Magical Mondays: Astonishing Normality   Leave a comment

I’ve written a number of things over the years, and I’ve had the pleasurable headache of running a few gaming sessions as well.  In that time, I’ve found that a lot of other GMs, writers and game players have difficulty figuring out what they want magic to be in their settings.  Rules for magic in a game (or in a story) are odd things, effectively establishing the guidelines for breaking more “natural” rules.  I’ve decided to talk periodically about magic in game systems (and stories) but I’d like to start with a post that asks you what it is that you want from magic.

Let’s Make Some Magic!

If you’ve never listened to the Writing Excuses podcast, I recommend it.  They’ve had some good thoughts on magic over the years (often further pointing you to Brandon Sanderson’s personal blog where he’s talked about the subject) and they’ve put forth that there are basically two schools of thought on magic.  Either magic systems require rules so that the author can tie down exactly what is (and is not) possible through magic, or magic is, itself, too uncontrollable to have rules or regulations.  It’s good for a writer to know what kind of magic they’re dealing with.  As a Game Master you aren’t exactly a writer (you’re more of an entertainer/referee who writes), but it’s worth pointing out that you’ll probably be closer to the former of these two schools of thought.  No matter what your preference is in regular fiction, one of the sad truths of roleplaying games is that magic needs to be controlled by rules so that players with access to magic don’t start tearing the game apart any more than you can manage.  (Sometimes they do this anyway even with the rules, so there’s really no need to give them further ammunition.)  One oddity about this is that your players will collectively know more about the magic system than you do most of the time.  Most of that knowledge will just be about the particulars of individual spells, but other aspects of it will be about rules governing different types of magic and odd bits and pieces that only come up very rarely.  Case in point: to date, I have *never* had to worry about the fact that Abjuration magic in D&D 3.5e can reduce the search check to locate traps due to the fact that multiple abjuration effects being close together cause faint sparks of energy in the air as the “energy fields” of the abjurations interact with each other.  Mostly players that I’ve spoken to aren’t even aware that such a rule exists.  The rule actually has some interesting implications for rogues who look for traps and for DMs who set up traps (and, of course, spell casters who like rolling Knowledge (Arcana) and Spellcraft checks), but for the most part you could take that rule out of the game entirely and almost no one would notice.

While it’s true that as a GM you likely have to play closer to the rules side of things, there’s an interesting twist to this: you don’t necessarily have to play closer to these rules for anybody but the PCs.  Think about that for a second.  What possibilities are open to you if the NPCs follow different rules?  All of them, of course.  All of them.

That’s Not Fair!

Nope!  And that’s part of the fun of it.  What the PCs never realize, though, is that they benefit from differences in rules all the time.  Why is it that their 34 year old human wizard is already at level 15, but most other wizards of that level are in their fifties (or a few hundred years old in some cases?)  How come PCs get to use social skills against NPCs, but NPCs don’t (by the rules, anyway) get that luxury?  How come the evil liches they encounter aren’t level 54 thanks to years of killing monsters and enemies, allowing them to destroy a new world every week?  The “sad” but true rule is that NPCs and PCs generally follow different rules.

Now, it’s entirely possible that you as a GM have been holding the NPCs to exactly the same standards that you hold PCs.  More power to you!  I respect your dedication to the workload, but caution you that you’ll likely not get as much out of the remainder of this document as the other readers.

What I’m going to suggest goes against the spirit of d20/3.5/Pathfinder styles of gameplay to an extent, but I feel that it’s a valid suggestion: consider giving NPC-only abilities to certain enemies that go beyond what they should be able to do.  Case in point, consider this ability:

Slambang (Sp): Once a day, a creature with this ability may dramatically open double-doors large enough to let a creature between the sizes of a human and an elephant through.  The ability only functions if the doors open outward (away from the caster) but only if the path of the doors are not blocked by any creatures of larger than small size.  The doors receive Xd6 points of damage per hit die of the caster (subject to reduction through the hardness of the doors.)  The caster must be within ten feet of the door and within a position that would be within line of sight to the next room upon the spell’s completion.

