Author Topic: Adding mystery back into magic: A discussion on the ideals of a magic system.  (Read 5367 times)

Offline Nytemare3701

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http://www.darkshire.net/jhkim/rpg/magic/antiscience.html

Stumbleupon handed me this page, so I thought I'd bring it to you guys to get your opinions on it.
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Offline Agita

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Point number 1 makes the common mistake of conflating what's (debatably) good for a story with what's good for a game. The presence of clear mechanics for magic is, from a game perspective, not really negotiable. Any system that a player can directly interact with needs rules that the player can understand in their entirety, and rules need to be consistent (even when they can happen to outline inconsistencies, such as a random factor or a factor of GM interference). By directly interacting, here I mean using the magic system. A magic system which doesn't work consistently is basically a plot device, and a plot device shouldn't be the defining trait of a given character, the way magic tends to be for a magic-user. You can totally have magic as a vaguely-defined plot device, but not that and dedicated magic-using PCs at the same time.

Point number 2 is largely an aspect of the setting. Both sides of the coing have their place, depending on place, tone, and nature of the magic in question. In a Lovecraftian setting, the "magic is unnatural" (to the extent that Old Ones are unnatural) trope certainly works well. Conversely, if magic primarily concerns itself with, say, shaping the elements that make up the world, it should probably be an integral part of the world itself.

Point number 3 is basically a matter of worldbuilding and, where necessary, mechanics to match it. It's certainly something I endorse, if it makes sense for the magic system. Rules-light games have it easier, here, since any passively magical aspects of their setting often just fall under the umbrella of their mechanics by themselves, rather than requiring active attention from the designers.

Point 4 mixes its terminology up a bit. It's really more about conservation of effort than energy. If your game isn't on the rules-light side, it will probably want some form of resource system to govern its magic, which doesn't have to be "magical energy". This isn't universally true, but it's by far the easiest route, which is why so many games go for it. An alternative is a magic system consisting of at-will or always-on powers (and other configurations of x times per time interval, though those, based on a long history of comments on D&D 3.5 and 4e, are something of a can of worms), which places some tricky constraints on your design. Another is the same, but with a sort of soft cap on use that discourages you from using your magic too often without being a hard cost. This last if probably the trickiest to design well.

Point 5 is again a matter of setting. Depending on your magic system, it might make perfect sense for it to be constrained by morality (especially if derived from one or more deities, other spiritual powers, or your own faith) or perhaps simply your dedication (if derived from willpower). In a number of other cases, it doesn't.

However, I don't think any of the above points is directly responsible for a given magic system's mystery or lack thereof. The author is looking at and defining symptoms rather than causes. While some of the points may serve to facilitate it, in the end, what the vague feel described comes down to is presentation. I'm confident that even D&D's arcane magic system - the Vancian one - could be made satisfactorily non-scientific with the proper writing and creative vision. One of the first steps would be to disregard most of the magic-babble that accumulated over the lifetime of 3.5 regarding precisely how exact a science magic is.

Note that scientific magic does not necessarily preclude mysterious magic. The world's first proper scientists were alchemists, herbalists, and fortune-tellers and they were certainly no less mysterious to one who had no idea what they were doing than a proper mage in a fantasy setting.
(Tales of Taoist hermits come to mind who discovered gunpowder while searching for immortality and "bodily ascended to Heaven in a flash of light".)
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Offline oslecamo

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The problem isn't exactly lack of mystery. It's lack of risk. Current magic in RPGs is 100% safe and has no drawbacks to speak off. You can use and abuse it all you want and nothing will ever go wrong. Which is complely contrary to ancient myths were magic demanded big sacrifices and/either carried big risks.

But alas that's something completely unadmissible to modern day players.

Note that scientific magic does not necessarily preclude mysterious magic. The world's first proper scientists were alchemists, herbalists, and fortune-tellers and they were certainly no less mysterious to one who had no idea what they were doing than a proper mage in a fantasy setting.
Maybe alchemists and herbalists could be called as proto scientists, altough certainly not "proper" until people started doing hard documentation and testing on their research. If anything, I would give that title to the first blacksmiths and farmers, because those guys got shit done that others could understand and replicate.

