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What are the big pitfalls and hurdles for good magic system design?


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im Asking about the mechanical aspect of magic and casting. What are the least fun systems, and why? What are the most cumbersome and why? And what do you dread about playing as a caster or with a caster? I’m talking about all systems, so including d20, call of Cthulhu, various rules lite, etc.

I’m wrapping my head around it from a game design perspective, and figure it would be a fun discussion topic for everyone. 🤓


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I'd say flavor and power. A decent number of system try to abstract spells down to a science, but then they lose a lot of their magicalness. On the flip side a lot of really cool thematic powers can be abused to break a system. Also as a caster having to search through hundreds of spells to find info on the ones that I have access to.


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I think a major pitfall is making magic the only cool system, especially in DnD-derived games. In the things I play, I want magic to be a way to make a powerful, interesting character, but not the only way. So if your magic system has a way to fly... well, there better be a way for someone who's earned just as much XP to just as easily leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Of course, this is with the presumption that you have muggles and wizards in the same group. If that's not a thing in the game, it's not a concern.

Speaking positively, I really like Mage the Awakening 2e's magic system. It's a bit heavy at first, but it really does work at being a consistent way to adjudicate magical effects, come up with them on the fly, and let small-timers do some big things if they really work hard at them. The biggest hurdles are just remembering what you can do at each dot level, and what the costs for increasing scale are (some reference charts help, which I made for my game).


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One thing to consider is whether or not your magic system(s) are in mixed environment (ie, from a player pov, is using a magic system competing with being another type of magic or normal skills). In a mixed system, the big pitfall is having magic that basically covers everything.


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"Restrictions on how magic works aren't fun!".

Spell points, power pools, whatever you want to call it... restrictions on how magic work will annoy players, but their absence will wreck games.

The tighter and narrower your game's concept of "magic" and the more you restrict what it can do (so long as you keep flavour clear), the better your game will be (IMO ofc). Open-ended "Dr. Strange can solve any problem because his powers are vaguely defined!" is... well, you can possibly make it work, but many people have failed to do so.

Endless Rain

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While we're speaking about defining what magic can do, I'd like to refer you to Sanderson's First Law:

Sanderson’s First Law of Magic: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader players understand said magic.


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im Asking about the mechanical aspect of magic and casting.
I'm not sure you can answer that from a mechanical point of view without first knowing what magic should be and feel like. I'm generally more in the camp of "limiting magic" instead of "limiting magicians", much as SuperG SuperG suggested. So if your magic can do this one thing, you probably do not need mana points or such. Greg Stolze's Reign has some nice ideas for that. 7th Sea as well.

If you want Mages do pretty much everything, you can turn to a negotiation of a kind. For example the Wizard in Urban Shadows can do pretty much anything using their Sanctum like this:

Spoiler: Show
When someone goes into their Workspace or Sanctum to accomplish something, the MC uses these rules to decide how they accomplish the goal.
The MC tells the player, “Sure, no problem, but…” and then 1 to 4 of the following:
It’s going to take you hours/days/weeks/months of work or recovery time
- First you’ll have to summon/build/construct ___
- You’ll require the services of ___ to complete it
- You require a rare and expensive ingredient or material
- It will only work for a short time, and may be unreliable
- It’s going to mean exposing anyone nearby to serious fallout
- Your Workspace lacks ___; add this and you’ll be able to complete it
- It will require a part of yourself to complete
- You must journey to ___ in order to complete it
The MC can combine any set of requirements or offer two sets of costs to the same task. Once the requirements are completed, what was set out is completed. The MC will stat it up, reveal some info, or whatever is called for now.

In my experience that works much better than the rules lawyering that evolves from games like Mage: The Ascension where a sphere can do pretty much anything, if you argue long enough. The Workshop rule pretty much jumps straight to the only feasible solution: Discuss it at the gaming table / ask your GM.

Now there are systems where a certain rules lawyering with semantics can be fun. I fondly remember Changeling: The Dreaming with its very limited Verb+Object system. It worked so well because it was very limited. For example it was a pretty simple attack spell to make somones panties hop. Panties are Props 1 (Wearables) and making stuff jump is a level 1 art as well. New arts from source books diluted that fun and made the game worse.


Audii alteram partem
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I think often magic is confused with power.
Magic could be everything but power.

Magic is something that allows things out of ordinary happen, but not necessary uber-powerful, like D&D.
I have no idea why D&D put nukes in mages hand, removed any flavour, and people just felt good about it.

Merlin, Gandalf and other mages of older literature, where powerful because of their infinite, subtle influence.
To win a battle you don't need a meteor swarm. Gosh, that's cheap.
An inexplicably heavy rain can damp bows string and reduce visibility.

A distracting noise during a battle.
Breaking a vein in the brain of your assailant (making the mage an anatomy expert).

You can present magic as you wish. There are no limits. Is your right.
But systems like D&D, where mystic powers works like our smartphones, and simply get out of charge (and a night to recharge batteries) are trash.
They work because they are cheap. Everyone can understand something so obvious.

Magic should entail sacrifices, both physical and in life.
These could be the need to focus on years of study at dispense of everything else, corruption, physical integrity or else.

At the same time, magic effects should be thought to be incisive, but not necessarily powerful or directly destructive or manipulative.
Magic could also be something in witness mind.

Showing the ability of manipulating magic can create terror and create reaction is bystanders and others.


