Thursday, October 7, 2010

How much "color" is appropriate?

I've been giving a lot of thought to the issue of rule mechanics vs. color when it comes to things like class descriptions, spells, and magical items. Take, for example, the following:
Burning Hands

Level 1 mage spell (alteration)
Requires: incantation, gestures
Casting time: 6 seconds

This spell causes a sheet of flames to spring 3’ from the caster’s spread fingertips. This fire will cause 1 hit point of damage per level of the caster, and will ignite any flammable materials.

As opposed to the following:
Urquart's Fan of Flames

This is a spell of the first order, of the school of mutability, usable only by mages. First presented to the college of magicks by Urquart of Greenwald, and subsequently stolen from the library of the Red Wizard of Jix and published for the world's edification. This spell, which requires the recitation of an incantation of certain precise syllables while the Sign of the Third House is made upon the left hand, will cause a fan of flames to shoot forth from the fingertips of the caster, in the person of a least elemental summoned for but an instant to perform its task and then cast back to the plane of fire whence it came. It will cause damage appropriate to the power of the caster (1 h.p. per level of the caster). The range of the Fan of Flames is somewhat limited (three feet), but it is hot enough to ignite any flammable material. It is said that the spell is banned by the Order of the Silver Bells, for reasons known only to the inner circle.
 Now, my question is... Which is better for a game? Certainly the second is more colorful, and gives more detail as to the exact nature of the effect (the summoning of some sort of minor elemental). But I personally feel the first is actually preferable, as it gives the game master the freedom to invent those little details. What if there's no Order of the Silver Bells in your campaign world? Simple enough to ignore, sure, but why should you have to?

By sticking to strict mechanics, I will readily agree that a certain level of color is lost. But we gain both clarity (less text to look through to get the relevant mechanics) and the simultaneous feature of less imposition of setting on the game master and the ability to fill in those sorts of details at will.

If I was designing a game that was setting-specific, I might choose differently. But I'm very much inclined to go with mechanics over flavor.

17 comments:

Brandon said...

You could consider having a short info block and then, afterwards, a brief color example of how someone might make the spell unique. Maybe not something as long or detailed as what you posted, but an example for every 5th or 6th spell might be a nice way to help people set their own stage.

Evan said...

I would go with the second model as I think its closer to that Gygaxian flavor which is missing from so many OSR products.

My two cp.

Northy said...

Actually, I like somewhere between the two.

Colour is wonderful when describing the physical attributes or visible effect of the spell itself. "The spell causes a searing fan of flame to burst forth from the caster's outstretched fingertips", for instance, sounds like some sort of Burning Hands detail I like to have.

But, to have history and lore information in each spell's entry about it's research and first use? No, that doesn't allow (me) random, generic campaign writer #378 to write up his own history, or write out spells altogether from a campaign world, or allow his to flesh out my setting how he would like to.

Sakusammakko said...

I think the answer to this question partially depends on the kind of role-playing you'd like to promote.

If you want to emphasize the practical, mechanical nature of spells and how they're useful in combat, the first approach may be best. There will be times when players (and DMs) need to quickly consult the mechanics. Can they do that?

On the other hand, if we decouple spells from evocative descriptions, it seems that magic loses some of its mystical, legendary quality. It becomes just a technology for delivering effects from one location to another.

If you want to encourage players to think creatively about the history, power and magic of the 100+ spells in your campaign, you may prefer something close to the latter.

Finally, to address this particular spell. I've made a few comments.

Urquart's Fan of Flames
[Can you have a standardized format to summarize the mechanics in 1-2 lines?]

This is a spell of the first order, of the school of mutability, usable only by mages. First presented to the college of magicks by Urquart of Greenwald, and subsequently stolen from the library of the Red Wizard of Jix and published for the world's edification. [I like that there is a reason for this spell's existence and that the developer gets to name it.]

This spell[, which requires the recitation of an incantation of certain precise syllables while the Sign of the Third House is made upon the left hand,] will cause a fan of flames to shoot forth from the fingertips of the caster, in the person of a least [lesser?] elemental summoned for but an instant to perform its task and then cast back to the plane of fire whence it came.
[I wonder if there is too much detail about the specific incantation technique. Could this be left to the player's imagination?]

It will cause damage appropriate to the power of the caster (1 h.p. per level of the caster). The range of the Fan of Flames is somewhat limited (three feet), but it is hot enough to ignite any flammable material. [If you have the mechanics listed above, you could have this paragraph focus on unintended consequences.]

It is said that the spell is banned by the Order of the Silver Bells, for reasons known only to the inner circle. [I think this is fine. It's a kind of rumors/adventure hook for the spell. Why would this (possibly no longer extant) organization ban this spell? Gives the player a reason to look for more diabolical uses. Or gives the spell a more dangerous reputation than it otherwise warrants.]

Apologies for the long post.
R

Roger the GS said...

More detail about how the spell works physically or psychologically is definitely good, because it helps when spot-judging special situations and creative uses.

Consider three "hold persons":

This spell's target cannot move.

This spell binds the limbs and neck of the target, invisibly, as if they were encased in stone.

This spell causes the target to feel an overwhelming, paralyzing anxiety, and to stand as stiff as a frightened deer, able only to whimper.

The last two expand on the first in quite different ways, with implications for their use against undead, spellcasters, etc.

I am not so sure about the setting-specific stuff. It's fine if you are offering up a whole campaign; if you are just giving a spell list, it might have to be confined to the titles.

I also think information on verbal, somatic and material components might be fun, if you have kids or other enthusiastic people at table. Just some simple gestures and a single, Harry-Potteresque word to say when casting the spell.

PCB said...