"Fortune tellers"  howeve were (and still are) smartasses that managed to get paid just for blurting out things that sounded smart and deep.

Offline veekie

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The problem isn't exactly lack of mystery. It's lack of risk. Current magic in RPGs is 100% safe and has no drawbacks to speak off. You can use and abuse it all you want and nothing will ever go wrong. Which is complely contrary to ancient myths were magic demanded big sacrifices and/either carried big risks.

But alas that's something completely unadmissible to modern day players.
Actually, not exactly, Mythic magic spans an enormous span of time, of which only a short period included risky/costly magic. This being a legacy of the church's stance on supernatural powers which are not derived from God. This in turn was a legacy of the suppression of other rival religions, which indeed had claims of powers other than God at work, combining them all into the work of an Adversary.

Earlier magic stems from several primary sources, superstitions which worked, an intrinsic quality and the intervention of an interested supernatural entity.
The first is generally sympathetic magic or lore passed down. This is essentially 'scientific' magic, the power to make a better sword or charm by including certain rituals into the production process, without necessarily understanding why or how it works. It suffers from trial and error, with a hefty load of confirmation bias. It preserves mystery by obfuscating the relation between action and result. It is integral with the world(though RPGs put a resource mechanic in the way), and can be quite feasibly implemented as circumstantial magic, a collection of rituals that can be performed, given the preconditions, to achieve an outcome. Unfortunately, it's ridiculously involved to design, to come up with rituals for the right situations, broad enough to be useful, narrow enough to avoid universal applicability.

The second is inherent magic, the magic of being really strong or driven, the power of superior ore, genetics or conviction. This is the power of being the Other, all the magic that derives from the descendants of gods, relics of saints and heroes, the power of self improvement. When you are stronger, faster, tougher, smarter or more charismatic than others. This is kind of in most leveled RPGs already, even ignoring the explicit implementations like sorcerors, whenever a character survives the raw damage from a terminal velocity fall, leaps superhuman distances, or even pulls off some kind of absurd bluff, you are performing the inherent magic. Taken to the extreme, it's the power of being unique.

Finally, you have supernatural intervention. This is where the talk of sacrifices come in. All the song and dance, the offerings, the pomp and ceremony, it's aimed at attracting and directing the attentions of something more powerful, to do you a favor. It is dangerous because the Power has it's own will and motivations, which might not gel with your own, but, given their attention, none of the rest is necessary. Whether it's God or a horde of djinni to  do something for you. Sacrifices are great because you have to stand out to get the attention of the more powerful, and only that. But this isn't really game magic so much as plot magic, involving intensive NPC intervention.

Now, to round it off, players don't like permanent costs for transient actions. GMs don't either. It gets in the way of the game, because if you have to pay out your ass each and every time you do something special, then the game grinds to a standstill, abilities unused. And unused abilities are a waste of game time and sheet space, unlike reality and myths, which have a distinctly limited special effects budget. Risk could be a factor, if not for the tendency of people to go for low hanging fruits of drama and comedy, even for the best of us. With game magic, you need to have a fair idea of what you are paying(in most cases, a spell slot), and what you are getting(a contained spell effect).

There is little room for uncertain character abilities, but this does not mean you cannot have uncertain magic. Just not character intrinsic magic.
There is, of course, plenty of room for more freeform magic. There is even room for magic with horrific costs...provided they are not core parts of your character. In such cases the magic is a publicly available plot device, available for anyone with the appropriate criterion, knowledge and willingness to pay/take the risk. Anyone here knows Glorantha? Some of that can help relate.
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Offline Agita

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The problem isn't exactly lack of mystery. It's lack of risk. Current magic in RPGs is 100% safe and has no drawbacks to speak off. You can use and abuse it all you want and nothing will ever go wrong. Which is complely contrary to ancient myths were magic demanded big sacrifices and/either carried big risks.

