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General Putting The Awe Back In Magic

The burgher himself unlocked her shackles, making a grand show of producing the right key from the thick ring at his belt. The oldest, most ornate, and most worn of the bunch.

He gave it to two of the younger men and waved at them to free the prisoner, taking himself well back and away to watch them struggle with the old locks.

And as the heavy metal cuffs fell from her wrists to the stones underfoot with a clang and a rattle, he sneered and announced, “I’ll believe in this mighty magic when I see it, and not a moment before.”

His words were meant for the watching men of the town, not the freed captive, but he turned when they were done to see how she took them.

The young woman of few words met his bristle-browed gaze with a slight smile. Then she shrugged, turned away from him and the men of the town in a swirl of dark tattered robes, and murmured something swift and liquid under her breath, words they couldn’t quite catch—or that were in a tongue unknown.

And the air around her swiftly-weaving fingertips was suddenly alive with sparks, racing motes of light that spiraled down to the floor in front of her worn-toed boots like fireflies caught in a whirlpool.

And then burst with the roar of a dozen lions into a raging pillar of white flames taller than the loftiest towers of the Castle, a pillar that cracked and melted—melted, by All The Gods!—flagstones it spun across as it marched away from her to strike the towering black gates.

And with shrieks as ear-piercing as they were brief, those thick armour plates and the man-thick timbers that wore them were gone, locks and hinges and stout door-bars and all—simply…gone.

Leaving only an empty doorframe, its arch scorched by the vanished whorl of flames.

As the men of the town all stared at it in disbelief, a few shards of blackened stone, cracked away from the massive blocks of the arch by the heat of that brief magic, plummeted from the arch to shatter on the blackened flagstones. Clack, clack…klak.

“Well, now,” the burgher stammered, his voice seeming far away. And shorn of all bluster. Everyone turned to hear his verdict.

And blinked at what they beheld. Despite his paunch and wrinkled old age, the leader of the town had somehow taken himself half across the chamber in a trice, to the grudging shelter of the lee of an old stone pillar. “Well, now.”


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Magic.

The ‘not real’ part of our fantasy roleplaying games, and fiction.

Yet also an essential part; we feel vaguely cheated when it’s not there, even if it’s scarce or long-fallen from old days of greatness. The element that makes so many monsters dangerous and feared, and that keeps many imaginary worlds from being ruled by the brute who commands the biggest, nastiest gang of brutes (er, king with the biggest army).

Yet the very same precise codification of magic, its workings, and the details of its clashings that make it understood and somhow more “fair” around the gaming table has, by the nature of exhaustive explanation, robbed magic of its chief glory: awe.

That’s a shame, because awe is one of the emotions (or moods, if you prefer) that we get to feel least in our lives, especially in this age of information, when most people can swiftly learn a lot about anything and so strip away its mystery, the lure of the unknown, in short order.

Obviously magic, like everything else, will have more awe clinging to it when it’s mysterious rather than known to nigh-everyone in full detail. When the game master’s descriptions of what a spell looks like when it manifests, and what it does, are attentively listened to by everyone around the gaming table—because everyone’s eager (nay, desperate) to learn all they can.

Rather than just flipping to the right page of a rulebook to read all about it. Which points at this: one road to this sort of mystery that’s available only to game masters running their own rules systems or substantially modifying published rules systems is to keep the practical details of magic (how spells are cast, the gestures and ingredients and incantations—verbal, somatic, and material components in D&D) secret. Things to be observed when others cast magic, and noted down in one’s own magical workbooks, or said by NPCs who are paid much in coin and service to do so, or paid even more to train a PC in how to cast and wield a lone spell.

This precious secrecy will tend to make those who can cast spells do so in private, or in public only in emergencies or for a lot of compensation.

It also, at a single stroke, makes magic, and its lore, the most prized treasure in a game.

Another way of making magic more awe-inspiring is to have it vary in effects from place to place, or by who or what is involved.

If a stranger wizard casts a recognizable spell and it shakes the valley rather than snapping in midair like a firecracker, there’ll be instant awe. Or at least respect, if not fear.

If a spell that’s supposed to force open a door is cast with the aid of a grimy old bone carving that looks small in the caster’s palm, and destroys the door and the wall around it rather than just cracking the door open, again there’ll be a reaction that could soon be awe.

And if a spell cast in a sinister ruin deep in a gloomy forest either sputters feebly or splits the heavens with a deafening roar, rather than conjuring its usual merry lantern-flame, awe won’t be far off.

Theatrics help with awe. Tomes rising out of chests with menacing slowness, all by themselves, and opening as eerie glows kindle about their pages, said pages turning by themselves as deep, booming voices speak from those same books, demanding to know who disturbs them.

Voices that speak suddenly out of empty air to herald the awakening of magic. For example: “Ah, more intruders. Let the deaths begin.”

Another way of making magic feel special and more precious is to keep it scarce. Or needing as a focus or consumed component in its castings something rare (the grave-dust or a bone from the grave of a truly good person, or a dead mage) or valuable (a gem of a certain type, size, and flawlessness). Or draining the life-force of the caster or a slave or pet or willing third party. Or leaving the caster vulnerable, by rendering them unconscious or physically weak, or revealing one of their most precious memories, for every spell cast, as vivid holographic moving images in midair, brightly glowing, for everyone on the scene to see.

Magic should have a cost. Perhaps not a price in coins, but it must be paid for. My players will not soon forget the wrinkled old near-skeleton who sat on her throne shrouded in cobwebs—until they approached, and she cast a spell that flung open many doors that her courtiers were hurled through unwillingly, into her presence. Courtiers who began to shrivel into lifeless husks with every spell she cast—‘hung,’ waiting spells unleashed by a lone word each—as she grew younger and more alive and vigorous with each casting, the adventurers suffered under the clawing damages of her magics, and her court died around her to pay for it all. The thief of the party had hopes that she could be outlasted; the party could run her out of courtiers to drain. Hopes that were dashed when the floor beneath the heroes’ boots opened up to dump them into caverns below where dragons were magically chained—dragons that withered even as they attacked the PCs, their life-force stolen by the queen on her throne above.

