Rethinking Ritual Magic, Part III

Category: Design Notes
Created on Tuesday, 13 September 2011 Written by Steve

In the last set of design notes for the ritual magic system I’m working on, I tried putting together some sample spells to see if the rules actually worked the way I hoped they would. Not surprisingly, I found several problem areas, so I came up with variations or new ideas to make the system better model the type of magic I want to see in my games. My next step was to put the rough system outline and the notes from the last article together and flesh them out into something more closely resembling a final draft of the rules set. Along the way, of course, I found ways to streamline things a bit, discovered that more changes needed to be made, and introduced a new concept or two to make the system accomplish my design goals. The revised draft is available in the downloads section of the Hex site.

The following overview provides a “walk-thru” of the changes that I made this time around, along with some general system notes.

Magic Level
This section just expands on the idea of setting magic levels that I introduced in the last article, and provides a few examples.

Magical Traditions
This section introduces a concept that I’ve assumed all along, but haven’t formally spelled out yet. Although there are no distinct “classes” of spellcasters with structured lists of available spells, a character’s Job should be used as a guide to determine what types of spells are available to him. For example, a necromancer can definitely speak to the dead, but letting him harness his chi powers to break a concrete block in half with his bare hands doesn’t really fit the concept. The caster’s tradition also dictates how the caster approaches spellcasting. An alchemist’s healing potion and a faith healer’s laying on of hands may have the same game effects, but the two rituals won’t look anything alike.

Spell Focuses
Since I envision spell focuses (basically “one-shot” magic items) being used quite a bit under this system, I decided to describe them right up front and distinguish them for more permanent magical items. I also decided to reverse my earlier decision to allow focuses to remain potent indefinitely. There are two main reasons for this decision, both of them based on metagaming/story concerns: first, the time limit can provide a sense of urgency to spur the players to action; second, it helps ensure that focuses will be constructed for a specific purpose and reduces the possibility of wizards loading down with general-purpose spell focuses whenever they have downtime.

Spell Casting Rules
This section remains largely unchanged, except for the addition of an extra step, “Determine Spell Requirements.” This is where the “something extra” for complex spells would logically come into play, and incorporating it into the basic procedure (and slightly redefining the “something extra”--more on that in a bit) alleviates the need for the not-particularly-useful spell categories (spontaneous, crafted, and esoteric) that I came up with last time around. The addition of the extra step also brings us up to five steps, making my “5x5” name for the system fit even better.

Last time around, I decided to tweak casting times a bit, and those changes are reflected here. In addition, I’ve decided that spells that use a focus take longer to cast, and are therefore based on the Base DN instead of the Adjusted DN. Basically, the caster is trading additional work now for the ability to delay the effects of the spell until an opportune moment, as well as the option of allowing someone other than the caster trigger the spell’s effects.  Finally, I’ve added notes on situations where the spell may actually take longer than the usual casting time.

Finally, in the spell effects section, I added some guidelines for determining the mechanics for spells that need to have numbers associated with them.

Spell Requirements
This section basically details the “something extra” that I wanted for complicated spells and (other than coming up with decent names--insight and sacrifice--for the two types of “extras”) they work pretty much how I imagined them in the last article. The only thing that really gets lost is the “spell must be cast at certain time/place” option for what’s now called sacrifice, but that’s really meant for your more Lovecraftian “the stars align once in a century” type stuff, which are going to be formulaic spells (see below) anyway.

Formulaic Spells
Even though my magic system relies heavily on the Bonewitz idea of each spell being different because the universe is constantly changing, modelling magic in fiction absolutely requires the idea that some spells are written down in ancient books for stupid college kids and jaded socialites to find. That’s where the idea of formulaic spells comes in, and this is a good place to put the rules for untrained casters who find ancient  blasphemous tomes and suddenly decide they’re wizards. I also include some rules to allow PCs to create their own formulaic spells.

Creating Magical Items
In the course of revamping the system, I decided that magical items should be distinct from and more difficult to create than spell focuses. This is in part a game balance issue, to prevent wizards from walking around with arsenals of magical equipment, but there’s also a story component to it. Making the creation of magical items require lots of time and the expenditure of Yum Yums helps to shore up the idea that magical artifacts are a Big Deal, which will hopefully help curb the D&D mentality of magical items as just amped of versions of normal tools.

Group Spell Casting
There’s got to be some reason why evil priests in fiction always surround themselves with large groups of chanting cultists, and in the context of magic rules, that means some kind of mechanical benefit for inviting your friends to the ritual. The basic idea here is that characters familiar with magic can contribute to either the spell’s chance of success (the main caster’s roll) or its effects (Success Degree). Rank-and-file cult members with no magical talent basically serve as mystical batteries, adding to the spell’s effect.

Base DN Guidelines and Ritual Modifiers
Except for adding a few words of explanation before each table and a couple of alterations to wording and examples, these are pretty much the same as in the original version. The only major change is that I renamed the “Symbolic Elements” table in the Ritual Modifers section to “Magical Thinking” and moved it to the end of the lists. This is to reflect the fact that this modifier is based on how the spell fits together as a whole.

Sample Spells
My last step is to include some sample spells, both to give readers some examples of using the system and to make sure that the system works as intended. Since I already thoroughly covered the sample spells from the last article in that article, and since at least one of them (the raise dead spell) is highly situation-specific, I left them off the list.

As I was revamping the basics of the system, I came up with a few ideas for how these rules can be tweaked for use with certain settings and situations:

  • Some traditions might bend the rules a bit. For example, since alchemists rely mainly on pre-made potions and such, I’d probably make their spell focuses last longer.
  • Speaking of spell focuses, if the GM wants to limit how many are in play at any time, just add a rule that the total Adjusted DN of a caster’s active focuses can’t exceed his Job Number. Focuses with an ADN of zero are treated as if they had a DN of 1 for this calculation.
  • DNs can also be used to give wizards some magical goodies at the beginning of a game. For example, spellcasters might start out with a number of magical items and/or Formulaic Spells with a total Base DN equal to their Job.
  • One way to accomplish a more flash-bang style of magic is to introduce magical items or Gimmicks (half-demon, fairy blood, etc.) that reduce casting time or DN. For example, if I were going to run a Harry Potter style game, I’d rule that wands (in the hands of a non-muggle) reduce the DN of a spell by the caster’s Job Number and reduce the ritual to a wave of the wand and some faux-Latin.

©2012 by Hex Games
Rethinking Ritual Magic, Part III.
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