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Author Topic: Magic & the Metagame  (Read 5763 times)
contracycle
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« on: July 05, 2002, 03:35:58 AM »

We've been discussing the metagame fairly extensively of light, and from time to time we have also touched on some of the hardy perennials of FRPG, what makes a good/mysterious/flexible/magical magicsystem.  I'd like to suggest that these questions be examined again specifically from the perspective of the metagame; can we build better magic systems by operating in the metagame rather than the game  exclusively?

This line of thought has also been brought on by the discussion of equipment brought into play via metagame systems - can something similar be established for magic?  It seems to me, that of all subsystems in FRPG, magic is the most "receptive" to metagame intervention because, in a way, it is the action of the game worlds metaworld.

Magic, then, is direct intervention by the player rather than the character.  It seems to me that it corresponds with authorialism and directorialism, or at least can do so.  Any thoughts?
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contracycle
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« Reply #1 on: July 05, 2002, 03:36:55 AM »

Part of what provoked this line of though was seeing Ian Youngs excellent proposal for prophecy on rpg.net, which I copy below:

Quote

The system goes roughly like this. Buy yourself a pack of tarot cards. I suggest tarot cards because each card is assigned a divinatory meaning, and there are plenty of interpretive guides out there for you and your players to look them up (in fact, many, if not most, decks come with a little booklet these days -- U.S. Games is pretty good about that). Now, when your player either makes a prophesy, or seeks one from an oracle or soothsayer or whatever, shuffle the tarot deck and deal the player, say, three cards (though you may deal out as many as you wish), noting the specific order in which they were dealt. During subsequent play, should the player reasonably interpret the ongoing situation as matching the divinatory meaning of the first card, he may play that card and dictate the resolution of the situation -- in essence, he receives editing privileges for that specific instance. He does the same for the second card, and then the third, thereby fulfilling the prophesy.

The benefits of this system is that it takes the heat off the GM to create and manipulate "the future", it neatly deflects accusations of railroading, and it motivates the player himself to seek out the situations implied by the cards as he can control the situation. About the only real problem that I haven't been able to work out is how to encourage players to play a prophesy to their disadvantage ("Gee...should I interpret this Death card as my own character's death?"), but perhaps that can be overcome by the GM improvising further upon the player's fiat.
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Le Joueur
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« Reply #2 on: July 05, 2002, 07:13:43 AM »

Hey, Contracycle, good article.

Quote from: contracycle
...touched on some of the hardy perennials of FRPG, what makes a good/mysterious/flexible/magical magic-system.

...can we build better magic systems by operating in the metagame rather than the game exclusively?

...discussion of equipment brought into play via metagame systems - can something similar be established for magic?

Magic, then, is direct intervention by the player rather than the character.

...Any thoughts?

Three things come to mind, and while separate, they make a direct answer to this proposition iffy at best.

First, I think it important that we talk about goals.  What makes a magic system "good" may not be what makes it "mysterious" because some people don't like unpredictability or chaos; the same goes for "good" and "magical" systems.  What makes one person favor a "flexible" system, might make another say that it isn't "mysterious" or "magical" enough.  Likewise, the 'sense of wonder' implicit in a "magical" system may not be "good" in other people's eyes.  I certainly don't think that "flexible" is inherently "good."  Ultimately, it's also apparent that these may not be the best ways to characterize the types of magic systems seen so far, especially because "mysterious" may not be the same as 'unpredictable' and "magical" may not be the 'sense of wonderment.'

Creating a magic system to aim for these (or any other goals) is quite doable, but I'd argue, outside of luck, it can't be done well unconsciously.  What I am suggesting is looking at a list like the above (or larger) and choosing what you want your magic system to do.  What I don't think works is trying to please everyone.  For us, we wanted to give the people playing an opportunity to invoke a 'sense of wonder' without sacrificing the impartiality of a more rigid and flexible system.  Since we couldn't imagine how to create a systemic "mysterious" or "magical" magic, we decided to leave that to the imagination of the participants.  (Arguably this is where the 'sense of wonder' or 'sense of mystery' arises from anyway; I think it's in 'how inspiring' it is.)  Not a game for everyone, our results are.

