Long Discourse on Summoning
Summoning magic has been a popular part of fantasy and the roleplaying genre almost from the very beginning. It is also very well represented in the popular media, this combined with the rather lackluster presentation of the Summon Monster I - IX spells of the Players Handbook likely has caused a large amount of dislike for the school of summoning monsters to the field. This dislike is not entirely undeserved. The monsters generally summoned by the Dungeons and Dragons spell are…wanting. I summon a dire rat, watch my enemies quake in fear. On the other hand, summoning is quite prevalent in childrens cartoons. The various characters from the Pokemon series and the Yu-Gi-Oh universes regularly and repeatedly summon monsters to battle for them. Of course, they use pokeballs and duel monster cards, but the basic mechanic, regardless of the props used, is basically the same. Monster appear, do some fighty or plot useful thing, and then monster dissappear.
Then I remembered the first monster I summoned in a game, and it certainly wasnt a pikachu or a dire weasel. It was Ramuh from the US released Final Fantasy III (FF6 in Japan), a wrinkly old codger who when summoned knocked the snot out of your foes with a powerful lightning attack called Judgement Bolt. Final Fantasy X went a step further with it’s summons. In addition to them getting stronger as your characters grew in level, they could be taught spells, and orbs (XP like items gained through defeating critters) could be spent on a specific summon to improve it’s stats, raise it’s hitpoints, and so on. THe final revelation came during my playing of Final Fantasy XII, though the summons in this game cannot be altered or augmented as in FFX, they are not under your direct control, much like a normal summon spell in a pencil and paper RPG.
What does Pokemon get right? The summoner selects his summon, often knowing the minion being pulled from nothing by name, and knowing of it’s strengths, weaknesses, and character. That being said, each summon has strengths, weaknesses and character. Aside from nifty attacks, some pokemon are cowards, others swagger for the female pokemon, and others are just eager to prove themselves. A dire rat is…well, a dire rat. It doesnt have anything nifty about it, nor does it have much character. But what does pokemon get wring? The biggest thing against pokemon is that the monsters summoned are not very monsterous, the largest and most dangerous still look like they would make a pretty good plush toy, and truth is they do. So the interaction between monster and summoner is good, but the visuals are lacking.
What does Yu-Gi-Oh get right? The monsters from Yu-Gi-Oh are visually appealing. The dragons are dragony, the warriors are very pointy, and the others range from over the top (Obelisk the Tormentor?) to the just plain strange (Kurribo?). The monsters defend, or attack, and most have a single special ability or two. This works fairly well, and would suit an RPG summoner fairly well, though to be honest most of the Yu-Gi-Oh summons are going to be mid level to epic level in power and scope. But Yu-Gi-Oh gets some black marks as well. The monsters are hideously bound in the rules of a card game, and timing effects and traps and drawn out conversations during duels take away from the summoning effect.
What does Final Fantasy get right? Being an honest RPG, as opposed to a format designed to sell cards or other merchandise, the summons function as summon. On the other hand this is limited to the design and programming of the game. It is sometimes ironic to be stopped by a locked wooden door when you have access to the Meteor or Summon Bahamut spells. Basically in the programming of the game, summons are intended solely for fighting monsters. Of course, FFXII makes an exception for this and requires a summon be used to open a certain gate, but this summon is gained automatically through gameplay.
A Summer Cottage?
Another question to consider, one that opens another aspect of the summon spell, is where does the summoned creature go when it is ‘put away’. Two options come to mind, monster in my pocket, and ever-after. The first option is the default option for Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, as the monsters, when not summoned reside within their pokeballs and cards, respectively. This is the primary avenue I’ve taken with the summoning spell as it gives the spell a more concrete handle. It also brings up the idea of useful tools and implements being used as summoning foci, such as in addition to the standard wands and crystals, a warrior’s sword, a necklace, or any other sufficiently durable item could serve as a phylactary for a summoned creature. This aspect also gives the largely immune to permanent death summon spell a way to be permanently destroyed. This can be very useful as if PCs can have it, so can villains, and breaking a villain’s object of summoning can be as crucial as defeating him personally.
