Sunday, 18 October 2015

Making Magic Happen

I used to have a problem with magic in D&D. For years, I avoided playing a magic-user, and would go so far as to ignore magic in games. This has changed recently, and I'm about to tell you why.
Dallas Kasaboski

My D&D characters are often incredibly martial, with no connection to magic. When our games required magic, my character would scoff and leave the task to someone else. It started off as a kind of personality crutch; it was something different, and something I could easily cling to to form my characters' personalities. It was also inspired by other people and their reaction to magic.

Magic in D&D is a given. Unless otherwise stated by your DM, magic is an expected element in the game, as prevalent as air and many are able to call upon its mystical forces. However, early on, I sensed something off about the way 4th Edition sees magic.

While it is an ever-present force, I disliked the assertion that magic was easy and easily accessible. I felt that, like any skill, magic required training, practice, consistency. This was likely enhanced by my playing a martial character, thinking about my character's training, but I did not like how easy magic seemed to be. Spells could be cast, rituals performed, all at the mere cost of a Standard Action, and some components, which were often not difficult to obtain. Sometimes, I did not mind the ease and spontaneity of magic; sorcerers are a prime example of how fun and undisciplined magic can be. But, often, I found even the strictest wizards lacking in the seriousness that I believed to be involved with having the ability to tear physics apart.

This is not a comment on the play-style of my friends. Not at all. Any problems I have are my own, and stem not from my friends, but from 4th Edition itself. I have never played any earlier versions of D&D, so I did not realize that 4th Edition magic was extremely streamlined for ease of use. After learning about it, I came to understand the issues earlier editions had concerning magic. I nodded my head, tamed my dislike of magic, and came to enjoy it, but I still didn't really want to play a magical character.

Then, 5th Edition came out, and I became interested.

One of my friends, and fellow D4sign blogger, Mike, came to me with a new concept for a new campaign, a 5th edition campaign. Before I heard anything about this game, I had decided that I wanted to play a 5e caster, a magic user. As I mentioned, this was such a rare thing for me that all of my friends stopped what they were doing and asked me if I was sure.

But I was sure. After reading through the rules for spellcasting in 5th Edition, I must say that I have become very excited about playing a spellcaster.

4th Edition flavour for magic was too simple; with a wink, gesture, wave of your hand, things happened. Sure, much is supposed to be left to the imagination, but I wasn't satisfied.

5th Edition, however, seems to have done a great job of keeping magic "simple", like in 4th Edition, while adding structure and balance, like in earlier editions. The rules of spellcasting are in their own chapter, detailing such things as the area of effect, schools of magic, components, and an interesting notion known as Concentration.

If you're a D&D expert, perhaps much of this is familiar to you from earlier versions, however, to me, this was brand new, and very exciting! All divine, arcane, and primal magic can be broken into different schools (conjuration, evocation, divination, etc.), creating a consistent, yet diverse nature of magic. Some may not like this consistency, as many enjoy there being completely different "types" of magic, but I think it is interesting.

The most interesting aspects, to me, are the components and concept of concentration. All spells require components, and these components are broken into Verbal, Somatic, and Material. It is assumed that you always have the components you need (unless they are expensive and rare) and you can do without components by using a spellcasting focus. However, since each spell details the components required for casting, this provides an excellent resource from which to roleplay. Now, I can completely imagine what is required to cast a spell. Instead of just a simple wink, perhaps some gold dust must be rubbed between my fingers while I recite some Draconic. Maybe I clap two lodestones together while saying nothing.

Next, we have Concentration. Simply put, some spells require the caster to concentrate in order to sustain the effect. Perhaps you are summoning a creature to fight for you, or creating a magical wall of protection, whatever the case, sometimes you cannot simply "cast and forget". The rules for sustaining concentration are pretty simple: don't take damage, don't cast another concentration spell, and don't become incapacitated or killed. This element of spellcasting forces the player to strategize, and prioritize their spells. They have to play smarter when they're trying to sustain a spell, and they must be careful not to train only in concentration spells.

I really like this. In 4th Edition, you could sustain a spell by using your Minor Action, but there was no limit to how long those spells could last, except for being incapacitated or killed, of course. Concentration conjures (pun always intended), the idea that magic can be influenced and interrupted by the world around the caster, and so even the most chaotic of sorcerers must account for what is going on around them.

I know what some of you are saying, "It's magic! It's not supposed to be consistent or well-understood!" I get it, I really do. Some of the best moments in fiction occur because of the power of belief (in oneself, see Gurren Lagann, in a divine power, see The Dresden Files' Grave Peril), where the magic seems to just happen, not through rigorous or disciplined study, but because it is magic; magic normally doesn't have any rules.

And honestly, I am fine with that. Magic can be the antithesis to physics; not based on a strict set of theories, models, and rules. However, it should not be easy. And when there are no defined rules, there are no limits on what can be done, nor how. The 5th Edition rules make sense to me; they're easy to follow and they allow a certain amount of effort in order to cast magic. The consistency of these rules allows me to flavour my spells so that they feel familiar, as if I had truly learned them myself.

When I started this new game, I gave a lot of thought as to the way I had learned and cast my spells. I chose my spells very carefully, to fit my character, his background, and my desired play-style. And I wrote out the components for the spell. By the end of the first session, the players around the table were able to recall some of my more called-upon spells. Just like a fighter and his classic fighting move, I like the idea that when I weave my hands in a certain way, and shout certain "Draconic" phrases, that my allies will smile, knowing what's coming.

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