#38: Multiverser Magic

This is mark Joseph “young” blog entry #38, on the subject of Multiverser Magic.

In a thread on Facebook on a completely different issue (an article I encountered on an effective non-lethal weapon) posters made some comments about the complexity of the Multiverser game system.  I don’t happen to think it that complex, really, but they did tackle two of the more complicated areas:  the spell system and the way to calculate cover value for armor.  I promised to provide answers, and since I no longer have the Gaming Outpost forum for such things, the answers are going to land here.  This entry will deal with the magic.

From Multiverser: The Game: Referee's Rules, (c)Valdron Inc, by Jim Denaxas

Harry Lambrianou (wow–I spelled that correctly on the first try without looking) raised the issue, and said in significant part:

My biggest problem – and the thing I houseruled away most frequently – is that MV’s magic system, as written, insists that /any change/ no matter how minute results in a completely new spell.

So if I have a “Battle Blessing” spell that normally takes 1 minute to cast, and I decide that today I need to rush it and cast my “Battle Blessing” in 10 seconds… normally you would think that this is my normal “Battle Blessing” spell, albeit with a skill penalty for rushing, right? That’s intuitive… No, it’s an /entirely new/, but /otherwise identical in every way/ spell… that does not inherit the Skill Ability Level for the spell its based on. So if I was 2@8 on the original Battle Blessing… maybe I’m 1@3 on the /identical/ rushed version…. and both need to be leveled up separately.

At one point I think my actual Verser self had something upwards of four different copies of this same spell, the only difference being one was a shorter casting time, or one affected three people instead of five, or something like that. It got out of hand very quickly.

I hated this from the first time I saw it happen, and consequently have never enforced it on the handful of players I ever ran for.

It’s a valid point:  if you know how to perform some kind of magic, shouldn’t you be able to perform it more quickly if you’re in a situation in which you need to get it done fast?  However, I have two answers for this.

The first has to do with “game balance” in mechanics.  That was always a big deal before Vincent Baker’s Lumpley Principle and Ron Edward’s Model, and it’s still a big deal in complex game design.  It means, among other things, that every power has limits so that it won’t dominate the game.

Magic, in Multiverser, has essentially two limits.  One is the same limit that applies to technology, psionics, and even to body skills:  bias, which determines what is possible or impossible in a given universe, and how difficult it is to do.  It’s a relatively simple system given the complexity of issues it addresses, but it’s not at issue here.  For any given magic outcome, either it is or is not possible in the present world, and it can be more or less difficult.

The other limitation is the one at issue.  In Multiverser, you can design your own magic skills.  You can say that you want to achieve this result–create fire or lightning, charm an enemy, pass unnoticed through the midst of a crowd, fly–and that you are going to take these steps to achieve it.  The simple form of the rule is that the power you get from a “spell” is proportional to the effort you put into it.  That effort can take the form of sacrificing objects of greater or lesser value, speaking loudly or gesticulating wildly in ways that call attention to yourself, saying words that broadcast what you are attempting to do so the target can take countermeasures, and, almost always, how much time it takes to cast it.  The battle blessing in particular is significant in this regard:  a two-minute spell to enhance your combat abilities means that for two minutes you have to stay out of the fray, which might not even be possible; the same spell in twelve seconds is going to be very nearly something you can do while drawing your weapon.  Obviously, though, if we assume that the battle blessing does exactly the same thing to the same degree at the same probability of success, no character in his right mind would take two minutes of valuable combat time to cast a spell he can cast in twelve seconds.  Thus part of the solution to prevent that is that the probability of success on the twelve-second version is considerably lower than that on the two-minute version.  Assuming everything else to be the same, the longer spell is probably about thirty percentage points more likely to be successful than the short one.  That can impact whether or not it works, of course, and also because of Multiverser’s relative success rules it can also impact how well it works, because a higher successful roll normally delivers a better outcome.

Understand, too, that I believe in running an equitable game.  If when you create this spell you get this bonus for shouting, everyone should get that bonus for including “shouting” in any spell design; it becomes the “shouting bonus”.  I have a list of standard bonuses for standard “spell components”, and when someone comes up with some new component I had not previously considered I compare it to my list and then attempt to make note of what I decided so that if they do it again, or someone else at the table does it, I will treat it consistently.  When you create a spell, I look at everything you’re investing in success, and crunch the numbers, and I give you a number, a “situation modifier”, to record with the spell description that says that this spell is this percentage more or less likely to work than the baseline.  You get that bonus–or penalty–whenever you use that specific spell.  But if you modify that spell in any way, you’ve changed the bonus or penalty.

