Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 06, 2014
The Bore-lock

Where does magic come from, and how does it work? If you read fantasy novels from different authors, and play fantasy games from different producers, you will get a lot of different answers to that question. As it says on the label "fantasy", the magic is just made up in the imagination of the author. While other parts of the fantasy world might follow real-world examples, e.g. a society with a real-world medieval feudal structure, magic has more freedom, and thus often more variety.

I was thinking about that when I read this rant about the Bore-lock, in which the author complains that the warlock in 5th edition D&D (they apparently dropped the "Next" label) is boring, because he works with the same rules system on magic as the wizard and sorcerer. Because if you consider the question how magic works in the context of designing and pen & paper role-playing game rules system, you have one big question to answer first: Is there only one rules system for magic, which applies with different flavors to all spell-casters? Or do different character classes have different rules systems?

Of course both are possible. It comes down to a question of design philosophy, how complex you want to make your rules system. The author of the blog post linked to above clearly prefers more complex system in which every class has a different rules system. But there are obvious advantages to less complex systems, in terms of clarity, as well as class balance. If for example the different spell-casters in your group recover their spells in different ways, they end up pulling the group into different directions. The caster who in a Vancian model "forgets" his spells after casting them will want to rest more frequently to regain them, while another class whose resources aren't linked to long rests might want to carry on.

Personally I prefer the simpler model of having only one system of how powers work. That doesn't mean that all classes become the same, because different classes can have different powers. But you don't need to keep half a dozen different rules system in your head, and the resource management of different classes is more closely aligned.

It was an interesting rant. D&D already has two systems of magic, priest and wizard. It sounds like what daegames wanted would be best done by giving warlocks both systems. IE some/all benefits of each system and is something that should fall under house rules. If you want a more complex magic system just invent one based on your needs and have it as a house rule.

Some suggestions for warlock would be:
1. all spells count - holy and magic for casting drawbacks
2. spells from the warlocks specialization school can be cast with any memorized spell like priests can cast cure spells in pathfinder
3. all spells from the warlocks specialization school are in their spellbook

Just some thoughts
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It is not that I prefer or even want a more complex system for the sake of complexity: I want the mechanics to support the flavor of the class (and preferably to als be explainable in the context of the game world).

Take wizards. How come some of their spells are at-will, some can only be used once per day, and some can be used whenever if you have enough time?

What does a spell slot represent? Magical energy? Mental endurance? How come I can only use a 6th-level slot to cast one 1st-level spell? How come I cannot cast a fireball whenever I want, so long as I do it slowly?

As for different magic systems, I would only push for that if the flavor behind the class pushes in that direction, which D&D kind of does: you have wizards who learn magic from books, clerics who pray for it, and sorcerers who have it in their blood.

To me, these all call for different mechanics, or at least somewhat different mechanics (particularly the cleric, who should not really be prepping her miracles in advance).

In The Dresden Files and to a point FATE it works the same, and I have no problem with that because it is properly explained.
I want the mechanics to support the flavor of the class (and preferably to als be explainable in the context of the game world).

It is a fantasy world. Your approach is only leading to endless discussions between players, because the player of class X will argue that to support the flavor of his class and for some made-up reasons of the fantasy world, his class should be far more powerful.

The other approach is for powers to be explainable in the context of the real world, where a bunch of guys sit around the table and play a game. In that context it makes total sense that each class has the same number of powers, with different cooldowns to provide tactical and strategic variety.
Er, how? What? I am not talking about the power level of a class, but how the mechanics do not support the flavor of the class (and, I would argue, cannot even really be explained in-game).

For example, sorcerers have magic in their why do they have spell slots? What does that represent for a sorcerer? If it is some kind of magical energy, then how come a sorcerer can use a 9th-level spell slot to cast a 1st-level spell and there is nothing left over? Same goes for a wizard, cleric, druid, etc.

There are games where the game mechanics for magic are supported by the game's flavor: Dresden Files, FATE, Mage: The Ascension, and Shadowrun to name a few.

I am not sure why you bring up the second point: making mechanics that support in-game fiction, that can still be explainable in context of the real world and provide tactical/strategic variety are not mutually exclusive things.
I am not talking about the power level of a class

Any rules system / magic system change affects the power level of a class. So if one class has a limited numbers of spell per day, and another class hasn't, that would be very hard to balance without the class without the limit being much more powerful than the one with limits. I assume you don't want to play a sorcerer who has limitless spells that have very little effect.
I do not understand why you keep focusing on the overall power level: that has nothing to do with my dissatisfaction of spellcasters in general when it comes to D&D, namely that the mechanics never support the flavor/in-game fiction/concept/etc.

As for power, who says that the classes need to use the same spell list? If you make an encounter-based spellcaster, why not give a list of spells/powers that is balanced on a per-encounter basis, just like at-will spells are presumably balanced on the assumption that you will be using them very often.

I do not want to play a sorcerer with spells that have little effect, not that an all at-will sorcerer would necessarily have spells that have no effect: I want to play a sorcerer where the mechanics better support the concept that I have magic in my blood.

