Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: On Magic (or How Easy Solutions Can Spoil Your Game)

Slowly, a group of characters moves through the darkness of a dungeon. Blackness surrounds the PCs, someone stumbles, and the mage whispers “Let there be light.” Two seconds later a bright blue light bursts from his magic wand

Have you seen this before in your own games? I know it very well. And every time the wizard does his hocus-pocus, I ask myself: “Why the heck isn’t he just lighting a torch?”

It all comes down to the fact that I don’t like spellcasters for two reasons:

  • First, if they’re too powerful, they can easily derail your game. Really – why bother when there’s an archmage in the party? He can fix almost anything by himself, from creating light and making bad weather turn good, to calling up armies of undead warriors to fight by your side. Other PCs look weak if you compare their abilities to a spellcaster’s powers. So who’s the boss in the group?
  • Second, it’s sort of nonsensical to have powerful wizards in a PC group. If they’re so powerful, why are they wasting their talent to create magical light (when you can use a torch) or changing the weather (wear proper clothes, people!). It’s almost as though a mage acts as the group’s fallback solution. Bring a mage if you’re going to forget your lighter, umbrella, food, etc.

So how do you deal with a powerful mage in the party? Think! Even if your
high-fantasy/high-magic RPG setting is overflowing with magic, there have to be some limits on a spellcaster’s power. If you treat casting spells as more or less a normal activity, every activity has some limits, right?

If you’re a fighter, how long can you swing a sword before you’re exhausted? If you’re a scholar, how long can you sit in a library reading ancient scrolls to discover forgotten knowledge before your eyes and brain stop working? You have to rest from time to time. A thief? Ranger? Cleric? The same.

No matter your RPG system, your spellcaster will need to “fuel” his or her magic in some way. Perhaps it’s through physical strength and stamina. Maybe it’s strictly brain power. Or maybe it’s all about the spell components. Whatever it is, it has to be limited. Renewable, but limited. And when they reach that limit, a spellcaster’s ability to craft magic should be significantly decreased. The good thing is this works for all spellcasters whether friends or foes.

Players may complain that placing such limits on their power will spoil their fun. “My wizard will need his power back before the final battle!” True. So if you want power for that epic battle? Try to conserve energy and use a torch instead of casting a magical light! It’s pretty easy.

For example, there was a necromancer on the team in one of my games. I never saw him use magic during the campaign, but in the final battle he raised hundreds of undead from a cemetery to help his team win. Epic! Did the player running the necromancer have fun? Huge fun! Of course there was a cost for such power after the battle… The necromancer was unconscious for the next three weeks. It costs to wield such power. Wield too much and it may even kill the character.

Limiting your spellcaster’s tendency to use his powers can do a lot of good for your game. Especially if you love a narrative storytelling approach like I do. Why?

Let’s get back to the necromancer. The players knew that he was spellcaster. Some even suspected his grim “specialization.” But no one had ever seen him doing magic until the final battle. And it was great. The other players were even trying to investigate to figure out what he could do. There were even bets and gossip suggesting that he wasn’t that powerful. Or possibly that he wasn’t even a mage. He was using his powers, but always in a secret way in places where he was alone. The players still don’t know how much he helped them during the whole campaign.

Here’s another way to give your game an extra twist with a magic user in the party. It’s more effective with higher-level parties, but can work in low-level groups as well. Put a low-level spellcaster in the party. Then convince the player he or she will get some boons later in the game if they play along and not use all of their magical abilities. Ask the player to pretend that the character has more power than they actually have.

This ruse can create many funny and potentially dangerous situations. What happens if the party discovers their archmage is really just an apprentice? It depends on how you like to run your games. Maybe the players become convinced that their spellcaster is really great, just has horrible luck…

Have a magical weekend folks!

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9 comments to Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: On Magic (or How Easy Solutions Can Spoil Your Game)

  • Magic can be a problem if your player start to use it as a crutch, but it can be used in interesting way that enhance the game as well. It depends on the campaign and the player, the example you use of the necromancer above is a great example. I ran a scholarly mage in D&D who had almost no combat spells and had to use his magic in very creative ways to be helpful in a fight and he was a blast to play.

    As to magical light, however, if you have the ability to create magical light why would you not use it over a torch? It is easier to carry, does not create smoke or heat, no risk of accidentally setting something on fire, does not get wet and go out, from both an in game and out of game point of view, magic light is just better than a torch.

    • Fitz

      @Sean Holland – Totally agree. There are places where magical effects can definitely work better than regular old physical ones as if you’re using a combination of Silence and Invisibility to steal something from a dragon. But I can see a bit of Rob’s point here as you mentioned, when magic becomes a crutch. If a wizard is doing everything via magic (i.e. cleaning clothes, cooking food, creating lights, etc.) it’s the same “ivory tower” point of view often associated with people in universities – locked away from human contact and real work, losing touch with reality. There’s a big gray area between “magic light” and “magic as a crutch” – and I know as a gamer I think I’ve always been squarely in the middle somewhere…

  • Jayson

    I wonder how many systems you’ve actually played in. Every system I have ever used (from D&D 1st Ed to the newer Dresden Files) has had a very hefty way to limit magic users. The only thing I can infer from your writing is that either 1) you didn’t bother to take the time to understand the magic system and how it is self limiting or 2) You removed those limitations and now dislike magic because of your own mistake. After reading your article, I can’t imagine that you’ve played or ran in many games…

    • Fitz

      @jayson – Though I agree with you in principle, I am sure that Robert has played in plenty of games. And this is purely a matter of opinion based on his experiences. My own experience with magic has been very different and I enjoy playing wizards and having them in my campaigns. But I think the idea of a wizard “playing dumb” has a certain appeal…

  • I have never been to fond of the magician either.
    However, most games have them.

  • @jason – how many systems? Hm…Let’s count AD&D, D&D, many of d20, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, Shadowrun, Deadlands, Naeuroshima, Ars Magica, Dresden Files, Eclipse Phase, Vampire, Wraith, Changeling, Werewolf, Mage, Tribe, Traveller, Lone Wolf, 7th Sea, Promethean, Hunter, Exalted, Earthdown, Dracovard, Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, Kult, Pathfinder, Fiasco, Grey Ranks, Cold City, Brass & Steel, Dzikie Pola, Geist, Fading Suns, Klanarchia, Monastyr… And I am sure I forgot anout few more 🙂
    You want to discuss or quarell?

  • Fitz

    Wow this topic really created quite a conversation over at Reddit as well. Robert, I’d definitely check it out.

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