Magic in games

Magic. It is one of the things I most like to see in games stories. And I mean all games stories; computer games, board games, card games, pen and paper games, movies vocal stories, written stories, daydreams… our world?

One of the important parts of magic is the suspension of disbelief. I just read Andrew’s latest post over at Ascii Dreams – but that wasn’t what triggered this post. I have had something about magic in stories swirling about in my head for years.

Like Andrew says; you need to take magic into account. If you just patch in a few spells for a select group of people, well – that doesn’t fit in at all. The why, how, what of things pop up all the time. The fanciful stuff that fits nicely in stories, faerie magic wielded by another race of beings are the easiest to use. Faerie magic. Okay, that’s fair. That will be illusions, old magic of the lands. Getting someone to fall in love with you by dancing three circles around that big oak under a full moon. Preferably naked. That magic fits into stories without any explanation, but you cannot put that kind of magic too much to the front of the story. The protagonist cannot use it, because then you have to explain the limits, the rituals and the effects. It will fall apart.

Well, you can do it, sort of. Put magic; specific formulas – or spells – into the world. Say they are remnants of earlier ages. The theories are unknown, some select people with a Gift of magic can be taught from old documents and teachers who once were taught by their masters. You just put in fragments of history and it is set. You can even extend it later by having older works discovered, or scholars finding discrete pieces of magic that binds similar spells together.

My personal favorite magical system is the one from Ars Magica. Five Techniques and ten Forms (verbs and nouns). Each magical formula consist of at least one verb and one noun. A basic spell moving a human body vertically (levitation) is a Rego (Movement) and Corpus (Human body) formula. A basic spell moving a human body from A to B without passing the space in between is also a Rego Corpus formula. Separating these is an intention, and a power guideline. In addition you need to specify some meta information such as target (individual, part or a group), a range (self,touch or something you can see), and a duration (instantly, for two minutes, a day or as long as you concentrate). These affect the power requirements.

You have a whole theory of magic, with established guidelines and existing formulas. You have the possibility of specifying the actual effect by textual description (an intention). Casting spells tire the wizard, unless he is pretty good at what he does. This is a world where magic is a powerful force, bringing its own troubles. You need to have a world that is touched by this magic – a reason for it to work in the presence of powerful beings. In Ars Magica this is fixed by adding powerful mythical forces of good and evil (Heaven and Hell) and faeries into the picture. The wizards govern themselves in order to exist and grow without attracting (too much) negative attention from the other forces. And with only a few hundred wizards… the world is dangerous even if you are powerful.

Still, what misses from this picture (as I see it) – you cannot really enchant your tower to only be seen through the wrong end of a spyglass: the magic doesn’t know of objects as such.

Well, this is all well and good. But these systems rely on human interpretation. The system from Ars isn’t that easy to accomplish in the strict world of computer (or board) games. What does this best (imho) is the component based systems in games like Ultima Underworld and Arx Fatalis. The Elder Scrolls games (in Daggerfall, at least) have had a system where you could create spells yourself, but this proved to be a bit unbalanced. A simple, inexpensive spell could see you from novice to master in a school of magic in no time.

I’d like to see a well flavored magic system, one that looks believable within the limits of a system. But who will do this? I don’t know – but Will Wright is my best guess – perhaps he could do a (high) fantasy themed game when he is done with Spore?


Variations on a Theme: An order of side-quests.

Once again I dare to put words to the thoughts provoked by Corvus’ monthly round table. The red thread for April 2008 is Variations on a Theme, what is your favorite, or least favorite games, and what do they have in common that might be the reason for this?

Now, side-quests are usually disliked by gamers. They are also by me. I spent a long time getting to the feature that will make or break many games for me. It will be easier going away from it and look at what side-quests tick for me.

Why do I like side-quests? I guess it may be because they let me roam a bit more in the world I am occupying at the time. I like a game with more space to move in than needed for running from point A to point B in order to get the plot.

Why do I like side-quests? Well, they tell me more about the world and it’s inhabitants. I can get to know more of the world without reading up on it.

Why do I like side-quests? I can get more story out of the game, when I want. If I want.

I love reading books, mostly fantasy and science fiction. I love story, worlds that make sense. Well, makes sense according to it’s own rules. Hyperdrives and magic is fine. Games have a story world, and they use and portray them with varying degrees of success. Some games rely on the world being made popular and known to the player outside of the game, before the player sits down and starts up the game.

This is a good thing. I want to have a world that is detailed, fleshed out. For worlds other than our own our knowledge vary. Star Wars’ world is one I am fairly acquainted with, both through the movies and through books and games. The story world of Planescape was less known to me; it still is. But it was a world filled with optional side-quests, it told me of Sigil, of the planes and a little about the Nameless One.

Coming to think of it; in open worlds it is not so much the quest part that counts. The quest is usually there for the player to take notice and bother. For my part some of those quests that take you out and about could be left out. What encourages me is the ability to wander about and discover something unique. The random encounters in Fallout were like this. No quest tied them in, just persistence and luck. I enjoyed Oblivion for a while too – wandering about encountering dungeons, ruins and caves. Sadly, they weren’t that unique, and they didn’t tell a story.

Betrayal at Krondor was the first game I played that let me roam the world, doing what I wanted to before moving on. It is still one of my favorites. When I come think of it; the roaming an looking for stories and side-quests is what I like. Looking for something that is hidden, meant only for gamers who care. Those who explore. Who flee into the game world.

Side-quests usually offer a reward that increase your power in the game. Magical items or experience in RPGs, More troops or items in strategy games. Bonus levels, more points, money, fame. Stuff that makes the game easier. For someone like me who are bad at powergaming; I make wrong character builds, do thing because it fits with the role I’m playing. For someone like me, these optional quests are not that optional. I need better equipment and magic and stuff to get through the plot. I don’t like those optional side-quests at all.

When it comes down to it, what I like in games are freedom, choice, richness of story… I want a story world I can lose myself in, one that makes me feel joy, frustration, happiness, hate. Take your quests, I’ll look at them and discard them. If they intrigue me or offer me something I like, I’ll take them.

Perhaps I should have gone with the original title for this post? Free will, or the illusion thereof. Side-quests really are something that destroys a game for me.

Please visit the Round Table’s Main Hall for links to all entries.