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How an Austronesian Concept Became a Video Game Mechanic
June 17, 2014 1:49 PM   Subscribe

"The concept is a staple of the global culture of fantasy novels and video games, many of which feature a blue bar of magical energy called 'mana.' "But how did this happen? How did a concept from Pago Pago become part of global gaming culture? How did an Austronesian spiritual force come on board the Exodar, and become part of the life of my draenei shaman?" A lengthy look at the history of "mana," from Pacific Islanders to RPGs and trading card games.
posted by jbickers (66 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting! Until now I thought it was a reference to the "manna" provided by YHWH to the Israelites during their desert trek.
posted by Renoroc at 1:54 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


It's interesting how varied the concept of mana can be across Polynesian cultures as well. In New Zealand, it's roughly analogous to prestige, charisma, or influence, but there's a lot more to it than that. Here are a couple of more points.
posted by themadthinker at 2:08 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Oh man, this is neat. There's a part of me that wants to yeahbut and say that it's really only the name that got picked up and that the concept of some limit on the ability to cast magic is sort of a universal mystic belief and a game mechanic necessity.

But what's really interesting about mana, as a modern game concept is that, in almost every case, it represents essentially a spell power battery that spells draw from but nothing else does. In other words, the only negative effect of being out of mana is that you can't cast spells. Your mana points are like bullets in a gun. Whereas, in most western traditions that I can think of, magic is something that is physically draining, if not directly harmful. If we really were drawing from these traditions, spells would be cast using something like hit points or a third fatigue or stamina bar. These decisions say a lot about the meaning and role of magic in the game worlds, and in the real world traditions they draw from.
posted by 256 at 2:08 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Ctrl-f "Niven". Yep.
posted by The Bellman at 2:11 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


The only counterexample I can think of for that is in Star Ocean 3, which is ironically a science fiction game. If you run out of MP in that one, you die (also you can punch people in their mana, because why not).
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 2:14 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Your mana points are like bullets in a gun. Whereas, in most western traditions that I can think of, magic is something that is physically draining, if not directly harmful. If we really were drawing from these traditions, spells would be cast using something like hit points or a third fatigue or stamina bar. These decisions say a lot about the meaning and role of magic in the game worlds, and in the real world traditions they draw from.

Funnily enough, in Star Wars The Old Republic the only Force based casting class has an ability which takes away health and gives you "Force" (MP) in exchange.
posted by kmz at 2:18 PM on June 17


Your mana points are like bullets in a gun. Whereas, in most western traditions that I can think of, magic is something that is physically draining

A cool game mechanic would be to allow a player to continue casting spells after Mana has run out, at the expense of HP.
posted by nathancaswell at 2:31 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


Also, make Mana run out faster than it typically does and recharge slower (do I run away and hide and recharge Mana or do I try to cast this fireball that might kill the enemy but also might miss and leave me extremely weak?).
posted by nathancaswell at 2:33 PM on June 17


Betrayal at Krondor characters had a Stamina bar and a Health bar. You could lose Stamina to being hurt, and when you ran out, damage started going to your Health bar, which also lowered your stats. Spellcasting in BaK ran off Stamina/Health, making casters powerful but risky.
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:34 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


(And in fact Noble Sacrifice/Consumption will also slow down your Force regen for a short while after use.)
posted by kmz at 2:34 PM on June 17


Funnily enough, in Star Wars The Old Republic the only Force based casting class has an ability which takes away health and gives you "Force" (MP) in exchange.

I liked the WOTC SWRPG which used vitalty (how much you can avoid getting hit before you're actually hit) as your mana for force abilities.

I would've liked to have seen more impressive physical abilities use vitality as well.
posted by michaelh at 2:35 PM on June 17


Hmm! I knew mana was related to the Pacific Islander concept, but I had no idea of the path it took from there to video games. Interesting article.
posted by tavella at 2:38 PM on June 17


A cool game mechanic would be to allow a player to continue casting spells after Mana has run out, at the expense of HP.

I think this has been an option a few times. "Blood magic" and its ilk tend to use HP to cast, or leave you vulnerable. I know even in Bioshock Infinite and probably a couple other games there have been options to transmute HP into mana and v.v.

