Saturday 17 November 2012

Wild Magic and the Humble Hold Portal

For a long time now I've been thinking about wild magic (as introduced in the Tome of Magic for AD&D 2nd Edition). I've always found the idea of it super appealing -- I love random tables and elements in RPGs, so a whole class which centres around randomness sounds like a winning idea! However I wasn't that impressed with how the concept was implemented in the Tome of Magic. Two flaws with it which stand out to me are:
  1. There's not enough randomness. When a wild mage casts a spell there's only a 5% chance of getting to roll on that awesome table of random magical happenings (which is what it's all about, as far as I'm concerned, for a player who's chosen to play a wild mage). Otherwise the only "wild" element is that the spell might manifest as if it was cast by a magic-user of a level or two higher or lower. For a lot of spells this makes no difference.
  2. It's too complicated and not fun. Who wants to spend time working out fiddly things which change due to a spell being cast as if by a 3rd level instead of a 2nd level magic-user?
Admittedly, both those complaints are from the perspective of someone who's never seen a wild mage in play. Perhaps it works out great, but I doubt it somehow. (If anyone reading has actually played a wild mage, I'd be very interested to hear how it was!)

Another aspect to consider is that if one wanted more random results more often (as I do), then a single d100 table is going to wear thin pretty soon. Of course there are huge d10,000 (I think?) tables of random magical happenings out there on the internet, which could be used instead. I've been thinking of something else, however.

What about if (a bit like in DCC RPG I suppose) each spell had its own table of results? A table with a few dozen random results for each spell would probably be enough.

So here's how I thought it could work:
  1. Wild mages can memorize twice the number of spells normally allowed. (Crazy optimisational techniques allow them to stuff extra spells into their brains, at the expense of accuracy.)
  2. Each spell has a 49% chance of working "as written", and a 50% chance of coming out warped in some way.
  3. There's also a 1% chance of something just totally weird and unrelated happening (see your handy d100 / d10,000 / whatever table of random magical happenings).
  4. So, when a wild mage casts a spell the player rolls d100. If it comes up 00 then something weird happens. All other even results mean the spell works as normal. All odd results mean that something, well, odd happens.
 Sounds like a pretty simple, fun system. (Albeit very table heavy!)

To test out this idea, to see if it feels even feasible, I thought I'd have a go at writing a table of random results for a single spell. To that end I chose one of the least "sexy" spells on the 1st level list: the humble hold portal.

(Entries marked with a - mean that the spell's normal effect does not occur, and is completely replaced by the described effect. Entries marked with a + mean that the listed effect occurs in addition to the spell's normal effect. Unless otherwise specified, the normal duration of the spell applies.)

