Making Ars Magica a little bit more like Mage – by weakening niche protection

I never got to see any kind of Mage chronicle that involved detailed rules about large amounts of Tass. When I was a Storyteller, I ran some games where Mage NPCs had large amounts of Tass, but I never managed to get the players involved with Tass management.

By contrast, in Ars Magica, there are fifteen kinds of raw Vis. (Mage Revised has Resonance for Quintessence, but Ars Magica had it years earlier.)

Ars Magica sometimes requires more than two scores, with one as a requisite, but so far as I can tell, Ars Magica has no way to allow casting two different spells, with different verbs and different nouns, at the same time. Mage, by contrast, allows various sorts of “conjunctions”; a Mage effect can have a Prime 2 effect fueling a Matter 3 effect while a Correspondence 2 effect channels information to a Mind 1 effect, and the whole thing is Matter 3 Prime 2 Corr 2 Mind 1.

A great deal of the complexity of Mage effects would become available in Ars Magica if Ars Magica spells could use more than one verb and more than one noun in the same spell. Suppose you have skill 10 in Verb 1 and skill 15 in Verb 2 and skill 5 in Noun 1 and skill 10 in Noun 2. Your basic Verb 1 + Noun 1 total is 15; your basic Verb 2 + Noun 2 total is 25. If the wizard just has to add all his totals together, his skills get higher as his magic incorporates more elements; 15+25=40. It would be just as easy to cast a level 40 spell with two verbs and two nouns as it would be to cast either single spell.

Another approach would be to condense Creo, Perdo, Muto, Intellego, and Rego into a single skill – call it Ago for “I do.” In that system, one would need to have a total of Ago and Noun adequate to the requirements of the spell. This would weaken niche protection, of course.

For historical reasons, TRPGs tend to feature extensive niche protection. Most TRPGs are designed with the idea that four players should sit down with the GM and each player should pick a class that is good at one specialty but bad at the others. Thus in D&D you get Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, Thief. In Mage, you get nine spheres, with enough weird exploits to ensure that a group of four players can select different spheres and use different gimmicks in play. In Ars Magica, you could easily design a group of five specialists, one for each of the verbs.

However, if there is just one magic skill (not unlike GURPS Magery) then the game balance of Ars Magica is thrown way off. For example, Ars Magica normally uses the notion of spell penetration, which is very annoying when a starting Creo Ignem specialist tries to throw a Level 25 fireball at (e.g.) a faerie with a faerie might of 20. The roll might be good enough to cast the spell without fatigue, but not good enough to get past the faerie’s might. On the other hand, the specialist might either have a specialized spell penetration skill, or else the insight to cast a Level 5 Creo Ignem spell. The faerie would probably be vanquished by the level 5 spell, since the casting total would provide spell penetration. It’s not a terribly elegant system – but then again, I can’t think of any detailed TRPG that really deserves to be called elegant.


How Can Paradox Become More Deterministic? Give Stats For Axioms

Torg was a game that gave stats for axioms, and some gamers have suggested that it influenced Mage.

The thing about Torg was that it didn’t just assume that the referee would be able to hand-wave a judgement about what a character believed – beliefs were determined according to numerical values in a certain vector. Belief can be calculated.

If I ever run Mage again, I suppose I will have to hand-wave Paradox again. However, if I homebrew an entirely new system, axiom violations could be done on the Torg system rather than the Mage system. The “spheres” would be more fundamental than the “paradigms,” but in any event, it would be necessary to have some automatic logic calculator to determine the propositions in play.

If the new game also has three spheres instead of nine, or an Ars-Magica-style verb-noun system, it will be quite different from Mage. (It would be straightforward to use the three “spheres” to classify the verbs and nouns in a GURPS Thaumatology style, and then the characters could be built with GURPS rather than with White Wolf rules.)

Game rules as Sandbox – player actions should trigger automatic generation of consequences from simulated laws is a free sandbox simulator that deals with physical laws. You could throw various elements into this program, and it guarantees that it will interpret them consistently according to the logic that it derives from physics.

This sort of program has been around on the entertainment market for many years.

