Thursday, July 18, 2024

Felvidek is pretty cool + Turn-Based Combat Depth

Just finished Felvidek. It's another quirky RPGMaker game in the same vein as Hylics, Black Souls, and Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden with basic turn based JRPG combat, quirky humor, and a unique artstyle to carry it. I quite enjoyed the games visual style, and the medieval writing was the best part, but was a little disappointed by the lack of gameplay and enemy variety by the ending. I finished it in about four hours, mind you with constant runbacks to towns and churches to heal up and constantly upgrading my gear, as well as two reloads with a small amount of backtracking needed, so the actual playtime is probably a bit less. Still, much better to end early then outstay its welcome. 

It's main selling point is the main characters, an alcoholic knight Pavol with a hilariously unfaithful wife and Matej, a pious monk acting as the straight man getting into highjinks and adventures together, and their dynamic is both fun and memorable. Their roles aren't as differentiated in combat, but Matej can put up a bit of a fight too and isn't just a healer, which is a nice change of pace from what you might expect. Overall, I think the game is just mid, and a bit overpriced for what it is (more then Fear & Hunger which is so much more "game" then this) it's a bit hard to recommend at the present moment. More unique music and more of those fun PS1 inspired cutscenes would have really made it a complete product, but it's fine to pick up on a sale if you got an afternoon to kill. But enough about the game as a whole, let's talk about the gameplay.

However one thing I can say is this game at least tries to explore the idea-space of JRPG style combat, which is something that can't be said for all RPGMaker style games. Namely, some enemies in this game have armor, reducing the amount of damage you deal to them. In an effort to make this game more interesting, it isn't an insignificant amount of protection either; your attacks dealing about half their regular damage. Your character's weapons determine some of their Feints, special moves ala spells, and equipping a sword allows for the Half-Swording move (which I can happily report is actually half swording, and not the Mordhau grip! Pet peeve averted.) and what this move does besides dealing a chunk of damage is reduce or remove enemy armor for a few turns, giving you a chance to deal full damage with other attacks until that tougher enemy is defeated.

While extremely simple, the concept behind this intrigued me and ended up flinging me down a rabbit hole of the huge amount of possible depth and strategy in what is otherwise the absolute most basic type of turn based combat imaginable; the JRPG style. I'll put this in with my previous posts on Vampire Survivors and Halls of Torment, two tangentially related topics of discussing here. I could have sworn I've touched on this before, but this is a good time to go over it during the mandatory multi-year-long-blog-content drought lol

The Simplest Game
JRPG style combat is really simple. It's a mathematical game of reducing the number of enemies hit points to zero while keeping yours above zero, with different scenarios or matchups changing what moves or abilities are best. Besides the occasional random element, such as damage numbers, turn order, critical strikes & missed attacks, enemy moves, or other shakeups- turn based combat without hidden information can be made into a "solved game". I think this has a negative connotation, despite not necessarily being a bad thing in its own right, the idea of a purely numerical planned experience would take a lot of fun out of the "gameplay".

While not technically the simplest form of combat or game that exists, I think the JRPG style combat is the least involved and most "simple" to actually play or design, with the greatest depth not involving other mechanics. What I mean by this is while an action game can be technically much simpler then a turn based game, such as enemies simply needing to be jumped on to be defeated ala Mario Bros, the physics, speed, character control, give it more depth and complexity. Action RPGs like Diablo have their similarities as well, but still have a focus on movement and aim or crowd control that isn't the same. I'd argue that since turn based games are simply picking options in a menu, with no time pressure or other forms of mechanics, it's still a more "simple" game overall. This applies to its closet counterpart in the form of the Tabletop RPG.

No other video game genre really fits as closely, at least in terms of combat mechanics, then the generic JRPG- action RPGs are too tactile and based on a totally different skill set, and strategy games lack the same single-unit control that is central to the common theme of a traditional tabletop RPG. There is also an argument to be said that tactile games, like Fire Emblem, can closely match a tabletop game in terms of mechanics. While I would admit this is true for games with heavy use of figurines and battlemaps, I think the majority of games I've personally been in have been theater of the mind combat, which in my opinion is more parallel to the quintessential JRPG style "simplest" possible engagements of numbers, preparation, resource-management, and action-economy as congruently close to the tabletop experience. You don't have to worry about getting zoned by faster enemies with ranged attacks, timing your i-frames during a perfect dodge roll, or opportunities to use your healing items in the midst of enemy attacks and interruptions; it's a pure numbers game.

So with that out of the way; how much depth can you really squeeze out of turn based combat?

Action Economy
One feature of turn based games that are unique to them is the very high importance on an action economy. In action or real-time games, this is less important (or arguably more important) because of the real time nature of the controls and instant feedback of your various moves or actions. In turn based games however, action economy plays a very vital role, mostly in the form of when it breaks.

In a traditional turn-based combat game, every unit or character is going to get one action per turn. This means each party member you have grants exponential more moves and possibilities for your turn. Even a relatively useless party member with low stats or no special moves can still be extremely useful, simply as a way to use items or acting as a soak for damage, as enemy attacks will sometimes hit them instead of your "more useful" party members. (More on that later). Secondly, anything that takes away actions, such as stuns or similar status-effects, are going to be very strong and needed to be used sparingly. One of my biggest gripes about Felvidek is that there are multiple enemies that can perform a stunning blow, and most turns you'll have one of your party members stunned and not able to use their actual useful or cool moves. You can also do it yourself, which is something I intentionally didn't abuse because I wanted to interface with other parts of the combat system. (Felvidek isn't going to be talked about much more here; I just wanted to say it explored these combat mechanics more then a lot of RPGMaker slop I've played but not as much as it could have, which inspired this blogpost).

This action economy also influences other forms of player psychology and behavior. The much-loathed "useless" status effect spells or consumable items in JRPGs are prime causalities of the action economy. I'd wager people are much more comfortable playing a buff/debuff heavy character in an Action RPG or wargame where the cost of doing a curse to an enemy or a weaker buff on an ally is a few seconds of movement (just extends the fight a few seconds, or means you need to dodge one more attack) or is at the cost of a single specialized unit that isn't doing much else anyway, as opposed to a JRPG style game (or tabletop game) where using up one of your few (or only) action in a round on something that can either fail, has minimal impact, or will only extend the fight pointlessly. ie; why would you inflict an enemy with poison if you can kill them faster with basic attacks? The only way to fix this is to make the status effects necessary to deal with on the player side (really annoying), or highly desirable AND communicate their value to the player (not always easy to do).

Additionally, some games have abilities that are very strong or useful, but come at the cost of a future or previous turn. I actually really like these moves as I think they tend to be strong enough to justify them. Hylics 2 has my favorite example of this in Pongorma's unique gesture, Lightning. Lightning is one of the most satisfying moves in the entire game, and stays constantly useful as it scales on the character's power stat, so even as the enemy's get stronger, you can continually increase how much damage it is. It also has probably one of the best turn based combat animation sounds in the history of any game ever, immortalized in the above .gif

However upon reading the description for Lightning one starts to see its strategic depth. If it was simply a stronger version of a standard attack that required Will points (the mana resource), it would be one thing, but Lightning has the effect of dealing 175% of your normal attack damage and stunning Pangorma for one round afterwards. This means in an extended battle it is always better to just attack twice for overall damage. However, if you have a method of increasing your damage temporarily (like Charge-Up, we'll get to that later) or you need an enemy dead now, then Lightning becomes an invaluable tool. Hylics makes heavy use of enemies telegraphing stronger attacks with the Charge-Up mechanic, and the game is tightly balanced enough that a Pangorma lightning on an enemy with a little more focus fire is just enough to knock them out before they can unleash whatever nasty move they want to do on your next turn. The same mechanic also appears in Felvidek too, in which using the Gun feint just straight up shoots a gun at a single enemy and does like 4x the damage of any normal attack, but the character has to 'reload' the next round, and can't act. While identical to Lightning I find this one less interesting as it's more about balancing the cost of the skill rather then the action economy/time investment, and since Felvidek's feints are so expensive you're only going to get to use them 2-3 times a fight for each character.

Similarly, Charge-Up is another move in Hylics. Charge-Up is unique in that enemy's also can use it, and always do it prior to using their strongest move, giving the player a chance to react by either focus firing that enemy, using the guard action, or otherwise trying to survive. Charge-Up also applies to the next move you perform, meaning it can also be used just to give a boost to a basic attack. However, it won't apply to using an item, guarding, or getting stunned; meaning you can still react and save it for when you need it and can't "waste" it, at least as far as I remember. I think stunning enemies with Charge-Up active (an extremely rare/endgame gesture is required as well, Hylics doesn't give you abilities like this very much) doesn't dispel it either, just giving you an extra turn.

The other interesting thing about Charge-Up is that if has unique effects on certain gestures; specifically the character-unique gestures that each of your party members have. While most gestures are learned in the world and shared among all party members, these ones come built-in with each character and tend to be the bedrock of your strategies. This further does something unique by making each party member actually play differently in the turn based generic JRPG style game, with a type of role-specificity that most other games don't have when spamming whatever basic attack or highest-damage to lowest-cost ratio spell you have available. What this adds is further depth to your planning and action-economy; choosing to use a weaker version of a gesture in a single turn, or charge up to a big and powerful attack or support move that can change the whole tide of battle.

