Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Rant: My problem with flexible magic systems

If we can set aside Psi-Wars for a second, I came across a video that I want to comment on before I forget it.  The video discusses essentially why Avada Kadavra is a terrible spell, and he's spot on, but this also has broader implications, especially in one of my pet peeves, and why I've not adapted RPM like the vast majority of GURPS fans seem to have.

The problem with flexible magic systems is that, despite purporting to allow unlimited flexibility in magic, they suck all the need for creativity out of a game.

(I was originally working on this when someone asked me for help on a flexible magic system so I, uh, paused it. It was also turning into something longer than I expected and I wanted to put my time on Psi-Wars, rather than a personal peeve of mine.  However, this was the Patron General Topic of the Month, so I posted it; well, actually it was a tie, but this was more ready than the other topic, so this topic went up.  If you'd like to vote on next month's general topic, feel free to support me via the link in the sidebar.  All I ask is $1 a month).

The Sinister Temptation of Flexible Magic

Hmm, do I want to kill them with blue sparklies or red sparklies?
So, I've hated flexible magic every since I played a few thorough campaigns of Mage: the Ascension, and this often brings me into conflict with the sort of people who love the game, who are shocked when I say that flexible magic systems stifle creativity.  They counter by saying it liberated them to be as creative as they wanted to be.

The logic of their argument goes something like this: games like D&D have strictly defined spells, and you must work within the limitations of those spells.  For example, if you'd like to cast a spell that let you enter someone's dreams and kill them from within their own dreamscape, and no such spell existed in D&D, you couldn't do it.  D&D rewards knowledge of existing spells, not the creation of new spells.  By contrast, you could create such a spell in Mage: the Ascension, as it's merely an application of the Mind Sphere (perhaps with a bit of Space, in case your target is far away).  Mage allows you to do whatever you want, within the limitations of your knowledge.

My counter argument is that while it allows unlimited creativity, it does not reward it.  While there are certainly some people out there who simply brim with the need to be creative at all times and come up with new and innovative things constantly, the average person does not, and in a contest between a wildly creative Mage, and a dull but calculating Mage who knows the rules in and out, the latter will win every time.

What Mage (and most games with flexible magic systems) rewards is results.  If you want to achieve success within the game, you need to solve problems, and the best tool you have to solve problems is magic, so you use the magic to solve the problem.  Say you need to kill an opponent, a common problem, you could come up with some clever, round-about way of doing it, like getting into a shape-shifting contest with them, or using name magic to blot their name from the book of God, but rather than do complicated stuff, you're best off just stopping their heart or, better, something generic like "damaging their pattern."  Every sphere or arcana has its own way of "dealing damage," typically around level 3, you use that, and your target is hurt, and hurt enough, they die.  You can describe it however you want, but ultimately, it doesn't matter. It's just the flavor of your "I roll Arete to deal damage" or "I roll Arcana + Gnosis to deal damage", depending on your particular edition.

Other problems can be solved in a similar way, and once you've learned the main ways of solving problems, you'll use them over and over again, because why wouldn't you?  And these tend to break down by sphere/arcana.  If you have mind magic and there's a mystery, you read the target's mind.  Why not?  He might have some defense against that, but that'll defend against all other forms of mind magic too, so whether you dive into dreams or read minds or use suggestion to get him to tell you, or sense the truthiness of his words, his mind magic will protect him from all of those, so if mind reading worked once, just use it again.  Need to get somewhere fast and you have Space? Just teleport.  Don't have space, but have forces? Fly.  Don't have forces or space but do have Life? Change into a bird.

What you see, in the end, is that players use the least-effort solution, the least-creative solution, to solve their problem.  They use Avada Kadavra, and every fight turns into zaps of pattern-destroying energy, colored by the sphere/arcana used. They roll against "Magic" until the problem goes away.

