why, brain, why?

So I’m hauling laundry out of the dryer, and my brain randomly decides it wants to distract itself from the tedium by figuring out how to hack an RPG system to run a Wheel of Time game.

I have no intention of actually running a Wheel of Time game, mind you. But as I said to kniedzw, I think it’s the fanfic impulse gone sideways; there’s stuff I really like about the setting, but also stuff that really annoys me, and a game would give me a way to mentally inhabit my preferred version of that world — maybe even critiquing it in passing. I have no concept for such a game, and probably nobody to play in it anyway (since it would go best with people who know the series), but every so often my brain likes to play with mechanics, and today was one of those times.

Yeah, sure, there’s already a rulebook for it. It’s d20, people. Which may be the Official System for Epic Fantasy Gaming — but it’s abysmally unsuited to handle the magic paradigm presented in the novels. Anybody with an interest in system hacks or running their own Wheel of Time game is invited behind the cut to see how I would do it.

Let’s start with what you need, based on what’s said in the books. Channelers — this post will largely be about channeling, since it’s the most idiosyncratic thing you’d need to cover — have a set strength in the Power, once they’ve reached their potential, so that should have a rating. Then they also have greater or lesser knacks for the five Elements, which (canonically) divide by gender. After that, you have specific weaves, each one built from one or more Elements; if the channeler isn’t strong enough in a particular Element (or the Power as a whole) to manage the necessary components, he or she can’t create the weave.

I thought briefly about doing it as an Ars Magica hack, replacing the Forms with the Elements: just borrow Auram, Aquam, Ignem, and Terram, toss in Spirit, and chuck the rest. On reflection, though, I think I would use nWoD Mage (whose setting doesn’t interest me, but which I quite like as a generic and adaptable magic system).

You’ve already got Gnosis, which can serve to measure general strength in the Power. I’d probably jack this up to a twenty-point range, to give more gradation and map to the probable scale of saidar strength. Then replace the ten Arcana with the five Elements. To make overall strength meaningful, I’d probably say that a character’s total rating in the Elements cannot exceed her capacity for the Power overall; if that latter rating is ten, then equal strength in each Element would give them all two dots. If you want her to be stronger at, say, Water, you have to drop something else. The gender difference among the Elements, if you want to include it, can be modeled by saying that a woman’s combined aptitude for Earth and Fire cannot exceed her combined aptitude for Air and Water; vice versa for men.

Weaves, then, can be treated like rotes and improvised spells: any given effect is rated at a certain number of dots in each component Element, and if you don’t have high enough ratings in the necessary Elements, tough luck, you can’t do the weave. (Most weaves would likely be conjunctional effects, in this setting.) Toss out the covert vs. vulgar magic distinction. Not sure how I would handle the dice pool for improvised spells — maybe Element + Willpower — making it Element + Power (i.e. Gnosis) would be WAY overkill, given the altered scale for the latter. You want rotes to have the better dice pool, after all, representing the fact that the channeler in question has done that weave often enough to be quite practiced at it. The real hurdle, of course — and this is always true for magic systems adapted from novels — is that you have to decide how to rate every bloody thing the players might choose to do, from creating light to healing a severed target. (See also: why I may never run the Harry Potter game I sort of have in mind.)

For Talents like Foretelling and so on, plus non-channeling stuff like Min’s talent or Perrin’s wolf connection, I would graft the old World of Darkness Merit/Flaw setup onto the general nWoD system. You could adapt “Sphere Aptitude” to give a one-die bonus or some such to a given Element, or something like the nWoD “rote specialties” for particular kinds of weave a channeler might be good at; that way, you can create characters like what’s-her-face among the Kin, the one who punches way above her weight class when it comes to shielding. I would treat the different Ajahs (as well as Wise Ones or Windfinders) as no-cost Merits, probably giving an additional dot to whatever ability the Ajah uses the most: Yellows get Medicine, Browns get Academics, Blues get Politics, Windfinders get Science (meteorology), etc., possibly allowing the ability to be raised up to six. (And yes, I would totally mash the Grays and Whites together as mediator-judges, and replace them with an Ajah of crafters. Whom I would probably call Purple. But I don’t know what ability bonus Reds should get. Misandry?)

