Occasionally in comments on this blog I've mentioned the idea of myth levels as a way to represent a step-change in capability between characters in a role-playing game. As a fan of Sergio Leone movies it seems only natural to devise rules like that. In this 2001 discussion (from Annwn magazine, by the way) between Tim Harford, Paul Mason, Ralph Lovegrove and me, we touch on that and other disconnects between how the role-playing world ought to be and how the rules actually shape it to be. I've seen a fair few role-playing games where the designer tells us how the game should be played, and what the resulting game world ought to be like, but the system they give us (when gamed, as it will be) doesn't lead to anything of the kind. Designers, it's like being the Founding Fathers - you want the game to turn out a certain way, you have to do the work.
Knightmare 4: Fortress of Assassins], not because he was a sorcerer, but because he was Hannibal. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure,” should be in the rules from the start, not as a “Pure of Heart” advantage (gives x10 ST). The best example of this, for me, was the Judge Dredd system. It was simple, it was stripped down, it gave everybody a special angle or talent, and it captured perfectly the “reality” that an unarmed Judge can take out a dozen thugs with tommy guns any day of the week. That’s the advantage of a focused system done well.
Dave: Or another example from Robin of Sherwood... Little John is wrestling with a stranger. It’s an edgy situation, a “friendly” match but not very friendly, as they don’t know who the guy is and they may very well rob him later. Then, angered by something or other, the stranger suddenly lifts Little John clear of the ground and throws him down. A conclusive victory (and very effective visually, as I recall, because of the sun behind them as the stranger lifts Little John aloft). Everyone sees this and, stunned, they go down on their knees, now recognizing the stranger as Richard the Lionheart. At the time, we talked about this kind of thing being represented by “myth levels”. If I’m myth level 10 and you’re myth level 1, you will not beat me in a fight even if you do have a much higher weapon skill. It’s back again to the idea that characters must be able to affect the narrative directly.
Paul: What’s the “narrative”? I think it’s dangerous to refer to characters affecting the narrative, because it seems to get people thinking in terms of manipulating their characters to make a story, which is different from immersing yourself in the character in the setting, and trusting in natural human processes to sort a narrative out of what happens.
Dave: I agree with you wholeheartedly. Instead of “affect the narrative”, I should have said “characters affect reality” – sorcerers and notable or mythic types especially. In fact, one thing we could say is that there is no difference (as Tim pointed out with the Hannibal example) between a mythically important character and a wizard. They can achieve the same results, even if apparently by different means. So maybe all magic-using characters should start at myth level 2?
Paul: Might it not be best to start off by talking about the spirit of the time and place, using whatever metaphors and references we can, before even starting to consider mechanics? To build up some kind of corpus of things we want the game to do before thinking of how to design rules that encourage those things to happen?
Dave: Agreed. Design should always begin with a feature-based description of the end product you’d like to have. Then we can start thinking about the way to achieve it.
Tim: If you look at the sources of inspiration for games like Dragon Warriors, you find that it doesn’t work the way it does in games. The effects are arbitrary, the limitations whimsical. Some great sorcerers never seem to cast a spell, while others never cast the same one twice. To a certain extent that’s inevitable: a storyteller can be creative and never needs to explain. A game designer is supposed to produce some kind of logic behind everything, for the sake of simplicity if nothing else. The lazy way out is to delegate all responsibility to the referee and players. That’s fine as far as it goes: they have far more responsibility for having a good time than any game designer. But professional (!) pride urges me to provide some framework to help this creativity, and to provide boundaries which are there to guide rather than constrain.
Dave: RPG designers have been trying since 1975 or whenever to create a set of rules from which dramatically satisfying results will emerge. Obviously this isn’t working – for instance, applying D&D experience rules to an online RPG like Ultima has just meant the unbridled massacre of new player-characters for their experience value. Taking Legend: we know we would like a world that is very like the Middle Ages but with a delicate flavouring of magic. But Dragon Warriors played strictly by the books would not deliver that world. Possibly we could get better results from rules that dictate the end result, not the way it’s achieved, as in Maelstrom. The special effects are left to the player and referee to agree. Eg, a wizard can exert an effect limited by distance, duration, and area, the degree of deviation from reality, and the degree to which other people’s wills oppose the effect. The last factor means assigning points from each person’s will into what they care about. Say my will is directed 30% into preserving my own life, 35% into immediate family, 15% into my lord, 10% into my church, 10% into friends. So churches end up very well defended from magic because lots of people care about them, even if only marginally. Subtle use of magic is encouraged – I might wait until you are sleeping, and your will is weaker, or I might find ways to distort your senses so as to trick you into walking off a cliff instead of zapping you directly. Or I might undermine your reputation with illusions so that friends and family gradually turn against you, thus stripping you of your defences. (The way Mastermind manipulated Phoenix in the X-Men, for those comic fans among us.)
Paul: There is another consideration: there’s little point in reinventing the wheel. It’s unlikely that Dragon Warriors 2 can be the same game Dragon Warriors 1 was, in the sense that it won’t be a mass market paperback converting gamebook readers into role-players. Rather, I would suggest, it might be best to approach it for what it really is: the game intelligent Dragon Warriors would want to be playing, 15 years down the line. Thus the magic system should be an attempt to do something that hasn’t been done before: create a magic system that actually feels like magic. Of the previously published magic systems, I still have a soft spot for Chivalry and Sorcery, simply because it managed to be genuinely arcane. But even if that approach had not already been bagged (and duplicated, by Ars Magica), it would still not quite fit the Legend that Dave described. As I understand it, DW magic should be more Mabinogion than Paracelsus. So it might be worth to start off by bouncing around general ideas about the nature of this framework. Does it involve “spells”, for example, or is it going to involve a more freeform set of magical “skills”? Is there going to be any effort spent on play-balance for magic, whether that be out-of-setting (mechanical) or in-setting (folkloric defences and so on).Another important issue: how homogeneous is it going to be, system-wise? Is there going to be the feeling that magic is pretty much the same however you learn, it, with only the decoration different? or will there be radically different systems to reflect a sense of diversity? That’s assuming there are any systems, of course.
