The RPG Mage vs. the Literary Mage

Some people like the idea of being a mage in a game because they want to be Gandalf, Merlin, or any number of horrible fantasy pulp wizards that come to mind.  However, they ignore the literary role of the wizard in these books (except for the really horrible ones).  Gandalf used magic maybe a total of what, 4 times during Lord of the Rings?  Merlin barely used any at all in any iteration of the Arthur legends.  They did not run around tossing fireballs at everything that came their way.

The literary mage is often more plot device than protagonist.  There are a tiny handful of them in the world, and although everyone somehow knows that wizards are insanely powerful and are not good targets for a random mugging, the wizards don’t just run out and take over the world with their powers.  Generally, the literary wizard is a source of bizarre arcane knowledge, moral and ethical guidance, and the occasional ass-saving spell.  Yet because of the Grandfather Clause of Stupidity and the lack of imagination on the part of the average gamer, almost all player character RPG mages are just fighters in different clothing, using magic missiles instead of arrows, warding spells instead of armor, and summoned daemons instead of hired mercenaries.  Ho hum.

The literary mage, unfortunately, is not a very good model for any but the most hard-core roleplayer to choose as an avatar.  People have ever-shortening attention spans, and are not entranced by the idea of subscribing to a game so that their wizard can spend all his time in the library.  Given the fact that most so-called computer RPG’s are almost entirely about killing things, they want to be out there killing things.  They also don’t want to hang around with a party of fighters who do all the killing, providing motherly ethical advice all the time and firing off one spell every week.  In order to cater to this class of mage player, computer RPG developers (and pen and paper RPG writers) have turned the mage from a bizarre mystical figure full of arcane wisdom to a lightning-lobbing siege engine.

Unfortunately, due to the precedent set by all RPG’s since the original Dungeons and Dragons, this is what everyone expects from the mage.  They want to be more powerful than everyone else on the planet, of course, but they conveniently forget that literary mages have strange restrictions placed on them.  They remember, for instance, that Gandalf can kill a mighty Balron single-handedly, but they ignore the fact that he was not allowed to harm lesser creatures like goblins, who were part of the "natural order."  They remember that Merlin was the secret power behind the throne of Camelot, but they forget that he really didn’t do all that much aside from facilitating destiny (furthering the plot).  Wanting every possible advantage and none of the drawbacks of a character type is part and parcel for the typical gamer, even more so for the computer gamer, since the computer is an abysmal tool for any concern outside powerleveling.  The result is the cookie cutter generic mage, the character that people will play if fireballs do more damage than arrows.

Is there any way to return the mage to his literary role in an MMORPG setting?  probably not at first glance.  The only ways to make the MMORPG mage more akin to the sagelike literary mage are:

  • Make all mages NPC plot devices, no player mages.
  • Impose insane restrictions on player mages, in which case nobody will want to play them.

There are some middle roads as well, but they also fail to be satisfactory to the typical fast food gamer mentality:

  • Assign penalties to the use of any sort of major magic, as in paradox points a la White Wolf’s unplayable Mage pen and paper system
  • Increase the need for lore and people who can research it, which is rendered useless by people who simply make "mage mules" to find out information that then gets posted on a message board
  • Use the "like affects like" system utilized by some fantasy novelists, dictating that magical powers are only truly effective against magical entities

The last point may seem like it has some viability, but in practice it fails horribly.  Using like affects like, a mage would be able to comfortably beat monsters with magical abilities, but would not do very well against, say, a mundane barbarian.  The problem is that the no-magic fighter is better than the mage against primarily magical opponents because he himself isn’t affected by magic as strongly!  You can try to tweak this a lot to make it work, but the best case scenario effectively segregates your world’s hunting areas, i.e. mages go here, fighters go here, and now your world is effectively smaller for all players.  This also tends to lead to bad loot situations where a fighter may be well-suited to go through a small pack of goblins, but the daemon the mage is killing is going to have the cool loot.

In conclusion, unless you completely rule out player character mages in any uncontrolled environment like an MMORPG, you will never approach an analogue to a heroic myth mage.  The only thing you can do is try to limit player accessibility to magical powers and then work on balancing the class types, so at least the mages will be relatively uncommon.

