Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Availability of Magic in a Campaign

I like to keep my game worlds magic-poor. There simply aren't high-level clerics in every town, and there are not high-level wizards, or even low-level, scattered throughout the countryside. This allows me to have a world which more or less makes sense without having to account for what a lot of magic would do to the world.

The PCs can be spellcasting classes of course, and I'll throw in an NPC here and there, but these guys are rare in the game world.

There is no resurrection in my campaign. Sure, I roll for spells on scrolls randomly so a Raise Dead might, might, show up sometime. But "awww Joe died... haul him back to town and let's visit the temple," simply doesn't exist in my game. Dead is dead.

There aren't even any clerics to cast Remove Curse or Remove Disease. In my game, everyone's waiting for the cleric to gain one more level so she gets access to these spells. One character has been afflicted with a rhyming curse for months of real time now, and just recently was shrunk to one foot in height (It didn't help that two Remove Curse spells have shown up on scrolls and the clerics in question have blown their failure rolls both times for casting spells above their level).

This creates other situations. A first level magic-user becomes potentially a real problem for a village or town because they are so rare that not only is there no contingency plans in place to deal with them, there is no perceived need for such a thing. I don't have to ask, "So why don't clerics just keep everyone fed and healthy?" It's just a world, with the weird stuff off to the side.

I also keep magic items rare. There are no magic shops. You can't go into town, not even a big one, and pick up some healing potions. I hand out potions and scrolls frequently as treasure in dungeons because I don't fear one-use items, and that gets interesting because I always randomly roll what sort they are and then forget about them once the players identify them. A couple weeks ago an encounter with a dragon, which could have been a party-killer, turned into a simple, yet tense, initiative roll. The player with the Potion of Dragon Control, which I'd forgotten I'd ever given out, won initiative and the dragon was simply commanded to fly, fly away.

I also keep monsters correspondingly rare. They're either in the deep wilderness, or in a dungeon, or else their presence indicates that Something is Wrong. But the average person (not average PC!) in my campaign world can expect to never have a first-hand experience with the supernatural.

But after reading this post, it's occurred to me that I might be doing it a bit strangely. Raising a second level character? Eek!

(Not that there is a total lack of magic in the campaign... just in the civilized lands. I think I've mentioned the brownie who kept a fox-coup that kept getting raided by a giant chicken. Did I mention the three orc brothers, one who lived in a straw house, one who lived in a wooden house, and one who lived in a brick house being harassed by a werewolf? Or the frog that after being kissed turned into a bullywug princess who fell in love with the one who broke her curse? This stuff side by side in the same campaign with the political adventures and the creepy horror and the rest... but I do fit my gonzo crazygonuts in there, thankyouverymuch. Another example is the Deck of Many Things I put in a dungeon, unguarded even, and watched one player pretty much deep-six two characters over the course of two weeks with the thing. But it's a (HUGE) gamble to use the thing and nobody else will draw. They were talking about handing it off to a particularly dastardly NPC...)

So how freely available is magic in your game?


  1. I'm currently writing a modern world setting where magic exists in such a way that the world setting is still indiscernible from the world we live in so by-definition that's magic light. I've played many such games like that, and it's extremely valid especially since you have to consider how magic would effect everyday life. If magic is everywhere and magic items are mass manufactured then eventually you won't have a medieval society.

    I know of only one game setting that handles a high level of magic with any degree of plausibility. It's not perfect but the societies that have lots of magic are effected by it, and the magical systems in the rules take those things into account rather than every magic spell simply having rules involving how to kill something better or stop it from killing you.

  2. Sounds pretty much how I run magic in my campaign. Magic items might be a little more prevalent, but I prefer a thriftier world onthe whole. I run Greyhawk a bit more generously, however.

  3. It hasn't really come up yet in my current campaign, but I envision magic as uncommon but not rare at the strength of 1st level magic users and clerics - beyond that, it gets rarer exponentially, in relation to levels, this being due to the fact that not many folks live past 1st level and 1st level NPCs are quite content to stay at level one and reap what economic and other benefits they easily can even with only that much of a leg up on the zero levels. Only the highly eccentric, insane, or those cursed by fate and war would ever willfully pursue experience that would provide higher levels of magic ability.

  4. I've learned through unpleasant experience to make magic of all sorts a rare thing, particularly magic items. Potions are a bit more common and there are the occasional odd noncombat items, like a magic bullseye lantern ( a helpful automated accounting tool than anything else--no more torch audits).

    Resurrection is theoretically possible, but finding someone powerful enough (and willing, on top of that) to do it? I leave it up to the characters to decide if they want to raise their dead buddy, but they may need a group rate by time they find a willing and able cleric.

    Most of all, I try to let two things guide me: (1) What makes sense in the campaign setting, a game consideration; and (2) What creates the best long-term play, a meta-game consideration.

    Great question and primo post.

  5. The Vaults game is pretty magic-light so far. Sure, there are instances of 'petty magic' (alchemy, taicharene small wonders, etc.) to be seen in the surface world, but the heavy mojo is invariably locked away in the dungeon (as befits the 'magic as metaphorical nuclear power' kick I'm on recently).

