This week’s article is a side track, a trip down What If Lane. It’s devoid of any Commander strategy, decklists, advice, or discussions and is only related to the format in terms of flavor. If you’re a Vorthos and/or RPGer, this is for you. If not, I hope to see you next week.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re a gamer. One thing that separates gamers from other folks is that we let ourselves dream. That and our irrational love of Star Wars. Anyway, I let myself dream of a Commander RPG.
It probably all stemmed from discussion that I read about some history of ill-fated Magic RPGs. One of the things I’ve learned in Creative Writing class this semester is to not question where stuff comes from—just run with it. I’ve decided to run and am not putting down the scissors.
I want to make sure you understand that this flight of fantasy is not related to any real thing that’s actually happening (at least as far as I know—if it is, apologies, but hey, you didn’t clue me in). I’m not a professional game designer. Like you, I’m just a dreamer. Nothing but a dreamer. I had to run away high. And, um, Lita Ford.
To me, good RPG design focuses on three balanced factors: setting, mechanics, and how characters get involved in the setting (or "story"). There are plenty of folks out there who like an imbalance in those factors. Some get so deeply rooted in the setting that mechanics become inconsequential (I tend to lean that way myself). Others focus only on the numbers. RPGs become strategy and tactics games. Just like playing Commander, there’s no right and wrong way—only what we as individuals prefer. The best play experiences are the ones where everyone else is like-minded regardless of the mindset. Nonetheless, the RPG design has to be balanced so that it can appeal to the different groups.
We’re going to have to set mechanics—or at least detailed mechanics—aside for the moment. My 2,500 or so words this week aren’t nearly enough to even outline a coherent game mechanics system. We’ll focus on setting and character, tossing in a few nebulous mechanics ideas along the way.
The first question has to be "what makes it a Magic: The Gathering Commander" RPG? Other than licensing agreements with our friends at Hasbro, the answer to that question is "it captures the essence of the format." What is that essence? Let me share the dream. It’s not the only possible vision of what the CMDRRPG could be, but we have to focus.
I don’t like defining things by what they’re not, but there are two important can’ts here. One, it can’t be all things to all people. Trying to do so would make things horribly homogenized. Second, it can’t just be Magic/EDH with character sheets. It has be its own entity, suggested by and having some linkage to the format.
Both mechanically and setting-wise, we have to for the most part divorce ourselves from Magic. There is awesome backstory (Ravnica would be a seriously good setting for a game), but we can’t use it without involving quite a bit of other people’s work. Plus, we want to be able to explore our own setting. Part of the joy of creating the game is making up the place in which it happens. That’s not to say we can’t take some inspiration from Theros or Ravnica or Dominaria; we simply have to go our own direction. Again, this isn’t a "MTG RPG," it’s "an RPG suggested by MTG Commander."
The logical starting points are the two things relevant to Commander which are different from regular Magic: the commanders themselves and what I’ll call the color limitation. Color limitation mostly involves what kinds of magic characters can use but to some extent also what other types of beings they’ll freely allow themselves to associate with. The powers of commanders and the color limitation will definitely suggest mechanics—which is the way I prefer things. I’d much rather have a setting drive mechanics than the other way around. We’ll come back to this in a bit, but we’ll remember that it means the colors of Magic and what those colors do is one of the few things that we’ll port over to our system pretty much in its current form.
The power and influence of commanders is too great in scope to be confined to a single land and probably too great to be confined to a single world unless that world is quite large. It will require multiple worlds and ways to travel between them. If we base those worlds on the colors of Magic, then we can have as few as five and as many as 27 (all the color combinations plus colorless). The problem is that doesn’t address how commanders have become such significant individuals. It feels a little heavy handed to have those five or 27, plus it limits our creative opportunities.
In this we’ll need to focus on the thing that commanders do—keep coming back. In essence, they’re immortal. They’ve made the leap from legendary figure to something more. They can be killed (which isn’t really killed but defeated), but there they are again, sooner or later, bringing their powers to bear once more. Because they command great armies and marshal powerful mystical forces, they must be leaders or power figures in their respective settings. Their immortality lends them toward being better villains than heroes, but since I’m a fan of gray instead of black and white, let’s just make them the movers and shakers and leave the hero/villain assessment up to the interpretation of the individual.