It's a compelling mechanic but it makes me nervous. I like things that suck HP and mana out of the other guys. Vampirism!!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 2:40 PM on June 17


Spells consume HP in Paladin's Quest (SNES). Makes restorative items more important. Also makes boss battles stressful.
posted by Mister Cheese at 2:43 PM on June 17


A cool game mechanic would be to allow a player to continue casting spells after Mana has run out, at the expense of HP.

There are games with mechanics along these general lines. For example, in Angband and certain other related games, you can attempt to cast a spell when you don't have enough mana, but it increases the chance of failure, and the attempt is likely to knock you unconscious, with a likelihood depending on your constitution.
posted by baf at 2:44 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


nathancaswell: "A cool game mechanic would be to allow a player to continue casting spells after Mana has run out, at the expense of HP."

Skyrim has the Equilibrium spell which converts HP into mana which is sort of like that. And, yes, you can drain all your HP this way.
posted by mhum at 2:58 PM on June 17


See also "overcasting" in Shadowrun, which let's you push past your normal magical capacity but take physical damage as a result.

But how did this happen?

That is to say, of all possible metaphors for magical resources in e.g. Magic: the Gathering, how is it that 'mana' got tapped?
posted by cortex at 2:58 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


That's a fantastic article. Coming from NZ mana is much more equivalent to prestige, as noted above - you could also make a parallel with Fukuyama's 'recognition' (actually the greeks, but Fukuyama's where I read about it).
posted by Sebmojo at 2:59 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


In the Rogue-like game Adom, casting spells when you're out of mana can lead to permanent damage. So it's really a last-ditch sort of thing, something you do just before you die.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:00 PM on June 17


So, umm...

"The computer, like LSD, was created by America’s military industrial complex, only to be appropriated by the counterculture as a tool for self-expression."

Close, but not quite. The US Military Industrial complex (via the MK-Ultra project) did try to utilize LSD as a brainwashing chemical, but failed.

But it was created at a Swiss pharmaceutical company by a very Swiss chemist named Albert Hofmann.

/pedant
posted by symbioid at 3:09 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


The article is great. The author Alex Golub was a college classmate of mine, now an anthropology professor in Hawai'i. His research so far is a mix of doing field work in Papua New Guinea and doing field work in Azeroth.

The end of the article notes that it came out of an academic paper written with Jon Peterson, another college classmate. Jon recently published Playing at the World, an incredibly detailed look at the history of wargames and role-playing games. (Previously, on Metafilter).

The article prompted me to wonder how games have settled on red being the UI color for health and blue being the color for mana. The red/blood/health connection seems obvious, but why is magic blue? It's not completely consistent: Zelda magic is green, for instance. But I think blue is the most common choice now.
posted by Nelson at 3:13 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


I think blue might be due to a combination of "water" but also, when designing for colorblindness, red/green is a no-no... So perhaps designers chose blue to contrast with red. I could see green as a nature/magic source, but yeah... Blue works both as a "fluid" and "nature" symbolically. Of course you could say the same thing for other types of elemental powers. "Fire" = red (but that's taken, obviously).... Black for "void"... SO sure... why blue?
posted by symbioid at 3:15 PM on June 17


That is to say, of all possible metaphors for magical resources in e.g. Magic: the Gathering, how is it that 'mana' got tapped?

ISWYDT
posted by Elementary Penguin at 3:16 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


It's amazing that Hargrave's Arduin Grimoire sits smack in the middle of all this. If you picture D&D with all the weird shit turned up to 11 (including psychic powers, ray guns and so on), that's Arduin. It started as a self-published D&D variant and grew into its own game. Brilliant.
posted by graymouser at 3:45 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Ctrl-f Mauss. Nope. :(

Jokes aside, I don't think that Eliade was the main academic source promulgating the idea. Mana is mentioned on ~23/192 pages of Mauss's A General Theory of Magic, and I think it's Mauss (still beloved in anthropology though mainly for different books) who argued that mana was a universalizable concept. Eliade's take on it may have helped too, though, and the Wikipedia page on mana covers this pretty well.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:47 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I suspect blue won out over green as being more visually distinctive for color-blind players. Purple was probably a little too close to red, as was orange, while yellow was already being used for a lot of explosions.
posted by tavella at 3:54 PM on June 17


As I think more about this, I'm feeling like from now I'm going to treat all systems that don't permit physically-taxing overzealous magic use as opportunities to role-play the world as one where it's unspoken social strictures, not an actual systemic inability, that limits that behavior. I feel like it'd lend most magic-having game worlds a couple nice features:

1. Even if the rules/limits/ethics of magic are never discussed diegetically, I get to assume there's a veneer of that lurking in the shadows, something We Don't Talk About. A patina of magical Victorianism or something.

