Thursday, February 27, 2014

Magic Missilellaneous

What's the worst-conceived magic spell in fantasy games? Is it some pointless glamour spell which only turns your hat pink? Is it "summon gnat" or the dreaded Holy Tickling? As far as I can tell, the worst incarnation of magic is that old D&D staple, Magic Missile. That was the point, early on, where TSR may as well have said "we're not even gonna try" and whatever later attempts they made to make magic slightly more interesting have been hampered by the existence of that simplistic, all-purpose use of magic as ammunition.  We do occasionally see signs that game developers realize how ridiculous it is that the power to reshape reality mainly gets used to hit things, such as Heroes of Might and Magic's "magic fist" spell, but for the most part they feel obligated to copy D&D's basic pattern.

The problem with Magic Missile type spells is not only the fact that they do "some" damage. It is their universality, their reliability. Who wants to worry about debuffs, disables and resistances? Just missile whatever-it-is to death. They are faceless, nondescript and indistinguishable from hitting things with a stick, and once players are given access to that simplicity, they'll only demand more and more of it. Not only that, but as players begin to rely more on the all-purpose magic fist, developers feel less pressure to actually develop discrete abilities. Why bother fine-tuning the balance of resistances and immunities, why waste time giving players hints and surprises and making them carefully prepare for various challenges when you can equalize all options into irrelevance?
"Situational" is a dirty word.

I am concerned as usual with computer games, as I don't actually play tabletop games, and using D&D as an example because cRPG designers tend to take the easy route of copying its tropes. I'm sure the flexibility of a flesh-and-blood GM to make judgment calls can mitigate designers' lack of imagination, but while gamers decry cRPGs' automation as inherently promoting repetitive hack'n'slash, the problem is much more often just lazy design. In counterpoint I'd like to offer Trine, a charming, ingenious... platform game. Yes, in that ancient realm of three-button twitch, in a re-hashing of Prince-of-freakin-Persia, you'll find a reinterpretation of magic to put multimillion-dollar RPGs to shame: a wizard who, instead of shooting fireballs, alters the environment by summoning geometric shapes. Imagine an MMO in which wizards summon bridges across impassible terrain and wind-walk their allies over castle walls.

The problem comes largely from the love of min-maxing, from copying D&D's stat point system which places intelligence and wisdom on equal footing with strength and agility. Yes, in that world, one will inevitably also begin to equate and equalize the shooting of arrows with the shooting of magic arrows. 18 INT = 18 DEX? The point of magic however is that it warps reality, that it works by different rules than the physical world, and its manifestation in players' actions should reflect this. Magic should NOT be concerned with damage-dealing, with brute force missiles, with hitting things, but with abilities which more or less subtly alter the nature of gameplay. And yes, the fact that it does not is largely the fault of lazy, greedy designers cutting their development time.

Imagine for instance the indirect power one could wield in MMOs through one of the currently disregarded and discarded schools of magic, Divination. It implies not only remote viewing, spotting an advancing enemy army, but seeing the future paths of patrolling mobs, seeing the abilities and resistances of an enemy player, predicting the course of world-altering events... maybe seeing when the server's going to crash? One can only hope.
Or how about Altering a player's density so that he barrels everything aside as he moves but also finds his momentum sling-shotting him off cliffs? Or Necromantically rotting a vampire's flesh to force it to feed more often? Or Enchanting another player into shaking and twitching, making him evade attacks but hampering his own accuracy? Or desiccating a catapult to make it easier to burn? Or maybe summoning a dead ally's ghost to try to possess an enemy? Or changing someone into a (giant) toad with toad-like jumping ability and an immobilizing sticky tongue attack?
Or really, anything more than mindlessly hitting things over the head (with magic!)

And don't give me that ridiculous old dodge about balance. Oh, we can't give magicians special abilities because they already do as much damage as rangers and rogues. Yeah... why is it YOU made spellcasters into staff-wielding rangers and rogues in the first place, you overpaid troglodytes?

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