Monday, January 7, 2013

The Blissful Innocence of Spellcasting

So last week, writing about following the player's instructions to the letter, there was a side point I'd meant to make but failed to get to it, in light of writing other things.  This would be, what do I do when it's clear the player doesn't really understand what's going on, but would if they were actually there.

My favorite example - which might clarify the above paragraph - would be the casting of spells.  Ages ago, when I started my online campaign on this blog, a character playing a mage (never mind who), standing in front of a guard, did not like how the conversation was going and started casting a spell to tip the matter in his favor.

I may have written about this at the time.  I wish it was a unique event.  It is not ... and since it has happened many times in my campaign, I demand the privilege of writing about it twice - if I am, in fact, doing so.

Long ago, I made the decision to remove spell components from my spellcasting.  All spells, one must argue, would require some kind of movement ... and in a world where magic was common enough that the children of fishermen, farmers and bakers can grow up to be clerics and mages, OBVIOUSLY the non-magic folk are going to be able to tell when someone is casting a spell.

But try to convince a player.

I don't know, perhaps it is bad television that gives the impression that one flicks one's finger, and people die.  It is patently stupid for a roleplaying game, given that the fighter must get in there and swing his or her damn sword and spurt blood for their experience, while the spellcasters are flicking their fingers here and there.  The gathering of power necessary to cast a spell, to rework matter and energy into something the mind can control, cannot be done with tiny, silly movements!  It must take a lot of freaking work!  The spellcaster must be expected to sweat and suffer while it is done, and the evidence of this action must be clearly visible to everyone on a battlefield.  To play the casting process any other way is to ENSURE that the casters in your world overshadow the fighters ... which is probably a thorn in your side as DM you've been thinking you have to live with.

No, no, no my gentle readers.  Concentration to cast a spell means the caster cannot be thinking of anything else, seeing anything else, hearing anything else!  If means that the caster must be as deaf, dumb and blind to the ongoing chaos surround him and her as an expert diffusing a bomb on a battlefield.  Arguably, at the moment of casting, the mage or cleric ought to be considered AC 10 ... without any power to dodge whatsoever.  I don't play it that way ... I don't want all my casters to die.  But I do wish my casters would understand that throwing a spell is akin to holding your hands over your eyes, dancing a jig and saying nya nya nya over and over.

I may start forcing my players to get out of their seats when casting spells, just so they can get it in their ruddy heads.

The very second any of these fellows starts casting a spell, they need to recognize that for creatures of greater than LOW intelligence that they have effectively painted a target on their chests.  Consider.  I'm not a magic user.  I have no idea what movements or words apply to what spells - but I can damn well see that the fellow jiggling around in the middle of the battle is casting something, and it is very likely to kill me and all my fellows.  What am I going to assume?  That it's a nice, considerate heal spell?  That the fellow wants to grow some flowers or talk to the rocks?  No.  I'm going to assume the absolute worst, and so are all of my fellows.  And if it means risking being hit by the mere fighter in front of me to pull an axe and throw it at that mage, for the love of heaven yes that's what I'm going to do.

I've designed my combat system so that a caster can, if they arrange it, stand behind something and create the spell, then step out and discharge it.  Do they?  No.  Do they pick out some hireling that's taller and wider than they are, to stand in front of them and hide the hands over the eyes and the jigging feet?  No.  Do mages even back up a few hexes before casting their spells?  Um, no.

Over and over, they insist on standing within arm's reach of the enemy, as if NOT actually swinging a sword makes one automatically exempt from attack ... as in, "Don't worry about me over here mumbling, I'm not going to fry you and your buddies in 12 seconds - look at that scary guy with a sword!"

Now, as a DM ... should I just kill my casters, or should I point out that, "Hey, you might not realize that everyone in sight knows exactly what you're doing when you begin to cast a spell ..."



Lord Gwydion said...

Let them know the first time. And the second. If it continues to a third or further times, just gank them.

Carl said...

I agree with his Lordship. You get two out of character warnings and then I'm going to fry you. I would also limit the warnings to two per party (as in a table full of players) versus per individual.

You'll know they get it when the fighter calls the mage an idiot for casting in front the guards.

Alexis said...

Why twice and not three times? And if you're going to be a prick anyway, why give them any warnings? Why not gank them flat out?

Because, really, its not like actual characters wouldn't remember if they were actually there, right? With all the complications of this game and all the things to remember, have you considered for how many things I could 'gank' a party for, even after two warnings?


Strix Nebulosa said...

What if a spell only has a material component listed? Would that then mean that there is no song (verbal) and there is no dance (somatic)? Or does your mage require to give a song and dance for all spells in all cases? Consider this.

If you can remove the material component of the spell (as so many people do), leaving the somatic and verbal only, why not make the choice to use any two out of three? So a player could consume a material component and use the verbal component when out of ear shot or when in a loud combat? Nobody would see the "fire ants in the pants dance" that would otherwise telegraph the casting of a spell. If they don't notice the snake skin gloves and can't hear the words ... boom; four force missiles to the face. Didn't hear me whisper "sleep" while shaking a little dust off my cloak; it's rock-a-bye barbarian time.