2. When cut scenes or baddies or plot events inevitably clash with the apparent limits of the actual gameplay's magic system, it's no longer a dumb clash between game systems and writing; it's an example of taboo violation and someone engaging in possible short-sighted or narcissitic or self-harming behaviors out of greed or need or stupidity. A wizard did it in both the figurative and literal senses.
posted by cortex at 4:09 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


If we really were drawing from these traditions, spells would be cast using something like hit points or a third fatigue or stamina bar.

Or else, you know, magic — literally, the inexplicable, wondrous residue of the mystical, outside the fully rationalized world — might not be something we could quantify into discrete, fungible, commodified resource-units? "Spell points" really ought to sound more like an oxymoron than it does anymore, it's become so naturalized in gaming. The article touches on this, but only fairly circumspectly; there's a genuine historical irony in the appropriation of such an ethereal, mystical, wonder-filled set of original terms (magic, mana) to name something so banal it's just a special currency that you buy your Magic Missile with. (An irony more fully explored in Marx's notes on money in the 1844 Manuscripts, since that's the real universal magic of capitalist modernity.)

Jokes aside, I don't think that Eliade was the main academic source promulgating the idea.

I agree. That piece of the intellectual history seemed a bit garbled to me, like the author was just really into Eliade for some reason and therefore misperceiving his importance.

posted by RogerB at 4:18 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


I remember reading about mana in ... Tunnels and Trolls? Something contemporaneous, anyway - so about 1978, I guess. It had a strange alien look then.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:34 PM on June 17


Or else, you know, magic — literally, the inexplicable, wondrous residue of the mystical, outside the fully rationalized world — might not be something we could quantify into discrete, fungible, commodified resource-units?

This is absolutely what I'm getting at. Working magic, trading with those forces greater than our capability or understanding, in most traditions, takes something from those foolish enough to invoke it. Mana, as it is realized in most games, is nothing like this. In fact, most games have nothing which embodies this level of risk. Hit points are almost equally trivial, rendering almost every possible injury or ailment as something that can be cured by a potion or a single night's rest. (How ready to go are you after sleeping of an untreated femoral fracture? How many hit points do you lose if you develop brain cancer?)

Some very few games have dared to trade in this sort of deeper cost. In Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup, there is one spell which provides you temporary invulnerability at the cost of a permanent reduction in your maximum hit points. I would be very interested in a game system where all magic was treated like this. A deal with the devil you don't make lightly.
posted by 256 at 4:36 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I would be very interested in a game system where all magic was treated like this.

It's not a traditional RPG and so doesn't answer the call overly well, but in the iOS game Hoplite (which I love to death, it's really a superb little puzzler/roguelike), you have a once-per-level opportunity to pray to various Olympian gods for additional capabilities, and the more useful/powerful of these are all associated with a direct cost in maximum hitpoints, which are pretty scarce to begin with. It's passive "magic", more a godly favor imbuing your little sandals-wearing soldier with the favor of Zeus or Athena or Apollo, but it makes for a nice example of that kind of power-will-cost-you dynamic in any case. It's very possible to play the game such that you become an incredibly powerful fighter who can be felled with a feather touch if ever an enemy manages to land a blow.
posted by cortex at 4:44 PM on June 17


In the Call of Cthulhu rpg, spells cost Magic Points (which are basically just mana and regenerate when you sleep), but opening yourself to alien forces and witnessing the results also costs sanity points, which are much harder to come by.

