Posted by: davflamerock | October 7, 2013

Introducing: Magic: the Gathering RPG

Now I’ll admit that I said I didn’t want to turn this into an MtG blog, and I still won’t. However, because I do want to spend time talking about roleplaying games, and because this is a roleplaying game that I’m designing, I thought that makes this a good topic for the blog. The full ruleset as I’ve written (the most recent draft) can be viewed publicly here, and if you’re interested then I encourage you to read it. That said, I’ll give a brief rundown here as well. Remember, this has yet to be playtested (so if you want to give it a try, let me know!)

A Brief Explanation

The MtG RPG operates largely off of three main statistics, Power, Toughness, and Character. Based on their counterparts in the card game (Power, Toughness, and Converted Mana Cost), these stats govern most of your rolls in the game. Almost all rolls are opposed, meaning each player rolls a ten-sided die and adds their characteristic, and whoever gets higher wins (some skills or tests are made against the GM, who may either choose a static difficulty or roll their own die). In the case of combat, variable damage is also produced this way: your attack damage is equal to your Power plus the difference between your “to hit” and your opponent’s “evasion” rolls.

Zekrom, a sample Br human rogue from Zendikar, immediately after character creation

Zekrom, a sample Br human rogue from Zendikar, immediately after character creation

As you can see, this system is HIGHLY simplified. It’s so simplified, in fact, that I even omitted a section for spellbooks or equipment in the character sheet, so that I could keep it half a page long (and that’s just a set of empty tables anyway). In addition to working with only three stats, the game works only with three classes, in true Diablo I fashion: Fighter, Rogue, and Mage. Each is designed to have a simple ruleset for a variety of different actual professions (the fighter could be a soldier or a barbarian, the rogue anything from an advisor to a thief, and the mage a wizard, cleric, or druid), and each one has a focus. The fighter is capable of beginning the game with higher stats or special abilities, while the rogue is middling and has a host of skills, and the mage works with the lowest stats but has magic. There are no levels, but rather the game uses an experience system derived from Dark Heresy, where you acquire experience during game play that is then spent between sessions to purchase abilities, upgrade skills, or increase stats. Rather than using different purchase trees based on class, however, the xp cost of upgrades and abilities is actually determined by your color—for example, a White character will have an easier time getting Vigilance than Devour as a special ability. Combat and adventuring works, for the most part, identically to the RPG’s published counterparts (D&D, Dark Heresy, Cthulhu), just with a d10 rather than a d20.

The titular mechanic, Magic, operates very similarly to the card game. Each mage starts the game with a spellbook of 10 cards (usually 7-8 spells and 2-3 lands), which gets turned into a library (deck) during encounters and plays exactly like a game of Magic (albeit smaller, and with more complicated ways of playing lands!). Each spell included in the spellbook also indicates that such a spell may be cast once per day, encouraging the inclusion of multiple copies of important spells. In this way it operates similarly to D&D’s spellcasting system, but with a little more flexibility: you may cast used spells (which are stored in “the graveyard”) at the cost of acquiring significant penalties (Fatigue) that last the rest of the day, creating a soft limit where you only want to cast each spell in your spellbook once per day… but if you really need to, you can cast them again. It’s interesting to see a mage who’s been casting spells all day enter an encounter—most of their spells are in the graveyard, meaning they’re able to power out their remaining spells faster and by gaining Fatigue they can gain access to more spells than they would normally have during an encounter. But you’ll notice something distinct about these rules: most of the complexity is built into the magic system, and much of it piggybacks on rules a mage would already know (the rules of Magic: the Gathering), making this one of the simpler RPGs written.

Why Simplicity?

The first question you’re bound to have is, “Why in the name of all things good did you simplify to three stats, three classes, and some card game abilities???”

Undoubtedly, comparisons will be drawn between this system and the upcoming D&D Next ruleset. Both make heavy use of stats as the basis of a character’s checks and abilities, and both are highly simplified to flatline the learning curve (at the expense of game depth). While my experience with D&D Next has been largely positive, I still think I prefer Pathfinder as a D&D game (that discussion deserves its own blog post!). That said, there is a prominent niche that D&D Next will fill and do well in, and this game is designed for an even smaller niche. Not every game can be Pathfinder, but not every game should be Pathfinder. The desire to make this game came from an interest in roleplaying in the MtG storyworld—and therefore, the story must be prioritized over game mechanics. To this effect, I took a great deal of inspiration from the Call of Cthulhu game system, another one whose strength comes from the fact that its mechanics “get out of the way” of roleplaying and allow the game to be about the story rather than the gameplay. Obviously in Cthulhu, combat isn’t developed because it’s supposed to be something to be avoided rather than sought out, but even a simple combat system is fun and interesting.

