The speed limit is….
I have to admit I HATE the number of casual magic items that appear in the average D20 fantasy game. The amount of magic is reinforced by the rules and treasure charts. If someone casts detect magic in the vicinity of an average group of adventurers, they should go blind from the glare (They might of fixed that in 3rd ed, but run with me here.) It is like the characters are just not powerful enough to do things without said magic items, that there skills and abilities are nothing and only magic can resolve issues. The presence of the items is what makes the characters cartage animals for their items. There is just no limit as to their magic and that bothers me.
Any source of power needs some kind of limits or breaks upon it, even technology. If there are no or few limits upon a source of “power”, then there is no way for the GM to create tension or drama in the game. Think about how often the Star Trek Transporter went out or broke or was otherwise unavailable. If it didn’t break ever so often, so many interesting episodes would of just been boring as the transporter magikally solve the problem. Check out this fantasy game example of the same principle:
“The Orc Horde comes towards you. The Dust rises, the Stench is….. Players: “Sigh. We Dimension Portal out of the way. We throw the chain lightingbolts from the wands through the portal before it closes, just for fun. We portal back into where the leader was, where the paladin will protect us from Evil and his shield will protect us from all missile attacks. Arnie will then fireball with his staff the Evil Orc Lord until properly toastie.” Three rounds later, the GM states, “Well that was an exciting.”
The magik/ technology that makes life/ adventures so easy tends to make it so there is no adventure in life.
Magik will sometimes replace characters. After all, why do you really need a theif for sneaking about, when you can get a cloak of invisability and boots of Elvenkind/ quiet sneaking? If you were the thief in the party, other than finding traps, what good would you be when the fighter with said magik items takes your nitch AND can kick sword butt. (Now these items are perfectly fine, but I personally would not let them into my world very easiliy if I had a thief in the party).
There is the ever present Arms Race that occurs with large numbers of magic items. If you have X amount of mystic might, you really can only be threatened by someone with X or X+1 amount of said mystic might and resistance. Your troupe generated items so they can take on the next great threat. Now the “next great threat” must be that much better. Eventually the players get more power to defeat one of the next great threats, and now the NGTs must be bigger/ badder/ more X+1ish. It just gets bad if magik is how you generate X. If you apply diversity to the type of dramatic conflict (Well yes you have a +20 sword, but you can’t use it on the Evil Cardnal without being excommunicated and the king having to eject you from court and possibly exile you from the country…) Certain elements of magik make other scenarios easily defeatable (fine we put the item of truthfullness (it was actually a curse on a belt of strength) in everyones hand and ask them if they did it)
Now this issue is not restricted to magik. The same thing can be said for technology (more annoying because you just can’t say “no”) or super powers. A clever player with some technology skills can make things that will make any scenario a cake walk (You created an EMP Bomb?.. You created a laser refractor. ... You created a 3D disguise imager?. You McGuyvered What?). A technologist with some parts and a little time is vastly more unbalancing to a game situation than any magik user. Add replicators, nano technology, and other sci-fi elements and it all goes south. Super Powers are the same things, except the GM just has to be careful when allowing them in. Screaning them for all their potential uses (A simple low level power with a great special effect can be devestating, as it is flexible and can be leveraged into many events).
There is a little voice that comes up and says, “So why not give them weaker magic/ technology/ powers instead of less magic/ technology/ power?”
Less technology and powers sort of bend the rules of their respective realities. If you don’t have them, you do certain genre required things. (You need nanites to explain your bio-engineering and medical technology. You need mental powers for the world background to work, though you don’t want them in you campaign.) The genre conventions aside, there are reasons that it is not the answer.
There is an old saying (or some variation upon) found in many books in the occult section of your bookstore: There are two ways to divert the course of a mighty river. The first is to dump tons of rocks in the deep banks. The second is to put a rock in the slow trickle at the source, changing that flow. The meaning… if you work it right, a little effort in the right place can have a greater effect than a huge effort in another place.
I take bit of sorcerous wisdom to heart. There was a pixie in a campaign I know of. This little pixie had unlimited cantrips… tiny magiks. It appeared to be a nothing when compared to the mighty heroes of the campaign, so the GM let it in. Fool, I say, for I knew the player.
The story revolves around an enemy army coming to take the capitol. You see the mighty characters could not risk fighting an entire army. They would, eventually, die, and enough of the opposing force would complete their mission. They knew that for sure because said army had nearly kicked their butt last time. This tiny creature did what the big party of adventurers could not do, bring an enemy army to its knees. How? With the simple and well timed application of tiny cantrips (sneeze and push to get people in fires, snuff to make people go restart fires, spoil and a few other ones to destroy their supplies, a few bits of ventriquism and they were attacking themselves in the dark). Within the day, they were returning back home with their tail between their leg.
So tiny magiks can have big effects if you think about what you are doing. The morals of the story? Never underestimate any character. Never underestimate the power of any magik (or technology or skill).
So weaker magik can solve part of the problems I mentioned in my previous post. It delays the arms race, scaling it down to a manageble level. It can make things more manageable for a time. However, lots of little powers can add up to a LOT of trouble down the line.
I admit I have such a passionate dislike for rampant magic/ technology/ power because we have seen it happen and know the results upon a campaign. Unlike the transporter, magic items don’t seem to break or stop working very often. They are always an issue that must be addressed. That is why I play with, and advocate for, smaller amounts of weaker magik, as I try to make the characters important, rather than their equipment. (as well as avoid hassles down the line with trying to design new challanges and the arms race).
Sure this tact makes more work for the GM. They have to be more careful on what scenarios they set up and what rewards they give. They can no longer resort to applying more magic to solve the problem. But isn’t the continued health of the campaign worth it?
And it is more work for the players. They have to outwit their problems rather than just raming their magically enhanced weapons/ items through them. Sure, it is harder on the players. If they are any good at gaming at all, they should be able to take this challange without a problem.
It is always more fun to find a way around any limits, to superceed them. The more limits a campaign has in terms of power/ effect/ and social restrictions, the more challanges there are for the troupe to conquer, without having to resort to bigger, badder, NBTs.
So as long as there are some limits, there is some drama, and some drama makes for a better game.