Organic Spellcasting

Hello, this is a post about me throwing some ideas out there, and saying that they are a much much better alternative than what multimillion-dollar corporations do and have done for years and years. Of course I’m absolutely 100% right and they’re totally wrong, but you already knew that, didn’t you? Anyway, without further ado, here’s the post itself:

The traditional model for spellcasting in games in general has been to assign level caps to each type of spell according to how powerful it is. Some games let the player find scrolls that teach spells and some games just give out new spells automatically with each new level-up.

And I don’t like that approach at all. Just the use of a general or special “level” that unlocks new spells as it grows, feels like a very artificial mechanic. It doesn’t make any sense within the world of the game. No character goes around talking about their level caps and what not, so why should they be such an integral part of the mechanics if they’re not an integral part of the game’s world and context? And besides that, locking a player out of cool content just because they haven’t played the game for a long enough period of time feels ludicrous to me (you can’t eat a pie in World of Warcraft until you reach level 30 or so… please someone tell me why, oh why does my character not have the ability to eat from the get-go)

Lemon pie
Sorry pal, you're such an inexperienced fellow that I can't allow you to eat this delicious pie. Who knows, you might choke to death with it. Yes, I'm fairly certain that you think you know how to eat it, but you haven't killed enough stuff to demonstrate to me that you know. Please go kill some random animals and come back when the number above your head has reached 30 or more.

Well, here’s what I’d do: First of all, get rid of experience points and level caps of any kind. Any spell can be learnt from nature, scrolls or from other people, be them enemies or friends, at any point in time. The player will have skills that are going to improve the more they are used, but at what rate does the skill improve depends on many many factors. I won’t get into details, but let’s say that variation is one of them (for example, repeating the same task over and over won’t be as beneficial as changing task from time to time).

The trick is, spells need time to cast, and this time is directly proportional to the character’s spellcasting skill. The more difficult the spell is, the more time it takes to cast and the more powerful it is. Of course, there’s a minimum casting time for every spell so no matter how skillful the character is, they won’t be able to cast everything instantly.

Say, a pitiful spellcaster has gotten his hands on an Armageddon scroll. Over the course of a week he learns how to cast such a devastating spell but when it comes the time for battle it requires too much time and does too little damage to be of much use in battle. But it’s there, he can use it and maybe the spell has some side-effects to it that are of great benefit to him under certain circumstances. I don’t know about you, but this makes a whole lot more sense to me than what games (primarily MMOs) do:  “You can’t learn this right now, you are level 1 and the spell is of level 30, go kill some bears and come back in a year or so when you are done leveling up”.

Image taken from here, though I’m not actually sure if it’s under creative commons or not.


2 thoughts on “Organic Spellcasting

  1. This is a great point, and I know of one game that dealt with this issue in an interesting way. Are you familiar with the SNES JRPG Rudra no Hihou (Treasure of the Rudra)? It had this really neat magic system: you could type any string under a certain length into your spellbook, and then use it as a spell. A parser would determine the effects and strength based on the roots and modifiers the string contained.

    In practice this system ended up working a lot like what you describe. You could learn spells by talking to people, reading books, etc. You could also come up with them on your own through testing or just typing random things into the spellbook. This means of course that you can come up with some ultimate spell way too early in the game – you could just look it up in a FAQ and type it in, after all. Instead of time as you suggest, the game used magic points to control for this; that is, you could come up with Armageddon as a level one mage, but you wouldn’t have enough available MP to cast it. I think the power of the spells also used your skill level as a multiplier, but I could be wrong about that.

    Anyway, it was incredibly satisfying and made for one of the most fun magic systems I’ve ever seen in an RPG. There’s something really enjoyable about figuring out how much you can push your character’s limits by testing out better and better spells and seeing which are practical to use. It also raises the possibility of having an Armageddon on hold during a battle, knowing that if you cast it you lose all your MP at once, but having that as a last-ditch option if things get really desperate.

  2. Diego Doumecq

    Mmmhh, no I didn’t play that game but it sounds mighty interesting! I mean, a procedurally generated spellcasting system is something I always wanted to design, but on top of that you’re saying that you can make whatever spell you want? Mmmhh, I don’t know, it sounds too perfect =P

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