Magic Should Not Be Boring


Reading through the blog, you might think that I don’t really want to play a fantasy genre game, but instead a dark ages historical game.  My “low-magic” attitude though should not be construed to mean that I don’t like the idea of magic in my fantasy role-playing game.  On the contrary, I enjoy it quite a bit.  I think magic is too important to the setting to trivialize it.  That’s why I don’t want it to be boring.

Vanilla Magic

I want to limit magic, because otherwise, it seems commonplace, pedestrian.  There are a few ways that games like 3.5, 4e, and Pathfinder drain the life out of magic.  First, there are magic swords and armor that are referred to simply as “+1” weapons and armor.  This is so entrenched in the game from the very early editions that you almost forget that they’re magic!  They have no history, no background, and no flavor at all!  They’re a math adjustment, and for games like 3.5, 4e, and Pathfinder, they are a necessary math adjustment that the game design assumes you will have as you level up.  If you don’t have the right +X weapons and armor for your level, you’re behind the power curve of the game.  This means that everyone needs to have these items, and for every slot, in order to stay balanced with monsters at higher levels.

Spells are the same way.  There’s only a couple of different spell lists, so each character of a given type has basically the same access to spells.  And spells are named such interesting things as “Hold Person” and “Magic Missile.”  Not very weird or magical.

Non-Unique Magic

I want magic to be strange and rare, because I want it to be interesting.  One of ways it loses it’s flare is when items are made into a commodity.  If you play balance defenses in the game by assuming that neck slot items give you +1 to each defense, then provide a special type of neck slot item called Cloak of Protection +X, then these items end up being part of the basic build for each character.  My concept of magic is that you would, for most items, never find magic items with exactly the same properties many times.  Yet everyone ends up with a few Daggers +1 or +2, some Leather Armor +2, a Cloak of Protection, etc.  Similarly, players begin going into towns/dungeons looking for: A headband of intellect.  Why? Because it has the most mechanical punch for their character.  But what makes them think such a thing even exists?  Has their character ever seen one?  Heard of one?  It’s almost as though the expectation is that any item in the book should be available anywhere, anytime.

Similarly, all wizards cast basically the exact same spells.  Everyone knows “Magic Missile,” “Detect Evil,” and Fireball.  Sure, there are quite a few spells, but if all the wizards have the same exact magic, it kind of dilutes how interesting that magic is.  Far more interesting, I think, is for wizards to have certain themes or study in certain schools, and for clerics to be granted specific spells based on their particular faith.

Magic Shops

Magic has to be pretty rampant for there to be so much that you end up with people who decide they’re going to open a store to sell it.  You just stroll on down to Ye Ol’ Magic Shop and buy that Long Sword +2 upgrade you’ve been wanting since level 4.  Not only that, since the players can see the More! Options list of items in the book, they’re going to be looking at those prices and the seduction of optimization begins again.  You can certainly rule that items are not available at the Magic Shops to buy (or even that there ARE no magic shops), but it’s not the way the game is assumed to play.  For example, in Kingmaker, part of the kingdom building rules revolve around how many magic items the kingdom can produce each month of varying strengths.  Each town has a list of magic items that they have to sell at the start of the game, and each one has a list price of items they can purchase from the players.  The games assume that you allow buying and selling of magic, and if you don’t, you have to do some more work to balance the game at higher levels.

Don’t know a spell?  Just make your way down to the magic store to buy a scroll and learn it.  Are you a cleric?  Well, it’s your lucky day, you can use the ENTIRE range of spells for all clerics, regardless of what your god’s domains are or the tenants of your faith.

Lots! of Magic

So not only did 3.5 and 4e go the route of making a massive list of magic items, they went the route of item “properties” that are standardized magical properties that you then shuffle around in combinations on magic items to create more “complex” items.  So, for example, +1 is a property, flaming, keen, dragon-bane, are all properties.  Being able to mix these properties around on items in various ways gives you a ton of different combinations of items with only a few different properties.  The problem?  Now you only have a couple of different actual powers for these items, they’re just differently arranged.

In addition, there are so many item “slots” for each character that the players end up with magic helmets, cloaks, armor, books, shields, weapons, rings, bracelets, etc.  If characters don’t have items for their slots as they go up in level, they’re again generally falling behind the game balance.  And why would they have any slots open if they can buy upgrade magic items for each slot?  Or, even worse, craft exactly the items they want for each slot!

