My Favorite PCs: Kenny “Cowboy” Garret
Sometimes, as a GM, people come to you with a character concept that has you scratching your head. Some guy says “Hey, can I play a character who’s a priest, but he’s also a were-snake and is on the run from the mob?” You want to tell them how silly that sounds to you, because you can’t really wrap your head around the idea of a snake/priest/mobster nor are you certain how on earth you’ll work such a character into your campaign and wish they’d just pick something normal and easy to follow. The thing is, though, that you shouldn’t. Well, almost never, anyway (I did have somebody want to play a character that, given the setting, all the other characters would be morally and legally obligated to kill – I talked them out of it). Let me take a second here and tell you why you should always try to say yes, though. Let me tell you about Cowboy.
Cowboy was (and arguably is – the campaign is just on an extended break) played by my friend Will in a Shadowrun campaign set in Hong Kong. He is a vampire. He is a race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong. He is Texas-born race-car driving vampire who currently works as a mechanic/getaway driver for various Triads in Hong Kong.
Yeah, I know. This is a edge-of-setting character archetype from an out-of-setting locale doing a job that the character archetype isn’t technically suited to do. It sounded…odd. I wondered whether he might not just be happier if he played a physical adept with a focus in car driving. But no – Will wanted to play this character. Sticking to my mantra, I said yes.
Cut to 3 missions later. We’ve already established that Cowboy can turn gaseous but, when he does so, he leaves his clothes behind. All the other PCs at this point have seen Cowboy naked, which is amusing enough, but nobody knows he’s a vampire (as they are illegal persons in Hong Kong and could be murdered for a sizeable bounty). The rest of the team, at this moment, is involved in a dangerous manhunt in Kowloon Walled City, trying to find a man before the HKPD finds him, all while dodging ghouls, gangers, evil spirits, and Knight Errant response teams.
Cowboy and ork grifter Boris are holed up in a building nearby, watching the police perimeter. They notice that the cops are moving out, meaning they’ve got a fix on the target, which means the team is in trouble. The team is out of radio contact and Boris is currently getting high off novacoke, so Cowboy takes matters into his own hands. He goes gaseous, leaving his clothes behind, sneaks across the street, and infiltrates a police cruiser. He then goes corporeal again, starts up the car and, after swinging by to pick up a very-high Boris, proceeds to lead half the Hong Kong Police department on a crazy chase through the alleys and trash-strewn streets of Hong Kong’s meanest slums. He did this while naked, while a very high Boris screamed bloody murder in the seat next to him, and while playing country western music at top volume. The car lost mirrors, had a fender blown off, had bullets put through the windshield. It was magnificent!
Then, in the grandest of finales, Cowboy tried to make it into a mall parking structure before a Thunderbird got a lock on their cruiser with their assault cannon – he failed. The car disintegrated in a ball of fire and high-velocity slugs, sending Cowboy across the pavement at high speed, making a road-pizza of him. Boris, through expenditure of every ounce of luck he had, managed to survive by skipping across the reflecting pool before the mall and smashing through a plate-glass window.
Cowboy? Well, he’s a vampire, son! He just healed himself, stood up, and walked home. All buck naked, all while whistling “Thunder Road.” Good times.
So, yeah – if a player comes to you with something bonkers, say yes. Variety is the spice of life.
Never Take a Job From a Spirit…
Author’s Note: This is another bit of intro fluff text for a Shadowrun: Hong Kong mission I’ll be running soon. Hope you enjoy it!
It is one of those rare, sunny days during the rainy season. The sun and the humidity combine to make the world a steam-bath. The smell of humanity and dead fish is so thick you can feel it hit the back of your throat when you breathe. It is days like this you miss the desert.
You have escaped the oppressive heat and stifling dead air of your apartment in Yau Ma Tei and taken a road trip to Stanley on the south coast of Hong Kong Island. It was a long trip on the MTR, but going underground was a relief for a while, and now you’re here sitting outside at a sea-side café, watching the fishing boats unload and listening the patter of tourists as they wander in and out of charming seaside markets and sunny pubs. You have a beer – a real, honest-to-god beer – that costs as much as the rest of your meals for the day combined, but for a breath of the occasional sea breeze, it’s worth it.
