Friday, November 22, 2013

Magic in the Shadows: Spellcasting

I want to go out on a limb, and voice what I'm sure is an unpopular opinion. I hate the magic rules in Shadowrun. In three editions now, 3rd, 4th, and 5th, I've yet to see a mage that wasn't balance-breaking. I've played mages, and run magic heavy games, and even did a stint with a group where magic didn't exist. The last was the most enjoyable.

While I don't have significant experience with magic in Shadowrun 5th Edition, I have read through the bulk of the core rules, and have formulated a number of opinions. First, let's look at the two traditions in the core rules. Hermetic Mages, and Shamans are given as your two default choices. This is in line with previous editions, and I don't find fault here. Descriptions for both are fairly clear, and explain the difference adequately. The rules go on to cover Magical Lodges, and this is where my first complaint arises.

I understand the need to tie a mage to a physical location. I get that. I think the concept of a lodge grew up out of the need for a "spellbook" concept. If you look at a mage in a traditional D20 setting, they are hamstrung by their spellbook. Get rid of a mage's spell book and you've effectively rendered them impotent. However, lodges don't really accomplish that. As most players won't craft foci, or cast ritual spells you only need a lodge for learning new spells. As that's not exactly a common occurrence what's to keep a mage from simply not buying a lodge till one's needed? Buy the materials, sure, but keep them in boxes in storage, when you need them, pull them out, learn a spell, and put them back away. A mage in Shadowrun isn't tied to their lodge, or limited by their lodge in any way. This means that a mage, especially in low threat settings is simply better than the rest of the team.

Let's look at the changes in spellcasting now. I want to start by saying I like that they kept casting multiple spells fairly simple. Take your pool, divide, roll, I like that. They kept the need for touch, or actual line of sight, again, I like that. I allows some very simple tactics to keep a team safe from magical over watch. Smoke is your friend. However, force, is where I start to have problems. It's not so much that I don't like how they determine if drain is physical, or stun, it's that the wording is terribly obtuse. What I *think* they are trying to say is that the hits you get on your spellcasting test determine if drain is physical or stun. Which just doesn't make sense. Sure, it's not a bad rule, but think this through. Magic rating 5, I cast a force 10 spell, and get one hit on my spellcasting test. It's still a force 10 spell, and I only take stun drain. They should have stuck with the force > magic rating = physical drain. I can't think why the would have changed it.

Then, to make things even more confusing they go on to reiterate the drain rules in the Cast Spell section, using slightly different wording. Given that the limit for the spell is the force, why would you ever, for example, light off a force 1 spell? It's very confusingly worded, and desperately needs a few concrete examples. If these rules make sense to you, feel free to comment, as I certainly could use some clarity.

Unfortunately, the rules continue to be clear as mud. We'll skip over Determine Effect, and move onto Resist Drain. They should have left this as "The Drain Value for a spell is given in it's description, and cannot be lower than 2" given that each spell description includes an F, for force, I don't see why they chose to include that it's based on force in the determine drain section. Also, why not print Force, instead of F? I understand ink's not cheap, but it took me a few reads through the chapter to connect F - 6 to Force - 6 (min 2) It's just shoddy. Also, while we're on the subject of Drain, a little reminder sidebar that resisting drain depends on your tradition would have been incredible. Given the high quality of the Matrix, and Combat, sections the Magic section comes off sloppy, and half-baked.

I don't mind the Spell Characteristics section, it's not great, and like the rest of the chapter it's needlessly cluttered, but it's not terrible. Once you tear the section apart, and re-write it with the appropriate tests, and limits in place of the page references it becomes usable, but I shouldn't have to re-write rules to make them make sense, and in this case that's exactly what is required.

Spell categories, are just as cluttered as the rest of the section Instead of a wall of text, a few good examples would have been incredible here. For example:

Combat Spells: Direct: When you cast a direct combat spell it inflicts a number of boxes of damage on the target, equal to your net hits. When casting a direct spell use on of the following tests. For physical spells, those with a Type P, the test is Spellcasting + Magic [Force] v. Body + Counterspelling. (if any) For mental spells, those with a Type M, the test is Spellcasting + Magic [Force] v. Willpower + Counterspelling (if any) Spell damage, once applied, cannot be resisted by any other means.

It's not a huge rewrite, but it follows the format of calling out tests directly like every other chapter does. It eliminates a lot of the waffling, and the parenthesis, for me at least it seems cleaner. Personal opinion maybe, but the whole chapter screams out for a rewrite in my mind. I won't even go over Indirect spells, that section makes my head hurt.

What kills me though, is when we get to the next section for Detection Spells, they go back to the format I used above, the tests are spelled out using the normal form. While it's still opaque, it's better. They have an example, it's a good one, it's game-relevant, and it helps to cover why you'd use a detection spell. Unfortunately it covers Passive detection spells, not active, which in my mind need the example more. Why burn the page space for an example here when the combat spells need one so desperately?

Then we get to Health spells. Good gravy! It's clean, the description makes sense, they explain Essence penalties in a way that works immediately. There's no confusion here. Whomever wrote this description, have them re-write the others. This is the best description section for the spells, and some of the best writing for the chapter to this point. Fortunately this spat of good writing continues through Illusions, a section that in 3rd Edition was murky to the point of being unusable.

The section on Manipulation spells is decently written, but I feel that they should have broken the manipulation spells up into sections based on their sub-type. For example, handle Damaging spells apart from Mental, or Environmental, or Physical. If the spell requires a different mechanic, then you need to handle them separately.

