Monday, June 20, 2011

RoadTrip Inspiration

As may have been mentioned before, Shieldhaven and I go on a number of road trips, usually to Georgia, which involves many hours of natter. And not a little of this natter, of various sorts, is about random design ideas and the like. The chief topic of discussion this time were a pair of branching ideas, stemming from his thinking about how to make martial combat in D&D 4e feel more parry and thrust... have a certain amount of dynamic action, where one can actually respond to attacks in a way that is logical given one's particular class (read: Martial School). One hopes he will expound further on the topic, as it was a really cool idea, and I contend that it is not that difficult, in 4e, to do something like this by adding minor action powers to classes.

However, when he was first pitching the idea, I managed to completely misunderstand what he was trying to do, sticking on the point of, "a purely martial system." Which made me think about, "wait, why no mages? What if there were NOTHING BUT mages?"

Now, it occurs to me that most of the time, when one winds up talking about any given tabletop game system, one is actually talking about combat systems. There's a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that it is more clear-cut to reduce combat actions to roll something, do something, than the huge and open field of social endeavors that people can undertake.

And then there's magic. Magic, especially in earlier editions of D&D, is pretty much a box of tools a mage can use to fight, sure, but realistically they have a potentially huge number of applications, limited only by whether or not you're the sort of person who would do well in Spontaneous Competitions in Odyssey of the Mind. So what happens in a world where everyone is basically a wily tool-user, and there's none of the beloved hack-and-slashers to stand before our dress-wearing wimpiness and take the damage?

Well, first of all, rather than dispense with the question of why there are no fighter PCs, let's come up with some answers.

Idea #1: Magic the Gathering Style-- there are fighters, sure. They're all summoned creatures, rather than PCs.

Idea #2: Dune in Reverse: Martial ability has died out in the world due to the high level of available magical protection from same.

Idea #3: Haven's Idea-- you can have martial ability, but (in a non 4e game, I assume) at least half of your levels must be in a spellcasting class.

Now let's look at how each of these might change the game, in overview:

MtG Style: Doesn't actually change it much; except it might make it more complicated to work initiative. You may actually find yourself running combat which is a combination of typical, "I swing, I hit" combat, with MtG-ish utility spells and new summons interrupting it. I have a sneaking suspicion that this would result in super slow combat rounds, if there's more than two players at all. Much like MtG itself, it's probably better suited for running duels between two players, or, well, playing a GM-less game, or a game where the GM is not actually running combat, but rather setting up combat situations between two players. And the players wind up basically running sub-characters during combar right out of the monster manual, and...

I suspect someone has totally run MTG as a tabeltop game before. Yep. So been done.

Which doesn't mean I wouldn't consider how to do it myself, sometime. I mean... mmm, taglines!

Reverse Dune Style: This is the one that appeals to me most, at first blush, as the idea of completely doing away with swing-and-hit combat intrigues me. The game would have to be structured carefully though, as the temptation of solving all your problems with a well-placed fireball (or the frustration of not being able to do so), could easily render the game unplayable in any real way. For something like this, I might make something similar to the Paths in Mage: The Awakening, with a narrow band of thematic spells available to mages of specific paths. You can pretty much do away with all combat-enhancing spells, trading them perhaps for super defensive stuff. The thing is, there's some really wonderful stuff it'd be a shame to do away with... shape-shifting spells? Frankly, when you get to this point, you're pretty much writing a whole different game. Which I don't have a problem with, but requires a lot more thought about how to make it cool. Basically, the social aspect takes on a whole bunch of additional significance, as you have the problem of a bunch of super powerful people who need a good reason that they're staying in line. Maybe a good way to do some classic Good v. Evil, "and then we faced down the Archdemon" sort of games.

Actually, thinking about this makes me think about what a Mage: The Awakening game would be like taken out of the modern setting, and put in an antiquated or fantasy type setting.


(Also, it suddenly occurs to me that one could try running a 4e game limiting the available classes and powers in the classes to Implement Only, and seeing how that went, and what, if anything, would be needed to augment such a game. Mainly, statting NPCs and monsters would be tricksy, and you'd have to make sure that defenses were up to the challenge, because... well, the whole glass cannon thing.)

Haven's Idea: By far the easiest thing to do in an existing system. You could run this easily in 3.5 or in 4e, with limited hackery, and then you'd just have to bound things by the conceits of your setting. Probably the best option if one wants to just focus on developing one's setting, rather than mucking about trying to get the rules to do what you wanted. I would probably also (you'd want to do this in idea #2 also), want to revamp magic item creation, if I was going 4e, and knowing me and the sort of combat I enjoy, I would. Which is a ton of rules hackery in and of itself, but Haven Has started This conversation with much aplomb, and the chance that I'd poach from some of his ideas is pretty good, even though they're not really set up for 4e. As has been pointed out, there's a good way to make magic items not strictly necessary for progression: include the scale-ups as part of leveling, so the math works out in terms of bonuses. Having items that improve/change/adapt other things, but don't mess with the bonuses you need to compete at level is kind of important.

Anyway, this all sort of led up to me trying to quantify the actual magic system for the game system I'd like to create: for a Psionic Game. Because Magic is Different From Psionics, but really, I'd better spend some time talking about what the magic actually does.


  1. For a significant span of my recent 4e game, the party was four arcane characters, a token martial character, and a token primal character... does that count? I tried to get them to think of their group as a cabal with warrior backup, but I don't think they really went in for that concept.

  2. The group clearly needed more healers.