Monday 16 May 2011

Wizards' Law, Dabblers' Chaos, Clerics' Free Will

OK, Blogger looks to be back.

So - I don't agree with the designer explanation for why magic spells require a roll to succeed in Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG. I mean - if it makes for a fun, wacky game, great, but I'll pass on the table lookups. And as I explained last time, part of the appeal of the traditional magic-user class to its core player type is its heavy reliance on strategy rather than chance.

Is there really a Dying Earth pedigree for random spells? Yes and no. Robin Laws' Dying Earth game has a much more involved analysis of those stories and novels. There, games can work at three levels of magic, each named after a Dying Earth character. The "Cugel" level is named after the famous rogue and similar dabblers in magic, prone to random fizzles and backfires. The "Turjan" level is named after the competent wizard-hero, whose spells work unerringly like formulae. The highest level is named after the wizard of the late novellas, Rhialto, who has mastered Turjan-like magic but deals with even more powerful, free-willed creatures known as sandestins.

I think he knows what he's doing...
It's a flaw of the D&D philosophy: The concept "Chaos" confuses free will with randomness. Understandably so, because other beings' free will gets simulated through randomness - reaction and morale rolls, primarily. But there's a world of difference in concept between each of these three views of magic: stumbling through half-understood procedures, confidently applying known laws, respectfully entreating free-willed entities.

This last view in particular I consider true to the idea of the cleric or priest. Whether addressing a terrible demon, the spirits of nature, or the Pancreator and heavenly choir, the divine miracle-worker should not go in with the complete assurance that prayers will be heard. To be meaningful, faith requires uncertainty.

I'm OK with "clerical spells" as a simplification, but I just feel that if you're going to involve random elements in spellcasting, do it for classes who are conceived of as bumblers - mountebanks, high-level rogues, gnomes and so on - and to those who deal with faith. And yes, how exactly randomness works for those two should be different...

More on this later.


  1. I'm all ears and looking forward to where you are going with this.

  2. I've been leaning toward giving spellcasters a d20 to roll, so that everybody gets the thrill of uncertainty in their actions, but this makes sense. Interested to read more :)