Likewise, I'm not sure that a magic system could be "exclusively" meta-game.  Don't the characters have anything to do with it?  Like the title of this post, I think both magic and meta-game have their place.  I'm not completely familiar with White Wolf's magic system from Mage, but if memory serves the characters sling their magic in accords with the school of philosophy and then the players sit around figuring out what spheres and how much arete [sp] it takes; that's magic for the character and meta-game for the player.  In ways, having to describe the result after the fact always sounded slightly FitM (Fortune in the Middle) and MoV (Monologue of Victory) to me.

Looking at it in those terms, you see what we were striving for too.  Scattershot's magic system (actually all of its systems) are 'results-based.'  That means 'what is affected' and 'how much happens' are very system-dependant, but 'how it happens' and 'the way it winds up' are completely left to the imagination of the person whose character performs the 'magic.'  That's how we offer 'sense of wonder' for those who value it without trampling on the impartiality for those how value that.  I find FitM 'with teeth' and quasi-MoV is the best way I can think to bring 'meta-game' into the 'magic system.'

Now, one other thing that I think you might be questioning here is 'purchasing' magic something like Mike was talking about with 'purchasing efficacy' as equipment with meta-game resources.  That somewhat suggests an approach to system design itself; spelling out a character's efficacy clearly and explicitly (either prior to the game, generating a character; or during the game, 'buying' the effects).  Some people prefer a more 'fast and loose' approach; not being one of those people, I can't say how to do that satisfactorially.

Now the way Scattershot does this is by either a basis of 'how much may be affected' or simply one subject and defining the extent of the effect either by having it be straight-forward 'what the magic is supposed to do' or a basis of the 'quantity of effect.'  All of this is 'soft' and can be manipulated on both ends using a 'FitM with teeth' mechanic.  The quality and explicitness of the action that is between 'subject selection' and the 'result of the effect,' is entirely up to the players.  (Some text will be offered to help direct early attempts at "mysterious" and "magical.")

I'm curious to see how other people resolve this same situation.

Fang Langford
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Jack Spencer Jr
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« Reply #3 on: July 05, 2002, 10:01:15 AM »

To me, magic in fiction or in film has basically two uses:

cool special effects. The "wow" factor which gets old pretty fast. If you don't know what I mean, go watch an old sci-fi movie like, say, Forbidden Planet and look at all the time they spend marveling at the "alien technology" which is bloody primative by today's standards.

Deus Ex Machina. At just the right time, the wizard pulls out a fireball and kills the ogre or whatever.

So, if you're looking for something like this, it could be done but how to do it depends very heavily on the rest of the game and how it works.
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contracycle
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« Reply #4 on: July 05, 2002, 01:11:01 PM »

Well, some further thoughts that have been fermenting.  Heres an idea for a metagame device/game/prop for a "historic" medieval setting with dante-esque colour and partially inspired by senet.

The GM (or someone) has a board on which everyones destiny in heaven, hell or purgatory is pegged.  Sinful behaviour is monitored in real game time and by fiat - god being ineffable and all.  The peg shows the characters current destiny, if they keep up doing what they're doing - as they do evil or good, their peg moves to reflect their lot in the afterlife.

The board is graphics heavy with lurid depictions of hellish torment and divine rapture and/or dark-eyed houris (for the crusades variant).  But - the players are not allowed to see their peg on the board unless they are a priest (and possibly magician).  If the GM/god feels like, characters could have visions of their current peg on the board, especially if torment is presently in store.  

Players will hopefully find the prospect of being consigned to hell worrisome, and work to be good, or aspire to be hells angels, it doesn't really matter.  The point is just to get them engaged with the board, which perversely means they need to be able to see where they are on the board.  Which they can't unless they are a priest.  What they can do is have a priest on hand to tell them where they are currently pegged; if they make their confession to the priest, he can report on their present status.  If at least one of the players has a character who is a priest (or has the Sight, whatever, flavour to taste) the whole group gets to the see the pegs on the board, but this remains OOC information.  The pegs are made visible partly because priests really can see everyones spiritual destiny, and partly becuase subtle cues (mcguffin) from a knowing priest give their associates a ballpark of the priests opinion of everyones pegging.  (the character is only allowed to know through confession)

However, if you were say cast into the dungeons of the infidel and denied access to confession and priestly advice, your peg is removed and kept privately by the GM or whoever.  (hmm - in fact maybe the players of priests can be made responsible for this board handling function).  Now the worry of not being able to confirm your actions sets in - you cant be sure if your do goodernesss is working or not, or whether you are being a sufficiently bad badass to meet your infernal ambitions.  This I hope would work to apply a strong encouragement to priest characters or associations with priestly NPC's, in other words with the metaphysical and moral structure of the game world.  If necessary, further incentive could be provided by applying system modifiers to actions at various levels.