The throne, of course, was itself magical, and in the end soared into the skies to enable her escape from the adventurers, to scheme and ready herself for their next meeting.

The awe came back then, when the queen’s magic whisked dead dragon after dragon aloft to follow her. The thief wanted to grab and ride the last one, to go along, but the rest of the PCs were a trifle saner, and grabbed him and held him back.

So I could dole out more awe, on a game night to come.
 
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Ed Greenwood

Comments

Voadam

Adventurer
4e encouraged trying to flexibly bend magic using the arcana skill particularly in skill challenges. 3e had the spellcraft skill but the uses were rigorously defined and even optional systems to use it more for different ritual magic purposes and such were fairly rigorously defined to specific effects.
 

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This right here. There just aren't a lot of unexpected consequences in D&D, and very few surprises that are actually indexed by the mechanics. This is especially true of the magic system. Obviously you can play it differently, as @hawkeyefan and his table do, but that can be a lot of work if it's all done extemporaneously, and there's a very real risk of uneven application when the DM has to decide, de novo, in each case what that might look like.
I understand that, but I also think we need to remember that it is completely possible to do so with no changes to the system.

For the example @hawkeyefan gave, my literal first thought was "why can't you?" I have rules for the hp of objects, their ability to withstand damage. a fireball is roughly equivalent to a grenade, so it could work, lets roll and find out.

And it doesn't address the other side of the problem people seem to have at all. Casting Fireball is casting fireball and it still does the exact same thing and doesn't risk the wizard's health at all. This doesn't change that.

To put a final consideration out, I do want to make mention of something I said on a different forum. Right now, magic is balanced around the idea that it is reliable and safe. To make it unreliable, you would likely have to make it more powerful. To make it unsafe, you would likely have to make it more powerful, and there already exists the idea that magic is too powerful in the game.

Now, yes, maybe these are good nerfs that will satisfy those people, but equally likely it will end up just making magic more powerful, especially if it was done by the designers at WoTC.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I understand that, but I also think we need to remember that it is completely possible to do so with no changes to the system.

For the example @hawkeyefan gave, my literal first thought was "why can't you?" I have rules for the hp of objects, their ability to withstand damage. a fireball is roughly equivalent to a grenade, so it could work, lets roll and find out.
Sure, I even said this was possible above. However, it's a lot of work as the DM. Not so much the occasional fireball at a pillar (although that does have issues, and which I'll come back to) but rather the idea of overcoming the inertia of the normal spellcasting system having zero risk and zero variation.

As far as the pillar goes, there's risks because of the way D&D damage scales. A fireball does an average of 28.5 damage. If that enough to topple a stone column, would a good blow from an axe that did the same damage also topple the column? That's the sort of thing I don't want to have to deal with on a constant basis. If you handle the whole thing outside the damage system it easier to avoid that sort of issue, which is probably how I'd handle it.

And it doesn't address the other side of the problem people seem to have at all. Casting Fireball is casting fireball and it still does the exact same thing and doesn't risk the wizard's health at all. This doesn't change that.

To put a final consideration out, I do want to make mention of something I said on a different forum. Right now, magic is balanced around the idea that it is reliable and safe. To make it unreliable, you would likely have to make it more powerful. To make it unsafe, you would likely have to make it more powerful, and there already exists the idea that magic is too powerful in the game.

Now, yes, maybe these are good nerfs that will satisfy those people, but equally likely it will end up just making magic more powerful, especially if it was done by the designers at WoTC.
That's correct, to make it risky you also have to make it more powerful, up to a point. There are different ways of making more powerful of course. A system that allowed unlimited castings, but gated that using a different mechanic should probably be balanced to return an outcome more or less roughly in line with the current system. However, if by more powerful you mean each individual spell, the the balance would have to be achieved in other ways.

Part of the reason magic is considered 'too powerful' now is the reliability and consequence-free nature of the system. It makes for a system that's very easy to game (not in a bad way). By that I mean the acquisition of the 'right spells' is trivially easy, as well as the complete reliability of those spells in any encounter. Add in a handful of spells that really are OP, and you are where we're at now. I don't think it's broken, but it does have some issues.
 


Undrave

Hero
But joking aside, maybe some spells should simply have been left out of the PHB and kept in the DMG as treasure to be found in dusty tomes and the evil grimoires of fallen spell casters. I could see someone do that with the levelled spells from Xanathar's Guide to Everything.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I'd probably start by making every 9th level spell something that need be acquired, and quite possibly a decent sized list of spells at other levels. And/or changing the completely open nature of new spell acquisition at new levels.
 

pemerton

Legend
I find that D&D really tends to push players into established paths of action. And while that may be okay in general, it tends to remove alternate actions and surprise from the game.

And I think if we’re talking about magic being awesome, then the ability for it to surprise the players is pretty vital.
There just aren't a lot of unexpected consequences in D&D, and very few surprises that are actually indexed by the mechanics. This is especially true of the magic system.
These remarks take me right back to this:

In Gygaxian AD&D it still made sense, though with a slightly different logic: your spell load-out is, in effect, your selection of "I win" cards for the expedition, and part of the skill of play is making the right selection. The fact that, in the fiction, the spells are magic is secondary - really just a superficial overlay to make sense of "I win" cards within the scope of the ostensible genre.

