Friday, August 26, 2011

Worldbuilding - Getting Lost with Magic

Ok, this is a bit crazy but the results may prove interesting. I thought it just this afternoon.

Many people claim that Pathfinder’s magic system is the antithesis of the arcane and the occult. They also argue that it isn’t suited to scenarios laden with intrigue and mystery. Today I don’t believe that that is necessarily true. What it’s true I guess is that Pathfinder (and D&D) magic system is its own beast, with its idiosyncrasies and peculiar traits. It does not attempt to emulate any genre, but it’s a genre of fantasy itself. Using Pathfinder to run a traditional novel/myth without paying attention to some of its most basic or iconic spells and powers will inevitable result in an anti-climax.

So, in the end, this just another article about how to make magic a little bit more “magical” or unfathomable. More mysterious or even “mythic” if you prefer. In other words, this is about removing the “mechanical/objective” approach to the supernatural.

How to do it?

Well, remove Divination.

Yeah, just that.

Ok, let me elaborate more: remove all spells, powers, spell-like abilities and supernatural powers from player characters from the Divination magic school. In fact, remove any ability that allows a player character to automatically discover if a target is magical, evil, good, elf, orc, vegetarian, Republican etc.

If a character has a power that deals with Divination, like the (in)famous paladin’s detect evil, give him a bonus feat instead.

Oh, and by “remove all Divinations”, I also mean detect magic and similar abilities.

Do your players want to know if a particular item is magical? Try Knowledge (Arcana) or a Sage. Want to know if the king’s bailiff is evil? That’s Sense Motive, Knowledge (Local), Diplomacy (for a gather information check) or talk with a lot of NPCs. Finally, but most important: want to divine if a particular course of action or event? Find a damn diviner NPC!
I believe that the secondary options quoted above are very interesting in terms of adventure hooks and roleplaying opportunities – besides mood and atmosphere. Maybe you can keep magic items like crystal orbs, but make them rare and give them strange proprieties. Another idea is that things like detect evil or detect magic may belong to artifact-level or deity-level powers.

One curious aspect of this approach is that it lets you keep alignments and effects based on it.

It’s obvious that some situations will require Gamemaster’s ad hoc adjustments. This approach also requires more work on the part of the Gamemaster I also don’t recommend using this with a dungeon-crawl/wilderness exploration/Adventure Path game. However, if you want a game where magic is an indefinable measure (like a traditional Sword & Sorcery, Dark Fantasy, Low Magic or even a pseudo-historical adventure), try this approach and see the results. I’ll surely try it as soon as I find some time.