TMC: Daedalian Musing – Magic in the Mud

Magic in the Mud
by Delphine Lynx November 18, 2002

Possibly review for seasoned administrators, this piece is targeted at those creating new MUDs; in going back to basics, it addresses just some of the issues that should be looked into in writing a comprehensive design document.

“Whatever deceives seems to produce a magical enchantment.”

    – Plato (427 B.C. – 347 B.C.)

For the vast majority of MUDs, the chosen system of magic is typically to use the system included in the codebase — and to leave said system intact, merely adding a host of new spells which amount to restrung versions of those already existing; restrung versions capable of doing more damage, but with few other new effects.

It is of course premature to condemn this method outright; at least before a more thorough examination may be conducted. Given that, I will include it in the methods of magic implementation discussed below, rather than merely presenting them as replacements of it. From this basis you will be free to draw your own conclusions.

Rather than jump right into a discussion of concrete mechanics, I am going instead to devote some time to discussing, in more abstract terms, the theory behind magical systems. Following the planting of a firm foundation, a discussion of mechanics will fall easily into place.

The foundations of magic are as diverse as the fictions they inhabit; every novel, every MUD, every movie has its own interpretation of what causes it, how it may be implemented, and what can be done with it. But if we boil these various systems down, they are, at their core, just that: interpretations. Fundamentally there are far fewer distinct systems than it would appear, with the majority of apparent differences arising out of embellishment. Our goal, then, must first be to take these various embellished systems back to their bases, by stripping away everything nonessential to the theory itself.

In light of this, we must begin by attempting to discover the fundamental purpose of magic. Only by determining what it is we are setting out to achieve can we have any hope of doing so; as Seneca put it, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.”

I believe that magic can fundamentally be defined as having three purposes: to provide a replacement for advanced technology, to add a sense of mystery (and the impossible), and to satisfy the fantasies of the viewer. Not every conception may satisfy all three, but I would be surprised to find more than a handful which truly utilized magic in a way inconsistent with all of them.

In a sense we’ve provided a useless principle; if every system satisfies these conditions, they are not particularly useful in developing one – whatever we decide upon will, by definition, satisfy these characteristics. So we must further refine the system. If the definition of what an airplane is was merely “Something which can fly,” we would have no reason to develop faster, better, nicer looking aircraft. Based upon the same analogy, we are seeking not to create a magic system which merely exists, but one which will be the F-22 or Concord of its field.

We now then move away from the three fundamentals and on to the aspects which will provide us with a useful basis for improvements; the equivalent of defining faster, better and nicer looking. I am going to present these in the form of an alphabetically sorted list. The stress on the sorting is because, to return to the analogy of aircraft, the characteristics important in a fighter jet are vastly different from those crucial to a passenger plane. Given this sort of difference in role, it would be a flawed presentation which presumed to assign a qualitative value to the different characteristics.

  • Aesthetic Beauty
  • Consistency
  • Expandability
  • Frailty
  • Plausibility
  • Potency
  • Utility

Aesthetic Beauty: This may be the hardest characteristic to describe, for it relates to a relatively abstract concept. Effectively this represents how pleasing your system is to the observer. Some systems are inherently very appealing, not necessarily for how mechanically or conceptually sound they are, but on account of some other characteristic, much as a work of art can be appealing even if the brush strokes are errant. Often, though this isn’t the focus in designing a system, it is nevertheless viewed at least as a perk when it might apply.

Consistency: Very clear in its implications, by consistency I refer to how well your system stands up to a “scientific” analysis. While typically it is possible to include contradictions in logic without a problem mechanically, they often cause it to be less believable if the theory behind it is analyzed. Given that, it becomes important to think of consistency as more than simply a coherency of code, but also a coherency of concept and plot.

Expandability: It is unreasonable to design a system based solely around the present, unless the medium in question is entirely static. Whereas the author of a novel can be essentially certain he will not need to worry, in the future, about an unexpected expansion, a MUD administrator has no such assurance. Given that, it is crucial to take into account an estimate of any future changes which may need to be made and design a system loose enough to accommodate it.

Frailty: Both a plot and a mechanic device is the frailty associated with magic, including not only the weaknesses of the spells themselves but also those applying to the caster. The necessity of this depends on just how strong magic is in your setting; obviously there is little need to impose penalties if the system entails very few corresponding strengths. Likewise, there will be no need for these weaknesses if you do want these strengths to be unabated. Finally, it is crucial to tie any frailties of magic into the second point above (Consistency). Players are always more willing to accept hindrances when they are justified by the same system giving them strengths.

