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Game Magic: A Designer's Guide to Magic Systems in Theory and Practice Paperback – April 24, 2014
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1. Price - College professors are criminally underpaid, but they can mandate that students buy certain books. Jeff Howard is a college professor. He mandates that his students buy this book. This book is unbelievably overpriced, and Howard gets the profits – am I being cynical in spotting a pattern here?
2. Sloppy – Howard’s ideas are conveyed in a bizarre, seemingly-random order. For example, he refers constantly to the ‘Vancian’ magic system used in the original Dungeons & Dragons, but doesn’t explain what that means until nearly the end of the book. Broadly speaking he begins with video games, then the RPGs which inspired them, then the novels which inspired those RPGS – exactly the opposite of chronological, so everything you read is aggressively out-of-context and needlessly confusing.
3. Omissions - Howard makes frequent poor choices and obvious clumsy omissions. For instance, he explains how spells in ‘Magic; The Gathering’ are organized by five colors, each representing a different philosophy. Black magic is about power at any cost, so using it entails self-sacrifice, like taking damage or sacrificing a creature. Howard then says “Each of the colors provides a similar experience.” Ooh, that’s actually interesting! This is why I gave Howard so much of my $, in exchange for him sharing the interesting aspects of various magic systems. The similar experiences of the other colors he lists as... nope. Here and in many other places, Howard mentions the existence of an interesting idea, but then fails to give readers the actual information and abruptly moves on to the next sketchy topic.
4. Pseudocode – Maybe 10% of this book is rule snippets for magical systems written out as pseudocode, which looks like C or Java, but is not actually machine-parsable. The logic is always obvious, it takes up way too much space (especially the cutesy comment lines), and ultimately feels like Howard is wasting his readers’ time (after already massively overcharging us) to cross-promote his software project.
Upside: I haven’t kept up with RPGs since the original AD&D, I haven’t read fantasy novels published since 1981, I’ve never played Magic; The Gathering and I don’t play videogames. Howard is obsessively interested in this stuff, and has provided at least a broad, sketchy overview of the interesting aspects of magic systems he’s come across. At least every 2-3 pages you’ll find a neat idea. There aren’t as many illustrations and charts as I’d like, but when Howard includes for instance a diagram of all the magical runes used in the game Eternal Darkness, and explains briefly how they work, it’s genuinely interesting and imagination-stimulating.
Overall this book was worth reading because it includes so many evocative ideas, but I wish I could go back in time and borrow it from the library or a friend rather than pay so much $ for it! I hope Howard releases an updated edition someday with professional editing, a more systematic organization, more comprehensiveness and especially a chart or diagram for each system presented, rather than the mostly-slapdash prose descriptions.
Bottom line: It was worth slogging through this sloppy mess for the many interesting ideas hidden inside, but I’d caution readers against paying more than twenty bucks for this – that is, unless you’re enrolled as Howard’s student and he’s using the class syllabus as an enchanted portal into your parents’ bank account.
- A great author, that makes an effort to write about areas in game design not yet covered by existing literature.
- Confuses magic with occultism, mythology and religion, and just defines magic as anything supernatural.
- Too much a mix of different topics, lacking a clear organization.
- Does not go into much depth of the history and anthropology that would be be required to create a deeper meaning beyond just manipulating symbols.
- Littered with useless code snippets that are syntactically and semantically incorrect.
- Way too expensive.
- Not readable on a mobile device.