Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Dramatic Magic in Dungeon World

As often, a blog post that came out of a twitter discussion. And as often, started by Quinn Murphy:
[The important thing] for me is in making casting dramatically relevant. Making choices, taking risks, raising stakes.

In order to keep magic feasible in combat or other timed situations where characters take turns, yet still have some sort of drama associated with the casting of the spell rather than just a couple of die rolls, a spellcaster would need to be taking multiple actions to complete their casting. The problem can be managed by splitting the casting into phases, in which different things can go wrong.

  1. Summon Energy
  2. Shape Energy
Dungeon World already has some drama associated with partial success in casting spells: the player chooses between attracting unwanted attention, losing the spell (Vancian style) or taking an ongoing penalty to cast the spell in the future. But the drama is so compressed in such a system as to not be significant... or at least not as significant as Quinn was intending.

Assuming that each spell (or supernatural effect in general) has some energy cost that must be paid,

Summon Energy (CON/INT/WIS/CHA)

10+ You gain 3 points of energy towards the spell
7-9: You gain 1 point of energy towards the spell, and choose two:

  • You don't attract unwanted attention from the energy source
  • You don't take -1 forward
  • It's not obvious what you're doing
Why the multiple stats?

CON: You're using your own life force to power the spell.
INT: Arcane magic, you're summoning the raw magic stuff of the universe.
WIS: Divine magic, you're channeling the power of the Gods.
CHA: Spirit magic, you're coercing another entity to give you the energy.

Powerful spells might require multiple types of energy to cast.

Shape Energy (INT/WIS)

10+ You shape the energy into the desired magical elements
7-9: You shape the energy into only one of the desired magical elements, and choose two:

  • You don't suffer a backlash from the energy you're shaping
  • You don't lose any energy (may be recovered with further Summon Energy)
  • You can continue to Shape Energy
Magical Elements? Up to the world, but a spell might require multiple schools or shapes for the raw energy to generate the desired effect. For example a Haste style spell would require manipulating both Life and Time. In a more Elemental system, you might need both Air and Fire for a spell. Or in a Verb/Noun system, telepathy or scrying might be Move/Mind. If you don't have all of the magical elements required, then the GM/MC will adjudicate the results of the spell. Once all of the elements have been shaped, the spell goes off! There isn't a further roll for this, it happens after the final Shape Energy.


  1. I'm not sure if I would use this as a general DW hack, but it's interesting to me for two reasons. First, because it made me realised that a fun miss option on the Cast a Spell move could be "you're still summoning the magical energy". Lots of potential options there.

    Second, I would totally dig a hack of Dungeon World that fully expanding this in a more a differentiated version a la Ars Magica (probably still my favourite magic system) with schools of magic, etc, and a whole bunch of different wizard playbooks.

    1. Yep, I wouldn't get rid of DW's magic system either. I think the fast paced spell casting (and combat in general) is a really good thing. On the other hand, a Ars Magica World/Mage World hack could be a lot of fun for a different style of game.

      Adding some of the above as additional miss options to Cast would be worth playtesting. I'll try it next session :) At the moment it's always "attract unwanted attention" until the end of the session, when the spells get forgotten. I have never seen anyone take -1 ongoing.

  2. No, I mean _miss_ options, 6-. 7-9 is a hit, but with unintended side effects, I would leave those as is.

    I take -1 to casting all the time when I play WIZARDS! because there's nothing wrong with failing. Also my WIZARDS! are too awesome to fail.

    They're like Orks like that.