But alas that's something completely unadmissible to modern day players.
Risk is completely perpendicular to the matter at hand, unless you can explain how it relates to magic being more or less scientific. I could take Vancian magic as it is and add some sort of risk of your choice to it (maybe a save with each spell against some condition from a list that the GM picks from, for an example that I've given five seconds of thought to and in no way advocate as an actual thing), and it would not change a thing about the perception of the system as scientific, unscientific, or mysterious or not. You're taking a round issue and trying to fit a square (and highly debatable) explanation into it.

Veekie explains the mythic angle better (and far more exhaustively) than I could, so I'll defer to him there.

Maybe alchemists and herbalists could be called as proto scientists, altough certainly not "proper" until people started doing hard documentation and testing on their research. If anything, I would give that title to the first blacksmiths and farmers, because those guys got shit done that others could understand and replicate.

"Fortune tellers"  howeve were (and still are) smartasses that managed to get paid just for blurting out things that sounded smart and deep.
In an effort to not derail this too much:

Proper or improper science is a matter of discussion. As a scientist myself, I would certainly call the old alchemists and herbalists proper scientists - they figured out what worked through trial and error, even if they came to wrong conclusions about why. Farmers and blacksmiths certainly also count; the list wasn't intended to be exclusive.

As for fortune-tellers, you're thinking of a different kind than I. Look up Taoism. Seriously, it's basically Math: The Religion. The horoscope use of the Yi Ching is actually more modern; originally, Taoist sages did things like predict the weather by the time of year, geography, earlier weather patterns, and numerology that turns out to loosely match the earth's orbit around the sun. They were surprisingly accurate (close enough that the predictions could be used for military purposes) considering how early this was and how bogus something like numerology sounds. Early meteorology, in other words.
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Offline oslecamo

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Actually, not exactly, Mythic magic spans an enormous span of time, of which only a short period included risky/costly magic. This being a legacy of the church's stance on supernatural powers which are not derived from God. This in turn was a legacy of the suppression of other rival religions, which indeed had claims of powers other than God at work, combining them all into the work of an Adversary.
Ancient religions were demanding human sacrifices for divine favor long before monotheist religions ever became popular.

Earlier magic stems from several primary sources, superstitions which worked, an intrinsic quality and the intervention of an interested supernatural entity.
The first is generally sympathetic magic or lore passed down. This is essentially 'scientific' magic, the power to make a better sword or charm by including certain rituals into the production process, without necessarily understanding why or how it works. It suffers from trial and error, with a hefty load of confirmation bias. It preserves mystery by obfuscating the relation between action and result. It is integral with the world(though RPGs put a resource mechanic in the way), and can be quite feasibly implemented as circumstantial magic, a collection of rituals that can be performed, given the preconditions, to achieve an outcome. Unfortunately, it's ridiculously involved to design, to come up with rituals for the right situations, broad enough to be useful, narrow enough to avoid universal applicability.
Except said "lore" demanded you to go out there and find the right ore/plants at the right time in the right conditions. Nowadays in fantasy games you can get them all in an extra-cheap pouch or widely available on the local market in any amounts you need.

The second is inherent magic, the magic of being really strong or driven, the power of superior ore, genetics or conviction. This is the power of being the Other, all the magic that derives from the descendants of gods, relics of saints and heroes, the power of self improvement. When you are stronger, faster, tougher, smarter or more charismatic than others. This is kind of in most leveled RPGs already, even ignoring the explicit implementations like sorcerors, whenever a character survives the raw damage from a terminal velocity fall, leaps superhuman distances, or even pulls off some kind of absurd bluff, you are performing the inherent magic. Taken to the extreme, it's the power of being unique.
Except you really aren't unique when 30% of the world can and does take levels in your class and replicates your magic just like you do.

Finally, you have supernatural intervention. This is where the talk of sacrifices come in. All the song and dance, the offerings, the pomp and ceremony, it's aimed at attracting and directing the attentions of something more powerful, to do you a favor. It is dangerous because the Power has it's own will and motivations, which might not gel with your own, but, given their attention, none of the rest is necessary. Whether it's God or a horde of djinni to  do something for you. Sacrifices are great because you have to stand out to get the attention of the more powerful, and only that. But this isn't really game magic so much as plot magic, involving intensive NPC intervention.
By all means disregard stuff like 1e Haste making you age a year.

