Abstracting spell effects

Before 4th edition came out, there were no "Base guidelines" that told you exactly how many magnitudes you'd need to affect a given volume of rock in a given way. The official material just provided a bunch of example effects; when designing a new Hermetic effect the troupe simply a) made sure it did not violate the Limits of Magic b) assigned the most reasonable Tech+Form combination (possibly with requisites) and c) eyeballed its Level (and need for a Ritual) based on the perceived effectiveness and sheer "oomph".

I really like having clear, precise rules. However, after many years of gaming, I'm not sure that the introduction of effect guidelines in 4th edition (and their refinement in 5th edition) has actually improved my play experience. I think the main problem I have is that the guidelines are too focused on the concrete result on the gameworld rather than on the story impact. This leads to a level of "magical engineering" that is more like playing Sudoku or Final Fantasy Tactics than storytelling. Experienced players in the long run tend to eschew certain Arts and classes of effects in favour of others that are typically more "efficient". For example, in my games nobody (except the occasional Storyguide character) ever uses Perdo Corpus anymore; it's just not worth its cost. On the other hand, creation of big mounds of dirt as a means of blocking adversaries regardless of magic resistance is really common, even among non-Terram specialists. Of course, you can argue that a troupe can, and should, retinker with the Base guidelines to rebalance stuff, but ultimately that's not very different from eyeballing each effect individually.

So, I have been toying for some time with the idea of a set of guidelines that instead of describing how much HPs your Rego Terram magical engine has, or how many liters of lamp oil your Creo Aquam spell can create, how large an impact your effect has on your story - with modifiers that make certain Arts better. Something like the following, keeping in mind it's just a rough, partial unbalanced example:

  • Level 5: Achieve the results of a mundane of moderate skill (in combat, information gathering, influence etc). Replace the use of adequate but unexceptional tools (keep warm in a storm, fetch the key on the other side of your prison bars etc.). Tip the balance of a situation, or "rebalance" a slightly unfavourable situation (e.g. gain solid footing on wet ground).
  • Level 10: Achieve the results of a small group of moderate skill (restrain a strong man or two), or of an individual working correspondingly longer. Replace the use of exceptional, but still mundane tools (e.g. dress yourself and your grogs in truly luxurious purple silk and cloth -of-gold garments, climb a wall). Rebalance a significantly unfavourable situation (e.g. move freely underwater), or make a situation from slightly positive to highly positive.
  • Level 20. Achieve the results of an individual of truly exceptional but mundane skill (e.g. make anyone fall in love with you), or of a fairly large group of moderately skilled individuals. Function in an environment in which it would normally be impossible for humans to function (e.g. fly slowly, breathe underwater etc.). Replace the use of a minor supernatural tool (e.g. cut through stone as if it were butter).
  • Level 30. Achieve the least results unachievable by mundane skill alone (e.g. read minds, dowse for a lost item, move faster than the wind). Function in a phantastically hostile environment (lava pools, hell). Achieve the results of a small army of moderately skilled individuals working for a moderate amount of time (e.g. defeat a small army, build a castle).
  • Level 50. Achieve powerful supernatural results (create a volcano). Achieve the results of a large army of skilled individuals (create a sweeping plague that depopulates a region).

Of course, you must explain how the Arts you are using fit the given effect, and the Storyguide may penalize you if it's very stretched (e.g. make someone fall in love with you by making yourself very beautiful). You could fly by levitating your body (ReCo), making a broom fly (ReHe), making your horse grow wings (MuAn), creating a small whirlwind to carry you (CrAu) etc.
As mentioned above, certain Arts should probably be better or worse at certain things, e.g. (again, by no means complete or balanced, just a rough example):

  • Information gathering without Intellego, or tangible effects with Intellego: double the level.
  • Damaging, hindering or harming others with Perdo, Ignem or Corpus: +5 levels.
  • Subtle effects with Rego or Imaginem: -5 levels.
  • Dramatic effects without Creo: +5 to +10 levels.

This thread is meant to discuss this "abstract guidelines" approach. Have you ever tried anything like it? Do you think it could work, or not - and why? Would it have "side effects" on the rest of the game? How would you integrate and adjust the rough ideas given above?

We find lots of use for Perdo Corpus because every game I've been in has a corpus specialist. Corpus is SUCH a powerful art that corpus specialists are in high demand for healing, raising stats permanently and making longevity potions. There are also some really useful effects under corpus, particularly muto and rego corpus (TELEPORT!).

