Monday, December 13, 2010

Physical Mages

Long ago on this blog I said that physical adepts were my favorite character type to play in Shadowrun. That's only technically true. From the moment I read about them I've been fascinated by physical mages. The idea of a character who has the full understanding of mana manipulation and channels it though his body to physically augment it lit my mind on fire with possibilities.

But anyone who knows anything about Shadowrun knows that's not what physical mages are. Instead, a physical mage is a physical adept who can spend his power points to pick up one additional, special power: sorcery. His score in this power is his effective magic score when determining what spell force he can cast safely. In all other ways, he's a physical adept like any other.

Again, after all the whining I've done about the complexity and variety of mechanical systems in Shadowrun, I should be lauding the hell out of this. It introduces a new idea, but it does so in a mechanically minimalist way and makes heavy use of existing rules. Use standard sorcery rules for the physical mage when he casts spells. Use standard adept rules when he uses any of his other powers. Nothing new to learn outside of that one little note as to how he straddles the line. Really, as far as rules in any game go, it's pretty simple.

Unlike technomancers, I've gotten to see a physical mage in play. I myself was not allowed to play one in college (the GM outlawed the character type; I think he was sick of sourcebook material by then, since we had a werebear and otaku in the party already), but in a semi-recent game one of my players selected that as an option. My first thought was "awesome!" Awesome, unfortunately, didn't describe the final product.

That physical mage took 4 points of spellcasting and sunk the last two into astral perception. Totally by the rules, but I defy anyone to tell me that's the concept this archetype was really designed for. After a few sessions the player converted to a full mage and got the ability to summon and astrally project in exchange for giving up, well, nothing. Woo! Rad.

It's true, that's not the way the text implies physical mages will typically turn out, but it is true that they will most often be mediocre spellcasters and mediocre physical adepts. Oh, it's the power of generalization, Cliff! You want to do lots of stuff in a game of specialists, you need to suck at them! I disagree. No, you can't have a generalist who has the same level of ability in all his fields as a specialist has in one, but I maintain that a physical mage need not be a generalist. After all, an even more fundamental rule of the game should be that the options are fun, right? If an option doesn't add to the fun of the game, what's the point?

To that end, I propose the following redesign of physical mages: instead of making them adepts who can also cast mage spells, let's make them mages who can cast spells that boost their physical performance. There are some out there already. There's a small spate of attribute boosters, armor, increased reflexes, etc. Adepts have a few powers that function like spells also. Boost, for example, gives you a temporary pump in an attribute, but it wears off and inflicts drain afterward.

I started with that idea, but eventually drifted a little farther afield from this. I like the idea of a physical mage's powers being temporary, invoked boosts, I'm just not sure I want there to be a success test for every single one of them. See, when a mage casts a spell, he's often using his magic to accomplish an action. If a physical mage casts a spell, it's going to be to boost his own capabilities. He'll then roll a skill or an attribute to accomplish his task. A mechanic that doubles the number of rolls a player will make to accomplish something isn't one I want to introduce into the game. But that temporary, invoked boost, that's spot on. That makes all a physical mage's powers feel more like spells to me. The adept subconsciously channels magic through his body, turning it into a sort of supernatural talent. The physical mage, on the other hand, sculpts the magic into whatever he needs it to be, using his own body as the lens. He's the master of somatic sorcery.

My mind wandered to some of the other incarnations of Shadowrun I've run in the past. One of them used the Feng Shui system. Now, I like Feng Shui; I think it's approach to things actually fits my current group very well, but they insisted that it didn't feel much like Shadowrun using those rules. And, well, I can see their point. You know what though? The fu powers of that game use exactly the mold I'm talking about here. Those who are properly trained get a chi pool, which they can use to fuel a variety of fu shticks. Pay the points, activate the power. No roll required.

How do you get that pool? Excellent question. Let's base it on your Magic score to start with, and then throw in a power that adds to your pool instead of giving you a new ability. Speaking of which, these will advance like physical adepts. While they are mages, they're not really throwing around spells the way sorcerers are, nor are they peeking into the astral plane, binding spirits, enchanting talismans, or anything else like that. The more involved rules of initiation are there specifically to put the brakes on the rampant power growth of full mages. Physical mages, as described here, aren't mechanically primed for that kind of power leap, so let's advance them the way we do physical adepts.

Now, in Feng Shui, you get your chi back every round. This being Shadowrun, and sorcery being something that comes with a price, I think that creating some other kind of recovery mechanism is in order, probably something keyed off a character's Resolve knack. Maybe you get your Resolve step rating back in magic every round. That's right, round. Not action. You've got to make it all the way around the shot clock before you get some mana back.

You want more? I think there should be a way for you to get it. Let's call it a centering roll (which would normally mean that only initiates can use this, but let's make centering available to them without making them initiate like mages, since they're not using sorcery) that uses the following procedure:

  1. Select the number of mana points you want to get back.
  2. Roll centering with that number as the threshold.
  3. Divide your pool between yang (which go toward your threshold) and yin (which counteract drain)
  4. Success restores the mana to your pool instantly. Failure means you recover nothing.
  5. Succeed or fail, you now take drain equal to the amount of mana you attempted to restore.
  6. Resist drain as normal. 
  7. You may choose to take injuries instead of marking wounds after the drain check, just like a normal wound.
While I haven't done it, I'd seriously consider modelling physical mage powers off Feng Shui's fu and gun shticks. Many of these abilities have a structure like: "Hit x mooks with your attack, where x is the amount of chi spent on this action." Others have a flat cost associated with them, but that needs to be paid every time you want to use them.

Creating a separate list of powers for physical mages serves to not only tailor them to their specific mechanics, but makes them mechanically distinct from physical adepts. Much like the new rules for adepts set them apart from street samurai without either hobbling the adept or overshadowing the samurai, the rules for physical mages provide another avenue in which a player can play a physically powerful character who is distinct from those who follow other paths. That's the hope anyway. Obviously I've tested none of this.

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