Open Ended Magic

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So I was thinking that magic should be something that can be manipulated at will, as opposed to something like Vancian magic or spell abilities. Why shouldn't magic work like Prestidigitation except on a grander scale?

I began thinking of magic as more of a skill check against a DC determined by the DM for whether or not the effect goes off, and the caster can basically try to do whatever the heck they want to. The catch would be that magic is volitile stuff, and when you try to manipulate magic, it hurts you. So if you try something relatively simply, it might only deal a point of damage to you. But if you want to throw a massive fireball at a group of enemies, that'll cost you even more. 
So let's say, for example, you're a caster and you're out in the woods and a wolf attacks you. You notice the wolf is standing near some tree roots and say to the DM, "Hey, I want to use magic to make those roots entangle the wolf and immobilize him." The DM says, "Sure, go for it." You make your roll against a DC (possibly the wolf's AC as a baseline) set by the DM and succeed. The spell goes off and the DM states that this drained 1 HP from you. 

Do you think this could work as a balanced idea, so long as it carried the caveat that magic is a more subtle art of manipulation of the elements and environment around you as opposed to god-like spells that rain doom upon your foes?
Magic systems like this usually have the game system built around them, because it is ridiculously hard to balance. 
 

Co-author on AoA 2-3 and 4-1.

Do you know of any specific game systems that use a magic system like that? I've seen some systems that come close, but they're still rather restrictive and use other mechanics.

I'd figure that the DM should know best as to what he or she is going to allow a caster to do in the game. The DM could always say no, that's beyond the scope of your powers, or just set an absurd DC and when the caster fails miserably and has half their life sucked away for trying, they'd learn to keep things simple. 
Do you know of any specific game systems that use a magic system like that? I've seen some systems that come close, but they're still rather restrictive and use other mechanics.

I'd figure that the DM should know best as to what he or she is going to allow a caster to do in the game. The DM could always say no, that's beyond the scope of your powers, or just set an absurd DC and when the caster fails miserably and has half their life sucked away for trying, they'd learn to keep things simple. 



White Wolf's various Mage games are along this idea. Spend enough resources, wrack your brain for something, and pray you roll well enough (NWoD) or have enough stuff to lower the DC (OWoD).

The problem I've seen with this though is you get a Mage trying to cast some sort of weird Faraday(spelling?) Cage or completely rendering a creature/encounter useless by doing something with their magic. Which then runs into the problem of the Fighter, Paladin, and Rogue looking at the Mage in question and saying "We'll be at the Tavern, give us a Sending when you're done here."
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The problem I've seen with this though is you get a Mage trying to cast some sort of weird Faraday(spelling?) Cage or completely rendering a creature/encounter useless by doing something with their magic. Which then runs into the problem of the Fighter, Paladin, and Rogue looking at the Mage in question and saying "We'll be at the Tavern, give us a Sending when you're done here."



This is one of the concerns my gaming group brought up with this. One person said, "Well, I'll just surround the monster in a magic wall, then I'll fill it with water and drown them," or some such nonsense.

I was a little puzzled by this. First he assumed that the cage would last forever once it was cast. I explained that it would last until the start of his next turn, and if he wanted to, he could continue trying to keep the magic going with the same roll (and damage he took) to create it. And the more powerful the creature he's trying to contain, the higher the DC would be as well as his loss of life to keep it going. That's nothing to say of the water and combat lasting only 6 seconds per round. He'd kill himself trying to maintain the wall long enough.

But again, the magic being used wouldn't be so drastic. If I were to write something up, it'd explain that magic is far more subtle and just manipulative of the environment around you. Is the monster standing next to a lit brazier? You could have the fire errupt out of it and damage the monster. Is the monster standing in hindering terrain made of roots and brambles? You could have the roots tighten around its feet and immobilize them until the start of your next turn.

So what I'm looking for is something that is open ended and dependant more upon creativity and roleplaying as opposed to creating Genie of the Lamp-style casters with semi-phenomenal, nearly cosmic powers.
I don't think you'll get that with D&D. The system is too codified, structured, and well balanced to function in the way you're looking for.

Co-author on AoA 2-3 and 4-1.

One thing to watch out for with free form casters is teleporting/levitating rocks into people's lungs.
You should always, with open ended systems, have baselines like line of sight and line of effect. One thing you might want to do is make a system where wizards can, at each level where they would get a power, have a skill challenge where they create the power they would get, reigned in by skills and your DM ability.

