Saturday, November 8, 2014

Advanced Magic

The advanced magic chapter of Spheres of Power is almost done (or as done as it needs to be, given that new samples and some adjustments to the rules still need to  be made before publication) and I wanted to take some time to answer the question of why.

Why did we set things up this way, with magic divided into basic and advanced categories? Why is advanced magic listed as 'optional rules', when everything contained therein is already possible in the core Pathfinder magic system? I wanted to take some time to answer these questions properly, as they not only get into how SoP is used at the table, but also the whole design philosophy behind our work with Spheres of Power itself.

Many people have discussed at length "Story-driven" vs "Mechanics-driven" RPGs, but for our purposes I want to discuss another, similar-yet-ultimately-different divide: "GM-driven" vs "Designer-driven".

Perhaps the best single illustration of this concept is high-level play. When players have reached a high enough level that certain magic becomes available (Raise Dead, Teleport, Scrying, etc.), parties who have this magic play the game very differently than parties who don't. This is why high-level play is so difficult to balance, as it becomes almost impossible to guess what the party does or does not have at their disposal, and one of two things usually happens: everyone sticks to the rules (and often complains about how broken the game is at high levels), or the GM must improvise, customizing the encounters depending on the party and story in question to keep things interesting for everyone.

In the early days of the hobby, rules were light, and houserules were common. There were so many areas the rules simply didn't cover that DM improvisation was, in fact, often a necessity, so much so that the game might be completely different from one table to the other. One one hand, this made things annoying as each table meant learning a new list of houserules. On the other hand, this gave GMs both ability and permission to create whatever game or setting they wanted; it wasn't hard to write new rules if they wanted a world that, for instance, didn't have an arcane/divine disparity.

Then came 3rd edition, and everything changed. Through a strict codification and expansion of rules, the need for houserules could be lessened, and play could be standardized across tables. In many ways this was a blessing; players could move from table to table without having to re-learn the game, and things like organized play became possible. On the other hand, this also made things harder for GMs looking to go their own direction. The base-assumption of the game leaned so far against GM-driven mechanics that many players saw even the slightest breach of the wealth-by-level guidelines as some sort of betrayal of the social contract. Those GMs who wanted to houserule a unique setting or style of game also found themselves needing to re-write pages and pages of pre-existing rules.

Being a continuation of 3rd edition, Pathfinder falls squarely in the second category. However, as 3rd party developers (like myself) fall outside the official Pathfinder way of doing things, that places us, by definition, in the 1st category. Our job isn't to tell players how the game IS played, but to give them aids when contemplating how it MIGHT be played. We design for the players who are tired of Scry and Fry high-level tactics, or for the GMs who want to try a different kind of world than that which core Pathfinder infers. As such, while virtually anything possible through the core Pathfinder magic system is also possible through the SoP system, we decided to make no assumptions on our part as to how GMs would implement it.

In this fashion, the divide between basic magic and optional, advanced magic becomes an important change in mindset for both players and GMs. Instead of making GMs remove options they didn't want in their world, they can include the ones that fit. Players are completely at liberty to create scry and fry experts or use other game-changing tactics, but they must ask GM permission first instead of assuming that, since its in the rules, it will work for the style of game they are playing.

Perhaps this sort of thinking isn't new to you and your table, but all too often I've found it is. People get so caught up in how the game should or shouldn't be played that they forget how much freedom a tabletop RPG offers. We wanted SoP to be the toolkit for those who want more control over how their story is told, and are looking specifically for something they're not getting through the default assumptions of the Pathfinder roleplaying game.

Or at least that's our reasoning. What I'm most looking forward to after launch is seeing just how people end up using these tools we're making, and what they create as a result of them.

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