Rethinking magic systems in MMOs


Like some of you, I imagine, I’m rather a sucker for a good fantasy novel. There are terrific books out there full of wild imagination that have gone beyond the Tolkein tropes and done their own thing while still giving us alternate worlds, epic journeys, and terrifying creatures. What I’m always on the lookout for in these books are creative magic systems. It seems like modern authors actually pride themselves on bucking generic systems and embracing inventive notions. Brandon Sanderson is pretty good at this, but he’s not the only writer who’s been doing this.

In these hands, magic can actually be as fascinating as the tales in which they take a part. Learning the ins and outs of these systems, the rules, the boundaries, the application is part of the fun of reading books. When I was a kid I loved the Xanth novels, and in particular how each character in the entire country would get a magic talent — although some of these were low-grade duds and some were powerful tools indeed. I couldn’t wait to see what talents the author thought of next.

One of my long-standing gripes with MMOs is how lazy most of them are in regards to magic. If the fantasy novel genre is on the cutting edge of thinking up new systems, MMOs are stuck in the ancient past, all playing off the same rulebook. I think it’s high past time that devs stopped dipping into the shallow trope well for magic and instead realized what a boon it could be for their games.

Fire. Water. Earth. Air. Heart. C’mon people, how many times have we seen the same-old elemental mages? I’m sure there are those out there who can’t get enough of flinging fireballs and snowballs at foes, but why a “mage” always has to hew to this limited elemental framework is beyond me. I mean, if you HAVE to do elements, surely there are more than just these to work with. But why do elements at all?

And you know what else bugs me? How there’s no journey to becoming magicians and wizards in these games. The second you create a character, poof, you’ve inherited some sort of infallible magical ability to consistently sling spells with no prior training that we’ve seen, no quest to attain magic, no study of what these systems entail. It’s just a DPS number wrapped up in a different type of particle effect, not true magic.

Magic systems could be so, so much more. It could be rare, requiring an epic amount of effort and deduction to attain. It could be — and follow me closely here — not always combat-related. Why couldn’t magic be used more for crafting, or exploring, or movement, or even RP-type social stuff?

Magic systems could involve alignments, taking players down paths that could be both beneficial and harmful. Do enough blood magic, and you might start earning a terrible reputation and be shunned in some communities. Touch on planes of existence that you were never meant to broach, and your character might start to go a little insane and babble from time to time. Use your magic to help others enough and you might gain the ability to perform cantrips without any preparation or cost.

What about spells that you can make yourself by mix-and-matching ingredients or features together? What about allowing players to mold their own type of magic classes instead of shoehorning them into a narrow path? What about resources that go beyond mana, perhaps making every spell used done so at a significant cost? What if magic was used to enhance other classes but not be the core of them? What if you could learn enough magic to become a mentor to other players, able to teach adventurers simple spells as you go about your way?

Harry Potter isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but look how much magic was used in those books outside of pure combat purposes? Wouldn’t it be awesome to play a game where magic was used just as much as a storytelling and puzzle-solving tool as it was to fight others?

I don’t have any definite answers, and maybe it’s all for naught considering how combat-centric fantasy MMOs tend to be, but I’m just throwing my cry out there that magic can be… well, magical if studios would only take a minute to stop doing the same thing as everyone else and try a different approach.

17 thoughts on “Rethinking magic systems in MMOs

  1. Just wanted to mention Ultima Online here. There you didn’t level, you gained proficiency in skill. You had to cast the lower spells repeatedly to improve and attain the ability to cast spells from the next tier. Spells you didn’t acquire until you found the scroll and added it to your spellbook. While that became dirt easy with tons of scrolls available later, it was at least different than most mmos. There was also a selection of non combat/non buff spells that were quite fun. I had a lot of fun with that sandbox until they got carried away with some of the expansions. Moved on after Age of Shadows.

    Anyway, it was one of the better handlings of magic in the world in my opinion.