You have to keep reminding yourself, however, to keep your Third Eye closed. Stanley looks nice, but beneath the happy storefronts and pleasantly maintained restaurants lie the echoes of the metahuman race riots of the 2020s that scarred much of the town and left a blighted feeling to the Astral Plane here. It serves as a potent reminder of what Hong Kong really is, underneath – bloody, dark, and rotten. Today, though, you want to live in a fantasy for a while.
That’s when the little girl in the school uniform slides into the seat across from you. Her blouse has the embroidered characters of a local Wuxing-run school; she’s maybe eight years old, with pigtails and saddle shoes. Cute as a button. Her eyes, though, are a blazing shade of orange. They aren’t implants, either, or contacts.
It’s Emmanuel. You don’t need to perceive him astrally to know. “Whatever you do, don’t hurt the girl.”
The girl smiles broadly. “I was thinking I’d get her drunk before I took her back home. Whaddya say you buy me a beer?”
You shrug. “I could just banish you from her. Would you like that?”
Emmanuel makes the girl’s face contort into a vicious scowl the girl herself has probably never used. “No need to be rude. I’ve a job for you, you know.”
“Maybe I’m busy.”
“And taking the train all the way out here to sit on your ass? Please.”
You haven’t seen Emmanuel in a few weeks. That time he possessed the rabbi at your synagogue and that time you did banish him. You were wondering if the creature would return again, and were secretly expecting some kind of significant number of days or years – 1001 hours, 66 days, something like that – before he showed himself. Instead, he just shows to screw up a perfectly good lunch. Typical.
“What’s the job?” The sooner you indulge the spirit, the sooner you figure you can go back to your beer and that sandwich they’re supposed to be making you.
“You hear about the botched hit on Lantau Island?”
You nod. A team of amateurs tried to take out some VIP – Korean guy – and botched it. Wound up as a running gun battle that had the dimwits chasing the VIP and his bodyguards all the way into Kowloon City somewhere. HKPD was all over it, still is. “What about it?”
“Well, I’m the fellow who hired that team in the first place.” Emmanuel straightened his skirt, evidently proud of himself. “Should have known better – should have come to you directly. I was still angry at you, though.” A girlish shrug and a toss of the pigtails, “Oh well – live and learn. Should have remembered my training.”
The ‘training’ Emmanuel is referring to was his time as a bound spirit for a mage in the GDSE–the French Foreign Intelligence Service. It wasn’t so much training as it was eavesdropping, but Emmanuel has never been terribly clear on the difference. When he was freed of service (by accident), he stayed on as a GDSE ‘agent’ until they couldn’t stand his more erratic behaviors anymore. Given that both of you were kicked out of foreign intelligence services, he sees you two as kindred souls. You see him as a kind of cosmic punishment.
“You want me to go after them now?”
“If you take over the original team’s contract, I’ll let you keep the original fee the first team was due plus 20%.”
You frown – spirits are notoriously bad at math. “What do you mean by that – give me a number.”
“36,000 even. All you need to do is kill the guy and bring the contact his head. Accept and I’ll have the Mr. Johnson forward you the guy’s dossier.” The little girl Emmanuel is possessing smiles sweetly and bats her eyes. “Pleeease?”
You sigh. Your instincts say pass on this one – too messy already – but you’re hurting for work. If you ever want to take another trip like this one, you’re going to have to earn some money. “One condition.”
Emmanuel giggles. “Yes?”
“You return the girl home immediately after this conversation and don’t harm her in any way. Clear?”
Emmanuel pouts. “Be sure to get this guy before the cops get to him – that was really explicit in the original job. The cops have him cordoned off somewhere in Kowloon Walled City, but that’s Chysanthemum territory, and…”
“Just go. I’ll get the details from an actual human.”
Emmanuel sighs elaborately. “You’re no fun.”
“This may come as a surprise to you, Emmanuel, but neither are you.”
Prince of Inside-Os
Author’s Note: So, as the last time I did this proved at least moderately popular, here is the teaser for the second mission in my Shadowrun: Hong Kong RPG. Different fixer, different contact in the party, but hopefully still entertaining.
