Ancient Scroll’s Secret Room: On Magic (or How Easy Solutions Can Spoil Your Game)

Slowly, a group of characters moves through the darkness of a dungeon. Blackness surrounds the PCs, someone stumbles, and the mage whispers “Let there be light.” Two seconds later a bright blue light bursts from his magic wand

Have you seen this before in your own games? I know it very well. And every time the wizard does his hocus-pocus, I ask myself: “Why the heck isn’t he just lighting a torch?”

It all comes down to the fact that I don’t like spellcasters for two reasons:

  • First, if they’re too powerful, they can easily derail your game. Really – why bother when there’s an archmage in the party? He can fix almost anything by himself, from creating light and making bad weather turn good, to calling up armies of undead warriors to fight by your side. Other PCs look weak if you compare their abilities to a spellcaster’s powers. So who’s the boss in the group?
  • Second, it’s sort of nonsensical to have powerful wizards in a PC group. If they’re so powerful, why are they wasting their talent to create magical light (when you can use a torch) or changing the weather (wear proper clothes, people!). It’s almost as though a mage acts as the group’s fallback solution. Bring a mage if you’re going to forget your lighter, umbrella, food, etc.

So how do you deal with a powerful mage in the party? Think! Even if your
high-fantasy/high-magic RPG setting is overflowing with magic, there have to be some limits on a spellcaster’s power. If you treat casting spells as more or less a normal activity, every activity has some limits, right?

If you’re a fighter, how long can you swing a sword before you’re exhausted? If you’re a scholar, how long can you sit in a library reading ancient scrolls to discover forgotten knowledge before your eyes and brain stop working? You have to rest from time to time. A thief? Ranger? Cleric? The same.

No matter your RPG system, your spellcaster will need to “fuel” his or her magic in some way. Perhaps it’s through physical strength and stamina. Maybe it’s strictly brain power. Or maybe it’s all about the spell components. Whatever it is, it has to be limited. Renewable, but limited. And when they reach that limit, a spellcaster’s ability to craft magic should be significantly decreased. The good thing is this works for all spellcasters whether friends or foes.

Players may complain that placing such limits on their power will spoil their fun. “My wizard will need his power back before the final battle!” True. So if you want power for that epic battle? Try to conserve energy and use a torch instead of casting a magical light! It’s pretty easy.

For example, there was a necromancer on the team in one of my games. I never saw him use magic during the campaign, but in the final battle he raised hundreds of undead from a cemetery to help his team win. Epic! Did the player running the necromancer have fun? Huge fun! Of course there was a cost for such power after the battle… The necromancer was unconscious for the next three weeks. It costs to wield such power. Wield too much and it may even kill the character.

Limiting your spellcaster’s tendency to use his powers can do a lot of good for your game. Especially if you love a narrative storytelling approach like I do. Why?

Let’s get back to the necromancer. The players knew that he was spellcaster. Some even suspected his grim “specialization.” But no one had ever seen him doing magic until the final battle. And it was great. The other players were even trying to investigate to figure out what he could do. There were even bets and gossip suggesting that he wasn’t that powerful. Or possibly that he wasn’t even a mage. He was using his powers, but always in a secret way in places where he was alone. The players still don’t know how much he helped them during the whole campaign.

Here’s another way to give your game an extra twist with a magic user in the party. It’s more effective with higher-level parties, but can work in low-level groups as well. Put a low-level spellcaster in the party. Then convince the player he or she will get some boons later in the game if they play along and not use all of their magical abilities. Ask the player to pretend that the character has more power than they actually have.

This ruse can create many funny and potentially dangerous situations. What happens if the party discovers their archmage is really just an apprentice? It depends on how you like to run your games. Maybe the players become convinced that their spellcaster is really great, just has horrible luck…

Have a magical weekend folks!

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