Even in 3e you can still find negotiations with binding creatures and gate/wish costing exp.

Alas they included so many ways to bypass said costs that they may as well not be there. In 4e they fully disapeared.


Now, to round it off, players don't like permanent costs for transient actions. GMs don't either. It gets in the way of the game, because if you have to pay out your ass each and every time you do something special, then the game grinds to a standstill, abilities unused. And unused abilities are a waste of game time and sheet space, unlike reality and myths, which have a distinctly limited special effects budget.
Plenty of space between "at-will magic beam that can miss" and "at will angel army to satisfy my every whim whitout failure".

Risk could be a factor, if not for the tendency of people to go for low hanging fruits of drama and comedy, even for the best of us. With game magic, you need to have a fair idea of what you are paying(in most cases, a spell slot), and what you are getting(a contained spell effect).
Why again? When a warrior does an attack roll, they have a chance to miss, normal hit or crit, perhaps some miss chances and aoos involved. When a caster uses solid fog, they get a 100% predictable effect and auto-pass their laughably low Concentration checks. Magic is more safe and predictable than simply waving a sword.

There is little room for uncertain character abilities, but this does not mean you cannot have uncertain magic. Just not character intrinsic magic.
There is, of course, plenty of room for more freeform magic. There is even room for magic with horrific costs...provided they are not core parts of your character. In such cases the magic is a publicly available plot device, available for anyone with the appropriate criterion, knowledge and willingness to pay/take the risk.

As we speak here, in the homebrew section several people are advocating 1st level casters to solve all droughts forever with was suposed to be compeletely secondary ability. Again, with 0% chance of failure or paying any resources whatsoever.
« Last Edit: July 23, 2013, 09:19:09 AM by oslecamo »

Offline Agita

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Your ability to derail any given topic into whatever personal soapbox appears to strike your fancy never fails to amaze me, oslecamo.
Regardless, as far as I can tell, hosannas on or condemnation of poor design decisions of past D&D editions (including D&D 3.5) have as little bearing on the thread at hand as whatever anecdotal discussion from the Homebrew boards you're citing.
Unless what you're trying to do is defend the relevance of risk, as you term it, to discussion of the article linked in the OP (in which case, by all means please do so, and while you're at it, define risk in this context for the sake of communication), I'll ask you to take the discussion of what exactly myths entailed to a different thread, perhaps in Talespinning. I can split off the relevant post, if desired.
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Offline Raineh Daze

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Well, that was a fast derail. :eh

So... what's this thread meant to be getting at, random complaint that magic doesn't turn you into a walking timebomb aside?
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Offline Nytemare3701

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So... what's this thread meant to be getting at, random complaint that magic doesn't turn you into a walking timebomb aside?

Nothing in specific. I wanted the perspectives of other members of the community on something I read while tired and unable to think critically.
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Offline Agita

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So... what's this thread meant to be getting at, random complaint that magic doesn't turn you into a walking timebomb aside?

Nothing in specific. I wanted the perspectives of other members of the community on something I read while tired and unable to think critically.
What's your perspective on it now that you're able to think critically, then? Might as well discuss it.
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Offline Nytemare3701

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So... what's this thread meant to be getting at, random complaint that magic doesn't turn you into a walking timebomb aside?

Nothing in specific. I wanted the perspectives of other members of the community on something I read while tired and unable to think critically.
What's your perspective on it now that you're able to think critically, then? Might as well discuss it.

While I agree with the statement that a game needs clearly defined mechanics to have any semblance of balance, definition =/= transparency. A magic system could indeed have all manner of factors involved that aren't apparent to the character in every given situation. Look at the planar traits for example. Opposing element spells are hindered there, which can come as a surprise to a character with no ranks in the Planar knowledge skill. In a game like D&D, the hurdle to having transparency is VERY low (a few skill ranks, and maybe a divination when opposing a specific threat).
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Offline veekie

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That is kind of the issue yeah. From a metagame perspective you have trivial access to the possible modifiers.

