Approaches to Summoning

Approaches to Summoning

The black magician scrawls a crude circle upon the ground with a stick, carefully crossing the circle multiple times with an interconnecting series of lines. Into these grooves he pours a mixture of sulfur and human blood--forming the base of the summoning sigil. Then, his construct completed, he stands near an edge and begins to chant. Inside a form composed of inky black clouds--a sentient darkness--begins to take shape, two glowing red eyes at its center.

Summoning, and other similar abilities) have always been particularly difficult powers to get right in role-playing games. On one hand, they are particularly emblematic abilities of black magicians or elementalists in fiction. On the other hand, they introduce new complications into a game, as they introduce a new character to deal with mechanically and worry about--the summoned creature.

Perhaps the biggest difficulties with summoning-type abilities is that they often walk a hazy gray line--trying to serve to very different masters at once. On one side of the equation is the fiction: Summoning is often presented as a time-consuming and risky task, toying with powers beyond the summoner. Even summoning in fiction that is well-understood and relatively safe, is often prone to an elaborate set of rules and mechanics that can be problematic at times. Perhaps the summoner has to strike some sort of bargain with the summoned entity. Or perhaps the summoned entity can only obey certain directives.

On the other side of the equation is how summoning often works in video games or some other works--the summoned entity is another body under the purview of the summoner to direct as seen fit.

The line between these two depictions of summoning is complicated, as summoning-type powers also walk another, more fundamental, line in an RPG: player sovereignty. With this line, on one side of the equation, the player is purchasing a power--summoning--and expects to have some choice over and ability to use the effect of that power--the summoned entity. On the other hand, the summoned entity is not the player's character. It is not a piece of her equipment. It is a different character in its own right with its own goals and motivations.

The heart of getting the summoning power right is trying to reconcile the different sides of the line. And in doing this, the existing Saga Machine power tries to do a lot of hedging. On one hand, the summoner can summon entities at a whim and has some form of control over them. But on the other hand, she must make an opposed action against the entity in order to exert this control with every command. And while this hedging sounds good in theory, in practice, it is my opinion that it falls flat. It tries to serve two masters but fails to really serve either.

Having given these problems some thought, I am of the opinion that the root of the problem with the existing Summoning power begins with a lack of clarity. Perhaps because of all the hedging, upon first reading the Summoning power it is far from clear how much of the summoned entity falls under the player's domain and how much falls under the GM's domain. It is also far from clear whether the intent of the power is to be able to whip it out in a combat and call summoned entities to fight for you, or whether the intent of the power is to sit back in a locked room and bargain with those otherworldly powers. And because the intent is unclear, the power is just setting up players for a conflict of expectations.

At this point I just want to interject the side note that getting summoning right is even more difficult for a generic game like Saga Machine. Not only does summoning need to be made right for a setting, it needs to be made right in some generic and malleable way that can, at least in theory, be made to work with multiple settings and genres. And that is no easy feat.

Anyway, before we dive into how we can make the intent of the summoning power more clear, and then get summoning right, we first ought to take a moment to decide what out intent is with the summoning power. How does the game envision the summoning power being used?

At its most fundamental, the summoning power does two things:

  1. The summoning power is an ability that simply adds a new NPC to the scene: the summoned entity.
  2. The caster needs to at least think they can get some benefit out of this NPC, otherwise there was little point of bringing them into the scene in the first place.

Without doing these two things, the summoning power isn't much of a summoning power. These are fundamental; everything else from this point is a matter of design decisions and intent.

I am of the opinion that summoning is more interesting of an ability when it is something beyond merely another tool to throw out round-by-round of combat. Summoning is playing with fire. It's wild; it's sometimes uncontrollable. Summoning the most powerful entities isn't something that powerful wizards use for a grab-bag of abilities. It's something done by the desperate or insane.

At first glance, this take on summoning speaks to me of two changes from the existing summoning power.

  1. The duration of summoning an entity needs to change. Currently it's a single action and then the summoned entity shows up. This takes place on a combat-scale of time and may lead players astray into thinking of summoning a yet another tool thrown out in the middle of combat.
  2. The structure of the entities that can be summoned needs to change. As it currently stands, a summoned entity is picked from a list of types. More powerful types require buying more into the Summoning power. But if summoning is playing with fire, that stronger fire needs to be available to the summoner to play with or burn themselves with.

Thinking about things a bit further, it becomes clear that what the power is aiming at here is much closer to the fiction side of the spectrum than the video game side of the spectrum. Summoned entities can be dangerous to deal with, but what about their usefulness? In fiction this is often a matter of bargaining with the summoned entity. The summer offers something the entity may want, and the entity is bound to do a task for the summoner--answer a question, kill an enemy, set fire to a building, etc.

This sort of bargaining may also easily link sacrifices or other sort of offerings mechanically to the power. Summoning an entity may be one thing, but getting the entity to do what you want may involve offering the sacrifice in trade. Knowing the entity means it helps to know the right sacrifice.

And this may even lead us one more step down the mechanical trail. The Saga Machine Companion introduced the idea of a sympathetic connection to a target. Summing the right entity may involve having the right sympathetic connection to the entity being summoned. This sympathetic connection may be in the form of the entity's true name, a artifact once belonging to them, a scroll with the right incantations, knowing their brainwave frequency or whatever best fits the setting.

Following up all of these ideas, with the necessary changes, what then would the summoning power look like? Here's my thoughts:

  1. Summoning an entity involves creating a seal to summon the entity into. Summoning the entity. Bargaining with the entity for a service, making any sacrifices or other offerings as necessary. Reaping the benefits of the summoning.
  2. The summoning power is likely to have only two ranks: One to know all the periphery summoning abilities--making the summoning circle, banishing a summoned entity and sealing the deal. And one to summon entities themselves.
  3. Taking the second rank means knowing one permanent sympathetic connection to one entity. Extra entities can then be purchased off of this as an enhancement.

And those are the thoughts on summoning.

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