Not sure how to handle char-gen/XP, and the buying up of Power and Elements. I suppose it would depend on the game. If you’re running something where the PCs start as novices in the Tower, pick an XP scale that works, and let them buy as they go; presumably the players will all want their characters to be strong channelers, so you don’t have to worry about capping it, though if somebody deliberately wants to play a weak channeler they could have it as a Flaw. If it’s a game about hundred-year-old full sisters, their capacity should probably be maxed out already, so in that case I’d set a basic starting value for the Power (four at a minimum, more if you want them to be badass) and say anything more has to be bought with bonus points at char-gen.

Edited to add: On reflection, I might also add in one or more new skills, to cover certain kinds of effects that don’t really go under the usual skills. Something for connections, maybe, to be used in rolls for linking, shielding, and resisting someone’s attempt to shield you, and possibly to sense the ability to channel in others (this would be where Reds get their bonus); something else for tying off or inverting weaves. Or you could just lump those all together under Occult, but it’s already true in nWoD Mage that every other effect you think up could be done with an Occult roll, so it might be nice to spread stuff out a bit.

That’s what I worked out while dealing with laundry. I’d be curious to hear alternative suggestions, whether tweaks to this basic concept or suggestions for entirely different systems to use as the base. I gravitate to WoD mechanics because I’m so familiar with them, but there’s probably stuff out there that would work as well or better. (And certainly better than d20.)

0 Responses to “why, brain, why?”

  1. beccastareyes

    I don’t know Wheel of Time, but I’m starting to try to use the FATE system* as my go-to for magic conversions.

    I can talk more about that, but I don’t know how much we’d talk past one another when I don’t know enough about WoT to be helpful. I do know that I love these kind of thought problems.

    * I have Spirit of the Century and the Dresden Files RPG. SotC really only covers a low magic setting, with most of the useful things in DFRPG, but having both also lets you do things like adapt tone — SotC is bit more cinematic about damage — and gives you (more) cool things for the non-casters to do that aren’t quite magic. (Since SotC is supposed to be a pulp fiction setting, characters who are larger than life are normal.)

    • Marie Brennan

      Well, what’s the basic setup for magic in FATE? What’s on the character sheet, and what gets rolled to make stuff happen? (I don’t know the system at all, so yes, we might end up talking past each other. But it’s fun regardless.)

      • beccastareyes

        Well, I don’t know what the generic setup will be, but I can spell it out for Dresden Files.

        Basically all characters get Fate Points which have a refresh of a certain value — basically how much you earn back at the end of a session. They’re kind of the game’s Cool Points system (in game, if you have a free one, you can do something cool, and you get them when you roleplay well or let disadvantages affect your character) so the more you have, the more leverage you can exert. At character generation you can spend some of your refresh for either stunts or magic (including spells or supernatural abilities). Stunts always cost 1 refresh, and magic stuff can be more expensive*.

        Magic is subdivided into the quick stuff you’ll use in fights and the ritual stuff, and bought separately. Both have a limited form and a general form (though the general form still has you pick specializations you are better at), as well as enchancements to improve magic. It tends to take up a lot of refresh. A generalist spellcaster tends to be reserved for higher power games.

        To use it, you basically set the power in the spell, and roll a skill (Discipline) to make that difficulty to pull off the spell — damage if it’s an attack, but you could say the power is to oppose an action, block someone else, or push a door closed, set a fire, turn invisible, teleport, or something**. Then you take mental stress (damage) based on how much energy you’re throwing around. If you miss the skill roll, the spell may still work, but you either take damage too, or something unfortunate happens to the environment around you.

        The ritual magic has some other elements — mostly you can use multiple Discipline rolls to perform a bigger/more complicated spell, in exchange for less damage and more control. Downside is time, though the game notes that a lot of these are ‘if you get it set up right, don’t bother rolling unless you’re rushed’ — a lot like the Take 20 mechanic in D&D.