Even when it's not actual direct mental contact with Azathoth, but something relatively innocuous like a heal spell -- just imagine what it would feel like for a broken bone to click back together and seal up, a bullet getting pushed back out of the wound, flesh writhing and knitting back together...
posted by rifflesby at 4:44 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


In games, the problem with more magic having severe costs is that more physical damage/a better body usually has no costs - and games usually want to make either focus possible without unbalancing the game. So, for magic to have those costs it needs to either be unnecessary, everyone needs to do it, or the magic-focused players need to play a version of the game that's made for them.
posted by michaelh at 4:48 PM on June 17


And being a glass cannon (super weak with high ranged magic damage) is not a real cost beyond a trade-off to handle certain kinds of enemies better than others.
posted by michaelh at 4:51 PM on June 17


I remember reading about mana in ... Tunnels and Trolls?

T&T actually used Strength (ST) as magic points – which is sort of like 256's suggestion of a "fatigue" system. Mana mostly came out of (fittingly) the California scene, which gave rise to Warlock, Arduin, Runequest, Alarums & Excursions and all of that. D&D had come out of Minneapolis/St Paul and the Wisconsin resort town of Lake Geneva, places much less inclined to the sort of esotericism that California attracted.
posted by graymouser at 4:55 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


it's an example of taboo violation and someone engaging in possible short-sighted or narcissitic or self-harming behaviors out of greed or need or stupidity.

"A magician might cast METEO, but a gentleman wouldn't."
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:58 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Hit points are almost equally trivial, rendering almost every possible injury or ailment as something that can be cured by a potion or a single night's rest.

Romancing Saga 3 (SNES again) had an interesting concept: the character's HP were depleted as usual, but when they reached zero a much smaller LP (Life Points) bar was reduced by one. If a character with 0 HP got hit, the LP bar was further depleted and when it reached 0 too the character was out of your party. Quoting from wikia:
some magic spells also made LP decrease such as dragon god the ultimate wind magic it makes the user have unlimited JP,WP,HP but if the person is hit they lose 1 LP,LP can be restored by simply going to an inn or using potions to restore them. One character that can never die to LP loss is Leonid as he is undead and has a total LP count of 0 so even if he goes down he would not be removed from the party but would simply be removed from the current battle being fought and return once its over. "
posted by ersatz at 5:04 PM on June 17


256: " Hit points are almost equally trivial, rendering almost every possible injury or ailment as something that can be cured by a potion or a single night's rest."

I'm reminded of this interview with the Dwarf Fortress guy:

"Hit points are depressing to me. It's sort of a reflex to just have HP/MP, like a game designer stopped doing their job."
posted by mhum at 5:27 PM on June 17


Blue is the color used for both magic and technology, because blue is not a common color in nature. It's almost never seen aside from the obvious examples of the sea and the sky, but even those aren't really obtainable or even knowable objects so much as endless and mysterious continua. So blue things are some blend of artificial, supernatural, and unknowable.
posted by aubilenon at 6:04 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


A cool game mechanic would be to allow a player to continue casting spells after Mana has run out, at the expense of HP.

This is a thing in some tabletop RPGs (GURPS, for example).
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:15 PM on June 17



Or else, you know, magic — literally, the inexplicable, wondrous residue of the mystical, outside the fully rationalized world — might not be something we could quantify into discrete, fungible, commodified resource-units? "Spell points" really ought to sound more like an oxymoron than it does anymore, it's become so naturalized in gaming.


Just think for a second how utterly depraved the concept of 'hitpoints' is, and the fact that all of our fantasy games essentially revolve around how good you are at killing. All living things in most RPG worlds are basically walking, talking piñatas, and you're carrying around a big stick. The reduction of 'magic' to a spreadsheet is really a secondary crime to reducing all of life to one.

Conceptually, it's similar to creating metrics for 'body counts' and so on in the Vietnam war.
posted by empath at 7:56 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


It's worse than that. Most people in D&D are probably level 1 NPCs with as little as one hit point. Basically, they die if they get injured, ever. From their perspective, somebody with a stick is a terrifying merchant of death.
posted by Joe in Australia at 8:13 PM on June 17


Most people in D&D are probably level 1 NPCs with as little as one hit point. Basically, they die if they get injured, ever.