(You see a similar problem with many golden age/silver age super-heroes who had unbounded powers, like the Green Lantern, where he could just summon the best thing over and over again; as a rule, the writers forced themselves to use different things to keep it from being boring, but as a GM or as an RPG system, you don't want to rely on your players working hard to keep your game from being boring when they could just go and play a game that, in and of itself, isn't boring).

The Power of Static Magic Systems

The strength of a good magic system is not in what it "allows you to do," but in what its limitations are.  At its heart, magic is about wish fulfillment, and thus unrestrained magic allows for the tedium of "A wizard did it."  In a fully unbridled, absolutely flexible magic system, you could solve every problem by "Rolling against Magic" until your problems went away, and that wouldn't be fun.  People tend to bristle against that in fiction, because it sucks all the tension out of a story, and it can do the same for a game. While it might be fun to god-mode through a dungeon once or twice, once you know you how it'll turn out every time, the GM will stop bothering with monsters who descriptions don't matter, and players will stop bothering with clever spell descriptions when they don't matter either.

Contrast this with the tightly bound limitations of a spell-based system.  A clever idea, like using explosive runes to draw people close with an interesting message can be done in a flexible magic system, sure, but it's clever in a spell-based system because it works within the constraints of interesting limits.  Explosive Runes is one of the only means of producing a mine-like effect, and those runes have text; using that text itself to tempt people over is, thus, clever.  In flexible magic, it's unnecessarily complicated. You could just do something like blow them up from a distance, or set up a spell so it blows up when the enemy shows up.

Limitations foster creativity because they force the player to work around them.  They can use simple concepts, like early-level spells, to learn more complex concepts, and then as they move on to more complex magic, they can show their mastery by using clever applications of what they have available, similar to how a work of art that uses a collage of photos to create a larger image is more creative than simply creating the image, or writing an RPG in only 200 words is more impressive than just writing an RPG with no arbitrary limitation.

The magic systems that generate the most intense discussion and attention are those that create an interesting set of limitations that promotes a deep study of the system, that is dynamic (so a single spell is not best in all cases, and judging the best spell for the circumstances is itself interesting), and that creates interesting situations as it is used.  Given a choice, I would much prefer the magic of Exalted, or Cabal paired with either Path/Book magic or vanilla GURPS Magic, than a Realms/Sphere/Arcana based magic any day.


Unless using the same
magic over and over again
is your thing
"Hmmm," I hear you say "But Mailanka, the magic of Full Metal Alchemist is flexible and interesting; the magic of Avatar is flexible and interesting and, wait, you hypocrite, you play Nobilis and it uses a realm-style system!  So you do like Flexible Magic!"

Fair cop.  Not all "flexible" magic systems are equally bad, and some of them are even very good.  I think you could argue that the potential behind a flexible magic system exceeds the potential of a static system provided you understand what makes a good magic system!

A good magic system needs to have interesting limitations that are internally self-consistent.  They don't have to always appear to be internally self-consistent, but there must eventually be a pattern that someone can suss out.  These limitations must promote, rather than discourage, the sort of play you're going for.  For me, I prefer systems that promote exploration, discovery, lore, non-combat applications of magic, and and dynamic situations that ensure that the same spell isn't used over and over again.

Are there flexible magic systems that do that? Yes.  But the creator needs to put more thought into them than just assigning levels and a few generic rules and calling it a day.  There are systems that do this!

Specialization: Mage: the Awakening

I smacked Mage: the Awakening a bit above, and it's my experience that it has problems, but it also did a lot to fix them, making it a tolerable experience.  The core difference between it and Mage: the Ascension was the ability to specialize in your magic in two different ways.

The first was your ability to buy a spell as a "rote" gaining a bonus with it.  This does tend to encourage players to use the same thing over and over again, but it defines what they can do and this encourages specialization.  If you can read minds, for example, you can always use that to solve mysteries, but you cannot turn around and use it to force people to walk off a tall building, at least not as easily.  You begin to interface with your specific form of flexible magic in a definable way.