The dynamic I would hope to see from this is one in which at least one priest will by default appear in the group, and that character will have an explicit priestly function to perform, rather than any sort of toolkit.  The visibility of the board gives it immediate presence, and vigorous scoring by the GM should prompt a response sooner or later.  Hopefully also, this will prompt in character play directly and automatically between two players.  None of this particularly mandates moral behaviour, though, as there is nothing to prevent anyone turning to the dark side nor any particular reason to do so.  Evil wannabes can hang out with witches and demons who keep them informed as to their souls progress... and maybe they offer a vision of a different board (false, of course).  Players will choose where they want their character to be on the board and work toward that goal, while the GM's (or maybe priests) fiat serves as an intermittent reward system.  Moral conduct should thereby become an inherent component of actual play.

Alternatives:
Herowars approach: everyone has their own board
Multicultural approach: each culture has their own board
Holy war approach: good guys and bad guys each have a board, on true and one false

Possibilites: port to prestige, rank, wealth, enlightenment, glory?

Any thoughts?
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contracycle
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« Reply #5 on: July 05, 2002, 01:56:52 PM »

Oh no.  I had a another big post and accidentally cleared it.  wail, gnash.  Instead I'll think about it and flesh it out.
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contracycle
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« Reply #6 on: July 11, 2002, 05:44:59 AM »

Idea 2: Return to the Kap

The Kap was discussed a while back as a possible PC "spawn" in a Mythic Egypt setting.  The kap was a college for aristo youth, and this might be an interesting place for a game located directly in the centre of the egyptian state.

So how about this as a model of "what do we do".  Establish a prophecy that a mighty Pharaoh will emerge from this generation of kap members; there is heavy foreshadowing, much like the non linear time ideas.  The narration begins post facto, describing the historic achievements of the Pharoah, but carefully ommitting a specific name.  The players, then, have a relationship at a gamist level to determine which of them will become the prophesied Pharoah.  Players can award points to each others characters but not to their own; each player has one point per session.  The players are effecting the choice of which of their characters becomes the mighty Pharoah in later life.  Play continues until a threshold is reached (say 100 points) for the Youth game, with time being called when the Pharoah-to-be is identified.  Aletrantively, that could be the opening segment in a longer game which ends after the Pharaoh fulfills the prophecy, at the end of the life of the Pharoah.  In a very real sense, the Pharoah character is the lead and the others are supporting cast.  However, thats not necessarily a problem, because the characters will be driving a lot of horizontal interaction.  In the kap phase of the game, there may be a lot of covert plotting and whatnot and attempts at one upmanship among conmpetition-oriented players.  Alternatively, they may choose not to compete as soon as a clear leader emnerges and instead come to an accomodation as the layer of family, friends aquaintances and hench-people around the new pharoah.  Play then ends at or soon after the death of the Oharoah - perhaps the other characters get to do a "bury-not-praise" speech or something afterwards, but essentially the game is bounded by the Pharoahs life.
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contracycle
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« Reply #7 on: July 11, 2002, 05:48:46 AM »

In both these cases, the attempt is to provoke certain player behaviour by generating metagame relationships, goals and an understanding of the focus of the game.  The magic cladding serves mostly to blur the transistion from metagame to game of motives and information.  In both cases, magic has a structural function rather than a utilitarian function.
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contracycle
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« Reply #8 on: July 21, 2002, 11:59:13 PM »

Another thought on a somewhat related example, that of Fred the Deadly Ninja, which emerged from a conversation with a friend over the weekend.

Lots of characters are motivated by the enmity of others; being Hunted has always been fairly comfortable.  These sorts of things are generally written in much the same form as other backgrounds, merits or flaws.  Although the character is in large part defined by being pursued by Fred the Deadly Ninja, Fred must necessarily be something of a paper tiger.  If Fred enters the stpory too soon, the characters hook gets resolved; if too late or never, the whole exercise was pointless (q.v. A-Team above).

Arguably, this would be better down with something like Vamp's humanity score - a countdown that indicates how hot on the characters trail Fred the Deadly Ninja is.  This can be out-of-game information intended to motivate the player; should the pursuit rating ever reach 0, Fred the Deadly Ninja turns up and takes their heart away in a baggie.

Fred is not "opposition"; he is not a mook, he is a Threat.
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