Personally, split it between mystery magic and functional magic. There is only so much you can do with your class features, since they need consistency, but setting magic, the power of locations and events, are alive and tend to take their own paths.
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Offline Nytemare3701

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That is kind of the issue yeah. From a metagame perspective you have trivial access to the possible modifiers.

Personally, split it between mystery magic and functional magic. There is only so much you can do with your class features, since they need consistency, but setting magic, the power of locations and events, are alive and tend to take their own paths.
In one of my games, I handled it with a twofold approach
I gave my singleclassed casters the option of spending XP to customize their spells. I treat it like researching a new spell, then work with them to create the new version.

Casting spells by discovery and formal practice is fine, but spontaneously casting a new version of the spell carries risk. If you haven't spent the XP to learn the spell fully, you are at the mercy of all manner of outside elements. While it's in my head, here's a napkin scribble of a class that could use such magic. That's just a chassis, and the spontaneous modification ability is where outside elements come into play.
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Offline veekie

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It's....difficult to handle such things with vancian magic really. If you're using vancian, then you have compact effect packages, rather than building spells up from the fundamentals. Capitalize on that, add depth to each spell, work out it's history, influences and power sources. From there, you have fuel for elaboration in a semi obfuscated manner. The spell largely works as advertised, except when it's lineage specifies otherwise.

Of course, a Hero/Action/Fate point system linked to these complications would be helpful to make such tweaks and complications limited such that they serve to enrich the plot rather than throw it deep into the wacky pools of fiat.
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Offline Nytemare3701

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It's....difficult to handle such things with vancian magic really. If you're using vancian, then you have compact effect packages, rather than building spells up from the fundamentals...
...Of course, a Hero/Action/Fate point system linked to these complications would be helpful to make such tweaks and complications limited such that they serve to enrich the plot rather than throw it deep into the wacky pools of fiat.

Wait a sec...What if your vancian slots WERE the fundamantals? You have iconic basic spell effects (Elemental Damage, etc) and then a bunch of metaspells that modify the others. Sort of like how ToB uses Boosts.


Fundamental Spells are basic effects that remain relevant all game:
Evoke (CLd4 damage, Common elements only, Save to half, requires ranged touch attack)
Summon (CLd4 HP, Poor BAB, Animal only)


Metamagic would just be additional spells that you burn as swift actions to boost or modify the original spells
Evocation Metamagic: Remove the save, remove the touch attack, add more elements, or increase the size of the damage dice.
Summoning Metamagic: Increase HD size, Increase BAB, Add new creature types.

Note that these options are NOT equal, so they would each cost different spell slots.

Metamagic Feats would be replaced by feats that let you change how boosts and fundamentals interact
Efficient Summoning: Use two summoning boosts in one swift action
Elemental Summoning: Burn an Evoke to change the damage of your summon to an elemental type



I think I need to make this thing a base class that restricts you from taking any traditional metamagic feats or spells.
« Last Edit: August 17, 2013, 05:37:19 PM by Nytemare3701 »
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Offline Gazzien

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It's....difficult to handle such things with vancian magic really. If you're using vancian, then you have compact effect packages, rather than building spells up from the fundamentals...
...Of course, a Hero/Action/Fate point system linked to these complications would be helpful to make such tweaks and complications limited such that they serve to enrich the plot rather than throw it deep into the wacky pools of fiat.

Wait a sec...What if your vancian slots WERE the fundamantals? You have iconic basic spell effects (Elemental Damage, etc) and then a bunch of metaspells that modify the others. Sort of like how ToB uses Boosts.


Fundamental Spells are basic effects that remain relevant all game:
Evoke (CLd4 damage, Common elements only, Save to half, requires ranged touch attack)
Summon (CLd4 HP, Poor BAB, Animal only)


Metamagic would just be additional spells that you burn as swift actions to boost or modify the original spells
Evocation Metamagic: Remove the save, remove the touch attack, add more elements, or increase the size of the damage dice.
Summoning Metamagic: Increase HD size, Increase BAB, Add new creature types.