        * In the DFRPG also playing a character with nothing supernatural also nets you an automatic extra 2 refresh.
        ** Normally characters have a few signature spells here to make bookkeeping easy.

        • Marie Brennan

          Hmm — sounds flexible, but probably too flexible for this application. Female channelers (magic-users), for example, are capable of sensing each other’s strength to a fairly precise degree, and Jordan apparently had a list keeping track of where everybody ranked; my link above is to someone’s attempt to reverse-engineer that list based on evidence in the books, and it’s got something in the vicinity of twenty levels. That and other aspects are systematized enough in the setting that you’d probably need a more systematized game mechanic to model it. (But not to the point of d20, which is very bad at handling improvisational things of the kind that happen all the time in these books.)

          • beccastareyes

            That’s true. FATE is pretty bad about stronger and weaker.

          • Marie Brennan

            FATE might be good for something less systematized, though, like Harry Potter. (A long time ago I came up with a hack for that one based on the Cinematic Unisystem [as seen in Buffy, Angel, and the zombie game All Flesh Must Be Eaten], but — as usual — foundered on the daunting task of setting difficulties for all the random-ass spells that get flung around in those books.)

          • beccastareyes

            Yeah. And the magic system was set up for the Dresden Files license, so it is more based around the concept of magic as suiting narrative needs. I’ve got notes for a hack to play in the Slayers anime universe*.

            * The d20 adaption is decent, but a lot of book-keeping.

          • Marie Brennan

            That’s why I went with the Cinematic Unisystem; it, too, is designed for narrative flexibility. (Frex, it has something like you described for FATE, where “White Hat” characters — your Xanders and so on — have fewer attribute and ability points, but more Drama Points, which can be spent to shape the narrative on the fly.)

          • beccastareyes

            I’ve noticed that a lot for Badass Normals in systems — giving them something to make them playable versus your Witches and Superpowered Demon Killers and whatnot.

            Which I appreciate. I do so love me a Badass Normal.

          • Marie Brennan

            Yeah, it’s nice to have some kind of mechanic in place that rewards you for playing somebody who isn’t the Uber L33t Magic Whatever.

          • mindstalk

            Difficulty doesn’t seem relevant for most Harry Potter spells. Students have to learn the things, but that’s often fast on a spell-by-spell basis, and once learned they just work, IIRC. Attack spells are actual rays, so there’s aiming and dodging, but that’s basically thrown weapon combat.

          • Marie Brennan

            But if you’re setting the game in a school, then whether or not the spell has been learned yet becomes very relevant. Unfortunately, if you look at the series, the named spells are a random grab bag; there’s no discernible pattern to whether something is a fourth-year Charm, a first-year Charm, or a sixth-year Charm. Rowling basically tossed in whatever was useful to the plot, and that works better in a novel than in a game.

  2. Marie Brennan

    Yeah, my earliest gaming experiences were with message-board-based campaigns online. They tended to die pretty fast.

    I think it would be possible to run a really fun game NOT based around the Last Battle. Something during Artur Hawkwing’s time, maybe, or the Trolloc Wars, that would play with the internal dynamics of the White Tower and their activities in the outside world. It could be done entirely with Aes Sedai PCs and their Warders, or a more mixed group, depending on the plot; and changing the time period would open up the possibility of changing setting details that don’t suit the group’s taste.

  3. clothdragon

    Try Hero System


    Husband used it to run Shadowrun since he doesn’t like their system and we’re currently using it for Fantasy. It’s made to be as general as possible so it can be used however you’d like.

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: Try Hero System

      Not one I’ve ever dealt with; I’ve only heard horror stories about the math. 🙂 But that’s always a toss-up in designing generic systems; they either end up being generic to the point of bland boredom, or complicated by lots of rules for customization.

