Wednesday, 25 February 2015

AFF2e Sorcerers are Muscle Wizards

In which I argue that Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e (AFF2e) Sorcerers are ‘Muscle Wizards’, but first I bore you all with a discussion (moan) about transferring rules from the ‘closed’ system and world of a gamebook to the ‘open’ system and world of a tabletop RPG.

AFF2e has four types of magic – Minor Magic, Wizardry, Priestly Miracles, and Sorcery. The first three were designed with a multiplayer, tabletop RPG in mind, while Sorcery is the product of the Sorcery! gamebooks by Steve Jackson, and while this is the source of its great flavour, it is also its great weakness. It is a weakness, as the use of Sorcery in a gamebook allows the ‘dead’[*1] GM to operate a pretty tight control over the use of magic. Steve Jackson limited the player’s access to spell components, the choice of spells in any particular circumstance, and decided on the outcome of spells as he saw fit, unburdened by an ‘objective’ rules system.   

So, in a gamebook, the player can’t declare that he is going to search the fancy dress shops of Arkleton to find a green wig, or divert from his quest collect a sack full of teeth Goblin hunting. You've thought of an innovative use of a spell which will ‘break’ the encounter? Tough. Either Steve Jackson didn’t think of that, or he did and decided not to offer it as an option. You don’t get the option to simply fly over the walls of Khare, or cast MUD at the feet of every monster. And whatever options the player is given, Steve Jackson has used pre-emptive GM fiat to ensure that the results come out the way he wants them to.

And that is fine and dandy. Such is the way of a gamebook.

In an open-ended tabletop RPG, players are free to declare that their characters are going to collect a sack of sand, and ‘spam’ the MUD spell during every encounter. Or that they will hunt Goblins and conduct post-mortem dental surgery, ensuring that the party can outnumber any opponent with some Jason and the Argonauts-style sowing of teeth. This is not to say AFF2e’s Sorcery is ‘broken’, only that it needs co-operative players, and likely some invention on the part of the GM as to what actually counts as a spell component. Do the Goblin teeth used in GOB need to be free of decay? Does the ‘sand’ used in casting MUD need to be filtered silica? Etc.

“Why are you trying to limit players’ powers?” I hear you ask. “Enable their power fantasies and make the players feel awesome!” you shout. But the other voices in my head tell me to make life difficult for the players. And when the arguing voices in my head quieten for just a moment, I remember that limiting the players’ access to Sorcery magic is true to the ‘fiction’ – but that as a ‘living’ GM I have to make my decisions explicit to the players in order to allow them to make meaningful decisions.

But (and here is where AFF2e Sorcerers turn into Muscle Wizards) spell components are not the only limiting factor in Sorcery. The magic systems of many RPGs treats magical capacity as a finite resource, typically by way of ‘magic points’ or ‘mana’, which is often separate from the spell caster’s physical ‘resources’. But in AFF2e, casting a spell eats away at a Sorcerer’s STAMINA (AFF2e equivalent to, say, Hit Points). So an effective AFF2e Sorcerer must have a high STAMINA score – and one way of looking at that is that other words he or she needs to be one of the most vigorous, fittest men or women on Titan. 

Wizards? Pah! Old, weak men digging over dusty books.

Sorcerers look like this!

Now, I am partial to the idea that magic should have a physical cost in my fantasy – both fiction and gaming. I enjoy stories in which Merlin has to recuperate after working some great, taxing magic. When I read Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, I found myself wanting to model not just the visceral combat, but also the sort of magic that left the Magi Bayaz at death’s door, comatose, after saving the party from an ambush. Having magic ‘damage’ STAMINA is one way of doing this. But, just as with D&D Hit Points, in game terms STAMINA is all or nothing – while we may understand having a single point of STAMINA as being close to dropping from exhaustion, there is no mechanical impact in having 1 STAMINA point as compared to having 24… er, other than to significantly decrease the chances of the character surviving the next physical strain to which he or she is exposed![*2]

[*1]As opposed to a living GM, sitting at the table, applying rules, making rulings, improvising, and accountable to the players.

[*2] This is something that it is easy to miss – and all too often is – when playing (and criticising) a game that has a D&D-type model of ‘attritional damage’.


  1. That last thing does seem easily missed, but when it gets spotted and brought up, the discussion can get serious...

    For AFF, and bearing in mind it's been a while since I've looked at it, why not set a minimum threshold of say half SKILL, representing SKILL even with major exhaustion or at death's door, then divide total STAMINA by that part of SKILL above this threshold, rounding up. That gives you an increment. As each increment (Or INCREMENT? Maybe STAGE? Or possibly STRENGTH.) is lost, SKILL drops by one point.

