Magic – World Mechanics and Story Device

This week saw the premier of the final Harry Potter movie and the launch party for Magic the Gatherings 12th edition. It’s almost like magic is everywhere, and really, it is at the very core of the fantasy genre. Magic is an integral part of fantasy and fantasy gaming, from magical creatures to spells and worlds formed by raw magical energy. In this article I’ll look at magic in terms of world mechanics and as a story device.

 

Defining Magic

I could look specifically at magic in this article, but then write a similar article on mutation and super powers that wouldn’t add anything new. Rather, let’s group magic, super powers, psionics, amazing technology and everything else that is “abnormal” and call them “world mechanics”. I’m using broad strokes here, but let me explain. Mouse Guard is a game (and comic) with little magic. Mice can talk, but they possess no powers as such or magical artefacts. Mouse Guard’s “world mechanics” are interesting because we can play as mice in a world terrifying to mice. Dungeons and Dragons, on the other hand, lets us use magic to fight magical creatures, and we can become powerful beings that can take on terrifying dragons through the levelling up mechanic. If you think about it, levelling is a type of magic, you would never gain such abilities in real life even with dedicated training. Thus the world mechanics for D&D represent a world that is full of magic. So, I’m going to use “world mechanics” and “magic” interchangeably in this article.

 

Magic has Boundaries

Magic needs to have boundaries, without these boundaries players will feel cheated and confused. Can my wizard become invisible if he casts an invisibility spell? Boundaries (rules) set this out for you. The boundaries then, like I said above, define the world at the same time. Frodo’s ring had power to corrupt, so we understand that in The Lord of the Rings magical items may have a risk involved when they are used.

 

Magic breaks Boundaries

Firstly, as a story element, magic breaks boundaries. Magic lets your characters and NPC’s do things that they would not normally be able to do in the real world. Flight, as an obvious example, is only possible through magic. Because of this, you need to think outside of reality and be creative when designing your sessions and include encounters and NPC’s that bring the reality of the game world into focus and let the players experience that world. It’s no good running a fantasy game where everything is normal by everyday terms, and I’d argue that a normal day even in terms of your fantasy world would be too boring for your players, but there needs to be an obvious difference between the two worlds. A note of caution though, sometimes subtlety really pays of with regards to the differences in your fantasy world and our own, you do want it to all be believable in some way.

Furthermore, magic gives you a reason to break the mould with you game, within reason. In a recent game I introduced a series of earth-nodes that needed to be used in sequence, and did not let players move as they wished between the nodes. I explained this difference as a consequence of the spell plague, which the players were happy with and I could then stagger encounters out between the different nodes. Because magic and the mechanics of your game world represent the weird and wonderful, take inspiration from the setting and let your creativity flow.

 

Magic is often Limited

Magic has its limits, which is important to remember. If any world mechanic is limitless, it becomes worthless in a way. If everyone can fly, you will need ways to cut that ability at some point and you need to work out the repercussions of giving everyone such an ability. In my opinion, magic becomes more interesting if there is less of it. In the Lord of the Rings, there are only a handful of magical users, which makes characters like Gandalf and Saruman stand out amongst the rest, magic is thus strange and valuable.

Potter Fans at the Premier
Potter Fans at the Premier

At the end of the day magic represents a great device for telling the stories we love, that’s why so many people fell in love with the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings and so many other fantasy stories. Use magic well and your games will be that much more interesting and captivating.

 

If you watched the last Harry Potter, or played MtG during the release party or have any other thoughts about magic, leave a comment. Let’s talk geek 🙂

Take the Survey

If we had goblin spies, we’d send them out to go gather some juicy intel for us. But, as a completely Lawful Good company, we don’t deal with goblins, that’s just not on. Instead, we use our web wiles to find out what you, the reader, are interested in. Please take a moment to complete our survey here. An information we get ultimately helps us develop a better product, which in the end benefits you and the hobby in general. Specifically, if you’ve played one of my modules, The LHC, The Lair of Veo Oqum Ucendi, It Takes One To Gnoll One or Storm of Souls, let us know what you thought by sending us a message from our contact page.

 

Run For Japan – Fun Run Event

In aid of raising funds for those affected by the tsunami and quake in Japan this year, Pray For Japan From South Africa is hosting a fun run at the Pretoria Botanical Gardens. It’s this weekend, and a great chance for all you otaku to make a difference. You can download the file here.