Further, if a verbal, somatic and material component are all listed as requirements for a spell and the mage is gagged, the mage would still be able to cast a spell if they have the ability to provide the material and somatic components. If they're gagged and bound, then they're screwed. If a spell only lists one or two components then the player has no choice.

I've always understood the tracking and acquiring of material components to be difficult and time consuming, but in a world, "where magic was common enough that the children of fishermen, farmers and bakers can grow up to be clerics and mages, OBVIOUSLY the non-magic folk are going to be able to tell when someone is casting a spell." Those very same people would also be aware of what components are required to cast those spells, and be willing to profit off of the sale of them. More to the point, that's one of the better ways to make money in the auction house in the video game.

Alexis said...

Yes, Strix, a song and dance for all spells in all cases. Whatever the books say is irrelevant.

You've missed where I explained that power takes EFFORT ... sweaty, forceful, difficult, exhausting effort, which can't be whispered, and which does require movement of the hands and body so as to gather power from the air and discharge it. It wouldn't matter how loud the combat was. People are trained to recognize how a knife will be moved from a twitch in someone's shoulder. Watching magic cast would be a BIG sign that people in combat - particularly archers - would look for.

Spell components exist in my world only for the purpose of creating scrolls or magic items. They are never, ever used field spellcasting. But even in a world where they were ... it would only mean one more great obvious sign that a wizard was in the process of wizarding.

Instant battlefield pincushion.

Imon Fyre said...

I know in your world, from reading the online campaign, something as simple as a punch or a shove is enough to disrupt spell casting. What is the absolute minimum that is required? A handful of gravel thrown from 3 hexes away?

Alexis said...

The bare minimum would be something that would a) successfully shove you off your center of gravity, or b) something that would aggravate a sensitive part of the body, such as the eye or the nose. Gravel at 15 feet, unless it successful struck the mage in the face, would probably have no effect. If sand were thrown, and the wind was blowing perfectly, that would be enough. If pepper were blown from three feet away (successfully, and the wind taken into account), that would be enough. But a pebble bouncing off the caster's chest wouldn't be.

The DM has to make his or her best call on such things.

Jonathon said...

The moment you're talking about is one I consider so important that I keep a separate bookmark to that particular moment so I can pull it out and show it to players. Right here!

Which is to say that I could not agree with you any more without starting a cult.

To answer your question, in an ideal situation (such as the market hall moment) you have a chance to hammer the point home in a non-lethal way. But if it happens first on the battlefield, or if it happens repeatedly? One option would be to (sensibly) have the enemy do everything possible to focus fire on the careless mage, but give the other players a chance to do something about it.

If Theodore the Arcane suddenly starts spellcasting right in the middle of a packed melee, and Bill the Warrior is up next, tell Bill 'When Theo suddenly puts his gaze on the horizon and starts weaving magic in the middle of the battle, you see every goblin's eyes snap to him. What are you doing?' Give Bill a chance to do something crazy or scary or mad to draw their attention and save Theo - if he gets out alive he'll probably help rein in the wizard next time. Or at least slap him upside the head for being so foolish. If he ignores it, let fly at the mage. Either way, you have a shot at making the players feel responsible for putting *each other* at risk, rather than you being a bad guy, and that's a better motivator to police themselves than you can give them.

Jack said...

Two warnings seems right. The only reason to give them any is that you want them to survive so you can have a game here. Otherwise, they would have spent years in Hogwarts, and know exactly what the consequences are. You tell them once, remind them once, and if they try it a third time, let gravity take its course. Really, the "geek" image not withstanding, it takes a considerably better-than-average intelligence to play these games, and the third time someone tries it, he's trying to put one over on you...

Dan said...

I would get them all to watch Kung Fu Hustle and they would quickly pick up on the movements/actions necessary to cast spells. I’m thinking specifically of the Harpist scene when they use guzhengs to generate magical energy. It’s probably more fitting for a Bard or someone with Psionic powers but it’s a great visual.

Also the film is just great, so it should be watched just for that fact alone!

joe said...

Make sure they understand your ideas on spell casting first, then let them play how they will.
In the posited situation I would say something like, "Really? OK..."

And then allow them to get murdered. When they howl about dying explain to them what happened and why.

My players think I'm too harsh, I think I'm fair.

Lukas said...

For the record I expected to get shot in the latest encounter.

Both times.

I had hoped I might be able to squeeze a spell out, but I also knew that if I had to hold a spell, go through that many horses, one hex at a time, six hexes away, it would probably be too late.

Though admittedly I did not think about getting myself a large overweight hireling. I've never noticed a penalty for performing ranged attacks behind folks yet.

Perhaps that is a special maneuver?

Alexis said...

The DMG has descriptions about % defense for standing behind walls, which would be all I have on that subject, Lukas.

However, everyone in the party knew that Sofia could have stood in front of Lukas and blocked shots ... IF anyone had thought to ask me about it. Andrej did not until well into the battle.

Alexis said...

Sorry, also ... the words "I try to hide behind, can I?" never came up.

Lukas said...

I'm not accusing Alexis, just noting my lack of consideration.