Saturday, 3 May 2008

Designing a Magic System - Part One (Suspension of Disbelief)

(This article is in fifteen parts: parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, along with the follow up series Designing a Magic System Redux).

I have a confession to make: The Unangband design articles so far have primarily been about solved problems - game design issues where I have come up with a solution I'm satisfied with. The Unangband magic system on the other hand is still an open challenge.

Magic have existed as a part of role-playing games since the earliest days of Dungeons and Dragons which borrows liberally from fantasy novels, in particular Jack Vance's Dying Earth series. Magic systems exist as two separate challenges in game design: firstly, there is the underlying reason that magic exists - required to make a completely unrealistic mechanism a believable and consistent part of the game world, and secondly, there is the game balance issues of the magic system design and implementation. It is this second challenge that this article series will focus on, but it seems to be this underlying reason for the existence of magic that most people try to address when they first approach designing a magic system.

Suspension of disbelief is an important aesthetic theory: the ability for the person playing the game to buy into the consensual fantasy that you are building. When it comes to designing a magic system, you must consider how magic 'works' - that is, how the people in the game world can influence the world around them in seeming arbitrary fashion. There is a wide range of sources you can draw from as inspiration for how you design the magic system: existing superstitions, a large body of 'magical theory' for people who believed that they in some way could practise magic in real life, a larger body of religious beliefs you can similarly draw on, and various modern pseudo-scientific traditions that are more relevant if you are designing a modern or futuristic game. Finally there are genre tropes and conventions that you can quite happily slot into the game and have the vast majority of role-players immediately understand because they have played with these conventions before. Unangband definitely falls into this final category, as does any other game which starts players off with a 'magic missile' spell.

Conversely, to make your game world more believable and immersive, you should also apply the corollary - consider how the existence of magic in the game world has influenced the people, cultures and places. Build up a body of creation myths, early religions, histories of magic powered kingdoms which have risen and fallen over times, schools of different magical theory and practise, value judgements about how magic should be used and not used, cults, societies, empires, individuals. Is your world low fantasy or high fantasy, magic common place or rare, trusted or ostracized? Have parts or all of your world been blasted and destroyed by magic gone out of control - is society recovering from the equivalent of a magic holocaust or is there the coming of a prophesied Armageddon? Again, Unangband comes with a pre-built Tolkien based fantasy world that saved me having to extend much consideration here.

(It is worthwhile pointing out that by magic, I'm not just including the standard fantasy tropes. Any game mechanic that is not firmly grounded in the real world is in a similar position. This is why I'll be discussing Eve Online as much as World of Warcraft. The world of Eve is as much fantasy in the sense that the technologies and processes are as much a work of imagination as Harry Potter - we will never have a star drive and are unlikely ever as a species Homo sapiens to colonize another planet - even as close as Mars.)

As a game designer, this flavour is all important, but ultimately distracting. The history of the game world is important, but not as important as how the game plays. This should drive your design. An interesting narrative will ensure you game is played once, an interesting game design will ensure your game is played over and over again (Much as a well designed game beginning vs. a well designed end game). And it is this influence of magic on game play that I'll be addressing over this series.

More to come in part two.

3 comments:

Cipher said...

Interesting point but it doesn't highlight the use of anchors - in order to make magic systems recognisable across any type of game genre. This is why the Japanese developed their own worlds with the whole Final Fantasy concept rubbing many western fantasy buffs the wrong way.

It's why you implicitly recognise the maps in many of the (good) fantasy books. They often deliberately structure them similar to real world couterparts, but with none of the names. If the reader doesn't recognise it, they will find themselves lost because many fantasy stories refer to non-existent locations. It is distracting to have to constantly flick back to the map section - although I know some that find this entertaining.

Whilst I'm here - make sure you read Song of Fire and Ice series by George R R Martin from book one. He is one of the few true Tolkien rivals in literature with huge family trees being woven into complex, often tragic plots. He doesn't have the same flowery, poetry-reading knight or gruff, homesick warrior that other fantasy books have. It's like The Wire - but in a medieval alternate world. His world-magic is very understated and often leaves the reader wondering if it really does exist.

On the original point - the paradigm of magic will always remain the same because it is paralleled with modern day scientific counterparts. Light sabers = swords, rifles = bows, pistols = crossbowss, fireballs = petrol bombs, etc.

Dave Fillion said...

My biggest thing with any game's magic system is how varied the spells are. Ex: One to light up a cave, turn items into something else, warp back to your H.Q, and the time-tested fireball >>>>> 10 attack spells of varying degrees of direct damage. May seem like a no-brainer however you'd be surprised what's out there (or maybe you wouldn't).

Del_Duio
http://dxfgames.com

Dave Fillion said...

My biggest thing with any game's magic system is how varied the spells are. Ex: One to light up a cave, turn items into something else, warp back to your H.Q, and the time-tested fireball >>>>> 10 attack spells of varying degrees of direct damage. May seem like a no-brainer however you'd be surprised what's out there (or maybe you wouldn't).

Del_Duio
http://dxfgames.com