Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Fleeting Images

The idea, not the spell
I've been thinking about magic lately in the world of D&D. According to the designers of D&D, the system is extremely adaptable, and usable for many different styles of play. However, the rules of magic are pretty limiting, and give D&D magic a "feel" that is known as Vancian - after Jack Vance's novels, where magic was well-defined and able to be used up. This translated to the spell slot system of modern D&D.

This all correlates to Sanderson's First Law. In D&D, the players solve conflicts with magic. Therefore, the rules of magic have to be extremely well-defined. Too much flexibility means the players start using Prestidigitation to kill enemies. But rigidity has its drawbacks as well - magic users need to be able to apply choice to their casting, since RPGs hang on the ability to make choices in-character.

Because of the strictness of the D&D magic system, many people have made their own. I'm not about to do that (yet), but I wanted to talk about a specific part of the D&D magical world that brings up a lot of discussion - magic items.

Be warned: this article is a bit rambling. It ends with some neat ideas, though.

Persistent Magic

AKA Curmudgeonly magic
Magic item crafting is one of the holy grails of RPG design.

You have to create a system that is simple enough for a player to engage with it. You have to create a list of materials and a way for the player to gain those materials.You have to balance the system so major magic items cost more resources than minor magic items, and a low-level party can't just use 100 days of downtime and make a legendary sword. And you have to have enough flexibility in the system that the players have a chance to make unique gear as well as the items listed in the DMG.

Needless to say, that balance is nearly impossible to achieve.

But in D&D, those underlying assumptions about magic make it even more complex. Magic has to be well-defined, and it has to be limited in usage. But there's another property of magic that isn't obvious until you start reading into the magic item rules.

It comes down to how persistent the magic is - basically, is magic linked to a specific form, or does magic exist beyond a single form?

An example to illustrate.

Let's say you are a wizard, interested in crafting a magic item. You find a magical tree, ripe with enchantments, and cut off a branch to make a magic staff. Does the branch retain the properties of the tree? Or does it become a mundane branch? Or even a mix of the two - it doesn't have the tree's properties but it is more easily turned into a magic staff of any kind?

If the branch keeps the tree's properties, then the tree wasn't magical on its own. There was something connected to the tree, and it exists even if the parts of the tree are removed. Think of it like a blessing - the wood had an extra blessing on it that remains no matter where the wood is.

However, if the branch becomes mundane, then the tree was feeding the branch magic, and the magic relied on the form of the tree (roots, leaves, whatever) to make the branch magical. This could also be true for the third option, if the branch's former connection to the tree simply makes it more receptive to magic. This is less like a blessing and more like a Hallow spell. The tree is sacred, cutting a branch means it's not connected to that sacred magic anymore.

In D&D, magic isn't persistent. Magic relies on a very specific form, and if that form is broken, the magic doesn't work.

This makes crafting systems even more difficult to make.

Form over Function
"Hand" seems to be a useful form
First, though, I want to talk about how I concluded that form matters.

First, take a look at potion rules. Most potions contain one ounce of liquid, and must be completely used up to take effect. (DMG pg. 139-141). "Once used a consumable item loses its magic."

This implies that the potion only takes effect if a certain amount is used, not more, not less. You can't divide a healing potion among two creatures and have each one heal 1d2+1 HP. For some reason, it doesn't work.

Next, let's look at the Paired Items rules (DMG pg. 141). If you have a magical set of boots, bracers, gauntlets, or gloves, you need both of them to gain the benefit. If you try to wear only one, you gain no benefit. Why would that affect something like Gloves of Thievery? Do you use both hands to pick someone's pocket? No - it must be because the form of the pair matters.

Finally, let's look at material components. I believe that before a spell is cast, D&D assumes that the material components have no magical properties. Why? Well, to start, Silver has many more uses than Gold, and is altogether a more powerful magical item. However, it's worth a tenth of the price of gold. That makes little sense, unless magic is a property given to the metal rather than an innate property of the metal.

Also, saying things like tiny tarts (PHB pg. 280) have some kind of innate magical power gets a bit ridiculous.
All possible, thanks to pastries
So, magic isn't found in objects randomly, and spells/magic items/potions are the specific combination of materials that capture magic, instead of being put together by magic.

This makes things even more complicated, because suddenly magic item crafting stops becoming "eye of newt and leg of bat" and start heading towards random experimentation with weird objects until you find a magical effect.

Imagine the wizard who just covered gloves in different patterns and oils until he found one combination of them that made them magical. That sounds boring as heck for a player character to actually do.

A Better Way?

Now, if all this is true, then why did I write about the innate magical properties of minerals a couple weeks ago? Why am I putting together a huge system that allows players to take advantage of the magic in monsters to make their own magic items?

Well, mostly because I don't like the idea that magic is just happenstance and random chance. The lack of persistent magic in D&D doesn't jive with the need for well-defined, limited use magic that can be used to solve conflicts.

I much prefer a system where certain items have certain properties, and spells are more about capturing those properties. You can even justify spell slots with this method - spellcasters carefully train their minds to act as a "nest" for spells. By creating a specific form in their mind, they can prepare and release spells like they were capturing spirits.

This is a world with persistent magic - where there's a little magic in every rock and tree, and turning them into something else doesn't take that magic away. This concession allows crafting to be feasible, while giving it the flexibility to allow players to experiment. It forgoes simplicity to make a system that is functional and deep.

Perhaps someday I'll make a PDF with crafting rules and mineral properties...

But not today! If you're interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend you check out all the different articles I've linked here. There's a lot of good ideas in there.

Why you gotta be so complicated, magic?
Thanks for reading!

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