Thursday, July 3, 2014

Making Magic Amazing Without Touching Mechanics

  Years ago I was in a gaming circle with very regular games and with a fair number of guest DMs. One day my co-DM told me a group of his friends were visiting from another state and wanted to sit in. He also told me they had some simple requests;
  1) Not to have the monster manual, DMG, or PHB read from
  2) Not to be asked to look something up in the books
  3) If there was a discussion on a rule that they be allowed to leave until it was resolved.
  Why?
  In the 12 years they had been playing as a group not one player had ever looked into a single book. These guys and gals were in their 30's and played twice a month like clockwork and had for almost 12 years but what they knew they knew from what the DM had given them either directly or from folktales and legends in the game.
  The players had thought it up as a way to 'keep the wonder alive', and it worked. They were amazed with our magic items, like Boots of Elvenkind and Rings of Water Walking - they'd never seen or heard of them. There were no regenerating trolls in their campaign, so they were a shock!

  But one thing that stuck with me was their spells; the elven fighter/magic-user (5th/5th) told us she was 'firing her elf bow'; she explained it was a spell taught to her by her clan. She described her character grasping a smoky, ghostly bow and drawing back the smoky wisp of a string and launching a phantasmal arrow with a single, glittering star as its arrowhead. 'If my heart is true' she said, 'it never misses'. It struck true and she did her damage - 1d10+5

  Later the human mage said he was 'summoning the motes'. He cast the quick spell and described how a swirling mass of motes, each looking like a spark from a bonfire, descended from above and surrounded his target. He told us that each mote did 1 h.p. of damage but his concentration determined how many would strike. As he leveled up he got more adept at focusing them so now 4d4+4 motes would hit!

  The players each had all of their spells as individual 3x5 cards with the DM's description of them in narrative form; they were (if I remember right) 'The High Clan's Elf Bow' and 'The Calling of Fiery Motes'.

  Both spells are, of course, Magic Missile. Now, I love Magic Missile for a lot of reasons (there is a post in there) but this made me love it even more. Of course, when my character cast Magic Missile they'd never heard of it but liked the description ('I hold out my hand and a streak of pure magical forces shoots from 4 of my fingers, striking true of 1d4+1 each'). About 6 months later I finally met their DM and he confirmed that yup, they were Magic Missile. They had, once, tried to learn each other's spells and were sad she couldn't summon motes and of course he couldn't use the elf bow! They once fought an evil mage and tried to learn his spell Golden Lions (that caused miniature golden lions to race to the target and bite it) when they captured his spell book; they "couldn't learn" that spell, either because it was also Magic Missile.

  As an aside, have you ever played Hero System, especially Champions? In the game a stream of fire, a lightning bolt, and a sonic scream might all be 8d6 Blasts; only the special effect differentiates the various powers. Hero does this best [its my blog and I say its best] but we can easily take this idea and apply it to a fantasy game.

  But let's back up a bit.

  I know I am not alone in emphasizing that magic isn't technology. And there is nothing wrong with,
  Player: "I cast Fireball centered here"
  DM: "Sure; roll damage while I make saves."
  I mean - it is fast, it is easy. We all know what we are talking about.

  But one of my favorite bits of writing from a game book is from the Complete Book of Necromancers by Steve Kurtz. If you haven't read this book, get it. Here is how he describes a spell,
"Lady Ellandra came back on deck, this time shielded by a cold, blue aura. She began to speak in a soft and deadly whisper, her gaze fixed on the wildly shouting men on the pirate ship's quarter deck. Many of the rogues had climbed up into the rigging, where they fired arrows onto our ship. One of the bolts struck Ellandra square in the face, but it was brushed aside by her magical warding."
"As the Lady intoned the last syllable of her dreadful spell, a greenish vapor formed in the rigging above the pirate's quarter deck. Wailing resounded from the skyward cloud, like a distant chorus of lamentations. Ghostly images swirled in the haze. The billowing mist quickly descended onto the decks of Retaliator, and horrific screams rose in a deafening crescendo from the ghastly cloud, echoed now by the terrified men in its midst. Shriveled bodies plummeted from the rigging, each with a sickening thud, onto the decks below. One by one, the pirates'f lesh withered like burned paper, and the scant survivors beheld many more vaporous ghosts now swirling in the foul mist around them. And after the eternity of a few seconds, the howling cloud began to dissipate, leaving behind the wracked and twisted corpses of Retaliator's crew. The pirate ship sailed on, crewed only by the dead, fixed in its final course by a blasted corpse whose corrupted hands still clenched the helm."
  That was the Death Spell. But shouldn't a spell that kills scores of foes 'instantly and irrevocably' so that only a Wish can bring them back be scary?!

