Crunch and Flavour: Making a meal of Magic roleplaying

Characters are the foundation of any roleplaying game, the connection that players have to the collaborative story told during the game. They need to be the focus of any game, which for me includes the system behind the game as well. That is to say, the system needs to reflect the kind of story you’re trying to tell, whichever design philosophy you stick to (thinking of the GNS (Gamist-Narrativist-Simulationist) triumvirate). I’m obviously part of the System Does Matter crowd, here. And I’ll explain why, using Magic as an example. Many people have suggested that a Magic: the Gathering roleplaying game be based on Dungeons & Dragons, as the two games share a parent company, and D&D is pretty much plug-and-play for any fantasy setting that you care to invent. Many of MtG’s more common and some of its more esoteric spells can be recreated with ease in a D&D setting, or perhaps the True20 system, with its more open abilities system, which doesn’t (from my very hazy memory) reward character builds like D&D does (or perhaps did; I’m not exactly familiar with post-4th ed developments). But these don’t really cut it for me, and at its core, it’s because the system has to be fiddled with to fit. And that to me doesn’t seem right. MtG has some very distinct spells and mechanics, and these are by and large the driver behind the game. If the setting were strong enough to stand on its own, then the novel line wouldn’t have gone through its recent woes of cancellation and reinstatement in much cheaper ebook format. But while MtG has an evocative setting with lots of cool themese going on, this apparently isn’t what sells (and/or isn’t the best product on offer, which is also true). What people buy Magic for is the feeling of You are a Planeswalker, fuelled by the game’s mechanics, and the game itself. And without the setting being much to most players other than a few lines of flavour text and card art, this feeling must come from the mechanics. So to simulate the game, it needs to have elements of the game in it. There’s also this slight problem…

Planeswalkers are always sentient and are almost always naturally talented spellcasters

This wipes out most attempts at the traditional class-based design of many RPGs; having a warrior planeswalker may well happen (like, say, Garruk), but this is secondary in the setting to the ability of spellcasters. So any system of character creation needs to account for most PCs having some form of magical ability. The Central Mechanic The above problem is overcome in many games in many games (particularly things like White Wolf games, where characters often have many semi-magical or outright magical activated abilities), but isn’t something your typical swords-and-sorcery roleplaying game is equipped to deal with. As I’ve said before, a good gaming template to understand this sort of thing is Exalted; player-characters in Exalted are demigods, with the ability to use Essence to achieve various magical-type feats. This sort of thing is dealt with in Exalted with point expenditure (Essence motes), which has an analogue with the mana of MtG. The analogy stops when the colours come in; Essence isn’t coloured. But luckily, there’s another game that does various “colours” of attributes: Legend of the Five Rings.

Oh, the possibilities…

In this scheme, spells would be cast based on mana ratings in each colour, which are then tied to various abilities. This means that characters’ mundane abilities are tied to their inner mana capabilities. There is therefore an incentive to build good spellcasters, but also something beyond that. This seems to flourish in Magic’s multiverse; the notion of spellcasters that do not stay in towers, but instead travel worlds searching for knowledge and power. If spells are then selected on a basis independent from mana, it also means we have a ready system for mundane characters; their inner mana gives them the ability to excel at tasks they perform. How to represent this? A roll-and-keep success system, with mana as the keep number. Roll the number of dice of related mana + X, and keep the number of dice equal to either the mana cost or X, depending on which is the most appropriate (depending on what X is). But I’m not sure that using mana in every test is quite right. It doesn’t allow for non-magical characters to be more competent than magical ones, without forcing them to focus on mana as well. While this makes sense in a 4th-ed D&D kind of way (where your level becomes your basic bonus for everything), I don’t want to have non-magical characters investing in mythical power simply because the system says they should. So the onus falls on non-magical attributes, which (if the L5R pattern above is copied) can be snitched from World of Darkness games in having a cost of Attribute A + Attribute B as your dice pool, and over a certain number on a dice is a success, with multiple successes possible to represent excellence. We can bring mana into this by making the system Roll-and-Keep, where the number of dice you keep is equal to related mana ratings. Remembering the all-important L5R picture above, mana is connected to a pair of attributes, so for each attribute test you’ll have a connected mana rating, which can be your keep pool when you test those attributes.

