Author Topic: Describing magic  (Read 1931 times)

Offline Prime32

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Describing magic
« Topic Start: November 06, 2011, 08:29:30 AM »
Following on from this thread.
Quote
It occurs to me on rereading bkdubs's posts...

Magic needs flavour. Taking a look at generic systems like M&M, there is no flavour. The GM builds a world with none of D&D's assumptions, and as a result it can end up very clear how the setting's supernatural abilities work.

Finding openings in the process of casting a spell should not be any less believable than finding openings in the process of swinging a sword. It's harder to imagine simply because there is so little to base it on; any two people could picture the process of casting a spell differently. We need some set of fluff to base things on, details of the steps involved in a casting. Maybe you can disable one spell because it's cast from the user's eyes, and another by disrupting the flow of mana through the body. The kind of instructions that the Satanic Panic guys have been scouring the books for for decades. :P

What does a wizard do when he casts a spell? What parts of the body are involved? What eldritch conduits link him to his power? Does a wizard casting a spell look different from a sorcerer doing the same?

Can we come up with a system of fluff which can be reconciled for the most part with D&D 3.x mechanics? We might delve into the balance of the elements, the anatomy of the soul, or countless other things as part of the explanation.

Offline Prime32

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #1: November 06, 2011, 08:29:53 AM »
Magical energy follows a continuum, but it is generally divided into two main kinds by function:
Od, the colourless energy, provides form. It is a passive energy existing in all the universe, and when concentrated it becomes physical matter.
Seidr, the coloured energy, provides shape. It is an active energy produced by thought and movement, and when concentrated it becomes spirits and concepts.

To cast a spell the caster must provide both seidr and od, the first binding the second in a sort of lattice. While typically the seidr is provided by the caster himself, the source of od varies. Releasing and shaping seidr in the correct manner normally requires a careful series of movements - doing so from thought alone requires great willpower and skill. This structure is fragile however - breaking it frees the od and ends the spell. Fighting styles have been developed which take advantage of the seidr produced by a fighter's movements to disrupt the seidr involved in casting.

Clerics and similar casters receive od from their deity, in exchange for the seidr provided by worship. As such it is "tinted", closer to seidr than normal. Since it already has some structure it is easier to provide more (requiring less movement), but likewise harder or impossible to use it for tasks which do not fit the nature of the energy.

Certain creatures have such enormous supplies of od that they can release it in raw form, most famously dragons with their breath weapons. Spellfire is another example of this ability.

Psionic powers differ from spells, being a homogenous mass of near-od rather than a blend of multiple energies. To achieve the deisred effect, a psion focuses on a related concept or ideal so intently that the od of his body becomes coloured by it, then expels raw energy in a similar manner to the creatures above. Techniques which affect his body alone use only the first step.


Typically, concentrated od makes up a creature's physical body while seidr makes up its soul. However, some creatures have "veins" of seidr present in their physical bodies (whether by chance or purposefully inscribed). They may use these as a template in casting instead of learning to sculpt their own, resulting in magic coming easily to them. These are creatures with sorcerer casting or spell-like abilities, depending on whether the veins are wide or deep respectively. Usually these veins are hard to detect, but some families in Eberron display them visibly.

Antimagic fields consist of a net of seidr which binds to any od in the area and renders it inert. The od within a spell can be shielded from this effect if its seidr is sufficiently dense. (eg. epic spells) Force spells are resistant to antimagic due to containing a larger ratio of seidr to od, with the od entirely covered by the seidr.



One of the first things taught to any conventional wizard in the process of taming the power is the eight schools of magic, also known as the Eight Brothers. Representing magic as a group of people helps the caster visualise their power, and pick out the effect they want from the endless possibilities. Other traditions of magic use different representations, and thus the borders between different types of magical study do not line up between, for instance, a wizard and a wu jen.
One influential wizard's school decided at some point in the past to teach cure wounds as part of the conjuration school, for political reasons; casters from distant regions still cast it as a necromancy spell.
« Last Edit: November 06, 2011, 08:33:18 AM by Prime32 »

Offline DavidWL

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #2: November 28, 2011, 12:19:23 AM »
I think you really are right that magic needs flavor.  I think that part of this has to do with making sure that there are thematic elements and small beautiful (or painfully beautiful!) side effects.

My suspicion is that the best way to do this would be through a series of examples:

Example: 

Premise:  Magic always has a cost, and that you are what you cast. 

Example:   You cast a fireball.  "I get hot, like sitting on the beach too long, like the sun burning my skin ... small flames start to escape through my pores and an inferno of fire leaves my hands".  Permanent side effect, later after the battle, while being healed by an NPC healer "You seem to be running a fever ...".

Example 2:

Premise:  Details makes things cool.  There are no fireballs, because fire isn't specific.  There's a game I think is awesome (Nobilis) where you are a part of the world.  For example: the power of cold.  And you get to define what that means.  "Cold is the empty feeling of loss".  "Cold is that which makes things go slowly".  "Cold preserves".  Etc.