Like, if the player says that they want their 5th level daily to be an area burst 5 stun save ends, set an appropriate DC for it (Let's say, 50), and allow them a roll. If they get under that, say they aren't powerful enough, and make that aspect of the power appropriately powerful (like area burst 3 immobilized save ends)

If you're going to make a power like this, the questions you should ask should be something like this:
What damage type would you like your power to be? (arcana)

What range and/or size do you want it to be?

How much damage do you want it to do?

What effects do you want it to have?


And after you have the results of the questions and the rolls (and the level the player is, for reference), build him the power closest to what he wants that's appropriately powerful for the level.
I don't think you'll get that with D&D. The system is too codified, structured, and well balanced to function in the way you're looking for.



Actually, D&D does allow it to some degree (well, at least with 4E, if you allow Arcana or an ability check associated with your class' primary ability modifier [like INT for wizards, CHA for sorcerers).

However, this is best played as a series of checks, depending on the level of the task.  Let's take the "make a cage, drown enemy in water" scenario.

1. He casts the spell.
2. At the start of his next turn, he must make an Arcana check as a minor action (Hard DC) to sustain the effect of the spell.
3. He casts the fill-the-cage-with-water spell as a standard action.
4. Follow the rules on drowning (DMG p.159, or RC p.180).

The rules effectively state that the creature he's attempting to drown would have three minutes before suffocation.  That means that before the target creature actually drowns, he needs to sustain the Cage spell for 30 rounds before the target creature starts making Endurance checks, DC = 20 + 5 for each succeeding round, and failing the Endurance check results in first a loss of healing surges, then damage equal to the creature's level.

Let's assume we adjust the per-round from 6 seconds to 1 minute (pre-3E setting).  That's still 3 rounds before suffocation.  And even if the target's Endurance is so low, because a monster has 1 healing surge/tier -- something people often forget -- that's at least 4 rounds before the target takes damage.  Assuming the creature is a level 1 artillery with 4 CON, that's still a total of 14 rounds before it dies.  34 rounds if we use official rules instead.

That's a lot of effort for very little mechanical benefit, really... but whatever floats his boat *shrugs* 
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Unless the drowning enemy takes damage while it is drowning, in which case its life span is measured in rounds not minutes).

Co-author on AoA 2-3 and 4-1.

The problem I've seen with this though is you get a Mage trying to cast some sort of weird Faraday(spelling?) Cage or completely rendering a creature/encounter useless by doing something with their magic. Which then runs into the problem of the Fighter, Paladin, and Rogue looking at the Mage in question and saying "We'll be at the Tavern, give us a Sending when you're done here."



This is one of the concerns my gaming group brought up with this. One person said, "Well, I'll just surround the monster in a magic wall, then I'll fill it with water and drown them," or some such nonsense.

I was a little puzzled by this. First he assumed that the cage would last forever once it was cast. I explained that it would last until the start of his next turn, and if he wanted to, he could continue trying to keep the magic going with the same roll (and damage he took) to create it. And the more powerful the creature he's trying to contain, the higher the DC would be as well as his loss of life to keep it going. That's nothing to say of the water and combat lasting only 6 seconds per round. He'd kill himself trying to maintain the wall long enough.

But again, the magic being used wouldn't be so drastic. If I were to write something up, it'd explain that magic is far more subtle and just manipulative of the environment around you. Is the monster standing next to a lit brazier? You could have the fire errupt out of it and damage the monster. Is the monster standing in hindering terrain made of roots and brambles? You could have the roots tighten around its feet and immobilize them until the start of your next turn.

So what I'm looking for is something that is open ended and dependant more upon creativity and roleplaying as opposed to creating Genie of the Lamp-style casters with semi-phenomenal, nearly cosmic powers.



So you'd want open ended magic where basically you have magic and have to use your own creativity to actually make it do stuff.  BUT!  You would instead limit what people can do with it by telling them that while they have "open ended" magic in fact all they can do is minor manipulation of the environment.  Kind of hypocritical.  No offense, it isn't a bad idea but you say you want opened ended magic but in fact would turn around and already shoot down people's ideas of what to use it for.

Not saying that there shouldn't be some limitations, but honestly if you want magic to basically be a skill and thus just use it for whatever you can think up and make a skill roll against a DC then it isn't entirely fair to then say that they can't make a wall to enclose an enemy.  As long as their magic skill is high enough and they make the DC, then anything is possible.

