A Roleplaying Experiment

I have always been frustrated by traditional portrayals of magic. Why, exactly, should waving a stick and shouting a few words in Latin produce a defined, predictable effect? If there’s some power flowing through the world, and I’m able to use it, why can’t I produce any effect I like? This seemed like a good basis for my first roleplaying game.

The design brief was simple: a game in which players were limited, not by the rules, but by their own imaginations. A player might, logically, attempt to play like this:

“I see the game. I call down a storm of fire to kill all the baddies. I win the game.”

This, clearly, was going to be a problem. But how could I prevent it and preserve the player’s creativity?

Fast forward several months to me sitting on a bus in a town called Puerto Octay. “Puerto Octay”: I liked the sound of that. To me it seemed like the phrase “The Power of Eight” in some archaic language. Eight whats? How about eight magical Glyphs, which are combined by wizards to produce spells. I had found the missing ingredient for my game.

Each glyph would represent a Law of Physics, based on those of our own universe (I talk more about my love of rules here), and by breaking those Laws, spells could be cast. The eighth glyph was easily identified: the existence of glyphs and spells is a Law in itself. For the other seven glyphs, I would need to boil down the Laws of our own universe into seven principles, and give each a name. Here’s what I came up with:

Epi – Heat (also cold, energy…)

Konot – Light (also darkness, transparency…)

Mazarule – Solidity (also vapour, mass…)

Listay – Attraction (also repulsion, vibration…)

Akri – Motion (also stillness, time…)

Salifray – Growth (also decay, life…)

Kos – Dominance (also subservience, hierarchy…)

Enta – The Master Glyph. This governs the formation of spells and is the only glyph not based on the Laws of our universe.

Using the right combination of glyphs, it should be possible for a player to cast any spell they can think of. Creating a zombie, for example, would require a combination of Salifray (growth) and Kos (dominance). Gameplay would be puzzle-based: as well as coming up with creative solutions to problems, players would have to identify and thwart spells used against them.

When creating a character (or “Wielder”), players would have a basic understanding of two glyphs of their choice. Further proficiency in those glyphs could be gained through study and adventure. Later on, players could diversify or specialise in just one glyph, and both options would need to be viable. Proficiency in Enta (the Master Glyph) would improve as the player’s skill increased, and so act as a “levelling” system. This, combined with the game’s rules and the game master’s judgment, would determine the size and complexity of spells which could be attempted. Clearly this needed to be quantified, but I was too terrified to make the attempt.

I turned, instead, to the setting for my world. It would need to be simple, and leave lots of room for game masters to add their own content. I settled on a world of concentric circles, with a Metropolis in the middle and ever more mysterious lands and oceans surrounding it. Fantastical creatures could be accommodated if desired: they’d simply have some connection to one of the glyphs.

My world’s history was more problematic. I was tempted to give each glyph a long, detailed history but, again, I felt simplicity was key. I decided that glyph magic would be a recent discovery, causing a revolution in my world comparable to that of the internet in ours. I used this analogy to create a society in which the old establishment is threatened by cells of self-taught, criminal upstarts, and this in turn gave rise to the three backgrounds players could choose for their wielder:

Academic – holding formal training in glyph magic (in our world, those with IT qualifications).

Freelancer – self-taught, seeking new knowledge wherever they can find it (hackers).

Smith/tradesman – uses the new magic to enhance their business (IT department in an existing industry).

And so to the moment of truth: the first playtest! Armed with a handful of shaky rules I took my willing victim, John, on a money-making adventure in the Metropolis. He cast a spell on a street juggler’s baton, causing it to fall, and, in the confusion, stole a hat full of coins. He then managed to frame another man (whom he subdued by sticking his boots to the floor) for the crime, and convinced the Kos (dominance) wielding police officers that he was licensed to Wield.

We both enjoyed the adventure and John identified where the game needed to improve. The big problem is a lack of a resolution mechanism: at present when a spell is cast, I, as the game master, simply decide the outcome. This needs to change, but the only system I’m familiar with is the one used in Dungeons and Dragons: a die is rolled and has to exceed a certain value for the spell to succeed. Perhaps the quantity and size (number of faces) of the dice could vary depending on the number of glyphs the spell contains?

To close, let’s look again at my player who wanted to win the game with a storm of fire. Their case reminds me of something Scott mentioned, almost in passing, at one of our designer meetings: a player who does so is not playing in the spirit of the game. What is this mysterious “spirit”? Is it a thematic or mechanical phenomenon? Perhaps it’s not the end of the world if my game can be broken after all.

Thank you for reading about my young project. Can you think of any resolution mechanisms in existing roleplaying games, including your own, which might be applicable? I need ideas to help me out here. On the other hand, if you’ve seen something in this article you would like to use in your own project or roleplaying game, please do so. This is all highly experimental, and the results may be quite interesting.

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3 thoughts on “A Roleplaying Experiment

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  1. I’m not sure it is the case that traditional portrayals of magic are as you describe. Harry Potter certainly involves the enunciation of cod Latin followed by a particular effect but, for example, the magic used in Tolkien is very different indeed. The magic in D&D is strongly based on that portrayed by Jack Vance in his Dying Earth stories and novels. Other RPGs tended to follow that lead. One of the things that I didn’t like about MERP is that the magic system was far closer to Vancian than to Tolkienian magic. I developed my own Middle Earth RPG system partly to address that issue. But I’m sure that, since then, many RPGs have adopted different approaches to magic. I’d suggest taking a look at Ars Magica just because it is so focused on magic, albeit it does feature Latin incantations!

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  2. You’re right I’m being a bit generic – it’s largely Harry Potter I’m thinking of. Tolkein’s magic I know very little about, except that it’s all tied up with the creation of the world and the lands beyond Middle Earth etc. What was your Middle Earth RPG like? Cheers for the suggestion, I’ve not heard of Ars Magica so will look into it.

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