When one thinks of D&D from the point of view of a wargame, the mechanical stability and predictability of magic is a feature. The surprise consists in discovering what challenges the GM has established (sometimes this is very literal, as in, what's behind that door?). Magic is part of the solution, and not itself intended to be a source of surprise or upset.

Of course if one takes these wargame/"skilled play"-oriented rules out of that context and tries to use them as a fiction or genre simulator, the fiction won't involve dynamic or scary magic! If you want that, you'll need to hange the rules in some way. But the D&D community seems very conservative in relation to rules, which creates some practical problems here for a commercial publisher.

there's a very real risk of uneven application when the DM has to decide, de novo, in each case what that might look like.
Classic D&D relies upon the GM to exercise judgement in building his/her dungeon. The game offers some general guidelines and frameworks (eg monsters-by-level charts; treasure charts; etc), but it's part of the point of things that the dungeon experience might be different from referee to referee.

So I think the word "risk" is misplaced in your posts; and probably also the word "uneven". If you look at the link I posted above to an account of my 4e campaign, you'll see that another poster shared his experiences of running the same module. It played differently in his hands and with his group from how it did in my case.

All the games I play require GM judgement at some point. In MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, what's the borderline between an ordinary power-use and a "stunt" (which requires a plot point expenditure, but also adds a bonus die to the pool)? When Gandalf's player wanted to slow the orcs he was pursuing, whom he knew to be carrying the (hitherto) lost palantir of Annuminas, he used his knowledge of the arcane and his own sorcerous power to cause the palantir itself to slow them through it's metaphysical burden and the lure of its power. My judgement was that this was a permissible action declaration, but a stunt. Another GM might have (in my view a bit pedantically) held it to be impermissible, because having no direct analogue in LotR; a third GM might have held it to be a regular use of sorcery not counting as a stunt at all.

In our Classic Traveller game, one of the PCs with electronics skill wanted to jury-rig his communicator ("reversing the flux capacitor" as the player decribed it) so that it would blog the signal being used by an enemy spotter to relay the PCs' position back to the starship that was firing on them from orbit. Can this be done? And how hard is it? The rules leave that up to the GM. I decided that it can be done - otherwise what's the electronics skill for? - and set a difficulty extrapolated from a single example given in the rulebook.

And in our 4e game linked to above, I had to decide (i) whether a moment of possession can be used to extract a password from a victim's mind (I judged that it could) and (ii) what happens when the attempt fails?

My overall view is that, provided the maths of the system are robust (and they are in the three systems I've mentioned) then the GM can generally follow the players' lead as to what is possible in the fiction, structure that in appropriate mechanical terms for the system being played, and then (if the action fails) adjudicate appropriately having regard to the system's framework for consequences.

Different players will judge different things possibl. Different GMs will apply the system differently (is it a stunt? how difficult is it? etc). And different GMs will narrate different consequences for failure. But that's part-and-parcel of playing a RPG!
 

pemerton

Legend
4e encouraged trying to flexibly bend magic using the arcana skill particularly in skill challenges.
Right. If we're talking about how, in D&D, to put the awe back into magic, I don't see how 4e can be ignored. It had an extremely flexibile non-combat resolution framework which made it very easy to incorproate and adjudicate imaginative uses of magical ability. The example I linked to upthread is just one such.

The mechanical framework that underpinned this was one of standardised difficulties plus a common currency of player-side resources (encounter and daily powers, plus rituals). It's no coincidence that in this respect 4e more closely resembles (say) MHRP/Cortex+ Heroic, or a PbtA game, than it does AD&D or 5e.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Here's hawkeye's original post, where he refers both his group's decision add the kind of effect and consequences we were discussing, and also his preference that the mechanics support that kind of play.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s the kind of stuff that I really enjoy. I find it largely absent in the rules for 5E as written, but it’s possible with a group of players and a DM willing to go beyond what’s presented. My group has kind of established an informal process for this kind of stuff....but honestly, I prefer when systems are designed to support this kind of play.
My use of the word risk and uneven both index this state wherein the DM has to decide, in each and every instance, how and to what extent to apply additional X.
So I think the word "risk" is misplaced in your posts; and probably also the word "uneven". If you look at the link I posted above to an account of my 4e campaign, you'll see that another poster shared his experiences of running the same module. It played differently in his hands and with his group from how it did in my case.

<snipped examples for brevity>

Different players will judge different things possibl. Different GMs will apply the system differently (is it a stunt? how difficult is it? etc). And different GMs will narrate different consequences for failure. But that's part-and-parcel of playing a RPG!
I think you're misunderstanding what I'm getting at. Obviously DMs can adjudicate consequences and make snap judgments about what is and is not possible. That is indeed part-and-parcel of RPG play. I'd like to dig down to what I meant though, so let's pick an example, let's look at adding possible consequences and effects to spells, not just occasionally, but consistently. I can obviously adjudicate the fireball and pillar case from above. No problem. That's probably true of most single case examples I could think of. However, players being the naturally creative and devious beings they are, this would quite naturally turn into a very regular occurrence.

Let's assume I was willing to lift that somewhat enormous cognitive load. I'm now making a lot of case-by-case judgement calls, probably multiple times per encounter (on top of all the micro-decision making the DM job normally entails). This is where risk and uneven come back into our story. The mechanics of D&D support essentially none of this in any direct way. When the volume of individual judgments go up there is an increased risk of those calls not being even from instance to instance over time. There are a lot of different kinds of spells, and I'd have to have a pretty clear recollection of how I'd ruled before if I wanted to maintain consistency. The volume suggests that would be very difficult, and a reasonable result of that would be an uneven set of adjudications. Players are going to notice stuff like that, and it's a bad look, and it's no one in particular's fault. It would probably even out over time, as the players and I reached some sort of detente over the difference between possible and likely in their attempts to find new uses for spells, but that could be a long process.

