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Chaotic Magical

Posted in Indies & More

With a title like Chaotic Magical I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Mike’s Legends and Lore post, but it turns out to be a pair of quick thoughts on alignment and the place of magic in the game. Good stuff!

The D&D Next take on alignment, though, is utterly perplexing to me as game design. It’s semi-understandable as marketing.

Alignment in D&D Next will be as removed from the core concepts as possible while still remaining a part of the game. A spell like protection from evil will work against specific types of creatures, like the undead and fiends, but presumably not your average orc. It’s a middle-of-the-road compromise that is a great choice for making a broad game, but much less useful for a strongly designed one.

Taking a step back, alignment can mean a lot of things, and the D&D Next approach plays off of many of them.

First there’s alignment as allegiance. As in Warhammer (and to an extent, Moldvay), alignment here means being part of one of the great forces that battles over the material world. It may be Order and Chaos, or Good and Evil, or whatever, but the core conceit is a nearly Zoroastrian duality of good and evil battling in the world.

This type of alignment is excellent for certain kinds of games. It provides a completely non-complicated justification for bloody adventuring, bypassing any objections to wanton killing. It gives an order to the world that has action and conflict built right in. It justifies alignment as a real attachment to a concrete thing, not just a manner of thinking.

It is, however, pretty fantastical. Bypassing questions of killing by giving an absolute justification is creepy in its own right. It’s not built for nuance.

Then there’s aspirational alignment, where alignment is something your character tries to be. This is can take a form like Burning Wheel’s Beliefs, or Shadow of Yesterday’s Keys, and it can go beyond aspiring to be good or evil to aspiring to be king or aspiring to be a kung fu master. While allegiance alignments serve to justify certain actions, aspirational alignment serves to inspire action. If you’re trying to be king, the GM can drive the game by portraying the challenges between you and that goal.

These are powerful tools for making driven characters, but they’re not always the easiest to create. Asking a new player to create an aspiration for their character right off the bat is intimidating at the least and tends to lead to either a moment of revelation or a muddle of failure.

Alignment can also be descriptive. I wish I knew where this system came from, but a friend of mine had a descriptive alignment add-on for D&D 3E where you rated your intensity in each portion of your alignment—something like Lawful 4 Good 2. These intensities are not just prescriptive, but descriptive—when you act less Good your Good rating goes down.

This is essentially how games like Mass Effect or Fable work; your actions dictate your alignment. There’s a reason that the best implementations are in digital games: it’s a pain in the ass to track. Having to watch all the time for which alignment you’re acting towards is rather annoying and a lot is likely to slip through the cracks.

Alignment can even fit the FATE idea of aspects, where aspects both provide you a bonus when acting towards them and a way for others to tempt you into action. Acting Good gives you a bonus (maybe XP or a bonus die), but if you’re tempted to act Good you may have to take the opportunity. It’s both the carrot and the stick.

Of course this list isn’t even nearly exhaustive: there are many ways to make alignment matter.

The D&D Next approach, though, seems to be to keep alignment in name only. It’s a legacy concept that has to be there (it’s D&D!) but without any particularly useful effects on play. Protection from evil isn’t so much protection from evil as it is Protection from Demons and Undead. It’s only called protection from evil because there used to be a spell called that.

Legacy concepts aren’t a bad thing. There’s something to be said for continuity, especially if other boundaries are being pushed.

Enough of that. On to magic!

The magic issue here is damage spells versus incapacitation spells. Is a caster better served by chipping away at HP or putting the target into a state where they’re no longer a threat?

Incapacitation spells have, in previous editions, tended to become instant wins. Putting an orc to sleep allows you to slit its throat, and it only took one spell instead of a series of attacks. The design team wants to address this by making most incapacitation spells have a count down of a sort—it might take 5 rounds to turn something to stone, for example.

It’s an interesting fix that has the side effect of having non-damaging spells effectively work against a separate pool of HP. The wizard has the choice of a spell that takes away HP, contributing to the same battle being fought by the fighter and everyone else, or casting a spell that works against a different resource (time) but may end the battle sooner.

That’s a pretty smart way to deal with incapacitating spells. It gives some clear tradeoffs and complications to using, say, Flesh to Stone instead of Fireball.

Another approach would be to rethink magic on a more fundamental level. Here’s one fundamental rethinking: Moldvay wizards were amazingly powerful, but also amazingly limited. After they fire off their spell(s) they’re done, and now as vulnerable as anyone else. Making camp (or leaving the dungeon) is a careful consideration of the likelihood of wandering monsters, the state of the rest of the party, &etc. Over time many of those assumptions have changed: the wizard has more spells (including, in some versions, spells that are always ready), making camp is not clearly dangerous, and the wizard is less vulnerable.

Another possible rethinking: deal with each spell first as a concrete fictional entity. Take, for example, fireball: for fireball to exist but not be overwhelmingly common there must be some restrictions on it. What makes fireball impractical enough that it takes a PHD in magic to deal with one? The answers are endless: maybe it’s a limited resource, maybe it’s unpredictable, maybe it’s draining, maybe it’s corrupting, etc.1

None of these are strictly better than the current Next solution, they’re just other approaches. Next is prioritizing the balance of the classes first and foremost, so they opted for a solution that presents interesting tactical implications.

  1. This is actually a superset of the Moldvay rethinking above. The reason fireballs aren’t everywhere in Moldvay is that staying alive long enough to learn how to use one is a challenge, and even then you’ve only got a couple of shots at using it. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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