You know it could possibly work but as others have said the system needs to be designed around it.  Because yeah if the mage is only limited by his imagination then he could totally own the game.  And you know you readily shot down the idea of creating a wall and drowning the enemy by saying that you'd immediately inform them the wall would only last a turn unless it was recast and all but the same would apply to your own example of creating vines to say immobilize the enemy.  So really creating a wall and drowning the enemy isn't any more far fetched or plausible.

Though honestly when it comes to games like D&D I'm fine with more structure to powers and such.
Open ended with some limitations. You can't have people running about snapping their fingers and teleporting vital organs out of monsters. That's game breaking. And it's certainly not hypocritical to say it's open ended but in order to preserve some sense of balance there has to be limitations on the scale of what you can do. It's still completely open ended for a caster to manipulate, at will, the environment around them simply by describing what they intend to do.
What I'm looking for is something low magic, but open ended with that low magic. I'm thinking of Gandalf and the like, where magic was more subtle than earth-shattering.

My main concern, as pointed out, is whether or not people are going to inherently try to abuse this by doing crazy game breaking things, like teleporting hearts out of a monster. If that's the case, is it wrong to put in a caveat explaining the scope of magic and state such things can't be done to preserve game balance.

Am I just being naive in thinking that people would be responsible at the table and actually roleplay and not spend their time thinking of various ways to insta-kill monsters?
What I'm looking for is something low magic, but open ended with that low magic. I'm thinking of Gandalf and the like, where magic was more subtle than earth-shattering.

My main concern, as pointed out, is whether or not people are going to inherently try to abuse this by doing crazy game breaking things, like teleporting hearts out of a monster. If that's the case, is it wrong to put in a caveat explaining the scope of magic and state such things can't be done to preserve game balance.

Am I just being naive in thinking that people would be responsible at the table and actually roleplay and not spend their time thinking of various ways to insta-kill monsters?

Absolute power, corrupts absolutely.


You might want to take a look at Dark Sun Campaign Setting, which gives the option for psionic characters to conjure up various "magical" effects that aren't arcane in nature (less "elaborate wordings and gestures", and more "I bend reality with my mind", but both magical nevertheless).  Specifically, p. 81: Wild Talents.

You could refluff them into Arcane spells if you want, but personally I feel that at-will shaping of magical forces seem more like a Psion's (and Sorcerer's) thing. 
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57047238 wrote:
If you're crossing the street and see a city bus barreling straight toward you with 'GIVE ME YOUR WALLET!' painted across its windshield, you probably won't be reaching for your wallet.
I Don't Always Play Strikers...But When I Do, I Prefer Vampire Stay Thirsty, My Friends
This is what I believe is the spirit of D&D 4E, and my deal breaker for D&D Next: equal opportunities, with distinct specializations, in areas where conflict happens the most often, without having to worry about heavy micromanagement or system mastery. What I hope to be my most useful contributions to the D&D Community: DM Idea: Collaborative Mapping, Classless 4E (homebrew system, that hopefully helps in D&D Next development), Gamma World 7E random character generator (by yours truly), and the Concept of Perfect Imbalance (for D&D Next and other TRPGs in development) Pre-3E D&D should be recognized for what they were: simulation wargames where people could tell stories with The Best Answer to "Why 4E?" Fun vs. Engaging

I have not read the entire thread.

If you and your players are super-good at homebrewing and balancing right on the spot, you can try something like this (I'm a heroic-tier player shooting in the dark. This is not balanced, especially not at higher tiers)


I have not read the entire thread.

If you and your players are super-good at homebrewing and balancing right on the spot, you can try something like this (I'm a heroic-tier player shooting in the dark. This is not balanced, especially not at higher tiers)

Improvised Magic
You gain At-Will and Daily powers from your class like normal. You lose all your Encounter powers and gain a number of magic points equal to the number of encounter powers you would have. At any time during an encounter you can spend a magic point as a standard action, while declaring what you want your spell to do or what it effects it has. Use the following notes as guidelines:

Damage vs. Utility
All spells deal a set amount of damage. Utility and status effects are balanced via reducing the damage done by the power. For example, a fireball targeting a single creature with no additional effect would deal damage equal to 12+half your level. Having it target additional creatures, or dealing ongoing damage would then remove points from the initial damage done. Explain what effects you'd like your spell to have to the DM and he will tell you how many points of damage each or all effects would cost the spell. Damage-point cost increases by level, casting a pushing spell against a level 1 gobling requires less damage points to be spent than moving a level 15 Red Dragon, for example.

