This is a mix of several ideas… and something that I was prompted to put into writing by Brian “Psychochild” Green’s recent design article:
I’m following Brian’s lead here, in that this is a collection of ideas that you can build on or use outright, if you feel so inclined, not so much a proper design document. Since I currently lack programming skills and the independent wealth to hire someone with said skills, well, I probably won’t be making a game with this anytime soon. So, have at it, and if you can make it better, well, so much the better, aye?
The core notion here is to make magic in a game creative and explorative, trying to evoke the flavor of a magical researcher with a degree in MacGyvering their way through game world problems. Most games that use magic are very, very constrained, effectively giving magical equivalents of tech trees rather than letting magic be wild and variable. Players always know what their magical school can do, since the spells are always the same. Individual magic spells tend to have one use and one use only, with far too many of them slotting into Damage Per Second (or per fight) min/maxing.
I’m looking to push the boundaries a bit. I want players to be able to weave magic into new shapes, not unlike how Dumbledore crafted wholly new magical spells here and there, or how Voldemort was able to do things wildly beyond that universe’s “standard” spell set taught to the students. In my mind, magic is wildly creative (even when dangerously destructive), a practice of curious individuals who seek ways to warp reality and go beyond what merely is into the realm of what may be. Pushing and pulling at threads of magic in the tapestry of a magical reality can and should produce new and interesting effects. I’d like to invite players (more Psychochild and Rampant Coyote!) to indulge in a bit of creativity within the game world’s magic system. I’d like to let them play and have fun.
I’ll admit to being significantly influenced by the description of magic in books like Sabriel (a great book on necromantic magic and how it might work for good) and the Dragon Knight series (whose lead character, a timelost modern scholar in a medieval Englandish land, is stuck with learning magic and devising unique solutions to problems). Those iterations of Magic are creative, hardly a list of spells that a stereotypical Mage memorizes and then casts while adventuring.
I’m also influenced by the SquareSoft classic Secret of Evermore, which had a magic system built on “alchemy”, with reagents to mix for various effects. It was somewhere in between, with alchemical spell recipes and little room for experimentation, but a conceptual foundation of using real materials for magical effects, and elemental combinations that produced different effects. (This also forced players to choose between spells that shared ingredients, a curious tactical layer.)
It’s fair to note that many game players don’t necessarily want to be creative, they just want tools to blow up the bad guys, and an overly complex research and exploration system just bogs that sort of player down. Still, the mindset of a creative scientist/mage isn’t something that players often get to play with, and, well… it interests me. Perhaps there’s something viable in here, perhaps not, but since a large part of what I do here is explore, I may as well do so. I love to create game systems that let players explore and dig into possibilities. Less Team Ninja, more Sid Meier, as it were.
So, a few core thoughts I’m building on, though certainly not the only way to run this:
- Magic is comprised of different ingredients, not unlike how matter is comprised of elements found in the periodic table. As such, magical ingredients mixed in different proportions and in different ways will produce a wide variety of effects.
- Magic can be used for combat, utility, creation and destruction. Whether a high or low magic world, magic is pervasive, and used in everyday life. A blacksmith uses magic as readily as an archmage, albeit in different ways and to different ends. The spectrum of creativity, power and efficacy is probably wide, but magic itself is neither unusual nor inscrutable. It is almost a science, approachable by anyone with the will and intellect to master it. That said, mystics and religionists do cloak it in pomp and secrecy…
- Magic uses both reagents and mental components (willpower, incantations, emotion, whatever), sometimes together. Totemic magic tends to be a mix of the two, for example. Pure material magic is mostly scientific, just with an expanded periodic table compared to what we’re used to. (Not unlike how dilithium in Star Trek’s magic, er, science fiction system is a variant of quartz with a subspace component… at least, according to some books that try to explain Trek.)
- Magic underlies everything in reality, and as such, nearly everything can be manipulated by a sufficiently talented mage. Interconnections abound, and effects may be far-reaching, spatially or chronologically. The “fabric of reality” is literally envisioned by some, and manipulated as one might manipulate cloth, whether in gross maneuvers of grand sweeping curtains or subtle tweaks of single strings that touch others.
- Magic is a form of energy, and is subject to magical laws of thermodynamics.
- Magic can be seen, tasted, felt, heard and even smelled. A magical “sense” also exists, functioning as a gauge and locator.
Example Game Idea: Music Mage
You play as a Muse, a Music Mage trained in the ways of summoning, channeling and conducting. You use music to control your minions. Changing the music changes their behavior. Perhaps dissonant music is destructive, and harmonious music is healing. Tempo and volume control other aspects of behavior, and conducting different sections of your personal orchestra have different effects.
Say, in one combat, if the orchestra is harmonious and the woodwinds are strongest, a healing wind helps you and your neighbors in an Area of Effect heal spell… but as the woodwinds tire out, you let their volume drop and make the brass section suddenly dissonant. Nearby foes are consequently blasted with summoned shrapnel. Most fall to the assault, but a few runners threaten to call down reinforcements. You quickly get the percussion ramped up to give yourself a speed boost, and shift the dissonance to the strings section for some shrill ranged attacks to take down the runners. Alternating between minor and major keys shifts your defense/offense balance, not unlike balancing speed, weapons and shields in an X-Wing from a central power pool.
