Help! Need a system to wrap my magic idea.

I've got the core of a magic system, speaking very heavily to the Challenge and Discovery aesthetics ( I want to bolt it onto a system that it would work well in. Players are on board for the core bits of fun if I can make a good system+campaign out of it. :)

The basic idea is that players play characters who have unique and new magic, expressed by channeling intent and power through a (mental?) crystalline structure. At the table, these structures are Zendo sculptures and players must build them. Please take it as given that I have a way to translate stated intent and concrete sculpture into a spell effect, and that the effect is in some sense "smooth" (small changes in sculpture usually have small (or no) change to effect). A major part of play will be discovering sculptures which produce useful effects and using those to do more, faster, better, etc.

Here's what I was picturing, for a start. Use Dungeon World. Make some new moves, like "when you take a few days to meditate on / practice with a crystal..." and "when you try a new crystal in the midst of need..." available for choosing after level 1, or maybe give one to everyone at the start. Have a really-quite-impossible campaign front of maybe a demon lord taking over the continent with armies upon armies. Have PCs come from a bitty village, with the intent "somehow discover enough about magic to keep saving your fellow non-demons from slaughter until you are strong enough to take on the front in some way".

Thoughts? On how it would work with DW (or not work), on other systems to think about using?

I my main desiderata are
a) must be a cost to explore a new sculpture, otherwise just explore forevers
b) must be incrementally harder things to tackle once new magic is available that give sorely needed benefits upon successfully tackling
c) must have a super-bad danger that seems impossible to deal with but that players do have a good shot at eventually dealing with if they're smart/fast/clever enough - the final payoff


  • Personally, I would just import this into Ars Magica. The main advantage would be that the game does a lot of work to clear conceptual space for doll-house play at the table; instead of being a dramatic game where something is always happening and you don't really have time to work on your sculptures, it's more of a game where you sculpture first and then perhaps something comes up where the sculpturing becomes relevant to the wider concerns of the fictional world.
  • Mmm, interesting. I've heard a lot about Ars Magica but haven't read it or gotten to play it. I see the 4th edition is free online, I'll give it a read!
  • Odds are that it's got too much going on for itself to make it something for casual hacking, of course - would be a pretty good choice for somebody already facile with it, though. Something sort of similar but mechanically much more lightweight would be even better for your purposes...

    Tricky question, all told. I see the design parameters clearly, but can't name an entirely perfect game for the purpose. I feel that many games are too dramatic for this, and that human drama over-rides the magical concerns. I'm reminded of language-learning games I used to design, those have similar concerns about being leisurely in pace and having things like plot and drama take distinct second seat to puzzling out the game's rules. Ars Magica is really the best published example of the genre that I can think of. Few games are so oriented towards having the players engage the rules system simply to build stuff (spells and magic items and magical cults and other sorts of magical projects in this case).
  • You should summon @David_Berg; his game Delve has something very similar going on in it (however, based on runes, I believe).
  • Overall, i'd say that this is a concept so, so many people have wanted to bring to fruition (I know I have!), but no one ever has to their satisfaction. (Well, maybe David has! But he hasn't published.)

    If you pull it off, it will likely attract a lot of attention and interest.
  • edited September 2017
    I can't comment on Dungeon World for this. In Delve, there's no roll to learn magics, there's just a bunch of in-fiction resources that comprise and describe magic, and the players learn the system or fail to by interacting with it. If you'd rather abstract that process than play through it, though, that sounds doable to me. Here are the elements I'd keep:

    - Some of the threats are magical entities and thus can be influenced by the same means the players use to influence other magical entities/energies in the form of spells. So a simple spell might be more effective against a demon than a thousand crossbows.

    - No one else has magic. Acquiring it requires the combination of talent, intelligence, fearlessness, and death-defying that only PCs possess. Accordingly, whenever the PCs acquire a unique magical ability, they immediately become the resource for that ability in any situations which need it, no matter how large. So, y'know, if teleporting behind enemy lines were the only way for the armies of humanity to defeat Sauron, well, guess what, the PCs are the only one who can make that happen. "Not such small-town peasants now, are we?"

    - Magical power sources are a precious resource. You can't make magic happen just by knowing what shapes to draw or what words to say. You need an energy source too. In Delve this is alodite, a weird rock that grows in sheltered places in the light of the mysterious second moon. You can trap demons and other magical entities inside alodite, and you can consume alodite to cast spells. In Delve, harvesting alodite is something else the PCs need to learn, as the rock is naturally unbreakable.

