Thursday, June 4, 2020

Thoughts on Occulted Systems

So, based on a positive review, I buckled down and picked up a game I had been eying for awhile: Cultist Simulator. I am completely obsessed with it now, as it's absolutely the sort of game I've desperately wanted for a very long time, and it's devouring more of my free time than I should really allow.

But it did get me thinking about a perennial bugbear of mine, namely magic systems and a lot of my gripes of them.  Cultist Simulator helped me clarify what it is I actually want to see in such a game, or what I'd like to try to explore.

See, in Cultist Simulator, they explain nothing to you.  You have to experiment on your own and figure it all out, and it's pretty complicated stuff.  It's just random enough be uncertain if a failing result is a matter of a bad choice or if you've just gotten unlucky, though not so random that you feel like you couldn't guess.  There are systems that underly things that tend to have a surprising number of moving parts, and while the game (seems to) give you enough information to figure it out, though it's not obvious, and even if you think you know, there may still be some deeper thing to learn.  The fact that these various, abstract concepts have pretty obscure and symbolic names only makes it more fun (My character solved the riddle of the Stag's Door, which was about a queen who never was, and passed through it to become one of the Know.  Now he hungers for the minds of others. Until the Worms came for him).

In short, Cultist Simulator treats the Occult as a mystery to be investigated, which is something I feel a lot of magic systems lack.  Given that I'm thinking about this all the time right now, I thought I might as well right about it, to get it off my chest and maybe give you some ideas as well, dear reader.



My Pet Peeve: Magic-as-Super-Powers

I once commented to my wife that modern depictions of magic had turned all wizards into X-men.  It's popular today to have magicians start in their teens when their "gift for magic" first wakes up.  They then go to a special, secret school where they learn of a struggle between those who can't do magic and those who can, with the former fearing the latter, and some of the latter seeking dominion over the former, but with the "good guys" seeking co-existence and/or secrecy.  The magician learns to control their magic and to do really flashy things with it, like throw fireballs at people.  They often have a unique manifestation of magic and perhaps some particular price they have to pay (like looking beastly, or being haunted by something) that sets them apart from the rest.  And then they run around have international adventures, fighting evil magicians, solving crimes and defending the world against some great, cosmic threat. Just replace "magician" with "mutant" and "magic" with "powers," and you're there.

But more than that, most magic systems treat magic as a wholly reliable thing. You point and you shoot.  A Fireball spell in GURPS is IQ/H, costs 1 fatigue per die of burning damage, up to your magery and may be enlarged from turn to turn, for a maximum of 3 seconds (thus capping out at 3xMagery).  It has a 1/2D of 25 and a Max of 50 and an Acc of 1.  Always.  You pay the cost, take the turns, roll the skill, and it works, every time.  If it fails, the GM just shrugs, there's no reason why ("Just unlucky") and you move on. Sometimes, spells just don't work, sort of like how swords don't always hit.  All spells in GURPS work like this: if you know the spell, you create the effect, and the effect is totally reliable. 

This is true of variant spells and the spells of other games too. A D&D spell works the same way every time.  Flexible magic systems don't, but they do what you expect them to do every time. You state your intention and that's what happens, barring some really bad roll.  Sure, GURPS allows for things like Critical Failures to create unpredictable effects ("I tried to cast fireball but I summoned a demon instead by accident."), but here's what never happens: you never try to cast a spell with no idea what will happen.

Occulted Magic

"The Occult" means "the hidden" or "the obscured from view." No magic system I've ever read hides magic from view.  You always get all information you need upfront.  And I get why this happens.  When you're building a character, you want to know what spells to take and what decisions you can make with those spells in, say, a tactical scenario.  You can't really say "Well, I've got the Phrygian Incantation, maybe we should try it out" while fighting to the death with orcs.

But there's another reason for this too.  What this ultimately requires would be an opaqueness (an "occultation") of the magic system. You'd have to get traits and abilities with no knowledge of what they do, while the GM does know, and actively encourages experimentation to figure it out.  You also need to resolve what happens if the PCs do something stupid without knowing it (Cultist Simulator is a rogue-like, and like most modern rogue-likes, the previous playthroughs inform the present playthrough, so the experimentation continues).  All of this means layers of hidden variables that the PC needs to feel out, with some information hidden and some revealed.