The second way was in the ability to specialize in Mage "type."  This gave you unique abilities that allowed you to break the rules in some specific way with some specific implications.  For example, if you have two characters with the Death Arcana, but one is a "Re-animator" and the other is a "Spirit Medium," they might interact with the Death Arcana in fundamentally different ways. The Reanimator is far more concerned with corpses and what he can do with them to solve his problems while the Spirit Medium is more concerned with ghosts and their problems and with what she can do with them.

Taken together, you allow characters to start to develop unique expressions of their particular domains. Instead of punishing you for your weird specifics, the game rewards you, and you're also rewarded for working within your specializations while not being disallowed from going outside of that specialization.

Limited Flexibility: Changeling: the Dreaming (and Geist)

One of the core problems of most flexible magic systems I hate is their attempt to cover everything and thus make themselves hopelessly generic.  A good example are the "damage" rules I discussed above: because the system needs to handle any form of possible damage, all the rules are largely the same and players become tempted to say "I damage him with my magic," and if pinned down on specifics, get annoyed and use the most generic specific they can think of.

Changeling, by contrast, had highly specific spell-lists called Arts, but also had a system called  "Realms" that determined what your Arts could affect. Different characters specialized in different things. For example, the Naming Art allowed you to understand the nature of things and alter that nature by altering the name, while the Primal Art was much more straight-forward "combat magic."  You couldn't really use Naming to harm things, while you could definitely directly attack something with Primal.  However, what you would attack with Primal depended on your Realm; the obvious choice might be to attack people or magical creatures or animals, but others might learn to attack items, or magic itself.  Naming could let you see something's true name and thus grasp its nature, but this has different applications with real people, magical creatures, or spells/enchanted items.  How well it handled it varied from Art to Art (the rule design's quality varied a lot); Geist had a similar design, but a better understanding of how to handle the system.

The larger point here is that instead of trying to handle "everything" and creating a generic mess, with narrow flexibility, you can have highly flavorful ideas and highly specific spells, but allow player creativity in exactly how they want to apply their magic.  You encourage creativity with a good combination of limitation and freedom.

Flexible Rule Systems: Nobilis 3e

Nobilis doesn't actually use magic so much as define the power of cosmic, god-like beings, but it amounts to a similar idea.  Each Power has a single estate over which they have power, so in a sense, all Powers are the "one-trick pony" character of Mage.  They even have "levels" of power.  Doing something like using your Domain to hurt/kill people is typically at least level 3, possibly 4.  So this looks a lot like Mage, why does it get a pass where Mage doesn't?

Nobilis at its core is about defining your own rules. When you build your character you choose an estate and you define what you mean by that estate.  If you're the power of Death, for example, what do you mean by death?  To answer that questions, you must come up with some rules/definitions.  For example, you might say that 
  • Death ends things
  • Death leaves grief in its wake
  • Death is permanent
And then you must abide by those rules.  For example, you can use "death magic" to "end things."  You could kill someone, sure, but you could also end your class prematurely, or destroy a romantic rival's relationship ("killing it").  You might also "remove death" by declaring that something "isn't really dead."  Say, someone got into an accident, and in those moments before death was confirmed, you might declare that they don't die, that they don't "end" here.  What you couldn't do is resurrect them, because by your definition, Death is permanent.  Thus, nobody should ever come back from death, even if that death is metaphorical (if you "killed" a relationship, it should never come back).  Any violation of this would violate the fundamental underpinnings of the world (and there are bad guys in the game who do just that).  There are lots of other things Death cannot do.  It cannot create new beginnings or do temporary things, or make people happy.  You might say "Well, but doesn't death allow for new beginnings?" Not in this definitionPerhaps in other definitions of Death, but not in this one.