    - Magical research tools are also a precious resource. In Delve I use colored dust for this purpose, with each color providing a different type of information. The dust describes the magical properties of anything it's poured on, before evaporating. So, if you want to know what powers these runes bestow upon this sword, pour the dust on them! You'll get back some shapes of suns and moons which you must learn to interpret.

    - Bits of monsters you defeat are often magically useful. Some might take the place of alodite, while others might temporarily confer the magical abilities of the monster. Use your initial magical knowledge to defeat the telepathic spider, then pulp and drink its brain to gain telepathic powers to read the boss demon's plans, etc. The more uniquely magically equipped you are, the more uniquely magically equipped you can become.

    Additional stuff you might or might not want, depending on how much you challenge the players to learn magic by their own wits:

    - There are dungeons out there (I call them "soft spots") where magic is more alive and present, and where magical workings become more extreme and obvious. You don't need alodite in these places -- draw a run and see what happens! It'll be a much more extreme version of its regular-world effect though. These are great places to experiment and learn, and great places to acquire magical resources, but also great places to instantly lose a limb, turn into an animal, be sent across the continent, and other unique dangers.

    - Magical augury cards introduce some of the symbols that define the magical language.

    - PCs develop special perceptions wherein they can see the world in such terms.

    - Veteran adventurers can give them snippets of what they've learned.

    - A rosetta stone is out there, mapping the symbols to the perceptions to the runes to rune effects.

    If you'd like me to elaborate on any of these, just lemme know! Obviously I'm a big fan of the sort of play you're working on here. I even considered using Zendo-based experimentation at one point!
  • edited September 2017
    Great stuff, Dave!

    My own plans were to use syntactic trees (a linguistics concept) to derive magical formulae for the players to learn. They would learn the "syntax" of the magical language by trial and error (or clever research). I never developed the system, however.

    Dave, you say that a Rosetta Stone exists for runic effects. That's in the fictional world... do you have a real world copy of it?

    How do you determine the effects of an attempted spell? Are all runic combinations mapped out, do you use the particular combination and interpret according to the flavour of Magic peculiar to your world, or something else?
  • Yep, I printed the Rosetta Stone out for the players to look at when the PCs found it.

    The magical language has a grammar, with rune meanings determined by their position. Put X runes in Y order and that tells me the rough parameters of the spell effect. These rough parameters are then specified by any additions the PCs make to the ritual casting which are in line with established magical principles.
  • Ha, thanks David, most of those facets have analogs, sometimes exact, in my notes. Convergent designs. :) The one with no analog that I really really like is "soft spots". It neatly solves the balance problem with acceptably easy experimentation and acceptably expensive spell-casting-for-effect by using different costs in different locations.


    The bit I'm struggling with right now is actually "the rest". I could start from scratch and figure out what system would probably work well for other-than-magic, or I could shamelessly steal, and I'm very interested in the latter. What's "the rest" look like for you? Alternatively, from what sources did you shamelessly steal?
  • How much of the rest do you need? Any reason you can't just keep magic as your only resolution system?
  • Rafu, interesting. Fiat for everything else? Or "reasonable person" can do, otherwise can't, and if there's a conflict you must find a way to enhance with magic in order to get a chance at success otherwise you just fail?
  • It seems to me that "the rest" depends on what the PCs will be doing with their time -- y'know, whatever winds up exposing them to the workings of magic. If that's classic adventuring stuff, then you need to decide how to handle classic adventuring stuff, and nothing you've written here tells me the best approach for that.

    As for Delve, I think I started by stealing from old-school D&D, but the rules don't much resemble D&D's at this point.

    I'd say that the main thing gluing my approach together, across magic and other goals, is a "fictional causality first" ethos. There's some simulation-style rules for stuff I don't want to judgment-call over and over, and then beyond that there are a lot of judgment calls based on reading the fiction as objectively as possible.

    Combat is a bunch of attempts to be historically accurate, but then with enough transparency about risk that death is pretty easy to avoid. I chose that last bit so you don't have to make a new character and figure out how to port all your player knowledge of magic etc. into them. Rather than death being frequently on the line, more often the stakes are lost precious resources, disfigurement, disaster for the locale, and a hit to your reputation.

    In a game about climbing upward in capability, I have a few ways to measure that, from skill advancement to listing deeds as a way to track reputation. The skill advancement is really a minor concern, though, and my reputation system doesn't have any finalized mechanics -- right now it's mostly accounting.

    What else... I don't use mental character stats. The players are putting their own smarts to work on the game's challenges.

