The All-Mage Party: A Cautionary Tale
Many years ago I stumbled across a copy of Ars Magica, which is a roleplaying system/setting set in the dark ages revolving around cloistered magi doing arcane research. The recommended/standard adventure is one in which one of the magi ventures into the mundane world for obscure supplies, a task for which they are poorly equipped. So they take helpers with them on their errands, thieves and warriors and the like to help them navigate the cruel world outside of their ivory tower. The game system does some clever things with the players and the characters, suggesting that the players rotate who plays the magi and who plays the helpers.
I really liked the setting, and I particularly liked the tone of Ars Magica. It does a good job of establishing the mages as reclusive, socially-inept scholarly types of different persuasions, and the world outside the walls as being a dark and intimidating one for them in spite of their powers. I’m always looking for variations on my usual template for campaigns, and I thought that a more quest-based approach where all of the PCs were novice mages at a cloister would be a fun change of pace. I decided to keep the dark ages tone, and set it in Rumania during the time of Vlad the Impaler’s reign and the Third Crusade.
The idea was to send the PCs out into the world on three introductory missions, one with each of three head magi at the cloister. When they returned from the third mission, they would find the cloister pillaged and destroyed, its inhabits all dead or missing. This would then lead them on a quest first to rescue the captured magi from the school, and then to pursue the evil rogue mage that left the school many years ago. Somewhere along the way, they would figure out that one of the three head mages had betrayed them, and have to figure out which one.
I say “the idea was” because this campaign utterly failed. Part of the reason it failed was a near-TPK event where one of the four PCs was killed and another rendered insane. But the bigger reason was that a party of nothing but mages poses some serious problems.
How Magic Works
In pretty much any RPG where magic exists, it works in basically the same way: the wizard has great powers, but he has some limitation on how much or how often he can use them. In GURPS, my system of choice, every usage of a spell costs fatigue, of which the character has a limited supply at any given time. In D&D (at least pre-4th ed), the wizard/cleric has a certain list of spells that he could cast each day, and a number of times that he can cast them. In other systems, the wizard can cast as much as they like, but there is a chance of them taking harm from their own magic.
All of these systems serve the same purpose, to balance the magi against the non-magical PCs. The wizard can cast a giant fireball, but he gets tired easily and needs the big meat shield to protect him while he gathers his strength. Without these sorts of limitations, the wizard would outclass his companions and make them obsolete (and playing a useless character is pretty much never fun). You commonly see this occur in balanced systems as power levels get higher. As the wizard’s abilities grow, they get better at circumventing their limitations and begin to outpace the other players of equivalent experience/point levels.
Magic: It Slices, It Dices
Magic is, by its nature, kind of a trump card. Let’s say that you have a PC in your party that can cast a spell that opens locks. That PC now has an automatic solution to every lock they encounter. This puts the GM in something of an awkward spot. If you really want an inaccessible room in your story, you can’t put a lock on the door. You have to make the entrance to the room inaccessible in some other, probably less plausible, way. The knowledge of the lockpicking spell trumps all locks. Similarly, if your wizard can fly, or become invisible, or read minds, or walk through walls, these things all provide specific trumps to various situations.
In a traditional party, with one or two wizards and a few guys with other, more physical skills, this is a problem that the GM must work around, but it’s not crippling. So the wizard can open locks. You’ll put all of the cool stuff at the top of giant walls so that the thief gets a chance to climb up there and drop a rope.* If you’ve got a guy who can make himself invisible, you defend something important with wolves that can still smell him, and so on. That way, the wizard still needs the skills of the other party members.
When, however, you have a party full of magi, they are going to have a wide array of powers, of trumps that they can play in various situations. One can fly, one can become invisible, one can see around corners, one can heal wounds, and so on. The players have too many trumps. Game play turns into a series of puzzle solving sessions between the PCs, followed by logistical concerns. “Okay, we’ve scouted the area with Invisible Wizard Eye. We’ve scryed up the exact position of the ancient staff of Amun-Ra. Roger, you cast Flight on Steve. Then I’ll give him Invisibility, then he can fly over all of the guards to the tomb, where he can magic open the lock and grab the staff. Then we’ll all go hide and rest for 4 hours and sneak away.” What’s worse, if the magi encounter a problem that they don’t have a trump for, they don’t have a meat shield to hide behind. This tends to end badly.
