Have you noticed how most RPG games (both pen and paper, as well as video games) always seem to introduce some sort of additional game play mechanic to handle spell casters? In most cases wizards and mages always have an additional attribute or a pool of magic poits or mana which always feels sort of artificial. Casting spells is usually governed by a completely different set of rules than any other special skills and abilities used by non-caster classes.
I was playing WoW the other day and noticed that the game decided to give almost every single character class a mana bar and make their special abilities cast like spells. So when my hunter uses a poisoned arrow, or lays down a trap he is actually expending mana. It’s an interesting approach to extend the spell casting mechanic to other classes and creating a more unified system (but not completely – after all the Warrior has a rage bar instead of mana bar). I started wondering if doing it the other way around wouldn’t be possible.
In other words, why do we need that mana bar anyway? I know this is just a game mechanic that prevents the caster from expelling fireballs out of his ass like a little machine gun, decimating all enemies in his path. It represents mental fatigue of some sort and seeks to limit blatant abuse and inject some balance into the game. The idea is to level the playing field so that a PC wizard is roughly as powerful as PC warrior or PC ranger with the same amount of experience. It’s not logical in the terms of game world, but it tends to be necessary in terms of game play. However having a mighty wizard simply run out of fuel in the middle of a fight is not very realistic. Yes, the whole idea of magic is not realistic to begin with, but when I say unrealistic I mean that it forces you out of character and forces you into metagame discussion:
“Hold up guys, I just run out of mana and I need to sit down here and meditate for a while”
You could try to disguise this as something in-character by having the caster saying he is tired, but fatigue is usually handled by a different set of rules. The caster could still do a few cartwheels, and run a marathon – so it’s not like he is physically exhausted. Is mana depletion mental fatigue? Not really. A depleted mage can still function normally – he won’t be sleepy, or burned out. He is just out of magic juice. How do you role-play that? You could say that mystical powers have left you but that may imply a permanent loss of power rather than just a temporary one.
There are different variations, but chances are that in the end you will have to break out of character anyway to calculate exactly how long you need to meditate/sleep to recharge your batteries. And I mean this primarily for pen and paper RPG’s where you actually play with other people. So if you don’t play those, simply consider it as metagame thinking. Every time the game forces you to think about spell casting restrictions and mana bars as game mechanic, the game looses immersion.
The problem here is that wizard characters have a whole separate system tacked onto their “normal” stats, necessitating additional book keeping and tracking. Their character sheet will always be busier, and more worn down from writing in and erasing mana points, or tracking their once a day stuff. In video games they will have additional menus for spells, extra bars for casting mana, and extra rules for resting/recharging. All this stuff usually won’t apply to non-caster professions unless you try to extend the system and make special abilities of certain classes into pseudo-spells like WoW (and I hear D&D 4e) did.
What if we make spells work like ordinary skills? They would require ordinary skill checks, and would have to be learned and trained just like everything else. There would be no special mechanic for remembering, memorizing spells and no extra logic or math to go with it.
Naturally we would sill need to have some sort of balancing mechanic. For example casting could be tied to regular fatigue rules (an most games have those so that the wizard would get physically tired when casting. Rather running out of mystical batteries he would simply get out of breath and need to sit down and rest just like the warrior who has been swinging his double handed axe of furious fury for the last hour.
If your game has no fatigue rules, a simple way to limit the carnage that can be caused by a cast-happy mage is to dip into his HP. Instead of fueling his spells via some sort of mystical power, the caster would simply use his own life force. The spells would be either powered by it, or alternatively the magical energy absorbed from the environment would be coursing through the wizard’s body scorching his flesh. The more powerful the spell, the more painful and risky it would be to cast. Using to much power, too quickly could be fatal. In systems where one gains HP at each experience level, this very mechanic could replace “spell levels” as well. Some spells would simply be beyond the reach of low level casters because they would not have enough HP to cast it.
I realize that neither of these solutions is perfect, and neither one may be applicable to existing systems. Still, an unified system without all the extra rules about spell casting, regenerating magic points, meditation and once a day abilities could be interesting, and potentially more immersive than what we have now.