What would you give up for magical powers? Your health? Your physical strength or speed? Your sanity? Your ability to connect with the people around you?
Here’s an idea for an alternate, relatively system-neutral rule for magic in RPGs. The theme is sacrifice.
- Magic is dependent on its own stat; something along the lines of Willpower in White Wolf games (although that’s used for other purposes) or just Power in Call of Cthulhu. Let’s run with “Power” for now. The more you have of that stat, the more magic you can do and the more effectively you can do it.
- “Mage” is not a class, even in a class-based system. The default value for Power is zero. Anybody can increase it from during character creation, or at appropriate times during the course of play.
- Each point you sacrifice from some other stat gets added to your Power. If a strict one-to-one tradeoff proves problematic in playtesting, this can be changed to a sliding scale of some sort, but the basic principle is the same: to gain magic, you give something else up.
- The details don’t matter. Your character might have lost some of their native strength because they spent their days poring over musty books instead of exercising. They might have promised its very essence to some demonic or angelic being. Otherworldly energies might be slowly consuming their body. They might have just breathed in a few too many fumes in the alchemy lab. The details are up to you, but the result is the same.
In terms of the game-world fiction, a system like this is where you get your magic-users’ eccentricities. The frail sorcerer who can’t go faster than a walk. The unhealthy necromancer wracked with coughing. The crazed cultist. The reclusive wizard shut away in a tower because they don’t know how to talk to people.
Exactly how Power translates into magic is outside the scope of what we’re talking about today, and in any case should be adjusted depending on what parent game you’re playing. I’m thinking a system would be good if it encourages three distinct play styles:
- People who decide it’s not worth it, and just do without,
- People who don’t want to sacrifice a lot, but are able to get a small power or trick or two at an acceptable price, and
- People who go all-in, and cheerfully sacrifice their characters’ other stats to a significant degree in return for truly impressive power.
A system that ends up with everyone sacrificing just a point or two to get a spell or two is probably balanced wrong (unless that fits the goals of a specific game, of course). A system where even crippling your other stats for magic is the obvious best strategy, or where nobody is willing to make the trade at all, is fundamentally broken. But with the right set-up (a geometric but not exponential return on investment?), people should be able to fall into any of the three categories above and have a good play experience.
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The idea comes with a contrapuntal magic-item creation system.
- Minor magic, like potions or charms or other limited/one-use items, can be made by just slapping together the right arcane ingredients, as usual.
- Anything big and permanent requires another sacrifice of stat points.
- Any stat can be used to power magic item creation, but the choice of which might have a mechanical effect. A magic sword might do more damage if invested with Strength, but be better at hitting the opponent if invested with Agility. It might glow when enemies approach if invested with Wisdom, etc.
- Wizards making things for personal use will often want to sacrifice their Power, though. Other stats sacrificed into an item are gone forever, but if you put Power into an object, then you still have access to that Power (in addition to its other effects) as long as you are holding on to the object. If you invest enough Power into a single object, you might maintain a connection to it, and access to at least a fraction of its Power, even over great distances.
- On rare occasions, the death of a highly magical creature might release Power into nearby objects. The spear that pierces a dragon might become something more, for example, or bathing in the dragon’s blood could even enchant a person in some way.
- It is possible that destroying a Power-invested object will allow that Power to return to the object’s creator, at least as long as conditions are right. If conditions are wrong… maybe it just destroys you. Maybe the feedback through the link destroys the creator. Maybe everything within a hundred miles is filled with spirits pulled howling from the void. When a large amount of magical energy is being released in an uncontrolled way, there’s no telling what will happen.
This makes me happy because it does a lot of things at once. It makes major magic items rare and precious, and gives them variety and individual stories (whose stats are powering this?). It gives players a reason to go monster-hunting without making every beast into just a list of “spell components.” It makes a magic-user’s tools of power (their staff, wand, hat, etc.) more important and more personal. It gives players a number of trade-offs to consider.
It also ties the system into a base of reference fiction. You get enchantments forged – or destroyed – in the deaths of their creators. You get Sauron and his One Ring, and you see why he so desperately wanted to get the ring back. You get Dream and his ruby (from the opening storyline of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic). You get Sigurd (Siegfried) in the Nibelungenlied. I like the epic feel that such a pedigree gives.