Thursday, March 31, 2016

Bloodless Magic of 5e

I love a lot of things in 5e. I love the action economy that keeps the game moving quickly and prevents a single character from dominating a turn by taking a stack of a dozen actions. I love the way skills work, there if you need them but equally small enough to ignore when they’d just get in the way, and how the skill system never tells a player: “NO!” I love backgrounds, and the races work, and I love how easy and fun the advantage/disadvantage mechanic is and how concentration prevents characters from layering up on the magical buffs. If I play another version of D&D, even my beloved Moldvay/Cook, I miss a lot of these things, and will sometimes even import them because they work really, really well.

But magic in 5e feels flat. It has no sparkle, no pizzazz. And I’m not sure why.

It’s not the spells themselves. With spells like Mirage Arcane, Crown of Madness, Dissonant Whispers, and Hunger of Hadar, 5e sports some of the most flavorful and evocative spells the game has ever seen (though I’d certainly not be against seeing a more consistent effort across the board to sex them all up, a la LotFP’s spell list). The neo-Vancian spell-slots thing doesn’t help, calling to mind capacitors and other technology-heavy metaphors. Still, preparing spells reads like magic; it tends to fall flat on its face in the actual implementation, when it goes from bundling components or chanting mantras and becomes bare bookkeeping.

And that, right there, is clearly one of the issues. What, exactly, does it mean to prepare a spell? The PHB treats it as nothing more than a bookkeeping chore:
You prepare the list of wizard spells that are available for you to cast. To do so, choose a number of wizard spells from your spellbook equal to your Intelligence modifier + your wizard level (minimum of one spell). The spells must be of a level for which you have spell slots. (PHB pg. 114)

It’s almost verbatim for every other class that casts spells. There’s nary a fig-leaf of mumbo-jumbo, woo, or the like to dress it up. Admittedly, this is not something we want to spend a lot of time on, and is best done between sessions. Still, at least a fa├žade of mysticism would be nice.

We get the same sort of just-the-facts-ma’am attitude on how spells are acquired. Clerics and paladins clearly acquire their spells from their deity, which gives DMs wonderful openings for tying the PCs to their world. Wizards get their spells from books (mostly). But everyone else (including wizards) get spells when they level up.

How? It’s never explained.

It sorta makes sense with sorcerers. Since they acquire magic via genetics, the power grows like an exercised muscle. Druids and rangers can kinda crib from both clerics and sorcerers, saying that, as their experience with Nature grows, so does their ability to channel its wondrous powers. But how do you explain wizards and bards just suddenly acquiring new spells when they level up?

But the most egregious example is the warlock. Yes, obviously, they should acquire their new spells from their patrons. But there’s nothing at all in the books about how this works. I could see a scholarly warlock with a Great Old One patron actually having their mind expanded by reading the Necronomicon a few too many times, but really, there’s nothing in the book about how warlocks interact with their patrons. How are they contacted? What is the nature of the relationship? What do the patrons get out of it?

On the one hand, I appreciate the light touch that leaves lots of room for individual interpretations. On the other hand, there’s a ton of cool opportunities just left on the table, and, in the heat of the game, it’s easy to just ignore this sort of thing. And if you do that, magic kinda deflates into a technology with the wires and gears hidden behind sparkles and unicorn farts.

Art by Thomas Dewing.

6 comments:

Dan said...

In the infinite time I'll have when I next run a campaign... I always wanted to have the characters develop relationships with their mentors. I've done that with patrons, and it certainly solved a lot of problems on kicking off the next adventure -- no more dying man walking into the tavern with a map, just "Ok, kids, this week I want you to look into..."

But the mentor relationship has a lot to offer for spicing up the campaign. First of all, each character (or at least each class) will have its own mentor, and just like a patron, that mentor will have his own agenda. They're not just sitting around back at the Wizard school waiting for their students to level up. They're pursuing their own goals and projects, and those goals can filter into the campaign through their students. It could even be tied into how they train and learn new spells or skills.

"So, Zollie... no, I'm not going to call you Zoltar the Zoltastik. You're only sixth level, but since you are now sixth level, it's time for you to learn how to cast a fireball. But first, I want you to travel to see Erinir the Elder in Eastwick. Here's your letter of introduction. He has a few books on elemental fire that I would like you to transcribe for my library here. If you pay attention, you'll probably figure out how to cast that fireball from the text, but if not, I'll teach it to you myself when you get back."

And now you have the party headed off to Eastwick, with an interesting diversion along the way...

trollsmyth said...

Dan: I did something kinda similar with my first 5e campaign, except the entire party had a single patron. She just recently got kidnapped and they just failed two attempts to free her. Not sure there's going to be a third, but we'll see.

Dan said...

(different Dan here!) I'm with you on this, there definitely seems to be a bit missing. Even if thy wanted to leave it open so the DM can explain how they want, it would have been nice to include some options in the the 5e DMG under the 'magic in your world' section.

I've worked out what seems to make the most sense to me: wizards (and most other magic users) prepare spells by performing a ritual version of the spell (even if it technically has none in the PHB). A major part of this is processing the material components - grinding, burning, chanting over them - pretty much as in the apparent practice of ritualistic magic in our world. Thus the ritual for each spell has already been cast in advance, and when the spell is cast "in the field" they are merely saying the last few words and performing the last few actions of the ritual to completion.

(as an aside I really like the 5E rules for rituals and think they are hugely under-appreciated. They add a lot of flavour to the game and make wizards and other ritual casters great for those non-combat utility spell - if needed they can pull one out as a ritual, so as not using up a spell slot. That does a lot for the roleplay/exploration side of the game without taking away combat ability)

You mentioned Sorcerers too, and I have a houserule that they do not need material components - I think this matches their magic being "i the blood" and makes them stand slightly aside from wizards.

Warlocks I haven't looked at as much, but agree that players and DMs should make the most of the patron feature.

Phillip Hessel said...

It's D&D, in this respect as it has been from the start, not Chivalry & Sorcery or RuneQuest or Gardasiyal or some other brand built on detailing cut and dried particulars of someone else's world.

Jason Raabis said...

I don't like the flavour of the spell casting systems in most of the major fantasy RPG's. They generally key on making magic a stable force akin to the reliability and utility of swinging a sword. I can see why this is done of course; designers want each class to be playable and be able to contribute at roughly the same level as others in the adventuring party. All well and good objectives when designing a game.

The "problem" for me with this approach is that the treatment of magic turns it into a mundane force similar to modern day electricity; just plug in your drill and away you go. That's not how I want magic in my world to look.

I'm going to be cobbling together some ideas from various sources for my home-brew solution in an attempt to rectify this for my own table. DCC has some interesting ideas as a place to start. I plan on applying my custom patch to either Pathfinder or 5e. We shall see how it goes!

trollsmyth said...

Jason: Sounds intriguing. Do let us know how it goes. :)