    For example, and nice and easily, SKILL 12, STAMINA 23 would give a STRENGTH of 4 (12 / 2 = 6, 21 / 6 = 3.5, i.e. 4) and mean for every four points of STAMINA lost, SKILL would drop by one.

    1. That's a bit like BRP's 'Major Wound Level', but the difference there is you need to take all the damage in one go - you can be whittled away without taking a Major Wound.

      The objection to this that I could see to that - and I'm not saying that I agree - is that this would produce a 'death spiral'. And this would be especially true in AFF, where just a couple of points difference in SKILL can make a fight almost a foregone conclusion.

      I have been digging into Fate recently, and was thinking about a magic system powered by Stress (and therefore Consequences), which would capture this kind of flavour, and the death spiral would be mitigated by the Fate Point economy involved in Compelling the Consequences. All that said, I'm not yet sure whether I'd be able to wrap my head around actually running Fate, or if my players could 'grok' the 'gamey' elements.

    2. Maybe I'm a bit of a git, but the so-called death spiral does just seem to describe the course of events should the decisions and numbers come up badly, or rightly, in any given situation. It does embrace the pathetic.

      For AFF a supplementary mechanism could be to expend a point of LUCK to avoid the loss of the point of SKILL, as if there's a whiff, or a sniff of an opening, or it's the good day to die, which often in the fantasy means the opposite's happening.

      Off topic - and that's always likely to happen - have you ever thought about putting KW,OW in the HoP blogrolls? If you're happy with them, I know it would be mutual, and I think you'd fit right in for the way your thinking, like Von's, spans play types and continental systems.

    3. I quite like 'death spirals' too, but one for AFF might be pretty steep given the way that small modifiers affect a 2d6 roll.

      But the LUCK idea might well work, especially as LUCK is something that PCs have and NPCs and monsters do not. I think AFF works best with an explicit asymmetry between the 'Heroes' and the rest. Especially as, if NPCs are built like PCs, the Sage with SKILL 4 Lore (X) Special Skill 5 knows less about his specialist subject than a SKILL 9 Special Skill 1 PC. So SKILL for NPCs is about combat and other dangerous physical tasks. Anything else and I'll just apply my judgement or, and this only really applies when PCs are in a contest with an NPC, give the NPC and 'effective SKILL' or run the whole thing as an unopposed test with the competence of the NPC a modifier to the PC's attempts to bargain, bribe, intimidate, etc.

      But that is all a digression.

      And yes, I have no problem with the blogroll thing, except that I haven't really been keeping things up to date, or posting with any frequency or focus.

    4. I miss AFF I will admit, for all the open simplicity and sense of glitchiness at times. It had a fantastic tone and so much to draw from with all the FF books, and I mean in the feel of a vast patchwork.

      The insight you've built up, and the other people who've played it properly down the years, really deserves a place in the eternal local library alongside those green spines and the faintly yellowing pages with their pencil marks. Which is me saying I'd love a book of essays on it.

      Re HoP, posting the way you like won't be any trouble, and it should bring a bit of extra traffic as encouragment.

      If you like the look of the place, you just have to email. The essay's a tease really so you can just ignore it. Here's the info:

      If you want the snazziness, it's here:

  2. One of the magic types in Crypts and Things 1st Ed , Grey, drained you of Hit Points as you cast it, the idea being that Magicians would dramatically fire off spells and drop unconsious to save the party from the big bad about to crush them. Of course it never worked out that way cos players are too selfish to buy into this idea and no bugger (including me as DM) could be bothered to do the required bean counting.

    Its been cut from C&T Remastered, and when I first came across it in Sorcery I felt it was a bit cleaver for its own good. Also felt a bit railroady as you point out. Except when you are 12-15 you have no idea of such things ;)

    1. I am looking forward to C&T Remastered. And the Luck stat...

  3. I hadn't considered it before, but of course FF wizards are Muscle Wizards; just look at Balthus Dire!

  4. I was worried that sorcerers would dominate with the sheer versatility of spells, but after playing a 1 shot with a sorcerer, it became clear that they can't cast too many spells without almost killing themselves.

  5. I fell that i achieved a nice balance with the sorcerer vs wizard thing.

    Sorcerers do need more Stamina to cast their spells. But they can also wear armour. So many sorcerer characters have an OK Skill and some weapon training so that they make decent warriors. But if they do go into hand to hand, every hit they take is a spell less they can cast. They know lots of spells to begin with, but need the components. I agree that a kind GM would allow a sorcerer to find loads of sand, goblin teeth etc. But i always allowed 1 tooth per goblin killed. A rotten tooth creates a rotten goblin with only 1 stamina. i.e. not worth casting! Also, a sorcerer finds it easier to replace stamina due to eating etc.
    Of course, this better Skill and Stamina tends to mean less Magic, and thus the Sorcerer often needs to prepare spells for a couple of rounds before casting anything.