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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Spells Are Meant to Be Broken

The Rules Are Meant to Be Broken post was brainstorming for a version of D&D that requires players to write in the rulebook because the rules change as you play. It covered classes that add, expand, or drop powers. Another thing that could force players to write in the book: make learning magic a puzzle.

For years, I’ve been toying with ideas on how to make magic work a bit more like it does in Nethack, where every magic scroll is labeled in an unknown language. If you have a blank scroll and a way to write on it, you can write a label you don’t understand and still inscribe the scroll… which means you can effectively experiment with magic you don’t know yet.

Take this further: a rulebook could have blanks instead of the spell name. Players could experiment with magic word combinations and gestures, to find out what they do… and those would be written in the book. Every table of players would have a unique list of spells available. It wil take a lot more thought to work out the details on this, but I’m thinking incantations would be two or more words, with each magic word having no effect, one effect, or two or more effects. Valid incantations include a pair of words with matching effects; invalid incantations have no matches. If we use letters to represent spell effects, and start with these magic words:

  • “Hocus” (AB)
  • “Pocus” (BC)
  • “Lorem” (CD)
  • “Ipsum” (DE)

… then “Hocus Pocus” (ABBC) is a valid spell that creates effect B, “Lorem Ipsum” (CDDE) creates effect D, “Lorem Pocus” (CDBC) creates effect C, and “Hocus Ipsum” (ABDE) doesn’t do anything. There would be some kind of matrix of combinations that gets info filled in or crossed off as the players experiment; that’s the part that I’m still toying with. What I have put some thought into are the gestures: they would control target and area of effect.

  • Speak Spell, No Hand Gesture: Spell affects caster and all adjacent creatures.
  • Whisper Spell: Affects only one target. If caster doesn’t whisper in the ear of a creature, spell affects just the caster.
  • Shout Spell: Affects every creature in room, including caster.
  • Point and Shout Spell: Affects one creature in room, but target has a chance to dodge, if possible. Usable with wands and staves.
  • Point Up, Make Circular Gesture, Speak Spell: Affects any who cross a circle around the caster. Usable with wands and staves.
  • Face Palm Outward, Speak Spell: Affects just those who cross a line in front of the caster. Usable with staves (hold staff in both hands horizontally.)
  • Stomp Foot, Shout Spell: Affects the ground itself in the room. Usable with staves (bang staff on ground.)

If “LOREM IPSUM” is shouted, it might turn out to be a healing spell, healing everyone in the room, including enemies… or it might be a fire spell, causing everyone in the room to burst into flames. Once an incantation is identified, choosing appropriate gestures is easy, but an unknown incantation would be risky.

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  1. That sort of reminds me of the magic system in the old PC game Dungeon Master. Magic existed as a series of runes, and you had to experiment with them to figure out which ones created spells and which ones just wasted your mana.

    1. Nethack was my primary inspiration, but there's something like that in many games. For example, potion brewing in Skyrim and a couple other games.

      I doubt I would use mana in what I'm brainstorming. I think only "charging" a price for a spell that works is plenty; the drawback to an incantation that doesn't work would be that you have no idea if it's a dud, or if it's just too powerful to cast right now.