Monday, April 09, 2007

Magic Realm Part Two

First off, let me apologize for doing a two part article with my normal two week delay. It seems like a bit too long to wait to post the second half. Oh well, I'm still figuring these things out. If Part one is missing from your memory jump back two weeks and take a look.

So, with all the interesting parts of Magic Realm demanding that it be played - how does the game fail? I'm going to leave the epic rulebook out of this and presume you have someone to teach you the game or you're willing to undertake the learning of the rules.

Interestingly, many of the biggest drawbacks to Magic Realm are linked to the reasons that I like the game. I've tried to keep them in a similar order.

1) Many people required. Because of the interested cooperative/competitive nature of the game, a two player game simply isn't as interesting as an 8 player game would be1. This isn't to say that the game is unplayable with less people. I've played mostly with two or three players (plus solo play via Realmspeak). It works, but much of the interesting character interactions aren't as possible.

2) Deterministic Combat. Yes, I listed this as a benefit, but it's also a drawback. When combat is predetermined, some decisions becomes rote. The best example is that the two fastest characters in the game can run away from 95% of all monsters. For these characters, the game can turn into an exercise in running away. Obviously, this could be quite unsatisfactory2

3) Magic spells are weak. After learning the intricate and interesting system of casting spells, I looked at the spell lists and immediately thought "Wow, 3/4 of these are lame!". Many of the spells simply don't do very much, or don't last long enough to justify the in-game resources you will have to expend to cast the spell. The other 1/4 are blatantly the best spells in the game. This drawback is actually strongly linked to the next one, and if you change the general theme/goals of the game some of the marginal spells will become much more useful.

4a) Magic Realm is all Loot and Kill. Despite the detail put into the civilized lands, and the point based victory conditions, your goal upon starting a game of Magic Realm is to either a) go kill some monsters/humans or b) Find a treasure site and get all the treasure you can. Optionally, you can do both. For those who know the game, there is a poor Quest/Adventure system that offers some potential, but ultimately fails3. This focus on Loot and Kill (which isn't unique to Magic Realm) is particularly apparent due to all the detail lavished upon the spell lists and the civilized tiles. Magic Realm has a complete set of human dwellings and factions and the most you can do is trade goods and hire them to go kill and loot things with you4.

5) Finally, Too many optional systems. With such a rich and long history behind it, Magic Realm has plenty of official and unofficial options, variants, and more. Most of these are directly related to the drawbacks I've listed prior...
Here's the short list: Official Optional Combat rules (brings more die rolling and less determinism), Alternate Official Optional Combat rules (changes some percentages in the Official Optional Combat rules), Unofficial Book of Quests (changes victory conditions to a quest based system5, Official Optional Character Balance Changes, Unofficial Character Balance changes, Optional Weather rules, Unofficial Expansions6

That's too much. I just want to play the game, I don't want to have to play it six times in order to determine which optional rules are the best ones for me!

For myself, the optional rules are the worst drawback to Magic Realm. I'm forever wondering if I should implement the alternate combat rules, or the alternate character balance changes or what-have-you. It's especially bad because over half of the optional rules are in the main rulebook!

Ultimately, while optional rules are fine, they should be entirely optional modules (the weather system is a good example of this), not outright replacements of core game systems. The combat rules and the character balance changes are the core offenders here. I believe that when the third edition ruleset was put together they should have made the tough decisions to integrate and trim. As Magic Realm stands now, a newcomer faces almost thirty years of variants and options, many of which are present in the core rulebook.

For the record, I haven't used any of the optional rules. I still consider the Official Alternate optional combat rules, but no decision yet.

There you go. Personally, wrapping up the package that is Magic Realm, I'm still impressed. There are reasons that it is still interesting thirty years later, but many drawbacks that will keep it off of high-rotation in most game groups. I'm still committed to playing more games, but with less fervor than I felt three months ago.

I guess that means I'm not obsessed any longer.

I hear Call to Arms is coming out soon, I should break out Battlelore again...



1 No, I haven't played an 8 player game. I'd like to. I think. As always, when you get into a larger game, the chance of adding a very slow player to the game increases, plus, it's very hard to learn a game while playing with so many other people. First I must teach the game to 7 other people. Then I must get them all into one place at the same time.

2 and because this running away is sometimes exactly what a player wants to do, then it's a benefit. It's an odd situation. Sometimes deterministic combat/fleeing is great - at other times it feels boring and staid. I personally lean a little bit towards the "deterministic=benefit" argument, but convincing me otherwise wouldn't be too hard.

3 Some explanation: There are two 'quests' in the game, some people who desperately need some beer (take them to the inn) and some people who desperately need religion (take them to the chapel). These two quests are okay in concept, but provide minimal rewards, and (more importantly) rarely show up in the game. There is less than a one in six chance that they will show up each turn. First you must roll a six on the monster die, and then be located on the correct tile. With a larger game they would appear more often, but I've never had them show up in my smaller games.
The second "Adventures" consist of conflict between civilized groups - where the characters can take sides, earning the friendship of one or two groups of people in return for attacking other groups. These have exactly the same problems as the quests. They rarely appear, the rewards for undertaking the adventure is questionable, and finally, how heroic is it to take part in a war?

4 Or kill them and take their stuff.

5 I thought this had potential, but I was disappointed. While the .pdf of the Book of Quests is very well put together and obviously has a ton of love behind it, it is a sprawling epic of one game group's house rules over many many years. The quests start out interesting, but the later quests add up to three pages of setup, rules, and procedures that are specific to that quest only! And you are supposed to choose a different quest for each player! While the Books of Quests is an interesting jumping off point, it ultimately isn't unified enough to be easy to implement.

6 Whoops, that wasn't very short, was it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your Part I and II articles very much. I suppose my fascination of MR stems from the fact that this was a game that was produced decades ago, and it has core mechanics that were very advanced even to today's standards. The Monster Roll, the modular hex tiles, etc.

This game is a gem waiting for someone to come along and polish it up by streamlining it. Return of the Heroes tries to do this, but IMHO it "dumbed down" the game a little too much, perhaps to cater for a younger crowd.