Too Many "Spells" in Games
One of the things I've been reflecting on recently is how many games streamline the "support" aspect of the game to "magic." Basically if you are a caster you can aid and support an ally, and if you aren't then you don't offer much beyond the nebulous "I help you" action that some games have.
On the far side of the spectrum you have games like Iron Kingdoms, which is a ton of fun to play, but unless you're an arcane character you can't really buff or support another character. You have a few exceptions (Menoth Templars that trait the right way can add to the defense of an ally in base contact with them), but on the whole, if you are not a warcaster you don't really have a way to help an ally.
Near the middle of the spectrum you have Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, and the similarly spawned games that use the Open Game License for D&D that have a "help" action that any character can perform (some GMs, I would argue wisely, limit who can perform the help action) alongside support and assistance from spells (some of which we will look at below). But again, this is almost a throwaway line: support for non-casters is limited to a, "give someone else another dice to roll, and take the highest, and that's all you can do."
And finally you have the other side of the spectrum which includes The Warriors of Zurn, Mistborn, and other games that offer various options, often non-magical in nature, to support party members. These may range from playing music to giving orders to praying for supernatural aid of a non-magical nature, but in all cases you have a wide range of options for almost every type of character.
And this is what we want to discuss today: the relative rarity of non-magical means of support in roleplay games, and the advantage to making these forms of support more prevalent in the game. We will start by looking at how some non-magical aid is shoehorned into the magic system of games and the problems that creates, and then look at alternatives that exist to solve those issues.
I. The Problem: A Case Study of Problematic Spells
Let's start by looking at Ceremony, a spell from Xanathar's Guide to Everything, a supplement for D&D. This is a great example of what we're talking about: a spell with a great concept, but begs the question of why it is a spell. You perform a ceremony, be that coming of age, or getting married, or dying and having last rites performed on you, and the person gets a bonus for a certain period of time based on the rite.
But should the effect be tied to magic (which can be cancelled through dispelling, an anti-magic field, etc.)? What is it about the act that makes it magical as opposed to, say, spiritual or inspirational? Must a cleric perform the ceremony (the only class with access to it), or could a village elder perform it? What in the cosmology of the world makes it inherently magical, and how does this differ from a bard's ability to inspire people through their songs?
Turning water into holy water makes sense for only a cleric to be able to perform, and depending on your view the marriage ceremony and last rites should probably only be performed by a cleric too. But what inherent in the process says it has to involve magic, as opposed to just being a duty of a cleric using divine non-magical power? No idea.
Similarly, let's look at Guidance, a cleric cantrip that adds 1d4 to an ally's next ability check. I love the idea of invoking divine aid to guide the actions of a person: it fits well with the theme of the class. But can't a wise person with sage advice do the same thing? Oh right, the only way to do that is the Help action, so if someone is already helping, the sage's wise advice does...nothing.
Bards can always sing/play music to make you better at performing certain rolls, but a wise man giving you advice? There's not even a mechanic for this, because "we have a spell for that."
Do you see where we're going? It certainly seems like there should be non-magical ways to aid the group and accomplish tasks that a lot of games just default to, "Oh, let's make a spell that does that" to fix. And unfortunately a lot of these spells are in supplemental sourcebooks: they were released at later times, in part to encourage someone to buy the book.
And I'm all for that - we make new material and put it in future sourcebooks for the same reason. But if you're going to make a new book, and you're going to give new content as a reason to encourage people to buy the book, can we add some stuff that isn't, you know, magical? Is there a hard-and-fast page limit that would keep us from introducing a new concept or idea that isn't magical and fleshing it out? Surely there is room for that in a sourcebook.
We'll give a few examples from our own game, The Warriors of Zurn, to illustrate.
II. The Zurn System and Non-Magical Support
Zurn goes all-in on options for support. Magic is of course one of the ways that you can support/assist allies, and you can do that in many ways: boosting rolls, giving helpful special rules, giving advanced/special movement, healing people, etc. For most games this is the default way to offer support: if you want to play a "support character" in Archeage, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Runescape, Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, etc., this is the preeminent way to support people.
Some games also include music as a means of support, though most go the "magical songs" route, turning musicians into charismatic casters instead of treating them as their own thing. For Zurn we take a different approach: the song you play gives benefits to allies who can hear you, or inflicts penalties on the rolls enemies make that hear the song. The benefits and penalties are specific and targeted, but they also cannot be dispelled (unless of course you break the instrument, silence the voice of the bard, etc.).
Zurn also provides a divine or supernatural means of supporting characters, and Zurn pursues this through its prayers and blessings mechanic, coming to you in the Paladins of Zurn sourcebook (set to be released within the next few years as we wrap up testing on its contents). Prayers are the "mortal to immortal" side of the equation, as the priest asks their deity to aid the target, while blessings are the "immortal to mortal" component, as the priest pronounces the word of their deity on a group of faithful followers. In both cases you get a long-lasting but more targeted bonus than you would normally get with magic.
Zurn also has, in the vein of the supernatural, a prophecy mechanic, allowing an ally to support their friends by foreseeing the future. Again, most games just wrap this into magic, and to be fair there's often a magical component to this depending on your mythology, so I don't have an issue with that. But the dreamer, seer, Namer, etc. who did not use magic to receive their visions does not fall into that category, and to that end we present a separate mechanic that can be augmented with specific magic spells to make it more effective (in case you want to play an augur).
There's also the concept of commands from a commander, making martial allies more effective through disciplined organization in battle, protecting each other or striking with greater effectiveness through coordinated actions. Very few games have this mechanic, but in The Scholars of Zurn we release a full mechanic that not only allows you to form shieldwalls and other formations, but also allows high Charm characters to do yet another thing effectively in combat.
And what this does for your game is it opens up the options in your game. By having many forms of support you allow various types of characters, even those who are not built to "fill a support role," to help each other when it's needed. And that makes for a better playing experience.
I've had a lot of support characters in my games over the past almost ten years, and I'll tell you: I've appreciated seeing how helping each other has aided in building party cohesion. When the damage dealer needs an extra hand, or the defender needs a bit of extra resilience, or the blasting mage needs to be shielded from danger, those are the moments that reinforce the bonds of the group. And you need those to make your group's cohesion work.
Until next time,