Like EDH games, the setting must be epic in scale. It has to exist at a high-fantasy level, where the fight for existence is a daily battle. There may be moments and pockets of peace, but our setting will be driven by strife, by the ongoing battle for dominance by the mighty, mighty few. This is why we need multiple worlds available to us. They don’t have to all be available in the basic form of the game. In fact, it’s probably the game’s cool growth area because they can be modular. "New for CMDR the RPG: World of the Bloodbraided!"
Let’s narrow our focus a bit to what we’ll call the base setting. A few (four or five, echoing the sweet spot for the numbers of a game) powerful figures battle for control of vast resources, mystical artifacts, and land. Traditional power structures have crumbled, leaving only the world as shaped by our commanders. You are with one of them, or you are no one. Here’s another opportunity for modular design and creation.
We can create templates for what the land controlled by up to a dozen or so commanders looks like, providing places where they fit together and making a customizable map. Alternately, the base game could provide a map complete with all the major physical features. The GM would then populate the various areas based on which commanders they choose and what makes the most sense. I’m running a game, and I like river merfolk, so that’s where I put them. You’re running a game, and you think merfolk belong in the wide oceans, so they end up there.
Underneath this we create the skeleton of the past, mostly as a device for discovering new (or old) and interesting powers. For example, a story arises as one commander searches for the ancient Winter Orb. Another tries to find it first or summon the power he needs to destroy/undo it. This provides an adventure path for our PC group, whichever side they’re on. The past is the past. It doesn’t have to be retro-shaped by what the commanders have become. We can provide GMs with a list of cool artifacts and enchantments for them to unearth (supplementing the ones they already have/know).
So where do our characters fit into this? Clearly, it’s somewhere in the power structure of one of the commanders. I’m a big fan of cooperative character creation, of building in reasons not only for the characters to be together but to stay together. If you’ve ever started an RPG in a tavern, you know what I’m talking about. Here we have the perfect opportunity to provide cohesion. Harkening back to our modular design, the players can even work with the GM in determining who it is that they align with. Everyone can work together to sculpt exactly the type of game they want. Of course, the opportunity exists for the GM to simply set up something and give the players parameters to work into.
As far as races go, we can choose from all the intelligent races suggested in Magic, which are for the most part fantasy tropes. Humans, elves, dwarves, and goblins are the obvious ones, but outside-the-box ones like merfolk and even angels are possibilities. We’d have to be careful with characters that can fly since flight can wreck a great number of potential plotlines was well as break our group by having one who can simply get away from the others.
The good news is that since we have the built-in cohesion of being allied with a commander (regardless of how far up or down the power structure the group is) we can have together races which might not otherwise associate. We can build internal tension into our parties with some of those races in opposition having to work—and stay—together. To some folks, this kind of intra-party stress makes a good game. To others, they’d rather deal with the external issues and just assume party continuity.
As much as I prefer skill-based systems, this seems more like a class-based one, once again reflecting the source material. Our basic book would include the major classes—Soldier/Warrior, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric, Druid—giving ourselves room for expansions, like Werewolf, Artificer, Berserker, and Assassin, and whatever other classes might be out there.
I know some of you are asking why player characters can’t be commanders. I think they can—eventually. I wouldn’t start them there, but it’d be a great growth path for characters to be on. We’d have to describe a transition point first for a character to become legendary and then from legendary figure to commander. Why does Nicol Bolas (the creature) work for Thraximundar (the commander)? What separates the two of them? It’s probably nothing more than the assumption of some kind of power, whether temporal or personal. We’d have to find an objective and perhaps even physical method of transferring of power. But that’s putting the cart in front of the mules.
Commanders are characters that will have access to high-level spells. They’ll be difficult to cast, being rituals that may take days, weeks, or even months to bring about, but when they do, their effects will be significant. Friendly armies fight better, or enemies fight worse. The power of a color of magic is enhanced or diminished for a period of time. A plague wipes out part of the countryside. We’re not tied to the types of effects that exist in Magic. Some of them won’t make sense in our world (like drawing cards). The power of our commanders is limited only by the power of our imaginations.
