Friday, May 30, 2014

Creating a Magic System for your Game

Creating a Magic System for your Game

By: Jesse C Cohoon

A roleplaying magic system can be a pretty cut and dry thing: a spell list, damage, area of effect and so on, but if done properly it can do so much more. Done properly, it can be used to deepen the setting’s theme and background, informing the players and DM about the world, the peoples, and cultures.   

All magic systems rely on manipulating reality through the use of magic power (a form of strength) to create some sort of effect, such as healing, damaging others, buffing, disguise, summoning, animating and so on. These effects are generated in some way; take time to produce. Magic is often limited in how much can be accessed at any given time, subject to failure or interruption, through various systems and mechanics. This article examines each of these aspects at a high level. Please note: In this article I’m using the word ‘Magic’ to denote some sort of larger- than-life power, and could, in theory refer to innate powers, advanced technology, mental powers, etc.  

Magic Power as Strength

The magic power itself requires some sort of strength. This can be represented in one of a variety of ways:

  • The spell caster relies on one of his or her main stats to cast the spell. Characters without the requisite either can’t cast spells or are limited in which spells they can cast. Usually this boils down to some mental or spiritual aspect of the caster.
  • Rarely the requisite stat is based on the user’s physical capabilities, and at times drawing upon the caster’s very life essence to power the spell, thus weakening the caster with each spell she casts. An example of physical capabilities being used to cast spells is Cashel, in David Drake’s Lord of the Isles series is dumb as a rock but his casting power is based upon his tremendous strength and endurance.     
  • The spell caster’s power is limited by level, or by how many points are put into each of their appropriate powers for casting.

Magic Power as Reality Manipulation

Reality has certain guidelines that it goes by: gravity, magnetism, properties of objects, fire catches and burns flammable objects or melts materials like metal if hot enough, etc. Magic, if successful seeks to, at least temporarily (and in some cases permanently) bend or break these rules. What specific part of reality is broken depends on the spell that is cast, its duration, area of effect, etc. How magic is formed, how reality is warped, the “methods of magic” should be described in the magic system so the player can use their imagination when casting a spell.  

In some systems reality is an unwritten contract with everyone and everything else, and using magic around those who aren’t ‘in the loop’ that can be altered causes negative side effects for the caster, whereas in others magic is such a part of the world’s fabric, seemingly impossible things happen all around people without anyone giving a second thought to what’s going on.

In cases where magic is rare or warps reality and backlashes on casters, DMs need to figure out a balance which allows them to still use their powers, limits the type and duration of the backlash, or build in guidelines about what type of things are allowed to prevent characters from getting killed from casting simple spells.  

Magic Generation

Magic is generated by the caster in some way. These ways may include the following  

  • Genetics: in your gaming world people with a certain background can cast magic. Consider:

o   One ethnic group developed the ability to use magic, whereas others did not
o   Weird genetics like one of the player’s ancestors was an alien, demon, dragon or elf, which is why they have the magical ability. 
o   Genetic manipulation: someone deliberately messed with or through natural selection, as in the case of “Mutants”

  • Ancient Technology: in certain game systems the ‘magic’ isn’t magic at all, but consist of some readily usable form, such as a sword, super-weapon that people still know how to use, etc. An example of this is the 1990s cartoon of Iron Man, in which the Mandarin’s rings were the power source for a crashed space ship.
  • Contractual magic: sometimes the only magic that exists in a world is a contract with demons and binding them into your service.
  • Alien Help: the “magic” in question is actually alien in nature, but because of the fact that the people using it don’t realize this, they call it magic.
  • Item magic: maybe the ‘magic’ is simply different combinations of materials that produce various effects, of which the people using them, don’t understand how exactly it works, so they call it ‘magic.’ Enchantment of objects would also fall into this category. So too would alchemy
  • Ceremonial magic: sometimes magic may need to have a group of people to cast it because of the complexity of it.

Magic Time Frame  

Magic takes time, there’s no debating that point, but the time that magic takes will vary from system to system. If the system relies on complex ceremonies, it’s going to be almost impossible to create these on the spot in the midst of battle. If magicians can gather, control, and weave the magic into the form that they need on the spot, or use single or multiple use artifacts,   

Magic’s Limitations    

Each of these effects have limits as far as what they can do based on the specific strength of the caster that allows them to cast the spell, but there may be other limitations as well.