To the average work-a-day slug, the Matrix is something they can hold inside their lives; a sliver of experience they can wedge between ‘playing with the kids’ and ‘getting that report to Mr. Hito’. It is comprised of a banal series of bank nodes and entertainment vids; ordering groceries and indulging in porn and the rest of the boring, simplistic nonsense that, apparently, passes for existence for the balance of metahumanity.
That, though, is the shallow end. That’s the Matrix kiddie pool, complete with lifeguards and water-wings. Those who know how to swim quickly learn that there’s a whole new world beyond that little rope with the blue-and-white buoys. The deep matrix, the dark matrix; there be monsters.
Well, not really; monsters are rare. There be pirates, more accurately. Pirates like you. There are entire kingdoms of pirates down there in the deep Matrix, organized into little islands of hackers, runners, and other people of the shadows, lurking beneath the glow and bustle of the shallow Matrix like predators of the deep.
Your particular pirate island is a place called Inside-OS (get it?). It’s a hacker collective, a combination social group and non-profit criminal organization whose primary qualification for membership is finding it in the first place. The VR landscape of Inside-OS is a comical re-imagining of the Smurf’s village from antique 20th century animation, but infused with every geek reference from Wayne Manor to a TARDIS to the mighty throne of Neil the Ork Barbarian.
Here, you are a warrior prince, a noted member – Slayer of ICE, hacker of mainframes, He Who Must Not Be Dissed. When you stride among the many smurfs (the lowest ranking members – very limited access), they part for you like the Red Sea before Moses. You can, if you wish, behead any of them with your digital katana, banning them from Inside-OS forever (unless they hack their way back in, at which point they are immediately promoted to ‘member’ and can use their own avatar). All told, there are 352 members of Inside-OS and, of them, 278 are smurfs – eager to help, eager to impress, hungry for more respect in this elite pirate kingdom of the deep matrix.
You maintain a pagoda on the outskirts of the node. Surrounded by moat and drawbridge and guarded by stone lions that flank the entrance, this is ‘where’ you spend much of your time when jacked in. It is your electronic home, more personal to you than that hole of an apartment in Mong Kok where your meat-self is forced to exist.
You are in the process of meditating over the best way to hack into the Mitsuhama mainframe to send your mother a birthday card (just as joke) and yet avoid getting her in trouble when the lions out front roar out a challenge – you have a visitor. There, standing at the edge of the drawbridge, is simplistic stick-figure man wearing a hat in the style of a telegram delivery man from the early 20th century. He (though ‘he’ is a stretch – this is clearly a program) is holding a hypercard; its clean, and postmarked as being from Snafu, your fixer. You take the card, and you’re linked to a live-chat that’s being bounced through a half-dozen nodes from Hamburg to New Dehli.
Snafu’s face is an impressionist painting that shifts in color and hue as you look at it. Today, it’s a Van Gogh’s Starry Night. “‘Sup, holmes?”
“On the clock.” You respond. “Go.”
“Well, I got something for you that I think you’re gonna like. Deets are on the card, baby, but here’s the precis: Big deal set to go down between Hildebrandt-Kleinfort-Bernal and Renraku Computer Systems; big cheese at Renraku is set to have a face-to-face with big cheese at HKB at the Renraku corporate retreat – an estate near the top of Victoria Peak. Swank place, tight security – check the specs.”
“Okay, but what’s the job?”
You can’t tell, but you think Snafu is smiling. “Criminal landscaping.”
“Serious. Mr. Johnson wants you to bust in and move some shrubs around, mess with a few statues, replace a few rocks – shit like that. He’s got a whole presentation on the card, man – not making this up.”
Typically, in the rest of the shadow world, your fixer doesn’t know what the job is. Snafu is a hacker, though, and being nosy is his job, so you aren’t offended. You’ve known him for years and he’s a proven friend. If he says that’s what the Johnson wants, then that’s what the Johnson wants. “So, we break in, change around this garden…”
“…without anyone knowing. Best to do it just before the meeting starts, right, so they don’t have time to inspect and, you know, redecorate again.”
