A thought for individual games has solidified some, recently, into a general philosophy that I may increasingly embrace.
PCs shouldn’t do “magic”.
There’s a reason, of course, for those quotes. What is “magic”? “Magic” encompasses those abilities that are disproportionately versatile, world-altering, or otherwise too efficient at challenge-solving. These sort of superior PC abilities put an extra burden on the GM when it comes to fashioning challenges. Furthermore, there tends to be a massive discrepancy in usefulness of PCs with regards to each other, which can affect player enjoyment. I’ll start with giving some examples of “magic” and come back to the issues with it later.
Let’s start with supers. Superstrength is quite versatile in superhero worlds and in a number of superhero RPGs (to their credits). But, it’s not “magic”. Variable Power Pool in Champions is obviously “magic”. Green Lantern does “magic”. As does Magneto. But, so does Professor X and numerous other psychs. This could be why I hate the idea of psy based supers. When you can read minds, game over, you win. When you can control minds, game over, you win. Techlords, aka gadgeteers, also do “magic”. Reed Richards can make anything. Tony Stark can come up with any modification to the armor. Bat sharkfood. Whatever.
If it’s boring that Superman can pretty much do anything with his angel/god powers, it’s also incredibly boring that somebody can just kitbash victory. If. I don’t find Superman all that interesting as a character, but there are adventures of his that I find interesting. It’s a staple of fiction that the genius puts together some ad hoc world-saving device that may very well never be seen again (or, much more rarely, find an old one in the closet to deal with a repetitive problem). I don’t have a problem with the Doctor throwing something together, etc.
However, I lost focus, there. “Magic” is something characters in fiction do all of the time, and it works because fiction and RPGs are two different things. PCs should not be about the “wait around a few hours, then roll Science to make the Winning Tool”.
Talked a bit about superworlds, very lightly on how science can fix every problem with the power of science!! Obviously, magic lends itself highly to “magic”.
For various reasons, Elric is a terrible RPG character. One of those reasons is that the way he solves problems is “Now, what was that summoning spell to bring some god or army of supernatural monsters to save me?” Thomas Covenant *is* magic/”magic”. Etc. But, I think it’s time to stop on the fiction side of things and get into the game side of things.
D&D. Are magic-users and clerics, et al, doing “magic”? In some cases, yes. In some cases, no. The pattern with many D&D versions is that the magic-user starts off weak and becomes dominant later. Cleric may never start off weak and may not have quite the upside a magic-user does, but there’s still a very different power* progression to the magicless. The “Do I cast Sleep or Magic Missile today?” magic-user is not doing “magic”. On the other hand, it’s not just higher level spells, it’s just effects that can be overly effective with the right GM, like Invisibility, that get into doing “magic”.
* Power isn’t the clearest term to use, as power can mean magnitude of effect to some, where I often factor in versatility/effectiveness when I speak of power (including when I talk about it in CCGs).
D&D is heavily predicated upon PC magic, either in terms of permanents – the ubiquitous magic items – or in terms of spells. What about Conan d20, a far more swords and sorcery game?
Magical ability very easily becomes a situation of “magic”. Yes, the system is far more subtle, but that just means that the player needs to be cleverer to really exploit it. There were many situations where some spell, possibly one that wasn’t spectacular, could deal with challenges in a way that the rest of the party had no ability to use.
Vampire. V:TM or V:TR, though my experience is much greater with the former. A key feature of the game is that PCs have superhuman abilities, many of which are essentially magic. Without those abilities, not vampires anymore. The more openended disciplines, such as Animalism, Dominate, and Presence, are “magic”. Clever use can just blow apart challenges. Thaumaturgy in V:TM is, of course, the worst offender unless the GM clamps down on what PCs can learn to do.
Hopefully little point to dragging out more examples of magic=”magic” or where XYZ=”magic”, but, of course, can’t skip over expending words on noting the brokenness of shugenja in L5R.
There’s a vaguely amusing thread on the AEG forums at the moment where someone asked about how much buying additional spells with XP should cost. The shugenja player isn’t happy, where the monk (admittedly, kiho never see play in my campaigns, so I don’t bother learning much about them) and four bushi are all satisfied. My amusement at someone being frustrated by not having a higher level of godlike power is tempered by the idea that it’s probably just someone who doesn’t understand the system well enough to understand just how much shugenja are better than everyone else. On the other hand, the GM might be reining in spell effectiveness to a much greater degree than most do.
Why are shugenja gods?
Commune. Commune is the single most broken effect in L5R. As much as GMs may anticipate how Commune destroys investigation challenges and come up with cheesy “the kami were all banished” or makes kami a pain in the ass to get info out of even though it’s pathetically easy to call max Raises on a Commune spell for clarity every single time, then just recast it over and over until you ask the right questions, those who can’t speak to the kami can’t just ask the world to supply the investigation destroying information that kami can provide.