Crafting Magic

Yuck.  Magic items should not be “crafted” like a door frame or a chair!  Magic should be strange, just beyond the grasp of human artifice, powers of the world that you don’t just go home and night and make in your workshop.  Magic should be the fantasy reward for adventuring into that strangeness that differentiates fantasy from history.

When players can craft magic, they now acquire this resource by NOT adventuring.  Not only that, but players start loosing all interest in the magic items they find, because they aren’t optimally put together for their character’s build.  When you can craft exactly what you need and want, the optimization problem comes right back again.  Everyone gets exactly the upgrades they need, when they need them.  Magic that is ‘inferior’ is ushered out the door for the shiny new items that you made to fit.  Someone needs a neck item slot filled?  Haven’t found a magic shield for the Paladin?  Let’s get the craftsman to work!

When players can easily craft magic, then you naturally start extrapolating that out to the world.  You begin to wonder why there aren’t magic shops in every town (well, you’d wonder that if there wasn’t already a magic shop in every town).  As I wrote in my post about Magic Items, finding magic should be a strange and unique experience that comes as a reward for what the game, to me, is about – adventuring!

So what does this mean?

The magic item list in Lost Worlds will be brief.  It will cover a wide variety of strange items and provide by example a guide for the types of weird and interesting possibilities exist when you have magic in the world.  A character might acquire a half-dozen magic items over the course of their career.  Magic items will be dynamic, changing things, with bizarre and wondrous powers, curses, personalities, etc.

I’m not quite sure how to handle spells.  In my first iteration of the game, I started providing a bunch of spell schools.  I’m not sure that’s the right approach.  Maybe I can do something similar to magic items by providing some guidelines and a few examples, but players tend to have more control over their spells, and they’re going to want to know what they can do when selecting a class in the first place.

There won’t be much capability to craft magic unless crafting the magic item is, in itself, an adventure.  You won’t hardly be able to buy magic, because it’s too rare.  If you can buy it, it’s a special opportunity, and certainly not as mundane as going to the store.

Clerics will cast spells that are very specific to the powers of their god.  They will not have their choice of the whole buffet, they’ll get what their god grants them.  These could be handled or “unlocked” as deities and their priests are encountered.

Wizards are the toughest.  I’ll have a few example spell schools, but may work with players to help build spells for school themes they want their wizard to use.  It’s pretty unlikely you’ll find a spell named simply “Hold Person” or “Slow.”

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3 thoughts on “Magic Should Not Be Boring

  1. Andy

    You’ve convinced me of the virtue of what you’re building here. I agree that replacing a +1 sword with a +2 sword is less interesting than replacing a simple iron sword with a mithral broadsword and later finding a magical gem to insert into it that gives your well crafted broadsword magical abilities. I just want to point out that the big limiting factor of such a system will be in (1) making sure the system is balanced and (2) the creativity and time available to the DM and players. Especially the DM.

    On magic, maybe the best way to start is to have the “core” level (1st-2nd level) priests and wizards all have the same spells. A few simple ones that every faith has access to (like a simple stamina recovery) or simple cantrips every wizard would know. But after that, you have to join a specific temple or get your wizard spells from a certain discipline. BTW, I’m reading a book series called the Malazan Book of the Fallen right now and while it is definitely magic heavy, the way they do magic is really interesting (and evokes that very unique and creative feel that I think you’re trying to add back). Might be worth reading just to see how it works. All wizards draw their magical energy from a different “warren” which makes them all quite a bit different. It’s also extremely well written. It was recommended to me on the old message boards by people who enjoyed the Game of Thrones series.

  2. JackOfHearts Post author

    I’m not terribly worried about time available to come up with some interesting magic items, especially since magic items are going to be more rare, they’re fun to design adventures around. Spells though… that worries me a little bit. The approach you bring up feels like it goes along with a character starting as an “apprentice” – you learn a corner of some basic set of magic when you start. I was hoping to still make magic a bit more unique/bizarre, but that may be a decent compromise.

    I just bought the first Elric novel, but I’ll definitely add Malazan Book of the Fallen to my (currently rather short) list.

    1. Andrew

      I like the idea of individual themes of magic instead of just a listing of different spells that everyone can choose from. I’m all for moving away from all the generic stuff and making everything more thematic


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