Friday, July 23, 2010

Doing in the Wizard?

I've been pondering, of late, what "Low Magic" really means. Yes, the easy answer is to say "Look at D20 3.x edition and cut that by 75%." It's also a bit tounge-in-cheek, I suppose, and irreverent, but whatever, it's fun to mock games that we don't like and don't play. So my answer has always been that I like a low magic gaming experience, or at the very least, a game in which remains magical, whatever that means.

It's not just as simple as a single scale with D20 gonzo magic on the one hand and a completely mundane world on the other. It's not just the amount of magic, but the level of magic seen, how flashy it is, how spectacular it is versus how subtle it is. Another aspect of the issue in my mind is the cost. The typical fantasy game - or at least the modern day and age where we feel we are entitled to anything we want without consequence - have trained us to look at magic as "just another tool to be used" and that there are few if any downsides. The endless arguments recently online among the younger gamers who look at Vancian magic as some sort of cheat and that a wizard just isn't being wizardly unless he's throwing spells every single round as if he were carrying some sort of Star Trek phaser that only runs out of power when it's convenient to the plot.

So just the other day, I pulled out of my gaming closet a copy of the old Game of Thrones RPG from the defunct Guardians of Order. (Yes, he's going to talk about those novels again!) Those of us familiar with the books will know that magic is extraordinarly rare and low key, if it even exists at all most of the time. What magic we know does exist for sure is fraught with peril and exacts a terrible price for whatever boon it might grant. The game captures this motif by effectively removing magic entirely except for a vague and difficult to interpret chapter that gives a general outline of how to handle magic. Essentially, it's governed by what you want to do and what tools you have and is very symbolic, i.e., bathing a child in hot ox blood to grant him strength and courage. And it always comes with a price and a high chance of something going terribly wrong.

So, my question for whomever actually still reads this thing I can so rarely update, is this: what would the effect be if I were to "tune out" a great deal of the magic level of even a low magic game? Would I be entirely unfair if I were to consider doing this for real?

If I removed permanent items (all those lovely +1 swords, magic carpets, and cubic gates) and simply left expendable items like potions, low charged wands, and scrolls, how would everything else have to be changed? Obviously, creatures like gargoyles and others that required magic weapons to affect would be significantly more dangerous. It'd become a requirement for a wizard or priest with some appropriate spells to deal with them as even the most powerful warriors in the world wouldn't even be able to put a chip in them. OF course, I could compensate by removing the requirement for a magic weapon to hit and instituting a version of D20's Damage Reduction mechanic instead. So yes, a powerful fighter could harm a gargoyle, but it'd be tough going for him. I could create a spell or two for the wizards and priests to temporarily empower a mundane weapon with the power of magic. At this point, spellcasters become far more powerful relatively speaking, and perhaps even an integral part of life as every community would need one or three to defend them against the horrors of the wilds lurking on all sides. Every community might host a caster and travelling casters might find themselves made honored guests as locals conive to keep him there, perhaps marry him off to unwed daughters and anchor him in place.

Taking it another step, I've often thought of how the matter is handled in D20modern (yes, another D20 game, but at the moment they serve as decent models) wherin casters are "prestige classes" that cannot be taken until later in the career of an adventurer. It might be possible to follow the same kind of model with 0D&D or AD&D by adjusting the spells per level of the wizard and priest classes to decrease the number of spells and push off gaining new spells to later levels. Perhaps even limiting what spells are available. No more magic missile, fireball, and meteor strike. Instead, only lower key spells are available. Or perhaps only certain schools such as necromantic and diniation (the concept of a character reading bones or entrails to helop the party out entertains me somwhat). I'm pretty sure that at this level, even the oldest old school gamers would start objecting.

But what I'm really interested in at this point, is how people would react to the GM removing magic almost in entirety? There are no casters, no permanent magic items excpet, perhaps, for ancient holy relics that come with enough attached strings to make even the most foolhardy players think twice about picking them up. No potions, scrolls, wands, or staves. No easy access to healing and disease curing. The only magic that would be allowed would be intricate and dangerous rituals that are intended to accomplish one set aim, such as trading a life for a life to hopefully raise a needed hero from the dead to fight one last time to protect the innocent. How would this function in terms of a D&D game model? Or would the system simply not be able to handle it?

I'm curious to listen to the thoughts of others on this.