Path to Inner Peace. Sure, there are some other abilities that enable real healing, i.e. non-Medicine healing since Medicine is garbage healing. Pritnear no PCs have them. While it should be obvious at all times, our 20 Goblin Winter campaign, which didn’t allow shugenja, clearly showed that the lack of real healing completely changes party action. We would have to head back to Shinsei’s Last Hope and mope about for a while to not have someone sit in wound penalties … while hunting for Shadowlands monsters. I would say that the real problem with Path isn’t that Path is “magic”, but that all RPGs should pretty much have daily instaheal, which is a whole separate blog post that can get into my thoughts on a thread I was reading not long ago.
Jade Strike. Invulnerable? Okay, everyone guard the shugenja.
Fires of Purity. Forget that it’s something like 4k4+ damage every round in real combat situations. As mentioned in at least one previous blog post, it makes kidnapping impossible. It destroys cavalry. It turns grapple from murder into turbomurder. It prevents party members from being attacked, at times.
The all shugenja party is the optimized party. Can go on about how great your murder prowess is with simple attacks and no-dachi 7 or testsubo 7, but the all shugenja party will murder just fine and have a host of abilities that the magicless won’t have. As for courtier/artisan/monk abilities, outside of Henshin, I never see them do anything you can’t do by improving Awareness or whatever, which has a lot to do with how poorly the game explains how these abilities are supposed to be useful, but it is what it is. I really don’t expect Sword and Fan to change my play experiences significantly. Of course, YMMV.
So, great, plenty of examples of “magic”. Whining isn’t that useful.
There are other reasons I think hunter (with a lowercase “h”) campaigns make far more sense than monster campaigns in the World of Darkness, but a major reason would be the difference in the nature of challenges. If the PC vampire can run around Dominating kine left and right, going to be a lot different than “shotgun to the head” sort of challenges that hunters will face. Clearly, there’s a difference between Garou and mages, though Garou ability to interdimensionally travel is rather a huge “magic” problem.
Quite a few players of supers are probably going to be fine with character concepts around punching buildings apart, blasting buildings apart, flying charges into buildings until they fall apart, and the like where “magic” isn’t so much of an issue. I’m vastly more familiar with Champions than other supers games, so I think in terms of every single ability being built and bought, which greatly limits versatility. Again, just don’t allow the Variable Power Pools or Multipowers with 15 slots or any of the sort of stuff you might see in Mystic Masters.
The most problematic situation from a marketing/sales perspective is taking “magic” out of fantasy by limiting/restricting/removing PC magic. Yet, fiction is full of (and used to be mostly about) protagonists who killed the foul sorcerers with no magic or extremely limited magic. That was kind of the point of Elric – being the supreme sorcerer was a twist compared to the Conans of the genre.
I think it can be done.
I think removing shugenja from L5R as a PC option is entirely viable. Sure, I would come up with healing house rules to make Medicine Raises give +1k1 instead of +1k0 to wound treatment, though that’s still probably not nearly enough healing to where I’d probably just say you heal Stamina xN after every scene or each day (x8 or something for the former and x15 or something or the simpler full heal for the latter).
Our Conan campaign didn’t always have the sorcerer PC(s) around. Again, though, magic != “magic”. With L5R, it would be incredibly hard to remove the “magic” abilities of someone who could do magic, though it would actually be far easier if the party wizard was a maho-tsukai, where your spell selection is much more tailorable by a GM. But, with Conan, it shouldn’t really be that hard to limit spellcasting, especially with the far more esoteric Defensive Blasts of 2e, versus the nuclear option Defensive Blast of 1e.
RuneQuest’s battle magic, with the exception of healing, tends to be incredibly narrow and just a lot of buffs. I don’t feel the “magic” in the game at all. Rune Magic being one-shot also makes that awful and largely irrelevant. I know my characters have never found Rune Magic remotely effective.
Shadowrun is a world I just don’t get, so there’s little point to my commenting on how to take the “magic” out of the game. May be that the whole point of the game is that everyone has “magic” since it’s a world that combines the two things that are most prone to leading to “magic” – high technology and … magic.
“But, when are you going to elaborate on why ‘magic’ is a problem?”
From a GM perspective, consider this scenario: You have a party with one or two “magic”-users and some inferior PCs. You aren’t lazy and actually consider all of the different ways “magic” can overcome challenges too easily. Then, game day/night happens and your “magic”-users don’t show up. Okay, GMs who adjust on the fly better may be asking “And …?” But, it’s just more work when I already find GMing to be choreful.
From a player perspective, it can get really old to be a spearchucker. Not so much for me, as I embrace sidekickness to a far, far greater degree than others, but even I can get tired of “taking up space” in games. Some RPG campaigns are also far less about mechanics than others, and I can get into my personal narratives to a greater degree to where mechanical spearchuckerness is not so bad. L5R is like that for me where I’m far more into NPC relations and shopping than I am trying to find a purpose as a non-shugenja. Lots of folks aren’t so keen on being mechanically disadvantaged by lacking that old time “magic”.
Then, why even bother having it be an issue in the first place? Why not just have parties where the PCs are competing (because PCs do compete – if they didn’t, folks wouldn’t complain about how unbalanced different character builds are) on a relatively level playing field? “Okay, you scurvy lot. Who is the fighter? Who is the talker? Who is the rogue? Got it. Now, at all times there’s this ghost that hangs out with you that heals you to full twice a day …”