I'd rather layer on some soft touch mechanics beforehand designed cover a lot of the cases the table wants to consider, and then just lean on those for more or even most of the resolution.
 

Sure, I even said this was possible above. However, it's a lot of work as the DM. Not so much the occasional fireball at a pillar (although that does have issues, and which I'll come back to) but rather the idea of overcoming the inertia of the normal spellcasting system having zero risk and zero variation.

As far as the pillar goes, there's risks because of the way D&D damage scales. A fireball does an average of 28.5 damage. If that enough to topple a stone column, would a good blow from an axe that did the same damage also topple the column? That's the sort of thing I don't want to have to deal with on a constant basis. If you handle the whole thing outside the damage system it easier to avoid that sort of issue, which is probably how I'd handle it.
Sure, if it takes 30 damage to topple a pillar, it takes 30 damage to topple a pillar. That ends up being the same as a Stone Giant maxing their club, or a throwing a boulder. Which, should be capable of smashing a stone pillar.

Doing that with a single blow of a weapon for a martial... Yeah, only happening on a crit with barbarian or Battlemaster using dice.


That's correct, to make it risky you also have to make it more powerful, up to a point. There are different ways of making more powerful of course. A system that allowed unlimited castings, but gated that using a different mechanic should probably be balanced to return an outcome more or less roughly in line with the current system. However, if by more powerful you mean each individual spell, the the balance would have to be achieved in other ways.

Part of the reason magic is considered 'too powerful' now is the reliability and consequence-free nature of the system. It makes for a system that's very easy to game (not in a bad way). By that I mean the acquisition of the 'right spells' is trivially easy, as well as the complete reliability of those spells in any encounter. Add in a handful of spells that really are OP, and you are where we're at now. I don't think it's broken, but it does have some issues.
Maybe, and like I said, maybe the system would be better and more balanced. But, I just wanted to bring up the discussion point.

After all, I don't think the reliability of magic is quite considered when talking about things like DPR or saves, because those aren't reliable. Hold Person does not always work, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But a Fighter can never do hold person. So making the spell less reliable doesn't really change that much.

I think you're misunderstanding what I'm getting at. Obviously DMs can adjudicate consequences and make snap judgments about what is and is not possible. That is indeed part-and-parcel of RPG play. I'd like to dig down to what I meant though, so let's pick an example, let's look at adding possible consequences and effects to spells, not just occasionally, but consistently. I can obviously adjudicate the fireball and pillar case from above. No problem. That's probably true of most single case examples I could think of. However, players being the naturally creative and devious beings they are, this would quite naturally turn into a very regular occurrence.

Let's assume I was willing to lift that somewhat enormous cognitive load. I'm now making a lot of case-by-case judgement calls, probably multiple times per encounter (on top of all the micro-decision making the DM job normally entails). This is where risk and uneven come back into our story. The mechanics of D&D support essentially none of this in any direct way. When the volume of individual judgments go up there is an increased risk of those calls not being even from instance to instance over time. There are a lot of different kinds of spells, and I'd have to have a pretty clear recollection of how I'd ruled before if I wanted to maintain consistency. The volume suggests that would be very difficult, and a reasonable result of that would be an uneven set of adjudications. Players are going to notice stuff like that, and it's a bad look, and it's no one in particular's fault. It would probably even out over time, as the players and I reached some sort of detente over the difference between possible and likely in their attempts to find new uses for spells, but that could be a long process.

I'd rather layer on some soft touch mechanics beforehand designed cover a lot of the cases the table wants to consider, and then just lean on those for more or even most of the resolution.
So, do you never resolve any environment effect not in the rules?

It seems like you are thinking "if I let them break a pillar once, they will do it all the time" and therefor ruling they can't do anything clever or outside the rules. Which, seems rather against the spirit of the game. Letting players come up with clever solutions is half the point of the game
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Sure, if it takes 30 damage to topple a pillar, it takes 30 damage to topple a pillar. That ends up being the same as a Stone Giant maxing their club, or a throwing a boulder. Which, should be capable of smashing a stone pillar.

Doing that with a single blow of a weapon for a martial... Yeah, only happening on a crit with barbarian or Battlemaster using dice.
Do you think 30 points of damage is enough to topple a stone pillar? Maybe a thinner stone pillar? How a about a really girthy stone pillar? Meh. I'd rather adjudicate it as an effect separate from HP (the concussive force of the blast or some such), so as to dodge the whole question of having to stat all my walls, pillars, doors, bridges, and whatnot just in case someone tries to sunder them with their mighty thews.

Maybe, and like I said, maybe the system would be better and more balanced. But, I just wanted to bring up the discussion point.

After all, I don't think the reliability of magic is quite considered when talking about things like DPR or saves, because those aren't reliable. Hold Person does not always work, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But a Fighter can never do hold person. So making the spell less reliable doesn't really change that much.
It's math, so you talk about averages an medians and means, same as for melee attacks. Factoring in saves is pretty trivial. So the reliability element, such as it is, is normally taken into account for DPR stuff.

I don't put nearly as much emphasis on DPR as some people mind you. My favorite spells aren't ones that damage, for the most part. I wasn't talking about DPR anyway. I was talking about general reliability, the chance you get the effect you want, or not, and the chance that something goes wrong. A 20th level fighter with four attacks a round is going roll a critical fumble, on average, once every five rounds, or almost once per combat encounter. Plus he's going to miss X of his Y attacks. Magic is more reliable than that. You have no critical fumbles, and in many cases you get either full or half damage.

