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Old 05-20-2009, 07:18 AM   #1
Sergeytov
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The Lost Cause of Magic

So the other day I was running an event on a MUSH I play on, and after doing some reflection on how things went, I found a few things of interest.

My thesis, for those who want the short version, is simple: Magic isn't very magical in most RP environs I'm familiar with these days.

Magic, for the purposes of the conversation, is 'an ability or item with properties that can not be achieved via conventional technology available within the theme.' A bit crude, and it may need to be modified later, but to clarify it in example: A 'magic missile' is 'magic', a crossbow would not be. A spell that allows personal flight without any regard to physics is magic, a plane in a modern theme is not. Note: Highly advanced technology or other sci-fi things (like psionics) can be considered 'magic'. The ability to set things on fire with one's mind isn't very different than a fireball spell, after all.

1) Players will metagame magic based on what's commonly known in the playerbase. - In most cases, if there's a 'fireball' spell, regardless of how 'rare' magic is supposed to be, just about every PC knows of it. Same with 'personal flight', 'teleportation' and several other 'magical effects.'

An amusing illustration from said event that was the inspiration for this post: One of the major bits of information I was trying to get players to come up with was that a NPC had combined two 'magic' abilities in a perfectly legal way to create a rarely seen effect within the theme. I tried to give hints, give descriptive clues and such, but strangely enough no one came up with it while I was running the event. Having run similar events in the past with powers that had explicit help files and the like, I've seen PCs ID the ability used with far greater ease.

2) Magic just isn't terribly exciting - Maybe this one is from me being old and grumpy, but in my experience 95% of 'magic' is just the same old stuff over and over. Now, part of this is there's how many millennia of folklore combined with a few decades of gaming to give mechanics to these ideas, but beyond 'the source of the magic', I've seen little difference in most venues I've visited. Ironically people trying to solve the 'boring' problem bring up the next thing on my list.

3) Magic's drabness is often compensated for by overbearing power. - Okay, at least someone is trying to resolve problem #2 on my list, I will say that much. On a grand scale, the bad guy wielding a fireball is old hat, no longer interesting. So let's kick it up a notch! No more 'fireball', how about a 'core inferno' spell is being prepped. This spell, when prepped, will detonate the core of a planet. So not only can a bad guy have magic, but it's magic trying to be a bit more interesting. Sadly, after enough times of saving the world even this tends to become drab. I've seen players go 'oh no, another magic plot that threatens to destroy the world/existance/whatever.' Not exactly the desired effect.

Solutions? I sure don't have much in the way of answers. The closest I've gotten on that point is 'give magic a 'personality'', but that's just a gut instinct, nothing refined by much thought.

And so, once again, I figure my ramblings might be of interest to readers here, so here we go.
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Old 05-20-2009, 09:29 AM   #2
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

you forgot the most common/important problem with "magic".

4. Magic, as well as the term "fantasy", is most often merely a crutch for ignorance. Almost every time I've spotted something which doesn't make sense in a MUD, the excuse given for it is "it's magic" or "it's fantasy". It's not really an explanation but rather the way people who can't offer an explanation attempt to get around their lack of knowledge. It's one thing to know how to do something but choose for creative purposes to rely on a fictional method. It's quite another thing to have no choice but to use a fictional method because you haven't any idea as to how something exists or is achieved.
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Old 05-20-2009, 10:56 AM   #3
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Quote:
Originally Posted by prof1515 View Post
you forgot the most common/important problem with "magic".

4. Magic, as well as the term "fantasy", is most often merely a crutch for ignorance. Almost every time I've spotted something which doesn't make sense in a MUD, the excuse given for it is "it's magic" or "it's fantasy". It's not really an explanation but rather the way people who can't offer an explanation attempt to get around their lack of knowledge. It's one thing to know how to do something but choose for creative purposes to rely on a fictional method. It's quite another thing to have no choice but to use a fictional method because you haven't any idea as to how something exists or is achieved.
I'm actually split on this one myself. As someone who has a repository of strange trivia in his head, I get the urge to want things to be explained down to little details.