There are also an entire host and genre of JRPGs that let you just straight up give turns from one party member to another, or "reserve" them for later use. I actually don't like these. However, I can't deny the high amount of tactical depth they can bring to a game. Being able to pass on a turn (but causing the party member who goes again to become exhausted and do less damage) was a great mechanic in Bug Fables, another turn based game, though more in the vein of Paper Mario then a RPGMaker game.

Damage & Defense
Overall, combat in tabletop games and JRPG-style games is very simple. It is simply an attack that deals damage to the enemy, with no overall baring on the enemy's ability to do their own actions (hit stun), no over-committing or stagger from a bad whiffed attack on the player's part, and no innate catchup or progressive battle mechanics. In other words, do attack and number go down until you win.

However, there is a massive amount of potential for how this can and is expanded. Though many of the games I've covered here have some of these mechanics, most do not have all. Despite such a simple base system, I can already see a few methods of offense/defense that can infer your strategies.

Base HP- Attacks deal damage to this. No special properties.
Evasion- Attacks have a chance to miss. Analogous to AC.
Armor- Attack damage is reduced by a flat or percentage value. Analogous to DR.
Regeneration- Small amount of Hit Points are regenerated each turn. Usually a buff or status-effect.

Obviously there are more mechanics then these, but even with these extremely basic four stats, I can see a massive amount of potential for a game's mechanics. For example, fighting a creature like a blob or a bear with a high Hit-Point pool (or a boss) but no other defensive abilities is significantly different then fighting a standard enemy. The game may feature damage-over-time moves or status effects like poison or fire that deal damage each round. For standard enemies with lower health pools, these attacks are slow to act and less efficient in defeating them. ie; your standard attack does 10 damage but your DoT spell deals 4 damage per round for three rounds. Overall the DoT is better, dealing 12 damage after 3 turns, but your standard attack deals more now. You can see the strategy forming already; against an enemy with ~20 hit points, standard attacks are better, as after two rounds you can defeat it, where as the damage over time + standard attack move would only have dealt 18 damage at this point (4 + 4 + 10), where as the damage over time move is better against a high health enemy like a boss, as you'll do more damage overall mixing it with standard attacks; after three rounds it would deal 32 damage total instead of just 30 with three basic attacks. Simple, but already creates a dynamic.

Evasion and Armor function similarly, either by avoiding attacks and increasing the number of hits that you need to land or deal to deal with that opponent. However, certain attacks (magic, true strike, area of effect, etc.) may be able to have no chance of being avoided, where as armor could be bypassed by similar moves. The actual mathematics work out to be about the same; two enemies with similar health but one having 50% chance to avoid hits and one with 50% damage reduction would be equivalent to each other in the number of attacks needed to defeat them, but both in terms of flavor and actual workaround methods, they could feel very different. That's not to mention the odd game which has armor as a flat damage reduction instead of percentile, which has its own entire delicious box of possibilities to open. Large single damage attacks become much better against armored opponents, where as the flurry attacks with a higher total damage split up into multiple hits are less useful.

Small side note: Hylics 2 has one of my favorite uses of this mechanic in the way of splitting damage. Basically one of the first weak enemies you fight in the game is a "Road Fleem", which has an attack called four slices. It deals four medium strength hits to random party members in a row. The attack is decent and not too special, but what is interesting is how it is used as a fight-as-a-roadblock mechanic. Basically, if you have only one party member, they'll all hit that one individual. This makes advancing past that fight as just Wayne, the starting character, almost impossible as the amount of damage is too high. But if you get a second or third character, the damage is now split up among multiple party members, thus making it more survivable.

Finally, Regeneration or enemies healing each other is a great annoyance in most games, as it undoes your progress without rewarding you any resources to compensate. Obviously this 100% depends on the actual amount of regeneration being granted by the status effect; from making fights unwinnable to a minor annoyance. I think there is a great opportunity for combat depth here though; basically requiring you to coordinate damage on that target instead of relying on status effects, area-of-effect moves, or other forms of damage to deal with them. Instead, you have to focus fire on that one enemy. Interestingly, I can't think of any examples of enemies actually using this mechanic in games as a sort of "focus on this guy OR ignore this guy" even though that seems obvious. Something like a low HP enemy that can be defeated in two or three hits, but regenerates to full Hit-Points every round, meaning when you want to deal with it you have to use one of those stronger but more expensive attacks like Pangorma's Lightning OR you have to focus multiple allies on it, less effective then area of effect and status effect spam. Hylics 2 has a lot of enemies who can heal, but typically it's telegraphed and certain enemies support each other, making target prioritization a big part of that game and very fun, in my opinion.

Side note: This is by no means an exhaustive list. Enemies who support or protect each other can very easily count as a second or even third form of "defense" an enemy could have in a simple target + attack command type of game. The titular example is Fear & Hunger, where attacking the head of an enemy will kill them outright, but is very hard to hit without cutting their legs first.

Progression Mechanics
Progression mechanics also add a large amount of depth. Even simplistic numerical climbing can become a very interesting form of progression, content-gatekeeping, or combat dynamic. Games with smaller numbers gain more "break points" where the differences in your weapons, level-ups, buffs, or other strategies can significantly change the outcome of a battle (ie; you defeat an opponent in just four attacks instead of five, or a character survives a hit that otherwise would have knocked them out, etc.) One underrated form of progression mechanic in traditional JRPG style games is that of actually gaining party members, up the maximum you can have at a single time, as stated above, this gives you more actual actions per turn, something to be given sparingly for sure!

Of course, progression mechanics themselves can be something as simple as a generic XP meter that fills up through fights, or a more experimental system where player power is gained (or lost) through world exploration and from equipment. I feel like there is a very strange "trend" of this being common in RPGMaker games, Hylics and Funger to name a few.

I think the most simple form of this is totally linear progression, which is separated from no progression, by making the game much more tightly balanced and each combat encounter basically being a "puzzle" with limited access to the ability to prepare for a fight, use consumables to make it easier, or cheese it with grinding. Briefly mentioned on this blog before is a little RPGMaker game called BUGGERWORLD which did this wonderfully, as every single fight in that game is a unique encounter with its own art, mechanics, and your characters gaining new skills along with the linear course of the game. With no optional fights, the only method of strategy between fights is consumable items and with such a linear and tightly-focused game it is entirely possible to softlock yourself by not having enough resources to get more healing items. This actually happened to my friend who was playing the game at the same time as me and who saved after the last shop and wasn't able to beat the final boss because of it.

Of course, every RPG lives somewhere between these two worlds. The macro-strategy level where you can just grind or prepare in the overworld to make the battles trivial, and the "puzzle" style game so tightly balanced that spending even one turn sub-optimally means certain death. I find it funny how the possible depth and exploration of this incredibly specific genre of game is so characterized by grinding and spamming auto-attack until you win it's the defining feature of the genre in its traditional format, the oldschool NES & SNES JRPG, and it took a very specific niche indie audience to sort of find the value of it at its core. It's almost like a type of game defined by the idea of bypassing and circumventing the actual "game" part of it, so you can get to the good bit of the character development and story beats that actually progress the "game". But that's a shame, because I think there is still a lot of potential to be found in the "four guys in a line" genre even today, when it has become the stereotype of the old, outdated, unfun, linear, and boring RPGs of days long past. Maybe a bit like D&D itself? Naw, let's not go there.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Voldemort is the best lich and I am NOT kidding

Voldemort is the best depiction of a lich in popular fantasy media. There, I said it. Let's talk about liches for a bit.

The Fantasy Lich & Their Problems
The concept of a Lich is an undead spellcaster, usually still retaining their intelligence and full magical power as when they were alive, often used as a method to cheat death or become immortal. They are usually high powered enemies in D&D fiction; being capable of being the primary antagonists of entire campaigns. If we consider the spectrum of dangerous, bestial monsters starting at wolves with dragons being the peak, then we could consider a spectrum of undead creatures to go from a skeleton to a lich at the peak. Not only having powerful spells, they also can't be killed, and keep coming back unless their special phylactery holding their soul is destroyed. The Lich as an archetype is extremely evocative, with robed skeletons commanding armies of the undead and mastering many magics.

But in context of the greater fantasy universe at play... don't you think Liches are kind of weird?

Consider the following; most people are afraid of death, and want to live longer, or forever. This is a common trope. Magic can be used to do many things, but the magic of immortality is often considered a very high or nigh-impossible goal to reach with magic. Ancient emperors and archmages wasting their limited time to try and find a way to live forever is a trope as old as time, and even happened in the real world on multiple occasions too; it's a sensible high concept goal similar to making life, turning lead into gold, visiting other dimensions, etc. often found as the motivations of high level spellcasters or mystics. Now consider that in the majority of fantasy settings with Lichs, the masterclass goal of these magic users is to become... a skeleton.

Doing this with good or neutral magic, like the arcane arts or healing magic if it exists, is often either impossible or a losing battle against entropy, casting a "reverse aging" spell or greater restoration every once in a while is the best you can get, and almost never can they bring themselves back from the dead with this magic, even if they can resurrect others. Dark magic, necromancy, or perhaps sorcery in general in some settings is considered a shortcut to power. As such, it stands to reason that becoming a lich is a "shortcut" to being truly immortal and alive with magic, which would help explain it. But remember, most people don't want to be an undead creature. Being undead sucks. If magic could do literally anything in a fantasy setting with no drawbacks, then no magic user would create the "become a lich" spell if it makes you into a skeleton like that; they'd just make the spell give you eternal youth, let you regrow limbs, reform your body after death, etc.

