Monday, 19 March 2012

Antimagic and 4e

Dominic Matte
Articles in This Series:

Remember antimagic back in the older editions? I had a lot of fun with antimagic as a DM, until I realized that not letting the wizard cast spells is less of a suspenseful combat situation and more of a "go away until the encounter is over".

While antimagic could be used to create unexpected tactical situations, it did more harm than good. Plus, the rules didn't always make clear distinctions as to what was magic and what wasn't. It's obvious that you can't cast spells in an antimagic field, but can a dragon disciple use his breath weapon? Are psionics magic, or something else? What happens to magical constructs like familiars?

D&D 4e got rid of antimagic, and that was a good design choice. But when I wanted to adapt an old campaign up to 4e and realized that my story about a king trying to destroy all magic relied heavily on antimagic, I had to make a choice: radically alter the story and game world, or find a way to make antimagic work in 4e. 

I chose the latter.

As it turns out, antimagic and 4e are not incompatible, but some of 4e's design elements make antimagic tricky. The main issue is that monsters use powers instead of spells, and the vast majority of these powers are inherent abilities of the monster. There's really no way to define what is and isn't magic for monsters without manually judging every power of every monster you want to use in your game. Thus, antimagic is not for the players to use, and won't target monsters unless they're obviously spellcasters (like the level 4 Human Mage in Monster Manual 1).

In terms of the players' capabilities, determining what is and isn't magic is far easier in 4e than it was in previous editions, thanks to power sources and keywords. Any power with the arcane keyword is powered by arcane magic. And since the vast majority of player capabilities come from powers, you have an extremely simple rule basis: a player in an antimagic field can't use powers with X or Y keywords. Done!

In the game where I experimented with 4e antimagic, I had the players use inherent bonuses instead of magic items, meaning I didn't have to rule on how antimagic affects items. However, if I were using magic items, I'd probably water down antimagic a bit so that it only affects the powers of items and not their bonuses. This is partly for math reasons (a level 25 character will rarely hit a level 25 monster without his +5 longsword) and partly for game design reasons (antimagic would cripple a high-level fighter, who doesn't even cast spells, almost as badly as a wizard).

In my game, I decided that antimagic would affect arcane and divine magic only. This is partly for lore reasons, partly for story reasons, and partly for mechanical reasons. In terms of lore and story, primal magic comes from the spirits of the world and psionics are generated by living creatures as a defense against the far realm, while arcane magic is an elemental force and divine magic comes from the gods. Mechanically, 4e only has three martial classes, so if antimagic worked on all forms of magic, it's very possible that a party could be completely shut down. Of course, in your game, antimagic could affect all forms of magic equally.

I also made the decision not to use antimagic fields as they existed in 3e. Thinking about it after the game ended, I realized I could actually have used regular old antimagic fields to good effect under two conditions: that magic can't be used from inside the field, but can be cast into it; and that the fields stay small -- for example, a few 3-, 4-, or 5-square-radius areas on the battlefield are antimagic zones, meaning that the party would have to be careful about positioning, but could still use their magical abilities. In this case, enemies with  push abilities would be particularly interesting, forcing players into antimagic zones on occasion while still leaving them the freedom to move out of the zone.

For the most part, I didn't end up using antimagic in the traditional sense, but instead gave monsters powers that applied bonus damage or had special effects against characters with the arcane or divine power source; or monster abilities that triggered upon being hit with powers bearing those keywords. Keep an eye out for more articles in the antimagic series, where I'll look at specific stat blocks I created using the antimagic theme.

How do you feel about antimagic? Have you tried adapting it to 4e, and if so, how did it work out?

1 comment:

  1. I treat anti-magic the same way I do wild-magic... very carefully and often at the end of a long stick. Both can add drama and additional challenges to the party if used properly, but always have a chance of getting out of hand. Wild-magic I save for dimensional effects such as summoning a gate or monster, as there's always a chance something else will come through. Anti-magic though is often found in unhallowed areas or HIGHLY divine areas where the party have to prove themselves without aid. Very rarely will a monster or being be able to produce an area of non-magic [unless it's a beholder of course] and then it is only in small areas, perhaps burst 3-5 and only at higher levels. I actually do subscribe to the 'fuck-your-magic' form of anti-magic, in that it's an area where that elemental force cannot exist temporarily. However, since energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it is instead absorbed BY the field itself and then expelled when the field drops, usually right onto anyone who's still within the confines of said field as pure arcane force. So it teaches my players to avoid both casting into and casting within anti-magic fields while at the same time allowing them additional tactics should they EVER get the chance to make one themselves.