MMO Mechanics & You: Spell Casting

In this edition of MMO Mechanics & You, we take a look at a game mechanic that has remained stale for over a decade – spell casting.

MMO Mechanics & You is all about taking a look at the game mechanics of yesteryear that refuse to go away or be altered. It’s almost 2014 and some systems have remained untouched since the late 1990s. It’s time for a change, and I’m here to suggest some ways developers can go about it. 

Welcome to our first edition of MMO Mechanics & You. I’ve never made it a secret that I’m a spell caster at heart. I love playing caster classes of all kinds and have for as long as I can remember. Even the very first Dungeons & Dragons character I created back in 1982 was a Mage. It comes as no surprise to me that even now, those are still my favorite characters to play. And while Dungeons & Dragons is the magic system I’m most intimately familiar with, there are plenty of others in the pen and paper world that have done things differently and to great success. Which pen and paper magic system is the best of them all (at least in my opinion)? Shadowrun 2nd Edition. 

In Dungeons & Dragons, spell casters initially came in two flavors (Mage and Cleric) and each of them needed to memorize or pray for their respective spells. During the course of the next day, any spells they cast were then unusable and any they did not cast by the end of the day were wiped from their minds. Over the years, the magic system changed and now each character has various “at-will” spells to ensure those characters are as viable at first level as a Fighter. Trust me… being a level one mage could be pretty boring after casting your single spell for the day.


In Shadowrun, magic use takes a bit of a different route. Once spells are learned, they can (in theory) be cast continually as long as that player makes a successful willpower check. There are a number of variables that come into play, but to keep it simple, let’s just say that if the player fails to make a successful check, they start taking mental damage. This can even lead into the realm of taking physical damage if the mage in question pushes themselves too far. It may seem like a dumb idea to try, but what if your party member is going to die unless you get X spell off and it’s a doozy? There are a lot of different situations that come up with this system and it’s one of the things that has always fascinated me about it. 

I can see the confusion in your eyes right now. What the hell has any of this got to do with all the dried rose petals in Raistlin’s bag of spell components when we’re supposed to be talking about MMOs? Well I’m glad you asked. There is no “end all, be all” magic system in the pen and paper world, yet when it comes to MMOs, the majority of developers out there have chosen to go with a one-size-fits-all mentality and personally, I think it’s high time for a change. 

For years, it has become popular to have action-oriented game mechanics for melee combatants, but what about their spell-slinging brethren? We’re tired of hitting hotkey 1 to cast X and hotkey 2 to cast Y. Millions of players around the world are familiar with first-person spell casting systems such as those in Skyrim and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic. By this method, players pre-select a spell (or spells) to cast and do so with the click of a button while running around. An upcoming RPG called Lichdom has been gathering steam in the gaming community and appears to use a similar casting system. 

While I think this would be a point in the right direction for developers to implement, I want to take it even farther. In 2002, a company from France called Arkane Studios released what had the potential to one of the greatest first-person RPGs of all time. It was called Arx Fatalis and even though it suffered from a sad number of story-breaking (and thus progression breaking) bugs, it was still a masterpiece. The crowning jewel of the game was its magic system and it’s one I desperately want to see implemented in an MMO. 

Magic in Arx Fatalis was all about runes. Runes of different variations were combined to create individual spells. The more runes you had, the wider your spell library became. We’ve seen this in various single-player games since and that portion of casting systems still works today. What hasn’t been done since though is the method spells were cast. 

In order for Arx Fatalis players to cast a spell, they had to use their mouse to draw runic symbols in the air. The game added the additional flair of speaking the rune name when you drew it correctly. Some spells only required you to draw two runes, but the more powerful spells required three. There was one incredibly powerful spell that required four. For those that thought the system was too complicated to use in combat, you could “pre-cast” up to three spells. Those would be stored and consumed as you used them. 

Players talk about the need for skill in games all the time. Think about the thrill you’d get by being a master of drawing your runes in the air during the heat of combat. I can easily see the lines being drawn in the sand between those that think it would be too brutal and penalizing and those that love it for being exciting and challenging… like corpse runs. 

What’s your take on it? Do you think we’re overdue for a spell casting overhaul? If so, what are some ideas you’d like to see implemented?

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