Obviously, simulation games go back to military war-games and the commercial war-games that followed them. Any game that claims to deal with war necessarily has an element of grim simulationism; TRPGs are free to be much more whimsical because they claim to be about “adventure” rather than war. TRPGs also draw on whimsical fiction and drama, such as the LARPing of the Bronte sisters and the Society for Creative Anachronism – both of which predate TRPGs. (Of course, because of Gygax’s legal feud with Arneson, gamers have a distorted notion of history and some of them seem to think that Gygax invented all role-play more structured than cowboys-and-indians.)

Military wargames do not encourage whimsy. If a military wargame referee makes a nonsensical, illogical judgement, he might be in serious dereliction of duty, or he might be inflicting pointless cruelty on subordinates, but doing so within the limits of military decorum. In either event, he cannot be said to be playful. (Some Japanese war-games had “gods of death” who killed soldiers meaninglessly. This was meant to be cruel for a meaningful purpose. It was meant to teach the soldiers that in war, good men die for no good reason.)

A soldier who participates in a war-game is training for his primary purpose – to kill effectively in a real battle. The soldier doesn’t have to enjoy the war-game any more than any worker has to enjoy his work – he just has to function correctly. He has to play the role of a dutiful soldier; no emotions are required; logic is considered to be useful – unless it threatens the authority of command. Commanders have authority – but they also have responsibility. Commanders do not openly curry favor with their troops. Favoritism is discouraged.

TRPGs, by contrast, are much easier and less stressful than real military war-games, but they introduce some new demands. Participants can demand that players “enter into the spirit of the game” and “help the other players to have fun.” These demands are often indirect suggestions that logic should be abandoned. TRPGs have a nebulous sense of authority – usually the GM has more than the players – and very little responsibility. GMs openly curry favor with their players. Favoritism is rampant.

The issue is that military war-games, much like Algodoo, function as sandboxes. The physics sandbox is defined by committed rules of physics. The military sandbox is defined by committed rules of strategy. The referee of a wargame is teaching military strategy to his players, just as the programmer of a physics sandbox is teaching physics to his players. The military wargame designer can articulate his theories of strategy just as the physics game programmer can articulate his theories of physics.

A typical TRPG, by contrast, is not a functioning sandbox for any committed theory. It is an “open world game” where the laws of physics can change if the GM so desires. This game experience is usually inconsistent because the GM has never articulated what the theories governing the game world might be.

Gygax set the standards for many aspects of TRPGs. Gygax believed that DMs should fake dice rolls behind the screen, and that DMs should trick the players, but Gygax also believed that DMs should prepare actual clues. Gygax encouraged giving the players 99 opportunities to screw up and 1 obscure possibility to get it right. Gygax wanted the players to fumble around with guesswork until they happened to guess the possibility that Gygax had committed to as true in the game world. Gygax planned out a secret map of the landmines in his dungeons and waited to see if the player characters would step on them. If the player tested a location with a land mine without stepping on it, Gygax would give him a fair chance to disarm the land mine.

Unfortunately, most GMs who came after Gygax took a much easier route; they didn’t prepare any real clues – they just allowed the players to fumble around with guesswork until one of the player’s guesses sounded like a good idea. This system is very easy for the GM, because nothing is committed when play starts. Anything might turn out to be true in the game world, if the GM wants it to be true at any given moment.

The problem, of course, is that this kind of lazy GM work leads to highly inconsistent game worlds, and rather than remembering a set of land mines and giving the players chances to disarm them, the GM merely decides that the players will disarm mines if he feel like it, or step on undetected mines if he feels like it. It is no longer a game of preparation and random dice rolls; it becomes a game of whim.

The very first dungeon crawls – run by Arneson – seem to have been heavily governed by whim and malice. The first dungeons were much like the “Temple of the Frog” – i.e. lots of inconsistent magic items such as bags of holding, lots of incompatible monsters like a ravenous dragon in a 20-by-20 room with no food supply, surrounded by animated statues and green slimes. The whimsical style doesn’t stand up to examination, but that was initially okay because no one who had access to the games was in any mood to think logically. Gygax initially introduced minimal rules with a lot of room for improvisation, and then refined the game into AD&D, which attempted to return to the simulationist perspective that wargames had used for centuries. With increased simulationism, the dungeons began to show some attempts at internal consistency.

I had originally thought that a major purpose of Mage was to allow a similar kind of sandbox for paradigm speculations. For some groups, maybe that was true. For other groups, the purpose of Mage was to compete on how quickly one’s explanations of magic could please the group. Note that this works very badly when the explanations depend on formal education and the group of gamers has extremely uneven educational backgrounds.