Meet the Cast

Campaign Journal

Follow our Pathfinder campaign as we face monsters, dungeons and the insanity of the Wednesday night gaming group. See the first part of the series here.

The First Session

Funnily enough, our first session was scrapped as far as its placement in the whole campaign. I can’t actually remember why, but I think we spent some time going over the town and campaign setting, as well as introducing our characters. The result was that what actual story developed was insubstantial and easily discarded. So, without any further ado, we’ll have a look at the characters and a little about the players too.

 

The Setting

We are using the Dungeons and Dragons town of Fallcrest (3D Model), a town with a river running through it and a series of caves beneath it. Some of the characters have lived in the town or in the area for some time, while others are new arrivals.

 

Thorn Ravengrin

A tiefling rogue with red skin who likes to show off his white tattoos by wearing only leather pants and a cape. He carries a longsword into battle, which he wields in his right hand, since his left hand was lost in a dungeon trap, where he had to cut it off to escape. His infernal heritage is interesting, as Thorn’s father, Yawldaw Ravengrin, was a Half-Fiend with babau ancestry.

As the campaign has progressed, Thorn has shown an obsession for anatomy and wishes to re-construct the hand he lost. To this end, he has collected several hands from dead foes and studies them in intricate detail.

Thorn is played by Little Johan, who recently became a father and thus owns his very own hobbit.

 

Rapid Wind

An Elven monk wearing peasant clothing and carrying a long spear and sling. Because he’s mute, Rapid Wind keeps a chalk board around his neck (a nifty little prop to role-play with). It is apparent that something terrible happened in Rapid Winds past, which is why he can’t speak. Rapid Wind practices an elven form of unarmed combat known in the common tongue as Leaping Foot, a bastardised description derived from the elvish name for a style that looks more like a dance than a fighting form.

As the campaign has progressed, Rapid Wind has become very fast, reaching a speed of 55′ at level 3 (at level 4 he can use his ki to move at 75′). He has an old horse companion, Gunthar, that he has saved several times from near disaster during our sessions.

Rapid Wind is played by me, and is probably the most difficult character I’ve ever played. I’ve never played an elf before, except as a GM, and found it challenging to think like an elf, but luckily there’s the Lord of the Rings trilogy to help out. Also, as an introvert, playing a character who can’t speak means that I say very little at the table. Still, it’s been fun playing Rapid Wind, and not being able to speak is worth a load of laughs.

 

Stander Vrok

A half-giant cleric of the church of Torm. Raised by dwarves, Stander was the first character to have his own theme song, which was “Stander Struck” to the tune of “Thunder Struck” by AC/DC. So far the church of Torm has been an important element in the story, even though Fallcrest has only a small congregation.

Stander has had recurring visions and his focus on his quest is unswerving. Despite his size, Stander is not very strong and has often found himself in need of healing, even though he is the party cleric.

Stander is played by Willem, recently married, at who’s wedding reception we all sang along to “Stander Struck” like there was no tomorrow.  I’ll also mention that he and his lovely wife walked in to the Darth Vader theme song, so you have to give him props for that! Willem was the GM for the first few sessions.

 

Densharr Tailchaser

Densharr is a Catfolk who loves to sing (practically all the time). Our party bard, and composer of the epic ballads “Stunder Struck” and “You can’t stop the rod”. Densharr comes from nobility within his clan and is rather well off, and thus supports most of the party. He is often seen taking notes which he hopes to use in composing a major saga.

Densharr has often exhibited the cunning of his kin, and although he seldom gets directly involved in fighting, he has directly influenced the course of many battles and bolstered the resolve of the rest of the team.

Densharr is enthusiastically played by Francois, who I hope will be releasing a sound track of the campaign near the end of the year. Francois keeps track of our wealth and maps out any locations that need mapping, thanks to the power of grid paper!

 

Gimp

The Blue wizard, this little goblin kin is small for his race, making him quite hard to spot. He focuses his magical skills on support magic rather than combat spells and creates many of the items the party uses.

Gimp is the most learned member of the party, and often knows something on any given subject. He has recently been spotted talking to  something over his shoulder.

Gimp is played by Big Johan, who is also the current GM at the time of writing. Johan also GM’s another campaign that Francois and I play in, a D&D 4th Edition game, which is why let Johan get away with more than any GM really should.

 

Serisia

Serisia is also a tiefling and an assassin in the making. She is the only female in the group, and possibly one of the most level headed. Not much else is know about her, but that’s what you get when dealing with these shady types.