Of course, I could let you change the spell for a specific casting–but that means that when you do that, I have to recalculate the chance of success anyway.  And in doing so, I’m probably going to have to look up the baseline for the spell, figure out what elements you are using and what value I gave each of them originally, and work out the new chance of success pretty much as if it were a new spell–and seriously, how much of a two-minute ritual can you cram into a twelve-second rush casting?  And does it make sense to say that because you have done this two-minute ritual before a couple times you will be just as good at doing the same ritual in twelve seconds?  I think of the fast talker competition, where someone holds the record for the fastest delivery of a particular Shakespearean sililoquy (I cannot now recall whether it is from Hamlet or MacBeth).  Does the fact that you recited that sililoquy a couple times mean you can now challenge the record?  You can deliver such a speech at a reasonable pace and allow yourself time to think of the next line without looking as if you don’t know what you’re doing; you can’t spit it out at record time if you have to think of the words.  Believe me, I’ve sung a few songs that have incredibly rapid-fire lyrics, and you had better know them cold if you expect them to make it to your lips.  So I have to recalculate, and I probably don’t have the original calculation handy (why clutter your character paper with the detailed numbers, particularly when that’s not character knowledge?) so I’m starting from scratch.

And if you’re forcing me to start from scratch to recalculate your chance of success for what is necessarily a different ritual (because it runs a different length of time) that feels to me like you’re doing a completely different spell, and I want it on your sheet for the next time you decide you want to do it in twelve seconds instead of two minutes.  It really is not the same spell just because it has the same outcome, any more than striking a match, using a cigarette lighter, and rubbing two sticks together are the same skill even though they all produce fire.  You are attempting to achieve the same outcome a different way, and the simple fact that you want it to happen more quickly proves that this is the case.

Of course, it does make sense that if you’ve done the same skill enough times you would be able to do it in less time.  That’s true when I cook, certainly, as once I know the recipe I’m not stopping at each step to check it.  And that leads to the second answer.  It’s built into the system that when you have used or practiced a skill long enough/enough times to be good at it, your “skill ability level” crosses the line from amateur to professional, and whenever you perform that skill you do it in half the time.  Your two minute skill takes only sixty seconds.  Continue at it and eventually you will be an expert at that skill, and it will take only one third as long as it took when you were an amateur–in this case, forty seconds.  No, that’s not twelve seconds; but if your ritual requires singing four verses of Onward, Christian Soldiers at thirty seconds per verse (sorry, Harry, it was the first decent example that came to mind), you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting it as fast as ten seconds per verse.  So “faster” is built into the system, but only after a lot of practice.  If you want the same outcome in less time, you really are trying to figure out a “faster” way to do it.  There is a saying in business, something like “Fast, good, cheap, pick two.” If you’re trying to get fast, you have to trade something for it–you’re doing it a different way, and a different way means a different skill, even if it’s a choice between the American Crawl and the Breast Stroke.  Keep doing it the same way and you get better at it; change the skill, and you’re learning more skills.

There’s nothing wrong with learning more skills–if one fails, you can use another.  In fact, if you botch on a skill you’re not permitted to retry it again immediately, but you are permitted to try a different skill that does the same thing, so having multiple versions of a skill can be useful in a pinch.

Anyway, that’s how it works and why.  I know it frustrated you; it frustrated me that you couldn’t see that to be the same skill it had to be done the same way.

Eric does all of this by the seat of his pants, and you can do it that way.  I don’t, because I am not good enough to keep the playing field level if I don’t keep track of the rules–but Eric is more like Ed in that regard, and doesn’t much care whether the playing field is level as long as it tells a good story.  It’s harder for a good player to play in a world like that, though, because things are not predictable–a spell that should be easy winds up being hard, because the same standards aren’t maintained from one to the next.  Part of play is learning what works, and what makes it work better.  If the standards shift, you can’t learn that.  It can still be fun, but it’s not quite the game we designed.

I also sympathize with your feeling, Harry, that you were trapped in the same world for a long time.  It’s not entirely my fault–people who stay with the ship take risks of being versed out in a lot of ways, and people who settle into city life, even taking a job with the city watch and starting a fire department, are not taking the same risks.  My second world was a modern vampire setting, and before long Ed was becoming frustrated trying to find ways to get me out of it, because I kept playing smart enough to beat his killer monsters.  Eventually he stopped running the game, and I was never really out of there; two other referees tried to pick it up, but they couldn’t see how to get me out, either, and both gave up on it.  Kyler was stuck in NagaWorld so long that he had to dream up something plausible but truly dangerous to try to get himself out of there.  Being stuck in a world in Multiverser seems to be proof that you’re a good careful player who knows how to stay alive.  It’s a compliment.  Reckless players jump from universe to universe.  You were never that.

I’ll address the cover value thing in a couple days, probably.

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