To be fair, this was probably pretty close to true for most medieval peasants.
posted by 256 at 8:18 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


In fact, that's actually a pretty interesting stand-in for the "more hit points as you level up" trope. Basically, your hit points represent having enough social cachet to be able to get real (if often misguided) medical treatment in a semi-clean environment, rather than just dying of infection after breaking your finger.
posted by 256 at 8:21 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


As early as first edition AD&D though (not sure about D&D) the books were explaining that hit points weren't just damage capacity but also luck, divine favor, etc. -- your capacity to survive a fight broadly speaking, rather than just how much physical abuse you can endure.

But, yeah, it does feel more like a retcon to keep the originally wargame-based mechanic from seeming too ridiculous to those who think about it too much than anything else. Very few players in my experience (definitely including high-school me) go beyond the piñata metaphor.
posted by No-sword at 9:38 PM on June 17


Yyyyeah. Manna is well referenced in the bible and in Christian and Islamic tradition from Europe to Asia. (Fun fact, you can buy and eat manna! Iran is the largest exporter, so shhh!)

Occam's razor is kind of a thing. TFA doesn't seem to address it.

From teh wiki -
By extension "manna" has been used to refer to any divine or spiritual nourishment. For many years, Roman Catholics have annually collected a clear liquid from the tomb of Saint Nicholas;[58] legend attributes the pleasant perfume of this liquid as warding off evil, and it is sold to pilgrims as "the Manna of Saint Nicholas".[59] The liquid gradually seeps out of the tomb, but it is unclear whether it originates from the body within the tomb, or from the marble itself
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:58 PM on June 17


Yyyyeah. Manna is well referenced in the bible and in Christian and Islamic tradition from Europe to Asia.

So? The people who actually brought the term "mana", (not "manna") into fantasy explicitly said it was derived from the Polynesian mana. And the biblical 'manna' is basically a sort of food, not a source of power.
posted by empath at 10:07 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Manna is not mana. Manna is lembas wafers.
posted by Nelson at 10:25 PM on June 17 [6 favorites]


It's quite interesting how very common the dual hit/mana point system is in the video game world. Compared to tabletop RPGs, it seems perpetually stuck in the early 80s when it comes to mechanics. Classes, levels, resource points, XPs... (What little innovation happens mostly comes to increasingly applied mechanics from other video games, e.g. twitch-based combat)
posted by pseudocode at 1:36 AM on June 18


I think these systems are a legacy of the industrial revolution: mana is a measurable, directable, fungible force that might as well be electricity or money in the bank. I think the older European paradigm still has a lot to offer authors and game designers: magic is a personal intervention by a supernatural power at the behest of a magician. These interventions are literally unnatural, which means the powers most likely to respond are evil ones: those whose motives do not include the well-being of the world. Magicians make pacts with these powers - call them demons - through which each party benefits: there may be a quid pro quo, or the demon may simply be satisfied with the opportunity to act in this world on behalf of the magician. James Blish' novella Black Easter is a good example of the genre; C S Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength is a similar idea seen from the other side.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:51 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the 'system', as opposed to the word is definitely an extension of the scientific proclivity to assigns numbers and values to everything.

I've actually been thinking about a more greek-influenced magic, based on Iamblichus's theurgy, and neo platonism, where you have forms that are breathed into life via emanations from The One. And you have the Aristotelian concepts of categories, essences, and so on. There's a lot of room there for the mystical. You could even somewhat adapt modern mathematical ideas like Category Theory or something like Object oriented programming concepts -- where everything in the world has certain attributes and certain transformations that can be applied to them. You can think of all the 'forces', like gravity and so on as a certain kind of magic, then just allow the 'magician' to modify them to do his work.



This is kind of really abstract off-the-top-of-the-head theorizing about it though.
posted by empath at 3:09 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


The other thing, is that I kind of think magic should be difficult. The whole thing where the 'chosen one' is just born magical and/or finds a talisman/sword/whatsit of great power is so overdone. I feel like doing things the magical way should be *difficult* for the player, not just a matter of pressing a button, or something faux-difficult like crafting. It should be unclear if it's working *at all*, in most cases, too. Basically, the magical system should be a complete mind-fuck, full of false starts, con-artists, bullshitters, and maybe somewhere the ability to turn lead into gold or coke into pepsi.
posted by empath at 3:32 AM on June 18


Which are all rich wells of narrative possibility but understandably difficult things to systematize in a game that uses magic as a mechanic rather than as a plot device, is the problem.