So, the rules of your estate become one of the fundamental playing blocks.  It defines your limits, yes, but it also creates new possibilities.  A lot of Nobilis gameplay turns on this sense of negotiation, and its often very personal.  Your definition of your estate is different from someone else's, and it's conceivable to have two different definitions of the same estate: I don't think is allowed in Nobilis, but in your game, it might be.

Imagine a flexible magic system where you had limited "domains" that characters could manipulate, but each character had his own relationship with that domain.  For one person, death is "permanent and ends things and leaves grief in its wake," but for another, it's "Death is necessary to clear the way for new things; Death is scary but ultimately helpful; Death's true nature cannot be truly understood.'  This creates a dynamic where one person can do different things compared to another.  This resembles the specializations above, but they're dynamic and player defined, which gives infinite possibilities.  This also rewards research: if you find yourself facing off against a dangerous new necromancer, the question you ask yourself is not just "how powerful is he?" but "what rules govern his magic?"

This also suggests a world governed by arbitrary rules, similar to the geas rules from Celtic Myth: heroes have specific rules they need to follow, as well as monsters, as well as spells or enchanted items; prophets and astrologers aren't seeing the future so much as grasping the shape of the rules that govern the world and events. This rewards research, because characters seek to understand what rules apply to particular domains or to particular spells or enchantments or monsters, so they can find out how best to deal with them.

Dynamic Rule Systems: GURPS Cabal (and Full Metal Alchemist)

One concept that I don't see used that often, but I see all the tools in the world for, are magic systems where the rules change depending on where or when or on what you cast your spell.

Cabal offers modifiers for casting particular spells at particular times. These tend to be pretty minor, but imagine if they were much more intense: if casting a death spell at a particular time of the year was much more potent, then you can predict when most death wizards will try to kill their opponents.  If particular areas are more vulnerable to that sort of magic and others less so, then when a death-wizard tries to kill you, he's going to maneuver you into a vulnerable zone, and you're going to try to move to a "safe zone."

Full Metal Alchemist has a similar set of rules in its "law of sacrifice" or whatever its called.  The rule here is that the "value" of what you start with must match the "value" of what you end with.  This creates a highly environmentally limited sort of magic, as you must have the right sort of material on hand to accomplish the feat they set out to do and creates interesting exchanges because "value" can be subjective to you but perhaps not to the universe.

The core idea here is that our flexible magic not work the same way in all circumstances.  If it does, it tempts people to repetitively use what always worked, which you presumably want to limit (I certainly do) to encourage creativity.  There are lots of ways to do this, from modifiers to hard rules.  One idea might be to combine this with the "flexible rule systems" and redefine how magic works at all given a time and a place.  For example, each "domain" might have "three aspects," for example, death might be "the Destroyer, the Greatest Mystery, and the Renewer."  If you want to kill someone, you may need "the Destroyer" aspect, and you must find some way to align yourself with that, via location or time or the things around you.  Once so aligned, you might do anything with your Death domain that "the Destroyer" rules allow, and your level in the domain allows, but nothing outside of that.  This allows flexibility, but requires creativity in how you gain access to that flexibiltiy.

Trifle Not with Wizards

For me, the core lesson of flexible magic is that there's definitely such a thing as "too much of a good thing." The idea behind flexible magic is to reward creativity, but creativity is often best fostered with limitations rather than freedom.  A constrained thought-space can give us ideas that endless fields of possibility stymie with "analysis paralysis." The problem with limitations, though, is that they themselves can grow stale, so we can use targeted flexibility to allow players to move out of a tedious space and give them the chance to explore something new.

Interesting gameplay often fosters exploration, a chance to see something new and master some new element.  Few things tend to interest players interested in that sort of exploration as a magic system.  The problem with most flexible magic systems, especially the overly simplified ones, is that they tend to be too easily explored ("There are 25 domains in the game, each with 5 levels, but they all basically do the same thing just with slightly different flavors, so if you've played with one, you've played with them all").  But with sufficient thought, a flexible system can give players plenty of a chance to define their own characters and tons of material to dive into and explore and master.

