After running Hollow Earth Expedition for the last six months or so, I’ve started to note some issues with the game design. When the game came out in 2006, it was slick and quick compared to many game systems, but with the rise of Fate, Cortex, and other mechanics, it’s become downright clunky.
One of the biggest issues is dice modifiers, which I addressed in this post.
Where I’m finding consistent issues comes from the Secrets of the Surface World sourcebook, specifically the magic and invention rules. I suspect that Jeff Combos has a formula he uses to try and keep inventing gear and spells, etc. balanced. Other Ubiquity fans and designers have been reverse engineering the system to try and figure this formula out. I went another way with Sorcery.
Simple. Sorcery is handled like weapons, for all intents and purposes. There are mods for range, for area or effect, for the number of people affected, for “basic rituals.” Other rituals have their own modifiers based on what they do and what they do it to. This is all in the name of balance, and it was why magic users in early editions of Dungoens & Dragons were, until they reached a certain level, utter useless. “I’m a fighter, I get these mods all the time!” “I’m a wizard, I can make a magic light appear for 10 minutes once a day!”
Magic in pulp games (I’m specifying this because Hollow Earth Expedition fits a genre, and should fit the tropes and expectations of that genre) should unbalance the game. That’s why the bad guys have magic, and rarely — if ever — do the good guys. They overcome through grit, luck, and in the case of Jack Burton, because it’s all in the reflexes.
Second reason — psychic powers are very well done in Secrets of the Surface World. Mentalists aren’t invulnerable, they’re not all-poweful, but they are powerful. Why was the Shadow so dangerous? He could cloud your mind; you didn’t see him coming. A guy who can control your mind is dangerous, but you still get a Will test. And they just do it.
Magic in HEX is hampered by table and table of modifiers to your dice pool which, in effect, render sorcerer less useful than a 1st level wizard in AD&D. Worse, they have to take five rounds — an eternity when your opponents have guns and harsh language — to launch…if you succeed. More worse, you only have a ritual per skill level. So your sorcerer with the 6 skill rating and 4 Intelligence only knows two spells. One is probably casting a light spell for 10 minutes once a day.
This isn’t Ming the Merciless, or David Lo Pan, or any number of magic using bad guys in pulp comics. So how to make magic feel more like the comics and movies?
First: Number of rituals known. The number of rituals a sorcerer can know is the skill rating, not the level. You have a rating of five, you can know five off the top of your head. If you have a book or scroll, etc. you can still use that spell, but it takes longer and you’re not as likely to succeed. (More in a moment.) Now, you have to gain access to learn those spells — you might not start with them. There’s your game balance.
Second: The Rank of the skill is the base difficulty (unless skill test is contested by another character…) So a Cast Light ritual might be Rank 1. A sorcerer with a skill rating of two could just take the average and bust this out. Oooh! Magic is cool! Now, maybe he’s using Drain Life on you. That’s a Rank 3, but it goes against your Body. Their difficulty is 3 minimum because that’s how hard it is to do, but if you have a Body 4, you get to roll eight dice (or take the average of 4.)
Three: The minimum number of round requires to cast a ritual is equal to the Rank of the ritual. However, in the name of balance, if there are modifiers to the difficulty, the GM could increase the time of the ritual. So a Bless would take one round, a quick muttering of incantation and some hand waving; opening a portal to Summon and ancient Horror would require 30 seconds (5 round) minimum, but other modifiers might lengthen that time.
Fourth: Modifiers. Geez, the number of modifiers! Here’s a good rule of thumb — ranges are simple in pulp movies, shows, and books: you can touch them (no mods) , you can see them (+1 or a +2, maybe), you can’t see them (+4). A villainess doing sympathetic magic on an unsuspecting target on the other side of town has a +4 to their Curse (Rank 2) because they are across town. To do the spell in the first place requires a piece of something from the victim (blood or hair, say) — so that counts as touch range. Ignore the modifier. They have a skill of six; taking the average, they can levee a -2 die curse on the target.
Area effect v. specific targets: Use Size here. Up to human size is Size 0 — no mods. Size 1 gives a +1 to the base difficulty. Size 2 is up to 14-15 feet: +2 to the difficulty. But say trying to effect two particular targets in a Size 2 area that has a crows of people — each person adds a +1 to the difficulty because the caster has to be discriminate.
On other skills, simplify the modifiers. Animating the dead? That’s Rank 4, but the corpse is badly decayed — +2 difficulty; he’s a skeleton +4. Is it big? Size 2, say? Add +2. Simple. Levitating something? That’s a Rank 4, so it’s damned hard to start with. So instead of worrying about the size of the object, go with “size matters not” — or if there you want a modifier, it’s the size of the thing. Size 2 — +2.
Keep it simple It still makes success hard for a sorcerer, but they are more likely to kick ass this way than it you nickel and dime them on their dice. Magic should be big, flashy, and powerful in a pulp game — something to be feared and hard to overcome.