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Thoughts on magic: Spell timing; Kennoc [Jun. 27th, 2011|03:05 pm]
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[mharreff]
So there are two things that have kind of nagged at my mind for a while concerning WT's magic system, and I'm wondering how some people reconcile them.

The first one, the one that's bugged me the longest, is (of course?) the chance of Kennoc spells to fail. Let's face it, one in twenty is horrible odds for anything of significance. Mere statistical prediction is generally considered unsound unless you can speak with at least 99% confidence, if not 99.9%. Granted, that's because you might at any time hit on the odd one out, and statistics never offer a guarantee of anything; but nevertheless... There are so many spells invoking Kennoc, and so many of them seem to be taken for granted (Measure the Life Force has its particular use; Eyes for the Small is specifically noted as making microscopes pointless) despite their chance of failing outright or, worse, giving completely misleading results.

Although I can understand not wanting to give reliable information for game-balance purposes, the expressed reason for Kennoc spell failure (Pararenenzu not paying attention) doesn't always make sense, either. The example in the rulebook about Am I Observed? is actually one of the rare cases when it makes perfect sense: Pararenenzu could just slip up in some silly way and give the wrong answer. In general, the main spells where it does make sense are those which ask a question and receive an answer.

Some informative spells get subtler information. It makes sense that the caster could interpret that information as though it's accurate when it isn't - Measure the Life Force and some other healing-assistive spells, for instance. But it doesn't make as much sense that it goes so wrong in the first place - not for the cited reason. Maybe Pararenenzu is playing a joke, but such spells produce awfully detailed and elaborate answers for it to just be a matter of not watching what zie's doing.

And then there are the spells which alter perception, but don't actually plant any information beyond that - I don't mean scrying, I mean things that change the way in which the subject perceives the whole world around them.

If you're trying to look through a wooden wall, or if you're greatly magnifying your vision, or if you're peering through fog, or if you cast a spell on someone that makes them see through dead Co/Hr material... how the heck does that go wrong outside of just plain not working? Even the base 1/20 chance of failure is a bit much for a discipline cited as a foundation of some branches of natural science - microscopes may be relatively crude, but they cost no cley (and the rulebook isn't always consistent on how willing your average person is to throw cley around, or how much they have...) and they always work to their full ability.

Not only does an inaccurate result from any of things require a very elaborate ruse on Pararenenzu's part, in many cases it should be blatantly obvious that something isn't working right. To make it consistent with what the caster or subject could otherwise see, yet have the things they normally couldn't, be flawed... yes, a god could probably read the subject's mind and make up bits for the things the subject wouldn't be aware of without the spell, but at that point it's becoming an extremely elaborate ruse, no accident.

Anyway... that's a bit of a digression. I guess the core question is, why the heck is Kennoc so common and apparently trusted, when it has such a crippling flaw? (1/20 chance of not working, well, that's a nuisance as long as you can tell that it didn't work. But a 1/400 chance of giving outright wrong information? That is crippling for any serious purposes. One spoiled cast could undo years of progress in research if it's taken as accurate.)

---

The second concern has partly been lurking around for some time as well, but also I recently had another thought about it, and that is the timing of building spells.

The first issue is targeted spells. In some cases they're described as being targeted by a gesture. A gesture to target e.g. a bound spell is specifically stated as requiring an action. But what about a Fire Dart? Or a Bone Dart, which I know can't be resisted because the dart is created near the caster and flung, not created near the subject? If it were a fast spell, that'd be fine and dandy; the spell is cast, it shoots forward at the caster's gesture/concentration. Fine.

But it has to build first. Which means that by the time the spell is ready to fling forward, the caster might well be in the middle of doing something else.

But if the caster doesn't retarget them, or have any need to keep concentrating on the spell, the dart will probably go completely the wrong place because the target will have moved.

How can this be reconciled?

Also, a somewhat bigger concern comes in the form of Heal the Awful Wound. If someone doesn't get healed within... some places say three initiative counts, at least one (the spell description for HTAW) says 2-6... that many seconds, anyway, HTAW alone won't do the trick.

But HTAW itself is a build spell. Which means that a bound HTAW has more than half odds of having no chance to work by timing alone, because it can randomly take up to 12/13 seconds(depending on whether you use cards or dice to count initiative).

