So to one degree or another every game involves both science and magic. Dungeons and Dragons is a highly magical setting but iron is still turned into steel and wheels still make moving things around easier. On the other side of the coin, Cyberpunk has their virtual reality which is (arguably) just a spirit world that is based upon programming we understand as opposed to being based on programming we do not. As Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” It may be called “psionics” in Alternity, but from story/setting/GM’s perspective you might as well be talking about magic.Are Jedi wizards? Of course they are. What they do is normal and predictable to them while being fantastic only to someone who doesn’t know how the trick was done. What fantasy wizards do is only mysterious to non-wizards. To the spell caster in question, they do x, y, and z and the result is a fireball. Anyone who knew properly how to do x, y, and z should also get a fireball. Sometimes magical feats also require a certain amount of natural magical ability on the caster’s part, but even still, the caster usually understands how the “magic” was done. From their point of view it still boils down to a formula. One of the ingredients just may happen to be an inborn “gift” or (put another way) a genetic predisposition. In some systems, like Rifts, magic and science are capable of working hand in hand. Cyborg dragons, spelled up robots, magic infused, satellite guided, nuclear missiles. In other systems, like Shadowrun, they are naturally opposing forces and at some point you must choose which you wish to excel in or be doomed to mediocrity in both areas. Personally I like the idea of magic and science working together, but without some kind of solid setting to work with that kind of thing tends to get out of hand quickly. Hell, even with a solid setting to work with the same thing often happens. Just look at Rifts. In the end Paladium simply waved the white flag and gave up entirely on the idea of game balance. Can you blame them though? Spell casting, ninja, alien, juicers, with cybernetic implants, spell tattoos, and rail guns are just too cool for school. What can one GM reasonably do? When Fasa made Shadowrun and its sister game, Earthdawn, I thought the idea they came up with was very neat from a world building point of view. In this setting the world goes through “Ages” with the even numbered ages being magic centered and the odd numbered ages being science centered. At the edges of these ages there is a mix in the world even though the two forces refuse to mix in a single application, like oil and water. In the middle of a given age, one force dominates completely and examples of the other force are mysterious oddities. Modern day would be considered the fifth age with Shadowrun being set on the cusp between ages five and six and Earthdawn taking place in age four. The interesting thing is that in Earthdawn everyone does everything with magic and no one is skilled at anything. In general thieves use spells to open closed objects, but a thief who actually knows how to manually unlock something (ie. has a skill for that
instead of a spell) is a rarity like someone who magics open a lock would be today. What a neat idea! Then there’s White Wolf’s Adventure/Aberrant/Trinity world. Adventure is set in the 1920s and you play pulp style heroes; Indiana Jones, The Shadow, Doc Savage, etc. Some heroes have actual spiffy abilities like The Shadow disappearing, but most of them are just remarkably capable, skilled and dedicated people. Then Abberant was set in modern day and you play super heroes, your powers scientifically defined in the world as being completely able to defy the laws of nature (thermodynamics, conservation of energy, etc). Then in Trinity you play human psychics in a science fiction setting who hunt down and try to destroy any remaining super heroes (now called Abberants). You have powers, but yours are okay because they obey the laws of nature. Science magic vs non-science magic! I love it! Man… Now I want to play one of these games. See what you made me do?
Lets face it. The ability to customize your character is what a lot of what sets role-playing games apart from boardgames. Systems that direct you to chose from a set of pre-generated characters or limit character generation such that there is only one obvious way to make a given type of character lose a lot of the flexibility of role-playing. Yes, I know that good players can overcome this just like a good GM can overcome a poor system, but that in no way defends the system itself from this criticism.So the ability to customize characters during both character generation and advancement, in my opinion, is important to consider when comparing RPG systems. In particular a system that allows for two beginning power level characters to fill the same role while being noticeably different from each other without one of them being obviously more powerful than the other is hard to come by. I have played under many different systems and only a few of them do it well. To accomplish this most modern games have some kind of “Merits and Flaws” system. That is to say, they have a codified set of rules for customizing your character with abilities/bonuses or hindrances/penalties not otherwise covered in the standard set of powers or skills. I call these systems “Merits and Flaws” because that’s what White Wolf called them and it was in their World of Darkness setting where I originally encountered the idea. Vampire the Masquerade, Mage the Ascension, and Werewolf the Apocalypse are the games I’m referring to. And a good idea it was! Broken to be sure, but it still added a much needed dimension of uniqueness to character generation. Ambidexterity, Iron Will, Enemies, Dark Secrets, True Faith. It opened a world of possibilities. Unfortunately it also opened the floodgates for min-maxing (squeezing character generation for every drop of numeric power possible instead focusing on the character). Taking flaws gave you more points to buy powers with so most people took flaws that would never come into play and used the points to buy powers that they used every session (I’ll be allergic to the sting of the rare Indonesian feathered toad so I can bend steel with my bare hands). Not only that, but there were some merits that only idiots (or inexperienced players) didn’t take. In particular “Luck” allowed you to virtually ignore failures or at least those spectacular failures that make plans fail. When things like this exist it becomes a flaw for a
character to be the one in the group who didn’t take that merit. I recently finished a game of Mage the Awakening, White Wolf’s re-boot of the Mage section of their World of Darkness setting, and was actually quite impressed by how they’d fixed the flaw portion of this issue. True, their solution was just a flat out theft from 7th Sea, but AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group) stumbled upon the mother of all solutions when they published 7th Sea. Personally I think we should be encouraging every system to follow suit. 7th Sea retained a Merits and Flaws system, but removed the character generation benefits of taking flaws. Instead a character will gain more xp in game if their flaws are used in the story. That way if you take a flaw that never hinders you, it also never helps you. Also this leaves it up to the Player to remember their own flaws and suggest them as story fodder to the GM. Brilliant! All you can do about over powered merits is either not allow those merits, modify them, or cut merits from the system entirely. So that’s going to be difficult no matter how you slice it. I like merits though so I’m more inclined to allow them and tweak the rules as the game runs and proves various merits to be more or less beneficial than their costs would lead you to believe. That’s more work on the GM’s plate, but that’s why you have a GM instead of a choose-your-own-adventure book. Right? On the other hand, do you think a system where merits were free at character generation and each player was allowed to spend xp on activating merits in game would work? That way if you’d like to spend tons of xp using your Luck you could do so, but the players who didn’t take that merit (or chose not to use it) would be ahead of you in advancement over all. I’m not sure. I’ve never been a fan of systems that required you to spend xp on temporary things rather than permanent gains, but I can’t think of a way to make sure that any given merit has a price you don’t pay at character generation like 7th Sea did with flaws. Suggestions? Anyway this topic came to my mind while running my Alternity game. My players all have flaws that I really just don’t have memorized. So I don’t believe I’ve leaned on them nearly as much as I probably should have. Also there is one merit in particular called Concentration that, after seeing it in action, I’m not sure if there is a single character who wouldn’t benefit from taking it. It allows you to make a check whenever your character is performing a task and has time to focus on it. Depending on the grade of success on that roll you get a bonus of varying size on the subsequent skill roll. A failure simply does not provide a bonus. It is not restricted to any specific skill or group of skills. It is not restricted in the number of times you can use it. It won’t be very useful in combat except when ambushing, but otherwise it can be used on almost every roll.