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System Design: Arcana Overhaul

Posted September 28, 2014 at 08:23 PM by Charybdis
Updated September 28, 2014 at 11:14 PM by Charybdis

Hi all,

So in light of the recent announcement about the changes in the arcana system and the inevitable flurry of discussion that's surrounded it, I wanted to take some time to write down some of the thoughts, goals, and ideas that drove the new design for our in-game arcana in a bit of a "behind-the-scenes" peek and a difference of perspective of what drove us to these recent changes, and where we hope it will drive us to in the future.

Arcana came under scrutiny as a potential project for the Working Group to handle given that the system is, and has been for quite some time, broken. It was an overly complicated thing that people who have been on the site for ten years or more still actively avoided because they couldn't understand it, and something that was terribly hard, if not nigh on impossible, to explain to new players. When a quick survey of the community regularly pinpointed arcana as the "one thing I hate most because I don't get it", it was clear that it was inhibiting, rather than promoting, gameplay on all levels.

Beyond that, arcana came under the lens the same time that trade and combat skills did as we looked at the way our current experience system does and does not work. It was obvious that there were particular skills that a huge majority of players gravitated to in the thoughts that, "it's the only way to get powerful". This limited character development, cut out diversity in the characters in our game, and all in all, was bad and definitely not what we wanted for a community that we're proud to say is based on free-form creativity. Arcana has always and traditionally been tipped as the "high power" skill over both combat and trade, and while it's true that an archmage can definitely do more damage than a grandmaster painter, we did want to try to shift it back into balance with combat and trade to offer viable pathways for characters of all types.

You may have also noticed a continued trend toward rule-relaxation. We're writers here on Aelyria, not bookkeepers. While some organization and record-keeping is always necessary, we also didn't want players to feel like they had to spend their time doing it instead of posting. Beyond that, we also believe that our community has matured, grown, and become one that we can trust to behave as responsible adults (or, in some of our players' cases, very grown up adolescents). Thus we've been trying to wind down on the wrist-slapping and the rule-writing, and instead encourage an attitude of three simple rules: (1) Be mature, (2) Be respectful, and (3) Be sensible that we think is more in tune with the spirit we want to foster here.

Lastly, we wanted to empower the lower-level, newer characters. One of the beauties of Aelyria is its longevity and the number of characters that have such great depth and involvement because of their writers' decades and years spent here. On the other hand, we do believe that every contributor and player, no matter how old or new, is intrinsically valuable and has both a right and should be allowed an opportunity to affect the game, even on a wide-scale. This is an idea that we have been promoting over the last year or so, working with moderators to extend opportunities to every level and age of player and character,.

So all that said: those were our motivations and main goals when it came to tackling these recent overhauls.

Magic skills are inherently big-scale; an archmage of any sphere or metaphysical magic can and probably will wreak havoc on a provincial scale with a single spell. This is an area and degree of effect that combat and trade simply can't match—at least not with the same direct, tangible sort of approach. So magic needed to be limited to one skill per character.

We also understood that this was going to be very difficult on some characters who had already been well-established as having multiple magical skills, hence the "experience cash-in", to give players a chance to keep their long-time characters and simply meld them in a new direction, should they so desire. We understand that this was a big curve ball to many players, so we tried to soften the curve as best we could while creating a more balanced system.
It became obvious to us that most threads involving mages in combat didn't actually involve the mages casting. Techniques like dispel or information-gathering on the "type of weave" or "level of opposing mage" were being used instead, and thus the threads turned into mages standing around not actually using their skills. This was counterproductive to the sort of stories we want to create here: ones with vibrant drama and combat and emotion and action.

Thus the "can view weaves or vis level of another mage" went away as did the "seeing arcane contamination", both of which was never really well explained to the general populace so was easier to just remove. We felt that this would add a dynamic to threads that had been severely missing as well as making it more obvious that skill diversity is a necessity when putting together an adventuring group.
While this has always been an unspoken thing, we emphasized that spells happen in a connected world, sometimes with unintended consequences. There are chains of events; one choice or action here can dramatically change what happens later. This is why our game is narrative-based, with a story that connects through a single thread as well as to threads many other places and later on, rather than an MMO that has one-button, one-spell, and done effects.