I also wasn't talking about just making casting less reliable. That would kinda suck, wouldn't it. I was talking about making casting more powerful but balancing that out with some unreliability and consequences for failure. I don't think playing dice with the universe should be consequence free. You can't just drop the nerf bat though, that's icky. It's about balance.
So, do you never resolve any environment effect not in the rules?
All the time dude, all the time.
It seems like you are thinking "if I let them break a pillar once, they will do it all the time" and therefor ruling they can't do anything clever or outside the rules. Which, seems rather against the spirit of the game. Letting players come up with clever solutions is half the point of the game
What I'm picturing is the worst case scenario, which needs to be pictured when looking at the practicability of an idea. Clever players constantly test the limits of how inventive they can be with spells already, so if you give them carte blanche that trend would only intensify. It's too much to manage on a case-by-case basis - not only too much mental energy, but also too much table time. Why bother doing all that single case adjudication when you can hack some simple mechanics to take care of most of it? Of course clever plans should be encouraged, I love clever plans. I never suggested that this shouldn't be the case, and in fact my interest in additional mechanics is usually in aide of expanding the clever plan part of the game.

If you're going to be knocking about outside the usual coverage of the RAW, it is really, really, useful to lay down some mechanics, even very light ones, that add some structure to whatever you're doing. Whether it's magic, or exploration, to social interaction, or whatever. The mechanics give the players a handholds they can use to make those clever plans. Rather than having to ask in every instance "will this work" they have some mechanics that tell them what will work, or not. It easier for the players and easier for the GM.

As a caveat, I'm not suggesting that you need a mechanic for everything, far from it. Only that you can certainly need more mechanics for certain things than are provided the core rules of D&D.
 

Do you think 30 points of damage is enough to topple a stone pillar? Maybe a thinner stone pillar? How a about a really girthy stone pillar? Meh. I'd rather adjudicate it as an effect separate from HP (the concussive force of the blast or some such), so as to dodge the whole question of having to stat all my walls, pillars, doors, bridges, and whatnot just in case someone tries to sunder them with their mighty thews.
Okay, let us say Fireball had a secondary effect. "Can break five feet of stone"

What happens if there is a layer of metal over the stone? What if the pillar is concrete poured around a foot wide mithril beam? What about wood? What about enchantments? What about if it is in a different plane of existance, like the Nine Hells where it is constantly hot?

Now we are adjudicating again. You can't add enough rules language to an ability to make it so you never have to adjudicate. At least sticking with hp there are some rules and a general guideline in the DMG that you can refer to. These "secondary effects" you are talking about would be wholly outside the other rules.

All the time dude, all the time.
Then I don't get the problem, if you do it all the time anyways, why is this example a step too far?

It's math, so you talk about averages an medians and means, same as for melee attacks. Factoring in saves is pretty trivial. So the reliability element, such as it is, is normally taken into account for DPR stuff.

I don't put nearly as much emphasis on DPR as some people mind you. My favorite spells aren't ones that damage, for the most part. I wasn't talking about DPR anyway. I was talking about general reliability, the chance you get the effect you want, or not, and the chance that something goes wrong. A 20th level fighter with four attacks a round is going roll a critical fumble, on average, once every five rounds, or almost once per combat encounter. Plus he's going to miss X of his Y attacks. Magic is more reliable than that. You have no critical fumbles, and in many cases you get either full or half damage.

snip but I did read it
Plenty of spells have attack rolls, so those can critically fumble. And where a fighter might have 4 attacks, the wizard has one, and they used that resource and can't get it back, while the fighter can just make four more attacks next turn.

And, you only get half damage on saves for certain spells, other spells you don't. For example, there is no 'half effect' for Hold Person.

So, you are talking about selection of spells, not all spells. Sure, lightning bolt will always do some damage, but banishment is all or nothingm it either works or it doesn't. And even after it works you don't know if you are going to get the full concentration time out of it or not. That is a good degree of uncertainty. So how would a change to make banishment, hold person, slow, hypnotic pattern, ect more unreliable and more dangerous even work? These are all or nothing spells, the player rolls no dice and can take no actions to make them more likely to succeed. Do we also have them deal Xd6 damage and then do what? Permanent hold person? Concentration for an hour? Double the number of targets? How do we make an excellent spell that is only somewhat reliable less reliable, more dangerous and somehow even more powerful?


What I'm picturing is the worst case scenario, which needs to be pictured when looking at the practicability of an idea. Clever players constantly test the limits of how inventive they can be with spells already, so if you give them carte blanche that trend would only intensify. It's too much to manage on a case-by-case basis - not only too much mental energy, but also too much table time. Why bother doing all that single case adjudication when you can hack some simple mechanics to take care of most of it? Of course clever plans should be encouraged, I love clever plans. I never suggested that this shouldn't be the case, and in fact my interest in additional mechanics is usually in aide of expanding the clever plan part of the game.

If you're going to be knocking about outside the usual coverage of the RAW, it is really, really, useful to lay down some mechanics, even very light ones, that add some structure to whatever you're doing. Whether it's magic, or exploration, to social interaction, or whatever. The mechanics give the players a handholds they can use to make those clever plans. Rather than having to ask in every instance "will this work" they have some mechanics that tell them what will work, or not. It easier for the players and easier for the GM.

As a caveat, I'm not suggesting that you need a mechanic for everything, far from it. Only that you can certainly need more mechanics for certain things than are provided the core rules of D&D.
Well, that isn't coming across clearly. I don't think you could make a simple and light system to cover what it seems to be you are talking about. At least, no more than you can already do with the tools you have. I have players roll spellcasting checks sometimes, casting mod + prof, and make it a skill check. The skill system gives a light framework to work within, so if they want to do something crazy, that is my default, and that does fall within the rules provided even, because it is simply an ability check with prof based on if they should be proficient in what they are doing or not.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Okay, let us say Fireball had a secondary effect. "Can break five feet of stone"

What happens if there is a layer of metal over the stone? What if the pillar is concrete poured around a foot wide mithril beam? What about wood? What about enchantments? What about if it is in a different plane of existance, like the Nine Hells where it is constantly hot?

