Sunday, July 22, 2018

Magic in Lost Songs of the Nibelungs (Design Post - this is Part 3, sort of))

You have been warned. This is right now the part of Lost Songs of the Nibelungs that took the longest time to get to the stage I'll start describing below (yes, there'll be more). Some familiarity with what I've done here for the game isn't necessarily needed, however appreciated. I'll give pointers along the way, of course. This post is about the design first, and then the game. It's also a bit complex and long, so it'd be a good idea to be in the mood for something like that. Let's get rollin'!

What I'd like to have

I took a first stab at this in 2016, and while the mechanics grew and changed quite a bit since then, the basic concepts and nomenclature still apply. Here's some quotes for us all to catch up on the topic:
"So what I want in my game are mysterious and powerful wielders of magic with a very weird connection to the world surrounding them, getting worse the deeper they go into the rabbit hole. I want them half crazy, with strange tattoos and fetishes and rites, seeing more than others but are always in danger of getting lost.

I also want the dark witches and wizards from the fairy tales, sitting in their dark towers, the land surrounding them drained of all life. Or the white warlocks and witches, living in harmony with the world or working on that harmony. I want demon pacts and craziness from outer space, but seen through the eyes of someone living 1500 years before today. And old magic from the time of the Roman Empire or before. It's all there in the mix.

The greatest wizard of them all: Odin [source]
But magic in Lost Songs is subtle. A curse, a chicken bone with strange scribbles on it or a fire that moves unnaturally, stuff like that. And it's very commonplace, in a way, as those "barbarians" really had a thing for individual trinkets and symbols like that, differing from tribe to tribe. Or that one guy living as a scholar in a Roman city but really dabbles in summoning demons ..." (from Part 2 of my original take)
That's how it works. It should also tie in with mystical creatures and how they do magic (dragons and what-not). Another thing from those posts tat is still valid, is this little concept:

The dice used for magic and the meaning associated with them
This would be the energy a caster summons. How he forms it is a totally different matter (and took the longest to figure out), but how he gets there is as straight forward as it gets:
"And that's basically it: players rolls 1d20 + Wits vs. a difficulty. If the result is below the difficulty, Aether Points are reduced [note: Aether Points are somewhat like Endurance, a resource to burn that grows as characters advance their magic]. If there are not enough Aether Points, Wits is reduced. And if you loose too much Wits, you'll damage that ability permanently, which reflects the ever growing madness in you ..." (also from Part 2 of my original take)
Difficulties vary depending on what a character attempts to cast. A predefined spell, for instance, would be easier, as some of the necessary patterns are known. Rituals would also be quite easy, although not as specific as spells. A third instance would be using trinkets and totems and such, little artifacts that help focusing the energy. Casting magic "raw" would be the most difficult task, as it should be.

I'd encourage players to come up with their own spells and rituals and totems, matching their character's cultural background and all that. It also should encourage players to cooperate with others to cast magic. At least in the beginning.

Actually, seeing someone casting a spell including all the oracle dice should inspire awe and fear among those witnessing it. One last quote:
"This is where synchronicity comes into play. According to Wikipedia Carl Jung coined the word "synchronicity" to describe "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events." In other words, when events that coincide and seem meaningful but are without any causal connection.
This is still gameable! [source]
Or at least seem* unconnected and that's where it all comes together: the "magical connection" normal people don't see and those dabbling in the arcane arts are somehow tuned into, is the very same thing that causes synchronicity. Learning to understand (or abuse) it makes a powerful sorcerer. What we have here is a narrative device for the DM to puzzle the players and give his world some depth.

To compare it with D&D (since most of you reading this should be familiar with it): instead of giving the player a list of spells, it's the DM that gets parts of those spells and describes them to the players as they manifest in their surroundings. And that's what the players are going to use (if they are clever)." (you guessed it: from Part 2 of my original take)
It's about creativity and subtlety and the unforeseen consequences of using forces not totally understood or controlled. Ideally, the procedure produces an instant riddle for the caster to unravel as he works his way through the forces he summoned. Turns out, easier said than done ...