12 Responses to “The RPG Mage vs. the Literary Mage”
  1. A major difference between Literary Mages and RPG Mages that could be explored better is the types of magic they cast. Literary mages use clairvoyance to find the lost sword or curse their enemies from afar. RPG mages are defined in a very narrow technological fashion. No matter what the game system, an RPG mage always has the same spell list”

    Pistol Spell (aka magic missile, Flamin Arrow)
    Sniper rifle Spell (aka Lightning)
    Rocket Launcher Spell (aka Fireball, Stinig cloud)
    Armor Spell(aka Armor, Shield)
    Laser sight Spell (aka Accuracy)
    Armor piercing Spell (aka Vulnerability)

    Why not try to create a magic system that does something other than replicate the abilities of the other classes?

  2. Maugris is a magician from old medieval poems and saga.
    The Gandalf from Tolkien is just a copy of it, complete with the magical “lord of horses” and the fight sword in hand against a demon in a volcano.

    Maugris was funnily really near the magicians as they are played. It was a sneaky bastard (“oh, the shinny treasure in the church… Let’s make all the priest sleep and steel it”), an adventurer really, really good at fight (he can probably lay waste of all the jedi combined), and using at full the magic like it was seen at the era.

    I see a modern Maugris casting Magic Missiles in multicolors…

  3. One could attempt to tie mage levels to accomplishments rather than xp. There is of course the skill based games such as the Elder Scrolls series, but I mean beyond this. If we want to “simulate” a lot of “study” time, there should be a number of quests at lower levels that allow the mage to “learn” something about mage craft. If a god like element controlling wizard is desired in the game, make them near useless at low levels. Not just in terms of survivability, but rather have nothing but support spells until much higher levels. Make their low levels tied to go-fer quests and make them worthy of it. Perhaps, before a mage can summon an animal companion make him spend skill points/time/whatever on learning how to tame “real” animals in the wilderness. An NPC mage could assign the player to return with upwards of 50 different natural beasts each getting more and more difficult to tame during the character’s training. Once the player could sufficiently “control” a real animal, the NPC would then “train” the player in the summon animal spell. If we follow this through to its logical conclusion, it might be quite dangerous to learn a summon “outsider” or demon spell having to go tame them first and living to tell about it. But maybe he can convince a party to protect him while he goes in to learn his craft. After all, they will later be taking advantage of the mage’s spells later. If each spell was not given based on a set number of kills, but rather had a spell quest attached to it, each mage could also be individualized. Perhaps you could limit the number of spells learned at each “circle” to 3-4 that would also be the trigger to level up the mage allowing study at the next level. If there were 10-15 useful spells at each circle, but allow each mage to only learn three to six of them, you could have mage specialties and encourage replayability. It can also be a reason to have more than one mage per party as maybe one focused on fire and electric elemental damages while the other focused on cold and necromatic powers. Since each mage didn’t own ALL the spells available it could serve as a power limiting feature. While both might do rather well against undead opponents as necromancery and fire may both have spells that sufficiently harm or hinder undead, the fire mage may be less than useful against dragons as they are almost guaranteed to be fire immune(at least some of them any way). Perhaps, the elemental mage mentioned above takes a back seat as a direct damager and instead focuses on fire-suppression spells instead while the cold mage can take over the artillery duty.

    In the Feist series one of the characters asked why a mage didn’t just come in and stop the invading army by throwing up magic. He said something on the order of, one mage casts a spell and the other side’s mage counters it. A third mage comes to the first’s aid while a fourth to the second. Meanwhile, all of them get chopped up by the clashing armies. It’s written much better in the book, but you get the point. Depending on the magic system, mages can be artillery pieces or support characters. But I think we can allow magic and still not “break” our system so long as we have a good system and don’t fall prey to your “grandfathered” system.

    Brian

  4. This article is stupid and completely misses the points, plural.

    You’re not whining about mages, you’re really whining about the lack of a mystical elite and the fact that everybody in the modern world simply demands democracy as a matter of course even in their anti-Enlightenment dreams of “heroic myth”. So from your point of view, the dream of mystical elitism, of Specialness, is sullied and impure.

    You know what? I don’t give a crap. I’m a democrat, a progressive and an industrialist. If people are too progressive for your tastes … good! The truth is that people are far too elitist, not for my taste, but for goodness’ sake. The truth is that your objection is exactly equivalent to “people are not primitive and evil enough”.