Functionally, this ability is identical in effect to the Telekinesis spell that wizards get.  However, it’s extremely limited in scope.  In fact, the only real purpose of this spell is to cause a door to dramatically burst open to reveal the caster standing behind it and to imply that the caster is a better than average spellcaster.  (And to be fair, the caster does have the Slambang ability, which almost no other NPC (or PC) of the same level will have.)  Note also that this is an ability that doesn’t greatly change a creature’s CR.  A PC would no doubt *love* to get this kind of ability for a spellcaster, but they’ll have to work harder for it.  Namely, pick up the Telekinesis spell (or Knock with the Heighten metamagic feat, perhaps).  Such a spell will give them greater utility than this spell-like ability anyway.

Slambang is formally written out more as a security blanket than anything else.  It’s difficult to “let go” of the rules at times.  Nothing’s preventing you from just saying that a creature magically opens a door with a spell that goes beyond what the players know, but if you need to justify it to yourself as being “in the rules” consider adding it as a template:

Slambanger is a template that can be added to any spellcasting creature (or similarly supernaturally capable creature).  Apply the following changes:

-The creature gains the Slambang ability (see above).

-CR: The creature’s CR increases by 0.

Too formulaic?  Yes, probably.  But some people need their paperwork to be done properly.

More Work, Bigger Payoff?

Merely creating abilities for magical entities is fine to start with, and it should give you some practice in monster design.  Designing monsters is a challenge that takes some trial and error (and you *will* get it wrong at first), but it’s important when working with magic.  Another good way to get practice in monster design for magic creatures is to make a powerful spellcaster who then gets toned down a bit.  Case in point: a level 10 wizard is too tough for a level 5 party, usually.  Such a figure will have an average of 26 hit points (before Constitution is added in), four spells from the 0th, 1st and 2nd spell levels, three spells from the 3rd and 4th, and two spells from the 5th spell level.  In addition, they’ll have two bonus feats (not counting Scribe Scroll), and possibly a familiar who’s worth worrying about.  (Oh, and let’s not forget the bonus spells for a high intelligence.)  A figure like this would most likely be able to wipe out a 5th level party if played by a suitably sadistic GM.

This blunt truth of mathematics means that players have, over the years, been forced to deal with endless streams of opponents who are just slightly better than they are individually (and in a 4 on 1 fight they villain always loses.)  Many capable GMs will toss players in over their heads with the justification that a smart party will choose to run away when they realize how mismatched the fight is (and that can be a wonderfully satisfying fight in many ways.)  However, there’s another option: weakening the tough monsters.

Let’s consider that same wizard again.  Let’s say that when the party sneaks into his tower, an army is at the wizard’s front gate.  The wizard is holding them back with powerful spells, and the brunt of his forces.  It isn’t until the wizard hears an alarm go off that he realizes he has trouble in the tower.  Knowing that his armies will be able to work without him for a time, he goes to investigate.

Thanks to returned spell-blasts and incredibly lucky arrows fired from the army at his gate, he’s taken damage.  He’s down to 20 hit points, so not too badly scratched.  He’s also used about half of his spells by now to buff his army and attack the enemy army.  He may also have a Mage Armor or Shield spell active upon himself.  While it’s true he has one 5th level spell still prepared, it’s actually just a 3rd level spell that’s benefited from the Empower Spell feat that he took at 10th level.  He’s mostly depleted the wand that he took into combat as well.

This rough outline isn’t complete (after all, you may want to alter it or run it in a different direction yourself) but it’s the start toward making a CR 6 or 7 encounter.  Note that just depleting his spells and hitpoints down to half capacity won’t make him CR 5.  Certain aspects of the character (his Base Attack Bonus and Saving Throws) will stay the same no matter what.  More to the point: I chose the Empower Spell feat because it’s a feat that will increase the damage of a level 3 spell without increasing the saving throw.  The PCs may have a wizard who just this level learned the Fireball spell, so it’s new and dangerous to the players.  The NPC wizard has had access to Fireball for a while, however, and it’s more powerful.  This burst in power will set the NPC wizard apart from the PCs, but still keep him in the same ballpark (and after all, a PC wizard can Dispell an Empowered Fireball just as easily as a regular Fireball.)

It takes some tinkering, but in time you’ll start to have a good grip on what constitutes a change in CR and what doesn’t.  And once you can start manipulating the rules of magic?  Then you’ll be able to move on to the fun part by manipulating the *feel* of magic.


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