Thursday, February 20, 2014

The physics of magic and the wizard's stats

A wizard conjures a magic missile, fires it off and hits without even rolling to hit and without any recoil. The hail of stones rushes forward from the mage's hands. A lightning bolt strikes out from his fingers. All of this without any apparent physical effect on the sorcerer. Why?

Isn't that magic missile pushing against something as it is sent forward? For example the magic user's body, in the same way a rifle pushes against the shooter's shoulder. Non inertial magic is a term I'm using to refer to all that magic we love to use which has no physics to explain how it comes to be (which is fine, it's magic), but also has no physics to explain how it affects or doesn't affect the environment around it either.

What would the effect be if certain types of magic had inertia? Sure you can conjure a rock, but quite another thing is to throw it. Sure, magic can work as a hydraulic system, empowering your body, but there has to be some underlying strength. Factor in the strength in such a spell. The rock's weight can't be any arbitrary number, but rather a multiple of the wizards strength not his intelligence or wisdom.

Got a lightning bolt? Sure, but those six plus digit voltage levels are going to have an ionizing effect on anything nearby, including the magic user. Consider constitution or endurance. Even some "temporary" off the record hit point loss that represents the "ionizing damage" the bolt does to the wizard. These "pseudo" hit points hit zero? No more lightning bolts until they're recovered.

Want to invoke a daemon with low charisma? Good luck with that. The creature may be summoned and under the wizard's control, but flattery will still go a long way in granting you what you want.

Although I've seen some games include more than intelligence or wisdom into the "magic equation", it is not a common practice across the board and magic remains pretty much "non inertial". There is seldom any negative feedback rule a magic system or some sort of diminishing return model that may lead to a capped power growth for magic users. The magic user just keeps growing and growing usually based on one stat and at best sometimes two.

What do you think? Do you believe magic users have it too easy just relying on one or two key attributes and having everything else work like magic (pun intended)? Or should more attributes and values be taken into consideration when developing magic rules and spells? Would this help solve the exponential vs linear power growth many of us complain about?

Here are some ideas I'd like to put forward

  • If your game has spells organized by spheres or groups, relate an attribute to each and require higher attributes to use such a sphere. Even have magic that doesn't require high intelligence or wisdom. Some instinctive power of a tribe that relies on other attributes. 
  • Factor in attributes into the spell. How effective a spell is depends on other attributes aside from intelligence. A fighter, due to strength or endurance, can be more effective with a spell through a scroll than a magic user of considerably higher level. A rogue, due to agility, a can perform a task better with a ring than a magic user of a higher level.
  • If you're considering failure mechanics in your spell system then relate these to attributes as well. A spell that requires agility may be more prone to failure if the magic user isn't nibble fingered. The aforementioned lightning bolt may be more prone to injure the magic user if he has low endurance.

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