Worlds of Darkness 2: magic

Let's cast spells!
In the World of Darkness, the vampires, the werewolves and the mages are the core supernatural races, sort of. In the future MMO, I hope that mages are going to be playable. Is it planned? Certainly. For release? I doubt it, but who knows. If there is indeed a mage part to the game, I think the main selling point will be spellcasting itself, that is, cheating with the universe. The kids get all excited with Harry Potter and we are no different. "What if I could..." Peripheral activities, be them warfare, research, exploration, crafting or trade, would all support spellcasting.

Free-form spell design
World of Darkness (the MMO), as far as magic lovers are concerned, will be the latest iteration in a grand tradition of roleplaying games: the pen-and-paper games Ars Magica (1987, a fifth edition has been published in 2004 by Atlas Games) and its spiritual children Mage: The Ascension (1993, last release in 2005) and nowadays Mage: The Awakening (since 2005). The rules for magic, in each of these games, allow players to create new spells by describing what effect they want to get and how - using "techniques and forms" or "spheres of magic" as building blocks, components of formulas. An Order of Hermes wizard who masters the technique 'Creo' and the form 'Ignem' can create fire, but the exact way this capacity manifests is up to him. Essentially, the system allows each player to craft his or her own spells, and rewards his or her creativity to some degree.

Even though the WoD designers may aim to resurrect the qualities of Mage: The Awakening into the MMO format, the computer format remains, at this stage of technology, quite different from the pen-and-paper one. I remember that the 1988 Dungeon Master computer game used a system of combinations of runes to reward the players for experimenting with magic. You would discover spells by semi-randomly combining different runes. However, there was no real creativity involved; it was just a game of hit and miss to find the spells, and the tips page in a gaming magazine provided the universal shortcut. Players were unable to cast any spell but those coded in the game. On the contrary, players of Ars Magica or Mage: The Awakening are free to use the spheres of magic as guidelines and come up with very specific, never-seen before effects.

Common sense suggests it is impossible for a computer game to be as free-form and open-ended as a pen-and-paper roleplaying game, where imagination is the only limitation. However, the multiplication of parameters and possibilities might provide an illusion good enough. For example, spells could have different results depending on location, skills, items or some magical variants such as "flux", "astrological factor" or whatever.

At the same time, increasing complexity makes it very difficult to balance the system in order to prevent a few techniques to put all others out of business. The mage community would, after a phase of experimentation, find the most efficient combinations (for example best spell for a specific task, best counter to that spell, best anti-counter) and neglect 99% of the possibilities because they are not efficient enough.

The nerf game
The premise of magic would be that its implementation cannot be scientifically industrialised: you cannot do mass magic and expect it to keep working in the same way; you cannot reduce magic to mathematics. Another premise is that any action has consequences. A strong theme of any mage game is hubris. Magic should not be used foolishly and recklessly. What if, each and every time magic is used, a possibility is lost, something gives way, the substance of this magic in the larger world shrinks? In MMO terms: magic gets nerfed when it is used. Each time a spell would be cast, the spirit in the machine (server-side) would take notice, nod silently and register the information in a database. All information about spellcasting would be daily processed. Each day, over-used magic would become less potent or riskier.

Now, let us imagine a very complex set of magic building blocks, which, combined in different ways, allow for the same basic effect (kill or maim somebody, for example) to be created through dozens of different methods. With an automated nerfing system, the most popular kill spell would progressively lose in potency, making other kill spells more and more attractive and encouraging spellcasters to find other ways to kill people. The game would automatically balance itself. Individual mages would be encouraged to find diverse ways to use their powers and would not be forced into a unique playstyle. The most interesting combinations of magic would be kept secret as long as possible in order to prevent them from losing their potency. Protecting the formulas of good spells would become a necessity. Obviously, this kind of system does not work well with the social aspect of a MMO. Left alone, it would incitate mages to stay on their own, jealously preserving their secrets while trying to steal the recipes of other players.

But what if you need a group for some aspects of magic? Maybe the really powerful spells need to be cast by assemblies of mages. Maybe unlocking the knowledge of the spheres of magic cannot be performed by one awakened mind alone. Maybe, also, guilds of mages could be able to defend somehow their magics against the nerfing process, by performing rituals and accepting some corresponding disadvantages? Maybe occult wars in some astral plane would determine whose magic will have it easier? To make a parallel with Eve Online: perhaps the mages would not have territories per se; they could leave that to vampires and werewolves. Their own 0.0 would be a map of magic in the world, and their high-end moons would in fact be the wells of magic able to power high-level enchantments.

Creating an ambitious magic system is a difficult task. I hope the magic system in World of Darkness will strive to reward inventiveness as well as the Mage roleplaying games managed to do it.

EDIT 6th of Nov., 2009: The Asheron's Call precedent
Justin Quimby wrote a chapter in Massively Multiplayer Game Development 2 (2005, Charles River Media), entitled: "Great in Theory: Examining the Gap Between System Design Theory and Reality". Then lead engineer at Turbine Entertainment, he describes the design and implementation of a spell economy not unlike the one proposed above: "The spell economy is a deceptively simple concept: the power of a spell is inversely related to the frequency of its use." This mechanism was used for the MMO Asheron's Call, released in 1999, before being removed from the game in 2002.
The system was meant to create an information economy where players would trade spell formulas. In fact, the need to maintain secrecy in order to maximize the power of a spell ended up not being compatible with the players' natural tendency to brag about their achievements. Justin Quimby explains also that the system's unpredictable and arcane nature disappointed the players, who felt unable to make educated choices based on dependable damage outputs. Other issues plagued the system, including server load and the creation of spell-finding bots by the players. (At launch, Eve Online did not have any wiki and understanding how the game worked was part of the experience. Nowadays, such a policy seems impossible to enforce.)
As both a balancing tool, a way to promote a diverse spell-casting experience in a thematically sound environment, and an endgame playground for large groups of players, I still think a "nerf game" is the way to go.

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