1    - The caster's mouth is magically held shut.
3    - The caster's eyes are magically held shut.
5    - The portal is blasted by magic and destroyed.
7    - The portal is magically held open.
9    - The portal momentarily becomes a dimensional gate and releases a hostile monster of 1d8 HD.
11    - The portal is covered in cobwebs.
13    - The portal transmutes into a gelatinous cube.
15    - All portals within 30' fly open and a blasting wind and insane cackling laughter fill the area for the duration.
17    + A tiny golden key appears in a random location within 20'. It can open the portal.
19    - A wooden bar appears, nailed across the portal. It is painted with red and yellow stripes, and the phrase “ACCESS DENIED”.
21    - A face manifests on the portal and will attempt to discourage anyone from passing through.
23    + Each creature attempting to open the portal may make a save vs spells to be successful.
25    + The portal is affected by a probabilistic instability – its existence varies for each creature viewing it (50% chance of either existing or not existing). Creatures for which the portal does not exist can pass through it freely. Those for whom it exists are barred, as per the normal effects of the spell.
27    + A letterbox (marked “MAIL”) appears in the portal. It can be opened normally.
29    + Glowing writing appears on the portal, stating that only a certain type of creature may enter (1. elves, 2. goblins, 3. undead, 4. dwarves, 5. wizards, 6. lizards). This is true.
31    - The portal is locked by a mechanical lock, which appears in its construction for the duration. It can be picked normally by a thief.
33    - The portal is overgrown with thorny plants. Can be cleared in 1 turn.
35    + A face manifests on the portal and will grant access to anyone who can solve a riddle it poses.
37    + The portal belches forth a vomit of slime and debris, covering all within 20'. It then closes and is held as normal.
39    - The portal is concealed by a phantasm which makes all who see it ignore it. Any creatures which already knew of the portal's existence may save vs spells.
41    - A phantasmal door appears next to the targeted portal.
43    + A skull appears, chained onto the portal. It pronounces the doom of any who approach the portal.
45    - Two guards (1HD, AC 5, long sword) are summoned for the duration. They will attempt to prevent anyone from passing through the portal.
47    - Anyone passing through the portal is overcome with: 1. cosmic ecstasy, 2. terror, 3. sorrow, 4. existential angst, 5. carnal lust, 6. blood lust.
49    - The portal leads into an illusionary meadow.
51    + For the duration, the portal's surface changes into a mirror which reveals invisible or ethereal objects/creatures.
53    - The portal acts as a dimension door to a random location within 360'.
55    - The portal screams when opened or closed.
57    - The portal is held open, but a sheet of magical flame appears, filling its aperture. Passing through causes 1d6 damage.
58    + The portal flickers with (harmless) arcane fire of odd colours.
61    + The portal shudders and vibrates.
63    - The portal vanishes entirely and permanently. It is replaced by a section of blank wall.
65    + When the duration ends the portal acts as a dimension door to a random location within 360'. This effect lasts for 6 turns.
67    - The portal becomes a gateway to another world.
69    - The portal is concealed by an illusionary wall.
71    + The portal flickers with arcane fire of odd colours. The fire causes 1d3 damage to anyone touching it.
73    - The portal is blasted by magic and destroyed. In its place appears a wall of force.
75    + The words “TRY YOUR LUCK” appear on the portal. Anyone attempting to open it must roll 1d6: 1. the portal opens, 2. affected by sleep, 3. affected by cure light wounds, 4. affected by confusion, 5. teleport to the other side of the portal (which remains held), 6. blinded for 1d6 turns.
77    - A dimensional loop manifests, causing anything which moves through the portal to end up where it came from.
79    - The portal is consumed by a howling dimensional void, which remains for the duration. Anything put into it is irrevocably destroyed.
81    + Anyone touching the portal is electrocuted for 1d4 damage.
83    - The portal metamorphoses into a mimic.
85    - The portal is covered in sticky strands, as per the web spell.
87    + Sturdy iron bars manifest to augment the spell. The bars are permanent.
89    - The words “DEATH TO ALL WHO PASS” hang above the portal in sinister glowing script. Any who pass through must save vs death or die.
91    + All portals within 30' are held.
93    + A symbol of fear manifests on the warded portal.
95    + A monster of 1d8 HD is summoned and guards the portal.
97    - The targeted portal is affected by arcane lock.
99    - All portals within 30' vanish entirely and permanently. They are replaced by blank walls.

I conclude that it does feel like a feasible system, though would be very time-consuming to write the required tables for all 105 basic Labyrinth Lord spells! Who knows, maybe something I'll work on slowly.


  1. I think the table per spell approach is impractical. Even in DCC, where the work is already done for you, it feels a bit too cumbersome.

    A general d100 (or even d30) table would probably work better, with the restriction that no entry could ever be used more than once. I think I first saw this idea in Vornheim, where Zak suggests replacing table entries between sessions after they are used. It's essentially deferring the necessity of creating new content until it is actually needed. As long as there are enough entries in the table to lead to surprise at the table, you don't actually need a huge set of possibilities at any one time, I think. If you still wanted to go per spell, perhaps having five or six options for each might be enough (and you only really have to have tables for the spells the wild mage can cast).

    I do like this table above that you put together though... especially some of the more offbeat entries, such as the summoning of soldiers to defend the door.

    Maybe that's the real key to a good wild magic system; having a different and interesting way that the final effect manifests in every case. What about something like the following. When casting a spell, the wild mage makes a save versus magic. On success, the player comes up with what causes the general effect. On failure, the referee does. Minor side effects can also be created if they are somewhat related, but additional saves may be required at the request of the referee.

    1. Hey Brendan... Interested to hear what you find cumbersome about the DCC table-per-spell system... Is it simply the practicality of needing the tables at hand every time a spell is cast? I've not played DCC, but I find the tables very cool.

      Good point about only needing tables for the spells the MU in question can cast. If I do play test a system like this, that's definitely what I'll do. I'd need at most 12 tables (one per 1st level spell) to start off with.

