Sunday, December 23, 2012

There is Something to be Said About "Flexible Magic Systems" in RPGs

Minotaur Boy - Early Age Fantasy Super Hero
I enjoy it when my players think "Out of the Box". It not only make sit a fun challenge for me as a DM to adjust, but it's a blast to see my players think up solutions that never occurred to me or the game designers.

I'm a big OSR type of guy, which invariably means Vancian Magic in some manner. As I'm reading the Fabled Lands core rulebook, I noticed an interesting passage in the Spells & Sorcery Chapter:
The next few pages lists all of the lores of magic and the suggested use of them in terms of spells. Please bear in mind that the spells listed within the lores are not necessarily the only possible uses; if you, as a player, come up with a use for the lore that the Gamesmaster approves of, then the Gamesmaster should assign a Difficulty and allow it to be used. Feel free to get creative with your spells and come up with unique uses for them (within reason, of course). (the bolding is all mine)
Think about it - here's a game challenging players to come up with new spells (within reason ;) and bouncing it off the GM to come to a joint decision on how powerful it is and how it will work - on the fly.

Talk about needing to be comfortable with GM Fiat - I know some gamers that something like his could cause near heart attacks.

I don't think I could rightfully challenge by AD&D 1e p[layers to think up new spells on the fly - it doesn't fit the Vancian Magic system at all, but it's damn intriguing an idea  and one I'd love to see in action. I know my players could pull it off.

Maybe in the springtime I'll run a short arc of Fabled Lands. Maybe. Still have the rest of the book to read ;)


  1. D&D has always had rule allowing players to make up their own spells, but it seems that OSR DMs always modify the rules to make it more difficult and more expansive to do that BtB.

    The Saga version of Dragonlance has some decent on the fly spell creation rule written in the context of D&D.

  2. And of course these days, people constantly whine about how magic-users are "quadratic" and fighters are "linear" and it's not fair. Spellcasting on the fly would make them cry even more...

  3. I don't really think the D&D system is conducive to "on the fly" magic. i have played and run D&D campaigns where we have created new spells, and they have been successful, but it is part of the system in that the player and gm must work together to come up with a balanced spell, usually by basing/comparing it to one of similar power/damage and then writing up the official description -- all of this outside the game of course.

    there are RPGs with more flexible systems, like Shadowrun, where there is a built-in spell design system that helps you calculate the "drain" of a spell (basically a limiting factor to control spell usage).

    for a totally open system, Alpha Omega uses a chart that you just describe the effect you want to accomplish to the GM, and then determine the variables (of 7) that it will require, then cross reference on the chart. that tells you what the difficulty rating of the spell is, and then you have to just roll the dice to see if you are able to cast the spell or not -- if you fail, you can cause damage to yourself....works quite well once you're familiar with the chart and there are plenty of sample "spells" to guide you.

  4. I have not read Fabled Lands, so I am not sure how it is structured, but I am intrigued. As a proponant of flexible spell casting, allow me to sing it's praises.

    We having been using a flexible (free-form) spell casting system since our game's inception and it is some serious fun. It allows starting spell casters to be more effective (and feel more usful) and it challenges more experienced casters to find creative ways to solve in-game problems.

    Now, I am refering to Shroud of the Ancients (which uses the D5RPG system), but I believe a similar mechanic could be incorporated into an OSR or d20 environment. However, let me add this caveat. D&D, by it's very nature, is very structured. The only flexibilty in the Vancian model is that it is modular in nature and casters can exchange one equally powered spell for another, but even then, 95% of the spells have a preprogrammed function. This means that a flexible magic system would require flexibility on the GM's part as well.

    One of the biggest challenges while playtesting our system was NPC spellcasters. We soon realized that we had to create spell templates so the Shroudmaster (our GM), without a lot of prep time, could have NPCs cast spells quickly. Naturally, we decided to provide this tool for players as well. Initially, the biggest pushback from playtesters came from their belief that a flexible casting would slow down the game, but I have been playing D&D for over 30 years and, as they soon discovered, it takes no longer to learn and run a spellcaster in our system than it does in D&D.

    So, consider a flexible magic system for your home game. You could even incorporate it "in game". You could say that an artifact, The Arcane Codex, was destroyed and with it, all the rules for casting. Anyway, food for thought.


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