A major difference between a group of undereducated gamers and a sandbox physics engine is that the sandbox physics engine is considerably more patient with attempts at scientific explanation.

If you have someone with a graduate degree in Physics attempting to explain his Mage paradigm to a college drop-out and an innumerate English major, you’re going to have a challenging time. Mage works badly when the listeners dismiss the explanations out of hand.

A key weakness of White Wolf games is that they always allow some listener or listeners to dismiss player logically consistent, syntactically correct input – if that input fails to delight English majors. A key strength of computers is that they are patient enough to accept logically structured, syntactically correct input even if it does not delight English majors.

It is definitely true that White Wolf wanted to start out with certain secrets and then reveal some of those secrets in books. That makes perfect sense; White Wolf made its revenues by selling books. Whether those books contained metaplot secrets or rule secrets did not matter to the revenue.

I don’t think the White Wolf designers wanted to formulate clearly defined rules and then keep those rules secret. I think they wanted to avoid formulating clear rules in the first place, and then deflect questions as much as possible. For example, White Wolf often deflected questions about rules into issues of player character in-game knowledge versus player meta-game knowledge. In many chronicles, it seemed as though the Storyteller was doing everything possible to withhold information from players, as if withholding information was an Olympic sport and the Storyteller was trying to train as an Olympic competitor. The pretense collapsed every so often (e.g. Sam Haight), but White Wolf always picked itself up and kept going – until it was bought by CCP.

White Wolf managed to stimulate a huge number of writers to create commercial entertainment in a shared fictional space. They deserve credit for that. That does not mean that their approach was ideal for tabletop role-playing.

Many tabletop gamers will say – “Hey, these are games, don’t take them seriously or try to make them logical.” If games are not allowed to be logical, then we need a new word to describe software like Algodoo.

A more reasonable objection is that while computer games can include logical calculations, tabletop games must minimize math, because math is hard and Rolemaster is unpopular. I have no objection to designing games that get played somewhere other than the tabletop. World of Warcraft has many players, and makes more profit than Dungeons & Dragons. If my game designs end up getting used in some online game, I will consider them to be successful as games.

All of the above is very easy in principle. The hard part, of course, is programming a decent sandbox simulation of any kind, and finding gamers who are willing to playtest it.

Five Spheres Instead of Nine – or even Three Spheres Instead of Nine

I believe Mage: the Awakening has ten Spheres – I believe they have split Entropy into Fate and Death. A more sensible alternative, to my mind, is just to condense the nine spheres down to five. I would not be surprised if the original analysis – back before 1993 – began with five spheres (possibly working from Ars Magica, or from various New Age pentagram ideas) and attempted to split them up just to add obscurity to the system.

Considering the lists of effects from the previous post, here is a much-condensed list of alternate Spheres:
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Ars Magica effects that got recycled, with and without meaningful rule connections

Opening the Intangible Tunnel is a Rego Vim spell from p. 234 of 3rd edition Ars Magica. It uses an “arcane connection” – e.g. a lock of the target’s hair – to open up a magical tunnel that allows the casting of spells on the target.

This kind of effect can be replaced with Correspondence effects in Mage.

Hermes’ Portal is a level 75 Rego Terram spell, which creates a permanent teleport gate. The same name, Hermes’ Portal, is used on p. 186 of Mage 1st Edition.

Black Whisper is a level 30 Perdo Mentem spell which duplicates Entropy 5, allowing destruction of a mind with words.

Ball of Abysmal Flame was a level 30 Creo Ignem spell before it became one of the first Mage rotes.

The Seven League Stride was a level 35 Rego Corporem spell before it became the most famous Correspondence 3 effect, on p. 185 of Mage 1st edition.

Most spells do not match up exactly with their later adaptations. For example, Intellego Mentem has the level 30 spell Peering into the Mortal Mind and Muto Mentem has the Level 20 spell Recollections of Memories Never Quite Lived, which allows changing memories. Both Vampire and Mage had various similar effects.

It is also interesting to compare Invisibility of the Standing Wizard – a Level 15 Perdo Imagonem spell – to the first dot of Obfuscate in Vampire: the Masquerade.