Excited by Magic

5 Sep

I’m going to admit to a guilty pleasure of mine.

I was once a munchkin. For those that don’t play tabletop RPGs, a munchkin is a player who works to create a character so powerful, that he bulldozes over any story presented to him. Rescue the princess from the dragon, well, I’ll just shoot the dragon with my disintegration wand and it dies and then put the princess on my flying carpet, and have her home before bed time. Done and Done! Space pirates are plaguing a little mining colony? Good thing we have a whole cargo hold of autonomous killbots. The pirates come back, are julienned, and we don’t need to think about it anymore.

Munchkins are quite annoying to other people who play tabletop RPGs. The main reason is because the game master presents a situation to the table, and all the other players look at it and say, “Cool, just like Sleeping Beauty.” or “Cool, a sci-fi version of Seven Samurai.” and they get excited by the opportunity to craft a story like one that they recognize and love, only this time the heroes are people they made up, who act in ways the players dictate. It’s a bit of a rush, but then the munchkin isn’t interested in helping them do that. He just wants to show off how powerful his character is by wasting all the bad guys, intimidating all the extras, and going strait to the end without any of the excitement, as if having a powerful character were impressive to anyone.

Of course, I did grow out of my desire to show off something that doesn’t matter to people who didn’t care. I did eventually grow up and learn to never be so rude as to spoil the fun of my friends and fellow gamers. But… the urge is still there. One of the driving motivations to engage in role-playing games is escapism.

For example, in real life, I am someone who, early Monday morning, before anything was open, went for a walk and got my butt handed to me by thugs who ambushed me, took my phone and my money, and left me with a busted lip and a few loose teeth. In the set of things I have endured recently, it scored as a minor indignity, compared to gall stone attacks. They would have had to capture me, tie me down and apply soldering irons to my chest for a whole day to compare to a gall stone attack. In fact, I think they understood that they registered in my life as annoyances rather than anything to be scared of, and tried to hit me harder as they continued to beat me. Because those are the kinds of things that goes on in my real life, there is this desire, in my fantasy entertainments to create a character who never needs to deal with that sort of thing, or who deals with it so well, that it doesn’t affect him.

Demons suddenly sprout from the ground and attack the hero? No sweat. I have protection from evil extra-planar entities. This is hardly an ambush. The heroes weren’t even surprised.

But given that the drive for munchkinism is a part of role-playing gaming, there are a few games that allow this kind of thing. You can engage in munchikiny behavior in these games without ruining everyone’s fun. Some of those games are quite comical, Tales of the Floating Vagabond, for example. Some of those games are serious but few people take them seriously, Rifts being the best instance of that kind of game. And some work so well that you can create a starting character able to understand the cosmic forces of life and death so well he can create life or unravel it, with a thought, and this still isn’t so god-like that you trample all over everyone’s fun.

The first game I ever ran into that did that, was Mage. Back then it was called Mage: The Ascension. Since then a new version has come out, Mage: The Awakening, that allows the mages to work even more types of transcendental magical powers, and to be from even a wider variety of ornate occult traditions. The new version also changes the goals of the heroes and the main villains they face. In Mage, the players create wizard characters that wield such ridiculous god-like power that they actually have to worry about breaking reality, or falling off of it. Why this works as the premise of a role-playing game is because the villains have the same abilities that the heroes do. If the players want to create characters so powerful that they understand time and space in such inhuman ways that they can instantly teleport anywhere on the planet or even back in time up to a day, that’s fine, but when the heroes get there, don’t expect that the villains will not be able to follow. In fact, expect that the villains will have been there first, up to a day ago, and they set up a trap so devilish that just getting home with one’s sanity intact will be an exciting accomplishment.

The one problem with Mage was that it was, and the new version still is, a pretty normal RPG. You create a character that has Strength and Dexterity and Intelligence. Then you decide on your character’s skills. It’s tedious and plays almost no part in how the game is actually played. It is played like a paranoid free for all between two factions who can control reality in ways that threaten to break it. In fact, the whole business of dice rolls in the game was a bit odd, because getting past an obstacle was often the result of carefully and deviously escaping a trap or devising a solution that the PCs spring at the last instant. The excitement that comes into most RPGs, of “Did my ax stop the orc?” or “Did I hit the target?” or “Does the gangster believe us?” seldom plays a real part in Mage. The excitement in Mage comes from the players finding new and more powerful ways that the heroes can work together to ruin the game master’s carefully crafted plot to drive the heroes insane, drop them from reality into some other dimension, ruin reality for them, or kill them.

And evidently, I’m not the only person who felt this way. Recently, a friend has shown me a couple of games that allow one to play the same type of game as Mage, but without all the fiddly bits that got in the way and really seemed left over from another game. And these are actually kind of exciting to me. These are the kinds of games I would love to play.