      • clothdragon

        Re: Try Hero System

        It’s not that scary — I haven’t heard the horror stories so I don’t know which part I’d need to defend 🙂 — but we’ve been using this system for years. We do converted worlds with it because Husband creates better balance than the systems tend to. Starting with Magnamund (from the LoneWolf choose your own adventure books), Shadowrun, and using the system as written, even Superheroes once.

        • Marie Brennan

          Re: Try Hero System

          I prefer point-allocation systems precisely because of balance, yeah. The d20 method of “roll dice to decide what your basic stats are” drives me crazy, even with the various house rules people institute to levle it out a bit.

          You can still get imbalance in a point-allocation system, of course, if the designer didn’t sufficiently think through the different powers. But at least you’re off to a better start on the basic stats.

  4. Marie Brennan

    Move up to the Bay Area, and I’ll run a game for you and anybody else who’s interested. 🙂

  5. Marie Brennan

    Well, if you find yourself up here for a visit, maybe I could do a one-shot. (It wouldn’t be a bad idea anyway, to try out the proposed system, in the event of me ever actually running such a campaign.)

  6. findabair

    Oh, but this brings back memories! I played a one-shot WoT game on an RPG convention about 10 years ago – had almost forgotten about that 🙂 I’m not certain, but I think the system we used was GURPS. I played an Aes Sedai who had to deal with a male friend channeling. Great fun – for me; very traumatic for the characters o_O

    • Marie Brennan

      Ah, GURPS. I kind of detest that system, though admittedly my one experience with it was not stacked in its favor. (We converted mid-campaign from Aberrant to GURPS Supers, against my vote, and the conversion really gimped my character.) But for convention gaming, I suppose it makes sense, as a lot of people know how it works.

  7. unquietsoul5

    The problems with Mage and Ars Magicka is that both are good systems for magic design/emulation, but neither is good for non-magic interaction as a game system.

    I tend to think that the best way to emulate any magic system is to take what you want it to do and build a system fresh around it, choosing a root mechanic concept that you build around.

    If you like dice pools, but not fiddly bits, take a look at the Ubiquity system, which uses a binary die pool. If you like a multi poly die mechanic, I’d recommend looking at CORE.

    If you want scary realism, look at Savage Worlds and be ready for characters that are going to avoid combat like the plague as one hit that hurts puts you out of the fight and two leaves you dead in most cases.

    But I really think you need a system that lets you build the magic system yourself instead of hacking at an existing one.

    • Marie Brennan

      I dunno; I find the base system okay. Not brilliant, but not annoying, either. The games I run are more about the RP and story than combat or what have you, and while I know there are indie games out there with mechanics designed to support that kind of stuff, I’m not entirely convinced I want mechanics interfering with it.

      Regardless, what I’m suggesting here basically is taking a root mechanic concept and building around it. Unlike D&D, with its spell-slot nonsense and the like, new!Mage has a fairly simple mechanic designed around a) overall power, b) facility within a small number of types of magic, and c) either improvising magic or doing a pre-set thing you’ve already learned, all of which suit this particular application. I’m not enough of a game designer to want to reinvent that particular wheel; odds are good whatever I came up with would be less well-balanced than the original.

  8. unforth

    So I have the curious distinction of having actually run a Wheel of Time game using the d20 system. I’m the proof that such strange creatures actually exist. Now, it was a long while ago, but the suprt short version is that it’s not a very good fit, for the reasons you cite. The Weave magic system just doesn’t convert very well in to a “spells per spell level per day” system. Like, doesn’t make any sense at all.

    I think you’ve got some good ideas. Here’s some additions I can think of:
    1. You could, if you wanted, model the female/male base aptitudes in the elements by giving them free “dots.”

    2. I don’t agree that it’s as simple to model weaves as “you can or you can’t.” Pure fire is a weave, and if you’re weak in fire, you can only do a candle, and if you’re strong in fire, you can torch a building, but it’s still the same weave. As such, I think there’d have to be a scaling system to this. Sort of like:
    Weave: Fire. If you have 1 dot in fire (and know this weave), you can light a candle. If you have 2 dots in fire, you can light a torch. IF you have 3 dots…etc.
    This would better reflect some of the basic of Aes Sedai training, like why a trainee would actually benefit from practicing by generating balls of light.

