[Dawn of New Thaumaturgy] how to write a new spell selection, part 1: questions?

When you build a new campaign in a different game world you should write a completely new spell selection that lets players use magic in novel ways, or else you are still in Greyhawk (or wherever the magic from your game handbook comes from). It’s hard work but it’s also a great payoff. I’ve done the redevelopment a few times, and I hope this small series of posts might help you in similar endeavours.

Magic is one of the big pillars on which fantasy is built, as it does most of the work to make the fantastic behave differently from our world of internal combustion engines, banking, and health & safety guidelines. Different kinds of magic will make the fantastic behave differently: magic goes beyond the physical mundane by using metaphysics, and different magic will go to different fantasy in different ways.

More specifically: spells and magic items in fantasy games are an integral part of the setting, and the main affordance players have on what makes it go beyond the mundane. Players use spells and magic items as tools to exploit and explore the supernatural.

However, when Game Masters develop campaign settings for play or publication for a game already in print, they rarely consider changing magic. Why?

Too many words

Mostly, it’s an awful lot of work. To give some perspective, let’s consider page count. It’s not a perfect metric, and page count certainly does not measure importance in the game, and the measures are rough. Still, page count is a metric for game material that would be re-developed:

  • Rules Cyclopedia, 257 pages: 30 pages for spells, 28 for magic items, 5 pages for Immortals and their mystic quests, 3 pages for multiverse, plus tidbits like rules for energy drains and the like. Roughly 25%
  • D&D 5e, roughly 900 pages: 28 pages of multiverse, 96 pages of magic items, 86 pages of spellcasting and spells, 29 pages for arcane/divine class features. 26%.

For games where recovering lost magic is not a core concern drifting toward obsession, I picked two at random:

  • WHFRP 4e, 350 pages: 26 for religion and belief and cults, 28 for magic. 15%, without counting spellcasters and their feats.
  • House of the Blooded, 430 pages: 17 for sorcery, 24 for the Suaven. 10%

It’s a whole lot of vision, design, and development work.

(note: this might be seen as an indictment of overly long games. There are many perfectly valid small games! However, the latter do not have much material: if you want much varied magic, the size of your text will grow. Unless you use generative systems, which is also entirely doable, but those have other cognitive issues)

Second, it strongly changes the nature of the world. There would be a lot to discuss here but, to keep it concise, I propose a thought experiment: imagine to rotate the magic in the three games above:

  • D&D with House of the Blooded magic and Suaven changes completely: what the game concerns itself with is much different.
  • House of the Blooded with WHFRP magic and gods becomes a completely new kind of nasty, with our nobles doing their usual shenanigans but with a godly struggle behind, and CHAOS.
  • WHFRP with D&D magic gets back to its origins as the non-grim D&D campaign of Pelinore, the setting published on Imagine, the magazine published by TSR UK. All of a sudden you do not have to worry about wizardry & warpstone. Skaven stop being their usual festering nightmare to become the fuzzy cuddly kobolds.

These changes are massive, and that’s precisely the reason why you want to change magic when you change world. There is no need to change magic system (although that would also help) but we do want to change magic so that magic does different things.

So many ways to pet a cat

This is a lot of work, and there are many approaches to it. As games are fun for many reasons, I suggest to approach the work from many angles, possibly all the angles relevant to the game you intend to create.

There are many ways to proceed: I’ll be making light references to D&D game mechanics (like level, and learning spells) for ease of communication, but keep in mind all of these apply to also other games, and to games with no spells per se.

What’s the simplest approach? Babysteps!

You can just begin writing spells, and stop when you decide you are done. When you run out of spells, write more. You can also start with a handful of low level spells, and let each spellcaster player create a new spell, and establish a consensus regarding power level and effects. Do the same each time they gain a level, or every other level if that’s too much. Over the course of the campaign you have a new grimoire.

This is similar to the process often done to create a total new monster selection: each adventure the GM writes up the creatures that are in the adventure, and in the process of playing the campaign eventually write a bestiary of sorts. This is how the Fiend Folio came to be: collating monsters from Imagine magazine. And of course you can try to run a campaign using only creatures from the Fiend Folio, eschewing other bestiaries (I’ve done it, and it’s weird, and I loved it).