Consequently, their plans either account for every possibility and succeed flawlessly, or miss some critical factor and fail disastrously. Counterintuitively, the second outcome is usually the one that is more fun. When everything goes to plan, it can be anticlimactic. When things go wrong, that’s when people have to get resourceful or lucky, and that results in better play experiences. None of this is to say that puzzle-solving isn’t fun. I, like most nerds, love me a good puzzle. But if people just want to solve puzzles, there are better, faster,ways to do that than RPGs. When a campaign breaks down to a series of puzzles, it’s underdelivering on the potential of the medium.
So How Do You Fix It?
The concept of a setting where the PCs are all wizards of some stripe is too appealing for me to just give up on it. The first thing that I’ve been thinking about is Magic systems without constraints. No fatigue costs, no finite number of spells per day, no percentage chance of catastrophe. This is magic more in the Harry Potter or Gandalf model – the wizard can cast as much as he wants. I would never consider this in a traditional setting because it would make the wizard so much more powerful than the other PCs. But if all of the PCs (and, consequently, the important NPCs) benefit from this lack of restriction, then power-balancing is kind of a non-issue. This turns the “anyone without magic is underpowered and irrelevant” from a bug into a feature. I hypothesize that if the PCs could cast endlessly, they will be far less inclined to carefully plan out each encounter, and more willing to just go in spells blazing (which lends itself to more Rockmost moments).
This is not to say that I want magic to be the equivalent of just having super powers. The fictional work that I really want to model is Lev Grossman’s book “The Magicians.” In it, the characters can cast spells freely, but casting requires a lot of concentration and calculations based on your current environment. So a character could, for instance, levitate a book off of a table. If they have time to concentrate and think about what they’re doing, and they are under little stress, they can do it pretty much every time. If they’re under stress and in a strange place, then it gets harder.
This captures, to me, the way that it feels like magic would work, were it real. It’s like computer programming. If you’re sitting at your usual machine with your familiar tools and settings in your office working on something, you’re pretty fast and efficient at it. If you’re about to give a major presentation at a conference and the system crashes and you have to try to fix it on some strange laptop and you only have ten minutes, it becomes much harder to concentrate and execute effectively. I want magic to play like reprogramming reality. This is, in practice, much more cumbersome than it sounds. If I want the players’ ability to perform magic to depend on the affects of outside factors, then all of those factors have to be delineated and assessed for every casting. But I digress.
The other factor that I think would help to prevent the “sit and plan, then watch everything unfold” outcome is restricting information. The PCs in the Cloister campaign had some pretty powerful information-gathering spells at their disposal, and this enabled them to scout and plan instead of being forced to act. If the PCs can’t scry up the exact location of the item they need, and then invisibly survey its location, then they are forced to act with incomplete information, which leads to more “well now what are we going to do?” sort of moments.
The Takeaway Lesson
I think that people learn more from their failures than they do from their successes; what I learned from this campaign is that chaos and uncertainty are fun. When the players don’t know what’s going to happen next, or how they’ll possibly escape from certain death, they’re excited, involved, on the edge of their seats. And when they come up with that amazing solution or that lucky roll that saves them – those are the moments that people tell stories about years later. Of course, sometimes they don’t find a way to save themselves, but that’s a topic for another post…
*Alternatively, you could just tell the PC that they can’t take the open locks spell when they are building their character. I find, however, that these sorts of restrictions tend to remove some of the enjoyment for the players. It’s fine to say that they can’t take Necromantic or Mind Control magic because it’s illegal in the setting. And it’s fine to say that the arts of healing were lost to time. But to say, “Oh yeah, you can fly, and walk on walls, and throw fireballs, and talk to the dead. You just can’t open locks.” tends to break suspension of disbelief. It’s obviously a cludge to stop the player from breaking the campaign, and it jars people out of the experience.