      The problem I see with the idea of smaller tables of results, and also with the idea of the player/referee coming up with odd results during play (rather than reading from a table), is that you'd lose the wide range of results. In a table with 50 entries, like the one above, there can be a few very extreme results (e.g. 01, 99), a set of results which are definitely negative or positive for the caster, and lots of results which twist the spell's normal effect in some more subtle way. I mean, it is possible that such a broad range of results could be improvised during play, but I imagine that most DMs and players would stick to less offbeat / less extreme results. This depends, of course, on how good the players involved are at improvisation, and how open they are to accepting extreme results. I feel like extreme results such as a hold portal spell causing a hostile demon to be summoned are more acceptable when an "impartial" random table says that's what happens, rather than it being simply down to the whim of the DM. Probably the main point here is that the player has seen the table and so has an idea up-front of the kind of results which can happen when casting a spell. Stuff like that depends very much though on the group, for sure. (You could say, maybe, that a roll of 3d6 or something could be used to indicate the "severity" of the effect... 3 being very bad, and 18 being very good, from the caster's point of view.)

      Another aspect of tables versus improvisation is the amount of time needed in play versus up-front. Tables are clearly enormously front-loaded. The advantage though is that they are very quick to use in play (potential page flipping issues aside ;). I can imagine a lot of back and forth discussion resulting from a system where the "wild result" is decided spontaneously during play.

      (One of the main things I'm bearing in mind, when trying to come up with a system for wild magic, is speed of use during play. Hence the requirement of only a single die roll to see what happens... I mean as opposed to, for example, a "does the spell work?" roll followed by a separate "what goes wrong?" roll.)

      Much as I am a fan of improvisation in RPGs, I feel like I'd somehow prefer random tables in this case.

      A different idea I've thought about is rather than having wild mages cast normal MU spells "with a twist", to have a completely separate magic system with very broad spells like "harm", "hinder", "transform", "transport", and so on. So there'd be less spells to deal with (i.e. less tables to write), but the random results would be "tailored" to the spell being cast, which I like.

    2. Yeah, improvising leads to taking the safe route. So putting more on tables helps to have dramatic effects that are still impartial. Totally agree.

      Regarding the DCC tables, it's not just needing to do the lookup, but as a player also needing to have an idea of the possible outcomes, because that can play into the decision-making process. That might be less of a factor with wild magic, which is assumed to be crazier, but I find that players want to have some idea of what might happen as spells are problem solving tools.

    3. Ah yes I remember that post... it was probably fermenting away somewhere in my brain too :)

      That's a very good point about a spell needing to have some degree of predictability in order to be useful, and thus appealing to a player. It seems that it could be a very delicate balance to get right...

  2. Depends on how "wild" you want them to be. Personally, I want dramatic difference from normal mages.

    Memorize any number up to 2x, no duplicates. Spell cast is picked at random. Wildmage may substitute roll on whacky table, the spell picked at random is still forgotten.

    1. Interesting... there seems to be a very wide spectrum of expected "wildness".

      Have you tried the system you suggested Norman? Like I said, I've never seen a wild mage in action, so everything I say is just conjecture really.

      A potential problem I could see with what you suggest is that half the time a wild mage would end up casting spells which are completely inapplicable to the situation at hand. e.g. you want to attack or debilitate or hinder and enemy in some way, and end up casting detect magic. I guess to a certain degree this could be entertaining, but I could imagine it would be more frustrating than fun. It'd also raise the question of how to determine the targets of these randomly fired spells (which obviously couldn't be determined before casting).

  3. Thanks for adding me to your blog roll, there is some great stuff on here, I'll be rooting through the archives!

    I love the table, the twists on the spell effects are much more interesting than succeeds/fails. I don't have any plans on using wild mages but I like the idea of areas of wild magic where spells are less reliable, it make magic feel less like a toolbox and more mystical, so I'll be stealing some of these ideas.

    I hope you carry this series on, I'm looking forward to seeing what you do with some of the more mundane spells like Light and Read Languages.

    1. It's a pleasure! Glad to support other UK/EU blogs :)

      I'll probably keep going down this route a bit, and try to persuade a player to playtest an MU using this system. So we'll see what comes of it.

      You're right though, light is even less sexy than hold portal! ;)


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.