Friday, January 11, 2013

Illiterate Wizards

Surely a wizard with a spellbook can cast a spell.  Right?
Don't let this guy fool you, he is actually making an emu omelette and that is a recipe book
Well if you play games chances are no, it can't.

Games are not reality.  That seems self-evident, but hear me out.  Games are little simulations of reality.  In the real world money buys things.  In Monopoly play money buys things.  See?  Simulation of reality.
For some reason wizards in gaming, by which I mean RPGs, MMOs, and their kin, don't seem to be able to cast spells by reading them from books.  This is odd because they keep their spells in books.  You'd think they could just, you know, read the bloody spell out of the book, waggle their fingers and blammo! magic.
But no.
Let me take you back to 1974 and the birth of role playing games.  The Original Dungeons and Dragons (OD&D) had the Magic-User, which was a general, all-purpose term for wizard/warlock/sorcerer/mystic/theurgist/enchanter.  Essentially it was a culturally neutral term for all of those things.  The wikipedia has an article on "Vancian Magic", or at least mentions it in its DnD articles, and that is generally the magic first employed in OD&D and that was kept throughout the editions until the 4th edition.
In short the caster (let's just say wizard, okay?) has a collection of spells in a book and each morning he memorizes which spells he will use, locks them in his gray matter, packs his book away and goes about adventuring.  This sort of sucks.  In the first place you end up memorizing the spells you think you'll need and invariably one of the most useful ones, it turns out, is the one you didn't lock and load.  In the second place you can't just whip out your book and cram when you do need that other spell.  In the third place, in keeping with the game's progressive scaling leveling system, you start very weak knowing something like 1 bloody spell at 1st level PER DAY and gradually gaining more uses of spells as you improve in levels.  This makes the young wizard less useful than Harry Potter BEFORE he got to Hogwarts.  At least he could talk to snakes.
I just threw this one in because I needed something awesome.
Now in the Original game there was the Fighting Man, the Magic-User and the Cleric (and demihumans but I am not here to give you a history lesson on DnD).  The Fighting Man could use magic weapons and armor, but no other magic items.  The Cleric could use magic armor, some magic weapons and some items.  The Magic-User could use no magic armor and only magic daggers, but all other magic items were his to wield.  There was the source of the great and terrible power of the wizard: cool toys.
Lest we think this makes him somehow less magical, consider the many legendary, real world and fictional wizards that were the sources of fantasy magic.  You had your Merlin who was half demon and your Gandalf who was an extraplanar being, sure, but you also had Circe, who used a wand and herbs and any number of humans who gained their abilities through the use of magical trappings.  Essentially we can break magic type characters down into 3 groups: those who possess inherent power, usually because they are not human; those who gain their power through items, tomes and talsimans; and those who consort with extraplanar entities, like spirits.  The OD&D wizard is not specifically any one of those things, but much of his trappings come from those things.  One thing we can say about magic, real, fictional and imagined, is that the image of the spell caster in a tower (or grove, I'm not picky) surrounded by magical apparatus, reading from a tome to cast their works (like a chef working from a recipe really) is a tried and true image, popular in art and literature.
But not if you are playing D&D.  Oh hell no, you are apparently illiterate.
Except first thing in the morning, after a good night's sleep, at which point you can read for a bit.
I understand the practical side of the equation.  You don't have time to whip your book out in the middle of a dark dungeon and have a read.  You can whip a scroll out and have a read though.  Once read the scroll disappears (writing goes away, burns up with the spell, you pick your flavor text, practical rule is that the scroll is now useless).  So you can read a spell from a piece of paper but you can't just read  it out of a book and cast it.  Bullshit.
I admit it, this guy looks badarse.
Other systems have been devised in gaming over the years.  MMOs like to use "power points" and "mana" and such that regenerates out of combat or while resting.  This allows the wizard to just point and click with their spells and they don't have to preread them, but MMOs typically provide their wizards with very few spells and most of them are variations on the theme of damaging things.  No utility spells in MMO.  Some interesting tabletop systems have been developed as well, often using Power Points.  Power Points, essentially, allow a wizard to cast any spells he knows at any time by simply paying for them from the power point pool.  Typically these power point systems have less total number of spells available, but the spells are variable allowing the use of more power for more effect.  The sad part is that the wizards are still illiterate, perhaps even more so.
I find this frustrating.  How much flavor and style you want in your game is a personal choice and no one wants a handicap like "Your wizard must be in a magic circle, reading a book, burning candles, naked, holding a banana in his ass, and chanting in pig Latin to cast any spell" in their gaming.  Generic systems like Savage Worlds often use spells that are just basic information on range, cost, damage and effects and allow the players to customize the outcomes (like choosing fire as the operative attack even though it does nothing but provide a cosmetic change, the damage being set by the spell itself).  It would be nice if one of them would let you cast a spell by just reading a book though.

In our next installment: Deadlands, Hucksters, and Hexes...oh my.

No comments:

Post a Comment