Similar to the above, there is a common thought I've seen on online discussions that a high level magic user should venture to become a master/true vampire instead of being a Lich; given that vampires have more powers and abilities and can retain their human appearance, though gaining a few weaknesses that Liches usually don't have, like sunlight. While I dislike this "fantasy catalogism"- as if people in the fantasy world know of every possible way to become immortal or powerful and can pick and choose as opposed to being limited by their knowledge and resources- it's still a valid criticism of lichdom.

Secondly, when most people want immortality either as the result of a wish or magical project, rarely do people want true immortality. As in, they don't want to literally never die ever. The idea of being truly immortal and being trapped somewhere forever, or being trapped out in space after the Earth explodes unable to do anything or talk to anything and having no way to end your suffering is a common existential nightmare, a "fate worse then death". The problem is a Lich and their phylactery are often written in such a way that implies that this could easily happen to them. Like if a lich puts their soul into a specific object and is then thrown into the ocean, every time they reform they will just reappear at the bottom of the sea, being crushed to death over and over until something finally discovers them. I think even considering the arrogance and short-sightedness of a dark wizard type they would be way more careful for their future eternal fate then wanting to put themselves in that kind of a situation.

The Phylactery and reformation process of a lich is also part of the issue I have with them. Part of this is just down to players and modern minds poking holes in fantasy literature; like yeah obviously the lich can't just decide "oh I'm going to make the moon my phylactery" or "oh I'll be a single unbreakable grain of sand that will be my vessel", it's a dumb subversion of the fantasy trope, but there is a certain nugget of truth to it. The whole "reform in 24 hours once destroyed" lacks any kind of gravitas or ability to "counter" the Lich's ability to reform from the dead, and feels overly video gamey. Even worse, the "turn into a lich" spell or ritual is often described or implied to be a sort of "raise undead but YOURSELF as the undead" being raised, thus you aren't under anyone else's control. I don't really like this, even though this could just be a "me" thing, as it literally feels like someone just took a look at the raise undead spell and thought of a clever way to use it on themselves to become a Lich, which once again goes against that immersive quality of fantasy worlds.

The other issue with the D&D Lich? It lacks a certain tragic quality. Truthfully, Liches are kinda supposed to be morally bankrupt, if not downright evil. Necromancy being used for good or neutral purposes if a subversion of the trope you see occasionally, which I personally don't mind if it's done in a smart way, but the issue with the fantasy lich is that it rarely ever seems like they're really suffering for their choice. They receive a major power up and have essentially sacrificed their humanity or mortality, to an extent they should be seen as tragic, cowardly, or in some ways pathetic. Of course, the character archetype of the "Lich doesn't actually have some evil plan and just wants to do research or have his pet project" is a fun trope too, but I feel like antagonistic liches are kind of core to their identity as big bads.

While there is a whole other can of worms to talk about how immortality or life-extending magic is rightfully (or wrongly?) cast as being morally wrong or how death-acceptance could be seen as a coping mechanism for death and not actually a "good" thing, in the fantasy world where morality tends to be a bit more objective, fate and karma are real forces, the Gods and souls have ultimate destinations and a higher purpose, etc. the concept of a Lich just being this sort of magic spell creation feels a bit thematically weak. This is then artificially justified with little things; like forcing a lich to do dark rituals involving sacrifice to create their phylactery or making undead inherently evil regardless of their intentions- but these feel like patch jobs. If you were going to die anyway, becoming a Lich wouldn't be a downside at all, and with they being undead who retain their free will, it takes away some of the punch of them being these flawed, scary, magically powerful monsters and more like a fantasy insurance plan to an otherwise powerful Wizard character.

But what about Voldemort?

Art @Shen Yi

Voldemort is cool as fuck
If we look at the above qualifications of being a fantasy Lich, Voldemort checks almost all of the boxes. He's immortal and cannot be killed without destroying his soul-vessels, in this case Horcruxes. He is a powerful dark magic user. He is creepy, evil, and the main antagonist of the work he is located in. But did you notice the subtle difference? Voldemort spends most of the Harry Potter series trying to come back to life.

This is a bit of a misnomer, but think about it. Other liches reform quickly, Voldemort has to otherwise scheme and squirm to find a way back into a normal body. Multiple times he is thwarted from returning to life, and his full power, by the heroes of the books and films. This to me defines him as the best Lich; he doesn't just come back ala D&D rules, stopping him from coming back is how you fight him. It works better as a recurring antagonist, as while you could theoretically fight a D&D lich multiple times, they tend to be extremely strong "boss fights", meaning multiple encounters of them are too deadly to be done consistently. Instead, trying to stop the dark wizard from coming back to his full strength is the repeating tension and part of the campaign. It's similar in nature to the "cultists serving a dark god" plotline you see in fantasy fiction roleplaying so much, allowing players to more reasonably and realistically take on this otherwise overwhelming and impossible foe in a way that is less immersion breaking. You could even define and scale a campaign around it, with defeating the weakest "shadows" of the lich for low level characters, fighting more powerful versions at higher levels, and the final fully incarnate version as a challenge for even the most veteran parties. This also secondarily means that it isn't quite as dangerous to travel with or keep a phylactery around. Just imagine an evil Wizard making their greatest staff or enchanted item their phylactery; knowing its safe from destruction from the greed of mankind. Yes, technically this thing is evil and means that the dark undead wizard is still yet to be banished from the world, but it's a really strong magic item. Or maybe it summons skeletons every midnight and constantly attacks us with dark magic and we don't know how to destroy it, so let's just bury it somewhere. It creates a more believable world that helps explain why these threats and undead beings aren't just banished immediately OR don't take over everything with their limitless power. It could even create this sense of temptation among the players, not wanting to give up a great treasure or magic item or perhaps even a high level soul-binding spell that means that as long as YOU live, the necromancer still has a foothold in the mortal world. Maybe even Sauron is a lich... But we aren't ready for that conversation.

Now of course I should mention that you don't have to really scale an entire campaign around just defeating one Lich. It's an option, but you could still just have the scary encounter in the deep dungeon with some newly generated NPC Lich as a high level encounter, a threat but not world-shaking, to get use out of their fantasy idea space and as a capstone for a undead themed dungeon delve. Liches can still scale in power- but the main point is that they aren't just these undead spellcasters, but instead a sort of broad spectrum of dark mages or undying beings. Perhaps they require stolen life force to fully manifest, or slowly reform their bodies by draining the blood or organs from other beings, ala Imhotep from The Mummy. Regardless of the reason, Liches have both a incentive and need to go out into the world and do things, not just "study arcane secrets" in the depths of the dusty tomb. This does give them a soft overlap with vampires, but I feel like that's fair. If anything, a Lich could be a vampire, a terrifying combination of supernatural forces. Their body is powerful, immortal, and fed with blood. But upon staking them in the heart, the Lich is not truly defeated, and returns as a ghost now scheming for a new way to return to the world of the living.

Secondly? The Horcruxs. The Horcruxes allow Voldy to not have one but multiple backups and phylacteries, once again leading to a campaign in and of itself, as well as having each being a powerful magic item and challenge in its own right. However, I'm in two minds about this. On the one hand, having an extremely powerful reforming Necromancer who also gets multiple backups and requires this much clever work to take down seems a bit too much, and the thematic importance and character-building of having this one special item that is this Lich's one weakness is really cool. But at the same time, I love the idea of multiple horcruxes and the character designs and concepts- imagine a Pharaoh Lich of an ancient Kingdom with the Crook and Flail being their two phylacteries, crossed over their arms and separated by a foolish graverobber. The possible fun of having to bring them all together again; maybe the normal lich rules of reforming into their full undead form apply but only if they're all together again- giving an incentive to not hide them all in each corner of the world but also a possible way to bring them out again for one final battle? There's a similar concept in Castlevania and The Elder Scrolls, with finding the pieces of Dracula or Lorgren Benirus in the basement of the haunted house you can buy in Oblivion.

For this one, I'd say your "average" Lich only has one phylactery, but an extra powerful one could have several. Not every one of them is a continent-spanning adventure, but you do have to hurry back to the local church to have this thing consecrated, else the Lich is plotting his return. But this entire time, I've been saving the real reason Voldemort is my favorite Lich. 

Voldemort is Pathetic
Harry Potter as a series has its problems, the writing has its flaws and cliches, the worldbuilding is nonsensical, and now it's impossible to discuss honestly due to the stink with its author (who I have been very careful to not bring up until now). The thing I really like about Harry Potter is the insistence on emotion, the spiritual, and "human scale" magic. It just feels like the most grounded and "lived in" style of high fantasy sparkly woosh magic "Magic" you can get, which is a huge plus for me. Typically fantasy settings get defined by how overt, powerful, or flashy their magic and magic systems are. You get the spectrum from folklore and real-world occultism with next to no overt effects all the way to high fantasy glowing runes floating in the air summoning big explosions from nowhere. But Harry Potter really straddles that middle ground I like so much; where magic is strong but not level 20 D&D Wizard types of busted overpowered.

