A system… just like Magic?

I love the feel of Magic: the Gathering. The rich worlds that get created, the curious inhabitants and ecosystems, societies and architectures, as well as the constant undercurrent of the multiverse brought along by mages that can wander between the different planes of existence make for a really evocative universe that almost begs the player to dive in as soon as you understand one of the game’s tagline phrases, You are a Planeswalker. Each deck that gets created for the game is supposed to represent the magical arsenal and allies of a particular planeswalker.

But that’s not enough for a universe junkie like me. I want to know more about the universe of MtG, to explore it and gather together spells that are evocative of the kind of planeswalker behind the spells. But in my experience, good Magic decks rarely are. In the 2012 Turin Grand Prix, the winning deck had wizards delving into forbidden sciences and lots of countermagic mixed with forest creatures, fairies and direct damage spells. It was clearly a good deck, and the theme of control and direct damage came through clearly, but the combination of colours and concepts represented by the cards made little sense. Yes, you can argue that planeswalkers are able to grab creatures from distant places, but would they want to, if they were fully-rounded characters?

Coherent Magic bedfellows? They can win, but do they make sense together?

I’ve often tried to put a face to the decks that I’ve put together, and this either works really well or not at all. Generally the ones that work better are those that are taken from a restricted pool of both blocks and cards. The wider the number of cards (and therefore more options for deckbuilding) lead to decks with weaker concepts.  And this doesn’t keep me happy; I want a way to represent planeswalkers in a more personal way, with less concern about what works and more about what is characterful.

As a result, one of my biggest aims for this blog is having an development log of my somewhat rapidly conceptualised Magic RPG. In doing so (and in an attempt not to make this a mere infodump) I hope to be able to slow down the process and better think about what I am doing and why, as I take a step along a path that seems to have been trodden by many before me.

You see, many people think that the setting for Magic: the Gathering would make an awesome roleplaying setting and/or game (and there we see one of the first issues). If this is to be done, we need to understand what the end goal of the system is. The question of “what do I want out of a game system?” has been pondered and answered  in many ways by many people over the years, and each sort of answer brings about a whole different set of consequences for the kind of game that gets developed, so must be answered quickly.

These tend to breakdown into three broad categories, with one of the categories being full of different types of “subcategory”, each of which bears investigation. These are an adaptation of the card game itself, an adaptation or setting module for an existing roleplaying game or a completely new homebrew system that aims to capture something of the card game and its backdrop in a roleplay setting.

I’ll go through each of these in turn, with the various pros and cons.

Card Game Adaptation. This is potentially the quickest of the types to do, with it simply altering how the cards are used and the potential card pool of the original game. The usual way of doing this seems to be The roleplaying elements tend to be systemic rather than characterful, beyond a potential choice to limit the colours a player can choose from. “Adventures” tend to be a series of rounds of the card game with various rewards (such as new cards for a character to use, or bonuses when using particular cards), possibly to the GM’s narration to add a sense of atmosphere.

This is easy for any player of the card games to pick up, as it simply means you carry on playing the game as it is with a more restricted set of parameters. This has the advantage of being simple and allows a limited amount of characterisation; your character can specialise in a kind of magic by focusing on getting particular types of spell and/or receiving bonuses and penalties to casting certain kinds of spell. It’s a good way to put some customisation beyond mere utility into the decks.

But I notice as I typed the above paragraph that I habitually typed “card” rather than “spell”, and therein lies the problem, I think; it’s still a card game, and therefore still a win/lose condition. You can start to build character into your decks, and have an idea of the ‘walker behind it, perhaps doing so by adding narrative choices alongside deckbuilding choices, but for me the existence of a win-lose condition in the game still kills the idea of a character-driven game. You will still be driven to build the “best” deck within your constraints, and it’s still the deck, not the ‘walker, that’s the centre of the creative effort.

The best current example of this sort of game is Planeswalker, which has an active developer and small supporter community behind it. Other examples have generally been posted and left for people to use as they like, without much follow-up.

Pen-and-Paper Roleplaying Game Adaptation. Adapting a current roleplaying game to be set in the Magic multiverse is another option, although it is one that never really seems to get off the ground too well. This is in the main because people tend to try and adapt Dungeons & Dragons to the Magic setting, probably either because it’s the system they know best and/or because Wizards of the Coast make both Magic and D&D. But the two systems function according to entirely different paradigms.

D&D is a relatively low-level game for the most part; starting characters are wet-behind-the-ears ex-“civilians” who embark on a life of romping around dungeons and towns to earn a living, righting (or causing) wrongs in the process and maybe going on to be major players in a fantasy kingdom (or ruling over it, depending on if people want to use epic-level stuffs). Magic player characters could be one of two things, depending on what people want to play. If people are set on the standard D&D paradigm, then playing PCs based on card creatures is probably more appropriate than planeswalkers.

But if you’re after the flavour of Magic, you’re going to want to play a planeswalker, aren’t you? That’s part of the draw of the game, that you are a planeswalker with phenomenal cosmic powers and oodles of living space. To do this in D&D you would likely be looking at some epic-level abilities mixed with the vulnerabilities of being mortal. That mix is unlikely to be supported in D&D’s very strict tiering of abilities and items.