Allow me to offer an example of a flexible magic system that I might find interesting (though this one is fairly involved)
  • There are 5 domains; players can purchase up to 5 levels in each; each is pretty distinct and perhaps a bit narrow (it might not cover every possible phenomenon in the world)
  • The domains has three aspects which govern some of their core rules, defining what is possible and what isn't given the current state of the world.  You can change which aspect is present for a particular domain through your actions, by reshaping the world ("So below, so above"); this explains they evil wizards sacrifice a ton of people or whatever.
  • The world is also full of things that let you empower or weaken a particular domain (aspected mana regions, modifiers, etc)
  • Wizards interact with their domain via a "contract," a set of rules that sets up their casting requirements, special exceptions to rules (such as, perhaps, always having access to a specific aspect for the purposes of a single spell).  They can also specialize in specific spells (techniques)
  • These contracts are codified in particular magic styles, but some powerful contracts have been lost and can be rediscovered, or researched and forged personally.
This creates a setting where players can specialize by type of magic, and then further specialize by magic tradition and personal contract.  They can also research the contracts of opponents or the nature of the world, or find "lost" contracts and see if they can exploit their power.  How their magic works might fundamentally change: they won't become less powerful (that's determined by their level of a particular domain), but old tactics might suddenly stop working and they might need to rethink their approach. You might even have skillsets and tactics focused around foreseeing these changes or trying to tickle the world into the configuration you want.  Players can be flexible, but they need to respond to a dynamic world, and there are some hard (but interesting) limitations and options that they can choose from, menu like, to define who they are as casters.

What about Communion?

"Say, isn't Communion a sort of flexible magic system?  Did you apply these same rules in its creation?" I hear you ask?  Why yes, yes I did.

Divine Favor is already an excellent example of a good flexible magic system. By its nature, you have the option for specialization in that you can purchase Learned Prayers, which means two Divine Favor users don't have to look the same.  The second key ingredient, and this is cheating a little, is that beyond that, the GM is allowed to apply whatever limitations he sees fit, or to grant whatever miracles he sees fit.  This acts as an outlet for creativity.  If you find players keep doing the same thing over and over again, you can arbitrarily declare that God no longer grants that miracle, because you bore him.  If someone just prays, you can drop the most epic, or the least epic, miracle that you want, and it's all appropriate within the rules.

All I really added with Communion was the possibility of additional specialization via the Paths, path modifiers (which allow you to hit people with modifiers that they can deliberately manipulate), and some unique special abilities that let you interface/interact with Communion in unique and interesting ways (A True Communion Templar experiences Communion differently than an Ecstatic Divine Mask cultist).  It doesn't really have much in the way of discovery, though.

Communion is sort of a simplified, basic answer to the flexible magic question.  It tends to generate a conversation between GM and player, offers the GM tools to keep the world dynamic, and still allows players to find a unique way of expressing or exploring Communion (but note that Psi-Wars also layers this over an existing system of reliable but fairly static psychic powers, which themselves have their own unique forms of flexibility in the form of techniques and extra effort)


  1. "...Creativity is often best fostered with limitations rather than freedom."

    I strongly agree. There's a common assumption that the more freedom you have, the more creative you can be. In reality, it rarely works that way.

    Just today I got a story accepted for an anthology. I had a length limit, it had to be a science fiction/horror/fantasy story, it had to fit the theme "Exchange Students." There were many other guidelines, lots of them; but that's what works.

    Many of the greatest poems ever written were sonnets, which follow a very structured form. Some of the Psalms were acrostics. The greatest television programs, the major Emmy Award winners, have to follow strict time guidelines and have to have something right before the commercial breaks to keep people coming back.

    And then there's music with its time signature, key signature, measures, length limits, range limits, etc.

    When you remove the structure, you're likely to end up with a wandering poem that nobody can make any sense out of, or an eight hour movie of somebody sleeping.


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