Monday, April 15, 2019

Drafting Research

Following my introduction with this post, the next step would be to clear out the romance and attack spell research as a design problem.  Specifically, what are we designing, and how do we get there?

To explain that, I have to repeat my position on how spells work.  A "spell" is the assembling and ordering of natural forces, however misunederstood by a non-magic using society, in a specific way so as to call a predictable effect.  This assembling is accomplished, in my game, by producing sounds and moving the body, while concentrating the mind, through a period of time that a given spell requires.  More powerful spells are more complex, so that the assembling of the natural forces involved takes longer.  Some spells may require hours to assemble this power.

Assembling these forces has led to different strategies by different classes.  Clerics pray to appease higher powers than themselves, so that they may rely upon these higher powers to intervene in the magic's assembly when the moment comes.  Druids seek innate energies within the world's physical space, which they understand and can use at the right time to assemble their spells.  Bards do something similar, but they weave spells with music.  Finally, illusionists and mages rely entirely upon their own minds, assembling spells with considerable mental acumen.

If we are researching a cleric spell as opposed to a magic or illusionary spell, the methodology is entirely different.  Therefore, a spell-researching system must be flexible and view the problem from more than the static angle of acquiring materials and laboratories.  Why would a cleric need a laboratory to speak more nearly with the cosmos?  Why would a bard?  Or a druid?

Moreover, we need to consider the point of reference between the spellcaster and the availability of the spell.  A mage or illusionist studies a spellbook, which orders vast amounts of information into the character's thoughts, which the character spends time organizing, like a memory expert creating a thought-cathedral in their mind.  The casting of the spell shatters this order, which is tenuous and is, in large part, subconciously maintained.  Therefore, it must be reordered again before the spell can be cast.  The term, "memorizing," is merely a placeholder.  It is a convenient word to describe something for which we have no word.

The cleric spends time effectively pleading with the cosmos, asking, "Please let me cast this spell again today, I cannot do it without your help."  The druid mediates and invests self with the ever changing environment, as the various energies that are everywhere shift daily; once those energies are found, they are tapped, and the druid stores spell energy in his or her body, which can then be released; but it has to be found again the next day, after resting.  The bard practices, tunes the instrument, spends as much as an hour finding the perfect tone and resonance, which takes time and effort to do ~ then affixes a perfect memory of that tone so that it can be played later that same day.  The next day, a change in the weather, the age of the bard, the stiffness in the bard's fingers, can all mean time spent needed to find that tone again.

More precisely, then, the mage and illusionist are looking to create symbols in a spellbook that can be, in turn, studied and used to order the new spell in the mind.  The cleric seeks to appease the god into giving a new spell that has never been granted on Earth.  The druid requires new knowledge of the environment.  The bard requires a new song.

Before the symbols can be written, they must accurately describe the manifestation that is to be created.  The cleric must be able to explain precisely to the god what is needed, and convince the god to perhaps turn to other gods in order to gain the power, that can then be sent on to the cleric.  The specific concordant element of the Earth itself, and perhaps the universe, must be identified and found by the druid before it can be tapped into.  The song must be heard, perhaps in the bard's imagination, perhaps in actual fact, before it can be written and repeated.  These are different journeys, but they amount to the same thing: discovery.

The path is an adventure.  And like an adventure, there are many paths that might seem like the right one, but the DM already knows, before the players start out, what the right path is.  The DM may provide ideas, or clues, or proposed strategies, presented in books and out of the mouths of experts, but the DM knows which experts are lying and which are telling the truth.

Like moving through a dungeon, the players have multiple doors that may lead them to a spell.  Some doors are false.  Some are real.  Some will lead to dangerous, but profitable outcomes; others will lead to simple, but fruitless results.  As each path is tried, and discarded, the player comes closer to the goal.

Let us take an example.  Suppose the spell "dancing lights" does not exist, and the player would like it to exist.  Our first question is, what exactly are dancing lights?  We have the spell description, but that only tells us the result.  It does not explain what the lights are, or how they manifest, or what they are made of.  Clearly, not fire.

Remembering that we are now creating this spell from scratch, the player does some research and finds several possibilities:  it is cold energy drawn from the elemental plane of fire; they are illusions and actually only exist in the mind of the onlooker; they are hard, physical light, compressed into fire-like images.  Which is true?  The DM knows.  And the DM does not change the final answer, any more than the DM moves the last room of a dungeon.  But each of these three possibilities looks promising.  Which should the player pursue?