So the key here is information the players don't know but can figure out.  One way you can do this is via modifiers that are based on hidden (or at least out of PC control) variables.  For example, in GURPS Cabal, your magic is modified by what you're wearing, what rituals you do, whatever aspect the local mana has, and the day of the week and what zodiac sign is ascendant.  These last three are your "variables beyond the control of the PC," but I find that, in practice, it just means that PCs carry around a dog-eared copy of Cabal and double check the modifiers and get grumpy about casting a spell when the stars aren't right.  Thus, it's not quite enough for a true set of "hidden variables."

What we need, then, is something that can change based on player input, but the players don't see it.  Nonetheless, we need to be able to give the players cryptic clues of what the state of these hidden variables are, preferably with nicely symbolic names. When the players do magical things, not only do they get to see the results of those actions and thus begin to get a sense of the state of the hidden variables, they may have also changed some of the hidden variables.  Even if they're aware of this change, they might not be fully aware of all the repurcussions of that change.  Shaping local mana to be really beneficial to your fireballs might have unexpected consequences as to how Gods deal with you, or the sorts of curses you might get on a critical failure, or what your magic will look like tomorrow.  Learning the state of things might be a way of making use of all those skills that templates keep saddling wizards with because they're particularly occultish skills, even if their actual use is dubious (Thaumatology, Dreaming, Philosophy, Occultism, etc).

(It should be stated here, that Threshold Magery does something like this, especially if you keep the character's threshold a secret, though given the stark consequences of threshold magery, that might make players reluctant to cast).

There needs to be a balance between hiding the variables and letting them see it (if you let them learn all they need to know with a single roll, then it feels like an unnecessary extra step), and between on making magic a bit spooky and scary, and punishing players who try magic out, and a balance between randomness and predictability. If characters try to cast a spell and totally random things happen (or seem to happen) then they lose interest.  Magic becomes noise.  Or the randomness might seem like pointless complication ("You don't actually cast a fireball, you cast a flamebolt!" "Uh... okay.").  If a player tries something, success or failure, they should feel like they've learned something about what moves beneath the skin of the world, but still be curious about learning more.

 I would also avoid unduly punishing characters who try things, or using variables that seems to arbitrarily nerf a PC ("avoid penalties").  For example, if the player casts a spell uses the wrong regents (say) then they blow themselves up for 3d burn and lose all of their fatigue and have a -2 to cast for the rest of the day, they'll likely never try anything again.  Or if they realize that on some days their fire magic is at -5 and other days +5, on days when they're at -5 they just won't cast, and when they're at +5, they'll cast all the damn time.  On the other hand, if Fire magic has two aspects ("the Heart and the Wild Fire") and when it's in one aspect, it's at +5 but all spells cost double fatigue, and in the other aspect, it's at -5, but all spells cost half fatigue, then you get some interesting tactical choices and differences in approach, and if they learn they can shape the aspect through some of their actions, they might be more likely to do so.

"This seems like a tedious way to cast a fireball"

One of the hallmarks of a game like this is that they tend to work best when the adventure culminates in the casting of a spell.  If the PCs spend the adventure gathering scraps of the Rite of the Winter Queen, as well as researching what it does and what they need for it (and finding substitutions for things that can no longer be acquired) while fending off occult rivals, trying to understand the variables in play and then casting the spell to see if it grants them the immortality or enlightenment or apocalyptic destruction of their enemies that they seek, then it doesn't matter how involved everything is behind the scenes.

But when it comes to DF or its variants (including the spooky, occultish Monster Hunters, which seems to assume people will cast rather regularly), you don't want to do this sort of thing each and every turn someone is casting.  It's too much work and even if the mage's player think's it's amazing trying to learn all the hidden variables and their current state, the rest of the party will find it tedious.

In such a situation, I would tend to limit these hidden variables to broad, sweeping elements. Perhaps they apply to the whole of one dungeon; perhaps a reward for defeating the dungeon is an opportunity to reshapes those hidden variables in some particular way.  Perhaps we could differentiate between the "common" spells that wizards cast in fights, and the "epic" rituals that they cast to do major, world-shaping things, or to gain access to really cool, really large spells.

The point here, I think, is that adding the occult into a game is mostly about creating a layer of mystery between your player and the magic system they're working with.  That doesn't have to cover the whole of the system.  You can allow predictable, transparent magic effects if that's in genre, but there are still other elements that you can draw the shroud of mystery and mystique over.  To me, if it encourages a PC wizard to crack open the books and to try to understand esoteric images and symbols to advance their power, I think the system is doing what it really should do.  I also think a lot of systems like to have the trappings of that, but I really enjoy it when a game gives me the thrill of actually uncovering the mysteries and hidden lore of a magic system.

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