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Author Topic: Musings on Merlyn and the Magician's Curse  (Read 602 times)
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« on: March 04, 2017, 12:53:43 PM »

So lately I've started reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White, and while I'm only partway through The Sword and the Stone, it's brought me to do a lot of thinking about the way spellcasters are portrayed in fantasy these days.

In the aforementioned novel, Merlyn is a relatively benevolent wizard who is looked upon with wonder by children (such as young Arthur and Kay), but varying levels of distrust by adults, who at least desire some proof that he is a benevolent mage of God and not a dark magician of some sort. The particularly interesting thing about him, though, is the variety - and relatively casual use - of magic he displays. Arthur's first meeting with him has him experience what is essentially Merlyn's entire kitchen of cutlery and dishes talk, walk, and clean themselves, while his familiar - the owl Archimedes - is a bashful, but knowledgeable foil to Merlyn's backwards-in-time forgetfulness (more on that in a bit). When Merlyn returns with Arthur to his childhood home, Sir Ector requests that Merlyn provide some sort of proof of his abilities and benevolence, to which Merlyn responds by conjuring a blooming fruit tree (of a kind that won't exist for hundreds of years) in the courtyard, and causes a sudden heavy snowfall around them in the dead heat of summer. Further on, he turns Arthur into a fish, and later a hawk so that he can learn their "secrets", all without doing much more than reciting some obscure Latin, sometimes in reverse.

All of this seems to be offset by what you would consider his "curse", which Merlyn himself describes as so:

Merlyn

“Now ordinary people are born forwards in Time, if you understand what I mean, and nearly everything in the world goes forward too. This makes it quite easy for the ordinary people to live, just as it would be easy to join those five dots into a W if you were allowed to look at them forwards, instead of backwards and inside out. But I unfortunately was born at the wrong end of time, and I have to live backwards from in front, while surrounded by a lot of people living forwards from behind. Some people call it having a second sight.”

...

“Have I told you this before?”

...

“You see, one gets confused with Time, when it is like that. All one’s tenses get muddled, for one thing. If you know what is going to happen to people, and not what has happened to them, it makes it difficult to prevent it happening, if you don’t want it to have happened, if you see what I mean? Like drawing in a mirror.”

As I had mentioned at the start of the post, this got me thinking about spellcasters in different settings and systems. I know that in Haveneast, I had always imagined a sort of tradeoff for the use of magic being present, usually in the form of exhaustion or physical damage if the right foci and ingredients weren't used to augment one's spells - but maybe in your world, or another you know a lot about, things might take on a different feel. Maybe there are a variety of "curses" or "burdens" that someone who wants to use magic stronger than cantrips. Using the infamous Pathfinder system, one could take inspiration from the Oracle's curses - although a lot of these are pretty restrictive from a PC standpoint - but the system just isn't geared for doing that to every caster, and I feel like longtime wizard/sorcerer/druid/cleric/oracle/witch players might be annoyed about having to choose such a curse for their character, even if it's a little less severe.

How does everyone here feel about what I said and quoted from Merlyn, or about the possibility of all spellcasters in a setting/system (not just Pathfinder and D&D) having some sort of "curse" like Merlyn's?
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« Reply #1 on: March 04, 2017, 02:07:28 PM »

Pathfinder kind of does with the Oracle class, right? Oracle curses.
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« Reply #2 on: March 04, 2017, 02:14:58 PM »

Steerpike

Pathfinder kind of does with the Oracle class, right? Oracle curses.

It does, and I mentioned those, but what about taking inspiration from those, and using them for every spellcaster in a world, i.e. making them a requirement for PCs and NPCs alike. I wonder how such a world looks if every caster is "cursed" in some way. It doesn't just have to be Pathfinder, either.
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« Reply #3 on: March 04, 2017, 04:40:58 PM »

Oh yeah sorry I somehow missed that line.

I've always loved the Merlyn character, although I think someone like that would be super-hard to roleplay. But I do like the idea of curses and generally think they're a very under-utilized thing in D&D. Cursed items are usually treated as a kind of annoyance that ideally are spotted and avoided, like traps, but this seems to miss why curses are interesting.

