Saturday, February 18, 2012

Gamemaster's Guidepost: On Rule-Breaking, Magic Systems, and Consistency



Last night and early into this morning I tackled a gaming issue than can make Gamemaster’s go mad: How magic fits in his or her game world. Sometimes the easiest thing to say is “THERE IS NO MAGIC!” but that means less design options for your players and overall…well it’s just not as much fun. When your entire campaign rests completely or even partly on the concept of magic, that’s just not an option. In my case, my Chronicles of Ceteri campaign is at its heart firmly in the Urban Fantasy genre, so I can’t sidestep this issue or ignore it. After the Monster Hunter series came out I near-instantly fell in love with the Ritual Path Magic system. I decided then that I would retrofit my Chronicles of Ceteri campaign with it and toss the systems I currently had (a combination of Ritual, Standard, and Path/Book magic), because it made way more sense for how I envisioned magic working. There was a bit of a problem however…I used magical items in the setting fairly liberally, since Ritual Path Magic in Monster Hunters only has charms to represent enchanted objects (and one use at that) this actually presented a small problem, well..problems. Most of these were by nature one-use, since I dislike how Standard spell magic interacts with more modern-day settings. In fantasy ones its great…but it (in my opinion) breaks down a bit in a standard setting. So my problems needed a few creative fixes. First I developed a rule-set for Alchemy using Ritual Path Magic, then to cover how I treat focusing objects (staves, wands, etc.) in the setting I created a variant of Charms. Finally, I did work up a method to create actual enchanted objects but I intend to wait and see what @rev_pee_kitty comes up with first, I guess I can sidestep the issues till then. After all most of the ‘magical’ objects my PC’s have collected  and kept are unique in their own way. For instance, the Amulet of Orlack is an item which is helpful against vampires, it detects their presence, gives you a bonus versus their powers, gives a bonus to your Active Defenses against them, but as long as you wear it most vampires will react negatively to you, even if they’ve never meet you. Only a handful of them were made, and most of them have been destroyed by the vamps themselves. For these types of items I just write-up what I think they should do and assign statistics as needed. It’s not very formulaic but such objects shouldn’t be. And that’s a very important thing that some dogmatic Gamemaster’s might overlook, sometimes you can’t assign a cost to a magical item, sometimes it being a unique creation should just be enough and leave it at that. That was a hard lesion that I personally had to learn, and it took a WHILE for me to spot it on my own. This of course can extend to other things, like monster statistics. Still it shouldn’t be done too often for several reasons, chief among them that you as the GM are going to get lazy if you can just arbitrarily decide stats on the fly. I can hear some GM’s reading this now going “But I always run my games like that!” you know what? That’s okay too, as long as your players know that’s what you do and you are at least consistent. If you aren’t you run the risk of your players not trusting you and that can be VERY bad in the long run. My brother, C.J., did this so often when he run his games for our group that eventually everyone decided they no longer wanted him to run. It’s not his fault really, he liked to do things on the fly, but he was never consistent and whether it was the case or not eventually it looked like the GM was cheating the players. And they revolted. I personally hate not having a rules system to do something, but at least I know now that sometimes you just can’t have one for a given thing. Sometimes you just need to break the rules and go forward. Or make up your own as the case may be.

So to sum up:

  • When designing a world with magic, be consistent, and think ahead to make sure nothing breaks the world you have in mind.
  • Create good, balanced rules for things that you cannot already do with the system you are using or adapt them from some place else.
  • When you need to break a rule for some reason, go ahead and do it but don’t make it a habit and when you do be as consistent as you can be.

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