Example:  You cast a fireball.  What is fire?  (Fire goes fast.  Fire is passion.  Fire burns itself away.  Pick 1 or 2).  "A portal to another world or perhaps, a richer part of this world opens, and the group of goblins becomes more like fire ... moving faster, burning up, they attack with a painful desperate passion".  (Not only do they take damage, but they have -1 to hit and +2 to damage from pain and passion).

While I'm not the most inspiring of writers, I think that side effects and imagery are cool. 

Best,
David

 

Offline nijineko

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #3: November 28, 2011, 12:48:06 AM »
may i strongly suggest reading a few patricia mckillip books? some of the earlier andre norton books approach the lush and vivid descriptives found in mckillip books as well.
http://crystalballsoft.com/cblite.html  The best dice roller on the planet, bar none. Read the FAQ to see why.

https://www.box.com/s/du6s5uysdwfony9dfd3p  The Official Complete Psionic Errata.

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/dbmkg8efcbn4eak/AABSjyTbZIEDdIWm0I_uVFkpa?dl=0 The Archive.

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #4: November 28, 2011, 01:53:59 AM »
A description generic enough to cover magic as it is in D&D wouldn't serve much use in actually working out what to do with the power itself though. You could control the channels(how the magic gets into the mage, how it becomes an effect, and how it flows out) magic is obtained from, which might see some tricks applicable.
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Offline DavidWL

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #5: November 28, 2011, 02:05:19 AM »
A description generic enough to cover magic as it is in D&D wouldn't serve much use in actually working out what to do with the power itself though. You could control the channels(how the magic gets into the mage, how it becomes an effect, and how it flows out) magic is obtained from, which might see some tricks applicable.

True.  But I think you pre-workout some examples with a range of effects, and have some principles, and then work out the details on the fly to customize a little each time.

Best,
David

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #6: November 28, 2011, 12:22:32 PM »
Well, thats the flaw of coming to a magic system from the mechanics end. Maybe if we set up a basic structure for the fluff of magic, THEN corral exceptions into this structure somehow. Don't forget magic items as well, they should have some role in the overall shape.

So from the known aspects:
D&D magic appears to be external in nature, through supplication of forces, education, or talent, the surrounding magical energy can be converted into magical effects.
It can be shaped by words, gesture and thought.

So what is the source of this ambient energy, what can affect it, can it be depleted, and does consuming it have any side effects? How do these symbols shape the power and why are they limited to very specific combinations of symbols. How does experience factor into potency?

Answering these gets us a structure, but its still generic. If it can be studied and learned, then there must be an underlying logic to magical symbols. Then, are there any symbols that can be produced by rote memorization? How much deviance can these channels survive?
Everything is edible. Just that there are things only edible once per lifetime.
It's a god-eat-god world.

Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves; The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Offline DavidWL

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #7: November 28, 2011, 10:09:40 PM »
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Well, thats the flaw of coming to a magic system from the mechanics end. Maybe if we set up a basic structure for the fluff of magic, THEN corral exceptions into this structure somehow. Don't forget magic items as well, they should have some role in the overall shape.

I think this is a good/interesting approach.  Especially since I think the problem is lack of fluff, so let's start there, and see what comes out.

What's more, there is no reason there has to be only 1 system ...

Quote
So from the known aspects:
D&D magic appears to be external in nature, through supplication of forces, education, or talent, the surrounding magical energy can be converted into magical effects.
It can be shaped by words, gesture and thought.

We don't have to start with "known aspects" - it can be reflavored as desired.

Quote
So what is the source of this ambient energy, what can affect it, can it be depleted, and does consuming it have any side effects? How do these symbols shape the power and why are they limited to very specific combinations of symbols. How does experience factor into potency?

Answering these gets us a structure, but its still generic. If it can be studied and learned, then there must be an underlying logic to magical symbols. Then, are there any symbols that can be produced by rote memorization? How much deviance can these channels survive?

I think working out examples of fluff like this do help make things concrete.  Can you provide examples of what you think?

Examples of some possible answers to the above:
* If you get the symbols, words slightly wrong, the effect changes slightly.  If you get them very wrong, it changes a lot or doesn't happen
* If you are under stress, you're more likely to get it wrong
* Magic is finite - but we steal it from other planes ... and when people cast magic in other planes, they steal the life force from ours ... casting "fireball" makes the plane of fire a little less hot. 
* Experience allows for greater precision ... the line of a child is less "strait" than the line of a great master.  Eventually, when you are Picasso, you can draw a horse, without ever drawing a horse, but only capturing the essense of horse-ness.  A level 1 mage doesn't know what "fire" means the way a level 20 mage. 
* To some extent, magic is a uneversal.  Even commoner's have things to "cast away the evil eye" ... and they work!  (Everyone can cast a cantrip a day if they're smart enough to get the right gestures).