Now we are adjudicating again. You can't add enough rules language to an ability to make it so you never have to adjudicate. At least sticking with hp there are some rules and a general guideline in the DMG that you can refer to. These "secondary effects" you are talking about would be wholly outside the other rules.
The idea was certainly not never having to adjudicate. That would be patent nonsense in a TTRPG. The point of the mechanics, whatever they might be, is to allow the plaqyers to select tactical options with confidence, to put some authority in their hands. This really couldn't be super specific, or you end up with the examples you list form above and the whole idea collapses into absurdity. Even with a mechanic some of your examples would fall outside it anyway - that mithril beam, for example, would probably prevent just about any level of property damage save from very high level spells.

My point was actually precisely that the secondary effects fall outside the rules. The magic system is quite rigid in how magic effects the diagetic plane. Spells should have more ability to do things other than damage enemies. What I would prefer not to do is have to adjudicate this from scratch every time someone has a fancy idea. MOre in a second...
Then I don't get the problem, if you do it all the time anyways, why is this example a step too far?
The difference comes from parsing the authority over the fiction at the table.. D&D generally works on a the DM has all the authority over the fiction model. Currently, the consequences of spellcasting, stuff like the fireball sets the house on fire, are generally unintended consequences that reflect a lack of player foresight. Casting a fireball inside a wooden structure for example, I might, and have, ruled that significant property damage and fires are a result. That's not the same as providing some guidelines for players as to how they might plan to things like that on purpose. The fireball setting things on fire is a pretty simple case really, and wouldn't actually be tough to rule on. Things get more complicated when you're talking about lightning or acid though. Both those things should have effects on the environment, but don't mostly as per the spell write up, the possibilities are less obvious.

I wasn't specific about a mechanic, but what I think is useful is to provide a mechanic that allows for a level of abstraction when it comes to property damage. Abstraction is really one of things that makes TTRPG rules useful. It allows us, for example, to skip over resolving every individual thrust and parry in combat. An abstracted rule for property damage would probably link total dice of damage to size of property damage result, maybe with light riders for damage type. A rough framework there would probably start with minor, small, medium, and large and then add in some description and examples. If, just to spitball an example, a fireball is powerful enough to break a thin stone wall, and the players know this, not only can they plan for it, and not only does it expand the uses of the spell, but it also serves to narrow immensely the set of questions from players to me. It's pretty easy to relate things to a thin stone wall, or a wooden door, or a fortified door, or a iron portcullis. Call it a rubric or a heuristic for property damage.

Plenty of spells have attack rolls, so those can critically fumble. And where a fighter might have 4 attacks, the wizard has one, and they used that resource and can't get it back, while the fighter can just make four more attacks next turn.
Cantrips scale with level, so the wizard is getting something very like four attacks, and can also do it the following turn.
And, you only get half damage on saves for certain spells, other spells you don't. For example, there is no 'half effect' for Hold Person.
Obviously. There are no unintended consequences though, nor any consequences to the wizard.
So, you are talking about selection of spells, not all spells. Sure, lightning bolt will always do some damage, but banishment is all or nothingm it either works or it doesn't. And even after it works you don't know if you are going to get the full concentration time out of it or not. That is a good degree of uncertainty. So how would a change to make banishment, hold person, slow, hypnotic pattern, ect more unreliable and more dangerous even work? These are all or nothing spells, the player rolls no dice and can take no actions to make them more likely to succeed. Do we also have them deal Xd6 damage and then do what? Permanent hold person? Concentration for an hour? Double the number of targets? How do we make an excellent spell that is only somewhat reliable less reliable, more dangerous and somehow even more powerful?
Banishment is probably a bad example - despite the fact that it's all or nothing it's an immensely powerful control spell. Power level and unreliability shouldn't be added via the spell descriptions IMO. That's a ridiculous amount of work. I'd probably add a casting roll with consequences for failure, but also increase the number of spells potentially cast in a day. I'm working on a system that eliminates spell slots, and allows players to cast spells of any level, but has a fatigue and exhaustion mechanic to limit total daily spell use, and a consequence set that makes casting above your usual level pretty dangerous. That's one example, but I'm sure other people have other systems to achieve the same goal.

Well, that isn't coming across clearly. I don't think you could make a simple and light system to cover what it seems to be you are talking about. At least, no more than you can already do with the tools you have. I have players roll spellcasting checks sometimes, casting mod + prof, and make it a skill check. The skill system gives a light framework to work within, so if they want to do something crazy, that is my default, and that does fall within the rules provided even, because it is simply an ability check with prof based on if they should be proficient in what they are doing or not.
That fact that you don't think such a system is possible worries me not at all. I have the basics of a workable system already, so I know its at least theoretically possible. The devil is always in the details.

Wow. I think we've gotten our wall of text work in for the day, eh? :D
 

That fact that you don't think such a system is possible worries me not at all. I have the basics of a workable system already, so I know its at least theoretically possible. The devil is always in the details.

Wow. I think we've gotten our wall of text work in for the day, eh? :D
Yeah, lots of good talk.

I think the reason you have a system and I can't think of how you could have it stems from the qualifier I put in my paragraph "what it seems you are talking about"

Your example and a few early points were about property damage and secondary effects from spells. "How much damage does an acid spell do to the floor" type stuff. Everything about how spells interact with the environment.

The system you describe though is about removing spell slots and limiting casting through exhaustion mechanics.

Those two ideas are not mutually inclusive. Making casting more perilous for the caster does not immediately lead to covering the effects of spells on the environment in a systematic way. Even doing so on an abstract level is something you have to do in addition to your system.