Many times the game’s magic system(s) disallow certain types of armor or weapons or makes the user(s) less able to use them due to the magic user’s dedication to the craft. In some systems it is the metal in and of itself that makes the casting difficult, and the more metal surrounding the caster, the more difficult it becomes to cast the spell.

Magic is also limited by the imagination of the caster/ player. Even relatively “set” spells can be used for a variety of purposes to suit the situation, if one has a bit of imagination for alternative uses for the spells. 

Magic Failure or Interruption

If the magic is interrupted, one of several things can happen:

  • Nothing: the spell simply fails, in that it is not cast.
  • Success with difficulty: The caster has to struggle to get it under control, but is able to do so.
  •  Success with problems: The spell is cast and it’s the spell you want to cast, but is not as effective as it normally would have been, either in duration, damage, less area or some other variable
  •  “Goes wild:” the magic power is accessed, but something goes wrong with the spell, in that the spell that is cast isn’t one that is intended. Sometimes the results are good… sometimes they are terrible, but that’s the “luck of the draw.” Some magic users depend on this randomness and are able to adjust for it.
  • Backlash: The spell rebounds on the caster, damaging him. This overlaps with “going wild” but can be seen as a separate point in and of itself.

Magic Mechanics
There are a variety of magic mechanics, including, but limited to:

  • Spell Memorization: Spells must be memorized to be cast. While this type of a system is rigid in its rules, the resolution usually lies in if it hits, and how much damage is done.
  • Freeform: Spells must be made up on the spot. In this type of a magic the magic system, not only does the spell difficulty have to be determined, but also the damage, range, casting time, and so on, as applicable     
  • Flexibility within a framework: guidelines are given and combining different magic to produce different effects are encouraged.
  • Spell Points: the character has a set number of points from which to cast their magic.
  • Divinely granted: the spells cast are at the whim of the god(s). If you made them happy, you receive the spells. If, on the other hand, they’re angry at you, you may find that your divine link is cut off and you have no access to the powers you normally enjoy.  

Magic Systems
There are several different types of systems that exist, including, but not limited to:

  • Divine Magic: magic granted by the gods
  • Mental magic: magic of the mind, as in the case of Psionics.
  • Demonology: summoning, binding, and controlling demons to do your bidding.
  • Runes: magic is controlled by certain symbols. By controlling and combining symbols you can cause different effects
  • “Stolen magic:” the character may not have much magic themselves, but can pick apart and warp another’s magic to backfire on them, or change it to another spell that is harmful to the enemy caster.
  • Animal Control: brings animals to your aid to perform various tasks. These can either be the form of controlled servants or the people can view them as teammates or friends. Pok√©mon, Digimon and other anime have themes surrounding such ideas. So too do the druids, and rangers in D&D.  
  • Music as magic: bards typically use their music to help form their music to produce various effects. 
  • Schools: certain schools of magic emphasize X type of magic while often neglecting Y

o   Elementalism: manipulating such forces as fire, water, air, earth, electricity and so on.
o   Illusion: the effects produced are in the person’s mind who sees the illusion, and the only harm that is done is self-inflicted, or caused by mental anguish
o   Necromancy: spells for controlling/ talking to the damned
o   Healing: giving back a character’s health, curing a disease or raising them back from the dead.
o   Protection: spells designed to protect the user or his allies
o   Creation/ Destruction: spells designed to create something out of nothing or reusing surrounding materials or causing things to simply cease to exist.  
o   Charm/ Compulsion: causing someone to think that you’re their friend or using magic to manipulate them into working for you.
o   Divination: this is foretelling the future, through various means. Other powers include the ability to sense things from a distance
o   Transmutation: changing one substance into another.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Playing Dogs and Wolves in your Game

Playing Dogs and Wolves in your Game

By: Jesse C Cohoon & Johnn Four

Many times roleplaying games give information without giving the DMs anything to work with as far as how they might act as real-world creatures. In this ongoing series, we will attempt to examine how different creatures should *typically* act.


With only a few notable exceptions canines, in general have relatively long legs and lithe bodies, adapted for chasing prey, as well as non-retractable claws and a bushy tails. Their walk is digitigrade, meaning they walk on their toes. Almost all canines are social animals and live together in groups, consisting of either family groups, or in some cases, packs.