I think it's pretty fair to criticize the relatively static treatments of magic-as-character-ability as a "use up, then refill, a blue bar" thing in the same way that it's fair to criticize a lot of other really, really established core mechanics recycled without much thought, but treating magic as an elusive, indefinable quantity that can hardly be located let alone controlled is hard to make work as a core gameplay mechanic. Sometimes what you want to build is a game where using magic is just easy fun, where "magic" is just the skin that a projectile or area of effect or status/behavior/egress modification mechanic wears. Most of the time, that means making it push-button and easy to plan around in terms of resource use.

Video game systems tend to demystify by necessity if the game is not about the wonder and mystery and difficulty of a thing. Magic may be a particularly obvious example of demystification, but games are just as reductive about all sorts of other things too. Making a basic thing actually hard is rare. Has any game ever been as honest about the complicated nature of human ambulation as QWOP? Has any game ever as accurately conveyed the nature of a long drive as Desert Bus? Games that actually make hard things hard and tedious things tedious are the exception rather than the rule not because people think demystification is awesome but because it's hard to make failing at a basic mechanic fun.

And so developers tend to streamline magic, just as they streamline injury and health, streamline running, streamline jumping and shooting and driving and talking and piloting starships. Often to the detriment of a proper sense of wonder about a thing (or at least of any gameplay-vs-plot coherence when character/events convey wonder during a narrative bit), but that's one of the dangers of renting people superpowers. Interactivity makes things a lot trickier than non-interactive narrative world-building.
posted by cortex at 7:28 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


And really, there's a pretty key distinction there between even video games and pen-and-paper games—a good DM can spin things up on the fly to support a more mystical/unpredictable narrative about how magic works in a way that a video game generally cannot, and a DM can mess with pacing a lot more aggressively as well.

One of the really conspicuous things about Baldur's Gate—which was, by all accounts, a remarkable improvement over pretty much every prior attempt to render actual pen-and-paper D&D rules as a video game—was that the magic system required you to do one of three things:

1. Not use much magic, so you wouldn't run out.
2. Use up a lot of pretty expensive scrolls and potions so you could use magic more often.
3. Spend game weeks, game months, game years resting to let your magic recharge.

Not using much magic is a bad strategy for your magic users; it makes them deadweight in your party and often you'll need to throw everything you've got at a problem. Using up lots of expensive one-use items is impractical, because you've got limited funds and they're scarce besides. That leaves resting. Resting, resting, resting. Get in a fight, rest. Make your way halfway through a dungeon, walk back out and rest. Step on a nasty trap, rest. Your party might spend 15 minutes out of every day actually adventuring, and the remainder goes to sleeping.

Which, that's actually kind of reasonable! Fighting is hard, magic is taxing, long bouts of preparation punctuated by brief violent encounters is a pretty reasonable way to portray the life of a professional murder hobo.

But the game showing off a bold fantasy adventure the way Baldur's Gate does isn't painting that picture; it's a game about all the things that happen when you're not resting, and narratively it treats resting as a thing that doesn't actually take narrative time up. You can spend a month worth of rest time in the process of fetching an artifact from a cave and then get back to town and nobody says "it's been a month, wtf". It's hard to systematize the coupling of the passage of time with a narrative of urgency. Games generally just ignore it on that basis, especially since if you do include a time-based narrative that accounts for rest time with some sort of hard limit, you're potentially screwing players ten or twenty hours in for not being good enough at your game. (The original Fallout has a hard time limit on the order of a few game months I think by which time you need to do Important Plot Thing or lose the game; the game tells you it's important but doesn't really communicate that "or it's game over" thing all that clearly, so a lot of players saw their first playthrough end well into the game when that timer was up. Is this a bad thing narratively? I don't think so. Is it a bad thing in terms of player experience, in a game significantly about free-roaming exploration and wonder? Good lord yes.)