On the other hand? Let's say in a sci-fi theme I want to make your basic 'space laser' pistol or whatever. As long as the mechanics are reasonable, I'm not going to complain if there aren't mods for 'amount of light in the area' or 'is there rain/mist that might disrupt the laser?' if things are applied reasonably. (Remember the whole 'technology can be magic' thing.) If the powers that be want to handwave a bit and go 'if there's an energy source/battery pack in the weapon that's good, it works', I'm okay with that. I'd argue the laser in that case may as well be a form of 'magic', and it might fall under the 'crutch' definition, but requiring players to have an in depth understanding of physics might be a bit much to ask.

Unless I misunderstand what you meant.
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Old 05-20-2009, 11:18 AM   #4
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

You might want to look into how magic is handled in George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books. He definitely bucks what's been the dominant trend in fantasy novels for a while of having technicalized magic systems where you can pretty much hear the dice rolling. SoIaF magic is weird, threatening, and mysterious. When was the last time you saw those attributes to it?

One model that leaps to mind for magic that isn't effing boring is the (really very traditional) one where the magician has no innate power, rather all magic is performed by negotiating the services of spirits or similar agencies who have the powers required. This suggests a system where the cost of magic isn't measured in "spell points", but rather obligation; when you've called upon the services of some being for a while, you need to perform some services for it before it's going to help you out any more. Or possibly you'll have to prepay. Or possibly if you don't meet your obligations, their cost will be exacted from you whether you like it or not. "Some being" might be a faerie, a ghost, a demon, or "the North Wind" or "Winter" in a sufficiently animistic universe. A recent novel where magic works this way and is examined in some detail is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

Or, for more ideas, systems and models than you'll ever need, go out and grab a copy of GURPS Thaumatology.
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Old 05-20-2009, 12:11 PM   #5
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

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Originally Posted by chaosprime View Post
SoIaF magic is weird, threatening, and mysterious.
You can do that sort of thing in a story, but it's not as simple in a game system, because mechanics available to the players need to be both quantifiable and balanced.
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Old 05-20-2009, 02:42 PM   #6
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

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You can do that sort of thing in a story, but it's not as simple in a game system, because mechanics available to the players need to be both quantifiable and balanced.
Kinda depends on the type of game system. OP was asking from a context of RP MUSH gameplay, which is usually more collaborative storytelling than the sort of game system you and I normally think in terms of. That doesn't inherently require quantifiability or balance.

But say your game system is fully automated, and so requires quantifiability, and you posit balance as one of its sine qua non design goals (which no one is actually compelled to do, consequences aside). I agree it's not as simple as in storytelling (collaborative or otherwise), but you're somewhat implying it's not possible, which I doubt. If nothing else, your quantifications and balancing elements do not have to be clearly and technically exposed to the player, leaving room for weirdness, threat and mystery.

Last edited by chaosprime : 05-20-2009 at 04:10 PM.
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Old 05-20-2009, 03:37 PM   #7
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Quote:
Originally Posted by KaVir View Post
You can do that sort of thing in a story, but it's not as simple in a game system, because mechanics available to the players need to be both quantifiable and balanced.
I disagree. I'd love to see a gameworld, especially a MUD that does magic like that. Make it dangerous, wild, and able to kill the user. Make it dangerous to those around it and using it. It would make more sense if people could lose their characters and would thus make magic far more rare in a game where it is supposed to be rare.

Instead we have the common D&D theme of powerful wizards who are masters of the arcane. Everyone wants to be a Raistlyn and they don't want the risk, nor the experience of having to play out a weak, possibly ignorant magic-user that is slowly learning. Players want it all now and don't want to engage in a story.
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Old 05-20-2009, 05:24 PM   #8
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

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Originally Posted by chaosprime View Post
Kinda depends on the type of game system. OP was asking from a context of RP MUSH gameplay, which is usually more collaborative storytelling than the sort of game system you and I normally think in terms of.
The OP mentioned spells such as 'fireball' and 'magic missile', which suggested to me some sort of actual game system. I'm not sure I'd consider "collaborative storytelling" to be a "game system" though, as such games tend to heavily de-emphasise rules and statistics.

Obviously if you're just making up a story as you go along, you can invent anything you like. I'm not really sure if there are any specific solutions for that sort of scenario other than "try and be creative".

