A small idea: Scope of effect

9 May, 2008 at 5:54 pm (game design) (, )

This is rules design idea, untested.

Assume a game where characters have some mystic powers, like, say, ability to breath fire or cast a magic missile twice a day or such. All roleplaying games I can name out of hand that try to simulate the setting handle these very much on the personal scale: A mage can cast 3 first level spells a day, or such. This is because most such games are focused on the achievements, triumphs and defeats of a single person or few people.

The problem

This approach works fine until someone starts building a world and thinks about what the magic would do on large scale. The costs are often personal; D&D is a very bad offender due to making magic essentially a renewable resource.

This results in magic-as-technology settings, like Eberron, or ignoring and handwaving it all, like many settings that look like historical settings with few individuals who are mages or priests here and there. Personally, I find magic-rich settings to be aesthetically unpleasing (YMMV). The second option is unsatisfying in games that happen on larger scale.

The solution

(Other solutions: Magic with price, unpredictable magic, bizarre cultures that burn all mystic, …)

One way to deal with the problem is to realise that even if people have no problem, say, running a short distance quite fast, doing the same for long distance is much harder. Likewise: Even if a character may be able to make a field of grain grow at double the speed for a month, there may be reasons for this not working properly if the character is doing it for every field in riding distance.

The idea itself: Instead of hardcoding these limitations into the specific mystical tricks, which means something will be forgotten, create entirely separate rules for larger scale magics. The benefit is twofold: First, the large-scale effects of personal-level magic can be ignored. Second: People who are not interested on the large scale need not worry about arbitrary restrictions and rules bloat on the level that matters to them.


There’s a bunch of miners trying to create a tunnel to a valley on the other side of the mountain. There’s a mage who can bolster, say, their strength, stamina and speed. How large an effect can the mage have? This is quite hard to judge. (Try judging it in D&D, where profession (miner) is a wisdom-based skill.)

Were I running or designing such a game I would instead create a spell that specifically makes miners more effective through physical enhancements; it would be a long and arduous ritual to cast, but would have duration to the effect of “until the mountain is breached”. And as a bonus the mage can fight random stone giants who awaken due to the loud mining with no concern of “how many times have a cast haste today”.

In other words: Make the ritual an adventure, if desired, then stop bothering about random details and get to the good stuff the play is about, be that politics or giant-slaying.

1 Comment

  1. Dungeons and Dragons Sunday Link Smashup said,

    […] an interesting post called A small idea: Scope of effect.  Essentially, the post argues about how we understand a magical world, what magic does to a […]

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