The DM creates three pathways.  That is a lot of work for some DMs, I know, but I am explaining what I would do with spell research, given my degree of experience, and personally I would find it quite easy in a few days to spontaneously create three pathways.  In fact, I managed it since Friday:
One:  Research elementism.  Insert magical fire into natural fire, in a way that attempts to produce natural fire that does not need fuel to burn, using alchemy.  By reducing the heat of the magical-natural fire, perhaps it can "burn" without producing heat.  Experiment with other spells that allow telekinetic control on a very minimal basis (no weight, much easier than telekinesis).
Two:  Using suggestion and ESP, experiment with the creation of thought-creation in the minds of test subjects, to see if the dancing lights can be impressed in their consciousness.  Explore mass delusions, as well as spells such as massmorph and hallucinatory terrain.  Perhaps either can be simplified through painstaking work to draw a 1st level spell out of a 4th level spell's design.
Three:  Begin with the light spell.  Build a prism-based construction that will split the light into separate pieces, perhaps employing elements of the mirror image spell.  Using physics, split the lights in some manner that causes them to flicker, producing only the yellow, red and orange parts of the spectrum.  Since the light spell can be positioned the four weaker dancing lights should be likewise able to be positioned, and then made to move in some fashion.

Each of these is designed to produce the effect first.  Once the effect is produced, the mage and the illusionist can scribe the complex description of the effect into their spellbook, so they can master the effect when they need it.  The bard can hear the lights, and produce the music that will create them again.  Druids and clerics come up short. The spell is not available to their disciplines.

It would be a mistake to think that all three of the methods above will ultimately work.  That would ruin the game.  The player's frustration and sense of meaning in the exercise depends on one, and only one, means to the truth. This makes the truth valuable ~ and their decision-making, as they posit other spells, existing elements, related concepts, etc., into their efforts, entirely of their own making.

Spell research is making something out of pure imagination.  It defies ordinary rules for that reason.  But design follows specific, ordered pathways.  Propose the idea.  Brainstorm a means to get there.  Experiment with each means, to see what results.  Produce the result.  Reproduce the result again.  Write it down and make it standard.

The rest is the work of thinking, on both sides of the table.


Drain said...

As someone who has ruminated this a few times, my hat is off. You provide plenty to think about.

Ozymandias said...

This is brilliant . . . but I have questions.

How does one discover the correct path?

In the dungeon, each step forward along a path provides me with feedback. I can sort out the information I receive from the DM and determine whether I wish to continue. Perhaps I come across something that tells me that this path is not the one I need; I have spent time on the wrong path but I have learned it is wrong, so now I turn back and seek out the correct path.

I can picture how that plays out, in terms of exploring a dungeon, because I've explored dungeons (both as player and as DM) before. I haven't explored creating a spell.

Would there be descriptions of my progress? Dice rolls to see if a particular step yields positive results (i.e. something my character can learn from)?

And on a different topic, should we infer from your links that you mean to have different skills relate to different schools of magic? Physics affects elemental spells, so it's connected to evocation. Mathematics makes sense for illusion. Should research into necromancy require knowledge of medicine? What about conjuration ~ metaphysics?

Alexis Smolensk said...

You'd get feedback in the form of, "It doesn't work. It doesn't work. It doesn't work." Like finding a bunch of dead ends, you'd have to think, I should try a different approach.

If, on the other hand, you kept at the same approach, certain that it HAD to be the right one, you could waste a lot of time.

The history of science is filled with such people.

I don't base my spells upon my sage abilities, or vice versa. Spells are tools and technology, not science. We use science to make technology, but we don't make science out of technology.

[technology is involved, but only as a tool to test the science. The science itself is not made of technology, but investigation]

Alexis Smolensk said...

In a wider sense, I don't think you could say you'd always make any of the connections you've made in every case. It would depend on the spell searched for. Technology comes from every direction.

Ozymandias said...

I do my research. I get some answers that suggest a path. Maybe, if I'm high enough level (expert or sage skills, well connected, etc.), I get very detailed paths. I try down one of these (the wrong one) and I get, "it doesn't work."

When? How far do I go down the path? All the way to the end? Do I find a dead end right away and am I led to make a decision at that moment? Or is a dead end an immediate, "well, time to turn around?"

Forgive the questions ~ I don't mean to be a pest ~ but this is fascinating. I must have answers!

Alexis Smolensk said...