The other option that I can think of that would potentially lend itself to lower-level MtG roleplaying is Legend of the Five Rings. This system ties various attributes to five mystical sources of energy present in anything (much like there’s five colours of mana in Magic…) to a skill-based character build, with various elements dependent on a character’s “ring stats”. I think this could work really well with a Magic “patch” to simulate the five colours of mana and the like, while tying characters to the feel of the five colours of mana. I don’t know the system overly well, but it is still set up for characters just starting out on their “adventuring” career. While many planeswalkers may be new to the whole ‘walker “lifestyle”, I feel there needs to be a certain gravitas to being a walker, which L5R may not be able to provide. I may look into this at a later date, though, as it seems promising.

Then, there are the systems that are designed to make your characters larger than life. There are plenty of these, from Mutants and Masterminds to Exalted. This may be where personal taste comes in however, as the True20 engine of M&M leads to fairly fast and loose mechanics, with the character creation process being fairly flexible. This is even more the case with the damage system, which allows for characters to be hit by and dodge huge effects that may be easily convertible from the card game. Exalted allows for huge, world-shaping power levels through an intricate system of non-tiered abilities called charms alongside more mundane stats and capabilities. They even have characters that are made by the reception of a “spark of Exaltation”, much like Magic’s Planeswalker’s Spark. The system is geared towards hyperbolic play (you can get bonuses for attempting to run on top of an army’s spears rather than through the army, for example), which may or may not suit your particular vision of MtG, but is very much designed for demigod-level characters. Where there may be problems with this is that the charms are very much designed and balanced within the game, and so doing anything more than a “counts-as Charm X” conversion of the cards would be tricky. But I personally still prefer it to M&M’s very loose system, which wouldn’t allow for the conversion of card-based spells at all.

I think this highlights a fairly basic flaw with strict conversion into most systems, which is spell conversion.  Both Magic and most RPGs are quite heavily balanced in their own mechanics, and finding a way to mix the two could be very awkward. While adapting cards like Lightning Bolt could be fairly simple, cards like my beloved Crucible of Worlds is harder; damage is a universal concept and the particulars can be worked out, but when do you play a land in L5R? What is the mechanical equivalent of the graveyard in Exalted? This is particularly important given the cyclical nature of Magic. Cards from new blocks need to be plugged into the system in fairly short order and can’t be agonised over for months before seeing use, otherwise the game will be bogged down with constantly developing new ways around the new cards.

Speaking of developing new ways…

Many homebrew Magic games have been developed with gusto by various fans. These allow a completely open board for developing a new system, but, to me at least, always seem to fall short. This may be because many either try to use class- and level-based systems, which I’m not fond of and think would be difficult to convert into a Magic environment. They also tend to be quite simple, limiting players to particular races and/or colour combinations and forcing particular kinds of generic bonuses in an attempt to bring about systems similar to the race, class and level categories of more conventional roleplaying games.

Or they introduce elements that seem quite far removed from the original conception of MtG as a conflict between planeswalking mages. An attempt by  Thoth is comprehensive and well-thought out, but it introduces elements that are far removed from any material published by WotC. Introducing new elements should be kept to a minimum if the feel and background of the card game is to be maintained. The system introduced a raft of nearly feudal relations between mages and the way they governed their land, with “mana centres”, which seems to run counter to the way that Wizards envision the mana bond happening, and lands giving more properties than just the benefits of the cards or the mana bond itself, which I’ m not sure if supported in Magic’s background.

A compromise might be A Gathering of Heroes, a set of homebrew rules on 1d4chan; these are fairly loose but tie up mana-based mechnanics very well, and cover a range of races and convert only a select few mechanics, discarding the rest in a sensible way. This might mean that the utility of some cards might be changed, but this happens when formats change in Magic anyway; a good card in Standard is not necessarily a good card in Legacy, which is not necessarily a good multiplayer card or a good Elder Dragon Highlander card.

Where 1d4chan’s rules fall down I think are the “challenge” mechanics. Combining two colours of mana and rolling that against a target number doesn’t add quite so much fine tuning as is required. It assumes that characters with the same amount of a particular colour of mana are equally good at everything, and encourages multicolour characters in order to be good at every kind of roll. The existence of planeswalkers like Koth means that monocolour planeswalkers need to be at least as competent as their multicolour counterparts at a range of tasks.

Does he seem incompetent to you?

It’s with all this in mind that I’ll be starting my own system, with philosophical and systemic musings along the way. Hope you enjoy the ride.

See you soon, folks!

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About CrucibleofWords

I'm always interested in the birth and expression of new ideas, from world creation to philosophical and metaphysical exploration. Fantasy and its related genres are the perfect vehicle for this sort of thing, and I intend to explore it various ways with this blog, both through positing my own ideas, and reflection on that of others.
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One Response to A system… just like Magic?

  1. Pingback: Putting the Magic into Character Creation | Method in the Mythos

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