“Dude, don’t tell me how to do my job.” You scowl at Starry Night for a second, “So that’s it? Break in, redecorate so they don’t notice or don’t have time to change it, then get out. That’s it?”
“What’s the pay?”
“No shit. Betcha they don’t pay their actual landscapers half that.”
You turn the card over in your hands – on the back, the icon to connect with Mr. Johnson is there, glowing faintly. “Man, I’d be an idiot to turn this one down.”
Chun Fa’s Job
Author’s Note: What follows is a bit of introductory text for a Shadowrun campaign I just started running. I’m placing it here because (1) I’m pretty proud of it and (2) I’m pressed for time and can’t post anything else just now. I hope you enjoy it!
Hong Kong has two seasons: dry and wet. During the dry season, it’s really hot and very humid; during the wet, it is somewhat less hot and, incredibly, even more humid. Monsoons batter the coastal city with driving rains, rains that seem to fall in not just one direction but all directions at once. The water is like human sweat, warm and a bit salty, and there is no escaping it, no dividing your own body from it. The rain covers everything in this town, merging it together in one slimy, sticky, foul-smelling slick.
Walking down the Golden Mile in the Tsim Sha Tsui neighborhood, you can tell the locals from the expat from the tourists by how hard they fight the rain. Tourists wear polymer fiber raincoats and brightly colored umbrellas, sweating and bumping along uncomfortably with the crowds. Expats wear simple ponchos of lightweight plastic and don’t bother to button them, which is still a step above the simple sampan hats of the locals, who take the rain as a gift from the spirit world, even if they don’t particularly like it.
As an ork, you’ve got a good half-meter in height on most people on the street. Ordinarily this gives you a good view of your surroundings, even in a crowd, but it’s night on the Golden Mile in the rainy season, and all you can see is Chinese characters in jarring neon beneath the non-stop spam in your AR displays – tourist shops, noodle stands, sex clubs, and even traditional Chinese apothecaries bombard your senses with ads, some even linked up with your hot sim. If you didn’t have it cut out as a safety measure, you’d smell the noodles and taste the tea while feeling the massages, both chaste and pornographic. Ordinarily you’d be running in private mode in this area, allowing you to see, but Chun Fa has his ways of contacting you, and it often involves enduring the spam for a while. So, you wash down the street with the river of humanity, bathed in the rain, the world nothing but a riot of neon color with the roar of the rain all around and a sea of sampan hats beneath.
It’s only about ten minutes of this before you spot the ad. It’s a picture of a pig on a spit being braised over hot coals with the words “Hot Times!” advertised beneath – no animation, no flair, it’s an ad that nobody would notice or even remember in the neverending sea of Golden Mile spam. You’re looking for it, though, and you know what it means. You duck into the next little cafe and sit at an open table in the back. The place is well lit Japanese sushi place with buzzing fluorescent light and decorated with cheap vinyl faux-wood veneers and imitation paper screens. You recognize the name – some chain called Magic Fish that’s been trying to get a foothold in Hong Kong for the past decade, with moderate success. You’re not really here to eat, anyway, but you order some tea to avoid arousing the suspicion of the dull-eyed teenagers behind the counter. They’ll bring it, but they aren’t rushing. Suits you.
Chun Fa shows up a couple minutes later. He’s a heavyset Chinese man with a face like a dumpling – round, flabby, and glistening as though coated in oil. His hair is a tight little copse of curly black positioned on the very top of his head with the sides shaved away, like he’s maintaining some kind of game preserve up there for whatever could survive in his heavy oiled do. He smiles, making his face undulate into a kind of cheap knock-off of the laughing Buddha. “You look sick. Eat something, my treat.”
“I don’t eat this crap.” You mean to be sullen, but it’s hard not to smile at Chun Fa, so you do. “How you been?”
“Better than you.” He grabs his belly with both hands and shakes it so it jiggles. “I eat. Hey, got something for you.”
“About time. You’ve been too busy eating and not busy enough getting me work.”