  2. One of my favorite parts of playing the Druid/Shaman/Warlock classes in WoW had been the class quests to master a new shape/element/demon. The quests made it feel like more of an achievement that was earned rather than just “hey I got to this level and spent some money at a trainer” (or, got to the level and *poof* instantly knew the skills).

    Even games that had such things, though, removed them or “streamlined” the classes. I don’t know if the time for them has passed, or if the pendulum might swing and open the way for even more interesting systems. I see Mezmo’s mention of Revival, so maybe sandboxes will lead the way, but how popular will they be? Enough to push some of the aspects more mainstream?

  3. Balance issues. MMO players being what they are when it comes to having something that someone else has and feeling they should have a right to have it as well. The problems with balancing all of this out. The casual vs. hardcore crowds arguing over time to completion and complexity. I don’t know. I could go on.

    But having said all that, I absolutely and completely agree with you. Mages aren’t “fun” anymore. I mean, I’m currently leveling up a Magicka Dragon Knight in ESO and having fun burninating the country side. But there’s no spells for use outside of combat. No levitate spell that does nothing more than levitate you for funsies. There’s no “knock” spell for unlocking chests. It’s just the same ole same ole elemental mages with Mad Deeps. Blah. It’s all very generic and copied from every other game.

  4. Part of the barrier to adopting the magic systems you’d like to see is that in fantasy novels, that power is rarely checked by anything other than the personality of the character and the needs of the plot. Those artificial limits have to become hard limits in a game mechanic. Can you imagine trying to implement, say, David Eddings’ Will and the Word in an MMO? How would you even begin to do justice to its scope and setting while limiting its power?

    And from tabletop games the power curve is different for magic users. You can embrace “the journey” because the characters low power level early on is balanced by a greater power level later. You simply can’t follow that paradigm in MMO’s without rewriting everything about the genre’s endgame. Much as I’d like to see that, I don’t think its going to happen.

    Props though, to Lord of the Rings Online for attempting at least some of what you are talking about. From my experience the Loremaster was a snooze fest and the Minstrel was god-level OP, but at least they tried.

  5. I think it would be interesting if there somehow was an MMO made with the Mistborn books’ single-power “Mistings.” Sanderson defined the powers, explained limitations, and all of that already, so I’d think that might be easier to adapt to an MMO. Ranged dps characters could be coinshots, rogues might like the increased senses granted by Tin, or even more might like the ability to hide themselves using Copper, tanks might like to burn Pewter for self-buffing or even Iron to pull things toward themselves. Healers would be interesting to pull off in that world, though — Gold metalminds under feruchemy can heal themselves, but there’s no real power to heal other people in that world. And then there’s the deal where coinshots can more or less fly as well as shield themselves from metal, so why wouldn’t everyone select that overpowered ability, right?

    Ah well…. it was a pipe dream….

  6. The thing with magic is that in video games magic went from being a special, limited power, to be husbanded and used only at need, to a system where magic is essentially a special gun and the mana bar is the magazine that determines how many shots you get to fire. Even early EverQuest had slow regen so that you might opt to finish off that orc by beating it with your staff as opposed to blasting it one more time. But then, of course, mana management became bothersome in games like WoW, so that got nerfed to the point that people worry more about cast times and cool downs and having to stand still *cough* than their mana bar.

    Magic was so cool that we always wanted more… until we had so much that magic became sort of “meh.” As somebody wryly pointed out a long time back, the average caster in LOTRO probably uses more magic in their first hour than Gandalf did throughout the whole of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

  7. Let me double up on the Revival recommendation! Magic in the world of Theleston will be very rare and with uses far outside of combat… I think it’s just what you’re looking for!