Quote:
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I disagree. I'd love to see a gameworld, especially a MUD that does magic like that.
How do you plan to implement a coded mechanic that isn't quantifiable?
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Old 05-20-2009, 05:43 PM   #9
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

You ignore the quantities.
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Old 05-20-2009, 06:26 PM   #10
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

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Originally Posted by Delerak View Post
You ignore the quantities.
Computers deal in numbers and quantitative terms. You could try and make the magic system appear "weird and mysterious" to the players, but (if it's an automated game mechanic) you still need to break it down into something logical and quantifiable.
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Old 05-20-2009, 07:25 PM   #11
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Quote:
Originally Posted by KaVir View Post
Computers deal in numbers and quantitative terms. You could try and make the magic system appear "weird and mysterious" to the players, but (if it's an automated game mechanic) you still need to break it down into something logical and quantifiable.
Not really. You can make a completely illogical system. Have spells that cast a random spell. Have some spells that don't. Of course it's a system. It's a system with no system. Like chaos. Pull random code lines for magic here and there, make it completely illogical as magic probably should be considering it's concept and the fact that it doesn't really exist on earth. This way also players can never pin down your system and master it either.
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Old 05-20-2009, 07:48 PM   #12
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

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Not really. You can make a completely illogical system. Have spells that cast a random spell. Have some spells that don't. Of course it's a system. It's a system with no system. Like chaos. Pull random code lines for magic here and there, make it completely illogical as magic probably should be considering it's concept and the fact that it doesn't really exist on earth. This way also players can never pin down your system and master it either.
Yeah, no. Even if it's random, it's still random numbers. Unless a human is intermediating the interaction, as in a collaborative storytelling MUSH or a tabletop RPG, the system still has to be defined in a quantifiable way at some level, whatever is shown to the player.
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Old 05-20-2009, 09:16 PM   #13
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

I have to agree with OP and Delerak here.

I think that you can achieve the desired results in this instance (even in a computing environment) through one of two ways:

First is to simply make it damned rare. This might require to to throw away the conventional idea of "balance" however. Think about a fantasy world as well known as the Lord of the Rings. Starting with the Hobbit of course, magic is *very* rare. You could claim that it isn't simply because of how often it may crop up, but first compare it to a normal RPG, computerized or not, then consider that it was a highly unique and concentrated set of events. Most people in that world (even important ones) have no magic, understanding or even knowledge of magic. In this sort of environment, it may well have a definate mechanic to it, but it's so rare as to appear... well magical. Gandalf, the most "magical" of the heros may have been the most powerful (possibly because of his magic) but he also as a result took on (willingly) and attracted (unwillingly) the most danger, and is one of the few that actually dies, despite his massive amount of power. I'll also condition what I've said with the fact that he was the *only* Wizard, as far as we know, that actually survived, besides maybe Radagast, who's survival is questionable anyway. Despite his massive power, he doesn't have the ability to simply walk into an area filled with hundreds of level 1-10 goblins, kill them all and get out alive, even if he has some impressive non-magical fighting abilities on top of his power; he has to employ tricks to save his friends, and even then fails to save them all.

Second is to make it more mystical. This might require the first condition to some degree. But a computer system, and software especially, is all done with rigid numbers and computation. But it's also a magical system to anyone that doesn't understand it. So simply hide it from them. A computer does nothing besides *simulate* a situation, it can never replicate it--at least not at our current stage. So simply hide the facts from users. DOn't give them values, and randomize results. If they don't know HOW it functions, but simply where to start and how to *influence* it (and only that through dangerous trial and error) you'll maintain your mysticism.
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Old 05-20-2009, 10:36 PM   #14
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

You aren't talking about a solution for making magic better or more interesting. You are talking about a preference for low magic worlds versus high magic.

LOTRO is low magic.

Forgotten Realms is high magic.

It doesn't make sense to play FR and say you want to improve it by making magic rare.

If you like low magic, that's great. You aren't alone. But don't assume you are making magic "better", more interesting, or more creative by just advocating a different end of the scale.
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Old 05-21-2009, 01:20 AM   #15
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Nice post, Threshold. Hit my thoughts on that aspect spot-on.

I can understand the OP on "Magic isn't very magical in most RP environs I'm familiar with these days.", as the majority of magic systems (in most MU*'s) are very similar.

Playability is an aspect that has to be considered.