Best,
David

Offline DavidWL

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #8: November 28, 2011, 10:13:12 PM »
I think that it is most concrete with examples.  So, carrying on with the previous example, where the "essense" of fire spills over ...

2nd time mage cast fireball:
*  The goblin burns, and with a dying shriek, cries, "Rhakbin, know that I love you always".  There is a disturbance, the universe shifts, and somewhere, a child knows that you have killed his father.

3rd time mage casts fireball:
*  later that day ... it seems like women find him especially hot ... and for some reason, you feel a bit more burning passion than normal ...

etc.

Part of the reason magic loses it's mystery is because it is so predictable.  A wonderful article:
http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/magic/antiscience.html

Best,
David

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #9: November 29, 2011, 07:32:04 AM »
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Part of the reason magic loses it's mystery is because it is so predictable.  A wonderful article:
http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/magic/antiscience.html
Mystery is actually less desirable, at least as far as player initiated magic(spells, magic items) are concerned. You have clear and solidly defined spell effects here, which require explanation to gain consistency across effects.

Mechanically speaking, theres also giving explanation to common puzzles like:
-Summon spells, do they summon a 'real' being, and what happens when it gets hurt or destroyed? Is it possible to briefly deplete the universe of Fiendish Dire Rats in the summon pool by a concerted effort of mass-summoning? Can the summoned creature be made specific? Can it carry information and knowledge back where it came from? Can you summon a being against its will?
--My answer to this was that the summon itself is constructed out of the caster's magical energy and then 'loaded' with a mental copy of the creature that is summoned. At the end of the summoning, this copy merges with the original, or if destroyed, the original gains jumbled impressions. If you have a suitable means of specifying the summoned creature, you can try to get a specific creature that fits within the spell's limitations, but this requires a willing subject.

-Why can't wizards use healing and why can bards, despite both being arcane spells?
-Why do divine spellcaster blasting suck(more so than usual at least).
-What happens to the soul while in the intervening period between return-to-life spells? This is a game where you can bodily visit the afterlife, so it might come up.

What we can do here is describe player invoked magic. 'Untamed' magic might not be anywhere near as easily described.
Everything is edible. Just that there are things only edible once per lifetime.
It's a god-eat-god world.

Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves; The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Offline Prime32

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #10: November 29, 2011, 07:59:46 AM »
-Why can't wizards use healing and why can bards, despite both being arcane spells?
-Why do divine spellcaster blasting suck(more so than usual at least).
Clerics specialise in "life energy" and wizards specialise in "destructive energy", while bards know a little of everything.

The arcane/divine divide kind of gets in the way though. Might make more sense if the bard had both arcane and divine casting.

Offline littha

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #11: November 29, 2011, 08:07:47 AM »
-Why do divine spellcaster blasting suck(more so than usual at least).

I think you are confusing Divine with Cleric here, Druids have a fairly wide array of blasting spells some of which are pretty good. Call Lightning with some way of making a storm cloud does a lot of damage for its level and several of the wizard/sorcerer blasting spells are on the druid list at the same level.

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #12: November 29, 2011, 10:33:56 AM »
Even so, straight out, the druid would have inferior blasting to a wizard. Call Lightning is pretty awesome(as is Produce Flame) but its small in area(effectively single targets really), and spread over multiple shots.
Everything is edible. Just that there are things only edible once per lifetime.
It's a god-eat-god world.

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And to the mercies of a moment leaves; The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Offline littha

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #13: November 29, 2011, 04:58:37 PM »
Flame Strike is pretty solid for an AoE spell but then again it is 4th level that does fire damage... well 50% fire damage.

Call lightning is also a really good spell for Sculpt spell.

A lot of the druid blasting spells seem to mix Battlefield Control with Damage but that isn't a bad thing though the damage does suffer a bit.
Frostbreath is a prime example, crappy damage but ref save vs daze... and daze is a nasty effect.

Thunderous Roar also does pretty bad damage (1d6/2 levels sonic) Fort for half... it also has a ref save vs being knocked prone.

Call Avalanche does a respectable ammount of damage for the level you get it at plus buries enemies.
« Last Edit: November 29, 2011, 05:23:54 PM by littha »

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Re: Describing magic
« Reply #14: November 30, 2011, 12:12:06 AM »
That said, one thing that I really liked about the linked article, magic IS inherently part of the world. Theres nothing non-magical about craft or heal checks, all these 'sciences' were forms of magic in the time periods the game is set in, and should adhere to that. Falls a lot more in the realm of hard rules than fluff to wrap around rules though.

Exalted sorta did it nicely. Magic is highly integrated, things happen at all because of magic, and anything overtly supernatural is just you, using your personal power to override the natural magic of the universe to do something normally unsupported.
Everything is edible. Just that there are things only edible once per lifetime.
It's a god-eat-god world.

Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves; The vast concerns of an eternal scene.