Spell slots and levels do not convey that.
But why would anybody in the same game want to play a classic Vancian wizard who has to study his spells in advance and has limits to the number of spells he can cast per day, if you are allowed to play a character with "magic in his blood" who has none of those restrictions? Can't you see that this is hugely unfair?

I don't think you realize this, but you are very close minded towards ideas that do not fit neatly into your preconceived notions.

David made a great point. "As for power, who says that the classes need to use the same spell list? If you make an encounter-based spellcaster, why not give a list of spells/powers that is balanced on a per-encounter basis, just like at-will spells are presumably balanced on the assumption that you will be using them very often."

In other words, to compensate for the memorize-in-advance mechanic, Vancian casters get the best spells.

Casters with cast-what-you-want-on-demand mechanics get different spells that are balanced accordingly (i.e., less powerful).

Can't you see that this is a well-reasoned, balanced approach?
Can't you see that this is a well-reasoned, balanced approach?

I proposes EXACTLY that approach a few comments above, but directly pointed out the negative side of that: In non-4E D&D a Vancian spellcaster at level 1 not only gets a rather small number of spells (let's say 3, but that depends on stats and edition). These spells ALSO are not very powerful.

So now you need to balance a wizard who can cast 3 magic missiles that do 2d4+1 damage per day with a warlock who can cast an unlimited number of spells per day. What damage do you want those spells to do? Even 1d4 would easily push the daily damage output of the warlock to way beyond what the wizard can do.
Again, I think that none of the magic in D&D makes sense, but this whole nonsense pseudo-Vancian model (because D&D is not really "Vancian") is still around because it is what was done before.

Does it make sense for a wizard to ready spells of various levels and use various leveled slots to cast them?

It sounds like slots are supposed to represent magical energy or like, mental endurance, but then why does casting a 1st-level spell with a 9th-level slot completely use it up (like, you do not have an 8th-level slot left, or even one much lower)?

Anyway, would it be unfair if sorcerers could cast high-impact spells whenever they wanted, while wizards were saddled with daily magic? Obviously, yeah. Does it have to be like that, though? No. They could make it take longer, drain hit points, inflict conditions, be unpredictable, etc.

Ideally they would scrap it, consider what the wizard is supposed to be doing, and write mechanics that actually convey what is going on. In other words, wizards would probably not have a daily limitation...unless they could come up with a system that actually makes sense.
I don't think there is such a thing as "a magic system that makes sense". How do you ever want two people to agree that the imaginary system one of them invented is worse than the imaginary system the other invented? Neither of the systems has any basis in reality.

I very much prefer the power system of 4th edition, but that is because I consider it well-balanced, not because it somehow makes "more sense" than another system. We could tell fairy stories all day long, but if we want a role-playing GAME, we need to use basic rules of game design. Verisimilitude comes as a second step.
The Dresden Files (and by association, FATE), Shadowrun, Mage: The Ascension, The Dying Earth, probably Exalted (it has been awhile since I played it, though), and I am sure others have rules that back up the fiction associated with magic.
But all of them also have some game balance to those rules systems. No game has fiction that creates omnipotent spellcasters, because they simply don't work in an RPG. I am sure that the spell rules for those systems were created first with a view on game design, and then somebody added appropriate lore to it.
I am not asking for omnipotent spellcasters, but for fiction that is backed up by mechanics.

Could they do it in D&D? Yes. For example, to make a "true" Vancian spellcaster, you would only need to make the following changes:

Remove levels from spells and spell slots.
Give a wizard spell slots. No levels, just slots.
Wizards can prepare their spells in a short rest. They can only prepare one such spell at a time, and it is removed once cast: they must prepare it again during a short rest to regain it.
They can spend a short rest casting a spell from their spellbook.

What it boils down to is balancing arcane spells with the assumption that they will be usable once per encounter, but feasibly an unlimited number of times each day. You could do the same thing in 4th Edition by making every spell an encounter spell and adjusting its effects as needed.

At any rate I find it unlikely that the designers created the rules first and then dressed it up in fiction, unless in the original iteration they did not include magic at all, especially in the case of The Dresden Files (and, again, by extension FATE), which is based on a book series that was later adapted into a game.

Even so, those games all feature magic systems that make sense. Magic CAN make sense in 5th Edition, they just chose to stick with a traditional nonsense model for whatever reason.
they just chose to stick with a traditional nonsense model for whatever reason.

I wouldn't dismiss their "whatever" reason so lightly. It is the CORE, the reason for existence of 5E, that it should resemble as much as possible the earlier editions of Dungeons & Dragons. WotC tried something innovative in 4E, by making something completely new, and the traditionalists complained and left. WotC wants those players back.

It isn't really D&D Next, it is D&D Previous. That is the whole design philosophy behind it.
For better or worse (and I firmly believe for the better), 4th Edition was a pretty drastic shift from previous editions above and beyond changing how magic worked.

They could have at least pitched a magic system that made sense, explained it and the reasons why, and seen what sort of feedback it garnered.
I've always found that a wizard's blast spells were among the least powerful in his spellbook. They should be used for recreational purposes only - with the exception of a possible fireball given the right circumstances.

One of my main gripes with 4E is that fact that wizards were pretty much reduced to the role of blaster only. If that's how you had been playing your wizard prior to 4E, you completely missed the grander possibilities with that class.
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