Chun Fa shrugs. “You have no face, my friend. No guanxi. Hard to get you work when most of your work is somewhere else.” You’re about to protest, but he cuts you off. “Please, I mean no offense. Besides, I have something – no small job, either. Big work – pull it off, and you gain a lot of face, make the right connections for even bigger work later. Okay?”
The rest is small talk. After a sensible period, Chun Fa leaves. You stay and wait for Mr. Johnson, who shows up just about the same time as you get your tea. He is thin where Chun Fa is fat, his face is pointed and narrow, like a knife. He is older than you and probably older than Chun Fa, but beyond that it’s hard to place his age. He’s wearing a western suit, which itself means nothing – this guy screams ‘Triad’, but you have no idea which one.
He slides a memory chip across the table to you beneath a napkin and starts talking. “There is a ship that will be docking in Victoria Harbor in three days, called the Aleutian Sunrise. This ship is not to reach the dock.”
A quick shake of the head and a cruel grin is the answer. “You will sink it. In Victoria Harbor, where everyone will see.”
You do your best not to whistle – a tough job, very dangerous, very complicated. “Pay?”
“Ten thousand for a retainer, fifteen upon completion. Plus, we will pay market rate for any cargo you recover from the ship prior to its destruction.”
Cargo – that meant illicit goods, obviously. This wasn’t a ship full of car parts and women’s underwear. These guys – whoever they are – are pretty pissed off at some smugglers and want to make a public example of them. You and your team are the implement of that example, and you’re getting paid peanuts for the privilege. “Okay, Mr. Johnson – let’s talk turkey…”
Running the Shadows
This Christmas, I bought myself a present. I usually feel guilty for doing this, but a friend of mine was selling a few old RPG books and I jumped at the deal. I found myself in possession of Shadowrun’s 4th Edition and a pair of sourcebooks. Not expecting anything awesome, I began to flip around. Then I began to read. Then I began to build characters in my head. And villains. And a campaign hook.
Shadowrun is probably my favorite RPG setting of all time. If you’re running the shadows, I’m there. I’ve GM-ed it a number of times (though never managed to get in a full campaign arc), played it more than any other game, and am pretty much constantly making characters for it in my head. It is a near-perfect mix of cyberpunk dystopian future and urban fantasy. It is a place where trolls and elves and dwarves live in our world alongside everybody else, a place where magic is real and commodified, and a setting so pregnant with adventure hooks they seem to pop off the page and hit you in the face every time you read a sourcebook. Tack that on to a system that is full of crunchy gear and so many cool options that you don’t care if it’s an overall unwieldy monster, and it becomes and instant winner with me (as I tend to like crunchy rule systems). The fact that 4th Edition has ironed out a lot of the ridiculous hoops of the old editions, and we’ve got a game that I almost can’t help but want to run.
Me and a friend of mine were reminiscing about the Shadowrun team we’d assembled for another friend’s (Perich’s) Shadowrun campaign from 4-5 years ago or so. Dubbed ‘The Cutler Group’ (for our face man, Everard Cutler), we had a well-balanced, keenly-oiled machine of a team. I was Nikita, the Russian ex-special forces dwarf–the team heavy. I had a van full of guns, connections to Vory Zakon, and a bowling team. I blew up more bad guys than I could conceivably count. Our leaders were Cutler, the face man with the diamond cufflinks and the head full of chips, and Garret, the burned-out Texan mage with his sullen Earth elementals and his warehouse apartment space. We ran with a teenage computer hacker, Milo, an Amerindian street ganger and physical adept named Screaming Eagle, and a host of other occasional stars. Every session was like an episode of Mission:Impossible. Loved every minute of that campaign.
Looking back, that’s been the case for pretty much every Shadowrun campaign I’ve ever been a part of. There was the one I ran with Thurston Derbershaw III, the giant cybered up troll with his host of holographic T-shirts (including one that had a picture of a covered bridge that kept rocking back and forth with the subtitle ‘Trolls Do It Under Bridges”) and Niles, the butler-ninja with the special power to produce beverages at any time. There was the one before that, with the Harley-riding combat mage and the wise-cracking, completely mundane but well-connected Private Eye, Jack Connors. There was the one I played in before that, wherein I played a redneck Ork with a pickup truck, a mean bull-mastiff, and a rack full of hunting rifles. There was the one-shot I played as a ex-corporate assassin with a pair of Colt Manhunters and a Machiavellian code of ethics (helped along with ridiculously fast reflexes).
