(This is part 2 of a 3 part series about designing magic for tabletop roleplaying games. Part 1 is available here.)
Once again I’ll be referencing Harry Potter a lot, as well as D&D 5e. Harry Potter remains the best cultural touchstone when discussing learning magic, whilst D&D 5e is the big ttrpg.
When I refer to casting magic, I mean the actual things that the character does to make the magic happen, not the results of the magic.
Magic can serve lots of purposes in a fiction. In Lovecraftian fiction it is dangerous and dark, something to be feared and avoided. In Harry Potter it is largely whimsical and a time-saving tool. In Mistborn (I recently read the first book and really enjoyed it) magic is a mechanical tool, mostly of oppression. You get the idea.
The the casting of the magic should reflect and support its themes within the fiction. Generally, it does.
Casting of Lovecraftian magic is esoteric. Casting is likely to involve strange words and dark rituals. Lovecraftian magic is very tightly themed.
Mistborn’s magic is mechanical – ingest the appropriate metal and then use it as mana for that branch of magic. Appropriate for a tool-like magic.
Harry Potter’s magic falls down here (with one big exception). Most magic involves pointing a wand and saying some pseudo-latin. This is somewhat whimsical but it’s core flaw is that it is boring. I’ve written at length before about the three best spells in Harry Potter and the best spell, Expecto Patronum, bucks this trend.
Expecto Patronum creates a glowing magical creature which brings warmth and happiness, and defeats the dark monsters which stand in for depression. To cast Expecto Patronum, the caster must bring to mind a powerful happy memory. This is great theming and moreover it is interesting, not just from a fictional position but from a ttrpg perspective.
Expecto Patronum is essentially acting like a storygame prompt. If a player were to cast the spell, they would need to explain their character’s happy memory to the rest of the players. The casting mechanism is engaging as it is directly supporting narrative development by the players.
This doesn’t directly support the whimsy of the setting, but the glowing animal companion bit does. And this spell is only relevant when depression-monsters are attacking – the darkness to which the whimsy is juxtaposed anyway.
It’s probably not worthwhile to make every spell this engaging in a game like D&D. I don’t want to have to improvise a new memory every time I cast magic missile, and I certainly don’t want my combats to be dragged out even longer than they already are.
In Critical Role, players describe how they character does their attack when the get a killing blow. Reserving engaging questions only for important moments (first time used, fight-ending moments, narratively crucial decision points) would be a good workaround.
It’s hard to provide a formula for making spell-casting more engaging, as it’s very dependent on themes and individual spells. But it is worth considering.
How I’ve made casting the magic in Welcome to Camp Merlin more engaging
I can broadly categorise my approach in three groups: positioning; character prompts; and telegraphing.
Shape Shift: Position your body so that your limbs are in the shape of the animal which you
wish to become. Hold that shape for six seconds.
It’s not a strict ‘unable to cast in combat’ restriction, but it means the players will have to create the time and space to make the shape. If the player can also pose to show the shape their character for added whimsy.
Truth Food (food that makes the eater tell the truth): Whilst preparing food for consumption, speak aloud a truth that you have never told anybody.
This is a storygame-esque prompt, like the happy memory for expecto patronum. It also serves as a soft restriction depending on whether the character is around other people.
Sense Mind (locate nearby minds): Close your eyes, calm your body, and empty your mind of all thoughts.
Any other magic user can infer what magic you are doing by looking at you. In this instance, it also makes you vulnerable, so it’s a risky move in a game of cat-and-mouse.
Welcome to Camp Merlin is now available on DriveThruRPG and itch.io
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