May 12, 2020

Using Magic in TTRPGs

For people who haven’t played stories before, one of the first images that’s conjured is a noble knight or a powerful wizard doing battle with an enormous dragon. Fire is being haphazardly tossed about to and fro among the combatants – magic no doubt fueling the flames.

And when these folks sit down to play a story for the first time, especially one that has magic, like a high fantasy story, many gravitate in that direction. But once they see the spellbook and the myriad rules – and I’ve seen this many times – many immediately get turned-off, instead playing one of the simpler martial classes like fighter or rogue.

So today’s advice for new tabletop role-playing game players aims to help make learning how to use magic much easier!

The Battlefield/The Battlemap

But before diving head-first into spellbooks, effects, spell levels or anything like that, it’s important to begin on the battlemap. Regardless of whether you call it the battlefield, battlemap, tactical map, or any other name for the area your character is in, they will find themselves somewhere in the story about to engage in combat.

For new players, it’s especially important to become familiar with the tactical & strategic implications of where your characters is in relation to both your party members and your enemies. Take for example, a classic medieval joust. You have a fellow player character about to duel an enemy character – you, and your fellow party members are in the crowd, ready for the spectacle to begin. But then, a group of brigands bursts onto the field, intent on stopping the fight. If it were your turn next, how would you act?

Well in order to come up with something even halfway intelligent, you’d need to know how many folks were around you, how far away from the field you were, and whether you could see any enemies immediately nearby. Whether the GM describes those answers in a theater-of-the-mind sort of way or helps orient you on the tactical map, you’re going to quickly get a good idea on what situation your character finds themselves in.

Spell Effects

In most tabletop role-playing game systems that I’m aware of, like Dungeons and Dragons or even our own StoryNite, spells have various effects. Whether you’re hurling an exploding ball of fire or creating the illusion of a monster attacking the jousting ring, or summoning creatures to help aid in the coming battles, it should be understood that spells accomplish various goals. And because you’re aware of your character’s – and party’s! – tactical situation, you can begin the process of choosing which spell(s) would be the most beneficial to cast in that scenario.

So let’s stick with magically-oriented character in the crowd at the jousting match and take the famous Wizard spell Fireball from Dungeons and Dragons as an example. I’m distilling the spell description a bit, but here is the gist of its effects: you hurl a burning hunk of rock within 150 feet of your location. The fireball explodes and all creatures within a 20 foot radius take 8d6 fire damage; they take half damage with a successful dexterity savings throw. Flammable objects caught in the blast are also ignited in the process.

Example – Fireball

I’ve seen so many new players’ eyes glaze over when they read those types of spell descriptions. But allow me to break down what those words really mean – when you dig it, it’s really fairly simple. The first aspect of the spell to look at is distance. So, you can throw this burning hunk of rock within 150 feet of where you’re standing. On the battlemap, typically 1 square is 5 feet. So you can throw the fireball within 30 hexes of your person. So that’s the range of where the spell’s effect can go.

Next is the damage radius. Wherever it is you throw the fireball, everything caught within 20 feet of its explosion will be affected by the spell’s effects. So using the five feet = 1 square rule of your battlemap, roughly four square’s worth will be caught in the blast.

Then comes the spell’s effect itself, in this case fiery damage. 8d6 means roll a six sided die 8 times and tally the results – that total is how much damage each creature within that 20 foot blast radius takes from your spell. The only way to partially negate that damage is with a Dexterity Savings Throw which I’ll explain at another time. And lastly, all flammable objects caught in the blast are automatically ignited, which can be important in considering what spells you should be choosing.

So consider your spell’s Range, then Radius, then Damage/Effect(s), and then Miscellaneous attributes as you’re reading the spell description. Then, as long as you went through step one and anchored yourself to where you are, and what the situation was on the battlemap, you’ll be empowered to make some decisions on which spell(s) to cast.

Wizard at the Joust

Back at the joust, let’s say you’re a Wizard and you’re sitting 60 or so feet away from the main grounds. And when the brigands storm the area, they run right near your fellow party member about to duel as they start to threaten the crowd with demands. Your natural inclination may be to toss the Fireball their way, especially because you’re within range (60 feet away vs. 150 foot range.). But if you did, then your friend would also be caught in the explosion as they’re within 20 feet of the enemies. Moreover, the jousting area is littered with hay and other flammable objects – if they were to all catch fire, the stadium could burn down fairly quickly.

And it’s exactly that type of mental calculus that you’ll be doing when deciding when, where, and how to cast spells on your turn. What spells make sense given the current situation? Which one(s) will help you & the team the most? Take the time to read the various spells in whatever tabletop role-playing game you’re playing and you’re quickly going to see which ones you’ll be able to employ to impact the outcome of combat for your party.

Once you’re able to orient yourself during combat and break each spell down into its various elements, your ability to read and process what the spell does is going to dramatically increase. So take the time, especially at first, to be patient with yourself and know that it’s all there for you to understand…now go cast some fireballs!