot of different people are reading my blog. The big points are this:

While a given working of magic might be thought of as a spell, A Wilder World does not have a spell system as such. Magic is treated as a force that wizards and other magic-users can control rather than a list of menu selections to choose from. Being a pyromancer (for instance) is like having another set of muscles which, when flexed, make fire do things.

Magic comes in three sizes: trivial, ordinary, and extraordinary.

Something that could very easily be accomplished without magic or that has little lasting impact on the world is trivial magic. Stirring your drink with a lazy wave of your hand, fetching a book off a shelf that a person could have gone and picked up, making a harmless shower of sparks to announce “Why yes, I am a wizard.”… these things are trivial magic. Merely having magic allows you to do these things, which are similar in scope and intent to D&D’s “cantrips”. They are the special effects and roleplaying flourishes of being a wizard. No roll necessary, no cost normally.

Anything that would have required real effort and a die roll to accomplish by other means is ordinary magic. Fetching a key from a peg on the wall outside the locked cell you’re in, using a book to hurl itself at someone’s head or using a shower sparks to injure, blind, or distract would all be ordinary magic. Ordinary magic always requires a roll, a roll that is noticeably more difficult than it would have been to do the same thing by mundane means.

“The same thing by mundane means” does not refer to the summoning the key or creating a shower of sparks, but the end result of the magic. If you try to circumvent a locked door, whether by magically causing the lock to open or disintegrating the door or blasting it to cinders or teleporting just past it or turning into mist and pouring through the keyhole, the net result is still that you have defeated the obstacle posed by the door.

Extraordinary magic is the stuff that is clearly impossible to achieve without magic: traversing miles in the blink of an eye, opening or closing a portal to another realm, et cetera. Extraordinary magic is bounded by laws not subject to mortal knowledge or approval; e.g., it’s either built into the story or approved in a desperate moment by Storyteller fiat. The daring wizard who manages a long-range teleportation feat in AWW has not added a new trick to their repertoire, but has more witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that few mortals who traffic with magic will even see.

The categories of trivial and ordinary magic can be expanded by having the right sets of abilities; e.g., talking to the dead should by definition be extraordinary magic, but it may be trivial for necromancers, and there may be wizards or magical beings out there who specialize in site-to-site transportation. These abilities do sketch out the limits of what is trivially and ordinarily possible for those “flavors” of magic.

In the previous version of AWW, the use of magic was governed by an attribute called Magic that would basically “sub in” for any check attempted through magic. You just had to explain what you were doing and how. The “flavors of magic” abilities would define specific bonuses for magic uses that fell within their purview, with instructions that Storytellers be flexible and generous, but reasonably firm about things like “I make a key out of fire and use it to pick the lock” or “I make a fiery hand reach out to pick up the book.” It was also possible to make a character who could only use magic when that fell within their designated “flavors”.

In addition to the checks being harder, I originally intended for Magic to cost more than other attributes (because it can stand in for any of them) and using magic to accomplish something was assumed to be slow, risky, and obvious (loud/bright) compared to the mundane approach.

So here’s what has changed:

First, there is no Magic attribute equivalent among the abilities you can pick. Abilities that allow you to use magic in the fashion described above fall under the heading of “Wizardry” (to distinguish this kind of ad-hoc spellcasting from other, more specific abilities that might also be magical), and each flavor of Wizardry is its own thing: Necromancy, Illusion, Green (plant) Magic, et cetera.

Now, you might be thinking this means there’s no non-specialist wizards in the game, especially if you weren’t following the previous development cycle. Some flavors, though, are more about the method of casting spells than the way the magic manifests: ritual, song, et cetera.

Each level of a Wizardry form you have gives you one die to roll when making checks using it. You don’t start out with one die as you do with normal checks, because an ordinary person has no recourse to magic at all. It’s all extra.

You can get more dice by combining a method of Wizardry (Circle Magic, Ritual Magic, Song Magic) with an aspect of Wizardry (Illusion, Necromancy, Pyromancy) if you decide when you take them that they are bound together, meaning you always have to use them together. You can have multiple such bindings affecting the same ability; only one needs to be satisfied (and can be taken advantage of) for a given casting. So a bard seeking power and flexiblity could have multiple aspects of Wizardry bound to Song Magic; the level(s) of Song Magic would increase the power of whatever the bard does, at the cost of their magic always having a conspicuous musical component.

Under the system of archetypes-as-ability-packages that the previous version used, each flavor of magic came with a set of side abilities that in some cases where what players really wanted; e.g., people looking to play a Batman-style adventurer/gadgeteer who always has the right item tucked away taking Conjuration for the ability to get new gear on the fly. These side abilities are now separate abilities, so they can be taken without being tied to the Wizardry system and properly defined as non-magical if they’re meant to be a non-supernatural innate ability or a “meta” thing (in the sense of storytelling, rather than superpowers).

Now, the other change is more of a refinement. Magic before was risky in the sense that it had an immediate failure rule that didn’t apply to most other checks (as AWW allows you to do a preliminary check as a sort of “cautious consideration” before you try things like jumping over a canyon) and limited in the sense that failure could wound you and/or accumulate Magic Burn, which would impair future magic use. It effectively “burned out” a portion of the character’s magical ability.

But the Magic Burn mechanism, if it were a meaningful limitation, would create the sort of curve for magic where it would tend to get less useful as it was used over the course of adventure, meaning that wizards would either tend to hoard their magic use until the end, or they would be more dramatically useful at the outset, when things are easier anyway.