Best rationale I can think of there is that while HTAW is itself building, its "signal" effect helps to anchor the spirit to the body. It remains, though, that it often seems to have been treated as a fast spell when it really shouldn't be; someone will generally be out for some seconds at least before the spell gets them back to consciousness (unless they're Gormoror, in which case the bound spell's usual conditions might not suffice in the first place).

Or should HTAW in fact be a fast spell? Much of the material kindasorta seems to assume it is...
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: sythyry
2011-06-27 07:37 pm (UTC)
On that last point, the rules say: "If S. has been dead for more than a few (2d6) seconds when Heal is cast,"...

First, 2d6 = 2-12, not 2-6, so even with the harsher interpretation it should have better than half odds.

Second, it does say "cast", not "takes effect", so, read as written, it needs to be cast quickly rather than take effect quickly -- and a bound spell can do that just fine. There has to be some mechanism such as you describe involved for this effect to make sense.

But yes, I remembered it (and have written it) as a fast spell.

[The game rationale for making it build and giving it that odd interpretation is, I guess, to make the victim lose an action or so while being healed.]

Edited at 2011-06-27 07:38 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: terrycloth
2011-06-27 07:50 pm (UTC)
Oh, that's good to know.

What I was going to say on the issue was that you probably want your bound HTAW to go off when you're incapacitated and not wait until you actually die. So far in our gaming group most of the 'deaths' have actually been incapacitation (except for Eddy who kept running up to giant monsters and getting torn into little pieces) and there's no time limit on that.

We've also been only giving the 1/20 failure chance to 'divination' type kennoc spells and not 'any spell with kennoc in it'. Not, for example, 'Alert to Corpador' or even 'Painted Eyes that See'. Because of exactly what you said. Or maybe because the GM forgets. One of those!
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[User Picture]From: sythyry
2011-06-27 08:21 pm (UTC)
We've also been only giving the 1/20 failure chance to 'divination' type kennoc spells and not 'any spell with kennoc in it'. Not, for example, 'Alert to Corpador' or even 'Painted Eyes that See'. Because of exactly what you said. Or maybe because the GM forgets. One of those!

I unofficially condone that behavior.

...

On second thought, Vicki and I officially condone it too, in the "Magic can violate the standard rules if the GM wants it to because the gods in charge of it are people" section.
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-28 04:30 pm (UTC)
Oddly enough, I can actually see a bit of difficulty from Alert spells - but minor: they occasionally make you think a problem is headed your way when it isn't, causing minor (1 point? 2?) Trouble for their duration.

But the cardinal rule of a game is, indeed, making it fun for everyone involved, isn't it?
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-28 04:25 pm (UTC)
The latter bit is what I've been thinking of too, for that matter. If you're asking Pararenenzu a question, you might get an invalid answer; but if you're trying to shift your senses rather than get abstract information, that will generally work

Note about incapacitation: Although there is no strict time limit given, the rulebook does say that if someone is not tended, they will probably die - fairly soon, if they're bleeding. But that's on the order of minutes, not seconds, so usually doesn't mean much in the context of combat.

The problem with having spells go off when you're incapacitated is that they have to know it. It's also mentioned that playing dead can fool your bound spells. Similarly, that's what I was getting at when I mentioned Gormoror - if they trigger Berserk Life, they're sure not going to "look" incapacitated where the spell is concerned. Making the bound spells more sensitive not only goes against the maximum intricacy of the condition, but also makes them more likely to go off when they're not needed - and in the case of HTAW, that makes it totally useless.
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[User Picture]From: terrycloth
2011-06-28 05:19 pm (UTC)
How is the spell supposed to tell whether you're dead or just incapacitated? Those would look more similar than incapacitated or playing dead.
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-28 05:43 pm (UTC)
That's rather my point: it can't.
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[User Picture]From: terrycloth
2011-06-28 05:54 pm (UTC)
Well, then why were you arguing when I said HTAW would usually go off when you're incapacitated? It can't tell 'owner is bleeding and not moving because he's incapacitated' from 'owner is bleeding and not moving because he's dead' so it'll go off, and since it takes a pretty decent chunk of damage to take you all the way to dead in one hit, you'll probably just be incapacitated when it does.
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-29 04:11 pm (UTC)
If you specify that you need to be bleeding for HTAW to trigger, you'll be in trouble if you get burned to death, now won't you?

