Magic and Obligations

Okay, as I said last time, I’m now going to take a break from reviews for a while (I’m out of games to read, for one) and start talking about my own game. It is still fragmentary and hazy, but I’ve come to a few decisions that will help guide the process from here. First off, I think I have decided that the genre will be “sword and sorcery” in a setting of my own devising. It’s a setting I began generating as a campaign setting for Dungeons and Dragons, but I realized that I was making so many fundamental changes that it would probably benefit rather than be harmed by separating it from the venerable system. As discussed in “A Question of Genre”, I believe that a fantasy setting is fairly accessible, and it also has the benefit of being ‘expected’ as what an RPG is about, due to the whole D&D thing. Also, most of the rules ideas I’ve had recently seem to mesh with a fantasy setting better than something else. That being said, I’m open to being swayed by arguments for a different milieu.

Now, when I said that I’d been having rules ideas suited to a fantasy setting, I had two in mind, primarily. The first is rather vague at this point, and that is magic. I’ve always loved magic in games, and recently I’ve read some very creative uses of magic in stories, and this has inspired me to want to design a new, different, and elegant magical system for my game. I’ve been doing research on various real world and fantasy traditions of magic so that whatever I come up with will have an ‘authentic’ feel about it, but at its core, I want the system to simple and elegant, having complexity through a combination of simple factors rather than complexity through sheer exhaustiveness. What I would like to avoid is the ‘magic as super powers’ kind of effect that seems to me to be the dominant paradigm these days. By this I mean you have mages (or sorcerors or warlocks or whatever) who are “magic” and so they can do magic things from list A) a set number of times based on the day or magic points or whatever. Sure, most games try to distinguish flavor wise between people who study arcane secrets, or those who make pacts with otherworldly forces, or those who pray for their magic, but especially in 4th edition D&D, the mechanics are basically identical, with only the specific effects of each spell differing. I want to represent magic as a force that exists, that some people figure out how to manipulate (perhaps through multiple ways, such as rituals, pacts, prayers, or what have you) rather than an inherent trait that some people have and some don’t. Obviously, I haven’t yet come to any concrete decisions on how to make this happen, so I’m looking for suggestions and ideas.

Secondly, I have a rather better developed mechanic in mind that popped into my head almost fully formed while watching HBO’s “Rome” series and reading “A Song of Ice and Fire” by George R.R. Martin, in addition to various medieval/fantasy influences. I started thinking about how in the historical ancient world and middle ages, family was hugely important. The idea of individual rights and privileges was somewhat foreign, and most people accepted that your family took care of you, so you had duties to them, and that anybody without kin to back them up was facing a hostile, dangerous world. This got me to the idea that a fantasy setting ought to have inter- and intra-family relationships play a bigger role in game. And like aspects in “Spirit of the Century”, I decided that family would best be represented by a trait that could both help and complicate things, and that made me think of other similar double edged resources that would be relevant, and for a sense of wholeness, I came up with three that I think work nicely. These are Family, Wealth, and Authority. Here’s how I envision these three traits working. Every character at creation will have a set number of points to distribute between those three categories. Family represents how strongly your family supports you and how much it expects from you. Wealth represents your ties to the commercial world and how much your character can personally accomplish with coin. Authority represents your character’s position in a hierarchical system of some sort, be that governmental, official, illegal, or informal. The point is that the higher the number, the more each category can help you out, but the more is expected of your character in return. With family and authority, a higher number can mean a more influential family or a higher position in a large organization, or it might not. I think I will leave such decisions to the player to decide. What’s important here is the level to which it helps/complicates your life. So, someone with high family might be the heir to a powerful political family expected to marry as he’s told and rule over his holdings responsibly and so forth, or it could be a low-born person with a truly massive family that has representatives in every village and holdfast throughout the land. Both can expect large amounts of help (in different ways), but both also have enormous responsibilities in exchange. Likewise with wealth (commercial contracts, debts, social obligations to support the kingdom or the poor or whatever) and with authority (duties and responsibilities, people who depend on you, ability to be ordered by superiors). I haven’t quite worked out how it will work mechanically yet (I think that will depend a lot on how the rest of the game works mechanically) but the goal is get a good balance of benefit and complication whatever level you take in each category. The catch is that you can’t opt to not put the full number of points into the categories: your character has to have help and obligations to somebody or something, but what it is is your choice.

So, that’s what I have so far, besides what I’ve mentioned in the prior reviews. My end goal is a fluid, action-packed game with simple rules and engaging play (hah, not asking much here). I’ll discuss further rules ideas as they come to me, and probably start elaborating on my setting a bit if there’s any interest, but it’s strongly influenced by the likes of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Lieber, and H. Rider Haggard, with dashes of mythology, history, and folklore for good measure.

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