And, I think hp damage can do that too. Let us say we decided that breaking that pillar took about 30 points of damage, and for the sake of examples, it was a decorative non-load bearing pillar. Now the players want to break through a set of iron castle doors meant to stop a siege. Well, even as a baseline, I know that it would take more than 30 damage in a single blow to break through those doors, because they are tougher than the stone pillar.

Let us say in my head, I've figured it can take about 7 hits from a ram. That puts it into the territory of 100 points of damage. Now, I had to look up ram damage (3d10), but the idea is still follows that I have a rough guide of what does what. Maybe the doors will take less acid damage and more lightning damage, but I still have the roadmap to work from.


Cantrips scale with level, so the wizard is getting something very like four attacks, and can also do it the following turn.
Sure if they are casting cantrips. Now how about spells.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
Yeah, lots of good talk.

I think the reason you have a system and I can't think of how you could have it stems from the qualifier I put in my paragraph "what it seems you are talking about"

Your example and a few early points were about property damage and secondary effects from spells. "How much damage does an acid spell do to the floor" type stuff. Everything about how spells interact with the environment.
This thread has gotten a little messy, yeah. There are a lot of ideas floating around, and a post in reply to one person sometimes indexes other posts and ideas. That is certainly the case for me here. Mea culpa if things have gotten a little muddled. Spell effect on the environment is one part, and probably not the largest part, of what I'm really talking about I suppose. Trying to keep the discussion to property damage has made it difficult to stay on message.

My general thrust goes back to what produces awe in the players, not really the narrow example of property damage. Awe comes, at least in part from the unexpected, and in part from the rush of succeeding when there was a real chance of failure. At least that's the definition I'm rolling with here. I don't think there's a lot of juice in arguing over the definition so long as we're specific about what we mean. I feel like a significant element of risk, pared with a significant reward, is a key element of building dramatic tension. The magic system doesn't really do that though. It works just fine, it's not broken or anything, but it's also not dramatic and exciting the way I'd like it be. Note the personal qualifiers.

The system you describe though is about removing spell slots and limiting casting through exhaustion mechanics.

Those two ideas are not mutually inclusive. Making casting more perilous for the caster does not immediately lead to covering the effects of spells on the environment in a systematic way. Even doing so on an abstract level is something you have to do in addition to your system.
I wasn;t really suggesting that the two were directly linked like that. As I said, the property damage idea, and some flex and risk in the casting system is one way to approach things. Additional risk generally indexes additional reward. Just adding a whole bunch of additional options and effects to the magic system as is represents a straight buff to system that is already really powerful at higher levels. I'd prefer to balance things out more. That's my approach though, I'm sure some people would be quite happy to just add it in and move on.

And, I think hp damage can do that too. Let us say we decided that breaking that pillar took about 30 points of damage, and for the sake of examples, it was a decorative non-load bearing pillar. Now the players want to break through a set of iron castle doors meant to stop a siege. Well, even as a baseline, I know that it would take more than 30 damage in a single blow to break through those doors, because they are tougher than the stone pillar.

Let us say in my head, I've figured it can take about 7 hits from a ram. That puts it into the territory of 100 points of damage. Now, I had to look up ram damage (3d10), but the idea is still follows that I have a rough guide of what does what. Maybe the doors will take less acid damage and more lightning damage, but I still have the roadmap to work from.
Any roadmap is a good roadmap. What your approach doesn't do though, is give the players a roadmap. All the decision making is still on you. My light mechanics suggestion was really just to front load that decision making, get some examples in place that I'm happy with, and give those to the players so that their expectations start off in line with mine and I end up doing less off the cuff improv, which I'm already doing a ton off (DMing right?). It gives the players some handholds they can plan from and some idea how I'll rule on an idea. We're both doing the same work though, just organizing ourselves differently.

Sure if they are casting cantrips. Now how about spells.
Spells are a finite resource, and so the expected return on investment should be higher. That's why for cantrips I'd usually suggest that they are on par with a sword blow in terms of effect. With a spell I'd be willing to grant a little more latitude. It's not an additive idea either. three chops from a sword isn't the same as a fireball, regardless of damage totals. That kind of damage comparison is why I try to keep this sort of thing mostly outside the damage system when I can. That 'sword chop' is already an more of an abstraction as part of the combat rules than spells are, so I try avoid comparing the two directly.
 

snipping I feel like a significant element of risk, pared with a significant reward, is a key element of building dramatic tension. The magic system doesn't really do that though. It works just fine, it's not broken or anything, but it's also not dramatic and exciting the way I'd like it be. Note the personal qualifiers.

I wasn;t really suggesting that the two were directly linked like that. As I said, the property damage idea, and some flex and risk in the casting system is one way to approach things. Additional risk generally indexes additional reward. Just adding a whole bunch of additional options and effects to the magic system as is represents a straight buff to system that is already really powerful at higher levels. I'd prefer to balance things out more. That's my approach though, I'm sure some people would be quite happy to just add it in and move on.
I agree that any additions should be balanced and agree with your effort to do so, but more on that in a minute.


Any roadmap is a good roadmap. What your approach doesn't do though, is give the players a roadmap. All the decision making is still on you.
Why do you say that? My players have almost exactly the same information your would in your hypothetical situation. They know what it took to break the decorative stone pillar (and I should use my narration to make sure they understand it wasn't trivial for the spell to do so) and they know that this Steel Castle Gate is much stronger than the pillar.

Now, the exact numbers, stats, and what can break what are on me. But, that is always the case with challenges. Players don't tell me that the DC to sneak into a party is 15, they try and sneak into a party and I have to make a decision on what that entails.

So, I think the players have quite a lot of information to build their decisions off of.