Back to the point, I've never been trying to argue that you should try to mark a distinction between "dead" and "incapacitated" where HTAW is concerned; much the opposite. Since it works either way (unless it's already been exhausted, legitimately or erroneously), since the spell is (as already discussed) CAST as soon as the trigger is satisfied, trying to get the spell to understand such fine distinctions is counterproductive.
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[User Picture]From: rowyn
2011-07-01 05:58 pm (UTC)
No, it was a conscious decision on my part to have the 1-in-20 failure rate not apply to stuff like Painted Eyes or Alert to Corpador. Although I would apply the failure chance to scrying on hostiles in a private or semi-private area. I am not sure how to justify this in game terms, but the general thinking is that if someone has an expectation of privacy, or if you're doing divination, there'll be the random chance of failure.
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[User Picture]From: sythyry
2011-06-27 08:41 pm (UTC)
the expressed reason for Kennoc spell failure (Pararenenzu not paying attention) doesn't always make sense, either.</p> Not only does an inaccurate result from any of things require a very elaborate ruse on Pararenenzu's part, in many cases it should be blatantly obvious that something isn't working right. To make it consistent with what the caster or subject could otherwise see, yet have the things they normally couldn't, be flawed... yes, a god could probably read the subject's mind and make up bits for the things the subject wouldn't be aware of without the spell, but at that point it's becoming an extremely elaborate ruse, no accident.


Well, the first mention of this says "[Pararenenzu] does not take [Kennoc] as seriously as most of its practitioners do, with the result that detection spells fail about 5% of the time, and occasionally produce bizarre false results", and the second says "Kennoc spells are the domain of Pararenenzu, who does not tend his domain very well". The book is vague on Pararenenzu's actual motivation (unless there's another section I'm not finding just now) -- as it generally is about the motivations of the gods.

But the book does note that "Kennoc spells tend to err in the alarming direction, making the situation look worse than it is.", so clearly the failures are at least somewhat intentional or guided.

I guess the core question is, why the heck is Kennoc so common and apparently trusted, when it has such a crippling flaw?
>

Because there's no magical alternative for most things you do with Kennoc. Sensible people will not trust it completely, but if an information spell says something, chances are that the spell is right, and (depending on the concern) it's time to look for corroborating evidence.

Compare that to real-life lab tests, as in AIDS screening, where a 1/400 chance of false information would be pretty impressive. A quick web search suggests that 1% is a more typical error rate in real life.

And they're definitely better than lie detectors in real life --- which, despite being very unreliable, are still somewhat useful. In many situations, just the threat of a lie detector test can get good results.

Another important point is that, for a lot of information spells, the flaw is pretty obvious, and the spell either works, fails, or lies as a whole. So, if you're trying to detect metal, say, and the spell doesn't point out your steel sword, then it's failed, and if it does point out your tail, then either you're one of the doomier historical figures or the spell is lying. This works particularly well for sensory spells -- e.g, if Edges of the Air (Ke Ai 15) tells you about the walls and people you know about when you cast it, you can be pretty confident that it's working properly and reliably.

And that's particularly important for magic items. Sythyry's "Eye of Mirizan and Melizan" (and city wall monster detection, say) seems utterly reliable. Presumably it had a 5% chance of failure when first activated -- or, if the GM were kind, this would be checked early and folded in to the weekly enchantment rolls. But, once the spell was shown to be correct once, it's trustworthy as long as it exists.


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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-28 04:20 pm (UTC)
Actually, the point about magic items brings another thought to mind. Does EVERYTHING that needs to have senses of some kind need Kennoc? The answer to that would seem to be no - most magic items need to be able to tell when they're triggered, by command word or whatever, and they typically don't need Kennoc. But where's the threshold? To what degree can the Perception of a magical object be pumped up, e.g. by Finesse (for a mindful or semi-mindful spell; not sure what the equivalent would be for an item that merely sees what is around it, rather than needing to look elsewhere or otherwise do deep divination), without needing to invoke Kennoc?

I take your points about the rest of it, though. Perhaps it'd make some degree of sense to allow for, oh, an Alertness + (Memory? Perception?) roll, hidden, to notice that such spells are behaving in a manner they shouldn't? The difficulty of which would depend on exactly what's being done. Painted Eyes that See should me moderately obvious if it's going wrong, if not to the degree of the examples you cite; but some of the KeCo / KeMe / KeSp ones might need a much trickier Medicine + Perception roll, or something similarly esoteric, to realize they're giving you junk data.

