Dawn of New Thaumaturgy: a few disordered thoughts on writing magic, starting from a detour on magic swords

I recently added a new player to my group. He never played RPGs. He joined my Mageblade group, was amazed that he could do spider-wizardry, and had his pc’s eyes explode because reckless overcasting led to a magic catastrophe. Then he completely wiped a band of thieves with a lucky venom cloud. Good times.

Magic is terrible and powerful and awesome. The player was surprised by the magic possibilities, tempted, hurt, humbled, and then singlehandedly finished the threat to the group. How does this happen? Why? How can it be made better?

I’m writing this thing because a while ago someone asked if it was possible to swap the D&D spell list with a completely different one: I’ve done it several times with several spell lists, and I’d like to share why and how to do it.

I’m not sure this is going to be directly helpful to anyone doing the same, but I guess it can be helpful for other tasks too, like writing one single spell. This is going to be presented as a list of unstructured arguments in several posts, for various reasons. Such as:

  1. I’m not sure what the shape of the argument is when seen in its entirety yet. My approach is quite holistic and winding. Sorry.
  2. The concerns span usability, game design, meaningfulness, and world building. These things do not go hand in hand.
  3. Magic, in game like in real life, is much different for different people. The same goes for religion, and magic and religion are for all intents and purposes, as far as this writing is concerned, two names for the same type of practice. I’ll try to be as encompassing as I can, despite taking sides.

Let’s start with the first question: why do we need new magic, and what’s wrong with the spells in the handbook?

We do not need new magic. And there’s nothing wrong with the spells in the handbook. The game can be perfectly fun without expanding its magic, like it can be fun without expanding the monster list, the race list, the class list, and the magic item list. These are the discrete elements that we can scatter in our fantastic worlds, very unique like snowflakes.

Also, very similar like snowflakes. Snowflakes are similar because ice crystals form with specific angles, and similarly D&D campaign are similar because character growth has specific rules. Obtaining experience and treasure make characters stronger, because they grow in skill and in means, with a matching increased impact on the game world. If we use the same mundane and magic item tables, chances are there will be similarities.

Access to more magic is key part of both those new skills and new means. The game setting of Dungeons & Dragons becomes more and more supernatural as the game progresses, the players exploring more and more of the mythical underworld (or whatever it is that PCs physically and metaphorically go through in your campaign).

Let’s start from the Fighter, by having a quick detour in the LBB. Fighters are strong and resistant and overcome mundane opponents in mundane means. As they grow in skill, they become more resistant and more lethal. However, as lethal as they can be, they still are mundane and can’t harm enchanted beings.

Enemies that can’t be harmed are awesome. As in, literally, terror inducing. Because we mundanes have no way of defending ourselves from them.

For those, fighters need a magic weapon.

Crucially, magic weapons, and especially magic swords, are the most common permanent magic item in the LBB. Magic swords can only be used by fighters, and magic swords are pretty much the best magic weapon in the game: beyond giving the capacity to hit magic beings, they often give extra powers, like detection of invisible or magic, or even more, which are incredibly useful and not easy to come by (at least they require casters to spend precious spell slots).

Magic swords also have the habit of having intelligence and big personalities and taking sides in the Eternal Struggle between Law and Chaos. They can also possess their fighter, and shift from being an empowering tool for the fighter into a master for the fighter, their body and limbs mere tool for the Sword.

This might seem like a douche move. However, these swords are quite the equivalent of having a Faustian deal with the devil: great power comes at a great cost. Sure, they lead you to gems, and let you vanquish vampires, but what do the Swords ask in return?

And the Faustian deal usually generates buckets of solid, engaging drama at the table: for example the sword can force a noncompliant fighter into giving itself away to a fighter more worthy of the sword mission, and more compliant. If you want to keep the sword, you need to make the sword want to keep you.

So when you find an intelligent magic sword in a dragon trove ask yourself what kind of reckless sucidal action the sword must have forced on the fighter wielding it. The sword is in the dragon hoard because either it forced the fighter into fighting the dragon, or it let the fighter believe it could.

Magic swords use their fighters to leave a trail of death until they lead their own fighter to death. Then they lay unused in a hoard until their new owner is killed by a fighter. And the trail of death can start again. And again. And again. And again, until the timeless magic sword, and its unquenchable bloodthirst, is no more.

Good luck with that. Magic swords are much more resilient than the countless arms that bear them. Beside dragonfire and powerful magic, they have little to fear.

D&D Magic Swords are awesome as the creatures they can harm. As in, they inspire terror. Not only when facing them, but also when wielding them.

Because, mostly, what fighters do to fight the supernatural is wielding supernaturally angry steel that has a proven history of leading previous bearers to death.

Note how this is canon (actually requiring very little interpretation compared to the rest of the LBB, blessed be Gary’s cotton socks) and how it dances all across the invisible line between fluff and crunch. Thing is, if fluff and crunch are not melded, then the crunch can’t let the game behave in a way consistent with the fluff.

Personally, I think the distinction is artificial, and exists only where the game rules do not support the desired outcome (or fiction/story/milieu/atmosphere/genre). And probably this is the hard part of this whole endeavour: have a game with wholeness, self-consistence, and meaning. If the game challenges are awesome, make you organically scared, make you in awe, then stuff is ok.

Compared to most of the rest of the magic in the LBB, Magic Swords are definitely the most interesting from a dramatic, and human, perspective. Magic Swords are a relentless, uncaring, awesome tool for us mundanes to defeat the otherwise undefeatable awesome.

The rest of the magic in the original game, except a handful of magic items, is bland. It manages to defeat the undefeatable awesome in a very bland way.

We can do better than that.

Next time, we might explore the following topics:

Wizards are kind of lame, but also awesome.

Adventure design: casters can detect invisible, evil, and lies, and they should.

Abjuration 101: wards and banishing.

Why We All Love Maxilor, aka The “Passwall – Spell of the Subterranean Cavities” Continuum of Awesomeness.

What it takes to make magic items.

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