I say this will be compared to D&D Next because both games were designed by stripping successful RPGs (predominantly D&D) down to their cores and building around those. The basic combat mechanics in D&D and Pathfinder—ones which operate with the simple rules of “1.6 standard actions per turn” and “move your pieces around the battle grid”—are what makes conflicts in those games fun. They turn a roleplaying endeavor essentially into a tabletop minis game with complicated hero units. But even better: such a switch into tabletop tactics game isn’t even mandatory, for if your group is having more fun roleplaying, then nothing’s to stop you from just roleplaying through the conflict entirely and never even breaking out the battle mat! What’s more, such a combat system is incredibly simple, and while adding on a huge amount of special abilities, modifiers, and decisions gives players a lot of options in character creation and play (allowing a high degree of personalization and customization), it doesn’t necessarily make the combats any more fun, just more diverse (and even basic character creation and combat mechanics such as those used here allow for very diverse encounters).

What’s more, It’s worth mentioning that there exist roleplaying games with two-page rulesets that are just as fun and interesting as Pathfinder (such as Cthulhu Dark). Therefore, when complexity isn’t needed for a positive and engaging experience, I’ve learned it’s better to cut the complexity and lower the barrier of entry. I will admit, in full disclosure, that my attitude on this matter is likely due to the fact that games I tend to like also tend to be the obscure ones; the Call of Cthulhu card game, for example, or the Lord of the Rings SBG. This means I rarely end up playing games with people who are already knowledgeable and invested in the game, so I end up having to teach them. This game falls squarely in that camp. I don’t expect this game to be one that gets played outside of my own (theoretical) playgroup, and I expect it will be played more due to my own efforts than anything else. Therefore, since everyone else who will play the game will theoretically be a beginner, having a system that’s simple to learn and gets out of the way of the storytelling is of prime importance. More than anything else, perhaps, being an easy game to learn and to teach lets players spend more time playing and less time figuring out how to play (Arkham Horror, I’m looking at you!).

The Rule of Three

So why choose THREE stats and THREE classes? The stats question I’ll get to below, but the classes question came on the heels of some thinking about a very important question: “Who wants to play this game, anyway?”

While this is probably one of the biggest questions any game designer should ask themselves, it’s also something that’s been interesting to explore. Why do people play roleplaying games? What is it about D&D that they enjoy so much that they keep coming back? In Call of Cthulhu it’s definitely the roleplaying and storytelling—that’s been all but fused into the rules themselves. D&D players also enjoy the roleplaying, but not exclusively. When combat begins and the battle mat comes out, it can stop being an RPG entirely and transform into a tabletop wargame. I’ve seen it happen with some groups, while more roleplay-oriented groups might forego the combat, or play in a heavily character-based manner, mostly talking through the encounter but never bringing out the battle mat or setting up miniatures.

So why do people play RPGs? Because they like improv and roleplay, of course, but also because tabletop tactics games are fun—even more so when you’re in command of a character you’re heavily invested in. What this means is that I need to make sure I’m fulfilling both of those roles for the players, so that the tabletop wargamers of the group have something to look forward to and do (because a lot of D&D players I’ve noticed are really using it as a cover to get a wargame experience in which they’re only responsible for one unit), and also so that there are ample opportunities for the roleplayers and storytellers in the group. But then there’s one more group of people that would play a Magic: the Gathering Roleplaying Game… Magic players! Of all the people to whom this game would be an easy sell, they should be it, as they are most likely the ones to already know the lore and culture and settings of the game, and they would be least put off by receiving cards as character advancement rewards. So now we have three different types of players who might want to play this game: tactical wargamers (fighters), roleplayers (rogues), and MtG card players (mages). Turns out they fit into class archetypes pretty well!

