First let me apologize for not posting in a while. Real life has been quite busy lately, and I’ve been participating in the Game Chef competition, which took up a lot of time. I’ve also been revising my upcoming RPGs (Cutthroat, Hierarchy, Standoff!) which is going well but not quickly. So anyway, I’m back. :)
Okay, back to the question at hand. Magic (and I include under that term things like mad science, alchemy, psionics, super powers, etc.) can often be a real obstacle in game design. The temptation to add it can be strong, but the ability to “do it right” is sometimes elusive. John H. Kim has some interesting articles and HERE that might be useful reading, though I plan to take a slightly different tack on the subject.
The title of this article might be a little misleading. This essay is not intended to give suggestions about how magic spells might be cast and/or created in a game, but what purpose magic can serve in a game design. The problem I run into personally, and can see in other games that are in the design stage, is a failure to focus the purpose of magic in the design. To me, I see three major purposes that magic can serve in a game’s design: Tool, Hazard, or Theme (motif).
If you are thinking about using magic in your game, there are three questions you need to ask yourself:
1. Is magic a tool the player-characters can use to accomplish their goals?
2. Is magic a tool the GM (or opposing player) can use to add hazards/danger to the situation the player-characters face?
3. Is magic a neutral element of the Setting’s theme?
The absolute worst answer is a knee-jerk “All three!”
Magic, mechanically speaking, is just one of many possible design elements (including weapons, technology, monsters, equipment, etc.). Its presence in a game can be useful to GMs, Players, Both, or Neither. Whatever you decide, magic in your game should matter. Using it should reinforce what your game is about and not just be something tacked on because “people like it.” Let’s look at, what I think, are some good answers to the above three questions.
--Answer 1A: Magic is a tactical tool used by players to enhance their options in contests.
--Answer 1B: Magic is a tool used by players to create effects that are necessary to advance the game’s events (ie A Story Telling Device).
--Answer 1C: Magic is used by the players to differentiate the player-characters from each other.
--Answer 1D: Magic is an exclusive, balancing tool used by the players to overcome other, equally potent resources used by the GM.
--Answer 2A: Magic is a tactical tool used by the GM to enhance his options in contests.
--Answer 2B: Magic is a tool used by GM to create effects that are necessary to advance the game’s events (ie A Story Telling Device).
--Answer 2C: Magic is a tool used by the GM to thwart and/or challenge the abilities and intentions of the player-characters.
--Answer 2D: Magic itself is the enemy the player-characters must overcome.
--Answer 3A: Magic is a tool used to circumvent normal conventions and allow necessary game elements to appear in the game that otherwise would have been forbidden or out-of-place.
--Answer 3B: Magic is used to create the Situation that the players will address in the game.
--Answer 3C: Magic is used as Color to enhance the description of the Setting.
--Answer 3D: Magic is an inherent element in all things that raises the overall threat level in contests.
Each of these answers focuses the use of magic in a specific way. They aren’t talking about a gigantic list of spells in the back of the book for anyone to use or not use however they see fit. They denote explicitly how magic will be useful in play.
When you are deciding what role magic will play in your game design, imagine what a session of play should look like. Then ask:
-Would magic help or harm play?
-What impact on strategic options would adding or subtracting magic have?
-Who would benefit from the availability of magic?
-Who would suffer from the availability of magic?
-Who could and who could not use magic?
-When could the use of magic be inappropriate?
-Does the magic help reinforce what this game is supposed to be about?
I’m sure there’s more I could come up with, but these are a good start. Question, and examine everything. Truthfully, it’s important to ask yourself these sorts of questions concerning each of your design elements as you go. Magic is just one of many possibilities that I happened to focus on today.