    The SECOND point you’re completely missing is the actual ROLE that RPG mages play in games. This role is only briefly hinted at by Dr Shad. The fighting classes break down to guys using their muscles versus their minds and melee vs ranged. Fighters are melee muscle guys. Archers are ranged muscle guys. Ninjas, monks and thieves are all melee intellect guys. And mages, alchemists and psionicists are the intellect ranged guys.

    And you’re trying to rub that role out of existence because you’re an ignorant dumbass. Guess what? I only play that role because it appeals to me. Because using my muscles doesn’t appeal to me at all. And getting up close and dirty also doesn’t appeal to me. And I don’t give a shit if wizards are more powerful at really high levels that I will never, EVER reach because I’m just a casual gamer. The truth is I’ve never played a sweaty dumb fuck if I could help it, even when everyone told me that I should.

    So to recap. 1) I don’t give a shit about your elitist anti-Enlightenment daydreams of “heroic fantasy”. And 2) I’m rather offended you want to rub out the non-(sweaty dumb fuck) option. And 3) this article is just completely. fucking. stupid.

    Give yourself -10 points for severe lack of insight (did you really think players play mages because they’re power-hungry minmaxers?), and another -10 for asking all the wrong questions (like how to eliminate the role rather than why it exists – the fact that you CAN’T eliminate the role should have been a big fucking clue). And just because the commenter Brian is even stupider than you are on this subject does not in any way exonerate you.

  5. They remember, for instance, that Gandalf can kill a mighty Balron single-handedly, but they ignore the fact that he was not allowed to harm lesser creatures like goblins, who were part of the “natural order.”

    When was this mentioned? Gandalf kills a number of “natural order” creatures, including a bunch of wolves with fire in Fellowship of the Ring (the book, not the movie).

    You’re not whining about mages, you’re really whining about the lack of a mystical elite and the fact that everybody in the modern world simply demands democracy as a matter of course even in their anti-Enlightenment dreams of “heroic myth”. So from your point of view, the dream of mystical elitism, of Specialness, is sullied and impure.

    You know what? I don’t give a crap. I’m a democrat, a progressive and an industrialist. If people are too progressive for your tastes … good! The truth is that people are far too elitist, not for my taste, but for goodness’ sake. The truth is that your objection is exactly equivalent to “people are not primitive and evil enough”.

    Hey asshole, no one gives a fuck about your insecurity and hang-ups regarding democracy in fantasy. His point was that mages tend to break the whole “medieval fantasy” vibe that most fantasy RPGs aim for, so they need to be limited if you want to keep that.

    And mages, alchemists and psionicists are the intellect ranged guys.

    The point, which you continue to miss, is that in a world where long-range magical artillery guys like the above can kill enemies much better than normal weapons, nobody is going to be using normal weapons unless magic is limited. Perhaps if you actually read the article instead of wangsting about your insecurities, you’d understand that.

  6. This is why there has been TONS, and I mean TONS, of inventive measures that limit magic use: MP, EP, backlash, having to re-memorize spells everytime you cast them (yeah, D&D, maybe you should look into it more), ect ect ect ect

    You may need to actually PLAY a pen & paper RPG as a starting player, and realize that you are much more frail than the physical classes, and that when faced with REAL DANGER, you often have to run or fear for your life because you’re spells are all you got. or understand that a player is super excited that they gained 5 extra MP for their session, because they can now cast a certain spell twice a day, and not just once.

    if you want restrictions (checks and balances) they are everywhere! i cant speak for online RPGs cuz I dont play much. If you are complaining about the ROLE that the mages play in games, you might want to stick to reading BOOKS. oh wait, have you heard of harry potter? those kids were whipping magic all over the place too! you may need to stick to medieval literature if you want a medieval SAGE character (that’s what Gandulf actually is, btw) you’re boxing WAY too many things into one post, and adding literary theory into it was just really messy

  7. 1) Your Caps Lock seems to have an intermittent failure
    2) Please note the “MMORPG” thingy at the top of the entire article series before flying off the handle regarding PnP gaming, which still has tremendous problems integrating black boxes
    3) Harry Potter (ugh), a universe where every protagonist and antagonist is a mage, with minimal attention paid to interaction with non-magic users, aside from mindwiping them at every opportunity as they no longer matter (which is the natural evolution of unchecked magic)
    4) Spelled “Gandalf”
    5) Gandalf is not solely a sage, but an embodiment of a higher order of being, as are all wizards in the Tolkien system. Perhaps you may want to read them. I understand they’re somewhat important in the PnP world.