Now that’s not to say that they have to play those classes, of course. A rogue could be just as tactical as a fighter, or a mage be just as story-driven as a rogue. But it helps with the introduction: “Oh, you want to play an interpersonal character? Try a rogue, you’ll have all the skills you’ll need to be a versatile problem-solver” or “If you’re more interested in playing Magic with us than an RPG, try playing a mage. You’ll find the gameplay is very similar to the card game but with some different strategic options available.” All three classes still play like roleplaying game characters, though, so at the end of the day if you want to roleplay in the Magic: the Gathering storyworld, then this is the game for you.

Verisimilitude and Designing to an Existing Property

Before I wrap up, I do want to talk about something that I encountered while iterating the game mechanics, and that’s the balance between verisimilitude, good gameplay, and matching the source property. In RPG mechanics, a lot of attention is brought to the question, “How realistic is it?” The unspoken agreement is that verisimilitude to reality is a good thing, without consideration as to whether or not the gameplay is still fun or whether the added complexity is worth it. As it happens, I tend to fall into the “verisimilitude is good” camp, and so am always on the lookout for mechanics that I feel are more realistic than the ones I know to implement (two areas in particular where I’m always searching are realistic character damage rules and sanity rules). At the moment, my favorite damage rules comes from the Dark Heresy Second Edition, while my favorite sanity rules come from Abantey. As might be expected, then, my initial damage rules were implemented based on the Dark Heresy rules, where players didn’t have hit points of any kind, but subsequent strikes did increasingly harmful damage effects (gaining fatigue, taking stat penalties, eventually bleeding out and/or dying). I haven’t gotten a chance to playtest it, but I expect it would be a fun mechanic and I’d certainly want to give it a go. Then I remembered an observation I’d made when I first encountered Dark Heresy.

When designing to an existing property, it’s generally assumed that most of the players will already be people familiar with and fans of the existing property. As such, if you design the rules of the RPG to function or at least appear similar to the rules of the existing property, it will be easier to pick up (because in a sense, they’ve already learned it), and it will feel more familiar—I know this must be a Warhammer 40k game because the stats include Weapon Skill and Ballistics Skill, and because damage is measured by Wounds. In this case, I realized that as much as I like the Dark Heresy 2e damage rules, the health system in MtG RPG needed to be based on Magic, not Dark Heresy. So I turned back to a hit point system… but this time labeled it as a character’s “life total.” As I’ve already established that “player” = “prominent character” in the Magic jargon, assuming that each player has a life total already fits with how the card game works. What’s more, it meant I didn’t have to do any shenanigans with using a glossary for how healing worked: if you cast a spell that gains you 5 life, then your life total goes up by 5! In addition, I went a little further and made it so that summoned creatures healed at the end of each round, which makes less sense narratively but fits excellently with the already-established Magic rules, as well as making it so that summoned creatures had significantly less life than players without being glass cannons. I previously talked about how important it was for the game to be easy to learn and accessible, and one way to do that is by incorporating the rules as much as possible with the source material, so that players have in some senses “already learned” how the game works.

I hope this has given a little insight as to how a game comes together, and why some choices might have been made! Obviously I’m interested in finding people to help playtest the darn thing, so if this interests you then give me a shoutout!


Some New Paintings

PS: Of course I couldn’t write a blog post without sharing some pictures of what I’ve been painting! As it happens, these are some that’ve been painted between a little while ago to almost a year ago, but I just never got the chance to share them! Enjoy!

A piece I painted last December, this Reaper ship's figurehead is one of my more significant paintings.

A piece I painted last December, this Reaper ship’s figurehead is one of my more significant paintings.

Figurehead Side Figurehead Back Figurehead Front

I picked up this pirate duelist from Reaper simply because I thought the sculpt was cool. And now I get to show it off fully-painted!

I picked up this pirate duelist from Reaper simply because I thought the sculpt was cool. And now I get to show it off fully-painted!

Yes, those are purple highlights she's got

Yes, those are purple highlights she’s got

Pirate Back

Finally, here's a curious project: From Reaper's Bones line, I picked up a bunch of translucent green ghosts. They look pretty sweet being translucent, but I thought they'd look better if they had some defined solid sections. This was practice round for the other 9 I have.

Finally, here’s a curious project: From Reaper’s Bones line, I picked up a bunch of translucent green ghosts. They look pretty sweet being translucent, but I thought they’d look better if they had some defined solid sections. This was practice round for the other 9 I have.

More Ghosts!


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