Personally, I think I'm most interested in curses that:

1) Change a character in some way that is inconvenient but not lethal/totally-debilitating and that

2) Is not primarily just a penalty to skill or ability checks but which

3) Alters some base assumption about how the rules of the universe or the game function and

4) Might be unexpectedly useful.

So good examples that we see all the time might be things like alignment-switching or lycanthropy, as opposed to, say, giving someone a Dexterity penalty or something. But those feel like the tip of the iceberg.

Merlyn's curse would definitely fit, but the kind of thing I think is really interesting would be something like the curse of darkness in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell:

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« Reply #4 on: March 04, 2017, 04:51:06 PM »

Steerpike

Oh yeah sorry I somehow missed that line.

I've always loved the Merlyn character, although I think someone like that would be super-hard to roleplay. But I do like the idea of curses and generally think they're a very under-utilized thing in D&D. Cursed items are usually treated as a kind of annoyance that ideally are spotted and avoided, like traps, but this seems to miss why curses are interesting.

Personally, I think I'm most interested in curses that:

1) Change a character in some way that is inconvenient but not lethal/totally-debilitating and that

2) Is not primarily just a penalty to skill or ability checks but which

3) Alters some base assumption about how the rules of the universe or the game function and

4) Might be unexpectedly useful.

So good examples that we see all the time might be things like alignment-switching or lycanthropy, as opposed to, say, giving someone a Dexterity penalty or something. But those feel like the tip of the iceberg.

Merlyn's curse would definitely fit, but the kind of thing I think is really interesting would be something like the curse of darkness in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell:


I dig curses like that a lot, too. What I'm specifically wondering then is how such curses and/or other permanent magical effects might alter a setting if part of the condition for being able to wield magic (outside of ritual magic with candles and chalk and musty tomes and such, perhaps) was that a curse-like trait always came along with it.

It'd also be cool to examine, on a lesser note, how this sort of thing would affect a system like Pathfinder balance-wise, although if you made them a requirement, you'd probably want to expand the list and remove some of the more ridiculous ones from the Oracle list; the Oracle class itself would probably disappear. So for example, just by choosing any spellcaster class, you take on some sort of affliction from the oracle's curses list. One immediate issue balance-wise that I see with this is that it'd probably make gish characters even worse, depending on what the curse choices actually were.
« Last Edit: March 04, 2017, 04:55:03 PM by Hoers » Logged


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« Reply #5 on: March 05, 2017, 05:11:25 PM »

I'm not really fond of this idea, at least as implemented anything like an Oracle curse. The problem with any sort of "curse" mechanic with any sort of strictly defined mechanical penalties in an RPG is that, well, now you're putting it into the hands of RPG players. So, of course they're going to try to minmax it and optimize it. If it's got some unexpected use, they'll certainly find it, and they're going to try to minimize the impact of the drawbacks. Most Oracle guides for Pathfinder include a section on which curses are the least harmful, either situationally or just in general. So, all you're really doing is adding another layer of char-op to a game that, at least if you're using Pathfinder, already has a whole lot.

Something like a Fate compel-- something situationally bad happens and you also collect a certain amount of power that you can use later-- might work better. If you wanted this to be actual in-game power as opposed to meta-points, some work would need to be done in order to figure out how to make this feel right, and I also think that there may be have to be some limitations on this (or just a section telling players to not go too crazy) in order to prevent this from being optimized too much, also; otherwise you might end up with a very cartoony situation where characters bumble and bungle their way through the early part of the game and then release real ultimate power.
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« Reply #6 on: March 05, 2017, 06:40:14 PM »

This might not appeal to everyone - those who really dislike randomness might find it very much not to their taste - but you could just make the curse random. In a way this makes a lot of sense because the whole point of curses is that you don't choose them, but have to learn to live with them and make the most of them. If the curse is random, then the player's relation to the curse matches the character's - neither actually chose it. If every spellcaster PC knows from the start that they're going to have to accept a random curse, it just becomes part and parcel with playing that type of character.

Personally, though, I think that curses are best when they're not strictly defined mechanical penalties/bonuses, which makes them much harder to min-max.

Like, for example, I think Tongues is a good Oracle curse:

Tongues

In times of stress or unease, you speak in tongues. Pick one of the following languages: Abyssal, Aklo, Aquan, Auran, Celestial, Ignan, Infernal, or Terran. Whenever you are in combat, you can only speak and understand the selected language. This does not interfere with spellcasting, but it does apply to spells that are language dependent. You gain the selected language as a bonus language.

