D&D’s Magic is Busted

January 2, 2017

I’m serious. It’s terrible. Vancian magic is absolutely horrible for a game. I’m not going to preserve it, at all, and there’s no reason to defend it. It makes no sense that beings who are otherwise massively powerful and able to manipulate the very matter of the universe with their will alone, essentially, are trapped in the most player and game punishing system possible.

It’s also far, far too powerful as it exists now.

We’re scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch.

The first thing to do is lay out some design goals for magic. That’s most of what this post is about. Next post is going to get onto working on Arcane magic specifically and refining those design goals into actual mechanics.

Goal In The First; Player Agency

The player should have as much flexibility as can be justified in the narrative of the game. Wizards should feel like Wizards in practice. That means simple casting on every round. That means no forced-memorization of spells. That does mean preserving the spell book in some fashion, though, and having arcane knowledge be a part of the mechanical feeling of the class itself. For Divine magic, I’m angling for something more restrictive than Arcane but with more narrative attachment to the relevant sources.

Goal In The Second; Mechanical Simplicity

Magic should, in every way, make sense to the player using it. There shouldn’t be confusing wording, there shouldn’t be strange systems that seem to work backwards from what they say or how actions are normally handled in the system. The entire process should be intuitive so that anyone can pick up the rules for playing a magic-using character and know how to operate their own abilities.

Goal In The Third; Mechanical Cohesion

The entire magic system should feel like one complete package. If you know how one spell works, you know how almost all spells work because all the mechanics work the same way. This whole system should be fully transparent to the players no matter who is using the spell. While we may have to evaluate how this goal works in terms of NPC magic and targeting (especially as we have an existing goal for the entire game of Player Engagement – they roll whenever we can make that happen) the effects and the flow of any ability use should always make sense to the player. If they hear “He casts a Ray of Frost at you!” they should know what to expect based on the wording alone without having to memorize fifty-plus books of spells to ensure that combat doesn’t take fifteen days and require an actuary.

Goal In The Fourth; Class Competitiveness

One of Gygax’s weird canards was “balance over the life of a character”. This concept is, in a word, bullshit. If you’re looking to have a character’s progression balanced over the entire span of levels from 1 to done, you’re going to encounter problems when most players fall into just the “sweet spot” and never play outside of that. In conventional D&D this starts around level 4 and goes until 12, 16, or 20…depending on who you ask. This also means that the full caster players start out “alright” and become godlike while the Fighter and her cohort start out “pretty good” and end up being pack mules or skill monkeys. It’s important from a top-down design perspective to ensure that every player, every class, feels equally “competitive” in their role – they should always be able to do The Thing that their class does, and they should always be able to contribute to any scene in a game.

Goal In The Fifth; Buildability

The system should be simple and effortless to expand. Adding new mechanics, new elements, new ways of using the existing pieces should be obvious and intuitive. This prevents two problems; class glut (and famine) when the mechanics can truly only be used one way and pitfall design – when there are bad options that new players can’t see because knowing about them requires system mastery of some sort. Pitfall design is bad. Always bad. Dungeons and Dragons, as well as any other tabletop game (even beyond RPGs – card games, board games, hand games, social games, what have you) should never have to have a learning curve or a “git gud” period. The game should be easy to get into and have depth in use, not in material. By accomplishing this last goal, we also make it easier for players to truly take ownership of the mechanics – make their own spells, make their own classes, make their own novel interactions with the other rules and other systems in and out of combat.

So, this is where we start; five design goals, one massive problem, and two important styles. Next time, we delve into the more Arcane aspects of D&D magic and what we need to do with it.

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