Serisia loves her sneaking about, and her acquisition of a magical ring of invisibility means she’s pretty good at it.

Serisia is played by Andries, the local mathamagician. The force is strong with this one, or else he just knows a lot about Star Wars.

 

Conclusion

Other players brought their characters into the game at different times, I’ll introduce them during the relevant parts of the story.

Icon 2011 is around the corner.

Icon 2011 is booked from the 15th to the 17th of July. More information at http://www.rpg.co.za/.

I’ve written a D&D 4th Edition module for the con, called Storm of Souls:

In an age forgotten, seven exquisite weapons known as the Soul Blades were forged. Legend says that the weapons were lost for a time, until a wise magus sought to reunite the weapons. For a long age he sought the weapons, but only managed to recovered six. The seventh weapon, it was said, had a will of its own and strove to flee the magus, leaving death and sorrow in its wake. Now rumours of the Seventh Blade’s return are being whispered in fear. Can the six sister blades be found? Can heroes be found to wield the weapons in this time of need? What secrets lie within the weapons themselves?

 

This is Dungeons and Dragons with a special twist that will have you wanting more. Be part of the six heroes that take up the mythical Soul Blades in the quest to destroy the Seventh Blade.

 

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition for six players and a GM.

 

See you there!

Imagination Gaming

I love PC games, they are easy to get into and the level of immersion is huge. But, like TV we are fed so much visual and audio stimulus that little is left to the imagination. That is the sad thing to me, and why I love role-playing games and boardgames so much. Yes, I know, I’m an idealist, but bare with me. “Analogue games” let us exercise that important skill that is so often neglected by adults: the imagination.

 

A little experiment

Let’s try a little experiment. I’ll describe someone to you, and you try and imagine him in your mind:

A sullen looking dwarf stands before you, his long dust coloured beard hanging to the knees of his short, stumpy legs. His dark eyes seem to stare out into space, chasing some distant thought. The helm on his head is painted blue and gold, with a horn attached to either side. Over a blue tunic he wears a coat of scale mail, well polished but battered by many battles. He leans on a large axe with his right hand, and the thumb of his left hand is slung through his belt.

Now, once you have that image in your mind, skip to the end of this post and see the image I’m describing. Which image was better, the one in your mind or the one below?

With the imagination, anything is possible and anything can be experienced. This is an important tool for the GM as well as the player. When you build your world, your NPC, even your magical items, take a moment to imagine your creation. Not only does it help you describe what you see more vividly, but it helps you spot obvious flaws in your creation and gives you more ideas to work with. Let’s go ahead and try it (yeah, we’re getting really practical in this post).

Take a moment to imagine one of your major NPC’s, or a character you’re playing if you’re not a GM. Imagine what he or she is wearing, what they are doing and how they feel. Also think about where they are and the things that are influencing them. In my mind, my character is taking a moment to watch the birds (there are birds outside my window now) and he’s feeling the weariness of the day, and the weight of his armour. It’s an unusual moment of peace for this battle weary veteran, and he’s even put his prized maul aside, he’s not thinking of war and monsters right now.

 

Visualisation

Visualising something with your imagination lets you practice or rehears something in your mind. Visualisation helps you achieve your goals by letting you see the steps you need to complete to get there. It’s not only useful for role-playing, athletes use it too, like the race car driver memorising the track before he sets out. When I do martial arts, I sometime just stand still and imagine what  I’ll be doing next. It lets me practice quickly. I think this is a vital skill for any GM.

When we were children, how much easier was it for us to use our imagination. Sometimes a box was the best toy, or a stick. I think we are slowly losing our imagination, outside of role-playing and fiction writing, it’s practically unfashionable to use your imagine. I’d like to get your feedback, what do you think?

Getting the most out of any game, for me, is all about imagination. From PC games to boardgames and role-playing games, I’m the commander, or the spy, or the assassin, and I’m living the game. All games are essentially about escapism, and your imagination is the key to breaking the bonds of earth.

Dwarf
A dwarf warrior, not quite as you imagined him.

 

I’d love to hear from you, so tell us what you think and share some of your experiences.

Starting a New Campaign

Campaign Journal

In this series I’ll be taking you through our bi-monthly Pathfinder campaign that began at the start of 2011. Mostly I’ll just focus on the story, but will also point out some of the lessons we learnt and fun ideas that came up. Unfortunately, it looks like I will be missing the last half of the campaign, but I’ll see if I can organise someone else to continue the story where I left off.