Arcanomechanics were one big headache. There were maybe a dozen people on the site who actually understood what they were, and the rest of us (self included) tended to just make up words and flap our hands at it and say it works. Thus when something is that big of a stumbling block to that many people, it has to go.

Beyond that, simplification is something that we've been proactively aiming at moving our community and lore toward with all of the recent gameplay changes. We want players' time to be spent on writing, first and foremost, and all the nitty-gritty details only as a very minor second. Thus having to explain "clara" and how that was different/the same as meditation, and what an essence plane looked like, and how to envision a spell weave just didn't add anything to the game and so was removed.

The other side was adding "custom spell" to be immediately available. This, personally, is my favorite part of the revamp. That means that initiate mages can start casting personal-flavored spells immediately! A mage can start putting their stamp on their craft from the get-go without feeling like they have to cast only what's been written out in the spellbook. If your character's a druid who really loves birds and not so much horses, then all your spells can involve feathers and flying. Beyond that, it allows spells to be far more situational. Over half the fun of getting that moderator's post is seeing, "What just happened?!" because it's always unexpected. Allowing mages to immediately start creating spells that fit their current situation (Fighting an earth golem? Wash it away with water!) in unique and interesting ways should really open up a huge realm of creativity that previously couldn't be tapped into until one hit higher levels.
Again, the emphasis here was to let mages be mages as soon as they get Unbound. Why make them wait for goodies?

Dispel's change to "counterspell" was huge here. This again flows into what I said above, where mages were spending threads standing around not being mages in combat situations. It is much more dynamic when you have mages throwing fireballs and lightning storms at each other, or force bolting them to prevent being mind controlled, and all the rest. Hence why dispel got very limited in use to open up more creativity in roleplay.

Circle of Magic was removed because it is a Force Shield, which should be a Sorcerer's spell. Thus it didn't make sense that everyone got it.
As you may have noticed with the recent Staff of Arcana rewrite by Nimh (which has not changed with this overhaul), we are really emphasizing a mage personalizing their rituals to obtain various tools of their craft. This is the same theme that we used for amulets. Every mage should have a very unique procedure to imbue and enchant that is developed through trial and error. An intellectual mage might be methodical and careful whereas a more impulsive character might just throw things together and see what happened. We wanted to remove the "exactness" from the write-ups to allow players to write their characters as characters, instead of trying to fit a formula.

Moving imbuements down to initiate was also a concerted effort to further empower the lower levels. This gives an Initiate a lot more opportunities to cast spells, as well as to develop their craft in a very unique and personalized fashion the moment they're unbound.
Summoned Creatures
To be blunt, summons were getting out of hand. There was just way too much variation in, "How much mana does an undead, overweight giant cost versus a small, petite zombie?" that didn't have very clear answers and caused a lot of headaches for both players and moderators alike. So summons got severely simplified down to basic categories to make it easier on everyone.

The other side to that is that the summons were also designed to be very unique. A fire-focused Elementalist might notice that all their summons keep coming out with the same bad temper as the mage. The process for subduing a summon became very individualized too, to let summons really take something of a character in and of themselves. This is meant to add a layer of storytelling to players' roleplay, so that summons are not merely mindless, personality-less cannon fodder but rather something to develop the mage's story.
Sorcery really didn't undergo any major changes; instead, it was simply limited to its core function. Sorcery is Force Magic, which is quite literally push/pull motion, or the absence thereof. Thus any spells or abilities that were beyond the realm of "motion" got removed, as they simply didn't fit.

