Monday, 29 August 2011

How to Rule the Fantastic?

One legitimate question that arises from yesterday's post - as some of my commenters professed their love for systems and worlds in which fantasy is treated in a predictable, rule-driven way - is ...

Isn't the whole enterprise of fantasy gaming about applying rules to a fantastic universe?

Followed immediately by ...

How can people who love the fantastic rather than prosaic find happiness in a rules system?

I don't have a comprehensive answer right now but here are a few tidbits that tend to push rules to the "fantastic" rather than "prosaic" side.

  • In 1st edition AD&D, the artifact descriptions with their powers intentionally left blank and to be filled in.
  • Any system that replaces mechanistic magic with animistic magic ... where social interactions with magical entities replace mere point-and-fire. Stormbringer's demons, Legend of the Five Rings' elemental kami, and Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics with its sorcerous patrons all come to mind.
  • The Birthright idea to have mythological monsters like the Chimera or Medusa be hugely powerful one-offs, as in actual Greek mythology, rather than whole species (let alone with an "ecology.")
Any others out there?


  1. My most successful attempts at this kind of thing have come from switching out the game, trying something different. D&D has a long history, for good and for ill, so players (and DMs) bring a lot of knowledge to bear when they play it. That knowledge means that unless you lay out pretty clearly that "things do not work the way you think they do" from the start (and maybe even then?), you may be swimming upstream. Not to say that it can't be done. Your first two example bullet points are basically examples that add uncertainty. I think that's one way to move toward it. I haven't made any serious attempts myself, though -- when I play D&D (which is often), I actually tend to play with most of the standard D&D expectations. I am fond of them. When I'm looking for something else, I tend to play a different game, maybe one where the players are less familiar with, so they don't have as many starting assumptions going in.

  2. In a homebrew campaign a while back we made the distinction between 'Low' or 'Vulgar' magic (i.e. the rulebook spells and items) and 'High' or 'Legendary' magic, or one off uber powerful effects. These included cursing someone on death, gaining power in return for a demon lord or hidden weakpoint, or basically anything else inspired by fantasy or fairytale stories that served a narrative purposed and was beyond the power of mundane or magic to affect.

  3. Tarrasques. Vampires. 'Monsters' that can't just be killed by whittling down their hit points but require some sort of narrative solution, like a very specific ritual to kill them, or a mythic condition like 'can only be killed by one who has never seen the light'.

    I like distinctions like Tedankhamen's rulebook spells vs. rituals/invocations/big, high magic that transcends the whole Vancian paradigm. Learning a Great Spell might be the pinnacle of a wizard's career, it might require six other wizards of similar power to even begin the casting, but when 'tis cast... well, have you read 'The Farthest Shore'?

  4. Great post, still thinking about the points a day after reading it.

    Unfortunately the path was set into D&D very early and just mushroomed over time. Giving out combat stats, probably one of the most flagrant stripping away of cosmic mysteries--for the gods themselves dates back to OD&D.

    The challenge is I suppose how to keep injecting it back in.

  5. @Ted: Good idea - I got to that point when considering higher level magic spells, see here.

  6. The Dragonlance Saga game has a pretty neat magic system. Characters can have a magic skill such as cryomancy, spiritualism, and others I forget at the moment. Around ten of them.
    Anyway you have so many spell points to create each spell with. The cost of the spell is based on range, area, duration, effect, etc.
    Come to think of, Castle Falkenstein has something similar.
    It could be translated into a D&D game fairly easily.

  7. The trouble is that the mystical and numinous are usually deprotagonizing: you need to know how it operates to use it yourself, otherwise you're at the mercy of the instruction book, like the Cthulhu party pinning their last hope on drawing the creature into the gateway, with no clear idea of what's going to happen next.

    One common answer seems to be "predictable is boring. Magic should be unpredictable!" But usually it's bad unpredicatibility, where one time in 12 your arm falls off if you use the spell, or you are removed from play for some time (wizard's twilight...) - net result: fewer wizards that make it to 3rd level, fewer players who want to play them. I'd prefer the unpredictability you get when you have to figure out the quirks of a magical doohickey by experimentation and research - so it does this, but also that at the same time, which affects when you want to use it - when it has quirks that repay such exploration and when those quirks add up to an interesting minigame that can be applied in sneaky and ingenious ways (per your orange corner posts) or point to some other interesting quirk in the structure of the universe.

    Yes, I know: that's science. Or at least alchemy. Which is I contend what any fantastic setup will become in the players' hands. And I guess it's also your point 1. Sigh.

  8. I'm with you, richard, and also think there's a world of difference between finding out the "rules" in-game and reading them from the rulebook out-of-game.