(Or, Specifically, Making Magic Work For Your Game)
Let’s talk about the Magic System!
When our founding fathers laid out the Wayfinder magic system, they had a number of goals in mind. Jefferson wanted to make sure that it facilitated everyone having fun in game. Adams wanted it to contribute to making cool scenes. Ben Franklin wanted spell selection to be fun for people who like toying with game mechanics. Washington made sure that the players who just wanted to kill people with a sword and not worry about spending points could do so. And, perhaps most importantly, Hamilton wanted to make sure that the system was modular.
What does that mean?
In short, Wayfinder Magic being “modular” means that the system isn’t set in stone. It can easily be altered, amended, stripped down, built up, squeezed, stretched, scrambled and recombobulated. It can, and should, be modified to suit the Story. Doing so can create a novel game experience for players who think they’ve seen it all, and prove an invaluable tool for tying characters to the setting and the tone of your game.
Let’s look at some of the ways that we can hack the system, shall we?
More or Less Points!
The first and easiest place to flex the magic system is by giving players more or less point to play with. In a usual high-fantasy Wayfinder game, players have 30 points to spend on various abilities.
But if you want magic to be rarer and more special, you can reduce the number of points players can spend– this may convince more players to be warriors, since a sword is always a sword, and it doesn’t actually take much away from mages or clerics, since we rarely use all of our abilities in a Wayfinder game– it just makes them think more carefully about how to use their points… though Jefferson recommended you not go below 15 points unless you want magical characters to only really have one trick each.
Alternately, if you want to write a game where spells are flying in every direction, where there’s frequent horn blasts, and anyone and everyone is decked out in talismans, then you can open the flood gates and give people more points. Ben Franklin recommended you not boost it above 40 points or so, or mages begin to become disproportionately powerful in a dis-empowering way– but I’m not so sure about that. Sure, a fifty-point mage can blow a horn and cast Death by the power of 7 on as many as six or seven people… numerous times in a game. But then, almost every mage with 50 points probably has an absorb or block handy, and an artisan with fifty points can give everyone on his team a protection from spell talisman and still have enough left over for Talismaniac and Steelskin Limbs. We don’t know what the ability economy will look like at these point levels, because we haven’t experimented at this level of play, for the most part. You could be the trailblazer!
Adjust Ability Costs!
A second, more subtle tool in your arsenal of system hacks is adjusting the cost of various abilities in the point-buy system. This influences the players’ decisions when it comes time to pick abilities, and can reward them for playing along with your themes and your world background.
Example 1: If you want the game to be more dark and dangerous feeling, make healing spells 1 or 2 points more expensive, and slap a similar discount onto some spooky abilities like Weakness, Curse, and Corruption Hex. The end result is that the abilities you discounted will likely be more pronouncedly present in your game than they usually are, which will drive home your dark overtones, and the people who do splurge on healing despite the price hike are rewarded by having their character’s gifts be rarer and more special. They are the candle in the darkness you’ve created.
Example 2: In The Shattered World (Intro and Finale this last year!) there were five realms with different magical properties, and mages from those realms tended to specialize in magic that was resonant with the realm they hailed from. Depending on their character’s birthplace, they got discounts on some spells and inflated prices on others. This both tied them more innately to the setting, which is always good, and meant that mages had spells which were thematically unified instead of a toolbox with this-and-that in it, which we wanted.
So you’ve probably created a number of groups that your players will be part of! They’re each cool in their own individual way, right? One of the best ways to showcase each team’s unique flavor is to give each group their own system hacks. This is a great way to simultaneously empower the players AND trick them into playing their group in the way that you envisioned. Just remember that if one group’s hack is obviously better than another’s, whether it’s more powerful or more fun, the groups may become envious of one another. Try to balance the hacks against each other.
Example 1: The members of the mage’s university all studied a similar spellcasting style. Give them the Coven Mage variant for free! This reminds them that they should be working together and encourages them to build their characters in a cooperative, tactically supportive way, which is great.
Example 2: You don’t want to force everyone from Sylvia to play clerics, but since Sylvia has a major religious overtone, it’d be better if they had a high concentration of clerics. Give the Sylvian group a discount on a cleric spell related to their faith, or even a free variant, and you’ve encouraged undecided players to play clerics for the free ability and distinguished the Sylvan priests from those of other religions. Two birds, one stone!
Example 3: At Finale last year, the players were groups of elite specialists working on a secret mission. I wanted to make sure the players knew that their characters were special, so I handed out a lot of team-based bonuses. But if you have the luxury of smallish groups, and knowing how many players you’re casting into each, you can create teams of specialists. For example, there was a team of five mages, each of which was particularly adept at one of the schools of magic. I laid out the five specializations and the bonuses they conferred and let the group decide amongst themselves who would be which. Suddenly, each of them was an archetype with their own area of expertise– and the rest of their character creation and development was stimulated by the process of dividing up the roles and powers I gave them.
Add, Subtract And Modify!
Of course, it’s not all about manipulating point totals, costs, and other numbers… we can use brute force.
