Why Magic Destroys Perfectly Good Games

"Magic" in a gaming system is defined as a sort of black box device which is implemented for story purposes, with little or no logical explanation as to why it’s there or how it works.  It’s been taken for granted in the overtired fantasy milieu that there is this force called "magic" that allows weird things to happen for no reason, but it also exists in other environments.  In cyberpunk we have nanites that can make laser beams shoot out of someone’s ass.  In spacefaring campaigns there are transporter devices and beam weapons that somehow track accurately at distances of 12 light years, and ship drives that allow FTL travel with crackpot explanations.  Psionics are another popular form of magic in RPG settings, where psis go beyond seeing whether the card has a picture of a star or a box to perform feats like unpowered flight and making Green Lantern-type energy manifestations.

In any form, the inclusion of magic into a game system invariably breaks all sense of balance.  This is because any black box device by definition has no real-world analogue, or even a well-thought out theoretical basis, and is thus devoid of any observational data for the hapless designer wishing to implement it.  All he has are some ideas he can steal from other writers who also lacked hard data, combined with some crap he might pull out of thin air.  Therefore, the effects of magic are limited to whatever arbitrary values the designer wishes to assign to various effects, within the constraints of practical technology if the game is computer-based.  Because game content designers tend to be largely incapable of approaching realistic balance even within the arena of hand weaponry, it comes as no surprise that any magic system that appears is rife with game-destroying balance errors from day one.

This problem, like almost every problem related to RPG design, becomes exponentially greater in the realm of the MMORPG.  Any error on the side of weakness in magic will be publically and loudly addressed over the web and NNTP, while any error on the side of overpowering advantage will be exploited to hell and back by the ruthless client until (and if) the problem is "fixed" with a patch, followed by more whining.

Another problem is the way that magic is approached by a typical RPG designer.  Having resigned himself to the idea that magic just makes things happen for no good reason, he cannot stop himself from turning magic into an all-inclusive overwhelming technological advantage.  Magic becomes air superiority, rifled barrels, and force fields, all in one package.  Small wonder then that almost every character in any MMORPG is considered gimped unless he is a mage to some extent.

The only solution for this is constant vigilance and hardcore balancing.  It also helps if your basic game design and mechanics are modeled around a no-magic environment, so you can at least get that part right before you try to balance in a magic system.  Remember that magic wasn’t included in the original Dungeons and Dragons until Eldritch Wizardry.  This was the correct approach.  The ensuing generic and boring magic system was a result of a lack of imagination, not a flaw in the overall design process.

3 Responses to “Why Magic Destroys Perfectly Good Games”
  1. Actually, the magic system was lifted almost verbatim from Jack Vance’s excellent “Dying Earth” stories, where it was used to great effect. So its origins lay in a great imagination, but its presence in D&D was due to Gygax’s usual kleptomania.

  2. Your history is off a bit. Eldritch Wizardry (Supplement 3) added psionics and Druids, as well as some other minor rules that were mostly dropped over time. Magic users and Clerics, with spells for each, were present in the white box. Even in Chainmail, the precursor to D&D, Wizards are present (with choice of two attack spells, Lightning Bolt and Fireball, and 16 other spells available) as part of the Fantasy Supplement. So, magic was present in the game from the very start.

  3. This article only touches on magic as a concept and is partly inaccurate in it’s presentation. True, magic doesn’t really exist and we have no model of one to go off of, but that doesn’t mean a working, balanced model can’t be created. We might not have a model to base it around truthfully, but there’s no reason we can’t base it around an existing, working model. Why does magic have to be treated different from the existing physical damage model in a given system? You have base damage numbers, armor rating, and modifiers to increase/decrease the damage in various working systems modeled for physical damage. Why not use the same system, slightly modified to accomodate our vision of magic?

    In MMO’s, damage is typically related to a weapon, whereas magic is thought of as separate. The problem with this approach is you break away from your existing model, and force yourself as a designer to create something “out of thin air” as the writer stated. There’s no reason you can’t use the existing model for weapons with magic, there is even endless fiction out there supporting the use of wands and other magical items to support the idea. I’m not saying models have to be used in this manner to work, but that the damage model shouldn’t be separated between physical and magical damage. If the physical model works, and has adequate methods to ensure it’s balance, why reinvent the wheel by reaching up your posterior for some dark tainted mojo that makes it harder?

    Magic doesn’t destroy games, poor mechanics destroy games. The black box shouldn’t be treated as the problem, instead it’s the negligent design by the majority of developers that should be criticized.

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