So a corpus specialist will usually use perdo corpus in combat, why wouldn't they? Their corpus is already really high and its a pain to invest in other arts just for combat. Perdo corpus also has the massive advantage of ignoring soak. Which means that tough virtued, high stamina'ed, fully chain armoured knight is affected exactly as if he were a weedy peasant. While the Ignem specialist has to really ramp up the spell level to do even a light wound.

The only problem with perdo corpus we have found is that its useless when you have to fight animals, living statues, dragons, etc.

Well... because, as you pointed out, he has specialized in Creo and/or Muto and/or Rego Corpus, not Perdo Corpus. So he'll attack his targets by burying them under piles of offal (Creo Corpus), changing his grogs into giants or his targets into harmless snails or one-inch-tall humans (Muto Corpus), holding the targets still while his grogs beat them, transporting them high up in the sky and letting fall, or throwing human bones as projectiles - which can bypass magic resistance (Rego Corpus). Perdo Corpus requires him learning Perdo - and has a narrow range of effects, that require fairly highish levels and as you note only work when you specifically want to harm another human-like being (the interesting exception is the Base 40 guideline, but it's very, very high up).

But this is somewhat off-topic! Let's not derail the thread:

The abstract guidelines feel like the unwritten rules which underpin most spell systems. ie the way we know a spell is 3rd level in Dnd is to match the relative game impact and precedence against the existing effects.
Your examples if taken in isolation give that style of system. In combination with the Ars guidelines we already have make a system which has a far stricter base. I understand the desire but think a strength of Ars is what the spell does, then the wizard applies that in the story. To me, these guidelines are removing a little flexibility in story application and adding more calculations into spells. That added calculation into each spell casting is a major side effect.

There are comparisons between the guidelines which show some arts being better as you've illustrated, and initially I'd adjust the existing guidelines to alter the game first before trying this.

So I think I follow your need and agree you have a valid point, but don't like the style of the solution at present. I'll keep pondering though!

As a concept, I quite like the idea. One of the issues I have with the current edition of the magic rules is that they are a little too specific in terms of effects. Another is that those effects don't seem to mesh well with the rest of the game mechanics. (Personally, I've been using the Learned Magician rules in my current saga, precisely because work well with the skill system... an precisely how a +2 to Charm rolls is achieved can easily be left up to the imagination of the players and storyguide.)

As a system, of course, the biggest pitfall I can see to this proposal is that it relies heavily on the social contract between the troupe members and on a common agreement of what magic is and how it achieves it's ends. This isn't a problem, as long as everyone is on the same page... which IMO is a necessary for a good troupe anyway.

As I think about it, the current guidelines could easily be incorporated into this more abstract system by way of examples...

It is not a bad proposal for an introduction to Ars.
I personally like the mechanical way the current spell design works and as a GM I am quite comfortable with it. There is also the opportunity to look for smart, low level spell instead of high level mighty effect, rewarding cleverness.

However, I can see for my players, it is a steep, non-intuitive learning curve and out of six players, only one is really starting to customised is spells, where as I have to do the heavy work for all the others.
Proposing a broader, more generic definition to assess spell level will be a good way to make Ars more accessible. It will also go in the direction of power balance which again has its pro and cons.

I also believe that this broader definition will be a boon for spontaneous spell casting as it is fast to assess and will allow to keep the game going. Currently, casting a spontaneous spell will stop the game for a few minutes until all parameters and level are figured out (except for frequently spont'ed spell).

I like it. It's a nice set of guidelines.

In practice I feel a lot of times players will want to do damage. So you need to include damage in the guidelines, at about Base = Damage. And this kinda leads to other guidelines of similar strength (e.g. disease, poison...).

Another major issue is that 3rd edition didn't have the RDT+Size system. The spell parameters were incorporated into the spell level. Your guidelines seem to incorporate that. If so, I think spell levels need to be increased. A plague that curses a kingdom or a spell to raise the dead should be level 75 IMO.

I find detailed spell guidelines are problematic in that they lead to a lot of calculations when designing spells (formulaic, or spontaneous). The abstract game guidelines remove that, but only to lead to arguments that are less well-based in the rules. If the troupe is "on the same page", these arguments can be rare and fine. But I see a lot of potential for vicious arguments and disagreement here.