Voldemort in the context of all fantasy media is a bit of a jobber. He wouldn't be as powerful as, say, Vecna or Koshchei, but in the context of his universe? He's pretty scary. He's a powerful dark Wizard with a cult of other dark Wizards, tons of magic items, multiple layers of defense with his Horcruxes, the Elder wand, and more. He can just straight up kill people, but he can't snap his fingers and obliterate an army, or move mountains, or do these other acts of high magic that are seen by the most epic and end-game sort of fantasy shenanigans that a high level D&D Lich could get up to.

Every few years I go back and read this blogpost about Dragons. It's one of my favorites, as something about it really resonated with me. The idea of dragons being these apocalyptic, unstoppable demigod beasts seemed to become so ingrained with popular fantasy culture that it's refreshing to take them down a few pegs, to make them threatening without it being overpowering. Dialing back the power scale and enjoying something more grounded. Voldemort is like that, but for Liches and the stereotypical "Evil Wizard" antagonist you see in tabletop games.

Voldemort is scary, and he is strong, but notice how he is strong. Most of his strength comes from his Death Eaters, the dark wizards who act as his agents and followers, caring for him and bringing him back each time he is defeated. Much of his power comes from his reputation, his magic items, and his years of preparation and planning- he doesn't have this insane CR meant to challenge demigod adventurers. Look at this clip to see what I mean. His spells are strong, but not unmatchable, Dumbledore was still able to drive him back at the Ministry of Magic long enough for help to arrive. Notice that he flees when the authorities arrive; he doesn't march in and take over the world with his undead army, at least not yet, he has to operate in the shadows. In a more generic fantasy world, I'd imagine a Lich to be about as strong as the above- capable of beating the shit out of lesser wizards and mundanes alike, but still being restrained and limited with their own weaknesses.

And secondly? Voldemort is a tragic, somewhat pathetic figure. He can come back from life when killed, yes, but it's always a false life. In the first film and book, Voldemort is a literal parasite living on someone else. Then, he's a memory. Finally when his body is fully reformed, he is mutated and twisted, looking unnaturally pale. Remember, nobody wants to become a lifeless, cold skeleton as a condition of their immortality. But imagine in your hubris and arrogance you can come back to life, but you can only do it in a hunched, pale, weakened body of an old man or twisted half alive creature, dependent on the blood or life force of other beings. It's being alive but at a cost, you are "alive" but pathetic. This to me is far more appealing as an end state of a "Lich" then simply being the undead skeleton with burning glowing eyes. Even in the metaphysics of the Potterverse, you will end up as worse off, "lesser", for creating a Horcrux. It will make you immortal, but you irreparably sever pieces of your soul to do it. You will get what you want, but at a price, and it's that perfect type of price that isn't obvious enough to the foolish or arrogant exactly what they are losing, but in the grand scheme, you know why they are doomed.

I write a lot of stuff about the nature of karma or inserting morality in fantasy. I don't do this because I have an axe to grind, moreso, it rubs against that nebulous "vibe" that classic fantasy, literature, and mythology have that I feel is so central to creating meaningful and immersive fantasy worlds and campaigns. Tabletop games are games, first and foremost, and cannot be approach the same way a planned piece of literature is. You can't foreshadow the fall of a character based on their choices and reactions to things, to make them pay the price for their actions, that's the players job and can only be interpreted after the fact. Unless you're playing a pure story or "railroaded" adventure, you can't guarantee the players will be able to break the final phylactery and banish the Lich's black soul for the final time when they fight them; they might just lose and the Lich will succeed their evil plan. But inherent in the media is room for these sort of things; the idea of someone being so afraid of death and so arrogant that they willingly give up the pleasures and joy of life to live forever, to make a mockery of life to continue on in fear of death or judgement or being forgotten, is something you can add into the game. You can give that thematic weight to a boss monster by how they are written or how they act, especially if it's inherent in what they are. And to me, that is what a Lich is. They aren't like a living person who can relax and unwind and sleep and heal from an injury or stressful time in their life, looking at their children playing in the bright green fields and think "life will go on"; they are instead constantly skulking, feeding, hiding away their secret items of power and shying away from life. It's not a necromancer who found "one simple trick" to become immortal using their own magic spell, it's someone who is trapped in a state of half-life, unable to move on or escape on their own power, terrifying and a threat to their foes, but in a way pathetic and even pitiable, trapped by their own choices and ultimately, cosmically wrong.

Just like Voldemort.

Thursday, May 23, 2024


How do we deal with players hoarding healing potions? I came up with a solution a few years back, but only barely touched on since it's inception- limited shelf life Tonics. Originally written up in the Dirt Simple Alchemy post, I wanted to revisit the concept after reading the Goblin Punch post here.

You ever like how fantasy games have magic potions made out of like three mushroom caps, a handful of clay dirt, and a bat wing and yet they have this perfect bright red color and usually don't taste like absolute shit? That's part of the magic, actually.

When specific ingredients are mixed together in a cauldron and boiled, stirred with a wand, and readied by a skilled hedge mage or witch: a Tonic is created. The chunks of whatever is within the brew smooth out and disappear into a consistent glowing fluid, which can then be poured into an appropriate flask. It's like fantasy Gatorade. This is also the reason that healing potions (tonics) are all consistent despite being made with different batch sizes and with different qualities of ingredients and the like, it doesn't actually matter how big your cauldron is or the size of your vial, the magic is one "dose" no matter how you slice it. Once you fill a single vial with the brew, the rest of the cauldron turns back into gross dirty soup-water. This also gives a nice and easy way of knowing when the tonic has gone bad- just look at it. If it looks like a bunch of gross shit floating in a beaker, then you know it's gone off and isn't good anymore.

Once a tonic has been created, it has a shelf life of approximately one day, one week for traveling campaigns, or one season for more time-abstracted games. The time setting here is abstracted, but is in essence supposed to be for one session. At the end of the session, any tonics not used go bad and lose their magic. You can't hoard them.

Characters can make tonics if they want to and they have the skills and ingredients. This makes time very valuable when exploring, but spending a bunch of time gathering ingredients and brewing tonics always comes at a cost; random encounters and torchlight dwindling away must be considered against the value of brewing some more useful tonics for future encounters. The dry ingredients used to make tonics are also almost always cheaper and more light-weight then the tonics themselves (but you need a source of water, fire, and something to cook them in- if you lost your cauldron to the rust monster you might have to improvise with the shell of the massive turtle you killed earlier in the dungeon), giving an incentive to pack up tonic ingredients for longer exploration trips- because while you can make as many tonics as you want with time allowing, they will all go away at the end of the session.

You can also buy tonics from shop keepers and herbalists in villages. Because tonics only take about a turn (10 minutes) to make, you could also abstract this and let players buy as many tonics as they want from the local healer before going off into the dungeon. This is part of your preparation phase, without the inherent problem of players being able to hoard healing potions, just buy as many as you think you need. You can also get specific here, tonics don't just heal, they can do any effect really. Tonics can be antidotes, strength potions, "fire" potions that can cast light or make your weapons go inflamed for a damage boost, invisibility, freezing liquid, acid- whatever you want really. The idea here is to provide a use it or lose it tool that isn't as reliable and permanent as a spell or recharging magic item- because they have space and material limitations. You can only carry so many tonics, and they go away after your exploration.

Potions vs Tonics
Tonics are magic potions. The reason I'm calling them Tonics and not Potions is so people don't feel ripped off when they go bad and to separate them from capital P Potions that could act like magic items or treasures with a one time use. You could still call these potions if you really want, I just figured potions as something to hoard was so ingrained in the popular consciousness that a different name would help with this. This way, finding a Potion as a magic treasure can be considered a great find, same as a magic sword or spellbook. I'm imagining a Potion of Healing to be much like a Potion of Youth or a Potion of Gold or something similar- it probably fully heals you, restores all your limbs, removes your trauma and ability score damage, etc. etc.

Tonics in Gameplay
The main idea behind Tonics is to manipulate player psychology and provide an in-universe mechanic for more interesting healing and preparation for tabletop dungeon crawling. No longer is healing a class specific feature, anyone can order a village alchemist to make them some tonics to act as the mistake allowance and shared HP pool for the whole party. Not only this, tonics also discourage certain behaviors (overly risk averse), while encouraging other ones (experimentation and preparation). For example, the players know their special tonics will run out at the end of the session anyway, so why not experiment and see if healing potion is like acid for the undead? Why not pour some fire potion on a mushroom to see if it mutates into an exploding shroom? It also creates a certain amount of time pressure and scarcity inherent to the mechanics. 

Why doesn't everyone have access to magic healing in the fantasy world? That's simple- the resources and knowledge used to make tonics isn't unlimited, and the tonics themselves can't be hoarded. You can't assume every knight or soldier will be able to carry healing potions with them, or that the king has a supply of cure poison under his throne's pillow- you still need healers, magicians, or old wise men to actually work their craft. It creates a less gamified fantasy world and one that feels more believable and lived in, with the conveniences and mechanics that allow the dungeon crawling adventure fantasy to still work.

Of course, this doesn't actually solve some of the problems listed with Arnold's original post. How do you stop people from just bringing in unlimited healing? Well I'd do it by saying that potions are really heavy, being liquid, and also being something you can't really sneak around with since they, you know, glow in the dark and are carried in glass bottles. Plus the expense of buying them. Technically nothing stops you from having hirelings carry them, but nothing stops you from hiring a private army to do your dungeon delving for you- if you have enough resources. Personally, I think most players will be satisfied with just mentally calculating how much healing they think they may need, how many antidotes or resist fire potions or paralysis cures or sleeping draughts or whatever else they think they'll need, invest the gold at the start of a delve, and enjoy using the resources they have prepared for. Of course your players may be a bit too clever for that, in which case, you'll you have to come up with something better. I just wanted to share my version of potion-based-magic that I think works pretty well.