Young canines are born blind, and deaf with their sense of hearing coming first, and their eyes opening a few weeks thereafter. It is during this blind stage, if taken from their mothers and hand-fed that they can adapt to being around specific humanoids.  This is not to say that they will allow just anyone near them after this initial bonding stage. Wolves are blind for longer than dogs, and due to this, dogs and wolves respond differently to situations. Wolves due to their prolonged helplessness as pups, are more skittish, more wary of new experiences because they are not exposed to as many things. Generally speaking, on the basis of their experience, ‘tamed’ wolves are strictly "one-man dogs". They may be confiding and playful with the man (or woman) who raised them, or even with his (her) whole family, if fed and cared for by them, but they are suspicious and timid in the presence of strangers.

Dog puppies, on the other hand, are able to explore their world more with their eyes open and familiarize themselves with more things, so when they are older, less frightens them.


·         Eyesight: Canines have wide peripheral vision and perceive browns, yellows, and blues, but just because they can’t see the color red or green doesn’t mean they can't distinguish green, yellow or red objects based on their color, but have to rely on the perceived brightness of the objects to tell them apart. Purple and blue are both seen as shades of blue. Greenish-blue is viewed as a shade of gray. Red is seen as a black or dark gray. Orange, yellow and green all are seen to a dog as various shades of yellow. Dogs can see best at dusk and dawn. Their low-light vision is much better than a human’s, but their overall vision is not better.

·         Hearing: dogs can hear the range of 67-45,000 hertz, depending on the breed of dog. They have 18 or more muscles in their ears allowing them to move in the direction of the sound. Breeds with perked ears can usually hear better than dogs with drooping ears.

·         Smell: dogs can have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about 6 million for humans. The part of a dog's brain devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than a human’s. When dogs inhale a fold of tissue just inside their nostril helps to separate the functions of breathing and smelling. 12% breathed in detours into a recessed labyrinth of scroll-like bony area in the back of the nose that is dedicated to smelling. Tissue receptors in this area "recognize" these odor molecules by their shape and send signals to the brain for analysis. As dogs exhale through their nose’s side slits, the swirling exhaled air brings new odors into the dog's nose, allowing dogs to smell more or less continuously.

Dogs have a second scent-related capability to smell pheromones made possible by an organ known as Jacobson's organ which is located in the bottom of a dog's nasal passage.

·         Taste: Dogs have 1700 taste buds. In addition to with the same taste buds for sweet, salt, sour and bitter that humans have, they also have specific receptors that are tuned for meats, fats and meat related chemicals. Dogs will tend to seek out, and clearly prefer the taste of things that contain meat or flavors extracted from meat. They also have taste buds that are tuned for water which have evolved as a way for the body to keep internal fluids in balance after the animal has eaten things that will either result in more urine being passed, or will require more water to adequately process.

·         Emotions: Animals can emotions; it is a universal animal language. Canines interpret human emotions such as worry, anxiety, fear, anger, pity and nervousness, as weaknesses and they do not listen to these emotions. They listen best to someone who is calm but firm in their approach. It is this sense that they use to determine who should be the leader of their pack. The being with the strongest and most stable energy is the one they look to, be it themselves or another being around them. While you can hide your emotions from another human, you cannot hide them from a dog.


·         Pack Drive- canines are social animals and do best living within a pack environment rather than solitary and will naturally find their place in the pack.    

In the case of tame dogs (as compared to wild ones), the owners are at the top because they will provide the basic elements they require to live. Being a calm and effective leader is the best way to strengthen the pack dynamics. The best pack leaders are master manipulators of the environment and resources not by being “dominant” as many people assume.

Abandoned dogs will often become feral and come together in cohesive bands and attack the young, unwary, old, weak, and/ or injured.

·         Prey Drive is the instinct that makes many dogs love to locate, pursue, and catch game. Prey drive also translates into a dog’s motivation to perform. Most dogs don’t hunt for food so prey drive is used most during play but that doesn’t mean they won’t hunt, chase, capture or kill prey animals. Chase games, fetch, tug, herd the children or other dogs are all examples of ways they might use their prey drive.

·         Food Drive: the drive to eat. Withholding a meal and using food as a reward for doing tricks helps to train them.  

·         Defense Drive keeps dogs on their toes and has an impact on how confidently they deal with stress and new things in life. This occurs when something new comes into the territory (or they enter a different territory) and they will chose from one of the following:
-        Flight: To flee from a perceived threat (death, injury, etc.) is generally the first instinctive response.

-        Fight: To ward off/ eliminate the perceived threat. 

-        Freeze: fixed look to the dog’s eye and he is rigid throughout his body, even appearing to hold its breath.