Note that these options are NOT equal, so they would each cost different spell slots.

Metamagic Feats would be replaced by feats that let you change how boosts and fundamentals interact
Efficient Summoning: Use two summoning boosts in one swift action
Elemental Summoning: Burn an Evoke to change the damage of your summon to an elemental type



I think I need to make this thing a base class that restricts you from taking any traditional metamagic feats or spells.
Please? This looks really, really awesome! And I don't have the skills or ideas to make that on my own... a-aha... :bigeyes

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Offline Nytemare3701

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Words of Power?

Similar, but with hopefully less suck.

Please? This looks really, really awesome! And I don't have the skills or ideas to make that on my own... a-aha... :bigeyes

On it. Will link it when it's ready for review.


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Offline veekie

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Note, in your example, Summon in itself is not a simple base effect.
Summoning animals:
-Transport - You bring a beast to you from the same plane
-Communication - You make it capable of understanding basic commands
-Control - You make it obedient to your will
A simplified version would make use of Communication alone to attract whatever wildlife is in the area to show up. Then you could use a separate effect to gain control, or  just get out of the way. It works more slowly.

Summoning elementals:
-Animation - You grant form and motion to a raw element
-Awareness - You grant it a mind to act without your direct control. Probably loyalty to you as part of the makeup to reduce control needs.
A simplified version just animates the elemental force or inanimate object, which is under your direct control, and thus consumes your actions to make it change tasks.

Summoning outsiders:
-Transport - You bring an outsider to you from across planes.
-Control - You establish dominance, which may not be necessary if it's inclined to obey anyway.
A simplified version involves keeping said outsider 'close' to you, possibly in ethereal or incorporeal form, and you just give it the last nudge.

Any class which gets summoning as a fundamental effect likely themes all it's magic around summoning(you bring an entity or fragment of an entity which can do what you want to do it's thing, then release it to go home ), just of different levels of transience and breakthrough.
« Last Edit: August 18, 2013, 05:07:17 AM by veekie »
Everything is edible. Just that there are things only edible once per lifetime.
It's a god-eat-god world.

Procrastination is the thief of time; Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves; The vast concerns of an eternal scene.

Offline Nytemare3701

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Note, in your example, Summon in itself is not a simple base effect.
Summoning animals:
-Transport - You bring a beast to you from the same plane
-Communication - You make it capable of understanding basic commands
-Control - You make it obedient to your will
A simplified version would make use of Communication alone to attract whatever wildlife is in the area to show up. Then you could use a separate effect to gain control, or  just get out of the way. It works more slowly.

Summoning elementals:
-Animation - You grant form and motion to a raw element
-Awareness - You grant it a mind to act without your direct control. Probably loyalty to you as part of the makeup to reduce control needs.
A simplified version just animates the elemental force or inanimate object, which is under your direct control, and thus consumes your actions to make it change tasks.

Summoning outsiders:
-Transport - You bring an outsider to you from across planes.
-Control - You establish dominance, which may not be necessary if it's inclined to obey anyway.
A simplified version involves keeping said outsider 'close' to you, possibly in ethereal or incorporeal form, and you just give it the last nudge.

Any class which gets summoning as a fundamental effect likely themes all it's magic around summoning(you bring an entity or fragment of an entity which can do what you want to do it's thing, then release it to go home ), just of different levels of transience and breakthrough.

This is exactly what I needed to continue working on this. I'm currently using the epic seeds as a baseline for all effects, but if you can figure out how to break down magic into as many discrete components as possible, that would be far superior. A single mage shouldn't be able to pick all of these up without serious effort (in the form of repeatedly taking the Extra Fundamental feat), but should be able to specialize in one/two schools of magic by picking up enough fundamentals naturally.
Extended Sig Index
http://www.minmaxboards.com/index.php?topic=4358.0

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http://www.minmaxboards.com/index.php?topic=9765.0