Megan McArdle (aka Jane Galt, aka Asymmetrical Information blogress, aka The Economist blogress [we think]) writes about the annoying economics in Harry Potter:
But this actually presents a problem for authors. If magic is too powerful then the characters will be omnipotent gods, and there won’t be a plot. Magic must have rules and limits in order to leave the author enough room to tell a story. In economic terms, there must be scarcity: magical power must be a finite resource…
Yet in the Potter books, the costs and limits are too often arbitrary.
A patronus charm, for example, is awfully difficult – until Rowling wants a stirring scene in which Harry pulls together an intrepid band of students to Fight the Power, whereupon it becomes simple enough to be taught by an inexperienced fifteen year old. Rowling can only do this because it’s thoroughly unclear how magic power is acquired. It seems hard to credit academic labour, when spells are one or two words; and anyway, if that were the determinant, Hermione Granger would be a better wizard than Harry. But if it’s something akin to athletic skill, why is it taught at rows of desks? And why aren’t students worn out after practicing spells?
This is why I was dissatisfied with the online game World of Warcraft. Competence in the game’s magic meant that you knew all ins-and-outs of character abilities and special powers of different sorts of equipment. To be good at magic, you need to read hours worth of online forums about how to customize your players abilities just so. In the end, there was a few (i.e. two or three) cookie-cutter character layouts that would squeeze the most bang from your key pounding buck… Boring!
My idea for a magic system in a game would be something like this:
- players can invent new schools of magic or they can join another character’s school
- the power of a school of magic depends on the number of members in that school so those that evangelize their school best have more power… this is the first form of scarcity
- a school of magic would consist of spells that are also developed by the players in that school
- like schools, spells are more powerful if more people know them… the second source of scarcity
- but, and here’s the interesting public goods twist, spells are more powerful the less they are used by the player and the less they are used by all those that know the spell