Maybe altering the composition of your orchestra sections shifts elemental properties (more cellos, fewer violins means a slight Water edge to string attacks). Altering the balance of your orchestra (more woodwinds, less percussion) effectively shifts your combat focus. Enemy status attacks can alter this on the fly by targeting sections of your orchestra; you can be hamstrung by losing a few percussionists to a targeted sleep spell, for example.
To be sure, much of this particular design is just the Same Old stuff in a new cloak, what with elemental properties, ranged vs. melee combat and so on, just wielding a conductor’s baton, but it could prove interesting and even educational. It doesn’t all need to be about combat either, since environmental puzzles can be built around using music the right way. It’s almost like Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, where the titular Ocarina had magical effects… but in this case, you’re riffing on the magic musical spells as you go, weaving in new effects by changing the music. These changes can be subtle or gross, and need not even affect other effects. The strings can keep up a ranged barrage even as you use the brass and woodwinds to do different things.
Further, you can use music in different ways to deal with environmental or social puzzles. A soothing melody might make diplomacy easier (or a looming dissonant theme might make an ally more threatening to bluff through a situation), and a turbulent woodwind blast might clear a path through the brush.
OK, so that’s one game idea. How about another?
Example Game Idea 2: Master of the Magical Gathering
Will it blend? Master of Magic and Magic the Gathering? More specifically, what would MoM look like if your wizard were more Mark Rosewater (MTG’s lead designer, a guy with a LOT of great articles to share on game design and design in general, including this one that touches on the role of an artist), less Civ disembodied mayor?
Mr. Rosewater has made mention before of the various “knobs” that they have to tune their card designs. Mana cost and color are perhaps the biggest ones, but there are a whole host of mechanics and effects that get used on cards. Even the notion of card speed is a key knob to turn when considering combat resolution and priority on effect resolution. If those knobs were put in the hands of the player in a magical 4X game, where magic spells can be crafted and tuned based on a logical underpinning of constraints and components, you might see something a bit more creative than MOM, though with similar ends.
For example, a 2 mana spell using 1 Life mana, 1 Ether mana might create a Fate Runner if it’s a creature spell, but if it becomes a construction spell, it might be something like a Divine Presence enchantment, making local churches more effective. Same ingredients, different ends, all in the application.
That’s more of a prebaked recipe than creativity, though. Imagine then, if Life mana always served to make construction quicker, healing stronger, and creatures better defended. Tossing a spare Life mana into a particular spell you’re casting might not unlock a wholly new preconceived recipe, but it will have an effect on whatever it is you’re doing. It might enhance your efforts, or subtly shift them. Say, a Life mana rider on a Water/Fire creature summon; the creature doesn’t change its core form, but will be different from other creatures of the same species, say with a bolstered Faith attribute or better inherent leadership. A summoned creature with a Death mana rider might be more menacing, since it inherits a mild Fear aura.
Maybe location matters, too, and spells cast near a mana node are inherently more powerful, or perhaps they are more unstable (or both) due to some resonating interference in the magical leylines or some such. Perhaps sympathetic mana is enhanced by local leylines, and conflicting mana is diminished.
Further, if you can use that magic in various ways, say by molding the landscape and even interpersonal charm spells and such for the diplomacy segment, you step a little bit out of the “magic is for combat” mindset. If there are alternate win conditions, even constructive ones, magic might be used to bolster the methods to reach those ends. Imagine a mage who spent his time and research on new ways to build efficiently, and keep his people happy, earning a civil victory or some such, all the while befuddling or charming the socks off his neighbors (something MoM allowed, but the tools for that path were pretty limited). Magic could be bent to serve many different ends if it were sufficiently flexible.
Of course, devs might have to provide a set of “baseline” spells for players to use if they aren’t inclined to be creative. They would function like the various Mech chassis designs in BattleTech, letting players jump into the action… but rewarding those intrepid game explorers who min/max the living daylights out of complex systems. It does seem that 4X games tend to attract some of that sort of player, and complexity is more of a feature, less of a roadblock.
Interestingly, magic that is built from ingredients rather than recipes need not always behave predictably. Cooking in the real world sometimes produces unintended effects as ingredients intermingle in weird ways. Timing can also be an issue. Throw that Fire magic in early and the artifact sword infilcts a damage over time “slow burn”, but throw it in late in the forging and the sword carries a flame aura that chars (debuff) or flat out disintegrates targets.
It’s also worth noting that at some point, sure, you’re dealing with database management and the finite world of game development. Also, sufficiently dedicated players will datamine everything and post it in a FAQ. That said, in the meantime, players who want to experiment on their own will have tools to do so, and I want to encourage and reward that sort of experimentation.
At any rate, that’s just a pair off the top of my head, more brainstorming than polishing off a real proposal. There are certainly other directions to run with this.
One key might be to balance complexity with playability. It’s also important to avoid feature creep, with too much going on to be fun. Still, BattleTech, MoM, MtG and other games show that complexity isn’t antithetical to good design. Certainly, it has to make sense and serve the goals of the game, and the game should be playable without being a rocket scientist, but it really is nice to reward those players who want to dig a bit more into game systems.
Where would you take this and run with it? Is it possible to let players be chefs, playing in a magical kitchen to make crazy Rube Goldberg fun? Is it worth trying to develop that flexibilty when the mass market just wants WoW and God of War clones? I’m very curious to see what Elemental winds up doing, as a spiritual successor to MoM.
Magic really could be more… magical, and I think that a deeper, more flexible, more creative magic system might be an avenue worth exploring.