Friday, April 12, 2024

8 Legendary Lockpicks (Magic Thieves Tools)

When it comes to fantasy roleplaying; the "cool" loot is not created equal. You have an absolute ton of magic weapons and armors for the fighters, barbarians, and paladins of the party. On the flipside, you have magic wands and staves, orbs, and the entire concept of spell-scrolls and spellbooks for the magic users; but what about the Rogues? The Thieves or Specialists? Perhaps because they aren't as iconic as the standard fantasy fighter, but don't have that obvious supernatural element that Magicians do. 

It's rare you get magic items for characters like this. Aside from magical leather or light armor, which is already pretty uncommon, maybe a magic cloak or dagger if you're lucky, and rings of invisibility or magic winged sandals (that anyone could theoretically use) you really don't get a lot unless you make them yourself. This blogpost is kind of meant to remedy that.

As for "Thieves Tools", we're going with the modern day D&D description of being a small packet or bundle of metal tools and implements used to disarm traps, pick locks, open up wedged doors, and other tricks of the trade for Roguish characters. This is a type of abstraction I'm fine with. For generic high fantasy adventures, this level of abstraction is about right for me. But if you were doing a more serious resource-management dungeon crawler, keeping track of individual numbers of lockpicks, files, etc. may be a better fit for that kind of campaign. In that case, you'd have to adjust the rules to fit this table, which is more meant to be like a form of "equipment" that Rogues use to do stuff and are semi-permanent items, as long as they aren't stolen or thrown down a ravine or whatever.

Treat each of these items as a standard set of Thieves Tools but Magic, meaning they will be protected from your average run of the mill magic traps or barriers that destroy lockpicks put into them and they can't be destroyed by rust monsters or if you accidentally fall into a slime.

8 Legendary Lockpicks
[1] The Elvish Ivory
(+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This set of tools are of a beautiful pearl white, carved and engraved with tree patterns. They look incredibly delicate, but are as strong as standard iron tools, and can still be used to force open and finesse locks and clasps. Because they aren't made of metal, these tools cannot be effected by magnetic forces and as such can be used to disarm magnetic traps or special locks that would fling away traditional tools.

The name is also not merely for the sake of appearances; these tools are actually made from the bones of a single beautiful elvish woman. Legends say that she was the love of the original master-thief who created them. They have changed hands many times and have become somewhat infamous among the world of high-class criminals for their grace and beauty.

[2] The Woeful Set (+0 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
These cruel tools are hooked with barbs and spikes and are made from a very dark, dense metal. Dried blood has set in the grooves that were cut their intentionally for that purpose. The creator of these believed that prying secrets from a prisoner was no different then clicking the tumblers of a stubborn lock.

These tools double as implements for torture. Whenever you use these to torture someone to extract information from them, you can use your lockpicking skill/bonus in the place of intimidation or whatever other social skill is called. Additionally, the set has a strange set of tongs that look like a pair of hands. If you pull someones tongue out of their mouth, you can force them to confess to the last lie they told. This action requires the individual to be helpless or unable to resist given how finicky it is to grab and pull out a slippery tongue- even with magic tools.

[3] Dolphin's Delight (+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
Held in a light gray pouch, supposedly made from dolphin leather. The pouch always feels a little damp on the outside, but is always dry on the inside. It's waterproof and can be used to store various notes or dry goods without worry of them getting soaked and destroyed for underwater adventures. 

When someone new gains ownership of these tools, they have a dream that night of swimming in the ocean with a dolphin, before turning into a dolphin and swimming down into the depths of the ocean. After this dream, the thief has the inexplicable ability to hold their breath for up to two exploration turns (twenty minutes)- more then enough time to pick stubborn underwater locks in sunken ships and drowned temples. Also, you can use a special pearl-encrusted tension tool on the mouth of any sea clam and it'll open up, giving you just enough time to grab its pearl before it closes up again.

[4] Juritovi's Dancing Knives (+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
Selection of knives held in a roll, lined with fine fox fur. The knives are all very finely made, with well carved wooden handles, and runes carved onto the flat of each blade. Despite being a collection of knives, they are fine, flexible, and strong enough to be crammed into locks and used as prybars for small locked containers and so on.

While not technically thieves tools, these enchanted knives have been the envy of many thieves. When placed out on a roughly table-sized area, they can be verbally commanded and magically dance, hop, and slide around to their owner's wishes- doing whatever is commanded of them. They can slice up vegetables in preparation for a feast, perform some surgery, or commit genocide on a colony of rats. Despite their strength and apparent ability, the knives are absolutely terrible for combat purposes and would rather hide down their owners pant legs then fling themselves at people and attack.

[5] The Knucklebones (+3 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This set of very old and beat up tools is remarkable for its long legacy. There are many stories about these thieves tools, especially among pirates. Despite their worn appearance, anyone who has laid hands on them will swear by their usefulness and that they must be magic. The name of this set come from the pair of dice always kept with them, which despite what everyone says, are 100% fair and don't guarantee your fortune if you go out and use them to gamble.

This set of dice has the unusual quality of stealing away the skills of experience of thieves who use them. At first, it greatly enhances your abilities and makes you extremely deft, but slowly those who use them find their fingers getting more and more clumsy and more absent-minded, eventually leading to them misplacing the tools and having them stolen by the next victim. Every time you use these tools, there is a 1 in 20 chance that you lose -1 to your rank, X in 6 chance roll, or an associated saving throw permanently.

[6] The Mouse (+2 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This "tool" is held in a small cloth pouch that is filled with a few small knick-knacks, some straw, and a very sleepy fat little brown rodent. The rat is an otherwise unassuming common household mouse that is blessed with a strange intelligence. Anyone looking into its eyes can see how it is much more then a common mouse, and given how tame it acts when handled, it is more a pet then a tool.

The Mouse can squeeze itself into various machines, locks, in the spaces between walls and is seemingly able to disarm, open, or otherwise manipulate the machines from within using internal levers and its own body. Nobody knows exactly how this rodent gained this level of intelligence or knowledge, but seems to just "know" how machines work. It can be easily bribed with a few grains of wheat or a small chunk of cheese, and is otherwise very affectionate. The mouse still has the lifespan of a regular mouse, which means after buying it from its previous owner it probably doesn't have much time left. Roll 2d6 to determine how many months the mouse has left until it dies of natural causes.

[7] Sha & Sira (+1 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
This is not one set of thieves tools, but two. One is made from a green jade, the other from a blue lapis-lazuli. The sets are otherwise identical, with matching decorations, dimensions, and level of quality. The two sets are from a far off desert land, and are bundled in silk with white and black bands to hold them all in place each. The tools smell faintly of cinnamon.

Despite being named after two famous lovers in legend; they act less like a pair of lovers and more like squabbling siblings. Every time these tools are used, you must specify which set you are using. If you use Sha, you will also gain +1d6 coins inexplicably from chance or find them wrapped in the pouch. (Note: this is only if you use the picks "legitimately", as in while adventuring, doesn't work if you just keep opening/locking the same door over and over to farm coins). If you use Sira, you regain one hit point after successfully opening a lock OR restores one light-turn (lantern/torch) to whatever light source your party is using with a sudden gentle kindling of the flames. These magic effects are constant and always "on", but the picks get jealous if you favor one benefit over the other.

If you use Sha three times in a row, the next time you use Sira you are infected with a common disease.
If you use Sira three times in a row, the next time you use Sha, you are cursed and get -2 to your next Save vs Death.

If you use one of the pair five in a row without using the other once; all of the picks of the other color crack. This is your warning. If you use the uncracked one again (six times in a row), then the next time you open the silk bundle all of the picks will be destroyed and turned to dust and pebbles out of grief. The picks being cracked does not prevent you from suffering the curse of the spurned picks- just use them both evenly and there won't be any problems.

[8] Stolen Heart (+2 to Proficiency Bonus / X in 6 chance)
Appears as a knitted human heart made from bundled up yarn. All of the tools are pierced through it, with special holes for each, which makes it look like a pincushion when they're all in place. The "heart" here is actually a voodoo doll's heart of a spurned lover, who can feel the lockpicks and metal bits piercing their heart each time you use this. The witch who made these tools is very upfront about this, as she is very spiteful, and encourages you to store your other sharp needles and pokers in the heart as well.

The tools are carved with circles and anointed with special oils, giving them a strange spell. When you press these tools against a magic glyph or rune, you will be able to manipulate it on the page much like it was a lock. With proper skill, the "enchantment" of any item can be unlocked, which transforms the rune or symbol into plain common text that explains what the enchantment is or does, and remains that way for one minute. Essentially, you can use these tools to Read Magic or Identify Item; using your Lockpicking skill in place of an Arcana or Lore check.

Thursday, March 21, 2024

The Descent

I recently watched the stop-motion psychological horror film Mad God. It was pretty cool, though a little too impenetrable for my liking. However, the film itself isn't what I want to talk about today.

