The Price of Power
I’ve been reading C.S. Friedman’s Feast of Souls. It is pretty good, so far. In the world that Friedman creates, magic is powered by the spark of life. Most witches can only use their own life force to power their magic, which results in them tending to live shorter-than-normal lives.
This isn’t a new idea, at all. Novels are full of wizards who burn themselves out (though it is often temporary) or cause themselves physical harm by overextending themselves… reaching into themselves for reserves of power at the expense of injuring themselves.
Games don’t model this particularly well. Some try. Shadowrun (and some other games – maybe GURPS?) tend to force magic-using-types to roll or take stun damage after using magic. Theoretically, this could turn into lethal damage at some point (depending on the system).
Really, though, I find most of these systems unsatisfying. There tends to be too high a chance of taking damage from trivial uses of magic. The danger doesn’t match up with dramatic tension.
What I haven’t seen is a system that is really incremental and seductive – one that allows you to use minor magic with no real risk… but the more of it you use the greater the risk is for more powerful magics. I’d also like to see a system in which players could make a choice to undertake greater physical risks to pull off impressive magical feats (reaching into their reserves of strength).
There’s the Riddle of Steel where using magic ages the caster (which is pretty much the only cost there is to using it).
There’s Burning Wheel where all magic, successful or not, forces a forte (consitution) test and the margin of failure is reduced from forte which recovers from this tax at nontrivial rate. Mages tend to be hardy folk.
There’s Sorcerer, where all magic is consorting with demons, binding them, or some such. It costs humanity (as defined in a particular setting). Losing humanity is sort of bad thing.
There’s Mage: the Awakening, where obvious (vulgar) magic the character is not highly experienced in causes nastyness. More powerful mages actually suffer more severe consequences, generally speaking, but also have more tools for mitigating them.
I thought about Mage shortly after I wrote this. I’m not as familiar with the new version, but in the old one paradox was an external consequence. The mechanics could be used to support something like this… but there’s nothing to tie a backlash to any particularly dramatic moment. Mechanically, it could come with a trivial use of magic.
I’ll have to look more closely at BW. I haven’t really gone through the magic system yet.
I’ve been tossing around an idea for a new magic system, that generalizes spells into point-effect ratios. For x points you can affect y area, people, damage, etc. You get a max number of points per level, and a max number of points you can use per spell, so say a 1st level character has 10 points and can use 2 points per spell. You could use more, but not without certain risks, and using all of your points leaves you drained and possibly damaged. Right now its just a rough idea, but I hope to have something written out for testing before summer.