Saturday, September 10, 2016

Mechanics: Ritual Path Magic versus Incantation

A fun system
Also fun.
A while ago, I compared Ritual Path Magic to the effect-shaping spinoff in Pyramid #3/66. A few days ago, a fully formed system based on the two materials was released for Dungeon Fantasy in the form of Dungeon Fantasy 19: Incantation. I have read some discussions that make me feel like some people have the wrong idea about the system - that it is a limited version of the original. I know it is just semantics, but I think a better word would be specialized rather than limited, but the system proper does have some interesting deviations from the ancestor, and while it is not the night and day difference of say, Sorcery and the original magic system, it is bigger than the difference between the original magic system and threshold limited magic, and anyone that knows what I'm talking about knows that they are really similar, but the differences are big enough to make you feel like you are playing a whole new ball game. Let's take a look at the differences.

Effect Shaping and Energy Accumulation

Hinted in the intro paragraph, this is the most immediately apparent difference of the two systems. Rather than rehash something I've already written, I want to point out why this is good for Dungeon Fantasy in particular. Mechanically speaking, the power-curve of the two systems is dramatically different. Energy Accumulation, the main casting mechanic of Ritual Path Magic (hereafter, RPM) has a polynomial power growth, while Effect Shaping, the mechanic for Incantation has a linear power growth. Added to that, RPM has a higher barrier to entry for "cool" powers. Incantation allows some pretty cool stuff without major difficulty right out the gate. What does this all mean in the end? 
The RPM mage at the low end is probably not on par with a low end vanilla magic user. However, if both invest a similar amount of points in talents, spells, paths, etc, eventually the RPM user will dramatically outstrip the vanilla user, and the gap will continue to grow. Note this requires path skills in the low 20s, including grimoires and ritual boosting perks, but once this threshold is reached, the RPM user is capable of gathering vastly increasing amounts of energy in the same time she used to, while the vanilla user has a small discount on a lot of spells.
On the other hand, Incantation gives access to "cool" spells right out the door, and provided you have a lot of time, you can choose to spend extra time casting an incantation and easily cast some much higher tier spells. As path skill increases, one gains access to spells of a consistent quantum better, that is, power increases linearly. The RPM user who goes from a path skill of 19 to 20 is gaining a lot more power than the RPM user going from 12 to 13, but the Incanter user going from 19 to 20 is getting about the same amount of benefit as the incanter going from 12 to 13.

Greater and Lesser Effects

Incantations don't use greater effects. You might think that this means that Incantation magic becomes way too strong if all the big spells aren't nudged upwards, but actually, I dunno if they researched this, or if it were a stroke of accidental genius, but because effect shaping power levels increase linearly as discussed above, this actually means that cost progression is now increasing in line with the rate that one increases in skill. If lesser and greater effects were included, high end spells would be increasingly out of reach for high end incanters.

Small Cost Changes

A few spell components have changed in price:
  • These cost more
    • Area of Effect (A lot more!)
    • Duration
  • These are cheaper
    • Bestowing a bonus
    • Bestowing a penalty
  • And this is new
The overall effect is that these numbers are tuned for the here and now and over-the-top. Kicking b*tt, breaking doors, and finding treasure right now. It doesn't work as well, for example, as RPM would in conducting a city wide hypnotic suggestion that everyone is just slightly dissatisfied with their toothpaste and would change brands if they knew there was something better. Instead, we are incentivizing big buffs/debuffs that last as long as a fight or a day's march.
In addition, in terms of money the following are changed:
  • More Expensive
    • Alchemy ingredients (only slightly)
  • Less Expensive
    • Portable Workspaces (mathematically speaking, point for point and minute for minute of penalties)
    • Grimoires (much less expensive)
  • Removed
    • It is impossible to buy "charms" which are now "scripts."

Discrete Outcomes

RPM has a thing for requiring GM oversight. I mean, all GURPS requires oversight, but RPM really requires a lot of judgement calls. Incantation tries to limit on-the-fly judgement calls by making a lot of spell effects discrete, and spelling them out. It also uses the magery equivalent as a way of measuring out maximums. In the same way that increasing Magery in the vanilla system allows you to heal more hp, make bigger fireballs, etc, the equivalent talent in Incantation allows bigger buffs and more damage as well. This makes the system more GM friendly; no fussing with adjudicating if something is too powerful or too weak, it says right in the book how strong you can get.

Out of Scope Abilities

Certain traditions exist in the Dungeon Fantasy line to disallow fronting on another player's niche or shortcircuiting adventures, and Incantation takes this into account. Explained on detail in an aside on p.13, It is illegal to use Incantation to do Druidic nature type of abilities, or cleric healing abilities. Teleportation is one of those shortcircuiting things as well, so for those familiar with RPM, there is no equivalent to "Path of Crossroads," though some of its dimension hopping powers do exist in other new paths. In this way, the integrity of the genre concessions is maintained. However, if a GM desperately wants to allow some of those abilities because maybe there is no Cleric in the party, or the player bought that one unusual background that allows teleporting, and thinks it won't wreck the game (it might not,) nothing stops the GM from having a hidden path skill in the setting, in the vein of hidden super spells for the vanilla magic system. RPM even has an example of a secret path baked in, so there's something for inspiration on handling.
Some paths feel like they are a bit "consolidated" in this system, but as a matter of fact, I don't find that to create a power balance issue. the path of "Elementalism" could be seen to be a combination of matter and energy, for example, and maybe just because they were each powerful in RPM, it doesn't feel like it's a game breaker to me.

Other Thoughts and Conclusion

I like having both systems in front of me and thinking about ways that I can borrow pieces from one or the other. I like using the effect shaping variant of RPM personally, and for example, I like the idea introduced of complementary mundane skills assisting path skill introduced in this book, as well as the way penalties are handled for speeding up a ritual in Incantation. I am almost considering removing greater/lesser effects as well for games where I use effect shaping, but I need to do a bit more math. I might do that in a bit. I actually made an algorithm to calculate the odds of an energy gathering RPM spell succeeding, which is actually somewhat difficult because it kinda requires something we programmers call "dynamic programming," or memorizing parts of the solution already calculated to help solve other parts faster. otherwise it takes minutes to calculate the odds of a single RPM spell; after rewriting the algorithm, it took a matter of milliseconds. When I do that, I can concretely demonstrate the power growth in the Incantation system versus the RPM system.


  1. "while Energy Accumulation, the mechanic for Incantation has a linear power growth"

    Typo? Should be Effects Shaping?


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