Plausibility: This point is oft’ debated, because there is nothing to inherently necessitate believability. That said, I have always been in favor of at least a certain amount of plausibility. It is important to remember, though, that plausibility is a virtue of the world in which it exists. It is [almost] never necessary to explain things to the degree required in the real world – even if you could do so, it is simply superfluous. No one would expect advanced science to justify a wizard’s fireball; you need merely to explain what powers he is drawing upon, etc. As a general rule, the more consistent your system is the more plausible it will be, but they remain independently workable.

Potency: Always popular among players, the strength of a magic system is among its most noticed properties; at least by those to be using it. In light of this, it is very important to get it right – perhaps even making it an exception to my statement preceding this list, about the importance of each quality based solely on your system. Unfortunately, it is impossible to make a general statement; the potency of magic must be based on the style of your game and the weaknesses associated with such strengths; no one suggestion on the strength of spells will apply in all cases.

Utility: Somewhat related to potency, above, utility refers not to the strength of a spell, but to what the spell can affect. Some examples include the typical direct damage spells, healing spells, flying spells, etc. Unfortunately the world of a MUD is typically very static; spells can alter very little. How much of this you decide to alter will be dependent on your goals and coding ability, but in deciding, keep in mind one thing: The typical novel utilizes magic to alter the world as well as other characters, and it’s a system which works. While that doesn’t prove its desirability, it does go far in suggesting it.

All right then; we’ve now defined what a magic system must do, as well as discussed the qualities which determine how well it does that. The next logical step, then, is to determine where to go with all this. Qualities have no intrinsic value; they must be applied as part of a system.

The systems employed, across both MUDs and fiction, typically fall under one of the following categories: Points, Memorization, and Components. Note that this isn’t addressing the in-character aspects at all; rather, it is purely aimed at defining a mechanical system through which to implement magic.

Points: In the point based system, players are able to cast spells at any time, with each casting draining a certain number of points. Once the point total reaches zero, the character cannot use spells until they recover the points. This method results in characters that typically remain at a fairly even level of power. Though they do sometimes run out of points, it isn’t instantaneous, and items typically exist to replace them faster than natural regeneration could.

Memorization: With memorization, characters must spend time committing spells to memory. At the point that they’ve done so, they may cast these spells at any time – however once said a spell has been cast, it is lost until memorized again. In this manner magicians can be exceptionally powerful when well prepared, but fall short if they’ve recently cast all their spells.

Components: Exactly what it sounds like, components based spell systems are designed around creating spell effects based on combinations of objects. This typically, though not invariably, results in more utility magic than direct attacks, and allows for a very complicated system of alchemy. Characters of this type, contingent on having the right components with them, can be still be quite powerful – more so as their abilities aren’t necessarily tied to themselves, so, depending on your system, they may suffer fewer penalties for magic use.

And of course, the above can be combined within a single MUD. But no doubt most of my readers are already perfectly familiar with the few styles of magic I described above, as well as many others. The reason for discussing them, however, is to point out that despite the many in-character differences between magic systems, their out of character mechanics tend essentially to fit one of the above – differences are more apparent than actual.

The point to be made here is that all of these systems do not require any particular setting to work. Any may equally have been seen in many different MUDs of varying styles, and even within “official novels” the origin of magic differs within the same magic system. Given this, it is important that you build your magic system in two parallel stages – concept and mechanics. Neither of these is dependent wholly on the other, so you are free to choose the preferred choice of both.

How, then, to create a system from scratch? I would begin as follows. Start by creating a “mission statement” of sorts, wherein you explain to yourself exactly what you want out of your magic system. Will it complement the fighters? Be used by them? Be an alternate path and be equal to them? Be far stronger than they are? Or serve entirely different purposes and not be combat related at all? Once you’ve determined that, you ought to be able to arrange the characteristics in a manner applicable for your MUD; in doing so, you will see which areas warrant focus and which aren’t very important to your overall design.

Next, I would suggest you decide on a method of casting spells – points, memorization, components, other – and see how that relates to your system. Naturally, if none of the methods I discussed above works for you, go ahead and create a fourth, five or seventeenth. Ultimately, the system must fit perfectly with the mission statement you decided upon; if there is any fundamental disagreement, anything built of it will be inherently flawed.

At this point, then, you’ve just to connect the dots. Within the framework of the system you decided on, create spells to fill the various roles necessary, keeping in mind how the characteristics mentioned above are being incorporated into your system.

Meanwhile, you can be creating the plot or backstory, devising a method by which you can justify the existence of magic and incorporate it seamlessly into your world. Even if it is beyond your coding ability to entirely rewrite the magic system, consider at least how you may revise the system contained within your codebase. Are there balance issues it leaves unaddressed? Would you prefer more utility spells and fewer lightening bolts? There is a tremendous amount that goes into the creation of a “perfect” magic system, and even doing a portion will benefit your game tremendously in the long run.

Magic in the Mud – copyright © 2002 by Delphine Lynx – All rights reserved.

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