Tag Archives: magic systems

Q&A: Magical World Building and Arcane Spell Failure

Is there any “realistic” reason why a mage couldn’t wear simple armor? Is armor really that heavy? Or is just some stuff leftover from DnD

This isn’t even a thing in D&D anymore, so let’s talk about where this is coming from and why it really doesn’t matter, unless you want it to.

It’s important to understand that the magic in the worlds you create isn’t real. You can base your magical theories off of real world mysticism if you want, but that will lead you more into a discussion in metaphysics, rather than, “can I cast spells while using a tower shield?”

D&D’s had a long history, and when it comes to Wizards (and Sorcerers) a lot of it trends back to one fictional character: Gandalf. Gandalf wandered around in robes, with a walking stick, so Wizards got the ability to wield a staff and couldn’t wear armor. The big floppy hat was optional, but encouraged. (There is a lot more to unpack with Gandalf, but this is, almost certainly, where D&D was drawing inspiration from.)

With the caveat that I never played AD&D in tabletop, my understanding with that edition was that Wizards were flat out blocked from casting spells while wearing armor.

My introduction was in 3rd Edition. This edition had a few major changes, including the ability to take armor proficiency, “out of class.” This meant it was suddenly feasible for players to roll up a human Wizard and immediately give them proficiency with light armor. The result was a rule called, “arcane spell failure.”

In D&D, spell casting has five distinct components: verbal, somatic, material, focus, or divine focus. Most spells only have a couple, and (as far as I know, none have both focus versions.)

Verbal components require the spell caster speak as part of the spell. Material components are consumed in the casting (there’s also a version that consumes XP off the character), Focus components are items which are needed for the spell but not consumed. Divine Focus components are the easier to grasp example here, because they’re usually holy symbols needed to cast the spell. Non-divine Focus items work the same way, just they’re not a holy symbol.

Somatic components are how the designers justified, “arcane spell failure.” The term “somatic” just means, “of the body.” In D&D terms it refers to very fine hand movements necessary for spellcasting. If a wizard wants to cast a spell with a somatic component, there’s a specific hand gesture associated with it, and they must replicate it perfectly. This is sensitive enough that wearing any armor could slightly “throw off,” the Wizard and cause the spell to fizzle. (The chance for this to happen increases based on the armor worn.)

So, this is where D&D is very D&D. Arcane spell failure applies only to “arcane” spells, and doesn’t affect divine spells at all. On the surface this sounds fine. Except, some spells appear on both Arcane and Divine spell lists. There’s no explanation why a Wizard needs to be much more precise when casting Bear’s Endurance, while a Cleric can cast it in heavy armor.

Starting with 4E, arcane spell failure has been mostly scrubbed from the game. From what I remember, 4E doesn’t even address Arcane Spell Failure at all, and I’m actually struggling to remember what armor proficiency even does in that edition.

From what I know, in 5e, proficiencies allows you to spell cast in that armor weight. (Though, I’ll admit, I haven’t read any of the 5e core books.)

So, that’s D&D. Other fantasy settings have their own rules, and they run the gamut. So, why did D&D go the route it did?

Probably balance. Originally the idea was that armor would make you considerably harder to hit in combat (conceptualization for how D&D’s armor system works is a discussion on its own), so, because spell casters would become godlike beings, it made sense that you’d want to keep them from also being effective melee fighters. Combined with there being some particularly nasty melee based spells in D&D which are (or were) high risk/high reward decisions.

Over time, D&D’s defense options homogenized considerably, and by late 3.5, (and also in Pathfinder) you could get a pretty respectable Armor Class on your starting character regardless of class. A Fighter or Cleric would be getting it from their armor, a Rogue would be getting it Dex bonus and their (lighter) armor, and a Wizard (or Sorcerer) would be getting it from their spells.

Modern D&D’s approach is actually pretty reasonable, it’s not that mages can’t cast while wearing armor, it’s simply that they spent their time learning their spells, and not martial combat. As a result, they never learned to fight in armor, and simply don’t know how.

This might sound a little ridiculous when you’re talking about leather armor, but it actually makes some sense for chain or plate combat, as both require training and conditioning, which an academic would (likely) lack.

Beyond that, in game systems, you usually see four approaches to mages in armor: Complete prohibition, negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, and agnostic systems.

Complete prohibition is where the mage simply can’t use armor (or can’t cast while wearing it.) This usually isn’t a result of the armor’s weight, but may be other factors, such as the armor (somehow) cutting the wearer off from “the flow of magic,” or creating some kind of magical interference.

