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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Conceptual Magic vs. Mechanistic Magic

Delta’s blog has a post about Gygax on scale. Worth a read, but mostly about grid combat and thus too quick to dismiss the 1-minute round and “the infamous and rather absurd defense of the scale as highly abstracted action” when doing theater-of-the-mind combat.

But it leads into my thoughts on spell range, duration, and area of effect. Where they apply at all in OD&D, they take a precise approach, which gets more precise in every subsequent edition as the game moves more towards grid combat. But that doesn’t match up with magic in fiction or legend, which frequently doesn’t talk about measurements, but instead talks about concepts. You bewitch people by catching their eyes, not by being within 60 feet. You hear things whispered into the wind within your domain, like Math son of Mathonwy. Spells last until some condition is met, either simple and unavoidable (until the sun sets) or tied to some trigger (until touched by cold iron, or the kiss of a prince.)

A more recent Delta post on blind spell casting gives an example of an issue caused by over-reliance on “mechanistic magic” over “conceptual magic”. Can a spell-caster cast a spell on someone they can’t see? Later editions say no, but some spells in earlier editions or in Chainmail seem to break that rule, or at least there’s no obvious reason why they should follow that rule. A caster points a finger and a magic projectile flies a certain distance, then explodes as a fireball. Why does the caster need to see the target? A spell like Cure Light Wounds requires touch. If so, why would the caster need to see the target?

This is still something I’m mulling over, but I’m considering making magic very short-range and short duration by default and not having higher-level spell variants that extend range, duration, or other factors. Instead, that’s one of the things you use spell ingredients and spell research for: to create specific instances of that spell that last longer, affect more people, or have a longer reach. I will only cover one example in this post: extending spells that only last 2d6 minutes. A spell like that normally fades by the end of a combat, but what if you want it to last longer? A spell caster would use something in the casting that has a longer duration, for example a torch or candle. When the torch or candle burns out or is snuffed out, the spell ends. Longer-lasting spells might take longer to cast: for example, to make a spell last for years, one approach would be to bind the spell to an animal, like a chicken. Cast the spell on an egg, repeating the ritual every day until the egg hatches, at which point the spell takes effect. When the chicken dies, the spell ends.

I have other ideas on things like “permanent” spells, increased spell range, and the other spell stats in a conceptual magic system, but they will have to wait.

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1 comment:

  1. I kind of did this. When we transitionned to OD&D, I didn't give my M-U players the mechanical description of the spells ("20' radius Xd6 fire damage"), rather I only gave them the "in-world" description ("throws a fireball that explodes on contact, about the width of a full room for adept M-U"). Having myself both damage and mechanical effects, I stretch them to fit a more "conceptual" understanding of magic. The player says what he wants to do with his spell, and I act as a referee within the bound of the mechanical effect I have. Just like a F-M trying a "manoeuvre" within a melee phase of the combat.