Magic as a Failure of Fiction

The 5 minute workday[1] in the dungeon rotated back into discussion again recently.  I’m not sure if the context was 5e, Dragon Age or what, but this is one of those things that pops up from time to time in discussion.

I’m not going to delve too deep into this issue itself for one simple reason: this is a solved problem.  Rules have been designed with robust magic systems that don’t have this issue, and adventure design has (I hope to god) advanced to the point where if you tried something like this it would work about as well as you might expect (which is to say, not well at all).

Seriously, if you are actually having this problem at your table, not just discussing it as a hypothetical possibility, then it’s time to check your fundamentals and hit the weights.

But if you’re working to avoid this problem, then you have my sympathy, because there definitely are games that reward this behavior, and it can really feel like it’s your fault.  Odds are, it’s not.  Most likely, it’s a failure of the fiction.

A failure of the fiction is something that occurs when you stop and think about how things work and conclude that something really dumb is afoot here.  Often, these are rules constructs that we ignore for the same reason we do puppeteers – the most famous example of this being hit points, and what exactly they mean in the context of actual reality.  The image of the high level fighter walking around filled with arrows and feeling fine is a common touchpoint for D&D humor.  These things can violate our common sense, but we can tolerate them to a point, so long as they make the game more playable.

For magic, things get much more complicated.  Because we don’t have a personal frame of reference for how magic works, we are dependent on the rules to establish our common sense, and we don’t have the same buffers in place to fill in the gaps.  We understand the silliness of a “hit point” and we can at least try to not do things like jump off cliffs because we can totally take that 10d6 hit (or at least recognize it as preposterous), but we have no such check in place for a “mana point”.  There is no “gut check” to say that it’s stupid to burn all your mana at once. The only guideline is the rules, and the rules generally don’t necessarily have very good judgement.

And the problem is, of course, that magic is very rarely that mechanistic in fiction (even in the fiction based on these games).  It has a logic and a sensibility that writers seize upon, usually by departing from the magic as presented in the rules. And that’s the rub: the creation of a magic system is a profound act of worldbuilding, but when a game design fails to bear this in mind, you get crazy disconnects.

Now, the good news is that lots of games have solved this problem.  There are tons of games with flavorful, reasonable (yet still magical-feeling) magic systems.  And they totally deserve to be stolen from.

1 – If you don’t know the term, it comes from a practice in older editions of D&D where the spell casters would load up on spells, then the party would walk into the first room in the dungeon and unload all of their most potent spells to overwhelm the opposition. Then they’d bar the doors and rest for however long it took to recover and re-memorize the spells, then proceed to the next room and repeat the process. It was neither heroic nor adventurous, but it was super efficient.  Most games where Magic is a limited, burstable resource run into this problem.

13 thoughts on “Magic as a Failure of Fiction

  1. Rob Donoghue

    So, here’s one fun example: The Witchcraft system from Eden has an interesting approach to Mana – you might have a giant ass pool of mana points, but there’s a limiter on how much you can use at once. Net result is that even going all out, you’ve got several scenes in you before there’s any real incentive to spend time recovering Mana.

    Exalted does something similar – players have a lot of juice, but it takes work to burn through it all. And perhaps even more importantly, it can be recovered during the scene – stunting is often a more useful way to regain essence than resting, so there’s an incentive towards action.

    Some games get around it in other ways – Ars Magica has rules which could get very five-minute-y if i was a pure fighting game, but it’s not. The fighting is either someone else’s job, or it’s _expected_ that a magus is terrifying. Mage has a bit of this too.

    Notice that there are two recurring themes here – a limiter on how much the character can do, and some thought on recovery. Straight D&D has no limiters, and recovers only with time, and with that model, the reward is to spend all, then rest. If either factor changed, you’d see a change in behavior.

    What I really should do is go surf my bookshelf and call out a few winners sometime. Filing that as a project.

  2. Alan De Smet

    The discussion is popping up because Wizards of the Coast is talking about it again in the context of D&D Next: . I’m expecting a lot of old discussions to be revived.

