Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Mana Points

I've had some thoughts about magic in my Microlite20 games, especially in light of the Wyzards setting I came up with.

As written, M20 uses a spell point system of sorts. It allows Mages access to all the spells in their level, but levies a point cost on every spell cast, to be subtracted from the Mage's Hit Points. I see how that can work conceptually, especially if you view Hit Points as a narrative abstraction - casting spells makes the Mage weaker, and if you cast enough spells he'll be utterly spent, falling unconscious. It reminds me a bit of hermetic magic in Shadowrun, where mages channel spell energy from the Astral Plane into the material plane by shooting it through their central nervous systems, an act which often results in physical trauma or Drain.

However, I can't say that I've ever been crazy about that rule in M20. Yes, it offers a limit to how many spells a Mage can cast in an encounter, but... I'm not sure. Something about it rubs me the wrong way, and I'm having a difficult time putting my finger on what it is.

So instead, when I ran M20 for my sister's kids, I introduced the concept of Mana Points, drawing from GURPS Magic and World of Warcraft. It's a spell-point system in which you have a number of Mana Points equal to your Hit Points, though they're tallied separately from HP. Thus, you can expend your personal reservoir of magical energy but still be on your feet and able to fight or run as the situation demands.

It's possible that this introduces a game-imbalancing element. I'm not really mechanics-savvy enough to know, personally, though right now I can recall reading an early interview with Gary Gygax in which he expressed his dislike of spell point mechanics for precisely that reason. Having said that, this doesn't bother me overmuch. My players generally care far more about character concept over mechanical advantage, so if they have a Fighter character in mind, that's what they're going to play, regardless of whether a Cleric might perform better, for example.

Continuing with the concept of Mana Points, I thought that my Wyzards setting, with its emphasis on Mage characters, could benefit from a few more options.

Mana Points are primarily recovered through rest. In the world of Wyzards, there are other methods by which one can acquire MP.

Drawing inspiration from WFRP, GURPS and Ars Magica, and supplements like Ronin Arts' 101 Arcane Spell Components Revised, here are some of the possibilities I came up with:

Mana Regions. Certain areas "generate" more mana than others; in in-game terms, they are magical places: secluded waterfalls, ancient standing stones, deep dark forest groves, etc. A Mage can draw mana from these places to fuel his spells. Some regions are aspected toward one particular college of magic or purpose - a mouldering graveyard under the light of the full moon might offer mana only for Necromancy spells. The site of a historic siege might yield mana for Abjuration spells.

Material Components. I've always liked the idea of material components, though I've never actually run a game in which I forced a player to keep track of such things. This option adds it as a possibility that a player might want to take advantage of, since it would improve his character's spellcasting ability. Like mana regions, certain items and artifacts attract mana to themselves, which can be withdrawn by a Mage. They might operate much like mana regions, with aspected mana and so on, but it might be more fun to add some other effects, like increasing spell duration or range, or just snazzy special effects. Like material components in AD&D, the items might be consumed in the casting. I'll probably decide that on a case-by-case basis.

Unraveling. Mages might be able to draw mana out of their own souls, doing damage to themselves in the process. This is kind of a last-ditch effort to get mana, for use in those times when you're down to 0 MP and something's about to cave in your skull. It would cause Hit Point loss as per M20 RAW, but to make it more interesting it might also cause other problems, such as troubling dreams, a weakening of the constitution or will, an increased susceptibility to enchantment or possession, or something else.

In regards to spell choice, since I'm going with an organization that stresses the different Colleges of magic, I think I'm going to need a greater selection of spells to begin the game with. I want to be sure that someone who specializes in, say, Abjuration, doesn't end up shortchanged compared to a Necromancer or Evoker. I've certainly got enough supplements to find the spells necessary to fill that need, so I doubt that will be a problem. In M20, Mages can cast any spell of a level equal to or below 1/2 their class level, rounded up. The RAW specifies that just because a Mage can cast any spell, it doesn't mean he should, and I embrace that philosophy. I want a Mage's spells to reflect his College/Order of choice, just as I would want a Cleric's spells (prayers, miracles, whatever - I've never liked the terms "cleric spells" or "divine magic") to be appropriate for their patron deity. So adding to the list of available spells should assist me in accomplishing this.