In theory, dropping clues as to the spell's falsity into the description as given might work, if it's an appropriate spell; but if I were to run a whole game on that, it'd be a bit hypocritical of me to ever have a socially-astute character (as I am most certainly not socially astute myself); I prefer leaving it to the dice, especially if the dice are going to be involved anyway.

Anyway: What I hadn't realized was that the spell WOULDN'T make an effort to be consistent if it went wrong; I thought the "double failures" were generally hard to spot. Knowing otherwise changes things.

(Tangentially: Laboratory tests often have different sorts of failure, and different rates of each. Standard AIDS screening, under proper conditions, has an exceedingly low false negative rate; the test does sometimes throw false POSITIVES, though, so if the first test comes back positive, it may be followed by additional screening. The first test is very sensitive, letting next to no positives slip by undetected; the second test is very specific, and might let some positives through if used on its own, but will reliably not report a positive as negative. Doubling up the tests allows one to put the FN and FP rates both to work; use the sensitivity of the low-false-negative test for your first pass, and anything that comes back positive, double check with the specificity low-false-positive. The main problem with AIDS screening, as far as my biology instruction covered, is not a lack of sensitivity where the test is concerned, but the incubation time. This may be out of date, granted; but a mean failure rate doesn't take that bias into account. Such bias may not be present in Kennoc magic; laboratory procedures on Earth, in contrast, are built around taking advantage of it.)
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-28 04:27 pm (UTC)
Oh - one of the things I'd been trying to get at, though, was that the section of the book which deals with natural science suggests that primes spurn most nonmagical alternatives to Kennoc, too. Yes, they're crude and inefficient, but they always work to their fullest as long as they're used properly, making them at least a decent way to sanity-check.
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[User Picture]From: sythyry
2011-06-29 05:08 pm (UTC)
That certainly makes sense. I don't think it would be the first hole you've found in our text.
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-29 05:11 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure how much time the text took to put together in its entirety, but I think at least part of it is having the advantage of being able to do it all in one sitting.

Mind you, that introduces its own problems! There have been some things that have looked like holes but which, on closer reading, were not. (Binding longevity magic comes to mind. Strength of the Ancient Wizard may be ineffective bound, but the more advanced spells that'd work on anyone aren't explicitly detailed, so...)
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[User Picture]From: sythyry
2011-06-29 06:02 pm (UTC)
We spent about five years on it, all told.
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[User Picture]From: sythyry
2011-06-29 05:10 pm (UTC)
I don't think that everything that needs senses needs Kennoc. In particular, mindful spells and other living things seem to have adequate senses; it is part of being alive, along with having a mind, and they don't need Mentador either.

That Alertness+Perception roll would make sense too. I don't think I'd want to fuss with that level of detail in a game very often though.
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[User Picture]From: mharreff
2011-06-29 05:26 pm (UTC)
I don't think I'd want to fuss with that level of detail in a game very often though.

There is that. It's one of the (relatively few) advantages of online-mediated games; getting a string of die rolls can be a lot easier if you have suitable software.

Said software may also be available to the GM who goes to sessions with a laptop for the purpose of using such aids, of course, but it's still another step involved. And in general, the WT system is distinct enough from the other ones I've seen that a lot of it would need to be built from scratch - no small undertaking! I'd once planned to poke at OpenRPG and/or PCGen and try to make charsheets, but even that proved to be beyond my focus.

Anyway. How often the rolls would become necessary does depend on how often the players use Kennoc in the first place. There's probably a sweet spot. If they never use it for anything of significance, there's not much point in doing the roll on the few times a failure does happen. If they use it a great deal, constant checking would get tedious. What might be a modest compromise is if the players specifically remember to ask "Does this make sense?" At that point, the interruption is still there but is triggered by the players. So long as the dice always get rolled, not just in cases where there's a failure to check. (Arguably, if they second guess the results, a sufficiently low roll on that check might mean that they misremember a truth as not so...)

Still, even in terms of fiction, having a better understanding of how the Kennoc failures work may be useful. I thought the failures were, well, a lot more elaborate than it seems was in mind.
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