In this post I want to focus on how we got started and all the ground work that was laid before we started playing, which I hope will give you some ideas for your own game.

Picking The Team
The biggest question when we set out, and in most RPG groups, is who is playing. There are always people with different levels of commitment or difficult schedules and finding a time that suits everyone is a bit of a logistics nightmare, especially when everyone is working and has a family. I missed the 2010 campaign because of my busy schedule which left me with only Wednesdays and Fridays open during the week, and Thursdays nights were more convenient for the rest of the guys.

So, we set up a meeting for all interested parties to discuss times. Some of us have played together since meeting on-line, (www.rpg.co.za for South African players), others were relatives or friends of other players, and so on. We drew up a grid of each day and who would be available when. We decided that we would choose one week day and play every two weeks, which would also mean that the impact on our weeks would not be too unmanageable. Wednesday was chosen and we keep our game days to that, although busy schedules and wierd holidays have meant that we’ve played less that twice a month, it does mean that people try and keep Wednesday open.

A number of potential players have not yet pitched for a game and some players have only played a single session, but our core of six players has remained pretty solid. Instead of choosing one person to be the GM, we are taking turns that span a few sessions. This method worked well for the guys in their last campaign, and lead to some interesting results, including a multitude of villains that had it in for the party, each villain the brain child of a different GM.

Picking The Rules
Our next decision was picking a games system. In the 2010 campaign the guys used Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, but there were many other possible available now with our collections of books growing as they have. In the end we chose Pathfinder because it is 3.5 and lets us use all the 3.5 stuff we have.

Picking Pathfinder meant that we didn’t need to learn new rules. This is worth mentioning because, although it is 3.5 compatible, Pathfinder does make some changes. The key though is that when we look up a rule, we look it up in the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, and we haven’t really needed to invest much time learning.

For interest sake, some of the other games that were listed as possibles included Mouseguard the RPG, Call of Cuthullu, World of Darkness, Warhammer Fantasy Role-play and Dungeons and Dragons 4, which at least 3 of us are currently involved in a campaign of.

House Rules
At this point, let me just mention that if you do have a session like this to plan your campaign, be sure to order pizza. In fact, if you remember nothing else from this post,remember the pizza. Good friends and good food makes all the admin seem like fun.

With the rule set chosen we defined a number of house rules, some more bizarre than others:

We use a critical fumble table for 1’s rolled in combat. If you fumble, not only do you miss, but now bad things happens to you, such as loosing your weapon and so on.

Each play must bring a white board marker, since we use a glass pane over a grid map to mark out encounter locations. If each player brings one, we always have a choice of markers and it’s not an issue if someone forgets. You could easily do the same thing with bringing map tiles or maps.

Halflings have hairy feet. This was an odd one, and I brought it up, because I’m a Tolkien nut. Discussing the world makes it more immersive, in my opinion. If you imagine the same things, you share the experience more deeply.

Keep the beer lids. We are keeping beer lids to make into a suit of scale mail. The Yaya Sisterhood have their jeans, we have our scale mail.

Story points. Players can accrue story points both in game and out of game that they can then use to affect the game in a way not normally available to players in Pathfinder, such as to get a re-roll on a dice, changing something in the story or bring in an NPC. You may only ever have 3 story points and you can spend 1, 2 or 3 points to get various effects:

One story point: Re-roll a dice, make an acrobatic move you could not normally make or get extra information from someone.

Two story points: An extra attack, an automatic crit or convince an NPC of something.

Three story points: Avoid death, invent an NPC or change the story.

Character Creation
We decided that any Humanoid character was legal, resulting in a party consisting of a Catfolk, two Tieflings, a Giant, an Elf and a Blue. We discussed the party make-up to try and get a balanced party, and ended up with a multi classed rogue wizard, a wizard, a bard, a monk, a ranger and a paladin. I’ll be introducing the characters in the next Campaign Journal post.

Many other aspect of character creation were decided after the meeting. In fact, nothing was actually decided regarding characters on the day, but the first GM requested that each player send him an email with class, race, name, a short description and a backup character class. We could then go ahead and create a level one character.

In Summary
I think the planning session was very valuable, and our games would probably not have gone as smoothly as it has without the planning meeting. It surely saved us a great deal of email. It was also fun, and we got to shared many war stories and got to meet other role-players, have some great pizza and just laugh about our adventures.

Have you had a similar planning meeting for your campaign or group, please tell us about your experience.

Tell Thrilling Tales