    Do you have any ideas on what D&D might do to solve the problem while remaining fundamentally D&D? Removing Vancian magic seems too un-D&D, and the resource management game it creates can be a lot of fun. (It can also be a lot of un-fun. :-/ ) I can’t come up with any rules solutions, only in universe solutions, all of which boil down to: make it expensive (time, money, lives) to rest for 23 hours of every day. Perhaps that’s the only pratical answer for D&D.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      So, one problem with a fix is that there are disagreements regarding exactly which cows are sacred, so caveat number 1 – a fix will change something, and for someone, that thing is the most important thing. That is, you can’t please everyone.

      The second problem is that even if greatly mitigated, some players are just wired that way. 4e does a really good job of minimizing this – the only difference being whether or not you have access to your dailies – but the dailies are still enough of an incentive that a crazy optimizer is still going to gun for them. So, caveat #2 – the super anal will always be super anal.

      So, with those two caveats, the easiest fix doesn’t require touching the rules at all – don’t make dungeon’s stupid. Any scenario where you can go camping in enemy territory is a bad scenario. Simple as that. If someone goes to sleep in a dungeon, then kill the hell out of them.

      This works better with later editions – early editions of D&D have problematic spells (like, say Rope Trick) and the DM needs to come up with ruling for those, express them clearly and enforce them. If players think that’s cheating, then it’s pretty clearly a combative relationship, in which case the GM is encouraged to go equally old school, and remember what happens when extra-dimensional spaces are put inside extra dimensional spaces.

      Mechanically, well, you need to decide what you want to save – are alpha-strike, super prep fights _fun_ for your group? if so, you want to maybe work on the spell-recovery issue. Shorten it up, allow spell points or spell swapping, anythign to keep things moving.

      If the alpha strike fights aren’t much fun, then figure out how you think fights _should_ look. Odds are good it’s going to be a little like 4e (more repeatable mid-range powers, short recharge for at least small things). The only question is how shamelessly mechanical you want to be about it.

  3. Jordan Raymond

    Dungeon World has something similar : if you barely succeed your “cast a spell” check, the player has to choose 1 bad thing that happens among 3 (being unable to cast the spell again before resting is one of them).

  4. coderodent

    I like the game systems that allow for a build-up during the combat (Mythender seems to have this as it’s main mechanic, and there’s opportunity for this to happen in Marvel Heroic too).

    An off the top thought that would apply to D&D is to limit the level of spell available to the round number, but it would be good to have some mechanism that allows the build-up of power without compromising effectiveness of the mage.

    1. Rob Donoghue

      I like the idea of build up a lot too, and I think it’s a poorly explored mechanical space. The amusing thing is that it would work WONDERFULLY, in 4e, with At-Wills “charging up” encounter and daily powers. It’s totally how the 4e/M:tG which will never exist would work.

    2. Stephen


      I also think you could please a lot of people that felt like the concept of encounter and daily powers was too arbitrary by making the “charge up” the frequency mechanic. That is, you charge up “encounter” powers on average once per encounter (of the expected length) and you charge up “daily” powers on average once per day (of the expected number of encounters). But if you keep going longer, you can use them more often. So it’s no longer “this is an effect that’s capped at one/day” and more “this is a cool thing you can do to capitalize on a crit in a neat way.”

  5. Marshall Smith

    Another alternative is to make magic less instantaneous. With D&D, take most of your enchantment, conjuration, and abjuration spells, increase their casting time to a matter of minutes, and increase their durations to a matter of hours. Similarly, turn the “magic missile” spell into “can fire one missile that is equivalent to shooting an arrow every round for a number of rounds equal to caster level divided by three.” It tends to maintain the resource management advantages of the Vancian system (which protections and enhancements do you want today?) without allowing any kind of nova burst.

    It does tend to create a space in which the mage doesn’t have many options for wizardly actions in combat. She mostly gets to sit there and watch the fighters kick ass with the benefit of her previous work. This can be a significant problem with player engagement. It can be gotten around with spells that generate at-will abilities, though, like the magic missile spell above.

  6. Christian Hollnbuchner

    I couldn’t help but smile a bit when I stumbled over the new “5 minute workday” discussion. First thought off the top of my head was along the lines of: 5 minutes might be a bit generous, unless you already include barring the doors and/or setting up an extradimensional shelter.

    You already mentioned one common solution with Mana points and magic not being able to deliver a burst of anything. I’d go a step further and say, to solve the problem you have to take good care that solving problems (any kind of them) with magic is not too much easier than using more mundane means. Don’t even tempt the players to rely only on the magic crutch? Does that make sense?


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