But there is a second option that is more nebulous, and it happens to be the mode used by the Dungeons and Dragons game, as well as a few of the Final Fantasy titles. The summon resides ever-after, or elsewhere, or the spirit plane, or the eternal realm of not-here. The pencil and paper game makes this a snap of the fingers affair, while the Final Fantasy (FFXII specifically) makes a show of it. For those not familiar with the referenced game, when a PC summons an esper, (final fantasy summon spell) the action stops and a wheel appears in the sky, made of energy, covered with arcane runes, sometimes the inner sections rotate in the opposite direction of the wheel in general and there are some nifty atmospheric effects. The summon appears, drawing it’s mass into being from the other place where it dwells before being summoned.
This works better for very high powered summon spells, and unique summons that would otherwise not deign to be reduced to a pocket-sized bauble. Both methods can be used, with the phylactary method bing more prevalent among magic users and more common folk. The later method would be much more limited, with those summons being the stuff of legend, serving those who are worthy of their power.
Summon Friendly Play?
Summons can be used, and can be versatile and balanced, in a pencil and paper or forum RPG without being bashed. An ideal Summon Monster spell is going to be tailored to the summoner in question. Ideally a summoned creature would be treated as a pet, familiar to the summoner and his compatriots, but trained like an attack hound or hawk. A summoned minion should slowly grow with the summoner, develop quirks of it’s own, and should it be destroyed permanently, there should be some impact on the PCs other than:
"Bob, the Liche eats your Dire Weasel.
Mr. DM I summon my Dire Penguin and attack again."
Rather such a loss should go along the lines:
Bob, Xykon the Devourer of Hope consumes Hinkypunk, your dire weasel.
Female Archer: But Hinkypunk liked me better than Bob!
Cleric: Bob, it was unwise to waste such a valued ally in a fruitless attack like that.
Bob: Waaaaa! He ate Hinkypunk? I spent a month teaching him how to untie knots!
Perhaps that is a bit of an odd example, but I hope it gets the point across.
We Like Free Samples!
I Choose You! - Summon spells are widespread and fairly well known, the creatures being summoned are easily identified with a specific knowledge ability. While they are useful, their powers are limited and they do not overshadow any other form of magic. More suited fora higher magic world, children can have access to summoning items, and thses less than dangerous summons are their playmates, much like more durable puppies or kittens. Like anything in such a world, this power is scaleable. While a 10 year old’s summon object puffs out a bright pink rough and tumble puppy thing, the King’s would call upon a powerful and royal summon loyal to the King and country and likely to be immense as well as powerful. Dueling with summoned monsters could be as legitimate as dueling with swords or wizardly wands. Of course in this adaptation of Pokemon, the pokeballs, gyms, and world filled with nothing but people and pokemon would have to go.
You’re Mine Baby! - Gaining a summon spell is a taxing ordeal, requiring the summoned beast in question to be hunted down and faced in a full party battle versus the beast. Once defeated, the quasi-material monster (insert demon, elemental, or any other being summoned from another plane) coughs up it’s anchor in the form of a crystal, magic tool, or some other dingus. Now that the monster has been defeated, the PCs own it completely. Demons and evil summons would fight just for the sport of it, while a more good aligned summon would fight the PCs to make sure they are worthy and mandate that it only be summoned against evil foes or for the cause of good. These summons are going to be unique, and could be the subject of wizardly tomes of study, creating books of known summons and their anchors, theories on how to find others, how to defeat them, and so on. This is more for more powerful and higher level characters.
I, Summon - Sentience is all to often used to create annoying magical items or plot management devices. There can and should be a number of summons, the best of the more common variety, perhaps 5% to 8%, that have some degree of sentience and behave in a more character fashion than an animalistic fashion. Most likely older summon spells that have beenused for some time, these summoned creatures have been around enough to take on the engram of intelligence and stop responding in an automagical method and start responding in a natural and organic fashion. While being much mroe useful in the sense of being able to make plans, operate on their own, and take complex instructions, sentient Summons require better treatment than regular summons. A infrequently summoned War Bear isnt going to care too much no matter how many times it is crushed by trolls or ripped apart by angry wyverns. A sentient war bear is going to remember being thrown away as a chump block against such monsters and if not very well treated, it might just let the monster through to teach the summoner a lesson about respect.
Summon spells need not suck. To keep them interesting as well as viable in a game enviroment they should be at least as fleshed out as an exceptional NPC would be. There should also be more choice and variety granted to a summon than is generally granted by the tables and dice rolls of the Dungons and Dragons game. To keep said creatures from being too powerful, they should also have suitable weaknesses, ranging from being vulnerable to certain types of magic, and having a summoning object that can be broken to remove troublesome summons from a game.