The issue is that you risk having no structure at all to your magic. It’s monster-of-the-week in its approach, and this can be a good or a bad thing. However, many people that write a lot of spells often have this approach. It works. It’s simple. It is very economical in effort, as it’s on-demand. Its’s fine to write a handful of spells every week as you need them.

Top Down or Bottom Up?

(do not report me to the game design police for any top-down vs bottom-up discourse, please)

The piecemeal approach can also be used to start with a bottom-up design, and progressively give it structure as a bigger picture appears and we want to make the whole meaningful. Bottom-up is more exploratory, as we are not sure where we will end up and the end of the design, but the point is to find meaning in the forests by looking at the trees: not in isolation, but as an ecosystem.

The opposite approach is to start top-down: begin with an idea of what you want, decide its structure, and proceed by progressive detailing. For example, we decide that we want 7 disciplines of magic, one discipline for each type of energy emanating from each of the seven magic stars, and each discipline concerning itself with a different type of game mechanic applied to a different section of the game. Then we proceed to establish what kind of effects we want, how the effects interact in the magic ecosystem (for example what protection magic is available for specific noxious magic), and so on up to the point where we “only” have to write, more or less, three spells per level for each discipline.

It’s also possible to combine and alternate the two approaches: maybe decide that there are three types of wizards casting with different mechanics, and the five Creation Gods made the 5 soul crystals radiating the ten songs of creation, then write maybe one or two spells for each, or none if no player is interested. Or maybe design the 6 colleges of magic and their teachings, start writing some spells for a college, which informs design for other colleges’ spells, which refines the college design, etc.

Concerns and Approaches: Many & Conflicting

Games are complicated artifacts, with strong tensions in them. Good games are fun, meaningful, interesting to explore, simple to learn, et cetera. I could be here all day. The idea is to gather all these concerns and express them in the form of questions, and answer them in a sort of dialectical approach to investigate, as a sounding board, with yourself or your development team.

These questions can be answered in any order, and without full commitment: answering other questions will help you tighten the design. Some of these questions might not be answered, maybe because we do not know the answer, or simply because we do not care about giving an answer.

I’m going to start with a few questions that can be easily sorted in distance order, from game-y and social to diegetic and magical.

  • What is the role of the caster player at the table?
  • What is the meaning and role we give to the caster in the game world or story, from our human point of view?
  • What is the role of casters in the game, from a game design and internal game ecology point of view?
  • What do casters do in the fantasy world? if and how do they learn magic, socialize, work, what is their place in society?
  • How does magic work in the fantasy world? how are spells cast? what affects spells?
  • Why is there magic? how does it happen? how does it behave and interact with the rest of the universe? is it unique? coherent?

More questions about Magic itself

Then there are a few more questions about what magic can do and how:

  • what can magic do?
    • what are the game affordances magic makes available?
    • what kind of magic is available?
  • what can magic not do?
    • why is it limited?
      • is magic limited for a game design reason, for example to limit its effects?
      • is magic limited because knowledge is lost? can it be recovered?
      • is magic limited by the metaphysics? or some other condition?
    • is magic waning or waxing?
    • FRUITFUL VOIDS ARE SUPER IMPORTANT HERE
  • How many different magic praxes are available? (A praxis is a way of doing magic, for example: wizards memorize their spells and unleash them, warlocks receive powers from their patron, clerics turn undead and channel their god power, or whatever it is they do in a specific edition)
    • how do they differ?
    • do different praxes provide access to different magic?
    • why are there different praxes?
      • what’s their distribution?
      • what’s their accessibility?
  • How many different “colours” of magic are available?
    • are they based on different principles and powers?
    • what are their concerns?
    • how are they divided?
      • by culture (eg. there are many necromancy schools to learn necromancy from)
      • by approach
      • by magic energy or phenomena employed
    • can colours be blended? how?
    • how do colours combine with different praxes?

Next posts, we’ll work out an example and see a couple of development templates.

PS: yeah, I know, I haven’t posted in a while. The twitter game design discourse is terrible, and I miss google plus. Game production is proceeding tho! updates soon.