Most players (that I have dealt with) do not want to spend real-world weeks learning their first spell, hours hunting for required components, spend all their in-game time and money researching, or feel that they are being left behind in power (versus the non-magical characters of other players) when compared with those with the same amount of time invested in the game .

Of course the expectations of play/fairness/balance/tedium also depend on the type of game.

Good discussion from all. I look forward to it continuing.
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Old 05-21-2009, 08:52 AM   #16
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Wow, lots of replies.

Having had some more time to ponder most of yesterday's replies, I got to thinking about some things in this thread. Namely, that I may be a bit harsh on the Forgotten Realms/D&D system in feeling like it has little personality simply because it's so prevalent. In other news, water is wet. :>

I also tried to think about what might make a magic system more interesting for me, personally. What I came up with is simple to say, harder to do: Create/examine the 'backstory' of magic in a theme. If a theme has multiple types of magic, it probably needs to be answered for each.

1) Where does magic come from? Internal? Faith? Demons? Technology? Mystical pink unicorn blood?
2) How does a character acquire the ability to use magic? Similar question, but different enough. Is it practice? Innate? Do certain deals or rituals need be done?
3) Does the 'source' of magic have an agenda? Divine sources might be 'providing' magic to influence the mortal realm, while 'innate' magic in and of itself doesn't have an agenda.

And so on.

Notably this doesn't discriminate against common or rare magic, or even how reliable it is?

If one thinks about it, even the Forgotten Realms magic types can answer these questions reasonably well (part of why I think I was being a bit harsh when I initially posted). Doesn't mean I find it exciting still, but I appreciate it a touch more.

Ultimately? We don't just let our characters be one dimensional, why do such an injustice to the magic in games?
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Old 05-24-2009, 07:42 AM   #17
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Great topic It's true that most magic in stories and games these days are just an equivalent of a gun. Even with old folk tales, saying "Open Sesame" and having a pathway open was considered amazing magic, today having such a thing in a story or game would be considered lame beyond belief.

The solution in my mind is to make magic thoroughly impossible. An example off the top of my head that can be contrasted with your usual "magic missile" or "fireball" stuff would be a magic attack called "bane signet" from guild wars (not a mud but bear with me). The bane signet hurts your opponent but only if they are attacking someone else, and it knows if they are engaged in attacking someone else or not because it's magic. As of right now at least, you can't get a similar effect with technology, therefore as magic it is cool in my opinion
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Old 05-26-2009, 09:30 AM   #18
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Hi guys,

I know not everybody shares my opinion, but here are my rouble 0.02:

For me, the only difference between magic and science is the direction of the time-scale: when the knowledge actively grows, it's science, when it's decaying, it's magic. Let me illustrate by example (note that I reversed the usual definitions of magic and technology):

My grandfather noticed that a certain incantation made his hands warmer. My father knew that incantation from childhood and later learned to cast the 'burning hands' spell. Working together, we found a more powerful variation, 'flame shroud'. My son invented a way to cast it over an area, here goes 'flame storm'. My grandson is a baby yet, he can't speak. Yet he sees what we do and learns. When he feels the room is not sufficiently warm, he lights a fire in the furnace with a gesture of an eyebrow. Surely, he is a talented boy, but even if he were not, we now know enough about fire to teach the tricks to any kid, and since the kids start where we've finished, they will certainly invent something new and exciting.

That's technology.

On the contrary,

My grandfather was an engineer on an FTL interstellar transport that brought us to this planet. My father still understood how the nuclear engines work. I still remember his explanation about magnetism and electricity, but I can't explain that to my son, who will have to live with a steam engine. It is rumoured that my grandfather left some books and notes in a hidden cache. Perhaps, a few generations later one of my descendants will be able to find them and learn to us some of the vast knowledge confined within.

That's magic.

Other than that, technilogy and magic are essentially interchangeable. The way most of use deal with a TV set (in real life!) is actually magic - I press a button, it starts showing me the film. How many of us can repair a TV or even explain in sufficient details how it works? On the other hand, if real magic comes to Earth today, the common research methodologies will be applied to it and in a few years all the incantations etc. will become a part of regular science as the appropriate physical laws (non-deterministic, if you wish - that doesn't really change anything) are formulated.