Sitting around the gaming table, fights take a lot longer, magic use is easier to meter out, magic-using characters can more easily come up with something non-magical to do in a fight, and much of the gameplay is about exploration and conversation outside of the confines of combat. That you rest at the end of the day is much less conspicuous when there's more to the day then "welp, guess I'm out of fireballs again". Video games aren't the most natural vessel for some of these ideas.
posted by cortex at 7:59 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


Hit points are almost equally trivial, rendering almost every possible injury or ailment as something that can be cured by a potion or a single night's rest.

GemStone III/IV had a system (probably inherited from Rolemaster) that combined hit points and injuries. Running out of HP could kill you, but a serious wound to a vital area could also kill you, or you could lose a limb or eye. There was also a distinction between recent injuries and scars or limb/organ loss.

At one point I designed a system intended for a cyberpunk game where various organs and systems were modeled. Characters could go into shock, their hearts could stop (and be restarted), they could bleed out and die due to lack of oxygen supply to the brain, get drunk or fucked up on drugs, have various organs replaced and upgraded, all kinds of things. Alas the game proposal never got anywhere.

Most people in D&D are probably level 1 NPCs with as little as one hit point. Basically, they die if they get injured, ever. From their perspective, somebody with a stick is a terrifying merchant of death.

IIRC, a level 1 wizard in D&D can be easily killed by a housecat.
posted by Foosnark at 8:27 AM on June 18


A housecat attacks up to three times per round, twice with claws and then one bite, dealing one point of damage each time. Against a lone commoner or first-level wizard, they are whirling vortexes of death.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:31 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


coke into pepsi

BLASPHEMER

A housecat attacks up to three times per round, twice with claws and then one bite, dealing one point of damage each time. Against a lone commoner or first-level wizard, they are whirling vortexes of death.

Clearly you have never tried to medicate a housecat. Three times? HAH. They get infinite attacks per second, all of which are sharp and pointy.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:27 AM on June 18


Alex Golub blogs a bit more about how this piece came to be written.
posted by oakroom at 9:44 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


The original Fallout has a hard time limit on the order of a few game months I think by which time you need to do Important Plot Thing or lose the game

Finding Important Plot Item could be aggravating as it was in Inconspicuous Location, but at least you could extend the time limit by paying traders. I'm not sure if the timer was a good idea, but although I generally hate it as a player, I remember it gave the quest a sense of urgency when I first played it.
posted by ersatz at 11:32 AM on June 18


Actually, it's pronounced "mana".
posted by sourcequench at 12:50 PM on June 18


The problem with paying the traders is that it lengthened the deadline you knew about, but shortened the deadline you didn't know about. (This second deadline was patched out of later versions because there was no hint of it until you got a bad game over.)
posted by Elementary Penguin at 4:03 PM on June 18


manamana... do dooo do doo doo...
manamana... do do do do...
posted by symbioid at 7:30 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]


I think it's pretty fair to criticize the relatively static treatments of magic-as-character-ability as a "use up, then refill, a blue bar" thing in the same way that it's fair to criticize a lot of other really, really established core mechanics recycled without much thought, but treating magic as an elusive, indefinable quantity that can hardly be located let alone controlled is hard to make work as a core gameplay mechanic.

I don't disagree with anything you said. I guess my complaint is more of a complaint about worldbuilding and narrative than it is about gameplay.

A world where everything is magical just makes magic banal, rather than the other way around.
posted by empath at 8:00 PM on June 18


Actually, I'm going to modify that last statement -- it's not the ubiquity of magic that makes it banal, it's the ubiquity and systematization and predictability of it. Having a 'fireball spell' that predictably does 3d6 damage over an area of effect or whatever just isn't magical.
posted by empath at 8:02 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]


At one point I designed a system intended for a cyberpunk game where various organs and systems were modeled. Characters could go into shock, their hearts could stop (and be restarted), they could bleed out and die due to lack of oxygen supply to the brain, get drunk or fucked up on drugs, have various organs replaced and upgraded, all kinds of things. Alas the game proposal never got anywhere.

I love how easy this would make it to model various cybernetic implants.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:24 PM on June 18


A cool game mechanic would be to allow a player to continue casting spells after Mana has run out, at the expense of HP.

I think this has been an option a few times. "Blood magic" and its ilk tend to use HP to cast


In the Dragon Age games you eventually have the option of playing as a Blood Mage, using HP instead of mana.
posted by homunculus at 4:16 PM on June 22


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