It's probably the most generic of all the spheres, given that everything moves/doesn't move. That both makes it powerful and versatile while also making it lack subtlety and deftness. It's definitely not a "sneaky-type" sphere, and its powers extend to the tangible—and that's it. That's why you don't see summons here, or the idea of "buffing" another party member with stronger abilities. Sorcery is supposed to be very baseline, very basic, and very direct.
I know we got rid of opposing spheres, but Mysticism in my head is really the polar opposite of Sorcery. Mysticism is about the intangible, about being deft and agile and indirect and manipulative and probably the least obvious and most subtle form of magic. Since it can do no real direct damage, Mysticism is all about tricking your opponent rather than fighting them head-on. An Elementalist is casting a fireball at you? Make him think he's looking at his lover, or maybe that he's in a dried-out forest full of innocent children. It's all about how you can get yourself out of situations in curvy, sideways patterns, rather than brute force.

Beyond that, Mysticism has really evolved to be the most anti-mage sphere. This flows straight from their understanding of the mind. They know how people, and especially mages, think—and their bread-and-butter is outthinking and being one step ahead of them as a result. They're the only sphere that can actively counter the others as well as gather information—which presumably they will use to be exactly not where their opponents believe them to be.

The removal of animations was both because of the intangible themeing of Mysticism, as well as to balance the latter anti-mage properties. The power of a Mystic is both information and misinformation, so it didn't make sense that they should also be able to create physical objects if they're a sphere that's based on the intangible.
Again, this sphere needed little to no tweaking. It's the most obvious, using the four elements, but probably also the most complex because it uses four elements. It retained all the countering and opposing ideas between these elements which gives it even more versatility inside its same sphere.

The spells and abilities underwent next to no changes, just some minor tweaking to fit the changes in mechanics. Elementalism is still probably the most balanced of all the spheres, in my opinion, having high damage output as well as defensive capabilities and a very high utility function with their elemental immunities and the like. And really, in the physical world, there's no where you can go that doesn't have one of its four elements present.
Much like Elementalism, Druidism didn't change much with this overhaul from its previous incarnation. A few spells were tweaked and fixed to fit the mechanics changes, but otherwise it remained intact.

One thing I did want to highlight though is one of its four core tenets: restoration/destruction. This, I think, makes Druidism stand out from its sisters Necromancy and Thaumaturgy. A druid could be focused on restoration, or on destruction, or both—but both directions are available to a druid, as they can either hasten natural processes of regeneration or quicken processes of decay and disuse. Druids can be either nature's protector or destroyer-by-nature.
Thaumaturgy underwent some pretty extensive changes that mostly revolved around aligning it with the idea of Order rather than light. Aelyria works on an axis of Order (Ioannes) and Chaos (Jorel), so it made sense that this magic would seek one and Necromancy the other.

Order is "how things should rightly be". That doesn't always mean how we think they should be. Hence why the "creation of limbs and body parts, etc." from their healing was limited to "mending what is already there". Creating a limb out of nothing is not how things should be; in fact, that's an abomination of the order of the universe in the way that undead are.

The other side to that is Thaumaturgy's focus on defense, creating powerful shields and enhancing spells that all increase the power of their targets. The trade-off is that they are limited in the damage they can do and cannot enfeeble or weaken their opponents. That said, I think the really interesting theme in Thaumaturgy now is the idea of "retaliation", that a thaumaturge can absorb a great deal of damage and then use that and turn it on their opponent instead. It's not being preemptive; it's being reactive.
And now, Necromancy. This was aligned on the axis of Entropy and this theme was accentuated in its extensive retooling. Entropy is decay, rot, poison, neglect, disuse, rust, corrosion—basically any process ruins things to a point of being unusable. This gives necromancers an extremely wide array of mechanisms to weaken their opponents before even needing to strike a direct blow.

Other changes include the limitations on leeching that it doesn't heal (that would be a positive effect, which doesn't make sense for a sphere that's supposed to be focused on negating and weakening) but rather "sustains". Thus a wounded Necromancer who leeches life from a nearby target would be able to survive long past when they should have bled out and died, but they can't actually heal the wound. They would need someone else's help for that.