-        Faint: see a more pronounced version of the freeze where the dog drops belly down to the ground and refuses to move or interact.

-        Fidget/ Fool Around: It is a form of displacement behavior - taking the focus off of one situation onto another. Dogs that rush about, jump up and down, become rough or over the top, who can’t sit still, who lick you constantly or who drop into a roll to show their bellies every time someone approaches or touches them can fall into this category.

·         Sex Drive: all dogs practice it at some point. Humans manipulate this drive by breeding or spaying/neutering their pets.

Canines in Culture

Canines are used in culture in a variety of ways, including:
·         Power generation: dogs used in this manner turn roasting spits, churn butter, etc. by walking on a treadmill.

·         Draught animals to pull small carts for farms, peddlers, or travelers, to deliver mail, and to pull carts carrying people for transportation or entertainment. Sled dogs also fall into this category.

·         Service or assistance dogs help people with various disabilities in everyday tasks. Some examples include mobility assistance dogs for the physically handicapped, guide dogs for the visually impaired, and hearing dogs for the hearing impaired.

·         Therapy dogs to visit the elderly or shut-in, those who are autistic, or for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. They are also good listeners for reading programs.  

·         Rescue dogs find people who are lost, buried under a building or snow, etc. 

·         Herding dogs are invaluable to sheep and cattle handlers for rounding up the herd. A well trained dog can adapt to control any sort of domestic and many wild animals.

·         Performing dogs such as Circus dogs and dog actors are trained to perform acts that are not intrinsically useful, but instead provide entertainment to their audience or enable human artistic performances.

·         Hunting dogs assist hunters in finding, tracking, and retrieving game, or in routing vermin. Less frequently a dog, or rather or a pack of them, actually fights a predator, such as a bear or feral pig.

·         Guard/ watch dogs help to protect private or public property, either in living or used for patrols, as in the military and with security firms.

·         Tracking dogs help find lost people and animals or track down possible criminals.

·         Cadaver dogs use their scenting ability to discover bodies or human remains at the scenes of disasters, crimes, accidents, or suicides.

·         Detection dogs of a wide variety help to detect various insects in homes, illegal substances in luggage, bombs, chemicals, and many other substances. In a fantasy setting such dogs could even be trained to detect magic.

·         War Dogs or K9 Corps are used by armed forces or police in many of the same roles as civilian working dogs, but in a military context. In addition, specialized military tasks such as mine detection or wire laying have been assigned to dogs. Police dogs are usually trained to track or immobilize possible criminals while assisting officers in making arrests or investigating the scene of a crime.

Dog Reactions

A dog’s reaction to a situation is influenced most by its temperament. Note that *any* dog is capable of attacking if provoked, scared, or cornered. 

·         Non-Responsive or Relaxed Temperament dogs are calm and relaxed. Dogs with this temperament are lackadaisical, happy to be left alone.     

·         Responsive Dog Temperament This group of dogs tends to learn much faster and is also highly motivated to impress. Give them the command and they’re happy to comply. Unfortunately, they may obey just about anyone who gives them a command.   

·         Active Temperament Dogs with an active temperament tend to get excited much faster, and are easily distracted by the surrounding environment.

·         Independent Temperament are strong willed, intelligent dogs. They may obey if given a firm master and rules.   

·         Shy Dog Temperament are easily frightened by almost anything and everything. They are much more likely to flee than to fight in any given situation. 

·         Aggressive Temperament may attack others, often without provocation.  

Playing Canines in your Game

Playing canines in your game is relatively easy, provided that you take the following into account when playing them: 
·         Keep in mind their senses. Their main senses are smell and hearing; if either one is overwhelmed, the dog is at a huge disadvantage to being able to fight effectively.

·         Keep in mind their training. Just because a canine is provoked and tries to bite, doesn’t mean it can do so effectively if it has not been trained. Even a wild wolves’ bite may not be as effective against certain types of armor.

·         Keep in mind temperament. If the canine is skittish, it should need to see if it can escape. If it’s independent, the trainer needs to see if it’ll obey. If it’s non-reactive, it should be tested to see whether it reacts negatively to what’s going on in the first place. 

·         Keep in mind group tactics. Canines are social animals and will often attack in a group, using tactics like isolation, flanking, attacking the weak, unwary, old, young, and/or injured. In doing so they increase their chances of success.  

·         Keep in mind morale. If the enemy is too strong for the canine or group of them, or members of their pack get badly injured or killed, they may reevaluate their enemy or flee.