The first is Mortal Coil. Some of the interesting aspects of this game are:

First, everyone at the table is allowed to say what magic can and cannot do. If you have a magic token, you may simply announce that your character has a certain magic power because he falls into a certain category and is able to meet a certain condition. Example: This character is a Navaho shaman and he has several bags of colored sand, so he is able to draw a portal to another world. It is also possible to declare magical weaknesses. Example: A witch’s magic cannot affect a house or anything in it, if it has been marked with a pentagram. or A vampire cannot cross running water. This can actually happen during the game. So it is possible, even likely, that you will have decided on a very narrow range of abilities for wizards, shape changing perhaps (because you nostalgically remember The Sword in The Stone), but during the game you will find you want another ability, and you can have it, if you have a magic token on your character sheet. Or you may have decided that a certain class of being has wide ranging abilities, so much so that they seem invincible. But if you have a magic token, you can simply declare a weakness for that type of creature.

Second, it is possible to play characters in this game that would be totally unplayable in other games, and because of how tokens work, it balances out. So if you want to play an immortal mummy from first kingdom ancient Egypt, you can. Your character will generally be more capable and knowledgeable than my plucky teenage orphan, but my character starts out with more tokens, and when I declare magical facts, I can target your character for weaknesses. Mummies cannot touch cats because of an ancient enmity with the goddess Bast. You cannot do the same thing to me. What would you declare? Teenagers cannot buy alcohol? But when you spend tokens to declare magical powers, your powers will generally be safer. You could just declare that mummies could do almost anything. And no other character would have access to that power. Whereas for me to declare a magic power for my character, I would have to have something to attach the magic power to, a magic ring, a magic lamp, or perhaps an old Bedouin woman raised my character for a time and taught him a certain trick that always works on jinns. Anyone that can get my magic ring or lamp or knows Bedouin magics could use the powers I spent tokens to create, even potentially the mummy character, since he could say he lived for a time as a Bedouin or that the trick dated back from ancient Egypt.

The second game I would like to talk about is Dark Spell Diceless, which would be the choice for you if you’re on a tight budget, and who isn’t these days. The game works fine with little or no game master since everyone is expected to have a bunch of characters, so it is entirely possible for one player to introduce an opponent that is more focused on the hero of someone else at the table. The default style of play seems to be for two or more people to share responsibilities that experienced role-playing gamers tend to think of as game master responsibilities, a story guy, and a rules guy (and I think a setting guy as well, but that wasn’t clear).

It seems to be written for a fantasy setting, but you could set the game in modern times if you were interested in doing a Sorcerer’s Apprentice type of game. The magical powers in the game are absolutely off the hook. For example, if you want to be have a character start as a powerful necromancer, he can begin the game with the trait: Third Circle Necromancy, which would allow that character to summon an army of zombies, among other things.

If its super important to play in a Dark Spell Diceless version of Mage, I suppose it would be easy enough to create different schools of magic than the ones provided, schools that more closely fit the setting of a modern world in which the practice of magic must be kept secret or risk the retribution of the Technocracy or the Exarchs or whatever you decide the villains should be called in your campaign.

Because this game uses freeform traits, it has a similar range of character possibilities as Mortal Coil, but because most traits are equal, someone who has the trait Ancient Fae Aristocrat would not have a significantly different level of ability from someone who had the trait Blind Kung Fu Master. Those traits would be applicable in different situations, but worth the same when they do apply.

And the last game that I want to go over is Solipsist. This game is probably the most in line with Mage: The Ascension, in that it is the most surreal and philosophical of the three games. In fact, ascension is really the only way your character leaves the game. Seriously, if the game master tells a story about how your character is incinerated in an automobile explosion, your character is still in the game. It’s just that if you want your character to be present in scene you will have to change reality. The change could be mundane. “Ben is my body double. It’s sad that he died.” Or it could be extremely magical. “I have been sent back, until my task is done!”

The default villainy in Solipsist is different from both versions of Mage. In Solipsist the default villainy is a kind of creeping unreality (which if I recall correctly was a side villain in Mage), but if you need actual Mage style villains, it shouldn’t take too much work to create solipsists that would understand reality such that they are respected and powerful pioneers in different fields to mimic the Technocracy. Or you could create solipsist villains that are magical in the same ways as the heroes, but dedicated to getting the heroes out of reality as quickly as possible before they start to give the common people any ideas, kind of like agents of the Exarchs.

The real strength of Solipsist is that it is only about changing reality. In fact there are no rules for anything else in the game. Want to seduce someone in a club? Want to shoot someone on the street? Either it happens, or you have to change reality to make it happen. This makes the game incredibly focused. If Mage was a game that was only about mages who only do magic, and every other aspect of the story was pretty much fluff, then it would have been this game rather than the half distracted kind of game that it actually was.


One Response to “Excited by Magic”

  1. Misterecho 7 September 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    If your muggers were freaked by indifference, how would they of reacted to a fireball?

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