    A blog describing a day in the life of a magic user:

    And a forum thread with many details compiled and developer responses…

  8. The magic system in my books is toxic to humans but they still use it, become addicted to its power and in the end it kills them – although the death part might not work in an mmo the cost to use the power would be an interesting mechanic.

    also would like to see a low magic mmo world where it took a lot of effort to us magic and the magic wasnt at all useful for combat. Ive always been a fan in pen and paper rpg of systems with low magics and less keen on the wizards rule the world types

  9. Magic being rare, special and hard to get seems to me to be unworkable in most current MMOs. Look back to how Jedi were handled in SWG. Eek. If the magic doesn’t help your character mechanically in combat, it will get ignored. If it does, it will be mandatory. Some kinds of fun just don’t seem to work well with thousands of strangers. A special mention here for Asheron’s Call and their ‘everyone has to discover their own spells’ system, which added some flavor or at least some expensive grinding before an application was created called spiltbeans(IIRC) that just gave you all the answers.

    That’s assuming the typical modern class-based dungeon/raid/endgame forum-whining sort of MMO. If you manage to make a commercially successful MMO where combat and relative power levels aren’t important, I would love to try that out, but I don’t see anything like that around.

    Single player or small multiplayer games can do a lot better. There are some brilliant magic systems available in modded Minecraft. The GUI-less flower magic of Botania, the research-oriented ritual and wand magic of Thaumcraft, the you-can-probably-guess of Blood Magic, the custom spell creation and personal improvement of Ars Magica … and those are just the ones that are really popular. I’m sure there are others. If you want that sort of experience, you can get it from a single player experience more easily, I think.

  10. Asheron’s Call had a different take on magic systems. Players had to research spells, which was done by combining spell components and figuring out a formula. This was eventually cracked (SplitPea) and eventually the spell research was removed from the game.

    Many spells had a positive/negative aspect – buff me, debuff creature, increase my armor, decrease theirs, etc.

    The elements (for war magic) were slightly different: fire, frost, lightning, acid.

    As much as I’d like to see a really out there inventive magic system, MMOs probably aren’t the place to see it happen – systems need to scale to the entire playerbase and everybody has to be able to opt in. As cool as various magic systems are (I’ve read basically everything Sanderson has written), he doesn’t have the issue of the entire population potentially wanting to use magic, and doesn’t have to balance its power against anything.

  11. I just completed Risen, a Piranha Bytes RPG from 2009, and it was interesting how far I had to play before I got access to offensive magic. I think played a dozen hours being forced to use melee combat (or bow/crossbow) and then I also had to go through several tests first, most of which didn’t even have anything to do with magic (staff fighting for example).

    Finally, after completing the tests, an initiation cutscene just dumped the first point into three offensive lines (fireballs, magic bullets or freeze) after which I could start increasing the line of choice at a trainer.

    There were only those three offensive spell types, but there were actually a lot of non-offensive stuff too. I could use telekinesis to flip a trap lever or grab an item “The Force”-style, I could change myself into a small snail-like nautilus and enter rat-size holes, I could speed up movement for a limited time, or I could throw a “joke”-spell at a miffed NPC.

  12. I rather fell in love with Alan Dean Foster’s Spell Singer novels with the obvious nod to bards. However magic there is based on scientific principles and each spell has its own exact components rather than modular all spells require this one ingredient. Even if each elemental effect had different ingredients to create a real choice. Unfortunately truly imaginative solutions are unlikely as business needs to deliver games mean lazy choices.

    And I loved Xanth, pardon the puns!

  13. Sign me up.


    that’s the part about playing a pencil and paper MMO that I like the most; the searching for scrolls and spellbooks from the past that your character has to learn to progress.

    I also loved it in the Baldur’s Gate series, which had the standard D&D 2e version of “find the scroll and try to learn the spell” method of expanding your spellbook. I know that some people felt it was “fiddly” and “took too long”, but for immersion’s sake it was worth it.

    One thing that might make an alternate magic system work in an MMO is an MMO where all of the toons are mages of a sort, and the mages were by far the most important and powerful people you’d meet. Think of the pencil and paper Ars Magica environment, but in an MMO.

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