Back to the ogriginal theme, the magic-or-technology dualism shoudn't be a problem at all for a fantasy or an sf world. In either case a typical adventure is a quest; the adventurers may seek an ancient magic book in a lair of a nasty dragon, or they may look for a suitable place for some dangerous experiments that open the way to new exciting technologies, in either case it's "go ahead and explore". The success clearly depends on the skill of the storyteller and their ability to keep the interest of the reader rather than on mechanics of "Sesame, open".
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Old 06-23-2009, 06:03 AM   #19
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Magic has sometimes been described as an art or science, yes nasredin, but I would disagree with your opinion and say that both have the potential to go both forward and backwards, like any technology would once you add the human element to it, the element of forgetting.

Of course, dealing with an imaginative world, you would have to add in numerous variables to that human element, such as 'Do these humans have memories? Does it take conscience thought for them to inact magic, or do they just do it?'

Ideally, in a world of mine, magic would be indefineable. Now, this would probably lead to a low-magic world, but not nescessarily. If we make magic insane and uncontrollable, who's to say every average joe on the street couldn't, or wouldn't use it anyway to get what they want? That would certainly make a very dark, interesting, and completely insane world. Going beyond the point though...

The point being to discuss ways to make magic interesting, and as it has already been brought up I believe this subject should be pursued with both a high-magic and low-magic world in mind. That said, I personally think it all comes down to how you lay it out at the start, at it's base. Those questions above (which Sergeytov posted) would be a good start. The more original you make the answers to those questions, the more magic will be fantastic and interesting in your world. Probably. Maybe.

On the discussion of high and low magic themed worlds, I'm not surprised that in a discussion such as this that people would gravitate towards having magic be low-key. It's a bit easier to keep it interesting that way. Secret cults, blood rituals, and generally making magic a taboo would immediately spring to mind, but even that is slowly losing it's zing, for me at least.

(Edit) I forgot to talk about the aspect of playability that Mabus mentioned. I'll keep it short; if the journey towards getting this mystical magical power, whatever form it might take, was one that kept me occupied, perhaps on the edge of my seat even, I wouldn't mind the loss of grind time. Plus, if magic takes so and so more time to get than say, level 17 in swordsmanship, shouldn't magic be stronger?

Last edited by Leech : 06-23-2009 at 06:11 AM.
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Old 06-23-2009, 04:10 PM   #20
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Re: The Lost Cause of Magic

Magic feels magical not when it is rare or low key, but when it is diverse and invasive. Low key magic is often insidious (which is one way to be invasive) and represented as highly individual knacks or charms (which is one way to be diverse). But the obvious and overwhelming aura of fear surrounding Myrdraal or Nazghul also feels magical so long as it actually does threaten to overwhelm; it isn't low key, but it is invasive. If a little bit goes a long ways, then naturally a lot of it will get noticed. Rareness is also a red herring, however. If you have a world with only one magic user with only one magic spell -- throwing fireballs -- well, how dull is that? You might as well give him a flamethrower and a loose grip and eschew magic altogether. Diversity, on the other hand, pays compound interest. A world where half the people can start large fires and the other half can trigger explosions -- that's barely any more diversity than the one-fireball-wizard world, but it's dramatically more interesting. Good magic feels rare only because it is so diverse that you never encounter two characters using it the same way for the same purpose.

Of course, most muds pay lip service to the diversity and power of magic. The problem is that after brainstorming all these cool ideas, they throw them into a few pots called classes, skill trees, races, or whatever, or else the players throw them into a few pots called optimum tactics. As awful, the very few spells with good invasive quality (e.g., sleep/lullaby) tend to be time-out support for casting spells that are really just swords and spells by another name (or else support for spells that support such spells). If you're going to put me to sleep, then have the common decency of using me to lure would-be rescuers; and in the meantime, let me roleplay as one of them. There's nothing mechanically difficult about that. And spells like "shapeshifting" are reduced to commands for "equip me with armor, daggers, and d100s." Whatever happened to turning people into toads and mice as a form of duress? Whatever happened to shapeshifting as a means of terrorizing the land with your monstrous spawn? Ah, hell. End rant.

Last edited by Burrytar : 06-23-2009 at 04:21 PM.
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