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IMO, the most problematic aspect of magic in RPG is the balance with non-caster types.
The most simple answer is to not mix casters and non-casters. Or just acknowledge that casters are above other character types.
I don't think traditional D&D answer, with wizards that are useless once they cast their only one spell at low level, and become godlike at high level, is very statisfactory.

It's good to limit the kind of magic a magician can do. If one has magic able to burn in flames a whole city, he should not be able to make people come back from the dead or dominate a whole army.

It's also goo to understand there are basically two kind of magic effects:
-Those that do things you can not do without magic (flying, talking to spirits).
-Those that basically replace a mundane skill roll with a magic skill roll (casting a magic missile, influencing one's reaction, climbing a wall,etc.).

The most cumbersome system I know surely is Sandy Petersen's sorcery system for RuneQuest 3.
I like it a lot, but, frankly, the need to develop one skill for each spell and each art was already too much in RuneQuest 3, and Mr Petersen added more arts and the need to manage Presence to the mix. A goo move, though, was to reduce the number of MP one could spend while casting down from Free INT to (skill/10).
OpenQuest and MRQ2/Legend/RQ6/Mythras were right in reducing the number of skills needed to perform sorcery to just one or two. But on the other hand, I love POW economy, and I miss it in those games. :D

And, generally speaking, systems that require you to spend magic points for each spell you cast are more cumbersome than those that don't, or just to create special effects.

I do think D&D Fire&Forget spell system is a fun one. It doesn't suit my vision of magic, but I think it's a very enjoyable system from a ludicist point of view.
Mage:The Ascension is fun, but fundamentally overpowered.
I like ShadowRun 4's spell magic.
I like Talislanta's magic, where skills are tied to the effects one can produce, and not the kind of magic he's doing.


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im Asking about the mechanical aspect of magic and casting. What are the least fun systems, and why?
Oh man! Fun topic. Huge topic. 8)

I'm not inclined to rate specific systems for fun or otherwise, as I think that depends a lot on individuals and situations.

But I think it's interesting to look at what can be fun or unfun about a system.

Fun can be:
- reproducing feats of magic from your character, fiction or genre of choice
- having god-like powers compared with 'ordinary people'
- using the magic system in clever ways to solve game problems/ gain an advantage
- using the magic system in creative ways to create interesting, atmospheric scenes
- having to make difficult choices about how to build/ select your magical abilities
- having to make difficult choices about how or when to use your magical abilities
- rolling really well (or really badly ) to make a magic feat effective/ ineffective
- getting yourself into trouble using magic
- playing a feeble character

Notice that this looks very similar to a list of some of the things that might make any kind of character ability fun.

Unfun can be:
- magic-using characters are so much better than others that there is little point playing another
- magic-using characters take so much time to manage/ administer that everyone else has to sit around waiting
- magic-using characters are so feeble as to be a non-viable option compared with others
- magic-using character hardly ever gets to do anything because its magic is rarely useful and it has no other abilities
- investing a lot of resources developing magic powers that aren't worth the investment
- magic powers very different than or stronger or weaker than genre/ story expectations
- magic powers have a moral tone at odds with genre or player expectations

Once again, this also looks a bit like a list that might apply to non-magical powers.

Another point worth noting is that 'magic' is more than the magical abilities (typically 'spell-casting' abilities) of PCs, but can also include other kinds of magical manifestation in the world - natural phenomena, creatures, metaphysics, NPC magic etc. Much can be done with magic in a game without having any rules of PCs controlling magical powers.

What are the most cumbersome and why?
Magic systems have a tendency to be cumbersome. This is similar to the tendency for combat systems to be cumbersome. It's a topic of special interest, relatively hard to adjudicate by common-sense, often involves high-speed tactical interactions, and world-specific.

Something like HERO system is probably the most cumbersome I have come across, because you have to design every single magical power from the ground up using a relatively complex points-buy system. It is cumbersome because it is fully integrated with the rest of the game system, using the same points-buy scale, and is intended to let you create just about any magical effect you can imagine. Also, because of the way the game system works, you might often end up rolling quite a large number of dice to determine the details of an effect.

The simplest are more like what you get in something like Tiny Dungeon: e.g. choose the Spell Touched trait and you can sense magic and perform small, simple acts of magic, including shooting energy blasts. It's un-cumbersome because there's only one choice to make, and almost everything about the ability is left to GM judgement on-the-fly. However, that does not necessarily make it easy to use in practice...
And what do you dread about playing as a caster or with a caster?
In many systems I won't play a caster. This is usually because:
- I don't like the aesthetics (look and feel) or moral tone (often a bit dark or weird) of the magic/ system
- I can't be bothered looking though a list of 150 spells to choose the 6-10 I can use, and allocate points to them
- someone else has already chosen a spell-caster, and I don't want to be stuck with either a) a clone; or b) an ineffective alternative to cloning the original

As a GM, the part I dread about running for casters is:
- maintaining overall balance between spell-casters and non-magical characters
- managing over the gap between player/ genre/ gm expectations and what most systems permit
- dealing with plot challenges caused by telecommunications, teleports
- dealing with balance issues with powers like illusions, mind control etc.
- keeping casters alive in hand-to-hand combat that is challenging for combat-experts

I’m wrapping my head around it from a game design perspective, and figure it would be a fun discussion topic for everyone. 🤓
Magic systems are one of the perennial 'hard topics' for me in game design. Good luck!
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