Apocalyptic of the Day: Magic, Part I.

11 Jan

This goes without saying: different systems do different things with different aims.  Some do them well (Forgotten Realms); others do it poorly (I’m looking at you 7th Sea).  But, nothing is honestly more varied across systems as is a game’s magic system (I developed physical combat in response to most other game’s and even this game’s magic system; mostly because physical combat in tabletops was so…freaking…boring).  The point is clear and full of candor: magic systems vary across the board, not because they should be different, but because at its base cultural nature, magic is esoteric.  The aim of the post is to point this fact out and demonstrate how it is represented in a number of games, all based on one specific type of spell: the Firebolt/Fireball.  I will focus on the most “free-form” of systems first, moving to the most stringently defined systems, such as D&D.

The Freeform Systems

I fully realize that I am boiling this down to a very small subset of games that utilize this system, the Storyteller, to one specific company.  White Wolf revolutionized the idea of how magic should work, defining by rank the power of magic, and by how the caster could use it, a spell’s flavor.  A vampire, for example, having lost its connection with the world and personal soul could no longer use magic, except through their vitae.  The undead caster could create flame through the utility of their blood, generating a small flame no larger than the size of a candle up to a massive flame the size of a roiling inferno.  More often that not, however, due to the lack of structure offered by games such as D&D, this became a race to do as much Direct Damage as possible against another undead target.

Mage, on the other hand, was intentionally designed to cast and do hardly anything else.  Sure, there were rules on swords, guns, and motorbikes; these paled in comparison to the freeform magic system found in these pages.  Generally, its rules were clear, precise, and offered structure to the murk of the magic of the World of Darkness.  At its base, a magic user could expect to generate spells that violated the rules of Paradox (essentially, the natural perception of the world) and fully allow themselves to be taken from this reality of existence.  The means through which to solve this was upon the shoulders of the player to make it seem as if the spell occurred naturally.  For example, spilling a gas can and lighting the gasoline fumes to create flames, then hurling magic off those flames that simulate or seem to be occurring naturally.  While this is an interesting facet through which to work, rote spells became the crutch for the caster that did not want to consider how their spells would affect the threads of reality.  With the addition of this crutch, Mage became Vampire 2.0, essentially focusing caster power entirely around their rank of magical understanding around a specific purview: Forces.

Magicka, the video game, is a great example how providing a structure to casting in a freeform fashion can be equally immersive and pleasurable.  By combining spells logically, a user can cast a Fireball spell by combining Earth and Fire, then they can empower it by casting Arcane, Earth, and Fire.  They can imbue their weapons with this flame.  They can combine and evolve their magic and their spells as they set fit for the situation at hand.  This is refreshing, if limited to the world in which the game occurs, because it provides a structure to the the freeform.

Strict Magic: 

For simplicity sake, I will be focusing only on D&D and World of Warcraft here.  Suffice to say, in D&D’s publication history, I should have no issue in coming demonstrating that which I was writing early.  At its barest essence, the Level Accrued Spell Slots inform the player thusly: if your character is level X, then they can expect to use spells Y of which you get to prepare for use a number of times a day, and then the spells, Z, that the caster readied for that day’s consumption.  At level 1, your character is obviously not that powerful and only can “slot” in their memory around 8 spells per day.  A mage at level 20, however, can slot 60 spells!  This behooves the developer to craft new spells, more spells, and balance spells constantly.  The 3.5e Spell Compendium offered the player and Dungeon Master, for example, “over 1,00 of the best spells from previously published Dungeons & Dragons game supplements and campaign settings!”  An amazing feat indeed.  The player looks to their class, then to their spell list, then to the spells in the game, figuring out which to prepare.  In my experience, however, these spells hardly ever changed though.  And, I’ll be damned if every starting caster did not take Magic Missile or Sleep as at least two of their spell options.

Yet, I digress.  We’re talking about fire spells!  Here’s but a few examples of the fire associated with Firebolt/Fireball: firebolt, fireball, delayed blast fireball, flamestrike (it’s a single target fireball, dammit), fireblast… I can seriously keep going. But here’s a sample entry, taken from


Evocation [Fire]

Level: Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: standard action
Range: Long (400 ft. + 40 ft./level)
Area: 20-ft.-radius spread
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Reflex half
Spell Resistance: Yes

Everything you want in this spell is done for you!  You get it the spell at Powerlevel X, it requires a Verbal, Somatic and Material component with which to cast, and takes nearly half a round to get the spell off.  Range is non negotiable at 400 + X ft, where X is the level of your character.  There is no adjustment to the radius, and damn it when that little cinder hits.  IT GOES BOOM! Venal, I know, but there is something fun about this spell.  Yet, terribly boring after its tenth cast.  It’s like swinging a hammer, over and over and over again.  It hurts and does the job, but damn… I didn’t have to think about anything.

World of Warcraft took this idea as well, representing Fireball as a direct damage, bread and butter spell for the leveling mage or a DPS raiding mage (I know, I know; not all the time.  I never was a mage).  It gets more powerful the further you level and the more you talent, dealing more damage, costing less mana, and getting no more interesting than D&D’s version.


This is no tso much a critique because each system has its own merits and flaws!  Nothing’s perfect and if it works FOR that world, there should be little issue.  In my next post, I will discuss how Cultura attempts to have the player develop their character’s bread and butter spells for themselves and what all you can do with a “fireball” spell aside from punch someone in the mouth.  ‘Til next time!

1 Comment

Posted by on January 11, 2013 in Accountability, Cultura, Game, Geek, Magic, World Building, Writing


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One response to “Apocalyptic of the Day: Magic, Part I.

  1. Animockery

    January 11, 2013 at 8:31 pm

    Great summary, and knowledgeable. thanks for sharing


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