I could go on.
The point is that it looks like I’m going to run a Shadowrun campaign sometime. I’m in the middle of a Ravenloft campaign right now, so it might be a while, but it’s coming. Oh yes. I just can’t seem to stay away.
The Magic of RPGs
Most role playing games involve some kind of magic, whether they actually call it that or not. If it’s a fantasy setting, you’ve got wizards wandering around; if it’s science fiction, you’ve got psychics; if it’s modern, you have eldritch rituals and witchcraft and some such. With rare exception, however, magic is seldom ‘magical’ in RPG settings. It might be interpreted as such by the inhabitants of that setting, but when the rules get slapped atop the sorcery, it rapidly becomes what I’d call ‘mundane’. It is rare that I’ve run across a magic system I’ve liked, including the ones I’ve created myself.
How Magic Usually Works
In most role-playing settings, magic give characters the ability to alter the environment for the purpose of destroying enemies, assisting friends, or acting as a toolbox by which the player can do things he otherwise couldn’t–climb cliffs, open/lock doors, clean his room, carry stuff, etc.. In this role, I usually fail to see how magic differs from, say, equipment. I’ve got a longbow and you can throw lightning bolts–what’s the difference, really? Well, usually it’s two things: (1) magic is more potent and (2) magic costs more. The lightning bolt really only differs from the longbow in the fact that it does more damage than the bow (in most cases) and it requires the character to pay some kind of price for its use, including things like being lousy in combat, taking some kind of drain on their person (aging, a headache, the chance they might catch on fire, etc.), or having some kind of limit on the number of times it can be used.
All in all this arrangement is fairly functional and easy to manage. The trope of the wizard who can throw giant fireballs but can’t defend himself in a wrestling match is well known, as is the ambitious sorcerer who calls down a little too much power and burns themselves up. My problem with it is that, all-in-all, it is fairly uninspiring stuff. I don’t really want magic to be equitable to equipment–I want it to be special, impressive, even frightning. Now, some systems try to achieve this to varying extents (Riddle of Steel is probably my favorite–http://www.driftwoodpublishing.com/whatis/), and others don’t even bother (4th Ed D&D, for instance, has some of the most boring magic in existence, and it is literally indistinguishable from the abilities of other non-magical players). This is not to say magic isn’t fun (the only character I ever play these days in D&D is a wizard), but it really doesn’t capture what I want magic to capture.
What Magic Should Be
To my mind, magic should be unique, impressive, flexible, and dangerous. I want wizards to toss spells that do more than simple damage to their enemies–I want them to do things that make everybody else in the game go ‘whoaaa.’ I want wizards to have a few spells they use regularly (the simple stuff, like telekinesis and little bolts of energy or whatever), but also have access to spells that they only ever use once and that very well may be unique to themselves. I want the execution of those really impressive spells to have a huge cost for the wizard or the environment or the plot or something. In short, I want magic to be a Big Deal.
This goal, of course, raises a lot of problems in an RPG. The first, and the one most often groused about, is regarding ‘game balance.’ Now, first of all, I don’t really think game balance is all that important in an RPG, mostly because game balance is a concept best applied to competitive or adversarial games, like Risk or Warhammer or Baseball. Since an RPG isn’t adversarial or competitive, but rather collaborative, it shouldn’t really matter if one player is ‘better’ than another. Furthermore, if you’ve got a good GM who allows players to solve problems creatively and is able and willing to raise or lower the level of challenge to make sure the game remains interesting (and you’re using a system that allows such things–i.e. not D&D), then the comparative power levels of the PCs and NPCs doesn’t so much break the game as dictate tactics. Obviously you should not engage the superwizard in a wizard’s duel–you’ll die. Figure out a way around it, folks.