    I'm not sure whether Delve is overall similar to what you're going for or not. Learning magic in Delve is not the explicit goal of play, and I don't make it easy, so there need to be other rewarding things to do in play. If the players never figure out how to use the runes, the game isn't any less fun -- they'll still pick up on the useful properties of sunlight, starlight, soft spots, monster acid, etc. just through undertaking adventures that no one else has undertaken. If your aim is similar, then I guess your system should cover adventuring stuff. If the primary point of play is to learn magic, though, then maybe you don't need system for much else. Just make sure acquired magical knowledge can't be lost in some unsatisfying way, and maybe the rest is minutiae. :)
  • :chagrin:

    I didn't say some things I really needed to. Here's more context.

    My goal is not to present players with a game of "figure out the magic system", as that's just Zendo plus some silly talking tacked on.

    My goal is instead to present players with a series of progressively more-obviously intractable mini-dungeons, the birds-eye view of which they can see from the outset, and say to them something like "you must overcome the in order to . To do so you must discover enough about magic that your characters are far more powerful than they are now. To do so takes in-game time. If you simply take the time, your territories will be overrun. You must therefore expand your territory/resources as you gain magical knowledge enabling you to do so, actively combatting the forces which would otherwise overrun humanity, so that you do not snuff it before you discover enough about magic to overcome the ."

    So! I am assuming a classic adventure stuff backdrop with a kind of a logistics/4X half to it, paced by a combination of having to not be overwhelmed by antagonists and having to discover more about magic to progress.

    That's 4 aspects:
    * classic adventure stuff backdrop
    * logistics/4X
    * antagonists overwhelming timer
    * magic discovery as gates

    I have good ideas/designs/etc for the last 3. I'm looking for the system to use for the "classic adventure stuff backdrop".

    Fine point about not having death frequently on the line - "death" should probably result in fade-to-black, time/resources lost when returning to somewhere an adventurer could recover, maybe combined with a secondary non-magical character to play during healing downtime until powerful healing magic is discovered. Or y'know magic soul-clones. Whatevs. ;)
  • Hey, for some reason I started thinking that Runeslayers might have a classic adventure chassis appropriate for your needs - it's streamlined, interesting and might be in the right spot in terms of complexity for something like this. As a bonus, it's got a cool system for low-wuxia style fighters, but no real magic system of its own, so it's easy to slot in your own magic rules.
  • "reasonable person" can do, otherwise can't, and if there's a conflict you must find a way to enhance with magic in order to get a chance at success otherwise you just fail?
    That was my first thought, yeah.

    Apart from that, maybe an abstract currency for "resources" (wealth and influence, mostly). You can, as a last resort, brute-force your way through any challenge by spending a lot of resources on it (think hiring and arming a whole mercenary company to deal with an ogre), but investing your resources in building up your magical power and then figuring out how to solve problems with magic is a more cost-effective long-term investment.

    Since time seems to be a concern, maybe keep track of it in "turns" or some other abstraction. They can spend their turns on magical research, on amassing mundane resources or on going into dungeons. Brute-forcing a challenge uses up extra turns to prepare. Then your turn comes and you advance your various threat clocks.
  • Eero, is this the Runeslayers you're talking about? It looks like the history is a bit muddled, so I wasn't clear.

    Rafu, that sounds really cool, and might be worth doing regardless of where I go with the game - just to simulate and get an idea of what pacing will be like.
  • Yeah, Runeslayers - or Runequest: Slayers as it was originally known. The rulebook is a bit counter-intuitively organized, you might wish to check out the character generation, skill system and combat rules specifically to get a sense for how it goes. Lots of interesting mechanical nuances in there, and plenty of room to insert your own magic system seamlessly.
  • I think a key system choice will concern leveling. "To do so you must discover enough about magic that your characters are far more powerful than they are now" implies to me that "do stuff, get XP, get better at doing stuff" probably shouldn't be a big deal, but I wonder if you agree.

    I think Rafu's idea is super interesting, but I doubt "fail everything unless you can apply magic" would lead to familiar adventuring. Not unless you learn magics for sneaking and/or convincing and/or fighting pretty darn quick. But maybe you don't need familiarity! If it's a long game with lots of progress, then in the beginning, getting crushed while the world situation gets worse could be the perfect set-up to make the late game more satisfying. Just as long as there's still a point in trying, that is. I guess, "get crushed, see the world erode, but learn a little magic" would be the ideal. :)
  • Okay, I definitely have enough to work with for the time being. Thanks everyone for your input, this has been pretty helpful!
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