And what we might call the “committed risk factor” would sharply limit the willingness of people to try wizardry in some of the cases where it would be most exciting and high-flying, the things that maybe nobody else in the party was prepared to deal with.

So I’ve re-imagined the limiting factor of magic into a less one-size-fits-all form.

Like the rest of Wizardry—and indeed the game as a whole—this can require some good-faith negotiation between the player and the Storyteller, but the basic idea is that old saying that magic always has a price. But not all magic is the same, and so the price isn’t always the same.

When you make a character who has Wizardry or similar magical abilities, you basically choose a payment plan. Available choices include (but may not be limited to):

  • Control: Choosing this as your limit means that your magic always works, it just doesn’t always do what you intended. If you fail a check using Wizardry, the Storyteller rolls a die and decides what happens, ranging from random happy coincidence on a 6 (not what you wanted, but something beneficial) to something fairly benign on a 4 or 5, and then increasing levels of bad turn for 3, 2, or 1. As usual, the dice and rules don’t tell the story, just provide a general result. A Pyromancer with control issues is likely to have wild gouts of flame, where a summoner of some sort is likely to have the spirits/creatures show up and simply not respond to their commands. As an additional limiting factor, there is a small but cumulative chance each time you succeed on a magic check that there will also be a side effect.
  • Balance: If you choose this as your limit, then the universe or some force within it exacts a price in the form of bad luck every time you use your magic. It might be something so small you don’t notice it, it might happen right away or somewhere down the line, but every successful magic use results in a roll similar to the failure cost of Control. If a drawback or disaster is indicated, this is not always a direct, immediate side effect of the magic use (unless the Storyteller sees an opportunity for some creative irony), and in particular it’s not directly related to the magical energy/effect.
  • Favor: Favor means that your character, rather than controlling magic directly, is a thaumaturge; you are in contact with some higher (or lower, or other) being or beings who will do magic for you. Making this your cost, though, effectively makes each use of magic a round of negotiation between you and the force you work with. It might be an easy, routine negotiation if you’re doing the being’s bidding, but you might have to pay an actual agreed-upon price or agree to a contract or code of conduct to be able to use magic for your own purposes.
  • Self: Each time you use Wizardry, you risk taking on an increasingly more inhuman (or inelven, or whatever) aspect, usually in a way defined when you create your character (like becoming increasingly demonic), though it can also be related to the form your magic takes with each specific application. This not only affects how people react to you, but how you react to people and things, again in a way defined on a per-character basis; a pyromancer might become increasingly obsessed with creating fire for its own sake, a diabolist might become increasingly venal and selfish, a druid-like character might become increasingly animalistic or withdrawn from the world. Skilled roleplayers can play out this limitation all on their own, but there is a mechanical aspect for those who need more guidance; essentially, once you reach a certain tipping point, the Storyteller can roll a die when you try to do something 1) helpful and 2) not involving more of your magic use and tell you, “You can’t bring yourself to do that.” Additionally, as you accumulate lack of self, you start to run into a version of the Control issue described above, except it only strikes when your magic works… so you can succeed on a check, but fail to do what you set out to do because you were too distracted by how awesome your power is, or how pretty the fire is, or whatever. Lost “self” is regained over time.
  • Blood: If you want to do magic, first someone has to bleed (or the equivalent for their biological makeup). It can be you, a willing ally, or an enemy (provided you have the ability to hurt them). This is one of the most predictable and easiest to control prices, but also one of the grimmest and most implacable. The ones above it basically give you the chance to get off for free, where the blood price is always paid. But you also know what it is.
  • Life: Life works similarly to blood, but it’s purely internal. You are always the one who pays the price, but on the plus side, you don’t have to be able to cut someone.
  • Effort: Your magic is “free”, but it takes intensive effort (mental or physical, your choice) to pull off. You are never considered to be at rest when doing magic. This also translates to magic being more time-consuming; any kind of instant magic will be mentally or physically exhausting. This is common for ritual mages who are already not counting on quick turnaround for mystical labor.

Any of the costs can be mitigated somewhat by spending more time on an individual magical working: the more time you put into a spell, the less likely it is to run wild or take a serious toll on you; the more time you spend flattering or praising your otherworldly contact, the more likely they are to dispense a supernatural gift; the longer you spend drawing out the blood, the more mystical energy you coax from it with the least pain, et cetera.

Trivial magic is still trivial, and so its price; a mere pinprick, a short prayer or word of flattery, random butterfly fluttering level occurrences, et cetera. You can also take levels of an ability called Arcane Reserves to give you “freebie” uses of ordinary magic in a day without the price/risk.

Some magical abilities that aren’t Wizardry also fall under the cost mechanic. Using these abilities and using ordinary magic are treated as equivalent for purposes of incremental effects.

Note that the assumption is that all your magic comes from one source and thus has the same price, but you can define a character in a more complicated fashion. A character might have most of their magic bound up in Favor but one particular “gift” that comes with a cost of self, for instance.

So, the short version is that there are no discrete “spells” to be learned in A Wilder World, but you instead define your character’s magical abilities using a combination of archetypal methods and aspects, and the price you pay when you use your magic. The goal here is to create a system that is flexible but limited, with magic-users whose abilities more closely map the way these things play out in stories and folklore than in typical “gamey” systems.