Friday, 2 May 2014

Some Thoughts on Magic World

We recently played quite a few sessions of Magic World, Chaosium's update/compilation of its BRP fantasy rules (Elric!, with a bit of RQIII squeezed in there too). We enjoyed playing it, using it to run a brief sandbox game based around Salamonis in the Fighting Fantasy world of Titan. I have a few thoughts on the system:

1.    I like the combat system. This is no surprise, as it is basically the Elric! system, which is very smooth and quick to run, while at the same time retaining plenty of texture, mostly by way of a large number of 'spot rules' that handle things such as disarming or knockout blows, variable weapon length etc. Variable armour adds another dice roll when compared to most games, but it is a simple one that adds to the drama of combat, and using total hit points rather than hit locations allows for easy bookkeeping. The major wound system can provide plenty of specific and 'colourful' injuries, all the same.

2.    There are too many skills. This is particularly noticeable in the case of the 'physical' and 'perception' skills, groups of skills that, to my mind are so interrelated that skill in one should almost always accompany skill in (some of) the others. In terms of 'perception', Magic World has Insight, Listen, Sense, Search, and Track, plus other 'information' skills such as World Lore, Evaluate, etc. It is a weakness of my Refereeing style that I have a hard enough time running a game with a single 'perception' skill. If these kind of skills are going to mean anything in the game, the Referee must 'gate' important information not by player decisions but by character skill. If a PC has Sense at 90% (as was the case in our game), the Player must get the sense (ugh) that such a skill is as mechanically meaningful as having Sword at 90%. Whether a PC has Sword at 90% or 60% or 30% determines her chances of defeating the Baron's Champion. If we are going to have perception skills, the percentile rating should determine the chances of the Player being given information that will allow them to make better decisions. Oh, I know I am hashing out old territory here…

But it is not just the types of skills, but the granularity. The fact that competency in these closely related skills is not related, which leads me to…

3.    I like the way combat skills are handled (but…). In Magic World there are weapon groups, which encompass all weapons of a particular type. Skill with one weapon in a group = skill in all other weapons in that group. This skill is used for both attacks and parries. This is a nice middle ground between the extreme granularity of Chaosium RQ with skills for each individual weapon and separate parry skills, and the broad strokes 'styles' of  MRQII and RQ6 and the 'close combat / ranged combat / unarmed combat' split of OpenQuest. But then, if I’m going to enjoy this level of granularity for combat, for the sake of consistency shouldn't I accept a similar level of differentiation for 'perception skills', or for the eight (yes, 8!) physical skills? Perhaps, I should, and here you can see how my preferences waver between the granularity of Magic World and the condensed skill list of OQ.

4.    I don't like the fact that the equipment list is all out of whack. Who would. That's not a taste thing. The Bronze economy appears to make little sense. The weapon groups on the table are all over the place, but this is easily fixed by reference to the table describing what ought to be in each group. But this does cause one to lose confidence that the other numbers on the table reflect the intent of the designers. Should the STR/DEX requirements be that high? Should this weapon really do more damage than that one? Should a falchion really be that expensive? I own Elric!, and so could do a comparison, but actually, when I run Magic World again, and I shall, I will most likely dump the entire equipment section and replace it with a bespoke list, likely derived from Arms of Legend.

5.    Character creation is great! Quick and simple, but without losing the distinctive customizability of a BRP game. Players don’t simply have a pool of points to distribute as they see fit, which leads analysis paralysis as they pinch a percentage point here and there, tinkering with details that drag out character creation for little gain. Rather, they have blocks of points based on their culture and prior occupation, rather like Peter Maranci's Skill Pyramid. Players simply have to decide which of the listed occupational skills they want to be best at, which they want to be good at, and with which skills they want some competency. The, as default, limited magic helps speed up character creation, too. Which leads me to…

6.    Magic. By default, only characters with a POW of 16 or more can use magic. If Players are randomly rolling their characteristics, this means that magic using characters will be pretty rare, unless they make a grim bargain and begin trading away their other characteristics in the pursuit of magical power. I'm pretty happy with that – it matches the tone that my fantasy worlds, regardless of starting point, eventually take. And with magic as a power limited to just a handful of people it means that the assumptions of the game are roughly compatible with the assumptions behind most (D&Dish/’vanilla’) fantasy worlds.

There is only one type of magic in Magic World (barring Advanced Sorcery, or plugging in the Unknown East for Elric!, or the BRP Magic Book, or stuff from the BGB, or, or, or...). But, actually, that’s not quite true. There is only one mechanic for handling magic in Magic World. But that doesn’t stop a Referee creating a specialist spell lists for different types of magicians and magic users, changing the flavour text and so on. And it is certainly easier to do this than to grokk and incorporate the mechanically distinct magic systems in RQ6. 

This is not a review. But here’s something like the conclusion to a review: In a nutshell, the disappointments that I have with Magic World are largely a back-handed compliment; while I wanted a clean, revamped Elric!, Magic World appears a bit undercooked, perhaps because Chaosium haven’t backed the game with any great gusto. Which probably makes business sense – who wants to put too much of their resources into a competition with Legend (the $1 OGL D100 game!), RQ6 (a game of supreme polish), and OQ2 (the quickest and easiest system for running D100 fantasy, and it is OGL too!)? I don’t expect Chaosium to invest great resources into fighting a losing battle because it’ll please my idiosyncratic desires for a relatively low magic D100 game of medium crunch that uses the resistance table! But I’m glad that they let Ben Monroe resurrect the Elric! system, and hope that Magic World releases are part of the BRP catalogue for some time to come.

But update the .pdf with the errata, already!  


  1. I've never been able to use any rulebook as written, ever. I always tweek things to my preferences.

  2. I'm gearing up to run Magic World myself in a few months; chances are I'm going to homebrew the hell out of the system. Probably using the Deep Magic rules from Advanced Sorcery.

    1. Like all d100 games, it'd pretty amenable to homebrewing, with little chance of 'breaking' the system.

  3. Why not just use Elric (or Stormbringer)? What makes this game better?

    1. I prefer Elric's presentation, I will say.

      But there aren't too many differences. Character creation is a little different, with the addition of 'culture' as well as profession. There are subtle differences in the 'combat matrix' - no more 'impales', simply 'criticals'. Moorcockianisms(?) have been shaved off and replaced. Allegiance is to Light and Shadow, not Law and Chaos, and the magic system is more 'classic fantasy', as is the bestiary, which is pulled from RQIII. Which, of course, allows you to build Dwarf, Elf, Halfling PCs, etc.

      If you have Elric, and some other roughly compatible d100 stuff, MW might not really do much for you. I have a bunch of Elric books, and RQIII, and, and... Even so, I do like the fact that I have a compilation of these rules that are geared towards generic fantasy.