Improbable Leaping Flames

I watched “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” last night and a bunch of the Special Features, and while I can’t rate the film much beyond Disney eye-candy with paper thin characters, dumbed down plotting, and far too much pointless expositional mumbo-jumbo about aspects of magic, I did enjoy some bits.

One moment that stands out for me happens near the beginning of the movie when two sorcerers battle it out. One sorcerer throws a plasma ball at his opponent, who responds by drawing flames from a fire and then casting them out as a bolt. The flames leap from source to fingertips, then curve, in a stream, toward the target. I’d like to think that some of the magic in Maelstrom might work this way.

Basically, magic involves warping reality and probabilty by channelling the power of the Maelstrom. The Maelstrom, rather like the Force or some as yet discovered sub-Higgs Bosen-esque essential matter, pervades and infuses all things, existing throughout of all space and time. The desperate mage can use the Maelstrom as a last ditch method of escape, opening a rift in the fabric of existence into the heart of the Maelstrom, hoping that after jumping in they’ll be thrown out somewhere a little more hospitable.

A mage casts spells by manipulating the essence of the Maelstrom. The casting difficulty depends on how much of a change the mage wants to make – running from Grade 1 to 5: Unlikely, Very Unlikely, Highly Unlikely, Improbable and Impossible. Mechanically, the system means that the Maelstrom game cannot become Dungeons & Dragons. Most spells used in fantasy games firmly fall into Grade 5, necessitating one percentile saving throw at a -50 modifier, followed by five additional saving throws, all of which must succeed, against another attribute. Unless you can come up with a reasonable explanation as to how you can expel a dart of acid from the tips of your fingers or project a wall of primatic energy that defends you against enemy assault, you’re always going up against the -50 modifier to ‘clear your mind and become as one with the flow of the Universe.’

The fight in the shop revealed a possible Grade 4, maybe a Grade 3 if you frame it right. The trick of draw a flame toward an enemy could come down to a freak gust of wind, an open flame, an excess of fuel in a lantern, and a bit of luck. Stranger things have happened.

Now, while underwhelmed by the film, I’ve been left thinking about the whole Maelstrom magic system a little more and considering how useful you could make it. The game forces a mage into a situation of studying until he’s in his 30s, at minimum, and living in fear of accusations of witchcraft; it seems only fair that the upside should be a magical potential that extends to something more than gusts of wind, jammed doors, and freak acts of tripping.


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