Classes and damage points
The amount of damage points you have is determined by your class. Some classes, like the barbarian, might have a set number of damage points which cannot be converted into status effects or buffing, just like the Wizard might have a a lower damage pool, but can select a status effect or additional target for free. Always make sure you know what a player intends to focus at so you can adjust his damage pool, limitations and perks accordingly. Use existing encounter powers as reference. For example, you can see that many Wizard powers target an area, many ranger powers allow multiple attacks and many warlord powers buff his allies.

Attack Roll:
All spells targeting a creature give it a chance of resisting its effects, whether it be by dodging or through magical means. The attack bonus is calculated 4+your level, against a defense that makes sense and approved by the DM. Exeptions from this rule are Zones and enviromental effects, but they all cost points of damage to add to your power. If the spell requires multiple attack rolls you gain points of damage. You can also reduce your attack bonus by 1 to gain 2 points of damage.'

Targeting
The standard spell targets only one creature. You can spend points of damage to target an additional creature, make it a close/area attack and having it attack enemies in burst only. A way to gain points of damage is perhaps to rolling a die instead of selecting a target, if your DM allows it. Targeting one additional creature, however, does not mean each takes half of your damage pool, since making two attack rolls makes the power less accurate.

What can a character do?
Before this system is used, each player must have a predetermined class concept and an ability-cap. At-Wills and Daily powers are very good guidelines of what a player can and can't do. It is very recommended that the DM talks to each player about his character, regarding how his spells work and what he might want to accomplish.

Damage Types
You can access any damage type already available to you by At-Will or Daily attack powers for free. If you however attempt to manifest a new damage type it will cost you points of damage.

Always a Standard Action?
Some spells are smaller than others, or have fewer effects. If you and your DM deem that a spell should take up another action that a standard action, so be it. Some spells can be quick-cast, sacrifice-ing points of damage for speed.

Time
Although the spell has to be resolved isntantly it can have lasting effects. Duration include: Until the end of the targets next turn, (save ends), until the end of the encounter and until the target takes an extended rest or dies.

Status Effects
Status effects can range from granting combat advantage to dazing. Stunning and Dominating effects reduce the damage dealt by the power to 0 and can only target one creature. Each power can only use up to two status effects at once, for example slowing and granting combat advantage.

Buffing
Buffs can range from a small damage buff (+4) to true-heal. A good rule of thumbs is that a true heal can never exceed the caster's primary ability score. Each power can only use up to two buffs at once, for example increasing accuracy and damage. 

Ways to gain points of damage
Self-sacrifice, spending a healing surge, sacrificing accuracy or defenses are all common ways of gainin points of damage. For example, an attack that hurts you, requires you to spend a healing surge, is less accurate and gives you a -4 penalty to all defenses might have double or triple the damage pool of a normal power.

Be Creative

Most dungeonmasters like being surprised. By making your spells as creative and fun as possible increases the odds of your DM allowing it and, since he really wants you to pull this spell of, might also reduce any limitations set on the spell.

Traditional Spells
Some players might use the same sort of spell multiple time. If this happens, consider writing that spell down for easy-reference. If this starts happening to often, try mentioning that this system benefits the group very little if they are all just going to stick with the same attacks. You can even houserule that if a same or similar spell is used 4 times during a day, it sticks as an encounter power and the caster loses a magic point.
 

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I need to think on this abit more, and I seem to be saying this alot lately, but check out powers and abilities in Silver Age Sentinels.  I'm still thinking of how to apply it to your 4e game and it may keep me from sleeping tonight (as many D&D things have lately) but I may be able to come up with something.  If you can't find if, contact me, I'll see what I can do...
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I do something like what you suggest in my campaign.  The magic users have their standard spells, but I allow them to make up stuff on the fly and use arcana or religion checks to determine success(I do the same with martial powers as well).  Since they have the std. spells as well it provides a baseline for the level of power the players can expect.  It becomes pretty obvious whether or not something should be within their grasp that way.  If they reach to high, I just tell them they can't do that (or make a suggestion on how to modify it to make possible) - no big deal.  Finally, I also allow them to spend healing surges to execute difficult powers beyond their typical ability.