Where it got problematic

There are different design schools about this sort of thing. Some would just use what is already established (1d20+something vs. difficulty), ditch the oracle dice, reducing it to spells and leave the rest to the narrative. This works, of course, and a DM running Lost Songs would be able to fall back on this easily enough (not that I recommend it, huh).

Then there are those who just come up with a nifty little magic system and leave the output minimal in a way that allows an easy connect to the core system. Basically they'll add some flavor to the d20 thingie described before.

The problem with that approach is (1) output needs to be kept at a minimum to avoid conflict with the core system (AD&D might be an example for that approach, actually, and you can see how splat books killed the bunny there) and (2) it's hard to find a system that way that would be able to accommodate all the different types of magic a setting like Lost Songs might have (old Roman, Asian, African, Germanic ... you name it, really, it's all over the place!).

Fringe, but possible ... whatever that is [source]
Going that route would mean (as a worst case scenario) building little magic systems for all possible variants ... which can work, but will most likely be lacking or incomplete or too baroque for people to care (well, or put a publisher in a position to sell a shit-load of splat-books ... just saying).

A third way is to build a system that seamlessly merges with the core system. No easy task with Lost Songs, as it is pretty fine tuned, with lots of moving pieces under the hood (as I imagine every system has, sooner or later). Especially challenging is the idea that the output of such a system not only produces a little riddle for the player to solve, but has lots of output that carries into a completely randomized setting in a meaningful way.

As I said, lots of moving pieces. And I really don't like bookkeeping, so the solutions discussed in those posts from 2016 went the right direction, but the results weren't ... well, they weren't in the right place, if that makes any sense.

A number a DM has to keep track of over several sessions is a number most likely lost. At least in my book. Ideally I'll have complex results that take the narrative of what happens into account and produce signifiers that resonate back from sessions yet to come, but without the need of bookkeeping.

It's complicated and it took me quite a while to get it all together in a way that did all the above in accordance with the core system, while producing a little riddle for the player to solve and taking all kinds of possible cultural variants into account. Really ... let me show you.

This is it, folks!


Okay, so a character attempts to cast a spell. He'll roll 1d20, adding his Wits (ability sore) to match a difficulty based on how he goes about it. Is he casting a spell? A Ritual? Is he using trinkets or totems, any kind of foci? Is he casting it raw?. He can use Aether to bridge a gap between his result and the difficulty and it'll hurt if Aether is gone and there's still points left to meet the difficulty. Accumulating damage like that might drive him crazy, if unchecked.

If a player decides to advance his character in magic, he'll have more Aether to work with as one option to chose from, but it'd also be possible to reduce difficulties when using Wits or being able to write scrolls or create magic items (among other things).

Okay, so he matches the difficulties and summons raw energy from around him. That's the oracle dice: 1d4, 1d6, 1d8, 1d12 and 1d20. The Platonic Solids and I talk about that part here (just  little twist to root it in actual historical concepts). The result forms The Riddle and is put on the corresponding squares at the bottom of this little piece of paper:
Open in new tab to see it all ...
The idea here is that characters have all that raw energy at their disposal and have to decide how their spell manifests from that raw energy. That's the riddle, the little game in the game and, yes, I know, it's not trivial.

One of the big problems had been to identify the base elements that go into all spells (raw or pre-defined) and finding a pattern that allows them to manifest at every possible level with every possible result. You see that pattern above.

The results on your oracle dice will range between 1 and 20, with obvious limits imposed to the different dice. The grid above is divided into 5 parts, four of them (labeled 2-5, 5-8, 9-12 and 12-20) going clockwise around the fifth in the center. Also notice the numbers leading from 1 on the top left corner around the center with 2, 3 and 4 to the 5 in the center. This is where the 1s go.