This is a good curse - no specific bonuses or penalties, but it adds a real complication to the game, but could also be useful in certain situations.

Whereas a bad Oracle curse would be something like Chilled, that's just a bunch of bonuses/penalties and is a strong pick for a min-maxer:

Chilled

You take a -2 penalty to all Dexterity– and Strength-based skill checks, and you can only run a number of rounds equal to your Charisma bonus (if it is lower than your Constitution score) before you must start making Constitution checks to continue running. You are immune to extremes of hot and cold. You add chill touch to your spells known.
« Last Edit: March 05, 2017, 06:43:03 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #7 on: March 05, 2017, 07:43:45 PM »

Honestly, Oracle curses are probably not a good model to follow because they are a class feature of the Oracle as well as a drawback. Whatever curse you select, it ends up also giving you some benefits, and continues to add benefits as you continue to gain levels. This definitely figures into the equation and adds to the idea of this being an optimization decision.

For example, the Tongues curse is flavorful but it's fairly easy to turn into a non-issue-- you'll always be able to talk to the party's prepared arcane casters since they have languages to spare, and other characters who want to talk to you can just drop a rank into Linguistics. On the other hand, its benefits as you level are kinda cool and have some utility but aren't exactly huge. So, on both sides, the whole thing is kind of a non-curse. On the other hand, curses like Haunted or Clouded Vision hit you a lot harder usually, but the benefits you gain are also proportionally much more.

This kind of power disparity between curses where some are non-issues and some offer big benefits for big drawbacks would, of course, not work at all if you randomly determined your curse. Or, at least, would annoy a lot of people.




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« Reply #8 on: March 05, 2017, 09:48:34 PM »

other characters who want to talk to you can just drop a rank into Linguistics.
[/quote]

Not meaning to derail the discussionCan I say, that this is the one thing that annoys me about DnD? I have an older sister who is amazing with languages, and I can tell you that it's a lot of work and study to learn a language. I get the abstraction principle and everything, but I feel like there should be more roleplaying involved in order to pick up a language.

I do like the idea of at least attaching a significant cost to casting spells. I do agree with Sparkletwist though that most PC's would probably find a way to make "curses" work to their advantage.
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« Reply #9 on: March 05, 2017, 10:10:16 PM »

LoA

other characters who want to talk to you can just drop a rank into Linguistics.


Not meaning to derail the discussionCan I say, that this is the one thing that annoys me about DnD? I have an older sister who is amazing with languages, and I can tell you that it's a lot of work and study to learn a language. I get the abstraction principle and everything, but I feel like there should be more roleplaying involved in order to pick up a language.

I do like the idea of at least attaching a significant cost to casting spells. I do agree with Sparkletwist though that most PC's would probably find a way to make "curses" work to their advantage.

She's right; the language thing is probably one of the most glaring issues with the D&D/PF systems, despite being a relatively simple one. When I houserule it in Haveneast, most people can't read or write, and languages are somewhat restricted based on region. That's the way it probably should be in most fantasy settings that aren't overly high-fantasy/high-magic, and it'd only add to the significance of a character who could read the runic scripts of dead civilizations and demonic beings.

The Oracle's curses are pretty awful, honestly, barring a few. We were having a related discussion in the chat earlier and one thing that came up is that systems like Fate have a somewhat easier time modelling them, in that there are "compels" that you can easily incorporate. A tradeoff that might work would then be a compel in return for some magical talents. Ultimately it's probably going to be pretty hard to incorporate such things in a system like D&D where magic is so arbitrary and there are perhaps too many spell levels and effects.
« Last Edit: March 05, 2017, 10:29:00 PM by Hoers » Logged


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« Reply #10 on: March 06, 2017, 12:42:48 AM »

Yeah, my point wasn't so much to praise Tongues as a perfect curse, but rather to suggest that the type of curse Tongues represents - it affects the character in a non-mechanical fashion and gives/takes away unique abilities that can't be translated into simple bonuses and penalties - was a good model for the sort of curse you might design. We can pick apart Tongues specifically (sure, other party members might be able to speak your language, or invest game-resources to learn it), but it's the sort of curse that, I think, is more interesting than a "quantitative" curse.