Tim: (I like the idea as magic as a battle of collective wills. It seems to capture a great deal.) Homogeneity is to be avoided. I see a world containing magical creatures - fairies and sandestins, for example. They have their own ways of casting magic, which need not be transparent in the rules. Human magicians can bargain with them, or try simply to compel them to service. So that’s one way to command magic: by proxy. But I could also imagine a highly doctrinaire school which depends very much on ritual and on discovered spells. Here, the very rigidity of the spell system is an advantage: it emphasises rote learning. But such tricks as the “Imp-Spring Twinkle-Toe” seem another way to power; and the use of magical paraphernalia one more again. This doesn’t seem to be a problem. I wouldn’t want to see an attempt to break this down into “character classes”. I picture the “average” wizard in haphazard pursuit of magic in any form. We need to make the following concession to play balance: characters of equal myth level should be on a reasonably even footing. So a Myth 4 knight won’t be overly troubled by the enmity of a Myth 2 sorcerer - unless the knight is unwary, of course. Incidentally, I hate the nomenclature but love the concept of Myth Levels.
Dave: Again, I fully agree. I’m using this nomenclature just as a “developer interface”. And yes, a Myth 4 knight is of course on a par with a Myth 4 sorc. That is tautological - it’s the very thing that Myth levels define - eg, can this jumped-up little git really beat Captain Kirk? Of course not.
Ralph: Magic that feels “like magic” is quite a subjective term, but to me it suggests a slightly more spiritual or academic approach than the exoteric “press this button for fireball” spell system like AD&D. In order for magic to be truly mystical, it needs a cosmology behind it. This doesn’t have to be a defined “spirit world” as in White Wolf’s Mage... it’s more of a system of approach. The best model for magic are the real spiritual systems of the Kabbalah and other esoteric doctrines. The human body is the lowest, most base entity in the hierarchy of the human existence, and married to it is the soul, which (very) roughly equates to the personality and individual consciousness of the body. The soul is then a vehicle for the spirit, which is the “higher man”, the divine spark within a human. (To the more learned scholars out there: please forgive my bumbling through the halls of the arcanum, I’m still learning).Okay, metaphysics aside, what you have is this: the Spirit of a mortal is their true nature on the higher Spiritual plane of existence. Magicians are able to work their magic through their awareness of their higher selves. This is a concept prevalent in all sorts of spiritual teaching, from Hindu Akasha to Hermetic lore and Shamanism (in its broadest sense, encompassing systems such as Wicca and Scandinavian myth). In order to make it useful as a conceptual tool in the game, the “higher self” should have a set of statistics that are analogous to the “mortal self” on Earth - for example (picking a much used stat template) the higher self’s Fire, Earth, Air and Water translate to the mortal man’s Social, Physical, Mental and Magical skills respectively. The upshot is this: as the mortal man’s Myth status increases, it increases one or more of the higher man’s stats. Those Higher abilities might then be interpreted on the Earthly plane as incredible fighting prowess (Earth), the ability to sway enormous bodies of men and reduce a man to a quivering wreck with a glance (Fire), etc. This is not a particularly new idea: Runequest included the shaman’s fetch in its rules for Spirit Magic; Mage has the Avatar; Nephilim made use of elemental “Ka”. I don’t think that any of these games used the concept in quite the same way, however. The whole “Mythical Warrior” game is in many ways about both player and character ego, and the “higher man” literally is the Ego.
Paul: This also matches some of the early thoughts on the I Ching. Some writers argued that the oracle directly connected with a higher, simplified plane, and because the higher plane was simpler than our own, interactions between cause and effect were more amenable to comprehension and control. Thus, although the I Ching tends to be regarded as a means of fortune telling, to early Chinese theorists it was far more than that: more like poking around with the motherboard of existence. An adept was supposed to be able to use the I Ching to effect changes in reality. All of which suggests that this higher (Platonic?) plane may be a useful concept, if only by analogy, for the working of magic. How, if at all, does it relate to Faerie? It would be nice if not handled directly. In other words, a high ‘Earth’ score doesn’t just represent ludicrous brute strength, but the capacity to affect ‘Earth’ on the higher plane... which will in turn end up affecting the lower plane, in the same way that the ‘myth levels’ that have been discussed before do. Thus, a very strong enemy will be able to beat a weaker (but higher myth level) character if the contest is narrow down to the purely physical. The latter’s advantage would be, however, that their higher myth level enables them to find other ways of winning. This can be rationalised (within the game) in metaphysical terms as being the exercise of a higher, Platonic, potential. It also seems to represent the ‘genre’.
Dave: I just watched A Chinese Ghost Story 2 and was reminded that it was one of the inspirational sources for the myth level concept. The sword-wielding general in it is no sorcerer, but he is able to hold his own (briefly) against an invisible demon by dint of sheer skill. One idea might be that myth level lets you use the wrong skill for the job and still somehow get an effect.
Paul: I like that idea: presumably myth level is also useful in carrying on after one’s limbs have been hacked off? The danger here is of ending up with something that appears very similar to Feng Shui’s genre convention of “mooks” (whatever the hell that means) and “named characters”. On a very trivial level of course, myth level was something that original DnD level was supposed to represent. I also incorporate the “use any skill to defend against magic” in Outlaws, but without tying it to myth level (which doesn’t exist in Outlaws, except insofar as heroes tend to have higher skills).