Example: To test Attribute 1 (attribute A rating 3, Red mana 2) and Attribute 2 (attribute B rating 4, Green mana rating 3), you roll (attribute A + attribute B ) 7 dice, keeping (Green + Red mana) 5.

Depending on how complicated this picture can go, you could also add specialities into the mix as well, allowing you to have an attribute of (say) Intelligence with a speciality of Research, with a bonus to any rolls related to the speciality. How this actually works is up for debate; do specialities add more dice to the initial pool, let you keep more dice or do weird things to the dice rolls? I’m inclined to up the non-magical end of the spectrum and say that you can keep more dice because of specialities, rather than allowing more chance into the mix by enlarging the dice pool. This represents the extra precision gained when you have more proficiency in a task well, I feel. So, the final calculation is:

Dice pool = Attribute A + Attribute B Keep pool = Mana rating A + Mana rating B + Specialities

But what if the pair attributes are from the same mana pool? Does this mean that the keep pool is still only the mana rating? I’m tempted to say that the mana rating gets applied twice, to keep an equivalence with the two-mana test system above. It also means that characters specialising in one or two colours of mana get rewarded for sticking to their specialisations. So, that’s the central mechanic dealt with; how would spells work?

Beginnings of spell mechanics

Spells need a more thorough treatment by both game and GM, as they’re the focus of the card game, so only a rough outline can be provided here. Plus I’m aware I’m rambling, and probably need to shut up soon. The card game allows spells to be cast by tapping and mana, which becomes untapped over the course of a duel.

The first question to be asked here is exactly what the planeswalker duel represented by a game of Magic is, as it’s not exactly certain, and with that the whole spellcasting process 

This sort of thing can’t happen too often if the game is to be remotely challenging.

becomes unclear. On the one hand, spells are cast in quick succession, and so mana needs to refuel relatively fast, but cannot for game balance allow people to continually cast spells like Wrath of God regularly.

A quick-and-dirty fix for this is the best I’ve done so far; two kinds of mana, greater and lesser. Greater mana is used to pay for powerful spells that shake the foundations of the world, and lesser for the quicker and more mundane spells. Lesser mana refills on a turn-by-turn basis, greater mana day-by-day.

So what requires greater mana? My solution is to use greater mana for any spell that requires two or more mana symbols to cast.

And mana is the same thing as the stat mentioned above; 4 red mana as a stat allows 4 red mana, which “untaps” at different rates depending on whether its spent as lesser or greater mana. This should make players think twice about casting huge rare spells on a regular basis.

Here is a point I’m not too sure about; whether or not to have the fluctuations in mana also influence the size of the keep pools. If it does, it means that mages are weak and exaused until their mana refreshes, which is represented in some of the novels. But I don’t know yet if there’s a balance issue here.

For character creation, again to capture the feel of the card game, characters start with 15 spells in their library, with 7 spell slots available at any one time. Further spells can be bought by XP, with cost multipliers based on availability. How these are refilled, and whether they empty, are issues I’m still working on. The graveyard should have a place if the game is to retain the feel of the card game, but mechanically how that works is something I need to work on.

Details on the casting will have to wait upon the outline of combat, which I feel must wait for another post, as I’ve rambled on enough. I may fill out the details of the rulesets in the Magic section of this website in the meantime, without the explanation. I’m also aware I’ve completely neglected the important area of power/toughness, but this is still very much a work in progress.

In the meantime, I’ve collated all the Mists of Albion writings so far in another section of this website. More will be added soon, and I feel some musings on language in fantasy, both to wonder how it’s spoken, and what is spoken. And what it means for the stories that use the language.

I’m also going to be doing some collaboration with The Geek Anthropologist at some point soon looking at forum communities and the roles within them. This is a bit of a departure from my usual work on this blog, quite academic and will keep my busy for a while, so things may slow down a bit here. But I’ll be sure to signpost it here and update where I can.

And if you’ve got any opinions, thoughts, criticisms, comments on the way I’ve constructed the basics of a MtG roleplaying game, let me know below. I also need a name for the game I’m working on. My working title is Magic: the Multiverse, but I’d love to hear what you think!

About Aramithius

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 enjoy exploring it in various ways.
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