    That said, we /are/ still bumbling along in 'shanked by a goblin' (1st-level) territory. Things may get more magic rich - and accordingly chaotic - as we progress.

  6. I definitely prefer a "magic-lite" game, though perhaps not quite as "lite" as yours. Potions and Scrolls are a great way to strike a balance as they give players a sense that they found something rare and interesting, while at the same time not unbalancing the game in then long run. Even randomly rolling is not going to put a stick in the spokes of a game as there are no hyper-powerful potions and a ridiculously high level scroll is going to be largely useless for a low-level spellcaster. Plus, being expendable, they work well with the old school concept of resource management.

  7. I tend to be about on par with bulette's level of magic rarity.

    It's funny, but of the people I've gamed with over the years I don't think anyone's ever expected resurrection magic to be widely available.

    Another strike against widespread clerical magic in my games is the fact that I emphasize clerics being members of militant orders. So there are waaaaaay more "priests" than "clerics" and clerics tend to be not evenly distributed but clustered in frontier areas, like the Crusading orders of old.

  8. I once ran what was effectively a magic free campaign. There were no priests, and players were discouraged from playing magic-users. The only wizards were powerful Merlin types: advisors to the king, etc. The players rarely had magic objects; there was a long series of adventures in pursuit of a +2 sword. I have to say that this worked very well.

    When the PC's did come up against magic it was always harrowing and completely creepy.

  9. I have no resurrection at all, but I'm not stingy with magic otherwise. In T&T you have to pay to get trained for spells so there's no problem with handing out gold by the bucket. They'll need it!

    Items are for me a way to inject some sense of wonder and mystery into the world, so I have some magic item in every bigger pile of loot. On the other hand I very rarely give away permanent items and they all have drawbacks!

    I think a too magic rare game cuts to close to historical gaming, and that's not what I want. There is one way to make it interesting, though. If you have magic you will be one of the movers and shakers of the world soon enough if it's otherwise rare. That is an interesting option, but not one I'm taking.

    Do you plan to make the characters that important in the world, later on?

  10. I generally play 3.5 so there is a little more magic available in my settings though the players will still have to find it and it will cost them a little more than they think. 10th level Clerics are not everywhere.

    I'm about to begin a 4e game here in a few weeks and talk about a difference in style. If you character does die, which is dang near impossible, the ritual to raise dead is relatively low in level and the setting is much higher in magic than any previous edition.

    It's just interesting to see the styles of play for the different editions. If I do get a chance to run my OSRIC game or Labyrinth Lord or even if I pick up the Castles and Crusades books, I know I'll still keep magic higher than the setting calls for, but it too will not be easy to come by.

  11. In my Chivalry and Sorcery, magic is not uncommon, but you don't encounter it much for one primary reason. Magic users in C&S don't become better by crawling around in dungeons or some overland quest.
    Low level MUs are apprenticed to a more experienced one. High level ones are studying spells, enchanting materials, and otherwise doing "magic" things. A wandering adventuring MU will invariably be significantly weaker than one who is actually working to become a better MU.
    Does this mean that MUs don't adventure. They might, if there is something they need to acquire. They might discover the location of a magic tome or scroll, or some magical item. They DON'T adventure for money, because to be honest, if they are any good, they probably have plenty of folks willing to pay for spells being cast fot them.
    Ditto for Clerics. Hey, y'all got a god to serve. Unless you have a calling to wander aimlessly about the countryside doing squat to further your god's objectives, you're not going to be very effective when your particular deity pulls all your miracles. Now your just a bad fighter.
    Of course, my religion is monotheistic in form and persecutes magic users as tools of the "evil one." Magic users keep a low profile and tend to relocate to remote locations when they reach a high enough power level that they can't hide any more.

  12. When I ran my campaigns, I tried to make sue that there was never “something-for-nothing”. Magic items can, if not careful, give something for nothing.

    For weapons and armour +1 bonus were for craftsmanship, nothing more. “Magic” started at +2. When the characters did encounter magic items there was always a drawback to them. My favorite examples were a dagger that added 1d6 electrical damage to strike, but also damaged the wielder ½. Electricity is no respecter of who it hits. One player nearly killed their character until the figured out to wear leather gloves.

    Potions are plentiful; alchemy is a science after all. But I never made it as simple as, “you found a potion of (blank)” I had a small list of potions and physical characteristics. “You find a slightly gold tinted liquid”

    Every town did not have a cleric and if they did, it wasn’t a matter of hauling in the sacks of gold. The temple wants something substantial to heal, or bring your dead companion back. Better to find an apothecary and Inn for a few weeks.

    Wish spells? Don’t even think about it. “The Monkey’s Paw” was required reading.

  13. Just to be the odd one out, my campaigns have freely available spellcasting and resurrection (though you might get stuck owing Kord a quest before your negative level goes away). And I make magic items sell back for only 1/4 price so I can give out more expensive and cool ioun stones, rods of mineral detection, etc.