I decided in my last M20 game that Mages would begin the game with a repertoire of spells equal to half their Mind score, and I think I'll stick with that. Magi of the Ivory Citadel always begin with arcane mark, detect magic and read magic; the rest of the spells are up to the player. However, for the purposes of running this game for Slusser's sons, I think I'll choose their spells for them ahead of time. This time around, I'd like to get the game started as soon as possible, and I know they could easily get bogged down in spell selection. There'll also be the temptation for the boys to select the same spells as each other - which admittedly may be less of a possibility in a Wyzards game than it would have been in the straight M20 game I ran for my sister's kids - so I want to be sure that each character will have their own specialties and "signature" spells to make them feel unique and complimentary to each other. Maybe next time I'll let them look over the spell lists and choose their own.

One of the things I'm looking forward to doing with this game is inspiring the PCs to look for spellbooks and lost lore in order to obtain new spells. I've always liked that idea, but again, I've never really been in the position to introduce that into a game.

I'm considering one last change to the M20 rules, which I did with my nephew and nieces. Instead of the three attributes Strength, Dexterity and Mind, I think I'd like to have the full six attributes of regular D&D. Part of the reason is that I like the granularity (if that's the right word) that mechanically represents a more varied range of personalities and traits. The other part of the reason is that I remember RPGs - AD&D especially, with its Gygaxian prose - being responsible for increasing my vocabulary. I'd like to encourage the kids to learn words like "Constitution", "Dexterity" and "Charisma".

I'm also going to stick with the Old School Style rules, eschewing Skills for Primary/Secondary/Minor skill rolls, based on the descriptions of the characters' interests, hobbies and specializations. This should encourage the boys to think more about their characters' identities and personalities (which has never really been a problem for them, in my experience) and further avoid the homogeneity that could arise from both of them playing Mages.


Michael Slusser said...

On the Unraveling effects, you can always use the wonderful Umana GURPS rules Calamity Table; maybe a reworking of that could be fun:

I think your picking the spells based on a description of what the boys want to do would be great: they'll enjoy whatever you give them and it will, indeed, cut off hours of dithering.

I am all in favor of the six-attribute scheme (I've never been crazy about the three attributes. I'm not necessarily in favor of simplicity for roleplaying in the first place, and I think Microlite stretches it a bit in some areas.); what are the "Primary/Secondary/Minor skill rolls"?

Devin said...

I know, you like your crunchy rules sets. Personally, I want to be able to prep and run an adventure without requiring weeks of time to write up pages of NPC stats and making sure I understand the mechanics that may come up in play correctly; the notion of running a game in the same evening we decide to play one seems to me a worthy goal.

Anyway, the notion behind P/S/M skill rolls is essentially this: if a PC attempts an action that would require skill knowledge, the GM decides if the skill knowledge is something that would be directly related to their class and background (Primary: 1d20 + Stat Mod + Class Level vs. GM-determined DC number), loosely related (Secondary: Same as above but Class Level/2, rounded up) or not really related (Minor: same as Primary but Class Level/3, rounded down). And of course the player is expected to make a case for why his character might know something.

One of the things I like about the Old School approach is that it leaves many things up to the GM and Players to hash out on the spot, assuming they'll use common sense. "Rulings, not rules" is one of the OSR tenets that really appeals to me.

I like the Calamity table; I may adopt that. When we were playing with Christina's kids, D had decided his character wasn't very good with his magic, and so they often went wrong or weird. I made a very simple table on which he had to roll every time he cast a spell. It led to some fun moments.