As a DM, I think it would behoove me to describe the situation as a clear dead end when it really was one. "Tries" would depend upon the player's inventiveness.

But understand ~ I don't want the spell to be found easily. I would rather the player tried, quit, couldn't forget it, came back, tried again for awhile, then quit again.

And then, another year in to the campaign, the player tried AGAIN. And damn if that didn't work. Holy shit! Can you imagine how that would feel?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry, colloquialism. "Damn if that didn't work" means it does work. It actually works.

Shelby said...

This is quite similar to my own fundamental engineering research. The "purer" sciences often have the luxury of pure exploration, but the engineering disciplines are usually trying to produce a specific effect.

I wish this interface to waste less heat; I wish this reaction to produce more heat. Etc. And a huge part of the initial process is synthesizing what other research has been done in order to form a coherent idea of what needs to be tried next.

As Ozymandias said, feedback is crucial to the next steps of the process. An experiment really cannot ever fully fail. I learn that I needed to adjust this knob like so, or the manner in which it fails reveals that one of my alternate paths might instead be fruitful.

But if the design of experiments is constrained to three rough pathways, as above, then perhaps that provides sufficient feedback to move forward.

Alexis Smolensk said...

My belief is that a DM always has to provide sufficient feedback, regardless of the rule. I believe my goal would be to offer as neutral an opinion as possible, while providing sufficient detail for a player to make an informed decision.

Agravain said...

I did some research on alchemy to put down the basics of the skill, and ... You can really go down the rabbit hole on the internet.

Everything you find opens up different paths and different takes on the problem. It's easier with alchemy than magic research, because you usually come down to chemistry formulas as the solution.

But even if you lack imagination, I'm pretty sure as a DM you can find a few research paths very easily on the internet.

You might even find what works and what doesn't by looking at how deep your search goes, or if they all point to the same solution.

Lothar Svensson said...

This is really fantastic. And it really speaks to the specificity of the spell descriptions and justifies the restrictions to many conditions where a spell won't be effective. It is a indication that a particular line of research wasn't pursued to make the spell more broadly applicable, for any or all of the hassles and investments to get that spell effect defined would be too much for whoever was developing the spell. Man, this is great stuff.

Maxwell Joslyn said...

Lothar, if I understand correctly, what you're saying is that the limitations of a spell as it's currently known (i.e. its description in the established roster of spells), are implied by Alexis's post to have been arrived at over time. Through this process of research.

Perhaps when the collection of effects now called fireball was first discovered in Alexis's world, the blast radius was smaller, the damage was weaker, it took longer to cast, and so on. Over time the spell was refined and improved into what the mages of 1650 are familiar with.

This would be consistent with spells as "technology" and not a science themselves. The principle that causes fireball to be possible has always existed; human discovery (harnessing those principles as a tool) took a while, and didn't come all at once.


If one is thinking along these lines, it seems plausible that a character who is adventuring in search of a spell might stumble upon a "basic" form of the spell. In his studies of electricity, Volta figured out the essence of battery technology with his pile, even though his version was crude. A character looking for dancing lights and who has gotten a large amount of the process correct might conjure a single weak immobile light, thus learning they'd gotten within spitting distance of a real useful spell. That would be an especially satisfying progress point: "I've almost got it!"

Alexis Smolensk said...

Perhaps that's what cantrips are, Maxwell. Basic forms.

Sterling said...

I like this approach to the problem very much. In the past I've followed an expansion of the DMG guidelines with an approach based on the spell research article in Dragon #82. It's still an abstraction though, and I like the dirty-hands-ness of what you've described very much. As I envision applying this to my own game, I have trouble finding the boundaries between the DM and player roles in it.

I'm mentally oscillating between the extremes of having the player define possible lines of inquiry and adjudicating his navigation of those on the one side and defining a branching tree of choices ahead of time with various results at the leaves on the other. Perhaps with opportunities to prune a whole line of fruitless investigation if certain choices are made early enough. I tend to favor the latter option, but I have trouble imagining how I'd provide information to enable meaningful decisions on the player's part rather than mere eeny-meeny-miny.

Alexis Smolensk said...

That's a fair evaluation. And it makes me think:

We build multiple tables related to various aspects of inquiry, certainly more than, say, six.

And then the DM and player would ...

[I started to explain how that would work, when I realized I'd need the tables forming in my head to explain it properly. I'll work on it mentally]

Ozymandias said...

Makes me think there's some value in material components . . .