Negative reinforcement is where the mage is penalized for wearing armor, but can still use it if they’re willing to make that sacrifice. Technically, 3e D&D was an example of this, because the Wizard would need to take armor proficiency feats, and then still risk losing any spell they cast, though it was technically possible.

Positive reinforcement is where the mage gains benefits from going unarmored. From a world building perspective, this can be very similar to the previous group, however if your mages have specialized garb that enhances their magical powers, that would be an example of this. If said garb can also appear as armor, then we have the next example.

Agnostic systems are where the game (or setting) doesn’t care what the mage is wearing. They can wear any armor they like without affecting their ability to use magic (though they still may need training to use the armor effectively, and as a result may abstain from armor.) As mentioned in the last paragraph, if you have specialized magic enhancing garb which also appears in armored variants (and that’s the only difference) then you’re probably looking at this. D&D’s Clerics are (ironically) an example of this.

So, you may have noticed I dropped D&D into two different categories here, and that is something to keep in mind for a sufficiently diverse world: Not every magic user is going to be following the same rules.

D&D’s Clerics have no restriction when casting in armor, their Wizards have to be very careful about armor because it impedes their hand gestures, and Druids have sworn oaths against wearing metal armor (if broken, these oaths suppress their their spellcasting.)

The structure of D&D encourages creating characters within limitations. This can be a very good thing from a character building (and world building) perspective. When any character can do whatever they want, they will tend to blend together. If your mage doesn’t wear armor because they’ve never trained to use it, and they can use their magical prowess to defend against attacks, that will give them a very different identity from a walking slab of meat wrapped in steel.

Further, when characters are limited by what they haven’t learned (or cannot do) because of their background, that will encourage a more diverse world, with a larger number of distinct groups and factions.

There’s also a potential for very direct explanations, like saying that a mage in your world shouldn’t cast electrical spells while wearing steel, because it will arc back onto them… but lightning’s fine, because that’s a bolt of plasma.

Similarly, geas are another potential restriction. Your character has magic, but it’s restricted by specific taboos. D&D has a bunch of these including the Druids (mentioned above), Clerics, and Paladins. If your setting has nature mages who lose their abilities if they, “use the artifice of civilization,” that could be a very chunky (or even debilitating) restriction.

Because you’re creating your world, you have a lot of freedom to say why magic does, or does not, play well with armor. D&D used it as a balancing mechanic, but turned it into a world building element until later abandoning it. While I’d strongly recommend staying consistent (you’re not cranking out multiple editions of a 45 year old RPG, and adjusting it to keep it fresh, and balanced-ish), it is a decent reference point for considering options in building your own fantasy setting, just don’t be afraid to step well away from it if you’d prefer to do something else.

-Starke

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I need some help, in my novel my main character has a lot of skills with swords but people on my fantasy planet have powers, so when my main character battles the villian won’t it seem usles to use swords when they can use powers?

Okay, I think you’ve mentally ended up in a rock, paper, scissors conflict. Which is it goes round and round until you decide one is inherently superior to the other so there’s no point in using it like rock or paper. Everyone chooses rock, right? So the best choice is paper! What’s the point of using scissors if it’s always smashed by rock? Even though scissors are still a viable option as they cut paper, they get ignored because they’re seen as less useful.

Except, scissors cuts paper. If someone comes to a match expecting their opponent to throw rock and think the best move for them is paper, then you change your move to… you guessed it. Scissors.

Right now, you’re thinking of those swords like some people think of scissors. Useless because everyone else has a rock. So step back for a moment, if your character is surrounded by people with powers and but has none of their own, they put their time in training with swords (or a variety of different weaponry, give them some credit here) then wouldn’t a part of their training also focus on dealing with people who have powers? Wouldn’t that be part of what they’re preparing for as it’s an eventual inevitability?

You have a character who is an underdog. They are absolutely at a statistical disadvantage, which is sort of the point of your story. However, if your characters are at a disadvantage, they don’t need to enter the conflict as if it’s on an even keel. If your hero cannot fight your villain then they must find a way to either:

A) Find aid to defeat them, some way to bring themselves up to their level by way of a friend helping them or through some other means. (If you’re writing a love story then it’s often the lover combining their powers with the hero to empower them.)

B) Find a way to bring the villain down to their level.

C) Subvert the villain’s advantages through some other means.

D) The hero goes to certain death, intentionally playing for time on the hopes or plan that someone more capable is going to defeat the villain.

If you can’t defeat someone conventionally, you find alternatives. If you want a “man to man” kind of fight then you build your hero and antagonist as equals where the skill difference between them is manageable or can be managed by the story.