One of the things that sets our system apart is that characters also start aligned with a color defined by their race and class. Color is the third determinant (along with class and race) for the types of abilities they can have. A red-aligned character might be able to easily pick up an ability (let’s call it first strike, although we’re not specifically going to use mechanics from Magic) either at creation or as a level-based achievement, whereas a green-aligned character would have to pay more for it or wait until later to pick it up. Magic combat evasion abilities are probably not going to translate into anything meaningful in our setting or even be something we’ll try to mimic.
Characters can also become multicolor-aligned as a level-based achievement. It opens them to some abilities as well as some vulnerability (if you’ve just added red to your profile, a Hydroblast equivalent now affects you). At even higher levels, a third color becomes possible. We’d have four-color characters as well as five. Specific color alignment (or the lack of it) won’t prevent a PC from becoming legendary or eventually becoming a commander.
Zeroing in on the mechanics a little tighter, this color alignment will manifest itself differently based on whether a character is a spell-casting class or a battle class. I haven’t yet considered others meta-divisions, like rogue or social-based classes. Artificer might be a kind of class unto itself, neither warrior nor mage. I don’t want to be too D&D-ish here. Classes won’t limit what PCs can do; they’ll determine how difficult it is for them to learn. A merfolk wizard won’t have any trouble with water-based magic, but may have no access at lower levels (or very expensive access) to battle feats. I see this restriction—so long as the restriction doesn’t go too far—as an aid to interesting creation. When you have the obvious to work with, it’s easy to turn it on its head in a clever way.
White’s battle abilities will run toward cooperation and making each other as well as groups better, stronger, and capable of withstanding damage. At mid and high levels, they’ll have powerful leadership abilities. The spell-casting abilities will be healing and protection at lower levels, echoing concepts of justice and balance in the mid levels, and at high levels the ability to bring impact to a large scale. White elemental mages will command wind and air.
Blue will fight with quickness and precision. Mid- and high-level blue combat abilities will run toward being able to mimic others’ abilities. Blue magic will be about imagery, mimicry, understanding, and transformation. Blue elemental mages will command the element of water.
Black fighters will be fierce and aggressive. They’ll care less about the damage done to themselves and more about what they can inflict on others. Mid- to high-level combat abilities will allow them to drain life from others. Black mages are the only ones without access to an element, but they make up for it with their ability to control the undead. In this setting, I think the undead are not truly alive but only a semblance of it. Black mages can control disease, corruption, and life forces as well. They are also wizards of cold and darkness.
If you want to battle the most ferociously, you want to be red. Red warriors bring speed and power and are less concerned with technique. At mid levels, they gain additional attacks in combat rounds as well as increased power. At high levels, they’ll bring the power of fire, manifesting itself in the ability to either enflame their weapons or to withstand the flames of others. Red characters are second only to white in leadership ability. Red spell casters obviously control the element of fire, which manifests itself not just in flame but in heat and light. A path that red mages might take is that of destruction—the ability to simply blow up things, whether that is a single artifact at low levels, a single person at mid levels, or at the highest levels scorch a countryside.
Green is the element of earth, which includes rock, dirt, and all growing things. Green warriors have the power of the earth on their sides, making them somewhat slower than others but compensating for it with sheer might. At mid levels, their ability to soak damage without being injured increases as well as their ability to deal more thunderous blows. At upper levels, they become highly resistant to physical damage. Green mages will likely follow one of three paths. The first is one that enhances the power of others: makes them bigger, stronger, sturdier, and more capable of withstanding natural things. The second is the elementalist, which will control natural forces of earth (including things that grow within the earth like gems) and vegetation. The third is the naturalist, who allies with, speaks to, and/or controls the animals and beasts of the world.
That’s my first toss of stuff against the wall. Let’s see what sticks. Once again, I want to be clear that this little exploration isn’t a vision of what’s to come. It’s not a real thing that’s really happening; it’s just me dreaming out loud. I wouldn’t mind continuing to dream about it and would be interested in hearing (either in the comments or directly) what you’d love to see in such a thing (I was going to call it a product but didn’t want to make the implication that any product is forthcoming). Who knows what dreams might bring?
Embracing the Chaos,
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