  But just as importantly, these little things can add a lot to the game and not just during play. Let me give you an example from the Seaward campaign.

  Many, but not all, wizards belong to a Mage House. Mage Houses are roughly akin to clans or fraternities or similar where all the members can trace their 'magical line' from apprentice to master back to the founder of the House. So if you were the 5th son of a petty baron and were apprenticed to a member of House Relleth once you became a full mage (i.e, first level) you, too, would be a member of House Relleth just like any other mage who had been apprenticed by a House Relleth member.
  Now the Houses differ a great deal; some are strict with bylaws, officers, secret halls, etc. while others are very informal and are often little more than an excuse to buy one another drinks. House Murrin has a lot of fighter/magic-users while everyone in House Atrell wears green. It is all over the place. But each major house and many minor houses have unique spells shared only with fellow house members.
  Well, you can do that with a lot more than new spells, can't you? What if the version of Fireball taught by House Atrell, called Fierce Verdant Strike, is identical to Fireball except it is a burst of green fire and there is a strong smell of pinewood smoke after? What if House Murrin's variant of Hold Person, called Bind Foe, wraps the target is ghostly chains? What if any spell cast by a member of House Relleth caused tiny motes of light to float around the caster's head for a moment? These things are small but can be everything from backstory to clues ["That Lightning Bolt was blue! That means, the killer is a member of House Toneth!" ba-ba-BUUUUUM].
  You don't have to use my Mage House idea for this to work. Every wizard in different and, as we know from EGG's comments on spell books from Dragon Magazine all those years ago, each caster treats each spell a bit differently. This could just be part of a caster's personality and innate gift for magic. Remember, magic isn't technology - it is OK for each caster's Magic Missile to be a little different because Magic Missile isn't made in a factory in Sheboygan, it is a magic spell that is cast a little differently by each caster. In a game.
  So its pretty easy to take this to that next level where every spell caster feels unique because each spell looks unique. Those players I met way back when felt that their characters were cut from different cloth because one could cast Elf Bow while the other could Call the Motes. With very minor changes it is easy to do the same for each and every character without a ton of effort on your part.
  Here are two examples from my campaign:

Warding BladeLevel: 1
Range: 0
Duration: Instantaneous
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 segment
Area of Effect: see description
Save: none
  This spell summons a sword blade that slices through the air in front of the caster causing all creatures that are both in the casters front 120 degree arc and no further away than 3' to take 2 h.p. of damage per caster rank. This damage is treated as 'edged' or 'slashing'. The mystic sword, which vanishes instantly, can harm any creature and it cannot be dodged and never misses creatures in its arc.
  The material component is a sliver of iron.

This is just a variation of Burning Hands that, to me at least, seems slightly more apropos for a fighter/magic-user. While standard Burning Hands might cause less damage to, say, a hell hound the Warding Blade would do less against skeletons. You could have a fighter/magic-user with Warding Blade, a magic-user with Burning Hands, and a magic-user/thief from the Northern Barbarian Tribes with SnowSpray (another variant) in the same party and each spell caster would have a unique 'feel' and be able to bring subtly different spells to bear, all without a great deal of work or true changes to mechanics.

  You can do this with cleric spells, too, of course. For example;

Defende nos in ProelioLevel: 3
Range: 0
Duration: 1 round per level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 6 segments
Area of Effect: 60' and special, see below
Save: None
  When this prayer is completed all within 60' of the caster have the impression that there are people just outside of their vision; winged men in armor with bared swords filled with a terrible resolve. These creatures are caught out of the corner of the eye or in brief flashes. The righteous are filled with courage and calm, the wicked feel fear and doubt. All thosewithin 60' who are of good will to the caster gain a +1 bonus on all rolls to hit, damage, or to save. Conversely, enemies of  the priest receive -1 on all rolls to hit, damage, or saves. The visions and effects end with the spell.

  That's just a Prayer gussied up a bit, obviously for a good cleric. An evil cleric might have a version where sounds of cackling witches and smells of brimstone distract good people and inspire the wicked to new heights of evil. One version of Know Alignment might give the caster a vision of two sets of scales on he can see while another will see auras of different colors whole a third might have an invisible imp whisper into his ear. Again, this can add a surprising amount to the game; the 'signature' of the cultists of the Plague Lord might be that all their spells that cause damage appear to inflict a disease while a cultist of the Demon Lord of Slime has an Inflict Light Wounds that looks like his hands are temporarily coated in green slime.
  But, just like with magic-users, this can make each cleric feel unique.

  And think of illusionists! In addition to "just" duplicating spells with illusions now they can mimic specific versions, even better imitate specific casters!

  So think about this; it is a surprisingly drastic change in 'feel' for very little effort.