The beginning of the film has this great shot of the main character (the Assassin) going down a suspended elevator/diving bell down multiple layers upon layers of underworld- past a giant prison with cannons shooting at him, trees in a dark forest, underground caves with fossils and giant skulls, and gardens of giant statues. As we go down, we get a sense of the immense scale and depth of this place. Something about it really reminded me of a massive dungeon crawl- a megadungeon's possible depth- but with a caveat. Exploring a megadungeon is a slow and laborious process; but the Assassin in the film is moving past layer after layer quickly, almost conveniently. To me the feeling was less of just bypassing all this interesting stuff, but more that these levels or layers of the dungeon had already been conquered before. This gave me an idea for megadungeon exploration in the long, LONG term, and a little narrative trick.

The Descent
Each floor of the dungeon is kind of like its own separate place. Of course, dungeon floors can be restocked with monsters and encounters over time- but these give very little reward compared to the treasures found. Once looted, treasure does not simply materialize out of thin air- so you have to crawl ever deeper to get more loot. What this also means is on repeat visits, you will have to travel through still dangerous and restocked floors to get to the deepest and more lucrative parts of the dungeon- meaning leaving and returning without full bags and without expended resources is inefficient and potentially deadly.

But as you explore deeper, this problems gets worse and worse, until the trip down can become as draining on your resources as the actual dangers of the deepest floors. Unless you're cheating the journey down, even a fully cleared dungeon floor still has a few still active traps, hazards, or random encounters which could slow down or expend your party's resources. How do you manage this?

Simple- you carve a big hole, and you build a shortcut.

The Elevator
Most fantasy dungeon crawling games assume a roughly medieval level of technology- where such a construction project is much less feasible. It's not totally unheard of; large pulleys and construction cranes, both animal and man powered, were a thing in those times- simply expensive and not surviving well into the future. I don't claim to be a historical expert on this subject, but it certainly seems doable. Regardless of how realistic it is, for the purposes of gameplay and the fantasy vibe, we can assume a non-magical descending platform can be built at the site of the dungeon.

In order to build this elevator, the party must first secure the top and then hire experts and workers to build it. The total cost of the elevator is equal to the total treasure found on the deepest floor the elevator can descend to + 2. Meaning if you want to build a shortcut to floor 4, then you'd need about all the treasure you can get on floor 6. In typical oldschool megadungeon fashion- each floor of the dungeon has enough treasure to level up a party of the same level once, and exp doubles each level. Roughly speaking, you'd need all the treasure on floor 6, or half the treasure on floor 7, to build an elevator to floor 4. It's expensive, but the cost of building the elevator still counts for the purposes of XP- if we're using gold per xp for treasure recovered. This means the entire party can chip in.

On repeat visits to the dungeon; you can use this elevator instead. The cost of the elevator is much higher then you would assume because of the cost of excavating the material, keeping it clear from monsters of the lowest depths, hiring the skilled (and trusthworthy) operators who won't drop you into the chasm at lethal speeds, and so on. And the other catch? You can't go back up with the elevator, it only goes down. As such, you can't actually use this to carry back all of your treasure you found, but you can shortcut some of the resource sinks of the upper floors. This also becomes somewhat unnecessary when you consider the Jayquaying of the dungeon, with other paths in besides the main entrance or shortcuts to deeper levels, but having a very reliable entrance that you can't be attacked in or taken from you would still be worth the heavy gold investment building one of these would take.

Whenever you travel down the elevator, you will see a cut through each floor of the dungeon. Unless you're autistic enough to mark an exact vertical slice of the dungeon in 3d space and determine exactly what rooms and passages the elevator would travel down through, I would just state a general look for each floor you pass through and use that. If the crypts and catacombs were level 1, then the first floor you pass by you'd see bones and tombstones poking out, some almost seeming to try and reach the elevator occupants. Floor two was the spider's nest, so webs and desiccated bodies are visible down the elevator shaft here. Floor three was the mushroom forest, so thick spores fill the shaft as you go down further and further. While veteran party members will remember each floor, conquering them one at a time, new party members will get to see a snapshot at the dungeon's history and the painstaking effort it took to map and slowly explore each level of the dungeon. Essentially, you would describe the most notable features of each floor as a sort of treat and reward to show how far you've come, before the platform reaches and deeper floor. While it does bypass a lot of the trouble of the upper floors, the gold cost calculated based on floor depth means you can't go right back to the richest part of the dungeons with each visit, and would still need to do some local navigation before getting back to where you were- it's simply much more efficient then walking down from the top floors all the way down again.

Side note- I also really like the idea of the elevator being able to go back up, but only at the exact weight designed for the party on the descent. This means the party can make a hasty faster retreat up the elevator if they can't survive the upper floors, but they can't bring any treasure. Unless a few of them didn't make it...

Sunday, February 25, 2024

(Rant) Spell Categorization Complaints + The Seven Schools of Magic

I hate the schools of magic most games / settings choose for themselves. The only real reason is pedantry. I was thinking about making my own and came to a conclusion. Let's nitpick these.

Dungeons & Dragons
The schools of D&D Magic (depending on edition, world, writer, etc.) can be roughly boiled down to these;

  • Abjuration
  • Conjuration
  • Divination
  • Enchantment
  • Evocation
  • Illusion
  • Necromancy
  • Transmutation

Already, we are seeing a problem. We have this extremely nice naming scheme; abjurATION, conjurATION, divinATION, and then we get to Enchantment, Illusion, Necromancy... what the hell is this. Where's the nice naming scheme? If every type of magic or spell has its own unique naming scheme, that would be one thing, but this half measure is just infuriating. Every spell school should either end in a "-mancy" or "-urgy" or "-ation"; the title essentially being the action or verb that the magical school does or can do. "Conjuration" creates things, "Transmutation" changes things into other forms, and so on.

Secondly, the name-to-effects connection of the schools is also, in my opinion, lacking. It is difficult to directly tell what a Wizard can do or is good at based on these schools or their knowledge of them alone. Now from an in-universe perspective, it is fine- each school is named and codified based on what they do or their general group of effects that the spells of that school accomplish. The issue for me is I want the spell school to not only fit within this world-space of understandable effects, but ALSO grant some kind of worldbuilding or character-defining effects that each school could have. For example, if you were traveling in a fantasy world and heard tales of a "Mighty Conjurer" living out in a cave somewhere- you could probably assume that Wizard or Witch would be quite capable of summoning powerful creatures to attack you if you dared enter, or would perhaps be impossible to catch since they could just teleport away. Such concepts feel valuable in a game system-to-worldbuilding space; creating more texture and possible avenues for gameplay- except it doesn't work for every school. What exactly would a Transmuter be good at? Would they be good at escape or entry- given levitation or being able to open locked doors with magic? Would they be more combat focused- capable of buffing allies and cursing enemies with various spells? Are they more helpful support characters; able to transform various items into other useful items- all of these could fit under the umbrella, making it almost too broad in certain categories, but too specific in others. You can't just take the spell school's name at face value- as one could extrapolate "Magic that changes/alters stuff" could do basically fucking anything. Oh it can make you tougher- like Abjuration? Oh it can make objects that are stationery move- like Evocation's creation or control of energy? Could one extrapolate this to say that it can make people do what you want by "altering their minds"? No- this is covered by other magic schools- but you can see how trying to apply this with logic starts to get a little out of control given its vagueness.

It also would allow different Magic-User type characters to differentiate themselves in the party more; though largely unnecessary, as I don't think anyone has an issue differentiating different Wizard characters given the inherent differences in how they amass and prepare spells, or even their preference for spells if both have the same spell list, compared to say a Fighter or Rogue type class which would be almost totally identically if they shared a similar level; only have equipment, stats, or feats to really differentiate them.

I also just hate the D&D spell schools mostly for being a bit misleading as well. "Enchantment" sounds like an interesting school- something akin to weak magic spells emulating some of our favorite pop-culture Wizardry; like the Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia, or any number of the small useful "Charm" spells from Harry Potter. But no; Enchantment spells almost exclusively focus on mind-affecting and social spells- things like Sleep and Charm are Enchantment. This actually almost feels like the opposite of the above paragraph, where the designers of these schools tied themselves to the etymology of the word "Enchant" to the title of a possible character archetype or creature to encounter- being Enchanter. An Enchanter being able to control and manipulate people's minds is a very powerful and scary fantasy archetype- especially played up in recent years due to what has been a more "realistic" reaction to mind control and other forms of mental-manipulation magic as being pure horror or extremely morally questionable, if not downright always off the table. Your & my opinions on this are totally irrelevant on this topic I should mention- it is simply an observation. However, it doesn't fit that other schools of magic feel much more "invented" in their categories- Necromancy possibly being the worst, since it has nothing at all to do with divination of the dead (other then speak with dead) and instead relates to souls, life energy, and raising the dead as minions or other "death themed" spells. This further muddles the waters as Necromancy could mean a powerful offensive caster with various drain life abilities, summoning/raising minions, budget healing magic, powerful buffs in the form of undead transformations, and so on and so on- making Necromancy feel like it fits more in an Elemental magic system as the "Death" element over in this more acamedic, non-elemental, effects/use focused system like what we are discussing- which is more focused on the arcane, scholastic, non-spiritual forms of magic seen in D&D, Dying Earth, Elder Scrolls-ian style pop culture Wizardry.

Another more minor issue I want to add here? The implied dynamic of the setting- at least in regards of healing or holy magic being its own separate "thing" from the list here. It's not a huge deal since it's covered by Clerics and important for the resource management side of the game. But I kind-of want to have healing magic be its own category for what I'm going for here. More on this later.