What if you just don’t like rogues? What if, like me, you absolutely despise them? What if they have no place in your game? Cut them out! Is necromancy banned in this kingdom, and it’s unlikely any hero would know about it, and it’s a plot point that only the bad guys can make zombies? Strike the necromancy spells from the cleric’s list! You can take things away from the system quite easily if you decide far enough in advance of your game, and can brief the staff members who will teach the magic system.
Did you think of a super cool spell, variant, or system hack, for the game or even for just one group? Add it right into your game! Just be prepared for a zillion questions about how it interacts with every other spell and ability in the system. Write the hack down in a clear and concise manner. Here’s some examples I just made up (and feel free to use them):
Artisan Modification Ability: Enchant Monster Weapon (6 Points): An artisan can enchant a weapon too big, heavy or otherwise clumsy to wield so that it its weight is reduced and balance improved; any warrior may wield it, though it remains too cumbersome to swing quickly or expertly. However, if it is imbued with a warrior’s soul, the weapon can be wielded with the same swiftness and skill as a sword.
Mage Variant: Chi Vampire (10 Points): A chi vampire is skilled at not only draining his victim’s abilities, but leeching them for himself. Whenever a chi vampire successfully Weakens a victim, he saps their strength and expertise for himself, allowing him to wield a sword competently for the next five minutes. Whenever he successfully Blinds a victim, he steals their vision, allowing him to sense spirits and hidden rogues for the next five minutes. Whenever he successfully Feebleminds a victim, his mind races, raising the circle of his next spell by 2 (this bonus does not stack with those gained from other sources).
Cleric Variant: Psychopomp (2+ Points): A psychopomp is a skilled guide in the spiritual world, and can take other willing subjects with them into spirit form by guiding them in meditation or prayer. The psychopomp can bring along one subject, plus one more for each additional point they spend on this variant. The subjects must maintain contact with the psychopomp at all times, or they will become separated and lost in the spirit world, drawn towards Re.
That should be enough to give you the idea, right?
So, finally, you can tweak abilities in such a way that the entire flavor of the ability or even the class as a whole change.
For example, at Finale, we had a group of weird druids who had nature-powers. There isn’t really a good fit for that archetype amongst our usual classes, so I altered a number of cleric powers. I made it so that they couldn’t use heal or holy bolt, but could get more bandages than normal per point, provided they wrap the subject in actual leaves. I gave them a weirder, more accessible version of resurrection that brought people back as an enlightened nature-lover, which only needed to be performed in contact with plant life. And I let them buy Spirit Form for less points, but specified that they could only travel through natural settings while in spirit form– they couldn’t cross roads or enter buildings. And those three changes radically altered both the feel of the group and they way they played the game, simulating a druidic class within our system.
Also note how none of those hacks made our reacting-to-magic workshop take any longer– they were all things which only needed to be explained to the people casting the spell. I put the information on their group background sheet and warned the teacher of the cleric casting class that there would be questions about it. I encourage you to keep reacting-to-magic simple, and let casting be the cool, complex part.
Truly memorable games often have really unusual configurations of abilities. Advanced players, especially, have a fun time being challenged to use the system in bizarre ways. I don’t have guidelines for this, but I do have examples!
Dylan Scott’s game Terrors of the Earth featured a team who were magic addicts with little supernatural ability of their own. They were, collectively, a single 30-point mage. They had daggers, and thirty points worth of abilities they had to decide, as a group, how to spend and allocate between them. They had an awesome time figuring that out, and this was one of those situations where placing heavy restrictions on advanced players can enhance their game immensely: counter-intuitively, it is actually empowering to play the underdog under the right circumstances.
Also from Terrors of the Earth (gosh, Dylan, how you even be so smart?) was a “Bard” class I found delightful. A traveling minstrel who has been following a party of adventurers around, entertaining them and writing a ballad about their quest, is bound to pick up a few tricks here and there. So the Bard was given a short sword, 15 points, and access to abilities from every class– except that he could only buy abilities that the rest of his team had also bought, since he learned it from watching them.
In the Legendary series from a few years back, some players played constructs of manifested magical energy that had been created by mages. They were called called Wyrdlings. Because a Wyrdling was designed to perform a spell that the mage needed to use often but didn’t want to devote their own time to, Wyrdlings got 40 points at character creation… but could only spend those points on a single ability to be used over and over again. Wyrdlings also had a special bond with their master, and could follow them through astral travel automatically and were not repelled by their master’s repulsion spells. It was really sweet. Man, I miss Wyrdlings.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about the magic system as a part of our Call For Summer Stories blog series is that this is a relatively new frontier. System hacks are an exciting way to get players involved in your vision, but too few games actually take the time and energy to utilize them. As game writers, we have very little control over the game once it has actually begun, so if we want certain outcomes, we have to stack the deck in our favor. And the magic system presents a powerful tool in our campaign to trick all of our friends into making the story unfold how we intend.
Just remember when trying out a new idea what the ultimate goals of the magic system, and, in fact, adventure games are: To create cool and engaging scenes. To empower and immerse the players. To express and explore a central question, thesis or philosophy. And, of course, to have fun!
Happy game writing!
Original post 1/15/14