I agree that the actual list of Oracle curses itself isn't really very good, but if you came up with a different list of curses, I don't see why the basic concept couldn't be viable. The problem with Oracle curses is that they're essentially pretty crunchy little mini-abilities that mostly translate into specific pluses and minuses. But you could substitute any number of more interesting, less quantitative curses and then have spellcasters choose those curses at character creation. Certainly one could see how that sort of thing would translate into Fate (it'd be an Aspect to be compelled), but I don't see why it couldn't work in D&D.

The sort of thing I'm imagining, just off the top of my head (very rough here):

- Whenever the character speaks and an elf is in earshot, they can only speak the truth.

- The character's alignment switches on the good/evil and law/chaos axis at nighttime; true neutral characters become a random alignment.

- Hyper-fertility. Even a modest kiss leads to the conception of a child.

- All art-objects the character touches become permanently marred - paintings disfigured and ugly, gems dull, silver tarnished.
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« Reply #11 on: March 06, 2017, 09:46:08 AM »

Steerpike

Yeah, my point wasn't so much to praise Tongues as a perfect curse, but rather to suggest that the type of curse Tongues represents - it affects the character in a non-mechanical fashion and gives/takes away unique abilities that can't be translated into simple bonuses and penalties - was a good model for the sort of curse you might design. We can pick apart Tongues specifically (sure, other party members might be able to speak your language, or invest game-resources to learn it), but it's the sort of curse that, I think, is more interesting than a "quantitative" curse.

I agree that the actual list of Oracle curses itself isn't really very good, but if you came up with a different list of curses, I don't see why the basic concept couldn't be viable. The problem with Oracle curses is that they're essentially pretty crunchy little mini-abilities that mostly translate into specific pluses and minuses. But you could substitute any number of more interesting, less quantitative curses and then have spellcasters choose those curses at character creation. Certainly one could see how that sort of thing would translate into Fate (it'd be an Aspect to be compelled), but I don't see why it couldn't work in D&D.

The sort of thing I'm imagining, just off the top of my head (very rough here):

- Whenever the character speaks and an elf is in earshot, they can only speak the truth.

- The character's alignment switches on the good/evil and law/chaos axis at nighttime; true neutral characters become a random alignment.

- Hyper-fertility. Even a modest kiss leads to the conception of a child.

- All art-objects the character touches become permanently marred - paintings disfigured and ugly, gems dull, silver tarnished.

Those are some really cool examples that encourage roleplay in a way that might even be worthy of the fabled "roleplay XP" that usually ends up being more of a participation bonus.

Another one that is heavily featured in The Witcher and would be appropriate in any setting where nobility and lineages played a big role would simply be sterility. I'll try to think of some more and post them.
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« Reply #12 on: March 06, 2017, 05:44:17 PM »

Steerpike

I don't see why it couldn't work in D&D.
I agree with Hoers that these are cool examples that encourage roleplay, but, I think that the big problem is that interestingly roleplayed character flaws like these are, to some extent, not really that compatible with the usual D&D way of thinking about things. The tactical combat game is a big part of D&D-- kind of infamously overly so in 4e but it's still a major part of 3e and 5e as well. The game encourages character optimization and tactical thinking, and character death is always a thing that players need to be concerned with. On that level, the game is rather heavily geared towards mechanical incentives, and roleplayed quirks often don't fit in too well with that model. To some players, they're just free power. Others may instead see them as a source of friction and narrative disempowerment because absent a Fate-ish "compel" mechanic or other way to mechanically reward actions that aren't in the character's best interest, the only way out may just be for the DM to dictate what the character does. The randomized alignment thing especially annoys me because it uses alignment as prescriptive instead of descriptive (i.e., "I am now chaotic evil, so I have to act X way," as opposed to "I act X way, so that's why I wrote down chaotic evil as my alignment") and that's the surest way to run into a brick wall made of everything stupid about D&D alignment.
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« Reply #13 on: March 06, 2017, 06:40:38 PM »

sparkletwist

I agree with Hoers that these are cool examples that encourage roleplay, but, I think that the big problem is that interestingly roleplayed character flaws like these are, to some extent, not really that compatible with the usual D&D way of thinking about things. The The game encourages character optimization and tactical thinking, and character death is always a thing that players need to be concerned with. On that level, the game is rather heavily geared towards mechanical incentives, and roleplayed quirks often don't fit in too well with that model.