You can build a very interesting story around a hero going on a quest or finding a way to subvert the villain’s magical powers. They might start feeling that it’s impossible and then through their journey with a side of character development realize that they either 1, don’t need to go through it alone (power of friendship), or 2, they figure out a solution to their problem that they can handle by themselves.

You have to decide that though and you need to come up with it yourself.

What you’ve created for yourself is the old analogy:

“Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

And now you’re gotten stuck on it. Your hero brought a sword to a magic fight. It seems impossible when you look at it from that direction. He’s totally outmatched, right? Magic beats swords. Guns beat knives.

However, the fact is that the knife can be quite dangerous in a gunfight, most people who do don’t stand opposite at ten paces and wait for the go signal so the other guy can shoot them. They start close and attack before the guy with the gun has time to draw. Can’t use a gun if you can’t get it out of your holster. It takes time to aim and fire. If the guy with the knife starts within grabbing distance as most muggers do, already has the knife out, and closes the distance then it’s over long before it gets started.

Funny, isn’t it?

Not so much, actually. The knife/gun thing happens in real life and people have died as a result of it. A large portion of people who choose to carry a gun as a form of self-defense get caught up in the same idea you did with magic. That so long as you have the gun, it trumps other weapons. All the hours put in at the shooting range don’t help much if they haven’t been practicing point shooting, quick draws, and learning to be aware of your surroundings.

Statistics, advantages, and conventional wisdom all have their place but when they’re keeping you from stopping, sitting down, and problem solving your situation. If you’ve hit a dead end then it’s time to go back to the drawing board and your setting’s magic system. Powers and magic needs limitations, it’s easy to make it so that they can do everything but not only is that unhelpful, it’s also boring. Sit down and think about limits and weaknesses that you can put on the setting’s magic system. There’s Vancian systems like in Dungeons & Dragons for wizards where they can only perform a certain number of spells per day or ones they’ve memorized. There’s Fullmetal Alchemists’ equivalent exchange.

One of my favorites is from L.E. Modesitt Jr’s Saga of Recluce where the forces of Order and Chaos meant that you could only perform certain types of magic certain ways with nasty side effects such as headaches, backlash, and extreme hunger just for doing it, much less doing it wrong. Chaos mages, though far more aggressive and actively destructive, for example were all doomed to die young and turn to ash. Their magic aged them rapidly. Those who totally immersed themselves too much in chaos could be killed simply by coming into contact with an object created by an Order wizard and even metals commonly associated with Order could be toxic such as an iron arrowhead. Order wizards, meanwhile, build. They can live for a very, very long time if they maintain their rigid orderly lives, but order is also extremely dull. Their creations can be actively destructive, but they themselves are limited to protection. They can only work magic through objects such as a staff whereas Chaos wizards just channel. Both groups need to eat a substantial amount of food or they start to waste away as the magic they use has a direct effect on their bodies equivalent to performing strenuous exercise. They can be blinded or even killed by overdoing or channeling too much magic.

One of Starke’s favorites is Mage: the Ascension (note: not Awakening) an urban fantasy/punk rock RPG system from White Wolf which features a concept called Paradox. Mage’s world is built on a consensus reality and the power of will, if everyone believes that there is no magic then there is no magic except for that one guy over there with a lot of willpower who decides there is and is now overriding everyone else. The trick with magic and paradox is that you can do magic, so long as you don’t get caught. If you get caught doing something that shouldn’t exist according to the consensus then you receive reality backlash that makes the spell go awry. Paradox doesn’t care about your intentions, it only cares if you did it.

This brings us to the “Threefold Law” in Wicca which firstly a real religious tenet and secondly is similar in concept to karma. It also appeared in Gerald Gardner’s 1949 novel according to the Wiki:

“Thou hast obeyed the Law. But mark well, when thou receivest good, so
equally art bound to return good threefold.” (For this is the joke in
witchcraft, the witch knows, though the initiate does not, that she will
get three times what she gave, so she does not strike hard.)

If you use a fantasy magic system in line with the Threefold Law then it’s an ethical test for your mage. You do good with your magic then you’ll receive good, but do bad or selfish acts and you will receive bad in turn.

You may not want something that costly for yourself, but it’s worth going through the fantasy section at your local library and making note of the different magic systems, the costs, and what they affect.

I’m not the biggest fan, but Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon starts with a protagonist who has no powers and has to live by his wits. (The first (few?) books anyway.)

So, instead of pondering your hero, ponder your setting and your villain. Once you know how both work, it often becomes easier to see the path out.

-Michi

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