Related to the game balance issue, however, and something that is (to my mind) more important, is the fact that magic, if too powerful, kills the challenge inherent in a game. Players always want to do things easily and almost always want to avoid difficulties or risk whenever possible. Paradoxically, if this desire is indulged, the game becomes no fun. If I ever have to say ‘congratulations, you infiltrated the Tower of Despair and escaped with the Crown of Doom without anyone noticing’, I have failed as a GM (that is unless, of course, the Tower of Despair isn’t the main objective of the mission but rather a sideshow that is best dispensed with quickly, but I digress…). Danger is essential to fun in an RPG. It comes in many forms, of course–not all danger is purely to life and limb–but it must be present. Something must be at stake, and there must be a very reall chance of losing it. Therefore, magic that is too powerful without there being some kind or price inherent in it can kill the game and, furthermore, granting players power that they will abuse for the purpose of eliminating challenge is counter-productive to a successful game. This kind of ‘game-balance’ (not the intra-character kind) must be carefully managed. Again, a flexible GM can fix this often enough (by raising the level of difficulty on the fly), but all-powerful wizards can still derail this if magic isn’t properly managed.
So, with these things in mind, let me outline how the ideal system of magic should work, so far as I’m concerned:
If and when a wizard throws a curse at a person, that person should suffer for it. There is nothing I dislike more than a system where somebody gets hit with a giant lightning bolt and keeps going like nothing happened. Super lame. Combat spells should hurt, defensive spells should be potent, movement spells should do what they say they do. Shadowrun was always pretty good at this (http://www.shadowrun4.com/), as is Riddle of Steel. I, of course, like deadly games, so perhaps that’s just me.
Spells should be applicable in multiple situations or, barring that, wizards should have general knowledge of entire schools of sorcery so that they can execute spells that fulfill a variety of roles. If you can produce a telekinetic blast, I see no reason why you shouldn’t be able to produce a telekinetic hand to pick something up or to hold somebody in place. Talislanta is pretty good at this, as is Riddle of Steel (which is actually too flexible, but anyway).
Wizards should have sharp limits to their power in that they should either not know everything or not be good at certain things or have magic that possesses certain liabilities (like the need to carry around certain objects to do it, or need certain quantities of time, etc.). This is needed so that a wizard can still be challenged and, furthermore, so that the other players won’t feel useless. This is one area where Riddle of Steel falls a little short–those wizards can do just about anything, though they need a few seconds. Talislanta is marginally better, with all their various Schools of Sorcery having unique and particular limitations to their use.
Those who use magic should be wary, since it should exact a stiff toll on them if they overstep themselves. I want wizards to have the capacity to obliterate city blocks, but should be forced to balance that with whether or not it’s worth it. This effect needn’t always be physical. You don’t need to burn out you brain or age, for instance–you could instead simply owe progressively more of your soul to the underworld, or be forced to repay the favor the Gods did you in some fashion to be named later. In terms of price, Shadowrun is okay at this (wizards who overstep themselves routinely fall unconscious) and Riddle of Steel makes an effort (but who really cares about aging their character? How is that interesting?), but no system I’ve seen really nails this idea. Burning Wheel (http://www.burningwheel.org/) leaves the possibility open in their Magic Burner, but don’t really explore it much.
Finally, magic should be really cool in its application and execution. I don’t really want it to function identically to other game mechanics–it needs something special. It must be at least partially apart from the other ways of doing things because that’s what it is–magic. I understand and appreciate the wish to streamline rules and gameplay–I really do–but I don’t wish it done at the cost of flavor, if you will. To this end, D&D falls flat, as does Talislanta. Riddle of Steel, Burning Wheel, and Shadowrun do it pretty well, but often at the cost of extremely clunky rules and confusing sets of new stats. I’d like to find a balance, if possible.
As those of you who know me can probably guess, I have been tinkering with an attempt to create my own ideal magic system for some time now. It is all going along with my revamp of the rule system I created for my own fantasy setting, Alandar (in which the story “The Martyr” is set, incidentally, along with a novel I’ve written and a huge quantity of background material). Perhaps someday, perhaps even on this very blog, I’ll debut it. It isn’t ready yet, though. Not yet. For now, I and all of us must make our way as best we can with the magic that we’re given, as pedestrian as it might seem.