Finally- we have the redundancy. We'll get more to this later, but the redundancy of this list is probably among the worst of various spell-schools I have seen. The fact we have both "Enchantment" and "Illusion" on the same fucking list, both mind/social/perception effecting spells is a sin. Now it's important to state that I COMPLETELY understand why this is the way it is. Illusionist and Illusion-Magic are very thematically different then Enchanters and Enchantment. However, I just don't like there being two-too similar spells like this with similar cases. Even in practice they aren't that similar, but the concepts are thematically muddled enough that I don't like the crossover.

Harry Potter
This one will be brief. I don't really hate the spell schools in the HP universe due to them being, in their own words, "vague and ill-defined", but I want to touch on them momentarily.

  • Transfiguration
  • Charm
  • Jinx
  • Hex
  • Curse
  • Counter-Spell
  • Healing Spell

These spell schools are almost entirely focused on the use of a spell, over its effect or elemental bearing. Obviously, having three different schools for three levels of just "offensive spell" going from annoying to harmful to dangerous is right out- but I respect the attempt to try and fit them all in there. You can't just so easily fit them all into one category either; just calling it "Dark Magic" or something would simplify the system too much. Perhaps we could simplify the categories down to just "Dark Magic" and "Light Magic" to make it simple- with a third "Gray Magic" or perhaps unaligned spells being for purely transformative or utility-based effects on changing objects or the world. Maybe take a page out of Final Fantasy with Red Mages being a jack-of-all-trades kind of caster- thus Red/Blue/Color Magic would related to the various non-good and non-evil type of spells. This, however, transforms the system too much.

I honestly don't mind this system for two reasons. The first being that Wizards in the HP universe are more "full formed" in terms of magical abilities- they don't just cast spells but ALSO brew potions and ALSO ride brooms and ALSO do psychic combat and ALSO have other magic powers too; spells are just a small portion of the full kit, which means that specialization are far more specific then something as broad as a "type of spell". The second, and perhaps even more specific reason, is that I absolutely LOVE Charm spells as a rule. I love the idea of commodify and gamifying the mystical secondary abilities or lifestyles of various magic people in fantasy media; the self cleaning dishes, the magic clocks that wind themselves up, the unrolling chests that store way more stuff in them then they should, the little magical bubbles and lights coming from various trinkets and potions on the shelf to make a "full" magic user experience from the aesthetic and description alone. Sadly- only useful in game terms, tabletop or otherwise, for flavor- being mostly beyond flattening down into rules and pressing all the fun out of it. I just figured I should mention it; because what other blogpost am I going to be able to write this up for?

Yes, the video game. The Diablo clone for kids where you have a cat or dog that goes back to town and sells shit for you. I wanted to mention this one because, exactly as above, it's very short and simple. It also includes Charms. My weird obsession with magic "charms", or being a Wizard in a fantasy world who specializes in "Charms" magic, extended to this game where "Charms" was almost entirely based around summoning. But let's go over it all the same.

  • Attack Spells
  • Defense Spells
  • Charm Spells

I actually really like this system. In the game, magic effects you wouldn't think are typecast into each category based on how its used and general playstyle. For example, Attack Spells cover both direct offensive attacks AND curses or debuffs inflicted on enemies. You can cast fire or lightning from Attack Spells but so too can you cast slow or weakness. (As a side note; I find such concepts odd- as you'd think a character specializing in Attack Spells would want to use damaging spells. This pretty much invalidates the concept of playing a curse-heavy mage that kills foes with weapons or summons- but given the realtively low investment in each school to use its spells, with most scaling being either damage (useful) or duration (almost pointless) then I suppose it makes sense). Defensive Magic also includes healing, buffs, and general defense- especially in regards to the elements. Finally, Charm magic as stated above is almost totally used for summons- with higher levels giving you stronger creatures, longer-lasting creatures, and higher numbers of creatures depending on the spell itself. Interestingly, Charms stays true to its name as being a useful category of utility magic as with very little investment you can get the "Identify" spell, acting as a Scroll of Identify with unlimited uses, no inventory space taken up, and a low mana cost. Charms also encompasses the few other utility spells the game has; like identifying items or opening up a town portal, so it gets some points.

Given my strange penchant for playing games in the most obtuse way possible- such as wanting to play a Warrior who uses magic to weaken foes instead of just putting all my points into strength, or playing a Melee fighter character who doesn't use armor and relies on magic or evasion; this system doesn't work very well save for Charms, which does make you feel like a cool Summoner and magic-item master.

However, it doesn't fit the arcane fantasy magical universe sort of vibe I'm going for; the D&D list is better despite its faults; yet the FATE system is perfect for the medium it is going for- a simple dungeon crawling video game. Still, it strains my immersion a little too much for a more "fully realized" setting- maybe a world where magic is incredibly new, only capable of being used in a single specific dungeon or place- with the three colors or flavors of magic seeming to be the three general categories of spell people can specialize or get better in. Still, I thought it was interesting enough to mention.

The Quest
This is little-known Indie Game I got on Steam during a previous sale. I actually quite like this game; it feels very much like a scaled down version of something like Daggerfall or Morrowind- an open world with several quests and viable character playstyles. Also, not realizing it, but the game was originally made for mobile and has a TON of expansions not even ported to PC. The artstyle is probably my favorite part, having some very nice hand-drawn graphics, but the gameplay got a bit repetitive. Why am I mentioned it here? Because it has a big list of skills with many types of magic. How does this game split up its magic spells into schools?

  • Attack Magic
  • Environment Magic
  • Healing Magic
  • Mind Magic
  • Protection Magic
  • Undead Magic

Yeah, no. Fuck you. Next.

Elemental Systems
Instead of listing a single game, TTRPG, or source for this- I'm just going to go off on Elemental Systems entirely. I've talked about this one a lot.

Not every Elemental System is the same, so I can't give a universal list. Obviously pretty much all of them are going to have the big four of Fire, Water, Earth, and Air- unless it's a Chinese inspired elemental system instead with Wood and Metal making the list. I think elemental magic spell/differentiation systems are very strong thematically for obvious reasons. I think my idealized system would be something like;

  • Fire
  • Water
  • Earth
  • Air
  • Life (Creation)
  • Death (Destruction)
  • (Arcane/Void/Purple/Other?)

This grants the full spectrum of possible elemental configurations without getting into annoying redundancies and ultra-specific use cases of spells. The text in paranthesis indicates alternate names or possibly interpretations of these elements. As stated above, I think elemental systems are VERY strong thematically. You could easily imagine a character specializing in one or more elements- a Fire Wizard having all sorts of useful offensive powers, or an Air-Bender being good at travel and evasion. Life Magic can also be strongly coded as holy or good-guy magic; being able to heal wounds or damage the undead, as well as summoning animals or plants ala nature or drudic magic found in other games or universe. Death magic is also nice; once again it follows the same problems as with "Necromancy" but I feel its more appropriate given the elemental and thematic width of each school of magic in this system.

However, once again, elemental systems suffer from two main problems. The first is the rather limited lack of scope outside of elements. Now- a CREATIVE DM or writer could adapt to this easily; increasing the scope of each magic school to encompass or build out to various other things that aren't simply the element. For example; you may find elemental systems limiting because you can't do things like fate or luck related curses or spells if you had a full elemental system of just the four main elements; but this could be subverted and combined into the other schools. Fire grants luck at the cost of burning you later as a cost. Fire can not only create and conjure fire, but also give people boiling hot fevers or increasing their passion by putting their hearts ablaze- the thematic connections between the possible uses or targets of magic in the world and the elements themselves become a part of the magic, and in a way work better then a more academic or "nonelemental' spell-school system, as the elements themselves are made mystic and all-encompassing. The above system is also great as it basically shits inspiration and worldbuilding resources for writing plots, characters, or mystic underpinnings of the universe. Places of great natural importance are tied to one or more elements, granting mystic powers to those who reach them on a pilgrimage of sorcery. Elemental Wizards have personalities fitting their elements. Each elemental magic can be cancelled or weakened by the presence of their opposite- Air magic being incredibly weak underground and Fire magic being weak in the rain and so on. This is pretty much perfect for a fantasy world- but once again isn't exactly what I'm looking for in trying to make a sort of non-elemental, non-spiritual based magic system for spell categorization.

Also talked about on this blog at least a few times, the Dominions series is a group of high-fantasy strategy video games where you play as a Pretender-God trying to kill all the others and ascend to glory. The game has a very thematically strong magic system of various elemental and sorcerous paths. While it is somewhat specific to its setting, it is broad enough to be widely applicable to multiple fantasy settings and I have stolen these elements/paths for my own games before.

  • Fire
  • Air
  • Water
  • Earth
  • Astral
  • Death
  • Nature
  • Blood

This system I really like; as it encompasses the mythology and magical underpinnings of an Elemental magic system BUT also covering everything else you may need- not only magic in terms of what characters could do but also the setting or cosmology itself. You can also imagine what each mage who specializes in each type of magic might look like- Nature mages being witches and druids. Blood mages being evil cultists and summoners. Death mages get to be necromancers- Astral mages being the theurges or soothesayers- controllers of fate and the stars- also tied strongly to themes of having the "fifth element" or element above the other elements in some way. Even more appropriate given Astral Magic's use in communions. Not unheard of outside of Dominions; but extremely fun and setting defining once it is introduced. Crosspath magic allows for yet more versatility and explains many things and how this relatively simple and small list of Paths could be used to encompass almost any magical effect you can think of- the game even has a nice in-game and universe categorization of Magic User based on their paths; with the first four paths of the basic elements being what Wizards use, and the latter four paths being what Sorcerors use.