Spells are a finite resource, and so the expected return on investment should be higher. That's why for cantrips I'd usually suggest that they are on par with a sword blow in terms of effect. With a spell I'd be willing to grant a little more latitude. It's not an additive idea either. three chops from a sword isn't the same as a fireball, regardless of damage totals. That kind of damage comparison is why I try to keep this sort of thing mostly outside the damage system when I can. That 'sword chop' is already an more of an abstraction as part of the combat rules than spells are, so I try avoid comparing the two directly.
I think that taking things out of the damage system also highlights the biggest problem with your proposal. How do you balance changing the encounter defining spells.

Hold Person is a great example. First, it is already unreliable. You cast the spell and you might get the effect or you might get nothing. Secondly, it is already incredibly powerful. An enemy caught by Hold Person can be absolutely wrecked if they spend even a full round bound by it. Even at high levels, paralysis is one of the nastiest effects you can grant someone. And third, it isn't a high level effect. It is a low level effect at the moment.

So, if you make the system less reliable, you make this spell even less reliable. And how would you make it more powerful to compensate? It can already end encounters with a single success. And, since it is a low level ability, it is more likely to be seen as receiving those buffs. I mean, it is fair if Forcecage doesn't get buffed, it is a level 7 spell. But if you buff Storm Sphere (4th level) why not Hold Person (2nd)?

I'm not saying it cannot possibly be done, but it looks like the spells outside the damage system are the ones most likely to just get nerfed, because they are already ending encounters with a single cast.

(tangent: I would be interested in a way to buff Sleep at higher levels though. I keep getting it as a spell for my casters (I love my fey stuff and the DMs keep giving me some extra spells from the Fey Warlock list) but by the time I get a chance to use it, there is no point because of how terribly it scales. )
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
I agree that any additions should be balanced and agree with your effort to do so, but more on that in a minute.

Why do you say that? My players have almost exactly the same information your would in your hypothetical situation. They know what it took to break the decorative stone pillar (and I should use my narration to make sure they understand it wasn't trivial for the spell to do so) and they know that this Steel Castle Gate is much stronger than the pillar.

Now, the exact numbers, stats, and what can break what are on me. But, that is always the case with challenges. Players don't tell me that the DC to sneak into a party is 15, they try and sneak into a party and I have to make a decision on what that entails.

So, I think the players have quite a lot of information to build their decisions off of.
Well, they do and also do not have the same information. I'm suggesting that a set of guidelines for property damage be decided on and made explicit before the campaign starts, not built on a case by case basis. One of the reason I think I like that answer better is that is does a better job building a set of "I know what I can do" info for spell casters. It's the sort of thing I'd expect a mage to know, even about spells they might not be able to cast yet. I'm still making the call in each case, but the players start with some kind of index to what they can expect.

I think that taking things out of the damage system also highlights the biggest problem with your proposal. How do you balance changing the encounter defining spells.
I'm only suggesting taking the description out of the damage system for spells that deal damage. And then really just to avoid comparisons with combat damage., for reasons I explained above.
Hold Person is a great example. First, it is already unreliable. You cast the spell and you might get the effect or you might get nothing. Secondly, it is already incredibly powerful. An enemy caught by Hold Person can be absolutely wrecked if they spend even a full round bound by it. Even at high levels, paralysis is one of the nastiest effects you can grant someone. And third, it isn't a high level effect. It is a low level effect at the moment.

So, if you make the system less reliable, you make this spell even less reliable. And how would you make it more powerful to compensate? It can already end encounters with a single success. And, since it is a low level ability, it is more likely to be seen as receiving those buffs. I mean, it is fair if Forcecage doesn't get buffed, it is a level 7 spell. But if you buff Storm Sphere (4th level) why not Hold Person (2nd)?
You balance less reliability per-cast with more total casts. So yes, each individual casting of Hold Person is less reliable. What I'm looking at is something like DC 9 and adding proficiency. So you bust out you HP and it whiffs, that could happen in either system right? In the base rules you far less opportunities to try it again the following turn. In my system you have a significantly increased chance to do so. This would still be the case with higher level spells - at the risk of exhaustion and a some other negative effects you can push yourself to cast more, but again, at a risk. The risk goes up in relation to the spell level being cast. Losing control of a Magic Missile because you're too tired is one thing, losing control of Meteor Swarm for the same reason is going to present a much higher level of problem. That said, I haven't decided exactly how to handle especially 9th level spells. I don't want multiple Wishes per day, do they may be handled differently.

I'm not saying it cannot possibly be done, but it looks like the spells outside the damage system are the ones most likely to just get nerfed, because they are already ending encounters with a single cast.
Also, to be fair, I'm still working on the basics of the system. The basic math works about the way I want (thanks @Esker) but I still need to tweak it and I still to work on the exact kinds of consequences. Then I'll have to find some poor saps helpful folks to playtest it.

Those encounter ending spells won't get nerfed though, If I can't it balanced right so that that isn't case it won't make it out of playtest.
(tangent: I would be interested in a way to buff Sleep at higher levels though. I keep getting it as a spell for my casters (I love my fey stuff and the DMs keep giving me some extra spells from the Fey Warlock list) but by the time I get a chance to use it, there is no point because of how terribly it scales. )
My first thought about sleep is to allow it to be upcast, adding dice to the HP total. The problem there is obvious though, it would have to scale in a massive way to keep up with HP totals. It might be easier to change the base spell to Hit Dice from Hit Points, and then scale it off HD, which should be easier to manage. Or maybe off the CR scale. If it affects CR 1 at 1st level, that scales about right with the spell as is, and then it could go up from there. It's doable for sure though, you just need to whack the numbers around until they look good but not OP, then give ut a test drive.
 

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