All the other circles are possible elements of the manifesting spell. The number of dice a caster is allowed to use is 1 per level of advancement in Magic. There are, however, a couple of ways to improve on that. Obvious ways are rituals and foci (dice are locked on the squares in the lower right corner and raise the levels on the defaults they were created for - "defaults" are the given base criteria for a spell, independent of the result, more in the next part and on the magic sheet above).

The second way is the rule that doubles connect to chains. It means that a good roll of the oracle dice allows access to more dice than a caster might have at his disposal initially. So a level 1 mage (initially being able to manifest 1 die on the grid) that comes up with a double with his oracle dice, will be able to use both dice, if he decides to manifest one of them (but both have to be active on the grid). Same goes for triples, and so on (1s always go to the corners, though).

Add rituals, foci and cooperation (more on that aspect later) and even a level 1 magic user would be able to cast quite effective and somewhat safe (raw) spells. 

Ritual, done right [source]
So there is a high complexity about how many of the dice manifest on the grid. Linked to that is what those dice can do and what'll happen to the remaining elements (the dice that DON'T manifest) and the elements undefined (the categories a spell needs, but can't be fulfilled with the dice as they are available). In other words: what kind of spell is cast, if a caster has only one die he can actively use?

That's a lot of choices. And necessarily so, because there are several factors that need consideration to get anything cast, like range, effect area, purpose or even just as simple as damage.

Some of those decisions will be taken away from you with the roll of the oracle dice: 1s go to the corners (they are negative effects that will happen when the spell is released), doubles build chains and the results themselves show you where on the grid the dies can go (with the fiat that 1 die needs to be in the center). Another set of restrictions is the reason for drawing the energy to begin with (a declared goal derived from a necessity occurring in the narrative, of course).

With those decisions made for the player, he now has to chose an optimal way to distribute the remaining dice. The things he has to consider for that may not only be how the dice will manifest on the grid, but also what the remaining dice will do. The energy is summoned and all dice that aren't bound, will have a residual effect on the area. It might have visual effects, it might be a beacon for creatures best left undisturbed, either way, it will bring an imbalance not necessarily impacting the caster (as that's what the 1s are doing), but definitely the surroundings (details will follow).

To find the right way (or one of the many possible right ways) is to solve the riddle. To describe how the caster goes about it, is (like with Lost Songs combat) always enriching the narrative.

Not done yet, but ...

I guess that's a good point to stop. I'm all out of juice for today. There is obviously more to that system, but if you take a close look at the pattern above and at the descriptions it offers, you'll see how it's supposed to work. I need to talk about the specifics, though, as there are a couple of ideas connected to it that need more explanation.

There's also some systems attached to it all and it needs a little conversion for the possible energy output in relation to the core system (what saves are needed, how much damage is done, etc.), as that's not quite obvious from the results. Maybe an example would be nice :)

Now, some of you might ask yourselves, why go through all the trouble? And the easy answer is: because it is satisfying for players to have those little systems to master within the game. It gives players control over the narrative within well defined spaces of the narrative. It's challenging, yes, but that is the game I'm writing. You want easy, there's plenty of that around already.

Also, it's really fun to design high concept like that (I admit, I'm strange that way).

On the other hand, I feel that the complex part is only on the design side, and not necessarily something players will get to feel that hard when playing. Sure, it's a little system on it's own, but is also follows the same principles as combat (to some degree), so it's not that much of a leap.

And since all the elements are descriptive to a point where they explain their need themselves, it cooks down to taking the time to reflect what's there and make a decision, with the margin of failure being part of the whole experience. It's something you can get better at over time.

There is also enough meat on this to make it worthwhile for solo-play, is what I've been told. So there is that.

Anyway, I hope this didn't just raise eyebrows, but also gave a glimpse what kind of game Lost Songs is and how that's a bit different from what is out there. Maybe even that it has merit that way. If you have questions, please ask away! And if you are interested in giving this a go, just drop me a note and I'll see what I can do.

The next part will definitely go more into detail about the ramifications and if I have the room, I'll throw in an example as well. Soon.


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