As a third alternative, have the mechanics block appear after some flavour text, something like:

Burning Hands

First presented to the college of magicks by Urquart of Greenwald, and subsequently stolen from the library of the Red Wizard of Jix and published for the world's edification. This spell, which requires the recitation of an incantation of certain precise syllables while the Sign of the Third House is made upon the left hand, will cause a fan of flames to shoot forth from the fingertips of the caster, in the person of a least elemental summoned for but an instant to perform its task and then cast back to the plane of fire whence it came

Level 1 mage spell (alteration)
Requires: incantation, gestures
Casting time: 6 seconds
Range: 3 feet
Damage: 1hp per level of caster

N. Wright said...

I prefer option one strongly. The second one is overly verbose and hides the actual mechanics in its labyrinthine text. Can you imagine having to read five different paragraph long, all-exposition spells and then try and figure out what, exactly it does?

Sure, you can just write down the basics and make option two into option one, but, like you said, why should you have to?

Twitt said...

Not even Gygax went to those depths with the spell descriptions. I love flavor text but prefer when it's separate from the "crunch" so I can easily reference the material without having to read a paragraph that reads like Tolkien. For example, Magic the Gathering Cards have a box with the stats followed by a little quote of witty flavor text.

Burning hands spreads a sheet of flames 3' from the caster's hands blah blah blah

"Developed by St. Quaqestron "Nick" Nicholas of the Jingle Bells and Yule Lodge and alternatively called 'Quaqestron's Splendiferous Sheet of Searing Jets," the magicks of this spell have long been used by apprentices to roast goblins and singe their master's beards."

I recommend taking a look at Lamentation of the Flame Princess. It's the best retro-"clone" I've seen that perfectly mixes flavor with crunch. I don't have the magic document open but invisible servant is something like "The caster draws into being a replication of his id, taking form and obeying his every command. The caster can order the servant to perform mundane tasks or deliver messages blah blah blah."

Robert Fisher said...

Well, you can go even farther in the “mechanics only” direction. Like the Hero system.

In fact, I like the idea of a Hero-style spell development system for D&D, which would deal simply with mechanics and leave the flavor up to the DM/player.

On the other hand, though, I think one of the advantages of the D&D spell system is that it can get away with spells that wouldn’t come out of such a spell design system.

I really like the second example...if it was something the DM handed me. If all those flavor references were tied to their personal world.

I think D&D has always struck something of a balance. Some flavor tidbits that you can expand on if you want but little that anyone would find onerous. And not merely about spells.

So, I guess that’s a lot of words to simply say: I like both and everything in between. ^_^ At least in the right context.

seaofstarsrpg said...

I am of the clear mechanics with separate fluff school of spell design. For the two parts serve different purposes.

Mechanic should be clear for ease of use for when you just need to know if you can set the giant rat on fire.

Description and history is to build the characterization of the spell for the characters and its place in the world.

Both are important in their own way.

Grendelwulf said...

I prefer the first description.
I like to paint colors as I go along, allowing players to add their own descriptive elements during the game.

Maybe when new spells are found, like those given in Dragon magazine, etc...

If something of the 2nd description was used in a complete book of spells-type book, then maybe I would go for it. Sort of like TSR's ol' complete wizard/cleric spell books.

Ciao!
GW

Joseph said...

Twitt (ummm...) Actually, LotFP:WRFP was one of the things that got me thinking about this in the first place.

Fabio Milito Pagliara said...

as others have said I would go for a mixed style

something like this:

Burning Hands

Level 1 mage spell (alteration)
Requires: incantation, gestures
Casting time: 6 seconds

This spell causes a sheet of flames to spring 3’ from the caster’s spread fingertips. This fire will cause 1 hit point of damage per level of the caster, and will ignite any flammable materials.


This is a spell was first presented to the college of magicks by Urquart of Greenwald (and so it's also called Urquart's Fan of Flames), and subsequently stolen from the library of the Red Wizard of Jix and published for the world's edification. It is said that the spell is banned by the Order of the Silver Bells, for reasons known only to the inner circle.

Fabio Milito Pagliara said...

BTW were are spell components? and casting time?

I hope you are not "casting" them away :)

heyjames4 said...

I think it depends on what kind of product you are making.

As a player or GM if I am looking at dozens of pages of spells written in that kind of detail. I see an entire gameworld filled with THESE wizards, and THOSE groups, which have THIS history.

Too much of that can make me feel constrained, like I won't know what's going on unless I read a dozen novels, and even then will be surrounded by god-like GMPCs, like late period Forgotten Realms or the Star Wars Expanded Universe

And, if the rest of the book (classes, weapons, magic items, etc.) have a different feel, I imagine cognitive dissonance.

On the other hand, if the spell entries are nothing but ranges, damages, and numbers completely divorced from "special effects" it feels like HERO or GURPS or 4th edition. Like a barren wasteland in which no creativity can grow.

For a project that is suppsoed to be relatively generic, but inspiring, like ADD. Maybe do the bulk of the low-level work-a-day spells plainly. But do some of the higher level, or big-ticket items in more detail.

And in the GM section, do a designer's notes of why to give detail to spells, and suggestions to other

I really like the series @Roger the GS has been writing at Roles, Rules, and Rolls on just this sort of design decision.

New Fish In An Old School said...

Excellent post. As a younger player I think I enjoyed more flavor text, it really helped get the creative juices flowing. Nowadays, I think I prefer the freedom of less flavor text, so I can make it up on my own. Still, even today, it depends upon my mood I suppose.

Riley said...

I agree with your instinct that minimal is better if those are the two options. Too much color creates doesn't leave enough room for creating different environments, different sandboxes, in which to run a campaign. Leave it more basic, the DM and players have more of a chance to create the world around them. If we wanted something already set in stone, we could play 4e ;-)