It's also important to note that Dominions doesn't have quite the same scope or scale as the other games or universes on this list; most are focused on single characters (such as a TTRPG character or video game protagonist), where as Dominions is much more focused on mass combat and grand enchantments- meaning that Dominions Mages are very powerful and appropriately so.

...Of course that was all true, until the Illwinter development team introduced Glamour as a new magic path and fucked all this up! The newest Dominions game just came out as of the time of this writing- creating an Illusion, dream, and mind-based school of magic. While I haven't actually played with it yet to see how it works or how fun it is- I simply detest this inclusion into the above list of magic schools. While it wasn't perfect before, Illusion was moreso a subcategory of magic that fit into other schools- like how most Illusion spells were Air Magic related. I actually really liked this, as it created connections and concepts in setting that any nation with access to Air-Magic had the capacity to cast various illusion and trickery spells- and indeed most of the nations who did have high level Air Magic had the capacity for it. I mean, if any school of magic should be split up, it should have been water- thematically speaking at least. Because water was basically the number one most important school of magic for all underwater nations (go figure) AND because it was also used for all cold or ice related magic spells as well; leading to the strange in-setting weirdness of the Nifelheim Ice-Giants also being really good at invading water provinces and casting whirlpool spells. Makes sense in terms of the path, less in universe and less in gameplay. Personally, I would have preferred illusion magic remain a sub-category- just letting the various Elvish nations having unique spells related to it- much like how Man had a very unique set of spells relating to Nature magic- spell songs- allowing for cheap and safe communions at the cost of their power and casting speed. Perfect for a bunch of half-fae wise women descended from the Tir'na'nog, less so for the druids or wild beastmen blood sorcerers- hence why it was specific to that nation. Oh well. I've never even won a multiplayer game of Dominions, so what do I know?

Ars Magica
Another huge inspiration. Ars Magica straddles the line between elemental & arcane distinctions for spell schools, in this game called "Arts", but has the knock-on effect of working really well for my purposes here. I feel as though I don't need to list all of the forms in their latin names, but just know there are ten of them comprising everything from the classic elements, to the human form, to magic itself. But how those forms are used is by the techniques, meaning how they are manipulated.

  • Creo (Create, Restore, Repair, Replenish, etc.)
  • Intellego (Understand, See, Divination, etc.)
  • Muto (Transform, Change)
  • Perdo (Destroy, Lessen, Weaken)
  • Rego (Control, Move)

The useful thing here is, by simply taking this list of techniques and removing the forms, we now have a general purpose list of magic spell schools or verbs we could use to serve as our spell schools! However, it isn't perfect for me for two reasons. One, the latin names, while fitting for a medievalish historical setting, don't exactly fit for a fantasy world and two, in regards to the spell effects or categories fit within each; some of them are ill-defined or extremely narrow in application. Rego is a good example, seeming almost useless for certain forms (just look at the example spells for Rego Imaginem), where as other techniques (Creo) are so broad they basically encompass anything you can do with the magical arts. With that being said- it's a really good list and will serve as the backbone for my magic schools I'll share in a bit- that and one other less obscure property.

Elder Scrolls
Here's the other big one. Besides D&D, Elder Scrolls has one of the strongest spell-school categorizations out there. Once again- it is quite fitting for its own genre and what it's trying to do- but there have been lots of bumps in the road. This is further complicated by the fact that each game in the series changes, removes, or moves around the various spells and effects from school to school! For this, we'll go with Oblivion/Morrowinds schools.

  • Conjuration
  • Illusion
  • Destruction
  • Restoration
  • Alteration
  • Mysticism

These Schools are also pretty evocative. I especially like the implementation of "Restoration" as an actual school of magic- a very fitting word and usage for magical healing. I especially like it over "healing magic" or "life magic" because it fits not only healing but also restoring other attributes and curing diseases without it being as broad as "Creo" from above. My only issue is the term being used as "Restoration" but this spell school also includes increasing, empowering, buffing, etc. various attributes or stats as well, which is not implied by the name. (Also, in Oblivion, Restoration is where the drain attribute spells go, and not even in the criminally underused Mysticism. What the fuck were they thinking?) I don't think this is that bad of a trade off of clarity since the school would be too focused otherwise, but it is still a slight imperfection.

However; the names, once again, are flawed. Same issue as D&D, though to a lesser extent. And we have a traitor in our midst. "Destruction" fits the naming scheme, but is extremely divorced to the actual effect or "magical tool" used by the spells within this school. It does destroy things; but by conjuring elemental forces. Earlier games in the series (Morrowind) did a better job of this, since some Destruction spells could also do simpler things like damaging attributes or equipment- but I dislike this vagueness. To me, a "Destruction" school would be focused totally on magic effects that just damage things- not elemental blasts or manipulation of energy. Mysticism is of course right out- but I think if you had a list of magic schools and had just ONE that violated the naming/type conventions, Mysticism would be the best choice for that. It's the "other" school, with weird and freaky powers and meta-magic that other schools of magic don't have. Also- if ANY school on this list should be able to trap Souls, Mysticism would fit. It's sad it was axed for Skyrim but, in a way, I've grown to like it. I feel that using Conjuration for the spell was less interesting then making Soul-Trapping its own mechanic- relying on rare weapons or maybe forcing the player to kill a target with a magic staff (actually giving them a reason to use them?) to trap souls- but not giving players a way to farm souls would probably be bad form and not helpful to the gameplay experience. It makes sense to stick it here if you don't have Mysticism. But to the negatives again- we run into Illusion magic here a second time- somehow even worse given it directly changes targets minds for a large number of the spells instead of just actually creating illusions. Better for a video game where type and effects are combined- worse for a fantasy world's wizarding etymology.

Now- Alteration. I know I complained about "Transmutation" for D&D spells up above for being too broad and ill-fitting, but I actually think Alteration works much better for the School of Transmutation. While there is no "Alterationist" mage you can use in the same way "Transmuter" rolls off the tongue, the school of Alteration just fits better for that sort of all-encompassing "changing" things magic that fits the school. In the games, Alteration is basically the catch-all school for weird utility and helpful effects not directly used in combat; besides Mage Armor; most of it is doing things like unlocking locks, walking on water, flight, and so on.

Finally- Illusion. Illusion actually works great in this system; due to the relative low power level of TES mages compared to other media and due to the fact, in the context of a video game, Illusions can comfortably encompass everything you can do to manipulate NPCs- make them calm or fight each other, make them not notice you, improve disposition. Skyrim also grants some new interesting effects, like the "Muffle" spell that just reduces sound- fitting for mage-thieves. It also bafflingly includes Clairvoyance into Illusion, which is obviously a cut effect for Mysticism. While I quite like it from a mechanics perspective- it honestly doesn't fit the name. Most of the effects of "Illusion" are just directly mind-effecting magic- Enchantment works better as a name here. But once again, both names break our naming convention. We're getting close though.

Homebrew- Seven Schools of Magic
When the ancient mages first decided to categorize magic into various schools- the more scholastic and less religious methodology of magical convention was born. Divorced from the concept of the natural forces and elements of the world- these schools became the general grouping of magical skills of which different mages often specialize or study in their pursuits. There were seven distinct schools, which are-

  1. Alteration
  2. Conjuration
  3. Restoration
  4. Evocation
  5. Divination
  6. Abjuration
  7. Domination

These schools are based on the techniques of Ars Magica divided into a few more schools to provide more specificity and round out the list. Creo is split into Conjuration, Restoration, and Evocation as its application is too broad in a more traditional fantasy game with specific wizard schools. Conjuration makes new things or summons creatures, restoration heals or replenishes, and evocation conjures up energy or power in specific- ie; blaster magic.

Abjuration is another special note. Abjuration in D&D terms is mostly defensive spells and anti-magic- and while it certainly can do this here- Abjuration is being more used as a general term and as a replacement school for the Perdo effects. Abjuration lessens, weakens, rebukes, cancels, snuffs out, or otherwise reviles in all cases. It is everything Destruction does except summoning up elemental blasts, which is Evocation instead. Alteration lets you turn invisible and makes things lighter so they can float or fly- Evocation can maybe let you fly but only if you're summoning wind and you have a kite like you're Aang or whatever.

Finally- the most original school here is Domination. Domination is a perfect fit for our Necromancy, Mind-Control, Enchantment, and otherwise bad-guy school of magic. It's name both fits our naming convention, has a negative and evil connotation, and describes exactly what the school does. Domination is how a Wizard bends lesser minds, controls emotions, animates objects, or creates curses and unbreakable vows and things of that nature.

And yes, that's right, there is no Illusion magic. I know, I know. For some, that's a dealbreaker. Fair enough- but we all know Illusion magic sucks anyway. Most "illusions" could just be fit under Conjuration (for false images and sounds) or Alteration (for glamours) if you really needed to come down to it. Domination could already be used to control minds or bodies- meaning we have little need for the extra school. I get it's a staple of fantasy and all- but Illusion magic sucks anyway.