  8. I have played many times D&D (pen and paper) but I have never played with a mage.. Why? because even a cat (yeah, it’s right!) can defeat a level 1 mage, it’s a character unplayable.. at lower levels, because If you arrive to a very high level (say lvl18), you get Wish spell and you become GOD, yeah so balanced, right?

    The point is, can we have a character like that in a MMORPG?

    Short answer is yes!, why not?, the objective of any game is to have fun, right?

    So you get your mage and start to cast fireballs at anything that moves, finishing with any fighter, thieve or whatever that moves…

    ….But, hey! wait! , there are MORE players, you are not the unique person that is trying to have fun in the game, what is happening with the remaining people?

    If you are the unique mage player, you are going to run away from the mob, or die, but probably what will happen is that everybody will play mages, and at this point , fun is over, for everybody…

    Yeah MMORPGs are a little bit like democracy, the “common goals” make small groups to get just forgotten…

    Mages break the rules, you can think on it the way you like, but that’s the truth..

    JB

  9. While the original article focuses on MMO games, is does not do so exclusively. I agree with JB: mage classes are often all-or-nothing: whimpy scholars with barely a fireball, or utter magical gods. Balance is hard. I design PnP games, so I get this concept. There are alternatives, however: you just have to make every class/type or whatever, the best at what they do best. and you have to make it appealing to the players. Since we’re talking about Fantasy, you’re mostly dealing with players who have an active imagination, and want to see fantastical things (not a hard stretch, i know). This means, that most players do not want to play a simple warrior character who does nothing but slash-or-bash every 5 seconds. Its unimaginative and boring. But now, valkyries, paladins, ect are characters that blur the lines are always more interesting. or the WoW druids that turn into animals, right? come on, that’s cool!

    I think the other issue you have here is that people play MMO’s for different reasons. Some people play to explore the world, build their characters, and to enjoy the experience. And other players just want to wreck sh*t (read some player dialogue, LOL). And many games, PnP and MMO, have slipped into (maybe unintentionally) allowing certain classes to become nuke factories, which is great – for the latter group. I’m just saying, as a designer, its not easy to find that balance. No one likes the mage with a backpack full of A-Bombs, or the assassin who can 1-hit kill anything, all the time – unless you are that character! ;)

  10. The game Mage is unplayable?

    There are other literary sources than Merlin and Gandalf. Medea, Circe, witches in general, various Asian practitioners or beings. You generally find less magic missile or fireball and more shapechanging, curses, flying or buffs. (Benefit of Excalibur, or its sheath: not bleeding to death through your wounds. Some tabletop RPGs can model that but not that many.) Granted, those may be hard to do well in a MMORPG, either at all or without being overpowering (flight).

    Gandalf could kill goblins or wolves, with fire or preferably Glamdring (hey, a sword) but yeah, his power was usually veiled; they were meant to inspire, not throw down with Sauron.

  11. potatoking15 says:

    You could always introduce on-cast penalties and/or the use of props, incantations, rituals and equipment in a mage system.
    For instance in order to cast a fireball one has to have say a supply of sulfur and if he screws the spell up he sets himself on fire.
    It may not quite fix the problem of wizards and mages not fitting into fictional or factual lore but it would mean that the mage class would be raised from archer with cool FX to a class with serious flaws to balance out the serious power. Less people would become mages if a kill spell could turn on them.

  12. [...] The literary mage, unfortunately, is not a very good model for any but the most hard-core roleplayer to choose as an avatar.  People have ever-shortening attention spans, and are not entranced by the idea of subscribing to a game so that their wizard can spend all his time in the library.  Given the fact that most so-called computer RPG’s are almost entirely about killing things, they want to be out there killing things.  They also don’t want to hang around with a party of fighters who do all the killing, providing motherly ethical advice all the time and firing off one spell every week.  In order to cater to this class of mage player, computer RPG developers (and pen and paper RPG writers) have turned the mage from a bizarre mystical figure full of arcane wisdom to a lightning-lobbing siege engine. [...]

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