I have to flat-out disagree with this. Tactical combat and character optimization can be a big part of D&D - and, sure, 3-4th edition really epitomize this - but it is hardly the only way to play D&D. D&D is not simply a tactical combat game and can and for many tables does allow for roleplaying quirks of all kinds. 5th edition explicitly encourages this sort of thing through Inspiration and ideals, flaws, etc, but even that's not required.

I've had lots of players with tons of quirks. I have a player joining my 5th edition game who is going to be playing a Jekyll/Hyde type character who switches between being super-intelligent (but weak) and super-dumb (but strong) and is addicted to an alchemical potion. I've had Pathfinder players who got polymorphed or reincarnated into weird forms or got hit with curses where their size constantly increased or died and started haunting the other players. A character who got captured by evil biomancers and came out with a bunch of bizarre grafts. Who read the wrong book and went crazy and had profound personality shifts as a result. Who got trapped in time-travel devices and drastically aged. Tons of weird stuff, some of it with relatively little in the way of mechanical rewards or incentives. My D&D group mostly do not care much about char-op at all.

It's OK to want to play D&D and also want to have quirky roleplaying, and adding stuff into the game like cool curses is one way to help with that.

It's also OK to want to modify D&D to strain against some of its char-op/tactical "default" style, if we want to call it that. Sure, some people may want to ditch D&D altogether for a different system, but for all sorts of reasons others don't.

sparkletwist

absent a Fate-ish "compel" mechanic or other way to mechanically reward actions that aren't in the character's best interest, the only way out may just be for the DM to dictate what the character does.

Maybe for something like an alignment switch that sort of requires a player to change how they play, that might be true for some players, but I don't see how it would apply to all sorts of other curses.

sparkletwist

To some players, they're just free power.

...but to other players, they aren't. And if you have players who are into this sort of thing, it doesn't need to be a problem.

Not every restraint or "disempowerment" is necessarily bad for all players. A lot of players - like me, for instance - like it when unexpected (and negative) things happen to their characters over the course of an adventure, without having to individually sign off or have ultimate agency over those changes. Dealing with unintended consequences and complications that aren't agreed to by the player but result from character-actions and adventuring can be, for many, a huge part of the fun. The same could be true of curses at character creation. If all spellcasters have them, it just becomes the price of being a magic-user, and adds a potentially fun roleplaying wrinkle.
« Last Edit: March 06, 2017, 06:47:01 PM by Steerpike » Logged


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« Reply #14 on: March 06, 2017, 08:37:10 PM »

Steerpike

Tactical combat and character optimization can be a big part of D&D - and, sure, 3-4th edition really epitomize this - but it is hardly the only way to play D&D. D&D is not simply a tactical combat game and can and for many tables does allow for roleplaying quirks of all kinds. 5th edition explicitly encourages this sort of thing through Inspiration and ideals, flaws, etc, but even that's not required.
You're right that D&D is not simply a tactical combat game, but those are the mechanics that are there and that work the best. So many class features, feats, and spells interact with that part of the game. It's hard to deny that's where the focus is. On the other hand, the social system in D&D is just broken-- 3e's Diplomacy is crap, and 5e is somehow worse.

Steerpike

It's OK to want to play D&D and also want to have quirky roleplaying, and adding stuff into the game like cool curses is one way to help with that.
It's fine if players want to play quirky characters. It wasn't my point that players shouldn't play quirky characters, or that char-op is the most important thing, or whatever. My point was that the D&D system isn't really built to support this stuff, so giving characters more quantifiable mechanical power and then trying to balance that out with roleplayed quirks is probably going to create problems in D&D.

Steerpike

sparkletwist

To some players, they're just free power.
...but to other players, they aren't.
If having a curse is "the price of being a magic-user," then my assumption is that we're trying to counterbalance the greater power that casters tend to have by giving them a drawback. Having it be inconsequential to some players and affect others more just introduces more game balance problems in a game that already has too many.

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