The other side too was an extension of Necromancy's ability to summon. This is core to what Necromancy as a concept is, so was further emphasized and underlined in our Aelyrian version as well. They're the only sphere that can summon more than one creature at a time, as well as the only sphere that can summon both immaterial and material—so cannon-fodder zombies from dead bodies and terrifying fiends from the Infernal Plane.
Hedgemage always kind of felt like a bit of an afterthought to our systems of arcana so needed to be fixed. Condensing hedgemage into a single skill that requires a player to level up only once instead of multiple times made it a legitimate and usable skill and hopefully easier on players too.

The trade-off for that was condensing their vis pool to just one like other mages, which both makes their lives as well as moderators' lives easier to keep track of spells and vis use during a thread. Still, they're able to access abilities from two completely different spheres, which is a huge advantage given that every sphere is now very clearly delineated and niched into particular themes. A hedgemage Thaumaturge who can heal while throwing Elemental meteors at your face? That's a pretty big deal.

The top-end of hedgemage took a lot of thought and development to make sure they were still balanced against single-sphere mages while still being worthy of Master and Archmage levels. It has always been the theme that hedgemages were more versatile than other mages while sacrificing sheer, raw power. This same theme led to our decision to have their high-level spells cost double the vis, meaning that they were very limited in how many they are able to cast, but also allowing them to use the essences from both their spheres and thus increasing the complexity of effects that they will create. It's an interesting concept, casting a spell that both utilizes push/pull Sorcery at the same time as entropic Necromancy, and I think it opens a ton of doors for very creative hedgemages to wreak unique and incredible results.
Whew. That ended up being quite longer than I had intended, so if you managed to read all the way down to this...wow. This is usually where I would add some sort of extra credit problem for you to turn in at the start of class the next day, but clearly that mechanism doesn't exactly work here in Aelyria.

Regardless, there you go: some perspective of the sort of thought that went into developing an arcana system that was simpler, more straight forward, and more fitting with our emphasis here on Aelyria on personal and unique creativity and writing, first and foremost. It is our hope that the system we've created will be self-sustaining too, meaning that players and moderators alike can use the write-ups, information, and criteria presented to actually "get it" and not feel like they need a special education course in understanding what's going on here. The idea is to make things as simple and obvious as we can to avoid ambiguity, misinterpretation, and confusion, and hopefully instead make sure you're spending your valuable time writing and playing, rather than trying to figure out mechanistic questions.

I hope that helps you see a little bit of our thought process here and make clear that these changes didn't materialize just out of the blue, but were rather concerted, thoughtful efforts to try to make our community better. Thank you again for your contributions and participation here, as really, it's our players and staff that make this game continue to exist.
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  1. Old Comment
    This blog post gets 5 floating skulls out of 5 for its awesomeness. A great read, which I will read again, simply to take it all in. I love the peak through the doorcrack approach. Thank you.
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 08:49 AM by Shalafi Shalafi is offline
  2. Old Comment
    Charybdis's Avatar
    I'm glad you found it helpful, good sir. Just wanted to give a perspective on the thought process that went into the entire overhaul as well as to show that none of these decisions were made haphazardly or in a vacuum--they were all very concerted, thought-through, and considered.

    Beyond that, I wanted to also emphasize that it was your and the rest of the community's feedback that helped us pinpoint problem areas as much as it did locate areas that worked, and worked well, so didn't need to be touched. We do pay attention to the flow and ebb in the community too to make sure we're creating an environment that you all want to play and contribute in, because that's really at the heart of it all.
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 01:35 PM by Charybdis Charybdis is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Straylor Leonard's Avatar
    Fantastic post. Thank you, Malia!
    Posted September 30, 2014 at 01:09 PM by Straylor Leonard Straylor Leonard is offline
  4. Old Comment
    Charybdis, the views you have presented in your blog makes a lot of sense. I like the new perspective that you have presented in regards to spellcasting.

    Like others, I have found that the spellcasting needed on my part needs to comply with the "mechanics" of things. Not to say they aren't important, but that they prevailed over creativity in spellcasting description.

    Appreciate the simplicity of spellcasting.
    Posted October 16, 2014 at 03:05 AM by Kakita Miyuki Kakita Miyuki is offline
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