    3. I don’t know off hand how rotes work, but you’d have a problem if it involved adding the relevant elements in to your dice pool, because this would mean that a weave that involved more different elements would have a bigger dice pool, instead of being harder. My first thought is maybe average it – so if a weave requires spirit, water and wind, and the Aes Sedai has a 3, 2 and 1 rating in these areas, they’d get 2 dice (you’d have to decide rounding up or down, of course). This might also work (or work better) for winging it, too.

    So I’m pretty tired, so my brain isn’t working too well for thinking up more, but I’ve thought about this a lot (I had too, I ran the damn thing!) and it’s surprisingly tough. For example, there would have to be some kind of way to model getting tired. I mean, channelers can do more than a D&D system would enable them to do in a day, but there is still a limit, at one point or another virtually all of the characters who channel manage to do enough that they are knocked flat.

    Oh, here’s another: You would definitely have to carefully consider how to model shielding – because shields can be broken, but it’s not easy.

    Other things that spring to mind that would need to be considered: linking. Using angrael/sa’angrael/ter’angreal. wilders. uh…I had a fourth, but now I can’t think of it…wait, I remember! Tying off weaves.

    • Marie Brennan

      1. You could, if you wanted, model the female/male base aptitudes in the elements by giving them free “dots.”

      True. I think I’d have to work out the actual ratings for various weaves before I decided which way to go — I’m not sure what strength you would need in the different Elements to do what.

      I don’t agree that it’s as simple to model weaves as “you can or you can’t.”

      I’m leaning toward the notion that improvised casting (in Mage terms) only applies to single-Element efforts; conjunctional effects require rotes (i.e. specific weaves). You can wrap somebody up with bands of Air or channel your clothing dry just on the basis of your strength in the Element, though, as you outline for Fire.

      I don’t know off hand how rotes work, but you’d have a problem if it involved adding the relevant elements in to your dice pool, because this would mean that a weave that involved more different elements would have a bigger dice pool, instead of being harder.

      Or designate one Element (probably the one with the highest requirement) as the “core” of the weave, and that’s the one you include in the roll. (New!Mage has you roll Attribute + Ability + Arcanum, which works out pretty well for this; Compulsion, for example, is supposed to work better if you know brain anatomy, so you can have the otherwise odd combination of Manipulation + Medicine + Spirit.)

      there would have to be some kind of way to model getting tired.

      Yes, you’d need some kind of fatigue rule. New!Mage has a rule for how many spells you can maintain at once, and that’s useful for holding multiple weaves, but it isn’t quite the same thing. I’d probably base fatigue on the total number of Element dots required for the weave — an Air 2, Water 2, Spirit 3 weave has a “fatigue” of 7 — and then somehow weigh that against the channeler’s total Power, since strong channelers can do more before they get tired.

      Shielding, I’m thinking of as a straight Spirit + Power roll, contested; if the shield is in place before the target has taken hold of the Source, then the resistance roll halves that Power rating. That way, it’s damn hard to shield somebody stronger than you unless you catch them before they’re ready. Linking could be a rote (since you have to be taught how to do it) — probably Composure + Occult + Spirit, and you need a higher Spirit rating to lead the circle than to simply join it. Tying off could also be treated as a rote, though not one that involves a roll; once you know how to do it, you can apply it to suitable weaves as necessary. I’m not sure how to handle inverting, though.

      Angreal are an interesting question. They let you channel more — but if you’re weak in, say, Fire, does having an angreal really help you all that much with Fire-based weaves? I don’t remember. And it makes the rote thing complicated; an Aes Sedai who’s seen the weave for, say, a gateway, but isn’t normally strong enough to make one herself, wouldn’t have that rote on her sheet, but theoretically could try it while boosted.

      (Ter’angreal are so individual, they’d have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.)

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