So you’ve decided what kind of game you want to make. You’ve picked your engine, you have some assets (or at least some placeholders) and you are revving at full throttle. Well congratulations, because now the fun part begins: making the design decisions that will help you turn your great ideas into an awesome game! For me, this is both the most challenging and the most rewarding part of game creation. To give you an idea of what I mean, I am going to walk through the process I went through to create the unique magic system that the main character in Apprentice will be using: Alchemical Sorcery.
As usual, I will start with some background. For a very long time I have been fascinated with the concept of Alchemy as a kind of mysticism or spiritual art. By Alchemy, I am referring to the art of transmutation originating in ancient Greece and brought to the Egyptians by Hermes Trismigestus; a far more complicated and intricate art than the later medieval attempts to simply create gold. I have also always liked the kinds of magic that are more about feeling energy flowing around you, channeling it through yourself to create desired effects (a la Shadowrun, or Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar series).
Neither of these ideas are well represented by a simple MP system dividing magic up by colors or schools or what-have-you. However, since I am using the RPG Maker engine currently, that is the only magic system built in, which meant I was going to have to do some custom work. But before we get to the actual coding and engine manipulation, I had to decide exactly what I wanted it to do.
The idea of Alchemical elements and chi-like flowing energy are not a magic system, simply the inspiration for them, and really figuring out the fundamentals of what makes the magic tick is important in any fantasy setting. This is especially true of one in a video game, where you are going to have to build the logical framework that makes your magic happen in the game!
The most important thing to me was that the feel of using this new magic was unique and interesting. I want it to be limitless (not constrained by a resource like MP or something) as long as you were using the ambient energy. This is internally consistent with the theme, since if you are really just altering how the energy around you is flowing, then you are only limited by the type and amount of energy around you. This means that I really needed the ‘spells’ themselves to change by where you were, and balancing these abilities for gameplay purposes would be as simple as making sure that the spells available are not too over/underpowered for the kinds of enemy troops encountered in that area. Because it involves using oneself to redirect the flow of natural energy, I called this ability ‘Channeling’.
I wanted every separate terrain type (a forest, for example, or the deck of a ship, or the dungeons of a castle) to have its own unique set of abilities that the player could harness; focusing on the Alchemical elements that are strongest in that terrain. For example, a forest would have a great deal of Green (earth) energy and Blue (water) energy. Depending on how thick the forest was, there may also be Yellow (air) energy flowing through there. Unless there were a forest fire, or something else that thematically invoked the idea of fire or intensity, I decided that there would not be Red (fire) energy in the forest. Okay, so that would mean a forest would need a spell for each of those three elements; but I wanted to be sure that they each felt natural in the forest environment, not like a pure distilled version of the element itself. I didn’t want the Green spell to sling rocks at the enemy; I thought that invoking the trees or plants would be earthy enough in theme, so I decided on something like an Entangle spell that constricted for damage and slowed the target. For the Blue spell, I thought something involving dew was appropriate, so there is a small heal called Dewdrop. Yellow was tricky, because I couldn’t think of too many things that made sense to use as attack or defense spells that involved air and felt forest-y. I finally settled on Dervish, a little whirlwind the blows leaves and sticks and rocks and dust in the enemy’s eyes and causes blindness.
If this were a cave instead of a forest, there would be no Yellow energy. There may be Red, depending on the kind of cave there was, but the Green spell would certainly involve a cave-in/rockfall kind of theme, doing significant damage (Green spells being more potent underground since the Green energy is stronger there), and the Blue spell might be offensive, Erode for example, doing small amounts of damage and reducing a target’s armor. For me, the flavor of these spells is every bit as important as their game balance.
The main challenge with this kind of system is that it can be kind of dull to only be able to use the spells that are spoon-fed to you by the game. It may be thematically cool, but does not allow the player enough agency in the abilities of their character so it can make for uninteresting gameplay, even making the player feel constrained or led by the nose.
To give the player a little more interactivity, I also wanted to add an ability that allows the player to distill elemental energy into a portable form and carry it around with them, to be used to cast the more ‘pure’ elemental spells at their leisure. This could provide a significant advantage when timed correctly. After all, areas that don’t have access to a particular type of energy (Yellow underground, for example) will have no real defenses or ways to deal with those kinds of magics. In my mind, this seems like it helps offset the limits of the Channeling gameplay, using that more as a flexible version of the ‘fight’ command since it’s limitless and making all of the interesting tactical decisions using this new ability I am calling Invocation.
Originally, I intended to have the player draw energy from the environment in battle. Then I realized that I was making something that reminded me of the worst magic system I have ever encountered (in Final Fantasy 8), so I should steer clear. Instead, I decided to make it something of a crafting system. The player will gather Reagents from interacting with points of interest on the map as well as getting some dropped from enemies. Those will be assigned elements and power levels in each. Once obtained, the player can use the item to gain mana of only one color, and they gain the power rating of that color. For example, a Mandragora Root would have Green and Blue mana. Probably more Green than Blue, as I think of plants as being more earthy than watery. So if it has Green: 2 and Blue: 1, you can use it to gain either 2 Green mana or 1 Blue mana. Depending on how badly you need Blue mana, this might be worth it.
Early in the game, I think that Red mana will be kind of rare, so it will be an interesting choice for players, as all of the best attacks spells (at least early in the game) will be Red spells. The player will learn a few basic Invocation recipes from their master (they are an Apprentice after all) and the rest will have to be sought out in the world; which I intend to be a significant motivator for the player to explore and engage in sidequests.
So this is a solid idea of what I want my magic system to look like, and how I intend to make that work. In the next article, I will talk about the actual implementation and the challenges and compromises that will present as I integrate my ideas with the game engine. Do you have an idea that you are trying to implement, or are having a hard time getting nailed down? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll offer some sage-like advice!