Next, we get to Counterspelling. I like the mechanic, and I like the way it's written. However, I really think they should have talked about counterspelling before the spell list. You need to understand the value of counterspelling before you slog through pages of spells. I have to say, I love that you can designate multiple friendlies, and they each get the full dice pool. In 4th Edition, or maybe it was 3rd, you had to split your pool, and you usually ended up with a die, or two, per friendly, and that never seemed to matter. In 5th Edition counterspelling matters.

I'd like to go over Ritual Spellcasting, but I'm going to borrow a saying used by my U.S. History teacher when covering the Vietnam war: "I didn't support it, and I won't teach it, you can read it yourself." I feel the same way about Ritual Spellcasting. It's a terrible mechanic, it doesn't fit with the rest of the world terribly well, and it's seriously game breaking if you're not prepared for it. Why did the designers think to burn three and a half pages on it? This is perfect material for an advanced sourcebook later, this isn't something you put in the core rules. So, want to know more? Read it yourself.

Next, tacked on seemingly as an afterthought, is the Learning Spells section. This is well written, but feels out of place for me. This belongs in the character improvement section, not tacked on to the end of the Spellcasting section. I like that they call out the benefit of Instruction, and they also call out that you need a lodge, but don't say that it needs to be your lodge. So, again, why pay for a lodge? I can totally see a Rent-A-Lodge concept.

Whew, that was a lot of Spellcasting hate, sorry. What I would have liked to see is a clear set of examples walking the player through casting a spell of each of the types, from start to finish, including tests, and attributes for the mage, and targets. Take out Ritual Spellcasting, and you'd have plenty of page space to do just that. Do that, and re-write the most confusing sections, add in a spell reference table, and I'd be much happier with spellcasting.

I'll touch on Conjuring in my next update!


  1. I understand I'm a bit alte to the party, by a few months, but I figured I'd try and comment and explain the amgic rues as I understand them,a s well as the changes CGL made, and why (again, my interpretation and understanding).

    The way I see it, with regards to Force/Drain/hits it should be seen as follows. The Force of the spell is the amount of inherent mana you are opening yourself up to channeling into the spell. A mage who is casting a Force 2 spell is deliberately only opening the valve a small amount to control the flow of mana, whereas Force 10 is them opening the floodgates entirely and seeing what comes out.

    However, just because you open a tap all the way, doesn't mean that the flow that can come through it can match the maximum capacity. Magic is nebulous, and mana has to be coaxed into doing the mage's bidding. A Mage with a significant amount of talent (say, Magic 6) but limited training (say, Spellcasting 2) can certainly TRY and draw 12 Force worth of mana into a spell, but, realistically without spending edge will only ever roll 2 or 3 successes on average.

    As such the number of successes rolled is how much mana you were ACTUALLY able to draw through the Astral and into your spell, as such it's the quantitative amount of energy having a toll on body and mind and thus determines your Drain. As opposed to force being a qualitative measure of potential.

    As a side note, one of my ways of dealing with these characters thematically is that glitches/critical glitches can, in my games have teh effect of applying Drain as if you rolled Force successes on the roll, regardless of your actual total successes, representing your lack of control just smashing your body with raw, unchanneled astral power.

    To answer your question, you would use a Force 1 spell if you only needed a very minor parlour trick... like using a Force 1 Flamethrower spell to light your cigarette if you were wanting to show off the fact that your a mage, say, to intimidate someone. It restricts you to the minimum chance of drain whilst practically guaranteeing success. It depends on if you as a GM allow people to use spells in narrative 'utility' methods like this, or only as a the rulebook describes them, of course.

    Any more explanations I can try and give if you see this, as I'm actually VERY fond of the new Magic rules in SR5 compared to SR4.

  2. So same as Bal I'm a little late but here goes. Lodges are a team's best defense against ritual magic. They also make defensible place to cast ritual detection spells. With a spirit acting as your spotter and moving at astral speeds in a search pattern you can quickly canvas whole cities with: detect enemy to find the bad guys and detect individual to find missing persons. I've even used detect (object) like a tracking beacon (don't ever accept business cards from a runner).

    Limiting the force of the spells you cast comes in handy. Often I limit the force on magic fingers, levitate, fling, and physical barrier to keep drain down as these are spells I use in creative ways to avoid combat. My goal as a mage is to keep drain to 2S as often as I can thus maximizing my ability to soak all my drain and stay effective. This in mind the force mechanic becomes gambling. I cast the vast majority of my spells at low force until the team comes across an opposing mage or spirit then I tend to go all out. I believe catalyst designed the force mechanic with exactly this in mind as it tends to keep mages from dominating the field as they did in 3rd and 4th by forcing mages to cast powerful spells at reduced force or risk high drain. You'll also noticed they made some very minor alterations to individual spell mechanics that had huge nerfing effects (Levitate comes to mind).

    Next, you can't break manipulation spells into categories. Creative use of many of those spells can cause damage. I regularly use levitate against snipers in high vantage points to drop them to their deaths, magic hands to choke out guards taking them down quietly over a couple of passes, and physical barrier during high speed car chases.

    I chuckled when I read the paragraph you posted on counterspelling. I'm guessing mage is not the usual choice for your character? Counterspelling is after spells because spells matter more to a mage player while counterspelling matters more to the street sam player.

    The problem I have is with indirect combat spells with touch range, mana type, and stun damage. No such spell is listed (though I don't see where it's forbidden to research). There is a reason for that; the mechanic is broken. Try it out for yourself, it will level anyone a mage get's his hands on. I simply banned it in my game.